"You need to be inspired and on your game to make something that can hopefully resonate with people," Ihsahn says. "And one of the great things about being a solo artist is that I can become inspired and then just change direction and do whatever the hell I want. I don't have to limit myself for anything or anyone."
It would be safe to say that Ihsahn has spent a lifetime pushing limits. From his now legendary run with Emperor — the band he helped to form in Norway as a teenager, and which crafted some of the most mind-bending and extreme albums in black metal history — to his current slate of albums under his own name, the now 42-year-old singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has consistently redefined the sound and scope of heavy music.
His newest effort, Ámr, is yet another chapter in what has, over the course of almost 30 years, shaped up to be one of the more idiosyncratic, boundary-smashing and breathtakingly creative careers in extreme music. Ihsahn's seventh solo album overall, Ámr once again finds the artist incorporating new sounds into music that, since his 2006 solo debut, The Adversary, has explored everything from ambient to prog to electronic atmospheres and beyond. This time, Ihsahn is helped along by some unusual instrumentation, in particular vintage analog synths and 808 drum machines.
The result is some of his most unique and expressive music to date, from the labyrinthine "In Rites of Passage," which mixes instrumental freak-outs dotted with finger-twisting guitar riffs, skittering drums and sparkling keyboards with emotive, gently sung passages, to the dark, almost post-rock of "Twin Black Angels," to the soaring — and surprisingly poppy — "Sámr," (the latter two tracks also showcase his newfound love for those 808s). At the same time, songs like "Lend Me the Eyes of Millenia" and album closer "Wake" display the sort of tremolo-riff-filled, blast beat–led extreme metal that Ihsahn he has long been known for.
"At the heart of what I do, it's often screaming vocals and distorted guitar," Ihsahn acknowledges. "Those are kind of my most natural ways to express myself." But, he continues, "beyond that, there are so many ways to write and arrange a song."
Ihsahn recently sat down with Revolver to talk about what makes him tick creatively, how he continues to find new and exciting inspiration (Nicki Minaj, anyone?) and the process of making Ámr. He also talked about the legacy of Emperor, and how he balances that history, as well as the band's periodic live reunions, with his own solo musical pursuits.
"With Emperor, I've had the privilege of playing on some of the biggest stages you possibly can when you play this kind of extreme music," he reasons. "And at the same time, I get to go do Ihsahn shows. So I'm super fortunate. I can't be bothered to complain."
YOU'VE TALKED ABOUT THE FACT THAT ÁMR IS A RECORD THAT EXPLORES "INTERIOR" THEMES. WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO GO IN THIS DIRECTION?
IHSAHN "Why" is kind of a hard question. But I can say that every time I enter into the mold of creating a new album I always start off with creating scenery for it — what I want the album to be about and how I want it to feel, basically. My last album, [2016's] Arktis, had this arctic landscape that ended up also being a part of the album artwork. So that's the scene, and the metaphors of the lyrics and everything else were placed within that scenario, which in some way reflects that general vibe on the album. This time, for some reason, I had this impulse — actually, it was more of an inspiration — that the whole album would be placed inside of a dark room with no walls.
INSTRUMENTALLY SPEAKING, ANALOG SYNTHS PLAY A LARGE ROLE IN MANY OF THESE SONGS. WHAT DREW YOU TO THAT SOUND IN PARTICULAR?
It's the atmosphere they conjure up. As much as classical soundtracks, with strings and horns and orchestral sounds, were a big part of the reason why we used keyboards in Emperor, at the same time we also listened to, you know, John Carpenter and the Halloween soundtrack — we liked that eerie analog synthesizer sound. And of course that sound is not as grand as an orchestral piece; it's more of a psychological, eerie atmosphere. But with the kind of "inside" sound and claustrophobic, intimate atmosphere I was going for on Ámr, it made sense to lead with those sounds rather than the orchestral sounds. And you know, analog synths have very much had a revival in modern music production in the last few years, and that has definitely been an inspiration for me.
AS FAR AS VINTAGE SOUNDS THAT HAVE ONCE AGAIN BECOME CURRENT, YOU ALSO MAKE LIBERAL USE OF THE 808 DRUM MACHINE ON ÁMR. WHERE DOES THAT INFLUENCE COME FROM?
