Maniac: 13 years with Norway’s most notorious band (Part 1)

Sven-Erik "Maniac" Kristiansen is a living legend on the international black-metal scene being the former vocalist of one of the genre's most influential bands: Mayhem. In this rare and exclusive interview Maniac tells his own story on what it has been like to be with one of the world's most extreme metal bands and why he left the band last year.

Maniac - anno app. 1998 (photograf unknown)

Written by Knut Steen

If one is to sum up Maniacs decade with Mayhem, it’s a good idea to start with the very beginning. Sven-Erik Kristiansen’s interest in extreme music began at an early stage.

“Necrophagia and particularly Sodom’s first album were major sources of inspiration for me. On a technical level, much of the music was mediocre, the interplay sucked and it was a wonder that they even managed to end the tunes simultaneously. But the stuff was grim as hell and I loved it. I learned of Mayhem through one of my buddies who designed the logo that the band is still using. I listened to the first demo, ‘Pure Fucking Armageddon’ and thought that I could do this myself just as well.”

The demo that Kristiansen recorded in three scant hours was well received by band leader Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth. Up until this point, Mayhem had only had temporary vocalists and the band needed a front-man that could fit in with the extreme form of expression that the band now was presenting.

“”This is great, come down and see us as soon as you can” was the response from Euronymous two weeks later,” says Maniac. “We rehearsed a little bit and recorded “Deathcrush” in 1987.”

Being true
This early demo is extremely hard to come by today – the few available originals trade for NOK 3-6000. “Had I known how much they would sell for today I’d keep all 50, but unfortunately I’ve only got one left” says Kristiansen.

During the early days of black-metal, the notion of being authentic, genuine, for real, or true was imperative. It was important to convey an image of being as extreme as the music and lyrics implied – no one were to believe that this was theatrics. This stifled attitude would later play a pivotal role for the media-fed propaganda that followed in the wake of church burnings, homicides and suicides. However, this is an entirely different story into which we will not go in detail here. Whether if one is “true” is still a vital measurement scale for many ardent old-school fans to determine if a band can be “allowed” to brand their music as black-metal, while for others it is a matter of staying true to the gritty, dirty and un-produced sound that characterised most of the early releases. It is a widespread opinion that it was only lack of funds and mediocre recording facilities that resulted in the lacking sound qualities of the early Mayhem and Emperor releases. In Kristiansen’s opinion there’s more to the notion of being “true” that having crap sound.

“We named our band “The True Mayhem” because there were two other bands that called themselves Mayhem – one in New York and another somewhere else. We felt that none of those bands were worthy of such a name. In the beginning, black-metal was not so much about playing well but more about bringing forth that icy, ugly felling that still characterise bands such as Mayhem and particularly Darkthrone – the latter is one of my absolute favourites. Darkthrone’s latest album, ‘Sardonic Wrath’ is amazing. This feeling that you talk about is difficult to describe with words, and it is one of the reasons why I rarely do any interviews. Mayhem has changed a lot musically since the early days, but we’ve retained that feeling that many refer to as being “true”,” says Krisiansen.

“Is your child involved in black-metal?”
At times, Mayhem has appeared to be more of a soap opera than a band. News stories on murder, heated conflicts, alleged human sacrifice and other scary stuff would for some time divert all attention from the music that was being put out by the band. Maniac left Mayhem in 1988, and returned in 1995 when the media frenzy surrounding the conflicts between Per Yngve “Dead” Ohlin, Euronymous and Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes had abated.

Says Krisiansen: “I left Mayhem in ’88 because I was living in Rjukan at the time while the rest of the band stayed at Langhus. Back then, I wasn’t ready to move – that’s the only reason for my hiatus from the band. But when the band needed a new vocalist in 1995, both I and (bass player) Necrobutcher were sceptical. We didn’t know (guitarist) Blasphemer and we were quite anxious to see how this was going to turn out.

After half a rehearsing session it was a wrap - the band members worked together perfectly well.

