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Ihsahn the loner


Ever since he started his solo career, Ihsahn hasn’t been compromising on what it means. Ihsahn composes more or less alone and strives to free himself from outside influences or what could be expected of him. Limiting himself to a specific instrumental structure is out of the question – his music should simply be a reflection of what he is.

On another subject – although still linked to the question of introspection –, he declares that his definition of black metal matters only to him, and that he’s not trying to impose it to anyone.

In order to better understand his new album, Eremita, and his solo career in a more general way, Ihsahn shares with us his universe and his way of thinking in this interview.

« I follow my own path, I don’t really need to merge and mingle. »

Radio Metal: The album is called Eremita, which is Latin for “hermit”. That’s quite an obvious question, but do you see yourself as a hermit ?

Ihsahn: I guess artistically, yes, I would say that. In a more mundane way, it relates to me working very much alone. I follow my own path, I don’t really need to merge and mingle. But the title reflects the album on more important levels, I think. Nietzsche has been a huge influence on me. He was like a philosophical hermit himself. He wrote about Zarathustra, about the hermit existence. Throughout my career, I’ve always come back to these mythological figures, if you will. Prometheus, Icarus or Lucifer, all those outsiders who chose to go apart from conformity and the collective to make up their own mind about stuff. It reflects the concept of the album, with this protagonist escaping into the forest. It was very natural to have that title.

« I enjoy the type of albums that you can listen to start to finish, and they give you a certain atmosphere. »

You said in an interview that for the album After, you were essentially inspired by bleak landscapes, with no sign of life. On this record, apparently, you had black and white pictures in your head, like in an old horror movie. It looks like, for every album, you have an image pattern that drives your inspiration. Where does that come from ?

You’re quite right. I think it’s part of the method that I developed over the years, before I was working as a solo artist. The music is not really kept in place, because it keeps bouncing back and forth between band members, and during the rehearsals. For me it’s just a very effective way to keep on track. Personally, I enjoy, not necessarily concept albums, but the type of albums that you can listen to start to finish, and they give you a certain atmosphere. Even if there’s a variety of songs, you still have a link to the feeling of that album. That’s how I want my albums to feel as well. That’s why I’ve kind of created this framework for the latest records. There are visual things I want to focus on, and this time it was almost like an old horror movie, with black and white shots. Musically, there are a lot of elements, like dark chords, trombones, two bass and horns, that were like a sonic reference I had to make the album sound much more organic. I also had lyrical ideas, title ideas, stuff like that. With the help fo Heidi, my wife, who’s very good with concepts and structures, I developed a small plan, or scenario, or synopsis for this album. That became a key to my creative focus, to help the process. It’s important for me, because I play so many parts, sometimes I get a bit mixed up in the process. It doesn’t mean those who buy the album will have to experience and feel the same thing. It’s basically just so it has a cohesive feel.

This is your longest solo album ever. Is there a specific reason behind that or it is just the way the album turned out ?

It’s just the way the album turned out, really. Nothing planned !

Since it’s your longest album, are there some songs or ideas you couldn’t put on the record ?

When I start writing, I often sketch very rough ideas. A lot of that will of course be disregarded if it doesn’t take me anywhere. I know some artists write full songs and throw them out afterwards. But if I have ideas that don’t inspire me and don’t lead me anywhere, I just leave them at that stage. I’d rather keep on working with those ideas that I get a connection to.

You said about this album : “I really feel this is some of my most inspired work yet”, which is a classic thing for an artist to say when they release an album. But I don’t remember you making that kind of statement in the past. What is so special about this album ?

I guess there are many reasons. Having finished the first three albums, the trilogy, I ended up in a place I really enjoyed musically. I have the foundation of music, the roots are extreme metal, but I have a new playground to experiment with it. I think I took on this new album with more confidence. I’m feeling more in control regarding the extent to which I can push the album. With this confidence came the thought that I could dig into some of the earlier influences of my career. I could go back to black metal, which I guessed I steered away from for a long time. I’m feel like I’m talking bull right now! Basically, it’s just a feeling. When I listen to the album, I feel it goes deeper than my earlier work. Not that I’m not happy about the earlier things, but there’s just something about this album. I guess I came very close to what I had planned to make. That’s how I try to evaluate my success: how close did I get this time ? (laughs)

You said in an interview, about the trilogy you concluded with After, that your initial decision to do a trilogy first was kind of to reinvent or rebuild a musical platform for yourself. Can we say that you needed those three albums to find out who you are musically ?

