Thus Spake the Nightspirit
CoC interviews Ihsahn of Emperor
by: Henry Akeley
Emperor... I hardly know where to begin! In any case, this band really requires no introduction. Instead, I'll just mention some of the main things that I was hoping to learn from talking with Ihsahn. I had always felt that Emperor's early works exhibited a spirit thoroughly hostile to mainstream normalcy, so that conventional musical trappings like "clean" singing could never (or so I thought) properly express the band's intent. Hence, I was surprised by the fairly tame vocals and flashy guitar performances on the band's new album, and very curious about the relationship between these new developments and the overall Emperor concept. I also wondered about Ihsahn's feelings toward the flurry of promotional activities - interviews like this one, for the most part - which the band's growing fame (and lasting notoriety) requires him to engage in. As you are about to discover, Ihsahn had interesting things to say about these, and many other, issues.

CoC: I have quite a few questions about the new album, but before I get into all that: There's been a rumor going around that you guys might be planning a trip to North America with Satyricon. Is that true?

I: Mmm, not as far as I'm concerned. I haven't heard anything about it.

CoC: Ah, must be just a rumor then....

I: Yeah. There are so many rumors about where we're playing, where we're not playing.

CoC: In any case, do you have any plans to come to North America?

I: Well, Century Media has been making some suggestions. We were interested in maybe going with Venom, or in support for Morbid Angel, but we don't know yet. I don't think it will be this year, but perhaps in the spring of next year. We are not finished touring Europe yet. We've been playing around... We're playing in Athens next weekend, then we'll go on a full European tour in October.

CoC: Who will be with you on that tour?

I: Aeturnus and Limbonic Art.

CoC: Oh, wow! Anyway, about the new album. Did you feel like you really had something to prove with _Anthems_? And if so, what was it?

I: Well, we haven't really tried to think much about how we should do it, or to think of what people would expect. We tried to do it as we've always done: as best we can, and the way we like it. But, of course, there were thoughts of sort of proving our position as a black metal band these days. It's been quite a few years since we recorded _In the Nightside Eclipse_, and there are quite a few more bands these days than there were then. So it was good to get a new album out which has been received quite well. Based on reviews, people seem to like it... We felt, of course, a bit of pressure, since _In the Nightside Eclipse_ was received very, very well, and we kind of expected people to have great expectations for the next one, and probably to compare it to _In the Nightside Eclipse_. But in general, we haven't thought that much about it, really. We just had to make the album that was right for our band.

CoC: Are you satisfied with the results?

I: Yeah. Not one hundred percent, but the day I get an album out which I'm a hundred percent satisfied with, it will no longer be necessary to go on. You always want to make things better.

CoC: If you could change anything about the new record, what would you change?

I: It would be minor details, really, especially in the production and the mix. There are always things - small things, not big things - that you could do a bit different, and maybe it would sound better. You get experience each time you record something, and you always know that there will be things that you might want to change later.

CoC: Do you think it's fair to say that some of your compositional touches don't come through in the mix as clearly as they might have?

I: Well... having from one to seven synth layers, four guitars, the kind of drums we have, the bass, from one to five layers of vocals - it's very hard to get across all the details. So some things turn out to be just subliminal notes, which you don't really notice - but I think you would notice it if they -weren't- there. If you first heard the whole thing and then you should take something away from it, you would notice. Having these subliminal notes, it's not an album that you get bored of very easily. It's more an album that you have to listen to quite a few times before you really get into it, and then you can get more and more out of it and pick up more of the details after a while. At least that's what people who are friends of mine have said. <laughs> It's always hard to view your own music objectively, but I think it's the kind of album which you have to sort of grow into.

CoC: You mentioned that the album has met with a lot of positive reactions, which is certainly true. I wonder, though: have you encountered any real negative reactions from people? In particular, from the more conservative members of the black metal crowd who might not feel too friendly toward the band's slight changes in style?

I: No, not really. We got a quite negative review in the English _Metal Hammer_, but that's the only thing I can think of at the moment. The guy didn't say much about us. He just said, "This album is like all black metal albums. It's been done a hundred times before, and it's boring, boring, boring, and it's most suitable for kids who are into role-playing." So...

CoC: <laughing> It doesn't sound like he even listened to the album. I mean, like it or not, to say that it sounds "like every other black metal album" is just crazy, if you ask me.

I: It was something like, "Burzum and Marduk have done this before."

CoC: <more laughter> Oh, man!

I: <laughs> So I don't think he'd like any black metal. I think it's a bit strange, having a guy who's not into black metal reviewing black metal albums... But we got a very good review of our live show in _Metal Hammer_, done by someone else. So it really depends who reviews it.

