IHSAHN: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
Ihsahn’s After is perhaps the biggest curveball of his career thus far. At the very least, the man deserves credit for combining prog rock, technical death metal, and nimble saxophone accompaniment into something other than an unlistenable clusterfuck. But After is more than a non-clusterfuck: it’s easily the most distinctive of his post-Emperor work, if not possibly his best as a solo artist. For the first time, In the Nightside Eclipse sounds like an eon ago, if not foreign altogether.
Of course, Ihsahn is aware of this. The man sounds proud when talking about his latest, the last of his first trilogy of solo albums, as well as at peace with his past. In an interview with MetalSucks, he talks about After’s origins, the hypocrisy of the “black metal” mindset, the status of Emperor, and the surprisingly pragmatic reason why it took him so long to play out as a solo artist.
Okay, let’s plow right into this then. What can you tell us about After? How do you think it compares to your last two solo records?
I think it serves its purpose of being the end of the trilogy, because during the writing and production of my first album, The Adversary, I said I wanted to make this a trilogy. The Adversary and angL are two sides of the same coin. Both of the albums, lyrically, are very direct and confrontational and full of conflict in a way, and very much Nietzsche-inspired. For me, I wanted to establish almost a typical metal approach. Metal, in my opinion, to a degree should be adversarial and about confrontation and challenging what is commonly accepted. For the third album, it has the title After because it is after the conflict. The whole concept is mellower and more laid back and more observant. There is no sign of life in any of the lyrics. It’s vaguer in the landscapes. The first line on the first song on the album is, “These are barren lands of fair and cold.” Musically and lyrically it’s the end of the trilogy, so it’s indicating that it’s the end of this project in a way. With my old band, Emperor, I felt the whole concept and sound had painted itself into a corner musically. There was a very limited amount of creative space at the end because the project came to be that. I didn’t want to do that with my own solo project, so I’m very happy that this album is the next stepping stone from the previous two, and is pointing in a wider musical direction. For me, as well, I think my next album has a sort of set space on this. For my fourth album, I feel I have more of a clean slate musically, instead of following a natural thing.
Was that on your mind when you were writing it – getting yourself out of a corner or maybe going into a mellower direction?
Not so completely, but it’s more like with all these albums, I have this sketchbook that before I even start to write any music, I sketch out what kind of album I want to make. I was very direct when I did The Adversary because I actually sketched out the full album, and I wrote it from the first song to the last, the way it ended up on the album. That was a bit too extreme in a way, but I’ve made similar plans for what kind of album on a whole that I want to make. It’s kind of open ended in a way, but I have some kind of skeleton and maybe some title ideas and references of how I want it to sound. I had some guideline of where I wanted it to be so it doesn’t come up as a collection of eight or nine songs that I happened to write in that period. The albums I like myself are albums that you listen to from beginning to end. That’s the kind of albums that I like to make, so that’s why I make these sort of plans to keep the bigger picture in mind.
So my plan for this was to be more different and free floating in a way. It’s on so many levels. One of the influences on this album was, of course, getting my first 8 string guitar. That influenced my guitar part writing. Also, on a more personal level, in my career I think at this point, I’ve grown more constant as a solo artist. I think I’ve allowed myself to accept my part in Emperor’s role as part as my musical background. So subconsciously, I’ve been trying to get away from Emperor, but I’ve accepted it more recently and that’s why I think it’s a bit more atmospheric on this album. On previous albums I’ve been a bit shorter in my expression to keep the excitement going with different themes and quick changes, but this one, the last song on the album is very long. The whole album ends with like two minutes of just two chords just going and going. It felt natural to let the music lead more on a way of its own.
Would you say you focused more on atmosphere on this record?
I kind of always go for atmosphere. But with the first two albums, it was a very direct confrontation with the lyrical complexity that was in your face in a way. The theme was a bit more rapid thought of expression in a way whereas this one, I wanted to kind of step back a little and let the soul direct. I could compare it to… do you know my work with Emperor?
