Exclusive Interview With EMPEROR Frontman IHSAHN

Rumblings of a forthcoming solo album from Ihsahn have been heard ever since the disbanding of EMPEROR in 2001, perhaps even before. That it would take five years for the album to finally see the light of day speaks more to the man's busy schedule than any kind of purposeful delay. Never one to sit still, the multi-talented, visionary vocalist of the Norwegian black metal boundary pushers dove headfirst into the experimental sounds of PECCATUM, a project that Ihsahn formed with his wife Ihriel (STAR OF ASH) and Lord PZ (SOURCE OF TIDE) in 1998. The debut album, "Strangling from Within", followed in 1999. Several releases later, including 2005 EP "The Moribund People", work on Ihsahn's first solo album began in earnest. Titled "The Adversary", the disc promises to be a representative journey through all phases of Ihsahn's metal career. Ironically, the long-player will be released during the same year that EMPEROR regroups to play a series of reunion shows. BLABBERMOUTH.NET's Scott Alisoglu recently spoke to the congenial and well-spoken Ihsahn as he was putting the finishing touches on "The Adversary" (the album is scheduled for an April release).

Q: The advertisements for "The Adversary" state "the voice of EMPEROR returns." I didn't realize you went away [laughs].

Ihsahn: "No [laughs], I didn't think so either. It's probably that I return in the way of playing extreme metal again. I get these responses all the time like, 'Oh, you're back in the business again.' I've been working just as hard with music in all the years since we quit EMPEROR. It's just that it hasn't been music that's in the media's attention [laughs]."

Q: So you would characterize the material on "The Adversary" as extreme metal then?

Ihsahn: "Yeah, I would say so. Generally, my thoughts for this album were that, 'OK, if I'm doing a solo album, then I might as well do a metal album that kind of includes all the periods I've been through playing metal.' When I first started playing guitar at the age of 11, I started out playing basic heavy metal stuff. The bands I've played in have been from straight heavy metal up through thrash and speed metal, death metal, and then black metal. I thought the album should include embraces from all those areas."

Q: That was going to be my next question. You say "The Adversary" incorporates influential elements from all periods and stages. So would that indicate that this is a varied album, as far as the music goes?

Ihsahn: "I would say so. Most albums I do I take a study period as well to learn new things and kind of sharpen the working methods and combining theory with the energy of creative thought are driving forces. I wanted to have a very varied album with different influences, but I didn't want to take everything into all of the songs. If it's a black metal song it's kind of a black metal song all the way through. When I do a progressive song it's kind of progressive all the way through. I'm trying to pull out the most of one thing, rather than just mixing it all together in all the songs; it's varied in that sense. Hopefully, there should be a consistency throughout the album."

Q: And that would be that it is metal…

Ihsahn: " [Laughs] Yeah."

Q: And heavy…

Ihsahn: "Yeah, very heavy."

Q: So we're not talking PECCATUM.

Ihsahn: "No, but of course there are elements from that period as well, with more experimental ways of playing. It's kind of hard to put it in terms like that because maybe it's dumb of me to say. It might sound like I'm doing a plagiarizing of my [laughs] experiences with music. It's not like that. Basically, I tried to write a good metal album, based on my experiences, and that's really what it is simply."

Q: When you use the term "progressive," it can mean different things to different people. If you're using it as a genre descriptor, that's one thing. Expand on your use of the term as it relates to those songs on the album that could be termed progressive.

Ihsahn: "Progressive in the sense that I'm thinking more of broken down beats - not straight 4/4 beats – and bringing out 7/8 and 5/4 and special beats, and also not so conservative in the picking of tones. It's really hard to describe. It's still metal, but it takes that progressive element where you go by heart; it flows out a bit and then it flows back in again [laughs]."

Q: It's not predictable.

Ihsahn: "Yeah, not that predictable."

Q: You played all the instruments, except for the drums.

Ihsahn: "Yes, and Garm from ULVER sings on one song. Actually, that's quite a progressive song."

Q: Well, I can imagine if he's involved. How did your collaboration with Garm come about?

