Erik Danielsson is tired. Very tired. And he sounds it, stating that after spending the last twenty four months completing the ‘Lawless Darkness’ cycle, he could do nothing but sleep for a year. Having just come off stage at Bloodstock, where they played as the sun set, his band Watain literally plunging the crowd into darkness, their ‘Lawless…’ period is now over.
The next day, the festival site is buzzing with tales that grow more and more preposterous. Did they get arrested? Did they get thrown out of their hotel? Did they beat up Dio’s Disciples? Did Mayhem beat them up? Did they go to bed sensibly at 1am? No one will ever know, because while they consistently close ranks when facing controversy the cult of Watain is now bigger than the band; bigger than the Erik, Pelle [guitars] and Håkan [drums], who formed the band in 1998. Bigger than Set, Alvaro and the crew who make up the live core of the band. Bigger than their fourth full-length, ‘Lawless Darkness’, which was released in June 2010. They’ve been on the cover of every single respected metal magazine and recently had the honour of gracing the front page of the UK’s biggest metal monthly, Metal Hammer. It means that Watain are now playing in the big league and our reticent metal messiah, Erik Danielsson, is now equally worshipped and crucified.
While Erik made no qualms about his ambition for the band on the release of ‘Lawless…’ the spotlight that has shone a light on the band has cast shadows larger than anyone imagined. In April, two months before ‘Lawless…’ was officially released its lead-off single was certified gold in their Swedish homeland. Within weeks the band had been put on the cover of Terrorizer, Decibel and Zero Tolerance, a rarity in music magazine publication where it’s highly unusual for mags to have the same cover stars in the same month – proving the power of Watain.
They’d also just scored a personal coup, working on a Bathory tribute at Sweden Rock Festival, that was not only approved of but introduced by Quorthon’s father, Big Boss. It showed that this was a band on the cusp of being taken seriously – very seriously. Not just by the underground who has already supported them for a decade, but by a mainstream metal crowd who would come in droves to worship at their altar, or gawp bewilderingly at the rebirth of rock ‘n’ roll indulgence. For the first time in years black metal had ‘stars’; headline-grabbing, column-inching, sensation, controversial ‘stars’, the last bastion in rock hedonism.
For every album of the year plaudit came tales of anti-establishment, anti-Christian and anti-society debacles that would follow the band. Nothing had changed in the inner Watain circle, it’s just that this time people wanted to know their every move. In just a year they went from playing London’s Garage as part of a festival with Von and Nifelheim to headlining it on a massive UK tour with Shining. They travelled to America twice, headlined a tour in Japan, passed out in South America and took a memorable trip around Europe with Destroyer 666. They were invited to take part in the Soundwave tour of Australia with Lamb Of God and Machine Head. They won a Grammi! They wound up defending their faith on French peak time news, made the Billboard Heatseekers Chart in the USA and produced an ambitious DVD in this summer’s ‘Opus Diaboli’, recorded at their 13th anniversary show in Stockholm last November. They set the record for the shortest ever press conference and played every major European rock festival. Watain were ubiquitous, and deservedly so. In just two years they’d redefined the line between staying true to the underground and maintaining mainstream integrity. But most of all they remained wild, uncontrollable and, yes, lawless.
With the curtain drawn at Bloodstock the lawlessness is over, leaving the doors open for Erik to carve out a new chapter in his seemingly unstoppable career.
Recently relocated back to his hometown of Uppsala after ten years in Stockholm (“that’s about eight more than I had initially planned”) Erik now rents a house in the suburbs, surrounded by woods. Somewhat remote from all the madness, here he can safely fly under the radar, promising that after this interview it’ll be the last we hear from him for a long time.
But while Erik is walking away from the flames that ‘Lawless Darkness’ fanned, does that mean the fire is out for Watain? Olivier ‘Zoltar’ Badin finds out.
You recently moved from Stockholm to Uppsala. Sorry to blow your cover but was that to escape the madness in a world post-‘Lawless Darkness’?
