(One of our Norway-based contributors, Karina Noctum, had the good fortune of recently interviewing Ihsahn, whose new album Àmr will be released on May 4 by Candlelight/Spinefarm, and we present their discussion here today.)
You mix together several genres in one song a lot, and this is complicated enough, so how do you compose? Do you have lots of riffs first or does the song develop out of an idea?
I think it’s more the latter. Although in my early years my way of doing it tended more towards having lots of riffs and then putting them together. But as a solo artist it has been more centered around an idea and developing everything taking it as a starting point.
But what about this idea, is it a musical one or can it be anything?
It is a musical one. Often times it has been just one vocal line. Take my first solo album, there is a song called “Called by the Fire” in there and those were some lines that I sang while driving, and all singing started from there. But frequently it is a musical theme, or a progression for example.
Does the music you listen to influence you when it comes to writing music?
I get inspiration from lots of sources. You named the fact that I bring in many genres… I do feel I still create music that belongs to extreme metal and Black Metal, but I get inspired by other musical landscapes. Other musical textures are something that I like to combine with the music, as it gives it a special character.
Do you have any examples of what these other musical influences are?
It can be that I use lots of strings and wind instruments. Unfortunately not real string instruments. The typical orchestral sounds that I have been influenced by for many years. It can be film soundtracks. In the Das Seelenbrechen album, it doesn’t really show as much that I’m inspired by legator lines and crooner. Early Scott Walker. Strings from the ’60s. It gives a special sound. In the new album, especially, there are going to be lots of analog synths, and that comes from electronic music and soundtracks from John Carpenter but also lots of modern music. It’s melodic and it belongs to the type of musical scenic ambience that is called urban, I believe. It’s tuned 808s, synth basses, and that kind of thing.
What can we expect from Àmr? How different is it going to be from previous records?
I have heard that it can be recognized as an Ihsahn album, and I hope so even though I have other influences and I’m doing things in another way than I did before. I always hope that the end result will sound as something made by me. If I’m going to sound like someone it has to be me, but in a different way. I believe that as long as I keep the electric guitars and the characteristic Black Metal vocals throughout, it will still be recognizable. At the same time I’m free to arrange different soundscapes that give variety to the songs. That I do build songs my way and decide what to emphasize, whether it is going to be the harmonization or something else. It’s all about taste and I can’t prevent it, but even though I use other sound I think the musical core is still recognizable.
If we compare it to Arktis it is different soundwise to Àmr, but nonetheless it is pretty similar structurally. There will be black metal songs with blast beats and some other songs that are pure pop music, like in the past albums.
But do you think that to make Black Metal is not that challenging anymore? What are the reasons why you don’t make more pure Black Metal?
I believe I still make Black Metal, but I do accept that my definition of it it is not similar to what most people associate with Black Metal. The standard definition of it. But that is because for me Black Metal is more a state of mind, you see. For me a Diamanda Galas playback awakens the same Black Metal feelings in me as Blood, Fire, Death from Bathory. To me it is not about the sound, or the blast beats or the thin guitar production and screaming, it is more about the underlying atmosphere that I link to Black Metal. The inner feeling that the Black Metal I like awakens in me, and that can come from many sources. In addition, I do still make music in an uncompromising and dark way as I did in my early days. So I feel I’m tapping out feelings from the same source. If people call it Black Metal or not, I couldn’t care less, but most important for me is to create music that is truly heartfelt and uncompromising.
It’s mainly about the process of creating music, for me, and this may sound kind of selfish. Also, after having made so many albums, for so many years, I have the privilege to still play concerts and have an audience that buys them and I’d like to believe it is because I make music in an uncompromising way and that the audience trusts my authenticity. That’s what I look after when I start writing an album. The only reason why I change the rules for myself is because I want to make the process as engaging and motivating as I need to keep on with it. If I’m not motivated and excited myself when I create my music, I can’t expect people to be as excited when they listen to my music. Right? I have been doing this for a long while and I know that it is impossible to take people’s expectations into consideration. And the kind of people who like this kind of music want the real deal and not something that has been adapted.
What do you do besides playing music? Do you have any other interests?
I’m a person with narrow interests. My head is full of music and everything connected to it that I do. But besides that I spend a lot of time with my family, as they are the most important. I have three dogs and that demands time as well. Trips and vacations in the cabin that’s quiet and nice. I have never had any other hobbies besides music. It has consumed me all my life.
I think both Arktis and Anthems have pretty introspective lyrics. What makes you write the way you do, and how will Àmr’s lyrics be?
I do always write from a very personal perspective. That’s the only thing I can do. I know of many who are able to write engaging texts from other persons’ perspectives. But I’m not gifted in that way. So I end up writing from my own experience, but when it comes to this genre, daily-life connected topics do not fit so well, so it ends up being about the big unanswered questions and existential crises. The things discussed are pretty abstract. My writing is pretty personal and I know there are many differences. I do write using metaphors, just to not be too personal, and at the same time because it helps in preserving the music’s abstract nature.
