By "Metal" Tim Henderson
That's the beauty of Wacken. When EMPEROR reunited in 2006, it was a surreal experience for those of us who revel in the flesh of extreme music. And to sit with 50,000-plus fans to soak in the moment of black metal majesty can't be put in words. Neither can the fact that when Wacken organizers presented the official press conference on August 3rd - announcing to the world that Emperor would return to headline the fest's 25th anniversary in 2014 - within 48 hours all 75,000 tickets had been sold! Yes indeed, a far cry from the days where it was difficult to cherry-pick a black metal fan from the crowd!
BraveWords had the honour to sit with the crowned Emperors - Vegard Sverre "Ihsahn" Tveitan and Tomas "Samoth" Haugen - for a chin-wag about the 20th anniversary of the band's earth-shattering debut from 2004, In The Nightside Eclipse and the limited gigs that will surround the celebration.
I dunno, is it some kind of bizarre fate? I mention to Ihsahn it was only recently that we received an order from Brazil for BW&BK #54 (2001), one of our many sold-out issues with EMPEROR on the cover. And here I sit with none other than the famed frontman himself, Ihsahn, a man responsible for changing how we perceive extreme music.
The fact that Wacken is celebrating its 25th anniversary, they could really bring any band to the party. For example METALLICA and MEGADETH are two of the king-pins of the scene that still haven't played here. So for organizers to pick you, that's quite the compliment and accomplishment.
"There's no secret that we've been looking to do another Emperor reunion type-of-thing," Ihsahn begins. "But I've been very focused on my solo work and sometimes you can get lucky twice. Starting a black metal band in Norway and actually having a career, then quitting it and starting a solo career that actually has been doing okay. I'm on my fifth album now. It was important that we did this on the right terms. It's an anniversary. It's marking an album that was very important to us. Obviously it was important to us as it was the starting point of us actually having a career. But as well, it's an album that a lot of people have a relationship to."
Like the black metal version of the Holy Grail?
"I wouldn't say that. But it has become something that people gravitate to. So it makes sense to celebrate it. Very limited, very few shows. People have been asking about the financial aspects. Last time we were offered an arena tour with SLAYER and MARILYN MANSON, but that's not it. Maybe I'm too pretentious, I'm only 37, and I don't want to be 70 and be playing all these old songs. If you pay to see an Ihsahn show, you get all of Ihshan's songs. That's why I waited three albums to tour."
When you announced at Wacken, we were wondering if Samoth was going to hop up on stage with your band and tease us with an In The Nightside Eclipse tune. (Ihsahn laughs and shakes his head). That's why people respect you.
"That's the reason we started Emperor in the first place," he continues. "That there would be no compromises. People feel better and they trust that. That's why I'm still here and we can do this. There's compromise, no marketing gimmicks. People trust that and know we're not trying fool anyone. I feel I do my best music if I don't think about whether or not people will listen to it."
I'm sure most people would've hated you opening up for Marilyn Manson and Slayer.
"But if I wanted to, I would've done it. But I didn't want to."
Your solo material has many elements to it, and it seems to push the envelope of creating music to a level moreso than the supposed prog bands doing it today.
"I get a lot of strange questions, and one of them is how come people from the original black metal scene end up doing all this experimental music. To me it's not really that strange. In 1991, black metal was kind of on the edge, and people who were doing that were in their teens. It's not really strange that when they get into their 20s or 30s that they will still continue to push the envelope. It would be very sad to stagnate your maturity level."
How has time treated In The Nightside Eclipse in 20 years? Samoth says that you've already been rehearsing.
"Just Samoth and Bård ("Faust" Eithun - Emperor's original drummer). I haven't been in on them. I still have to rehearse with my band, because we are still doing festivals. I just finished an album and I will be doing press for that album in the next couple of months. I just have to fit it into my schedule. But I wouldn't know how it's weathered over time. To be honest, I never listen to my back catalog. I guess now I have to, and I've been listening to it lately, to get vibe on the riffs we had to work out for rehearsals. I think at this point, since I've made more albums as a solo artist than I ever did with Emperor; with that confidence, and the time span it's taken to do these solo albums, I didn't want to continue where I left off with Emperor. I wanted to build something new, but gradually I think I grew more confident, especially on the last couple of albums, that I've been able to tap into that same source. If you know the song 'The Grave' (from 2012's Eremita), in black metal terms, to me that's one of the blackest songs I've ever written. So more and more, I've tapped into that energy source, which is very similar to what we did in the past, but with a different way of working. For the first time in my entire life, I don't think I would've connected to those older songs so easily. I know it may sound like a bunch of excuses, but to me it just makes sense, because now I can think about those old songs and actually connect with them and go out there and play them genuinely."
