IHSAHN Talks About How He Has Remained 'Uncompromising' And 'Free' With EMPEROR And Solo Career

March 12, 2024

By David E. Gehlke

Vegard Sverre Tveitan, otherwise known as "Ihsahn", has now been a solo artist for longer than his initial 1991 to 2001 run with groundbreaking Norwegian black metallers EMPEROR. While EMPEROR has been reactivated on a show-only basis since 2016, Ihsahn continues to release supremely challenging, occasionally left-field albums under his own name. Some LPs have translated far better than others (2008's "Angl" remains his solo masterpiece),yet his newest self-titled foray heralds the first time he's made a concerted effort to dig deep into his black metal background and marry it with the orchestral elements that have so come to define his recent works. Ihsahn largely succeeds here, emerging with an album equally grandiose as it is extreme.

Ihsahn probably fields more new EMPEROR studio album questions than he would like, but his position has remained clear: A new EMPEROR studio album would likely never match expectations and his solo career provides a clear, concise window into how a hypothetical album would sound anyway. There were plenty of other things to discuss when BLABBERMOUTH.NET caught up with Mr. Tveitan, including the aforementioned self-titled album, recording with his children and what he could gain from a hypothetical pairing with legendary producer Rick Rubin.

Blabbermouth: Generally, when an artist gives their album the "self-titled" treatment, it gives it a special sort of significance. What's your reasoning here?

Ihsahn: "Initially, no, there was no significance. When I told my label, they said, 'Wow. That's a bit of a statement!' My perspective is always it's the first album of some artist or somewhere down the line. Given the complexity of all the layers of this release, with the two versions and everything, it was hard to find one title that kind of captured all that. That was the first reason. Secondly, apart from the 'complexity' of the layers, this is kind of down the middle; it's very centered on what we've been doing since the beginning of my career. It has the black metal expression and orchestrations, and it has a cinematic vibe. Lyrically, it has very classic archetypes going on. I felt now was as good of a time as any. It made sense. If this was a very experimental thing or in some other direction, it might not be suitable. When I pondered it, it made sense."

Blabbermouth: Is the urge ever there to do something really primitive without any bells and whistles?

Ihsahn: "I always set out to do a minimalistic record. [Laughs] I think I did that with the 'Telemark' EP. That was very back-to-basics and primitive sounding. There are some brass sections, but that's it. [Laughs]"

Blabbermouth: Was there any sense of déjà vu in writing a song like "Pilgrimage To Oblivion", which very much points back to your early days?

Ihsahn: "Not at all. I guess it's for those who have a relationship with old EMPEROR; it's me singing and screaming. It has blast beats and it's fast. It has the elements of blast beats and me screaming in a more typical guitar range. So, I guess it's a natural association to make, but then again, I would argue I've done similar songs like 'A Grave Inversed' from the 'After' album or 'Lend Me The Eyes Of Millennia', which also has blast beats and me screaming. To me, it is part of the toolbox. The song comes early in the album. There is a lot of hubris and excitement going on at the beginning of the story. It called for this kind of expression. It's not similar to EMPEROR, but it's part of my color palette. Inevitably, some of that will come out. I get it as a fan of music. As fans of music, we only relate to periods and albums that we get attached to. I think for any artist, they're steps on the way. It's hard to pinpoint these elements of creation to anything particular. It's not that static. It's usually, for myself and probably for a lot of others, that makes the stuff you eventually become most happy with. As a result, it's the stuff that you have no idea how it got there in the first place. It's not calculated. I think that kind of calculated music would be boring to most people if it was made on the premise of a recipe like that."

Blabbermouth: You make a good point because there are quite a few bands who wander out into the wilderness only to come back and make very calculated music. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Ihsahn: "I'm not saying that if people like to stick to a formula, I have all the respect for bands like AC/DC or MOTÖRHEAD, who continually fine-tuned a core expression. It's brilliant. They do it very well. That is where the impulse of creativity works for them. It's all the better, but then you have bands like David Bowie or RADIOHEAD, who I mention all the time, who always sound like David Bowie or RADIOHEAD, but just in new ways. It's simpler than that. The only thing I make sure of is that I put myself in a position to come up with an approach where I'm just as excited about making new music as I was when I was 16 because I love doing it so much. I never want this to be a practical thing, like, 'Hmmm…if I made it more like this…' If that was my motivation, let's say, if money and fame and recognition and pats on the back were my motivation for doing music, of course, I would have never started playing black metal in 1991. It was the worst idea ever. [Laughs] I think people mix it up. I think the artist's motivation is very different regardless."

Blabbermouth: You mentioned your palette, and singing has been part of it even during the latter EMPEROR days. You do quite a bit of singing on the new album, and it has a melancholic tinge to it. How would you rate yourself as a vocalist?

Ihsahn: "The black metal vocals and the distorted guitars have always been very fluid for me. I've always felt confident and natural expressing myself through those 'instruments,' if you will. But my clean singing, probably because it's so personal, I guess, for ideas, I've heard a certain type of voice for vocal melodies and try to do that voice. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't work as well, but I think it does for this one. Lately, I have become more comfortable writing things that are more for my voice. I'm not a very gifted singer in that regard. I try to put vocal elements into a setting where I can hopefully perform them as genuinely and with the same kind of fluency that I do with black metal vocals."

