A Brutal Metal Holiday Special: Rob Halford of Judas Priest and Until The Light Takes Us

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Show: 
Bullseye
Guests: 
Rob Halford
Guests: 
Audrey Ewell
Guests: 
Aaron Aites

Rob Halford is the legendary Metal God, and frontman of seminal heavy metal group Judas Priest. The band's hits include Breaking the Law, You've Got Another Thing Coming and Hell Bent For Leather. His new solo album is a heavy metal holiday celebration called Halford III: Winter Songs.(Halford Transcript)

Plus: Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites moved to Norway to pursue their interest in that country's black metal scene. They discovered a story of extreme aesthetics, murder and church burning. The film they created, Until The Light Takes Us, follows two of the scene's scions. Gylve Nagell, known as "Fenriz," of the band Darkthrone, is a quiet, contemplative metalhead, deeply invested in the medium's aesthetics and rueful of what the scene has become. Varge Vikernes, known as "Count Grischnak," of the band Burzum is a distinct contrast. He's a charismatic and eloquent advocate of an extreme Norweigan nativist political and religious agenda. He's also a convicted murderer and church arsonist.(Ewell and Aites Transcript)

Celebrate the darkest days of winter with us!

Jump to our transcripts here.

JESSE THORN: Welcome to The Sound of Young America Holiday Special, I’m your host Jesse Thorn. You know, I listen to public radio during the holidays just like you’re doing right now, and I feel like I’ve got a pretty good sense of the kind of stuff you’re hearing; a lot of stories, like folk tales about various winter holidays; a lot of general festiveness and good cheer; your favorite NPR anchors reading “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and that sort of thing, and I’m all for all of that stuff. I love Christmas, I love the holidays as much as anybody. But it just so happens that this year’s Sound of Young America Holiday Special is a little bit darker. The dead of winter is when we have the shortest days of the year, and when we have the shortest days of the year, we have the longest nights of the year which is why we’ve put together the Brutal Metal Holiday Special here on The Sound of Young America.

In a little bit we’ll head to some places where there may not even be daylight in the dead of winter and talk about Norwegian black metal. It’s a literally terrifying form of metal, not just aesthetically, but also physically terrifying, as in it has precipitated a number of crimes in Norway; murders and arsons and such, but it’s also kind of amazing. We’ll talk with two documentary film makers who moved to Norway to make a film about this most brutal of music forms.

But first we’ll have a little bit of the lighter, more fun side of the metal scene with a conversation with Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford.

That’s all to come on The Sound of Young America’s Brutal Holiday Special. Here’s some music that’s not quite metal, but is a little bit down on Christmas -- Canadian country great Tom Collins with “Down on Christmas.”

It’s the Brutal Metal Holiday Special here on The Sound of Young America, and we have a true metal god as our guest; Rob Halford of Judas Priest. He recorded the holiday album, Halford 3, Winter Songs last year. Here’s Rob Halford and his band’s version of the classic Christmas song “We Three Kings.”

It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest on this program, Rob Halford, has earned the title metal god as the front man of the legendary metal band Judas Priest and as a solo artist. He is one of the kings of the heavy metal genre. His newest solo album is actually a Christmas record, or at least a holiday record called Winter Songs. Rob, welcome to The Sound of Young America, it’s great to have you on the show.

ROB HALFORD: Thank you Jesse, the feelings mutual. It’s wonderful to be with you all today.

JESSE THORN: That’s what I like to hear, that’s the kind of enthusiasm we’re looking for, Rob.

ROB HALFORD: Good.

JESSE THORN: So you were born in 1951, which means that when you were finishing high school and you were in your late teens it was just as heavy rock music was emerging from early rock and psychedelic rock. What was the music that you heard that made you think, I like rock, and I want it to be loud and hard.

ROB HALFORD: Well actually Jesse, it was even before that because I can remember my Aunt Pat giving me an old record player that she wanted to get rid of. It was still in pretty good working order. I think I was probably ten or eleven when she gave me this record player, and I lifted the lid and there was a bunch of 45s, singles, in the deck. It was Little Richard, Bill Haley and the Comets, and Elvis Presley. I played them all back to back. Even at that age, at that moment it was like, My God, this is me, this is electric, this is contacting me in such a strong personal way. Something’s going on here. Why is it making me feel this way? I just felt alive and genuinely excited. So even from that point before - - as I grew slightly beyond my teenage years it was already in my system. Obviously Hendrix, The Yardbirds, Cream, King Crimson, early Led Zeppelin, early Deep Purple, The Who. All of these people were the ones that I was listening to.

