«Death is not made to understand it, but to accept it» says the writer Joseph Campbell, but what happens when exploring it becomes an artistic motivation?. Literal or metaphorical, it can answer many enigmas and open the door to deeper questions. What happens when death is not only death but it’s also transformation? In this interview with Andreas Vingbäck, better known as Heljarmadr (Dark Funeral, Grá) in the Swedish and global black metal scene, we delve into a reflection on these issues and discussed the release of his photography book and split single, the recording which contains his most recent song Transcending into a God.
That day, like every morning, I put out a tarot card as advice for the day and I get the Death card, one of the most revealing major arcana cards as a confirmation for the interview.
Before curfew and under the relentless sun of the streets of Santiago de Chile, this is what we talked about:
“The I that sees a higher self isn’t the same I that sees simple things” Joseph Campbell. What characteristics do the subjects you photograph have? What inner voice tells you «I want to capture this”?
The whole book is a red thread from the beginning to the end. So, for me, it becomes a bit tricky to just jump in one moment. Because when I made the selection of photos for this book, I had like four thousand pictures. The first selection of course was which one do I like? with a first impression and, then of course I came down with a couple of hundreds so that was a big step. So I had to start thinking about how to connect them because it needed to be connected in a way. It’s hard to talk about the few words that I used in the book because I think you should make your interpretation of it. Of the whole red line or the individual pictures and how you want to interpret it.
It is evident that your photography book is not just that. Somehow I could feel the progression of the story. There are a few keywords that came to mind as I looked at it: decay, light, darkness, and transformation, words that somehow belong to death and rebirth. At least that means to me, how would you sum it up?
When I was working on the first releases for Grá, the band that I have on the side of Dark Funeral, the topic was Death. And it was Death from all points of view. From the desire to die, fear to die, the actual moment of death, the spirit going away or no spirit going away, depending on which belief system you come from, and then you have the rituals by other people like burning bodies, burials. All ended up in the death chapter of this book I think. As you said is also a kind of rebirth at the end and new beginnings.
“Gods were created as images of man but their memories fade as they are replaced” this is one of the phrases of your book. What things are replacing the gods right now? Our inner gods?
Consume, the will to consume. The Internet replaced a lot of gods because you don’t have to pray, you just check. For medicine, for example, you can check your pharmacy online. You don’t have to go to this medicine man that will pick a flower and some cats vomit too. So yes we have replaced our gods but we are not happy anyway so maybe we will replace it with something else again.
Maybe we will be going back to the stupid religion again which we are in a way, trying to abolish this shit… all these holy temples, holy people and replaced with some kind of science but I don´t know if men are kind of ready for this or if we are intelligent enough because there have been attempts you know? Look in history which repeats itself. You have the Greeks that invented tons of stuff that were fucked up by religion. Romans did the same, it comes down to all this madness. So, yeah we are walking in circles, nothing is new under the sun.
But it is not only about religion right? If we put the Internet as an example, we humans spent most of our days using the phones all day long…seeing it as a god. Worshiping it…
On the Internet we can also be gods, you know? On the comment fields. Pretending to know better than everyone else. People are spewing out so much information everywhere so we are losing ourselves in this shit.
Do you think in some ways we must go back to the primal?
Do we want a society or not? That is also a question. Because if we want a society and go back to the primal… see monkeys, they kill. You know? So if we wanna go back, how far are we gonna go back? Where is the limit? And who’s said the next generation is not going to cross it anyway? So in a way, when I have these kinds of discussions, everything ends up feeling so fucking pointless or lack in meaning.
And then you have these people that say that everything used to be better in the olds days, you know? It was better before. But what is Before? What specific time is Before? You have all these people fascinated by the ancient like Vikings for example but which part of this? or which king? how do you know if he was an asshole? How will it be portrayed by the media today? Maybe he was a fucking pedophile, you don´t know. You know “praise the past” but are you sure? Are you really sure? Do you know enough to say these words? So I don´t know, I think people should question everything.
Maybe people should go deeper…
Or maybe don´t go to some places at all. Leave some shit alone.
How important to you it is to connect to the past? It helps you to understand the «now»?
