Immortal: The Brothers Grim
While Norway's black metal scene burned, Immortal were noisily carving out their own style of "grim and frostbitten" extreme music. In this rare interview, founding members Demonaz and Abbath tell the true tale of Immortal's bleak and blackened journey.
In and around the country’s capital of Oslo, churches were burned in opposition to Christianity, and blood was shed in murder and suicide.
Just 300 miles west, in the coastal city of Bergen, Immortal were breathing life into a different strain of black metal. Abandoning many of the explicitly anti-Christian and antisocial themes of their Oslo brethren, they took inspiration from a distinctly more elevated source: the fabled seven mountains that surround their frosted municipality.
It was not uncommon for other Scandinavian black metallers to pay passing tribute to their native landscape, but Immortal took their devotion to a hitherto unseen level. Their music firmly established an aesthetic popularly known as “grim and frostbitten,” a name that originated from one of the best representations of this style, Immortal’s 1995 song “Grim and Frostbitten Kingdoms,” from Battles in the North.
“I had no idea the song would become popular,” says Demonaz, Immortal’s founding guitarist and lyricist. “Now if you go to MySpace or ask any fan of black metal, they know this concept of ‘grim and frostbitten.’ It’s become a popular idea in black metal, and it came from us.”
The bitter Norwegian landscape has been the catalyst behind nearly every facet of Immortal. It’s represented by Blashyrkh, the fictional lyrical realm represented on almost all of Immortal’s seven albums; it’s evident in their winter-warrior mindset (they refer to corpse paint as “war paint” and sport heavily spiked stage outfits) and in the cold production on their ominously bleak, primal and riff-heavy releases.
The group formed in 1990 around the core of Demonaz and bassist/vocalist Abbath. Their first full-length, Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism, released in 1992, featured the duo with drummer Armagedda and earned Immortal notice in the black metal underground. Their next two albums, 1993’s Pure Holocaust and 1995’s Battles in the North, were purely Demonaz and Abbath affairs, with Abbath handling drum duties. The group’s profile rose on the strength of Pure Holocaust,, and the album introduced the frigid themes and production that would define Immortal.
“From Battles in the North on, the lyrics became much more thematically focused,” Demonaz explains. “We moved from the dark…to another dark, a colder dark. And we got more musically advanced in the process, too.”
“That’s how Immortal has always been,” adds Abbath. “All our records are very honest. They represent exactly where we were at that point in time. Many bands are excellent musicians from day one. Not us. We got a record deal early on based only on a bad rehearsal tape. With each release after that, you can hear Immortal developing. I’m glad it turned out that way, because it made each album special and unique.”
Today, Immortal rank among the Norwegian black metal elite, aside such dark stars as Mayhem, Darkthrone, Emperor, Enslaved and Burzum. The status has been bestowed upon them not only for their cold aesthetics and visceral, thrashedbased black metal but also for their showmanship: Abbath has a taste for the grand theatrics of larger-than-life rock gods like Elvis and Kiss, and he’s known for spewing fire, Gene Simmons–style, during performances.
But like every Norwegian black metal band, Immortal have a story punctuated by misfortune. In 1997, following the release of their fourth full-length album, Blizzard Beasts— their first with drummer Horgh—Demonaz was suddenly afflicted with tendonitis in his arms. Its severity forced him to quit playing the guitar permanently, but Demonaz and Abbath were determined to preserve the creative partnership that had been at the heart of Immortal from day one. Abbath added guitar playing to his list of credits, while Demonaz remained in the fold as the group’s primary lyricist.
Two years later, Immortal returned, stronger than before, with the now-classic At the Heart of Winter. Featuring Horgh on drums and Abbath on guitar, bass, keyboards and vocals, the album saw the group pursuing a darker musical direction. Dubbed “blackened thrash metal,” Immortal’s new sound fused black metal and thrash in an opaque and complex amalgam, while the lyrics delved more deeply into mystical occult imagery. The album was acclaimed by the black metal community and set a new course for Immortal.
It was followed by two more powerhouse albums— 2000’s Damned in Black and 2002’s Sons of Northern Darkness—both with new bassist Iscariah, but Immortal’s creative flame was beginning to fade. Rather than carry on half-heartedly, Demonaz and Abbath disbanded the group in 2003.