“It’s more simple than that. I did find myself in a situation a few months ago where I desperately needed to find a new place to stay and asked Gottfried Ahman from In Solitude if he knew anybody who was renting an apartment in Uppsala. As it turned out, he had this one friend who was looking to rent this very house and in the end, that’s the only one I visited since it was located at this perfect spot. I mean, initially, I didn’t have a clue where I would end up, all I knew is that I needed some place as soon as possible… I actually think that this place chose me instead of the other way around.”
Does the neighbourhood know that an infamous Satanist now lives among them?
“No, not yet since I’m really trying to keep a very low profile. But I get a lot of visits from people riding huge motorcycles, so I’m already accustomed to getting weird glances from the old lady living next to me.”
Is this the last we hear from you before you retreat into a dark cave for the next two years?
“I would love to do that, believe me, but I don’t really see that happening. I’m exhausted, I’ll grant you that. Since ‘Lawless Darkness’ came out, it’s one been one crazy rollercoaster ride through hell – in both a positive and negative way. Many things have changed in our lives since that album was released, which was expected on one hand, yet still it proved to be quite draining. Those two years feel like ten!
“It’s also one of the reasons I feel very comfortable living in the middle of nowhere now because I just needed to get away for a while from, well, everything. On the other hand, it feels like my creative drive has never been as strong as it is now. Somehow, it’s almost as if it was fuelled by this overwhelming sense of fatigue. I’ve been living here for few months and there’s been a lot of writing going on, music and other stuff. And I believe I’m going to keep a steady flow, especially since autumn and winter are coming, periods when us people of the North like to barricade ourselves to focus inwards.”
You’re exhausted but you asked for it didn’t you? You did say you wanted to be the biggest black metal band in the world.
“Our goal has never to be the most popular band on the planet. It was to release the album we’ve been trying to write since we started the band. And I think we achieved that, even if the notion of achievement in an artistic context almost feels an awkward notion to me as I’m a very self-critical person. I never asked for all those tours, interviews and so on but I knew it was coming and was part of the whole process so I accepted it. But what I hunger for, why I’m doing this, is that I don’t feel the need to create, I simply have[$itals] to create. I have to do this, I have no other options and that’s all I want to do. I just want to rock, man! [laughs]”
You also said that you wanted to destroy barrier between the underground and the mainstream…
“We already that did with ‘Sworn To The Dark’, I think. And I guess breaking that barrier means a lot to some people, both in a negative and positive way. But it doesn’t change anything to me. The thing is that my definition of the underground died a long time ago. If there’s one way to measure it for me, it’s by looking at our immediate surroundings in a practical manner; we’re having an easier time doing what we want to, because our success, if you want to call it that, allowed us to have the logistics to give a full-on live show, not have to work day jobs and so forth. But when it comes to the artistic side, I can’t point out a single thing that the step from the underground into, whatever it is, has affected us on an artistic level and to me that’s the only thing that is relevant.”
But you openly said during the promotion of ‘Lawless Darkness’ that you wanted to be like a wolf among sheep and pervert new disciples into the cult that is Watain…
“Maybe that was my mindset back then but I don’t see it that way anymore. Yes, the idea of playing to a packed stadium is a tempting one and it’s something I know we’ll do one day because it’s in that direction we’re heading. But that’s not the goal, it’s a consequence of us doing what we’re doing. If your fire is strong enough, it’ll spread simply because that’s its nature. If there’s dry wood around, which there is in the form of new listeners, the fire will spread and I will enjoy it. Because I like big fucking fires. Who doesn’t’?
“But to keep with that comparison, I wouldn’t say the idea is to make the biggest fire possible, it’s simply to keep it alive because it is our creation and the most beautiful thing we’ve ever achieved here on Earth. It is our fire.
“I’d be the first to say that it’s the people, the fans, the press and so on that make a band big. And if the band is good enough, it will eventually end there but it’s not necessarily your own creativity that will decide whether you’re standing on a stadium stage one day or not. For us, Watain is still the same gathering of three strong-minded guys that come from the same small town in the middle of Sweden. We had pretty high walls around us shutting the rest of the world for a long time so it’s really those from the outside who put us where we are now. I didn’t work as hard as I did for the last ten years just to end up on magazine’s covers. They came to us, not the other way around.”
So, now that you’ve ‘made it’, your bank account must be full. You must have three houses and half a dozen Harleys by now, right?
