Ihsahn is one of the most famous figures in extreme music today. The front man of the infamous Emperor and one of the founders of the Norwegian black metal movement, he is also a well respected solo musician. His recently announced Australian tour, his first, was so hotly anticipated by fans some shows sold out in a week. On the heels of this it was announced Ihsahn will be releasing his latest album ‘Amr’ on May 4th, leading him to be one of the most talked about artists in metal at the moment. So when we at Overdrive were offered the opportunity to interview the man himself, we were eager to talk to him about his music, his career and is upcoming album. Of course our first question was about the recently announced tour, his very first solo Australian visit. But what is Ihsahn looking forward to the most about touring Oz?
“Of course the shows themselves. But in my experience, though I haven’t been to Australia, I have been to all the parts of the world and whats so nice about it, and kind of the privilege of bands that tour myself included… you never really get to do all the sightseeing, but on the other side you get to experience cities and the people from a perspective that most people don’t. Usually wherever I go in the world we all kind of grew up on Iron Maiden. So that kind of cultural background connects us with the audience. When I played in Japan or in the US or in Europe, we are all there for the same reason. We have a familiarity of what we are there to experience. So there is a connection there already. On top of that I look forward to experiencing that with music in Australia, but at the same time experience what is so extraordinary about Australia. Oh and of course I have colleagues and friends who have been touring Australia. I mean I am very close with Leprous who were just there for the second time and hearing their stories, you know its all the more to look forward too.”
The latest album ‘Amr’ will be released in May, with the video already released for the new track Arcana Imperii (see the video below). What can we look forward to with this new album, and how will it compare with previous releases? Will this be something entirely different or a continuation of previous work?
“Hopefully both. I have been writing and releasing albums for quite a while now so I’m kind of… I’ve been doing that my whole life. More or less. Part of the challenge is of course to keep excited about it. I kind of have a very simple philosophy like that. I am you so privileged to be able to do this for a living. Hence being able to spend all my time doing what I love! And I like to think, if I’m not excited about doing what I do and if I cannot make that emotional commitment – that involvement in the music I make, I can’t really expect anyone else to be excited about it either. You know in order for me to keep excited about that whole process of making an album, which is kind of a lot of work you know, its important for me to change the perspective and frame work, and have special goals for each album. So I kind of like to change things up. Probably more than people would presume when listening to the album because I try to trust the process; I take a totally different route into making an album. I hopefully will end up still sounding like myself but hopefully in a different way. So to answer your question more shortly yes, for people that are familiar with my previous work I think definitely they will recognise that it’s an Ihsahn record; but hopefully in a totally, very different wrapping. Both from the use of sounds and also production, and everything.”
Over the years, Ihsahn has talked of the different things that have inspired him and his music. But what inspires him now? What things influence his creative process these days?
“Well this sounds a bit cheesy. I have always loved doing music. I’ve always wanted to do music but at the same time, it also feels like I never had a choice you know? Its kind of strange to say that, you know, there always a choice . I was born in Norway, you always have a choice! It’s nothing special like that but I think that original kind of abstract driving force, that inspiration – that original inspiration made me pursue music even when I was six and its still there. And it’s such a huge part of my life and how I define myself. Creating music and doing that is so second nature, it is what I do and what have to do, and I just want to find new ways and new approaches to get that fix if you will…”
I think many readers will understand these feelings very well. It sounds like there are no plans for him to stop making music, and that we should expect more albums in the future. Is this the case?
“Hopefully yes. I mean we had our first record come out when I was 16 and now I am 42 but at the same time, this August we will be playing with my old band (Emperor) as special guests of Judas Priest. They are probably in their 70’s now and still they just realised a new album. So I feel I have probably at least two or three decades more to go (laughs)! I hope I get to do this for many many years to come because its all I can do. I’m useless for anything else.”
Ihsahn has been releasing albums and touring, both solo and with bands, for over 20 years. What are the main differences for him between the two, particularly in how the music goes across to fans? Does he have a preference?
“I would say at heart I’m very much a studio musician, and if I had to choose I would probably choose the studio, because its not only about creating the music but it is almost meditative. Being able to kind of explore yourself and these sounds in this closed environment, an environment that exists that I really enjoy. But of course performing the music live is directly in front of people and together with people. Its also a very special thing. So its not that I disregard either but if I had to choose I would say I would probably choose the studio. But I think more and more over the years – especially having kind of escalated gradually my live playing and after a long break – since the 90s I’ve kind of come to enjoy it even more. Also because over time you get more experience and you get more comfortable in that situation, which for most people to start with it feels very extreme.”
