One of extreme metal’s most accomplished musicians, Ihsahn speaks with ReGen on the development of his latest album and his evolution over his 20 years of making music.
An InterView with Ihsahn
By: Ilker Yücel
In the early ‘90s, Scandinavia was a hot spot for a growing musical trend that presented equal parts technical skill, compositional mastery, and violent attitudes that sent many of the hardest metal fans cringing. Over the years, Emperor, one of the leading entities in the Norwegian black metal scene would eschew the destructive actions of the pseudo-Satanic/anti-Christian youth toward a more progressive and artistically mature style, led by the band’s lead guitarist and vocalist Ihsahn. After the band’s dissolution in 2001, Ihsahn then embarked on a long career honing his skills first with Peccatum and then eventually his solo outfit, releasing a trilogy of albums – 2006’s The Adversary, 2008’s angL, and 2010’s After – that demonstrated his proficiency as a musician and a producer. Running the gamut from traditional heavy metal to more extreme modes of thrash, death and black metal styles, and further incorporating elements of folk, classical and even jazz, his albums have solidified his reputation as a master of composition and performance. With an appearance on the 2011 ProgPower Metal Festival in the U.S., and the release of his 2012 outing Eremita – which translates to “the Hermit” – Ihsahn has been taking his abilities to their utmost, working with the likes of Strapping Young Lad’s Devin Townsend, Nevermore’s Jeff Loomis and saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby, among others, to create an album that defies categorization – advanced musicianship combined with expert production, fusing into a sound that is truly progressive. Ihsahn took some time to speak to ReGen on the development of his music over the years to culminate in Eremita, including touching on the production and performance process, his audience, and touching on the psychology of madness and destruction.
Ihsahn: I would hope that it did. You could say that in a similar way that I’ve used mythological figures in the past – like Lucifer, Icarus, or Prometheus – to make up the concept behind the music. I’ve been very much inspired by Nietzsche, of course, for many years now, and his philosophy has played into what I write for a long time now. In a symbolic way, this is all about reevaluating things and not taking anything for granted as to how it’s explained to you instead of how you experience them.
How does Eremita relate to the previous trilogy of albums? Is it a continuation of the themes presented on those albums or is it something completely new?
Ihsahn: I think that on some level, I was very tied to the metal aspects of my music. On the first album, I started out with some very basic heavy metal influences, and as it progressed and ended up with After, I’d moved past simply the extreme metal and focused more on a lot of the new, using a lot of experimentation and new sounds and being more dynamic and experimental, and I guess that gave me more confidence in my continued work. I think that the new album reflects that, and musically, it’s still made up of the experiences of the trilogy. The whole concept of the new album is almost an opposite of the previous albums. I just found that out, regardless of how far out I sound from a different perspective. After was not that direct or confrontational; those albums were very much inspired by Nietzsche, being very confrontational and painting these bleak landscapes, and it all came from a lot of self-reflection. The new album is more of an introverted, escape-based parallel. It takes much of the same themes and issues as the previous albums, because there are recurrences of the way I think and what I’m comfortable. But this new album, the whole finale of this album, is much more from a madman’s perspective.
The album features several guest performances, particularly vocalists – featuring Devin Townsend, Einar Solberg, and your wife Ihriel (Heidi Tveitan). How challenging was it for you to incorporate the different vocal moods on the album?
Ihsahn: Everything apart from Heidi’s vocals had come to us pre-prepared. For the opening track that Einar sings on, I did those vocal lines with the idea of singing my vocal lines under his and playing on that, so these guys were very much ready. My singing voice is rather soft, and I needed something more powerful, and even I get bored of my own voice. Einar is a fantastic singer, and he has such a wide range dynamically and tonally, and it just made sense to have that range on the song. He’s very expressive in the way that he sings and he did a fantastic job, I think. It’s the same thing with Devin. I couldn’t sing those lines the way that I wanted them to sound, so I would basically send him the track and ask him to do it in his voice. As for Heidi’s vocals, she actually heard the part, and she’s familiar enough with my work anyway, so I very much rely on her for being that critical partner who can make sure that I am on the right track. Ultimately, I knew that I couldn’t do all of the vocals.
This is also the second album you’ve done to feature saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby of Shining, and there are more jazz influences on this album. Whereas jazz is more improvisational versus metal, which is more technical, in what ways do you feel the two styles complement each other?
Ihsahn: Because I work in a very structured way, I think that over the years, I started dividing different parts of the process for myself and defining clear lines between each part of the process, and that’s also because I put on so many hats. I just knew that I wanted Jørgen on this album, too, because he did such a fantastic job on After, where I had a very clear mission of the kinds of solos I wanted and that I knew he could play. Because of that experience since then, we’ve become good friends and we’ve played together; I did a show with Shining in the UK, and he would come onstage and do something together with us. He’s a fantastic technical musician, but he has such a great interpretation of music, so he can really relate to my vision and help to express that in a unique way. It was very natural for me to ask him to join on Eremita as well. And the thing is for the most part, there are places where he obviously improvises on, but I would tell him to play certain modes in certain sections that I’ve already played on. It’s the way that he plays, which is very expressive, and he can make everything shine because of the way that he plays it. I think that’s how I like to collaborate when I bring in another musician. The biggest contributor from the outside is Tobias Ørnes Andersen, who plays the drums, and he doesn’t come from an extreme metal background, but he’s a very technical player. He’s very dynamic and a very expressive player. He doesn’t have a huge drum kit with him with tons of cymbals or anything like that. He has a very simple setup that allows him to play the drums efficiently. When I write songs, I usually write them on the guitar – sometimes with the keyboard, for the most part with the guitar. Any time I would record a guitar riff, I would record them into my computer and play them back with a piano sound, and it would totally work. It would help with the production sound, and it brings the composition down to a basic form that is very sterile and boring. You know, metal sounds terrible with a programmed piano. But because the songs would be in that form, in that very boring sound, it opens it up for all of the parts to be played so much more expressively, and that’s where people like dynamic and expressive players like Jørgen and Tobias come in. It inspires me to be very conscious of all of the lead parts and the chords so that I can be more efficient with the composition and I can play more freely on top of that. It creates a good dynamic and foundation for the album to record all the drums to a click track and the piano sounds. He had no support from what he heard, so he had to provide all of the drive and the power, and I think that gave me a fantastic rhythmic foundation for layering all of the arrangements. Tobias did an amazing job of that.
