Ihsahn Talks New Solo Album "Eremita," Interpreting Song Imagery, And Previous Projects
Forged in the fires of early Norwegian black metal and tempered by avant-garde projects like Peccatum, extreme metal icon Ihsahn will soon be releasing a fourth excursion titled "Eremita," which combines all his previous influences and takes the music on to the next level.
Fans still have a little over a month of waiting before getting to pick up "Eremita," so to tide over our readers and increase anticipation for the forthcoming release, I spoke with the band mastermind himself about what went into the creation of "Eremita." Over the course of our discussion, Ihsahn explained his creative process for making a new concept that eventually becomes an album, and shared his feelings on how fans should interpret the music however they want and make it their own.
Check out the full interview below, in which Ihsahn not only covers the upcoming new release, but also delves into his past to discuss projects like Thou Shalt Suffer, the fiddle experiment of Hardingrock, and working with his wife in StarofAsh.
xFiruath: When did you write the material for this new album and how do you usually write new songs?
Ihsahn: I started the writing in January of last year and we had drums recorded by the end of May. I picked up after the summer holiday and went into recording and was finished by the end of November, beginning of December. I was actually supposed to mix the album in December, but because of some back and forth, I was originally going to Japan in May, but because of the earthquake and all that it was delayed. So I went back in December and ended up having Jens Bogren from Fascination Street mixing it and he had to do it after he finished the new Kreator record, so there was a bit of a delay there. So that’s kind of the time span of it. How I write the albums, I guess I’ve picked up some lessons along the way that I’ve found work for me since I’m doing this more or less on my own and I don’t have a band really.
Before I even start writing any music, I always have different inspirations. After I finish an album I always start thinking about the next one. I have a sort of sonic idea of the sort of structure I want to implement and how I want the album to sound. I have some imageries in my head that are almost like a scenario I want to fit in there. My secret ingredient is to go over all this with Heidi, my wife and partner with Mnemosyne Productions. She’s really good at concepts and structures like that so together we form a framework or synopsis for the album. It’s very open ended, just a way for me to have a creative focus when writing the song. I don’t want to make an album with 10 songs that I happen to write in that period of time. The albums I enjoy are the albums that have kind of a full experience. Then I basically start basing the songs on guitar riffs mostly. Sometimes I may use keyboard parts to get a different approach.
I have a tendency with the last few albums, instead of recording the guitar riffs along the way, I would rather program them into my computer and play them back with a piano sound. So when I have the full song played back just with the piano sound and it sounds good, I know it will probably work when I get the full orchestration on there. It’s kind of a way for me to separate the writing process from the production work, because I’m putting on quite a few hats along the process. Particularly when I started to work with Tobias from my live band (Tobias Anderson from Leprous) for the drums on this record. What he got was my pre-programmed drums, just as a guide, and all the songs played with the piano sounds and a click track. That was all deliberate because the drum and rhythmic structure are kind of the foundation of the whole recording, and I wanted it to have as much energy and as much expressive playing as possible. So he had to create all the energy with his playing and use his imagination of how this would sound in the end. That gave me a very good foundation when I was laying down the guitars and bass parts afterwards.
xFiruath: You touched on this a little bit already about the imagery in your head – several of your songs create very vivid pictures for me. For instance, “Heaven’s Black Seas” on the last album "After," whenever I listen to that I get a feeling of grim determination and kind of see a picture of people sailing towards a final destination. When you are putting together songs, do you start with a specific theme and try to make a sound match it, and is there a specific interpretation you want people to take away from any song?
Ihsahn: I definitely have very strong visual images that I attach to the music, but it’s kind of almost like metaphysical, it’s nothing that I try to create certain images with music. It’s just part of I guess the energy that comes across. I have absolutely no intention of trying to recreate the images in my head in the listener’s. When I listen to music or see a piece of art or anything, I’m really not interested in what it made the artist feel, I’m interested in what it makes me feel. I hope people will perceive my music like that as well. When they hear it, I hope they concentrate on what it makes them feel. That’s the only way to really listen to it, because it becomes your own.
It’s something I’ve been giving a lot of thought because I’ve been meeting a lot of fans when I went out and played. People seem to have a strong emotional connection to it. If you listen to music for a long time and you are a long time fan, and suddenly you hear a song from when you were a teenager, you might smell smells from 15 years back. When I meet people who cry or are super nervous, I’m just thinking it actually has nothing to do with me, I can’t relate to that. When I meet people like that I’ve just become a manifestation of something they themselves have invested a lot of their own emotions into, regardless of me, I just happen to be part of it. So I think I’ve become more conscious of the aspect of me experiencing my music and other’s peoples music and art for myself, and I really hope people will make it their own in that sense.
xFiruath: I just listened through the new album now and I’m wondering about the track called “Grief” and how that one came to be, because it seems like there really aren’t any other songs on your solo albums that are straight up instrumental interludes like that one.
Ihsahn: That was the result of actually musically interpreting a poem. In a sense, with this framework I had mentioned that I had in mind for the album, the atmosphere of that track for me became a natural prelude to the song “The Grave.” I’ve always done kind of instrumental parts like that. In the past I did a band called Thou Shalt Suffer, which was a whole instrumental album with these orchestral mock ups, with a bad sound module, but it was a great learning process. You are the first person who has mentioned that song, and I’ve never really thought about it being different from my other albums. Probably because I’m so subjectively involved in my own head that I never thought about that.
xFiruath: You just mentioned that Thou Shalt Suffer album “Somnium,” and I love that album. I’m wondering, now that your solo work is becoming more well known, are there any plans to re-release albums from those other projects like that or perhaps perform any of it live?
