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To Watain the Unwatainable

The legendary, blood-drenched band dishes on their controversial live show and their upcoming Bathory tribute album.

Watain by Ben Bertocci

The stench hits you as soon as you walk on the bus. Not just the smell of 14 or 15 dudes farting in an enclosed space and wearing the same socks for three weeks, but the special dead-animal tang that is exclusively Watain’s. By now you’ve heard the stories about these infamous Swedish black metal marauders: Yes, they douse themselves—and the audience, if deemed worthy enough—in cow’s blood. Yes, they’ve been wearing the same stage clothes for 15 years. And yeah, they make semi-regular visits to the hospital to receive treatment for impetigo and other unpleasant infections. But you know what? We’ve been behind the scenes at Watain shows before, and tonight is actually not that bad.

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Watain’s tour bus is parked in the alley behind the Henry Fonda Theater in Los Angeles, where the band are playing on the final night of their US tour with Canadian war machines Revenge and Norwegian black metal OGs Mayhem. When Watain vocalist and mastermind Erik “E.” Danielsson waves us aboard, we almost stumble over a couple of crew guys passed out in the front lounge—catching some much-needed winks, no doubt, before tonight’s show. There’s a note taped to the TV screen above them: “Hey, boys – I left my jeans on the bus last night. If you find them, please let me know.” It’s signed by a woman who shall remain nameless. We turn to Danielsson for explanation, but he simply shrugs and says, “Last day of the tour, man.”

Noisey: Was this tour better, worse or different than you expected it to be?
Erik Danielsson: Definitely better. I think no one knew it if would be a matter of three bands just taking each other out, because all of the bands have a quite fanatical approach to what they are doing. For once, I feel comfortable about using the word “extreme” because that’s definitely something that connects our bands in one way or another. Every band does their thing quite different from each other but in union it becomes this quite overwhelming thing. Everyone seems to benefit from each other’s presence. That goes for the turnouts as well—I don’t think we’ve had this obvious a good response here in the States. People really seem to appreciate that this tour is a one of a kind thing.

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You’ve been very consistent in touring on excellent bills here in the US. Last time you were here with In Solitude and Tribulation. The time before that it was with Behemoth, The Devil’s Blood, and In Solitude.
We try. That’s been a thing since day one. Having our first full European tour with Dissection, that’s kinda when we carved it in stone that this is how it has to be. That’s still the most perfect tour we’ve ever had, but we always put a lot of effort into getting the right kind of bills. Unfortunately, that’s something that not many bands seem to care about. Any band can tour, but not every band can make something historical with a tour package. That’s what I wanna do.

Mayhem are one of the originators of black metal as we know it today. Have you learned anything from them on this tour, or do you consider Watain beyond that at this point?
Well, “learned”… I don’t know. I think I’ve learned that I’m very, very glad to be in a band that consists of people that actually share a common purpose. I’m very glad that when I’m on the road, I’m out here with my brothers and sisters. Not everyone is that lucky. But people can still get shit going. Mayhem have had very well received shows on all the days. They know what they’re doing, and we were extremely inspired by Mayhem when we were starting out. I’d say they were one of the top three bands in our world that were our center of focus.

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I’m guessing the other two were Bathory and Dissection.
Something like that, yes. And we never tried to hush that down. I’m proud to admit that the Mayhem legacy was one of the most important measuring sticks for us when we were starting out. And still to this day I am hugely inspired by [Mayhem founder] Euronymous and his vision. I think he is one of the true black metal visionaries that ever existed.

Did you have any contact with Euronymous before he was killed?
No, I was too young. I kind of got into the whole Mayhem thing when he died because it was all over the news in Sweden at the time when I was getting into harder death metal stuff. Then, boom, black metal came and I was drawn into it. I have a scrapbook with all the newspaper clippings that’s this thick [uses his hands to indicate the thickness of an L.A. phone book], from all the Swedish and Norwegian newspapers. I was obsessed by it, and it dragged me into that darkness. There’s something about having the Mayhem logo on the poster for this tour—it means something. It has a symbolic value that cannot be denied. I have a very special relationship with the band, and I know they have valid reasons for doing what they’re doing now, even if it’s more of a Motörhead show than a black metal show.

Beloved bands that change their sound or style even a little bit often feel the wrath of fans and critics. You’ve been experiencing a bit of that lately with reactions to Watain’s most recent album, The Wild Hunt. It wasn’t nearly as well received as the last one, Lawless Darkness.
It was very polarizing, but I like that. It means you’re doing something that creates a reaction. And reaction, if anything, is one of the few things that I ask from people. I definitely don’t ask for people to like what we do, but if they take part in what we do, I need a reaction. Otherwise, we’re doing something wrong.

