EMPEROR’S IHSAHN - “I Play An Extreme Form Of Music That Most People Hate”
October 28, 2018, 10 months ago
Legendary Emperor frontman Ihsahn is pulling double-duty, barking at the moon with continued Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk anniversary celebrations and at the same time, promoting his latest solo album, Àmr, that will no doubt see some top honours in 2018 as we finish off a very heavy and very metal 12 months of mayhem. During our recent chat, we touch upon the band’s fondness for Canada; after all, BraveWords was the first magazine on the continent to place them on the treasured cover in 1999 (our 5th anniversary BW&BK #30 pictured below). Ihsahn also reminisces about his early influences and reveals that with Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, his love for music took a heavy turn and someday we may see a collaboration between himself and the Metal God!
BraveWords: What's the importance of Canada? BraveWords was one of the first magazines in North America to have Emperor on the cover for a reason.
Ihsahn: "That is a very hard question. I get that question a lot, especially because we have had the privilege of playing in so many different parts of the world. My fascination has also been that everywhere we go, whether it's with Emperor or my solo stuff, it's such a privilege to meet people who also grew up on Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Everybody has this kind of cultural common ground, metal heads everywhere. We know how to react, we know what kind of music we're talking about, there's almost a kind of friendship or common ground.”
BraveWords: Something in common...
Ihsahn: "Yeah - and then you get to experience the country and differences of culture on top of that, but with that common ground as the base of it. If I was going to Japan on vacation, for example, of my own accord and knowing nothing about it - I would probably get to experience so little of Japanese culture; in comparison, going there and meeting the promoters and the people we work with over there who are also metal fans, and experiencing the country and and culture through that. And I think it's the same with Canada, with metal and all that, because it's such a global culture. In that regard it's hard to find something in particular about Canada that differs from all the other metal scenes around the world because its very much the same.”
BraveWords: Extreme weather and we have an appreciation for extreme music.
Ihsahn: "Yeah! This style of music has a dominance in Europe and in North America.
BraveWords: How do you balance these dual personalities of your solo career and Emperor. Where do you draw the line mentally?
Ihsahn: "That's the thing - I don't feel very schizophrenic about it. I see that as two very different things, and as entities of course they are. Also musically they are very different. For me, it's been very much just a gradual development and I think my motivation and inspiration to do what I do solo is the same thing that motivated me and drove me forward when we had Emperor. And by the end of the last Emperor album, for all practical purposes I wrote that more or less on my own.”
BraveWords: Rumour has it that was supposed to be a solo record?
Ihsahn: "No, that was supposed to be the last Emperor record, because we knew. And that was because me and Samoth and our creative differences was the tension point that created the sound of Emperor. And by the end of it, if you listen to the last Emperor record and my early solo stuff and Samoth what he did and Trym what they did with Zyklon B we came to the point where the duality it kind of fell out of balance - and we'd rather stop at that point while it was still something that represented that duality of our creative differences rather than just pulling it along for the sake of the brand. So in essence, I just continued that journey. You could say both yes and no because by the time I started doing my first solo record I didn't want to just continue it from where I left off with Emperor, I kind of started new. The first record is very much back to a more heavy metal base, and then I gradually built it from there. I intentionally set myself out to do a trilogy of records. I'll do three records before I do any live shows with my solo stuff because I don't want to be that guy who goes out and plays a 50/50 show of Emperor covers and some of my material.”
BraveWords: I saw that at Wacken. Five years ago when you played Wacken solo, there was no Emperor in the set, right?
Ihsahn: "No, no. I divided between the two much more in the past, just to communicate that this was not just a spinoff thing or something that was a feeble version of Emperor. I was very much more self aware of those differences. And now, seven albums in, and playing all over the world with my solo stuff and with Emperor back to back. I just came back from Indonesia on Tuesday, just before In Flames at Hammersonic with my solo stuff. I've been to Japan three times with my solo stuff, two times with Emperor. And to be honest I play an extreme form of music that most people hate, and I'm from a very non-commercial music country like Norway, and I get to do both. What's not to like? What's to complain about?”
BraveWords: I hear a little bit of Devin Townsend in your material. Have you heard that comparison?
Ihsahn: "No, not really. But I take that as a compliment. I feel a kind of creative kinship with Devin, because I've gotten to know him a little bit.”
BraveWords: He's a character to say the least!
Ihsahn: "Yes - but he's also such a genuine guy. So immensely talented. That's not the kinship I feel, for the record, he also had a very strong need to create and to do different things and challenge himself musically. That's how I feel, and he's very uncompromising, he will take his music to wherever the music takes it.”
BraveWords: And this is no disrespect, but he's kind of a mad genius. He really is one of Canada's hidden gems.
Ihsahn: "Absolutely. You just recognize it in people like him - in some personalities. Similar to Michael Ackerfeld just taking Opeth wherever that takes him. And the same with Steven Wilson or Nergal from Behemoth or Matt Heafy from Trivium. All these people that I've had the privilege of meeting and getting to know them a little bit. I recognize the same passion for doing this. Their motivation is very similar, it's definitely from that kind of creative space.”
