The former Emperor guitarist talks about his latest album and how he’s finally made peace with the ghosts of his past
The year is 1992. Nirvana’s Nevermind has just gone to number 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart and grunge is officially born. In India, A.R.Rahman has changed the face of Indian fillm music with his soundtrack for Roja. On Saturday Night Live, Irish firebrand Sinead O’Connor has just torn up a picture of the Pope on live television. And in Norway, a wave of church burnings and murders has heralded the rise of a new genre in music ”“ black metal ”“ that will forever carry the mark of the dark beginnings from which it was born.
Much of this back story is also Vegard Tveitan’s. As the founder and guitarist of Emperor, one of black metal’s most influential bands, the musician better known as Ihsahn has spent more than a decade trying to put a distance between himself and Emperor’s musical and historical legacy, mostly through his prolific body of work outside of the band.
But the beginnings first. Emperor, along with Mayhem, Burzum, Immortal and Darkthrone, were the bands that set in motion the second wave of black metal, characterized by its low-fi aesthetic and pagan lyrical themes. Though MayhemÂ and Burzum carried that theme further to include an anti-Christian manifesto and favoring a return to the Viking roots of Norwegian culture, Emperor drove a musical shift, introducing a dark symphonic element to the bleak landscape of black metal. But by the time Emperor’s first album In the Nightside Eclipse was released in 1994, guitarist Samoth was in prison for his part in burning down Skjold church in Norway, drummer Faust had been handed a 14-year sentence for murdering a gay man who purportedly made advances on him and Emperor’s story had become irretrievably tied to the violence associated with black metal. However, Ihsahn’s definitive musical legacy lies in his work outside of Emperor, first with avant garde metal project Peccatum with his wife Heidi Tveitan (stage name Ihriel) and then with his solo work spanning four albums. On Eremita, his fourth solo album released last month, Ihsahn says he’s finally exorcized the ghost of Emperor.
The soft-spoken, polite, articulate musician today is a far cry from the Ihsahn who once declared broodingly in a sensationalist MTV interview, “I believe in wisdom, strength and power from a satanic point of view.” He laughs easily and often, and is self-deprecating to a fault, punctuating conversation with wry observations and digs at his own past. “I am, of course, very well aware of the situation of Emperor as a phenomenon; it kind of gained a life of its own regardless of who played in it. So in a sense I will forever be my own little doppelganger,” he says. He’s worked long to separate those two identities ”“ the Ihsahn of Emperor and the Ihsahn of his solo work ”“ and the four solo albums have each been a stop on this journey. The Adversary (2006), angL (2008) and After (2010), the so-called A-Trilogy, all followed a similar sonic format, drawing on elements of black, death, symphonic and classic metal, and more recently expanded to fit in avant garde elements like the harsh, dissonant jazz saxophone in After. “My initial intention with doing the trilogy as the first part of my full career was to give myself the time-span to kind of rebuild a musical foundation,” says Ihsahn. The three albums also gave the musician a wider catalogue to choose from for his live shows, ensuring that he didn’t have to use Emperor covers as fillers. “It’s probably just me who cares about that stuff,” he laughs. “But even though I’ve been around for two decades now, I’m still only 36, so I think I still have some albums in me yet, I’m not ready to retire. I think it was important for me to show that this is what I seriously do now, it’s not just some spinoff idea I had post Emperor.” In an interview with ROLLING STONE India, Ihsahn discusses his new album and the true ethos of black metal.
Your fourth album Eremita has been out for a few days now. How do you think it’s being received?
My record company has started sending me back reviews and comments from journalists who have heard the album and so far it’s been, quite overwhelming, to be honest. When I finished the album I thought, “Well, this is going to get some mixed reactions,” because I felt this was probably less accessible and more abstract than my previous work, but for some reason people seem to like the diversity of it, so maybe the music scene is ready for something experimental [laughs].
You’ve done different kinds of music ”“ you’ve done avant garde with Peccatum, you’ve done black metal, you’ve pretty much been all over the spectrum. So do you still think you can surprise fans?
Probably not. I guess I would have to do something radically different for that to happen by now [laughs]. And it’s also the way the music scene is now. You already have the hit music scene that obviously tried to adapt the music for the consumption of the masses, for the majority. But then the rest of us, the whole indie movement, you don’t even have to think about trying to adapt it because it’s kinda far fetched to break through in a way. So people focus on just being artists and go where music takes them, and I think that’s artists like James Blake find success ”“ he’s doing something radically different and very non-commercial and he popped up out of nowhere. You don’t have to consider adapting too much for the audience because eventually the audience will notice that you’re not absolutely sincere.
I understand Eremita is a new beginning, moving away from the A-trilogy of your last three albums ”“ angL, Adversary and After. Musically and thematically how does this album differ from the earlier three?
