If I could put that into words, I probably wouldn’t have to play music – Interview with Ihsahn

The first question is about touring because in the past you said that ‘I’m just so much more comfortable in my studio writing new music. That’s the part I love, but also standard touring that we did with Emperor, it was very filthy bus and drinking, it was, at that level, it was always a compromise about bad equipment, badly organized stuff’. How do you feel now?

This tour has been everything that was not. I am happy to say that this is my first bus tour since 1999. I mean it wasn’t, of course, all bad, but some of these things, being on a bus, it’s always for some bands, I’m not saying necessarily even Emperor, it was the priority of the party factory and everything else, and all these were compromises. Whereas now on this tour everyone is so focused on doing it right, it’s very light drinking, I don’t drink on this tour at all, and everyone is helping to put on the best show possible, getting all the gear back and forth, everything is set up making all the necessary and most constructive solutions, so it’s the best for everybody. It has been just like touring should be.


Have you ever learned to play any kind of instrument?

Yeah, I had some piano lessons from when I was about six and I continued them till I was about ten or eleven. Then I got my first guitar and I really didn’t… I’ve only had like five guitar lessons in my life. I think it’s very much self-taught. I’ve had some vocal lessons, and I also attended some composition lessons with a composer, and I had some kind of general chorusing for the Institute for Music Technology in Oslo, but nothing formal or anything like that.


In an interview in 2016, you said you aren’t a talented musician, but considering the musical complexity and the technical complexity like playing solos while singing, it’s not an easy exercise.

I never had this kind of virtuosity, nor interest or skill, it isn’t that natural, I had to work for it. All these things haven’t really come that natural, I guess I have more… if anything, I just have a strong inclination to write songs and to record music.


You have a son and a daughter. Are they joining you when you are with Emperor on stage, and what they think about your role?

They think it’s great fun. The whole family joined together at Tuska in Finland just this summer because there were three Norwegian bands in Tuska this year, it was Leprous, my solo band, an Emperor, and of course Leprous… you know, Einar is a family member, so we all had a good time there. I’m not sure if my teenage daughter was very happy about going to a festival three days in a row, but she got her mandatory shopping done as well. But I think they relate to it very-very nicely. Just this morning I posted this… it’s Father’s Day in Norway, so my son made a drawing, and it was actually split in half, where half the drawing was off stage, so half the drawing was the pre-rigging and sound check, and the other half was the show. I was split in two in the middle, and one side it says ‘Dad’ the other side says it’s ‘Ihsahn’, so I think that’s how he relates to it.


Have you ever had any kind of civil job after finishing secondary school or just music?

Just music. I still tutor some guitar at the music school like once a week, and I am supposed to have a bigger position, but I am always on leave for part of my position. But that is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a regular job.


Can I apply to become a student of yours?

You could, but there is a priority for those of younger age.


Just asking back a little bit about the music and the inspiration. I just read that a couple of non-metal bands like The Weeknd or Kanye West are also inspiring you. Where most of your inspiration is coming from?

The most of my inspiration…that could be anything… life in general. But there is maybe stuff that I have seen in a film, read in the book, or textures of musical pieces. It can be anything from harmonization to the texture of two sounds combined.

Does any kind of landscape inspire you? I think in your country it’s not a rarity.

This becomes part of the general guidelines I give myself before I start making a new album. Like my previous album, Arktis, was very much placed in this arctic landscape, and this will also influence the metaphors and whatever I do in lyrics, and also I think my choice of arrangement, what sounds I use. Àmr, the latest one comes from very inside, and then it was natural to go with more low frequency and long sentences to have more intimates.


Just moving back to the albums and starting everything with Emperor. You’ve said that you still play black metal, but I think there is a significant difference between the early Emperor, and say Arktis, and between Watain or Marduk. So, what is the definition of black metal for you?

Again, this is an individual thing, for me, it is the feeling. That’s why I have said that Diamanda Galás could erupt the same black metal feeling when I listen to it, as Blood Fire Death by Bathory.


But why it is black metal and not say techno or progressive or anything like that?

