Photo by Gaui H Photography
For the final Zombitrol At Home interview, I spoke to Heri Joensen, known for being the frontman of the Fareose metal band Týr. He’s got a new gothic/symphonic metal band with Czech vocalist Viktorie Surmová, and they’ve just released their debut album The Light Within (you can read my review here).
Týr’s early albums could technically be described as folk metal, with the caveat that Faroese folk music is largely acapella. So while other bands were making folk instrumentation more metal, Týr was creating original metal compositions to blend with traditional vocals. These albums are elaborate and progressive, overflowing in traditional compositions and beautiful vocal harmonies. It was 2009’s By The Light of the Northern Star, that saw the songs get shorter and tighter, with less long flowing prog solos, in favour of a more traditional metal style. It was this change that saw them move from a solid main support band, to a consistent headliner.
"I can see this clearly from Týr, that the simpler and more straightforward songs are the ones that people like, (and) are the ones that are much more likely to be successful songs,” says Joensen seriously.
“If you really want to make a living of this, then you have to consider that when you write the music. I think with (The Light Within) I tried to resist all my instincts to (be) more elaborate and make it more progressive. More than a few times we took it down a notch and made it simpler and less winding, less lengthy. That part was a conscious decision. You’re a music enthusiast, and I think most people who listen to music aren’t. So am I, I love all good music. I can get quite nerdy about it. But most people are just listening while, I don’t know, driving or whatever they’re doing. I can simply see the numbers on YouTube, on Spotify, that the simpler songs get way, way more attention. It’s nice to have done the other stuff, but it simply comes down in the end to how do you make a living of this, and that is by making the simpler songs. Something that has a better chance of becoming popular. That’s not the same as selling out. They are still songs that I will stand by 100%, even though they are shorter, simpler, and more straight to the point. That is not the same as selling out, and there’s a line, a balance to find in-between those things I think. I still have my other project Heljareyga, and I have some songs there, 10 or around there that I’m working on now and then, that are quite lengthy. I’ll get my progressive songs into that, and leave Týr and Surma more straight to the point.”
The shift in sound also saw Joensen’s original lyrics become more prominent, and more of his personality began to shine through, even if he was writing in a historical context. So when it seems on the surface that many of Týr’s songs are purely mythological, they are always from a personal perspective.
“Whenever I’m writing the lyrics myself there’s always something personal in it,” says Joensen.
“If there isn’t, you have lyrics like ‘Alexander The Great’ by Iron Maiden, where they’re simply reciting historical facts, which isn’t terribly interesting honestly. It’s nice to memorize for your history test (laughs), but it’s not really that interesting. What I like, the first modern Faroese poet Jens Djurhuss he modernized (in the Faroes at least, I’m sure it was modern in the mainland before that), poetry about ancient subjects with a personal angle, because a personal angle is rarely ever there in mythology and medieval literature. I think the personal angle is very valuable, and you can almost only do it from your own value system and experience. I have a personal point that I want to get across when I write lyrics, no matter how mythological they are.”
Despite this value placed on the personal within the mythological, when I’ve broached the subject in the past, Joensen hasn’t always been forthcoming with the more personal experiences behind his lyrics. But with Surma, his personal life is front and centre, as the band is perhaps a literal labour of love with lead singer Viktorie Surmová. Head over to Surma’s official page and you’re greeted by a dominating photo of Joensen and Surmová superimposed by the band’s heart-shaped logo. To Joensen, Surma is not a side-band, but full-time group that exists alongside Týr. But what came first? Collaboration or romance?
“Romance came first!” says Joensen laughing.
“We were on tour in 2016 in Europe and Viktorie was working for one of the organizers of the show here. First time I laid my eyes on her I was completely blown away, and well, we got to know each other and we’ve been together ever since. This logo, she came up with the basic idea for it. That’s kind of random, it’s not directly related to our relationship. It’s a funny coincidence. That was actually not deliberate. I don’t think I’ve made a deliberate effort to be a private person. There’s just not much interesting about me, other than the music.”
The Light Within, while far more symphonic than Týr’s music, is also steeped in history. Each song on the album is inspired by a different historical sculpture from around the world.
“Viktorie came up with that,” says Joensen.
“The basic idea for the whole album (came from) the memorial for the victims of the communist dictatorship of Czechoslovakia that existed here for decades. It’s a creepy-looking memorial at the very center of the city. It’s lit up from the ground, so that if you walk past it in the dark it’s very eerie. This was not meant to be a political album, this is really meant to be a personal, individual album.”
Surma 2021: (L to R) Rens Bourgondien (Bass), Aleksandr Zhukov (Drums), Viktorie Surmová (Vocals), Heri Joensen (Guitars/Vocals)
Photo by Krystof Peterka
Joensen is spending most of his time in Prague these days. He’s arguably the most well-known Faroese person in the world, so I did wonder if there’s any pressure for him to live back home, since he’s become the main cultural icon of a nation of over 50,000 people.
“The biggest reason that there’s no chance I can live there is the level of cost of everything,” he says after some thought.
