In-depth Interview With Ihsahn

By Andrew Bansal

Primarily known to metalheads for his work with the black metal band Emperor, Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Ihshan has also had a very intriguing and diverse solo career, which he started in 2006 with the album ‘The Adversary’ and followed it up the ‘AngL’, ‘After’ and ‘Eremita’ albums in the next six years. On October 22nd, he released his fifth solo album ‘Das Seelenbrechen’ in North America Candlelight Records, an album that dares to step away from what he’s been known for, while still carrying the trademark Ihsahn vibe. A few days ago, I had the privilege of a conversation with this very outspoken musical genius, and we talked not only about the the new album but also about topics like musical creativity and his recent adventure in India. Enjoy the in-depth interview below, along with a taste of the new Ihsahn album.

It’s a pleasure to have you on Metal Assault. We’ll talk mainly about your new album ‘Das Seelenbrechen’ which was released on October 22nd via Candlelight Records. I think musically it’s almost a contrast to the past couple of albums that you put out. In your opinion, in what way does it differ from your previous work?

Well, this is a very deliberate sidestep musically from what I’ve been doing on the kind of gradual build I’ve had over the period of the past four albums. I guess for me this whole process has been kind of like a personal journey. My first solo album was a back-to-basics thing, with me starting all over again with heavy metal. And I gradually built it up from there ending up with the third album where I found more of a musical platform where I wanted to be. There’s eight-string guitars and a heavy sound with various instrumental elements. And my fourth album was concept-wise very different but musically shared a lot of similarities with the third album. Having done those two albums in a similar musical environment, I felt the need for this fifth album to do something totally different for a change, to avoid falling into any kind of formula. I believe that I do my best work when I’m slightly out of my comfort zone. At the same time, I’ve wanted to do an album like this with more focus on improvisation and where things are not so controlled, more spontaneous and intuitive. I’ve always admired artists who have expressed themselves more intuitively like that. I come from a background of doing metal albums for over 20 years, and in my opinion it [metal] is becoming more and more tedious and over-controlled, specially these days with metal production being very much detailed, edited and everything. I mean, I like and enjoy that process too but it’s important sometimes to reset the parameters. Even when I was doing the previous albums, sometimes I kind of got caught up in the technicalities of things. But this time I had to remind myself what it’s all about, the energy and the atmosphere you want to express. In the controlled way of doing albums, it leaves very little room for those kind of magic accidents to happen. So for this new album, I just wanted to sacrifice all of the control and the ‘filter’, in the hope that a more open-ended approach would leave more room for possibilities of magical things to happen (laughs).

Right, exactly. You mentioned the fact that metal bands can get stuck with a formula, specially once they develop a fan base, and they’re scared of experimentation. Were you ever having any fears about that yourself? Did you ever think it was a risk in terms of alienating any of your fans?

When I heard the finished album when it was mixed and mastered, I was very pleased because it turned out exactly to be the album that I set out to make. But of course, the objective side of me felt that this was totally a commercial suicide (laughs). But, now that I’ve seen many of the reviews and I’m getting lots of feedback from the fans, friends and people in general who’ve heard the album, I’m very positively surprised by how well people received this album. So I think I underestimated my listenership in that sense because the day we live in, we don’t save up money to buy that one album anymore. We have access to so much more music that I think people in general are more educated to a wider range of music, basically. On a different side of the coin, I come from a black metal background. When we started Emperor in ’91. Career-wise, when you start a band you mean to build a fan base and actually have a career. But starting a black metal band in ’91 was probably the worst idea ever (laughs). I never got used to the process of trying to please a side of the market or any public opinion, or anything like that. I like to think that I focus more towards my own work and myself. With the background I have, if I try to make music that would fit into their pockets too easily, or to make something for a majority of this or that scene to like, I think people can smell that from a distance. So the only thing I can do to respect the fact that I’ve had listeners who’ve been supporting my work for 20 years, is to do my absolute best every time I make an album, just as uncompromisingly as I did the first one (laughs).

Talking of this album, how do you personally prefer people to listen to it? Is it more like a single musical piece or ten individual tracks that tell different stories of their own?

Well, with all the solo albums that I’ve done, aside from recording and producing everything, writing and playing all instruments except the drums, it’s important for me to have a very steady framework for what kind of album I want to make before I actually start writing anything. So that’s something I’ve done with all albums, and with this album the general idea was to actually go backwards and make an album with a very pure, old-school, dark black metal atmosphere that sends a very different message, with some different song structures. The underlying atmosphere was to have that black metal feel. It’s a very dark album all the way through. But at the same time, I wanted to break the pattern of the typical metal albums that have one set of basic arrangements for the whole album, one production for the entire thing, which has always been very typical for a metal album. But I wanted each song to grow out of itself and just become the instrument and arrangement that I felt each song needed, regardless of how it would all fit together, just trying to trust that the overhanging general vibe would still be present. So, I think that people would get most out of the album if they put on headphones and listen to it from beginning to end. In some way, I think I almost tried to present it in that way although with very abstract cover layout, a German title and even for my standards the song titles are rather cryptic. Everything about the presentation of the album says this is not an album that will give the listener anything for free. This is an album that craves your attention if you want to get most out of it (laughs).

