Ihsahn: “A Black Metal Artist Allowing Someone To Tell Them What To Do? Nobody Wants That…”
The first time Ihsahn met Kerrang!, things could have gone better. The then-17-year-old Norwegian and his band Emperor were in the UK for a short run of shows, having already made a name for themselves in the black metal underground thanks to their Wrath Of The Tyrant demo, and were invited into our office to review the latest singles. The band were pictured all in corpsepaint and carried a stern air of grimness the whole time, to which we responded by captioning the accompanying photo: “Donut, donut, donut and donut.”
A quarter of a century later, a smiley Ihsahn is having the last laugh. In the years that followed until their split in 2001, Emperor made four peerless works of black metal, becoming royalty within the black metal scene and managing to reach an audience outside it without courting fame or compromising their artistic vision. While they were not immune from the infamous deeds that would become synonymous with the scene from which they grew – ex-drummer Faust was sentenced to 14 years in prison for murder in 1994, while guitarist Samoth did 16 months for church arson – they became the most influential and respected group of their peers thanks to the pioneering, creative music they made.
Now a solo artist, while continuing to support Emperor’s legacy with live reunion shows every few years, Ihsahn’s current music may now be a more prog beast than the icy slashes of Emperor’s early works, but he remains a singularly talented artist who continues to look into the musical shadows and use his guitar to explore what’s there. And he still can’t quite fathom how he’s made a career out of this.
“There was no commercial success to be had with this type of music. It was never an option,” he states today. “As a career move? Worst choice ever! So it kind of happened in spite of everything, and because of an intense focus on trying to create something that was our own. Being a musician from Norway, perhaps the only way to have an impact was to create something unique.”
What was your introduction to playing music?
“Playing my grandmother’s piano. My parents saw me taking an interest and they let me have piano lessons. I was about six, I think. It was children’s songs, but I also fiddled around with my father’s acoustic guitars. I got my first electric guitar when I was 10, and I became obsessed.”
Was there music around?
“My father had guitars, but he wasn’t in a band. My grandmother was an organ player and piano teacher. My mother would listen to a lot of Elvis Presley, and I remember saving up to buy my first vinyl, which was [1976 album] Rock And Roll Over by KISS. But then some friends introduced me to Twisted Sister, who became a big thing for me for a while. I even had pink and black curtains in my room, their colours! But eventually [I discovered] Iron Maiden! That was my first big show, on the Seventh Son… tour. October 5, ’88, in Oslo. From the moment Bruce Dickinson jumped onstage with the pyro during Moonchild, I can’t recall having had a plan B. It had a huge impact on me. I got the tablature book for that album, and that was my musical education. I would spend hours after school playing along and emulating what they were doing.”
What was growing up in rural Norway like?
“I grew up in the city of Notodden, which has a population of 12,000. It’s quite small, but then, compared to London anything in Norway is small. I grew up in the countryside on a farm, so there was quite a bit of space to play loud and fast. Actually, because I didn’t have a delay pedal, I could use that. The farm was situated on the water and there were mountains on the other side, so I would take the amplifier out on to the veranda and play there and use the natural delay. That’s pretty metal, right?”
When did you come into contact with other young musicians?
“Notodden has Northern Europe’s biggest blues festival, which started in 1988. In ’89 they started something called The Blues Seminar, where kids from the surrounding areas could get tutoring from blues musicians and put bands together. That’s where I met [future Emperor guitarist] Samoth and the guys from his band, and they needed a guitar player. They saw me with long blond hair and Iron Maiden patches all over my denim jacket, and that’s where we hooked up. Samoth was one year older than me, but the other guys in the band were, like, 16. They had mopeds – they were grown-ups! They had already recorded demos, so I thought they were super professional. If I wanted to be part of the band I had to keep up, and at 13 that was good because I had more experienced people to learn from. So, from an early age I got into that mindset. I did my first proper studio recording with them when I was 14, so I got that experience very early on.”
How did Emperor start?
“Samoth and I were playing in a band called Thou Shalt Suffer, but he wanted to do a side project that was more inspired by [early ‘80s black metal bands] Hellhammer and early Bathory. Emperor started as a sidekick thing, and we did the demo, Wrath Of The Tyrant. We liked the energy, and it wasn’t long until that was the main focus. That got us signed when I was 16.”
What made you want to make that kind of dark music?
“It always felt natural to express ourselves in that world. It was what we knew. We took it seriously, but I think people would be surprised that everyone would have a good sense of humour about things. People forget you can be both, with the same integrity. Just because you make this type of music, it doesn’t reflect all of who you are.”
Norwegian black metal had an extreme, evil image. But you were also, in some way, just a group of mates, right?
“Absolutely. At the time we were so focussed on the whole idea of the black metal scene, on this particular atmosphere, it became a strong creation. When we went to [Mayhem guitarist, later stabbed to death by Burzum’s Varg Vikernes] Euronymous’ shop, Helvete, in Oslo, everything was black. There were candles, there was black metal playing, or other dark music like Tangerine Dream. It was all focussed on getting that fix of a profound atmosphere. After rehearsal, me and Samoth would go to dark rooms with candles and have dark music pumping. For long periods of time in my late teens, I would fall asleep and wake up to [terrifying performance artist] Diamanda Galas’ Plague Mass album. It’s mental, but it still tapped into this religious type of atmosphere. It was special, without any drugs or anything.”
People seemed to view the Norwegian scene either as scary or a joke. How did that make you feel?
