March 5, 2019 Interview – Mortiis
Out of Norway, Mortiis has been crafting uniquely darkened music now for over 25 years. The nightmarish vision of Håvard Ellefsen, who began his career in the early ’90s as the bassist of legendary Black Metal band Emperor, since that time, Mortiis has metamorphosed into an entity all its own. A catalog of music often divided into three parts – Era I, ambient styling, Era II, Darkwave/Synthpop on albums since 2001’s The Smell of Rain, and Era III, Industrial Rock from 2004’s The Grudge on. No matter which way you slice or dice it, Mortiis has accomplished a great deal all while keeping a good distance from the mainstream machine.
Now returning to North America for the first time in 20 years, Mortiis is ready to bring Era I material to eager fans on a limited engagement tour. Gearing up for the long overdue return to the other side of the Atlantic, Mortiis sat down for an in-depth look at the paths he has taken as an artist, the forthcoming release of the re-interruption album Spirit of Rebellion later this year, steering the compass of the band’s direction, plus more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in music for over two decades now. From your beginnings in Metal to experimentation with Mortiis, how would you describe your journey in music to this point?
Mortiis – I guess diverse, but not that diverse. I always sort of stuck within the realms, well, fringes, of either Black Metal or Industrial Rock. I’ve done some pretty indefinable stuff, like The Unraveling Mind (2017) album, which I guess is a kind of ambient, soundscape-ish thing, but by and large, I’ve existed within one of those two realms. Black Metal was always pretty friendly towards the darker kind of atmospheric music, so that’s why I’m saying that.
Cryptic Rock – You have certainly had a very unique approach to whatever you have done through the years. As mentioned, you began working in Metal music, particularly as part of Emperor early on. What were those early days like, and what inspired you to inevitably explore different musical directions?
Mortiis – We were kids learning the ropes, I guess, in a pretty chaotic, violent yet creative time of Norwegian Black Metal. In fact, if you look away from Mayhem, Darkthone, Burzum, Enslaved, Immortal and a few others, there really wasn’t anyone doing it in Norway. So, we were all forced to be pretty original, as there weren’t that many to steal from. I mean we stole, but we had to look back in time to bands like Celtic Frost, Bathory, Destruction, and so on.
I had discovered stuff like Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Coil, In Slaughter Natives, etc., and I really got into some of the aspects of what they were doing – like creating really atmospheric and sometimes dark music without being Metal, which was sort of a new idea to me. I also had a bit of a brain meltdown when I started digging into the past of bands like Tangerine Dream and discovered they were making songs that were 20+ minutes long. One song on each side of the LP. They just broke all the conventional rules, and I really liked that. I liked it so much I stole that idea right off when I went solo.
Cryptic Rock – It is definitely a bold move to make as an artist. Speaking of different musical directions, Mortiis has had a compelling evolution. How would you describe the evolutionary approach to the music for Mortiis?
Mortiis – I’m not sure. I mean a lot of it is accidental “art.” I did learn to start experimenting a lot, just spend a lot of time fucking around with sounds and processing to see what happens, and once in a while something happens that change the tide, so to speak. You can develop some tricks and turn songs in some pretty creative directions, at least sonically, by fucking around like that.
I tend to always keep my ears locked in for any weirdness that happens in the music, sonically, as I find that some really cool stuff can happen in the details and are worth exploring. I don’t mean in terms of music theory: I have almost zero clue about stuff like that. I’m the guy that will hear the weird glitch or artifact at the end of a sound, and lock in on that and resample it and use it as a snare drum! (Laughs) Of course, it depends on what kind of music I work on. For the Era I style of music I focus on now, none of the above really applies.
Cryptic Rock – It is great what you can do when just experimenting. Those who know the history of Mortiis are aware it initially started as a one-man project featuring only yourself. That in mind, at what point did you realize it was going to become more than a one-man project?
Mortiis – When I had recorded The Smell of Rain (2001). That was when I started looking for people to take out on tour. After that, it just naturally settled into this band scenario. Of course, a couple of years later when the honeymoon is over, people started getting a bit wound up and weird about not having become rock stars yet. The weirdness started while we were recording The Grudge (2004), so there was a definite backside to the band scenario as well. It was always my project, band, whatever, so that was when I had to start learning to become that dictating asshole a bit just to keep things in line.
