Sivert Høyem has finally taken the plunge with his first ever solo tour to promote recent EP ‘Where Is My Moon?’ It is the songs of ‘Long Slow Distance’, however, that continue to haunt his very existence.
Sivert Høyem could make the back of a cereal packet sound interesting, such is the distinct tones of his vocal delivery. If Høyem’s path into the music world had not been taken, then it is quite possible his talents would have been equally at home in the film industry as there is a naturally inherent presence about the man that no amount of hours spent whiling away in the rehearsal studio trying to perfect your art or, to put it more crudely, throwing copious amounts of money at the machine in order to achieve your goals is unlikely to produce the same results.
Sitting hunched-up over the telephone and literally hanging on his every word that is giving the late, great thespian Richard Burton a run for his money in the vocally compelling stakes, Sivert Høyem, formerly of Norway’s indie pioneers Madrugada, reveals a rather surprising admission regarding the sounds which influenced his last album ‘Long Slow Distance’, before getting to the nitty-gritty detail of one or two songs still casting a shadow over his life and recent tour promoting ‘Where Is My Moon?’
“I was listening to Norwegian black metal music,” comes the surprising revelation, “not really for the classic metal quality of it, but those low-fi production ideas from some of those 90s albums. Therefore, ‘Long Slow Distance’ is darker and it’s just sort of the way it had to be, but I was conscious about it and knew what I wanted to do.”
There is no doubting the increasingly darker tones of ‘Long Slow Distance’ compared to previous works but having said that, there has always been a murkier side to the songs of Sivert Høyem because the day he pens a happy-go-lucky number then it truly is time to seek new employment. We all know what happened to REM and ‘Shiny Happy People’, right? But one of the notable aspects of ‘Long Slow Distance’, in addition to the gradually increasing gloomier clouds, is the maturing of sound that seems to come with each and every release and therefore portraying an artist striving to reach the next base creatively and, in the process, avoiding the pitfalls of ploughing the same furrow as before.
“I had reasons to take it a little further with that album that had to do with people around me who had died,” reflects Høyem noting the songwriting progression of ‘Long Slow Distance’. “So naturally those themes about time, death and everything else were closer to my heart this time. I guess that comes from a different place than the other albums, but there has always been an element of darkness in my writing.”
Coming from a different place, inspirationally, in relation to your other albums, would you agree that this was one of your reasons for embracing the acquired sounds of Norwegian black metal music?
“I haven’t really listened a lot to that music, but I started listening to some of those albums and I felt that I could recognise some of the ideas and therefore felt a kinship between what I had been doing, especially with my band, and the ideas in some of those albums production wise,” explains Høyem. “I just like the general droning kind of mid-tempo thing they have on some of those songs. Therefore, it felt like discovering something unique to me but of course people have been listening to this type of music for a long time, but I’m always looking for interesting stuff and I don’t really delve very deep when it comes to musical influences. A guy like Bob Dylan has been a hero of mine for a long time, and I know a lot about his music, but I sort of take what I can get out of some of the music I listen to. I get some ideas and I try to make them mine, in a way, without copying them. I’m just trying to incorporate ideas from other music into my own music and spin off it in a way and try to make it part of my story.”
Taking in to consideration any readers living outside of Norway and therefore not so familiar with the career trajectory of Sivert Høyem, this sense of isolation and, at times, bleakness found in his music can be traced back to his childhood upbringing in a remote northern place by the name of Sortland; approximately a stone throwaway from the Lofoten Islands. It was during these years, with nothing but the natural elements for company that Høyem started to develop a love for music and imagine the possibilities of touring slightly more glamorous places where the likes of Iggy and The Stooges, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground made their first tentative steps and, in the process, rewriting the history books. In order to realise such dreams, the opportunity of becoming part of a musical gang of four presented itself as Høyem came into contact with the rest of the components that would eventually become Madrugada.
“From the very beginning [Madrugada], we were trying to sound as if we were from New York City or some place. We grew up in the north of Norway and it wasn’t really a very exciting place – Sortland just east of the Lofoten Islands. There weren’t a lot of things to do and we had all these fantasies about what the rest of the world was like, especially Los Angeles and New York. Luckily, we got to travel to some of these places to record and that was always a huge inspiration. It was always the point for us, in a way, to get away from where we grew up. But we always heard from people outside of Norway when we released our albums that this is a very Norwegian sound, but we didn’t want it to sound Norwegian at all as we always played that sound a lot.”
Do you still get the same response in terms of your solo material in that it has a Norwegian feel to it?
“I was trying to be a little more conscious of the Norwegian influence of it this time. I guess listening to some of that black metal music fitted into that in a way, but I wanted the sound to have a certain sense of loneliness and wanted it to be kind of big and open as there is just something in the sound that reminds me of where I come from.”
As mentioned earlier, ‘Long Slow Distance’ has a certain amount of bleakness but also a feeling of detachment from the rest of society as it struggles to come to terms with the various events beneath its exterior. In other words, this body of work will require a period of recovery due to the deeply personal narratives unfolding as several of the songs feel like an ode to various loved ones but also as a means of general catharsis for the man himself. It turns out that opening song ‘Under Administration’ from ‘Long Slow Distance’ echoed such sentiments as Høyem openly testifies.
