Timing is everything when it comes to success; and music is no exception. The rise of black metal is a perfect example. By the mid-90s death metal was essentially dead. Head-bangers across the globe longed for something different….
Suddenly! Worldwide coverage over incidents that occurred in Norway set off a fascination that propelled a new movement into the spotlight and created a new genera of metal. Let’s face it, this was a once in a lifetime occurrence, but if the groups that were pioneering this movement didn’t have talent, all this would have died out twenty years ago.
Ihsahn is a world renowned artist known for his work in the legendary black metal band Emperor as well as his success as a solo artist. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ihsahn about his latest release, Eremita, music downloading, his favorite metal albums, and of course black metal.
Here are some excerpts of that interview (6/1/12):
David Halbe: This is your fourth release as a solo artist. What are the advantages of having sole control over a project? What are some disadvantages?
Ihsahn: The advantages of course are that I get to do things exactly the way I want to do them, it’s rather self-indulgent but it suits me very well because that’s how I prefer to work. I usually have such a strong opinion or vision of what I want to do and it has proven to be very hard for other people to have a say.
The disadvantages are more responsibility of course. It’s a process where I am recording and producing everything myself, sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming but the disadvantages are far less, it’s absolutely a very easy compromise as opposed to having a band.
Dave: You’ve utilized a lot of different instruments on your solo works. Is there an instrument you’d still like to incorporate in a song? Or one you’d never consider using?
Ihsahn: There are a lot of instruments I’d never really consider using. For the most part it’s best to keep to things I have some knowledge of, there are a lot of exotic instruments that would be hard to implement. Sometimes when I listen to music I will get a sonic inspiration of a certain instrument or even a combination of instruments that sound very interesting to me and maybe I will somehow implement that into my own arrangements. For the last one, I heard some music that had a very dark, tight brass sections and that was something that I think kind of stuck with me so I wanted to explore dark brass sections.
Dave: The word Eremita means “Hermit” in Latin, can you tell us why you choose that name for your fourth release?
Ihsahn: Well, throughout my career I have turned to mythological figures, who went away from conformity and the collected to make up their own mind about stuff, to put it in a bit of a mundane way. It’s more of a scenario and also very much an escape from conformity and the collected.
Nietzsche has been a huge influence on me, in particular during the years that I’ve been doing my solo stuff. He was a hermit, he wrote about hermits and I guess I do this in a kind of hermit-like way myself. I am here in my hermit’s cave, a studio, doing my stuff alone. On different levels it just reflects aspects of the album itself and probably aspects of how I see things and how I work.
Dave: The new album cover features a picture of Nietzsche upside down, how did using the picture come about, is there any significance?
Ihsahn: When Ritxi (Ostariz) came up from Spain to Norway to go over graphic directions for what we wanted the album to be and we ended up doing the inside of the booklet first. The details that we have in there, it kind of gives you like a crime scene type of vibe, where some lyrical things are intentionally blacked out, so there’s something hidden, something unknown. We were very pleased with how that came out. Then we came to the front over, which we saved for last because it was very hard to find something to bind it all together. For awhile we thought of maybe just using a black front with the logo and the title in the center but I had a strong feeling of using something visual, more than just writing, so we started sending illustrations and paintings back and forth, images that contained the type of atmosphere we were going for. The Nietzsche picture – late in his life, I guess he went mad in the end – made a big impression on me. I sent it as inspiration but then he (Ritxi) cropped it and put it upside down, the way he put the letters together and everything, when he first told me about it I was a bit skeptical but when I saw it, I thought it was absolutely perfect for this album because it is really a reflective album that’s filtered through the eyes of a madman.
Dave: I’ve read that your solo albums are meant to be heard in sequential order, is there any truth to that claim?
