Becoming an unquestionable underground legend as a member of EMPEROR in your teens can be a hard act to follow. However, Ihsahn has taken on the task of continuing his musical legacy with his solo albums in addition to his work in PECCATUM and HARDINGROCK. Armed with the strong artistic vision he is known for, his new solo album, angL, is a further exploration of new sounds and places for Ihsahn. One of metal’s most relevant and potent artists shared his thoughts about his artistic vision, Rob Halford, and the challenge of continuing his musical legacy.
APESHIT: Congrats on the release of angL! It’s another progression for you as an artist. How do you feel about how it turned out?
Ihsahn: I’m very pleased. I was very pleased with The Adversary for what that was. That was kind of my re-entry into doing purely metal so The Adversary was an album where I wanted to try out all these things within metal that I really hadn’t tried before. I had this specific idea of not overdubbing guitars and being very sparse. With this album, I used many of the same techniques and the ProTools but I wanted a more focused album. In many ways, I think I succeeded with that.
APESHIT: There’s a good amount of variety between the songs on the album. You have more traditional black metal songs like “Malediction” and more experimental songs like “Elevator.” Was it a conscience decision to have a variety of songs on angL or is this just a natural result?
Ihsahn: It was very a conscious decision actually because based on the methods I developed for doing The Adversary very much based on when you’re alone and in the studio and you have like a million different sound sources to choose from, you need some structure to focus in on what you want. With The Adversary I decided to write the whole album with just two guitar tracks, programmed drums, and a piano sound. I kind of followed the same recipe but I guess I brought it a bit further by actually, before starting to write anything, I sketched up…I had this little book…I sketched up the kind of album that I wanted to make, and set some practical rules on how to do it, some guidelines for what kind of sound I wanted. That why this album sounds more contemporary. It has more modern metal sounds. I also wanted the songs to be more focused, not so much all over the place like The Adversary. I still wanted to each of the songs to have each of their own personalities so that you can easily set them apart from each other. I tried to be very focused on the songs also so that not all the songs need to contain all emotional or musical possibilities. It’s a rather focus on some aspects of it.
APESHIT: What made you decide to call the album angL?
Ihsahn: It’s kind of an old word play for me that I found suitable and it’s written with small case letters but a big “L” at the end and kind of indicating a backwards meaning. [laughs] And it reflects back on The Adversary, which had this dark angelic figure. I guess it’s become kind of a symbol for me personally. This dark angelic figure that I’ve used with Icaros or Prometheus or Lucifer – this kind of personification. It’s become something that I’ve return to with my lyrics and my works so I found it naturally to build around the same theme.
APESHIT: I find the album to be very deep and with each progressive listen, I feel like I’m understanding and in turn listening to the true essence of what the album is all about. How challenging was it write this album or did it come pretty naturally and easily?
Ihsahn: I think all new albums and music that I do is a challenge. It’s all very much a struggle I think because sometimes you’re in a natural flow and things come easy and for the most part, you have to work really, really hard to get there. It’s a bit of a strange situation because it’s a very creative focus, but it’s also a very technical [focus] since I’m also doing the engineering and switching hats from performer to producer and engineer when I do this on my own. I can record music but I still worry about the sound and the recording levels. [laughs] But the one of the hardest parts is the lyrics. That has always been the kind of biggest struggle for me.
APESHIT: With you doing all the work for the album, do you find it difficult to be objective when you’re so immersed in the writing and recording process?
Ihsahn: Both yes and no. Of course I have the privilege of working together with my wife [Ihriel] so we always run things by each other and are good critics of each other when we’re in that phased. Whether we work on the same material or separately or on a collaboration, we of course have that communication that you would get in a band in a way…so we help each other out and help keep the objectivity. Also, when working solo like that, you’re not ending up focusing…as a guitar player in the studio will always feel that his guitar sound is too low in the mix. But you play everything apart from the drums and bass, you’re more objective in a way. I don’t think it’s an obstacle. I think it’s just…I love all the different situations and that’s why I do it. I would like to become a better producer. I would like to become a better songwriter and a better vocalist and a better engineer. I think also maybe that having done this for over half my life now, I think have an objectivity based on, even though I don’t have a full band to work with, I know the parameters of being a band very well, so having a mental representation of band members. [Laughs]
APESHIT: My favorite song is “Threnody.” It’s something new from you with the acoustic guitars. Can please talk about how that song came about?
