Ihsahn Talks ‘Arktis’ Album, Creative Process, Live Band Lineup + More
We had the opportunity to speak with Ihsahn, the mastermind behind Emperor who has enjoyed a successful solo career now entering its 10th year. His sixth album, Arktis, was released through Candlelight on April 8 and stands as another shimmering gem in his diverse catalog. Below, the multi-instrumentalist discusses focusing on a more traditional formula, the creative process that exists within setting certain stylistic parameters and playing live with hand-selected musicians.
First, I have to say I love the new album. It took about 10 listens to really dig into everything, but that's usually the case with your music.
Well thank you. I'm glad its not too easily digestible.
Never, you don't get a lot of albums like that anymore.
When people need a bit of time, it's a positive thing because it's not too easy. At least in my experience from albums that I love, it's usually albums that i've invested some time in rather than just - some stuff you get immediately and by the fourth time you hear it, you're bored.
With the album cover for Arktis, it's a photo of an explorer at the North Pole. Did you chose this because the music is polar to what you usually write? Arktis is a lot catchier than a lot of your previous albums.
It's the result of, this happens in a sequence of things. It was actually when we were reviewing the lyrical content with my wife, which is the case. Of course "My Heart Is of the North," "Crooked Red Line" is placed lyrically in this metaphoric landscape that is very icy and cold. There are a lot of references to my geographical positioning. Then, first came the title Arktis which of course is the Norwegian word for the Arctic. In researching for pictures to kind of build that further I came across these photos taken by Frederick Johnson who was one of the first to approach or reach the North Pole. He documented all of his expeditions doing proper photography. So all of the artwork is based on his photography. I was kindly allowed to use it by the Norwegian National Library.
So, Fredrik Jonson is one of the real big Norwegian heroes. [laughs] Also, I think there are parallels there to the lyrical content, but this whole idea of approaching a quite concrete goal, but of course at the time he approached the North Pole it was an unknown, no one had reached it before. He wanted to go somewhere that no one really went before. Even though the arctic, as I find it at least, it's really, really beautiful. But at the same time it's so harsh and hostile to humans, but he as an individual approached that with courage, excitement and curiosity. You can see the parallel and metaphor in that, I guess.
The way you write your albums is like an explorer in that you seem to plot what you want to do and you have your end goal set, but you don't know where the journey is going to take you. What was the most important thing you wanted to convey with Arktis?
As a contrast to my previous album [Das Seelenbrechen], which was all based on spontaneity and reform, I wanted to approach now with a very clear form in mind. Basically the rock / pop formula that involves probably 95% of the music that we listen to, especially the stuff I grew up with through Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. It's within this very traditional form, which is to me, not knew of course but it's not really a form that I've considered too much with my extreme metal background. We went outside those things to start with from the grand illusion that we wanted to do something more exciting and more inventive. But of course over the years I've learned to appreciate all of the challenge of traditional songwriting and actually making the music you put into this rather simple A / B / C formula and make it matter because it's kind of easy to put together chords in sequence to mash out a chorus / verse / bridge type of formula. But of course the challenge is to make it worthwhile. So that was the main thing, and within that of course embracing the fact that I wanted all the songs to have very specifics hooks and very strong individual identities that was instantaneously recognizable. Some key elements that you would normally associate with pop music but of course not with any intention to make it sound like pop music, but the state of mind.
The hooks grab you at first, but then when you listen to it more there's a lot of different threads that seem to tie everything together at the end and bind it into a cohesive album. "Southwinds" and "Frail" are synth happy and probably the most surprising element on the album and they take the lead. Can you describe the writing process behind those two songs?
Again, coming back to this hook element. If you take another song, it's very more easily explained perhaps it's an '80s song. "Until I Too Dissolve" - very '80s kind of guitar riff, that guitar riff to start with. That song starts with that guitar riff, and then I kind of carve the rest of the song out based on that idea. That influenced all of the other parts, and also it influenced of course the '80s arrangement. In a similar way the first idea I got for "South Winds" was of course this opening synth bass line. When I felt that, that was a very interesting idea and something that I felt in an almost very physically as a moving theme. I basically built this song around that and hence since the first idea for the song was a very kind of — what you associate with electronics, that helped form the whole expression of the song. For "Frail," for example, the main idea was perhaps not as concrete as with the two others I mentioned. I had this idea of using that kind of groove [mimics] a very hooky groove. [mimics] It's very recognizable. I took some inspiration there from more traditional pop music, going half time things at the end.
