Perhaps there is no any other musician from the original black metal scene of the early ‘90s that embraced the progress and evolution more than Ihsahn, the voice behind one of the most influential groups of the genre—Emperor.
After the group’s 2001 swansong in the shape of Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise, Ihsahn continued his work in Peccatum—a project he co-founded in the late ‘90s with his wife—releasing two EP’s, 2004’s Lost in Reverie and 2005’s The Moribund People, before the act called it quits.
Going into the second half of the decade, Ihsahn continued his musical adventures by pursuing a solo career and releasing The Adversary in 2006, featuring guest appearances from drummer Asgeir Mickelson and Ulver’s Kristoffer Rygg. With favorable critics of the debut album, Ihsahn released his second album angL in 2007, which beside Mickelson, also included bassist Lars. K. Norberg. Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt was featured on the song “Unhealer.”
2009 brought first live performances featuring both solo material and Emperor songs, with the backing band featuring members of Leprous. With 2010’s After the songwriting was fleshed out into a more epic scope, allowing for such longer compositions as “Undercurrent” and the closer “On the Shores” to take their place on the album. With greater room for experimentation, Ihsahn let the songs build on their own time, and the end result is very effective. Fast forward to 2012, Eremita greeted us with technical guitar riffs and symphonic overtones paired with an even greater presence of soft clean vocals. At no time before has Ihsahn so visibly aligned himself with prog.
Next year saw the launch of Das Seelenbrechen which showed Ihsahn’s experimental abilities through variety of sounds, emotions and ideas that are planted solidly throughout the ten-track release.
For his sixth full-length studio release—2016’s Arktis—Ihsahn brought in the largest line-up of guest musicians, including Leprous’ Einar Solberg, Trivium’s Matt Heafy, and Shining’s Jørgen Munkeby who previously appeared at 2010’s After. The end result is a release comprised of tracks that are wild, sensitive or just catchy on their own.
Despite being embedded in stylistic choices of his past, Ihsahn has shown a constant need to move, and 2018’s Amr is the musician’s foray into the loathsome, dark journey that melds heavy and light into a 44-minute landslide of quality material. Keeping in tradition of his previous works, Amr saw a guest appearance from Opeth guitarist Fredrik Akesson.
Ihsahn constant evolution brings us to 2020, which will see the releases of two EP releases. The first one titled Telemark coming out on February 14 via Candlelight Records is him going back to his roots, to where it all started for him over thirty years ago. Lending its name from a county in Norway where he lives with his family, Telemark is a tribute in a way for the musician constantly looking to expand his color palette.
Telemark seems to be a highly-important project for you in terms of being close to your home. Can you please expand on how it serves as a tribute to where you live and captures your journey as a musician throughout years?
Well, Telemark has kind of been a part of my musical identity, in the way that in the early Emperor days we identified with it, and we still do. Even on our live sets today, all the concerts are introduced by our tour manager saying: “Emperor, from Telemark, Norway.” [laughs] So it’s kind of something that we romanticized back in the day, but in later years, I mean I still live here. I live with my family about two minutes from where I grew up on a farm. Over the years, from romanticizing about Telemark and the nature and everything in my youth, you know from the early black metal perspective, in many ways I’ve grown more into the role. And as a consequence of traveling more I’ve become much more aware of this sense of belonging; how the nature here and kind of the spirit of the people are much bigger part of me than I was aware of before. But that was not the initial inspiration, if you will. [laughs]
What ideas did inform Telemark in particular?
As with all my recordings and projects—usually they’ve been albums—I always write this sketch work conceptually, visually, aesthetically, musically before I actually start writing any music and lyrics because I want to make very cohesive things. And usually these, kind of, conceptual barebones are developed in close collaboration with my wife. And she has been challenging me for some time to kind of do something more, purely black metal related again. And she also challenged me to do something in Norwegian, so all these three song titles are her ideas. But where it started was me, for an EP to kind of go back to my musical roots, you know to where it all started and to write something really barebones black metal just for a type of rock band ensemble and just screaming vocals. And then I was going back to my musical roots and with the Norwegian language it’s also going back to my cultural roots, if you will. And with Telemark going to my geographical roots. [laughs] It became one of those things, it was just separate, aesthetic elements that really came together. When we first started adding these particular elements to the project it really made sense.
