Ihsahn Emperor's New Clothes

Ihsahn Emperor's New Clothes
Photo: Bjorn Tore Moen
This has been a year of risks for composer and multi-instrumentalist Ihsahn, who first made a name for himself as the guitarist and vocalist in the seminal black metal band Emperor. After years of staunchly resisting the idea of a reunion, Emperor will reunite to headline the Wacken Open Air Festival in Germany in 2014, and will also play a few select European dates the same summer, including Hellfest and Bloodstock. With a lineup composed of fellow founding member Samoth and drummer Faust, the reunion performances represent a celebration of the 20th anniversary of their defining record In The Nightside Eclipse.

Ihsahn has sought to distance himself from his work in Emperor as his solo career has developed, preferring to focus on the increasingly technical, progressive and experimental direction his work has flourished in, moving away from his raw beginnings in black metal. While agreeing to slip under the mantle of Emperor again, if only briefly, Ihsahn has also pushed himself to go further and deeper on his latest record, Das Seelenbrechen. His most avant-garde release to date, the tracks on this latest effort are structured entirely around improvisational session. Also, while in the past Ihsahn has worked with a host of guest artists on his other albums, Das Seelenbrechen features only his own work and that of drummer Tobias Ørnes Andersen (Leprous). Strange, naked, and intensely vulnerable, it is a wild leap forward for the solo artist, as he simultaneously steps back to reacquaint himself with his musical past.

You refer to Das Seelenbrechen as a deliberate sidestep, sort of a change in tone and content from your more recent solo work, has been leaning ever more towards the experimental. But this seems to be an even greater departure, a desire to push against boundaries. Was there a specific pattern you were trying or break out of, or there were certain tendencies in your work you wanted to not necessarily break, but push beyond?
It's more like, I think for me working with new albums, it's kind of different when you work as a solo artist than when you work in a band. You kind of have the natural push and pull between members, and songs and albums come out of the joined collaboration you have over time. As for me working solo, it's very different to create or plan albums than when you were in the band. For every album, I've made a musical and lyrical framework before I've started working on the material. I mean, the first four records have been focused more, not metal metal but in the metal domain. Even After and Eremita are quite different, and they are both in similar musical territories.

I would say that's fair.
For me, it's an idea that I probably do my best work when I'm not totally in my comfort zone. For these two decades that I have been releasing stuff, all along I've had references for more experimental stuff. For example, someone that's been a huge influence on me is Diamanda Galás, who has been doing so much impressionistic work.

These days in particular, there has been a growing tendency for these 20 years to polish and edit. The craft of making metal albums is such a tedious and controlled process in many ways. For some reason there seems to be less space for those accidental magic moments that we all hope to achieve. I've been wanting to do an album like this for a long time, but I think I needed the musical foundation that I have with the previous four albums now. It is difficult for me to continue that musical journey that the four albums have been, but rather take a detour, do something totally different, challenge myself to do something else with different methods before I continue. So this is not a new direction, it is resetting the parameters before I continue.

You said something very important, which is you feel like you've been honing your craft for so many years you've been releasing these albums. You need to know the rules so intimately before you can break them. It seems very much listening to this record that this was very much a product of that, of someone who had internalized the forms that they were comfortable in and the forms they had merged out of so well they were now more comfortable shattering those.
I still love the craft of making albums in that metal way. I've always admired people who could express themselves more spontaneously, without that filter. I wanted to have a go at that and it was quite scary. Particularly some of the songs with pure improvisation, one take. It was like musical parachuting. It is music so there is not that much big of a risk, but it's a whole different way of expressing yourself.

In that way, all my lyrics have always been very personal. The way I wrote lyrics for this album was more spontaneous. It was more personally redeeming as well. I haven't been able to conjure up all the methods for it that hide the personal aspects and still make them personal if you know what I mean.

I certainly do. You can't have that immediacy without some kind of vulnerability, and I would certainly argue that there are moments where the record indefinitely benefits from that simultaneous power and vulnerability. You're exposing yourself with the experiment, you know?
Yes, it's kind of revealing and exposing, but then again that is what it is all about. I think artists or anyone who wants to express themselves, you have to put something of yours in it, it has to be genuine. Particularly in this type of genre. People are drawn to the darker aspects of music and more experimental music on the sideline, stuff that is not your top ten pop song of the week. You go for that because you search for something that is genuine and deeper than what you hear normally on the radio.

