The Devil's Missionary

An interview about God with Watain’s Erik Danielsson

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Photo by Rodrigo Fredes

I didn’t expect Erik Danielsson to be short in stature, but I suppose you never really quite know what to expect when you meet the devil’s missionary for the first time. Danielsson is the vocalist (and brains) behind the black metal outfit Watain, and after their fifth full-length release, The Wild Hunt, came out earlier this year, they’ve been highly successful, dotting the covers of every major rock magazine, touring the world on a pilgrimage of faith.

When I spoke with Danielsson, he paid careful attention to questions. He was very cognizant of the nature of our talk, it didnt’ feel like he was blowing off all his answers as just another canned response for another interview question.

He felt present, like he was genuinely interested. He was likable. He has been known to be charged with arrogance, but I appreciated his direct manner. He is a soft talker. He’s very deliberate. But most of all, he’s one hell of a showman.

David Stagg (HM): You once described your life and band as “an island on a boat in a sea of excrement, and every once in a while, you have to take that boat out into that sea” – kind of like what you’re doing right now, touring. I don’t think that’s far off from what a Christian would believe; a believer would believe we exist in a world, but we’re not of that world. I want to know if you saw them as different, or if you believe the reason we exist outside of that is because we don’t believe in the social constructs that exist, that we bring this into our home.
Erik Danielsson: The detachment or alienation that a religious person feels towards the world and society is based upon his or her acknowledgement that there is something greater than society. There is divinity to take into the equation. Once you do that, I mean, acknowledging divinity is, also, acknowledging the lesser role of that which is not divine. As far as that goes, sure, that’s a similar approach to learn the value.

But there are similarities everywhere. (I could do that with) a poem; I could read (it) with any kind of religious person and actually have a conversation and talk with them. I don’t see it as a bond that transcends. My beliefs and my viewpoints are such that it’s just similarly a way of doing things, but on a very large scale. When you go into it and look at it more closely, then, obviously, there are vast defenses.

Let’s talk about those differences. First, I just want you to know that I have no plans on attacking you in the interview.
To be entirely honest, that’s not a topic. I’ve always had an easier time with believers, as you call them, Christians that have been quite confronted with it. To me, they see who they really are. They have understood that it constitutes something that they – ever since they started forming the name of God with their tongue, from that very moment and on –have been taught that there is a dark side to all of this.

Some people call it the Devil. Some Canaan. He has many names, but when people truly realize that and get confronted with it, to me, that’s not necessarily a sign of something negative. To me, that’s a sign that people are listening to what we are saying to them. They’ve started to understand that we might not be that cool hip thing that everyone is talking about. There’s a depth to it that makes it that; that there is something profound about what we are doing and that leaves them with a sense of, “This is maybe not something that we should be a part of.”

To be entirely honest, when I got asked to do this interview, I was a little bit confused. Satanism, to me, is a religion based on the idea of liberty, of liberation.

I was going to ask you about that.
But at the same time, it’s liberation through very, very dark and sinister means. It’s very important people understand that, because I don’t want to trick people into believing that we are something we are not.

What would you say to somebody who confronts you? Like you said earlier, the people that “understand what they’ve gotten themselves into.” What is something you’d say to them?
In that regard, (I) would be in a confronted state of mind (when) I would be speaking to those people. I don’t know how much I have to say to those people, overall. In the end, it all comes down to us standing on different sides of the river. Some people are somehow fascinated by what’s on the other side of that bridge. They’ve been told their whole life not to go there, to cross that bridge.

That’s where you are.
That’s where we are. That’s where the other side is, so to say. Once people cross that bridge and they get scared, they want to run back. They’re upset because they find things on the other side of the river they didn’t think would be there. All I can say is that if you play with fire — if you walk down that path — you will get burned if you aren’t ready for it. Our fire, it’s like any fire, it illuminates for those that are willing to be illuminated by it. It also burns severely. It’s burned more lives than I can possibly count.

How do you prevent yourself from getting burned? As opposed to the people that come across who simply don’t understand what they’re getting into.
It’s quite simple: I’m very well aware of what it is I’m confronting. I feel a very natural, primal connection to that thing that other people would view as something extremely destructive and dangerous. The way I see it, the value of my life is measured in terms of opposition, in terms of hardships. All that trial and tribulation is a sign, to me, that I’m on the right path.