“It wasn’t difficult to come back,” says Kristiansen. “I have never cared much about what was happening at the time, even if I laughed hard when (national daily) VG published tests that presented nervous parents with questions such as “is your child involved in black-metal?” What was taxing was that the music was never mentioned with one word neither in articles nor in interviews. That’s the reason why we chose not to speak to the press for many years.”

For as long as he’s been a band member, Maniac has contributed with all lyrics while Blasphemer has composed all of the music from 1995 to this date. The two have always worked separately, and have mostly met only to create the music that is Mayhem today.

Anti-social creativity
“Apart from rehearsals, recording sessions and gigs, the Mayhem members have never hung out much socially,” says Kristiansen, “but Blasphemer’s and my mind-set are quite similar so it has never been a problem to match the lyrics with the music. It was difficult to fill in for (former vocalist) Dead, but even though he wrote fantastic lyrics I soon realised that I had to do my own thing.”

According to Kristiansen, ‘Wolf’s Lair Abyss’ was Mayhem’s most occult outing since ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’, with lyrics searching deep within various dark elements. On later outings, lyrics have mostly revolved around such themes as misanthropy, nihilism and particularly war.

Despite a good working climate and at times a huge demand from the fans, Mayhem’s studio albums would be released years apart.

“I spend a lot of time writing lyrics while it takes Blasphemer ages to write his music. Neither he nor I are interested in putting out something if we feel we have nothing to convey – in addition to this, Blasphemer is also an extreme perfectionist. He won’t stop until he’s satisfied. Even though if Blasphemer and I work together well, we have also turned bonkers quite a few times when we’ve been forced to spend long periods of time together, be it on tours or during the making of a record. This makes it hard to put out a record every year – if we could, then it would be easier to make a living out of Mayhem” says Kristiansen who know a thing or two about being skint.

Low-income part-time job
For the present Mayhem members, the band has always been a full-time job. We have to ask: what was the motivation that kept you going through all these years, even when you had to resort to survive on a day-to-day basis?

“Mayhem has always meant hell of a lot to me – it still does, even now that I’ve quit the band. It’s been an extremely rewarding process. Mayhem has given me an outlet that enables me to vent out negative moods – I wouldn’t know how to vent it otherwise. The fact that I was dirt poor at times never struck me as a reason for quitting – the music was motivation enough” says Kristiansen.

No internal dispute
Mayhem’s 2004 album ‘Chimera’ was to be Maniac’s last with the band. At this stage, Blasphemer had gained virtually total creative control – nearly al instrumental tracks were written from the guitarist’s new residence in Portugal. The multi-talented guitarist elected to produce the album by himself, with the other band-members being instructed how to play. Reportedly, the front-man was the only band-member that had a saying in the process. Kristiansen denies any speculation that Blasphemer’s total control was one of the reasons why he decided to put Maniac on the shelf for good.

“It was a chaotic process. Blasphemer was pissed off, I was pissed off and it got ugly at times. But that doesn’t mean that we disagreed – when it came to the music and how the lyrics fitted in he was always specific and we agreed all along the way. The only negative aspect of this was that we ran out of time by the end of the recording process.”

Internal dispute was not going to be the reason for Maniac’s departure from the band. Lack of time was to be a vital factor for the vocalist when he ultimately decided to split from Mayhem.

Painting the devil on the wall
According to the only press release from the band regarding Maniac’s split, touring was cited as a main cause for his decision to leave – family obligations was also a contributing factor.

Most will find it hard to believe anything else than that being Mayhem’s front-man must have put a heavy strain on the vocalist with ever growing expectations caused by live performances that grew in intensity as the years went on. It was everyday routine that Maniac was left with deep, self-inflicted wounds after a gig – many concerts ended at various intensive care wards around the world. At times, the front-man came close to bleeding to death.