Ihsahn: "We go way back [laughs]. I've done some talking vocals for the 'Blake…' album ['Themes from William Blake's Marriage'] that ULVER did, and I sang on one of the ARCTURUS tracks they did. So it was just natural and it was cool to bring him in on one of my albums for a change [laughs]."

Q: Did you consider bringing in any other guest musicians?

Ihsahn: "Well, initially I had been talking with Rob Halford, but with him being back in [JUDAS] PRIEST things are harder to come by. We had been discussing it, but it didn't happen this time. Maybe later. I've had some different people in mind that I would be very honored to work with in the future. But it turned out this way that due to circumstances and also partly my own ambition to explore my strengths and weaknesses as a solo artist. I've written it all, played all the material, I recorded it myself, I produced it myself, and I mixed it myself. So I've basically taken on the full production of the album, apart from the drums and obviously the song that Garm sings on."

Q: Clearly, you didn't want to use programmed drums.

Ihsahn: "No. I pre-programmed though; I wrote all the songs with programming the drums. But then Asgeir Mickelson [BORKNAGAR, SPIRAL ARCHITECT] is a very talented guy and he could play live a better version of what I programmed. He was the perfect guy for the job because he didn't change things. In some parts I may have had drum patterns that I felt essential to the song, which was very playable, but not necessarily the way a drummer would think. He could interpret what I programmed and just do exactly what I needed. He's been valuable for this project. He's a great guy to work with as well."

Q: How long did it take to record "The Adversary"?

Ihsahn: "I've kind of done it sporadically since the beginning of last year [2005]. I started writing the songs in January of last year. So it took me about a year to finish the album."

Q: How do you find the experience of doing everything yourself?

Ihsahn: "Many times I felt the pressure and was trying to stay objective, but of course you get very subjective about your production when you are on all sides of the table. Of course, I referred and played things and gone through things with my wife. Mostly we are used to working together in the studio. It was good having some helpful input. It's really getting the experience and challenging yourself, and also to test myself. We've done more or less the same thing with PECCATUM before, but then we've been two about it. Over the last years we've ended up recording everything ourselves. Even the 'Prometheus…' [EMPEROR] album, I recorded most of it in our studio. This album will be marketed and distributed by Candlelight Records, but it will come out on Mnemosyne Productions, which is our own production company. We have our private studio, Symphonique, but we're also part owners of a big analog studio. We're kind of looking to work with music production, whether we are involved as musicians or not. When we want to sign on bands, we want to go deeper into not just signing bands and putting their albums out, but being a constructive partner where we go and co-produce. My ambitions as an engineer… [laughs] …I'm probably a better producer, but it is something that I would really like to work with in the future. And there is no better way than to be the test person myself."

Q: I was going to ask about Ihriel's involvement in this album. Is she actually credited with anything?

Ihsahn: "No, not for this one. We work together so much. We think very differently on things, so when she does solo work I probably won't get that involved. But that's more on a practical level, just doing different projects. Of course, the general support from her has been fully invaluable. There is just no way I could have done this without the support of her."

Q: She could be credited with emotional assistance…

Ihsahn: "Yes, and also practical. She is always there to take care of a lot practical issues. E-mails have to be run through and her business-related things. Even Mnemosyne Productions we do everything together. But for the actual music writing and stuff, this is a solo album so this time I did it on my own, as she will in the future."

Q: I was wondering about something when you said that you began writing the album at the beginning of last year. I recall you talking about doing a solo album just after the disbanding of EMPEROR, so I guess I assumed that this had been something you'd been writing all along since that time.

Ihsahn: "It's been on my mind for a long time. But we did the 'Lost in Reverie' album with PECCATUM and then we did an EP ['The Moribund People'], and there have just been a lot of things going on with other fronts as well. So I could not have come to do it any sooner."

Q: Why did you call it "The Adversary"?

Ihsahn: "I felt it really described the contents of the album, especially in these times when this more extreme form of music is more generally accepted. I feel that it was important for me to be very concrete in my symbolism and lyrics and to really have a voice this time and be the adversary that metal in general has always been, and to question the common man's way. I wanted it to really show some teeth; it shouldn't be so spineless when it's metal."

