“Keep the Black Flame Burning and Fuck NSBM” – Interview with Qwälen

If you follow this blog closely, you’ll be well aware of my passion for black metal and the attention I pay especially to those records and bands that are openly anti-fascist, RABM (Red and Anarchist Black Metal) or take a clear stand against the racist, sexist and homotransphobic scum that infest the extreme metal scene. If you have all that in mind, the following interview is definitely for you! Released a year ago by Time to Kill Records, Unohnden Sinut by Finnish Qwälen was literally a blaze in the northern sky, a devastating Nordic black metal record capable of mixing the second Scandinavian wave and the most modern sounds in an interesting and personal way. I recently managed to interview Qwälen, talking not only about their personal approach to black metal but also about their hardcore punk attitude and background and their sharp stance against NSBM. “Keep the black flame burning and fuck the NSBM”, this is the clear and unequivocal message screamed in the Nordic sky by Qwälen!

Hi guys! Would you like to tell us some biographical notes about your band? Most importantly, what does it mean and what inspired you to choose to call yourselves Qwälen?

Ville: The name is derived from the German verb quälen (“to torture”). I think Ari, our original bass player, came up with the idea to change the u to w. We thought the word would be quite suitable for a black metal band and well, here we are with a name that doesn’t mean anything so we’re quite happy with that.

Eetu: When I was asked to join the band, I thought the name Qwälen was twisted from the Finnish dialect word “kualen” (I am dying). Samuli, Ville or Henri can tell better about the birth of the band because I joined the band later.

Henri: Haha, I too have heard someone say “What is this mää kualen (I´m dying) band”

Samuli: Yeah, the start of the band was a rather boozy night when the idea came together. I have always had a drive to create something that I feel strongly about musically and thus had a strong drive already to start creating this kind of music. Six or so years ago Ville, Henkka, myself along with our former bass player Ari started doing music together and few of the songs of the first album were written already then. We had a different vocalist in the beginning but then Eetu was asked to fill that position and once Ville switched to bass, Antti was invited by Eetu. By then Qwälen started properly rehearsing with a goal to create an album.

As I’ve been able to read from a variety of places, you primarily come from a hardcore and punk background. How much does this connection of yours to the hardcore punk scene affect your way of playing and being a band?

E: We all have very different musical backgrounds. My background is in hardcore punk and grindcore. With my grindcore band, I’ve been doing gigs for over a decade, so it’s natural to bring Qwälen to those same venues as well. We have done gigs in free art facilities, bars and various D.I.Y events. The punk background is reflected in my performance and in that I have no need to obey the rules written in black metal.

Antti: In my case, the background is shown by accepting the equipment I already have. I don’t want to buy new instruments just for black metal.

Ville: I think it mostly shows in trusting more in power and pure aggression, sort of attacking your instrument instead of being technically that talented. In Qwälen, I switched from guitar to bass sometime around 2017 or 2018 and I think it can be heard on our recordings. Coming from hardcore background, I think it shows that I care more about the people I’m playing with than their talents and treat them as my equals.

Samuli: Punk is what I started with but that was a long time ago. I’ve been hanging in the local scene sidelines most of the time I’ve played in bands but the more I age the more I’ve been drawn into different kinds of music. I guess unconsciously the attitude and musical approach still remains. Simplicity, danger and aggression both in songwriting and in our live presence.

Henri: I myself come from more of a trash/melo-death metal background, but punk, hardcore and black-metal has always been in my playlists. In my opinion, our differing musical starting points is one of the things that gives Qwälen the twist that differs us from the traditional Finnish black metal.   

Starting from a purely hardcore background, how did you develop your passion for black metal sounds that refer as much to the second Norwegian/Scandinavian wave as to more modern sounds of the genre? Which are the bands that influenced your music the most?

Ville: I used to listen to more black metal during my teenage years, mostly Emperor, Darkthrone, Immortal and Bathory, so the passion definitely comes from there. I think at some point when I was diving more into grindcore, hardcore and crust punk, I noticed the similarities between the earlier black metal stuff and the crustier stuff, so in some way I guess the passion was somewhat natural and always there for me. Considering Qwälen, I’m as much influenced by Anti Cimex (think of Scandinavian Jawbreaker era) and Darkthrone. I think Young and in the Way’s “When Life Comes to Death” was also somewhat of a big thing for me and Samuli, but Immortal’s “At the Heart of Winter” was probably the album that made Samuli start the band.

