EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: IHSAHN GIVES METALSUCKS AN INSIDE LOOK AT HIS NEW ALBUM EREMITA
We last talked to Ihsahn right after After had been released, a record that eventually showed up on three of our year end lists for 2010 and you MetalSucks readers chose as your collective favorite of that year. It was a record that shattered common perceptions of black metal and invited thousands of listeners to access a hauntingly powerful kind of experimental music.
Ihsahn’s upcoming release Eremita is his first outside of the “A” trilogy of Adversary, angL, and After. Ihsahn called in from his home in Norway last Wednesday to tell me about the new album, and he sounds just as satisfied with Eremita as he did about After. Rightfully so — Eremita is so distinctly Ihsahn, a uniquely twisting and turning symphony, yet it still sounds like nothing we’ve heard before, and it even manages to be catchy for part of the ride. Ihsahn told me about the symbolism behind Eremita, his experiences working with the other musicians on the album, the story behind his decision to introduce 8-string guitars and the reason Friedrich Nietzsche’s face is on Eremita‘s cover.
Can you go into some details for us on the new album?
I don’t know what to say beyond what’s in the press release, really. It’s a new album called Eremita. It has nine songs; with the bonus it’s ten. It’s some pretty dark music, and there are some cool people on there as well.
I know you worked with Jeff Loomis, Devin Townsend, Tobias Henderson, Jørgen Munkeby, Einar Solberg, and Heidi Tveitan. That’s a lot of people. How did coordinating everything work out?
To be honest, it’s been very, very easy. Tobias and Einar are both are in my live band, so it was very natural for me to bring them along. Tobias plays for the whole record so he’s kind of the biggest contributor, whereas Einar only sings clean vocals on one song. As for Jørgen Munkeby — the second biggest contributor — he did some demos on top of my rough mixes. He lives just two hours away, so he came to our studio and recorded the rest here and kind of put it together. As for Jeff and Devin, I had the privilege of them asking me to do vocals on their records so it was easy to ask them [to do vocals on mine]. They got tapes and instructions or files from me, recorded their parts, and sent them back, and then I sent them to my system here.
Is there anyone else you’d like to work with in the future?
It depends. I just finished this album, so even though I already have plans for the next one, I don’t have any plans to bring in guests. That’s more by coincidence really. Especially since Jeff’s and Devin’s contributions were more them just returning my favors on their albums, along with it being a cool thing to do. But I don’t plan my records according to which guests I’ll be having on them.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the album cover. You used an upside-down photo of Nietzsche. How much is that tied into the music?
Throughout all the solo albums I’ve done, Nietzsche has been a huge influence on me. This time, or for at least the last two albums, the influence of Nietzsche hasn’t been as clear as on the first two albums. But still, he’s my hero. It’s kind of a coincidence that he ended up on the cover. I was working on the cover with the designer, and he came to talk with and me and my wife and we went through ideas with him. She communicates great with him and has worked with him on many covers before. We went through the whole atmosphere of what we wanted, how we could make the music and the cover art represent what we were trying to get across.
We saved the front cover for last; we started on the inside artwork and added the cover to go with all of it in the end. Everything else was done, and it was hard to come up with a particular idea of what the front cover would look like, apart from maybe having a black and white image with the title. So we sent back and forth some files with pictures and ideas, and I sent that picture just because I thought it was a really good picture, and when he presented it like that with the title broken up all over it, it really caught some of that atmosphere I feel the album reflects.
About the title as well, it means “hermit” in Latin, right? Was that related to any concept in the music, or was it just a title?
It’s the symbolism of the hermit. I’ve associated myself with it for a long time. Not just because of the solo stuff, but because of the whole solitary figure who stands out in regular society and does things in a different way. Throughout my whole career I’ve come back to this image as a logical figure — whether it’s Prometheus, or Icarus, or any of these solitary figures, you kind of represent those that break away from what is publicly accepted. It’s about going away from everything else. For me, that’s intellectually but also artistically just something that I find very natural and beautiful. It sums up all of the ideology I involve myself with.
For the concept of the album, it’s all a contrast to my previous album, After. After was going to be an end of the first trilogy I did with Adversary, angL, and After — three A’s — not with any chronological concept, but I had a very clear concept for each album, and over the years I’ve developed a systematic way of working when I get together with my wife. We put out the scenario of the album and overall atmosphere. For After it was a very desolate, bleak landscape. There were no signs of life in any of the lyrics. For the new album it’s kind of much more introverted, much more paranoid and kind of schizophrenic. I tend to bring up many of the same themes, but lyrically it comes from a different perspective. Just having a kind of synopsis for the end goal, for the whole album – that keeps the writing process very focused on that goal. It’s not just a collection of songs that I happened to write in one period of time.
Thank you. That’s how I like to work. Those are the kind of albums I’ve always enjoyed myself. I like putting out a full album to give an experience. Some songs may stand out and some songs may be less catchy on their own, but full albums… they have a coherent atmosphere that you just enjoy from start to end. I was never into hit music anyway. I think we’re lucky, in a way, with this genre of music where people still enjoy the album format. Especially now that people mostly just download the latest of whatever. People in our business are still kind of dedicated to appreciating full albums. Even if it starts to be like that [single download focused], I will still try to make albums, I think.
