About Me

Interview with Ihsahn

Ihsahn, the black metal legend, has been working on his solo career for more than a decade. The new album “Àmr” was released on the 4th of May. Metal Imperium Magazine had the privilege of interviewing this creative force of the metal world.

M.I. - Tell us about the production process of your upcoming 7th solo album.

Well, that’s a kind of open question...

M.I. - Yes... In relation to sound, artwork, lyrics and so on.

Well, I have this working method now that I kind of write up, the gathering includes pictures or movie stills, lyrical ideas or just words and sounds that I can gather to the pile, do a write-up of what kind of album I want to make to give that atmospheric base to work from, really as a framework. So, when I write the new songs or have some ideas, I could almost hold them up to this framework and see if the pieces fit, ‘cause I come from that background of the mid 80’s, where albums really sounded like albums and not just a collection of songs and that’s my ideal. I want to have a diversity of songs on the album that they, at least, at some level, connect, together as a whole. That was the ideal and having done different albums all along, I have these ground ideas and, production wise, I had some ideas over time that I really never had the courage to go all in, but this time I had a really clear vision of the production side. So, I went all in, I recorded the drums, almost like early Abbath style, drum sound (...). I really wanted mono sounding drum kit and to leave space on the sides, very much the main emphasis on analog synthesizers. All to the concept that like, in contrast to “Arktis”, the scenery of that album was this Arctic landscape, outside, as the album “Àmr” suggests. This is in my head, this album is all inside. This dark space and so analog synthesizers and everything, lend itself to conjure up that atmosphere more. It’s more intimate and claustrophobic. I like the big sounding music, but whereas previous albums maybe have this spacious big sound from strings and horns, this is bigger in some frequency. It’s a different sounding. I think, at the heart of it, these guitars and screaming vocals, are still very recognizable as my music and the songs structures, I guess there will always be similarities to the way I do things. But I find it very interesting to change the sounds I use in having some new perspectives and, having done as many albums as I have through my career, the biggest challenge is probably to find a new angle of approaching the album, that keeps me excited and enthusiastic, passionate about the process because I like to think that if I’m not passionate, excited about making it, I can’t expect people to be excited and passionate about listening to it. Simple as that.

M.I. - This album is really unique, eclectic and captivating. Do you think that your black metal roots are always present?

Thank you! Very much so. I would say, at least in my experience of making this music, it’s very much from the core, the driving force in me to do this. It’s very much the same as it was in the beginning, because it’s...

M.I. - The beginning was long ago...

Yeah, I think I played music first as long as I can remember, that I started writing my own humble material probably at 11, you know, it was of course... it was crap but when I joined my first band with Samoth, I was 13. It’s when we formed Emperor and started creating that atmosphere, I think that I felt very at home there and, in many ways, ‘cause it’s different. In many ways, I feel like having a new song and having a new album, it is kind of another perspective, another angle, to explore many of the same kind of core ambiance.

M.I. - What is your main concern when producing an album? Is it to achieve your ambitions as a musician and to please you above all (or not)?

My main ambition is to amuse myself but I wouldn’t say that because I know every album is a struggle of ups and downs, self-doubt and self-praise. It’s kind of a roller-coaster-all-over process and... 

M.I. - With great results, I guess...

Oh, thank you. I think over the years, at least, I’ve tried to trust the process, even though I do something in an entirely different way, it will still end up sounding like me, in a different life or in a different sound or whatever... And, yeah, I like to think that’s the only reason that I’ve actually been able to have a career expand, not over this long time, but also over several projects, and that’s against all odds. I mean, with the early Emperor days, we did not do any compromises because there was really no compromise to be made, because there was no success to be had in a commercial sense. So, basically, the first Emperor albums and all we did were purely artistic ambitions. There was no scene, there was no fanbase, there was no money, it was just purely artistic ambitions and, as a result, I think it became something instead of trying to compete with something else, creating the same thing and I guess, for the Norwegian black metal scene, a unique thing in itself, that was kind of unique enough, in its own right. (...) I think people who are drawn to this kind of music, whether consciously or subconsciously, they want something that they believe, something that has the integrity and that is created with that state of mind, that is not created to fit in with the teenage fanbase, like pop music and much more. They go to this music because they want something that is not commercial. It’s not polished to fit and that’s what I hope I communicate to the people who follow my solo work, as well, that yes, I do different things... ‘Das Seelenbrechen’ I did that as an experiment. There were lots of free-form music on there and maybe that’s not people’s cup of tea but, at the same time, I think, hopefully, they appreciate that it is something genuine; it is not there to please, it’s there for what it is and maybe the next album will be even more different. That’s a chance you take. 