BraveWords: I would characterize Emperor more progressive than bands like Dream Theater for example.
Ihsahn: "I would hope so.”
BraveWords: More progressive than that scene.
Ihsahn: "Yeah, but I think that progressive thing is also somewhat misunderstood because people think of progressive music as having odd time signatures and being very difficult to play. But I think of progressive as something moving music forward - challenging. I would say that AC/DC is a not a very progressive band. They stick to their guns.”
BraveWords: What are your feelings about Axl with Guns N’ Roses? Did you see any of the AC/DC shows with Axl?
Ihsahn: "I respect and I like AC/DC, and G’N’R but I just talked to one of my sound engineers who's a good friend of mine - he was more of a G’N’R fan growing up. We're both '75 models - and growing up in the 80's there were two directions - more blues rock oriented with a lot of pentatonic scales and he was more that direction, where I've always been more drawn to traditional diatonic expressions of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden - which is more melodic in a non-blues way if you know what I mean - it's not as rock n' roll.”
BraveWords: What did you think when Maiden and Priest brought in keyboards, with Turbo and Somewhere Back in Time? Keyboard guitars of whatever you cant to call them.
Ihsahn: "My favourite Iron Maiden record is Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, with those kind of fake choirs and the intro. Well, it's obvious isn't it, if you hear the opening of my new record, and you hear the opening of Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, this is kind of built into my DNA.”
BraveWords: And Maiden thought it was a failure because that's when Operation: Mindcrime came out (in 1988), so in terms of a concept record, they admittedly said they dropped the ball. When they heard that Queensrÿche record they said "Fuck, THEY did it - they got it right". But I love the record. I do love Seventh Son, it's genius.
Ihsahn: "Absolutely. I practically learned to play guitar from playing along to that record.”
BraveWords: What does the title of your new record mean?
Ihsahn: "It's an old Norwegian word and it means dark or murky. It can also mean rust red.”
BraveWords: I've had chats with Halford about you.
Ihsahn: "Oh have you? Yeah?”
BraveWords: The rumours are you guys speak? Is it some kind of dream collaboration?
Ihsahn: "It just recently came up again. The first time I met Rob I think it was back in 2001, something like that. I guess someone gave him my number and he reached out and we were in touch for a while. He was not in Priest at the time, and I guess he had more time on his hands. After he re-joined Priest that been all-consuming for him. But I remember I sent him the first record, I sent him the rough mixes for the second solo record. This is kind of inside gossip but it was a very proud moment for me when he wrote back and said ‘Yeah, I'll listen to Angl (my second record) on my way to KK's place to write some new Priest stuff.’ That's pretty awesome, right? And I've had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times and - well you know - he's such a humble and down to earth, pleasant, very gentle guy. Such a great person. And you know, you never get over the fact that's he's the god of metal. He's such an iconic figurehead of everything that you and me associate with all this music.”
BraveWords: It could be argued in heavy metal circles that the Judas Priest catalogue is unparalleled given their longevity.
Ihsahn: "Yes! If you think about that, there's AC/DC and there's Judas Priest - and I love Sad Wings Of Destiny as much as I love Painkiller - and I was so happy to hear on the new record, Firepower, you have elements of both those records in there. It's just amazing that after all these years they can make a record like that. You don't have any defined expectations of a band like that at that point in their career, but to be so positively surprised, like fuck me, this is insanely good. You hardly believe it, that's how good that record is. Back to what you were asking about, I think he met Nergal from Behemoth - I think he's been a huge fan of black metal for such a long time - and Anthems from Emperor is one of his top ten albums - it's kind of a proud thing you know? He said he would like to have a go at that expression, and also involving Nergal in that as well. I can honestly say that if the three of us ever got together to do something like that, that would be something that I'd love to do. Absolutely. And not just us as me hooking up with two other very successful, famous guys who I admire beyond the names, but in my head I can hear those three expressions and those voices and the energy of what all of us have been doing. It could be something great. But at the same time I think none of us would have liked to enter a venture like that in a hurry. If that ever happened it would have to be done right, and real proper. But I'd love to. Absolutely. That would be amazing.”
BraveWords: The artwork on this record is just so eerie.
Ihsahn: "I think that is actually one of my best artworks if I may say so myself. That's where I sit when I watch TV with my family.”
Ihsahn: "That's my chair. It does not have a skull, that's over my fireplace. I just think it represents the atmosphere of the record so well, and I give all credit to Ritchie and to my wife Heidi who put this together We took some pictures and it was Heidi who said this needs to be the cover.”
BraveWords: I can't believe that's your chair! I want one!
Ihsahn: "You can get one - it's an original Chesterfield - we have the couch to match it - and the model is William Blake. So that's kind of an absolute when you have a Chesterfield that's the Blake model.”
"Lend Me The Eyes Of Millennia" video:
"Arcana Imperii" video:
(Promo photos by Bjørn Tore Moen)