Jonas Åkerlund: How Lords of Chaos lifts the lid on Norwegian black metal scene of early 1990s
‘It’s 30 years ago and I can still see him clearly during that shoot ... he had an effect on people’
Lords of Chaos is at the Light House Cinema and Pálás Cinema on March 29th.
He calls Madonna his “art mother” and Lady Gaga his “inspiration”, but Jonas Åkerlund, the award-winning music video director behind Ray of Light and Telephone, has heavy metal pedigree.
From 1983 to 1984 he drummed with the Swedish black metal band Bathory. Today, as we meet up ahead of the London premiere of his new feature film, Lords of Chaos, he still sports a long dark mane of hair, perfect for headbanging.
It’s hard to think of a writer-director better qualified to tackle the dangerous and chaotic Norwegian black metal scene of the early ’90s.
In fact, there are direct connections. One of the people depicted in Lords of Chaos is Per Yngve Ohlin (aka Dead, played by Jack Kilmer). Per was an extra in Åkerlund’s first music video for doom metallers Candlemass.
Per’s death marks a terrible turning point in Lords of Chaos
As a performer, Per or Dead painted himself white to emulate the pallor of plague victims, inhaled from the carcass of a crow, buried his clothes in the woods in order to smell like a corpse, and cut himself on stage, bleeding into the audience.
“It’s funny how people just stick in your mind,” says Åkerlund. “It’s 30 years ago and I can still see him clearly during that shoot. I remember his shoes. And I remember that when he died, everybody was very sad. He was quiet but he had an effect on people.”
Per’s death marks a terrible turning point in Lords of Chaos. The film, adapted from the 1998 book Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, concerns the contentious relationships within the influential black metal act, Mayhem, particularly the friendship and rivalry between Øystein Aarseth (aka Euronymous, played by Rory Culkin) and Varg Vikernes (Brooklyn’s Emory Cohen).
Their first meeting is defined by posturing – and terrific performances – as Euronymous dismisses Varg for wearing a Scorpions patch on his denim jacket. It’s a slight that continues to fester, even after Varg has been invited into Mayhem and the Black Circle, a social club for black metallers.
“They were definitely different,” says Åkerlund of the Norwegian black metal scene. “There was always a thing between the black metal scene and the death metal scene. We are a different kind of metal and everybody else is a fake and a poser and we are the true metal and all that kind of stuff. Definitely in Scandinavia there was a big tension between the Swedish and Norwegian scenes. Probably the best analogy is with the east coast and west coast rivalries in rap. I left the scene early to go into film-making. But I still knew a lot of the Swedish bands even though they were a couple of years younger than me. Eventually a lot of those guys didn’t want to go play in Norway because they got death threats whenever they played there.”
Euronymous, as Lords of Chaos records, could be callous. When he discovered Dead’s corpse, he reorganised the suicide scene, removed skull fragments to fashion necklaces from, and a took a photograph of the corpse that became the cover for Mayhem’s Dawn of the Black Hearts album. Mayhem’s bassist Necrobutcher (played by Jonathan Barnwell in the film) promptly left the band in disgust.
Mostly, however, Euronymous displays a nearly comical lack of self-awareness: “They’re oppressing us with their kindness and their goodness,” he moans; “Don’t you fucking puke in my dad’s car,” he scolds another band member. His acts of desecration, ultimately, are minor transgressions compared to what happened next.
That’s when the church burnings began. In June 1992, the Fantoft Stave Church, an 11th-century national landmark made of wood was razed to the ground
While the others are happy to graffiti walls with band names and shout “Hail Satan” at random people in the street, Varg talks increasingly about taking action. He criticises Euronymous for “drinking Coca-Cola and eating kebab from the Paki shop”; a verbatim quote from a 1993 cover story in British metal magazine Kerrang!
That’s when the church burnings began. In June 1992, the Fantoft Stave Church, an 11th-century national landmark made of wood was razed to the ground. Six months later, Varg (Vikernes), aka Count Grishnackh, invited a local journalist to an apartment festooned with “Nazi paraphernalia, weapons and Satanic symbols” and claimed that black metal musicians and fans were responsible for some eight church burnings. (He used a photograph of the charred remains of Fantoft on a later solo record).
