Interviews : Tyr
Few things about working on this site are as rewarding as stumbling onto a band that you've never heard before, but who captures exactly the sound you've been aching to hear. I had this experience a few months ago when I first heard Tyr, a stellar Viking-prog band from Faeroe Islands that combine challenging trad/power/prog riffs with the best clean Viking vocals this side of Lars A. Nedland's (Solefald, Borknagar, Asmegin) golden throat. I got in touch with Heri, the band's lead singer, guitarist and all-around driving force. He agreed to answer some questions in between recording sessions for Tyr's upcoming album.
Tyr comes from the Faeroe Islands, which lie between Iceland and Norway. Can you tell us a bit about the islands and life there?
The Faeroes are an archipelago consisting of 18 islands covering 1400 square kilometers. Around 1200 years ago some Norwegian vikings settled here. They were led by Grimur Kamban, and they had been to the British Isles, and possibly lived there for a generation or two before they came north to the Faeroes. We are their decendants. We are now a self-governing part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Inhabitants 48.000 and counting. Quiet, low crime, high standards of living, fish, football, wind, rain and frequent storms. That just about sums it up.
What's your history as a musician? When did you begin to play guitar and write songs?
Flute was compulsary when I was in the Faeroese public school. Most children hated it but I rather liked it. Although I didn't become a professional I learned to read notes at a very early age. I began to play guitar at the age of 14 and I also immediately began writing songs. In 1997 I went to Denmark for a musical education. My musical education was finished in 2003 and today I teach guitar here in the Faeroes.
Who influenced you as a guitarist and songwriter when you were starting out?
Iron Maiden and Motley Crue were my favorite bands at the time I began playing guitar. I also liked stuff like Kiss, Europe and Def Leppard. Later I got into Black Sabbath, Metallica, Deep Purple, Rainbow, Dio and Uriah Heep. I also listened to solo guitarists like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. I think I was around 20 years old when a bandmember introduced me to Dream Theater. My head was blown off and my musical consience expanded to a hundredfold in one instant. I realized there are no limits but those in your head. Another thing that is very important to me is the immense treasure of Faeroese and Scandinavian folklore, the music and the Old Norse Mythology. That has influenced my expression and my music profoundly. I didn't discover that in a flash like I discovered Dream Theater. I have been exposed to folkmusic and folklore throughout my life and it grew on me.
Who or what influences you now?
Pretty much everything I hear. I try to be as un-prejudice as I can, but as a metal guy I have an unhealthy tendency to be very prejudice against other musical genres. I am way into Bach, Dream Theater, Runrig, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Anastacia, Queen, System of a Down, Europe.
Were you in any bands prior to Tyr?
You know how you clench you toes when you think of your first bands? Well I clench my toes everytime this question comes up, and I'm almost embarresed to talk about it but there's no denying the past. When I was 17 me and a classmate made a band that included Gunnar Thomsen. K=E1ri Streymoy was also with us for a short period. First we called ourselves Cruiser (we wanted to be American), later we called ourselves Wolfgang (we then wanted to be German). That band lasted as far as 1997. Now we are Tyr and we have come to terms with the fact that we are Faeroese.
Did you release any albums with those bands?
We released no albums with those bands although we did some recordings with Wolfgang that are pretty much ready to release. Maybe some day.
When and how did Tyr form?
After I had moved to Denmark I met Kári who had moved there a couple of years earlier. We started to jam and slowly started to think of ourselves as a band. That was around January 1998. Gunnar joined us shortly after.
Tyr wears its Viking influences on its sleeve, but the music is anything but simple "Viking metal". How do you describe Tyr?
We used to call our style Progressive Ethno Metal. Nobody has taken that term up after us, furthermore reviewers differ greatly in their description of our style. We have been called, power metal, doom metal, viking metal, folk metal, prog metal, heavy metal, neo-classical metal, gothic metal and all imaginable combinations of the previous. We have long given up trying to label our style. I like to think that we are part of the evolution and continuation of Faeroese and Scandinavian traditional music, and that we somehow unite many styles in the metal scene, which, in my opinion, has become too fragmented.