JESSE THORN: The first couple of albums that Judas Priest made didn’t have any huge hits on them and it must have been a bit of a struggle to continue to be working as a musician. Did you feel confident that this was going to become something?

ROB HALFORD: Yes. I think self-belief is absolutely vital no matter what you do in life. No matter what you’re going to do, you’ve got to have that inner drive; particularly in the entertainment business. I say that rather than the heavy metal business or the rock and roll business, because that’s what we do. There are so many pitfalls and there are so many days where you say “Is it worth it? I’m going to give up, this is crazy. I’m not getting anywhere.” That really put you through that kind of apprenticeship period of, look, if this means so much to you, you will do anything that you need to do. You will go through whatever you need to go through, and particularly in my role as Judas Priest we did all of that. We did the sleeping in the back of the van. We did the barely having enough food for one meal a day type of deal. K.K. scrubbing his teeth in the snow in Scandinavia, is not a story made up, it’s a real thing.

The first record that we made Rocka Rolla it was called, our first label, we went to them and asked them for $20 a week each to survive because if we didn’t have that we’d have to have second sources of income. And they turned us down flat, so right through the early parts of the bands career and Priest especially we were doing multiple jobs just to pay the bills and put some food in your stomach, but most of it went into equipment obviously. New strings, new drum skins, a new mic, whatever it was. You have to really figure that out. You really have to figure this out right at the early stage. The thing is what happens there is your early music is probably sometimes your best music because you’ve got nothing to lose. You’re not famous, you haven’t got a gold record, you haven’t got a platinum record, you’re not playing in front of thousands of people. Your creativity is coming from a very pure source. Now in my 38th or 39th year of being a professional musician I look back at those early days with a lot of fond memories.

JESSE THORN: You came out in the early 90s. When and to what extent were you out as gay to your friends and your family and the people that you were working with in Judas Priest?

ROB HALFORD: With family it was never discussed, it still isn’t discussed now. Me and my partner have been together 15 years. It’s like the elephant in the living room type of deal. I love my family dearly and they respect me as much as I respect them - - that, at the end of the day, is the issue isn’t it? Respect. Respect each other for who we are, we’re all different; different sexual orientation, different religion, different color of the skin, different jobs, different social status. It doesn’t really matter; if the respect is there we can get through a lot of things in life.

With me, being a metal head, being in an essentially, and to some extent still essentially homophobic realm in music, it was difficult. But you learn to deal with it. What I was doing for the longest time was putting a lot of things before myself, and when I went through my drug and rehab thing in 1986, I’ve been clean and sober since 1986, I was taught you got to put your own house in order first. You’ve got to really - - it’s not being selfish, you’ve got to get yourself figured out, and then everything else will not necessarily fall into place around you, but at least you can take care of other things. But look after your own needs first, and I thought, Is that the right way to live? But it is. It’s the only way you can remain sane and sensible and in the end connect and be helpful and useful to other people when you need to.

I struggled with all that through many, many years until the moment came when - - very un preplanned I mentioned “speaking as a gay man yadda yadda yadda,” I was speaking on MTV. The producer dropped his clipboard and was like, Did he just say that? It was like a firestorm around the world. What we all found very, very quickly was that in the metal community it’s nothing more than the greatest place to be in terms of respect and tolerance and compassion and understanding. It’s probably easy for me to say that because I’ve already reached a level of success. I also found out that a lot of people were going yea, we knew that anyway. But I didn’t know that. It’s a you can’t see the wood for the trees type of deal.

JESSE THORN: I was thinking as you were saying that about the spirit of so much of metal, and especially so much of Judas Priest is about this kind of outrageous 11 out of 10 self expression, and vanquishing foes, and freedom. It must have been very difficult to present yourself in that way while, as a god of that, while you were struggling with those issues yourself.

