IHSAHN - Interviewed by Dom Lawson (Kerrang!)
Two years after the release of ‘The Adversary’, his first solo album, former Emperor maestro Ihsahn is back with a new one, ‘angL’. Darker, heavier and more intense than its predecessor, the album sees Ihsahn embrace the furious metallic sound that defined his earlier recorded works, while still indulging in some fascinating musical experiments and paying his respects to the traditional melodies and riffs of old school metal along the way. We spoke with Norwegian metal’s premier genius-in-residence shortly before he unveiled the new material. He took us through the album track-by-track and shared a few thoughts and insights about the songs and what they mean to him on a musical and personal level…
“It has a similar feel to the opening from ‘The Adversary’, but lyrically it’s clear cut and hard hitting from the start. I deliberately wanted a similar start, although that wasn’t exactly planned, but lyrically too, I wanted a good opener that sets the standard for the album. I felt it okay to be a rather harsh and probably more typical black metal theme on the opening track. It doesn’t really cover all the other elements or give any hints to the more experimental parts of the album. The whole album builds in a different way from ‘The Adversary’, but for me it was a natural thing.”
There seems to be a lot more guitars on this album. It’s a lot heavier than ‘The Adversary’. Was that something you set out to do?
“I really wanted ‘The Adversary’ to be quite thin-sounding and I didn’t overdub any guitars, and things like that. This time, the way the material developed, even before I started writing I realised that when you’re solo, you have to have some parameters, so I wrote some guidelines. I have this book where I write musical ideas, lyrical ideas and sketch out the idea of what kind of album I want to create, with some key words and all that, and a modern and heavier sound was one of the main things. Last time I wanted to have a go at being very pure in how I picked the sounds, with just one guitar in each speaker. We recorded it in a very old school studio. This time, I wanted to have a go at a more modern, overdubbed, massive sounding album. That’s the privilege of being a solo artist. You can really indulge your curiosity for doing different things.”
Have you ever been tempted to enlist a producer to help you in the studio?
”We never really had a producer. The ego overcame that idea! Probably at some point it would be interesting to have a producer, but then again, the reason why I continued to do all this myself is that I want to learn from it. It’s good to use your own stuff as the guinea pig, rather than to destroy someone else’s work.”
“I started to have these rules with ‘The Adversary’, trying to be more focused and use more traditional song structures. I wanted this album to be more focused and not as all over the place as ‘The Adversary’ was at times. I wanted the songs to have a particular feel too, but also to stand out alone. With ‘Misanthrope’, it’s kind of straight forward. ‘Scarab’ is much groovier. The scale it’s built around, it has this Egyptian feel, in the tonality of it, and also this theme, the symbolic idea of the scarab, it’s almost a ‘Powerslave’ tonality to it. So I tried to be specific and more focused on the feel, and not necessarily bring in all different emotions and arrangements into all the songs.”
What are the lyrics about on this one?
“It reflects around the symbolism of the scarab and the reinvention of itself. The scarab is a symbol of reincarnation. It dies and a new scarab is born from the shell of the old one, so that’s how the lyrics go. From my experience, you build a new version of yourself, then you fall on your face when confronted with yourself and you have to start over. I’ve been very much inspired by Nietzsche and the re-evaluation of all things. You can’t stop that process, it’s always ongoing. You have to re-evaluate constantly, unless you want to stagnate and become one of the static people. That’s the theme of the song.”
This song features vocals from Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt. Was it written with his voice in mind or did you originally intend to sing it yourself?
“I originally intended to sing it myself. I wrote all the songs first and then I tried to work out which one would be most suitable for bringing in Mikael, when I first got clearance for doing that. It was written first and then chosen later. It worked pretty well, I think, with the things he did with it. It was kind of easy to pick that song for him.”
It’s quite progressive, but in a different way from the songs on ‘The Adversary’…
“Yes, I think that’s a general thing for this album. I don’t think it’s more progressive in any way than ‘The Adversary’. The progressive part of ‘The Adversary’ is more clear cut, with odd speeds and time signatures, whereas on this album there is some progressive riffing and arrangements, but the progressive tonality and melodies are much more apparent on ‘The Adversary’. On ‘Emancipation’, for instance, the main riff is a certain way and then you have a contrast with the long guitar lines in the middle. It’s kind of progressively built, but the way it sounds is different from an ‘Adversary’-style thing. That’s the main objective. Even though the arrangement may be tricky, that complexity shouldn’t take the leading role.”
Has it been liberating to write as a solo artist, and to be able to write slower songs with less blastbeats and more space between the instruments?
“I think so. The overall impression or the way of doing it is very extreme, but I’ve always been into having beautiful elements in there, and that’s where the more epic, symphonic parts of Emperor came from, I think. It’s all extreme, but the underlying melodies and the feel of it aren’t that extreme, and I think with this material I can put a bit more emphasis on that element without everything going at 150 beats per minute the whole time.”
“I’m developing as a songwriter. Me and Heidi have discussed this. On her album (‘The Thread’, Starofash), she wrote all the songs on the piano and they worked in that context, and so then she started to arrange it. I think I tried to take a similar approach, just using guitars and drums and getting the riffs down, so the songs themselves were just basic ideas which you colour later. You need to have a very clear motive for each song. It’s a much more interesting way of working, rather than coming up with all these different pieces and trying to fit them together and make something that makes sense, which was very much the case in the early days. You can hear that in very young bands. They’ll reach a certain technical level and start to have ten-minute songs with 30 or 40 different riffs in there, with no apparent link between them. Eventually, you learn to appreciate form.”
