Exclusive Interview: Ihsahn
Ihsahn’s new album Das Seelenbrechen comes out on October 22nd (order here). In advance of its release the man himself took some time out of schedule to chat with Vince about the album’s creative leaps and how they fit into the grander theme of his solo work. He also talked Emperor, nostalgia, what it means to be black metal, and the complications with touring the United States.
You’ve been doing this for a few number of years now. How do you find the energy to keep doing it – not just with the music, but knowing that you’re going to have to do press and tour?
You just get into the habit of things. I think doing press and everything was much harder and more stressful to me in the beginning because I was so concerned with saying the right thing and expressing myself most of the time in English, which is not my first language. I guess becoming older and having more experience and thinking about all the things I have said and done that are probably stupid and didn’t really backfire that bad. [Laughs] I just try to make it an interesting conversation and answer the questions as well as I can right there and then and not be too concerned with how it’s written or how it comes across.
Definitely. Do you approach your music the same way, being less concerned about how you’re being perceived by others and more concerned with writing from within and what makes you happy?
I think it’s a duality in that. I most definitely try my best and really think I’ve succeeded in that. I don’t really consider how things will be perceived when I write. It’s kind of a big ego trip like that, but at the same time, that’s the only way I can really notice that I have listeners who are going to follow my work and buy my albums.
I’ve been doing this for such a long time, and I’ve never had to compromise. I think that, in itself, has built a certain trust with people who listen to my music. They know that maybe I’ll pick out stuff that’ll be unexpected or maybe they won’t like it, but I think and hope that I’m perceived as someone who is not trying to fit stuff into their pocket or make them buy anything.
You hear terms like “true black metal” or “non-true black metal. If I’m coming from that background and I consider changing my music and doing things differently, that would make it non-black metal. It serves a purpose that I get creative freedom and I’m less concerned with the commercial aspects of what I’m doing, but at the same time I hope those that eventually listen to the music get something genuine that is not cynically constructed for commercial purposes.
There are certainly a lot of fans who have followed your solo work and have appreciated the change that you choose to introduce to the music and whichever direction you want to go. Certainly I’m sure you’ve encountered a lot of opposition from Emperor fans who don’t care at all about the solo material. To some extent, people do care.
Yeah but that’s why, as a music fan, I can understand nostalgia. My relationship to Maiden all through the ’80s was important to me. I’m not as passionate for Maiden in the ’90s and since then, but I’ve been to Maiden shows in later years. I hear the new songs objectively, and they’re good songs, it’s just that I haven’t grown that kind of relationship to them. It’s the same thing with Emperor. People have a nostalgic feeling for them because they have attached experiences to them. I think we all do that with music. When you love music, you attach experiences and personal things to certain albums and certain songs. You have this craving to kind of experience that all over again. I think people who want a new Emperor album . . . what kind of album would they like? Would they like us to try and fake something that we did in the early ’90s or would they like us to do something that is a natural consequence of where we are creatively?
I think they would definitely like you to do something like the early ’90s.
Yeah, me too, but how can you make a black metal album with that kind of creative intent? That would make it non-black metal. I think technically I could easily do it, but I think doing that would make everything that I ever did almost into a lie.
Oh, I totally agree with you. I’m just saying that’s what I think the majority of Emperor fans would want, whether they admit that’s what they want or not.
People have this notion that did Emperor was this huge thing. How did you experience the overnight success of In the Nightside Eclipse? I just say, “Why the hell wasn’t I there?” [laughs] With Emperor, it was a struggle all the way through. The kind of aura and the kind of phenomenon that Emperor is now, I think, is due to the fact that we actually left Emperor when the creative differences stopped being constructive.
I’ve been very lucky. For most people to step out of an established band and try to go solo, in most cases it’s not really a success, and people end up being parodies of themselves. My solo career is not as big as Emperor by any measure, but I’m still making a living out of this and playing the same festivals and everything. I’ve been very lucky. Coming from Norway and having an international music career, to some extent, is kind of far-fetched especially when you start with a black metal band in 1991. Career wise, starting a black metal band in 1991 was probably the worst idea ever.
If you want to make a living, that was against all odds. I think the only way to honor the fact that I’ve had listeners who had faith and given me that space to create and listen to my music and buy my albums so that I could continue this is to not care what people necessarily want and to try to do my absolute best every time I put out an album.
When I first listened to the new album when it’s finished I was very satisfied. It came out better than I hoped for considering that this was a huge experiment for me with a lot of new ground, and I thought that this was commercial suicide.
It seems like with every solo album that there has been more interest. The first one…
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. That may change of course, but I’ve gotten quite a lot of reviews already sent to me from before they go to press. My record company gets an early notice and everything. I’m just overly surprised with the reviews that have been made so far. I think with my first solo album, I may have underestimated how music lovers and people who like this kind of music seem to be more creatively educated. They seem to be open to more sounds, and I think that is a positive side of the Internet in that you don’t limit yourself to a few albums. Back in the day, when I was young, you saved up money to buy this one vinyl of your favorite band, and obviously you took full advantage of that and closed yourself off to a lot of other stuff. These days, I think it’s bad days for the music business, but for music as an art form, there is really good faith.
