January 7, 2014 Interview – Ihsahn
During the 1990’s the underground metal scene was swelling with a abundance of bands which would soon reshape the genre forever. At the forefront of this wave of black metal bands was Norway’s Emperor. With such groundbreaking albums such as 1994’s In the Nightside Eclipse, Emperor demonstrated the true depth black metal could possess. Lead by the multi-instrumental Ihsahn, Emperor remain an influential force in modern metal. Like any passionate artist, Ihsahn yearned to explore other aspects of music through other projects such as Peccatum in the early 2000’s.
Still looking to challenge his boundaries, Ihsahn delved into his solo career in 2006 releasing The Adversary . Through the years and 5 studio albums later Ihsahn has distinguished his musical visions beyond what any listener could imagine. Recently we sat down with Ihsahn for a comprehensive look at the passion behind the music, celebrating the 20th anniversary of In the Nightside Eclipse, staying true to one’s self, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been involved in the metal scene for over 2 decades now. Most know you from your work in Emperor but you have been involved in a few other projects including Thou Shalt Suffer and Peccatum. You now have been concentrating on your solo material as Ihsahn over the past 7 years. What was it like for you to start writing this new material as Ihsahn and how did it differ than your previous bands?
Ihsahn – Well it was in some way picking up doing metal again. Right when I quit Emperor I was involved in Peccatum which was more of an instrumental thing. When I decided to do a solo album, instead of continuing directly where I left off with Emperor, it was important for me to rebuild a metal foundation for myself to create some distance to make my solo effort stand out on its own feet rather than be perceived as a spinoff of my time in Emperor. The first album was very old school heavy metal inspired. I started from scratch and built from there. I decided very early on to do the three albums as a trilogy to give myself the time span to form that musical platform for myself.
From there I continued and found my musical platform and expression. On the fourth album, concept-wise it was quite different but musically it had a lot of similarity. For this album I wanted to take a deliberate side step of what I had been doing to reset the parameters and avoid falling into any kind of formula of how to do my albums. Most of all because I want to take possession where I can do everything on my own and I just want to keep the process of doing this as exciting and inspiring as possible.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, that makes perfect sense. You definitely have established your work separately from Emperor. Now Emperor is one of the most influential black metal bands in the past 20 years. It has always clearly been about the art and not commercial success for yourself judging by the way you conduct yourself. It is rather refreshing. I would like to know how you feel about what you’ve accomplished musically with Emperor over the years.
Ihsahn – Well I have been extremely privileged having this music career spanning over 20 years. If you are from Norway to start with, unless you are from A-ha, it’s kind of far-fetched to believe as a teenager that you would have a music career. Samoth and I talked about this in the car the other day. Even though we were signed to Candlelight Records, and even when we went to record In The Nightside Eclipse (1994), it didn’t strike our minds this was a career. We had absolutely no thought of any kind of financial or commercial aspect of what we were doing. In 1991 when we started Emperor, as a career choice, it was probably the worst idea ever when you think of it like that.
I think in spite of that, because we didn’t do it for that purpose, it is probably why we actually have gotten to have a career like this in the first place. I have been very privileged to have listeners that are buying our albums, and my albums, so that we can actually make a living out of this and spend so much of my time doing what I love. I try and keep that very much in mind. It probably seem like a big ego trip, and in many ways it is, to go on a solo career and do music wherever that takes me while having no consideration to see how it will be perceived in the end. At the same time I think that is also the only kind of humble way I can relate with my listeners that have been following my work. I will do my absolutely best with every album I make just as uncompromisingly as we did the first Emperor album. It’s generally how I approach it, I think it’s best for me, and hopefully it’s best for those who care to pick up the albums as well. When it comes to this genre and scene people like what is genuine. I think in the end they don’t want anything constructed for their market.
CrypticRock.com – Yes of course, and it is the best way to approach the music because that will make the best art.
Ihsahn – Hopefully. I don’t think I do my best work if I follow a formula and play it safe. I don’t think that keeps me on the edge enough for my music to contain the nerve and excitement I wish it to have. Eventually all art or music, whether it is pop music or artistic noise music, if it doesn’t have that edge that connects with the listener it’s useless. I think it’s just as much out of respect for those buying the music that I did my absolute best.
CrypticRock.com – Yes and it all works out in the end. With Emperor you took a 4 year break and came back in 2006. Then you took another break. Nwabsence does make the heart grow fonder. With that said, Emperor will once be playing some shows again in 2014. Do you feel like sometimes it’s best for Emperor to be received in small doses every few years to keep things fresh and exciting for yourself and the fans?
Ihsahn – When we quit Emperor in 2001, which was kind of a very definitive and final decision on my part. Even in 2006 when we did those shows, originally we planned to do one show; it ended up being all those shows in 2006 and 2007. Since then I have also been very reluctant to pick up Emperor again. Most of all because I’ve been so preoccupied with my current music. I have been very stubborn about wanting to have my focus on the music I am doing now and not the music I did as a teenager. For me that is very important. From the start I waited 3 albums into my solo career before I did any side shows, I didn’t want to present myself as a spinoff and do 50 percent my songs and 50 percent old emperor songs. I wanted it to be something on its own. I think by now with my fifth album I feel more comfortable that I have gotten that message across, that I am doing my solo stuff now and that’s my priority. It’s easier for me now to accept my past in Emperor as a part of my musical background. For most people that may sound like a load of crap but it’s just personal stuff you have when you are dealing with music.