Because this is just… personal. It just became the term that I associate with, it could be anything I guess, but of course, it’s so… kind of cliché to say that genre doesn’t matter.


How do you see the change from the early Emperor via late Emperor and early Ihsahn trilogy, to the remaining ones? It’s a kind of ‘curve’ with a step-by-step change from album to album, or there are periods, significant gaps, significant changes?

I think it was very important for me when I started my solo career that I didn’t just continue where I left off. That’s why my first solo album, The Adversary is more heavy metal oriented because I wanted to start from scratch, where I started out as a musician with much more heavy metal, pure heavy metal stuff, and then I built on that. I decided that I will do three albums to make myself, to build the Ihsahn platform if you wish, and I think the conclusion was a kind of new starting point, After, and that enabled me to do the next four. But at the same time on a wider scale, I would say that it’s just a natural progression. The Nightside Eclipse was still a kind of combination of some earlier material and some new, and Anthems built on the studio experience we had from the Nightside Eclipse. It was the first album that we wrote as one piece for an album. By Equilibrium, I think it is obvious that we wanted to push things in a different direction, and by Prometheus, I ended up writing that album on my own, which has gone I guess far more progressive. I get that a lot, ‘why is that, you’re going to more progressive territory’. To me, to be honest, it’s strange that not more people from the original scene are venturing into other forms of expression because… there was no black metal when we started out! We were teenagers then, like a bunch of Norwegian teenagers, kind of pushing the extreme music at that age, it’s kind of strange that not more will continue that journey. I just approach music in the same way as I did back then: what do I have, what are my skills, what is my foundation, how can I extend on this, how can I build, how can I challenge myself, make music and create an environment in. Some ideas that keep this world changing, keep it exciting for me to do it, this is what I love to do. And I would say that maybe after Eremita perhaps [I wrote] more complex albums…and even Prometheus is more complex in that sense. I would argue that Arktis and Àrm are very much more traditional-song-based, which was again my natural [choice]… let’s say from After, I still explored very much in the same musical territory with the Eremita, but at that point I didn’t want to just continue to do the same. So I needed a total change, and hence I had much more freeform on Seelenbrechen, and even some totally improvised tracks to re-set the parameters and do something that I’ve never done before. I mean extreme metal music is a very-very constructed form of music, there is no room for a lot of improvisation. So I wanted to venture into that territory for a while, and then again, starting over for another album, I wanted to limit myself. Basically, I write more in the traditional rock-pop formula which is all the music that I grew up with, or like 95% of all Iron Maiden songs ever, or Judas Priest were written in that kind of AB-ABC form.


In December of 2000, you won the Notodden Kommunes Kulturpris as the head of an extreme / black metal band. What does it mean? In Norway, this kind of extreme music has that kind of good acceptance?

People don’t care about extreme metal actually. The reason I received that price actually is that my wife had been doing a lot of great work for youth work, building rehearsal spaces and all this, but she worked for that cultural department that was giving away the price so they couldn’t give it to her. And also I think… they could combine her work with kind of the fame of Emperor to make a deal of it… so yeah. In general the Norwegian Grammy’s or whatever… I think Norwegian black metal has been amongst Norway’s biggest cultural export, but they don’t even bother presenting that prize on television, something like in the subtitle ‘OK, yeah, the best metal album went to X’. It’s not really part of the Norwegian culture.


A right-wing attitude is apparently quite frequent in the Scandinavian extreme metal scene – how can you see this? What do you think about politics from a musical point of view?

Personally, I never had any interest in political messages in my music. I could say politics are so much propaganda and trying to make a view. In my opinion, art is very much about exploring, rather than telling. It was Jordan Peterson who is  a very controversial figure in these days… he said that as soon as a piece of art, or a piece of music has an intended…kind of message about what people should think, it is no longer art, it is propaganda. And I think it was pretty smart. I think that I am very honest in my writings, and I always write from a personal perspective. But both as someone who makes music but also consumes music, most of the time, I’m not really interested in what the artist necessarily meant because if I have a great experience with a piece of music or a great interpretation, and I connect my life to it, it doesn’t matter to me what the artist originally meant.


