Eating Whale Steaks at Norway's Gorgeous Træna Music Festival
Photo by Wyndham Wallace.
Everyone’s got a great sauna story, right? I’m sitting in the hold of a whaling ship on the cusp of the Arctic Circle, where the Norwegian Sea borders the North Atlantic, telling mine.
“It was the launch party for Children Of Bodom’s 2008 album Blooddrunk in Finland. Their label Spinefarm had really pushed the boat out and flown the entire world’s heavy metal press out to Helsinki for a weekend-long playback junket. They’d hired out this big pine and chrome restaurant with huge floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Baltic. Their hospitality seemingly knew no bounds. They had a free bar and expert cocktail waiters on hand. I tested them hard and they knew their stuff.
“They could make Samoan Fog Cutters. So I had eight. Then they played the album a few times while I had five Long Island Iced Teas. It sounded pretty good. After a while the band turned up. They’re all Big Lebowski fans so we started drinking White Russians. There must have been about 40 people there representing heavy metal publications from every corner of the globe. If you had dropped a bomb on that restaurant that evening, heavy metal criticism would have ended overnight. One flash of light, a long haired German in a Nuclear Assault T-shirt saying: ‘Ja. How ironic,’ and then: nothing.
“But strangely, when the band asked if we wanted to join them in a sauna on the banks of the Baltic, only Nick Ruskell from Kerrang!, J Bennett from Revolver, and myself were stupid enough to say yes. We all grabbed as much beer as we could carry and trooped in. I was about to leave my shorts on but was roundly lambasted by the melodic death metal Finns until I got naked. Inside, we poured beer on the coals. It made the sauna smell like a bakery.
“When we were red like man-sized lobsters, the guitarist Roope—who used to be in a band called Spider Kicker—shouted: ‘Now, to the sea!’
“We had these tiny towels, not much bigger than flannels, to cover ourselves as we walked down the wooden pier until the sea was underneath us. The water was churning like five-degree-centigrade Guinness in the night.
“We all dived in and someone started squealing like a piglet on a rollercoaster. It was me.
“The hit was amazing. Like a crossbow bolt of liquid mercury shot straight through my brain. My body felt like it had been struck by lightning and then immediately numbed by a rush of opiates.
“Getting out of the sea I was as giddy as a kipper buzzing off the sudden flood of endorphins. I daintily picked up my little tea towel to protect my modesty as we walked back past the large glass fronted restaurant where all of our colleagues and peers were relaxing and drinking.
“J Bennett motioned to me: ‘Watch this.’ He went over to the glass and started rubbing his nipples on the glass in a circular fashion. Without hesitation I went and joined him. The thing is, though, J Bennett is a good looking man. He’s lithe and muscular, and at the time I weighed 266 pounds. But, high on adrenaline, I joined in, even though I looked like a walrus dipped in Immac. Roaring like an oafish farm hand on payday, I was splayed on the glass and wobbling like a huge death metal blancmange when a gust of wind blew my towel off. I looked round but Bennett had already scarpered, leaving me howling in the wind with a 0 degree retracted cock like GG Allin’s. I was aware that inside the restaurant sipping greyhounds was my entire professional peer group who were laughing at me and my tiny Baltic-blasted penis, which resembled a pink acorn resting on some brown moss. The look of hilarity and sympathy on the face of Louise Brown, then editor of Terrorizer, now editor of Bronze Fist, will haunt me until my dying day.
“’It’s the fucking Baltic! There has been high latitudinal, diurnal, and seasonal shrinkage!’ I howled pathetically to no one before starting the walk of shame back to the restaurant.”
A sauna at sea on the Vulkana. Photo by John Doran.
The hold of the Vulkana was once used to store row upon row of salted whale steaks stacked up to the ceiling but since it was converted to a spa vessel in 2007, it now contains sleeping quarters for the crew and a low-lit lounge decorated with scatter cushions, bonsai trees, and ornamental pebbles. At the stern end is a Turkish hamam, or steam room, complete with plunge pool filled with cold salt water pumped directly in from the surrounding ocean. Upstairs, built into the well where the harpooned whale used to be landed and dumped ready for chopping, there is now a wood-fired Finnish sauna and dining room with kitchen. On the upper deck there is a giant wooden hot tub. Out on the deck there is a well-stocked beer fridge and a little brass Buddha in an alcove. This isn’t the first time I’ve been on this beautiful vessel; in fact, it’s about the sixth.
You know that film Star Trek: Generations where Malcolm McDowell is romping across the galaxy chasing after a thin blue ribbon that travels really quickly through space and accidentally kills William Shatner in the process (clearly a metaphor for the damage caused by crack cocaine addiction)? Well this ship, the Vulkana, and Træna, the volcanic archipelago where it is moored, amount to my thin blue line.