So it was a surprise when, in 2006, Demonaz and Abbath announced that they had reformed Immortal and would play a handful of live dates across the globe, backed by Horgh and with Aura Noir’s Apollyon on bass. Sensing a rare opportunity, Guitar World invited Demonaz and Abbath to stop by our offices when their 7 Dates of Blashyrkh tour came through New York City this past July. To our delight, they enthusiastically accepted and generously offered to include a lesson in black metal riffing (see this month’s CD-ROM).
After filling up on a take-out meal of burgers, meatball pizza and plenty of Heinekens, Demonaz and Abbath opened up about their band’s frostbitten history, the murder of Mayhem guitarist and vocalist Euronymous, and how Immortal have survived to become one of the strongest voices in Norwegian black metal.
GUITAR WORLD What first inspired the two of you to pick up a guitar?
ABBATH Actually, I started out playing bass. My huge inspiration was [bassist] Joey DeMaio [from Manowar]. I liked [Motörhead’s] Lemmy, too. I liked the lead bass kind of stuff. I also know how to play drums [Abbath played bass and drums on Pure Holocaust and Battles in the North]. For me, it’s never been about just one thing. I don’t practice to become brilliant at just one instrument. It’s really about the whole package. It’s about making music. I don’t pick up the guitar if I don’t feel inspired to make music. It can just stay there for a week and I won’t pick it up.
DEMONAZ You have to be in contact with the spirit and the feeling to pick up the guitar. When the things inside you need to come out, then you play. It has to come naturally.
ABBATH And I do pick up things naturally. I’m bad at guitar leads, but somehow I know how to tap! [laughs] It’s because I learned from watching Joey DeMaio tap on the bass that I can now do it on the guitar.
GW You’re also a big Gene Simmons fan, too, right?
ABBATH The first time I saw Kiss was in 1980. Back then, Norway only had one channel on TV: the national channel. One day, there was this music program on our TV station, and Kiss appeared singing “Rockin’ in the U.S.A.” I was instantly hooked. I was like, ‘Who the fuck are these guys?’ They had instruments and looked like gods!
DEMONAZ Demons! [laughs]
ABBATH After that I collected all the cards, records and posters. Everything in my room was covered with Kiss. You couldn’t see the walls! [laughs] Everybody I knew back then who was a musician was like, “I wanna become the Police.” But not me. I wanted to become Gene Simmons.
GW Demonaz, when did you know you wanted to become a guitarist?
DEMONAZ It was when I started listening to Nazareth’s Hair of the Dog that I was first introduced to rock and roll. I wanted to play guitar so bad that I made my first guitar. I would stand in my living room and play through our tape player. I lived in a place miles outside of Bergen where nobody liked metal. So I was very alone until my family finally moved to Bergen and I got to know more people who were into metal.
GW How did you two meet?
DEMONAZ I met up with these guys at a Slayer concert in Oslo, and I got to know some of Abbath’s buddies through them.
ABBATH This was in ’89. My friends were older than me, and they went to the Slayer concert, during the South of Heaven tour. I couldn’t come because I was too young and they were selling alcohol there. My friends met Demonaz at the Slayer concert. When they came back, they told me about Demonaz, and eventually he came up to our place. I still remember the first thing Demonaz said: “Oh yeah, so there are thrashers around here as well!” I’ll never forget that. [both laugh]
GW How did you end up forming Immortal?
DEMONAZ I used to watch Abbath play in his first band, Old Funeral. We eventually started messing around with some songs. It was an easy choice for me to work with Abbath because we share a connection. It was very natural. It had to end up that way, sooner or later.
ABBATH Back in ’88, I was playing bass in Old Funeral, but it wasn’t going in the direction I wanted. I wanted to get more serious. This was my life, so I needed to get out of that unit and find something else. When I hooked up with Demonaz, we both knew right away. That kind of connection is really hard to find. I mean, look at our luck with drummers. It took how many years before we found a drummer that fit, so long that I had to do drums for two of our albums. [laughs]
GW You were in Old Funeral with Varg Vikernes [a.k.a. Count Grishnackh, who would go on to form Burzum and eventually murder his one-time friend, Mayhem guitarist Euronymous]. Some have said he wasn’t serious about the music. Is that true.
DEMONAZ Varg was only with them for the last half year…
ABBATH It was actually me who got Varg into Old Funeral. Well, about Varg… [pauses] Fuck Varg!
