The renowned frontman expands further on the staggering scope of their latest gem.
Words by Luis (@heaviestofart):
On April 29th, Sweden's Watain released The Agony & Ecstasy of Watain via Nuclear Blast Records: the zenith of a band who has remained true to an expansive and honest craft despite decades of external and internal adversity. From the accompanying cover artwork to the profound lyricism penned by mastermind Erik Danielsson, Agony & Ecstasy stands as a comprehensive being that challenges listeners (and viewers) to explore beyond a surface level, as any effective work of art would. As Danielsson notes, this is "pure rock n' roll, just like the Devil intended." And it is. It's as enticing a black metal offering as it is a multi-sensory experience and for those keen on exploring its many wonders, you'll find yourself uncovering new layers upon subsequent visits. We're thrilled to give you an inside look.
We go Behind the Cover of The Agony & Ecstasy of Watain with frontman Erik Danielsson to learn and immerse ourselves in the audiovisual synchronicity of the record, the band's creative process, the genuineness of their composition, and more:
Several listens in and it’s evident that ‘The Agony & Ecstasy' is a high point in the Watain discography, which is entering a new and exciting chapter exploring your current mind and spirit. Would you argue that this is a culmination of your staggering growth as artists and the relationships you’ve been able to build over the years? Watain is of course a product of strong kinship.
Erik: Thank you! Culmination is a beautiful way of putting it, and one that resonates well with how I feel about the album in general. The madness and the mystery of all we have experienced so far, revealed in something that feels in many ways like a climax or a crescendo. I have always struggled with the fact that many great bands seem to lose their course over time, or struggle to maintain a sense of urgency and meaning within their work. In other fields of art, it is far from as common to do that.
Many great painters continue to perfect their skills and master new techniques until their dying days, as do writers, directors, sculptors and murderers. So why shouldn't that apply to our line of work? Sure, the music business is quite an uninspiring and shallow place, especially compared to what it's selling. That alone could put a damp blanket on anyone whose doubts are greater than their passions. Perhaps being in the same band for too many years eventually will just be a painful reminder of what it was like when they experienced the passions of youth. They grow old and weary and lose their focus by becoming ordinary members of society, but that is not our story. This is Watain and I look forward to prove that what we do is an anomaly and exception to that general rule. We consider this our sacred lifework, and I think that is the main reason why the darkness of Watain continues to glimmer with increasing intensity.
Your listeners pick up on the passion you inbest and reflect it back upon you all, as we've seen a few times before during the live show. Jumping into this new endeavor, before one gets a chance to listen through its expansive black metal, we’re met by quite a twisted cover illustration by you and Oik Wasfuk. How did you look to express the duality of the agony and ecstasy album title through the arts with Oik ? Is there something to be learned here? This duality is of course a good entry point for viewer engagement and understanding.
Erik: What you see behind Oik's fantastic winged logo is a cut and paste collage that I had been working on, on and off for some time, basically just as a side-thing while I was composing and writing. When I realized how well the logo that Oik had sent us a year earlier would work with that collage, I almost fell off my chair, haha. Sometimes things just work themselves out like that, especially if they are imbued with a strong focus and intent.
I made the cover and the overall layout a bit like a personal homage to the glory days of the 1980s and early 1990s Metal and Industrial music underground. Demo covers, fanzines and flyers were rough and raw but often visually striking with lots of detail, and always dealing with extreme subjects like magic, death, murder, religion, the devil, lawlessness and so on. These were made by hand, cut and pasted, photocopied, spread from hand to hand. The artistic legacy of underground, this form of true counter-culture activism, made out of genuine passion with whatever means being at ones disposal — that is probably my main inspiration as a graphic artist.
There is a dualism in there as well, in that it aims to convey quite vast magical/philosophical concepts that I will get into later, in a style that is ultimately rather savage and crude.
This level of dedication to every aspect of the release cycle is admirable, and for many, it's also reminiscent of the DIY attitude that was present throughout bands of that era, as you alluded to. That said, how would you characterize the partnership with Oik in creating the cover and the additional visual components for the record? It’s riddled with detail.
Erik: Well, besides the logo on the cover, I've done all the artwork for the album. I make art all the time, merch designs, poster designs and also a lot of stuff that eventually end up on our releases. Putting an album out is a big deal for us and we like to make the most out of it. I like the feeling of knowing people will be able to have the album in their lives for a while and still discover new things, be it a lyrical passage, a melody, or an artwork from the booklet. You can say a lot with a piece of music alone, but add words to it and then a piece of visual art, and you can reach entirely new heights and depths than what was originally intended. Or perhaps it's just the push that the song needs to get where it should be. I struggle with this intricate, multi-layered form of expression a lot, but I find the challenge very stimulating. The creative process is never easy, but to me it’s often the struggle that ends up charging the thing you are working on.
