EMPEROR Black Metal Legend IHSAHN Finds His Inner 'Geek' By Embracing Modern Recording Technology

June 29, 2023

By David E. Gehlke

Vegard Sverre Tveitanm, otherwise known as Ihsahn, has been a solo artist longer than a member of the legendary Norwegian black metal act EMPEROR. His solo ventures embody a creative pursuit that stretches well beyond black metal, dabbling in avant-garde, jazz and progressive music. In doing so, Ihsahn has put ample distance between those who yearn for him to recreate EMPEROR's classic sound. Part of the equation involves noted Swedish producer and engineer Jens Bogren, who has been working with Ihsahn since 2010's "After". The two have recently partnered on a URM Academy "How It's Done" production course that details Bogren's recording approach in vivid detail and includes (from start to finish) a tutorial on how he mixed Ihsahn's most recent EP, "Fascination Street Sessions". It's a revealing, in-depth look into how Bogren works, designed to allow up-and-coming producers a rare opportunity to learn from one of metal's best knob-twiddlers.

Aside from that, Ihsahn is now enjoying the fruits of a reunited EMPEROR playing sold-out shows across the globe. But in chatting with BLABBERMOUTH.NET, Ihsahn made it clear he is far more interested in talking about the finer points of album productions than black metal's illustrious past.

Blabbermouth: When you started in the early '90s, getting extreme metal to sound good was difficult. Are you amazed by how much technology is at people's disposal to help them with that?

Ihsahn: "Absolutely. I love all aspects of the technology available. I'm a total geek for all that stuff. [Laughs] Then again, what I think this course also shows — I've been doing this for 30 years. I'm 47. I did my first studio recording when I was 14. I came from pre-productions that were rehearsals and going into the studio, recording to 16-track tape. My first demos were on a Fostex 4-track when I was 11 or 12. Then, it was called "ping-ponging." You would mix down all the tracks you could use for more stuff. The first sequencer was back in '91 — I don't think it was called Cubase. It was a Steinberg product and I thought, 'Wow. I could do anything if I had access to this technology.' I've seen all of it. It's allowed me to work on things I couldn't imagine. When we started in EMPEROR and wanted to implement orchestral sounds, we were limited to whatever Roland keyboard was out and played them. I recently worked with Spitfire Audio and the way you can use sampled orchestras to such a high degree, it's unbelievable.

"This technology, fortunately, is available to anyone. People can be on their laptops in their bedrooms and make amazing-sounding stuff. Things that far surpass the sonic qualities of the old recordings I used to do in the early days. Even the sonic essence beyond that, like BLACK SABBATH or LED ZEPPELIN, the spectrum and frequency range of those recordings today would be subpar. What has remained the same is to make a recording and a record that translates and communicates. You still need to capture a performance of musicians, preferably in a room with microphones. That has to be some part of it. You can do that with sampled drums and emulated amps with plug-ins. It's still emulating. It's what you do with it. Who knows how far AI will go, but you still have to write good songs and riffs. That remains the same. All the plug-ins, they're something not necessarily new, like a synthesizer was new. They're still emulating something that was hardware. That's still the reference. We haven't built beyond that."

Blabbermouth: You and Jens have worked on several albums together. What makes you work so well with him?

Ihsahn: "Creatively and aesthetically, we match, at least from my perspective. He can match anything with his skill level. The first album he did for me was my third solo album, 'After', which he mixed. I contacted him because I loved the production of 'Ghost Reveries' from OPETH. That kind of guitar sound is very organic but hard-hitting and open, with less gain on the guitars. In some way, a lot of string definitions. It was the whole sonic package. I was using 8-string guitars for the first time and wanted something more massive. I didn't know how my recordings would translate with his mixing. I went over to Jens's to mix for the first album we did, but beyond that, I hadn't gone back to [Bogren's] Fascination Street [Studios] until we did the course. When I record stuff in my way, I trust that he will understand what I want. It always comes back better than I would have imagined. I don't see a reason to go elsewhere as long as that translation goes well. [Laughs]"

Blabbermouth: The course takes the viewer through the mixing process of your recent EP. Did that make you feel exposed?

Ihsahn: "No, because I'm a total nerd for these things. [Laughs] I'm jealous of the guys who have behind-the-scenes access to the details with the absolute best. Many guys start getting into that stuff when they are 15 or 16. My resource when I started was reading the manual. [Laughs] This was pre-Internet. Everything I learned over the years was about me asking questions. Whenever I was near someone engineering a record I was doing, I would ask and ask and ask. I followed everything. In every recording we did, I was always there from the beginning until the end, hanging over the engineer's shoulder and trying to figure out what they were doing. In this day and age, with technology, now you can do that. Jens is an excellent communicator. He's so passionate about it. You see some tutorials online and some engineers are amazing, but one thing is kind of tweaking knobs and using your ears and doing it, but communicating what you're doing is the way you channel that in an understandable way. Not everybody has that talent. It's a big part of it."