ROB HALFORD: Maybe that’s why I put some of that, you know, this is like Jesse Dr. Phil here, maybe that’s where it was. I’m the primary lyric writer for Priest, obviously, and all my solo activities. All of my lyrics are full of optimism; all of my lyrics are full of that confrontational situation. I believe that good will always win over evil, I believe that. I think that’s the way of the world. And I use that, I use a lot of metaphors and smokescreens and a little bit of ambiguity in my lyrics. When I’m talking about the Painkiller, you can put that up against anything: dictatorship, bigotry, war, anything where you can overcome difficulty. Maybe that’s what I was doing in all those years. I kind of side tracked in the Turbo record and went a little bit more lightweight, so to speak, but I still think those message are valuable in terms of fantasy and rock and roll, but the bulk of my lyrics have always had kind of a serious content to them. Fortunately being in a metal band I was able to utilize those messages in the lyrics in the right way.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest is Rob Halford. He’s probably best known as the front man of the legendary metal group Judas Priest. Here’s one of that band’s signature hits, “Hell Bent for Leather.”

Starting in the late 70s with one of your signature hits, “Hell Bent for Leather,” you started wearing essentially - - something between biker clothes and S&M clothes, and doing things like riding in on a motorcycle and all these crazy things. When did you first start thinking, You know what would be great for this band? If we just went to the bondage store and just bought some crazy stuff?

ROB HALFORD: Well in those days that was the only way you could get that kind of gear, Mr. S in London, I think he’s still there actually. If you look on the YouTube and put in “Judas Priest Japan 1970 something” you’ll see a very different looking band. We didn’t really establish that particular - - the correct look until probably Sin after Sin or Stained Class. The song you mentioned, Jesse, “Hell Bent for Leather,” which is a great song and actually it was Ben that wrote the lyrics to that particular tune. “Glint of steel and a flash of light,” it’s a very assertive mature type of song. I remember us talking about, hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we could bring a bike on stage? I remember wherever we were at we asked someone, is there anyone here who rides a bike, and somebody did, and we said hey, we’ll give you five quid, ten bucks, if we can use the bike on stage, and that’s how it all started. Now of course that’s become kind of part of tradition and heritage of the band.

So suddenly heavy metal music, the sound, the power, the dynamic, the aggression, all of the great aesthetics of metal had a look, so now when you see somebody walking down the streets they’re not going to be decked out like we are on stage, but you see somebody and you go, There’s a metal head. The attributes of the studded belts and chains and wristbands, those are your colors so to speak.

JESSE THORN: Were you aware in the early 80s of the odd irony of the fact that this was the metal costume but it was also a gay subculture costume?

ROB HALFORD: Yeah! That’s just me. I mean, I kind of think that’s cool. There’s something about me, I don’t know whether it’s the inner child or the inner stupid, or the naivete, but that never even crossed my mind. I was walking out on stage with this Village People type of vibe going on, I thought it was extremely funny. It’s bittersweet when you think of the torment I was going through mentally, but yeah, I’m kind of glad really. In essence I’m not inane to that kind of scene of my particular world. Again I respect it, but it just doesn’t appeal to me. It is ironic that there’s a correlation there, and people were going, come on Rob, we knew all the time, you didn’t have to tell us.

JESSE THORN: You were really hiding in plain sight.

ROB HALFORD: Yeah, hiding in plain sight, exactly.

JESSE THORN: Looking back what was the most ridiculous, amazing, delightful, Spinal Tap moment that you had in your presentation?

ROB HALFORD: Again it’s something that’s kind of tinged with sadness. It’s the ultimate Spinal Tap moment, we were on the Painkiller tour, we were coming to the end of the tour. Remember this is 1991; we just had come off the back of a very difficult Reno trial. Prior to that the band had been working pretty much nonstop for 30 years without a break.

JESSE THORN: I should interject here that you had been sued in civil court by the parents of two children who had committed suicide and the suggestion was that it was subliminal messages in your music that had driven them to suicide.

ROB HALFORD: Exactly, and of course that was complete and utter rubbish. It was an extremely difficult time to go through. We were in a court in Reno for a month and we faced these accusers and basically told them that firstly you should take responsibility for your kids, and I think that’s what parents should do. I know it’s difficult, but you should still take responsibility for your kids until they’re old enough to leave the nest. Kids were out of control, drugs and booze. The only thing that they loved was their metal; they loved Judas Priest, that’s the irony of that particular situation. They were hardcore Priest fans, but they got messed up with booze and drugs.