Ihsahn: No, not really. I haven’t even considered that. I’m glad you liked the album, for me I’m not at all embarrassed by it, but the sonics of that, it was created on this old Roland sound module I happened to have. Compared to what you can do now with sample libraries and all that, it doesn’t really hold up to par. For me that was really just a long shot, it was just me wanting to learn more about orchestration. I had absolutely no formal training and it was basically done all by ear. I would have done that quite a bit differently today. It was quite an ambitious project.
xFiruath: Back on the new album a bit, what’s going on with the lyrical themes and what did you do different this time around?
Ihsahn: The initial synopsis in a sense was different. In my experience it seems I can take a rather farfetched idea and by the time it goes through my kind of system it sort of ends up sounding like me anyway, for better or worse. Lyrically, it’s hard to explain really. It’s this abstract image in my head. The lyrics are a mixup of emotional expressions. It’s not like every line needs to be interpreted, and some of it is more symbolic and philosophical in comparison to my first two solo albums, which were very direct and very conscious in their expression. My lyrics now are much more flowing.
You can see almost from the titles, for example, “Catharsis,” it’s definitely dealing with world plays and the symbolic structure of going into memories and tearing them apart. It reflects something I feel is important when dealing with very dark music and dark subjects. I think the catharsis aspect of doing that is very important. I discussed this with a friend of ours, it’s strange that you feel so much enjoyment in dealing with such dark matters, because this type of music is not your typical party, “feel good” type of thing. As he pointed out, and I think it was a really good perspective, if we were as miserable and feeling the way it would be while writing this type of music, we wouldn’t be able to do it.
Dealing with dark music and the underlying deep things is a necessity to have an excess of energy, you have to be on top of things in order to be able to do that. That kind of makes sense with things I’ve been thinking about lately. The whole sort of black metal scene is kind of on the outside of what is commonly accepted socially and as a collective society. It gives you a very good perspective, and the process of having that perspective and dealing with those things inside of blocking them up. For me, it’s been all for the better.
xFiruath: On that same idea of how black metal is less accepted in society, even though it can sort of create a positive outlet, I’ve always wondered how your parents and extended family feel about the type of musical expression you choose to engage in and if they support your music.
Ihsahn: Yeah, I would think so. They’ve never really been critical towards that at all. It’s been gradual, because I started out playing and then playing rock and then metal. It was kind of a gradual progression towards more and more extreme music. It wasn’t a sudden change I guess.
xFiruath: The Hardingrock album you did a few years back collaborating with hardingfiddle player Knut Beun and your wife is one of my favorites. Are there any plans for a follow-up to that, or would you consider working with a non-metal musician of that caliber for a different project in the future?
Ihsahn: It all depends. He’s been very keen on doing another one. It was initially kind of his idea, he approached us to do that. That was a really cool collaboration, mostly getting to know him, because he’s a fantastic person. It was interesting to see how our musical backgrounds and cultural scenes were very different, but how we related to our work and people was very similar. That was very positive. I think all three of us were pretty surprised by how well it was received. It was Norwegian folk music with experimental and metal music, and we did it kind of as an odd project. Initially we released it on his label, and most of the albums on his label will sell like 200 albums max, he doesn’t even have a website. But it was licensed through distributors and everything and we were surprised at how well received it was, especially abroad since it’s all in Norwegian. We are very proud of having done that, and also proud of having done an album with Knut Buen, who is probably the most well known folk musician in Norway. This probably isn’t something that’s known abroad, but he’s almost like a cultural institution in himself in Norway. If the king of Norway brings someone to represent Norwegian culture when he goes to travel, it will be Knut Buen who joins him.
xFiruath: I was hoping you could help clear something up for me regarding your old project Peccatum. Looking through the lyrical booklet I see there was a member called “Lord PZ,” who was also in the band Source of Tide. Is he actually one of the guys from Leprous, and is Source of Tide still around?
Ihsahn: Source of Tide is not around, and he’s never been part of Leprous, but I can understand the confusion. Because my wife Heidi, who was also in Peccatum, she has three brothers. Her youngest brother is in Leprous, he’s the keyboard player and vocalist, and Leprous is my backing band live. Lord PZ is her oldest brother, so that’s my oldest brother in law. So I can understand the mix-up, because she has three brothers, two of them in bands releasing albums. Her other brother actually also played in Leprous for awhile, but he went on to be a journalist.
xFiruath: Since the end of Peccatum, it seems like your wife’s band StarofAsh tends to release an album around the same time that you do a new solo album. Is there a new StarofAsh in the works and will you be involved in that album?
Ihsahn: I know that she’s working on new material, but right now we’re both involved in a project with a Norwegian author about a new poetry book. We’re writing an album’s worth of music sort of as a soundtrack to his recitation. Under Mnemosyne the sort of umbrella that we do our projects under has grown, because we’ve got my albums, the StarofAsh albums, and the occasional project where we collaborate with others, and we do production work for others. We did the new Leprous album here. There will probably be a bigger time span between my new album and the next StarofAsh album because we are only two people and we only have so much capacity, now that we’ve expanded to production work with other bands. She will definitely be coming with something new later on. As for my involvement, I guess in a similar way that she is sort of crucial to my own work, she’s like my secret band member. She will tell me when things are good, and she will tell me when it sucks. I trust her completely. I know I’m not the easiest person to be around, especially when it comes to my own music. It’s very important for me to have her have that sort of production role for everything I do. When she says it’s good, I trust that. If she tells me it sucks, it usually takes me two or three days and then I agree with her.
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