GW Immortal’s image and lyrical content has always been connected to nature and winter. Where did this inspiration come from?
DEMONAZ When me and Abbath started, we were quite inspired by death metal bands, like Morbid Angel and Possessed. Our lyrics for the first demo was more oriented like that. Then when we adopted the imagery and makeup, our views became different. We started to look more towards Bathory and Celtic Frost for inspiration and began to develop our own style. We drew inspiration from our surroundings: the winter themes and nature.
GW That, of course, led you to create the realm of Blashyrkh in your lyrics. Why did you decide to do that?
DEMONAZ I always read lyrics. The first thing I would do when I bought a CD would be to read the lyrics while I listened to the CD. I cannot get into music, really, if I don’t have the whole package. That is how I’ve always judged music. So for me, Immortal needed to create our own thing, our own world.
At the time I walked a lot. I still do. And when I was out walking, I would get all these lyrical ideas that I would set to Abbath’s riffs. I didn’t want to write about the same things that Venom, Manowar or Slayer wrote about; I wanted to have our own thing. At the time, we had this attitude, which was, Fuck the rest! Fuck everybody else. This is our fucking band and we’re doing it our way.
GW You guys also took the genre’s corpse paint and theatrics to a whole new level, which at the time caused you to become the butt of a few jokes.
ABBATH What we were into at the time was not “in.” We wanted spectacle. We wanted that Venom/Celtic Frost–type of thing. Back then, we would sit at my place, drink some whisky, put on makeup, watch Venom videos and then go walking in the woods. People laughed at us. They were like, “What the hell are these guys doing?”
But if you don’t care about what other people are doing and believe in yourself, it’s only a matter of time before people believe in you. I won’t mention names, but some really big, high-profiled black metal names that are still around today used to laugh at us and call us silly. And today they are ridiculous.
Me and Demonaz are true. You can’t find truer people than us. But what’s true? We’re true…to rock and roll. It’s not about being evil and nasty to the rest of your fellows; it’s about showing those who think that rock and roll is a bad thing that, yeah, it is a bad thing: It’s baaad, in an all right way.” It’s good. It’s freedom. Metal? Sure. But it’s rock and roll! If you don’t have the rock and roll attitude and vibe, you’ve got nothing.
GW I noticed earlier that you called your manager “the Colonel.” I take it you’re a fan of Elvis? [Elvis Presley’s manager was nicknamed “Colonel” Tom Parker.] He was like the original rock badass.
ABBATH He was my first role model. Before Gene Simmons, there was Elvis. There’s always been Elvis. He’s still the king of rock and roll, and always will be. The way he moved, sang, the whole package…that guy was a phenomenon. Same with Kiss—a phenomenon. You want true? Now that’s true. True artists. I like that. I want true artists. I don’t want fucking wannabes. I don’t want people with stupid ideologies saying that ideology comes before music. Satan is more important than music? Fuck that.
DEMONAZ That’s pretty much how we think. A lot of today’s bands, you don’t even have to listen to them to know they don’t care about the music. They’re just in a black metal band because it’s trendy.
ABBATH Look at that poster. [Abbath points to a framed poster-sized print of Guitar World’s May 2007 cover, featuring Tony Iommi, Angus Young and Jimmy Page]. They are there because they got the blues. And I have to say, I do got the blues. [laughs] That’s why I never get depressed. I don’t need Satan, I don’t need Christ. I got the blues!
GW When Immortal were starting out, did you practice a lot techniques to achieve your trademark fast-riffing style?
DEMONAZ We practiced a lot. Maybe too much sometimes.
ABBATH But I never practiced to become a good guitar player. We rehearsed a lot to make good music. A lot of good musicians spend too much time in their closets with their guitars. There are many very talented, technically good guitar players that are not able to make classic songs. I think players sometimes go by the book too much and forget about the vibe that happens when you just start a band with your friends.
DEMONAZ Abbath and I started rehearsing with people before we got good. That allowed us to get into the habit of writing songs. For me, it’s much more important to write good songs than to be an amazing player. Because technical talent can only take you so far.
GW Your second album, Pure Holocaust, was recorded at Grieghallen, the same studio you used for Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism, but it has a much more upfront sound to it. Did you have a specific goal, soundwise, when you entered the studio the second time?