On my first visit to the ship in July 2009, I sat in the same hold with the Swedish singer-songwriter Frida Hyvönen, while the DJ Ewan Pearson entertained us with a brief history of the evolution of the whale, which he told us was probably descended from a small, land-living badger. A few days later, I went back on board for a session in the sauna. In the wood-lined room with a window looking out directly to sea, I was relaxing with Sivert Høyem, the former Madrugada frontman, his backing singer Ingrid and Harry, the former drummer from Turbonegro, while they drank beer and chatted.
Harry told me who the best fishermen were out of the True Norwegian Black Metallers. Emperor are apparently quite good anglers, but no one comes close to Fenriz from Darkthrone. He related a crazy story about him, Fenriz and one of the world’s leading experts on Arctic moss having a jam in his snowbound hut. “You know, I was born to make men cry,” said Ingrid after a while. The other men in the sauna nodded sagely. Out of the window a whale broke the surface in the distance as if to underline just how surreal the experience was.
A thin blue line shooting through space and time, scoring the skies of the northern latitudes like Aurora Borealis.
Blood Command on the Vulkana. Photo by Halvor Hilmersen.
Today in the chill out room a log burns brightly in the wood stove casting an orange glow about the hold, but the atmosphere is a bit chillier. The emo/pop punk/metal band Blood Command are sitting opposite me in a tense, upright huddle. They are here to play the 11th annual Træna Festival, the remotest music festival in the world and, I would say, the most beautiful. I ask them how they came to be playing such a great event but they say they have a booker who takes care of these things. I ask them about what the success of their last album Funeral Beach has brought them and they tell me “new contracts to sign”. They tell me how they like to irritate people by doing things they shouldn’t, like combining “hardcore, rock and roll, and pop”. Their music is extremely catchy; though it is possible to see how some people over the age of 19 could be irritated by it as well. As for the ingredients that go into their rule breaking broth, it’s perhaps easier to discern the pop and the rock and roll than it is to locate the hardcore, but then, as always, this stuff isn’t written and recorded for bad tempered 42-year-olds. We don’t have youthful chest-pounding music in common, me and the band, so I ask them if they have a great sauna story instead.
Yngve Andersen says: “I don’t have any sauna stories.”
Silje Tombre says: “My parents actually have a sauna at home which they use for storage. But one time we actually used the sauna.”
Nikolas Jon says: “No. I have no sauna story.”
Sigurd Haakaas says: “No. Nothing has happened to me in a sauna.”
Simon Oliver whispers simply: “No.”
I decide it is best to leave the hardcore pop rock and rollers to themselves and come back to the Vulkana later. Outside on the quay I stop to pet an albino dog with David Bowie eyes.
Træna may have started as a music festival but over the years the breathtaking setting has come to be considered the headlining act. No mere band could upstage this sprinkling of one thousand islands and stony skerries—nhabited by more sea eagles, seals, otters and whales than actual people—right on top of the world.
The middle-aged man and the sea. Photo of the author leaping from the Vulkana by Maria Jefferis.
Erlend Mogård-Larsen, the owner of the Vulkana and the founder of the Træna festival, has a great sauna story.
In 2003 the Norwegian government decided to open up the transaction of fishing quotas between ships. Before this date any fishing ship that had a license had a set quota attached to it. The new transition of quotas was meant to help boat owners who owned a lot of vessels when some of them caught a lot of fish and others didn’t. The trouble was people cashed in their quotas and sold them on to larger trawlers. Fishing communities like Træna suffered overnight. There was no more money to be made in having a small fishing boat that caught a regular amount of fish to sell locally by going out every day. Now most of the seafood in Norway is caught by large factory trawlers. In 2006 the fisherman who owned the Vulkana sold his quota and left his boat harbored in Tromsø unused and basically ready to be chopped up. (Many of these vessels were scuttled where they were moored cause that was easier and more cost effective than decommissioning them.)
Erlend was out in a bar in Tromsø at 3 AM drinking with his best friend one night early in 2007. He was pushing 40 and wondering what it actually meant to be a man and all that shit that men going into their fifth decade stress out about. He had just discovered absinthe and by all accounts had drunk quite a lot of it. He and his friend hatched a merry plan. They would buy a small boat and put a tiny sauna on it and use it for afternoon fishing excursions. Then as even more absinthe flowed they got talking to a former whaler who was drinking at the next table.
The next morning Erlend said to his wife, Britt: “I had the most horrible dream last night that I met someone in a bar and bought a commercial whaling vessel off him for a quarter of a million without seeing it.”
And of course, he had.
Erlend and Britt by Wyndham Wallace.
Later, back on the Vulkana, after setting sail, I talk to the General Manager of the boat, a handsome, copper haired Josh Homme lookalike, Gottfried Gundersen. He tells me more about his boss: “Erlend is very much into saunas and bathing culture. He likes a hot tub but he is also into hamams. He travels a lot and relaxing in heat is a very fundamental thing in his life. And guys from up North like to buy a boat. It’s part of their culture. You need somewhere to get away from the wife and fix the boat.”