That's from listening to more modern productions. The Weeknd. Kanye West. A lot of R&B and trip-hop. I just like big-sounding music. And what I've done in the past with the orchestral elements, that makes the music big in the high end. But these urban music productions, they sound big in a more low-end kind of way. It always drew me in and fascinated me to hear these huge 808s that are just pounding. It's almost like they're overdriven. It's such a powerful sonic impulse. I thought, Well, I want to try and see if that fits with my expression …
YOU MENTIONED THE WEEKND AND KANYE WEST. IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU KEEP UP WITH CURRENT MUSIC.
I do. Because I always try to find new inspirations and ideas. It could be from music that does not necessarily connect with me that much on an emotional plane, but that still might have sonic textures that I like. So I heard this song, and it was one of my first aha moments with those tuned 808s. I can't remember the name of the artist. She's a female rapper. I think she had an album called The Pinkprint ...
Yes. Obviously, the atmosphere of those songs doesn't really resonate with me at all. But I heard this one song and it has these, like, droning 808s underneath it. It was more of a sonic fascination than a musical fascination. But it's stuff like that that I take from listening to it.
YOU HAVE TWO CHILDREN THAT ARE NEARING THEIR TEENS.
Very soon. This summer our oldest will be a teenager.
I WAS WONDERING IF YOUR EXPOSURE TO ANY OF THIS CURRENT POP MUSIC COMES THROUGH THEM.
Well, our daughter, she listens to Ariana Grande and everything that's on the charts. But our boy, he's 10 but he's into metal.
[Laughs] Yeah. My father took me to see Iron Maiden, and I took my son to see Iron Maiden on the Book of Souls tour. We've been to see Ghost. I took my kids to one of the Emperor shows and he got to go watch Slayer from the side of the stage. So he really loves the music. I remember he came into kitchen once and he said, "Hey, dad, have you heard this record called Master of Puppets?" He discovered it on Spotify. I was like, "Yeah. I know the record." [Laughs] But it was very fun to see that this is something he stumbled upon himself.
YOU GREW UP IN THE TELEMARK REGION OF NORWAY. IS THAT WHERE YOU STILL LIVE?
It's where I've always lived. Our house is two minutes from where I grew up.
SO YOU CLEARLY HAVE A VERY STRONG CONNECTION TO THE AREA. WHAT IS IT THAT YOU LOVE ABOUT IT?
Really, it's just a very nice area. Telemark as a county, they say it's like Norway in miniature. Because you have everything — the glacier and the fjords, the troll-ish pine forests, it's connected to the seaside and also inland … you get a mix of all of it. And the area we live in is really nice. We have quite a few dogs, and you can basically just walk out the door and you'll be on a path somewhere into the forest, and you can go up on some different tops and edges with great views. It's just very, very easy access to nature.
DO YOUR SURROUNDINGS INFLUENCE YOU MUSICALLY? FOR INSTANCE, DO YOU HIKE OR WALK IN THE FOREST FOR INSPIRATION?
Not so much consciously. But as Nietzsche said, "All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking." It's rather true. My wife can spend hours and days going to mountaintops and stuff like that. And it's something that I do more and more. Especially with our very kind of open lifestyle, where we don't have routine day jobs. We both just do music.
AS SOMEONE WHO HAS BEEN DOING MUSIC FOR CLOSE TO THREE DECADES, DO YOU FIND THAT YOU NEED TO BE CONSCIOUS OF REMAINING COMMITTED TO FOLLOWING YOUR OWN CREATIVE PATH, AND CONTINUALLY CHALLENGE YOURSELF MUSICALLY?
Yes. It's very much a conscious decision to give myself these challenges. It keeps the process of making an album interesting. And I've done quite a few albums at this point in my career, so one of the main goals is to keep finding new approaches and new ways of working in order to keep that excitement and enthusiasm. Because I believe that if I don't have that enthusiasm going into the music I can't expect anyone to be enthusiastic about listening to it.
YOU HAVE TO BE CAREFUL NOT TO RETREAT INTO TRIED-AND-TRUE RIFFS AND CHORD PROGRESSIONS AND MELODIES, FOR EXAMPLE.