JESSE THORN: So you’re coming off of this really difficult period.

ROB HALFORD: Coming off with that, but we held back the release of Painkiller but now it was time to release it. We released it and had an incredibly successful tour all around the world. I think the last show was in Toronto. We were playing in one of these baseball fields that doubles up as an outside venue. Loads of people, 30,000 people. The stage was in the middle of the baseball field. The dressing rooms were obviously where the dugouts are, that type of deal. So to get from that location to the stage we had to get in golf carts. The lights go down, the fans start going crazy, we jump in golf carts and we’re all going off in different directions. For a start of Spinal Tap, some of us going north, some of us going south.

We eventually somehow get to the stage while the intro tape is running. I dash up, get onto my Harley Davidson, which is under the drum riser, and to a cue in the intro tape these pneumatic steps come up underneath the drum riser and I’m able to roar out on the Harley. Everything was going to plan until suddenly somebody yelled “We can’t find K.K., we can’t find him, we’ve got to stop and start again.” That’s what we were attempting to do, but nobody told me this, so I roared out on my bike. The guy that operates the stairs was bringing them back down, so I just belted into the bottom set of stairs at I don’t know how many miles an hour. Knocked myself double back, gymnastics Beijing, landed on my back underneath all this smoke and dry ice. The bikes had all fallen to one side almost on top of me, and I’m literally knocked out. Everything is a blur; everything’s zooming in and out for about a minute or so. Then I feel Glenn kicking me, trying to find where Rob is. That was and still will be the only time that “Hell Bent for Leather” was an instrumental, no vocals. So there it is. How much more Spinal Tap can you get than that?

JESSE THORN: We should say, too, that you were knocked unconscious, but you finished the show.

ROB HALFORD: Yeah, I did. You know, the show must go on as Freddy Mercury used to say.

JESSE THORN: We’ll have more with Rob Halford of Judas Priest in just a minute, plus the exploration of the Norwegian black metal scene. It’s a Brutal Metal Christmas on The Sound of Young America from maximumfun.org and PRI, Public Radio International.

It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest is Rob Halford. His new Christmas album is called Halford 3, Winter Songs; it includes new takes on some Christmas classics as well as some original tunes. Here’s one of those, it’s called, “Get into the Spirit.”

Rob, we’ve talked a lot about things that are really super metal, like riding motorcycles and wearing outrageous outfits and rocking out and stuff like that.

ROB HALFORD: Yes.

JESSE THORN: Probably towards the bottom of that list is Christmas.

ROB HALFORD: Haha, yes. Actually it’s on the top of my list right now.

JESSE THORN: I think the question needs to be asked, what led you to think, I should make a metal Christmas album?

ROB HALFORD: Because I’m the metal god and I do what I damn well want. I sometimes feel that way. I was talking to Jason Bonham the other day; we did a charity show in Los Angeles for the Midnight Mission I think it’s called. It’s me, Jason, Slash, Steve from Toto, Keith Emerson from Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tony White on bass, Ed Roth on drums; it was like a super group. Jason and I were talking afterwards, and we sound like a bunch of grumpy old men. I said Jason, just listen to us talk, bro. This is Jason Bonham the son of the late great John Bonham, the drummer of Led Zeppelin. So we just got a little bit sidetracked and then we said how cool it is that we can do what we do and that we can really pick and choose where we want to go in our career. So that’s where I feel I’ve the great luxury these days to be able to do that. I’m able to look at where I’ve been and look at the opportunities that still have a sense of adventure attached to them.

So that’s what it is with me right now with Halford 3 the first solo release from the Halford Band in about seven years. It’s a Christmas record, yeah. It’s ten tracks, six of them are quite famous traditional holiday songs, and four original pieces of music. I love the holiday season. It means a lot to me. I’ll be spending this Christmas time with my family back in the UK, mom and dad and brother and sister and friends and relatives. It’ll be great.

JESSE THORN: There’s something very charming about the mix of sort of older Christmas songs, not “Let it Snow,” but like, “What Child is This,” and the grand scale of your music. Was that part of what drew you to the material - - to the traditional songs that you chose, particularly?