“As you know, things are pretty much cheaper here in Czechia. With the income that a struggling musician such as myself has at the moment, there’s just no chance I can live in the Faroes. I’d like to live there, that much I can admit, right now it’s more convenient to be here. Of course there’s some people who would like that I was in the Faroes, but it’s not for professional reasons. You know, for personal reasons obviously. I have 2 kids there. Of course for band business it would be much more convenient even to be closer to (Týr bassist) Gunnar (Thomsen). For some things this is not the optimal situation, but for others it’s more convenient.”
Joensen’s other brush with international fame has come from a strange place, as he invoked the ire of the controversial environmental activist Paul Watson, who captains the anti-whaling ship Sea Shepherd. The whole incident started with a personal Facebook post that Joensen made while participating in an annual Faroese whaling ritual where he wrote “real men kill their own meat.” I saw the post at the time, and although I eat meat myself, I found it to be a bit silly, but nothing more. I was shocked to see Joensen essentially labelled as Public Enemy #1 by Watson, followed by protests at Týr shows around the world.
“I think looking back on how the whole thing went, I think I would agree with you, it was not the right thing to say,” says Joensen frankly.
“It was a joke not meant to imply the existing or missing masculinity of anybody. I honestly didn’t think it would get that much attention. Had I known, I would not have made that comment. I (don’t) have that reach, Sea Sheperd has that reach. They took it and blew it up. If it weren’t for their actions it would have been nothing. They have a very well-functioning… I would call it a propaganda machine, and they put it to its full use. It’s very effective.”
Joensen and Watson haven’t exactly met face-to-face as of yet. They had a conversation on the Animal Planet channel, and Watson turned up as protest outside one of Týr’s shows in California (Joensen says he walked right past him and wasn’t recognized). It's true that Watson has a far bigger reach than a metal band from the Faroes, and it made me wonder if Týr actually gained any new fans from the exposure via Sea Shepherd’s crusade against them.
“I know for a fact we have, yes,” says Joensen excitedly.
“People who say that they heard about us only because of that, and they came to the show, bought a ticket to support us. On the last U.S. tour I heard that maybe 10-15 times.”
Despite the Animal Planet appearance, Joensen’s actual views on whaling in the Faroes have not received much attention. The controversy created by Watson positions Joensen as a kind of official figurehead for the practice. The reality is that his views on the subject are not black-and-white enough to suit that narrative.
“Depends on how you do it, and why you do it,” he says.
“Of course it’s of vital importance how much suffering the animal has to go through for you to harvest the meat. As I understand, Japanese shark-finning, they cut the fins off a shark while it’s alive and let it go back into the ocean with its fins missing. That would be illegal in the Faroes for the last several decades. You’re not allowed to harm any large ocean animal unless you have specific permission or orders to do so. You’re certainly not allowed put a scratch on a whale as long as it has a chance of escaping. You have to secure it properly on the beach before you kill it. It’s not helpful to paint the issue with a broad brush.”
Týr 2021: (L to R) Tadeusz Rieckmann (Drums), Hans Hammer (Guitars), Heri Joensen (Vocals/Guitars), Gunnar Thomsen (Bass/Vocals)
Photo by Gaui H Photography
Surma was ready to head out on tour when the shutdown hit. In the meantime Joensen has spent his time creating merch stores for both bands, and working on new music. His pandemic routine has been pretty solid. After he wakes up he exercises and works on band merch orders. He then writes and records music from the afternoon until midnight. Luckily for his fans, these daily sessions seem to have been going really, really well.
“I’ve been working on mostly Týr. I have a folder in my computer called ‘The 9th Album,’ and one called ‘The 10th Album,’ even,” he says with an audible smile.
“That one has maybe 15 songs. I’m not really sure where to put every right now, and Gunnar and (drummer) Tadeusz (Rieckmann) are also working on their own ideas for the next album. I’ve made some recordings, guitar, and wrote some lyrics. A few more months of work and we’ll have (it) ready. I started making a guitar album. Just with my own guitars, bass, and drums. Will I ever get to that? (laughs) I’m not sure. I also started making an acoustic album. I have a lot of material that I hope I will get to one day. I don’t think we’ll have too much, ever. You can still release a full album every 2 years, and even doing that requires your absolute full-time attention. I don’t think we’re in danger of getting anywhere close to that.”
Joensen is overall quite an easy-going person, but that’s not to say that he isn’t passionate about his opinions. So when asked if there was any kind of message or lesson that he’s taken away from the pandemic, he didn’t hold on back. But unlike others who can be outspoken, he knows that not everything is an absolute, and in the end we only have our own perspective.
“One thing that has become worse during the last year definitely, is the common misconception that the internet is a real world,” he says as seriously as I’ve ever heard him.
“That was already bad before the lockdown, and now that people are forced to sit at home with no access to the world but the internet, that’s clearly become worse. People should try every now and then to go a whole day without a screen, I think that would be very helpful. I’ve thought about many, many things. But it also depends on what personality you have, which issues you’re going through. As for someone like me? The lockdown and isolation hasn’t been very tough. I’m a very introverted and un-social person. I’d probably be going on just like it is now, even if it weren’t for pandemic, save for the tours and shows. But if you’re a very outgoing and sociable person, then you might have completely different issues than I would have from this, and I would have no idea how to address those issues. I can only speak for myself.”