M.I. - Being so creative after so many years is not an easy “task” for sure. Where do you get your renewed inspiration from?

It’s from everywhere, really. Different things happen to you in different stages of life, which of course inspire new perspectives, from reading could inspire new perspective and movies or TV series; all the music, new sounds... I write the lyrics, I sing, oh, I don’t do the drums. So, I look at music in so many different levels, some are more from the production’s type of perspective, some are more like a technical perspective, some are more like a deep emotional perspective. I find my inspiration… maybe I read something in a book that hits me, inspires me very much on an emotional level. T­­­hen, I can hear a certain combination of instruments and sounds in a different form of music, it gets me back to implement. If I form this into my cores and my perspective, that could create a certain atmosphere of sound. I think that creating these frameworks and scenes for each album, helps me keeping creative focus rather than just writing songs and picking ten songs to be on the album. I have the core atmosphere at the heart of it, some of these core ideas. I think I can stretch my imagination a bit further but then that format, hopefully, makes it a more contrasting, a more interesting album that still feels cohesive, you know, in a difference, if I pretend just ten songs over a certain period of time, I put them together.

M.I. - What are your expectations concerning the upcoming Australian tour?

I’m very excited about it. I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s a very new market for me. I’ve never been to Australia and I am super happy. I’ve done a lot of Australian press and they tell me that the first show we announced, sold out in two days, which I understand is very, very rare in Australia because people see the Australian people as very laid back, so there are hardly any shows that sell out and people will just buy tickets at the door. If that’s true, I don’t know, but it makes me feel very welcome.

M.I. - By the way, do you prefer playing in clubs/bars (something more intimate) or festivals with other bands?

It all depends really. I think it’s very hard to know when the magic happens. I had experiences both with my solo stuff and playing with Emperor. I mean, we headlined Wacken three times. Some of those times, it’s been magic, like almost 80000 people and sometimes it’s more like “Ah...” It’s OK. But then I’ve been playing clubs. We played in Tokyo in 2014 and it was more of a two and a half thousand capacity tight club but, of course, in perspective it’s much smaller than Wacken Open Air. But the intensity of having those Japanese people singing along to the melody of ‘I am the Black Wizards’, that’s also empowering the PA. So, you never know. I played at Sweden Rock with Ihsahn and obviously people were there to have a good time and have a few beers in the sun so, I understood pretty early on, that my midday spot and playing ‘The Grave’, was not really kind of fitting in. So, I think for the most part, I would say inside, it doesn’t really matter if it is festival or one of shows... and I think probably the bar, the very small venues, the atmosphere of my music is more about the imagination... I think country music is very close to human relations type of music, goes well in a bar. From a musical perspective and atmosphere, there used to be a certain distance, you know, often inside to get the lights and the dark atmosphere, I mean, outdoors the sunlight is not always going well with my music, I think. (laugh)

M.I. - Why 7 and 8-string guitars are so special to your work?

For the most part, it makes me skip muscle memory and that’s the biggest challenge when writing so much guitar-based music. If you play an instrument for as long as I’ve played the guitar, you know, playing a 6-string guitar in that tuning, even though if I’m not, it still feels like repeating ourselves, because the muscles memory of my fingers, just do what they used to do. So, I remember getting this 7-string guitar for huge inspiration to do the last Emperor album and late when I got my first 8-string guitar, I think the inspiration was even bigger because in that register... With a 7-string guitar, you still get way to do the same kind of stuff that you were doing in the 6-string. It’s lower. The 8-string, if you tune it regularly, you’ll end up with a F #, a lowest string and then, suddenly, you start writing music in all these different keys, that you had done before. Then, you can experiment with open strings (...) You have to treat your bass parts differently because you can’t really just double things an octave lower. So, for me, it just skipped my muscle memory and I started just listening for the music and that’s how I approach things now. I mean, if you know my albums after ‘Eremita’, I think both of them are very, in many ways, similar, because they’re both very much 8-string guitars and saxophone and all that. But after getting my first 8-string guitar, I wrote the entire album with the piano sound and then recorded everything. My poor drummer had to record that entire album just a click track and the piano sound, playing the riffs. So, I always try... These days, I create just as much music when I’m writing but with the keys instead of guitar. Then again, I recently have been getting these new instruments. That’s very inspiring and very easy to play, and suddenly, it’s guitar parts that come together, so...

M.I. - Your guests’ solos are a relevant addition to your music, right? Can you tell us more about Fredrik’s contribution in this album?