ROB HALFORD: Well thank you for acknowledging that. And sometimes again, wood for the trees. But there’s a vast dynamic canyon between, “O’ Holy Night” which is this gigantic opus with crushing guitars and keyboards and drums and big massive vocals, to that really delicate, “What Child is This.” It was pick and choose. We weren’t going to do “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” or “Frosty the Snowman,” that would have been ridiculous. We wanted to make a pretty serious record, quite frankly. I carried a lot of things with me, it’s not baggage, it’s who I am, it’s what I do, it’s what I represent, and I wasn’t going to let the team down by going completely off the planet.

So those particular ones that I covered, “O’ Holy Night,” “Come all Ye Faithful,” “We Three Kings,” they’re beautiful songs. Great songs, a good song will always take interpretation and adaptation, so you’re able to put your own kind of impression and your own signature or whatever you want to call it onto the piece. It took a bit of time to figure out where we were going to go in covering those beautiful tracks, and then the other tracks, the originals were kind of spontaneous pieces that came together just because it was such an inspiring recording session. This is me; it’s a metal god for the holiday season. And there it is.

JESSE THORN: Well Rob, thank you so much for taking the time to be on The Sound of Young America, it was really a blast to have you on the show.

ROB HALFORD: It’s a pleasure Jesse; I had a lot of fun. I hope I didn’t bore you with my lifestyle stories and so forth, but it’s all important, and I’ve really enjoyed myself. I wish everybody the best for a safe and peaceful holiday season, and look forward to more heavy effing metal in 2010.

JESSE THORN: Rob Halford is the front man of Judas Priest. We’ve been talking about Halford 3, Winter Songs, a holiday album of covers and his own songs in his distinctive metal style.

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JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. I’m about to talk to the directors of “Until the Light Takes Us,” a documentary recently released on DVD that follows two of the musicians who pioneered the Norwegian black metal scene in the 1980s and 90s. The genre was intense, both aesthetically and culturally. Out of it came several murders and church burnings. One of the musicians interviewed is Varg Vikernes, also known as Count Grishnackh, who was interviewed from his prison cell in Norway. Here’s a clip of him in the film talking about how he tried to make his early recordings sound as bad as possible.

VARG VIKERNES: When I’m recording my album, I told that the producer give me the worst microphone you have, and set up the drums. We didn’t do anything to make the sound anything special, and in ten minutes everything was ready. He was asking, do you want to do anything? Because you normally have to adjust the sound of the drums and everything, and we said, No. It was a rebellion against good production. Called it metal sound, a corpse sound, that’s supposed to sound the worst possible. I ended up with a headset as a microphone that was the worst we could find. And we used this tiny Marshall amplifier that was this big because that was the worst amplifier we could find, it was a terrible sound.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guests on this program are filmmakers Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, their new film “Until the Light Takes Us” is a documentary about one of the most brutal and intense music scenes in the history of world popular music, Norwegian black metal. It focuses on two musicians, one called, and I’m going to mispronounce it, Fenriz.

AARON AITES: Perfect.

JESSE THORN: Okay, great. And one called Count Grishnackh, who were stalwarts of the scene, one of whom was very recently released from a long prison bid for stabbing a former bandmate in the head repeatedly with a pocket knife. The other of whom seems like a really sweet nerd. Guys, welcome to The Sound of Young America, it’s great to have you on the show.

AARON AITES: Thanks for having us.

AUDREY EWELL: Thank you.

JESSE THORN: So this is such an intense subject matter with murders and arsons and ancient religious conflicts and all this really brutal intense music. How did you guys become interested in it? You don’t strike me as particularly brutal people.

AARON AITES: Well, we have our moments, but no. We were living in San Francisco and a friend of ours named Andy Connors, who was with records and actually used to be the drummer for my band, basically we were into experimental and lo-fi music. He was constantly trying to get us to check it out, and we were like, no, we’re not going to do that. But eventually we did, and we fell in love with it and sort of became obsessed with it. About a year later we were looking for a documentary to watch, and there wasn’t one, so then we went over there to scout it out, started to do it, lived there for two years shooting it.

JESSE THORN: What was it that you fell in love with when you finally gave it the time of day?

