A Conversation With IHSAHN

By: Scott Alisoglu

After much speculation, Vegard "Ihsahn" Tveitan finally released a solo album called "The Adversary" in 2006, one that allowed him complete freedom to delve into the heavy metal influences that shaped the man, while still maintaining the mystical aura that defines EMPEROR's entire catalogue. As it turned out, EMPEROR reunited to play several high profile shows on both sides of the pond. But some may not realize that Ihsahn has always strove to remain in creative mode and has picked up the pace in this regard the past few years, as the company he runs with his wife (Ihriel), Mnemosyne Productions, has allowed both parties to make music a full time job.

Now comes the sophomore IHSAHN album, "angL". The disc is a progression and regression of sorts in that it takes the ideas first formed on "The Adversary", adds a few new twists, and injects the more traditional (if you can call it that) symphonic black metal sounds that live and breathe inside of him. OPETH's Mikael kerfeldt even makes an appearance on the album.

Ihsahn took time out from his busy schedule to talk about the new album, reflect on the EMPEROR performances, and reveal just what makes him tick.

Q: How did you find the critical and fan reaction to "The Adversary"?

Ihsahn: I was pleased to the point that I was quite surprised I think. Though "The Adversary" was an ultra-metal album, I think it was quite varied. I did all the things within the genre of metal that I really wanted to have a go at. So it's kind of all over the place, apart from it being metal. I also had some driving rules for myself concerning not doubling guitars or overdubbing guitars from a production point of view as well. But the response to the album was very good I would say. It was very positive and here I am again [laughs].

Q: So since that time you had the EMPEROR reunion and played several shows that were very well received. It was a big success.

Ihsahn: I would say so. We quit in 2001 and to be able to come back five years later and play to a sold out House of Blues in New York two nights in a row, and we played to a full House of Blues in Los Angeles and the Key Club. We even came back the second year with a full lineup because we missed Samoth the first time around and did the same thing again. Stuff like headlining Wacken Open Air with fifty of sixty thousand people singing along; everybody who ever picked up a guitar would like to do that at one point [laughs].

Q: Clearly you knew that EMPEROR has had an impact on metal, but considering the response you got after the reunion it must have hit you just how important the band really is to people.

Ihsahn: Well, I guess I have been personally somewhat nave as to the impact EMPEROR had. I think the success of EMPEROR has gradually built after we left. When we released "In the Nightside Eclipse" and "Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk" we were just getting shit from everyone [laughs], especially from the big magazines. The bigger the magazine the more shit we got. Then a time comes along and suddenly these albums are featured in several books and songs are picked for the 100 greatest metal songs, or whatever, alongside SLAYER and METALLICA songs. Or the being in the 50 most important albums of the last 30 years in metal and all that. None of that ever happened at the same time. To be honest, the success of an album I did when I was still 17 and the praise of that so many years later, it's fun to have been a part of it, but as musicians we've kind of moved on quite a few steps down the road [laughs]. I think it's important too. The success and our achievements and our work never could have happened at the same time. I think we were able to focus on the work and everyone else could focus on how that work turned out.

Q: Between the two IHSAHN albums you also contributed to the HARDINGROCK album, "Grimen".

Ihsahn: Yeah, I did. Me and my wife we have this production company called Mnemosyne Productions and before we had a band together called PECCATUM that was kind of our outlet for our musical ideas and experiments. We kind of laid that to rest and now we have Mnemosyne Productions. It's the umbrella under which we do all our musical work. Since my previous solo album we've been doing the HARDINGROCK thing together where we both contribute with one of Norway's most famous fiddle players. It was a really interesting project and it went down very well in Norway, and had so much press there. I think sales wise I think it went down quite well in the rest of the world as well, considering it's in a Norwegian dialect [laughs]. That was a very interesting project. With the studio here my wife just released her second solo album under the name STAROFASH, and now it's this one. All along we kind of had plans for releasing other peoples' music as well and working with other musicians. The last couple of years we had more kids and more albums, so it's just a matter of time really. In the last 12 months we've had the HARDINGROCK album, the STAROFASH album, my solo album, EMPEROR live shows, and another baby. There is a limit to what you can achieve in one year [laughs].

Q: Going into the writing and recording of "angL", did you approach it any differently from the first album? Were you writing throughout this period?