“That’s one of the songs that to me felt the most personal in a way,” says Høyem openly. “It has to do with the death of my father, and that was always on my mind when I was working with this album, obviously, because it wasn’t a long time ago that he died and I’ve just started to come to terms with it. So where other people might have gone through therapy or something, there are some songs on this album that feel like that, and a need for that, so it’s a very personal lyric to do with our relationship. That was tough sometimes, having that [song] as a single and singing it, because basically it’s a dark pop song and kind of asking yourself the question is it right to turn these personal events into pop music. I also feel, as an artist, that you have to contribute everything you have into your music otherwise it’s probably not going to be very interesting. That’s the only way I know how to work.”
Was that your decision to have that song as a single because it must have been difficult to keep hearing on the radio considering the very personal nature of the lyrics?
“Yeah, but I had a couple of other candidates as well but that was the one that intrigued the most people such as record company people and my manager and I didn’t mind really, as I thought it was one of the best songs. So yes, it was openly my decision as I could have said no.”
And the gothic shadows and end of the world feel of ‘Red On Maroon’?
“That’s a tough one to pin down as it’s sort of like an apocalyptic fantasy in a way. It felt very significant to me when I wrote it as there are some lines in there that are pretty unsettling [laughing]. If I try to explain it now…[pauses] some of these things when you’re involved in writing them just take on their own life and take their own direction, and that’s one of those songs that is a bit of a monster. So basically, it’s what I felt about the human condition, about where we are going and our culture. Many of these songs are not about one thing, but about many things at the same time, and they all made sense to me when I wrote it but it’s kind of hard to decipher now because it was a long time ago I wrote those songs.”
‘Long Slow Distance’ surfaced two years ago but has not aged one iota as the songs sound as fresh as the day they were recorded; hence the decision to use a considerable portion of these throughout Høyem’s recent live set, alongside the more recent ‘Where Is My Moon’ EP, on his first ever solo excursion as his backing band were left to their own devices with all coming to the decision of a definite hiatus for now. But it also comes back to the sense of grieving and recovery that some of the songs suggest, and therefore rendering them difficult to pass off and simply move on from to the next project. Therefore, the solo tour gives off a real sense of departure from his past but also looking hopeful to the future as Sivert Høyem explains.
“I just had these songs and I felt it was a good opportunity to have a last recording session with the band that I’ve had for the last couple of years. So that was the last thing we’re going to do together for quite a long time. I love those guys and I thought it was a good opportunity to get together one last time and I had those songs. I wanted to get some of those songs out of the way as they don’t really fit in with my way of thinking for the next album. This is because I always want to try and find some new direction or ambition for myself.”
Was that part of the decision for going out on tour as a solo artist for the first time?
“I felt it was time for me to get a little bit more independent of the musicians I’ve been surrounding myself with, and I’m supposed to be a solo artist!” he continues laughing. “I wanted to find out how that was going to sound if I took to the stage alone. Also, to keep it interesting for myself as that’s the one thing I hadn’t tried before and it seemed like a good time. I had been fooling around with some of the old material and starting to see some of the quality in the stuff I’d done before. Most of the time I’m looking forward and most of the time I’m never really satisfied with what I have done. So that was a good way to convince myself that my older material had some qualities to it. It felt like a good timeout between these albums because now I’m not really working with the same band but working alone with the producer. We’re going to bring the musicians in to play whatever we want and need them to play in the studio.”
Is that to do with confidence as well, because you’ve had the security of a band behind you before?
“Yes, absolutely,” is the immediate response. “I’ve always been part of a band and that was always the motivation for me from the beginning because when you’re a kid being in a band has a lot to do with your identity. I released a couple of solo albums before Robert [Burås, guitarist with Madrugada] died, but I never intended to quit the band as that’s something that happened after he died and it didn’t really make sense to keep that band going. So that’s how I became a solo artist, as I have always been reluctant to embrace it.”
Thankfully, Sivert Høyem has taken the reins and looks set to embrace the life of a solo artist in its literal meaning as the next album, once ‘Long Slow Distance’ has finally been laid to rest, could provide a few surprises judging by Høyem’s inclinations for continual creative progress. Just don’t expect some form of playful pop to be surfacing in the near future as such sounds are not quite befitting of the man.
“I’m trying to stick to what feels true to me, which is always going to be kind of subjective,” says Høyem. “But I don’t do things that I don’t feel like doing because I don’t have to do them, as I’m not desperate for people to like me. So I want my music to have a certain amount of truth in it, and I don’t want to do things that I don’t want to do. So, I guess that’s a good enough philosophy.”
It was always the point for us, in a way, to get away from where we grew up."
FLW - From the Tapes
Sivert Høyem reveals his favourite songs from the album, ‘Long Slow Distance’.
“There are two – the title track that I’m very proud of, as I think we nailed the production on that and it’s the one that got closest to realising the ideas we had about the sounds on that album. So, I think that’s a special song. Also, the song ‘Blown Away’ that’s special too. It’s the only song from that album that I’ve been solo, as it’s the only one that makes any sense without a band.”