In Conversation with Ihsahn, Emperor of Black Metal
By Dillon Collins
Heavy metal legend Ihsahn, known to the masses as frontman to the iconic black metal group Emperor, talks influences and inspirations behind his seventh solo album Ámr in a candid one-on-one with Metalheads Forever
Q: Ámr is your seventh studio album since 2006. That output has always amazed me, not to mention the fact that the albums never feel like retreads or carbon copies.
Ihsahn: I guess I’ve been quite regular in making albums, compared to other bands. Other bands within the genre may do more extensive touring and spend more of that time on the road, whereas I kind of prioritize the studio work. That kind of keeps me close to the family. Over the years it has kind of been my preferred working method, to kind of keep most of the time doing new music.
Q: At this point, with seven solo album punched in plus your discography with Emperor, is the creative process and hitting the studio almost like muscle memory? It strikes me as something you still deeply love.
Ihsahn: Of course, it’s something that I absolutely love. Having said that, of course it’s a big endeavour. It is hardship. I believe every album is kind of a battle. You set yourself some goals, and I think anyone who has been in that kind of creative process, it’s a roller-coaster of self doubt. There are days where you’re on a total flow, and days that are at a stop. It’s always the same and over time I think I’ve come to accept that that’s part of it. I have come to trust the process that the end of it it is kind of worthwhile. Through all the hardship, it’s those moments when you get to that flow point, that’s what you strive for as a musician. That’s the fix that you’re after.
Q: Where would you say you were conceptually or sonically with Ámr. You’re well known for taking creative risks and pushing boundaries.
Ihsahn: Musically I guess, I don’t think it’s more complex than the rest. Comparing it to say a previous album, a lot of the stuff that I kept on is the approach of writing more strict pop-rock tunes in that A-B, A-B-C format. That is something that I kind of took on as a challenge that I wanted to continue into this album as well. The biggest change, conceptually for this album, has been kind of the sonic ideas that I’ve had. With Arktis, the scenery of the album was kind of placed in this arctic landscape and lyrically the metaphors were drawn from that landscape and that scenario. I guess the music would mirror that, and the artwork mirrors that core ambiance that I’m after.
This album, for me, when I went about creating the framework for this album, it was very much insight. I think I wrote in my notes that the scene is inside a wall-less dark room. The artwork suggests that as well, it’s an empty space almost of quiet contemplation. I chose sounds, since it’s inside, it is far more intimate. Soundtracks have been a big influence on me since the very beginning. At the same time listening to John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith I was also listening to John Carpenter and Halloween. It’s just as emotional in a way, but in a more intimate and eerie way.
Q: I’ve always imagined that, for you, this solo work has allowed a different creative outlet than what you had with Emperor. You can take the music to a different level than perhaps you would have attempted with the band.
Ihsahn: Absolutely, or at least instrumentally. I like to think that at the core of what I do is still black metal. That is more a personal perception since it sort of comes from the same place. As I often say, every album and every new song is just another attempt to get closer to that abstract ideal that has been there from the start.
Q: Opeth’s Fredrik Akesson joins you on the standout track “Arcana Imperii”. Take me through the process of how that collaboration came to be.
Ihsahn: I followed Opeth since the very start, even before their first album. Me and Mikael have been friends since the mid 90s. I was doing my first solo gig in Oslo in 2009 and of course Fredrik was a part of Opeth. We started talking gear and guitars and music and that’s kind of been the tendency everywhere we meet around the world. If we get a chance we hook up, have a chat, maybe have a beer somewhere. This was the same thing. We met up with the Opeth guys in Japan. Fredrik’s playing has grown exponentially, especially on the more progressive 70s sounding records they’ve done of late. We’re both about the same age and have some of the same favourite guitar players from the same eras. He has that amazing quality of having the technical chops of modern guitar players. On-top of that he has a control and aesthetic choice of tone that almost dates five decades back. He’s sailed up to become one of my favourite players. Basically I told him, in Japan, and I said one day I may give him a call and see if he wants to do something together. He immediately said I’m in. That was it.
Q: It wouldn’t be a proper Ihsahn interview without bringing up Emperor. I’m sure you’re asked this in practically every interview or fan interaction, but where would you place the likelihood of new Emperor material in the future?
Ihsahn: I get that question in probably every interview I do and I guess it’s a compliment because the people want more of that. Obviously it’s something that people have enjoyed and they want more of it. At the same time I would find it hard to imagine an Emperor album that would satisfy that need, because it’s based so much on nostalgia. I think people forget that these original albums didn’t have that same impact when they came out. They got that impact over time.
I think, whether we made an Emperor album from where we’re at now creatively, each of us, or if we tried to do an Emperor album sounding like our old selves, it would kind of be wrong either way. I would say maybe that the last Judas Priest album is the exception that proves the rule, because that is an insanely good album. Apart from some huge albums like that, what bands do you know from metal in general that have come back after 20 years and have done an album that people are like FUCK YEAH! THIS IS AMAZING! People change and they’re in a different place. For these albums we were almost in our teens. It was a different place. Personally I have much more creative freedom and I can be much more uncompromising doing my solo stuff then I would be in Emperor. I feel like I can continue this legacy of an uncompromising attitude to a much wider extent in my solo work, rather than limiting it to what we could accomplish as a band.
Q: It wouldn’t be a stretch to argue that your work, both in Emperor and your solo career, puts you at the forefront of some of the most influential faces in both black metal and heavy metal. What’s your take when you hear fans or media hold you in that high regard?
Ihsahn: It’s something you just have to be aware of. I very much respect people’s relationship into the music, because they put so much time into listening to it and collecting their own experiences and interpretations of it in the same way that I have done with some albums. We play shows, do signing sessions and meet fans and in that capacity we as persons kind of become a focus point for all those memories and experiences. That has nothing to do with me as a person. In that role, I try to respect the relationship people have to this music that I just happen to be a part of. To be part of that music and Emperor, who against all odds became a rather successful band and to continue as a solo artist and with my seventh album still people want to listen to it. I know so many talented musicians who have exactly the same ambitions and dreams who have not been able to do a fraction of what I’ve been able to do, with some luck and some persistence. Playing black metal, that style of extreme music, and to have been able to have headlined some of the biggest festivals for that type of music, to thousands, it’s beyond what any of us could possibly have dreamed of. Again, 95 per cent of the time I’m just here as dad. That’s the role I prefer. I really appreciate the fans who come to the shows and listen to my music, because that means I can make a living and continue to do what I love. But the whole fuss around it is not really that important to me.
Q: To me this album says that Ihsahn still has a lot more to say creatively, and has a lot more to give the heavy metal world. What say you?
Ihsahn: I sure hope so, because I’m kind of useless for anything else … I hope to be able to continue that journey and to try to get to try something new and learn with every new album and give myself new challenges to widen what I can do musically. In essence it’s rather limited, coming from that extreme metal background. It’s not rocket science really. I still feel I have so much more to learn.
MHF Magazine/Dillon Collins