I think a big reason metal hasn’t dissolved into hits and charts is because as metalheads, we like having physical music.
A good part of it too is that you can still do the special editions, do vinyl, do something that will hopefully look good. Percentage-wise, I think people listening to this type of music enjoy the hard copy to get the full experience. I guess we’ll just have to continue to make our best efforts for those types of listeners. The community is very dedicated, more so than the popular music hit type of world. If you look at the good side of the whole download problem… It kind of split the music scene again. A lot of people work in the “hit potential” music industry, which is something else entirely. But for the rest of us — most people making more experimental music — it’s very hard for us to make a living. The prospect of actually making money is far-fetched for most of us. Then you get people who are focused on doing artistic music, for their own sake, and I think when you get the potential of prosperity away from money, you get more people focused on being creative and not trying too hard to be a hit in the market.
I don’t think anyone has really gone into metal for money.
I wanted to quickly talk about the guitars. You started using 8 strings on After and continued using them on this album. I was wondering why you chose 8-strings in the first place?
Basically because I’ve been playing guitar for about 25 years now. In a way… Do you play the guitar?
Yeah, I do.
Then you know, when you’ve been playing a lot, writing a lot of music, you end up with your fingers doing almost those same things with muscle memory, so when you try and create something new just by looking at your fingers it feels like they’re doing the same thing over and over again. So for me, even on my second record, I did some songs with different tunings to break the patterns of my chord voicings and finger movements. I was skipping the technical parts and just looking at my fingers and feeling that I was repeating myself but just going into different territories with different tunings and skipping the analytical part, going straight to listening.
It’s the same thing since I’ve been using seven strings. With eight strings you have to re-think things even further because you can’t do things like you can with seven strings, such as power chords. With a seven string in regular tuning you can still get away with the same type of chords with fifths in a low range. With eight strings that’s just not possible. You have to treat that textured low range as a bass part, really. Then you tune it to an F#. You have to use voicings that will open it, chords with open strings that get a whole different way of relating to it. Again, it’s a similar thing to using a new tuning. You kind of skip the analytical part and just start listening. You’re forced to do things in a different way, and with the 8 string you can even make it function as the bass part and let the bass do more higher lead lines. It’s variety. On a lot of the songs on this new album, I went back to the 7 string because Ibanez gave me some of their new hybrid baritone. They have a new series called RGD, which has a longer scale. I’ve been using a lot of seven strings with Drop A tuning.
A 27” scale, right? 8-strings are normally thought of as belonging to only a few specific metal subgenres right now…
Oh yeah. I had an interview the other day where they asked me about djent. Is that how you say it? I just read about that in Guitar World, and I think I’ve heard some bands that are categorized by it. I believe Meshuggah are kind of the Godfathers of this? I can’t say I really know much more about the genre then, but having heard Meshuggah, I think the philosophy of how they approach that type of music is different from mine. Even though I use 8 strings and down-tuned 7 strings, I don’t think it sounds very much like their music.
You’re very unique, because a lot of the 8-string artists only play djent or variations of deathcore, and you don’t at all. I was wondering if you had ever run into any opposition or elitism for using the 8-strings outside of their typical subgenres.
No, not really. If so, I haven’t really paid attention, but people probably haven’t noticed that much because I don’t exaggerate using only that range of instruments. The only time I actually gave that some thought was when it I got my first 7 string in 1999. And that very much inspired my writing of the whole last Emperor album. I decided then that even if I had this extra range, I wouldn’t just use the bottom range as the only type of writing. I’ll just treat it as an extra. I can do my guitar parts like I did before but can implement that part too and not force everything to be the same but just an extra string lower. That’s been my approach all along.
I’ve never been very good at writing single classic guitar riffs that you can do on one guitar. I’ve always had the counterpoint thing, only because I grew up on Maiden and Priest, always hearing clean guitars. What I find interesting with writing on guitar is trying to create that variety and tension between the low range and a second, much higher guitar and also implementing more interesting chord voices in the upper register. And of course pushing the limits of it on type chords and 2nd notes. I have some sample songs from the new album in unison with two dozen trombones.
Both on this album and on After, we hear some really crazy brass stuff. A lot that sounds very free-form, and distinctly different from most metal songs. Did you have a particular influence for this writing that sounds almost jazz-influenced?
I think all my guitar parts are very structured. Jørgen is such a fantastic player on all the structured music. His contributions and his fantastic playing really breathe that wild and unpredictable element. And in a similar way to how Einar approaches playing the drums, he has a very dynamic and free way of playing. Einar’s not your typical blast beat drummer. He’s very versatile and uses a special kit. Two snare drums, two sets of toms. Not a very big kit at all, not a lot of cymbals. He approaches his drumming more from a jazz perspective. I think those elements together with the more structured framework of the music really creates that free-floating feel, which I really enjoy.
