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An Interview with Ulvesang + Track Stream “The End”

It is a truth universally acknowledged than an individual cannot subsist on a diet comprised of metal alone. Sure…there are those who have probably tried. However, given the increasing popularity of metal-adjacent artists (see: Chelsea Wolfe)  and genres (i.e. Dungeon Synth), I think that more and more metal fans are branching out and expanding their listening palettes.

The best recent example of this is the popularity of Nova Scotia-based dark/neofolk band Ulvesang. The duo of Alex Boyd & Ana Dujaković released their self-titled debut in 2015 to much acclaim, which eventually led to a deal with ultra-cool Swedish black metal label Nordvis Produktion. Such a pairing may seem odd at first, but after a quick glance at the bands who’ve released records with Nordvis it makes perfect sense: Grift, Nechochwen, Waldgeflüster, Panopticon, Falls of Rauros. To a certain extent, Ulvesang almost play pagan black metal, just without the black metal – Agalloch without the electric guitars.

Ulvesang’s sophomore full-length The Hunt will be released by Nordvis on March 16, and can be preordered here. It was also just announced earlier this week that our friends at Folkvangr Records will be handling the cassette release – keep an eye open for preorders starting March 15. In the meantime, we’re thrilled to be streaming “The End” here today at the Vault. I also had the pleasure of chatting with Alex and Ana, which you can check out while enjoying what’s easily my favorite track on The Hunt. 

Indy Metal Vault: For starters, congratulations on The Hunt – it’s such a beautiful record. I’m in northern Indiana, and I’ve been listening to it on headphones this morning while watching it snow out my front window, and it’s been almost too perfect for words. I’m clearly not the only one who’s been impressed by it, either. As I’m writing these questions, The Hunt preorder is the #1 best-selling album on the Bandcamp metal charts, #4 on the black metal chart, and #3 in neofolk. Are you at all surprised that the response has been so overwhelmingly positive, or did you feel like you were creating something special that would resonate with a lot of people as you were recording the album?

Alex Boyd: The positive reception surrounding the release (pre-order at this stage technically) is consistently baffling and humbling for me. I don’t think we ever would have predicted to have found such a receptive audience. During the writing process, there is always a feeling of creating something new and exciting, but I know for me it’s a very “internal” experience. I don’t tend to focus much on how the end result may be received as long as we feel happy with what we’ve built. The process did feel different while recording The Hunt as there was an audience out there already, and I have no idea how that audience will receive it. I hope they connect with it in a similar way as with the debut. It will be exciting to see once the full album is released, as it’s just a whole new experience for me.

Ana Dujaković: I was surprised at the success of the debut album, and also pleasantly surprised at the continued support for this album too. I think Ulvesang is special to both of us in similar and unique ways, so it’s really fulfilling when listeners tell us the music means a lot to them or that they connect to it on a deeper level.

IMV: I’m curious as to what you make of the strong response from the metal/black metal community to The Hunt. Ulvesang is signed to Nordvis, which is primarily a black metal label, but I definitely wouldn’t call you a metal band. I have noticed, however, that neofolk/dark folk in general has been gaining in popularity among black metal listeners in much the same way as dungeon synth – bands like Wardruna, Osi and the Jupiter, Runahild/Eliwagar, and Ulvesang are getting quite a few mentions in the metal blogosphere, and Isenordal has both a black metal and a dark folk version of their band. What do you think it is about the neofolk/dark folk style of music that makes it appeal to a metal audience?

AB: There are a lot of aesthetic and atmospheric elements in the black metal sound that seem to overlap with the darkfolk/neofolk genres, I think. Darker tones and feelings generally, often a sense of “rejection” of modernity and a romanticizing of nature, myth and death. I know when I started listening to a lot of black metal, I was finding the neofolk and post-industrial scenes at the same time. Both have a similar “underground” feel to them as well, with lots of smaller but dedicated labels putting out a significant amount of high quality music. Ulvesang, in my mind anyway, has its most likely audience in that niche of underground music listeners. Fans of non-mainstream scenes can often be brutal, so the recent positive reception among that audience is a great success as is!

AD: Yeah, basically Alex’s answer sums it up really well. I think that neofolk/darkfolk and black metal share a sense of melancholy and loneliness, while leaving the door open to still being able to feel introspective and uplifted.

IMV: What was it that initially drew the two of you to this style of music? I really don’t know anything about Alex’s musical background, but I am aware that Ana has several other bands, including in an incredible atmospheric black metal band called Astral Path, and has some fretless bass covers of (mostly) Death songs on her YouTube channel. Have you both always had an interest in acoustic music, or was that something that developed over time?

AB: I’ve always listened to darker music, so I just slowly worked my way through heavier music along a pretty standard arc, I guess. I’m always looking to hear different sounds, so finding my way to the post-industrial and neofolk scenes happened fairly organically. I played predominantly electric for a number of years, but found I wanted to get better with an acoustic as I was, frankly, not particularly good at playing the electric. Ulvesang is the first genuinely focused project for me. Before we began work on the first album I had never really committed myself to trying to write a full and focused project.