It follows the preview question. Of course, things are looping, so you can maybe predict what is coming and wherein the loop we are as a society. I mean, go again with the Greeks. Things were going great and, then they started this war loop, and things were going to shit. Roman Empire, expansion, expansion, glory, and glory, and then you have the Christianity coming in there nestling its way and then you have two roman empires: the holy one and the other one. And then they disintegrated piece by piece. Now, we live in this capitalist world with these spots of religion. You have Islam here, Christianity there. Here in South America, you have a lot of Christianity also, you know?, and Capitalism. So this is colliding and going in one direction or another direction, so you have to wait and see.
And here you also have social rights, which proves my point that something is going on all the time. And this is everywhere. So the “it was better before” I don´t believe in that. Everything is as it is, you know?
“In the end, man will declare himself a God. But the wheels will continue to spin and replace glory with ruin”. Another quote from your book. You used these words next to a pretty strong image. How do you associate power with ruin?
It comes to this again. You see the greek empire and now it is ruined. You see all its glory as past but why isn´t it stayed glorious? why? what happened? Why is it falling? Why is it trembling? Why is it not being rebuilt with a spaceship on top? For some reason, it was left, the idea was lost and the glory was replaced with ruins. Because it was glorious. The birth of democracy and all that but still it’s just rocks now.
The building you may refer to is a huge tower in Poland. That’s a big old communist bragging construction to show the “glory” of communism and see where that ended…now is a building which has cultural things in there.
Like a facade.
Who are you talking about in the song Transcending Into a God?
Myself. It is hard to describe, but for me, that song represents the inner journey and this can be placed forward and in reverse. I don’t know how to explain it, but that’s the feeling I have about the song in short.
Is that you on the cover of the single? Where does your inspiration come from when you write and create?
This is a split. It’s two songs and the idea for the split was to do it with my friend Eldur from Iceland. We were getting shitface in Oslo, Norway, several years ago and we were wondering how we could sound without our bands. If it was only me doing a song and Eldur doing a song. So we just made it happen. We have the same drummer and the same mixing engineer, like the same foundation for the songs. So this is either me or him…by ourselves, that’s why there is only one figure in the picture. How do we sound like ourselves, so if it’s me or him it’s irrelevant. It is one person…what comes out of one person with demons around him.
Do you feel like you release some weight when you create?
Sometimes you find peace and a little seed that grows into a talking tree. And sometimes, it is a seed you throw at the draining.
In ancient cultures, death was seen in a very different way than we see it now. Even for your ancestors, it was just a step to another way of living, bigger and better. How do you see death? What do those photographs convey to you?
That’s not entirely true because the glory was only for the chosen few. They were split in two, so only half of them go to Odin and the rest of them are a bit unclear. Only the glorious are sung about, talked about…the rest were going to the kingdom of the underworld, basically and that is not a nice place. This is only the glorification of a chosen few again. The ones that made the books.
How do you see death?
I am curious. I can only wait and see, you know? I have been reading a lot. I have been thinking a lot through all the years, but the only thing we know for sure is that we don´t know. And the more you learn about things, the more you understand that you don’t know shit. So, it all comes down to this nirvana thing…I don´t know. Maybe, I am becoming a Buddhist. I don’t know.
And the ruins…that’s the only thing we can see from this place
Yes, but even the ruins are turning to sand. They also disappear. I saw a documentary about what will happen if the man just disappears. They pointed to the Golden Gate Bridge and wondered how long it would take to deteriorate and how long will it take nature to take over? a couple of hundred years. And they did it with the pyramids and all kinds of shit and, if I remember correctly, what they think would stay longer was this little center, a little cabin at the north pole because it is completely frozen, everything else will deteriorate. Even if you eliminate men, because men will no longer keep it, nature will have one hundred percent access. All the museums will be cracked, all the mummies in their coffins at the perfect temperature will decompose when there is no electricity. That’s a pretty interesting way to see how everything is destined to go to hell.
Chapter 7 is one of my favorites and I like the fact that you presented it as a new beginning, like a rebirth. You said “And as I am gazing towards the horizon. I am entering a new era and the world has changed forever” What do you expect from this new era in your life? In this “new world”.
This became more prophetic than I expected because of the pandemic stroke. My whole career as a musician has been put aside because it is illegal to make shows these days. So everything has changed for everyone. I don’t know what to expect. You never know. With the past, you never know, and with the future, you never know. You just make the best of what you have, right here and right now. That’s all you can do.
