Erlend Hjelvik’s shock decision to quit Kvelertak in 2018 rocked the world of heavy music. Two-and-a-half years later and the charismatic frontman is back with Hjelvik debut Welcome To Hel. Rushonrock editor Simon Rushworth spoke exclusively to a musician reborn.
Rushonrock: How are you coping in the face of a global pandemic?
Erlend Hjelvik: It’s felt pretty nice and safe where I’ve been back home in Norway. We had a lockdown that lasted for two months or so and then the borders were reopened right around the time we were planning to shoot the first Hjelvik video. So we jumped on the first plane out of Norway and headed to Poland. There was a news team waiting at the airport to greet us as it was the first flight into the country for weeks! It was really cool and shooting the video was pretty intense. We worked with a really good group of people and so it felt like we were coping with Covid-19 just fine back then.
Rushonrock: Did you ever imagine the rest of the world could be crippled by a virus to this extent?
EH: Not at all. It just came totally out of the blue. I just didn’t see it coming. But I always try to look at things positively and on a personal level it’s allowed me to have more time to focus on putting out Welcome To Hel in the best way possible. In Norway we’re releasing the album on our own label and that’s a lot of extra work. If we had to do that as well as plan everything for a tour it would have been more stressful. We’re a new band starting from scratch so the extra time to get things right has proved invaluable. The way things have worked there’s going to be a gap between the album release and any tour but we’ve used that to our advantage. It’s just the way things are.
Rushonrock: Is it a gamble to release a new album in 2020 when so much of the music industry has ground to a halt?
EH: It doesn’t feel like a gamble to me. I’m happy it’s worked out this way rather than releasing the album prior to the coronavirus pandemic. That really would have stopped us in our tracks. It would have been so much worse if eight months had gone by and we weren’t able to do anything. At least it feels like there’s light at the end of the tunnel now and we’ve already booked our first festival in Norway — called Tons Of Rock — for next summer. I’m confident that things are going to start to get back to normal very soon.
Rushonrock: Can Welcome To Hel provide heavy music fans with some much-needed escapism?
EH: People always need new music and especially when something like this is going on. Releasing Welcome To Hel in the middle of England’s second lockdown gives our fans over there plenty of time to digest the new music! Obviously the album title — although not intentional — sums up how a lot of people have been feeling this year and so it works on that level too. I think it’s really important that people can find some kind of escape in new music. I’ve been consuming a lot of new music in the last few months and it’s been a really positive experience.
Rushonrock: When did you start work on Welcome To Hel and what’s the story behind the record?
EH: I started to think about it after I left Kvelertak in the summer of 2018. I had a couple of months off straight after we went our separate ways just to decompress. I started listening to a lot of music while I was painting my house. Painting turned out to be pretty inspiring to me! I started writing in early 2019 and after a couple of months I’d written a whole album and all of the lyrics. It went pretty smoothly once I’d got over that first barrier of making music again for the first time since leaving Kvelertak. I didn’t have a fully-fledged plan after I left the band and didn’t intend to make a solo record. It just happened that way.
Rushonrock: Who or what were your inspirations as you set about writing Welcome To Hel?
EH: In terms of the lyrical content I’d been inspired by lots of books that I’d been reading in the last couple of years. There’s a book called Heimskringla, written by a poet and historian called Snorri Sturluson, which chronicles the history of the first Norwegian kings. Lots of the material in there naturally lends itself to metal lyrics. Right now I’m reading six huge books written by old Icelandic monks which are a recounting of Norwegian and Icelandic history and mixed with mythology. It’s really interesting and a rich resource for songwriting. Stylistically I’ve always been influenced by a full range of rock and metal bands and Welcome To Hel is a case in point. You can hear a lot of 80s bands on the new record — from Metallica to Slayer to Mercyful Fate — and I’m a big Venom and Bathory fan. Then there’s the Swedish and Norwegian black metal bands from the 80s and 90s which I keep coming back to. Bands like Darkthrone, Gorgoroth, Mayhem and Dissection have always influenced what I do. Throw in a bit of Sabbath, Lizzy and Maiden and you get the picture. If you’re a fan of metal you’ll like Hjelvik!
Rushonrock: Given the sound you were looking to create how important was it to find the right band to bring Welcome To Hel to life?
EH: Hugely important. I wanted the guitar sound to be just right so Rob Steinway was the first guy we got in touch with once the record was ready to record. When I say ‘we’ I mean me and my wife — she’s also my manager and she’s American. We have a place close to Portland and that’s where Welcome To Hel was recorded. We wanted to find a guitarist living close to the area and that’s how I ended up talking to Rob. He’s in a great band from San Diego called Skeletor who play 80s style heavy metal and he came on board straight away. The drummer is an Irish guy called Kevin Foley who I met in Norway when he was with Abbath and the bass player is a Frenchman called Alexis Lieu. We’ve added a rhythm guitarist who doesn’t appear on the record but Remi [André Nygård] is going to be a big part of the band moving forward.
Rushonrock: The intro. to Welcome To Hel’s furious opener, Father War, is on a different level — was it important to set the tone straight off?
EH: It’s the type of song that you write and you just know instantly that it’s going to be the first song on the album. The same thing happened when I wrote Necromance — I knew that was the song that we had to finish on. But I love Father War. It’s really in your face.
Rushonrock: How frustrating is it that you can’t play these songs live?
EH: It is frustrating but as I said before it’s kind of like a double-edged sword. I’d rather look at it as a blessing as it gives me time to get everything just right by the time we are able to tour. At the same time I’d like to go out and support the album sometime soon. We can’t wait forever! But we’ve built a practice space in the basement at home and we’re in a position to get the whole band over to work on the new songs. So we won’t be wasting any time.
Rushonrock: If you were given the chance to curate a metal festival who would you invite to share the stage with you at the very first ‘Hjelvik Fest’?
EH: If I could pick any bands it would be Slayer and Metallica. I’m a fan of both bands and I’ve supported them in the past. I owe them a lot and I’ve learnt so much from both bands. I guess it’s not going to happen with Slayer now but that would be some show!