There's beauty in the struggle, that's for certain. 'Agony & Ecstasy' is ambiguous and could be interpreted in a few distinct ways. Is that the intention here, to invite a curious listener or viewer to immerse themselves within the composition? Both the art and the music is far from linear and I’d argue that the best art offers you only a small piece of the puzzle while encouraging viewers to finish it in their way.
Erik: The two columns on either side of the cover represent Agony and Ecstasy: two extreme states of altered consciousness that have been a part of Watain's emotional spectrum since day one. Agony can be said to represent the deep darkness and struggle of existence, while ecstasy on the other hand pertains to transcendent bliss and the euphoric madness. I believe in the valuable charge or friction that occurs from the union of opposing extremes. George Bataille meant that when pushed to the utmost limits of pain and pleasure, both physical and spiritual, we enable the experiencing of a divine singularity where the differences between divine ecstasy and utter horror are eradicated. Eros and Thanatos sodomizing one another, producing a magical offspring. The demonic maelstrom that coils and twist between the columns is meant to represent this result of that union, which is the music and art of Watain. From that whirling chasm, our emblem emanates, winged and graceful, as a twilight child out of the pits of Hell and into the world. Pure rock n' roll, just like the Devil intended.
Even with this vivid description you provide, we're only scratching the surface of what is layered throughout. What would you describe as being the significant difference between being involved in both the music and the visuals and simply passing the cover artwork duties to a third party, like Zbigniew M. Bielak or any of your previous collaborators? My understanding is that you're always deeply involved, even when the duties are passed on.
Erik: Even when we worked with others, I've always been deeply involved in the visual side of the albums. It was never a matter of just passing on duties to others. The three collaborators we've had over the years, Timo, Bielak and Oik, were all aware of this from the start and knew that their task was to fulfill our often quite meticulous visions and ideas, and not their own. I wouldn't have it any other way. My simple and stern approach is that if you are a artistic collective, a "band", the work that you present should be the result of your own ideas, visions and imagination, and not someone else's. That being said, I am very pleased with all of the collaborations we have done with these immaculate artists.
You may call it being difficult, but it really comes down to having every element of your releases stay true to the Watain DNA. It's as organic as it gets. You’ve always been very involved with every element of the band’s releases, but was there anything that sparked your increased interest in the cover artwork responsibilities for both ‘Trident Wolf Eclipse’ (2018) and ‘Agony & Ecstasy’?
Erik: Oik did the cover for 'Trident Wolf Eclipse', not me. The main reason I did the new one was that Timo passed away, and I didn't want to work with anyone else. I actually tried to collaborate with an old friend from France whose work I am a great admirer of, but the collaboration did not yield the result needed. I think I am quite hard to work with when it comes to these kind of things, my mind is in a lot of places at the same time and sometimes it's better to just do it yourself. And like I said before, I believe a band should be artistically capable enough to make their own album covers without any middle hands.
In mentioning Timo Ketola, who was a frequent collaborator to you and Watain, it's critical to understand how huge a blow his recent passing was to the metal and art world. We wrote a tribute of sorts that captures only a glimpse of everything he’s been involved in, which is reflective of the relationship he built with bands. What did you learn from those partnerships with Timo, and how has it shaped your own development as a visual artist?
Erik: We met Timo when we were completing the recording of our first album. He worked at Shadow Records, which was Stockholm's equivalent to the Helvete shop in those days. He was very supportive of what we were doing with our band and the fanzine we were doing at the time, and he also encouraged us to become more extreme and serious. He ended up helping us doing the layout for the album, and we developed a friendship and artistic collaboration that would last until his passing. Timo was actually involved in the making of every single Watain album layout. Even if we worked with other artists, I always turned to Timo for guidance, sharp critique, creative input. He had a severe, urgent, and above all, a genuine approach to art that I now have come to understand is quite rare. He was like an old monk working in a monastery, in a way.
The new album was the first one I did entirely without Timo's guidance, but I could still somehow hear his voice throughout the entire process of making the artwork and layout for this album. I am not saying he would have approved of everything — he was very stern and uncompromising when it came to his own particular tastes — but I will certainly say that all what I learned from him guided me through the process.
I think Timo is one of the greatest artist that emerged out of the Black/Death Metal scene and his work will continue to be referred to as long as people have a sense for great and otherworldly things.