What’s it like not being able to play live like before?
It is horrible. That’s what I do. I travel, I play shows, I perform and now it is impossible to do so. Of course, it’s like…I don’t know. Take whatever interest you might have in your life and remove it. Even if it’s at a hobby level or it’s your profession. I’ve spent more than 20 years on this, 20 years of my life doing this. You lose your balance…
What do you think of the new ways artists are trying to get closer to their fans, during times like this? The new measures with social distancing and concerts and festivals?
These are desperate measures, not necessarily to make money but desperate measures to do something because this is THE passion, you know? You always try to find ways around obstacles and problems, that’s how humans went to the moon. So, of course…is the best that we can do but isn’t how things were meant to be or how we portrayed it, everything was turned over. For a lot of people in the entertainment business, we have two options: wait for this to blow over and do the best we can or get a day job. Stop doing this and go work in the Líder and put stuff on shelves, you know? I know a lot of bands and musicians that have done that.
That would be an option for you? To change your career?
Well, I have been quite fortunate not to have to. I haven’t had that complete financial breakdown yet but if I had, sure. I would be doing something else, yes for sure, and considering being a musician as a hobby. Something that people had been forced to learn in this is that when you have employment somewhere you also have some kind of insurance right? If you get unemployed you have unemployment benefits for the majority of cases but we as musicians, don‘t. So if we don’t have a job there is no one covering our backs, nobody is paying our rents or feeding our kids so I think that it’s something the old business has to learn. What does that mean for the future? I don‘t know. Probably everything gets more expensive to cover up for this and to ensure that if something like this happens in the future nobody can‘t stand and eat nothing, you know?
Some bands have done these live streaming events and, maybe it’s one way, but it’s not the same.
That’s what I mean. That’s something musicians do because you want to do this for a passion. I have done one of these live streaming gigs with Grá and I didn’t like it.
How do you felt?
Take your recording device and go to talk to it. How do you feel?
Yeah, exactly, because it’s not responding. You are talking to a piece of plastic, playing to a piece of plastic, performing to a piece of plastic. I don’t like it. I am not too good at camera situations overall. I like the audience, the response, the feedback. If you play like shit, they are going to tell you and, if you play awesome they are going to tell you that too.
Of course, you’re going to be so conscious about the cameras because you aren’t delivering your art directly to the audience.
It’s weird. I respect everyone who does it because it is not as easy as it looks. I mean in a concert situation, for example, you play for the audience, and you have this big wall of sound and everything, and when you do streaming like this, everything has to be perfect because people are in their sofas sipping their wine, you know? “I think the drummer is playing the wrong beat there”. And these tiny shits become more important than the show. I think it’s tricky.
During this COVID situation, bands were releasing different kinds of merch. Cradle of Filth released a makeup palette, some beer also. Do you have plans to release these kinds of merch?
As a band, we don’t. I released the book but this has been planned from before. Lord Ahriman, it’s also doing his items and it has nothing to do with this COVID situation because I know this has been planned a long time ago. Because in a band you can only do so much, but as creative persons maybe a band isn’t always enough, and not everything fits into the band context either. This would not have been a Dark Funeral book, this is me, this is my book. And the CD is me, isn’t Dark Funeral, you know? I see also that a lot of bands are doing different stuff but the thing is that people think that there is a lot of money in this and it’s not. Most of these things are actually to do something.
Are you the mastermind in Grá? Both music and lyrics. Do you write music together? Or do you do it individually and put it together at the rehearsal place?
I have been on and off. I started the band with Dimman the drummer, and in the first releases, we did most of the things together, with the Väsen album, the latest album, I write most of it. And now, with the new album, we are working, probably for the first time as a four-piece band and the composition side of things. We are making demos now and it is the same with Dark Funeral. We are also making demos for an upcoming release. When it would be done? I don’t know. When it’s going to be out? I don’t know. But in Grá we are doing this for the first time as a band. It has been more me than the other guys, I guess but I am trying to change that. I think it is a combination of me motivating them and also letting go and letting them in.
Lyrics are mostly in Swedish. Is it more honest to you than the lyrics in English?
No, but you can say different things. I am sure you can say something in Spanish and have all these underlying meanings but in English, it feels flat because. If you are from the United States you’ll have United States underlying meanings, you know? You have all these reference points. And some things are just easy to say in Swedish and you cannot translate the lyrics to English because it doesn’t make any sense at all. So I guess it is the same for Spanish.
