Ihsahn is a friendly gentleman who starts with excusing himself for being a bit later. But he is the middle of interview marathons. 'It is pretty hard to coordinate and sometimes it takes a bit longer.' He faced eight weeks of interviews and this was the seventh week in row dedicated to the press.
Your third album 'After' appears to be the occluding album of a trilogy. What exactly is it that these three albums have in common?
It is definitely the most diverse album. I think it is a natural step from the previous two albums, although it might not be the most logical step and that was a subconscious and conscious decision. I am very happy about the turning out a bit further away from the two others; otherwise it could have locked me up too much for what I can do on my fourth album. I like the idea of a trilogy, a kind of open ending in that sense with the freedom to come up with whatever comes out after that. I guess it is natural to compare them with the two other albums. 'The Adversary' was the first experiment, building a new metal platform for myself in post-Emperor era. 'Angl' was about trying to focus on that platform and making it a bit better. I guess this album takes it a bit further again, developing it and making it even more concrete. Also concept-wise it is very different. The first two albums are very direct, very confrontational, very Nietzsche inspired. This album has a totally different concept; this is after the conflict, this is almost post-apocalyptic. There is no sign of life in the lyrics, it is only very symbolic, describing movements of sea, landscapes on Mars,… that kind of things. But still, for me it is kind of hard to get off the Nietzsche inspiration, when I think of Nietzsche's book 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra'. Even though it is also so direct and clear, so at the point, the tone of that book and the writing has almost religious undertones; even in that ungodly philosophy that he has. I guess this album is not so much about contemporary conflicts; it is more about these old, almost eternal inspirational forces. On a personal level too. When I was finishing the last song on this album, I had similar pictures and inspirations in my mind as when I was finishing 'With Strength I Burn' from the second Emperor album. This whole album is more about my own inspirational fundament.
Can we see in that way, the statement that these lyrics are more personal?
I have always been very personal in my lyrics, but I guess there are albums when it is not so easy to see that. The question is: what is personal and what is private? I need to be personal on a kind of level to write lyrics and make music. I cannot write lyrics about anything just to have lyrics; I am always personal in a sense that I bring up themes and subjects that are important to me. But I don't have to write them in a way that I deliver myself in a very private matter. It is not supposed to be about me. I just need to write about something I have strong feelings for and can be honest about.
One of the outstanding features on 'After' is the saxophone used in extreme metal music…
It is just an idea I have had for many years, I like the sound of the saxophone for a very long time. The reason I came up with the saxophone on this album is because I had Garm from Ulver as guest on the first album, Mikael Akerfeldt from Opeth as guest on 'Angl'. I wanted to continue this tradition of having a guest soloist on my albums. Given the concept in the lyrics of no sign of life, I wanted something abstract; I did not want a voice with words. A saxophone has always had this lonesome vibe to me and I think it fits very well in these epic and atmospheric layers of this album. It was also a risk. I never wanted to use the saxophone for the shock effect. Not in a sense of: okay, let have this crazy part with saxophone. No, I wanted to brand it in the music in a similar way like I use orchestral string samplers or sound effects galore in the past. I was very lucky to have Jorgen Munkeby (Shining) because I think the album is very much like it is due to his way of playing and how he interprets it. That was very much a mix between me telling him which melody lines I wanted him to play, like on 'Undercurrent' and 'On The Shores', the main melody lines for both songs are the same. This glues the album together and these are specific parts. On other songs I let him improvise. It is always fantastic when he improvises, but maybe not always fitting the atmosphere I was after. It is difficult to explain abstract images in my head. I could explain where I was going and then he did another take that was very different, but so much more in context with what I wanted. He is a fantastic musician and it was a pleasure to work with him.
Already with the first track I felt a kind of atmosphere like the post rock of Solstafir…
(Ihsahn did not know them but will check them out) I always like the Icelandic atmosphere. I love Sigur Ros and Bjork.
What I really love about the album is that it has very harsh vocals, but also very mellow, contemplative vocal parts…
It is hard to explain why, but in general I like contrasts. I always wanted to make music that is dynamic and the reason to bring in orchestral strings, massive choirs and eventually also horns is because we listen to a lot of soundtracks. This is very dynamic, an emotional rollercoaster type of thing and black metal and metal in general tends to be very static, just one level. I always tried to use arrangements and instrumentation to extend this and create more dynamics. I want to be able to experiment and try different paths. In music it is natural for me to blend the two in that way.
