ihsahn 2024

Interview – Ihsahn Talks New Music + More

Ihsahn 2024 photo

For some, the journey really has no final destination, but more a steady progression forward. For Norway’s Ihsahn the process began when he was only a child, yet continues well into adulthood where inspiration comes in different shapes and forms. Famously known as the leader of the legendary Black Metal band Emperor, Ihsahn has worked under different monikers ranging from Thou Shalt Suffer to Peccatum, to simply his own name.

Each project unique to one another, it has perhaps been under Ihsahn’s own name that his most ambitious efforts have been realized. This is certainly the case with his fastincating new self-titled solo album where there are elements of duality which resulted in a more Black Metal recording of the album, but also a stand alone traditional symphony orchestra production. Truly something that stimulates any open minded music fan’s fancy, Ihsahn recently sat down to chat about the non-linear approach to his musical career, expanding his repertoire, the ideas behind his new album, plus more. 

Cryptic Rock – Before we dive deeper into the conversation, how would you describe the last 10 years of your musical journey?

Ihsahn – This new album is six years, I’m told, since my last full-length. In between, I did these three EPs in the meantime. Prior to the pandemic, I did these two kinds of experimental EPs where one was hearkening back to old-school Black Metal with a horn section, all Norwegian lyrics, etc.

I did a parallel one; which was more in the Pop Experimental. These were two opposite angles of the spectrum, you could say. The plan for me was to do two separate tours where I based a set list around each EP; one with more old-school, down the middle kind of thing, and then one with the more experimental things.

Then, as for all of us, the pandemic happened, and it just ended up being two EPs. In that time span,  I did some remixes for Lustmord and The Halo Effect. I guess most importantly, I finally got time to produce a long-planned solo album of Matt Heafy from Trivium. He did his IBARAKI album; 2022’s Rashomon. We both had some time for that. That led me to do keyboard orchestrations for the Trivium record they were working on at the time. Then I started writing for this album. As soon as the pandemic stopped, of course there was a lot of catching up on touring, as it was for everybody.

In the middle of recording this new album, I also got to do this educational program that I was part of with Jens Bogren of Fascination Street Studios and URM Academy; which is an online engineering academy. With that I was able to do an EP where the whole process was filmed in detail as an educational program. Since then I’ve been playing shows and finishing this album. Does that sum it up? (Laughs)

Cryptic Rock – Yes. (Laughs) You certainly have been very busy and done a lot of different things; whether it be on your own, or as well as collaborating with others.

Ihsahn – Yes. I think it was very fortunate to see my realization when I was able to produce and do all these things, that it’s not really only the albums that have been a product of three decades plus of doing what I do. You realize that you have some methods and tools in your toolbox that may be applicable to other things. That was interesting.

Cryptic Rock – Most certainly. You have also been outside the more traditional Metal world with experimental projects as well. When we spoke last, you said that when you first got into doing solo material, it took a little bit of time to get yourself back into it after being away doing other things, correct? 

Ihsahn – It was more a conscious decision of starting a bit from scratch. I didn’t want to do a direct continuation of where I left things off with Emperor; when I was doing more Black Metal-oriented material. I started with more old-school things. I deliberately gave myself three albums to, for lack of a better word, to try and reinvent myself a little bit. Also to build a catalog for myself. One where I could play my own material, and not just do a solo record and live shows with 50/50 of old Emperor songs as well as my own stuff. I wanted to do it properly.

Emperor - In the Nightside Eclipse
Emperor – In the Nightside Eclipse / Candlelight  (1994)
Emperor - Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk
Emperor – Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk / Candlelight (1997)

Cryptic Rock – It is a very good approach. You had mentioned about the EPs you worked on in more recent history. You have worked within the EP format in the past with other projects… including with Emperor. Obviously, it is a shorter length format to create in. What is the difference between working on an EP and an LP for you?

Ihsahn – I think it lends itself better to distill out a narrower idea, if you will. For example, with 2020’s Telemark EP, I did all the lyrics in Norwegian, limited myself like a traditional five-piece band (with only Black Metal vocals and a brass section). I think it worked very well to focus on that with three original songs and two cover songs.

The limitations of that ensemble, and those kinds of aesthetic boundaries, I think it was very powerful in the sense of just this short format. However, it would probably be tiresome and too little variation for a whole album; at least the way I perceive what an album should be.

The EP format is good for singling out some very specific ideas. Personally, when it comes to an album, I want it to be more of an ebb and flow of things. Where things are interconnected and where each song fulfills each other in a different way.

Cryptic Rock – It is good to have both outlets, because it breaks things up. It is nice to have the EPs as an option as well.