Right, I agree! You also said earlier that you do best when you’re outside your comfort zone. When people get into their comfort zones, specially creatively, I think the motivation kind of disappears. Do you think it’s important for musicians to step outside this comfort zone?

Absolutely. It depends on what you want from your music. There are so many different types of musicians as well. For some bands, it seems that the process of making an album is a first step or a necessity so they can get back out on the road. That’s their driving force. But for me, it’s always been this excitement of musical creation that’s been the driving force. So it’s the other way around. I’ve been doing live shows as a necessity to continue this. Of course, I also enjoy that and it’s exciting to see how the music works in a live situation, but for me the main priority is creating new music and keeping the excitement for myself. It’s the same reason I got into music in the first place. If you listen to the four Emperor albums as well, you kind of hear that it starts off in its own place and gradually goes into a more progressive and experimental environment. I’ve had the determination to do it that way and I’ve tried my best to keep it like that. For some, it would be great to play in AC/DC. For me, I don’t think it would work well. Financially, I guess it would be very pleasant (laughs).

You mentioned live shows there briefly and that reminded me, you played a show in India earlier this year, at the Bangalore Open Air. What was that experience like?

Oh, that was a fantastic experience because I didn’t really know what to expect at all. I was very humbled that I got the chance to play there. I think they did an absolutely great job, and I’m very happy that they have a collaboration with Wacken Open Air to interact and exchange bands from Indian bands and European or Western bands back and forth. So I think Bangalore Open Air has really started something great. At the same time, it was fun to see that my general impression of fans whether I play in America, Europe or anywhere else, it doesn’t really matter because we share similar references. It was the same thing when I played in India, even though culturally of course it was much different from the cultures of Scandinavia, Europe and the US. But still, when we got there, the reason we were there was a common cultural reference of heavy metal. We all grew up on Maiden (laughs). So it’s very interesting to see how wherever you go in the world in the role of playing some kind of metal expression, we all have more common ground than if you go there as tourists. I just spent a week in Japan and did three gigs there. It’s the same thing there, there are a lot of cultural differences but a lot of common ground when you go there in the capacity of a musician (laughs).

That’s very interesting, and I completely agree. You also brought up America there. Do you have plans to play any live shows here in America any time soon?

Well, I played Maryland Deathfest this summer, and that was the only opportunity I’ve had to play in North America this time around. I do very few shows in general. This year I’ve done 12 or 13 shows altogether, which is a lot in my standards. As I said earlier, I want to prioritize making more music and do more production work for other artists as well, but also technically I kind of depend on having musicians in a backing band, and so far I’ve been collaborating with the band Leprous. I’ve made the decision to hire the full band, but they’re constantly touring so it’s also a practical element of their capacity in terms of how much I’m able to play with them. Unfortunately, it’s much harder too for European bands to come to the States and play. The bureaucracy of actually getting the working visas and everything like that is very a heavy burden. It’s very expensive to get those visas, so for promoters it’s kind of hard to make that all work. It’s easier for me to get working visas and play in Japan than to go to the US, and that’s even without anyone in the band having any criminal record or anything like that. It’s just how it is for everybody (laughs).

Right, that’s indeed unfortunate. So, the final question I have for you today is, even after all these years you’re clearly inspired to be creative with your music. What actually inspires you to keep creating music? Is it music itself or other aspects of life?

Well, that is always very abstract and I think it’s a combination of what I create from, a mix of everything that I experience. I definitely take huge influence from listening to music, and I think even more than getting inspired by music, sometimes I just get inspired by certain sounds in music (laughs. Reading helps as well, and I have a habit of constantly returning to nature for inspiration, which is not the worst thing. The reason to continue to do this is almost like, I have no choice. I get cravings. even if I’m on a vacation where I’m not able to play. I’ve never smoked cigarettes or quit smoking, but it’s almost like that. It’s a craving for fresh strings. I actually imagine the texture of fresh strings on my guitars in periods when I’ve not been to play. Music for me is a privilege but also a necessity because I don’t know how to do anything else and I’ve been doing this since I was a child. So my driving force is to just work with music (laughs).

That’s awesome. Well, I think that’s all I have for this interview. It was great talking to you and all the best with everything. Hopefully someday you’ll play here in Los Angeles and I’ll see you then!

Absolutely. Thanks for the support. I’ve always had a great time when I’ve had the opportunity to play in the States, so hopefully in the future I will have more chances!

Visit Ihsahn on the web at: