...of Delightful Melancholy
CoC talks to Jan Svithjod of In the Woods...
by: Pedro Azevedo
Looking back upon the band's three full-length albums, one thing is common to them all: each of them stayed in my CD player for a lot longer than the average during the first few months of ownership. It happened with the hugely atmospheric doom/black of their classic debut _HEart of the Ages_, happened again with the marvellous piece of emotional, melancholic metal that is _Omnio_ [CoC #25] and yet again with the atmospheric and strange, yet full of subtleties and secrets, latest release, _Strange in Stereo_ [CoC #37]. None of these contains music made for the casual listener; rather, they contain music that can reward the persistent one, for ItW are a band that has always shown very strong personality with each release. Vocalist Jan "Ovl" Svithjod called me from Norway one wintry night for nearly an hour of conversation that resulted in the interview that follows -- time that was very well spent for me, I might add. Read on; if good emotional music interests you, this interview and the band's work should be very worthy of your time as well.

CoC: How are things in Norway?

Jan Svithjod: At the moment, very calm, not too many things happening. You know, usually during the Winter season, apart from the holidays, Norway's usually dead. People go to work and people get back from work, fill up their stomachs and watch television -- the usual crap things to do. I don't even have a television, so I have to figure out something else to do, like talk to you, for instance. <laughs> You know, try to come up with something constructive.

CoC: The black metal elements in your first album are quite obvious, also in some of your vocals, your shrieks, which were really extreme and have since then changed a lot. Besides the obvious technical matters, how would you say the emotions you try to express through your voice have changed with time? There seems to be a lot less anger and anguish in your voice now, it suggests a different attitude.

JS: When we started out, especially when we did our first demo, we were very much into Bathory, especially _Blood Fire Death_ and the _Hammerheart_ album, and that had a lot to do with our sound in the first place, but I think it was even on the demo that I got really tired of doing those kind of screechy vocals, because at the time there were so many bands doing the same kind of things, so I thought we had to come up with something different. When we were recording the vocals for the first album, personally, I wanted to do about 80 to 90% of clean vocals, and then a bit of the screechy kind with effects and stuff, but the other guys thought that the music was written 50% for screechy vocals, so let's just do it on this album and we can change for the next one. That was just what we did on that first one. As the lyrics changed quite a lot from the first album to _Omnio_, the vocals and the music changed a lot -- the vocals had to go in the same direction, I thought. Concerning the lyrics, they had to be expressed in a totally different way from what we were dealing with in the debut album. I think we managed to still keep the balance of the very heavy parts and the very slow parts, but we did the vocals in another way. For the slow parts, we had low kind of melodious vocals and on the heavier parts we did heavier vocals, which are also present on some parts of the new album. I just wanted to try and come up with something different vocal-wise and just see what comes out of it and do it more personally somehow, make it sound like something individual and not really just a copy of anything else.

CoC: What do you feel when you listen to your first album nowadays, considering it is such an emotional and atmospheric record and also so different from what you are doing now?

JS: I always have the idea that every step you take to reach something is as important as any step you take, so I think the first album was very important in order to become what we sound like these days. For a debut album, I think it's a very strong debut in the first place, and I think it has something -- even though it has a lot of the black metal elements in it --, I think it offers something completely different. I don't think I have listened to it since the _Omnio_ days or something, but I'm very proud of the album and I think I can speak for the other guys [in the band] as well. We don't try to deny something we've done, because it's like a diary of what we were back then and it was like five years ago that the album was released; things have changed, but we're still very proud of it.

CoC: Why are there two capital letters in "HEart" in the album title _HEart of the Ages_? What are the ideas behind that?

JS: Well, I never heard that question before. <laughs> It was supposed to be our kind of humble gratitude to nature and it's a very kind of "man versus nature" album lyrically that one, and also musically in many ways. The first two capital letters mean that you can read the title as "Heart of the Ages" or "Art of the Ages", so it's just to split the word into two different expressions, to pay salute to our environment; it was somehow the tricky way of doing it.

CoC: Then came _Omnio_, which brought plenty of musical changes, and seems to me a concept album. What was the concept behind it, if there was one?

JS: We didn't work on it as a concept album, especially not lyrically, but we worked the whole album together musically as a concept. _Omnio_ was the first album we did as an entirety somehow, we composed and rehearsed the songs in the same kind of tracklisting that's present on the album, that was the first album we made as an entirety instead of just a set of individual songs. Lyrically, we didn't try to come up with a concept, but looking back at it now, there seems to be a very red thread going through the whole thing in a way. I think it's very introspective in a way, deals a lot with philosophical questions and a lot of things that are written between the lines, so there's a lot of questioning on that album, questioning why things are the way they are, trying to understand the bottom of yourself. The first song was very much based upon an experience of going out at night and looking at the stars. A lot of people walk around on planet Earth with their noses high up in the sky and I think the only way to pull them down again from doing that is to push them out on a starry night and see how big it all is and reduce the person to nothing almost. A lot of this questioning was present on that one.

