A devilish musical temptation
SVER brings “epic folk” to America
The Norwegian American
The Hardanger fiddle was famously considered the devil’s instrument by early Norwegian church leaders. Its music engendered an irresistible urge to dance, and who could say what that might lead to?
That feeling was in the air when the Norwegian-Swedish band SVER played downtown Seattle’s Triple Door. The group is led by the talented but soft-spoken Hardanger fiddler from Røros, Olav Luksengård Mjelva, an active presence in the Nordic folk milieu and the band’s center of gravity. And listening to SVER’s driven brand of self-styled “epic Nordic folk,” it’s not hard to imagine where those old suspicions came from. The Norwegian American’s Lori Ann Reinhall and I were on hand to see the show and talk with the band about their tour and their place in the Scandinavian folk tradition.
We met the band members, three Swedes and a Norwegian (minus one Norwegian), in the green room to learn a bit about their commitment to spreading the joy—or, say, the fryd of folk in a digital music world dominated by easily digestible dance pop. The band’s demeanor is loose and inviting—it’s evident both on and off stage that they love what they do.
First, I’m curious about the name SVER. Jens Linell, the band’s drummer, wearing a crisp new Oakland A’s cap, tells me the name comes from the Røros-dialect and means, among other things, “grand”—“Ah, similar to svær,” I say. “Yes,” chimes in the band’s guitarist, Adam Johansson, “but you can also say it about a person, it means ‘reliable,’ someone you want to have on your team, someone ‘sturdy.’”
Indeed, watching the group on stage, the reliability of their skills and their responsiveness to each other’s cues is vital to their precise but driven performance. All five of the musicians are trained in the folk tradition, and the band was initially founded in Røros by Mjelva and accordion player Leif Ingvar Ranøien (who was not present) before meeting Linell and Swedish fiddler Anders Hall at the Ole Bull Academy, a conservatory in Voss, Norway.
“It’s a small scene,” says Hall, “you kind of know everyone from the festival scene.” That close-knit community led the four players to Johansson, and as a quintet, the band has released three albums, most recently last year’s Reverie.
Breaking musical boundaries
While almost all of the music SVER performs is original, the group has a deep well to draw from. Given their training, they blend a rich repertoire of traditional tunes with a penchant for pushing traditional forms into new, creative shapes. “We have a lot to dig from,” says Hall.
I ask about the group’s composition process, and Hall points to Mjelva, seated on the couch, “That’s our Edvard Grieg.” Mjelva writes the melodies and the others contribute their parts until a full tune emerges. Linell, as a percussionist, is inspired by the strange relationship between folk music and the twentieth-century. “I didn’t start with folk music,” he says. “I came into it later.”
Linell admits that as a drummer he thought it would be easy to play folk, but had a rude, if inspiring, awakening. Instead, he says, “it was so easy to destroy the music by playing drums with it.” He began to listen for rhythms inside of what the fiddle was doing by itself and tried to create percussion parts that responded. “Most of the information,” he says, “is in the melody already, at least in most of the traditional tunes, the dancing tunes. You don’t need a drummer or guitar player, or even a second voice. You just need a melody to be able to dance. But when you add stuff it’s for color and depth and stuff like that.”
Johansson, too, came to folk music by way of other genres. Citing Earth, Wind & Fire as one of his inspirations, he says, “I grew up playing blues and jazz and rock ’n’ roll, so I feel like there’s a lot of that in my backpack, thrown in together with the granola bar of traditional music, and it’s all crumbled up in the bottom and I shake it out and see what falls out.”
Hall, for his part, says that it was “common sense” to play folk music. “It’s a very social genre,” he says, “and it’s very cool if you’re a new fiddler, you get to meet and play with your superstar. There’s not many genres where you can do that. It’s very similar to the old-time environment, in a way.” Johansson echoes: “It’s social and it’s functional music, it’s dancing and it’s communicating.”