“I didn’t give a fuck about what was expected of us. The deepest cuts came at gigs that went down extremely well, when the chemistry between Blasphemer, the audience and me was perfect. I entered a completely different state of mind and I’ve never felt so alive, electric and high at the same time. All those times I cut myself it was completely spontaneous. Gradually, the audience started to expect blood dripping gigs, and when we realised that the cutting had become a phenomenon people came to watch I quit doing it.”

Kristiansen is the first to admit that the myths and media hype that has surrounded Mayhem has often been out of proportion. “If I was to talk about all those qualities and all that power I was supposed to have according to some newspapers and web-sites I wouldn’t have time to pick up my daughter from her kindergarten” says a laughing Kristiansen. He adds a few interesting “facts” established by various media in the wake of Mayhem’s success: “Already by the time we released ‘Wolf’s Lair Abyss’ it was established that Blasphemer was extremely violently inclined and that I was running all drug operations in Oslo as if I was some kind of kingpin. We were also told that all Norwegian black-metallers lived in caves in the forest!”

Smiling is a no-no
Maniac was also to be a “victim” for groups of black-metal pilgrims that each year make pilgrimages to the Oslo club Elm Street, hoping to catch a glimpse of their heroes.

“Fenriz (Darkthrone) and I used to be caught off guard by those fanatics who would often have their perception of reality distorted. Fans from abroad that would enter Elm Street, fall on their knees and kiss Fenriz’ shoes simply could not understand that we could be sitting there, laughing with beer in hand sans corpse make-up. After all we were Fenriz and Maniac! On another occasion, an Australian woman came back-stage and insisted on holding my arms and feel the scars left by the knife cuts. She wanted to absorb my aura and take on the vibes that was supposed to surround me. In my world, being a groupie is just about the most pathetic there is so I had one of the bouncers throw her out of the venue we were in. But she didn’t give up – when we left she hung onto our car. Luckily, I haven’t seen her since then.”

Armed fans
Amid all the madness, do you feel that Mayhem have been taken seriously as creative artists by media, authorities and promoters?

“Not initially, and not in Norway. Back home, the press has always managed to dig up some old and gross stories. When a deranged guy from some crap band was caught molesting a corpse, the newspapers thought it was a great idea to call us for comments because the guy had been pictured wearing a Mayhem shirt at a party years earlier. That says a thing or two about the level of reporting in Norwegian media. This idiot attitude was also one of the reasons why we at one point refused (national dailies) VG and Dagbladet access to one of our gigs at (defunct Oslo club) Mars – if they were to see the gig they had to buy tickets as everybody else did.”
During trips abroad, Kristiansen has experienced a higher level of awareness in media and with authorities: “We toured Australia some years ago on an invitation from the Australian Department for Culture and Arts on the basis that we represented “Norwegian culture at its highest level”. Naturally, it was awesome – we were welcomed everywhere.

Kristiansen also discovered that Mayhem has fans in many unlikely places: “Blasphemer and I like to head out on a little sightseeing when we arrive at a new place; just a little stroll to take in some new impulses. During this walk we visited the Australian parliament that’s located in a huge majestic building surrounded by armed guards. Our appearance was like it always is: longhaired and clad in black. As we approached the building, one of the guards eyed us with increasing intensity; we sort of expected a gun in our faces at any time. Suddenly the guard shouts out: “Mayhem? Mayhem!”, and bolts into a souvenir shop and returns with a small disposable camera. He ignored the fact that he was on guard; he was all smiles while he shot photos of us” laughs Kristiansen.

“The Russian border patrol would also gradually warm up even though he was sceptical to us after he had pulled out the nth cartridge belt from our flight cases. “Where are you going? Chechnya?” In Blasphemer’s photo collection there are loads of pictures of him and a giant teddy bear with an officer’s hat and a broad grin!”

This interview with Mayhem’s Maniac is the first instalment of two articles. In the second part, Kristiansen touches upon the reasons for his split with Mayhem, and why an extreme lifestyle came close to ruining his life.

The interview originally appeared at MIC’s Norwegian site and has been translated.

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