Samuli: I wouldn’t say that “At the heart of winter” was the album that made me want to start Qwälen, but it was one of the albums that really opened my mind into the sounds of black metal. Darkthrone and Immortal we’re the ones that opened the genre to me, but from those two Darkthrone has remained a constant influence. Qwälen started out of a passion to create black metal rather than going after certain bands.

As a late-discoverer of black metal in my 20s, I felt a really strong connection with the genre from the start. The extreme aural aesthetics, connection to spirituality, raw emotionality and embracing the inner darkness felt real and meaningful. There was much more beyond the songs themselves, and for me music was at that point a long time ago gone beyond mere songs and notes. The core concepts in BM resonate very deeply to me still and the spiritual side has helped me evaluate my own philosophy and spiritual history. The music itself made me interested, but the deeper aspects started my passion.

Scandinavian first and second waves have always been the main reference points. I would not say that our sound or expression references modern sounds per se, but there are definitely bands whose influence might be heard. Young and in the way is definitely one. However, being a rather stubborn person musically I tend to gravitate towards primitive, raw, old and dusty sounds. One of the driving ideas was to go back to the very basics of playing as a band with Qwälen and approach everything with simplicity in mind. I still look for the same thing in black metal that I listen to and modern renditions rarely work for myself. There is however a fresh movement that captures the right sound in the raw US and UK BM scenes. The rise of both scenes is a rather modern phenomenon.

Henri: I grew up listening to 90s groove- and “cross-over” metal bands (such as Pantera, Machine Head, Sepultura and Biohazard) but got really into black and death metal in my teens (Immortal and Children of Bodom were the shit back then).  The rawness and multilayered dark and honest self-expression were the things that got me too into black metal in the first place. And hey, we live in a country that is dark and cold for 9 months every year.

Talking about black metal, you know better than me that the international black scene is full of overtly Nazi bands or ambiguous bands that sympathize or collaborate with openly racist, homophobic or far-right bands. What is your position on this? Do you consider, also because of your past in the hardcore and punk scene, Qwälen a political band or at least openly anti-fascist?

E: Our music is not political, but we strongly bring out that we stand with anti-fascism. In our lyric sheet you can see our statement “FUCK OFF NSBM SHIT” and we have merch with ANTI-FASCIST BLACK METAL -print. There’s no room for misogyny, sexism, homophobia, ableism, racism or any shit like those in any scene. We are very precise about who we work with, so do not contact us if you do not stand behind these ideas.

Ville: Sometimes it feels a bit hard for me to talk about Qwälen as a black metal band since our sound and mindset is quite far away from the black metal scene. It’s hard to even consider us or at least myself belonging to any black metal scene, since that’s something I definitely don’t identify with. Probably the traditional black metal scene wants us to stay out and I’m totally happy with that. I come from a small town and there was a neo-nazi wave going on in many small towns in Finland during the late 90s/early 2000s so my disgust with any fascist or nazi ideology comes from there and for me, hardcore and punk has also had a big impact on taking a stand against fascism/nazism.

Henri: Ditto. We don´t like assholes.

Over the decades Finland has been extremely fertile ground for a lot of more or less extreme genres, from black metal to hardcore punk of bands like Kaaos and Riistetyt, how is currently the situation of the underground and DIY metal and punk scene in your country? Which are the most active and valid realities (clubs, fanzines, bands, collectives) from your point of view?

Ville: I guess the overall situation is pretty good, even though there hasn’t been that much going on due to the covid situation and I’ve been a bit lazy about following new bands during the last couple of years. I think the biggest problem might be that there’s not that many small or mid-sized venues, even DIY-venues, for bands to perform and many of the existing places are quite overbooked. New Yleiset Syyt and Kohti Tuhoa 7”s just came out and Stolen Kidneys just released their new album “Maailma loppuu”, those are definitely worth checking out.

E: The D.I.Y scene has grown in Finland in recent years. There is a D.I.Y venue in almost every big city, where you can arrange performances for small bands (Tukikohta, Kenneli D.I.Y, Mäkitorppa, Hoi Sie!, Kirjakahvila, Oranssi). When I started touring with bands over a decade ago, gigs could only be held in bars. The number of distros has also risen in recent years.

We made a Spotify playlist some time ago where we collected songs from our friends ’bands. Definitely worth a look! It’s called FULL SATANIC SPEED WITH FAMILY AND FRIENDS BY QWÄLEN.

Continuing to talk about Black metal, do you notice any similarities and differences between your approach to the genre and that of more classic Finnish bands, from Beherit to Sargeist?