Can you talk a bit about the progressive aspects of Tyr's music? I'm not a prog afficianado, but I think I'm hearing bits of Dream Theatre-ish music in there...
Quite right. We like progressive music of all kind. Gunnar is into Primus, Kári likes Saga and we all like Dream Theater. We also enjoy technical challenges in the music and to feel some improvement in ourselves as musicians and in the band as a whole. That calls for progressive music, but I wouldn't say that it is our main aspect.
What do you remember about recording and releasing "Demo" (2000)?
I remember it doing absolutely no good what-so-ever, save costing us a (relative) fortune and getting to try out a mediocre studio. We didn't get one review, not even a bad one.
How many copies of "Demo" were made?
50 or 80, around there.
Are any still available?
Sold to collectors the lot, would you believe it?!
Why did Jón Joensen (guitar) leave the band after the release of "Demo"?
He was studying at that time and he simply didn't have time for the band.
At what point did you sign Tutl and how did that come together?
We looked into the options we had for releasing the first album. We had planned to release it ourselves, but it turned out to be far to much work. When you release in the Faeroes you are limited to very few options but fortunately Tutl is one of them. We approached the locally legendary Mr. Blak, the managing director of Tutl, with our recordings and he said, "Yes, we'll release that."
All four songs from "Demo" appear on your first proper album, "How Far to Asgaard" (2002, Tutl). Did they change at all, or did the recording just get better?
We rearranged them a bit and the sound quality is better. The Demo is pretty much recorded live. Only vocal and choir were recorded seperately. That always leaves you with a few mistakes in the music, nothing fatal but still, as a musician you go mad listening to your mistakes over and over again. We never even thought about putting the "Demo" recordings on "How Far To Asgaard."
I haven't heard any songs from "Demo", but the tracks I've heard from "How Far to Asgaard" already have the trademark Tyr choir sound. How=20 did you guys develop that style?
The style comes very naturally as far as the songwriting goes. I didn't think of it as anything special at the time we started recording. When it comes to musical execution, we sometimes take a long time to get things together as a band. I also try to arrange the voices so that each is melodic in it self, not just an abstract row of tones to follow the chords, and only two voices at a time. It's much more effective than 3 or more.
How is the choir done in the studio? Is it just one singer overdubbed a bunch of times, or is it actually the entire band singing?
The entire band singing and maybe dubbed a few times. If anybody happens to be around they are usually welcome to sing as well.
When you write a song, at what point do you begin working with lyrics and melodies?
The vocal melody is the first thing, then bassline, chords and rhythm, guitar patterns and riffs, guitar variations, solos, and finally the lyric. Exeptions are traditional lyrics. There I have both melodies and lyrics in advance and it is just a question of arranging the remaining elements, quite challenging and fun work actually.
At what point do you start working on the choir parts?
Around the bassline, chords and rhythm point.
What was it like hearing the Tyr choir properly played back for the first time? I got chills the first time I heard it, so I can just imagine how you guys felt!
We were baffled. "Is that really us?"
How does Tyr handle the choir parts live?
We all sing backing and we have had no complaints yet.
Why release "Ólavur Riddararos" with only two songs so quickly after "How Far to Asgaard"?
On "Ólavur Riddararos", Pól Arni Holm (vocals) was out and Allan Streymoy was in. What led to this change?
We were still all living in Denmark and Pól Arni left for the Faeroes to become a carpenter and that couldn't be combined with a carreer in an upcoming metal band. I'm afraid the decision to recruit Allan Streymoy was also a rash decision.
What did Allan's vocals sound like?
Not too good I'm afraid. He is a very nice guy and a really likeable as front figure, but his singing needed some work which we didn't have time to wait for.
"Ólavur Riddararos" was also the first recording to feature Terji Skibenaes (guitar). How did you hook up with him?
We met him at the Faeroese music competition Prix F=F8royar 2001. He played in band participating in the finals along with us. Around the time when Jón left us we heard that Terji had left his band. I immediatly called him and he agreed shortly after to join us.