That makes sense. So in the studio you can create and craft a project, and live you get a connection with (and feedback from) the fans?
“Live is kind of the only place were you get that direct feedback. There is also a privilege to working in the studio and just creating as well… because I assume many musicians would also (take into account) people s expectations. More commercial artists who are on a major record label or what have you have pressure to succeed, on a chart or whatever. I have been so lucky that I have been able to be selfish and egocentric about just music that I want to create and be totally uncompromising which sounds horrible (laughs). I like to believe thats probably the only reason I ended up having a career in the first place. Because I started out with music that, at that time… I mean Norwegian black metal in 1991 was probably, as career choice, one of the worst options you could have! Even being from Norway and trying to have a music career is kind of farfetched. But the motivation was always artistic, you know so we didn’t do those first Emperor albums to ‘make it’ or have success. Quite the contrary. We did a lot of stuff not to be liked! As a consequence you end up creating something that is in itself exotic and unique enough to kind of have its own place. Instead of those who I think perhaps feel that they need to create something that fits in in Los Angles or London or in someone else parameters. I was so lucky that I ended up in the situation I am in and I doubt I would ever want to compromise that privilege by trying too hard. You know so when making the albums in the studio I am very egocentric about it, but when I go out and play live you know its a total different experience, to perform this song – to kind of see how the music connects with people. How they absorb the music and how it affects them. More from being a music fan myself, I never was able feed off – what can I say, the applause? Its more about me being getting into that zone. Perhaps hopefully the energy of the music and people there getting into same song… It sounds so metaphysical and arty and blah blah blah (laughs).
What can I say in my experience I have been able to play music that eventually a lot of people have heard. I have had the privilege of people having a similar relationship to my music as I have had to some musicians. I think I distance myself from that in the same way I do when I experience a song from someone else, I get this attachment to it, I invest my own interpretation into it. The parts of the song that resonate with me, I don’t care what that artist had for dinner. And I don’t really even care what the artist meant with that song. It could be something totally different from what I experienced, which is unique about music and this is something I am very aware of when I meet people. Because of my background in Emperor some people are emotional (when I meet them).I have experienced with signing sessions and what have you there can be people there crying just because you are there. I felt very uncomfortable about stuff like that until I thought it has absolutely nothing to do with me. Its memories and feelings they have attached to music that I am a part of. You become a representative of that and if I add my person into the equation and try to mingle that, its ruining the moment for someone else. Its been very helpful to, in that way distance myself. I make my music in the studio and then its out there and its up to people how to actually attach their own experience with music. I am kind of finished with it. So I guess I keep a very personal relationship to my music and then its kind of out there.”
Many fans here in Oz have definitely made a personal connection with Ihsahns music, and are eagerly anticipating finally seeing it all performed live. Whilst the set will of course contain songs from the new album, many fans are looking forward to hearing their favourites. What can fans expect when they finally see the live show ?Can we expect to hear much his previous work in his upcoming sets?
“Oh absolutely! I always try to mix it up. I find it interesting, as we talked about the live environment is something entirely different and I found that some things that work in the recording studio format may not really translate that well live. So I am actually taking a kind of unorthodox approach, especially in the metal world. I think some metal fans will often have this anticipation, they want all original members , and they want them to perform the music exactly the way we heard it on the album. Which is a very recent perspective. Because bands like Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin or any bands, the version you heard on the album was just that version. For that day. Then they hear the song live and it might be ten minutes long instead of three and a half minutes. And be played twice as fast. I am not saying I am doing anything radical like that but I have taken the chance to change stuff, change the arrangement maybe do a different bit, to adapt it to the live environment because it is a different thing. Now that albums are, many ways, culturally of less importance , the live experience is kind of where the exclusive territory is. We have the period were the album in the recorded format has been the most important thing. Now we are more and more going back to where we were when there was a direct connection between artist and audience, and this music is much more open and lifelike. Especially because of my back ground with this type of music, which leaves very little room for improvisation. I’m just carefully leaning towards trying to take back that freedom of conjuring stuff up on stage. Also its from listing to old albums and new albums. They may sound so different but when you put those songs in the same sound with the same musicians on the same stage suddenly they bounce off of each other and work together as a whole.”
A collaborative sort of thing
“Yeah! Yeah! In a live environment they kind of take on a different life.”
One thing is for certain, this will be the show of a lifetime, not to be missed!