Trying To Be The Best Versions Of Ourselves

Story online since:  20.07.2012 / 17:09:54

This musician certainly needs no further introduction. With his original band EMPEROR he wrote musical history for black metal. Then after having written "PrometheusĒ all on his own the thought rushed into his head: Why not start a whole new band centered around my bona fide into fidelity? Said and done. Now with four albums under his belt IHSAHN grows more confident on his latest effort "EmeritaĒ implying a certain strive for autonomy and distance to the socializing in the scenes. I had a phone call and besides the music and his opinion on black metal, we touched romantic literary figures as well. Was it there that the philosophy of black metal could happen?

I really dig your newest album "EmeritaĒ and you solidify your position in your kind of playing music. You could call it avant-garde. Iím interested in how you get along with this term.

Iíve been named as several things in the 20 years Iíve been doing this for a living. I havenít been really much sort of avant-garde. Mostly the term prog comes up in relation to my songwork. I guess for journalists and music enthusiasts itĎs important to have a word to be able to relate it to something. I donít really have any preferrence if you will how people call it. Iím not labelling my music. For some point, avant-garde and prog can be fitting to my music. I guess, I donít really try to stay in parameters of the standardized metal thing. My enthusiasm for music is to try and to push the envelope. Music must be exciting to myself. I absolutely want to do my best every time I make an album. I want to push myself to make it better than the last record. Itís more on a personal level. The actual reason for having a saxophone in my music is rather personal and doesnít have to do with a shock effect at all. In the same way people ask for my influences from prog music and of course, Iím familiar with King Crimson, Rush, Yes and these bands.

In the end, your music sounds not very much retro to be officially tagged as progressive rock. You found a new understanding in composing music after your former band Emperor had disbanded because you emancipated from being strictly bound to atmosphere. With IHSAHN you kind of play more with different currents. Would you agree?

I think thatís quite right. I think itís natural for a solo project because itís only me, i.e. less compromise. For some bands it is usual to share the ideas but I guess Iíve never been a good collaborator. My musical intuition is very strong and I think itís really hard to get feedback and pushing pull with me because I can be very stubborn. I think if you listen to the Emperor discography, there is a clear development in becoming more progressive with each album. In a sense, I ended up writing more of the material and the last album "PrometheusĒ I actually wrote all on my own. There are so many opinions about what Emperor should or should not be. So for me itís much better to do things as a solo artist because I can exactly write the music I want to do.

You started with Emperor at quite a young age. Maybe thatís connected to your age that you grew out somehow. You pushed the boundaries of black metal on each album and then at last, with "Prometheus" you could just not get any more hectic and progressive?

I remember when "PrometheusĒ came out it was quite controversial. It was not what people had expected from Emperor. That always was the dilemma that people in a way grow attached to a certain album and that they think I did my best work with "In The Nightside EclipseĒ. If I thought this way that I was a better artist and musician when I was 17, then there would be really no reason for me to continue. My inspiration for continuing with my music is that I feel I still have a lot to go. I feel better myself all the time. At least I try to. All over the years, people got the opinion that Emperor has been enjoyed by people from the very start. Quite on the contrary, mass media boycotted our first 2 albums. Major media like Metal Hammer thought we were a joke. Then it took another 15 years and you see those albums side-by-side with the first Black Sabbath albums. More and more I just relay the weight of my success to myself. So when I finish my album I try to evaluate it in relation to what I meant by the record and how it came out, how close I got to that goal. Of course I am not immune to reviews and feedback. I am really happy if people find my music interesting. How people relate to my music up or down is regardless of what I did and did not do (shortly laughs).

In this respect, Emperor was some sort of avant-garde because as you told the mass media didnít really react to your kind of playing extreme metal. I realized when watching guitar lesson videoclips of Samoth and you at YouTube what strange melodies and hooklines you came up with on your Emperor debut for example.

I guess that comes from a musical difference when we first did this black metal thing. Death metal was the kind of big extreme metal thing. It was kind of disharmonic and rhythm-based in general whereas black metal was divided into something more epic and melodic thing in a sense if you can generalize it like that. On my part, it was me growing up with Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Bands with twenty guitars and doing harmonies. My preference has always been to a harmonic music. So it was a natural way to express myself. At that time I was also heavily influenced by soundtracks and classical music. That stuff had this dynamic build and that is something I love how music builds into a climax. With all the emotional intensity of the music. It is quite difficult in this genre with this kind of music because of the extremity. Thatís why I wanted to implement the keyboards in Emperorís music to simulate the atmosphere you get from a big orchestra: the brass, the strings, the trumpets you know. I think that is something that I still work with and try to make my albums more and more dynamic and express it in that sense.

Can you still connect to the ideology or the mystified worldview that is linked to black metal? Did you express any kind of phenomena that were strange to music?

Itís hard to tell because itís changed over the years the way you think and see things developed, hopefully from being a teenager to the mid-thirties. I think I took black metal more as an atmosphere. You cannot pin a genre on specific things like harsh guitars. But for me what it makes black metal is a feeling. Itís a stream if you will in me that resonates. I think my music and the emotionally driving force for me making music has always been a constant. This rather sounds like metaphysical bullshit but I donít know how to put it any other way: itís been an unreachable beacon in front of me I try to reach. It resonates from a place deep within me. Thatís my driving force for making this music and thatís why it always ends up very dark. Iím not a miserable person at all but my creative energy comes from these dark aspects. Thatís how I express myself. That feeling has been constant all along. The way how I executed and presented it, has shown up differently but the source is very much the same. I think on a personal level, my early work with Emperor shows more now on "EremitaĒ. For a long time I distanced myself from Emperor. I wanted to focus on my music . Now that I have done four albums I grew more confident with the whole expression. That makes me more with ease with Emperor and let me open up to this self-image. Some songs now on "EremitaĒ are one of the most black metal-ish Iíve ever done.

