The misappropriation of Nordic images and spirituality by the far-right has created a revolt inside heathen circles, but it also erases the anti-racist scene of Nordic folk musicians who draw on the Viking Age in creating integrated tapestries of sound. The new solo project Wåhlin is one of these, exploring the ancestral Nordic traditions and using modern recording tools to create a revival of cultural music. We interviewed Stuart Wahlin of this project, which has just come out of the gate with his first track, about what drove him on the project and why standing up against fascism is a top priority.
How did Wåhlin come together?
I’ve been kicking around some ideas for this project for the last couple of years. When I first began seriously exploring my Norse ancestry, it was around the time Wardruna’s first album was released. I, of course, was already familiar with Gaahl and Einar from their days in Gorgoroth, and I was really intrigued by this shift from metal to more traditional roots—something I felt I was also being called to.
I never really planned for this to be anything more than a solo project, but the thought of performing this music live someday is kind-of exciting, so I imagine the universe will connect me with collaborators when the time is right. It’s already begun, in fact, and you’ll hear some amazing female vocals on subsequent tracks.
Was it your first musical project?
No, it’s been a pretty circuitous journey to get here. I’ve been in bands off-and-on since I was in high school. My musical background, at least as an adult, is mainly as a vocalist and guitarist, though I’ve also done some instrumental work for films. I’ve always been into trying new things, whether it’s the didgeridoo, theremin, analog synth, or whatever I can get my hands on. If it makes a sound, I’m interested in it.
But I think the common thread in all the musical endeavors I’ve been involved with—the ones that really matter to me—is the use of music to reach an enlightened, ecstatic, or trance-like state. Shamanism, I guess, tends to play a major role in the way I write, whether it’s as a member of a band, or as someone who’s piecing everything together on his own. Each album and song should be a journey for both the composer and the listener.
As awful as COVID-19 is, one silver lining is that the quarantines have afforded a lot of nine-to-fivers the opportunity to pursue passions they might not ordinarily have the time for. It’s certainly accelerated the process in my case, and I suspect the pandemic will ultimately be looked back upon as a renaissance of sorts.
What is your production process like?
Sometimes I have a specific idea or melody in mind, other times the song winds up being written entirely in the recording process. From a fundamental standpoint, the drums typically come first. They’re the bones that hold the flesh together. Though electronics are an element in the music, I think it’s the acoustic drums that are probably most essential to achieving the shamanic state in any ritual. Vocals are important, too, but drums are quite literally the heartbeat that centers us.
And it’s really satisfying to build-out from there, layering in additional acoustic and electronic instruments to widen the soundscape. Vocals typically come last in my tracking process. Then, of course, the filmmaker in me feels compelled to add some cinematic sounds to help set the scene or mood. In the case of “A Toast Of Ravens,” the first moments reveal a shoreline, ships landing, war horns, and suffering.
What instruments are you using?
On “A Toast Of Ravens,” the instrumentation is pretty minimal. We’ve got a lot of drums, some lur and bukkehorn, electronics, and vocals. There’s some didgeridoo in there, too. Though it’s not a Norse instrument, I think it sounds like it should be! With throat-singing having become a staple for many of us, I think the didge compliments it really well.
As for the rest of the album, the acoustic instrumentation broadens a bit. There’s some fiddle, dulcimer, lyre, jaw harp, flute. I’m hoping to work some nyckelharpa or tagelharpa in there, too.
What is Darraðarljoð, and how did it inspire your song “A Toast Of Ravens?”
Darraðarljoð comes from Njal’s Saga, and it’s essentially about Valkyries crafting the outcome of a battle on a weaving loom, deciding who would live and die. The lines I use in the song are my own amateur translations from Old Norse to English, but I tried to retain some of the alliteration that skaldic poetry is known for.
Darraðarljoð is absolutely the inspiration for the music itself, too. Vocals in this song are pretty limited, and I wanted the music to tell most of the story. The first half depicts the fateful battle, and the second half represents the Valkyries exploring the aftermath, choosing from the fallen, deciding who would go on to Valhalla.
In this second half, I really tried to focus on what those first moments after a glorious death in battle might feel like as a warrior transitions into this strange, new afterlife. In Viking culture, you didn’t fear death. The only thing you feared, really, was dying dishonorably. The belief is that everyone has a predetermined moment to die, though you never know when that’ll be. So when you’re going into a battle, for instance, you take courage in knowing it’s a good day to die. But I find this mindset is less about death, and more about how to live one’s life.
How did Nordic folk music traditions inform your songwriting?