Ihsahn: That’s one of the things that I set as goal for the album initially. I wanted to challenge myself into doing something musically naked as “Threnody” because much of the music that I’ve done has been layered with layers and layers with massive guitars and a lot of orchestration on top of that and always double or triple vocals and kind of covering up my clean vocals with second voices and effects. I wanted to challenge myself to do something very simple and naked like that. The black metal singing/screaming is easier to share because it’s so “inhuman.” When it comes to your singing voice, the regular clean vocals, I feel that it is much more vulnerable as an impression because you feel it’s your own voice. I guess I’ve always been somewhat shy in that respect. In the end, I’m very pleased with how it turned out and I feel it’s became a very emotionally strong song which was kind of the intention.
APESHIT: How did your collaboration with Mikael Akerfeldt from OPETH on “Unhealer” come about?
Ihsahn: Well, I’ve been kind of friends with Mikael since the early/mid-90’s but we’ve never had much contact. Last time we talked, he also felt the same way. Even though we have had much contact throughout the years, we still consider ourselves to be friends. I think we just felt some kind of kinship because we’ve had similar roles in our bands. We kind of started out at the same time and are the same age. First and foremost, he’s a great guy and a fantastic musician, and the funny story is that either Samoth or Faust in EMPEROR that originally sent the OPETH rehearsal tape to Candlelight Records that got them signed. I remember in 1990 or ’91 we listened a lot to that rehearsal tape. It was great. Much of that material became the first OPETH album.
I actually talked to Mikael about doing some kind of collaboration before I sat down to write The Adversary. But it kind of all boiled away in a way. It was just something we discussed but when I met him at Wacken in Germany in 2006, we hung out with Per [Wiberg], the keyboard player, and watched CELTIC FROST and MORBID ANGEL and had a good time. [Laughs] I mentioned it again, “I’m starting a new album now and maybe we could come together at some point and do something. It wouldn’t necessarily be my album but it would be cool to collaborate on something at some point.” We just kept in touch. He was very busy with recording the new OPETH album, Watershed, which is more or less due out at the same time as my album so he was extremely busy and wouldn’t commit unless he knew he had the time. I just kept on writing materials and finished all that. But when he committed, I picked out the song that I felt would work best for that type of collaboration. I think he managed to do the vocal tracks after OPETH takes in the studio. [Laughs] Needless to say, I am very pleased with the result. I think it really caught on to the contents of the song and the feel of the song. It was very cool to have him and I’m very honored to have him on board.
APESHIT: I gotta ask…I was waiting for Rob Halford to be on this album but it didn’t happen. Did you try to get him to do anything on this album?
Ihsahn: No, not really. I met him when they played in Oslo but that was around The Adversary time. I’ve had sporadic email communication with him but he’s not the least busy man in the business [Laughs] especially with FIGHT stuff coming out and new PRIEST album and constant touring. I think he was the one who brought it up in the January issue of UK Metalhammer. He brought it up about doing an album with me was a priority and something he really wanted to do. It’s all about finding the time and I always feel it’s nice when he says that. I don’t feel like I’m in the situation to say that. [Laughs] It’s really cool that he does it and when he finds the time, I’ll try to be as free as possible because that opportunity to do something with the god of metal, you can’t really waste it. [Laughs] I’d love for that to happen at some point but if we’re doing it, I would really like it to be something cool, put the right efforts into it and do it for the sake of doing it.
APESHIT: You don’t want to cheapen the opportunity.
Ihsahn: No, not at all. Since we first talked about it, the idea has grown subconsciously. I’ve got a lot of ideas of how I would approach it so we’ll see what happens.
APESHIT: What made you decide to work with a bass player in Lars Norberg on this album rather than you doing it yourself?
Ihsahn: I had all the intentions of doing it myself. I even bought new bass strings. [Laughs] But Asgeir [Mickelson] said that if I wanted to try him out. I was skeptical because, not to Lars because I’ve never met him, I’ve always been used to doing it myself. But as Heidi just finished her solo album and collaborated with a touch guitar player and bass player named Marcus Roiter from Germany and seeing what she got back from him doing additional playing to her arrangements, it kind of refreshed the music. So she kind of inspired me and persuade me to have a go at it. I gave him the score for one song at first and I listened to the first 30 seconds with what he did with it and I immediately decided to have him on the whole album. Of course Lars and Asgeir play together in SPIRAL ARCHITECT and are both fantastic musicians so they created a very good rhythm section for the album I think.