I can relate to that. First of all, I donít have any problems with philosophy. I am quite interested in the philosophical leanings of extreme metal musicians and in my opinion, playing such sort of music often connects to some metaphysical thoughts behind. It is interesting on "EmeritaĒ that it is not necessarily connected to being extreme all the time. You have some jazzy parts on the album as well. Most of all effected by JÝrgenís saxophone (stemming from Norwegian Shining) and the guys from Leprous.

At least I try to. Before I musically write albums, I try to do a framework. I have some sonic references. On the newest album I have a lot of dark brass instrumentation. I have lyrical ideas and I create a small scenario, a synopsis of what I want to express. I am using that as a focal point for the whole process. I try to create an album that has a cohesion and a theme to it. You know, it shows different emotional sides. The single songs reflect the overall atmosphere from different angles if you will. Working like that, I feel to create a cohesive album or the album I enjoy the most myself. I like the full experience of albums to reflect a certain point of time which is a bit random of course. Like keeping a focus not to let too many things happen in a song to deviate from this cohesion but then I think of an emotional expression, not to be entirely just dark or entirely just happy, you know. I guess itís like all art: light and shadow. (laughs)

I remember a concert several years ago. You completely showed up in white shirt and blue jeans. Quite unorthodox for a black metal band.

It is just part of what seemed natural. I mean, on our first Emperor releases and on the EP "The Loss And Curse Of ReverenceĒ we were doing the corpsepaint thing. That sounded natural. Later we dropped the corpsepaint because we werenĎt comfortable with it but we still had the armoury and a very visual aspect to our appearance on stage as part of our expression. I felt less and less need to stimulating expressions by the way we dressed. When I felt it didnít feel natural to me to put on make-up, I didnít. Instead just doing what feels right. I remember when I wore that white shirt on this Emperor tour and I recall the other guys actually hated that. They thought we should all appear in black. You know, in black metal for me the essence of it is: Do what thou wilt shalt be the whole of the law. Itís from Crowley and it really captures that very moment, to be unique. You could just listen to other people what you can and canít do in your music. Yet the mission would be totally no black metal if you get my point.

In the beginning in the early nineties, black metal was totally cutting edge of creating something and pushing the extremes. As the scene got more popular, people then started to make rules what you could and could not do in this form of music. They sort of tried to run it within the scene to their own like what musicians should do. For me that is the antithesis of black metal. I guess all the conformity that was performed in the scene that became a model aspect I opposed to. All my music is based on opposition. Thatís why I called my first solo album "The AdversaryĒ because this music got a different view on things. At the times when we were still carrying the corpsepaint it was a way of expression to be special, against the conformity, I guess.

Maybe this is a general problem of scenes that they procrastinate after a while. Interesting aspect with black metal is that several bands from Norway evolved from this orthodoxy. Some of this music is not necessarily connected to black metal soundwise but maybe they still continue their black metal legacy?

In the end I feel that I do with my attitude. Itís connected to how I make my music. I am here still doing the music that I love, authentically and totally uncompromisingly. Thatís what means black metal for music in the first place. Some people have changed their styles. Some members of the bands from the early nineties have ended up playing other forms of music, more experimental music, you know. Garm from Ulver for example. I think there is a connecting line from the bands in the early nineties pushing the limits of what was possible in extremity and this kind of hard music developed all along. It is a measure now. In the nineties we were teenagers pushing the boundaries of what you could do musically. Itís not strange that you do that as a teenager and you continue the journey in your grown-up life. I mean, if you listen to Ulverís music it is still very different. The atmosphere and all that is still very dark and epic.

At this juncture, Ihsahn watches his time for that dayís interview schedule. He asks for an answer summing up the interview somehow. I decide for a rather broad question sent out into the vast lands of poetry:
Iíd like to focus on the adversary figures on some of your albums with Emperor as well with IHSAHN. With Prometheus and Lucifer there is some problem in generic black metal, that those bands use these figures in a rather clichťd way. I think that it is quite a challenge to work musically as well lyrically on this kind of figures.

Well I think I still have time to comment on that. The reason I repeatedly returned to this kind of mythological figures on the Emperor records "IconĒ or "PrometheusĒ or on my first record "The AdversaryĒ, the reference to Angel on my second and on the latest with "EmeritaĒ which is Latin for hermit (and you can see Nietzsche on the front cover who wrote about Zarathustra who is again a hermit), as a symbol in my lyrics because I can relate to that, I sympathize with that. Going apart from what is collective. To stay on your own and find a path. That is what my purpose in music is about. That is why I love to read Nietzscheís writings. Most greatest artists have that perspective on things. They donít see the world as the collective does. These are non-collective spirits, in a sense. And that what appeals to me and it feels natural to express myself in that type of symbols. Thatís why I called this album "EmeritaĒ.

Yet from time to time these spirits connect to the world like Zarathustra who decides to leave his mountain home and descend to the valley people. He tries to spread his message among the collective people.

Yes, thatís all what he wants and he says: WhatĎs the point of being a teacher if your students forever remain students? Thatís how I read this when his disciples disregard him totally, he tells them that he will return to the mountain again. He only wants people to be individually their own masters and to make the best versions of themselves as they can. They should not remain students and followers but become leaders in their own lives.

Thatís why he must eradicate himself from their lives so that they can find their own reasonings and their own goals to follow.

Exactly. I think that builds the freedom we have as human beings and the responsibility to try to be the best version of ourselves.

Good closing words. As you are in time pressure weíd better close now. Many thanks.

Dominik Irtenkauf

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