For many other people, it would be a sign that they’re on the wrong path. For me, it’s a very significant aspect of my spiritual journey, of my transcendence. The idea, very much like you can relate it to the book of Job, where the Lord keeps on testing, testing and testing his devotee. That is a very important aspect of the Christian faith, as well. Although, I must add that in this modern day and age, I think a lot of people have tried to brush that aside in favor of more…

The “happy go lucky, lovey-dovey” Christian message?
Exactly. Which is something I’ve always had a very hard time to take in and accept. To me, faith is about a war.

Faith is about a war?
It’s a spiritual battle. For me, it’s never been about from one point when I realized the nature of the divine and the spiritual aspect of reality. That didn’t make my life easier at all; it made my life a lot harder. At the same time, there’s something beautiful and something very important in that strife.

Did you have an awakening moment? Is there a moment – you call it transcendence – when you awaken the divine either within yourself or within the band? Was there a moment when that happened?
I see life as one long moment, in a certain way. I think that one long moment is that moment you’re speaking of. Within that moment, there is progression, there are deeper levels of understanding – but it is still limited to this short, almost insignificant period that we call life. … I think, as a young adult entering into puberty and so on, you want to start to outline these quite abstract ideas that have been with you your whole life up until then.

Sure. You’re figuring out who you are, who you want to be as a man.
Exactly. … I almost stumbled upon heavy metal music, and (it) immediately translated my already pretty elaborate theory of the music being something not really of this world. Music, for me – already at a very young age – was about leaving the world and going somewhere else.

With heavy metal music – falling in love with heavy metal music, and kind of going into that world – it (completed) the concept, and the imagery around it was very interesting to me. Everything surrounding heavy metal became so important to me. Right there in the middle, surrounded by these burning crosses, there was a horned god, and they called him the Devil. They called him Satan.

Every time I speak about it, the hair on my arms stands up. To me, slowly but surely realizing, that this is my origin; this is where I want to return.

The Devil, not the music.
Exactly. The Devil, in my eyes, being the essence of heavy metal music. It always has been. I think realizing that and, at the same time, growing up and starting to read interviews of people that were older and had (the same) kind of ideas. This was before the Internet, and you had to rely on pen pals—

The library.
Exactly. It was a very exotic, brotherhood kind of thing. I saw it more as an initiation than “starting to like a form of music.” It was a very harsh initiation that changed my life forever.

The Devil was, to me, the essence of heavy metal music. Heavy metal music was just one out of a thousand mouthpieces of that same essence.

You say that when you went (to that world) and you saw heavy metal as the essence of the Devil—
The other way around. The Devil was, to me, the essence of heavy metal music. Heavy metal music was just one out of a thousand mouthpieces of that same essence.

Currently, in my generation of music fans, there is something they call “spirit-filled hardcore.” It’s the same thing as what you guys are doing – loud, brash music – but it’s completely used as a venue for evangelism. These bands perform at secular festivals, regular festivals – you name it. Do you think that’s “fake”? Do you believe that heavy metal music can exist in two separate forms with different essences?
Let me try to make a simple (metaphor). A gun can be used for many things, for many different purposes. What gives the gun its moral parameters is the people. It’s the gunman. It’s the carrier of that gun. I think you can use music just as you can use any kind of weapon – for your own purposes.

I am not the one to judge, but I don’t really think that, in the end, what they were doing was that beneficial in the eyes of their God, truly. I think there was something else that kind of took over there and made it into this extremely dark and disturbing part of history. You can always try to use whatever to preach the word of whomever.

What I do think, however, is when it comes to really violent and brutal forms of music – music that if you asked a child to draw a picture while listening to it, they wouldn’t fields and sea and birds, it would be fire and war – I think they are the natural ingredients of metal. They are diabolical in essence; there’s a sinister nerve in that music that I think connects to the left hand of God. The dark side, if you will. Using that – to take (heavy metal) and use it for an evangelist purpose – of course you can. The holy inquisition tried to do something similar as well. They preached their word of God by extremely violent means.

I am not the one to judge, but I don’t really think that, in the end, what they were doing was that beneficial in the eyes of their God, truly. I think there was something else that kind of took over there and made it into this extremely dark and disturbing part of history. You can always try to use whatever to preach the word of whomever.

To me, it just gets a little bit absurd when people want to use something extremely violent and something extremely wide-eyed and almost hysterical to represent something that, in the end, should be something pliant, calm and timid. Loving, warm and embracing. To me, there is … Is oxymoron the word?

Yeah.
There is an oxymoron in there. A paradox that I see.