CoC: Well, as you know, there are a lot of people in the black metal scene who are real purists about the music and the image and so on. And I think it's fair to say that the new album contains some new touches, new approaches, and so on, that such purists might not really like. Have you run into any criticisms of the clean vocals, the guitar solos, things like that?

I: Mmm, I haven't heard anything, no. Of course, there are always those who will be critical, and I've heard of those who still prefer _In the Nightside Eclipse_ to the new album. But that's all really a matter of taste. It's natural for us, as a band, to progress and bring in new elements and new approaches. We can't base our career as a band on trying to copy ourselves because our first album was so well-received. It's more important for us to try to make things better, the way we feel it should be. If people don't like the clean vocals or the guitar solos - it's not really our problem, is it?

CoC: Okay, but just to expand on this issue a bit... The progression is definitely there, from album to album. And one thing that I think is great about _In the Nightside Eclipse_ is that you've got this great and fairly original concept, and you communicate it beautifully. Everything about that album really hangs together. Now, on the new album, you incorporate these newer touches that lead someone like me to think, "Maybe I was confused about the overall concept earlier on... Or maybe the concept has changed," and so on. [I had been thinking that the basic concept behind Emperor was so truly outsider and extreme that more conventional or "mainstream" musical approaches could never adequately embody it.] So I wonder, for instance, how the use of clean vocals fits into what you consider the overall artistic concept behind the band.

I: Well, we tried out clean vocals with "Inno A Satana" on _In the Nightside Eclipse_, because we thought it was an interesting musical element to work with. The screaming vocals have a limited form of expression; the clean vocals open forth other atmospheres. I feel in general that the _Anthems_ album is wider, has more variety in themes and atmospheres, than _In the Nightside Eclipse_.

CoC: I see...

I: The new album is more aggressive, but it's also more beautiful and nicer in other ways. Lyrically, it's not so one-sided, and the same with the vocals: there are more atmospheres on the new album. You can say, perhaps, that _In the Nightside Eclipse_ is more whole, as in total. It all expresses the same kind of atmosphere, while the new songs are more individual, parted from each other. But I see that as a positive thing, because I see the new album as complex, and as a whole. Maybe even more than _In the Nightside Eclipse_, because it portrays more of the concept than _In the Nightside Eclipse_ did. It goes deeper into what Emperor is about.

CoC: So when it comes to things like clean vocals, guitar solos, and so on - things that aren't typically associated with the more extreme kinds of black metal performance - would it be fair to say that you're much more interested in certain atmospheres than in simple extremity?

I: Of course. I mean, the extremity is one side, but you have to have contrast. The contrast between the clean vocals and the real, real fast, aggressive parts with screaming vocals kind of makes it black and white - a very strong contrast.

CoC: It seems to me to add to the impact of the more extreme sections, too.

I: Yes, I think so. During the years, we've been more and more concerned about the composition of things, trying to build highlights into the music, as in classical music, where it builds up to highlights with more and more voices, louder and louder, and then comes down again. It's much more interesting music - rather than just having very fast, screaming music for an hour.

CoC: Speaking of composition, is the new album a little bit slanted in favor of your own compositional touches as opposed to those of Samoth, as a result of his imprisonment? Or was it a fairly even collaboration between the two of you? How did it work out?

I: Well, I suppose you could say that, due to his imprisonment, even though some of the material was ready before he was in prison, and of course we kept in contact using tapes, and so on. But, naturally, since he was in prison (which was not a very inspiring environment, of course), I think I might have had more say for the composition of this album - maybe more than I would have had if he was there all the way through as well. But, to the extent that we were able to in that situation, I think it's still a real compromise between the way we both create music. That's really what Emperor has always been: a compromise between differences that Samoth and I have.

CoC: How would you characterize these differences? Is it fair to say that you're the more classically inspired of the two?

I: Yes - I think I am maybe a bit over-composing at times. I constantly get new ideas for melody lines and for riffs, and if it were only myself, I would never be finished, and there would be too much in the end. Samoth keeps it more floating, perhaps, and maybe more black metal-ish than I do. We have very good cooperation. Where I kind of exaggerate things - melody lines, or second voices, and so on - he cuts me off. And where he maybe is a bit too simple in some ways, I might add more chords, or second voices, and so on... It's very hard to explain, because this kind of cooperation has been going on for eight or nine years of making music together.

CoC: In the future, will the two of you continue to be the compositional core of the band? Or is it possible that Trym and Alver will begin to contribute more?

