Ihsahn: Past, Present, and Future with Black Metal’s Constant
Ihsahn‘s name precedes the man: as the brainchild of the famed black metal band Emperor, his past is as inescapable as it is legendary. You can’t talk about Ihsahn without first talking about (and listening to) Emperor. This is an unfortunate fact for both him and his audience, actually, considering the sheer diversity and blossoming energy of his eponymous project’s output over the past decade. One could certainly digest Ihsahn sans-Emperor and still discover troves of interesting developments, ideas, and, of course, riffs. Each subsequent album feels progressive in terms of the last — an ever-evolving sound, but still unmistakably Ihsahn. His core identity, however, was most certainly first forged during Emperor’s heyday, echoes of which still reverberate even now as we’re presented with his seventh full-length ‘Amr.
‘Amr (out on May 4th via Candlelight and Spinefarm) feels deciseively post-Das Seelenbrechen (2013) — Arktis (2016), meanwhile, perhaps shared more commonalities with its predecessor. Both of those two prior albums are delightful — softer, more rounded expressions of Ihsahn’s avant-garde take on the various adjacencies of black metal — but don’t capture all of his potential aggression and might. This isn’t to say that ‘Amr is a blunt or hard-hitting album; certainly, it relishes in moody guitar solos, clean singing, and pop sensibilities. But at certain moments, it explodes toward an almighty peak in intensity — Ihsahn’s growls as harsh as ever — where guitars, drums, bass, and electronics all swing into locomotive synchrony.
We had the honor of chatting with Ihsahn about the new album, his writing process, the challenges he faces with vocals, and more.
I wanted to start with the opening track “Lend Me the Eyes of the Millenia” — it feels like the most aggressive track on the album and the most black metal-influenced. What was the decision to start with that track, and does it set the tone or theme for the rest of the album?
Very much so. This wasn’t necessarily the first track I wrote for the album — when I wrote that song, that opening riff, I remember even sending it to my wife [saying] “this is the direction, this would be the main essence of the album.” So, that was the starting point and made total sense to start the album with that song.
Is that perhaps related to the black metal aspects of the track? Is Emperor peeking back into Ihsahn at all, or is there still a disconnect there?
I can understand how that seems to be differentiated on the outside, but as I’ve often said, I still label my music as black metal. You know, it doesn’t really matter that much, but for me, that whole “feeling” or source of inspiration to create and do this music, and to express these kinds of atmospheres, they are more or less the same now as when I first started. So, to me, black metal is not really about the shrieking vocals and a certain guitar sound. I’ve often said that Diamanda Galas, feels to me just as black metal as early Bathory. I can understand if people see old Emperor influences; but to me, the fast/distorted guitars and screaming vocals are kind of my most natural… if I was a painter, those would be my two main tools, if you will. My two basic colors. Everything else, is kind of an experiment around that. It is, in some way, the most natural way for me to express myself. But, obviously, I had an idea for this album, and again, in the opening track, I wanted to… one of the focuses of this album was analog synthesis. It kind of contains that very, very simple but opening riff on the synthesizer. I found it to be an interesting counterpoint to the real old-school, blast beat black metal. It encompasses two sides of this album that I wanted to bring together, in a way.
For sure. I agree that black metal is not just about the blast beats and the shrieking; there’s a core essence, a kind of feeling or emotion behind it, and each individual artist has their own unique or distinctive style or take on black metal. And yours, I think, is very diverse. You have so many ideas spread across… I think this is your seventh album. There’s such a variance of ideas, and to me, the new album wrangles with pop which is sometimes hard to integrate into metal. What’s your thinking on your usage on synthesizers and the focus on beats contrasting, let’s say, the more aggressive metal parts?
It’s just stuff that influences me. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with my fifth album Das Seelenbrechen, very much an open experiment [kind of] album. That album was me resetting the parameters. All the music I’ve made has been planned, constructed and planned, but I’ve always had this fascination for Diamanda Galas and all those artists who can have an idea and spontaneously access [it]. Spontaneously so powerful. My early music with Emperor or even prior to that was just riff upon riff, and very little plan. It had a lot of elements in it that break away from that pop formula of “A, B, A, B, C, A…” you know?
But of course, being a more experienced musician having done this for a lot of years, you kind of get to a point where you start to evaluate and appreciate how musicians can work within a much simpler frame and still make those three-and-a-half minutes really worthwhile. Let’s face it, that’s kind of the music I grew up on: Iron Maiden, Judas Priest… 95% of that music is kind of created to the same building blocks. So, I really wanted to challenge myself to stick to that formula. Can I, with my background and aesthetic sense of what I want to create, make something worthwhile? Without this, I found it very challenging. You kind of have the formula in front of you, and you have to fill it. I wanted to continue that process with this new album, which is varied, [and] goes from those pure pop sounds to extreme black metal blast beats.