I was really in a privileged position because Lars I just handed him the score because I score out all my guitar parts when I write them to remember them myself and he work from that. He would sent me mp3s of different suggestions and interpretations and I would just say, “Go with this idea or follow that guitar line on that part.” Just kind of producing from afar. To this day, I have never met him. [Laughs] I’ve just talked to him on the phone.
APESHIT: One day.
Ihsahn: Yeah, one day I’ll have to invite him.
APESHIT: Obviously, everybody wants you to tour. Are there any concrete plans to tour in support of the new album?
Ihsahn: Not any concrete plans. My excuse from The Adversary was that I wasn’t going to go out and play material from just one album and then do EMPEROR covers for the rest of the night. I’m only 32 and I’ll do that when I’m 70. [Laughs] Of course I have two albums now and I’ve written all the material with the idea in the back of my mind that at some point it will be played live with a five-piece band. Not having a full time band, it’s a whole different project. Getting the line-up together and doing the rehearsals and doing it properly so me, being one person, it’s a matter of priority – should I put my time into that or should I start writing new material? For practical reasons having kids and everything, it’s harder to prioritize things involving a lot of other people and finding the time to write new material and do all of that.
APESHIT: One thing that is characteristic of your career is that you’ve always done what you wanted to do and you haven’t caved into the pressure of fans or other people or maybe your label would want you to do like – Why did EMPEROR break up or why did PECCATUM break up? Why don’t you tour? There’s a lot of people that can complain about some decisions you’ve made. But much of your music is about independence, about doing your own thing, and about freedom.
Ihsahn: Yeah, it is. That was the whole [idea]. In my book, much of the black metal scene is based on that whole Crowley quote, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” It’s a true individualist thing. And to be honest, it was that type of pressure that made me want to leave EMPEROR in the first place because there were so many people having an opinion of what they thought EMPEROR should be about. When you’re the type of person who starts playing black metal in the first place, being pressured into public opinion is maybe not the best way to go about it. As for PECCATUM, we quit that basically because we expanded and formed Mnemosyne Productions instead, which is our umbrella of all our creative work.
But to this day, like I’ve said before, we never started EMPEROR to please public opinion and I think I have great respect for everyone who bought our albums and followed and made it possible for me to be here today and have been releasing albums and making a living off of this for 16 years…since I was 16 years [old]. [Laughs] So I’m very grateful for that but I think the only way I can repay that by continuing by not compromising. I don’t see why I should do it any differently.
APESHIT: You’re only 32 but you’re most famous for music that you’ve written while you were a teenager or in your early 20’s. Is it safe to say that the best has yet to come from you?
Ihsahn: Of course I’d like to see it like that. I don’t think I see myself as being past my peak. [Laughs] At some point, it is frustrating that you are constantly bettering yourself as a songwriter and a musician and people still rave about things you did as a teenager. But you can’t really take that into account because it’s not really about the quality of the music or the sincerity of it or whatever. It’s just that since In the Nightside Eclipse, people have invested a lot of their own feelings. It’s like when the few times that I’ve gone abroad and playing shows and meeting fans. And with this [EMPEROR] reunion, they shake with excitement. They cry and this and that. Of course I don’t take that to my own credit if you know what I mean. It’s just what I represent for them so the emotional energy that they feel is they themselves invested in, something that I happen to be a part of. For my own experience, I know how much of my own experiences and feelings have attached to music that I grew up. I’m very much like that myself. It doesn’t matter that much to me whether IRON MAIDEN releases 10 more albums or not because I still have Seventh Son of a Seventh Son for example, which is a highlight for me. Of course, it doesn’t mean that I don’t fully understand that IRON MAIDEN wants to make more albums and do all these things. I can only try to keep on being subjective and keep on doing my best in my own measures. I guess so far I’ll just have to keep on tempting on my own little brother. [Laughs] Many people quit their band and it made it even bigger. [Laughs]