CoC: There's some quite interesting artwork in that booklet; I am especially interested in the illustration chosen for "I Am Your Flesh". Can you tell me more about it?

JS: "I Am Your Flesh" is probably the most personal lyric that I ever sung, but actually I didn't write it myself. It was a friend of mine who did it, and it's very straightforward, very naked, very honest. When I saw the lyrics, I really knew his situation, which was very heavy, and I just burst into tears, because it was so heavy and so personal, and it's a very heavy thing to do, to deliver yourself, in a way, like that. And we were in contact with this Finnish guy called Juha Vourma and he sent us some samples of work he had done. In between all these paintings, we found the one which is printed together with the lyric. When I saw the painting, I thought "this is it, this is the lyric materialized". I think it speaks for itself. So we paid the guy what he charged for that painting and we put it in the booklet. It's also on the front cover of the LP, actually. I think we only made 1000 copies of it or something, and I reckon that like 90% of them went to Greece, as they usually do... they're totally violent freaks down there! <laughs>

CoC: What is your "omnio", what is your "everything"?

JS: I don't know, it's probably just the feeling of belonging to an entirety. There are so many things happening... if you make your idea about the world through the media, especially, there are so many loose threads... an "omnio" is probably just to tie up the loose threads and feel like belonging to an entirety, within yourself but also among the people you relate to, trying to find a deeper form of understanding between people, I guess.

CoC: Despite leaving behind the black influences, _Omnio_ was still a very emotionally intense album, not to mention musically remarkable. _Strange in Stereo_, while more experimental, is also quite emotional. Will you ever make an album just for the music, leaving behind the kind of emotional contents that you have always used so far? Will the "delightful melancholy" you spoke of in the very start of your first album's booklet always be a part of your music?

JS: I think that as long as In the Woods... exist, we'll always carry that kind of tension and atmosphere within the sound, because the lyrics and everything that has to do with us as private persons is very... I mean, sometimes when we go to rehearse, we don't even rehearse, it's like two or three hours of therapy. <laughs> Because people are usually very unstable mentally, in a way. I think from the beginning we said we were going to do something very honest, and if people like it, it's a bonus; if they don't, they don't have to buy the album. As long as we carry our releases under the name of In the Woods..., it just has to be emotional in a way, it can't be done in another way, because that wouldn't be honest at all.

CoC: _Strange in Stereo_ is, again, very different from its predecessor. One of the main differences is that it seems to lack, for the most part, the feeling of continuity that was so strong in _Omnio_. Why did that happen?

JS: When we did _Omnio_, we thought of making a very epic album, with very long but still strong compositions, and we tried to tie them together as well as possible. Now we've made an album with this musical entirety somehow, with very long songs, we thought it's time to move on and do something different. So we started to write new songs and this time, maybe even more than we did on _Omnio_, we tried to come up with an entirety, but it took a lot of hard work, because when we rehearsed the base of the song, we felt there was a lack of something in there. So we tried to throw out the keyboards and put all the effects parts in the guitars instead of using the usual keys and stuff. So I think there is somehow a bit stronger entirety on _Strange in Stereo_, but all the spice that has been added on top takes a lot of time to dive into and go through it to see the bottom line and the base of the music. Even though musically it has a lot of differences in it, I still think there's a very heavy red thread running through it, emotionally at least, even though musically it might sound a bit far out in places. But it was the sort of album we had to do, and we couldn't do the second part of _Omnio_ in a way. This time, like we didn't do with _Omnio_, we tried to come up with different sounds for each song and make them sound a little different, so there's a lot of variation and variation is a very heavy codeword for the band in general. So there's a lot of variation, but there's still a sort of base tension that's running through the whole album in a way.

CoC: Could you tell me more about the lyrics from "Vanish in the Absence of Virtue"?

JS: It has a lot to do with a moral question. If you look around -- and like I was mentioning previously, especially in the media --, you see a lot of greed and... have you seen the movie "Seven"?

CoC: Yes... one of my favorite movies, actually.

JS: OK, that's probably the best way to describe all these dirty deeds. It has a lot to do with how people respond to different situations and why they try to do it. It probably has to do, from the writer's point of view, with feeling very foreign in today's modern world, because you feel there's a lack of common energy, people only think about themselves -- not everybody does, of course, but especially when it comes to capitalism you have the really big companies that build factories in the third world just to increase their own profit. Like the title indicates, you just feel like digging a hole in the ground and just fall into it somehow.