On the second Emperor album there is a song called “With Strength I Burn.” I realized that when I wrote the last song on this album, “On the Shores,” that inspiration-wise, I’m back to the same scenery as when I wrote “With Strength I Burn.” It’s kind of the same image in my mind. It wasn’t a conscious decision; it was me focusing more on the essence on the song inspiration and building up with what’s happening in my life and my surroundings right now. It’s more of the essential, abstract sort of inspiration that, I guess, more or less have been a constant lying underneath it. Like a sense of beginning. I think the focus of making this album, without making it sound too deep… I think I’ve gone more for the depth. It’s not about complete things; it’s more the adversary that lies beyond the door. I think that’s why I record so much about water because that’s very eternal, and the lyrics of On the Shores are a constant pull of the sea. It’s something that’s immediate.
Do you think that writing this album helped you accept Emperor’s place in your life , creatively-speaking?Ending the album in the same way as “With Strength I Burn”… Is that a piece you found while composing this album?
It’s just more coincidental, I think. It was just a natural part. For quite a few years after I quit Emperor, I wanted to go in a different direction and became much more experimental and was doing more stuff that wasn’t necessarily metal-related. I think I needed to get that kind of distance between myself and Emperor because the reason for my not doing Emperor anymore was that I felt very locked in it and there was such a strong preconception from the forces outside that had opinions on what Emperor should be and should not be. For me as a musician, that doesn’t work for me. I don’t like people telling me what to do. It felt like the Emperor phenomenon grew on its own and became something that I didn’t have power over anymore. Then we started to let it do its thing, and I did my thing in a way. I think I needed to distance myself from that whole thing, and of course I was starting over when I decided to do a metal album again. It was kind of trying to build a new musical foundation, but it felt natural for me to do it in a metal genre because that’s my upbringing, that’s second nature to me. I didn’t start from scratch, but again, on some levels I felt I did. It’s just a natural process. I did these three albums in a very similar fashion practically as I did with the last Emperor album. I played more instruments on Prometheus than I do on my previous last two solo albums.
Yes. In essence, it’s the same thing. You get more confident as you get older.
It’s funny that you say that you were caged in by Emperor, because I listened back on some of that stuff when I was doing prep work for this, and I was amazed at how much you guys progressed in what, for many bands, would be a small amount of time. Each of your albums is this totally different personality, and I think in a realm like black metal bands tend to stick to one sort of sound or ethos – but you guys were still pushing outward. How did you guys manage to do that where other bands decided to stick to one thing?
Not to take credit for all that, but Samoth and I were the driving forces behind it. It started out with writing the individual material. Over the years I always did the lead guitar stuff and some of the vocals. On the second album, I did all of the lyrics and all the keyboard arrangements and took on more and more of the musical side of it. I guess that’s one of the reasons we ended breaking it up because Emperor was heading in a more progressive direction whereas the other guys in Emperor wanted to go in a more traditional direction.
My argument would be that Emperor started out as an uncompromising band, and I hope to continue that. There are still people, to this day – quite a few actually – who think that my music was best when I was seventeen. Of course, I cannot believe that and I don’t want to believe that, because I feel my best is yet to come. If I didn’t think that, I might as well just find something else to do.
You mentioned the genre of black metal. In my opinion, I hope black metal is all about different forms of worshiping the individual, but there’s always this bullshit about “true” black metal and blah blah blah. In my opinion, the more you follow someone else’s rules about what is or is not black metal, the moment you even consider doing that, it’s not black metal anymore. Do you get my point?
When I first got into this stuff in the early 90s, it was doing what thy will shall be. When you say that you can’t do this and you can do that in music, if you even consider it, you take away your integrity, and there’s nothing left. I never cared to go in that framework. To this day, I do whatever I feel like, and that’s the whole black metal attitude. You can’t do it more black metal than that, can you?
No. I guess it’s like a catch-22 in that situation, where people try and put a genre thing on it when, in actuality, it’s about individualism by its very nature.