Ihsahn: When I decided to do this as a solo project, I very early on decided I would start with doing a trilogy and that’s why the first three albums all start with an “A” – Adversary, AngL and After – there is some connection between them in that the first two albums are confrontational and direct. After is kind of a reflection of that and more post-apocalyptic kind of a concept but the main reason for doing it for my sake was to give myself the timespan of doing three albums to build the foundation for this project. I didn’t want to do one album and go out and play live, do five songs off the new album and Emperor covers the rest. I really wanted to make this a strong outlet for my music and something that could really stand on its own two feet, I didn’t want to be reviewed and consumed into just being a sidekick of my previous work.
Dave: How about sequential order as far as the track listings on the albums go? Adversary for example, sounds like something meant to be heard in order.
Ihsahn: Adversary I actually wrote from start to finish but that’s the intention I have when I do albums, of course they are individual songs but I try to build songs together for an album that in a way is like one musical piece and even though I like to have a lot of variety in my albums, I try to keep a cohesive atmosphere. This is just a preference because the albums I grew up with, you can put them on from start to finish, you get a full experience from that. It’s more than just a collection of songs an artist put together from that time period; it’s something that speaks together.
Dave: What are some of those albums that stuck with you?
Ihsahn: Well, I always come back to Seventh Son [Seventh Son of a Seventh Son] by Iron Maiden, a fantastic album, in my youth I learned much of my guitar playing from that album. Also more conceptual albums like Them and Conspiracy from King Diamond, Judas Priest – The Sad Wings of Destiny, classic albums like Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon, they all have a certain atmosphere.
The King Diamond albums are very much a storyline whereas the Iron Maiden albums particularly from that time period with Somewhere in Time, Seventh Son, and Powerslave are set in a certain scenario but in particular on Seventh Son, I don’t think that there is necessarily a chronological order to the songs in the story line yet there are references to this seventh son. I first saw Maiden on the Seventh Son when I was thirteen, for me it was life changing because I started playing piano when I was six, I got my first electric guitar when I was ten but when I went to see Maiden on the Seventh Son tour and the pyros went off for “Moonchild” and Bruce Dickinson was jumping in, just the power of that moment, if I watch the DVD of that show it still gives me a glimpse of that feeling. Since that moment, I don’t think I ever considered doing anything else but music.
Dave: What do you think about music sharing sites like YouTube and Facebook?
Ihsahn: I don’t mind the YouTube stuff but I’ve been a bit pissed off about the whole downloading thing but not necessarily that it’s happened but it’s just that people make these pathetic excuses to justify doing it and calling it something else other than theft. You’re ripping off the artist, just admit it and don’t call it anything else and don’t blame the big record companies who now just make less money on records and now they do 360 deal and rip off the band even more. When you start stealing in one end of the industry it effects all the other parts of the industry as well, it’s a spiral thing. I stopped caring; I stopped thinking about it because it’s like being pissed off at the rain.
As long as I can put out my albums and so far people have been interested enough in my music to actually buy the album. I think in this genera people like to have the physical copy or at least some representation of it, the cover artwork, to have the experience with the full album like we were just talking about. It was never my intention to do radio-friendly, hit music in the first place so I think that every album I do is in all respect to those who buy those albums. I will every time do my absolute best.
Dave: I’ve noticed, here in the US, that your work has been thrown into a progressive metal category despite the fact that your black metal roots are still prevalent in your music, do you agree with that classification? Do music classifications even mater?
Ihsahn: To me it doesn’t really matter. I’ve grown so old now that I really divide music into two categories and that’s music that makes me feel something, that I find interesting, that I like, and music that doesn’t do anything for me. (Laughs) That’s the generas I relate to but I do understand how people label things, it of course gets into history as well, so when people call my music prog (progressive) because it’s more experimental then I’ll get these questions like how was I influenced by King Crimson, Rush and Yes and though I’ve heard of their records and enjoy those bands I cannot say they’ve been an influence on my work. It labels it and becomes a preconception of where I came from, I guess we all just to try relate to something so we can recognize but an interesting point to that is that I played ProgFest in Atlanta (2011) and I think the majority of that audience had no idea where I was coming from.
Dave: You mentioned playing ProgFest. Are there any future plans to play in the US anytime soon?