“Well, the irony of it all is that we could probably make a decent living out of the band if we wouldn’t make such stupid decisions, like spending most of our benefits on the band and our stage show. But investing all the money we make off the band back into the band seems the only logical decision to us. But this was something we agreed on in the beginning. I remember a long time ago reading an interview with Alice Cooper, saying that in their early years they were living like rats while they were packing arenas across the country simply because all the cash they made was re-injected into their stage props. To me, that’s the only way to do it.”
It’s almost as if you were deliberately putting yourself in a position where things hung in the balance…
“It will probably sound weird to many but I don’t believe that artists, especially when playing this kind of music, should live in luxury. I always had a bohemian life and that’s something I value immensely and that contributed to making Watain what it is.”
Entombed guitar player Uffe Cederlund once said that he took a job as he was tired of being part of one of the biggest metal bands on the planet yet still couldn’t come back from tour with enough in his pocket to take his girlfriend out for dinner…
“I know what you’re saying, but you know what? I love that. The last time I had a ‘real’ temporary job was over seven years ago. Yes, things have been complicated on an economical level, even pretty rough on some occasions. And yes, some days we are on a massive stage playing to thousands of people or getting a gold record and the next lying in the gutter wondering where the fuck we would sleep. I never asked for life to be easy. There’s nothing in that safe and orderly way of living that I crave for.
“And I always had a strange relationship with money anyway. I never ‘owned’ anything. The most expensive item that has ever been in my possession was a chopper some years ago but that’s it. I see so many people stressing about how they need to pay the rent and thus have to do some shitty job. I never felt like that and it’s not because I have a constant flow of cash coming in, rather the other way around actually! I just knew that things would work out in the end, even if sometimes it wouldn’t. I think it’s very dangerous to be caught up in a system that I’ve always strived to get away from as much as humanly possible.”
So what you’re saying is that you would have been leading the same kind of life even if there hadn’t been Watain?
“It makes things a lot easier, indeed. As far as what I would have been doing if Watain didn’t exist, that concept is extremely alien to me. You have to remember that we were sixteen years old when we formed this band, meaning that I have already spent half my life fronting Watain. It’s everything that I know and defines me as an individual so I simply can’t picture myself in any other kind of reality.
“Don’t get me wrong, I did the occasional shitty factory job but very quickly I started questioning what I was getting out of this. Money? But what am I going to do with it since I’m working five days a week and thus don’t have the time I want and need to do all those things I want to do. So fuck it, let me get out of this before I turn into of those brainless robots. Of course there are times when I’m so worn out that I can’t help but think for a second how nice it’d be to have a regular job, the same old home and the same old wife to come back to.
“But while physically I could do those things, mentally it’s not an option. Not everyone is blessed with a clear perception of his or her role in this life. Most wander around wondering what’s the meaning of all this, but I haven’t asked that question myself since I formed Watain.”
Aren’t you simply suffering from illusions of grandeur?
“No, I suffer from grandeur, not illusions of them [laughs]. You know, I see myself as a pretty simple man. I don’t consider myself special or chosen. Okay, maybe I do, but not in a way that confronts other. What I mean is that I know what I’m here to do and I’m getting better and better at it.”
Your outspoken attitude has raised you into the role of leader for the newer extreme metal bands, such as In Solitude and Degial…
“At the same time, I look up to them as well. Especially those two bands. Yes, I’m a bit older and have been a spokesman for Watain for a long time now so the leader role was mine from the start in one way. But if I become genuinely friends with someone it’s because that leader role doesn’t have to be there. We don’t really associate ourselves in those terms anymore, even if we maybe did when we first got to know each other. And that’s something I demand from people I’m close to. Strange as it sounds, I’m extremely uncomfortable in any kind of leader role whatsoever.”
Still, we’re dealing with very strong personalities in Watain. Eventually, you’re the one everybody listens to so on some level you must love it…
“That’s just an artist choosing what colours to paint with. But I’m not turning my head from my painting in order to teach ten thousand people how to paint it the same way. No, I’m just [pauses] painting. And that’s really all I’m doing. I’m not a teacher, nor a preacher. I’m just a simple man with very large ideas about life, and death, that I feel the urge to express.”