It’s always like that. When black metal really started, people in the other scenes made jokes about it. People are under the impression that Emperor was an overnight success, but that’s an impression that you get afterwards. We recorded the first album in ’93, but it didn’t come out until ’95. Even then, it took a long while for it to grow in sales. When we did the second album, we were actually slaughtered in the bigger magazines. Now some people group Emperor’s early work with Black Sabbath. I’m not comparing them by any means, but Jimi Hendrix, for example, was an innovator with the guitar sound and even with effects pedals. Decades go by and people still string their guitars upside down and buy this equipment to sound like Jimi Hendrix because, in their mind, he’s the greatest guitar player who ever lived. It’s kind of a reverse philosophy of what he did, because he wanted to go forward, but he has followers who want to go backward. That’s what I think is so typical for all kinds of subculture things – eventually it may rise to a commercial level, and then people just want to get stuck there and not evolve.
Okay. What is the status of Emperor? Are you guys going to still play out every now and again or have you collectively put that to bed at this point?
That’s definitely put to bed. It was very cool to put the proper ending to it by doing the shows that we never did after the last album. It was a great experience. I think Emperor is a phenomenon that got bigger after we quit it.
For me, I really don’t follow the scene very well. If I look for new music, it’s in other genres that I seek new inspiration from. I was very surprised about the welcome that Emperor got when we did the reunion shows. Selling out B.B. King’s in New York two nights in a row and then coming back next year and headlining shows for 60,000 people… for me, I didn’t know it was like that. In any musician’s career, regardless which band, if you get the chance to headline, everybody who watched Iron Maiden DVDs or video (which I grew up on)… who wouldn’t want to headline for 60,000 people? It’s a cool thing to do – to get to play at the nice places for once.
But then again, in a way it kind of easy job, because the people came to see it. You kind of know what to expect and the crowd is happy because they hear the songs that they expected to hear. It was a very different challenge for me when I did my first solo show in support of Opeth in Oslow. The Opeth audience is very different than the Emperor audience, so I didn’t really get that much for free. It was kind of a challenge to open in support of Opeth and showing up with my new material. I kind of like that because I was back in the challenging position again. I really had to dig up that extra little bit of energy to try and come across 100%.
It took quite awhile for you to start playing your solo material live, correct?
Yeah. That was also a very conscious decision. I may have been in this over half my life, but I’m only 34. I didn’t feel like going out and playing clubs and playing old Emperor material. That’s why I didn’t want to go and play live shows and do like three songs off of my first solo album and then do Emperor cover songs for the rest of the night. I wanted to have at least two or three albums behind me to pick [a set list] from before I actually go out and represent my own stuff. The Opeth support that I did in ’08 was more a coincidence because I never really planned to do any live shows until after this album. It was a lucky strike, I guess. I’m doing more shows. We’ll be playing festivals around Europe this summer.
So I’m not going to tie you up too much longer because I know you got another interview right after mine. I have one more question for you.
Go ahead. Sure.
I was on your MySpace page, and under “influences” I saw Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Bathory, Radiohead… and then, at the bottom, I saw The Simpsons.
I was curious on how The Simpsons inspire what you do?
Well, it’s been a long time since I put that up. It’s a mixture of things that are a huge inspiration to me and all the things I happen to like. I like watching things in a series. Getting to see stuff when it’s actually on television is kind of hard for me, so I usually end up buying the series on DVD.
The Simpsons is hilarious… really funny stuff. I guess it means that it isn’t all black and white. Can you imagine that some fans and stuff who were shocked that we didn’t actually sleep in coffins? [laughs]
It’s a little bit of well-deserved mystery. There are some preconceptions on who we are as a Norwegian black metal group, and I guess people had those preconceptions of what I’m supposed to be like. [laughs] It’s always nice to take the edge off of things in some ways. By no means, do I feel a thing like that would lessen my integrity as an artist. I think that the whole narrow-mindedness of what a specific genre is supposed to be or not to be is very limiting.
Yeah. It seems as though you’ve You pretty much spent your whole career trying to avoid being limited.
In a way, yeah. Basically, I never had a grand plan. I wanted to do music, and I’ve been greatly privileged to have it as a career. In a way, I feel that I’ve had no choice. People usually ask “When did you decide?” or “When did it happen?” I think that when I saw Iron Maiden in ’89, the pyro effects went off during the first lines of “Moonchild,” and I think I never looked back. I was fourteen. Since then I never considered doing anything else other than music. [laughs] I never had to do an honest day’s work. I play the guitar; you can’t consider that proper work. [laughs]