Everywhere But in the Present: A Chat with Ulver’s Kristoffer Rygg

Kris Rygg from Ulver-live
Credit: Marius Sachtikus

Norwegian experimental music group Ulver has spent decades shifting shape and keeping listeners on their toes. They’ve created landmark albums that shaped entire generations of black metal bands, works of artfully choppy dark electronic music, psychedelic rock bliss, and even orchestral improvisations. Continuing the tradition of fearless evolution, Ulver released newest work, ATGCLVLSSCAP, on January 22nd via House of Mythology. It’s an album built around live improvisational takes on both new compositions and some old favorites, documenting a band who now revels in the very live arena it once shunned. Over the course of its lengthy run, the album evokes triumphant majesty on tracks like “Glammer Hammer,” grows playfully and chaotically into strange shapes on “Cromagnosis,” and gets lost in ethereal experimentation on “Om Hanumate Namah” and “Moody Stix.” The sole thread tying it together is a certain dark curiosity, the one theme that has kept Ulver’s sound familiar throughout their many stages as a band.

The sole remaining member from Ulver’s earliest days is vocalist and visionary Kristoffer Rygg, who seems equally content in cerebral coordination as he does allowing things to drift wherever they may. I was able to catch up with him while he was enjoying a stout beer (Victory Brewing’s Storm King, no less) after a jog on a particularly chilly evening. We discussed the nature of revisiting the past from a new perspective, embracing the spontaneity of the moment, and the ever-present influence of the night in a career with few other musical constants.

BM&B: How are you? Have you done a lot of interviews today?

Kristoffer Rygg: I did one half an hour ago. There’s a lot of talking these days, which I guess is good? I don’t always feel that I’m in my element when it comes down to this stuff, but it’s good. Good for the band you know.

I feel you spent a lot of time in your career letting the art speak for itself, so perhaps this is more of a recent habit then?

Ideally I’d just keep doing that (laughs), I’m a kind of private person. But it’s cool as long as it doesn’t get into “explain your lyrics” territory (laughs). And sometimes people get too hung up on the old identity thing too, our roots in metal, you know. It can get a bit awkward. It’s always nice to talk about music though.

In talking about music, it’s interesting because your music has led me through many of my explorative journeys. I’d never have listened to Coil without you referencing them.

That’s really cool to hear. It’s the same with me man. You mention Coil. I’d never have bothered reading William Blake if it weren’t for them. It’s kind of weird, but I guess that’s the way information and inspiration often travels. You kind of want to know where people you think highly of get their ideas from, you know. Come to think of it, that’s a good purpose of interviews. It’s a way for people to get tidbits they wouldn’t get from the music alone.

One of the pieces I found interesting was that Daniel worked on your new album in the house that was Coil’s studio.

It wasn’t Coil’s studio per se. It was Ian’s house. Ian was with Geff Rushton (Jhonn Balance) for the last four or five years of his life. He got involved in the artwork and the visual representation of Coil. He was involved in the costumes when they started playing live and things like that. And Geff obviously stayed in that place a lot. And when he died, Ian bought a farm in Spain and he needed someone to tend to his house, so Dan moved in. It’s been a sort of resort for the broken of heart, that house. People who are going through a rough patch in their lives, which Dan also was at the time. The first time I was there was with Aethenor and then the Wars of the Roses sessions and quite a few times after. We’ve all been there and felt the energy in that house, which was quite strong. It’s this kind of serene magical kingdom in the middle of an often overwhelming city.

Ulver live
Credit: Susanne A. Maathuis

I’ve been fascinated by your progression from a cerebral and mysterious studio act to a group who embraces live performance and incorporates it into your albums.