Cryptic Rock – When it is your vision, you have to take charge of what direction you want things to go.Beyond the music itself, the imagery of Mortiis immediately catches the eye. What inspired the presentation of Mortiis?
Mortiis – I grew up on KISS and W.A.S.P., and, of course, Alice Cooper, so imagery in music has always been a given to me. I like a ton of bands that have almost no imagery in music, but as a fan I have the best time when music comes with heavy imagery. I combined my childhood appreciation of KISS, W.A.S.P., etc. with my new found fascination with J.R.R. Tolkien and Black Metal, which was very fresh at the time. I came up with the basics for the Mortiis look in late 1993, I believe.
Cryptic Rock – It is part of what makes Mortiis so interesting. You have remained very active releasing music with Mortiis in recent years. Now you are set to return to North America for some shows, the first in two decades. How excited are you to be back, and for those coming out, what can they expect from these shows?
Mortiis – I don’t like to tell people what they can expect, because it is a show, live on stage, a ton of shit can go wrong and things can change between now and then. I am looking forward to going back to the U.S. to perform Era I material though. I haven’t performed solo material in the U.S. since my first tour with Christian Death in 1999. I am curious to see how the U.S. crowd will take to it, for sure.
Cryptic Rock – It will be great to see you return to the U.S. Many would refer to the early work of Mortiis as Dungeon Synth. Labels aside, the music, for example 1994’s Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør, creates an atmosphere. You will be re-releasing this material under the title Spirit of Rebellion.
Mortiis – Spirit of Rebellion is my re-interpretation of Ånden som Gjorde Opprør and will be released as an album later this year. I decided to rename the album, as it eventually turned out very different – a ton of new music was added, new arrangements, etc. In my view it, not by planning but just the way things turned out, is its own album, so I wanted the title to reflect that yet also nod back to its essential roots, in 1994. So, I kept the title close to its forefather’s title so to speak.
Cryptic Rock – Interesting. What creative head-space are you in when composing such ambient style material?
Mortiis – I don’t feel like there’s a formula to where I need to be head-space wise when I work on music; I just need to feel inspired and motivated, that’s usually enough.
Cryptic Rock – Understood. With your return to North America and consistent release of remixed or reissues of older music, what is next for you and Mortiis?
Mortiis – I will be performing this re-interpreted version. In other words, I will be performing The Spirit of Rebellion. That’s been the theme for all my other shows across Europe, South America and Australia so far.
Cryptic Rock – Well, people need to get out and see it, because it is a very special event for sure. Last question. On Cryptic Rock, we also cover movies, particularly Horror and Sci-Fi. If you are a fan of these genres, what are some of your favorites and why?
Mortiis – I’m a pretty conservative movie guy: I tend to not see what’s so great about a lot of the new Horror; I still think the classics are the best. The Omen (1976), The Exorcist (1973), Hellraiser (1987) and Hellraiser II: Hellbound (1988). I did like the 2-3 first Saw movies, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is excellent, the first Poltergeist (1982) movie is pretty scary I think.
Back when I was younger, I was into gore movies like The Beyond (1981), Day of the Dead (1985), The Evil Dead (1981), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Evil Dead II (1987), Army of Darkness (1992). I’m not a huge gore/splatter fan these days, it just doesn’t give me much, which is ironic seeing as most of my videos get pretty violent. I did like the Ash vs Evil Dead series, though. I saw the first 2 seasons so far, and mostly enjoyed that. It got really bloody but it’s all totally tongue-in-cheek, so it’s mostly just funny really.
In terms of Sci-Fi, I grew up on Star Wars (1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), so obviously I like a good Sci-Fi movie but it’s nothing I chase down. I’ve liked pretty much everything that came out of the Star Wars universe, except those prequel films – I don’t know what happened there. I liked the Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) film, too.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is very cool, but it’s more like an art film to me. I thought Arrival (2016) was interesting and different. I also remember I liked the District 9 (2009) film a lot: it was pretty dark in a sense. I tried watching the new Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 (2017), but for some reason it bored me and I turned it off. The first one is great, with a fantastic soundtrack by Vangelis.
I don’t know if it counts as Sci-Fi but I do like a lot of the Marvel films. Avengers: Infinity War (2018) movie really takes a cool leap into the cosmic side of Marvel, which is where the really cool shit begins to happen and where the real cool “super heroes/villains” exist. I still hope for a movie that properly explores Galactus. Although I think Thanos is really cool too.