The band, whose music will appear in this season of ‘Vikings,’ uses unconventional instruments – even human bone.
Of all the questions one might have while interviewing a musician, “What’s the best way to mic a human bone?” wouldn’t normally come to mind. (To answer a different question: Said bone was not obtained by deathly means.) However, most musicians aren’t Kai Uwe Faust, the singer of unconventional folk act Hielung.
The band, which describes itself as “amplified history," writes songs about the Iron Age of early medieval Europe. The group's distinctive sound includes throat singing, and instruments like drums covered with goatskin, a buffalo horn rattle and the aforementioned bone. Having played its debut show before thousands of people at a metal festival and its music having been featured in ads and TV shows, Heilung — who released their sophomore album, Futha, on June 28 Season of Mist — has come a long way since forming in 2014.
Faust thinks the most incredible thing about Heilung, which also counts Christopher Juul and Maria Franz among its primary members, is that it exists at all. “The whole thing started out as a really playful project,” he explains. “We just recorded and played around in the studio, and the album was done eventually and we didn’t even have a name for the project. We finally gave it a name and put it out on YouTube and Apple Music. As soon as it was out, people were asking for an album and for us to play live. In the beginning, the whole thing was not planned to be live at any point.”
Once that album, Ofnir, was released in 2015, the desire for a live show led Heilung to bring in a choir and other musicians to play its first show at Netherlands festival Castlefest in 2017. Its tribal, organic music translated well with the group of 20 total musicians, bringing Ofnir to life. It helped that with flowing robes, masks that featured bones and a plethora of percussive instruments, the collective was also visually striking. Heilung had the show professionally shot and released it both as a live album (Lifa) and online that year.
Season of Mist owner Michael Berberian said his phone was bombarded with messages following Heilung’s second performance, at Norwegian festival Midgardsblot. Heilung “made grown-up men cry that day,” he says. “Thankfully, a few of them couldn’t wait to tell me about it, so I did my job and investigated the band.”
While this is its first new release on Season of Mist (the label re-released Ofnir and Lifa last year), it certainly hasn’t “sold out.” Faust says that signing to a label let the band concentrate on making music as opposed to promoting it. “They do all the manufacturing and marketing, so that takes a lot off our minds and gives us space for creativity in the music,” he says. “The biggest change was that we had a deadline. Our last albums were recorded entirely by ourselves without one]. It’s not like the deadline gave us pressure or anything. In fact, it came together quite smoothly.”
Although Futha has moments of unease and dissonance, tracks like “Norupo,” which is led by female vocals, is beautiful and melodic, and the choir and tribal percussive background of “Othan” is trance-like. Faust says that’s a change from Ofnir, which he calls “a really male album; a really harsh, warrior-style album. The new album is very much looking toward the female side. On Ofnir, for example, we recite rune spells from spear shafts and weapons. On the new album, we have parts of songs that are recited by women. We have a female choir now. I don’t want to say it’s smoother, but it’s more feminine.”
Then there’s Faust’s throat singing, which is prevalent on some songs. It’s a relatively new style of vocals for him. “Even as a child, I knew there was something going on with my throat that I couldn’t quite grasp,” he says. “I had to become 30-something before I met a man in the Norwegian mountains, and he took care of me. He took the time, which didn’t take that long, and walked with me out in nature. It’s hard to explain, but he gave me the click. If there’s something people really want to do and learn and get some kind of result, but they’re never satisfied, when] they find a mentor, then it works. That’s what happened with me.”
As far as recording goes, Faust says it comes together organically. “Usually the original moment comes from me, and I’ll bring old lyrics or an old song that I’ve stumbled upon,” he says. “There’s a lot of madness, but not a lot of melody. When I hand that in to the two others, it’s usually Chris that listens when I recite it, and he gets an idea of the rhythm and then the melody comes, but that’s triggered by what I recite. It’s quite balanced, and we don’t really consider, plan or evaluate beforehand. Heilung comes very naturally. We’re following the flow, the joy and interest and passion.”
While tribal, pagan folk music sung and chanted in multiple languages won’t top the charts any time soon, Heilung’s music still has traveled far and wide, soundtracking a Game of Thrones promo and an Alexander Wang/Adidas ad, and it will soon be heard in future episodes of TV show Vikings. Much like the band’s overall success, Faust says that wasn’t planned. “We’re Game of Thrones fans, but it wasn’t a result of us trying really hard to get there,” he says. “Season of Mist is quite a big label, and we have quite a network … We got the email asking if we’d like to do this, and yes, of course we did.”
Even Season of Mist is pleasantly surprised with the TV and advertising world’s reception to Heilung. “We knew they had potential, yes,” says Berberian. “But not every band converts. I think they tapped into something so primal, so visceral, that it just talks to people no matter the music genre or scene, like Dead Can Dance did.”
As for the best way to mic a bone? “You hold it in front of the microphone, and you hit it,” says Faust, laughing. He’s a collector of skulls, bones and the like, which is how he came into possession of the unique instrument. “I have my sources, and I’m a big collector of weirdness … But the particular bones that are used in the song ‘Krigsgaldr’ were very boringly taken from a university.” (The university had the skeletons for teaching, but then sold them, and another collector gave Faust the bone as a gift.)
Next on the list after Futha’s release is a potential trip to the United States. “We’re definitely planning on coming to America, and we have dreams about going to Australia, basically going global now that we have the possibility,” says Faust. “A big dream of ours that’s slowly becoming true is to play in opera houses and ancient amphitheaters, natural surroundings; that’s where we see Heilung. Of course, it’s super nice to play on a festival and have all those people there. But we’re so ancient and archaic that we see the whole thing flourishing in natural surroundings or opera houses.”