Blabbermouth: Your son (Angell Solberg Tveitan) played some percussion on the album. What was that like?

Ihsahn: "It was included in the press release, and people are making a big deal out of it, which is understandable. But he's been doing percussion with my drummer on previous records. For us, it's a practical way of doing things. He's a drummer. He's been a drummer since he was five, taking lessons. Of course, when I'm in the studio, and I have two of Norway's best drummers with me for a week, of course, he wants to be there. [Laughs] As a consequence, he's getting pretty good at what he does. When we wanted to do some of the percussion parts, we had this beautiful, big room rigged up with three percussion stations and set up a stereo in the middle. It was better to have the three drummers perform in a triangle, playing all these elements together as an ensemble rather than overdubbing each drummer. It emphasized the liveliness of the performances. It was great to have him as part of that. He's been doing stuff like that since he was very young. To have my kids do backing voices and whatever here and there, it's like with the self-titled thing, it was more a natural consequence of how the project was developing."

Blabbermouth: It seems like you are the cool black metal dad, Ihsahn.

Ihsahn: "I'm very fortunate to do what I do and luckily, me and my wife's love of music and being in the music business and as an extension, my brother-in-law, Einer [Solberg] from LEPROUS, there's so many people in our family who have been or are still kind of working in the music industry. Both of our kids are pursuing musical careers. It's a natural thing. I think they have a very pragmatic and personal relationship to music. They're not very interested in the superficial hype elements of the artistry if that makes sense."

Blabbermouth: Well, social media makes it easier to get noticed.

Ihsahn: "You can't take an audience on: What will people think? Who will like what? What will the label like? If that's your focus, then you sell yourself short. I recommend everyone read Rick Rubin's book on creativity ['The Creative Act: A Way Of Being']. That says it all. [Laughs]"

Blabbermouth: I've yet to read it.

Ihsahn: "It's really good. It's an easy read."

Blabbermouth: There are a lot of varying opinions on his work methods.

Ihsahn: "Yeah, but that's because he's not a technical producer looking to make a hit. His perspective is that it's so much work making an album. The choices you face mean that you might as well make it the best thing it can be, not for this year's charts, but for a long time. I think his track record shows that. He's been part of albums that last over time. He never takes any consideration to finances or who's who or what the audience might expect. It's about creating art, allowing yourself to create art, and trying to make it the best it can be, regardless. Anything else would be selling it short."

Blabbermouth: If Rick Rubin showed up at your studio and asked to make a record with you, how do you think it would go?

Ihsahn: "It all depends on his approach to things. Of course, I've been getting all these peculiar ways for myself in how I work. It would be interesting. I've got a lot of questions recently, like, 'Who would be your dream collaborator?' I don't know! It would have to be someone I could click with creatively. I admire a lot of people, a lot of artists and musicians. It doesn't necessarily mean that putting me in a room with them and trying to create something would make something worthwhile. Just because names and catalogs look good on paper, it doesn't mean there's a spark there. I always find that hard to say because it's a different perspective. It's hard to channel sometimes. [Laughs]"

Blabbermouth: Your new album contains many of the symphonic elements you started incorporating into EMPEROR back in the day. Do you remember the initial reactions from your peers when you began to use keyboards heavily?

Ihsahn: "I don't think anyone pointed that out in particular. In those days, I got keyboard layers and orchestral sounds from my JV-1080 [software synthesizer]. The way I used to do it — especially on the first album — was more just trying to take those sounds that we associated with the soundtracks that I loved and tried to get that in there in a similar way to how IRON MAIDEN used keyboards on 'Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son'. We used those orchestral colors more, as well as choirs like MAIDEN. Already with 'Anthems [To The Welkin At Dusk]', I started orchestrating a bit more. I'm totally self-taught. I don't have a music education or anything like that. It was like picking up bits and pieces, but hopefully, over 30 years, I've picked up on some more things. This was the real deep dive into orchestration and, textural elements and light motifs. Probably the most gratifying part about making this album was that feeling of growing and learning so much in the process, even at this stage in my career. At 48, I can be in a position where I feel like I'm expanding and adding and learning new things."

Blabbermouth: Between your solo career, your studio and EMPEROR, which is still doing gigs, has this all turned out better than you ever imagined?

Ihsahn: "I think it's amazing. It's humbling. Most people don't even get to play in one kind of outlet that is fairly, in some regards, 'successful.' But to continue like I've done and be so uncompromising and free in my creativity—now I get the best of both worlds. We have the culture within EMPEROR. The traveling crew is better than it's ever been. We have some amazing times traveling the world. I play my solo shows and make records, and there are still so many things that I would love to do. It's humbling. It makes me conscious of the fact that I need to cherish and kind of take care of that privilege and not get lost in trying to be famous or trying to be successful on someone else's terms. It's an important factor so that if the record and everything is successful, I get to do it again. [Laughs]"

Photo credit: Andy Ford

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