Emperor's Ihsahn Interviews King Diamond | Revolver

Emperor's Ihsahn Interviews King Diamond

Norwegian black-metal icon confers with Mercyful Fate's infernal majesty
KingDiamond.png, Frank White
photograph by Frank White

From the start, it seemed like there were forces in play that didn't want black-metal pioneer Ihsahn (frontman of Norwegian masters Emperor) and occult-metal legend King Diamond (Mercyful Fate, King Diamond) to talk. The day before the original scheduled interview, Diamond told Revolver he'd hurt his back and was bedridden in extreme pain. The battle between good and evil was on. We rescheduled for a week later, only to receive an email from Ihsahn that he had a throat infection and was unable to speak. When we told Diamond, he said it was just as well because his black cat, Magic, was pissing blood and had to be rushed to the hospital.

This was getting weird.

 Fortunately, both artists wanted to try again. After all, Diamond has a new record, Give Me Your Soul…Please (Metal Blade), to discuss, and Ihsahn is a huge fan of the King and relished the opportunity to talk with him.

"I liked the style of King Diamond even before I heard original recordings by him," Ihsahn explained. "A friend of mine once played the opening riff of "Welcome Home" [from King Diamond's 1988 album Them] on guitar, and I was hooked. And I believe Them is one of the albums I've heard the most times in my life. I used to listen to it several times a day."

All true metalheads know Diamond's importance. In 1983, when bands like Venom and Slayer were writing about Satan for shock value, his Danish group Mercyful Fate addressed the Beast from a seemingly more genuine and experienced place. Then, after Fate's first breakup in 1985, Diamond emerged as a solo artist, and by his second album, 1987's Abigail, he had found his own niche, composing haunting, progressive concept albums with horrific storylines. The dark imagery of both bands, as well as Diamond's distinctive demon growls, falsetto banshee wails, and theatrical stage makeup, would have a huge influence on metal to come, particularly the black-metal revolution that swelled up in Scandinavia just a few years later.

Chief among this movement was Ihsahn's band Emperor. Between 1994 and 2001, the group released four seminal forward-thinking black-metal albums that are still hailed as some of the best in the genre. Emperor also gained international notoriety for their criminal acts: Original drummer Faust was convicted of murder in '94, while guitarist Samoth was imprisoned in '95 for over a year for burning a church.

Given the historical, thematic, and aesthetic similarities between King Diamond and Ihsahn, it was no real surprise that when the two musicians finally did connect, there was no silencing them, and for 90 minutes both seemed to completely forget their ailments. Ihsahn sat in a black rocking chair in the library of his home in Nodtodden, Norway, sipping tea between comments, and Diamond paced the bedroom of his house in Dallas, eagerly offering his thoughts. The forces of good didn't have a prayer.

IHSAHN King, how are you?

KING DIAMOND Fine, under the circumstances. Yourself?

IHSAHN Under the circumstances. My tonsils are the size of tennis balls.

DIAMOND Oh, man. I have a pinched, enflamed nerve in my lower left back. It's the worst pain I've had in my entire life. During our mixing session, I was sitting hunched over on the couch for three weeks straight for a minimum of 12 hours a day. At some point, your body says, "You're a fucking idiot, and this is what you get."

IHSAHN I totally understand. Sometimes I'm in one position in the studio for six hours without a break. You just become obsessive.

DIAMOND Yes, when I'm in there, nothing else exists. I don't even come out and eat.

IHSAHN It's strange. This throat infection is the first one I've had since 1994. Before that, I had several a year. But I changed my singing technique, and now even touring doesn't wear my voice out.

DIAMOND I don't have a problem with my voice wearing out. It's usually other people's fault when I get sick on tour. You hear someone coughing on the tour bus, and from then it's just a matter of time until you catch something, unless you want to dress up like Michael Jackson and wear these little masks.

IHSAHN That's why members of royalty wear gloves. And they touch very slightly on the hands because they shake hands with so many people. They would be constantly sick otherwise.

DIAMOND We have the same problem. There are always lots of people to say hi to. And those are dangerous moments. And when I'm done with a show, I am drenched. Just the little trip getting back to the hotel to dry off is dangerous. If you go outside, even if it's a summer night, it feels like you're standing in front of a refrigerator.

IHSAHN That's the part of touring I don't like. I like performing, but there are health issues and technical difficulties and delays and so many things that take away from the actual music that you're supposedly there for.

DIAMOND It's like being put through a torture camp. I don't like being away from home. I can never sleep on the bus. I hate touring. But being onstage is one of the absolute best things I know in my life. And it is so good, it makes up for all the bad.

IHSAHN So tell me about your new album.