For 2014 there has been a constant flow of offers for Emperor to do things and I always said no. A year ago or something we got onto the subject of the 20th anniversary of In the Nightside Eclipse (1994) which was sort of an important album for both of us. That is what started us having a career in the first place. It seems from the time it came out and what it represented, In The Nightside Eclipse is one of the reference points for the early Norwegian black metal wave. For music fans that is something people have a relationship to as well. It’s been 20 years; it seems worthwhile to celebrate it. That is the basic reason for doing those few shows in 2014. Mind you it was my terms; it will be very few shows. It has to be very limited and focused on that album. The bonus was getting Bård “Faust” Eithun back on drums. This will not be a round of doing “a best of” tour. It is just for the anniversary for that album, and that’s it.
Ihsahn – This is probably a strange mix of some of the most abstract work I’ve been doing but also the most personally revealing. My general idea for making this album was I wanted to get very close to that original source of inspiration that has been constant with me since the very early days. This time I wanted to make an album with the atmosphere of this grim old school black metal feeling, with a totally different message, song structure, and instruments. The general idea was to make this die hard to the core black metal album but by totally different means (laughs). So in that respect, by coincidence, getting in that state of mind and doing something on a field I have far less experience like with the improvisational stuff and everything.
Also getting close to this kind of black metal atmosphere, it kind of took me back to In The Nightside Eclipse, not directly, but it had similarities of inexperience with making that kind of album, which was kind of trial and error at that time, but still with a very strong conviction of what kind of atmosphere we wanted to create. Making this album has kind of helped me in the process of relating to playing those old songs again this year. I have been tapping in that state of mind.CrypticRock.com – It should be a special event for the shows you are doing. With 5 Ihsahn records completed it is clear the first three records were a trilogy following a concept. You seem to follow the vision of atmosphere and mood throughout your music. This new record is different than previous. Tell me what the concept was behind your newest record Das Seelenbrechen?
CrypticRock.com – It’s a very good record and it’s being received well by fans.
Ihsahn – Surprisingly. When I finished the album I was very pleased with how it came out. It was exactly the type of album I wanted to do. At the same time I thought it was probably commercial suicide. I believed, for most people, it would be too far out. I think I have underestimated my listener. I think it’s something to do with the time we live in as well. People are not limited to genres in the same way when I grew up. We saved our money to buy this one album of our favorite artist and played the album to death while excluding everything else that was not within what we invested in.
These days, with the accessibility of music and a much wider selection of what you can listen to, people are more educated to sound and how to perceive music. Maybe that has helped more people to be able to enjoy this type of album as well.
CrypticRock.com – I totally agree with you. It is less boxed in than it once was. What are some of your musical influences?
Ihsahn – It could be anything really. Different music influences me in different ways. Some music, even some very commercial music, may influence me maybe not from a musical point of view but more from a sonic point of view. From listening to more modern music, they may have sounds that I like that I try to implement in my expression.
I’m a huge Radiohead fan. I like the whole catalogue. Those in itself made me think about what lies underneath. OK Computer (1997) was basically a rock album and was hugely successful. Their response to that was to make an electronic album. Even though they changed everything about their sound it still sounded like Radiohead. I think that says something about the integrity of that artist that it still sounds like them even though they changed all the colors if you will.
That is something I try to keep in mind when I do stuff as well, to not limit myself to a particular set of instrumental or sound, to trust my artistic vision. I don’t mean that to sound pretentious (laughs). To trust the process, that in the end it will sound like me even if I go on a detour and try new things.
CrypticRock.com – Yes in the end it always comes out sounding like you and comes across naturally. My last question for you is regarding films. CrypticRock.com is a rock/metal and horror news site so we like to focus on all genres. Are you a fan of horror films and if so what are some of your favorite horror films?
Ihsahn – I guess I don’t watch any contemporary horror films anymore. If I have any favorites I’d say they would be the Omen trilogy. That’s kind of it for me. I had great pleasure in watching the Evil Dead films when I was young. Mostly because they were illegal in Norway so that gave those VHS tapes that extra edge (laughs).
CrypticRock.com – It’s funny you should say that because things are much more readily accessible now and back then it was VHS trading with your friends to see these movies.
Ihsahn – Yes, sometimes I get disappointed when seeing clips of those old horror films that I used to watch because these VHS tapes that were taped over so many times, it totally screwed up the colors. Everything had less color and had more black than red, giving it that grain; that extra vibe and texture. I think that was some of the appeal. Growing up with that I don’t think I can appreciate the resolution and detail of the stuff you see today, it’s all detailed as heck and not really that scary (laughs). It’s kind of interesting to see how the typical film these days have lost much of the artistic impact. The roles have switched because it used to be the TV series that were the cheap knock offs and the full blown movies that were the big deal.
These days I think it’s the other way around. One and a half hour movie, you can only get that deep building a character, versus say with a TV series like The Sopranos you can build the depth of the characters over 6 seasons. You can take that time and do so much more with that format. I find it very interesting the relationship people have with watching and what they invest to know characters. It’s so different now. Everyone has more or less a cinema at home these days so the prospective changes. At the same time you go on the musical side people relate with much shorter things. The 1 hour album format is not something young people relate to at all. They relate to playlists and singles. What can you do? It’s a bad time for art and movie business, but it’s a good time for music as an art form.