Yes. That's actually what brought me to the seven-string [guitar] in the late Nineties. So I could lose that muscle memory. And with the eight-string guitar, which I use now, you have to relate to it in a very different way. You can't just transpose your chords and do all these things you would normally do. You end up writing stuff in F# and G# and all these different keys. Doing things like this helps you to skip muscle memory. You're unable to do all these things your fingers would naturally do.
THAT SAID, THERE ARE ALWAYS THOSE FANS THAT HOPE YOU WILL JUST DO THE SAME THINGS OVER AND OVER. FOR SOME PEOPLE, YOU'LL ALWAYS BE "IHSAHN FROM EMPEROR." AS MUCH AS THAT'S SOMETHING THAT IS MEANINGFUL TO A LOT OF PEOPLE, DOES THAT LEGACY EVER FEEL LIKE A WEIGHT TO YOU?
I think at the beginning of my solo career it felt a bit like, "Ugh, I'm always gonna be my own little brother," you know what I mean? But now I'm seven solo albums in and people are still interested. Also, in recent years we've been doing these reunion shows with Emperor where we play all these old songs, and there will be times at festivals where I'll play one day with Emperor and one day as Ihsahn. I get to do both. So what's not to like? It would be very sad to complain about the situation I'm in.
WHEN YOU'RE PLAYING THOSE OLD SONGS WITH EMPEROR, AND IN PARTICULAR DOING THE FULL ALBUM SETS FOR RECORDS LIKE IN THE NIGHTSIDE ECLIPSE AND ANTHEMS TO THE WELKIN AT DUSK, DO YOU FIND YOU'RE ABLE TO CONNECT TO THAT MUSIC IN THE SAME WAY YOU DID BACK IN THE DAY?
Absolutely. That's the strange thing. And it's something I was worried about, because I wrote a lot of those songs when I was still a teenager. But I think the emotion and the attitude of the songs, you reconnect with that. And it also has to do with how albums were made back then. What was called the "take" on the record was what we played when we did those songs in the rehearsal space. These days, we make albums on computers and we have to relearn them to go play them live.
But I think with that kind of old-school way of working, the music is almost embedded into your DNA. There are so many times where we'll pick up a song that we haven't played for, you know, 20 years, but you just have to start with the one riff that you do remember and then just feel your fingers go into the right notes. It's kind of stored in muscle memory. And the lyrics as well — I can't even really be conscious about singing the lyrics, because then I would probably forget parts. I just have to trust that in that next millisecond where the vocal is supposed to come in, the words will come by themselves. And that's how it works.
IT'S INTERESTING THAT YOU BRING UP MUSCLE MEMORY AGAIN. IN THIS CASE, YOU CALL ON THAT MUSCLE MEMORY TO HELP YOU PLAY THOSE OLD EMPEROR SONGS. BUT WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR SOLO MUSIC, YOU DO YOUR BEST TO ELIMINATE ANYTHING THAT COULD CONJURE THIS SAME MUSCLE MEMORY.
Yes. That's a very interesting point. It's the muscle memory that connects me to that old music, but skipping the muscle memory is what helps me extend the musical experience now. One thing I get a lot is people saying, "Oh, how come you do all these different kinds of albums?" To be honest, I find it strange that more musicians from that era of early black metal don't experiment more with music. Because at the time I would say what became Norwegian black metal was kind of a big experiment on its own. You had a lot of very young guys pushing their musical boundaries at 16, 17 years old. Pushing extremity. It would be kind of sad if we all stopped experimenting at that young age.
ALL OF WHICH IS TO SAY THAT THE SORT OF EXPERIMENTATION WE HEAR ON ÁMR, AND ALSO IN YOUR SOLO CAREER IN GENERAL, IS, IN FACT, NOT UNUSUAL. IT'S WHAT YOU'VE BEEN DOING SINCE THE EARLIEST DAYS OF YOUR CAREER.
Yes. I don't want my experience with writing and playing music to be like an office job, you know? That's what drew me to this in the first place — the adventure of pushing boundaries, of seeing what I might have to add to all of this. I try to have that same kind of mindset when I approach music now. Because if any of this ever became routine, it would all be kind of pointless.