AARON AITES: There are lots of things, but I think chief amongst them was the fact that there was a very cerebral constructed nature to the music. These aren’t bands that come up from the streets rocking out that happen to be from the same town. This set of rules and aesthetics that was developed and then followed by the whole scene and that aspect of it I felt to be really fascinating.

AUDREY EWELL: As well as the actual aesthetic. Really striking black and white visuals and album artwork and just a really raw lo-fi quality to the music, but very honest at that time. Indie rock was going by the wayside at this point, and there wasn’t a lot to be excited about at least for us in music. So when we got into this and started to look into it and see how much great music there was in this scene it was just one of those exciting moments of discovery. Music snobbery almost prevented us from experiencing it all.

JESSE THORN: They created this scene out of a set of ideas and ideology that wasn’t completely shared but did have certain common aspects. What were those things that they wanted to be, besides the general non-commercialism that you could find in punk rock or something like that?

AARON AITES: You could find that in punk rock.

AUDREY EWELL: It was a little bit different then because they were actually actively rebelling against the commercialization of death metal, which was happening in exactly the same time. That was happening largely in Sweden. Fenriz of Dark Throne was - - Dark Throne was actually a popular death metal band at the beginning. He saw what was happening with death metal becoming as commercial as it was, and keep in mind that commercial to death metal - - but the standards for the commercial metal is a little different.

AARON AITES: It filtered even beyond the music. The lyrics were generally - - the idea was to make something that was completely unpalatable, which is why some of them ended up being about Satanism, which later - -

AUDREY EWELL: Right, they were throwing out everything that they could think of that would be anti-societal.

AARON AITES: They were doing pro-drug messages.

AUDREY EWELL: Yeah, pro-drug statements to weed out the weaker members of society.

AARON AITES: They themselves didn’t do drugs. There was no drugs in the scene at all. They advocated a return to feudal lifestyles and endorsed dictators. The cover art was Xerox quality and intentionally so. It was a full-on oppositional movement that tried to oppose everything at once.

AUDREY EWELL: It probably would have been successful if they hadn’t started burning down churches and killing people. I mean, realistically they were on the right path to anonymity. One mistake and they’re done.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guests are Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, the directors of “Until the Light Takes Us”, a documentary about the Norwegian black metal scene. Here’s a clip from the film of Gylve Nagell, or Fenriz, who’s a member of the band Dark Throne.

GYLVE NAGELL: I refuse to stand court martial for making this whole underground movement into a trend thing. If it’s anyone, it’s not us. But I guess most people say that. That’s what people usually ask. The mission statement was not escaping the death metal trend, but definitely we were thinking of not slipping in the garish footsteps of what became commercial death metal. What do you know. What are we looking at here.

JESSE THORN: That was Fenriz of the band Dark Throne, one of the two main subjects of the documentary “Until the Light Takes Us.” The films other subject Varg Vikernes, or Count Grishnockh was recently released from prison in Norway, where he was convicted of murder and arson. My guests are the director of the film, Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell.

Why did you decide to make this movie about these two men and not about the aesthetic qualities of the music, which is usually the subject of most music stuff? There’s barely any black metal music in the film and almost no performance. There’s some old rehearsal footage.

AARON AITES: Having licensed the soundtrack myself I can tell you that there’s over 20 black metal songs. But no, there’s no live footage. It’s not really a rockumentary. It’s more of a portrait of these two - - I mean, there would be four people who basically started the movement that ideally you would want to interview about it, but these are the two that are left alive, so we chose them.

AUDREY EWELL: We didn’t want to do a survey of black metal; we weren’t interested in making the film version of an encyclopedia entry on black metal, that’s not interesting. That’s a kind of documentary, but we’ll leave that to the History Channel if they want to tackle that. As far as documentaries go, we don’t tend to like very straight forward ones. Just personally - -

AARON AITES: We don’t come from a documentary background at all.

AUDREY EWELL: Yeah.

JESSE THORN: Let’s talk a little bit about these two friends who are the primary subjects of the film. One of them is this guy who we’ve already talked about briefly, Fenriz. Tell me a little bit about him and how you found him when you first met him.

AARON AITES: When we first met him it was to ask him to be in the film. We got along with him really well. He’s a musical encyclopedia, not just metal. He’s - -

JESSE THORN: You have a scene in the film of him talking about, I’m trying to remember…maybe trance?

