When Shagrath speaks, the Dimmu Borgir frontman does not sound like he's washing down razor blades with a half-pint of Drano.
Likewise, when singing in the shower, the artist known to his parents as Stian Thoresen is typically not joined by a 100-piece orchestra and choir while his bandmates pummel oversized guitar riffs into the souls of fervent black metal devotees.
And so far as we know, when he's not making Dimmu Borgir videos, the guttural growler does not consort with gothed-out models who rise up out of blood-filled bathtubs to hurl still-beating hearts at him.
So, in that sense, Shagrath seems like a pretty regular guy.
Still, it's hard to say. The singer does have his extreme moments, most notably when he's onstage with black metal's best-known band. After all, Dimmu Borgir dates back to a golden age when Norwegian black metal attracted worldwide attention, thanks to widely publicized church burnings, murders, suicides and general mayhem. But it wasn't until 2007 that the band reached No. 1 on the Norwegian charts with In Sorte Diaboli, reportedly the first black metal outfit to do so.
After some personnel shake-ups, Shagrath and guitarist/cofounder Silenoz recruited a full symphony orchestra and choir to help make Abrahadabra. Released in October, it's an ambitious work of metallic precision and operatic excess, which is just what fans have come to expect.
In this interview, we talk to Shagrath about music, religion, police interrogations, critical backlashes and the prospects of a Dimmu Borgir acoustic tour.
Indy: What led you to recruit the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and the Schola Cantorum Choir for this album, as opposed to just emulating them on keyboards as you've sometimes done in the past?
Shagrath: This is the third time we are using an orchestra. We have also orchestration on Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia [which featured Sweden's Gothenburg Opera Orchestra] as well as the Death Cult Armageddon album [with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra]. We ended up using a Norwegian orchestra because basically we are located in Norway and it just worked so much better for us than flying to a different country to do it. And we already had some plans with that orchestra to do a one-off show next year at an outdoor castle in the Oslo area.
Indy: A lot of Norwegian metal bands tend toward the dark side of life, including some outright Satanism. In real life, do you guys go back home to wives and kids and dogs?
S: Absolutely. We're just like everybody else. We have families and children and responsibilities. Yeah, same thing.
Indy: So does that lead to a kind of disconnect between your onstage persona and your offstage persona?
S: I think we are so deep into what we do, it's not like we're just taking off a mask or coming home from work at 4 and doing something else. We are so passionate about the music we play, and it's extremely time-consuming as well. So it's more of a lifestyle.
Indy: Melodic as your music can be, I somehow can't see you going out onstage, sitting on stools and playing acoustic guitars. How important is that theatrical element to you?
S: I think it goes hand in hand with the type of music we play. It's dark and atmospheric music, and the shows should be like that as well. For me, that's always been important, ever since I grew up listening to bands like Kiss and Twisted Sister, W.A.S.P. and Judas Priest. All those bands had a really strong kind of theatrical attitude, which I think is extremely necessary.
It wouldn't make sense to enter the stage with Dimmu Borgir in blue jeans and a white T-shirt. And what would be the point? If there is nothing to see, you might as well just stay home and listen to the CD.
Indy: But when you guys rehearse back home, that's when the blue jeans and T-shirts come out?
S: Yeah, I mean, we don't really put on makeup when we do rehearsals, of course not. (Laughs.)
Indy: Over in this country, most of us learned about Norwegian metal back in the '90s with the more sensational elements, the church burnings, those kind of things. Were there ways in which that actually helped the music, just in terms of bringing attention to it?
S: I think that depends on the way people see it. Some people think it's a shame because the underground scene was supposed to be underground. But for bands that want to get anywhere, it was kind of a good thing, you know? I think everybody sees it differently.
The whole magic behind the scene is kind of dead right now. You know, it's just been overexposed, and there are millions of bands out there that want to be a black metal band. Then it just becomes kind of childish with no real purpose behind it. But it is what it is right now, and you just have to make the best of it.
And I think also there are a lot of young bands who are like, "Oh, you cannot listen to Dimmu Borgir because that's so commercial and you should hate that band." All these whining people who are saying that shit. How long have they been in the scene for, you know? We've been around for about 20 years now in the scene, and so that itself should be proof enough that we take what we do seriously.
Indy: So as someone who was around back then, what did it feel like to be part of such an incendiary scene? Was it thrilling? Was it scary?
S: Well, it was a very magical time back when there were only a few bands that were real black metal. You listen to A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Under a Funeral Moon by Darkthrone, or Dark Medieval Times by Satyricon, or Mayhem's De Mysteriis album, and it was something extremely unique and special. It was a really magical time for black metal in the early '90s.
But still it was a lot of hassle because there was so much church burnings, and a lot of criminal activity was going on in the scene. It made a lot of hassle for the rest of the people that were not into the criminal aspects of black metal. In and out of questionings by the police. All kinds of bullshit.
Indy: So were you questioned yourself by the police?
S: Of course. Many, many times.
Indy: What was that like? I've never been questioned by the police, let alone in Norway, so I'm curious.
S: Well, it's not fun, you know, of course not. You had to go through a lot of hassle back in that time.
Indy: Plus, you must have known people who were involved in the darker aspects of that, right?
S: No, no comments to that.
Indy: OK, then let's move on to another topic you're probably sick of hearing about. Your previous record [In Sorte Diaboli] was a concept album about a priest who discovers he has bloodlines to the devil. And you've said in interviews that you're anti-religious. How come?
S: Well, I mean, there are a million reasons for that. First of all, Norway was a pagan country, and religion was forced into Norway. Yeah, let's not go there, OK? It's just a million things.
But it's not just Christianity. It's religion I'm totally against.
It doesn't make any sense to me that people should follow rules that are made by men, you know, instead of following your inner true self and being yourself.