Everything is still open for interpretation. If I write something heartfelt and with abstract metaphors, the essential feelings are still there, but those will not necessarily pertain just to me, and my personal interpretation, but hopefully will be more open for the listeners’ interpretations. In this sense Àmr will be like previous releases. Although there will be some minor differences because I feel Arktis‘ mood was more positive. Perhaps the lyrics were more encouraging, while Àmr will be a bit more, if not a bit pessimistic, a bit more pragmatic.
Take “Lend Me the Eyes of Millenia”, which is about seeing things with a thousand years perspective. This is not new, as I have dealt with this theme before. It’s about how events change their nature through time. If time is extended or contracted it can affect an event’s expression. A simple example of this can be a scene in a film. If slow motion is being used, an additional depth will be given to the experience. Or, on the contrary, if you freeze moments in time. For example a battle. The act itself is awful and hideous, but depicted in a painting, it can be transformed into a beautiful thing. There are also examples of it in the christian world. The crucifixion as an act of nailing people down to wooden planks is awful and macabre, but the crucifix is for many the most beautiful thing they know. It is something frozen in time so it is no longer a concrete event.
I have noticed you are big in Japan and you are going to tour Australia soon. Was it easy to establish, with Ihsahn having a fanbase already established, or was it difficult since there were lots of expectations?
I played in Japan with Ihsahn at a time when I was still playing with Emperor. So it is difficult to say. But it is true that Ihsahn, the name, is a recognizable brand that is independent from me. It is connected to Emperor, but Ihsahn, the music, it’s parallel to it.
Now I have been working with this for so many years that some discover Ihsahn first and after that they discover Emperor. In other cases it is the opposite, so where’s the limit there, it is difficult to say now. But the fact that the name is renowned because of Emperor is an advantage and has helped, but at the same time I’m always my own little brother. In my early years as a solo artist I was more careful drawing a line between the two bands, but now I’m going to release my 7th album and I have been a solo artist longer than I played with Emperor. Now I’m 42 years old and still tour around the world, release albums, and play with Emperor as well at times and as a solo artist. Pretty few people with the same ambitions and dreams as me have accomplished a small part of what I’ve done as a Norwegian musician. I’m thankful to be able to work with both bands.
How crucial is creative freedom for you to be able to compose music?
It is all-encompassing. It’s almost annoying because for me not to make music can be like the abstinence feeling you get when you try to stop smoking. I get a feeling that I have to do it, for better or for worse. That’s the way I am. It is a pretty egocentric characteristic to always think about your own expression and music, but that’s just how it is.
I wonder if you have ever thought to use even more blast beats with Ihsahn? Wouldn’t it make it become a bit more like Emperor maybe?
No, not necessarily, because the central structure in Emperor is different. I was pretty surprised when I wrote the tab books and there were lots of underlying eighth note triplets. Even in the blast beats part of Emperor you find triplet movements, something I do have in my own music as well, but it’s a bit more tight in the songs I write today. Besides, I have more than one song with blast beats in my new album. In the end, those details are something I seldom think about because if I’m going to use blast beats depends on how a song’s riffs and themes develop.
Yeah, but one can’t stop thinking that it is still you and at times it resembles Emperor in some ways…
Yes, of course there are similarities to be found because my voice is pretty recognizable within Black Metal. Of course the kind of chords .resemble and my musical taste and harmony are characteristic of me and go back to my beginnings.
Those are things I have not changed since I started with Emperor. In the beginning it was a 50/50 collaboration when it came to writing. But I have always arranged the keyboards and vocals myself for Emperor, and I ended up writing more and more of Emperor’s music alone. The last Emperor album I wrote it all alone. So parallels can be drawn, of course.
Exactly, it is from the last album that most associations come…
Nowadays more and more bands are inspired by prog rock, jazz, and other genres, and this constitutes something called Post Black Metal. Have you kept up with this subgenre? What do you think about it?
I must confess I have not kept up with Black Metal. I have never done that. See, in the beginning with Emperor and even before Emperor, it was Tomas aka Samoth who had the global network of tape trading and letter exchange. So he has always been the one in touch with the scene.
I have always had my favorites within it. As I got older and after having worked a lot with extreme metal it became more natural for me to look for inspiration in other musical sources. I looked for renewal. It is difficult to find inspiration within the same genre. But I do keep up with some of the new bands, especially those from my colleagues and friends that I meet often. Of course it feels more safe to listen to whatever colleagues and people you know release. But it is pretty difficult to navigate the genre because there is lots of stuff out there. So it ends up being pretty random what one finds.
What lies ahead for you after the release?
First comes the Australia tour and other festival concerts with both Ihsahn and Emperor this summer. We are in the process of putting together a small European tour.
Thanks a lot for the interview.
Thanks for the support!
Àmr is available for order via the links below. below you’ll also find the music from the album that has been released for public consumption so far.
When all is said and done, I find Ihsahn to be thoughtful and intelligent in how he conveys his stance and ideas on things. More so nowadays I appreciate an artist who is evolving and tries something different each time.