When you write something and translate it to English, it loses its magic if you will. But that is also the other way around. When you swear in Spanish try to swear the same thing in English. You are not saying the same words, right? It means the same but the words are completely different. If you directly translate it, then it becomes a bit silly.
Music evolution. Old bands had an innovative mindset back in the early days. Today is the other way around, more conservative. Do you think it is ok to try to keep the old stuff alive? Or bands should evolve no matter what, even if they change their sound completely?
Go back to the seventies. What if Judas Priest never came? What if Iron Maiden never came? Everyone would sound like a Black Sabbath clone, right? Imagine the new Mayhem album. It would sound like Sabbath or something like that. So you have, of course, an evolution but I think you get it with the shifts of generations and, I also think you must have evolution. Like you said it’s about conservatism and they may not understand it.
It is like everyone has to have one finger in the cookie and it doesn’t matter if their finger it’s dirty and they just want to have a finger in there, and with that mindset, of course, there aren’t going to be awesome albums. If your mindset is to have an album out to call yourself a musician…I mean, make a cover album instead of copying it. But then who am I to say anything about people wanting to bring back a sound? because the black metal scene it’s getting old so it’s almost retro. I mean it’s like an adult-oriented rock now.
There are conservative kids.
Conservative kids! Some very young people are more conservative than someone from the Mayhem generation for example...
The thing is also that what influences you have, are important because older bands have older influences. For example, this documentary about Enslaved that it’s going, I saw the first episodes the other day and they had this Pink Floyd influence, more seventies influences, and the kids of today don’t have those influences because that’s grandma music. So their influence is Mayhem and if you’re playing the same music that your influences you are not developing it, you are copying it, that’s the thing. And I don’t know if it’s the Internet fault or something because everything is so accessible. You can find everything. You can find the first Dismember demo, click and it’s playing.
So, I don’t know, maybe conservatism is because the influences are too similar. I don’t know how else to put it because bands that were active in the 90s, their influences were like Iron Maiden, heavy metal, guitar solos, even Bathory had guitar solos, you know? Nobody is doing guitar solos these days, and everyone should. Bring guitar solos back! Write that down!
Which bands caused a major influence on you? which one is or was THE band for you?
I got a lot of vinyl albums from my neighbor’s mom. So, I had a lot of Black Sabbath‘s vinyl that I listened to a lot back then. And my first cassette before I had a CD was AC/DC, the Razor’s Edge, that cassette. So I come from a hard rock and heavy metal background if you will. Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Accept. And now I listen to the same. I haven’t changed much, no. I read a study somewhere that says that when you pass thirty, your music taste is established. Is very hard to break. I am 37 years old.
Discipline. Is it physically challenging to be an extreme metal vocalist in two bands?
It is physically challenging to be an extreme metal vocalist in two bands, yes. And actually to perform, to do tours, and do a good performance every night it´s physically challenging as fuck.
What do you do to take care of your voice?
I try to exercise and stay active. I try to avoid drinking, I try to avoid smoking. I do like to drink and I quit smoking only last year, so I am not like this prophet trying to heal everyone or anything but as you are getting older and touring is hard, to stay in this shape it’s crucial because you can hurt yourself or get injured. When I play with Dark Funeral I think I have like 12 kilos of stuff on me and wearing 12 kilos in an environment that is warm as fuck, even if is indoors you have the lamps, you have the smoke machine, breathing smoke basically. If you are not in shape, it’s going to sound like shit and it’s gonna show and you will not be able to do a 90 minutes show. I mean, the physical aspect of it it’s like running. Run for 90 minutes and then have a show. And do that with a hangover or drunk.
What are your next plans musically speaking?
Well, we are working on a new album with Dark Funeral so I’m recording demo vocals here and then send it to Sweden. I‘ll get files back to me and music from Lord Ahriman to record more demos. And then, when we are done with this, I’m gonna go to Sweden to enter the studio and record it. And with Grá I´m doing the same thing but with Grá, I’m in a different position because I’m trying to leave more to the other guys to put together and have more like a supervisory role.
I have been pretty busy even with the quarantine because I’m also doing mixing jobs in my home studio and mastering jobs for other bands.