Erlend’s boat sounds like my dad’s shed. Well, with some fundamental differences.
The Vulkana was built in 1957 in Lista – a once thriving ship building community – near to the southernmost tip of Norway. It was constructed from weathered eight-inch oak spans and designed to stay upright in even the fiercest of storms. New regulations were brought in by the Ministry Of Fisheries in 1952, after one very heavy storm sank six boats of a similar size in one night, killing 70 people in the Arctic Sea. The frequency of storms, hurricanes and oceanic whirlpools known as maelstroms in this region no doubt gave birth to the local myth of the kraken – a ship destroying sea creature still widely reported as fact well into the 19th century. The Norwegian Sea once marked the extent of man’s cartographical knowledge: forming the edge of the map – the once genuinely terrifying “here be monsters” zone.
This vessel completed 59 seasons as a whale hunter and killed at least 500 of the large mammals.
Erlend may have felt remorseful after spending 220,000 Norwegian Kroner ($37,000) on the ship but that is nothing compared to the further 6 million NoK ($1,000,000) he poured into it. The beautiful hamam cost 660,000 NoK ($111,000) alone.
Gottfried continues: “Erlend is a very visionary man and when he started to think about this boat he had bought when he was drunk and what he could do with it, he worked with a designer to implement more and more spa facilities. And when he bought it? He didn’t know anything about boats. I mean, he had been fishing with his granddad here at Træna. He was quite a wild child and was kicked out of kindergarten and had to go fishing with his granddad instead for a year before he went to school. That was a very defining year for him and the love for Træna and the love for the ocean.”
Later, after a sauna, I dive into the Arctic waters. Again the hit is electrifying but this time, to the relief of everyone involved, my shorts stay on.
Of course were the Vulkana simply the exquisite by-product of a midlife crisis, I wouldn’t even know about it. I’m here because of the Træna Festival— another of Erlend’s grand, visionary schemes.
It's two o'clock, but two in the afternoon or two in the morning? Festival staff at Træna. Photo by John Doran.
Doubtless the year spent fishing with his grandfather was very important to him but when I speak to Erlend, it is his grandmother he first mentions: “I had the idea for the festival when visiting my grandma at her home on the island. I was 12 years old the first time I thought about setting up a festival at Træna. I had just discovered my brother's record collection and loved the triple album cover from the Woodstock festival. It inspired a young soul. It took another 22 years for me to actually make it reality.”
He is a good example of what the Norwegians would call havfolket, or people of the sea—strong, rugged, brooding—someone of few words. He is a constant presence in the background at the festival—mucking in, helping out. On the Sunday he and his wife wait on guests in the makeshift Fishy Fishy Nam Nam restaurant, staffed by a mixture of volunteer locals and some of Norway’s most celebrated chefs. The next day visiting journalists are desperate to get an interview with him before they leave for home but he frustrates nearly all requests because he is too busy helping take down the main stage and the bar tents.
The perceived inaccessibility of the yearly event is key to its success and he knows it. He started the festival 11 years ago and each year the 2,000 tickets sell out well before any of the line-up is announced. (Previous headline bands have included Damien Rice and Manu Chao. (And I have made it my aim in life to persuade Portishead and SunnO))) to play here.) He states bluntly: “I have never thought about the remoteness in a negative way, just positive.
“I knew I wanted to do a festival where people had to travel to get there. People who travel for 10-12 hours to get to here are focused and completely in tune with their surroundings. You could get from Oslo to Bangkok in the same amount of time. I hate city festivals. You take the bus for 20 minutes and go into an area with nicely dressed people. The travel and the experience on the way here is 50 percent of the festival experience.”
He is right, of course. After you’ve arrived in Norway, it’s another two-hour flight north from Oslo to Bodø, which—despite being the capital "city" of the Nordland municipality—is barely a town by UK standards, and marks the point on the mainland where the rail network stops. And then from there, you have to take a three-to-five-hour boat trip down a fjord and out to sea to reach the volcanic archipelago.
Although weather at this time of year is usually comparable to English summertime, a hurricane has just passed through, so the skies are gray for most of the weekend and our journey out by boat to the festival site was admittedly rough. This was a shame as we didn’t get to see Hestemannen, aka The Horseman, a mountain shaped gloriously like rider and steed, or Norway’s second largest glacier, the Svartisen, which sits way above the mountain tops, like a colossal amount of icing on the world’s biggest wedding cake. The ride didn’t improve radically when we hit open waters. The English press officer for the event, Wyndham Wallace, a Træna veteran of some six years, knew all the tricks and handed out chunks of fresh ginger for everyone to chew on. Out of those who refused, several were seen dashing for the boat’s facilities before we arrived at the harbour. Being in a boat mimicking the flight path of the wood framed roller coaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach isn’t for everyone and immediately on landing, British pop singer Charlie XCX cancelled her trip on a fishing trawler with me. “Yeah, she’s not really up for getting on another boat at the moment,” her manager said to me, grimacing.
