An Interview With Former Emperor Frontman Ihsahn
Band Photo: Emperor (?)
Ihsahn has been one of the figureheads of black metal for almost two decades. From his time with the mighty Emperor to his current solo project, the frontman has had a hand in some of the best albums in black metal history. On his third solo album, “After,” Ihsahn incorporates unfamiliar elements into his core sound, including eight-string guitars and saxophone melodies. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ihsahn about the new album, illegal downloading, and the possibility of touring the US.
Heavytothebone2: “After” is the last album in a trilogy that started with “The Adversary.” Looking back at the entire trilogy, are you satisfied with how it turned out?
Ihsahn: It’s okay. “The Adversary” is kind of all over the place musically. I wanted to try out different sub-genres, but in metal. After Emperor, I wanted to build a new musical foundation for myself. With the second album, I tried to focus in on this new foundation. With this last album, I unconsciously deviated from that again, just not to paint myself into a musical corner with this project. I want this to be quite open so that I have my options.
Heavytothebone2: Have you made any progression as a songwriter and musician from “The Adversary” to “After”?
Ihsahn: It’s definitely improved my production skills, I think. The previous two albums I mixed myself. All albums were like that, especially when I recorded them in my own studio and put on all the hats of being a guitar and bass player, keyboardist, vocalist, songwriter, producer, engineer, and mixer. I’m very interested in all those areas. So in that sense, I think I’ve learned quite a bit. It’s not like I’ve made myself an extremely much better guitar player obviously, but it’s more spread over a wide area.
Heavytothebone2: Where did the idea come from to incorporate a saxophone into the music?
Ihsahn: I’ve always loved the sound of the saxophone. In general, the texture of the saxophone has always for me…had a strong, personal tension to it. For many years, I’ve wanted to implement the saxophone into my music. The complete idea for this album was because I had guests on the previous two albums. Garm from Ulver did guest vocals on the first album and Mikael from Opeth did guest vocals on the second album, so I wanted to continue the tradition. Given the concept of this album, it is quite different from the previous two. There is no sign of life in any lyrics or anything. I wanted something more abstract. I wanted something that was still a very personal and distinctive sound.
Heavytothebone2: Was it difficult to balance it amongst the chaotic black metal sections?
Ihsahn: It was a bit of a challenge. I don’t have any direct experience recording saxophone. There was always the risk of not being able to blend it in. I had to find a careful way to pick lines that I wanted him to play and which parts I wanted him to improvise over. I think with a combination of good/lucky choices, Jorgen Munkeby’s playing style and his ability to come back towards the musical expression and also the final touch with Jens Bogren’s mix made it flow in there seamlessly. I never intended it to be on the record for shock factor, like ‘Ok, let’s give this crazy part saxophone.’ I wanted it to add layers.
Heavytothebone2: The eight string guitars used on the album had an effect on the songwriting. Is there anything else that had an effect as well, compared to previous solo affairs?
Ihsahn: Well, I think on a technical level, in the similar way that I listen for the music with the guitar distracting myself beyond the more analytical part, I think that it’s also a general sense for the whole album. I think I’m better at listening to what the music needed and decided very early to mix it with Jens Bogren. I didn’t think so much ahead in a practice sense. I took responsibility off myself and have grown more confident with my solo work. I think on a subconscious level, I hadn’t really had the need to distance myself so much from the whole Emperor thing and that had an inhibiting factor on previous albums.
Lastly, it’s just a change of concept. The first two albums are very niche-inspired and straight to the point. This album is all about what lies underneath all that, the more abstract essences of inspiration that I think have been with me from the start. Just as an example, when finishing the last song on the album, “On The Shores,” I found myself having similar images in my head that I had with “With Strength I Burn,” off the second Emperor album. I was going for a more fundamental inspiration source; in other words, a lot of visual inspirations in terms of photography and artwork that I kept on my laptop as inspirational sources.