DIAMOND It feels like we tried for over 20 years to get a driver's license, and we never could pass the test. And this time, we finally got that license. I wish King Diamond had started with this album, that's how good it feels.

IHSAHN When you've been part of creating something original like Mercyful Fate and King Diamond, people very much associate your early work with perfection. I've noticed that myself. With Emperor, we wrote the material for our first full-length album, [1994's] In the Nightside Eclipse, when I was 16. And the second album was [1997's] Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, and with everything we did after that, we really had to compete with those albums. People put so much of themselves in them, you feel like your own worst competitor.

DIAMOND That's exactly how I felt for so long with [1987's] Abigail. Even if you think that some of your albums have definitely beaten it, you have to beat it by a mile before it's accepted as being even. Abigail was the first full-length concept that we did, and the style is special, so it had a very strong impact. We can't really do that anymore. Our fans know us now. So it's not like the next album could be so different they won't recognize us, because then it would not come from the heart.

IHSAHN If I had a dime for every time people asked me to record again with Emperor, I'd be wealthy. The only thing I feel I owe fans is to continue to do everything from the heart. We didn't start Emperor playing primitive black metal to please public opinion. And I'm not going to start doing that now.

DIAMOND Exactly. And that's the reason people still want to hear it. You'll probably never go platinum, and neither will I. But that's not important.

IHSAHN It's about doing what you feel inside, and I've been able to make a living out of my music since I was a teenager. Now I'm in my early 30s, and I'm very grateful. I've had the privilege of living my childhood dream without compromising my expression. 

DIAMOND That is so rare.

IHSAHN Yes, and it's such a gift. I'm not going to spoil that by trying to fit into the box of today.

DIAMOND What I really like to do with my music is these concept stories, and I always like to have some life philosophies in the lyrics. I've noticed from reading the lyrics on your new [solo] album [2006's The Adversary] that you do that, too.

IHSAHN Yes. That came with time. In the early days of Emperor, there was an extreme tension and energy about everything we did. Even though the attention we got was purely negative, it was still a confirmation that what we did made a difference. And I think that pushed me into thinking very seriously about my work and not relating to the lyrics like a teenager. The arrogance of youth wears off as you learn more, and then you have to start over questioning everything.

DIAMOND I don't like to judge anybody, but I very much like to raise questions. This new album deals a lot with darkness and what might be in the shadows.

IHSAHN I guess that is very much what metal has always been about—the dark expression of mankind. I think overall that we really get criticized for that and become scapegoats for practically anything. I've had to confront that, and you probably have, too, because you had the satanic imagery and that type of philosophy. And people put accusations towards how you are as a person.

DIAMOND Of course, and they don't know. I'm actually not religious in any way. I don't have any faith. I never had that. I'm also a very private person. I don't go to clubs. I don't like award ceremonies. I can't stand certain things. I don't have a tie. If I'm not good enough without a tie for certain places, than those people who would not let me in, they are fucking not even worth being associated with.

IHSAHN The obvious counterpoint of that is Christianity. And this whole theme reflects in The Adversary. The main enemy in that album—what I criticize most—is not Christianity, it is the lukewarm. That's what the Bible [condemns], too. The lukewarm floats a bit on this and that or whatever's safe. And I think that's what we see when we put ourselves on the far edge of society by being in a very extreme place because of our expression. When we put up this very black and dark wall around ourselves, or we place ourselves on that side, we reflect society.

DIAMOND I like to reflect it, but I would never say to a person, "Oh, what you think is wrong," because right and wrong are very individual. I like to raise questions about what bothers me and let people make up their own minds. Like, in one part of this new album, there are 13 judges saying to a little boy who was killed by his father before the father kills himself, "You're a suicide. You're going down to hell." And he's yelling, "No, it's a mistake!" What I'm saying is, if you believe there's someone judging you after your life ends here on Earth, who is to say they can't make a mistake?" Mistakes have been made by gods before. Lucifer was a mistake, right?

IHSAHN I guess I have associated with that symbolism so much because what he wanted was to be an equal. Lucifer wanted to be an individual. He didn't just want to follow the collective mind. And that's the basis of the struggle between so-called good and so-called evil.

DIAMOND No matter what side you are on religiously, there is always good and bad. How much bad has been done in the name of religion? It's usually the route to all wars.

IHSAHN But when you try to get across these ideas by making the type of music we do, people say, "Well, why the hell don't you live all alone in a castle and be all misanthropic?" They expect you to be so different. And at the same time, they want you to still do what they originally liked you for—in my case, being in Emperor. So people want us to follow the words of Aleister Crowley—"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law"—as long as we do it in a fashion that pleases them.

