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IHSAHN: From Hermit To Hermit

Interview with ex-Emperor moving spirit Ihsahn by Vera in June 2012

Ihsahn is one of the most innovative musicians we know. After his epoch-making work with the Norwegian black metal band Emperor, he has been creating solo albums since quite some time now. Without any exception they can be labelled as brilliant when you put some time in them to grow. While we are writing this, we still think about the right words to honour his fourth musical tour de force ‘Eremita’ properly. But let us start with focusing and going deeper into the conversation – in reference to ‘Eremita’ - we had with this fascinating musician.

Since the release of ‘After’, Ihsahn evolved from a studio project into a band that plays some selected gigs live from time to time. I think I had the honour to see you at one of the first shows, more particularly at Brutal Assault Festival in Czech Republic in 2010…
No, that was not the first live show. That was earlier, I was once the support of Opeth in Oslo and my first show abroad was at Hellfest in France, but that was very shortly after. And I will be playing at Hellfest this year as well.

Now that you have a bit experience with live shows with Ihsahn; how do you experience these live gigs with the Leprous guys?
To be honest, they made the live part of this very easy for me. It is a pleasurable experience to travel with them in all aspects, I mean, they are very nice people to have around, they are fantastic musicians. Rehearsals and preparations are easy with them. When we are out they really behave, most of them do not even drink alcohol, they do not run after girls, nothing like that. They are just professionally having a good time. They love to play and do the utmost to do a good job. I could not do this without them, so this is perfect for me. (smiles)

And I see that they have helped you more then ever with the record…
You are quite right, in particularly Tobias on drums. Tobias Ornes Andersen has been in my live band for quite a while. On the previous two records I had Asgeir Mickelson playing the drums, but Tobias is just a different kind of drummer than Asgeir. For this album I had the idea to create a more dynamic and organic sounding album. Tobias was perfect for that. But the experience of how I write now and getting a bit more confident, I think I find it easier to be not in control of everything. On the first solo record I did with Asgeir, I programmed all the drums first and made him play more or less exactly what I had written for him. Now there is more expressive power, like this long section on ‘The Grave’, is kind of improvised. Stuff like that is perfect for Tobias. He is not the typical metal drummer, he comes more from a jazz, rock, progressive type of background. Also he has not the world’s biggest drum kit; it is a simple set up, but he makes it sound like a huge drum kit (laughs). I could go into detail about these recordings. We did it at the Juke Joint studio where me and my wife are co-owners. It is a huge old analogue studio with vintage equipment, a really nice atmosphere. Even though Tobias has a small kit, I recorded the drums with twenty-five microphones or so to capture the vibes. And also Jens Bogren, who mixed the album, did it in an organic way. He emphasized my sound in his mix. It is kind of nice to have that sound of real drums in a room, because most records are overproduced. We retained the dynamics in the mix.

That was also my impression: the album breathes a lot and shows more freedom, as you said in experimenting; sometimes even with jazz patterns…
Yeah I would not call it derived from a certain genre, but I took a little bit of inspiration from a jazz type of arranging. For the expressiveness of the album, I think that was kind of influenced on how I wrote, because I do so many roles on an album: then I am a guitar player, then keyboards, then I am a vocalist, then I am producer or engineer moving mikes around. For me it has been important to divide the different parts of the process as much as I can. When I am writing music now I usually write the riffs on the guitar instead of recording guitar parts, I rather program the notes of that riff into the computer and play them back with typical piano sounds. Then I work with the song in this stripped down piano-like piece and arrangements. Then I start working with a song like a composition, regarding the production. Tobias had just a click track and the riffs played by a piano sound to lean on, just those stripped down versions, so he could put all his energy into his drumming. I gave him a skeleton of the songs and hoped for my directions and his imagination to work with. That was the dynamic, expressive, rhythmic fundament for the whole production. It was real fun!