AARON AITES: Techno and house and trance. He used to be a DJ of house music as well. He told us that he’s not under any circumstances fully ever watched the movie, so not to be shy about filming whatever we need to film and putting whatever we need to put on the screen to tell the story.

JESSE THORN: What was the appeal of black metal for him when it first began to emerge?

AUDREY EWELL: He was one of the ones who created it. For him he’s a huge metal fan and that’s sort of his world. That’s how he creates, that’s what he creates, that’s what he’s moved to make. For him it’s very natural.

JESSE THORN: He comes off; I think I said in the introduction as kind of a sweet nerd like the kind of guy that was a bright metal guy at your high school. Count Grishnackh, who’s the other subject of your film, he also has that quality but in a very different way. Tell me a little bit about - - he must have been in jail when you got there. What did you expect him to be like knowing that he had been convicted of murder and church burning before you got there?

AUDREY EWELL: Well had we already spoken with Fenriz at that point? I think that Varg was actually not the first murderer/church burner that we encountered. I think - -hadn’t we already interviewed Felst at that time?

AARON AITES: Yeah, we’d already interviewed Felst. But with Varg I sort of knew what he was going to be like, because we researched for quite a bit. We compiled every print interview that any of these people had ever done into these giant yellow pages sized compendiums, so there was - - I pretty much knew what he was going to be like. Things that I wondered was what kinds of - - does he play videogames. Things like that. He does. Actually he plays World of Warcraft.

AUDREY EWELL: So you may have played against him.

AARON AITES: It took us eight months to get him to agree to meet, and we were over there filming at the time and knowing full well that we were just going to pack it up and go home if we didn’t get him, because you can’t really do a worthwhile movie about this without having both Varg and Fenriz in the movie. It took eight months and it was very tense. We would constantly get these letters that said things like, “Even if you make exactly the movie that I myself would make I still won’t be in your movie.” But then he would end every letter with a question so that the correspondence would continue. Eventually he agreed to meet and so I flew up to Trondheim and went to prison.

AUDREY EWELL: I think the main thing is that once he had agreed to actually do it he was much like Fenriz; very forthcoming and what you see on screen is very much who he is and who he presented himself as. There are certain things he couldn’t discuss for legal reasons, but he was pretty forthcoming.

JESSE THORN: I can hardly imagine what those things were, because he describes in detail his version of the murder that he perpetrated.

AUDREY EWELL: Right.

AARON AITES: Yeah. Some of the - -

AUDREY EWELL: Let’s just say there’s a few unsolved - -

AARON AITES: Alleged church burnings.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn, my guests are Aaron Yates and Audrey Ewell, directors of “Until the Light Takes Us,” a documentary about Norwegian black metal. Here’s a clip from musician Count Grishnackh, speaking form his prison cell which looks a little more like a dorm room. There’s a computer, book shelves, even kind of nice furniture.

VARG VIKERNES: I was called ambivalent. Kind of an ambivalent feeling in this context. In one sense it’s hard to have to be without freedom to move wherever I want and stuff like that, but on the other hand, in another sense it’s kind of positive, because I have the opportunity to read books and focus on more important things. I consider it like a stay in a monastery.

JESSE THORN: One of the boldest choices I thought you made in the film was not do as we did in this interview and open with the fact that this guy murdered somebody. Why did you choose to construct the film that way?

AUDREY EWELL: There were actually a few reasons. The biggest though was that had we shown upfront that this was a person who would be perceived as a villain essentially, or a bad person, that it instantly would have changed the audience’s perception of everything that he said. Instantly you’re hearing from a murderer. Generally speaking, people aren’t going to take a very open mind when a murderer is talking on screen. We didn’t want to completely invalidate everything that he had to say right off the bat. We were interested in having this person who was essentially a very charming and charismatic character, and we wanted the audience to sort of go through the process of getting to know this character, perhaps being charmed by him, certainly relating to him a little bit and then to reveal these darker aspects of his character. I think it has a lot more impact when you’re able to reveal bits and a progression about a character.

AARON AITES: It’s more powerful for an audience member to say, I was identifying with this guy who ended up being a murderer rather than to say, Well, that murderer has some interesting things to say.