I think most people in this genre, who listen to this type of music will smell if it's fake. It's metal. You have to take it from somewhere to take the energy that you want to express, for every album. I love my work, but it's a great struggle. Especially something like this. It's been a huge emotional roller coaster. Maybe also because what I've dealt with is my own relationship to my own creativity, and how you rise and fall in your own eyes, up and down, through this whole process. The general idea for me to make this album was "Ok, I've been able to do so many varieties of my music expression, but the core inspiration has almost been a constant through my whole career." This base feeling has always been the same. Every album is a different attempt at expressing that. But now I just wanted to go back to the source, if you will. To try and make an unpolished, pure, dark, black metal album with different needs.

Coming from a different source. Was there anything about that process that really surprised you?
Not surprised, but I was very pleased to find that by doing some of these purely improvised tracks, I was scared how that would come out, if it would be a total failure, because I'm no artist who can perfect that craft. But some of those tracks on the album are among those that I am most satisfied with. The experience of doing it right there and then, like "Tacit 2." I'm not sure if you're familiar with the titles yet but track "Tacit 2" and "See," they are two songs done in two separate takes, one attempt. I explained to my drummer what kind of backing I wanted, I rigged it in the middle of the night when we finished all the other standard drum tracks and we just hit record and went go.

That's really extraordinary, and it's extraordinary the cohesion that has resulted even with that wildness to the process.
Thank you, I appreciate that.

They each have a very distinct emotional texture and flavour. They're each coming from a very different emotional place, and I really think that anchors the individual tracks.
Thank you. I have always said that another thing in metal I'm genuinely quite interested in geekery and production and all that, but I've found each song has their own arrangement. They might not manage to make great records, but they don't have one guitar sound or one drum sound for the whole album but it is very typically metal. They do one production and then different songs in that, for rock music in general. But for me it's not always that — the instruments in the arrangement — it's what the song means. I've always had this dream that I could do number each song, just build out in and of itself, and just use the sounds and arrangements that they needed.

I think that's definitely in gesture towards that on this record.
Also, hopefully the album as a whole will feel cohesive in spite of that. If you have a state of mind that is particular, focused to a degree on certain aspects or atmosphere you want to convey. That's how I've done most of the solo albums this way. I have images and lyrical ideas and I have a general atmosphere. I wouldn't say limitations but just kind of a blueprint of what kind of album I want to make. Then it's easy to make decisions when you write new stuff, if it fits into the frame or it doesn't. I'm a huge fan of Radiohead, for example. I'm sure you're familiar with OK Computer.

Very much so.
They were of course hugely successful making a sort of indie rock album like that. Their response to that was to make something like Kid A, an electronic album. But for some reason it still sounds like Radiohead, the guitar sounds. It's about the energy and the creativity of the people who make that music. I find that very interesting.

I find that very interesting too.
I must admit that much of the challenge for me creatively when I write new music now is to trick myself into skipping the analytical side. Just to take an example, I've been playing guitar my whole life, and playing a six-string guitar — just watching my fingers move, I will be feeling like I am repeating myself, because the motor memory of my fingers is over again. Maybe it's not similar but it just feels similar. That's why I ended up using eight-string guitars, because I'm on new ground. Different tones, different range, and you end up in different keys. The strings respond differently, the chords respond differently, and suddenly I can just use my ears; if it's fitting with the mood I want to express and not be too analytical.

In the same way, Eremita, my previous album, I wrote it primarily on a guitar. But I did not record any demos or anything, I just programmed all the themes and all the riffs with the piano sounds, and I did some basic drum programming. So my drummer had to record the entire album just listening to a tick track and piano sounds playing the rest. I had to have the drums in place and then I could start layering on top of that.

I think so much of creative work in general is just tricking yourself into doing it. It's how I bypass that terrible editor brain, just fooling yourself into relaxing enough to let something out, so that's really fascinating. While these are unquestionably solo records, and certainly Das Seelenbrechen emerges from your vision as well, there is also the mark of those other artists you collaborate with indelibly throughout this record. Do you deliberately choose who you work with because you know what they're going to bring to the project, or do you choose because they consistently surprise you?
That depends. On the two last records for example, when I worked with Jørgen [Munkeby] on the saxophone, that was definitely all about, especially Eremita, I knew more about how he configures. It's definitely about how he could add something, a flavour that I could not do. The same thing, when I've had guests in the past: Devin Townsend or Jeff Loomis doing a solo or Mikhail Åkerfeldt, my friend Kristoffer [Rygg] from Ulver and stuff like that. On this album, obviously it was natural for me to use Tobias, he's a dynamic and talented drummer, but on this album there are no guests, it's just me.

Which is a very fascinating departure. You're exposing more of yourself this way.
It's not that I was opposed to the idea. In the process of making the album, by the time that came around it was finished. I guess probably the prideful nature of this album for myself, didn't really lend itself to have any guests this time. I'd love to include people again and have that flavour but this in particular was all new, it was something in itself. There were enough surprises as it were.