The previous album ‘After’ was the conclusion of a trilogy. Can we see ‘Eremita’ as a kind of new chapter or maybe the start of a new trilogy?
Well, I doubt that. I had no intention of doing another trilogy. The idea behind that trilogy was to give myself, I decided earlier on that, the time of doing three albums to root this musical outlet as a solo artist and kind of marking the sound. I did not do any live shows before finishing the three albums either. I did not like the idea of doing five songs of a solo album and fill the rest of the set with Emperor songs. That seemed so retired and I was determined to make my solo work very solid. I started from scratch again and ended up with ‘After’. I found myself a musical identity I really enjoyed. I guess finishing that and still having the foundation of an extreme metal base, with more playground for experimentation is what I achieved. That experience, confidence and that approach has made me write ‘Eremita’.

That is what the meaning of real progressiveness is about…
The main motivation for doing it like that, is just to keep myself excited about it. That’s why I got into music in the first place. Not regarding if I would have a career or not, which luckily I have, but still since… I started to play as a very small child, but since I was thirteen years old I never really considered doing something else. Maybe it is self-indulgent, but there has always been this huge passion for music.

The title ‘Eremita’ includes a kind of isolation from the world. Can this be seen as a kind of feature of your character, surely when you are composing?
The title ‘Eremita’, which is a kind of hermit, reflects the album on several levels. Of course I am doing this as a solo artist and some may be joking about me in my hermit’s cave when I am in the studio. (laughs) Also, I do not tour much, I do not mix and mingle intensively. On that level too I guess, but also all throughout my career I also come back to that mythical figures, like Lucifer, Prometheus, Icarus… My first solo albums ‘The Adversary’ and ‘AngL’ had many references to that. It stands for a kind of reaction and breaking apart from the conformity of collective thinking and making up your own mind about things. I guess in some way you can say that’s a pretty common thing for metal music in general. It is a music form in opposition to conformity. Maybe that was what drew me to this type of expression and form of music in the first place. I still think it is kind of fascinating and a form where I can root my thinking and my music, even though it is not an album that reflects your typical contained hermit. The protagonist on this album is much more of a madman, with loads of escapism and paranoia, but still a sultry escape into solitude. There is no chronological order on this album, it is more as a journey which starts with ‘Arrival’ and ends with ‘Departure’. Also Nietzsche, being a huge influence on me for many years, he was himself a philosophical hermit, he writes about Zarathustra who also chose a hermit existence for longer periods, so many levels… it just make sense to have that title.

It is also reflected in the artwork from the Spanish artist Ritxi Ostariz and the picture of Nietzsche…
That is actually quite a coincidence that we ended up with him on the front cover. When Ritxi came over to Norway and we went over different graphical material to figure out the artwork, we actually started with the inside of the booklet first and did the front cover last. We worked the other way around than usually. We were very pleased with the direction of the inside cover artwork. It gives a crime-like mysterious feeling. When we came to do the front cover it was very hard to find something that would maintain that atmosphere. We started to look at different paintings and images of hermits. Ritxi tried this picture when Nietzsche went mad and I found it very powerful. I sent that as a source of inspiration to him and he just put it on the cover. In the beginning me and Heidi were sceptical to use it, but when we saw the result we were absolutely convinced. It adds a very eerie thing to the album, in a sense it is ugly, an ugly cover. I think some people will absolutely hate it and that is great (chuckles). I guess I enjoy that small part of controversy.

When talking of the hermit I always think of the artwork of Led Zeppelin IV…
Oh of course, that could almost be a reference in itself. That cover is EPIC. That would be the perfect cover for this album too, but of course I could not have it (laughs). It is almost like the second song on the album: ‘The Paranoid’. The title ‘Paranoid’ alone is kind of taken hehe. You cannot use it without being linked to Black Sabbath. I tried to change it a bit, so that it does not sound too familiar, but with the lyrics of the song it was very hard to find a replacement beyond that. It was coincidence. The working title was ‘Paranoid’ and finally it was hard to find suitable replacement.