Barring the Norwegian lyrics and the place where you live, does Telemark in some way represent what the culture of Norway is or should be about, in your opinion?
Both yes and no. I mean, for me it is. But I’m not sure that everybody else will identify with that. Telemark as a county is often called Norway in miniature. Because it kind of stretches from the center of the inland all the way to the coast. And within the county of Telemark, nature-wise, you can find more or less everything that you would have in the rest of the country. Culturally, it’s very rich from back in the day. Telemark’s spirit in many ways is typical for a Norwegian attitude towards things, but I find it to be perhaps a Norwegian, personal spirit on steroids—it’s kind of deep here. Generations after generations of people living very far away from their closest neighbors, very independent and DIY. And I actually try to describe this feeling, some of the lyrics deal with this kind of Telemark spirit, and in many ways this particular Norwegian spirit that I have probably become more aware of from traveling where you mirror your social view on other people, on other cultures. But it’s really hard to pinpoint, because every country or region said like “Okay, what is typical Norwegian or what is typical Spanish,” and everybody has that kind of feeling in your bones, but it’s hard to pinpoint. And it’s not necessarily always what you think it is. Or it’s not always the popular stuff that you wanted to be. [laughs] But after the fact, I actually saw this report on television where they’ve been doing some actual series research into what were typical Norwegian values. And apparently in the highest regard independence is most typical Norwegian thing that really differs us from other countries. And that combined with the folklore of Telemark and even how the fairytales from Telemark are illustrated is very often, like, black and white drawings. It’s very similar to early black metal stuff. So it was really easy to connect the dots, if you will, between these different elements. At the heart of it there there were so many similarities that were not obvious to start with.
What is Telemark, as a place, like to live in? What would you say is the most extraordinary thing about it that you actually decided to dedicate a release to it?
It’s nature. The forest and everything here, it’s absolutely spectacular, I think. As are many places in Norway, but of course this is the nature I know. I’m sure people from the coast, they are attached to the coast and they need to feel the smell of the sea. It’s definitely the nature part of things. And also that it’s very rural. It’s not a big city, it’s mostly very small towns and that kind of privacy is something that I really enjoy.
It’s interesting that the two cover songs—Lenny Kravitz’ “Rock & Roll is Dead” and Iron Maiden’s “Wratchchild”—were a starting point and sort of catapulted the creative process for the other songs on Telemark. How did you set on covering these two songs in particular?
With that kind of decision to do things very barebones as it started, I wanted a sound that reminded me of being a rock band, from old recordings where you kind of recorded everything together in a room. That type of sound—loud Marshall amps, bass, nothing really fancy, nothing overly produced. So I really just picked two songs that I really felt had those aesthetics. They became like a sonic blueprint for what I really wanted to write. They’ve become the production aesthetics that I wanted to write songs for. In my world, of course, it’s really the later, ‘80s Iron Maiden era that’s been the most important to me. But for this particular project the kind of old-school rock pure attitude of those early recordings was what I was hoping to achieve. Both songs are amazing. And on a practical level I also wanted to do ‘80s metal song with black metal vocals without actually loosing too much melodic content because the vocal lines follow the guitars. And also for the Lenny Kravitz’ song—from his catalog you can pick more or less anything and they will have those aesthetics from the sound because that’s how he produces them. On top of that I really liked the attitude and the message of “Rock and Roll is Dead” which I think at the heart of it is very similar to the early black metal attitude. It criticizes the superficial and commercial aspects of the music, and emphasizes the importance of the purity, of why I started playing this music in the first place.
Telemark is the first EP out of two that you will be releasing this year. What can you tell me about its counterpart? I understand that this second EP is sort of an antithesis to Telemark, but is there the unifying thread that connects these two releases?
In practical forms it will follow exactly the same format. It will be an EP with three original songs and two cover songs that also have inspired the aesthetics of the rest of the EP. But as you say it will be a counterpart to this first EP, whereas this is everything about what I know, what is close to heart, you know—the screaming vocals, the distorted guitars, my mother tongue, my hometown. Musically and conceptually this will be very different. I won’t reveal too much at this point, it is much more focused on travel in the essence of the world. And musically, where the Telemark EP is much more focused on the extreme, this will be much more focused on the softer part of what I do.