Even in "Until I Too Dissolve," it's got that huge 80s thing and it kind of calls back to your first album with "Called By the Fire," but it still has that stomping rhythm and it's got a lot of things that carry over in between those two more electronic track.
Hopefully. This is something that's both in my mind, but at the same time not when I'm writing. It's hard to plan out how the songs will go together and make a cohesive album because I guess I'm old school like that. I still think in a format of albums, I don't think in individual singles [laughs]. Over the years I've learned to trust the process. But this is also why I kind of sketch out what kind of album I want to make to start with. Both, because I don't have a band, so i'm doing everything on my own in a studio environment in which I work. These days, with technology you can do anything. Then you might end up doing everything and it will just be very loose, if you will. But if I set some general guidelines for the album of getting this formula, and for this album just use Moog bass. On this album, no electric bass at all. I want to have analog synthesis to be a very driving force in the album to challenge myself to use a whole different sound platform, all that I'm just going back to what I know with more orchestral sounds and these kinds of things. I had some general rules to go by and I think when I do that, it's really just to focus the creative energy into one place, but at the same time when you have a sketch of what you want to achieve, then it's kind of easier to explore how far you can stretch it within those parameters.
It may sound stupid with putting limitations on this or that, but it just makes the process more interesting for me and that's the main goal. I've been doing this for the better part of two decades so, some of the challenge is to keep myself motivated and excited and enthusiastic about the music that I do. The only way I can do that is to give myself challenges and explore new areas of my musical play and try to add to it, give myself something new to work with. While maintaining my goals by screaming vocals and distorted guitars which is my most natural voice, if you will. Beyond that, I think the bottom line is I think I just want to keep myself excited otherwise I don't think I could make anything really exciting to listen to. [laughs]
Despite your style varying album to album and even last time you said that was a calculated one-off type of approach. You have a very dedicated following and you seem to deliver an honest album each time, no matter how many different directions you go into. A lot of bands are apprehensive to change their style, especially now that everyone is voicing their opinions. Why do you think your fans appreciate you running the full spectrum while other bands get maligned for changing their style?
I don't know, really. At the end of the day it's music. It's a form of communication. Especially with this type of extreme music, whether it's heavy metal or rock music to start with, it has this element whether listeners or fans are aware of it or not, I think people think that type of music and that type of entertainment and also experience because they want something real. They don't want something too polished or - you know what I mean. With my background, I think and also since starting my solo career, I try to be very clear in communicating that I may do very different albums. I think if you take the back catalog from Emperor as well, I think you can see where it started at one place and it ended up being me writing the Prometheus album on my own, which is far more experimental than the earlier stuff. I've tried to continue that. Perhaps I'm very lucky like that, I feel the people that pick up my stuff, they expect that it might be something new and different. Sometimes I hit the mark for some of them, or maybe they just have to wait now when I come back with something that they like later but I hope, at least, that people whether it's within a range of music that they can appreciate or not, I hope at the same time they appreciate that it's an honest expression. There's no trying to please a market or compromise the music or anything to make it fit any particular pocket in a commercial way. I guess, because I was quite surprised by how many people seemed to embrace the previous album given the very far-fetched nature of that album, which was important for me to do. But of course, looking at it from a commercial perspective I thought this is commercial suicide in that respect. But at the same time, I almost felt like I underestimated my listeners because far more people picked up that album, and reading reviews, getting feedback from this — it's also obvious that people appreciated that for what it was.
That one is actually my favorite.
[laughs] I'm glad to hear that. And again, it's really hard to say what people get connected to and what makes meaning to them. I think the best way I can try to achieve that if i'm kind of also involved on my end of things.
As far as live purposes go, you were using Leprous as your backing band for years then you've moved onto other musicians. Do you wish to collaborate with other people or were Leprous just getting too busy?
