“Black metal, in essence, is about doing your own thing, what you yourself feel is right. But it’s quickly turned into conformity and rules about what you should and should not do.”
It’s impossible to discuss Norwegian black metal without mentioning the innumerable contributions made by Ihsahn. As frontman for the legendary Emperor, he helped define the sound of black metal for years to come with such classic albums as In The Nightside Eclipse and Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Ihsahn was never afraid to think outside the box when it comes to his music-his solo projects have pushed the boundaries of experimental, extreme metal, and his new album Eremita is no exception. Due out June 19th in North America on Candlelight, Eremita explores a variety of heavy, dark environs – it’s alternately heavy, bleak and sorrowful in its composure.
I had the privilege to reach Ihsahn by phone to discuss Eremita, his stance on traditional black metal and Spotify.
Metal Blast: Your last three albums have been a trilogy. What sets Eremita apart from those first three?
Ihsahn: For the most part, there was a liberating feeling of having finished the trilogy, so what sets it apart is the confidence I approached writing the album with, based on the experiences I had writing the trilogy. The way I write now, I usually have a framework for what I want an album to be, and this time, there were some sonic influences and certain types of instrumentation I wanted to use, and I had some small lyrical ideas, and there’s a visual aspect of where the album kind of takes place.
MB: I’ve noticed lyrically this album spends a lot of time dealing with negative emotions. You’ve got song titles like “The Paranoid” and “Grief” and I hear references to shame and other feelings all throughout. What ground were you looking to cover here, lyrically?
Ihsahn: It’s hard to say. With the first two albums, I set out to be to the point with my lyrics and be very concrete and confrontational. And with the third album, I set out to bolster the conflict of the first two albums and be more reflective on the subject, so that was very bleak, with no signs of life or anything. And this time, it’s more filtering reoccurring ideas and feelings and themes that kind of have appeared in my whole back catalogue. There are some new aspects and some things that always kind of reoccur. And this time, it’s filtered through a different scenario, if you will. There are references to escape. The protagonist kind of escapes from something that he’s done or been involved in, and there’s kind of a paranoid, amnesia, madman perspective. It comes from these images of black and white, almost like a crime story. It’s all rather abstract, but in the end it comes to a creative focus point, to channel a certain atmosphere. It’s kind of a journey, if you will. I just channel all of these issues through this person and through this scenario.
That sounds like a lot of metaphysical bullshit, I know, but…[laughs]
Ihsahn: In the early days, I approached writing in terms of everyone in the band exchanging riffs and bouncing off ideas and working out songs at rehearsals. But I think from a very early stage, I started to do more and more of this work in advance. I’d come to rehearsals with more developed ideas. By the time we did the last Emperor record, I basically did that in a similar way that I do my solo albums now. I do all the preproduction on my own, and then I get the musicians I need involved. That’s become even more distilled, if you will…I wrote most of this album with guitar, but instead of recording with guitar parts, I just scored the notes of the riffs in my computer, played them back with a piano sound and kind of worked with the song in that format. So I tried to make all the riffs and the arrangement work just with the piano sound, and trusted that if it sounds good that way, it’ll sound good with the rest of the instruments. Working with the songs in a sterile way like that, I think I managed to create some space between the different phases of making the album, since I wear so many hats. I play most of it, and I write all of it, sometimes I’m the vocalist, sometimes I’m the guitar player, sometimes I’m the engineer. So to keep my head straight in all of it, I devised this method with the different parts.
MB: Is there anything you feel like you can do on your own that you couldn’t get away with in another band?
Ihsahn: That’s why I enjoy working solo, since there’s no restrictions. I don’t really have to take other people’s preferences into consideration. I can follow my own intuition and driving force. It’s a perfect combination for me, I can do this music the way I want to. I’m not bound to certain musicians, I can pick and choose who I need for that particular project. And I’ve been very lucky to have some very fine musicians on board all along. I’m in a very privileged space, I feel.