Ihsahn – Yeah, and it was just fun. It was originally meant to be part of a bigger project of interweaving with live shows that were specific for those. They were meant to single out two aesthetic directions of my output and do shows in a similar fashion. Then life happens. (Laughs) 

Cryptic Rock – Sometimes the best laid plans never work out. Which leads us to your latest self-titled album. This album lends itself to a lot of cinematic qualities. What was it like creating this record?

Ihsahn – This was opposite of what I just mentioned. (Laughs) One of the main ideas for this record was the interplay of duality. From the get-go, I wanted to present this record in two versions. I literally tried to make a Black Metal album fully orchestrated by a typical traditional symphony orchestra setup and do arrangements that would support the Black Metal production. I also arranged it in such a way that the orchestral stems in themselves would function as its own thing.

In that respect make, if not a reverse image, but a parallel reflection of the same music in a different way. Also, it’s the first one that I did as a full narrative for the lyrics conceptually. That gave me the opportunity to play with leitmotifs and reoccurring chord progressions throughout the album.

Everything is much more interconnected. There’s also a parallel storyline that goes with the orchestral version. The two stories bleed into each other at some points. I also feel we managed to integrate these duality aspects into the artwork, in the separate videos that are interconnected, as well as Costin Chioreanu animations and the artwork. All in all, it was a rather big and complex record to make. Hopefully not all over the place though. Hopefully it is pointing in the same direction eventually.

Cryptic Rock – It certainly is coherent. It does point in the same direction. As you said, it does have a complexity to it, but there is something that brings it all together as well.

Ihsahn – Thank you. I’m very pleased with how it came out, if I’m honest. I had very high ambitions for this one. I wrote three times as much material for this record than I normally do. It was a huge project, but I think it was really gratifying to finish it.

Most importantly, it was also all the things that I managed to learn. It was the excitement and the learning curve of adding things to the aforementioned toolbox. To be this childishly enthusiastic about the project over three decades into my career is a privilege.

Ihsahn - The Adversary
Ihsahn – The Adversary / Candlelight Records (2006)
Ihsahn - Amr
Ihsahn – Amr / Candlelight Records (2018)

Cryptic Rock – That is a wonderful thing. You mentioned how there is the opposite side of the story. It is really compelling to learn. Are both the Metal version and the orchestral versions going to be available in a physical format? 

Ihsahn – There’s a special edition vinyl box set with both versions. Otherwise, they are presented differently. It’s not just a sidekick. With the distribution service for Universal and Candlelight/Spinefarm Records, it was the first time the two teams of Rock/Metal and Classical worked together. I think the orchestral version of the record has been pitched to do the more orchestral side of the industry as its own separate thing. I find that very unreal, but still flattering in some way, I guess.

Cryptic Rock – That is exciting. With that, you are able to tap into two different types of audiences. 

Ihsahn – Yes. However, for me, I’ve always loved soundtracks and Orchestral music in parallel with my love for Metal and extreme music, and eventually all kinds of music. To be able to combine the two and dig deep into both expressions is very fascinating to me. I would love to be able to do some kind of soundtrack or a similar thing down the line. It’s a field that I find very compelling.

Cryptic Rock – Well, a lot of your music lends itself to a film soundtrack; especially this new record. You do a wonderful job of painting visual images through the music. There are many points in your musical career where you can actually feel the chaos… as if you were inside your mind. You can feel it all within the musical movements.

Ihsahn – Thank you. That’s very kind of you. I get this a lot where people think it’s some kind of crazy idea to blend Orchestral music with Metal music. I think that is just from a cultural point of view where rockers are drunk, long-haired people in leather jackets making a noise. Whereas Orchestral music is only for people in suits and eating cheese and drinking fine wine. Aesthetically, I think if you listen to a lot of classic Metal releases and Orchestral music, whether it’s from soundtrack or someone like Beethoven or anything, you’re still trying to achieve the same thing.

It’s this kind of dark energy in a sense. Say something very familiar, like John Williams’ “The Imperial March.” You could easily see how that appeals to someone who’s into Metal; because it takes you to a similar atmospheric space. In my opinion, musical genres are often just a result of instrumentation arrangement.

Cryptic Rock – Completely agreed. With the record out, you will indeed be out with Emperor, but will there be some solo touring as well?  

Ihsahn – Yes, but the first debut show of the new material was in London at a festival called Celestial Darkness. I am very excited to perform the new material there. Then it’s a lot of back-to-back stuff with Emperor and my solo back throughout the year. Not everything is put out there yet… it’s still not announced. We’re working on quite a lot of shows. Of course the Emperor shows and summer festivals were probably planned almost a year ago.