When Tobias was recording drums, he recorded them to the guitar parts, but with programed piano sounds. I always program my guitars with a piano sound when I write and orchestrate the songs. He listens to the click track and some programmed drumming with the guitar track as a midi piano sound. I think, from my writing style, I’ve been through all the early phases which you probably recognize. You’re in a band; you want to push the envelope implanting a hundred different riffs in a song. So you go beyond the standard ABACA song structure. I’ve really enjoyed that over the years, it’s much more interesting and coherent then using more simple compositional techniques. The first track, “Arrival,” is very much based around one theme. The same with “The Eagle and the Snake” — it’s very much based around the one main theme. You can play it backwards and slow it down and take out bits and pieces and put it in different keys, make something else out of it, but it’s still got the same building blocks throughout the whole song.
Well, it’s working. You’re getting pretty popular here in the US. I don’t know if it’s the same in Europe, but there are a lot of people here who are very into your music.
I’m glad to hear it. It’s very hard for me to keep up. I have a Facebook page, which I don’t even know how to log in to. I’m not very aware of where and how people react to my music other than when we play live shows, do interviews, or when I hear what my record company tells me. I played Prog Power and a lot of people in the audience had no idea who I was. My specific contribution was not that common on that festival; it’s more progressive music if you’re familiar with that festival, but it went down really well. I think people were appreciative of my music. So, if people like it, that’s good. I never have any thoughts or hopes on how it will be perceived because I’ve experienced that it is so subjective. Every time I do an album I just do my best regardless, and when it comes out I just hope people like it and buy it so I can make a new one.
Prog Power was last year, right? That the first time you had played in the US? Is there any hope for a US tour in the future with your solo material?
The first time with my solo material, yes. There’s no hope for a full long tour. I have kind of set a limit of doing only festivals and select shows. I know Candlelight U.S. [Ihsahn’s record label] are keen on me coming over and doing 2-3 shows for the album. We’ll just have to see if we can sort something out. I’d love to come back, but in the right framework and the right schedule. It is very expensive to go over. It takes more preparation; the work visa preparation takes three months and you have to fill out paperwork for two weeks. It’s a hassle for most European bands.
Your touring band obviously can’t be the same as your studio lineup. Who did you show up with at Prog Power?
For all my live shows I’ve had Leprous as my backing band. Do you know who that is? They are originally from where I live. Both guitar players are previous guitar students of mine and both keyboardists are my brother and brother-in-law. They’re just a very talented band. It’s not easy, but it’s the only way I can do these live shows. They’re so dedicated and professional to work with. I just send them the scores and tell them “mixes with loud backing vocals” and everything. I think the first rehearsals we had together we played through the whole set. They were just that prepared. I’ve got my fingers crossed that they won’t be too successful with their own band so they’ll still want to play with me.
I hope you can make it out to the U.S. for a few shows.
We’ll see how it all turns out.
Do you have a favorite song off the new album?
It varies from day to day. For now, I haven’t listened to it for a little bit. I’ve been preoccupied with everything. After working on it for such a long time, and then going through all the critical listening and the mixing and mastering stage and all that, you get kind of fed up with it. I’m very pleased with how it all came out though. I’m most surprised that so many people like the song “The Grave.” That’s probably one of the more experimental and least catchy songs in a sense. It’s eight minutes of very, very slow heavy music with a long middle section with a lot of improvised drumming. But people seem to really dig that one.
“Paranoid” is really catchy.
Some of the songs ended up having catchy refrains. I think, all in all, it’s dynamic; I don’t think it’s a very repetitive album. Each song has its own space, even though I think they do connect with each other. I’m quite pleased.
Was there anything else you want to mention before we go?
I hear from Candlelight and my A&R in Europe that journalists and other people are reacting positively about the album. From what’s come back to me, people are excited about it. It’s a very good thing. I’m happy with the album, so I’m glad that Candlelight is too.
It worked well coordinating with Devin Townsend and Jeff Loomis too, since they both recently put out albums of their own.
That part is really coincidental. I see how it may look like a very deliberate sales point, to put some famous people on it, but I met Devin at some festivals in Europe and I just think he’s a fantastic guy. He contacted me too. He had the vocal lines for the song “Juular” and he heard in his head my type of vocals and asked for me to do it. I did him the favor, so it was kind of hard for him to say no when I asked for him to return it. Same with Jeff. I did a solo on his album and I said, “cool, you can do a solo on mine.” And of course he put my solo to shame, haha. It was rather casual. It creates variety, and they both did a fantastic job.
Devin’s on Track 3, “Introspection,” right?
Yeah. He did a great job. He has this powerful, theatrical way of singing clean vocals. I did the vocal line originally, but it didn’t have the power that I wanted it to have, so his voice was really perfect for that song. It was also really great to get to know him, because he approaches things in a similar way as I do. He works alone in his studio and hires in musicians for parts. He has a very strong vision and loves to do different types of music and approach it in very enthusiastic way. It’s easy for me to relate and enjoy the company of people like him who don’t do things in the standard “five guys in a rehearsal room” type of style.
Well, it was great to talk to you. Thanks for your time!
Eremita comes out on June 19th in the U.S. via Candlelight Records.