Ihsahn: It was really kind of a similar approach to what I did with the first one. For many years after the last EMPEROR album, which in itself was quite experimental, I was very keen to do more experimental music and challenge myself, instead of the same way of writing riffs and the same approach to everything. We have our own studio and with today's computer technology and all you can basically do anything. But that in itself of course is kind of limiting. It's like standing in the middle of the desert and you can go any direction and you don't really see which direction to go in. So I find it quite helpful to put up some guidelines and frames for what to achieve and I did that with "The Adversary". Starting out I said I want this many songs, this type of progression, I want a song conveying this type of feel. I guess I just built on that for this album. I picked out what I found most successful, in my personal opinion, from the first one and built on that. But this time I wanted in a production sense as well to go for a more modern sound and bring the songs a bit closer to each other. It's more compact.

Q: I noticed that. When you talked about the last album being all over the place that's a bit of an exaggeration, but I know where you were coming from because of the influences. But this one is a more cohesive album; everything flows well as a complete album. It's got its own sound.

Ihsahn: Yeah, I think so. And I do think, in my personal subjective view, it hasn't gotten boring because I think all the songs still stand apart. I can only judge it for myself, but I think it's a progression from the last album; the things I feel I've bettered myself on and focused more on. I was very pleased. I brought out Asgeir Mickelson again for drums and he convinced me to try out Lars Norberg for bass, he plays in SPIRAL ARCHITECT. I always played bass on the albums we did, but I was inspired by my wife's STAROFASH project where she corroborated with a bass player, or a touch guitar player rather, from Austria. The way he interpreted things, being so good at what he does, it kept the music fresh. And I felt the same way about Lars. I think he was like the top 10 percent of his class when he graduated from Berklee or something. I sent him the score for all the songs and the pre-production CD with all the songs and he would write his parts from that. Then he'd send me files. And the same with Asgeir. To be honest, to this day I still haven't met Lars; we've just been talking on the phone and over the Internet.

Q: The bass parts do in fact stand out more on this album. He does some very nice accents and coloration.

Ihsahn: Yeah, it's fantastic. It's done in a totally different way than I do it. He played a lot of fretless bass, which really made the bass lines stand out more. Of course, I would be more shy [laughs] in the way I'd do it, but he would take it more as a challenge and elaborate the things I presented to him.

Q: He moves beyond the traditional role of bass guitar in metal, which is holding down part of the rhythm section.

Ihsahn: Yeah, and I think he didn't really go all the way, like being all progressive like he is in his own band. I felt he was always in context with the rest of the music; he didn't exaggerate in any way or make it sound forced. It was just a perfect balance. And the most important part is that was kind of the same thing with collaborating with Mikael [kerfeldt] because when writing the songs and the lyrics it's hard not to form vocal lines and phrases in your own mind and I was wondering if I should do a test recording of my ideas and send them to him, but then I decided not to, and I'm glad I did because he did something totally different than what I had in mind. It kind of reintroduces the music to yourself. That's the hard part doing this whole thing where you do most of the stuff by yourself; you get very, very subjective and you get very bored. It's easy to get lost in details and all that, but when you have someone else come in and actually improvise a bit on it, it keeps it fresh for the songwriter [laughs].

Q: He sings on "Unhealer". It's a very good song and in some respects it's almost got a European doom vibe, maybe older KATATONIA or MY DYING BRIDE, and it works so well.

Ihsahn: Well thank you. None of those bands are things I listen much to, but I guess you're right that it's in that vein. Mikael is a fantastic vocalist. I remember that I e-mailed him and we had some talks about doing something together prior to "The Adversary", but then my pre-production was taking far longer than I thought and it all kind of just washed away. But we hooked up again when I met him at Wacken. We kind of kept in touch from there. We'd been in touch sort of sporadically since the early 90s I think. It's great that we finally managed to do it. He was very busy himself recording the OPETH album, but I think he did this after hours in the studio.

Q: Some of the songs have somewhat more of a black metal feel than the previous album, with symphonic keyboard elements, which I suppose is natural. I guess I just heard more of that on this album.

Ihsahn: Yeah, I think "The Adversary" was about doing all the other things, the other angles so to speak, that I hadn't tried out before. With this one I went more with what I feel I know. "The Adversary" was of course very natural, but it was very much about curiosity as well. On this album I still tried to be experimental, but going more with what I know best. Some songs have more of that symphonic black metal style; it's just naturally a result of what I'd been doing up until now.

Q: In some ways this sounds like a heavier album, but then you've got a track like "Emancipation" that is so catchy. On the last two tracks ["Threnody" and "Monolith"] you incorporate some mellower material.