I often have the feeling that the only progressive things happen in the quondam black metal scene nowadays…
It is funny you say that, because the other day a journalist asked me if it did not feel strange that there are so many musicians from the original Norwegian black metal scene ended up doing much more progressive and far out music. I never thought about that. I gave it a thought and in a way it is very natural. In 1991 black metal was nothing. We were just teenagers but already seeking really deep into this very radical form of music. When teenagers are devoting so much to do that, especially at early age, it is just natural that the same people will continue to do so and continue to seek further when they grow older.
And they start to discover the progressive music of the seventies and start mixing it with their own extreme harsh music, don't you think so?
For me personal, it is general interest in exciting music. Privately it is very rare that I listen to metal at all.
What do you listen to?
A lot of Radiohead, Bjork, some of the Atlantic bands, Jorgen Munkeby's old band, classical music and soundtracks, Opeth, Katatonia. If I listen to traditional metal it is always the stuff that I grew up with, like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. If I listen to black metal, it is always Bathory.
In some songs I had a kind of Opeth feel, indeed…
Well, I see several references to Opeth in the album reviews of this and also my previous album. I think it is because Mike and me have a different way of working with the arrangement, making it a little less typical. People think it is similar then. I love Opeth, so I take this as a compliment. There is no shame in being compared to Opeth and it is easy when it is connected like that. And our first show was supporting Opeth (as Ihsahn) so that make more people surmise there might be similarities. I think it is great that Opeth has succeeded to this enormous extend that they have. It is a band with really good musicians for so many years and they just develop their sound in a very truthful way and honest condition. It is refreshing to see that kind of band getting that amount of recognition.
I am happy to see that there will be some Ihsahn live gigs, which I never expected!
Actually we have been rehearsing since Christmas holidays and everything is going well so far. I am very lucky to have the live backing band I have.
The album 'After' is recorded with drummer Asgeir Michelson (Spiral Architect and former drummer of Borknagar), bassist Lars K. Norberg (Spiral Architect) and saxophonist Jorgen Munkeby (Shining).
Who's going to assist you on live gigs?
I actually hired in a full band called Leprous. The session keyboard player who was with us with Emperor, Einar Solberg, it is his band. They are called Leprous and they have an album out now on The Laser's Edge; an album called 'Tall Poppy Syndrome' and Einar is my youngest brother in law. And also, half the band are previous students of mine. (laughs) I know them all for quite a long time and most of them take higher education in music now. It is so easy for me to just give them a tablature. I recorded all the albums myself, so I can make mixes with their parts louder, bring up harmony parts and stuff for rehearsal purposes and I just sent them on email. By the time we meet in the rehearsal room, we can play the songs. They are fantastic musicians, very ambitious, very professional in their approach. It makes my job so much easier.
The only gig you are playing I know is at Brutal Assault in Czech Republic next Summer…
There's several more coming up, but it is not officially confirmed yet. Hellfest and Wacken Open Air are confirmed as well.
Something I want to talk about is: you are a teacher, you got a culture prize and you should organize underground gigs in your hometown Notodden…
That is very much an exaggeration is many ways (laughs). I teach guitar once a week in the music school. In relation to that, my wife used to be kind of the boss of all cultural work related to younger people. She was kind of the headmaster for that. In that relation, being a musician herself, she initiates a lot of projects. It is all part of the cultural department in the city that she works for, also because of my work with Emperor, it gave the city its cultural prize. I got the credit for her kind of field work. It was nice, but it felt a bit undeserved. (Notodden Kommunes Kulturpris)
Why did you decide from the beginning that you want Jens Bogren as producer?
He just mixed the album. I recorded it at my own Symphonique Studio with additional recordings at Toproom Studio (co-engineered by Borge Finstad) and Jens Bogren did the finishing touch. Both the previous albums, I mixed myself but that's a lot of work: writing music, recording most of the instruments, kind of engineering it, producing it and then mixing it. I hoped that Jens could find the time, because I did not want anybody else: it should have been him or me again. I love his productions. That idea helped me a lot through the recording process, I knew he should mix it and I did not have to think so far ahead. He did everything I hoped he would do and more. I am very pleased. I travelled to Sweden and worked over a week with him at Fascination Street Studio. It is a nice studio. It is a new one. He started the Paradise Lost album in his old one and finished it in his new studio. I was one of the first ones in his new studio.
What can we find on the special edition?
Me talking about the new record, the studio report which is already on the internet but longer. And the whole debut show, filmed by one camera, yet quite interesting.
Our time was up. I could have talked much longer with such an eminent musician, but as Ihsahn says: let's continue this conversation when my next record comes out. Another journalist was waiting…