CoC: You were talking about the media... World War III may be starting today as we speak, so...

JS: Yeah, I heard there's a lot of heavy things going on in the Balcans...

CoC: Something more for the media to keep people busy with?

JS: Yes, in many ways, like it happened with the Gulf war. There's a lot of manipulation, I think, especially from NATO and the US, maybe even Great Britain also. The sort of world picture we get from the media is pretty much... how can I put it?...

CoC: Distorted?

JS: Yeah, I think it's very much distorted in many ways. A lot of journalists only try to get the big story, that's the big honour, and I don't think it's very objective. A lot of the news becomes very subjective, and that distorts people's views of what's happening around them.

CoC: That made me think about misanthropy for some reason, which in turn reminds me of asking what ItW are going to do as far as record labels are concerned now that Misanthropy Records is closing down [this Summer].

JS: If we manage to sell like we did with _Omnio_, which I doubt that we'll accomplish, I think we'll have just enough money to go into a studio and record the next album and just pay everything ourselves. I think we're going to do that, and not record an album under the influence from a label this time, and just see what comes out of it. When we have everything finished, we'll just try to see if there's any interest from labels, and if there's no interest at all we're probably just going to release it ourselves through the Internet or something, I don't know.

CoC: Well, I suppose there'll be interest...

JS: Yeah, but we're not really worrying about not having a record deal or anything, we'll just concentrate on the music and we'll take care of the label deals afterwards.

CoC: Did you ever worry about producing a successor to such a highly acclaimed album as _Omnio_ while making _Strange in Stereo_?

JS: No, not at all, because it was like a paradox when we did _Omnio_. If we're talking like as close as possible to a trend thing that's been going on, in the present, I think maybe _HEart of the Ages_ is the closest you get in ItW terms, and a lot of people accused us of going commercial and all when we released _Omnio_, when we knew upfront that if we were lucky maybe it was going to sell like half what _HotA_ did, at actually that came through as well -- I think _HotA_ sold twice as much as _Omnio_ did, actually. <laughs> [Out of curiosity, I asked Misanthropy Records about this and they confirmed it. -- Pedro] But still we're being accused of going commercial and being musical whores and all. But as I mentioned, we never started this project to become rock stars or anything, we said we were going to do it honest and if people and critics like it then that's really great, but if they don't, they don't have to deal with it, they have their own choice. So we don't really feel the pressure of anything, the only pressure we have is that the new album has to sound better than the previous one, and if we can accomplish that, then the world is still turning... <laughs>

CoC: Your female vocalist [Synne Diana] had a very important role in _Omnio_, but she actually doesn't seem to participate in _SiS_ so much. Why?

JS: When we did _Omnio_, she was studying different courses to be able to get into university, and on this new album she started to do pre-university courses, which took a lot more time, so she didn't really have the option to work that much with the band, she was just participating mostly in the studio and a few of the rehearsals. She didn't have much time. That's just something we'll deal with for each release, we'll see how much time she's got and how much we can get out of it.

CoC: Since _SiS_ is definitely not an easy album to get into, what would you recommend to potential listeners to help them enjoy it better?

JS: One of our guitarists, Chris, comes out with 70 to 80% of the base music, and usually when he presents the songs to me, recorded on a tape, just some guitar ideas and stuff, the best way for me to grasp his works is just to lay down on a couch, close my eyes and almost fall asleep. There's a twilight zone in between there and if you like balancing on the verge of being awake and falling asleep, that's usually when the music hits me right through, it's like an arrow flying through your whole body somehow. I especially did that with some new songs that he presented for the new album and it was a totally far out experience -- it didn't have anything to do with any sort of intoxication of any form, we were both totally clean, and it was just a totally weird experience. I tried that with _SiS_ as well, when we did some rehearsal tapes and stuff. That might be somehow a gateway to the music, and then after that you can find the depth of it.

CoC: What path would you consider most likely that you'll take in the future: a return to some harshness and greater contrast; even greater experimentation towards more atmospheric music; or a greater development of the style found on "Cell" or perhaps "Vanish in the Absence of Virtue", a more melodic path?

JS: From what I've heard of what we've been working on so far for the next album, I think it's the most sad ItW album to this day. It's very hard to say only from a few guitar ideas, but I think they are very strong and if I manage to develop the vocals -- and the same goes for Synne as well, for the female vocals --, if we manage to develop in the same way that the guitar works have been developing so far, I think sound-wise we might go back more to the very gentle, easy sound of _Omnio_, but the music will be one of the most sad things we've done so far.