It was a mix. First of all, the original Leprous drummer Tobias who's been playing on all of my albums since Eremita, he left Leprous to join the Norwegian Shining. Hence he would not be in Leprous and using them as a backing band, I would have to rely on a different drummer. And of course, no disrespect to the extremely talented Baar Kolstad of Leprous, but he has a different style and for my albums I wanted to continue the collaboration with Tobias as he has this very particularly organic style. In that respect, and of course, just as important, Leprous has become such a successful act on their own accord and at some point it became very hard to match up our schedules. I've now picked individual session members who are all very talented and hence they are also in high demand, so I actually have spares in each position as well. But, again, that opens up for another dimension as well.
Sometimes when I play with spares, when Tobias hasn't been able to do a show I've had the privilege of working with Kenneth Kapstad from Motorpsycho who is hugely talented. Einar [Solberg] from Leprous has stepped in when my keyboard player Nikolay [Tangen Svennæs] hasn't been able to make a show or has other obligations. So, also, for me onstage but for also the audience, suddenly you see a lineup of musicians playing these songs that maybe never played them together before or perhaps not again. It makes the live side of things a bit more exclusive, I guess. I don't know. Kind of unorthodox in metal. The audience would particularly has the tendency to expect all original members playing exactly the same stuff that's on the album. But, then in my case, I'd rather take the challenge to change it up and I've also taken the privilege if I felt an album song needed another intro for a live set, I'll just add that. I've rearranged some of the instrumentation to suit my new lineup and kind of taken liberties for these songs to try them out as ideas as opposed to not just representations of what's on the album.
So they're taking an amorphous shape.
Yeah. And I think that it is interesting also in a perspective how the music industry has developed, because it's this thing with albums being super important as it of course was in 80s and 90s and touring and live performances was just a promotional party for selling albums. But now, the albums are almost an accessory for bands to perform live and it's the live element, again, as it was before there were albums — in the '60s there were a lot of radio plays and singles, so it's really just a short timespan in music history that you could sell a physical format of one hour more or less, a piece of music. So it's coming back to that, and in those days, before these whole involving albums, the recorded version was just one version and the song could perhaps develop and be a different expression for each show. So I kind of — instead of complaining how the industry has changed, at least I try to embrace the challenges and the stuff you can do with that.
You've never spent a lot of time on the road to begin with, even back with Emperor. It seems like live performances for you are somewhat sacred.
Yeah, but first of all it's just because I'm just so much more comfortable in my studio writing new music. That's the part I love, but also standard touring that we did with Emperor, it was very filthy bus and drinking, it was, at that level, it was always a compromise about bad equipment, badly organized stuff. You compromise so much stuff that you're there to do, which is to perform the music and with a lot of hassle around that. So, it was only later when I started touring and also with Leprous. This has nothing to do with original members of Emperor or organization around everything at those times and really put me off touring. I felt that what we were there to do, play a good show was too compromised in a way.
But touring with Leprous, who have been very professional about everything, a lot of them don't even drink. There's no chasing girls or going out late. We can focus on what we're there to do. I've continued that tradition and that's also been the situation now when we've been back on doing festivals with Emperor as well. It's slowly grown to appreciate the live aspect of things and also treating that more like a creative arena. Not just this trying to recreate what's on the album kind of thing.
Do you have any update on the God of Atheists album that you played keyboards on and is there any chance we'll see another Thou Shalt Suffer album?
Eh, I have absolutely no idea what's happening with the God of Atheists thing [laughs]. That's been going on for year. My keyboard involvement is — I did that a long time ago and I haven't really heard anything off that yet. That was really just [an exchange] of favors for Asgeir [Mickelson] playing drums on the After album. So that's all I know about that, and as for Thou Shalt Suffer, even that was a band that started out prior to Emperor and when we got more involved with Emperor, Thou Shalt Suffer ended up being my solo thing and I did this orchestral mockup type of album. It was a very long time ago as an experiment. But of course, I don't see a reason to have another solo outlet [laughs].
Thanks to Ihsahn for the interview. To pick up your copy of Arktis, click here.
See Ihsahn's Arktis + Others In the Best Metal Albums of 2016 (So Far)
See Which Emperor Albums Made the Top 25 Extreme Metal Albums of All Time