Poor Clara Hill from Berlin performed her exquisite new album Walk The Distance on one of the boats ferrying festival guests from the mainland to the main island of Husøya. It was not entirely dissimilar to booking Annette Peacock to sing from a shopping trolley being pushed through Sheffield by angry crackheads. However she must be commended on the excellence of her performance because for the entirety of her beautiful set, no one on board vomited, which they certainly did before and after.
Once on land I have the pleasant sensation of being at sea, no matter where I am for the next eight days. When you experience Træna, it stays at the forefront of your mind for some time afterwards.
Line Møller (left) and Synne Sofie Reksten. Photo by John Doran.
People are drawn to the island. I hear of a bunch of hippies arriving in a barely sea-worthy tub packed full of herbal refreshment, lucky to actually return to dry land again and not end up the latest arrivals down at Fiddler’s Green. (It’s a spectacularly undruggy festival—the first year I attended I saw someone being taken off the island by police for smoking a joint. People do get drunk though. The combination of 24-hour daylight and an illegal homebrew called hjemmebrent is more than enough for most people to cope with to be honest. The second biggest casualty of the weekend is a punter so drunk by the Sunday morning he isn’t legally allowed to get on any boats and has to be airlifted by helicopter back to the mainland. The biggest casualty, however, was a punter who was unexpectedly and accidentally joined in his one-man tent by a boisterous seagull looking for food which then started panicking in its attempt to get back out. And the seagulls here are fucking massive.)
Perhaps making a better fit for Erlend’s vision thing are the two bikers I meet, Synne Sofie Reksten and Line Møller. They drove up from Oslo over a period of five days, camping in forests, slinging hammocks up in deserted barns, cooking by the roadside, making frequent stops to repair Synne Sofie’s careworn 1973 500cc Honda CB.
Line, who is driving a 2001 790cc Triumph Bonneville, used to work in the Norwegian film industry but jacked it in because of the long hours. She says: “It’s great driving along the roads this far North. Because you get the weather, you can feel the rain, you can smell the flowers and yeah, the cow shit as well, but the views are great: all of your senses are stimulated. The roads are great for motorbikes and terrible for cars so there isn’t much traffic. You can open up and drive really fast.”
Synne Sofie quit her job working with drug addicts a year ago and is now studying toward a master’s degree in biology. She says: “I want to be a mycologist. I’m very interested in the potential of mushrooms. The carbon chains you get in plastics are very hard to break down naturally because of their length but there are certain mushrooms that could do it.” When pressed, she adds: “In theory you could have mushrooms breaking down used plastic—it’s something I’d like to work on because the benefits to the environment could be massive.”
Like Erlend implies, it’s as much a journey of the imagination as it is a physical trip.
Slicing up some smoked whale. Photo by John Doran.
When I first came to this tiny fishing community, I stupidly tried to stick to my vegetarianism and became quite ill in the process after six days of essentially just eating bread and cheese. Now I eat anything the islanders do when I’m here. And I mean anything. I eat a lot of whale on this trip and am disappointed to miss out on trying seal for the first time. I’ve eaten raw whale, whale sushi with wasabi, smoked whale, pan-fried whale, whale burgers, whale stroganoff and grilled whale. All of it is deliciously gamey and rich in flavor. I can see why it’s not a particularly popular thing to do but, being a vegetarian for the other 360 days of the year, I’ll live. In the last ten years Norway has made leaps and bounds forwards in terms of conserving and protecting its marine stock and the number of minke whale hunted now comes in way under the quota. This allows for the 150,000 whale stock in Norwegian waters to keep expanding in size. (Norway can’t or doesn’t export whale produce, so the demand is kept well below a sustainable level.)
As with anything to do with animals, sentimentality rules the day. Whales are giant creatures, relatively social and clever and on top of this we invest them, anthropomorphically, with plenty of human characteristics; perhaps even fairly in some cases. I’m not a sentimental person however, and am not vegetarian because I subscribe to an animal rights-based philosophy; it's mainly for humanist reasons. I don’t eat meat because I can’t afford to buy flesh that has been raised and slaughtered humanely outside of the factory farming system. I don’t care about the life of one whale that much more than I care about the life of one badger or one cow. It is the factory farming system that is wrong; that is inhumane; that causes sickness and obesity in the working classes and the poor the world over.
Recently, after a long period of ill health I had some tests done, and it turns out that I’m allergic and intolerant to about 15 different food stuffs. This is hardly surprising. It seems to be a regular occurrence these days. I have a feeling that we could learn something about the way food is gathered and cooked in communities like this one by people who just take what they need—I don’t have any scientific reasoning or data behind this assumption. Let’s call it a gut feeling.