What does Terji bring to Tyr?
Some wildness in the guitar parts, some coolness in the image, a few good laughs now and then, and a much lower average age.
Why was "Eric the Red" (2003) released so quickly behind "How Far to Asgaard" (2002) and "Ólavur Riddararos" (2002)?
We got some devastating reviews on "Ólavur Riddararós" and we felt that we needed to work quickly to stay above waters.
Why did you take over lead vocals for "Eric the Red"? Poor Streymoy got ousted after only two songs!
We couldn't find a suitable singer, so it was actually an emergency decision that turned out well, don't you think?
Absolutely. Both songs from "Ólavur Riddararos" reappear on "Eric the Red". Why re-record them?
Fine songs that we had improved a bit from the single. The sound on ETR is also much better than on ÓR.
What were your thoughts behind the lyrics to "Rainbow Warrior"? It's a pretty powerful statement ("Curse the weak link...").
It's the dolphin syndrome of the modern world. The modern world exploits nature in a non-renewable way. City people, who are detached from nature, get relief for the bad consience by financially or actionally supporting an organization protecting and preserving nature. Unfortunately these organizations have to sell them selves to the public as part of the free market and dolphins and whales sell much better than captive pigs bred only for slaughter. We have had some organizations pestering us about our whaling. Nothing pisses us off more than self-righteous save-the-naturalists... ...and that song is adressed to one very specific member of such a group.
How did you guys pull off the killer video for "Regin Smidur"?
We went to Poland with our faithfull Icelandic cameraman, Ingólfur Juliusson, for a vikingfestival, and simply recorded people acting out the old ways. We sang some traditionals at the festival and were allowed to shoot some scenes. Some of the groups were speciallized in acting for film purpose and were so kind as to help us.
Does anyone in Tyr take part in the Viking festivals that are filmed in the video?
Not as vikings. We were there as musicians, or rather ballad singers, only.
All of your albums feature at least a couple songs based on traditional Faroese songs. How do you choose what songs to work with?
I constantly have a lot of ideas in my head for traditional arrangements. I pick those who I think work best at the time of recording an album.
How much of the original songs are left by the time Tyr is done with them?
To begin with, most Faeroese traditionals are more than 80 verses, so the first thing to go is at least 90% of the lyrics. The melody is seldom tampered with, althoug occasionally for variations as for example fourth and eight' verse of "Regin Smidur" and the slow choruses of "Ólavur Riddararós" but the style of it is true to what a real ballad singer might do in a moment of inspiration.
The Tyr bio mentions "ballads of the chain dance." Can you explain what a chain dance is?
The chain dance is a dance dating from medieval times. It was supposedly first popularized by the French court. It is a very simple dance in which the participators hold hands in a certain way and make a chain. Then the steps, two to your left and one to your right, then the ballad, a lead singer starts with a chorus and the rest join him as soon as they recognize the ballad, the lead singer starts each verse alone and the rest join him as soon as they recognize the verse, the lead singer takes a breath and relaxes while the rest sing the chorus after each verse.
I imagine this would seem extremely boring to one who does not understand Faeroese, but as Faeroese I get great pleasure either singing along a ballad or listening to the verses of one that I don't know and just singing along in the choruses.
The ballad texts are based on ancient themes such as Atilla the Hun, Charlemagne, Sigfried the Dragonslayer, highlights and petty quarrels from viking times and modern day issues, anything you can think of. Ballads are still being made about present day events. Only the best make it to the age as the oldest we have today, dating at least 800 years back.
How does Tyr's music end up so hard and heavy if folk ballads are such a big influence?
The Faeroese folk ballads have no instrumental accompaniment, so you are free to do what you like. We may have some not so heavy influences, but we are hellbent on playing Heavy Metal.
What similarities have you noticed between metal and Faroese folk music? Do they share certain keys, rhythms, etc.?