You have plans to heavily promote both EPs live. What can you tell me about the new live setting that you are working on?
The first one will be with this Telemark concept, and I will premiere that at the Inferno Festival in Oslo this year. All along this is somehow inspired by the times we live in. I come from this background of two years cycle of recording, releasing and touring, and starting over again I find myself now doing everything at the same time. Just now, I’ve been in the studio all day recording vocals for the second EP, and have to take a break now to talk with you about the other EP, and I’m planning and everything happens at the same time. [laughs] It’s kind of extending, not just making an EP, but also having it at the back of my head to extend it into a live show based on the aesthetics of the EP. So this first one will of course build the rest of the songs on the extreme end of what I do, and build a live set around the material on the EP that will follow the same extreme principles from my catalog. Hopefully, as following up on the second EP I’ll do totally different live show with much more experimental and mellow elements of what I do. It’s more of a challenge for myself and my musicians, and hopefully it will also be a variety of things for people who come to see the shows.
You mentioned challenge. How much it is about the challenge at this point of your career? How much the challenge means to you in terms of creativity or performing live?
I think that has been the motivating factor all along. My curiosity about music and this kind of driving force to constantly try to better myself and to explore new aspects of my music. Not necessarily doing something totally different, but add the element that I do. And also to that in the live environment. I have to say that making these two EPs, and knowing that I will be doing both from the get-go allowed me to focus on something very, very particular. I’d probably would not go into each direction if my next project was another full-length album, because I want my albums to be balanced and of course to stretch the boundaries of what I can contain within them. But still I want them to feel as a whole. And as a very obvious example was, at least to me, if you take the title track off of Telemark with the very obvious folkish elements, which is such a strong musical color. I don’t think I would ever find a place for that on a full-length Ihsahn album. I don’t think I would find a place to do this kind of barebones arrangements for a full album, but within the limited concept and format of this EP it was the perfect opportunity to do that. In an album those aesthetics would be too much, they would stick out, but for this I could cultivate them for what it was. And I’m kind of doing the similar thing for the second EP, where I do things that normally I would not do on a full-length album. Hopefully both these EPs will add to my repertoire going into a new album. And as you say, this is something since it’s been a huge privilege of having this as my career since I was 16. I want to maintain that excitement; that’s the only way I can work. If I at any point would find this that I was just repeating myself and doing the same things over I don’t think I would do anything worth while listening to. The only chance I have to continue this is to put myself in situations where I’m just as excited and fired up about making new music. And if I’m not I don’t think I can make anything that’s worthwhile listening to.
Provide some insight into your own creative process. How has your perspective on the possibilities of songs arrangement expanded over the years?
The biggest thing might be that I’ve learned to trust the strength of the core elements of the music to the larger extent that I try to trust that the music in its pure form is good enough, or at least I try to make the music in its pure form good enough. I won’t say that my songs could be played on an acoustic guitar and they will sound good. [laughs] You know the old principle of a pop song—you should be able to perform that with an acoustic guitar and vocals. I think that is something I keep in mind that I hope that my songs would not be just purely depending on production.That the core elements of the initial ideas and the chords and melodies and counterpoints would be strong beyond the production. And as such you can have ideas and then you can renew and tilt emotional impact, what kind of instruments you chose to implement. That is also one of the big prerogatives of being a solo artist. If I was in Emperor still, if you need another instrument you cannot just bring it in. When I needed a saxophone I could have the best saxophone player I could get. [laughs]
You’ve released seven solo albums so far, and now you have these two EPs scheduled to be launched this year. How do you feel you’ve evolved as a musician and songwriter across those recordings?
It’s hard to say. I hope that I’m becoming better at craftsmanship of what I do, and I think with more experience and more musical knowledge especially in later years I’ve become more focused and respectful, I guess, for more traditional forms in music. Whereas I come from the background where we all were rebellious, like all extreme metal bands at the time we would just add new elements and new elements to our music and not follow any form at all, and as such the songs sometimes it feels just a succession of different musical ideas put together rather than using elements in songs. The biggest change is learning going backwards through music theory and compositional techniques to implement that much more into my work.
