Towards The Pantheon: Ihsahn On The 20th Anniversary Of ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’
Many bands may have championed the outward trappings of the genre with spikes, facepaint, long-winded manifestos, and blood-drenched live shows, but no band epitomizes black metal as music quite like Emperor. While they were present during the true Norwegian times, the band’s background of arson and murder consistently comes in second to their incredible artistic output. Their use of keyboards did nothing to harm their street cred; in fact, they were the only band to do it perfectly, their baroque brand of classically-influenced darkness spawned a legion of cravat-wearing imitators who just didn’t have the chops to match them. Whether you’re old or new school, transcendentally-minded or stubbornly sworn to Satan, they are a band with whom you cannot fuck. If you like music, you like Emperor.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the band’s debut full-length, In the Nightside Eclipse, and to honor this milestone, Emperor have embarked on a limited festival tour. From his hotel room in France the night before Hellfest, Emperor founder and frontman Ihsahn took a moment to discuss the album’s history, metal at large, and to look back into one’s own dark past.
First of all I just wanted to say congratulations on the 20th anniversary of In the Nightside Eclipse.
Thank you very much. It makes me feel a bit old, you know, but it is what it is.
That’s interesting that you say it makes you feel a little old, I feel like in hindsight you can look back on things and sort of be like, 'I was a dumb kid then.’ Do you ever feel that, looking back at the era when you were making the album?
We were teenagers. Of course we did stupid things. It was all childish in a sense. So [we have] some memories, sitting eating fresh buns and chocolate milk, that you don’t usually associate with this album. But I think our focus and the way recorded it, and did the album. . . even though we lacked the experience, we went into this at 110 percent. So the way we approached the work, and the songwriting and the recording, that was very grown up, if you know what I mean. It’s such a long time ago, it almost feels like a different life.
I’m sure it’s hard to recall off the top of your head, but: its 1993, you and the guys are heading in to record this album. How are you feeling? How is the band feeling? How are you feeling about the Norwegian scene at the time? Where is your head at?
Well, that’s a funny thing. And of course, me and Samoth have been talking about this on the train and the plane and everything. Tomorrow, we’re headlining [Hellfest] side-by-side with Black Sabbath. It’s bizarre, just to see your logo on the poster next to some of these bands that we grew up on. In ‘93, we were very ambitious musically, but we had absolutely no commercial ambitions at all. For us, it was kind of natural. It was very gradual, because it started very early—we did the demos, we did the 7”, we had a different band we did prior to Emperor, and then we did the EP. I remember that feeling of getting our first recording on 12” vinyl, it was the next step to make an album. We all thought it was very cool to go to a different city to record the album. It was a much bigger, more professional studio. We took it very seriously. But from that time, it is strange relating to it. We could be so at ease with it because there were really no expectations. I think bands at that age these days, they’re thinking about making it, you know.
You know Ford Fairlane, the rock n' roll detective? [Ed. note: Ihsahn is referring to the Rex Weiner character once portrayed by Andrew Dice Clay.] He said, “Some people play hard to get. I play hard to want.” That was the whole approach back in those days. The whole mentality was that this was very underground, and it was beside the point to be successful in a commercial sense. That was the antithesis to what we were doing. So this whole thing, where we are in the position to come back 20 years later and headline some of the biggest festivals in Europe is kind of against all odds.
Something I was wondering listening to this album, a lot of bands today there’s this idea of ‘most evil, most brutal, this next album’s gonna be the craziest,’ and I feel like Nightside Eclipse is something different. It’s something very artistic and very intelligent. And I was wondering if going into it if there was a feeling of pushing the envelope or going away from metal at large.
I think the only ambition was to build on the next version that we formed. Emperor started out as a side-project to Thou Shalt Suffer, and Thou Shalt Suffer already included keyboards, and were more atmospheric. Emperor started off as a more back-to-basics, Bathory, Celtic Frost type of band. And you can hear that in the first demo. But as soon as Emperor became the main focus, we implemented all our experience into that. You could tell by the cover artwork that everything we wanted to put in there was big and grandiose. It was all very influenced by pictures and literature, and a lot of soundtracks to movies that had a kind of bigness to them. I think that was a main focus point, for us to use keyboards and try to build that big sound.
On that note, something I have to ask you about is, Emperor was one of the first black metal bands to use the keyboards and the sort of grandiose, cinematic largeness that comes with them. And it seems like you were one of the last black metal bands to do that before “symphonic” or “orchestral” black metal became dirty words. What it is about Emperor’s music that did it right?