I don’t think a lot of Christians would disagree with you. I think they would say, “Just listen to it. It doesn’t sound Godly.” Or, “It doesn’t sound like the God that we know.” I don’t think a lot of Christians would disagree with you.
They usually do (both laugh). They usually disagree on most things I say.

I don’t see that many differences between what you believe and what I believe, except what you believe seems to have a very hedonistic bent, like people act from their id. Are you familiar?
Yeah.

For example, the anarchy that you claim to embrace, that the world is spinning towards entropy. I think we share that belief. That’s how it’s going to end, it’s just that you view that as the destination, whereas it seems like I view it as the destination, but we, as Christians, are getting plucked out of that—
The feeling of hope in this day and age – I mean, hope in the grand scheme of things.

“Why do I get up today?”
In an even grander sense of things. Hope in the sense that people might be thinking, “Of course everything is being flushed down the toilet,” but to them, at the end of that sewer down there, there’s a paradise.

That void is my God. That void is my destiny. That void is my paradise.

As a person – as a 30-year-old man – I have a very complicated relation to that kind of hope. That hope is hopeless. It is something that – it gets quite tricky, here; I hope you can follow me. In order to understand how ironic and how absurd that hope is, I must begin with saying that the idea of “world collapse” and the “divine apocalypse” or however you want to translate that—

The “Rapture.”
—vast idea in to words.

That is the most beautiful thing. And it’s there where things are put back in to the place where they’re supposed to be: formless, shapeless. They’re in the void, the void from which creation sprung out, and the void from which the creation of God sprung forth.

That void is my God. That void is my destiny. That void is my paradise.

To hope for anything else but that void to return is, that’s where the glitch is, and it’s quite an abyss of a glitch.

You have to ignore this path (forms hands to imitate “life”) to get back to this void, which where the end is the beginning, is the end, is the beginning.

Here it becomes even more complicated, I suppose, but what is very important to know, of course, is that the way I see things is not at all necessarily limited to a biblical conception of reality and of the greater forces.

I believe that in order to reach that primal state of nothingness, the eye in the Jewish Kabbalah, the first state that is outside the void, you have to go through life cycles after life cycles after life cycles to attain the wisdom and the transcendence to remotely be anywhere near that place.

It’s not about the simpler preconception of living your life according to a certain set of rules and ending up in a place where you want to be. That’s never been the way I saw things.

As you travel towards this void and as the conventions of life as we know them – including things like time, starts, finishes – we may have to live through a lot of those as we move towards that void, and then, ultimately, there is this – as you call it – divine collapse, or some return to a void.
At that point, whenever that may be, however many lifetimes you may have lived, that’s the state we will all get back to – and that’s your God. On this earth, you have been made aware of it, and you are now working towards that, now that you understand.
Yeah, exactly.

You’ve said before the best shows you play are in your hometown. (Editor’s Note: Watain is from Uppsala, Sweden.) You said along the lines of, “That’s where my temple is. That’s where I’m closest to my temple.” Is that correct?
I don’t know if I would put it like that. There are a lot of things to take in to consideration. What we’re doing on the stage is building and creating an environment in which the forces that this band are built upon can flow freely – I’ve made this comparison before – but a church looks the way it does because of a number of things. From a symbolic standpoint, it has the lights coming through the stained-glass windows; it’s a beautiful place to go.

To worship.
To us, what we’re doing on stage is a very similar thing. While at a Christian Mass, it’s the sunbeams coming in through this beautiful ornate window and there’s organ music. There is a very peaceful at home atmosphere. What we are doing at our concerts is exactly the same thing in a way. It just sounds—

—not peaceful and calm (both laugh).
It sounds and looks and appears and feels very different.

It seems like your show is your version of taking that temple on the road to different times, different places.
Exactly. In a way it is. In doing so, we also present ourselves with a whole stack of problems, in the sense that if we are doing a hometown show, we have months to prepare and we can get everything meticulously right – which is quite important when you deal with magical processes. They demand a lot of focus and they demand a lot of attention, a ritual does.

We are also working with it on the very chaotic circumstances of being on the road. That’s where the difference is between doing a hometown show that: You can feel much more well prepared, and you can have all the ingredients you ever wanted to have on the stage, while here we are, kind of limited to what we’ve got.