AUDREY EWELL: Just from an emotional perspective and building a character an arch.

AARON AITES: We come from a narrative background, and I think that’s basically what it is. We constructed in a narrative style with a climax.

JESSE THORN: It’s very scary to watch someone who, from my personal experience watching the film, was - - it’s not even apparent that he’s in prison. He’s talking about things and you have this feeling that this guy is an extremist, but in the way that Leonard Peltier or something like that is an extremist. Like a member of the American Indian movement. He’s talking about his ancient Nordic religion and that kind of thing. You’re like, well, you know, this guy’s into some weird stuff, but more power to him. And then he just talks as plain as day about murdering someone, and it’s horrifying.

AARON AITES: Well, there’s not too many rock scenes that can boast those inter-band murders.

AUDREY EWELL: I think the main thing is that it allowed us to present someone who is a very complex person as a complex character and to let the audience go through a progression of dealing with who he is on many different levels. Very important to us, it would have been very easy to vilify him, and we could have gone much further in vilifying him.

AARON AITES: It could have been a completely different movie.

JESSE THORN: It does seem like, and correct me if I’m wrong, kind of a villain. I’m just saying overall in real life, as a racist murderer, church burner, etc.

AARON AITES: It’s true.

JESSE THORN: So it would be within your rights to vilify him.

AUDREY EWELL: Yes, but at the same time you’re able to say that seeing what you did, and as documentarians who are dealing with real living people I think it’s important to not make things quite so simplistic.

AARON AITES: We do get criticized sometimes for not vilifying him, but I don’t really know what to do. Stop the movie and say, “Murder is bad. Don’t commit murders.”

JESSE THORN: I’ll give you an example, something that I didn’t know about as much from the film as I did from reading about him elsewhere was his race related views. He says a lot of anti-Christian stuff in the film and the context of his neo-pagan religion, but he doesn’t say the kinds of things that he’s apparently from what I understand no longer describes himself as a Nazi because he doesn’t want the baggage, which I can understand.

AARON AITES: I think it has more to do with being in prison. It’s not uncommon for - -

AUDREY EWELL: Yeah, what he actually said is that a lot of that came around being in prison and needing to identify with a group just for his own - -

AARON AITES: It doesn’t excuse anything - -

AUDREY EWELL: Certainly, but at the same time we didn’t want to peg him as a neo-Nazi because that isn’t accurate.

AARON AITES: And it’s certainly inaccurate for the rest of them.

AUDREY EWELL: Very inaccurate for the rest of the scene, and that was a huge thing for us. We knew that Varg had gone through a neo-Nazi phase; he’d also gone through other phases with different belief systems. We knew that to tag him as a neo-Nazi would paint the whole scene that way and I think that would have been a grosser injustice. We’re happy with the portrayals of everybody as being accurate and just.

JESSE THORN: What did you learn about how these guys and the other people who were involved in this scene maintained themselves or understood themselves both for someone like Count Grishnackh who, as you said, continued down this path of politicization and becoming more and more entrenched in ideology, and Fenriz, who essentially says a third of the way through the film that 15 years ago I just withdrew from all of that completely.

AUDREY EWELL: I think with the exception of Varg who takes a pretty cavalier approach to everything, there’s definitely been some introspection and some thought. I think everybody actually deals with it in a very serious and kind of heavy way. Nobody else is really laughing about it the way Varg does.

For Fenriz in particular, this was a time in his life where everything that he was establishing was taken from him by all the violent actions being perpetrated by his friends and colleagues. So for him it’s something that he looks back on and it’s difficult for him; it’s emotional and it’s painful. That was something that when we were filming with him was often very charged when we were discussing these things. We felt like we didn’t want to push him because it was obvious he was having difficult emotions in having to deal with this stuff, but at the same time wanting to show that complexity and the depth of emotion that he had as someone who had created this kind of music in this scene and then had it turn into something else.

JESSE THORN: Thank you guys for taking all this time to be on The Sound of Young America, it was so great to have you.

AARON AITES: Thanks for having us.

AUDREY EWELL: Thanks for having us.

JESSE THORN: Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell are the directors of “Until the Light Takes Us,” a documentary about Norwegian black metal. It’s available now on DVD.
That’s our time for another Sound of Young America program; I have been your host Jesse Thorn.

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