At the end of the trilogy, with After, I kind of felt that musically I was where I wanted to be. It’s still a metal foundation, heavy form of music but it’s also a playground to do more experimental stuff and after having kind of finished the trilogy, I took on this next project with more confidence and feeling a bit more liberated in terms of my own expectations of what I could achieve. So, in that sense, I tried to take what I felt was most successful from the experience of making the trilogy and built on that further. My inspiration for this album was totally different from my previous one, but I’ve experienced that even when I come from a totally different place mentally, by the time it goes through my creative system, it ends up sounding somehow like myself, in a way [laughs] for better or worse, I guess.
So is this going to be the start of another series?
No, like I said, the reason for doing this trilogy was to give myself the time and just have three albums to pick from when putting together a live set. I didn’t want to be in a situation where I did one album and went out and did live shows playing half the set from my new songs and then doing Emperor covers for the rest.
Does Emperor still haunt you?
I think by now ”“ now that I’ve done my fourth album and counting all the other albums I’ve done as a solo artist before starting this Ihsahn band ”“ I’ve got far more albums outside of Emperor than in Emperor. And I think my solo albums so far have been quite successful and well received. I did feel haunted by the ghost of Emperor for a while [laughs] but I feel more at ease with it, to the extent that on this new album I feel like I’ve opened up to more of the kind of raw black metal aesthetic that’s part of my musical palette, whereas on earlier solo albums I’d probably have left out that part in order to distinctly separate my current work from Emperor. But these days, I think I’m more at ease with accepting Emperor as part of my history and as part of my musical palette.
Your album cover features a picture of Nietzsche. How has his philosophy influenced your music and you, personally?
Nietzsche has influenced me immensely and not only for his very pragmatic and very to-the-point type of philosophy, but somehow I feel, reading between the lines, that he is also an artist. It’s hard to explain really, but it’s just that the way he writes and his view on things. And I guess that’s what drew me to this type of music in the first place.
I mean metal in general has always been in opposition to the collective, it’s always been from an outsider’s view and through my whole career, from Emperor to my solo work, it’s all been about Lucifer or Prometheus or Icarus. It’s all these mythological figures that represent those who go apart from the collective. That’s why I titled the album “Eremita,” which is Latin for “hermit.” In the most mundane interpretation, it could reflect me being a solo artist, record my own albums in my own studio and I’m here in my little studio hermit cave [laughs]. But in a more philosophical way I think, especially with my solo work, Nietzsche has been a huge influence and he was almost like a hermit himself. His work was not really recognized in his own time which is so often the case with geniuses. And he of course writes about my favorite hermit Zarathustra in Thus Spake Zarathustra. But it’s not doesn’t directly impact the thematics of the album because the main ideas or scenario for my inspiration for this album is almost like an old crime film”¦ it’s actually about someone who comes apart, but from more of a madman’s perspective. And that is why it was kind of cool that Nietzsche ended up on the front cover. It was actually just sent to our designer as a source of inspiration for what kind of expression I wished to have on the front. But then he just put it on there and the way he cropped it, it just fit perfectly. It was just spot on to the atmosphere I wanted. And of course this is also from a madman’s perspective so it draws a parallel to Nietzsche on to his deathbed where he had withdrawn into himself and kind of drowned in his own madness, in a sense. So it fit perfectly together [laughs].
You also mentioned that your wife is a close collaborator. What is it like, being in a relationship with someone who is also a musician?
My wife is very good with concepts and structures and music, she’s kinda my secret band member. We have a production company called Mnemosyne Productions and we of course did Peccatum together, she’s done her solo work with her band called Star of As and we collaborate on everything. Mnemosyne kind of contains everything we could do musically ”“ the studio, different projects and collaborations with other musicians and we’ve produced some stuff with other bands. Like now we’re just finishing up a collaboration with a Norwegian author and are doing sort of a sound collage to a recitation of poems I think I’ve been very lucky. We’ve been married 14 years now and we have two wonderful children. I think we have very different qualities, both as musicians and thinking in creative terms. I think we fulfill each other in a very lucky way. I know a lot of musicians who do not share that passion with their stuff but for me”¦ I have a lot of guitars, for example, and amplifiers, and a normal wife would probably say, “Why would you need another one? You have 13 guitars already.” But if I bought a guitar, Heidi probably would buy four more [laughs]. She’s my best friend and I totally trust her opinion and she’s invaluable through the whole process of my work, so”¦Yeah, I’m blessed like that. Most definitely.
The current black metal scene has been pretty divisive and there’s always debate about what constitutes true black metal. What would you say the “real” black metal ethos is?
I do my work in a very black metal way because I do whatever the hell I want [laughs]. And I think it’s absolutely stupid. I never understood this thing about true black metal or non-true black metal and kind of making rules about what it should be and should not be because I think if I look at myself as a black metal musician and if I even for a second considered letting someone else tell me what I could do and could not do with my music that would almost by definition make it non-black metal. Of course, there always that dark aspect to black metal, you can’t really take that away but beyond that, if it’s honest and truthful and if you do it fully out of your own will and your own drive and your vision, that’s I guess the only way you could do black metal.Â