Do you think your solo material is going over some of your fan's heads?
"Well, I'm still here. Surprisingly, I feel that my solo career, luckily for me has gone this way. For many others who have tried to step outside a band and do a solo thing, it failed."
Even in the classic rock world, there's only a handful that have truly succeeded like OZZY OSBOURNE, ROBERT PLANT and DAVID GILMOUR.
"I'm like JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE, stepping out from my boy-band, but I don't have the moves! (Laughs) In a seriousness, we're very lucky to be in this situation, to have people respond to something that I did when I was a teenager. But I'm only 37 and I'm not ready to retire. When I quit Emperor I was 26, and I somehow felt the best was yet to come."
Are the creative juices for Emperor still there?
"In practical terms, Prometheus (The Discipline Of Fire And Demise) was going to be my first solo record. But the label wanted an Emperor record. So I said we'll do one more Emperor record, but I wanted to do it my way. I didn't exclude anybody from writing, but at the time Samoth didn't present anything. On that album I played more instruments than I do on my solo records! It's just the way things happened. Samoth and I have a great relationship now, but with ZYKLON he wanted to do his own thing, and Prometheus was a direction that I wanted to go and do more experimental stuff. So when you see Samoth's music and my music, there's an obvious difference. For Emperor's timespan, those differences worked creatively."
Any guilt from fans wanting, craving, needing a new Emperor studio album? The internet has opened things up, so more fans have found out about bands like Emperor.
"From a black metal perspective, the reason why we even have in the first place is that we never cared about fans. It's that type of music. If I started to care about fans… there's so many people that say 'you should do something more in the vein of Anthems (To The Welkins At Dusk).' If you know better than me to make my music, you should go do it. You need to follow this (points at his heart). That's the only way, I just follow this and I realize it's arrogant not to care, but that is who I am. I appreciate my fan base, but I have to do my ultimate best every time, and I don't do that thinking 'should write for this market or make my profile more like this.' I do my bat woe when I get into my mood and get into form."
And right now it's under your band name…
"Which is very convenient," he finishes off my sentence.
You may not have any North American shows?
"America and Visas, sentences, blah, blah, you know! Just ask my wife, collaborating with me is not the easiest thing in the world. She's really the only person in the world that can get through to me. If she tells me it's great I trust her, if she tells me it sucks, it takes me about three days to realize she was right."
In a separate chat, Samoth sheds a bit more light in the darkness...
"In The Nightside Eclipse was a very important album for Ihsahn and myself and it's still regarded as a classic in the genre. Generations have been picking up the album and we thought it would be appropriate to market this as a social event. We've been discussing it back and forth and we decided to do something special as the album still stands pretty strong in the scene. And basically we decided to come and a few very exclusive shows. I mean, this is not a reunion or reformation of the band in any way, we are just celebrating that album. And we decided to invite the original drummer Bard Faust to play with us on these events to make it even more special. So we're excited about that."
Any external pressure to make this happen or was it something internal, a celebration that feels right?
"There's no pressure. Emperor has never been a band to listen to any pressure. We've always done our own thing, regardless of what people think we should do or not do."
Are you committing to a big schedule next year?
"It's going to be very exclusive. We won't be touring a bunch of territories. For us it's important to keep it small and exclusive."
Is there anything about a new album?
"No. That's the farthest from our minds. It hasn't been discussed. The same as last time. I wouldn't make sense for us to go back and do that now. It's not about he reformation of the band, it's about a celebration of an epic album."
Have you been rehearsing the album in it's entirety?
"Yes, we've already started rehearsing."
How does it sound and how has the album weathered?
"I still it's regarded as a classic. Listening to the album today and playing the songs, I still think it holds up. It has some real feel to it. It still feels very good to play those songs, even though we wrote them pretty much as teenagers. It's amazing in a way that we can go back 20 years later and revisit that time and still have the same passion."
(Emperor photos from Wacken 2013 courtesy of Håkon Grav)