DIAMOND It's an unrealistic statement, as well. I mean, it's a nice line, but if you live like that, you'll be in jail so fast. You always have to take it into context and say, "I can live by that to a big degree," but I can't go, "Hey, I want a plasma TV. I'm going to go into a store and grab one." You're not gonna get far.

IHSAHN Yes, but we deal in expression that is very extreme, so we say things that are maybe 10 or 100 times more extreme than the original message. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, "I have to scream loud so that even the hard of hearing can hear me." It's hard enough to get your message across, and if you say, "Do almost what thou wilt," you don't get people inspired.

DIAMOND For me, telling the story is the most important thing. If I just focused on messages, it would be too much like, "Hey, this is what you should think." That's not what I do; that's what preachers and politicians do.

IHSAHN I'm much better at screaming and confronting rather than being a diplomat, which is why I named my album The Adversary. I try not to tell people what to believe, but I see my role as a confronter who raises questions.

DIAMOND I respect all beliefs, but it's important to realize that belief is based on faith, meaning that a person should say, "I believe it could be this way." No one can prove they believe in the only right God. And nobody can prove they know what happens after they die.

IHSAHN They certainly can convince themselves.

DIAMOND But they can't prove it to the rest of the world. It has never been proven that there is no God, either, of course. I would be stupid to say, "I don't believe in anything, so there is definitely no God." I just wish that if there was a God, he would show himself, so we can all have a better life. Because so many conflicts in the world are caused by some kind of religious dispute.

IHSAHN Sometimes it's the other way around. These people in power use religious motives to control the masses.

DIAMOND And it goes so far back in times. The Crusades is a typical example of gaining power over the masses. And look at the Ten Commandments. I don't think any human being could ever live up to all 10, and I'm sure that was the intent because that creates power over others.

IHSAHN You said you never had any religious belief, but when you were in Mercyful Fate, you wrote songs that were quite satanic.

DIAMOND Like you said, you want people to think and try to make up their mind about things that bother you. Take a song like "Nuns Have No Fun," [off Mercyful Fate's 1984 debut EP of the same name], for instance, which is about this cult raping a nun and crucifying her, and that's what the artwork is based on, as well. You may ask, "What's the good in that?" Well, I'm not saying there's any good in it, but isn't it funny that it's a drawing on a cover of an album with music on it, and a lot of people freaked out over it? I had a lot of questions about Christianity at that time. And after [the album] came out, I was invited to be on live television in Denmark with a priest who wanted Mercyful Fate banned from the radio and took a personal vendetta against us. He started by making all these accusations, and the first thing I said was, "You know what? I really like your tie. I think you are very nicely dressed for this occasion." He got totally silent, and then he said, "Well, thank you," not knowing what else to do. And then I said, "Oops, pride. Isn't that one of your sins? Why are you dressed up for this? Shouldn't you just come in as you are normally? Well, forget that, let's talk a little bit about the Inquisition. Wouldn't that be nice to talk about, now that we've talked about the cover of my record. Because those are the things your faith did for real. They didn't just draw it on a little cover. They did it for real to how many people?" He left the studio and never interfered with us again.

IHSAHN Yes, but that's such a long time ago…

DIAMOND Yes, it was, and sometimes the satanic lyrics I wrote are misunderstood, like with the song "A Dangerous Meeting" [on the 1992 King Diamond album of the same name]. I had a lot of experiences with the supernatural, especially in this apartment in Copenhagen where this early stuff was written. And that song is actually a warning that says, Hey, don't mess around with this shit. If you don't have someone in there that can really interpret things the right way, it is way too dangerous because you don't know what's speaking to you. If it feels mocked or disrespected, it can give you answers back that will ruin your life. The Ouija board will spell out, "You will die from serious sickness" or something, and for the next 20 years, you'll always be wondering, When is that going to happen? After my first experiences with the supernatural, I went to the library and read a lot of books about the occult, and I realized after a while that most of those books were written from one specific viewpoint where satanism was always depicted as these maniacs sacrificing and eating little babies. And that's a thing I can totally not stand behind. That's insanity.

IHSAHN That's like in war, where it's always the victor who describes the loser and describes the war. I've been making music for almost 17 years now, and I've gotten a lot of shit for what I've done and what I've stood for. I've been beaten up. Friends of mine have lost jobs just for knowing me. And all the collective hate that people managed to build up, and the things I was believed to stand for and do have nothing to do with what I put in the lyrics. Then in the beginning of 2000, people in Norway began to realize that black metal was Norway's biggest cultural export, and Emperor was one of Norway's best-selling bands ever. And suddenly there's a success behind it, and people's attitudes change. When I released my solo album, which lyrically is the most critical and most aggressive thing I've done, no one cares. They give me a cultural prize because I'm suddenly a celebrity and a successful musician.

DIAMOND Well, maybe that makes you the victor.