Kind of keeping to a limited set of ideas within each song, and hopefully each song will have elements which are immediately recognizable. Each song in itself has a certain signature, you know? At least that’s the intention: that they kind of connect to an overall main atmosphere of the album. That’s what I wrote with, I guess, albums that had a certain feeling to them. I never set out to do ten songs that I happened to write in that period of time. I tend toward songs that come together to form a whole piece.
Ah, I was talking so much I forgot what you originally asked [laughs].
No [laughs], I think you made some good points. I think that’s a perfect segway into my next question: I wanted to ask how you personally define the words “experimental” and “progressive.” Each Ihsahn album is so distinctive and deals with different fringes and edges of various genres. Do you consider each album to be an experiment, or are these more like acts of discovery? To that end, did you make any discoveries writing ‘Amr, anything new that you learned about yourself as a musician?
I think I always do. Every album and every song [follows] this process. That’s part of the appeal of doing this: carving out and exploring new perspectives and new approaches to do, essentially, what I love. To put it simply: every album I think is a learning experience and also an experiment. It’s so gratifying. The reason I started doing this was, of course, my love for music. If my appeal to music was to “make it” and be well-known, black metal was probably not the [right choice], you know? [laughs] So, obviously, I started this quest for music, from a very heartfelt desire to just immerse myself in music.
I like to believe that the reason we had absolutely no commercial ambitions at all, when we started Emperor… these are albums made purely from an artistic motivation. Totally uncompromising. I’d like to believe that that’s the only reason we actually succeeded in anything. I feel so blessed that I’ve been able to do my music for all this time and so uncompromisingly (I have so many musician friends who have to play with “this band” or “that band” and record something for “this album” that they might have [not] liked but pays good) — I don’t want to let that go.
Every album I make, my intention and attitude when I go into that is very much the same: I just want to challenge myself and explore new sides of the music. Every album, I take a much further step away from what I did previously. If you’re familiar with After and Eremita, for example, they’re both albums with a lot of eight-string guitars and saxophone. Whereas After was very much written with the guitar, I actually wrote Eremita entirely with the piano sound. The message was very different, but over the years I’ve learned to trust the process. Even though I start out with a totally different idea/perspective, the idea is never to sound like something else. I just want to sound like me, in a different way, if that makes sense.
I am very humble to the fact that people actually pick up my music and make it possible for me to make a living, and hence, to spend all my time doing what I love. But I think when people come into this sort of music, I like to believe that they come to that because they want something real, which gives me a rather open playground. I can be really truthful and heartful to my music because I can do exactly whatever the hell I want [laughs], so it’s kind of a good position, a very egotistical one, I know [laughs]. Basically, the reason for me to change these experiments — to kind of focus in on “okay, this album will be very interworkable and have very ‘close’ sound and be very in-your-face production” is really a way to keep myself really excited about what I do. Because, I’ve done quite a few albums by now. And if I was just doing the same kind of AC/DC kind of thing, you know, I think my emotional (or lack of emotional) investment would be very obvious. My general idea is that if I keep myself super excited and emotionally engaged, then hopefully that will shadow across. If I’m not excited about what I’m creating, then I can’t really expect anyone else to be either.
I think that makes sense, you allowing your artwork to come from deep within. As a source, you’re not putting things together to commercialize or sell them, you’re just being true to yourself doing what you want to do, writing the music you’d like to hear from yourself, and people catch on to it and they like your style, so it turns out.
Lucky for me, and for that, I’m very, very grateful. Because I’m useless for anything else [laughs].
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Well [laughs], you’re a multi-instrumentalist, you have skills across a variety of instruments, but I wanted to take a second to talk about your vocals. Specifically, on the album’s second track “Arcana Imperii,” there’s a wide range of vocals: you go from gentle/soft (almost talking or spoken word) to those characteristic loud screams. Have you been pushing yourself vocally, or do you find any difficulty with vocals as you write more albums?
No, not really — I’ve always been very confident with the screaming and black metal vocals (kind of a natural thing for me), whereas the clean vocals and singing more with my private own voice has always been a huge struggle.
Really. Yeah, so, very uncomfortable with my own voice. But I guess, over the last couple of albums, that’s the reason I have clean vocals. That’s the idea. That’s the song I hear in my head, and since I’m the vocalist (and the only one in the band), it kind of makes sense that I have to do them. [laughs] And, of course, I kind of like singing as well. But in the past, I’ve tried to approach vocal styles that are less “me,” more [like] ideas of “how would this sound if my favorite vocalists were singing.” I think also from the experience of playing more live over the last few years, I think I’ve just come to terms with my own voice.
So, the vocals on the last few albums, are probably much more “me.” It takes time to kind of develop a natural way of expressing yourself, [as] with any instrument. I think that at least I’m not totally happy [with], but kind of accepted the way I sound. Just made the most of it.
I think at least on Das Seelenbrechen you had some vocal moments there that were really strong, and it was nice to hear clean vocals peek out of the mix. But I think you carried that on with Arktis. and certainly with the new album. You mentioned growing more comfortable with your vocals, but in a live setting, do you face challenges?