Ihsahn: The song "Threnody" is more of a ballad with the acoustic guitar and all that. For a long time I've wanted to do something like that, but coming from my background where everything is layered and layered and layered and you drown everything in distortion and heavy sounds, it feels very naked to do something like that. But at some point it's kind of important to try and just really take it down to that level by very simple means. Everything has its place. Doing kind of an acoustic thing even though it picks up in the middle in the end it worked out quite well.

Q: Is there any significance to the songs all having one-word titles?

Ihsahn: Well, I found it important and easier to focus my creativity by creating some rules. By coincidence the first three lyrics I wrote ended up having one-word titles and I thought to myself, "OK, let's make it a rule" [laughs]. So what kind of word could I find that would cover the feeling of this song and these lyrics? And I think the song "Elevator" is totally the song that is most inspired by the title because the title actually came first. I'm heavily influenced by the elevators in the movie "Angelheart". It's a very underestimated Satanic film [laughs]. The elevator is going down and that whole symbol is that feeling. So I just wanted to make a song called "Elevator" and I wanted the feeling to be just going down, down, down [laughs]. Hence, the riffs in that song.

Q: What about the album title, "angL".

Ihsahn: I meant it to be pronounced "angel" [laughs], but instead of a small case letter it's a big L. What angel starts with a big L? [laughs]. It just kind of reflects on the first album as well, which has this dark angel figure. I guess that imagery, the lyrical symbols I've used like Prometheus and Lucifer and these type of heroes/anti-heroes [laughs]. I guess my philosophy and way of life and art tastes that I have will associate with it.

Q: You had one less instrument to play this time around and three people directly involved. Is there any chance of seeing IHSAHN perform live?

Ihsahn: I've had quite a few requests, even after the first album, and I said then to give me at least one more album. Yes, I've been doing this for half my life, I'm 32 now, but I don't want to go around playing three songs off my album and then do EMPEROR covers for the rest. I'm not there yet. Even when writing "The Adversary" and this album I've had that way of orchestrating it or arranging it so that it could be performed with a typical five piece lineup. At some point I guess I have to [laughs]. But still it's kind of a huge project. Who knows if Asgeir can do it because he's a very busy man on so many levels? And I don't know the time schedule for Lars. So I might have to bring in totally different people. Taking things from just a studio project where you never actually played together and trying to get a full lineup together and make it work is quite a big project. I just have to add that to the other work I have to do. Some of this material I think would work quite well live, but this is all new and it's more nerve-wracking. Doing this material that has never been done live before and has no sentimental value [laughs] it's kind of putting yourself out there in a whole different light, I guess.

Q: With the EMPEROR shows, did you find that you missed playing live?

Ihsahn: Nah I found that the EMPEROR shows, doing it like we do, just doing select shows, was much more pleasurable. I felt that we had the time to prepare, we had the time to do it properly, and of course not spending a month on a sweaty bus, constantly having to think about getting there in time or technical problems and all that. So it was a whole different professional level. That has been kind of the downside of touring for me, that there is so many compromises to actually get on stage. You always feel that you're kind of at a disadvantage because of everything surrounding it. With EMPEROR being what it is, that's easier to put together than being just me [laughs].

Q: So you really don't miss it all that much then.

Ihsahn: No, not really. I always preferred locking myself in the studio anyway. I know musicians that just absolutely love playing live. They will turn the set around and bring songs in and out, depending on the audience and the way they feel that night. It's a whole different thing. Whereas what I've been doing it's not as flexible. Even though I enjoyed it and I really appreciate coming out there and meeting fans and getting so close and being part of all of that. There are so many people that invested a lot of time and energy and thoughts and feelings to things that I've been part of creating. It's kind of a strange feeling. Though I'm personally detached from that whole thing. My urge to create new music has always been much stronger, I guess.

Q: You obviously enjoy the creative process.

Ihsahn: Yeah, and I think I bring it out on this album and the previous album lyrically. It's been a huge privilege being able to do this and make a living from it and dedicating my full time to this passion I have. But at some point it's also very hard. When it comes down to it I don't really feel I have a choice. It's kind of a calling that you just have to do it and I get ill when I cannot [laughs]. Of late I've been more aware that when I'm not able, for some reason, to have the outlet of this creative obsession [laughs] it really affects my whole attitude. It's an addiction [laughs].

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