Yeah, we’re finally embracing the live aspect. We’ve embraced playing together as a bigger conglomerate of people. There weren’t so many of us in the studio at times and it was a rather isolated thing. The live show opened up a lot of new possibilities for us. And the more we’ve played, the more we’ve learned how to actually play together, in real-time, and latch onto different creative and musical energies, which is what this album is about documenting really: a more free sound. The songs changed in different ways on different occasions during that tour. You’d have to speak to Dan about all the different takes and recordings though, because I haven’t even heard them all. But when I got involved on this one, it was with a sort of enthusiasm that isn’t always the case when you’ve worked on an album from its very beginning. When I first heard the material, it wasn’t entirely finished, but close enough. It was really quite cool for a change to sort of come in as the post-producer guy, to be honest.

In a way you may have had your first opportunity to let somebody else show you yourself.

That’s an interesting way to put it. But I have to point out that Dan is also a member of Ulver, and there’s obviously a level of trust that he would do cool things with this material on his own, you know. We were all there on stage and performed the music together in the first place, but after it was over it felt right to ask Dan to take the first stab at things studio-wise. We were doing some other work here while he was rummaging through all the material, making selections, editing and generally getting things into presentable shape before he sent it over to us. It’s actually the first time I’ve been surprised upon hearing my own band you know (laughs). It was kinda great! We then did some edits and overlays and stuff here, adding our two cents so to speak, and also did the final mixing up here. But of course it’s largely thanks to Dan that this album is what it is. And also that it comes out now as opposed to next year, I might add (laughs). The man’s a machine when it comes to the pacing of his work.

Each member of Ulver is really prolific. It seems interesting that you’ve done two big metal projects in the last year, producing Myrkur and the song you performed with Borknagar this year.

That was a friend thing, you know. A good excuse to be sociable with guys I hadn’t seen or spoken with much in years. We’re twenty years down the line and either pushing forty or over forty. At some point it gets natural to start to reminisce about the past you know (laughs). It really wasn’t a problem for me to slide into that role briefly even though I am not really that guy anymore. So I’m real happy they asked. It was a nice way to celebrate a bit of shared history with those guys.

There was a lot of history in that one video.

Yeah, I think that was the plan with that song. It hints back. It’s their tenth album. They’ve been around for twenty years now too. And they’re summing things up, in a way. It was a bit by chance though, that it turned into a video. I think Century Media insisted that they went with that song so then my studio guest spot was suddenly extended into this video appearance as well (laughs).

With the theme of revisiting old ideas, some of ATGCLVLSSAP is centered on reimagining your older songs through the live setting. One of those songs that really fascinates me and transformed beautifully here was “Nowhere (Sweet Sixteen).” There’s a line there that’s always seemed to be Ulver’s mission statement: “everywhere but in the present.” With inspirations and work in so many eras, whether it’s your covers of classic psychedelic songs on Childhood’s End or your history coming back to the forefront on this new release, where does Ulver go from here? Is this constant evolution part of a plan or do you find it to be a series of experiences that surprise you as they occur?

Well, time revolves and in a way we are all looking either back or to the future. All the time the present is an illusion. But I think I’ll just be a bit prosaic here and say that the song “Nowhere” was a piece that we’d actually never played live before that tour, but we always had the impression that a lot of people liked it. We put it out there as a bit of an encore in those sets. That tour was perhaps a bit irreverent in the first place, to our old fans who probably weren’t expecting to see Ulver in full-on jam mode. We were aware of that, so throwing stuff like that into the set was a bit of a gesture to them you know. There were a few other older tunes that didn’t really end up on the album too, but we figured it’s kinda cool the way it sounds now so we chose to include it. The song’s sixteen years old, hence the sweet sixteen. It’s a bit cheesy and tongue in cheek, but it has its place on the album. Even the original version sounds a bit quirky, in hindsight, but it’s a part of our history that a lot of people have an affinity with, you know.

It’s the closest you’ve recorded to an outright pop song.

Dan said the exact same thing! He sent me a text that said “total A-Ha vibes.” I kind of grew up with them so it might have seeped in of course (laughs).

The transient and shifting nature of the experience is often one of the most consistent factors when examining a new Ulver album. It’s a momentary sound that will soon be replaced by something else. Do you ever come to a point where you think you’ve reached what will be “your sound” where you’ll stay?