MB: On your last album, After, you started using saxophone. What made you decide to first use it, and then stick with it on this album?
Ihsahn: In the mid-90s, I listened to a lot of Jan Garbarek, a Norwegian saxophone player. And I always loved the sound of the saxophone. To me, it’s always been a very sultry instrument. But I’ve never really found a place for it in my music until I did After, which is very much a desolate landscape. And that’s what Jan Garbarek’s music reminded me of in the first place, just this very open landscape, no humans or life at all, just more of a reflection. When I did After, I thought, this is the perfect moment to finally implement the sound of the saxophone. And by a series of lucky coincidences, it was Jorgen Munkeby (Shining – Norway) who ended up playing the saxophone. He really expanded my experience and my view of the instrument. The way he interprets my music with the saxophone, and the way he plays lines I want him to play, and the way he improvises in relation to the atmosphere I want him to build, he’s just a fantastic musician. And since that collaboration on the previous record, we’ve become very good friends, so it was very easy to think about that contribution to this album. Having someone like him on board makes the listening experience more exciting for me, listening back to the finished product. That’s almost the best part of having session players like that, I don’t have to listen to myself all the time. Usually when I finish an album, I’m so fed up with it that I absolutely hate it [laughs], but now that I have more instrumentalists contribute, I can think of the music in a more objective perspective.
MB: There’s one song on the album called “The Grave” that features almost a free jazz breakdown, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you attempt anything like it before. Where did that idea come from?
Ihsahn: It’s kind of hard to explain. It felt very natural to break it down like that. The initial riffs were so heavy and slow that I just had to let it fall apart for a while. It had the type of desperation and hopelessness that I tried to express with that song. It needed that very loose type of feel to it. With Jorgen and Tobias (Tobias Ornes Andersen, Leprous) on drums on board, it made even more sense.
MB: You made appearances on records by Devin Townsend and Jeff Loomis and they’ve appeared on Eremita as well. What prompted you to ask them to return the favor?
Ihsahn: It’s been just a friendly exchange of favors, really. I think Devin and Jeff were happy to be part of it. I had the pleasure of meeting Devin Townsend in Finland when we both played the Tuska festival and we kept in touch by email. He came to a point with Deconstruction when he heard my type of singing on it and asked me to do it, and I was more than happy to, I have great respect for Devin and his work and it was fun to do. These days it’s easy to collaborate like that, since most of us have studios of our own, and it’s easy to just exchange ideas over the internet. It was a similar thing with Jeff Loomis, we originally got in touch sending emails back in forth just having gear talk, and at one point he had a song he wanted me to do lyrics and vocals on. The song inspired very quickly what type of vocals and lyrics to add, so that was a very cool experience, but it was me adding to what he had already finished. So when I came to similar points in making my record, it was really easy for me to ask them, since it’d be hard for them to say no [laughs]. With “Introspection”, I did my kind of clean vocals as powerful as I hoped that song would be, and I think it was my wife Heidi who suggested I ask Devin to do it, since his vocals would probably sound good on those parts, and she was quite right. Same with Jeff, I did most of the solos on the album and I came to the section of “The Eagle and the Snake”, and it had the kind of riff I felt his playing style would be good for. It was kind of an inspired moment of that part, and he did a great job of putting all my solos to shame, which is to be expected. But I realized after I had them contribute that it would seem disingenuous having famous people on the record, which was not the intention at all. And I asked Candlelight to not use any stickers saying “featuring this and that”, since I don’t think any of us made albums that were about collaboration. All three albums are individual things where we just added a bit of spice to each other’s mix, in a sense.
MB: I’m curious about your live plans following the album’s release. You’ve played festivals and a few off-dates, do you have any upcoming appearances planned?
Ihsahn: Well so far, we’re doing Hellfest in France and Graspop in Belgium. I know that Candlelight are trying to work something out for the States, but it’s kind of hard these days to get European bands, at least at my size, to go over. Getting visas, travelling expenses of getting seven or eight people over from Norway with all their paperwork in order, it’s extremely expensive, and it’s all up to the promoter and what they’re willing to risk. But I always had a great time playing in the US and I’d love to come back. It all depends on what they figure out.