Q: Given what you just said about metal being an adversarial music, can this album seem as extreme when one considers all the extreme music out there right now?

Ihsahn: "It's not my issue or my purpose to be extreme for the sake of being extreme. In the title 'The Adversary', the underlying theme of the album is kind of carrying a torch for the solitary, and that they're to think differently from those who are always in the forefront and that everybody follows. It's that your fellow people will always cut you down if given the opportunity. Give them a hundred years and they will praise for you it, but you're dead [laughs]. I know this is a quite banal way to put it, but hopefully it's a bit better in the lyrics. It's kind of carrying a torch for that, and also it's a huge criticism of what the Bible would refer to as the lukewarm. It's those who don't really have opinions on anything, that will just do anything to float in the middle and just be as gray and boring as possible [laughs]; those not contributing in any way to the direction."

Q: So there is a common lyrical theme that connects the songs.

Ihsahn: "Yes, in some way...as in my state of mind [laughs]. I think that both musically and lyrically this album should be quite consistent, even though it is somewhat coincidentally that I knew when I wrote the first song that it would be the opening track. I knew that when I wrote the last song that it would be the last track on the album. When I put the album together it ended up in the same chronological order as I wrote the music in and as I wrote the lyrics in. When I did the opening track I thought, "ok, the next step to build this album would be this kind of song, and after those two songs I would need this kind of song."

Q: How long is the album?

Ihsahn: "It's about 50 minutes, nine songs. But in true metal spirit the last song is kind of a 10-minute long epic [laughs]."

Q: You're planning a video for one of the songs, "Invocation".

Ihsahn: "Yeah, which is the opening track. It's also a very powerful song. It's the kind of song that will function outside of the album."

Q: Have you done much work on the video?

Ihsahn: "It's nearly finished. It's in editing now. The album cover layout is very simple and very naked in expression, and so is the video. There is not a lot of makeup or dancers or anything. I wouldn't say it's quite simple, but it doesn't have all the traditional effects that you would expect. It's just very basic."

Q: Are you intending to tour as a solo artist at some point?

Ihsahn: "Not at this point, as we're doing the EMPEROR shows and it would be a great big project on its own — putting a band together… As a band I think there would be good songs to do live, but I can't really put the kick drums on my back and do it that way [laughs]. It's too big of a project for this year. So maybe if I follow up this album with another solo album and I get some more material to pick from, then it might be a possibility in the future. My main interest lies in creating new music and producing music in the studio."

Q: Is it likely that we will see a second solo album then?

Ihsahn: "I think so. I was very pleased with the process of doing this album; so I think there may well be a follow-up in the future."

Q: Switching to EMPEROR now, describe the decision that resulted in the EMPEROR reunion shows.

Ihsahn: "Ever since we quit the band there have been a lot of offers for one-off shows and just doing exclusive things and reunion shows all along. So the question has come up over the years and we thought that if we're ever going to do this we might as well do it now. It's been five years. I thought it important for a band like EMPEROR that if we were going to do those final shows again that we not come back as a parody of ourselves too many years later. We were at the time where we could get a perspective on our previous collaborations. Our first and most important criteria for doing this is that we want to do this in a scale and on a level where we are ourselves comfortable and can enjoy the experience. One of my big issues with playing live was that I felt the technical quality of things was compromising the actual musical expression too much. I felt that I was spending too much time travelling and sorting out technical details, and bad monitoring and all the practical stuff; just expending too much energy on that, compared to the actual musical expression you want to make. Of course, things worked well with EMPEROR as a live band, but I guess I'd like to have had more control of the music. But this time we can bring a good crew along and get things sorted well. And also for everybody who ever played in the band for once in their career to headline a festival like Wacken with 40-50,000 people."

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Ihsahn: "No, not really. At this point I'm waiting for the final [product]. I still have to finish up the small details and kind of get the final mastering pieces together. Then I will have a long break from these songs, hopefully until it comes out [laughs]."

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