Talking about the title ‘Catharsis’, that’s a very strong image as well and I think it reflects the music. Sometimes music might be a catharsis, to free your mind and body from something, isn’t it?
Making music in a very abstract way, at least that’s how I feel, it makes me deal with things. Of course, in this kind of music that I do, things are sometimes exaggerated beyond what is healthy almost. The music itself has this exaggeration, I mean, for some people this kind of music or vocals can be overwhelming if you are not used to it. It is so far out and over the top that people cannot relate to it. For me, been doing this for more than twenty years, it is just the way I think. For me there is nothing extreme about it. So you get different levels of how you relate to it. A song like ‘Catharsis’ is not specifically negative. Of course all these things contain thoughts and feelings, issues and images that I filter through my work. I think it is meaningful, but it is so personal… that’s why I never really write stuff too concretely and too personal. I want to be very honest in the music I do. When I release my music, I don’t necessarily want my listeners to feel what I feel. I want them to feel what they feel. When I listen to music, in a similar way, I am much more into how it makes me feel, rather than thinking about the artist’s feelings, because music is such a subjective thing. It connects with you or it doesn’t.

In the first single ‘Introspection’ we hear Devin Townsend. How did you get in contact with him and how was it working with him?
(chuckles) We met in the lobby of a hotel in Finland, when we both played Tuska Festival in Helsinki. He came up to us, it was me and my wife and her oldest daughter, and I think he just heard ‘After’. He was really excited about that. We had a short talk and since then kept in touch by email. I don’t know if you ever met him, but he is a very energetic and super positive guy. He is a really nice guy. When he asked me do vocals on one of the songs of the ‘Deconstruction’ album, I was more than happy. I guess I sympathize with his way of working, because, even though his expression is so different from mine in many ways, we work in a similar way. He is a solo artist, he has his own studio, he likes production work, he doesn’t really care who is included or if he has to do everything himself. He just has this passion for music and regardless of where it will take him. I recognize that. It is easier for me to associate with that than with the typical five piece band. When I did the vocals for ‘Introspection’ it did not sound as powerful as I hoped it would be. I think it was Heidi who suggested that we should ask Devin. It was a kind of returned favour, but I think he really enjoyed doing it. His voice was perfect for that type of song and vocal lines.

With Jeff Loomis, ex-guitarist Nevermore, I guess it is the same story, since you sing on one song of his recent solo album?
Not exactly the same story, since I had not have the pleasure of meeting him in person until now. We got to know each other a bit over email. I asked his email once about an equipment issue, some amplifier and the digital effects he was using. Gear talk hehe. He asked me to contribute vocals on ‘Surrender’, a great song. It was easy for me to write lyrics for it. It was a pleasurable experience. These days with everybody having his own studio and the internet it is very easy to do collaborations like that. In the end, the three of us kind of spiced each other’s record I think. When you work through internet on small parts, of course it is not like you write songs together, it just adds more personality in a sense. For me it is a friendly exchange of favours really. I was a bit worried that my record company would use to names for sales. I asked them not to put stickers on the record with all that name-dropping. I ought not to undermine their contribution, but that is not what the album is about. I do not want to present it as anything else than what it is.

Maybe you can tell me something about the magic and your fascination for the seven and eight string guitars of Ibanez…
I had the pleasure of being with Ibanez for quite a few years and they have been very nice to me. My fascination grew when I bought my first seven string Ibanez in 1999, when we were touring the States with Emperor and that influenced all my writings for the last Emperor albums, without expended range. Later on, when actually when doing the reunion shows, I met someone from the company in Los Angeles and they said to try out the prototype of their eight string guitar. The way they built it, it is just a slim. I played all the songs for the Emperor gig on a six string on the sound check, which felt very natural, it is just a slim, the neck feels the same, but since there is a movement going – I think it is the djent movement, like Meshuggah – the people think that I have anything to do with it, but I do not have so much in common with them. It seems that Meshuggah are the Godfathers of that. Of course I dig Meshuggah too, it is a very rhythmic expression, but for me on this new record Ibanez sent me some high breed baritone seventh string, built for lowing tuning, no higher scales or extended scales. In the end it enriches my abilities on a six string guitar, because you develop new angles. That’s the most important part. You can add a different approach to the bass in that sense, it becomes more intriguing.

I am very lucky to see Ihsahn at Graspop in Belgium, one of the selected gigs…
Great, you are from Belgium, maybe I will see you there! Say hello if you see me. Thank you so much for the support. It was good talking to you!

Thank you!

And we met…

Geplaatst door Vera op maandag 09 juli 2012 - 14:25:50
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