Your name is usually associated with the black metal genre, but you have also experimented quite a bit over the years especially with your solo releases. What are some of the keys you’ve discovered to help you transcend genre boundaries?
I kind of get a different version of that question quite often because people assume or think that my music is very progressive and experimental at times. And I guess in some ways it is, because as I just told you, I always want to expand. Sometimes I get a feeling that people perceive it as it’s me trying to be provocative, and to be quite honest it’s never about that. It’s always for this kind of self-centered reasons of… You know I may have heard a different style of music and some chord progressions and chord combinations that I find amazing and that I try to implement that and discover that in my own work. So it’s all about trying to keep this excitement going. And it’s not that really strange, it’s not something that I’ve consciously done really. I get that people like myself and Garm from Ulver, who started doing more traditional but ended doing more experimental stuff, that to me it’s strange that not more people from original black metal scene would end up doing more experimental stuff. Because, we were a group of teenagers, we were like 16-17, really trying to push the envelope of extreme and how far we can go with our music. So as a consequence it would be very, very strange if you stop that process at 17. [laughs] Obviously we were kind of people inclined to that kind of musical experimentation to start with. I think it’s more strange that more people from the scene stopped that development at such an early age. To me it would be more natural if people would continually follow that path.
Your music is far from being obvious and it certainly isn’t easy, and also requires significant effort to bring to fruition. Given the difficult economics of the world of music today, how do you make such ambitious projects a reality?
I think that some of the reasons me and my wife survived transition in music industry, especially from coming from selling CDs, into the digital age was self-recording and all that, that most people are doing now. We started investing in studio equipment back in 1998. And before that I’ve always had a workstation so I’ve been composing and arranging with computers since the early ‘90s. So I think we were lucky in that sense that you had that interest and started early with the process of acquiring more of that competence. You don’t have to go to the world’s most expensive studio to get the work done. Then you can spend those resources, as I do with Fascination Street Studios, for mixing and mastering and kind of reaching out what you need. In essence there is so many bands within this genre that really have to have the skills, and you see that also in popular music. Well Billie Eilish and her brother—they recorded Billie Eilish songs in their bedroom. So there is that aspect. And also you must remember when we started Emperor back in 1991 there was no scene, so the motivation was never to be successful. At the time it was almost the opposite. I think as a consequence of not wanting to adapt to anything that was there already and not trying to be successful and not trying to be liked, as a consequence we made something that was unique in its own right. And that became the building block of my musical career. And I like to think the type of audience that are drawn to this style of music or black metal, I think at the heart of it what they want is something authentic and genuine, not polished to fit some market. They want to discover for themselves because it’s pure and it’s something real. And that’s my only rule of thumb when I enter into musical projects, I never try to take it in consideration what people might think. I want to do absolute best I can, absolutely every time. And that’s what I try to communicate with all the wonderful people who follow my music and buy my music and come to my shows. Maybe this next project is not something to your liking, the next one might be. Hopefully I’ve channeled that trust, every time I do something it’s for real. It’s not sneaky. [laughs] It’s not trying to be commercial or anything, it’s for real for better or worse.
We are living in incredibly challenging times. What role do artists have in attempting to restore the balance that other parts of society are disrupting?
That is a very big and deep question. To try and be very concrete and far reaching I always like to think of art in general as a medium and place where you can experience all the facets of existence, existential crisis, extreme love, extreme anything. You can kind of learn and get in touch with those elements of yourself through music, and in a very safe way I might add. And I think people who are deeply involved in some kind of art, it taps into the same place where people may be deeply involved with religion, for example. Because they want to find something that is meaningful and that can kind of create answers that have no words. Because these existential questions that you feel inside you might now have concrete answers. But there is something more fundamental in the human spirit that you can channel through these things. And in that way, I think artists and musicians may play a role in that. That is of course on a very large scale. But in general, you have music in all elements of life these days. And for most it’s very important factor, especially in the western world. By definition it’s also so abstract, it’s very easy to interpret music to your own experiences. It’s not propaganda, if you know what I mean. In that way, I think it’s important at the same time as it’s not, because of course you can’t eat it or get warm by it. [laughs]
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