This isn’t to say that I’m blind to how whales are killed. I’m not. It’s violent and deeply unpleasant. But without wanting to be too glib, luckily for me I’m not a giant tasty minke who lives slap bang where whaling has been a traditional way of life for 1,200 years.
And come on, let’s have it straight: meat doesn’t get much more free range and organic than whale.
A woman emerges from the sea with a slice of salmon on her head. Photo by Maria Jefferis.
The focus of the Træna Festival is as much on food as it is on music. At a pop-up sushi restaurant inside a shipping container by the main harbor, I speak to the chairman of the board for the festival, Sverre Hyttan. He says: “I can understand why people think that humans shouldn’t kill whales. Sometimes when they are shooting it, it can take a while to die. And it’s a huge animal with a big brain and a very large central nervous system. But if you are thinking conservation of the stocks of fish and the whole sea, it is sensible to kill some whales in my opinion. And if you look at the whole picture, it is not just the minke whale but most species of fish here are increasing. I think in time as well there could be a problem with illness between the whales. We have seen it in the Barents Sea and we have seen it outside America, a lot of seals have died because there are too many whales. But also the sea is very big so you never know what will happen. But also… the whale meat? It is very good! My favorite way to eat it is to cook it in various spices and then have it in a fondue. This is very nice.”
There isn’t a consensus on eating whale meat in Norway. Blood Command tell me that it is uncool to eat it. I ask them to elaborate on why this is cruel but eating dangerously depleted forms of cod isn’t but when they don’t—or can’t—I get the sneaking suspicion that they literally mean, eating whale meat “is uncool”, meaning not fashionable, rather than morally indefensible. However, they’re just sticking up for what they believe in and even five years ago I would have agreed with them whole-heartedly, facts or no facts.
Later, in the brilliant restaurant where festival workers and performers eat breakfast and dinner, the Rorbuferie—one of my favorite places on the island and right next door to the herring factory where I am staying—I ask a lot of people how they like to cook whale and my straw poll suggests it is a very versatile meat. My friend Sondre Sommerfelt, who I always seem to run into when in Norway and who is definitely an urban, Southern, middle-class Norwegian, isn’t that keen on it for example, but he says his grandfather who was a whaler used to swear by braising chunks of the flesh in Newcastle Brown Ale. He regales everyone with whale facts: “The blue whale’s penis is three meters long but relatively speaking very thin… it only has 50 centimeter girth. And when it, ah, what is the English? When it spends, it produces a bath tub full of semen.”
I push my potatoes in béchamel sauce to one side of my plate. No one ever laughed at the blue whale after it swam in the Baltic.
Erling Ramskjell. Photo by Wyndham Wallace.
What the future holds for the festival or the local fishing industry or indeed the entire community is unclear. When I talk to the festival manager Anita Overelv she brings up the potential dark clouds on the horizon. Oil reserves were detected in the region a few years back and now corporate scientists are based nearby doing research into potential drilling sites. She says: “The difference between the sushi at Træna and the sushi you’d get in London or Tokyo is here you can just stick your hand into the clean ocean and pull out some great fish. It is bad that they’re going to start drilling for oil here because the ocean is clean now but for how long? The local kids have a saying: "Let the cod fuck in peace." The scientists say they’re just checking but we know that now they have passed the point of no return.
“The thing you learn when you live on Træna is you just take what you have around you. This is an important lesson but I re-learned it when I moved here. You take what you have and you give back what you can. Our neighbors have a farm so my boyfriend takes care of the sheep while they are away. And my boyfriend is a vegetarian—well, he eats fish but you know what I mean. However, I am not a vegetarian so I get a sheep to eat when they get back. It is not about money. It is about friendship and relationships.”
Her boyfriend is Erling Ramskjell, a musician who sometimes goes by the name of Ær Ling or even just Æ, who when not creating skewed folk/prog/pop is a part-time fisherman and festival handyman as well as an occasional vegetarian sheep farmer.
I ask him how this works and he says: “I look after the sheep and I think that maybe it’s a bit of an odd thing for a man who doesn’t eat meat to do. But I think the sheep are quite lucky. I would like to just go around eating and fucking, minding my own business and then suddenly [brings down hand like chopper] I am dead.”
I comment that you couldn’t really ask for more from existence, and he agrees: “No. It sounds like a good life to me.”
Like a lot of people who move to the island, Erling isn’t interested in taking the easy route through life. He performs most of his music in an obscure provincial dialect of Norwegian called saltsdakas only spoken by about 5,000 people who live in one Northern agricultural valley. Which hasn’t stopped him from carving out some popularity for himself in Hungary, Russia, and the North of Norway. His latest album—Fraillaments (by Erling And The Armagedonettes)—is a departure for him in that it is sung in English but a very poetic, fractured form of our language full of neologisms, unusual contractions, and fantastical grammatical and linguistic inventions.