I: Well, at the moment, it seems like it will still be me and Samoth that contribute most. Of course, Trym has a very different style than Faust had as a drummer, and that has impact on the process. As well, Alver differs from other bass players. But still, since Samoth and I have been working together for so long, it's kind of hard to bring a third or a fourth partner into the actual writing work. But it all depends. It's hard to say at the moment. We're still writing some music for the next album, but with the touring and so on, we haven't had much time for other work.

CoC: How about your side projects? Is there anything new there?

I: I'm still doing Thou Shalt Suffer. Samoth doesn't have any side projects at the moment.

CoC: Really? I guess I'm kind of surprised to hear that, just because he's been involved in so much over the years.

I: Yeah, but he's doing Nocturnal Art Productions now, which he puts a lot of work into. I'm still working on my first Thou Shalt Suffer album.

CoC: When might that be completed?

I: That's also very hard to say. I've signed it to Candlelight, and I have very much material, but nothing is quite complete yet. I've got my own studio where we'll record it, but both musically and also technically (programming, and so on) there's still much to do. I was planning to release it this year, but the way things look, I think it might take more time than that. Hopefully next year.

CoC: Does "Opus A Satana" [the orchestral-synth version of "Inno A Satana" on the _Reverence_ CD single] provide a kind of preview for what Thou Shalt Suffer will sound like?

I: Both yes and no. The kind of arrangement will, of course, be similar, as Thou Shalt Suffer (at least the first album) will be based only on classical instruments. "Opus A Satana" was kind of a tryout for that kind of arrangement. It was the first arrangement that I did with just classical instruments. Of course, I hope I'm more experienced now at how to put things together, as Thou Shalt Suffer will also contain choir arrangements, and I'm not stuck to the usual structure of metal songs... Thou Shalt Suffer will be much more complex in construction, and also in harmonies and everything else.

CoC: What are Emperor's plans for the next year, eighteen months, or so? Do you plan to record again? Or do you want to tour a lot? Or both?

I: Well, I don't think we'll tour that much, as we really hope to record a new album during 1998. Of course, we do wish to go to the States for some touring, probably a short tour. And we might go for a short tour of Australia. Our plan is to be touring this year and early next year, and meanwhile to try to write music for the next album. We want to be able, if not to release it in 1998, then at least to record it. There was such a long time between _In the Nightside Eclipse_ and _Anthems_, and it can't be that long between _Anthems_ and the next album.

CoC: Are you really busy doing a lot of promotional work now?

I: Yeah... Actually, today I was set up for one interview, but it turned out to be seven. <laughs>

CoC: Wow...

I: I've just come home from two weeks of vacation, so I did like five, six, seven interviews prior to that. I've been to England, where I did like seventeen interviews...

CoC: Are you comfortable doing all this promotion? I mean, are you interested in really promoting the band, or do you just get sick of it?

I: I'm interested in promoting the band, of course. But I must admit, doing all these interviews kind of gets a bit strange. I mean, when I was in England, in two days, I did seventeen interviews. You sit there with a phone and answer the same questions - again and again and again. It soon feels like you have nothing to say anymore, because you say so much. Well... you actually say so little, if you get my point.

CoC: Yeah, absolutely.

I: The way I see it, the things I really want to share with an audience, and with fans and everything... we do that through the music we make. The interviews... Well, you know, Emperor is not really a band of propaganda which has a special message to get across. So I feel the interviews I do are not very exciting - and I don't think they will be very shocking. <laughs>

CoC: Do you get a lot of dumb questions? In particular, I wonder whether a lot of people still want to hear about the crimes and all the other events of several years ago.

I: Mmm, not that much anymore. They rather make a point out of not wanting to ask about these things, because they obviously know that we are tired of it. But apart from magazines like your own, metal magazines, and apart from _Metal Hammer_ and _Kerrang_, these kinds of things -- the bigger media institutions still just whine about the old things. Of course, they're not really interested in music. They're still just interested in the sensationalism of the church-burnings, murders, and all this... The other day, I was also asked something about how big an influence Euronymous had on the starting of Emperor - which I think kind of underestimates Emperor, when you realize people think that Euronymous just decided that we should make this kind of band. <laughs>

CoC: Do people ask you questions that seem as if they're meant to get you to say something shocking?