Whereas now that new record is out, it’s kind of a bit late for the booking of the summer festivals. There’s something in the pipeline, but it will build throughout the year and into next year. A lot of busy times doing press and live shows. I’m really eager to get back to writing, if I’m honest. We’ll have to see though. I have to get my head above water to be able to focus properly.

Cryptic Rock – Creating the art is always the best part. Promotional aspects can sometimes be tedious.  

Ihsahn – Yes, but then again, it’s part of the job. This time, I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of attention to the album. I’ve done probably close to 100 interviews already. If people aren’t interested, I don’t have a happy record company. Unless people are happy with what I do and you present it and the business part of things, I might not get to do it again. It’s all part of the game. It’s all very interlinked with getting to play shows and do what I love. I’m very practical in that respect.

ihsahn 2024 album
Ihsahn – Ihsahn / Candlelight Records (2024)

Cryptic Rock – That makes sense. What is interesting is that you began with Emperor when you were quite young. Then you went and did various other projects. Then you dipped back into Emperor doing live shows. At this point in your life, like you said, 30 years into working in music, how do you view Emperor versus your solo material? They are two different entities at this point, obviously.

Ihsahn – Yes, of course. I have been pondering this. I was introduced to the business world of music with Emperor in a sense. Of course I did music prior to Emperor as well. I’ve been playing since I was six, but my first love of making music was really when I was like 10 or 11. I had this electric organ with bass pedals. I could play accompaniments with my feet, put down chords and jam with my guitar on top of that. I had a four-track recorder, where I could layer drum parts, the guitar leads and rhythms. Coincidentally I started out very young putting music together; which led me to eventually join bands when I got a little older.

I was in a couple of bands locally. I was 13 when I joined my first band where Samoth was part of that. We were in several different bands. We even had some releases with other bands; such as singles and demos prior to Emperor. That became a thing by the time I was 16. Then after, of course, Emperor lasted for about 10 years. We left Emperor as a recording act when I was 25. Then, we had Peccatum, did other things, and ended up doing my solo things.

I have been pondering that I kind of started out doing this like a solo thing. That branched out into being in bands, before I came back to what was the natural format for me; to integrate within this more solitary way of working.

Emperor became a thing with the Black Metal scene, like a phenomenon, outside of us being part of it in a sense. I can see some people have an attachment to that, for which I’m grateful. For me, the whole process of my career is more like an ebb and flow of things. It’s natural, of course, that I don’t separate how I work on music.

With the last Emperor record, I wrote everything on my own. Gradually, through Emperor’s careers, I was writing and producing more and more of the music. I just naturally inclined to do it in a certain way. To me, it’s not like a clear divide necessarily, other than the different band names obviously. Of course, it is more flexible as a solo artist than if you’re kind of writing for a set ensemble.

Cryptic Rock – Everything transitions into the other. Like you said, it is just all part of your musical growth through the decades. 

Ihsahn – With this record, I was so enthusiastic about making it. It was scary, because it was such a big project to take on. It was so satisfying though. I always try to put myself in a situation where I’m just as excited about making new music and making another album at 48 as when I was 16.

That’s why I do this. I love that process. Everything external to that, is a consequence of doing it. I’m very fortunate. The culture within Emperor, the band, and with the crew and everything around that organization, is really nice. We get to do some amazing shows around the world and meet a lot of really interesting, nice people. I get to be creatively, entirely free, do my albums, and do touring with my solo band. You can’t really ask for more.

Cryptic Rock – That is a good place to be. Last time we had spoken, you mentioned that you do appreciate older Horror films. As a film fan in general, and loving cinematic stuff, what have you seen over the past 10 years that really inspired?

Ihsahn – I probably am a bigger fan of cinematic music than actually going to the cinema. Going to the cinema is very rare for me. In the ’80s and ’90s, films were a big thing. In the 2000s and forward, from Sopranos onwards, these TV series got bigger budgets. They could go so much more in-depth, more like a novel. You could have character development, etc. It became a more interesting thing.

Movies that impressed me, I think The Joker (2019) was amazing. I’m really looking forward now to the continuation of Dune. It’s really big, powerful and just something very different and nice. For a long time, I’ve been obsessed with the Hannibal TV series with Mads Mikkelsen. I think that is an amazing, beautiful show.

Emperor 2024 Tour Dates:
3/22/2024 Barrowland Ballroom Glasgow, Scotland
3/23/2024 3Olympia Theatre Dublin, Ireland
For more on Ihsahn: ihsahn.com | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram 

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