Erling, more than anyone else I meet, represents. Erling is living ekphrasis.
Erling Ramskjell. Photo by Wyndham Wallace.
He has made his life his art and he represents the art and life of the island and the islanders. And like the island community he is stoic, charming, slow moving, deep, inscrutable, and occasionally very funny.
When I call round his house, he ushers me in to sit at his kitchen table. “This is the most important place in a Norwegian’s house,” he tells me. “When families sit down to have serious conversations, not just chatting about their day, it is called a kitchen table conversation.”
Our chat, he reassures me though, won’t be a kitchen table conversation, merely held at one.
He stresses out about making me a cup of tea because I am English. He suffers under the false impression that all Englishmen have amazingly sophisticated taste in tea despite my protestations to the contrary. He continually laughs off my suggestion that I will just have a cup of PG Tips as if I am making a ridiculous joke. In the end it takes him nearly ten minutes to select what he considers to be the optimum tea leaves to make me a brew. It is a very good cup of tea. When I nod my approval he punches the air and makes himself a mug of Nescafe instant coffee.
Then he lights himself the first of about 20 cigarettes.
He begins talking at a glacial pace. (It’s probably best to imagine him leaving a lengthy gap after every third word rather than me liberally applying ellipsis to signify his geological pauses while speaking…) “My first experience with this festival was an interesting one. My band Schtimm were asked to play here in 2006 and we didn’t know anything about it before setting off from Bodø on the boat. The sea was like a mirror. Totally, totally flat sea. And totally sunny and warm. You could sit out on the deck of a fast moving vessel in your shirt sleeves.”
He nods out of the window at the rain beating down and the choppy water we can see outside. He says: “The weather was a little bit different from how it is today. And of course, that was the only time the weather was ever like that… so God tricked me into moving here! I have been sent here by dark, dark forces...”
I ask him when he moved to the island, and he replies: “The darkest time of year. It was on the first of February. My birthday.
“We do get some hours of near light during winter. This island is very open, so luckily you get a sense of space. We don’t actually see the sun during this period because of those god damn mountains over there but yeah, it gets lighter for about four hours a day. Then when darkness falls it is pitch black. It is pitch black for 20 hours a day. I am barely even aware at this point. All I am aware of is that I should try and see some of this light. I mean, the further north you go, the darker it is. If you get to the top of Norway there is no light at all. Maybe you get a tiny bit for half an hour. I was up there playing a few weeks ago and there you get a fleeting glimpse of daylight and then in seconds it’s gone again.
“As a child I grew up along the same line of latitude, so I was born into this life. Still, it is very hard to get used to it. Some people, they find it difficult but you have to roll with the punches. When it’s very light and you don’t have any blackness in your bedroom it is also a source of confusion. You can tell it is night time but still your brain doesn’t care when your eyes see the light."
The Træna harbour globe. Photo by John Doran.
I ask how many people stay on the island for the full winter: “There are 500 people here and there are more during the herring season in the autumn but I don’t know how many. It’s not very many. It could be as low as 40. We have a lot of people who move here from places like Poland and Latvia. This is because Norwegians are lazy and they won’t do the very hard work. I think we are going in the wrong direction when it comes to work. I don’t mean we should be all Catholic and punish ourselves to death with work but the truth is we are rich. We are richer than the rest of Europe and pretty much the rest of the world. We can live off that. Coming at this from a personal level, when you have financial security you can commit to something you find important, dig into other non-material questions in life or you can be a miser and complain about immigration and how gasoline has gone up by one Euro cent and don’t settle for owning one car but claim you need two cars. But maybe this is not just a Norwegian thing but a human thing. We’re all like hamsters in that we fill our mouths full of stuff that we have no use for.”
When I ask him about how extreme life for the modern inhabitants is in other ways, he says: “The weather can be extreme. There are so many good stories about the weather and I have seen extreme weather here. The roof of the sports hall blew off in a storm a few years ago. And of course the old timers say, ‘This is nothing compared to the winter of 1856 when the whole island was moved three meters to the right.’ The risk if you’re a fisherman is still there. The second most dangerous job in Norway is offshore worker and then you have fisherman as the most dangerous job. The people working on the factory ships are exposed to a lot of danger. I think the mortality rates among those on the smaller trawlers is something like 20 or 25 times higher than that of the average non-seabound Norwegian. Time changes, technology changes, the world moves forward. You will survive not going out for ten hours every single day even when the weather is really bad so things do improve. But my neighbor, he is a fisherman and he used to go with this other guy and each year they’d go a bit further up together. Well, on one trip the other guy just disappeared. They found his boat but some monster wave had just hit him. It’s very easy to be romantic about the tough old sailing days that give us this idea that we are tougher than the rest of the world but there is actually a big uncertain element in your everyday life if you’re a fisherman.”
