April 27, 2018 Interview – Ihsahn Talks ‘Amr
In the world of Extreme Metal, there are few musicians whose pedigree and reputation engender more awe and interest than Vegard Tveitan, more commonly known by the name of Ihsahn. Erupting out of Norway on the wings of the second wave of Black Metal, the man who co-founded Emperor did indeed cement his legacy beneath that infamous, iconic logo. Yet, he has wasted no time transcending this foundation, launching himself headlong into a boundless creative space embraced by fans of not just Black Metal, but Progressive and Experimental as well.
Bestowing a trove of sonic treasures upon fans both old and new, 2018 sees Ihsahn focusing his energy through the lens of his seventh studio album as a solo artist, entitled ‘Amr. Recently, we were able to spend some time with this creatively restless, humble individual.
CrypticRock.com – The new album, ‘Amr, due out May 4th, as with a lot of your solo works, has a menace, a sinister underbelly to the songs, and yet it morphs very fluidly into melodiousness and quiet harmony. This is a very interesting juxtaposition of moods. What was your personal inspiration behind this album?
Ihsahn – First of all, it was just kind of an initial scene, that I create a certain framework and concepts before I actually start writing any music. As with my previous album Arktis (2016), it was outside in this Arctic scenery, and those ideas and scenery would be the impulse for the album. This time it was this dark room without walls, if you will. Just that scene kind of gravitates everything to common ground for the album. When writing, I like to hold all new ideas up against the original idea of the album and see if it fits.
Because I’m from that era where albums mattered, when albums felt like a whole piece rather than a collection of 9 or 10 songs, that is my goal. It’s hard to say one inspiration, so I think this scene with the room is definitely part of it, and a lot of symmetrical images from film stills from Stanley Kubrick films, and since in my head this was a very “inside” type of album, I wanted to explore analog synthesizers to a much larger extent than the past. Orchestral sounds I’ve used in prior arrangements, tends to makes it big in a top band, where with analog synthesizers it becomes very powerful in the low end. I hope that answered your question, I know my answers can be a bit abstract. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – It most certainly does. The music and the material you create is very deep, so the abstract makes sense. I notice, with your album titles, very often there is poetic license used in how the words are spelled. Can you tell us what the term ‘Amr refers to?
Ihsahn – It’s an old Norwegian word that means dark, or murky, and it can also mean “rust red,” I believe. It kind of describes the atmosphere almost like you see on the front cover. Everything is monochrome and dark, black, with some eerie red lights. It fits in so well with these original ideas that I had. I have this book where I kind of write up stuff about all my albums before I start writing them. All these ramblings that I write down, I mostly keep to myself. This time around I shared it with everyone who was involved with the album. It was easier for everyone from the video, promo shots, the cover images, to the mix and everything that kind of pulled everyone’s focus into this same kind of mindset. On a personal level, I felt it was kind of successful to show those abstract ideas to the immensely talented people I worked with, and getting their creativity on the same wavelength really paid off.
CrypticRock.com – There is a power to doing that. It absolutely paid off. Looking at your career now, you have been a solo artist longer than you spent in Emperor, and you have made nearly twice as many albums on your own. You are what I would term a legacy musician, in that you built a legacy with Emperor, but I can’t think of anyone else in Extreme Metal who has gained their start in doing such a particular kind of music as Black Metal and then managed to depart from it with such awesome results. You can mention Ulver, or in a non-Black Metal context, Devin Townsend, but Emperor had such an impact on so many people and so much of the explosion of Black Metal.
Ihsahn – I can hardly believe it myself. To have any form of success, starting out with Emperor – some of the most extreme and hated music ever, and still have some success, and then quit that. Here I am seven albums into my solo career. I have many friends and colleagues who haven’t been nearly as lucky as I am. It’s really strange, and very rare. I count myself among the very, very lucky.
CrypticRock.com – Well, I know you are not going to say this about yourself, but the pure talent and, more so the honesty that you bring to the table is a big factor in your success. Let’s face it, if you had not made 1999’s IX Equilibrium and 2001’s Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise and jumped directly to what you are doing now, it might have upset more people, but those last two albums prepared us for what you had to say after Emperor, in a good way. When did you first realize, back in the day, that you had all of this to say, that you wanted to go somewhere else with your music?
Ihsahn – I guess it’s not really that strange. You mentioned Ulver and Devin Townsend to start with. All of us were people who started out at a very early age and were in the mindset of trying to push the envelope of our musical expression. When we started Emperor, there was no Black Metal scene, it was just a very limited, local scene. We were teenagers pushing it to that extreme. The first band I was in with Samoth was more of a traditional Heavy Metal band, which gradually turned into Thrash and Death Metal and eventually Emperor. We were pushing it harder. I think you can see through the Emperor catalog as well, we started out in one place, and by the fourth album I end up basically writing that Prometheus album on my own. I would argue it’s a lot more experimental than where we started off. It’s just a natural progression, one thing to continue that journey. Obviously when it came to the point where I’m the only one writing music, and the creative team effort wasn’t there anymore, it didn’t make sense to continue for the sake of the name.