Ville: I guess the approach was originally to just play and do something new. I think we’ve managed to develop our own twist on black metal and not just replicate something that’s already been done. So there might be similarities and differences, but I don’t have that deep thoughts about it…

Samuli: The main idea might be the same. A great desire to express what we have inside. Soundwise the cold atmosphere is something shared, but then again that is a general trait of the genre. Also I guess there are some similar approaches to riffing in utilizing melodicism together with power chords as a starting point? One becomes rather blind to things written by yourself and I’ve always thought that the ones outside are better at pointing out similarities etc.

The finnish black metal scene is heavily coerced by unwritten rules of what black metal is and thematically limited in the sense of what is accepted. We do not care. We can do whatever we want. Fuck your rules. In this sense we might have more similarities thematically and approach-wise with the modern raw BM of the US or scenes outside Scandinavia which tend to look at BM in a thematically broader context.

What does it mean for Qwälen to play black metal in 2021? What do you think is the potential of such a controversial, hostile and extreme genre nowadays?

Antti: When Qwälen plays live, the band offers something new and extreme that hasn’t been heard in the DIY metal and punk scene.

Ville: Taking a twist on the traditional sound and mindset. The potential is huge, for example the new Pan-Amerikan Native Front with its approach from an indigenous person’s point of view is a great take on black metal and opens up discussion for current problems, even though the album deals with a historical event and persons (Little Turtle, Blue Jacket and the Battle of the Wabash).

Samuli: Playing black metal means to look inside. Bands in my opinion at times point too many fingers and my idea of black metal is looking into the spiritual mirror within. It is not ours or the point of the music to tell what to do or think, but hopefully to spark thought. It is self-expression both lyrically and  in instrumentation. Black metal in a way is a tool for reflection. Destroy your temple, build anew and in the process lift yourself up. Life is the ultimate oppressor and the answer for moving forward is within.

Your first record “Unohdan Sinut” was released this year and it is absolutely devastating! How did you get in touch with Time to Kill Records for the release?

E: We contacted a few labels when we got the record ready and Time to Kill Records were selected from those who were interested. We didn’t know much about the label but the choice has proven to be the right one. The collaboration with Time to Kill Records has been really smooth and we look forward to the future. We are really grateful for this opportunity. Thanks to Time to Kill Records and Enrico.

What are the songs contained in “Unohdan Sinut” about? What are the songs you are most attached to and why?

E: The last few years have been quite heavy for me mentally, so the lyrics are based on my inner world. ​The songs eschew the usual anti-religious black metal themes and focus instead on self-portrayals. Temppeli is the most important song from the album for me because it was the first text I wrote for Qwälen. It’s also the last song of our set list.

Future projects for the Qwälen? Have you been able to play live during these last months despite the difficulties due to the pandemic situation? What difficulties did you have to face releasing a record in a period when it was not possible to play live in many European countries?

Samuli: Future projects include a second album and possible a shorter release, but the shorter release is still on an idea-level. Second album is coming, but no timetable is yet agreed and we’re not going to hurry anything. Most of the members in the band have multiple things musically going on and that also affects how things work and when things can move along. Not to mention family obligations. I have been focusing solely on writing Qwälen for a long period of time and there is quite a lot of demo material written already! I think Henri had some ideas for music videos as well.

The album release without playing shows has gone better than we hoped. Time to kill records did an amazing job in promoting the record and people who have interest in this music have found it. I would hope to be able to play outside of Finland in the future as there have been interest from abroad as well. We’ve been able to play a few shows in Finland this fall and reception has been overwhelming. A lot of people have come to the shows just to see Qwälen, which feels very weird. Album release was many months ago and the hype has died, but I guess people have been waiting to see us live. I am weirded out by the fact that people care, but am at the same time extremely grateful.

Henri: As Samuli said already, I think we all are still baffled and confused about the positive feedback from our first album (and extremely grateful too). Live shows have suffered but the covid situation might have worked a bit in our favor since most of the world had to sit home, listen to music and reflect on their inner worlds that might not have been so rosy in the past times.

And yes, new music videos are coming.

E: I haven’t received such good feedback on any of my previous music projects. It’s great to see how warmly our music has been received around the world. People have bought records, shirts and cassettes. The most important thing, of course, is that people have also come to our gigs. Thank you.

I look forward to the moment when we get to release new Qwälen songs for the world to hear. Be prepared.

We have come to the end of this interview. I leave this space at your complete disposal, feel free to add anything you think might be interesting for the readers!

Samuli: Support the underground and keep the black flame burning. HAIL SATAN.

Henri: Don´t be an asshole, drink beer and hail satan.

E: Support the D.I.Y scene, hate the police, spit on the face of the fascists and remember that NSBM is for the losers.