Being able to be surprised by yourself again is an extremely liberating creative moment as well.
Absolutely, it's all about giving yourself that space to let things happen. Obviously through all my albums, luckily I have a secret partner in my wife. We run this production company together. She's the only one who can get through to me. I'm quite particular with my work but I run all my ideas by her, she helps me focus in these frameworks for the album and she knows about the whole vision. When you get subjective into the work, having someone on the sidelines who can come in and see if you're still in line with what you're doing, that's invaluable.

That's immensely valuable, and to make sure you're still alive as well. Of course, I do have some questions about your forthcoming Emperor reunion, which everyone is buzzing about as well, and in conjunction with the release of this record. I read in the original announcement, you said about the reunion at Wacken and some other select festival dates, this is sort of how it goes these days. I was kind of wondering, aside from the 20th anniversary of the record, what was it that pushed you to make this moment the moment that Emperor played some songs again?
It's a celebration of In The Nightside Eclipse. We knew we would be playing that album and material from that era. That's it, really. That's my terms for doing it, and the added bonus of having the original drummer. It's no secret that I've been really reluctant to ever do anything with Emperor again. I'm so much more focused on my solo work that I was almost fighting my past in Emperor. I didn't want to be just a spinoff product of that. I wanted to build something totally on my own terms, and I waited three albums in before I did any live shows because I didn't want to go 50/50, an Emperor/solo show. I wanted to have three albums and pick the songs that were best and play that. This is my fifth album, I've done more albums now as a solo artist, not including everything else I've done, than I did with Emperor. Where I'm at now with my solo career, I think it's easy to just comfortably accept my past metal as part of my musical life as well.

You don't have to worry about that shadow Emperor may have cast on you, as you have successfully emerged from it, so is revisiting less of a problem?
Still, I would not do something like the stuff we did in 2006/2007 again. I didn't want to play those kind of gestalt shows. I wanted this to be a celebration of that album. Because for us personally, obviously this was the stepping stone for me to be able to have a 20-year career. Coming from Norway and being a musician is sort of farfetched in the first place. I should say, starting a black metal band in '91. It's more paying respect to the fact that this is our starting point.

This is also what you have emerged from. A starting point is a really good way to put that. I do wonder with a few select dates for entirely selfish reasons, I am curious if any of the select tour dates you will be playing next summer and beyond will be in North America, or will they be confined to Europe?
So far. We have been considering everything that comes up. When Wacken was announced within the first three days we managed to turn down 52 different offers.

I'm sure it's ridiculous, I can only imagine.
Even before we announced it, there's always a constant flow of offers for Emperor to do this, or Emperor to do that. I have to say, all this nostalgia and all these bands coming back is a result of the power of metal. You don't get the big '80s rock bands anymore because there is not enough time. With the internet and everything is so widespread you don't get the big superstars anymore. It's very hard for young bands to build a name for themselves. People tend to just go back to what they know. I think it's a result of that. Obviously we wanted to reunite for other reasons. Not everybody can as easily get working visas to go to the U.S.

Of course. That's always a challenging aspect. It feels very much that this is a reunion happening on your terms that you're comfortable with. And there's also something quite productive in the way it is limited. This is happening for a specific purpose for a very narrow time frame and that's it, and there's something very freeing in that as well.
That's the most normal thing to do. I've been thinking that the reason why I've been able to have a 20-year long career, and the reason Emperor became the institution that it became. In my book, Emperor as a phenomenon is much bigger now than it ever was when we were in the band. I think the reason for that is we never compromised. I've had the privilege of doing my music without compromise for all these years and I'm not going to change that now. If I was exploiting markets or potentials in a cynical way like that, if I tried to make another Emperor album… that would just make everything we ever did into a lie. I don't see the purpose.

You as an artist have moved beyond that in terms of your creativity and style.
Obviously as a solo artist I am not as big as Emperor. These are different times. But I get by, and I'm pulling quite big crowds when I play. On Sunday I am going to Japan for the second time for a small tour, and I'm one person. I get around. So to me, it doesn't make that much of a difference. As long as I can be a free artist, I prefer that any day.

I think the fan base that you have is quite lovely. I saw you perform at Maryland Deathfest in 2013 and it was quite lovely to see there was support there. That you yourself can write whatever music you want to write and there is a draw, and that's a pretty lovely thing to have as an artist.
I think the only way I can own the fact that people still relate to what I'm doing now is to be as honest and genuine and do my absolute best every time I make an album, without considering how it will be perceived. Or I could not do an album like this.