Your technical skill, not just with the instrumentation but also with the composition and production, is quite exceptional. What are your thoughts on the way that technology has driven or has been driven by music – not just in metal – in the 20 years that you’ve been making music?
Ihsahn: Well, obviously, it has changed. In general, I think that it’s come to a turning point again where with all of the computer power that most people have at home these days, you can achieve this kind of technical perfection that takes only a little bit of time and skill to learn. If you have a good enough sound card on your computer, you can achieve this good production sound, and technical perfection is now something that everybody can achieve and it comes back to having something to deliver, something to express and perform and get across. Through all of the phases of music…for instance, during the ‘80s, all of the metal bands had great guitar players where they didn’t care if they played well or technically proficient. Now, because everything is so technical, you have to come back to the performance aspect and think about if you have anything to say or have anything emotional to convey. To be quite honest, I think there is still a lot of good music to be made and a lot of music that is technically well played, but if it doesn’t make you feel anything, then what does it matter? So much of it sounds so much the same, because they use similar tools and have the same level of technical ability and they lack anything that stands out. It’s not my intention to be retro or anything, but I do hope to record drums that don’t sound like they are overproduced or triggered. I want try to record drum performances to sound like drums, and for the guitars to sound loud, overdriven, but so you can still hear the notes and the playing.
While you were never personally involved, Emperor certainly had its share of controversy with the violence occurring in the early ‘90s with the Norwegian black metal scene. As you mentioned the perspective of a mad man earlier, Norway had a mad man with the massacre a year ago. What are your thoughts on that?
Ihsahn: To be quite honest, I’ve not paid very much attention to it, nor would I try to justify it in any political way. I do think that it is wrong, and that in a collective mindset, I think everybody can agree that it is absolutely horrendous. Any tragedy like that…it’s obviously the actions of a mad man. When things like this happen, I think a lot of people take it for granted that it’s the actions of someone who is very fundamentalist; not dissimilar to what happened in New York, right? I think it’s obvious that the person is a terrorist, and I wouldn’t want to give him any credit, and I think that the Norwegian people have dealt with him in a very calm and rational way. But I do wonder if in other parts of the world that you might see a much more hateful reaction, and it is easy to focus on the man and forget the actual human beings who lost their lives, and from a larger perspective, it was difficult to believe that this sort of thing could happen in Norway. But I think that it has been proven that if something so terrible can happen in America, in New York, then it can happen anywhere. All of that is something I am all too happy to not take for granted.
In Autumn of 2011, Ihsahn performed for the first time in the States at the ProgPower Festival, and you’ve performed all over the world. What differences have you noticed in the way audiences of a certain locale react to your music, especially in the States?
Ihsahn: I think it’s hard to compare, actually. The ProgPower audience is a very different audience from who I usually play to. My contribution to that was more on the sidelines of the sorts of bands that typically play ProgPower, and I felt that there were many people in the audience who had no idea who I was or what type of music I would play. Of course, it went really great and people seemed to be very pleased with it. I got a very good reaction from that crowd, and I enjoyed that. It is a very liberating thing to play to a different audience, I think, who had absolutely no preconception of my history playing in Emperor or hoping that I would play old Emperor stuff; it was a very direct reaction of whether they liked it or they didn’t like it. It was a very unbiased sort of communication, and that I really like. I had a great time there. All in all, I think from my experience with all sorts of metal fans all over the world, they relate to the same things, the same bands, and they all have a similar attitude, regardless of where they are from; it’s very much the same. I think it’s just becoming more and more difficult for European bands to come and play the United States.
It is getting ridiculous how difficult it is for bands from outside the USA to come here. Are there any plans to tour for Eremita and bring Ihsahn back to the States?
Ihsahn: I will not be doing any touring in the traditional sense; I usually just do festival appearances or festival shows, so I will not be doing any extensive touring over weeks or anything like that. I have been trying to work out something for the future, perhaps later this year, but it’s a lot of practical and financial things that must come together, which is very difficult. The expenses for getting the work done and even the traveling alone, getting people from Norway to the States, traveling by plane and having the money for moving the equipment and where to stay, all of that is difficult to arrange, and a big part of touring is making all of that to make sense. Of course, whenever we do get to perform shows, everybody has a great time, so we hope to see something happen. On the other hand, there is a nostalgia because of my name and my history that I don’t think works against me, and that’s enabled people to be more open to my music and what I am doing now. It means that I’m able to continue making music.