Yeah but when those ‘colours’ get out of hand, this must mean then that you’re losing control…
“What do you mean exactly?”
For example the situation with Otargos, which you’ve never spoken about in the press…
“Yeah… Watain is many things [laughs]. It is first and foremost our creative outlet but it is also our brotherhood and as such, we all have there a very specific role to play. Mine is a kind of natural ‘spider in the web’ position. Alas, in some situations, that role is tougher than others. And that particular situation was, indeed, a tough one and it demanded quite a lot of sorting out.”
What role did Alvaro play when he stabbed Otargos’s guitarist and vocalist in the hand?
“We could all relate to what he did. Everyone in the band saw it coming and so did everyone on that tour. So it made things complicated afterwards for us but once again, life was never meant to be easy in Watain. That particular incident was just us making a point, like if you want to come here and disrespect everything we stand for as a band, if you want to leave the mark of the enemy on my temple, you’re going to get punished sooner or later [He’s making a reference to Otargos’ stand against all organised religions, including Satanism, and their T-shirt that displayed the slogan ‘No God, No Satan’].
“If you’re a white power band, you simply don’t go on tour with a communist band – if you do there’s going to be trouble. I don’t know how many people outside of this group know about that – but hey, now much more will I guess – but I have no problem with what happened because it is something we fully stand behind. We know that sometimes people have a hard time taking us seriously because we’re speaking in very large terms and we have very little self-distance, something I find great to be fair. So sometimes, it’s very good to put your foot, or should I say your knife, down and make a point. I’d rather be in battle and gain few wounds in the process than having never gone to one. Yes, fire burns, but we knew that from the beginning. And what are other options had we in the first place? None. That’s the way Watain functions, to the fullest.”
Back to the role you play with the younger musicians in Uppsala, is it true you’ve recently started to play with another band?
“Oh, I’d love to talk about it but nothing is set in stone just yet. I’ve agreed to help out this new band called No Future featuring members from In Solitude and Reveal. They needed a live drummer as they’re thinking about doing some shows and since I’ve been obsessed with that first demo tape of theirs I gladly volunteered. Rehearsing with them has been very rewarding, but we will see whether or not my involvement will actually be more than rehearsing from time to time.”
Is it very different from Watain?
“Oh yes. It’s hard to describe but let’s say it’s a mix between Nick Cave, Christian Death and old punk. It is not metal by any stretch but it’s really dark, drug-fuelled rock, very artistic and melancholic”
Didn’t you start out as a drummer?
“Yes, when I put together, as a fourteen year old teenager, my first proper band, it was as a drummer. We were trying to be some kind of anarchist and anti-establishment punk band, even if we had no clue about politics and were not punks in the first place! But I grew tired pretty fast of the d-beat stuff we were doing à la Discharge and classic hardcore Swedish bands like Anti-Cimex so I started playing, still as a drummer, with a black/thrash band called Bloodsoil for two years until we formed Watain in 1998.”
What are your first musical memories? Not only the first song that really struck you or the first band that you really became a fan of, but also the first time you realised the power it holds?
“With the risk of sounding like a fucking twat, it was the Beatles. I had a tape recorder given to me as a birthday gift at a very young age, must have been around four or five. I listened to their tape every day, as often as I could. I loved songs like ‘Dizzy Mrs Lizzy’ and ‘Back In The USSR’ because they had a wild a rocky edge to them. I played air guitar frenetically until I actually got a real one. It was my first meeting with the seductive powers of music, and from then on it just got worse and worse [laughs]! But it was not until I was about nine that I actually started trying to get records and read music magazines. When I was ten I went with my friend and his dad to see Metallica in Stockholm. They opened with ‘Creeping Death’ and had massive pyros and that night changed me. It was my first experience of the mass trance that a proper heavy metal concert can evoke. Since then I have seen so many fantastic concerts, of which many had the same kind of bewitching nature, and I have also performed a fair amount of them. The whole idea of the concert environment has always fascinated me, there is so much potential but still it demands the right kind of ingredients to detonate properly. The last concert of that explosive nature that I saw that was with a band called Danava at a small club in Portland. Having just been on tour with The Devil’s Blood and In Solitude, which to me are two of the best live bands of today, my demands were higher than ever. But I realised pretty quickly this would be ‘one of those nights’. And at some point I looked around me and there was not one person in that sweaty club that was not deeply affected in one way or another by their magical performance.”