It’s funny you should ask that. The journalist I spoke with earlier asked the exact same question and I’d never heard it before now. So this is the first time, or rather the second time now, that this has ever been asked of me. I don’t know man. With an album like Wars of the Roses for example, we weren’t really forcing things into a different space at all. We just took bits and pieces from our own musical history – things that we liked about ourselves basically – and tied those elements together and we actually got a bit of flak for that, for not doing the unexpected. It’s a bit of a weird response I think, because it’s not like it’s our primary objective to change our sound from album to album. But I guess we’re a bit volatile as people and we get easily bored. We’re also quite project-oriented. We have an idea and we’ll get very literal about that idea. Things take different shapes as a result of that. It’s difficult to analyze it and explain why it’s that way, but it’s not like we think “oh, now we have to go and make an IDM album after this.”

The one theme or concept that seems to recur sonically with Ulver is a certain coldness. Is that environmental due to the cold climate you call home or is that just the nature of your art?

We are all informed by nature and by our surroundings, of course. As sentient beings – or animals – it’s impossible to escape from that I think, but I don’t know if I would describe our sound as cold. Maybe nocturnal or melancholic. Whenever we play or record something, we’ll have a laugh about it ourselves actually. When Tore’s by the piano things will progress and every time I say “yeah, that sounds like it!” it’ll be a kind of chord progression or something that is so inherently Ulver in a way. It’s been that way since the old days really. Our original guitar player (Håvard) would stretch his fingers very far apart and play those signature chords, so it’s something that just follows us wherever we go, a kind of feeling that lurks in the background. It’s sort of an intuitive thing though, it’s hard to define. It’s night music.

On the business side, it seems that Ulver tends to make…

Stupid decisions?

I wouldn’t call it stupid. You tend to just pop up in new places. Whether it’s Jester Records, or this new label House of Mythology that seems to have appeared out of nowhere. Is that Dan’s label?

No. It’s set up by a close friend and associate of ours, in London. It’s a cool set-up and the time sort of felt right to put the old Jester to rest anyway. As a matter of fact, the last external artist release for Jester was in 2011 and by that point it all felt a bit half-assed to be honest. The label has for many years simply been a way for us to copyright our own work and make license deals and such. It was a long ride and a good ride too – I put out some pretty fucking special records there in my opinion – but the label actually died down a long time ago. You know, things change. And the Jester doesn’t really feel that close anymore. It felt auspicious now to do something new with a different look and a different vibe.

So you’re hoping to set a precedent with this. Will you continue collaborating with this new label then?

If it fits, sure. It’s not a straitjacket though. But I like the idea of it, to be honest. I love the idea of bands who release all their stuff through one label, but at the same time it’s important for Ulver as a group to diversify. You may have one project that might fit one label really well and it’ll be handled well there and can tap into this or that scene you know. But it’s great to branch out and diversify. If the hat fits, so to speak. I feel in the past we’ve released music on labels where we’ve become this sort of strange bird on the family tree. We don’t necessarily fit with the rest of the music being released on the label. You know, you can play our music to people and they’ll expect Ulver to be something we aren’t simply because our reputation precedes us sometimes or because of associations with labels and such. That has been a bit of a challenge for us in the past.

You couldn’t really put out your newer releases on Century Media and get their audience’s perfect response.

Exactly. They actually asked me recently. A lot of people would jump on the opportunity, and they’re a great label. They did a wonderful job with that boxed set, Trolsk Sortmetall 1993–1997. That was a huge success that far surpassed all of our expectations. Five thousand boxes were gone in like two weeks. But obviously this new album wouldn’t fit into their roster. It feels more right to go with something new, something with an aesthetic that is closer to this current music.

When trying to describe Ulver it almost seems disingenuous or unproductive to even mention the metal days. It’s too shape-shifting and too long ago to even touch upon that. It makes sense to migrate as you grow and change.

Thanks for saying that man. We only do what feels natural to do for us in the end. If we have an interesting opportunity, then that’s what we’ll do. It’s not always been the case, but we are fortunate in many ways. We have a strange congregation going out there.