One great similarity is that Faeroese folk is heavy in its execution. It is staccato, agressive and masculine. The key is mostly dorian, not typical for metal, and the rhythm is odd time, not typical for standard metal but very common in Progressive metal. A difference is that sometimes the ballads are "jolly" which metal usually is anything but. "Ólavur Riddararós" is a jolly tune. Consider the chorus, "Young lads, happy lads, step upon the floor, dance merrily." As one reviewer wrote, as a metal head you need to be confident in you masculinity to listen to such lyrics.
Is Viking culture a real influence on your life, or just great inspiration for anthemic metal songs?
Viking culture, heritage and way-of-thinking affects life in the Faeroes to a certain degree. We are very modernized but we build on very old traditions. Take for instance the whaling, the ballad singing, the legal system. These things weigh a lot in my mind, but equally important is the fact that we are now a thousand years on from the Vikings and we should build on the past, not re-live it.
Why do you sing some songs in English instead of your native language?
I have the idea that the international market is easier reached with English lyrics. Am I wrong? I don't know.
Why tackle an Irish folk song ("The Wild Rover") on "Eric the Red"?
Great song, a tad more jolly than the Faeroese trads, fits right with our style though.
It's interesting how different the choir sounds on that track. Did you do anything differently to make it more "Irish" sounding?
I hadn't thought of that. Maybe it is because it is in Ionian mode, that's major. Most of our other chorus parts are in aeolian, that's minor, or dorian.
"Ramund Him Unge" is a Danish folk song and all of your albums were recorded at studios in Copenhagen. Do you have any personal ties in Denmark?
We all lived in Denmark at the time of the making of the band. Gunnar still lives in Denmark. Being in Denmark exposes you to Danish traditionals. Having said that I must add, had I come across "Ramund Hin Unge" in the Faeroes I would still have added it to our album. It's a very good melody and translates perfectly to power'ish folk metal.
I know it's a bit off-topic, but what are your feelings about the Faroe Islands' relationship with Denmark?
I speak for myself and not the band as a whole when I say that I would rather it was a mutually agreed upon relationship and not political and financial enslavement as it is at the moment. I have no problem with the individual Dane, nice friendly and relaxed people. It's just the political situation.
Tyr's done a bit of touring, but you've also played some odd shows, like "The North in Focus Literature Conference" in Oslo, the Smáralind shopping center in Iceland, etc. Can you talk about how you got those two gigs?
Well, there is a Faeroese booker in Norway who contacted us about the Litterature Conference. They needed a cultural or folky band with a modern angle and we seemed to fit. The average age of the crowd must have been around 80. The shopping center gig, it was a very nice gig, Ormurin Langi was playing all day on Icelandic radio at that time, and this was just a 3 songs gig to promote some upcoming concerts in Iceland. We gathered a huge crowd in front of us and the gigs were sold out. It was a very hectic time for us and a taste of some stardom. We couldn't walk the streets of Reykjavik in peace. Now all that has faded and I really don't mind because it makes you strange, me at least.
What was it like playing the Sankta Lucia Festival in Russia?
It was a real experience going to Russia and all. Very nice people, real metal lovers. They aren't the richest people in the world, but I don't think we have met that kind of hospitality anywhere else.
Can you tell us anything about the next Tyr album that you're going to start recording any day now (October 2005)?
The recordings have been postponed as far as May 2006. So far I think it sounds like the other albums, only better. Someone has said that it is more catchy and I hope they are right, the lyrics, English and Faeroese so far, are in the Norse Mythological universe, some traditionals, great choruses. Man, I can't wait to go into studio.
Once the album comes out, will Tyr do any touring?
Absolutely. We have already begun planning next years tour. We intend to visit all neighbouring nations and all of Europe if we can. There has been interest from the US as well but nothing has been confirmed yet. Keep an eye on the tour schedule on our website or sign up for the newsletter and you'll be the first to know.
That's all I can think to ask, Heri. Thank you for answering our interview and for making such wonderful music! Last words are yours...
Unite the world in mutual respect, stay clear of bad weather, natural disasters and war, and...