He points out of the window at the inlet that leads in from open waters and says: “That little gap out there is called 'Hell' in Norwegian. Helvete. You will understand why it is called this when you see the bad weather. And the weather I am talking about has literally blown people away in the past. Have you been up to the Nato Base [a Cold War intelligence facility built on a mountain ridge] on Sanna?
When I nod, he says: “So when they were building the gondola cable car lift up there, there was a construction guy sheltering in his truck from a hurricane. He was safe even though the vehicle was rocking like hell in the wind. But then he opened the door and was sucked straight out of the vehicle. He was holding on by the door handle. If he hadn’t been holding the door handle he would have been blown away, literally. And of course Nato don’t mess about so they had a gadget measuring the wind force and it was some insane number. Rough winds in the North Atlantic usually measure at 32 knots in speed and this was at recorded at 89 – he was on top of a mountain, out at sea in the middle of a category two hurricane, holding onto his truck door handle. So it is charming to have the possibility to be blown away. Here on Træna your metaphors become reality.”
Photo by John Doran.
On Sunday, everyone at the festival sets off for the second most heavily populated island, Sanna, in a flotilla of fishing vessels, ferries and speedboats. (Forty people live here during summer and only one hardy soul during winter.) This is the most rugged of the Træna islands and the one that provides the distinctive skyline, which, as you approach it, looks like the top one third of the Wu Tang Clan symbol sticking up out of the sea. The weather is still miserable but we’ve been promised blazing sunshine at midnight tonight. In the meantime, entrepreneurial kids line the route up to the foot of the middle of the island’s five distinctive peaks, selling cups of tea and freshly cooked waffles with jam and cream.
There is a unique way to get to the mountain ridge and the huge, golf-ball-shaped NATO base. Built at the height of the Cold War to keep an eye on the Russians, the facility is reached via a tunnel drilled up through the heart of the mountain. The tunnel starts from the road at one side and emerges just below the middle peak on the other side.
In the last ten years I’ve been stabbed during interviews, I’ve been beaten up on tour buses, the job has seen me end up a mentally ill, alcoholic and drug-wracked depression case, but still nothing about my work is as terrible as having to walk through this fucking tunnel. It’s only when your heart is threatening to burst through your rib cage when you’re not even half the way through that you realise that when the locals call it the “tunnel of love” they’re being ironic.
You would think that if you genuinely had the money and technology to drill a tunnel through the heart of a mountain and put atomic bomb proof doors at either end, you would do so at a slightly more gentlemanly incline.
Luckily inside the tunnel I can’t see the look on the faces of Baby In Vain, the band I’ve made accompany me on this fool’s errand. They are an excellent young rock band from Copenhagen who sound like a trainee Boss Hogg meets youthful Sonic Youth meets junior team Melvins. (Their gig later that night suggests that while they’re not quite there yet, when they are, they will be astounding.) When we’re out in the daylight the scowl on guitarist Andrea Johansen’s face says it all. She says: “I feel like I’m on drugs right now. I can’t feel my body or my head.” And it’s obvious from her angry and stunned look and running mascara that she doesn’t mean this in a good way either. It took three planes, two boats and two days for them to get here, their equipment was lost en route, they had a really rough sea crossing, they all have road colds and now some English journalist has made them walk through the middle of a mountain in the pitch black to do an interview which they quite easily could have done back stage or by email. I apologise profusely and we start walking back down through the tunnel immediately. To make matters worse when I listen to the recording later on to transcribe the conversation, the noise of the wind at the summit has made our talk incomprehensible. All I can hear is disorientating condenser mic white noise with the occasional female Scandinavian voice saying things like: “Thurston Moore… Long way to the top if you want to rock and roll… lost my distortion pedals.” I’m thinking of releasing it as a Hair Police CD-R and seeing how many people buy it.
The view from inside Kirkhellaren. Photo by John Doran.
Everyone is on the island to visit the 30-meter tall striated limestone cave, Kirkhellaren, in order to watch Susanne Sundfør. The natural cathedral-like space housed Træna’s first settlers, nearly 10,000 years earlier. Again, the landscape is the star. You could put Mumford & Sons or Reef on in this cave and it would become a beautiful, transcendent experience. (No disrespect to the shoegaze inflected, Julie Cruise-influenced singer-songwriter Susanne, who has everyone in attendance eating out of her hand in what must be the easiest gig of her career to date.)
Back at the festival site when the sun finally shows itself at 7:22 on Saturday night there is rapturous applause. It then carves a lazy lasso shape in the sky above us, like a halo cast over the islands.
This celestial turn around bodes well for local band Maud's oceanic synth gaze, post-rock pop. And they are the best new band I see while I’m up there. They open their set as the synthesizer playing duo of Sara Bjelvin and Kristine Hoff and then toward the end, as they build in intensity, they are augmented by a guitarist and drummer.