I: In a way, sometimes, and especially with politics. Some journalists have tried to pull out some, you know, Nazi kinds of comments - which they never get, because we are not interested in politics at all, at least not as a band. And personally, I am not interested in them at all. But some people have the impression that we are strong Norse nationalists. Some journalists have tried to pull such things out of us. Also, I think the information from the Norwegian black metal scene - the original thing, plus all the rumors that are added during time, and also the distance from here to the States - it becomes very different. It makes it seem more mystic than it really is. Some people have very big expectations that we will be very, very extreme or very, very misanthropic and strange... which I suppose we can thank ourselves for, having given that impression. As if we should know everything about magic, or magic writers... One question recently asked if I could draw parallels between Northern mythology and vampirism. And I must admit, I had never reckoned with possible parallels between Norse mythology and vampirism <laughs> - even though both are interesting subjects to discuss. But when it's a live interview, what can you say, you know? <laughs> Of what relevance is it to Emperor as a band?

CoC: Do you find that people - especially people overseas - have really exaggerated impressions of what things are actually like in Norway and in the Norwegian black metal scene?

I: Well, I get the impression sometimes that they think very differently of me than I really am. They expect me to be very, very different from what they get to hear.

CoC: In what way?

I: I really think they expect us to be very much more extreme than we really are. And I think we're looked upon as having no self-irony at all. Of course we have self-irony! But some people think that we go around wearing all the spikes, and all the makeup, and everything, that we sleep in coffins, all of this...

CoC: <laughter>

I: But of course, this has much to do with how we portrayed ourselves in media earlier on. And also it's very much when we were younger, you know - because it's very cool to be looked upon as being totally insane.

<We both laugh.>

CoC: So that image is something you're not too interested in anymore?

I: When you're like 16 or 17, it's much more important to be extreme. I think you need feedback from your surroundings, as well, for who you are and what you are. When you get to know that, it's not that important to try to make others think some way of you. When you know yourself, you don't need everybody else's approval of who you are.

CoC: Definitely. So does that kind of thinking play a part in the band's toned down visual presentation? Because I'd say that, in terms of costume and so on, you guys really don't look as extreme (or insane, hahah) as you once did.

I: Well, you could say, I think, that both musically and in expression visually, it's more mature. We still wish to keep an extreme visual aspect, but we really haven't had the opportunity to go too far with it yet... We now have, I suppose, a more "metal" image than the usual spikes and corpse paint and things. And if we get the opportunity to have a more professional touring crew, with pyrotechnicians and our own light people, then we might make more costumes, our own thing. But these things demand capital, they demand money. I think some people are disappointed that we dropped the corpse paint. This was really a natural thing for us, as we hadn't used it since 1993, even though more people have been wearing it. A few more. <laughs> It's not because we wanted to appear more commercial.

CoC: Plus, since the time when only you and a handful of other bands used corpse paint, there have been thousands of people wearing it - which seems to me to have totally watered down, or maybe even wiped out the effect.

I: Yes, it was something special when we first started using it. It was something special. Now, suddenly, there are so many bands putting on corpse paint and playing lousy music and claiming to play black metal. It isn't the corpse paint that makes it black metal. It isn't the corpse paint that makes you extreme. It's... what can I say?

CoC: I know what you mean...

I: There are many individuals who stand quite strong in black metal, and in the black metal scene. So why shouldn't we be able to go away from things like that?

CoC: What is your overall assessment of the state of the scene right now? Do you see it as healthy? Do you think there are too many clone bands? Do you care?

I: There are clone bands. And there are bands that are just kind of a nicer version of black metal, putting more of the energy into central aspects of dark atmosphere. Also, there are those who tend to go backward and play more primitive thrash and older, more Celtic Frost-inspired black metal... What can I say? It spreads out in more directions than it did in the beginning, and to some extent may be watered down, and getting more commercial. It's not as complex a scene, with as strong a bond as it once had. This, I suppose, is due to many things: people growing up and becoming older; bands deciding to concentrate more on being a band, rather than on, you know, terrorism. <laughs> Black metal is known now, so I think more of the bands work more seriously as musicians, rather than as extremists, if you get my point.

(article submitted 16/10/1997)

10/19/2001 A Bromley /
C Flaaten /
P Azevedo
Emperor: Prometheus Unbound
10/19/2001 C Flaaten 7 Emperor - Prometheus - The Discipline of Fire and Demise
5/19/1999 D Rocher 7 Emperor - IX Equilibrium
7/14/1997 S Hoeltzel 8.5 Emperor - Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk
5/13/1997 S Hoeltzel 7 Emperor - Reverence
8/12/1995 B Meloon 6 Emperor - In the Nightside Eclipse
8/12/1999 A Wasylyk Emperor / Witchery / Borknagar / Peccatum / Divine Empire Canada: No Church-Burners Allowed
8/12/1999 J Weathers Emperor / Witchery / Borknagar / Peccatum / Divine Empire U.S. of A.: Church-Burners Are People Too
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