|Interview by Cosmo Lee|
Since the demise of pioneering black metal band Emperor, frontman Ihsahn has led a collaborative life. He did three albums as Peccatum with his wife Ihriel. Then he made three solo albums, which have featured Garm of Ulver, Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth, and Lars Norberg and Asgeir Mickelson of Spiral Architect. In this interview, Phil Freeman explores the Spiral Architect connection and the aesthetics of After, Ihsahn's new solo album. (It came out this past Tuesday on Candlelight). After features the sax playing of Jørgen Munkeby, of Norway's Shining. I used that as a starting point to probe Ihsahn's life after Emperor and his collaborations with others.
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What was working with Jørgen Munkeby like?
It was very nice. I sent him the demos and [told him] where I wanted him to play, what melody lines I wanted him to contribute on, and [where] the more improvisational parts [were].
For the improvisational part, he would do a great take, but it was not necessarily in touch with the emotion I was going for. In the process of writing this album, I had abstract landscape pictures on my laptop for inspiration. When [Munkeby] wasn't spot-on at first, I just explained to him from these abstract [images], and he totally got it and played something different that's so much more in line with where I was heading. So [he was] a fantastic musician in all senses.
He is obviously a very sophisticated musician. I'd like to ask you about someone that you've played with who's probably the opposite: Ildjarn.
(Laughs) My relationship to him was because he's a very nice guy. He played bass in Thou Shalt Suffer, the band me and Samoth had prior to Emperor. When that broke up, he continued his solo thing with Ildjarn. The Ildjarn demo that I sing on is recorded on the same 4-track in the same rehearsal space as the Wrath of the Tyrant Emperor demo. So he was there recording his stuff, and he asked me if I could do vocals for it. I said yes. I came there, he gave me the lyrics, and I put vocals on his songs in an evening. So that's the extent of our collaboration.
That was a long time ago, and Emperor as well. Do you still follow black metal?
No, not really. It's so much these days. It's hard for me to keep track. I've been listening to so much metal over the years, and I feel like I've missed out on so much other fantastic music. These days, working so intimately with the genre myself, it's hard not to be thinking professionally when listening to music. So I really enjoy listening to other forms of music that I have no direct experience with because I can just enjoy it for what it is, and I don't think subconsciously about how I would have done it differently (laughs).
What have you been listening to?
I'm a huge Radiohead fan: anything Radiohead-related, like Thom Yorke's solo album, the soundtracks of Jonny Greenwood. I'm a huge Prince fan. Just yesterday I bought something called Russian Circles. I thought it was quite good. Geneva, I think it was called? Some of the Icelandic stuff — Sigur Rós and Múm. Classical music, both contemporary and older stuff. Recently I've been listening to some Tom Waits and an all-time favorite, Diamanda Galas.
Speaking of other influences, there's a riff in "After" on your new album that seems like a Pink Floyd reference.
The only Pink Floyd album I have on my iPod is Dark Side of the Moon.
Yeah, it might be on that album (actually, it's on Wish You Were Here: "Shine On You Crazy Diamond").
I just got that recently. Of course, I've heard it before. Anyway, it's not a conscious ripoff or anything like that. If I caught onto the same idea, I'll take that as a compliment, I guess (laughs).
In "Austere," your vocals seem very Katatonia-like. Was this a conscious decision?
No. I really like Katatonia, and other people have referred to Opeth. They all feature great clean vocals. It's easier for people to hear connections where there's not necessarily in any connection, because Mikael [Åkerfeldt] did a song on my previous album, and I mixed my album at Fascination Street in Sweden with Jens Borgen, who produced the two [bands]. So there are those similarities. But, no, I've not tried to do Katatonia's style. No disrespect to them at all, because I really like that stuff.
It's me trying to come to a point with my clean vocals where I sing with my natural voice. With my black metal voice, I've been doing that for so many years that it's second nature to me. It's like playing distorted guitar. But my clean vocals have always changed. My natural voice, my talking voice is a bit soft, really, for metal. So I've never really got comfortable with my clean singing voice. But over the years, especially doing these solo albums, and my wife not letting me cut any corners with the recording, I've come to a point where I'm getting more comfortable with how I would naturally sing.
Wikipedia says you're a music teacher at a school. Is this true?
Yeah, I tutor guitar once a week.
Presumably you're teaching kids much younger than yourself.
Yeah. I've had some grownups before.
Do they know who you are?
For the most part, yes. It's a small town, so it's up and down. Sometimes it feels a bit frustrating when you have an 11 year-old kid telling you that they didn't really have time to rehearse. And I'm thinking, well, to be honest, if I had the resources of being taught by someone like me when I was your age, I would fucking rehearse (laughs). I never had any lessons myself. But it's all good. I've had some really great talents. Half my live band are previous students of mine.
Yeah, yeah. Both guitarists have taken lessons from me, and even the keyboard player is tutoring with me.
Can you read music?
Very badly (laughs). I'm horrible. I was the worst piano student ever. I read tabs and all that very well, but I always played by ear. I always sucked at reading scores. My piano teacher was very frustrated because I'd rather watch her fingers and learn the pieces rather than watching the score. I can read the score and understand it, but it's not like I can play from [sheet music].
I wish I could, but on the other hand, I have some families who play, who are really good at playing, but they're lost without the paper in front of them. So having to fig
ure out how to play songs by listening to them on record — it's probably been good ear training. And also not having taken lessons and [being] forced to play so much cover material, I've been forced in the direction where I start drawing my own material at a pretty young age.
So that's the rock 'n' roll side of music, as opposed to the academy side.
Yeah, I guess. And there's some parts now where I use [written music]. I wrote the Emperor tablature book, and I use a score program called Sibelius. Me and my wife took compositional lessons with a composer. We had homework, to just write music from the head straight to paper without the piano, without anything. Of course, that would be very valuable, because sometimes the ideas that pop up in your head — as soon as you strike the wrong note on your guitar to replicate it, it disappears like smoke.
Speaking of your wife, will Peccatum ever make a new record?
It all depends, really. We do Mnemosyne Productions together. We run the studio together. She's invaluable for me in my work. She's really contributed to helping me form the concept of this new album and being my invisible bandmate. She will tell me if my singing sucks. Or if I think all my new material is crap, she will tell me otherwise. We have that kind of communication.
We've been working separately. She's been doing StarofAsh albums and working with other people, and I've been doing my solo stuff. But we both worked together on a project called Hardingrock, together with a Norwegian fiddler. We are always running ideas by each other. When she was doing a soundtrack to an Irish movie, I was engineering and setting up the film. So, yeah, at some point we might resurrect Peccatum, but we work together on music all the time. If time and the project are right, we will definitely be doing something together.
That's great. I really enjoyed the Peccatum project.
Actually, a lot of people ask about it. Maybe there's a sense in the market now for people that want that extra edge in the way of the experimental. I don't know if you heard the Hardingrock album?
That's kind of Peccatum mixed with Harding fiddle (a traditional Norwegian stringed instrument). It was a very interesting project in the sense that he's in his sixties now. A Norwegian fiddler [Knut Buen], probably the most famous folk musician in Norway, contacted us and wanted us to interpret these old Norwegian folk songs. So it's all rearrangements. Some were arranged for more traditional extreme metal, and some were more in a more electronica-jazz type of [vibe]. He really wanted to have that all, because he really liked the Peccatum album and the dynamic range of that. So he wanted to implement this music in that type of scenario.
I'll check it out.
Yeah, if you like Peccatum, you very well might like that.