Do you remember the first gig by Watain?
“Vaguely. I had been setting up a few shows with the band I had before, Bloodsoil, at this venue in Uppsala that was just about the right size for underground shows. It has been mostly young bands that I was in touch with around Sweden, like Repugnant, Insision and also a few bigger acts like Merciless and Necrophobic. I think the venue even paid for the bands to come, I just had to choose them, make the posters and flyers and spread the word. Anyway, the first Watain show was in that venue and we organized it ourselves. We played four or five songs, of which one was ‘Unholy Black Metal’ by Darkthrone. We were pissed off at our guitarist at the time who was wearing blue jeans and just stood still on stage while we were at least wearing spikes and trying to move as much as we could despite being entirely unfamiliar with being on a stage holding instruments. I had just been playing drums before, and I really did not know how to even play bass at that time. I just tried to do it like I’d seen people do on videos I guess… But it went alright. I remember we got a bad review in a fanzine by some guy who said we sounded great but that I must work on my headbanging. We got his phone number and told him we would come and burn down his house while his mother slept. At the next gig he came and we beat him up. We were very serious already back then and took any kind of criticism like a personal insult. Looking back, I think that was very good as it shaped the band into what it is today.”
The final show of the ‘Lawless Darkness’ tour happened at Bloodstock. What thoughts crossed your minds as you finished your set with your self-confessed ‘funeral’ song ‘Waters Of Ain’?
“Sadness, first of all, mixed with melancholy actually. We usually play only by night when we’re doing those big outdoor festivals, but for various reasons not this time. At first, we weren’t very happy about it to be honest. But as it turned out, we played most of the gig facing the sun setting on the horizon and while we entered the stage in broad daylight, by the time we were done, it was pitch black. And staring at the sun like this, seeing this concert as a micro-version of these past two years and how we’ve been symbolically dragging down the light until it’s not here anymore in order to let the darkness invade… That was a very powerful experience to say the least.”
So, what’s next?
“I don’t know if it is the wisest thing to say but I don’t think we’ve ever been so uncertain about what the future holds for us. Of course we’re already thinking about our next album but I really don’t know as we speak how it’s going to turn out. And I’d say it’s the perfect state of mind to be creative in. When we got started on ‘Lawless Darkness’ we knew we wanted to create the most perfect black metal album. And we did it. But now? Yeah, now what? [Pauses] All I can say is that numerology and symbolism have always been a huge part of Watain – more than ever today as we’re working on album number five; five being the actual numerological value of the word Watain, the numbers of wings on a pentagram and so on. All I can say is it’ll help me on a personal level achieving a feeling of completion.”
The word ‘completion’ usually implies a notion of ‘closure’…
“There is death and closure everywhere. And once you close something or kill something it turns into something else. And things go on from there… A complete ending is a whole different story. But you never know.”
Do you see yourself then putting out that fire known as Watain then?
“[Sighs] No, but if you could have heard all those discussions we had about how our final concert should be… If we would ever end Watain it’s pretty obvious that it won’t happen in a regular fashion. It would be something that will leave a mark. But it does feel a bit strange even just suggesting that we’re leaving very exciting times with so many great things ahead of us.”
Still, it’s quite a surprise though as we were expecting you to say you were planning to go into hiding…
“In a way, that’s what going to happen. Håkan and Pelle live in Uppsala too, so we actually see each other much more now that when I was in Stockholm. And it’s all happening now within the comfort and secrecy of our homes, not in some overcrowded place full of onlookers as it was in Stockholm. So this is all very exciting to me. Plus, this is probably the last interview I’m doing in a long time and I would lie if I’m saying I won’t feel a huge sense of relief once we stop talking. And I think I’m going to pour myself a drink, stare at my window and just listen to the silence for a while if you don’t mind.”
A version of this interview was printed in Iron Fist #1 available from our online store
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