Absolutely. I think the Internet has played a big part in helping to spread your music to the people who are the most interested in it. As far as the new album, it really does seem like it’s a big departure. I can understand why you would think it was career suicide. What led you to take some of these departures and try something different this time?
Throughout my career I’ve been mainly doing metal albums. More and more over the years, making and producing metal albums has become tedious and a very controlled process – especially how everything is edited and layered to create a musical illusion. It leaves very little room for that magic to happen – the mistakes or coincidences that you didn’t plan but make it special. In the end, that’s what we all want: those magical moments that happen more by coincidence.
All along in the tedious process of making layered and multi layered albums, I’ve always come back to stuff like Diamanda Galas. I’ve often said that she does stuff with her voice alone that the rest of us try to achieve with 200 tracks. I’ve always admired artists who can be that spontaneous and express something with such power and authenticity without the filters.
With the first four albums, concept wise even though they’re quite different, they are in the same musical landscape with heavy guitars and saxophone and heavy songs for the overall production of the album. That’s kind of the reason why this album is coming out so soon after Eremita as well. It’s why I chose a German title; it’s why I chose all these cryptic titles to show that every aspect of this album is a deliberate sidestep. I think my intention is that this is not a continuation of the path I have been going musically with my solo career; it’s a deliberate sidestep to reset the parameters and keep it kind of exciting and inspiring for myself before I continue the journey that I have been having and the musical foundation that I’ve built with the first four albums. I needed to do something else, to express and challenge myself in a different way. I didn’t want to feel that I was following a formula. I think I do my best work if I’m slightly out of my comfort zone. I can learn so much more from doing that rather than building on what is the safe way to go.
Was the writing process any different for this album than it was for the past two?
In many aspects, yes, because I think I have been able to be more spontaneous. Both the music and lyrics show that in a way. It’s not layered so much. It’s more personally revealing. I always try to write lyrics that are personal, but I try to hide stuff in metaphors and images so that it’s not as private. This time, I think, I feel more exposed. Since things aren’t so controlled and are more improvised and more expressive in that sense, the album seems more privately exposed.
There are a lot of musical departures too, of course. It’s a mellower album as a whole. It’s very experimental and there is some very interesting instrumentation. Is that what you were talking about when you said “getting outside of your comfort zone and challenging yourself”?
Yes, and at the heart of it, I really wanted to release that uncontrolled element. All the years that I have been writing and recording music, I think this inspirational force has been a constant throughout. It’s the reason that I was drawn to make a dark form of music; every album and every song is just a different take on trying to express this core atmosphere. My idea for this album was to let go of the force, in a way, without the skill and without the experience, but create directly from the source like we did in the early days with Emperor. We had no experience, we weren’t really skilled at what we were doing, but the conviction and the passion were really strong and we built on top of that. I think I wanted to get back to that way of creating, and, to put it bluntly, to make a pure black metal feeling album by totally different means.
I know what our readers are definitely going to want to know, and I’m sure lots of other people too: are you going to bring the solo show to the States?
I’ve been in the States twice. I did Progpower in Atlanta a few years ago, and just a few months ago I played Maryland Death Fest.
Oh that’s right. I forgot that you did those two. I meant for a proper tour.
I’ve played there quite recently, but obviously it’s a big continent and there are lots of places that it would be great to play again. I’ve played the US with both Emperor and Peccatum in the past. I’ve been playing a lot of European shows this summer, and I’m going to Japan on Sunday to do a small tour there. For the rest of the season I’m doing ProgPower in Oslo. Beyond that, I’ll just be focusing on getting the Emperor set list together for next year.
I don’t do any extensive touring because of my production work and working in the studio and creating new music. It has to fit in the shadow of my backing band live. Right now, my backing band just finished three weeks of their European tour and then they come home for four days and we have rehearsal on Friday. They have two new members that I’ve never played with before, so we’ve got one long rehearsal on Friday and then we go to headline a tour in Japan on Sunday. [Laughter] They are very busy, and we have to make things work for both parties. To be quite honest, it’s not a problem for any of us to get a working visa to go to the States, but you wouldn’t believe how much money and how much work and how tedious it is to get these work visas to go to the States.
Oh I know. I know exactly what it is. It’s crazy, it’s insane.
It’s ridiculous. It’s hard to have a financial situation with the promoters and everything to make all this stuff happen. It’s easier for us to go to Japan, even though it’s so far away. It’s easier to do something like that than to go to the States – which is sad because even though I’m a European artist, I’ve always had strong bonds to the American scene as well.
Yeah. I’ll have to go to Japan to see you then. I’ve always wanted to go to Japan anyway.
Maybe. You should if you haven’t, you really should. I’ve only been there once for a tour at the end of 2011. It’s a fantastic country. It gave me such a great impression.