On the road
With such a complex musical tapestry, much of the joy for seasoned musicians like SVER is the cohesion that builds on a tour. “When you’re on tour and you’re playing every day,” Linell says, “it just keeps getting better and better and you’re more and more together.” Their performance at the dinner-theater-style Triple Door testified to that togetherness. The Triple Door is, in some ways, contrary to the interactive nature of folk music—it’s not exactly conducive to dancing, after all.
But that doesn’t faze the band. I ask whether they prefer formal sit-down venues or open-format bars or cafés. While they generally prefer more interactive open settings, there is something special about a concert meant for listening. “It brings out different things in the music,” says Linell, “Personally, I love where people are just jumping around. But it’s a really powerful experience to feel that a room is quiet and listening.” When an audience is in that listening mode, he adds, “I think the tunes morph a bit towards that.”
Lori Ann Reinhall asks if the band has found audiences here to be different from Scandinavian audiences. Hall responds right away, “Here, they’re more ‘Awesome! Rah, rah, rah!’ but at home it’s like,”—he turns deadpan—“Thank you, ha det bra,” reflecting a classic cultural difference between Americans and their more reserved Scandinavian counterparts. But moreover, the sheer size of the North American market makes stringing together a tour far easier than in Scandinavia, where the market is simply limited.
Linell comments, “We try to . . . find different venues and methods to get the music to people that might have not known [it],” so we try to play both in bars like Wild Buffalo in Bellingham, where they had played the night before, and theaters like the Triple Door. One of their goals, as Linell puts it, is “to not make the word ‘traditional music’ scary.”
And scary it is not! The performance on Wednesday was met with genuine enthusiasm from the Seattle crowd, and despite the band’s immense talent, they generated a welcoming atmosphere, with witty banter between songs and a—dare I say—sver kind of music that shakes your legs unwittingly.
Jens Linell’s percussion, alternately with sticks, brushes, or his bare hands, adds drive and depth to the quick and mellifluous fiddle melodies, and Johansson’s skillful guitar playing, now in the rhythm section, now in the lead, balances out the high tones of the fiddles, such as on “Annas vals,” a lovely, guitar-centric waltz that he introduced with a charming anecdote about Swedes’ stereotypical reticence to slow dance. Hall’s fiddling, often on a viola, fills out the middle tones of the tapestry, dueling and duetting by turns with Mjelva, who, at the center of it all, engages routinely in musical dialog with his bandmates.
I would be remiss, however, to omit two connections the band has to the Seattle area: one to a local folkie and one to a local brewery. The folkie is Eli West, Seattle singer and multi-instrumentalist who opened the night with a lovely set of songs, playing both guitar and gourd banjo, and later joined SVER on stage, along with Jonathan Green, double-bassist in the Seattle Symphony. In fact, West and Mjelva, who first met at the Shetland Folk Festival in Scotland, have just released a record together called Hand to Play, putting tunes from their respective traditions in conversation. Americana meets Nordic folk in yet another cross-cultural friendship.
But SVER’s commitment to collaboration, to making connections and building relationships is evident beyond their music. Some Northwest beer enthusiasts might notice that one tune on SVER’s latest record, Reverie, is titled “Batch 15”—also the name of a beer brewed by Bellingham’s own Aslan Brewing.
Coincidence? I asked the band; as it turns out, during their sound check at the Bellingham Folk Festival in 2017, the band was offered pints of Batch 15, Aslan’s popular IPA—one pint led to another and, reminiscing on the event later, working on the tunes for Reverie, they remembered with a special fondness how they felt that next day and wrote “Batch 15” as a tribute.
In return, the folks at Aslan bought 50 tickets to SVER’s show in Bellingham this year and gave them away to 50 unsuspecting listeners who doubtless found nothing scary in these Scandinavians’ brand of traditional music. Now there’s a devilish method to get people dancing!
To learn more about the musicians, see: SVER: www.sverfolk.com/en
Olav Mjelva: www.olavmjelva.no
This article originally appeared in the October 4, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.