“All this evil and dark crap was supposed to be fun,” says Euronymous ruefully towards the end of Lords of Chaos.
Faust (aka Bård Guldvik Eithun), another band member, provided further escalation when he stabbed Magne Andreassen, a gay man, to death in a forest just outside Lillehammer on August 21st, 1992.
One year later, on the night of August 10th, 1993, Varg stabbed Euronymous to death at his apartment in Oslo, inflicting 24 wounds in the chest, back, and head. When he was arrested days later in Bergen, the police found 150kg of explosives and 3,000 rounds of ammunition at his home.
Varg Vikernes, who is now a blogger, was one of the 530 people to whom Anders Breivik sent a 1,500 page manifesto calling for a war against Islam in Europe before he killed 77 people in Norway in July 2011. Writing on his website, he dismissed Breivik as a “Christian loser”, saying: “If you, dear European nationalists, really want to save Europe (as a biological term) you have to realise that the only thing to do is to cast aside all Christian and other international nonsense and embrace only the European (ie Pagan) values and ideals . . . If you work for Christianity in any way you work for the Jews.”
In light of Varg’s subsequent writings, first as a neo-Nazi, later as an Odinist, it’s tempting to see Lords of Chaos as a warning from history.
“It was hard not to draw parallels,” says Åkerlund. “Breivik is obviously a sick person, on a whole other level. Varg was very quick to go out on his blog saying he didn’t like anything Brevik did and that he didn’t agree on his political agenda. But I have to remind you, at the moment the film is set, these were very young boys.
“To be honest, I think having a swastika and thinking Satan is cool and having some vague political agenda to steal back the land from the church or whatever bollocks they were saying; I don’t think they really believed all that stuff. I don’t think they really had a political agenda. They weren’t stupid. They certainly knew about these things, both Varg and Euronymous read a lot of books and knew what they were talking about.
“But I don’t think any of what actually happened in that scene happened for a political reason. I don’t really think Satan had anything to do with it. They played around with the symbols like a lot of other bands, even my band, did. But in the end they couldn’t separate reality from fantasy and one thing led to another.”
But why? Repeated surveys of metal fans have found that they’re that bit happier than other people. A 2015 study entitled Three Decades Later: The Life Experiences and Mid-Life Functioning of 1980s Heavy Metal Groupies, Musicians and Fans and published in the journal Self and Identity found that ’80s metalheads “were significantly happier in their youth, and better adjusted currently” than their peers.
I think for myself and a lot of other people too, that was what I wanted to know: how did this happen?
“That really is the big question,” says Åkerlund. “The fact is that these boys don’t have anything to blame really. They were not abused. They were not on drugs. They were not politically driven. If you see a movie and it is set in the favelas of Brazil and you see young boys kill each other or getting involved in gangs you can see how they get caught up. I think for myself and a lot of other people too, that was what I wanted to know: how did this happen?”
Last year, Varg Vikernes, posted on his YouTube channel, criticising his depiction as “a power-mad person” in the media and expressing annoyance that he had been portrayed by a Jewish actor. Another former Mayhem member, Sunn O’)))s Attila Csihar, has described the film as a “f**k you”.
“We’ve tried to talk to everybody in the film – anyone who is living – or their relatives,” says the director. “Except for Varg. I have not reached out to him and I have not had any communication with him. I don’t need him and he doesn’t need me. He has talked shit about the movie on one of his blogs. He said we asked for his music, but we never asked.
“My actors have been in contact with the people they were playing or their relatives. I wouldn’t say that they [are] supportive but they all approved of it in a way. I understand that because it’s an odd situation. Thirty years ago I did these f**ked-up things and now it’s going to be in a movie. I said to them that there are already documentaries and books that portray them as monsters . . . We wanted to remind the audience that they were kids and that this is a sad story.”
- Lords of Chaos is in cinemas from March 29th