AD: I listened to a lot of death metal, thrash, and black metal for many years before I ventured into stuff that was strictly labelled “neofolk/darkfolk.” I think what helped lead me to it was listening to a lot of hybridized genres like atmospheric black metal that had a lot of acoustic passages and gazey stuff, or doom metal with a softer feel to it. Or bands that blended black metal and neofolk together well, like Agalloch (in my opinion). I’ve also always listened to classical and baroque music as well.

IMV: To my ears, the compositions on The Hunt sound more intricate both in terms of some of the fingerpicking and the way the guitar parts intertwine than they did on Ulvesang. There doesn’t seem to be quite as much space in the arrangements, if that makes any sense. How different (if at all) was your songwriting approach this time around? And how much (if at all) does the format your music will be released on influence your process? Was the fact that Nordvis would be releasing The Hunt on vinyl in the backs of your minds at all in a “we only have X number of minutes to work with here” sort of way?

AB: The arrangements are generally a little denser on The Hunt. For the guitars, I wanted to challenge myself to write songs that “pushed” some of the elements heard on the debut, but without just rehashing it and releasing “Debut 2.0.” Some of the arrangements were certainly a challenge to build. I was angrier during the recording process as well. The release formats don’t really have any impact on the writing process for me.

AD: The release formats don’t influence my writing/recording style either. We both wanted to make a record that still fit Ulvesang’s style but wasn’t just a rehashing of the debut, so we tried to take a slightly different approach with all the various instruments.

IMV: Sticking with songwriting for a minute, how different is it writing for Astral Path or a tech-death band than it is writing for Ulvesang? Do you have to bring a different mindset into each project, or is your process essentially the same regardless of which band you’re working with?

AD: I think there is definitely a different vision and aesthetic for each project, so that influences how I write for them. I love writing synth for Astral Path, and the bass for it is a lot of fun. Astral Path also has lyrics that I like to write and contribute to, which is a very different element of creativity. It’s fun to play around and create cosmic sounds for Astral Path and then focus on something softer, gentler, and more natural for Ulvesang.

IMV: Something about the production on The Hunt sounds a bit different to me as well. Ulvesang was a very warm sounding record, and while The Hunt retains that warmth, it also sounds much brighter overall. I can’t tell, though, if that’s the result of how you recorded it or if you’re not using nylon-stringed guitars quite as much on this album. What is your recording setup like?

AB: There is more steel string on this album and less nylon. The recording is very DIY… I use a Steinberg UR44 run through Ableton. I record at home.

AD: The tuning of the guitars is also in E standard for this album, whereas the debut was in E flat. I use a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 interface, also recording at home and using a couple DAWs depending on what I need.

IMV: I always like to ask at least one gear-related question, since the topic fascinates me – doubly so this time, since I’ve actually never interviewed a neofolk band before. What does each of your guitar setups look like? Do you use many effects when recording? Aside from the guitars, what other instruments do you each play on the record?

AB: I have a Takamine classical nylon string. Acoustic/electric. My standard acoustic is a Yamaha acoustic/electric. It says CPX500 inside it. I do use quite a bit of reverb. On The Hunt I also play bodhran, glockenspiel and vocals.

AD: My setups for everything I do are very noob-level, and my instruments are nothing fancy. I use a nauseating amount of effects, so I hope people don’t hate it. I listed this for the booklet: guitar, bass, synth, nature sounds, singing bowl… and I think that is it for The Hunt.

IMV: The cover art for The Hunt is absolutely stunning. You worked with Andrew Lachance C again, just like you did for the first album (and for Astral Path’s An Oath to the Void). How closely do you work with him on the developing the concepts for the artwork? Do you give him any sort of general ideas to work with, or do you pretty much leave him to his own devices?

AD: Andrew has been a friend of mine for several years now and I noticed his art was incredible, so I asked him if he was willing to do cover art for us. For the first album, we just said “I don’t know, something with a wolf (one of my favorite animals) and some nature stuff” and he dazzled us with the beautiful debut art. Needless to say, I was a believer since then and love working with him on designs for both bands. The Hunt had similar minimal direction overall and then letting Andrew do what he does best, which is use his imagination to make lovely art.

IMV: Speaking of art, on the Ulvesang Facebook page you have a couple of illustrations that Alex did for The Hunt’s booklet. Is there more of your art out there anywhere? I’ve heard that you also do watercolor illustrations?

AB: I do have an underused Facebook page called “Coyote Tearoom” where there are some more examples of paintings/illustrations I’ve done.

IMV: Thanks again for taking the time to answer a few questions. I always like to leave the last word to the artist – anything else you’d like to add?

AB: Thank you for reaching out to us for an interview and for your kind words about the album. The support is greatly appreciated! Other than that, I haven’t got anything insightful to add.

AD: Thanks for the great questions and kind words! We appreciate the interview opportunity!

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