You were described to be Satanist, or Social Darwinist, as also stated by yourself. Do you believe any kind of supreme force? Does any kind of religion have any role in your life?

That was long time ago… at that age, when I made those statement I think it was… I was kind of bored with the half-in half-out attitude, that borderline political correctness when people really want to have a hard edge, but they not really stand by it. It was much more… how can I say… it was more entertaining to just like say “yeah, I’m a Satanist”. Nowadays I would find it strange to label myself in that way. I wouldn’t know how to label myself. I’m of course totally non-religious, and I am very… how can I say that… conscious about religion as a power factor. I have absolutely nothing against people having a personal belief but as a collective seeing, I think as with all centers of power, we should have some caution.


What does black metal mean for you?

If I could put that into words, I probably wouldn’t have to play music. For me, again, it’s this certain feeling and… in a way it feels, and it sounds like a lot of pretentious crap I know, but for me it’s this thin line between this creative force that I always had in me, and this kind of impossible goal, like a beacon of the ideal. I’ve never found really a word for it. When I read this Nietzsche aphorism, ‘Das Seelenbrechen’, for me that was suddenly the closest I’ve come to a word that describes everything in this musical sense. It is really hard to explain. I’m sure as a music fan you have noticed that you just lose yourself in this piece of music, or in any other art form. It will not necessarily make you happy or sad or whatever, it’s just something that dissolving you, just like the perfect moment of when things come together. And for me, it’s just been a natural gateway to that feeling of these darker aspects of art. When I said dark, I made a mistake of saying that. I always intend to make the darkest possible album, and I think many people from the outside of the metal scene or extreme metal scene, will misinterpret that. But I think what I probably should have said that I always intend to make the most profound album ever. Because there is a reason why we are drawn to art forms that we are drawn to. The tragedy that we’re drawn to, the violence in movies or theater, or a big heartbreak, and all that, because this is a crisis, that we can experience in a safe way through art.


Shortly after the release of Emperor, Tomas, Bård and Terje were arrested and imprisoned and you did work alone on the Anthems album. You were the only free person, all the other guys were sitting in jail, and you were working on the next album at home on your farm. What did you think about this situation, what was in your mind?

The strange thing is that it never felt like a huge obstacle. We were so focused on just continuing doing what we did, so we did the tape trading, sending riffs back and forth, and tapes, me and Samoth, and I tried out different drummers. It was very obvious that Bård was not rejoining the band anytime soon, so it was natural to pass the torch on to someone else. And yeah, we tried out some different drummers before we ended up with Trym and at that time, Samoth was on leave regularly. So it was just a natural continuation, we didn’t really see that as a big obstacle. Although I guess it was a natural point where I had to cover more and more of the creative process, but then again, it was always me, who took the main responsibility for arrangements and studio recordings and all that.


The last question is about Bård. Everybody are aware what he did and what happened in Lillehammer on 21/8/1992. Is this one a stigmatization for him in your eyes? Staying on the same stage with him also means that you are forming a kind of community with him. What do you think about this situation?

I think that even at that time it was very hard for anyone who knew him, that he would have come into this situation, because he is at heart an extremely nice… everybody knows him as very gentle and a nice person. I guess no one really knows what happened and what would lead to that situation. I think it’s…there are tragedies like that. If you’re close to someone who ends up in a situation like that, you see the whole person, but of course, from an outside perspective, it’s so easy to be judgmental and kind of make that person into one deed. There was some speculation, and people were kind of puzzled we had invited Bård to play with us for the 2014 gigs, but for me and Samoth it was absolutely natural. He served his time, and in the western society, we have this idea: let you serve your time and then you start from scratch. He’s a great father to his family, and we can all kind of have individual opinions of anyone who has been in this situation or whether the punishment was too soft or it was too hard. We kind of had this justice system that we democratically have agreed upon, and the deal is that you serve your sentence, and then you start over. And thinking if as a fan your morals… you cannot accept this, if your morals are harder and more… how can I say… brittle than the general society, perhaps Norwegian black metal is not for you. You can’t really have both. I never read anything about True Norwegian Politically Correct Black Metal.


Many thanks, much appreciated!

// //