It’s challenging just because it’s hard to mix between those very harsh screaming vocals to very, very mellow, soft, almost spoken-word clean vocals. It doesn’t make sense to put a song like “Until I Too Dissolve” [from Arktis.] after, say, “A Grave Inversed” [from After]. I try to be sensible about it.
I think the vocals help play into this feeling of “darkness,” and whenever I write or think about music, I always think about it as “lightness” and “darkness.” This might just be me. Ihsahn seems to connect with darkness, and there’s a mood and definite serious contemplation or introspection; then again, there’s still upbeat moments, there’s still pop, there’s still things you can bounce your knee and bob your head to. What’s your take on darkness with respect to the new album?
I would say that that element (the dark element) is, again, kind of my colors. My preferred colors of expression. I think it’s a very narrow-minded perspective that people who express “dark” things are necessarily depressed or dissatisfied people. I never really like a lot of “funny” music — you know me, I always lean toward the serious stuff. So, it’s a preference. I still prefer more, in firms or books… I learn toward those more serious aspects. And it’s more profound, in a way. It’s more (no offense to comedy, I can enjoy comedy) [understood] intellectually. The more existential stuff, the more serious stuff — these are thoughts and perspectives that I recognize for myself and that I find interesting. It’s natural to just break that out — everything I write about are things that concern me.
Certainly, as a listener, I think people get a lot out of Ihsahn, and by that I mean they get a wide range of emotions from the music. There are some Ihsahn songs that are inspirational, they feel empowering, they give you a sense of completeness or strength within. But there’s also songs that feel like commiseration, like they’re connecting with you during a dark moment, or giving you some emotional support…
Well thank you so much for saying that. [laughs] These are things that you can’t control; it’s in general something I appreciate very much with music as a particular art-form because it’s such an abstract form of communication. And often, I’m very reluctant to read into specific interviews with a band or an artist I enjoy because I connect so many of my own thoughts to music that I’ve created. But, maybe, then it’s something totally different than what I understood from it. It could screw up my perspective on it, and ruin the moment. I’m very aware of that — I always write stuff that I feel is very honest and heartfelt, but I’ve used imagery and maybe words and scenarios that are very open for interpretation, if you will.
I’ve had such strong experiences with listening to music, myself, and if my music can have a similar effect on other people, I think is a fantastic thing. I mean, I’ve played “I Am the Black Wizards” and seen grown [men] cry, which is a beautiful thing! Obviously, these people invested a lot of time and thoughts and moments into music that I happen to be part of. The reasons for experiencing that so strongly is none of my business. It’s just that they feel so strongly is a huge compliment, I think. If people can connect with something that I write, that’s a great bonus.
Does this connect at all to the lyrical content of ‘Amr? With respect to the actual words behind the songs, is there a message or general theme?
I had some guidelines for the album, as I often do. Like Arktis., the scenery is kind of arctic — so many of the lyrics were placed in that element. I guess with every album, I touch on various measures of the same core, existential subjects and questions. And probably very similar with this one [‘Amr]. Whereas Arktis., for example, is placed outside, this entire album is very much placed inside. I hope that the production, the sounds, the lyrics, the artwork… everything pushed in that direction.
My first [lyrics] on solo albums were very harsh and very statement-like. But my later records were more open and reflective, more questions. But of course, there are elements that fascinate me. Like the opening track “Lend Me the Eyes of the Millenia” — basically, seeing things from a totally different perspective than time. Where you take things out of time, they can totally change [their] value. Especially, I refer in the lyrics to a “marble statue” that may be expressing almost fatal or fundamental/existential crisis, but carved out of a stone. It makes it immensely beautiful. For religion, Christians, a man hammered with spikes to a cross is probably the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen. A painting of a great battle could give such joy.
As humans, I think we’re very concerned with the importance of our existence, but obviously in a hundred years, no one will care other than being part of a “notice” in the history books. That’s one thing, and another type of example is about where you and I belong. The experience we all have when we meet someone who does not share our perspective and view of the world — not politically or anything like that, but the way they experience things. I’ve called friends who are deeply religious, and through a discussion, and even though they are wonderful people, I am totally lost in how they view the world and their life. And probably vice-versa. I think it’s very interesting — it’s not “me, I’m right, they’re stupid” — it’s a very interesting phenomenon when you meet people who are so contrasting but may have similar lives, but the experiences of it are so fundamentally different.
I think that’s part of the beauty of music, and certainly good music, is that it can give someone an experience that means a lot to them, but it can also give someone completely different, from a completely different part of the world, with a completely different worldview, the same type of experience. Like, I can enjoy Das Seelenbrechen [for example] a lot, and so can someone across the world who is completely different from me, and we can all share that beauty.
Well, thank you!
I have one last question, and it’s more lighthearted, but the chair from the promo photos — is that your chair?
It’s awesome. [laughs]
It is. I love that chair. It’s an original, U.K.-made Chesterfield. And the series is actually William Blake. So, what’s not to like? [laughs]