Well, not even just in black metal—I think keyboards in metal music have always been controversial. My favorite Iron Maiden album is Seventh Son, and I know they were criticized a lot in that period when they started using keyboards. But that’s kind of what makes that album even greater for me. It adds that depth. A lot of genres in metal are the same. But I think since we, both me and Samoth, but me in particular, have a lot of musical taste outside of what is metal—classical music, a lot of horror movie soundtracks like “The Omen,” a lot of that stuff. And I started out on piano and keyboards, and picked up guitar when I was 10 or 11, so It’s kind of natural for me to do both. Again, it gives it a wider emotional spectrum. And you could say, with more old-school, necro-sounding black metal versus the more symphonic stuff, that they are two directions within the same thing. Both have the same vocal style but one is more decadent and just destructive, I think. And the other part has many of the same elements, but has a certain romantic side to it, as well. For me, death metal is kind of one-dimensional in its aggression, whereas black metal has got that potential to be just as aggressive, but also just as melancholic. A bigger emotional span to work within.
It’s interesting you mention that because there are certain bands that everybody can kind of come together and agree on, and I’ve found one of them to be Emperor. No matter how kvlt and destructive certain bands may be, they will exalt the influence of an album like Nightside Eclipse.
It’s kind of hard for me to say what made it that way. For me, it’s funny because sometimes I get this question like, ‘How did you guys experience this kind of overnight success of Eclipse.’ And it’s like, ‘…what? When did that happen? Why weren’t we there?’ (Laughs) Because we got a lot of crap for our first two albums. At the time, the bigger metal magazines thought Norwegian black metal was a total joke. That has changed over time, but I like to think that in spite of our lack of experience as musicians. When we got to Bergen to record the album, all the other guys went to the local rock pub. But I was still 17 so I got kicked out the first night. And that kind of became the rule for the rest of the period that we recorded and mixed it, because the other guys could go to the pub and do stuff, I was stuck there in the studio with the producer. That kind of kickstarted my interest for that kind of work.
But all in all, I would like to think with Eclipse, and also with Emperor quitting when we did, we chose not to exploit that kind of change that was first hated and then respected. At the time it was 100 percent honest—I won’t even use the word true, because that “true” thing is kind of ridiculous. But we went in with 110 percent conviction in what we were doing. So any lack of skills or experience or anything was kind of blown out by that will. But I think because we were so young, that conviction, that kind of useful energy that we put into it, shines through. I think that kind of aggression, that energy, may still connect with people the same age today, even though it’s from a different time. And in general, especially with this type of music, if it’s not genuine, I think the audience won’t take to it. That’s something that you have to keep in mind. With Emperor, I can honestly say that we never compromised, and that was also why we quit. And I think that was just as much out of respect for the people who made it possible for us to have this as a career, that we try to be as genuine and honest in our work every time we make an album. And I like to think that is why that album has sustained.
I agree—since black metal has become a genre where people have artists to look to and standards to follow, it’s easy to see how many bands come and go. And yet the ones with the real conviction and the will behind it manage to stick around.
I think that goes for almost any genre, or any artistic expression. If it’s fake, it’s fake. And I think people trick themselves. I think that’s a question with black metal especially—what is true black metal and what is true. It’s just kind of a paradox. Because if you’re in a band, and you consider all the people’s rules as to how you should express yourself as a black metal band, that would almost, per definition, make it not a black metal band. If I even started thinking like that I would not only betray the privilege I’ve had for the last 20 years to make the music uncompromising, I would also betray that kind of confidence that an audience has shown us, for both the albums and the live music. It’s kind of a give and take, it’s kind of a fair deal, if you know what I mean.
I’ve often said that black metal isn’t, you know, a type of guitar sound or a type of vocal style or anything, black metal is a feeling. I could explain it, but it’s kind of a ground source inside me. And even with the more experimental stuff I’ve done lately, to me, it’s still black metal, because it kind of grows from that same source. Even though it sounds totally different. But to me it’s all the same. Every album is just a re-interpretation of that kind of original source.
You guys were recording and the album was coming out just as black metal had become this buzz word and a lot of the hysteria broke out in the international news once people were getting arrested. Did you feel at the time, while you were putting together the first record, that this was coming to a head? Was there a feeling that things were about to, at any minute, erupt?
I think for us it all happened so gradually, that there wasn’t really one clear point where things changed. When you’re right in the middle of it, those things are more mundane and more day-to-day than when you view the headlines. I think it’s much easier to look at the timeline, to look at some of the books that have been written about the period, and events and things that happened that seemed like important milestones. So I think it’s impossible for us to kind of see this totally from an outside perspective.
Finally, if you were talking to a young listener, and you handed them a copy of the first album, and they were going to go off and listen to it the first time, what if anything would you ask them to listen for?
Usually I give people the advice to try to listen beyond the noise. It’s like the first time you hear opera—it’s just too much. But if you manage to get beyond that point, and listen to the music and the expression in there, you might get something different out of it. So yeah, listen to what’s inside the music and not the extremity of music.