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Were you surprised by the reaction to The Wild Hunt?
It’s hard for me to say because, as strange as it may sound, I don’t take part so much in that kind of reaction. The reaction I see, the one I take part in, is the reaction from the crowd at the shows. And the crowds at the shows have been great. I don’t sit around reading fucking reviews on the Internet or message boards or whatever children are doing these days. The second you start doing that, you’re onto something bad. Because usually what comes next is that you start to adapt to get another kind of reaction that is more beneficial to yourself. I don’t wanna do that. I want to involve myself as little as possible in that whole thing. I want to keep things pure.

One of the sticking points for people on The Wild Hunt was the song “They Rode On,” which was an acoustic song with real singing on it. I thought it was fantastic, but not everyone did.
I think what people reacted to was that song in a black metal context. But for us, it was maybe our way to say that we don’t really feel we need to prove ourselves as far as how black metal Watain is. We put most bands to shame in that regard, so that’s not something I feel we need to emphasize. What we do need to emphasize is that Watain is a free entity. It’s a liberated artistic community where anything can fucking happen. That song was our way of saying we make our own rules, and we don’t abide by any others. It wasn’t written with that in mind, but if you want to put it in a political context, it can take on that meaning in hindsight. I love that song. It was not written with the intention to play it live, but never say never.

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You’ve got a live Bathory tribute album coming out in a couple of weeks. It was recorded at the Sweden Rock festival in 2010. Have you intentionally been sitting on it for that long?
We had it ready for many, many years—since our 13-year anniversary, which is when we were gonna release it. But for some reason it got delayed at the printing plant and we cancelled the whole order at the last minute because we realized we wouldn’t get it in time. Lately, there’s been a bunch of new Bathory connections coming up—actually, their first drummer is coming to the show tonight.

I recently interviewed Freddan, the original bass player.
I performed “Sacrifice” with him once at the Candlemass guitarist’s wedding. It was me on drums, Hellbutcher and Tyrant from Nifelheim on guitar and vocals, and Freddan on bass. And that was the first time since the Scandinavian Attack recordings that he touched a bass. So me and Tyrant and Hellbutcher were talking before we played, saying, “Okay, we can do this song. But we can also cut off his fingers and make the most powerful black metal talismans out of them because they have not touched a bass since then!” [Laughs] But with the tribute album, it’s been 11 years since [Bathory mastermind] Quorthon’s passing, and 11 is a significant number for us, so we decided to put it out in relation to this Scandinavian tour we are doing right after this one.

You never met Quorthon, but do you feel like he was a kindred spirit?
In the sense that he was a diehard visionary that didn’t leave anything to chance. He knew how he wanted his shit done, and he did it. It became very special because of that. That whole idea in Watain comes very much from our perception of Bathory when we were younger: No fucking compromise. Why do something halfway? Do it all the way or don’t do it at all. That guy never played live because he realized he’d need millions of dollars to do it. He would have needed to set fire to the entire stage and himself and then levitate out over the audience and drop bombs.

Speaking of fire: Whenever Watain come to the US, there’s always a problem with it. Many venues here won’t even let you light a candle onstage, despite the fact that it’s been a regular part of your show for years. How has the fire situation been on this tour?
We’ve been able to do it on every show apart from California. If you don’t want me getting into a foul mood, we should avoid this subject. I will just say that some of these fucking venue owners need a bullet in the back of their head. That’s all that they deserve. They treat music and performers without any kind of dignity whatsoever. They’re just law-abiding little sheep that shouldn’t be near anything that’s got to do with art. I’ve had very bad moments, yesterday and today in San Francisco and L.A., with venue people that are just the worst kind of fucking people. If you want to put it in a positive light, it creates that tension that somehow fuels the fires within instead. But sometimes I just wish I had a flamethrower on my back so I could set the whole stage on fire during the last song. That’s kind of how I feel about today, but there are different types of fire, and there’s going to be a lot of fucking fire on that stage tonight no matter what.

Most black metal musicians have demonic stage names, but you’ve never given yourself one. Why?
I suppose it was a conscious choice, because all of our idols had great fucking artist names. But the way I thought about it early on was that by using our real names, it was a way for us to say that this is not a mask. These are the names we have been given, this is us doing this, there is no alter ego. Your given name is such a big part of what you are, and it tears down that wall that many artists put up around themselves. And I like that. At the same time, sometimes I really wish I picked a cool name. [Laughs] It’s really stepping out of your comfort zone using your given name. I can’t say I regret it, though, because there’s something in that uncomfortable-ness that I like.

J. Bennett once set fire to his Spanish textbook while sitting in his high school Spanish class. He is not on Twitter.