Yeah, the result speaks for itself. He’s one of my absolute favourite players. I mean, he has all the technical chops of a modern guitar player. You can watch on YouTube all these insane technical players but Fredrik seems to have all that, seems like five decades of tone and soul to what he is playing. So, there’s so much passion in how he plays. He’s such a lovely guy, as well, and I think I met Fredrik the first time at my first solo show. I opened up for Opeth in Oslo, and that was the first time we met and since then, of course, we meet up at festivals around the world and talked guitars and music and the last time was actually at Loud Park in Japan, in October, and basically we talked. I talked how I felt about his guitar playing. “One day, I’ll give you a call, it would be great to have you do a solo or something like that.” He wanted to and, basically, he said he was all in. From there, it was very simple, me sending him this record I wanted him to play on and he did this insane great solo and sent it back to me.

M.I. - How do you see the black metal scene now compared to the 90’s? Is it less aggressive (generally speaking)?

It’s hard to say because the black metal scene, I’m not sure if I know where the border of that starts or ends anymore... So, as metal in general, I guess I missed out lot of stuff, prioritizing older styles of music, maybe as a listener, to find new influences really and I tend go with lots of bands that I know already or extensions thereof, but it seems to me that there’s a vibe of political correctness in metal these days. I guess with music as a whole, with Facebook and all that, it’s hard to build that mythical mystery and sense of magic, when you know what artists had for breakfast. They’re just different times. As a music fan growing up, I’ve been giving this some thought as of late; earlier this year was the 30th anniversary of Iron Maiden’s ‘Seventh Son’ album and I remember going to that tour seeing that show. You know, the 12-year old being, with insane four walls in that building, breathing the same air as the people in Iron Maiden. To me, they were like gods, I think I’ve just said “Hi!” to Nicko McBrain once. I had a pressure of meetings, people like Rob Halford, who’s absolutely such down-to-earth, a lovely person but he’s still the kind of metal god, you know. I think that the artistic dimension of Prince, for example, such an insane huge artist… I don’t think Prince or Michael Jackson or any of those, really understood the world. They were living in a world based on their persons and very, very hard to live with or work with but it created that kind of magical distance; and these days, I think it’s very hard to accomplish that because everything is so personal and so down-to-earth and with music it’s very much part of the illusion. There is, of course, no practical value of having colder lights at the show, if it wasn’t to create an atmosphere. If it was just to see the musicians, you might as well just have bright regular light on stage. Part of the experience is, of course, an agreed illusion. It’s like a band like Ghost. Everybody knows who is, for instance, the person behind the vocalist in Ghost these days, but it’s just a consensus, from the fans and the band, to keep up the illusion, because that’s what creates that atmosphere. 

M.I. - On the 18th of August, you’ll be at ‘Prog in the Park II 2018’ in Poland with Anathema and other bands. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?

I’m very much looking forward to that. It’s a festival. There are several friends and colleagues playing there that I’m looking forward to both see and hear. Some of the festivals I play now, back to back with Emperor… it’s always interesting to play those festivals that have a different musical focus than some of the other festivals. I think that playing with Anathema and Leprous… I kind of feel at home musically, I think. So, let’s see how it goes, but I’m very much looking forward to it anyway.

M.I. - Is there some kind of secret to conciliate music with a family life (wife and kids)?

It really takes time. I think it’s a very self-absorbent journey. Heidi, my wife, is also a musician, we have toured the world together before. So, we’ve run Mnemosyne Productions together, so everything that we do, solo stuff that I do with Emperor gets a lot of exposure, you know, and my Ihsahn’s stuff, that’s all the superficial things. At the heart of it, it’s just the two of us running this Mnemosyne Productions and doing all this music that we love. Some of it is more visible than the other. But I think having someone like her… I mean, she is my most important creative partner. She’s my wife but she’s also my best friend, so...

M.I. - I guess that’s the secret.

I think in all marriages or relationships you need to show each other generosity… I see so many relationships that are more like ‘my time’ and ‘your time’. (...) She really understands me very well. It’s very important you get all this kind of personal attention and everything, so it’s easy to remember the important stuff which is the family and everything. The world does not come apart if you don’t reach the deadline for that album. So, I can’t really see if I have the secret but, I think, at some level, I must have found it because I couldn’t really be happier.

M.I. - Thank you so much for your time. Please, leave a message to your Portuguese fans. We would like to see you in Portugal.

(Thank you so much for your support.) Me too. I really prefer prioritizing staying with my family and the kids and everything and all our dogs. I try to limit my travelling times as much as possible but at the same time, of course, I want to reach as far as possible. I mean, just try to find that balance but obviously, at this point, we are planning a smaller European tour later this year. Hopefully, that might take me to Portugal. I don’t know yet.

For Portuguese version, click here

Interview by Dora Coelho