CoC: That'd be great for me, since my favorite style is doom metal...

JS: Yeah, and that's the weird thing with it as well, because it's not really fast, but it's not really doom. It's hard to put the right words to it, but it's definitely very much ItW and very emotional.

CoC: About live shows -- any chance you'll be coming down south soon?

JS: We've done one European tour so far, and also we've been down in Germany for a few gigs at the time -- I don't think we've played live since a couple of years now, it's been a long time, but we've tried to focus on the albums as well. There's also a lot of problems involving the members, it's very hard to go on tour because some people have a hard time in handling a lot of people and also, which is a very important thing, we always end up losing a lot of money every time we do this. I feel that somehow ItW might fall in between two chairs, because on one of the sides we're still being very much linked to the black metal scene, and on the other the music is slow and laid back, so it's kind of hard to hit the right kind of audience and to pull a lot of people out of their chairs to go to an ItW gig. When we did the European tour we lost a lot, like four or five thousand pounds, I think, so it's pretty heavy. The other guys are going to work on the new album, I'm going to travel for a few months, actually, so I think not this year, but maybe next year if the situation allows it, we'll probably try to do something. It's been two albums since we've done any gigs, and it's about time to try out some of the songs in a live situation. The guys are generally getting better now and they become more keen to try and see how what sounds like in a live situation.

CoC: I know you have played live with Katatonia in the past, which, in my opinion, is a combination with huge potential. Will that ever happen again in the future, perhaps with better conditions?

JS: I don't know, I haven't really followed on what's been going on in the underground for the past years, because I was very much into it previously, selling demos and all, and I really didn't do anything else but work and go back home and write letters and stuff. I did that for a few years and I got really tired of it after a while. I'm not really too much into what's been going on, but I believe that there's people around that always have a good advice for any kind of band that we would be able to tour with. We would really like to do a double bill kind of thing, in which you play first one night and last the other night.

CoC: What made you choose such a band name as In the Woods...? And why the three little dots that always appear in In the Woods...?

JS: Yeah, that's a good question. <laughs> For a start, we didn't want the typical metal name, because we knew that if we were going to do something honest, we were probably going to change a little bit after a while, so we needed an "open" name that would work with different kinds of projects under it. I don't think it's a typical masculine heavy metal kind of thing, and it's also some kind of a metaphor for trying to see the world and the environment from a different perspective. The world is going more and more into urban forms and this is like the total opposite, you still have some of the conservative things about it. It's not that you are afraid of any kind of technical evolution or whatever, but I like to see it as a metaphor of ourselves still operating on the side of things, and kind of watching the whole thing from an objective point of view. The three dots, it's something that just had to be there, somehow, it's something that never really ends, it just keeps on going and going and going... it just had to be that way.

CoC: There is something in your debut album which can be translated as: "I am not afraid to die, but I am afraid not to live. Am I alive?" This sentence suggests the idea of a clear distinction between living and just surviving, just existing. What are your thoughts on this?

JS: I was together with a girl at the time, and she was dealing with a lot of... she thought she was becoming adult too soon, in a way, and she didn't really want it that way, because she thought things became a bit too serious around her. She sent me a postcard, I think, or something, with that sentence, or those sentences, on it, together with "yes/no" checkboxes. The first philosophical question should be whether it is worth living or not, and I thought it was done in a very naked way, but still very... how can I put it, it's very hard to find the right words. I think she saw the bottom line, you know, and I was totally "wow, this just has to be on the album".

CoC: Are -you- alive?

JS: I reckon I am. But it delivers a lot of complications, because if you want to stay alive all the time, it demands that you always try to bring everything that you do a step further every day, and sometimes it might be very hard. I know I'm not alone on this, I know there's so many people dealing with the same kind of thoughts. You don't really try to let things go by, you have to live everything totally, 100%, to feel alive, and you might be dealing with a lot of complications and it might give you a lot of very hard times. But I think in the end it's very much worth it, because you get the chance to see the bottom of yourself, and only when you see the bottom and the dark on the bottom, that's the only way to see the real kind of light, in a way. I think you need utter darkness to feel the utmost form of joy, definitely.

(article submitted 19/5/1999)


ALBUMS
1/30/2004 P Azevedo 8 In the Woods... - Live at the Caledonien Hall
11/20/2000 P Azevedo 9 In the Woods... - Three Times Seven on a Pilgrimage
2/13/1999 P Azevedo 7 In the Woods... - Strange in Stereo
10/16/1997 P Azevedo 10 In the Woods... - Omnio
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