Blabbermouth: Do you think current metal productions are too perfect? Are you okay leaving in mistakes?

Ihsahn: "No, not really! [Laughs] This way of working and I've been a solo artist than longer I was in a band, that's technology and I've grown with it. Now, being self-produced and doing it myself, it seems to be very common among bands. I was one of the few early on. I got myself a home studio because I was passionate about the possibilities of crafting everything. For better or worse, I've never become particularly good at one thing, which is the downside. I know enough about each part of the process to patch together the creative parts, like how I want the song to be. For me, that's been perfect. Many musicians want someone else to take responsibility since they want to do their parts, but for me, it's a very broad picture."

Blabbermouth: Do you get bored quickly? Does that explain why each of your solo albums is different?

Ihsahn: "It is about doing something different, but a lot of people mistake that I want to sound like someone else. I want to try to sound like me in a new way. If you boil it down, I set all these parameters. I've come into this rather repeatable pattern of making my records, which I think is the consequence of working alone. I have a black book since 'The Adversary' where I write up what kind of album I want to make before writing. I do a full conceptual workout and decide what kind of sonic palette I will use. I give myself a lot of limitations. The whole reason for doing that is to put myself in a situation where I have one step into chaos, right outside my comfort zone. That's where I feel I'm excited. I want to put myself in a position where I'm just as excited about making a new album when I was 16. I have this immense privilege where I do this for a living. I don't want to put myself in a situation where I'm bored doing what I love. I can't believe my luck that I'm still doing this."

Blabbermouth: If you don't mind getting philosophical, what have you learned from the EMPEROR reunion shows?

Ihsahn: "It's been a privilege. By the looks of things, EMPEROR seems even more successful than when we were an active band. Leaving that behind willingly and starting a solo career, many people have been fronting a band, getting recognition, and then going solo comes to a quick end. For some reason, my solo career is different from EMPEROR. But I still get to do it. In the beginning, it was harder for me to combine the two. At the beginning of my solo career, I felt I was trying to create in the shadow of my own creation. [Laughs] There will always be a comparison. Then again, I don't have to compare. In that regard, not much has changed for me. I do the same thing and try to fit into that bubble of creating new music. So far, that hasn't been taken away. How people react to that is kind of outside of my control. You never know. Being able to do the EMPEROR shows, I think by doing them, has become more professional. The whole organization is involved; they're a nice bunch of people. We travel the world, do amazing shows, and meet people and audiences who have a passionate relationship with our songs. It's the same way we have this passion for our favorite bands from the '80s, like IRON MAIDEN and JUDAS PRIEST. I used to sing along to them and we now get to do that by playing old EMPEROR songs. It's bigger than us. It's the same way for the music you listened to when you were a teenager, but for us, it's the music we played as teenagers. It's embedded in our spine. To put it simply, rehearsing 'I Am The Black Wizards' isn't always fun. It's never boring playing that song live. The energy in communication within the audience — so many people invested their own experiences through these songs as we all did with the songs we grew up on. To be part of that, the magic happens in that interaction."

Blabbermouth: Has your relationship improved with Samoth [Tomas Thormodsæter Haugen, guitar] and Tyrm [Torson, a.k.a., Kai Johnny Solheim Mosaker, drums] as a result?

Ihsahn: "It definitely has improved. We have the privilege now of coming together on very open and clear terms. We all know what it's all about. There's no conflict of interest like when we were in an active band, like this creative push-pull of where we will take it. Now, we all know it's defined. It's like going to work with a group of colleagues where you all know what you're doing and you're having a good time. The culture within the band and with everyone we're traveling with is so good. It's a really great place to be."

Blabbermouth: Are there any EMPEROR songs where you think, "How are we going to pull this off live?"

Ihsahn: "I think it's the mid-section in 'Ensorcelled By Khaos' [hums riff]. The guitar part is kind of tricky to play, but singing that and playing it at the same time is crazy. The guitar break in 'The Loss And Curse Of Reverence' with the speaking part — playing that in time and speaking on top of it, is hard. But honestly, playing the EMPEROR songs is a breeze compared to my solo stuff."

Photo credit: Bjørn Tore Moen

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