His work will forever live on. Erik, ‘Agony & Ecstasy’ is a special release in the Watain discography, which traces back over two decades now. You’ve grown plenty and your sound and overall visual persona is a reflection of it. In what mindset does this new record find you, musically and personally as people?
Erik: A quite good one, I'd say! We are eager and ready for whatever that is to come. We believe that you reap what you sow, and there's been some very peculiar and potent seeds being placed within the earth during the making of the new album.
Creatively, we approached the album quite similarly to how we approached 'Lawless Darkness' (2010) with total artistic freedom. We didn't have any specific goal other than to create a record that would reflect our greatest passions and inner fire. It was a while ago we had that as our only rule. On 'The Wild Hunt' (2013), we went for a much more specific journey towards a more experimental and wider sound. On 'Trident Wolf Eclipse' we also had a quite clear goal in that we wanted to make an album that was focused around the more predatory and violent side of Watain. Those two albums were great to make and it was very inspiring to work with that kind of determination towards a certain goal, but when the time came to work on the material for the new album, I wanted to go back to the more liberated and passion-fueled creativity that we pursued when writing 'Lawless'.
Putting ideas down on paper and seeing them evolve into music and art isn’t always an easy process, but do you feel that it has gotten easier over the years? There’s a great deal of heart invested into every one of your efforts and it’s likely you’ve found it difficult at times to express exactly what you’re looking for.
Erik: To me, it's not about these things getting progressively easier over time but rather how they seem to unlock and become reachable in certain moments and periods, according to their own enigmatic intervals. I think it has a lot to do with self-awareness as well. I find that as you get closer to your inner self and more aware of your path and your calling, creativity tends to simmer and surge more vigorously. Mental blocks and unnecessary limitations dissolve. The most important thing, I think, is to find true and deep meaning in what you do as an artist. It doesn't need to come across that way to others, but you have to feel it yourself.
With all that being said, I embrace the struggle and the challenge in the making of art. I see it as a language barrier to overcome because what I aim to translate are notions that are often elusive, nameless and wordless. It is ultimately an act of magic, and as such, it requires deep understanding, caution and diligence.
Expanding on that point, one could consider Watain to be more than a black metal band, but a creative collective that yields all-encompassing experiences existing synonymously to convey a message through music videos, set design, merchandise, artwork, and more. Would you say that the goal is always to have viewers embrace Watain beyond the music itself?
Erik: No, I wouldn't say that's the goal, but I surely appreciate it when they do. It is certainly great if people feel they can go beneath the surface of our work to explore, to get lost in it, and to have a meaningful experience in doing so. It's great if people come to understand that there is more to Watain than meets the eye, that we differ from many of our contemporaries in the way we live our lives and the way we approach our work, but it's nothing that I demand of everyone who listens to our music. It's not our goal. Our goal is to maintain the flame at the center of our temple and to honor the Gods that brought it to us.
Consider that goal achieved. We touched on your collaboration with Oik, but beyond him, how significant do you feel it is for you to surround yourself with people who are as invested in the projects as you are? I say that because you've had a wealth of people enlisted to work on your various art forms, whether that be cover design or video direction, and I’m sure all have brought a varying set of opinions that informed the result in one way or another.
Erik: We do most of the things ourselves with Watain, that has always been our approach. We design and print our own merch, we build our own stage designs, we arrange our own photo shoots, we make our own artwork, we create whats needed for our videos and so forth. But sometimes, we need to work with others because of time constraints or when greater technical skill is required of course. We always make very sure that whoever works for us knows what Watain is and how we generally work. Our collaborators never really steer much of the creative direction, at least not initially. Recently, we had the pleasure of working with Johan Bååth and Johan Öhrn again for the 'We Remain' video. What you see in that video is the result of a very fruitful collaboration, with intrinsic input from both us and our collaborators.
In short, Watain is as DIY as it gets. In closing, we won’t get into the frustration that came with the tour cancellation with Mayhem and Midnight, but it’s critical to highlight the amazing connection that you have with your audiences each and every time. Having been there a couple of times, it’s incredible to see everyone on a united front whenever fists and horns are raised. Thankfully, this new album will give your fans something to appreciate until you head back out on tour. Is it cathartic to see the singles and ultimately the album be appreciated as much as it has, especially with everything that was invested in it?
Erik: There's always weird shit and turbulence every time we're releasing an album into the world, and this time was no exception. Being banned from the US on one hand while receiving this overwhelming response for a new release on the other — that's just one of many examples of our roller coaster through the Abyss. But so it is, agony and ecstasy! Live free, die hard!
The Agony & Ecstasy of Watain is available now via Nuclear Blast Records (Order).