Let me put it this way: I’m closer to the beginning of this journey than I am to the end. It was only in the last decade or so that I really began digging into my Scandinavian roots. My grandfather was a violin virtuoso who immigrated from Sweden, though most of my ancestry seems to come from Norway. Unfortunately, I never got to know him because he died before I was born. All I had to go on for the longest time was my mom’s and grandma’s memories of him. His was a pretty sad story in a lot of ways. His heart was really in his homeland, but he stayed here because he loved his wife and daughter very much. But he died longing to return home.
Once I got my hands on some of his published sheet music, though, and was actually able to hear the music he created, that was really life-changing for me. It was absolutely beautiful, romantic, and moving, and ever since then, I do feel like he’s present in my life, encouraging my musical pursuits in particular.
As far as Norse music traditions are concerned, I don’t rely on the true folk instrumentation as heavily as others do, but I do like to sprinkle some in. For me, the focus is less about adhering to the authenticity of Viking Age instrumentation, and more about preserving the character through storytelling with themes from the Eddas and Sagas, for instance.
You mention that this project is influenced by shamanism. How does the seiðr tradition of shamanism influence the project?
I’ve practiced a sort of eclectic—or mutt-shamanism, as I call it—for decades, really just focusing on the universally-accepted principles from a variety of cultures. Here in the states, I’ve had the privilege to take part in several Native American rites, which were a big influence early on.
But as I was quite-literally called to—or by—my Norse ancestry, I did eventually find a home in seiðr. And it really did feel like coming home. Seiðr is often associated with the female practitioner, a völva or seiðkona, but it probably wasn’t always this way. I think there’s been a lot of misunderstanding about that. To me, seiðr is perhaps most effective with a balance between the feminine and the masculine. That’s why I’m really excited about the tracks integrating some female vocals.
There are many aspects to seiðr, but I limit myself mostly to the shamanistic side of things—transformation, trance-state visions, mostly-ancestral spirit communication, healing, and some galdr and runework. Music, of course, is also a big part of it, which is why I feel it’s a perfect medium for helping produce these mystical states of consciousness.
Do you think it is important for Nordic folk bands to stand up to the misappropriation of Heathenry by racists?
The short answer is, it’s absolutely of critical urgency and importance that all artists denounce racism. Unfortunately, racists do continue to gravitate toward Nordic music. It’s a shame that we should have to preface our art with a disclaimer—asserting no affiliation with religious or political ideologies—but I’m glad to make that distinction. Still, I’m not sure it makes much of a difference to someone who’s made up their mind that your song is somehow an anthem for their misguided beliefs.
If you’re familiar with Heilung, for instance, you know their social media is peppered with reminders that they want nothing to do with these types of agendas. And every performance begins with the group emphasizing in unison that we all come from the same cosmic source. But when I went to their ritual in Chicago back in January, there were still a few idiots in the crowd exuding that whole master-race mentality.
We’ve seen a lot of ugly changes in America under the Trump regime, and it’s shameful. I hate that the rest of the world probably thinks we’re all idiots. A lot of us here were taken by surprise, though—even in the artist community. People we thought we knew in our personal lives suddenly became strangers when a TV character successfully ran for president, essentially on a white-is-right platform. I think that emboldened a lot of people who’d been harboring racist thoughts, silently only until someone as ignorant as them became president. Again, that caught many of us, myself included, a little off-guard. I think most of us believed that, for the most part, the last remnants of racism in America really only survived in the South, but we now know that’s just not the case.
As for the misappropriation of Heathenry, that’s been going on for a very long time—well before Hitler came along. But today we’ve got people like Varg [Vikernes] perpetuating this ideology to a whole new generation of kids who are maybe discovering 90s black metal for the first time. And as someone who’s also involved in filmmaking, it’s particularly troublesome that a movie like “Lords of Chaos” should come along and, intentionally or not, glorify a lot of bad behavior. I mean, I can watch the movie as a sort of a walk down “Memory Lane,” having lived through the church burnings, Euronymous’s murder, and the like.
The problem is that—and I don’t think there’s any denying it—most of the people interested in watching the film are just kids, and they’re gonna think these sorts of things are acceptable. They’re gonna watch the movie, then go Google all the players, and think Varg is some sort of hero. Anytime someone like Varg mixes racism in with Heathenry, or any other belief for that matter, it’s both dangerous and disappointing. And we do need to push back. That means not just paying lip service, but showing you’re serious about it. In the case of musicians, for instance, it should mean refusing to be on the bill with other performers who may embrace these bad ideas.
What’s coming next for you?
The first thing is to complete and release the Ginnungagap album. As this is unfolding, I am finding that it’s becoming less of a solo act. My hope is that once it’s finished, there will be some sort of a demand for live performances. I really look forward to designing a live ritual that an audience will be a part of, and not just witness.