Emperor: Symphony of Destruction
GW Were you influenced by classical composers?
IHSAHN I first got into symphonic music from listening to soundtracks.
SAMOTH Yeah, we weren’t really into the classical composers but rather movie soundtracks. The Omen is an awesome film, but if you just listen to Jerry Goldsmith’s score, it’s amazing.
GW Tremolo strumming is another distinctive part of Emperor’s sound is. [Tremolo strumming is a technique whereby you repeatedly strum a chord with rapidly alternating downstrokes and upstrokes of the pick, typically four, six or eight strokes per beat (as 16th notes, sextuplets or 32nd notes, respectively).] What things did you consider to make sure both guitar parts were distinct?
IHSAHN Even though we’ve always been fast players, our playing has not been very thrashy. One thing about Emperor is that we’ve never been afraid to play big, bright chords. [laughs] When Samoth would riff really low on his guitar, I would always play 7ths and 9ths on top of that. I tried to simulate an orchestral string sound. And even though it’s very fast—all triplets and 16ths—there’s always a pulse underneath; the double-kick is playing straight underneath all these syncopated accents. It’s something that I’ve tried to teach my students: you have to have a pulse underneath for the guitar rhythms to make sense. Even though you play fast, you have to give it a groove.
GW In the years leading up to Nightside’s release, the black metal underground began asserting itself, most notably with the murders and church burnings. Do you feel your debut reflects the turmoil of the time?
SAMOTH By the time we recorded Nightside, most of that stuff had already happened. But obviously that was a period of our lives when the scene and the incidents that happened in it were a very big part of who we were and what we were doing. These events definitely inspired the way we wrote the album.
GW Ihsahn, you managed to avoid becoming involved in those criminal activities. Did you consciously say, “I’m not gonna follow anyone”?
IHSAHN That would be very cool to say, but no. I’ve just never been violent, and socially, I’ve always been in the background. I’ve always been more interested in the musical and lyrical side of things. Many people would be scared to death and probably piss themselves standing onstage in front of a huge audience. But that doesn’t bother me at all. Also, I was probably just lucky that I wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time.
GW In the past you’ve been vocal about how satanic ideology fits into your worldview—
SAMOTH Actually, I don’t think we’ve been that vocal about it. Emperor have never actually claimed to be a fully satanic band. We definitely had a very dark approach, but if you read through our lyrics you won’t find the term “Satan” directly. We always used a lot more symbolism. Even though there was a lot of darkness in the band back then, I think we had a broader horizon to our vision.
IHSAHN In the past I pulled the Satanist card out of convenience, if it suited the situation. Again, the apparent satanic ideology of the black metal scene is always regarded as a collective philosophy. But if you view Satanism as the anti-Christian thing, it’s also the antithesis of collectivity. So there’s a paradox there. To each his own, but I think our whole focus back then was off. I don’t think Satanism is necessarily a very positive thing to get into, because you’re confronted with some pretty extreme stuff and it can go either way. [laughs] Looking back, I think our whole state of mind was pretty fucked up.
GW So I guess your outlook has changed since then.
SAMOTH As the band progressed, and as we got older and more experienced in life, we became more balanced. Basically, you don’t stay 18 forever. [laughs] You’re always experiencing new things and you need to evolve. If you stop your evolution at 18, it’s pretty sad.
IHSAHN The way we saw things was screwed up, but I think being in a situation where we had to defend our views at such an early age was actually good in the long run. I mean, no one cared that we were teenagers; we were so extreme that we were confronted as adults. And having to answer for yourself as an adult and being confronted by so many things forces you to look deep inside and really get to know yourself.
GW That sounds like some heavy stuff for a teenager.
IHSAHN We had all this ideology and imagery that told us we were invulnerable. Total invulnerability and emotional coldness was the ideal. Trying to reach those impossible ideals was psychologically very hard. But getting out on the other side and seeing society from that other perspective has proved to be a very valuable experience for me.
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