What you drive in, you try to set it up, try to get it going.
Exactly, but I like it. I like it because the touring life is very much some kind of a mix between a crusade and a pilgrimage. It is holy work in every way, but it is also completely surrounded by “you never know what to expect.” It’s a constant battle to get where you want. I appreciate that a lot. In a mythological context

If you believe in Satan, I’d surmise you also believe in God. As the Christian religion would have it, Satan chose to leave God because he believed he was His equal. He chose to leave, because the angels have a choice. How much of that do you believe? Do you believe in God, the God, a God? Do you believe that same God carries the same weight as Satan as “Satan as god”?
I think I know where you’re coming from. It is quite clearly described in a process of creation in the Genesis, that there is a force that creates something within the void. By creating something in that void, it does so against the will of the void.

The creation – as we see it, as Satan – is a crime. Not something beautiful. It is something that should not have happened. It is a disturbance in our totality, and acknowledging those things puts you in a place where there is, of course, the creator God becoming, in a certain sense, our enemy. There is the void, and there are the things that arise from that void that became a part of creation, as well.

That you then embrace.
Exactly, and that is a quite basic, but also very fundamental, understanding of the Christ God, the creator God and the Devil. However, the Bible is a book written by people of God. It is not a book written by people not of God. … The Satan in the Bible eventually transformed into a quiet, shackled character.

In the end.
Exactly. Those are aspect I cannot relate to because the omnipotence of the void – the thing that was before creation, that shall be after creation – is something that is, by all means, shamed-and-in-shackles within the material world, that creation, but outside of it? It is ever tearing. It is a very hungry and destructive force that – by its own nature, by its own will – constantly tries to drive creation back. And as we all know, is doing quite well.

That is also why the world looks like it does today. There is that eternal conflict between a primordial state and something that has risen from it – sickness of a sort – and the void, as the carrier of that sickness, does everything it can to break it down.

We are talking about, at the same time, millions of years of evolution in all kinds of mad directions. It’s not a process that goes like this (imitates interviewers previous hand gesture for “life”). The short lifespan of the entire universe compared to the eternities before and after is something that kept me awake when I was younger.

Would you say that God made a mistake when he ripped the void and created creation?
Yes. “The primordial chaos” is referred to in basically all religious myths – it’s the void, and something taking place in that void. The void is a process that has many shapes and forms of mythological contexts. It is that process, it is that opening of the egg or the tying of the rainbow, the seven days of creation. All of that pretty much comes back to this thing that occurred at a certain point in the eternal span of nothingness. This thing rose up.

What we are doing in Watain, what rock and roll is doing in general, is that it’s creating holes in creation to let the forces of the void seep through and grab hold of people. That is why it is a rebellious form of music. That is why it is music that has been – very rightfully, I suppose – banned over and over again.

That is why people have been referring to rock and roll as the Devil’s music. It has that diabolical nerve. It has a nerve of otherness. It has a nerve that calls for questioning and rebellion. It calls for adversity. It awakens adversity in people.

That is why I believe it is such a beautiful thing. That is also why I, as a religious person, as a Satanist, can feel content with what I do. I believe that everything that I do in my life should have significance and relevance in the eyes of the greater forces.

That is why we do this. That is why we are playing in front of all these seeking children today. They’re on the hunt for something. They smell something. Once you smell that temptation, especially for a Godless person like all these people here are, of course you will come. These monsters feel so sweet.

They are sweet and they create a rush. They create something new and strange within them that they are very hungry for. That, my friend – that’s the Devil.

They are sweet and they create a rush. They create something new and strange within them that they are very hungry for. That, my friend – that’s the Devil.

Earlier you spoke about rituals. Just now you spoke about each one of your shows is, more or less, a gateway. You’re creating a gateway to pull the forces from the void to seep through into creation right now.
That might sound like very big words, but it’s basically the same idea of any Christian myth.

I completely agree with you. It’s very interesting, to me, to hear you embrace the dichotomy of acknowledging a God, that there is a God, and he screwed up. It sounds like – correct me if I’m wrong – it’s not that you worship Satan, it’s more that he (or it) is a figurehead for this “movement back to the void.”
Yes, but idols and archetypes are very important for a man to be guided on a certain path, on any path. I think that without such things you become quite clueless, really. That’s what I was talking about earlier when I was younger and came across all those symbols, all those archetypal references I all of a sudden felt I could relate very strongly to. … They’ve developed and progressed, in the same terms of the way that I’ve progressed myself. This whole thing is much more severe to me now than it was when I was younger.

You’re getting older and wiser.
Of course.

Watain was posted on December 5, 2013 for HM Magazine and authored by .