In metal terms, Norway is famous, or perhaps infamous, for black metal: from the influential sounds of Darkthrone, Enslaved and Immortal to the shocking tales of Mayhem, Burzum, Gorgoroth, and the church-burnings. But Oslo-based melodic death masters Total Depravity have always followed their own unique path. With a remarkably consistent line-up over their ten-year career, they have released six studio albums and toured incessantly, building up a reputation for technically dazzling and emotional performances. It hasn’t always been an easy road though; several band members have been dogged by health problems resulting from their hedonistic lifestyles, while they have had tours cancelled and albums banned in several countries amidst accusations of Satanism. On the eve of a new album launch, followed by their first headlining tour of the UK, I chatted to lead vocalist, guitarist and composer Mikko Kristensen.
Your new album, ‘Reprobation’, will be released in July. What can you tell us about it? So ‘Reprobation’ comes from the Calvinistic concept of predetermination, which is basically that God decided at the beginning of time who would be going to heaven – the Elect – and who would go to hell – the Reprobate. And there’s nothing you can do in your life to change that. I mean, obviously I think it’s fucking bullshit, but it blows my mind that people actually believe it. The whole Reformation was built on this shit and people actually bought it. And it’s so goddamn brutal that it’s perfect for metal, you know? And then the word also means disapproval, censure, rejection by God, et cetera. If anyone has been rejected by God, it’s Total Depravity, right, I mean we take blasphemy to a whole new level! So the whole album just explores different aspects of this idea.
Your lyrical themes have always centred on religion, and in particular on Protestantism. Why do you have such a strong connection to that strain of Christianity – is that how you were brought up? No, man. I didn’t have a religion growing up, but it’s fucking fascinating to me. The power of belief. I mean, I sort of wish I could believe in a God, because what a comfort that must be. Then you look at the world we live in and you think, what sort of an asshole is this God? But on the other hand, look at all the music, art, architecture, that has been inspired by religion. You listen to the music of Bach and it moves you to tears and you think, there must be something in this, right? I honestly don’t know how I could write songs about anything else. I’m going to be figuring this shit out through music my whole life.
Religion has frequently got Total Depravity into trouble over the years; banned from performing in several countries, albums censored, accusations of Satanism. Are you really a Satanist? It’s such a cliché to accuse metal bands of Satanism, I mean, it’s been happening since the beginnings of metal, since Black Sabbath. I suppose those Norwegian church-burners, and that guy who murdered people, Varg Vikernes, they are as close to real Satanists as you could get, but even that, it’s still just theatre. Look, to me, God and Satan are basically the same fucking dude. The truth is, and I don’t like to talk about it much, but when I was a child I had an accident involving a near-death experience, and I saw this hooded figure standing at a gate. And he didn’t feel either good, or evil, but he sent me back, back down a tunnel towards life, and I didn’t have a choice. That’s another cliché right, and I know there are neurological reasons why we see tunnels, hooded figures and whatever. But I still did, man. After the accident, I spent a lot of time recovering in hospital – that’s maybe why I’m shorter than most Norwegians! And the whole time I was reading up about religion – all aspects of religion – and playing my guitar on my bed, and it all started from there.
What are your thoughts on metal subgenres and how would you categorise Total Depravity? I’m not a big fan of subgenres, but we are usually described as ‘blackened melodic death’ and I think that’s pretty accurate. I grew up listening to Finnish and Swedish melodic death bands, you know, Amorphis, At The Gates, In Flames, Children of Bodom. Plus I have a classical training or whatever so I like the whole neoclassical, melodic thing. But then we bring in the black metal influence from our home country, plus it fits with our lyrical themes.
Who are your musical influences? Guitar-wise, definitely Randy Rhoads. What he could have achieved if he had lived man, I mean I think about that every day. He developed the neoclassical style and he really set the bar for what an electric guitarist could do technically, but it was also his whole approach: his professionalism, his humility in the face of practising. The level at which metal guitarists are playing today, even in completely unknown bands, is all thanks to him. I listen to all sorts of metal but I like a lot of classical composers – I think you can hear it in my music, I mean I literally copy some of them. I lift like whole passages, and then turn them into super-heavy death metal. Baroque stuff- Bach, Purcell, and even earlier – Byrd, Tallis – I mean I really get off on that shit.
This autumn you will be setting out on your first headliner tour of the UK. Are you looking forward to it? For sure, I can’t wait to play the new album live. I enjoy touring more now that we are a bit older and wiser. In the past it was so crazy – drink, drugs, women, parties, fights – I mean I was starting to dread going on tour because I knew how fucking unhealthy it would be. Now we try and take care of ourselves a little bit more. The main problem with this tour is that our booking agent has literally no sense of geography so we are all over the place on that bus. I mean even I know that to do Liverpool-London-Manchester-Bristol-Newcastle in that order makes no fucking sense. People will be wondering what the fuck are these guys up to? But whatever, we’ll do it. And the other problem is that our support act is Bishop of Satan, so we’re not really getting away from the whole satanic thing. But they are so ridiculously over-the-top that hopefully people will get it. If you’re in the UK, come out and see us this autumn, and bring some fucking earplugs because we don’t fuck around!
You can download Total Depravity’s albums nowhere because they are a fictional band. But you can read Mikko’s story in ‘Reprobation’, published on October 16th by Crooked Cat Books.