Ihsahn: Yes. I think I will try to work something out but to be honest its getting very hard for a band of my size because its so extremely expensive to get working visas, and the whole embassy thing, getting all that in order, tickets and everything just to get seven or eight people from Norway to the US just to play some shows so its literally up to the promoter and what kind of a risk they are willing to take but I would love to come back. I’ve enjoyed playing in the US and ProgFest is no exception.
Dave: You were a pioneer of a genera. Many would argue that you’ve already had a legendary career at age 36; when you look back on those musical achievements, what are you most proud of?
Ihsahn: Well, I guess I’m still proud of being here doing what I want and having been rather uncompromising along the way.
Dave: Do you think black metal’s original message has been lost in the sensationalism of its own history?
Ihsahn: That depends because it’s really all subjective to what black metal is itself. Some people think it’s almost like a political thing or a religious thing. For me black metal is a feeling and I would say at this point in my career I think I’ve actually dug into more of that than I’ve done in many years on this last record. I think this is some of the most black metal work or songs that I have ever written that contain so much of the feeling I associate with black metal. The song “The Grave” off the new album, that for me is black metal.
How other people pinpoint that or relate to that I don’t know but what I think has been lost compared to the early days is that now and this happened very soon, conformity was applied to this genera, it’s just a paradox because in my work doing black metal was ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’. And if for one minute or even a second I considered letting anyone else tell me how to do my music or told me something wasn’t black metal or whatever that by definition would make it not black metal. The whole having rules about what black metal is or isn’t or there’s true black metal and untrue black metal, who cares? When you put it into rules like that you piss all over the concept in the first place.
Dave: Melodrama perpetuated by the media put black metal in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. In retrospect have you ever second guessed your role in the scene?
Ihsahn: No. I think my motivation for doing this has been very much the same all along. Of course, I think I have changed since I was a teenager, which we hope for most people that they grow out of their teens. I can’t say I can go back and regret anything of course, you did say there was attention for all the wrong reasons but then again beyond the scene maybe the majority of the people would not recognize black metal, it may not have been if it hadn’t been for that attention with all that mystery, all that badness to it, it made it very exotic, very interesting for people, that’s how it is in a lot of subgeneras.
Dave: A lot of fans and fellow musicians still follow your old music and messages as if they had been released yesterday but you’ve moved on. Do you think that musical progressions, age and maturity have influenced your current direction?
Ihsahn: I would certainly hope so. I think everything I do is affected by how I live my life now; it’s all a product of my experiences. I can’t be totally immune to how people perceive me and my music. In my experience, I’ve been with Candlelight Records for twenty years this year and during that time I had so much shit and so much praise for the exact same albums.
When the first Emperor albums came out the major metal magazines absolutely hated it and then you gave them ten, fifteen years and suddenly In the Nightside Eclipse is right next to Black Sabbath’s first album. It’s almost like the attitudes of politicians it goes up and down with people’s opinions. It was something that was said to be crap and now is something that people look back at as epic. I can’t really relate to that. For the most part I try to evaluate the rate of my success for each album when the album is finished; I ask how close did I get to what I envisioned when I started writing. I try to keep that perspective because everything else is out of my control.
Dave: Black Metal is now as commercialized and overblown as any other genera of metal, do you see an irony in its ultimate evolution?
Ihsahn: I think it’s quite ironic in the same perspective of what I just talked about because locally, friends and family, when all these things happened in the early 90s, some people were utterly ashamed that I was a part of this and some years later when I was nominated for a Norwegian Grammy all of those same people are super proud. The albums haven’t changed, my expression isn’t flowers at springtime, my albums now aren’t either but they don’t care, they only care about success. It doesn’t matter to them how dark and evil it was or what it is now, it’s just about success for them, it’s all superficial. Same thing with black metal – it used to be the bad boy and now it’s the good boy and in many ways it’s just been the same all along.
Dave: Thanks for your time and good luck with the new album!
Ihsahn: Thank you for the support.
Read the review for Eremita here.