ABBATH We wanted it to sound more powerful. I remember we were using Mesa/Boogies, but actually we weren’t that satisfied with Pure Holocaust’s sound. It was okay, but we really should have had a producer with us. But, I’ll tell you this: the reason why Pure Holocaust has survived this long is because of its great songs.
DEMONAZ We loved recording those songs. We might not have gotten the perfect sound we were after, but those songs had the right atmosphere. Pure Holocaust sounded like pure northern black metal. It was so fast, and the drumming was really Celtic.
GW How did people react to the title?
DEMONAZ We had trouble in Berlin, Germany. They banned it because they thought [the title] was a racist thing. But that was never the point of the album. The lyrics have nothing to do with those kinds of things.
ABBATH It was a bit naïve on our parts. Demonaz and I really didn’t think about the Nazi crimes. Mayhem had Pure Fucking Armageddon, and we just wanted to make a bold statement like them. We are not political. We were just trying to say, “Welcome to Hell.”
GW Pure Holocaust was released in 1993, the year Varg killed Euronymous. Do you remember your reaction when you first heard about his murder?
DEMONAZ It was a shock to us all. Basically, it was a conflict between him and Varg. Everybody knows that story, so I don’t think we should go into it. But I will say that up until that time we were very much in contact with Euronymous. I had known him from a long time before, and he was always really into Immortal’s stuff.
ABBATH Euronymous was very supportive of Immortal and we really liked and appreciated that. He meant a lot for Immortal in our early stage. And that he got killed…I just wished…it was just so extra bad that Varg was involved in that murder, because Varg was also a friend of ours. It was a fucking tragedy. There’s just no other way to say it.
GW The concept of “grim and cold” is a large part of Immortal’s aesthetic. What inspired this lyrical and musical direction?
ABBATH You know frostbite, right? That’s the ultimate attack from nature. [laughs]
DEMONAZ It was an extension of the winter theme that we started on Pure Holocaust. With Battles in the North, I wanted to do the most winter album possible, you know. The white cover was striking because it came out in a time when every other band was standing in a black room dressed in black. We said, “Fuck them! Fuck everybody” We wanted to show everybody that this was northern fucking black metal and we could do whatever we fucking wanted.
GW I’m sure that the white cover caused a stir among some people in the scene.
ABBATH Definitely. There were even some morons that said, “This is done in a studio, and the snow is not snow, it’s foam.” [laughs] They thought we were standing in foam!
GW Blizzard Beasts is the first album with Horgh on drums. How did he affect Immortal’s sound?
ABBATH Not much. [laughs] At that point, in ’96, there weren’t many drummers available to play our kind of music. So we put an ad in our local paper, and that’s when we got a call from Horgh. We were immediately like, “Oh, that guy!” because we already knew him. I’d seen him in a band that covered songs by Judas Priest and Metallica.
On the first of May in ’96 is when we had our first rehearsal with him. He didn’t even have a drum kit at that time, but he was so desperate to join a band that he had already been practicing our songs on pillows! [laughs] He was a very good drummer but had never played blast-beats before. But after I showed those techniques to him, he was ready to record.
GW You’ve expressed dissatisfaction with how Blizzard Beasts turned out. What was it exactly that frustrated you?
ABBATH We bit off more than we could chew with Blizzard Beasts. We were in a new studio [Sigma Studios] with no producer, and we were playing things way too fast. We were always like, “Faster, faster, faster!” It gave us lots of problems. But again, we had some great songs.
GW Demonaz, Blizzard Beasts is the last Immortal album you played guitar on. When did your tendonitis first start affecting your playing?
DEMONAZ The tendonitis happened after this album. It was like a fucking nightmare when you’re awake. I was practicing too much. I practiced before, during and after rehearsal.
ABBATH At that point, Demonaz had a very static style of playing guitar. It wasn’t very dynamic. It was always very fast and mostly in one position. Also, it was winter and he was working outside for this construction company. One thing led to the other and then suddenly, without warning, bam! We didn’t believe it. We were like, “What the fuck? Are you kidding?”
DEMONAZ I was standing there at the rehearsal space between songs. And all of a sudden I couldn’t stand. I had to lean against an amp so I wouldn’t fall. I was like, “What the fuck, is something wrong with my back?” So I took a break. When I came back I tried again, but I got dizzy and had to stop.