CrypticRock.com – People respect that. You could argue there are a few bands out there who should have followed that lead.
Ihsahn – I don’t really have the answer for what is the right thing, but I think that in a way I’ve been able to communicate to the people who ended up following what I do… you mentioned honesty. I try to pride myself and do every album with the same uncompromising integrity as I think we had in the beginning with Emperor. That’s probably the only way I ever got a chance, because we never tried to fit in with any scene or any market and by doing so it became something exotic in its own right and not really competing with anything else. I don’t know. It’s worked so far, so why change the recipe?
CrypticRock.com – It begs the question you are probably sick of hearing. You get together with the Emperor guys once in a while and play festivals. Does playing those old classic songs ever make you want to compose more music beneath the banner of Emperor?
Ihsahn – No. That hasn’t even been discussed. I get it with every interview. Will there be another Emperor album? There’s certainly a compliment in there. Obviously there are people who have a strong relationship to the albums we did, and there’s kind of a nostalgic craving for more of that. I can’t see what kind of Emperor album could ever satisfy that need. Those albums and those songs that people have attached to, they have also almost two decades of cultivating in people’s minds. Maybe with the exception of the new Judas Priest record, you don’t really see bands having some classic albums and trying to recreate that. It’s often a very bad idea. To be honest, it was natural. I did the last Emperor album more or less on my own, and I just continued from there. Here I am, and uh… buy my new album and pretend it has the Emperor logo on it. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – You can certainly see the connection and the progression. It is not like you suddenly changed your style.
Ihsahn – No disrespect to Samoth or Trym. We have a great time doing those shows and playing those old songs. We do these few shows and we all have a great time. We are good friends. Creatively, I think we are so far apart though.
CrypticRock.com – If you look at it, there are so many bands carrying on the Black Metal style you helped create. There are not many artists doing what you are doing. From a fan’s standpoint, that is very valuable. Let the artists you love breathe and grow and do what they truly enjoy. When the results are this good, it is hard to argue.
Returning to new album ‘Amr, the songs reflect the artistic freedom that you bring to bear. It is very well composed, and you can tell that you are not limiting yourself. For instance, during “Where You are Lost and I Belong,” there are moments when the song could morph right into Industrial, or Trip Hop, there is Jazz fusion areas of the album, especially in the percussion. Do you listen to a wide range of genres when you create, or do you isolate yourself from listening to music?
Ihsahn – I listen to a wide range of genres, a lot of music. I would argue primarily non-Metal, which can inspire on so many different levels. For my fifth album, Das Seelenbrechen (2013), that was much more free form. Inspired by more recent Scott Walker and Diamanda Galas, artists who approach from a more improvisational point of view.
I never try to sound exactly like anyone, it’s more the approach and the method. If you listen closely, you can hear a lot of sonic influences from urban music. I have some tuning to 808’s which is more common for Hip Hop or Trip Hop. I really just love the sonic impact it has, and I found it interesting to see how that kind of low end sound would fit into my expression. To be honest, I’ve said this in many interviews. It’s a very selfish process. It’s the most decent thing to do as well. If I start making compromises and start polishing off my ideas to fit expectation, it’s not very honest at the heart of it. It’s not fair to myself and my relationship to my music, and its not fair to those who listen to it either, to create something in that compromising state of mind. It has to be this selfish, uncompromising thing.
I think that’s what draws people to listen to it. There is already plenty of bland, very market-oriented music out there already, so I think that is not my forte to do. At this point, I have made a lot of albums so far, and some part of that becomes muscle memory. That’s why I approach with new instruments like 7 string guitars on Prometheus and later 8 string guitars, to try and skip that muscle memory part of making music. I’d rather go straight to the creative part and basically I try to find ways to keep myself as excited and enthusiastic about making the music as I was before. Finding new ways to express myself and find that excitement. If I don’t come into it with that attitude then the listener won’t be as excited about it either.
CrypticRock.com – Agreed. We live today in a very politically correct climate and now we are seeing some bands who were influenced by Emperor coming under fire. For example, the band Taake, having troubles with Antifa, etc. As an icon of extreme music and artistic freedom, what is your take on all of this? Do you think that Extreme Metal fans, bands, promoters, and venues are under attack? Do we need to band together, or will this storm pass when these people move on to their next perceived outrage?