Yes and no. I wanted to give myself the time span of those three albums to kind of explore the potential of what I could do alone, without anyone mixing in and putting their thoughts into it. (laughs) But it was also to sort of regroup and not make it an extension of my work in Emperor. I wanted to make something solid for myself, that could stand well on its own two feet. On these levels, it was very important. Now that I’ve come this far, that distance doesn’t really matter that much to me anymore. I’m more at ease with my relationship to the early part of my career. On a more practical level, I also didn’t want to go and play live shows with just one or two albums, play five songs from the first album and then do Emperor covers for the rest of the night. I didn’t want this to be a spin-off of Emperor. I wanted this to be something real.

Your previous album, After, was the conclusion of that trilogy. One could think that, since After was the end of it, your new record, Eremita, would be different. But actually, after listening to it, it really looks like this album is the continuity of After, like you were trying to go further and perfect what you’ve done on After. While writing Eremita, was this trilogy some kind of a starting point ?

As I said, I think it’s the confidence I gained from doing the first three albums and where I ended up musically. Some things were more of an experiment on After, and even if they fell into place, I thought there was room to explore. I used the saxophone again, lower tuning and all that. For me, the big difference is the synopsis. Even if the musical elements are similar, the atmosphere, for the most part, is quite different. I didn’t see a need to distance myself consciously from what I did on After, because I felt similar things could be explored further. Most metal artists never do anything new! (laughs)

« There’s no point for me to do a solo project if I’m limited to a certain instrumentation or a certain group of people. I don’t want to be bound by those limitations. »

There are a lot of guest musicians of this album, but those are only musicians you’ve played recently with – there’s no exception. How come there is no one else ? Is it just a coincidence ?

No, it’s just very practical and quite natural. Tobias, the drummer, has been in my live band since the very first show I did. He’s a fantastic drummer. He has a particularly expressive and dynamic style. He’s not a typical metal drummer, and that’s exactly what I had in mind for this album. And of course, having played with him in so many rehearsals and so many shows, my communication with him was very easy. It had great potential, and I think he performed splendidly. He gave the album that kind of rhythmic, organic vibe that I really wanted. For Jorgen, it was a lucky coincidence that I ended up with him on the previous record. Since then, we have become very good friends. He’s a great guy, and it was just natural to offer him to join and do his magic once again. As for Jeff Loomis and Devin Townsend, they asked me to add a bit of vocals to their own records. So when I thought, for my own record, that this part would sound nice with a different voice, I asked Devin. Then, when I came to this solo part, I thought maybe Jeff Loomis would be a good person. I just asked them to return the favor. It was all just a friendly exchange of favors. There was nothing gigantic in that sense. As for Einar, who sings on the first track, he will probably perform those vocal lines live anyway, because he’s also in Leprous. I was very happy that he wanted to contribute with vocals. I was not intending to pick certain names or anything like that. I was not intending to put a sticker on the record, that said “featuring this and that” ! That’s beyond the point of the album. It’s a good album regardless of their contributions. It was just to add some spice in the mix: I added some on their records, they added some on mine.

The work of the guests is really fitting the music very well. Did you write the music knowing who would be invited ?

No ! (laughs) Apart from Tobias and Jorgen, of course.

The album is reminiscent of Devin Townsend’s Deconstruction album, in the sense that it’s a very diverse album and there’s a lot of guests. Do you feel close to Devin Townsend’s way of writing music ?

I think his expression, the feelings of his albums, his inspiration and his motivations are very different. But I definitely find a lot of similarities when it comes to how we relate to music and how we work with music. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him on several occasions, and he’s a fantastic guy, with lots of energy. He just seems to have that driving force to do music, and follow wherever that takes him. He doesn’t care about placing this or that element, he just does his music in the best way he can. Because he does it primarily for himself, I think. Like myself, he doesn’t know how to do anything else, he almost doesn’t have a choice. He has this urge, this driving force to do music. He goes in the studio, he has a vision, and he brings in what he feels is right for it, even if it means playing everything himself. Whatever it takes. I can sympathize with that ! (laughs)

Jorgen Munkeby from the Norwegian band Shining plays saxophone on this record. Do you think this instrument will become an integral part of Ihsahn’s sound on the next albums ?

I don’t know yet. I have a lot of plans for the next album, and also a few plans for the one after that. But I’ve not come as far as thinking about instrumentation. As much as I love his playing, I don’t see it as a necessity. There’s no point for me to do a solo project if I’m limited to a certain instrumentation or a certain group of people. I don’t want to be bound by those limitations. Then I might as well do a band! Maybe next time I’ll do something rather different, and maybe I will play with Jorgen again at some other point. I don’t want to make it a necessary sound.

The musicians who played on After weren’t the same as the musicians who played on tour with you. Didn’t it create some kind of a gap between the original spirit of the songs and the way they were performed on stage ?