Finally, I realized that my arms were sick and I had to stop playing. Back then we didn’t have any information about these kind of things. I went to specialists and stuff, but there was nothing they could do for me. It was so frustrating, but it made me stronger in the long run. Because if that didn’t kill me, I don’t know what would.
GW Was there ever a point during this period when you considered ending Immortal?
ABBATH The reason we’re still here is because we believe in this band. Even before Demonaz’s arm problems, it was always a struggle to keep everything together. It’s never been perfect. It’s always been a search to find what more we could do. We don’t want it to be perfect. We don’t want to reach the top. We want to be constantly walking and almost there, but never reaching it. That keeps us strong. Because when you’re on top, there’s only one way to go, and that’s down. We don’t want to sell 95 million albums like Metallica. It’s better to sell 20 million! [laughs]
GW At the Heart of Winter has a different sound than previous recordings. How did working with producer Peter Tägtgren at Abyss Studios affect your sound? [Tägtgren is a Swedish musician and producer and the guitarist of blackened death metal band Hypocrisy.]
ABBATH Peter really helped the band get to the next level. I say this from my heart: We would not be here today if it weren’t for Peter Tägtgren. We owe him everything. I love that guy.
GW To me, At the Heart of Winter seems thrashier and more melodic than previous albums. Did German thrash have an influence on its sound?
ABBATH German thrash…hmm. Now what’s German thrash? That’s Sodom, Kreator, Running Wild… Who else?
ABBATH Didn’t I say Destruction! Whoa. Sorry. [laughs] We also couldn’t have been anywhere without German thrash, but it didn’t specifically influence me on this album. Actually, the main riff from “At the Heart of Winter” is “Hells Bells” from AC/DC.
DEMONAZ That’s definitely not German thrash. [laughs]
ABBATH And maybe the next riff I make will be influenced by the Rolling Stones. You never know.
GW You’re a Stones fan?
ABBATH One of my favorite riffs is “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” I like the simple, not-too-technical stuff that’s played in a fast, hard way. That’s much cooler to me. What do you need a million notes for? Like Gene Simmons said, “You don’t play with your mind…you play with your dick!” [laughs] I like that.
GW The summer after you released Sons of Northern Darkness, in 2003, you split citing “personal reasons.” What were the circumstances surrounding that decision?
ABBATH Of course, it was for personal reasons. The band is personal. We are a family. We are brothers. It’s like a marriage. When you marry someone, you believe in it. You want to continue it, but sometimes you need a break. A lot of bands just milk it. We could’ve continued and made a lot of money, but I’ve never done this for the money or the fame. All that stuff means nothing if you don’t have the spirit inside. And we were starting to lose it a little. We’re not stupid. We are very smart when it comes to our shit. We think long term. To quote Paul Stanley, “Kiss is not the latest trend, it’s a lifestyle.” Same thing with Immortal. It’s our life.
GW Speaking of families, you guys are actually brothers-in-law, right?
ABBATH Yes, I was married to Demonaz’ sister, and I have a 13-year-old son with her. She’s still one of my best friends. So Demonaz and I are really like a family. There’s no fucking around. Demonaz is my brother. I’m an only child. He has two sisters but no brother. But we have each other. Family is important. We have strong bonds.
GW Abbath, has your guitar setup changed much since the band first broke up?
ABBATH I used to go through a Mesa/Boogie until I tried Engle amps. Now I use the Engle Ritchie Blackmore Signature E 650 amp. But when I want to make riffs at home, I like the Peavey Bandit. That’s the ultimate home black metal amplifier. The Bandit rules!
GW What’s your main guitar?
ABBATH I’ve always played on Demonaz’ old guitar. It’s a shark-finshaped Jackson copy GHL from the mid Eighties, which we enhanced. We made it into the ultimate Immortal guitar. But now I’ve got an endorsement with ESP. I actually use the Dave Mustaine signature model. I love its V shape, and it sounds great.
GW What effects are you using?
ABBATH I get all my distortion from the amp. Other than that, I use a flanger sometimes and the blue Boss CH-1 Super Chorus. My motto is “The simpler, the better” when it comes to effects.
GW Now that Immortal’s back and the tour has been going well, do you plan to record a new album?
ABBATH Yes, but we don’t have the whole picture yet. We have some arrangements, and Demonaz has a lot of lyrics, but that’s as far as we are at the moment. But Demonaz is back, and I’m fucking back! His masterpiece is coming up, and so is mine.