Ihsahn – I don’t know… I find it hard to speak on behalf of any scene. I think, even back in the day, I was kind of an outsider in the Black Metal scene. I think it had the youthful Black Metal rebellious edge in the beginning, but it’s kind of hard to maintain that. Especially if you don’t renew it. You know, the shock value eventually will fade and then probably something more extreme will take its place. As it’s always done. For their time, the Sex Pistols were super shocking. Before that, Elvis. Every generation cannot see beyond how it can become more extreme. I find that, as a reference, within the Hip Hop or urban scene, you see less of that political correctness. A lot of the Rap lyrics you come across is pretty far out, for radio, but it still has that really dark edge. I’ve been listening to a lot of The Weeknd. Just the juxtaposition of these super dark heavy beats and his almost Michael Jackson-ish kind of vocal singing, these decadent lyrics of drug abuse and prostitutes.
CrypticRock.com – No one seems to be attacking that.
Ihsahn – Yeah, and he doesn’t care. It’s kind of part of the whole thing. It’s very hard for me as a Norwegian country boy to relate to this kind of, the sort of L.A. decadence. I do appreciate the cinematic aspects of it.
CrypticRock.com – Strange times we live in, for sure.
Ihsahn – They are. As for all these troubles, I only vaguely heard about it, about the cancellations. This Norwegian frontman that painted some Nazi symbols on himself, which probably from what I’ve heard was meant as a joke. Then again, when you do that and you’re in a fairly successful band, you’re kind of aware of what you do. You could argue back and forth when you do that for a reaction, you can’t really complain when you get a reaction. It’s very much the point of view that people expect.
You know, speaking for myself, with doing interviews. Sometimes journalists will give me the opportunity to be apologetic about this style of music. You know, its Black Metal. You can’t really have one without the other. Not talking about the Taake incident, but you want it to be controversial, so you can’t complain when it is controversial. There are individual incidents and there are different routes to go as well, and I think that sort of provocation was never really my cup of tea. I think showing decency and the morals of a free human being, the non religious atheist point of view still shows decency and morals within that, without the stigma and the culture, and everything. For me, that is a better point to make.
CrypticRock.com – That makes me think of the lyrics to “Warriors of Modern Death” (from IX Equilibrium), which sums it up perfectly with respect to letting the music and lyrics do the talking, as opposed to the extreme actions outside the direct scope of the music.
Ihsahn – Obviously when you take all that Satanic imagery, you create distance between yourself and the PC or religious world, or what have you. To really show that boldly, but at the same time I think it’s kind of counterproductive if you show that difference between yourself and the common man. If you become everything they say you’re supposed to be, it can take away from your point. Does that make sense?
CrypticRock.com – It most certainly does. Interesting points. Recently it came to light that, for the first time in a long time, physical media seems to be outselling digital media. As a working musician, as an old school Metal guy, does that dishearten you, or at this point are you not so concerned with how fans consume your music?
Ihsahn – I’m not really that concerned. I think it’s nice to have vinyl and CDs in the physical format available for fans who appreciate that sensation of it. It’s almost like with synthesizers, you have these insanely well-made software versions that at the end of production you can hardly tell the difference. Still, you have people, myself included, who buy a lot of these old school analog stuff, because you want that physical interaction. It’s part of the experience. Then again, I’m a huge consumer of music through Spotify and, as a fan, I love having everything accessible. I think I’ve discovered so much more music and it heightens the experience overall, to have access to everything.
I think in the beginning when there was only illegal downloading, it kind of pissed me off in a sense. Not that the action was any worse than when we were taping our friend’s album to have ourselves. There was so much fuss about not criminalizing and then justifying how fair it was with Napster. Now, with the streaming services, I mean, I don’t think people are making any money from that, but it’s more of a fair trade. Now, I’d rather think that we had this few decades in music history where you could sell physical music. Prior to that, an album or recording was just one version of that music. If you went to a Led Zeppelin show you might hear the same songs,but they might be 10 minutes longer than they were in their recorded version or at double the speed. There was still this live interaction with the audience, this living music that was an exclusive experience, and we may be heading back to that. Where the albums are a side product and the live performance might become the more important part again.
CrypticRock.com – I never thought to look at it that way. Last question, as you may, or may not, recall from your 2014 interview with CrypticRock, we cover Horror and Sci-Fi films as well. What have you seen lately in these genres which you enjoyed.
Ihsahn – I think my all-time favorite Horror movies are The Omen trilogy. Also the soundtracks, it’s just insane. I always enjoy the more eerie Horror films that were more psychological. I never got a kick out of the gore kind of films where chainsaws and blood were the point. I always enjoyed the silent, lurking kind of film. A modern example, which has been a huge influence for me, is the Hannibal TV series. If you haven’t seen it, you are missing out. You’d think, who could possibly play Hannibal after Anthony Hopkins, but Mads Mikkelsen just kills it. It’s so cinematic, it’s not that realistic because all the scenes are really symmetrical and theatrical, the imagery, but it’s beautiful.