They’re as a fresh as anything living in the clear, coastal waters. They only formed four months ago, they don’t have a Facebook page, SoundCloud, Twitter account, or even any YouTube videos. They don’t even know what kind of music they play. They’re hoping to talk to the audience afterwards to ask them what genre they think it is. (Although I’m rather taken with the Norwegian description in the program: “Hard Elektronikk og softe vokalharmonier.”) Kristine is 20 and it is her third time on the island. The first time she was working on one of the smaller stages. The second time she came back as a punter and now she is playing in a band. And this is despite the fact she has a serious fish allergy.
Maud members Kristine Hoff (left) and Sara Bjelvin. Photo by John Doran.
She laughs: “I get an allergic reaction to it. I’m hyper allergic to it. It could actually kill me if I had it. I have an epi pen with me. The first year I came here I could only eat lentil burgers but they had hazelnuts in them and I’m allergic to them as well. Luckily it wasn’t peanuts, though. I am really, really, very allergic to peanuts.”
Sara jokes that she is having to live off bread, chips, and beer only to be corrected by Kristine: “No. I’m allergic to beer as well. I am living on just bread and chips.”
Nature, as always, abhors a vacuum and British duo the Correspondents appear on the main stage to help fill another piece of the void with a Romo, electroclash, big band swing, Barrington Levy, scat, hip-hop, Noel Coward, Camden indie ska, Skrillex, mambo hybrid. The madman’s breakfast of noise is created by a DJ in a comfortable sweater called Chucks and a gyrating, effervescent, cake-eating rake in Harry Potter spectacles, bright white brogues, diamanté encrusted tails, and an extravagant wet suit, called Mr Bruce. They are an aesthetic abomination and insanely enjoyable. During a track bemoaning the lack of opportunities for scoundrels in modern Soho, the electro Gussie Fink-Nottle nips off stage only to return wearing a black and white latex ruff and break into an energetic Charleston. Good show, old boys—don’t expect any coverage in The Wire any time soon, though.
People take advantage of the finally great weather to wander over to the edge of the island to watch the sun skating along the horizon at sea level, casting mile-long shadows behind them. Others dance the night away in the campsites. I take the opportunity to have one last walk round the islands.
Spot the forlorn elk. Photo by John Doran.
Down by the harbor it’s deserted. I look at the large metal globe made from steel girders that greets all ships that dock here. A local artist made it out of scrap, by all accounts. I remember what Anita said about the islanders just taking what they have. Her boyfriend Erling told me about the old man who made it who is now in his mid-70s. He recently created a statue of a stoical elk which stands on a hilltop on the Western side of Husøya, looking forlornly out to sea. But this is no metaphorical elk. This is the statue of a real beast that swam all the way from the mainland —supposedly—in search of a partner in the mid-1980s. Trouble was, when he got to the archipelago, he was the only animal of his kind here. He spent some time trying to befriend local cows but was driven away by a heartless farmer who wasn’t progressive enough to consider interspecies fraternization. The unfortunate elk took to standing on a hilltop (where the statue is now) and looking out to sea pining for the soulmate he never had. And then one day, without warning, he disappeared. Some say he went back into the ocean to carry on his quest on islands further out to sea or further down the coast.
“Still,” said Erling, “this story has hope. Did he find love with a lady, this elk? Did he reach dry land again? There is hope that he did. Either way, I like to think that he went to a better place.”
Now the big statue is framed against the gold and salmon 2 AM sky. An “elk in sunset” is Norwegian shorthand for kitsch. An oil painting of such a scene is the Nordic equivalent of Bruno Amadio’s The Crying Boy or Vladimir Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl. This old sculptor had a good sense of humour. I love this big brass reindeer standing glumly on the hill, willing to chase his own blue line all the way up north no matter what. Even if it kills him.
Erlend, the festival's founder, was a child when he first fished these waters with his grandfather. He was a child when he first stood in Kirkhelleren and thought, “Imagine how cool it would be to play an electric guitar in here.” He was only 12 when, obsessed with the Woodstock triple LP, he first fantasised about putting on a festival for the island.
Thinking of these three things makes me think of the Albert Camus quote translated into English on the sleeve of Scott Walker’s Scott 4 LP: “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
I walk back to the herring factory for one last sleep before heading regretfully down to the harbor to leave.
A photo of the author by Wyndham Wallace.
John Doran writes a regular column for VICE UK called MENK. You can find previous editions of it archived here.
More travel writing:
'I Will Die Soon; I Know That': Meeting the Real Christiane F
The Brown Mountain State
I Went to a Japanese Wine Spa
I Spent a Month Living in a Romanian Sexcam Studio
Syria's Rebel Press Is Fighting Back Against Jihadists
Weediquette: Stoned Kids
Ukrainian Protesters Toppled Kiev's Lenin Statue Last Night
Christmas Ads for People Who Hate Christmas Ads
That DUI Coma Prank Is Probably Fake
Fightland Show: MMA Worldwide - Bulgaria - Part 1