“To be honest, I think it was both scary and empowering at the same time. There was really no other choice than trying to feel empowered by it. The provocation, the resistance in people – there was obviously resentment to a strong extent. My oldest brother-in-law lost two jobs just for knowing me. And we were still teenagers! People empowered us much more than they probably should have. And from my experience, if I met teenagers who had an extreme style and have some extreme views, I would probably laugh it off or take it as a sign of youth rebellion. I’d have the perspective that these are developing people, but there was none of that for us. It was so extreme for people that they lost a lot of perspective.”
How did you feel when churches burned and people died or went to prison? Did you ever think it had gone too far?
“In that period, given how we did it, we were so dedicated to keeping that sensation, that everything that added to this almost alternative experience of the world. We were constantly focusing on it and keeping those atmospheres and everything. When these things happened, it became part of that sentiment. Even when people went to jail, we never went, ‘Is this the end of the band?’ We were just practically finding ways of keeping the band going. ‘Okay, we’ll have to trade tapes for a while,’ but there was never a question of stopping.”
Did you ever feel in danger yourself?
“We were – we were attacked. So many of us were attacked. I remember on my way home I was attacked by five people who beat the shit out of me, and nobody really cared. And this was prior to a lot of that stuff happening; this was just for wearing those clothes. It’s interesting to see how people felt it was okay, because we were a self-chosen minority. We asked for it, they thought.”
How do you feel looking back at it now?
“All in all, to sum up that scene and that state of mind, I’d say that it could become very, very destructive. And for many people it was. On a personal level, having been through such a special youth and coming out the other end, I think you get confronted fairly often. But you become ambitious – far more ambitious than I might have been. All in all, I would say it’s a positive thing for me. And it’s enabled me to carry on doing what I want, which is music.”
Emperor were one of the first bands to use corpsepaint, but also the first to take it off. Was that a statement of sorts?
“That just happened naturally. It was not a statement, it was all part of us developing. In the first Emperor video for The Loss And Curse Of Reverence, suddenly we were in armour! Emperor developed on its own terms, as did many other bands. It’s almost frustrating when people have this preconception of black metal as this, ‘This is black metal, you are not allowed to do this thing.’ And that’s the opposite of the format: a black metal artist allowing someone to tell them what to do? Nobody wants that.”
Emperor were the first black metal act to start touring like a normal band. Was that weird?
“I think even our first tour – in the UK with Cradle Of Filth as support – we flew to London to play with Deicide, and that got cancelled. So [record label] Candlelight set up shows for us instead. We had no money and no plan, but what do you do when you’re 17? They actually had to sneak me into some of these places because I wasn’t old enough to get in. I still can’t believe my parents let me do that!”
When Emperor ended you were still only 25…
“Yeah, and we announced the first reunion show before I turned 30! But it wasn’t a hard decision. From the beginning we carried the ‘truth’ thing with us. Not to fit in with certain parameters, but the intention behind it. For each album I did more and more, until by the time we did [2001 album] Prometheus [: The Discipline Of Fire & Demise], I wrote it on my own. We diverged musically, and agreed rather than keeping at it, it was better to end on a high note where we were in agreement, rather than have the band become a safe place. It was natural. And we weren’t thinking ‘career’-wise!”
Has your relationship with Emperor’s music changed over time? How do you feel when you do reunion gigs?
“To be honest, I was a bit afraid. When you do something like that, everyone can kind of… pull it off, and just play through the songs. But I think all of us felt that if we’re doing that, you have to do it properly. People have attached a lot of memories and experiences with that music. It would feel off if we couldn’t do that with integrity and truthfulness. I thought, ‘Can I tap into that energy of being a teenager and creating this music?’ And I noticed early on when we started playing the songs that it’s kind of imprinted, in your memory and your spine. So, tapping into the riffs and the lyrics was easy. It feels natural, even though I can’t relate to the lyrics in the same way, but at an underlying level I can still connect with the same existential feelings. It sounds bombastic, but with my own music I still call it black metal, because it still conjures up that same feeling. Diamanda Galas still conjures up that same feeling in me. That’s the core, the driving force, the ideal in me, and that’s the goal, artistically, of every song I have inside of me. That’s the constant. I’m always trying to reach that goal.”
As a solo artist, do you still search for the same things as you did in Emperor?
“I always want to make the darkest possible album. For people who like this type of music, they understand what that means. People outside don’t get it. And I think I should probably say I always try to make the most… profound record. I like the depth, the danger, the existential dilemma. My hope is that I don’t sound like someone else – I want to sound like me, in a different way. Using Radiohead as an example, they had success with OK Computer, then they made Kid A, which was an electronic album, but undoubtedly was done with the integrity of it being Radiohead. So you can change everything, as you could with David Bowie, and the integrity of their choice of aesthetics and how they are at the core as creative people still shines through. And I’m not at all comparing myself to Radiohead or Bowie, but as an ideal, I try to trust that if you do it honestly and as a heartfelt thing, if you constantly challenge how to do things, it will always come through.”
Rob Halford from Judas Priest is a big fan. How does that make you feel to know one of his favourite albums is 1997’s Emperor’s Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk?
“Coming from him, it really feels like a compliment, because he doesn’t have to say that. He can say whatever he wants. So if he says something like that, it’s because he genuinely feels that way and he means it. He’s the sweetest guy; every time I’ve met him and spoken to him on the phone, he’s been amazing. And he’s a genuine fan of music as well, and of new metal in general. And just look at Judas Priest. If we’re talking about development – they’ve done Sad Wings Of Destiny, and Turbo, and Painkiller. The integrity of being Judas Priest means it’s always Priest, but they always have that willingness to change and express themselves in new ways. If someone told me when I was 10 years old a fraction of what I would be doing, like talking to Rob Halford and playing shows with Judas Priest, I would have probably had a heart attack!”
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