Obviously this song is about freedom, but freedom from what?
“It’s about emancipation from everything else around you trying to lead you to decisions. It’s building on the same themes that I’ve always had. The re-evaluation of all things, but also setting your own standards for own things. When you’ve reached a point where you can find certainty in a certain belief and you can make your own moral decisions and moral values without having them dictated by society or religious history and all that, then you can become more immune to all these other factors. These themes are on ‘The Adversary’ as well. You have to try to build a wall, so as not to get too distracted and try to have some trust in seeing things through your own eyes. It’s also about being liberated from caring too much about what people think, and their impression of you. Particularly since going solo, I’ve stopped caring. I used to worry about interviews and whether I’d said the wrong thing. But having done as many interviews as I’ve done, and having said all the stupid things I’ve said, it hasn’t really mattered one way or the other. These days I probably do better interviews because I don’t have a second self judging me at the side. I just try to make good conversation and enjoy it, rather than telling myself to do the right thing.”
“It’s a very aggressive song. It’s probably the most black metal-sounding of the songs. Both the title, the music and the lyrics express that. I haven’t really been trying to do something that sounds evil, but somewhere inside that kind of teenage rage still lives on and once in a while you need an outlet for that. ‘Malediction’ is probably an example of that.”
Do you still feel obliged to satisfy the rules and conventions of the black metal scene to any degree?
”Not really. If I had any concerns or felt competitive within that scene, it would be the strange feeling of being one’s own little brother, because since the split Emperor has become even bigger than we ever were, so I know that everything I do, whether it’s in a similar style or a different style, will always be compared with Emperor. That’s my main competition. I have to show that I’m about something real even though I do not play in Emperor. In the end, I’ve come to the point where I just do my best and do it honestly and people will have to either like it or not. As an artist, you always try to better yourself and I know I’m a much better musician and song writer than before, but still people rave about things I did when I was a teenager. The majority of fans of music that I’ve done are still mostly attached to things I did years ago. They think I’m way past my peak, I’m just a shadow of myself, fiddling around in my old age with some riffs, you know? Most people stop evolving as listeners, I guess.”
Would you ever contemplate doing another Emperor album?
“If we did a new Emperor album, we’d get shit for it whatever it sounded like. We could do something that sounded like ‘Anthems…’ and we’d get shit for it. We could do something new and more appropriate, and we’d get shit for not sounding like ‘Anthems…’ If we did an album because people wanted one, it would be a paradox. Would people really want an album that we didn’t want to make? No one would ever be satisfied, I think.”
“It’s building a song on the Goethe Faust story. You’ve experienced the same thing so much, and you want to experience something else, something more. You want to experience something other than the little cave you’ve built around yourself. It’s an interesting perspective. You’d rather take the risk, like Faust. He does the deal with Mephistopheles, rather than keeping with the same old thing. As with Icaros and Prometheus and the others, it doesn’t really go that well for him but at least he has a go at it! It’s about dealing with that type of thing. The riffing and all that is more experimental in a way. I’ve used a different tuning, so I feel it has some kind of alchemist’s feel to the music as well.”
“This one didn’t start with a riff or a lyric. It just started with a title. I had this idea that I wanted to write a song called ‘Elevator’ and I wanted to have the feel of the elevators in ‘Angel Heart’, going downwards, because that image and that movement has made such a strong impression on me. I wanted the song to be like that, hence I wrote the riffs that descend, all the movement is downwards. For me, it’s a new perspective. I have a particular goal and then I try to fit the music to that. I’ve tried to do that with all the songs, have a clear cut idea of what the song should be before I write all the parts. I’ve been able to stay focused, and that’s been a general rule of the album, having a very strong focus. We have our own studio and huge sound libraries and many guitar effects and sounds, and you can get really lost in all that, because you can do practically anything, so you need to have a real musical focus and try to use those tools to achieve that, rather than letting the tools lead you away.”
“I’ve always layered my stuff so much, so I wanted to challenge myself and just use the guitar and vocals and not necessarily use ten extra voices. I’m challenging myself and trying to make things work without all the extra bits around them. It’s a very simple, pure idea, having a go at that type of ballad. It’s a very different thing from ‘Astera Ton Proinon’. It’s much more stripped down. It was kind of scary to do, but very liberating once you get past the ego thing of ‘Do I look stupid naked?’, you know? I’m very pleased with the way it came out.”
“It ends in a similar way to how the album starts. It’s lyrically very harsh, with the symbol of standing alone and relating to the whole desultory, solo experience, and the fact that you end up doing this alone. It’s really a statement of ‘Like it or not, this is what it is’. It’s a bit of an arrogant attitude, I guess, but it should be expected! You can’t be too polite or too humble.”
Where do you think the new album will lead you?
”I have absolutely no idea. I feel so subjective right now. I feel very comfortable with the album and it even sums up more of the things I’ve done in the past. It’s more confident. I’m coming to terms with my musical work as a whole and being content that this is what I do. I can still do other things in the future and try to reach new musical ground and challenge myself, but I feel confident with what I do. I’m not trying to escape it. With Emperor, it does become limiting when people try to pinpoint what you do, especially when you want to do something different, but I’ve come to terms with that, so if something I do sounds like Emperor, then why shouldn’t it?"
» Ihsahn website
» Ihsahn MySpace