Interview: Erlend Hjelvik of Kvelertak on sounding metal, singing in English, and recording new record ‘Meir’ at God City Studios in Salem

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he tough thing about rock music is that sometimes it’s hard to tell when we are supposed to have fun. Is music that is made to be enjoyable always dumb, and/or is smartly made music always a wet blanket when put in a utilitarian setting? Metal and punk fans face this as a constant conundrum, mostly because the vast majority of humans on the planet think those genres are cesspools of stupidity in the first place, and as a result, good-intentioned bands and fans spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to both produce and listen to music that is outwardly “smart” and overtly “not fun.” The unintended result is that modern heavy music is often so dense and aurally forbidding that no one but the most dedicated heavy music fan will ever dare to hold off on hitting the pause button for more than 30 seconds of the average new metal album.

Which is a roundabout way of laying out why Kvelertak’s 2010 self-titled debut was such a breath of fresh air, especially for stateside heavy music fans when the platter was finally released here in 2011: Because even though the band’s sound is a horrifying-on-paper mish-mash of 40 years of heavy music styles, all sung in the band’s native Norwegian tongue, the end result is some of the most immediately inviting hard rock to have emerged anywhere in God knows when.

Slamming tracks like “Mjød,” with clod-heavy wallop-riffs and thousand-men-
heaving-oars-in-unison chant-choruses, are so instantly classic that they instantly join the ranks of the greatest rock songs to feature O’s with lines through them in the title.

That record opens with the off-the-rails “Ulvetid” (“Wolf-time”), wherein gang vocals scream “Kvelertak!” (“Stranglehold!”) to let us know who the band is and what they are all about — blending ’70s proto-metal licks and extreme-metal tempos into a drunken party mess that essentially sounds like fellow Norwegians Turbonegro minus the homo-eroticism and glam-rock obsession.

Kvelertak was a “Eureka!” moment of “Your chocolate is in my peanut butter” for punk and metal fans around the globe; this Fall finds The ‘Tak back for more with their aptly-titled sophomore outing, Meir (Norwegian for “More”, duh), and this time they’ve even ditched the Nørse-mythology obsession of their debut, so that poindexters won’t trip over their translator books trying to rock out to bruisers like “Spring Fra Livet” (“Run From Life”) or “Bruane Brenn” (“Burning Bridges”) and their Tom-Scholtz-meets-Emperor intensity.

They’ve even helpfully updated the band-branding of “Ulvetid’s” opening shout with Meir’s “Kvelertak,” an album-closer that transforms said shout into a throat-shredding rallying cry for hoisted fists and beer steins alike.

We caught up with vocalist Erlend Hjelvik on the cusp of the band’s current U.S. tour, which brings them to the Middle East downstairs this Saturday night with High On Fire and Doomriders, and he expounded a bit on the band’s aesthetic, ambition (or lack thereof) and attitude toward sticking with Norwegian in an international metal marketplace:

Vanyaland: You recorded Meir last year with Converge’s Kurt Ballou in Salem’s God City Studios; what did Kurt bring to the development of your sound on this record?

Erlend Hjelvik: Well, it’s definitely more diversified compared to the first one, just the sound of it is more in your face. It’s more detailed and there’s a lot of variations in sonics, there’s catchy songs and then there’s heavier songs; I think we managed to get a good mix in there.

In the past, most people have described your sound as basically “black metal meets ’70s rock,” a description that seems less apt with this record, where you rely less on extreme metal and get almost more classic rock, especially with the Thin Lizzy-isms of a track like “Bruane Brenn.”

Yeah, the black metal thing is mostly superficial — people say that because we have occasional blast beats, some tremolo picking and some vocals that can be kind of harsh-sounding. But we basically steal from every sound and genre, we listen to all types of music and steal the parts we like best without sounding forced.

What was the sonic plan for Kvelertak at the start — did you intend the band to sound a certain way when you began this band?

Hah — Not exactly! I mean, we never had any ambitions at all — we never intended to release an album at all, let alone get a record deal. At the outset, we didn’t really think about even playing a show, it took us a couple of years to get our act together and become a good band, we were really pretty shitty at first! But we started playing shows and we suddenly got all that stuff — record deal, booking agent, all that, and it just kind of went uphill from there, and the sound kind of coalesced along with everything else.

You get primarily lumped in as a metal band — do you ever feel any pressure to sound a certain way to cater to the expectations of those kinds of audiences?

Well, you know, we have so many different audiences all over the world — when we started in Norway, we definitely had a pretty straight-up punk and metal crowd, but when we play now in all sorts of places we get, you know, emo kids and prog rockers and whoever. Although when we play the States it’s mostly metal dudes who come to the shows, it differs from country to country.

And you know, maybe once in a while a German guy will show up and tell us that he likes the heavier stuff better, but we get plenty of the opposite, people who tell us they prefer the catchier stuff. The good thing about our band is that no matter what style we lean on, it sounds like us, at least to us.

You’ve talked in interviews before about how, early in your band’s career, you were given advice by Happy Tom from Turbonegro that you would need to sing in English to succeed internationally — how do you feel about that now?

I always said that I wanted to sing in Norwegian because it feels more natural to me and sounds better, it sounds more unique than singing in English. By now, we’ve been doing it for so long that it’s a big part of our sound, our Norwegian vocals. It doesn’t seem like people outside of Norway have any problem with it! I actually think that it adds to the sound and makes us sound more special. People sing along, in Norwegian, no matter whether the show is in Russia or the States, which is pretty cool.

To English-language ears, anything in Norwegian sounds metal; you could probably write a song about dish soap and we’d think it was about burning pyres in the snow for Satan or something.

Hah! Although, you know, Norway is more than black metal bands, it’s a really diverse place, there’s so many great bands that have nothing to do with that whole church-burning thing.

There’s great rock bands, punk bands, hardcore bands, and we just kind of took elements of all of that and ran with it. I just kind of look at it as a tribute to music we like, we like everything from ’70s rock to black metal so all of that is in there.

KVELERTAK + HIGH ON FIRE + DOOMRIDERS :: Saturday, November 16 @ the Middle East Downstairs, 472 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge :: 7pm, 18+, SOLD OUT :: Bowery Boston show page