MB: Shifting gears a bit, you’re one of the foremost figures in the Norwegian black metal scene. What are your thoughts on some of the more modern takes on black metal? You’ve got the French with Alcest and shoegaze-influenced stuff, America’s got bands like Wolves in the Throne Room and other eco-ambient stuff, and bands like Sigh from Japan which are just completely off the wall, it’s taken on many different forms. Are they on to something or have they strayed from the path?
Ihsahn: Well, Mirai from Sigh is a good friend of mine, I had the pleasure of meeting both him and Mika when I played in Japan in December. But [in regards to black metal] anything that breaks with conformity, I applaud. Black metal, in essence, is about doing your own thing, what you yourself feel is right. But it’s quickly turned into conformity and rules about what you should and should not do. Sigh, for example, who are very experimental in their expression and breaking with conventions, I think that is great. It’s like that with all subcultures-it starts out with a movement pushing the boundaries, and then it’s accepted and suddenly all those things they did are turned into limitations. I think that’s the antithesis of black metal in the first place, to have conformity and rules and the collective deciding what it’s supposed to be. But back to your original question, in regards to the old black metal scene verses today’s black metal scene, I only divide music into two genres, music that appeals to me and does something for me and music I don’t like that does nothing for me. When I listen to music for my own pleasure, it is very rarely metal. Cause I get so easily into work mode, I start thinking about production and technique. For me, it’s much more enjoyable to listen to types of music where my personal experience and involvement is not that big.
MB: Yeah, I’ve noticed most of who I feel to be the best metal musicians have a pretty wide palate. Like, if you just listen to metal, your music can’t be that creative, almost.
Ihsahn: It’s about seeing music as music, and not as a genre. To be perfectly honest, our production company gets magazines and CDs sent to us and I sometimes skip through it and listen to what’s new out there in the metal world. It’s kind of discouraging to hear how similar they all sound. These days I find it hard to tell some of these newer bands apart. It’s all the same production, same way of doing things, there are few things that stand out. It’s sad, really, because it’s hard to pick out the talent in all that, because there are a lot of talented bands and musicians, but I think it’s run by conformity. But to each his own, as I said I don’t really care if it’s metal or not, I only care if it affects me or if it doesn’t. As to the old black metal scene, this typical thing of “metal brothers” and all that, it’s all well and nice, but in the end I’m really not nostalgic at all.
Ihsahn: Yeah, and with things like Spotify, I’ve noticed it actually changes how I listen to music, because I just skip around. When I use Spotify, I find it interesting to listen to bands that I know of, and then I go to related bands and follow this thread and discover something I never heard about before, which is a good thing. But it’s always been that the music that I like best comes in bigger pieces, albums that you listen to from start to finish to get the overall atmosphere. But listening to songs, I’m finding myself to be very impatient. If it doesn’t take me to the teeth straight away, I skip to the middle of the songs to see what happens. I want a quick satisfaction listening to music, if it doesn’t convince me in the first ten seconds I’ll skip to something else, and that’s absolutely no way of discovering new music. That’s the opposite of how I want people to know and appreciate my own music. These are strange times, especially for longer pieces of music.
MB: Do you think albums will continue to find audiences?
Ihsahn: I would hope so, but then again you never know. The album itself, in terms of musical history, is a very new phenomenon. And I guess in many ways it’s on its way out. But the thing I’m doing, it’s in the underground and it’s not your typical, radio-friendly music. I find myself lucky I have an audience that still appreciates the concept of an album and the dedication to a longer piece of music and not a quick fix. So I think we can release one-hour albums for a few years yet, but you never know.
MB: Anything else you’d like to add?
Ihsahn: Thanks for the support. People finding what I do interesting allows me to sell the album and do another one [laughs], so I appreciate that.