Heavytothebone2: Is there one particular song on “After” that shines above the others for you?
Ihsahn: I think it’s very hard for me to pick out certain songs. I tend to view the whole thing very much as one because it’s the first solo album I’ve had the method of even before I started writing any music, I sketched out what kind of album I wanted to make. What kind of atmosphere I was going for the whole album, what kind of instrumentation, what kind of sonics I wanted to achieve. Especially with this album, I think of it in a whole sense.
Heavytothebone2: Do you believe that the album is intended to be heard from front to back?
Ihsahn: Well, that’s how I enjoy listening to albums (laughs). I always liked albums. I’m not much for singles to start with.
Heavytothebone2: In this day and age, do you think that listening to an album from front to back is a dying trend?
Ihsahn: It’s a bit scary, but then again, it wasn’t until 1965, or somewhere in the mid 60’s, that people actually listened to albums, so it’s a rather new invention. I like to think that fans of this type of music, metal music in general, still like to actually buy albums, look at the artwork, in a similar fashion to what I did when I grew up. It’s just so much you can put into one song. For me, singles don’t really last. There are some singles that might be very catchy, but they really just last a week or two. In many ways, it’s the whole singles market; the whole pop industry is built to make songs that last for a couple of weeks until they can release another single. It’s hard to keep track of.
Heavytothebone2: Staying on the subject, do you think illegal downloading has to do with the singles and people not listening to albums from start to finish?
Ihsahn: Definitely. I think it’s a total devaluation of music in that sense that if it’s all accessible for free. My big musical connection when I was a teenager was very much about saving up money to buy an album and totally indulge in this full album and reading the inner rim on the Iron Maiden vinyls, getting all the full details of the cover art work, reading all the lyrics. A lot of my memories and feelings from my youth is connected to a particular album. I don’t think that if you relate to music in a sense that it something you download and create your playlists from week to week. I think you connect with this form of expression in a different way, for better or worse. Who am I to judge? I know that a lot of these young kids don’t think about it any different than when we made a copy of an album to tape, but of course the consequences are much larger.
Personally, I’m totally against illegal downloading. The amount of money I spend making an album, even though I’m in a position where I record most of it myself, is still tens of thousands of dollars on professional musicians and I mix somewhere else now. You can buy a CD for the price of a McDonald’s meal and it obviously for many people is not worth it. It’s a stupid discussion because you either have to change people’s morale, and I think it’s been tried for 2,000 years (laughs), or you have to shut down the Internet. That’s the two only solutions.
Heavyttothebone2: A lot of bands have to tour more since their albums aren’t selling as well. I know you don’t do a lot of live shows, but do you ever feel the pressure to have to go out and do more live shows?
Ihsahn: No. I’ve been in a lucky position that this has been my job since I was 16. When we started Emperor in 1991, it was probably the worst career choice you could do, starting a black metal band (laughs). Ironically as it is, I’m still here and I’m still able to do my music without compromise and do whatever the hell I want with my music. For touring, I never liked extensive touring; being on a tour bus, stoned and drunken people everywhere everyday, bad conditions to play so you can’t really perform your music well. I got a more positive experience with the Emperor reunion shows. We did select shows, we came and there were proper conditions to do a good show, everyone was well prepared, and that is what I intend to do with my live shows now.
Heavytothebone2: Do you ever see yourself doing any live shows in the United States?
Ihsahn: There are no immediate plans for that at this point because it’s a whole different ballgame going to the US to tour. Getting work visas…with Emperor, it took like 3-4 months and the technical part of it is very different. We had a great time when we did the Emperor reunion shows and it was a positive experience, so in principal, it would be something I would like to do.
Heavytothebone2: If you could tour with any band, past or present, who would it be and why?
Ihsahn: Hmm…never really thought about that. I guess if my music was more experimental, I would love to do something with Radiohead. I think that would be fantastic just because I’m such a big fan.
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