No, I wouldn’t say so. Asgeir Mickelson and Lars Norberg, who played drums and bass on After, did a great job, and I was very happy to have them along. By no means am I trying to undermine their contributions, but for the most part, I direct everything. I write the songs, I do the programs to plan how the drums will sound, and then it’s open for interpretation for the drummer. We never rehearsed the parts together, it was all constructed in the first place. As long as I have session musicians who can play the parts, I don’t think the way I work leaves that much room for them to have an impact. On the other hand, I’ve already worked with Tobias, I’ve rehearsed a lot with him. I couldn’t know more things about the particularities of his drumming. I kind of planned that into the recording and trusted him, in a different way. His approach of drumming is very different, but it’s no problem for him to play the parts on After and make them groove.

« No one has the blueprint of what black metal is, and what it’s not. For me, black metal is a feeling, you know? How I feel that and how I express that is no one else’s business. »

Last time we spoke, two years ago, for the release of After, you said: “Nowadays, people tend to see black metal as a more traditional type of metal because everyone knows what it is about and it is often defined by what it should or should not be. This goes completely against what I always believed black metal to be. For me, black metal always represented the idea of musical freedom. Now that there are so many rules, it is no longer black metal”. Could we say that what killed the spirit of black metal is that someone decided to name it black metal ?

Not necessarily. It’s just a label – and it’s very subjective. I can only understand it in my own way. Basically, no one has the blueprint of what black metal is, and what it’s not. For me, black metal is a feeling, you know? How I feel that and how I express that is no one else’s business. I don’t make a big show of calling my music this or that, because for me, it’s beside the point. But if there’s something that I associate with being black metal, it’s a certain feeling. If the music makes me feel like that, to me, it’s black metal. I don’t care what they say or do, what they initially thought or what roots they followed; it just makes me feel that way or not. I don’t care if people tell me what I do is not black metal, because there’s a saxophone, and that’s not allowed. Why should I care? In my own interpretation, one of the most black metal songs I ever did is “The Grave”, from this record. If there’s one song in my career that I would call very much the essence of black metal, it would be that song.

Is it possible, then, to do black metal without making extreme metal ?

I guess if you asked a common person, they would still label my music as being extreme ! (laughs)

A few weeks ago, we made an interview with Varg Vikernes, and we wanted him to comment your statement. He answered very aggressively, saying: “Ihsahn wouldn’t know what black metal was supposed to be. He was one of those death metal musicians who all of a sudden wanted to play black metal instead in 1992, long after Darkthrone and Burzum had released their first so-called black metal albums. So his death metal band ‘Thou Shall Suffer’ changed name to ‘Emperor’ and all of a sudden claimed to be black metal band instead. […] The whole point with black metal was that each and every band should be different from all other bands – in contrast to the ultra-trendy death metal bands who by that time all sounded the same. If a band didn’t have its own style, its own originality and a special approach, then it wasn’t black metal. When the rats in Emperor and Enslaved very quickly dropped their death metal dreams and all of a sudden started to copy Darkthrone and Burzum we – Euronymous and myself – were bloody pissed at them. They didn’t understand anything! Ihsahn is perhaps right when he says that the bands who play so-called black metal today are not really black metal bands, but neither was ever Emperor or Enslaved, and I guess he still fails to see that.” What do you think of that ?

I guess it could be expected. What can I say? I think he remembers things differently. If he hated what we did so much, why would he be one of Samoth’s best friends at the time we did Emperor? Why would he come and visit us, why would he come in and listen to the recordings for In The Nightside Eclipse? Why would he do that if he hated us so much and thought we were doing so much wrong? Maybe he remembers things differently. I never got along well with Varg, he was kind of Samoth’s friend. And I don’t care. He’s in a special place, and has been for many years. Many of those who played this style in the 90s have probably moved on a bit. And beyond that, I don’t really want to comment on it. He has a lot of strange views on things, but he’s entitled to his opinion. I don’t let him or anyone else tell me what my music is or isn’t. I do my music for my own heart, and I don’t really give a fuck what people think about it. If you like it, great; if you don’t, it’s all the same to me.

That was my last question. Do you have one last thing to say ?

Thanks for the support. I’m a bit surprised to be drawn into a kind of quarrel with Varg !

I’m sorry, I wanted to conclude the interview with something funnier, but that’s how it turned out !

You don’t have to emphasize that last part of the interview. If you put it out like there’s an ongoing conflict between Emperor, myself and Varg, that would be exaggerating. I’ve had very little to do with the man in the early 90s, and obviously in the last, what has it been? 20 years? I’ve had nothing to do with him! (laughs) So what is there to quarrel about? It’s all about who’s right and who isn’t in his way of seeing the world. No one really cares ! (laughs)

Interview conducted on june, 1st, 2012 by Metal’O Phil by phone
Questions : Spaceman & Metal’O Phil
Transcription : Saff’
Introduction : Metal’O Phil

Ihsahn’s website : www.ihsahn.com
Album : Eremita, out.



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