Ihsahn: On 'After', 8-Strings and Achieving Post-Apocalyptic Sounds
In the following interview—conducted while Guitar World was attending the Hole In the Sky Festival in Bergen, Norway—former Emperor mainman Ihsahn discusses how he found a balance between his musical career and family life and managed to create the progressive, foreboding sounds on his latest solo record After.
Is this your first time playing here at Hole in the Sky?
IHSAHN Yeah, it is. Actually, the last time I played in Bergen was with Emperor back in 1997, I believe. Maybe it was ’99, but I’m pretty sure it was ’97.
Knowing your history in the Norwegian extreme metal scene, do you feel like you’re at a family reunion here?
IHSAHN Not really. [laughs] I mean, I know this festival is very special with everyone meeting each other again but for me, it’s not all hugs and kisses. Funny, I just met this guy who apparently last saw me at the Morbid Angel/Deicide gig in ’91. He was a pen pal with some of my closest friends back in the day.
Now that illegal downloads are the norm, do you feel that live performances are the way to go for bands to make a living?
IHSAHN It seems like it. The downside is that, even at a festival, the artist still needs to make money somehow, and the booker needs to make the money back. When you steal from one end, the other will disappear as well. It all goes full circle, eventually.
It’s sad, really. You can bitch about downloads and complain that it’s not fair—which I do—but there’s no way of winning. You just have to relate to the new format. The album is kind of new, historically. You know, it was just singles before albums. Before that it was radio. There’s always a change. I personally love the album format so I hope it will survive one way or another. I like making music in that way. I guess for our music genre, we have more fans that will actually buy and listen to the album instead of downloading it as opposed to, say, the “hit list” artists. We don’t consume in the same speed.
I guess it’s common knowledge among us that I am not keen on live playing, or at least the touring part of it. There’s lots of drunk people everywhere and lots of compromises…it’s not for me. I’m comfortable now with just doing select shows at festivals. I enjoy playing just one show once in a while rather than playing a show every day of the week at clubs all across Europe or something. Plus, I have a great live band who are totally professional and the partying isn’t excessive. I know everyone is focused and will perform to the best of their ability.
I want to talk about your most-recent album, After, which is the final album in your trilogy. Where did you look to for inspiration this time?
IHSAHN I guess all of these creative processes are really abstract. I wanted to present these three solo albums as a trilogy, which is why they all start with the letter ‘A.’ At first I did an album called The Adversary, which was my first metal album since Emperor. I started work on that in 2005. My ideas for that album were written down in a book that I kept. I had all of these ideas for an album that I wanted to make. I wanted something more progressive and something that included more of my Iron Maiden and Seventies-Judas Priest/Sad Wings of Destiny influences, some more King Diamond and death metal stuff…just things that didn’t fit in with Emperor, but were still metal. After Emperor, I wanted to rebuild my metal template from scratch.
The second album I did, called aNGL, was a metal album that was more of my own style. Concept wise, I still wanted it to be direct and very Nietzche-inspired. Finally, the third album, After, is the post-apocalyptic album. The concept for this album is the absence of life. I didn’t have any Nietzche or writer influences this time. I just had images of Siberia and surface photos of Mars. They all show places that are just dead. There’s absolutely no life whatsoever; just this quiet place. There are also lots of references to the oceans and waves. So to answer your question, I go straight into the source of what inspires and influences me, rather than focusing on the outside things that happen around me.
I know you recorded the album in your home studio, where you have to balance family life and your music. What was the atmosphere like during the sessions?
IHSAHN As you said, I’m surrounded by my family but luckily I have a wife who does the same thing as me. She’s a musician as well, and we’ve been doing albums and projects together for a long time. She’s my band member, in that sense, as well as a “sparring partner” with whom I can bounce ideas off of. She’s very good at helping me form the concept before I even start. For these three albums, I formed a mental state before I made them. After I find the right state of mind, I begin work. Also, I guess I’m just used to “switching hats.” Like, I usually go from being a musician to an engineer; it’s very easy for me to multi-task.
Let’s talk about Ivory Shoulder Studio. Did you move the studio? What’s the philosophy behind it and what’s going on there at the moment?
IHSAHN It hasn’t moved. Over the years, the studio—which is originally called Symphonique Studio and was used exclusively for our Mnemosyne Productions label—received loads of request by other bands and artists to record in. We did work with some bands, but for the most part it was exclusive to Mnemosyne projects. Now we are open to working with outside projects since we’re both looking to expand into the production side of things. I guess we just needed to find the right time. That’s the reason why we decided to change the name to Ivory Shoulder: to mark the occasion that we are now open to select projects.
As the studio is still in our house, it’s not a huge space but we do have part ownership of a huge studio called Juke Joint Studio. It’s an old analog recording studio. We usually go there to record drums, re-amp guitars and everything that is loud. We still do stuff over the internet, as well. My wife’s project, Star of Ash, collaborates with other musicians over the internet. We’ve also started mixing with a promising local band and we have some bands booked for late autumn. It’s still very new to us. We have loads of requests, but we’re taking it very easy for now. The idea is for us to help bands we feel we can bring the best out of, rather than to just run a fully commercial studio.
Jørgen Munkeby of Shining (Norway) laid down some killer saxophone parts on the album. How’d you hook up with him?
IHSAHN It’s a funny story of how I met him. If you didn’t know, Shining have collaborated with Enslaved in the past. He’s also part of a group called Jaga Jazzist, which is a Norwegian jazz act. I really love that band, and they have like 15 people, so I never really got to see who’s in the band. I’m also not so updated on what happens in the metal world. When I had this idea, I was listening to a lot of [Norwegian saxophonist] Jan Garbarek, who I always associate with huge, epic landscapes. I’ve always had a fascination with the saxophone and I decided, with the concept of After, this was the time to use saxophone in my music. However, I didn’t know any sax players. While I was doing promotion for The Adversary, I ran into Norwegian jazz musician Bugge Wesseltoft in the airport in France and we exchanged numbers. When it came time for me to look for a saxophonist, I called him and he gave me three contacts of players that he knew, though he told me Jørgen would be the guy who would best relate to my stuff. At that point, I realized I could’ve just asked Enslaved for his number. [laughs]
What was the creative process like with him?
IHSAHN Jørgen is a very skilled musician. I sent him the tracks and told him to double some specific melody lines, such as “Undercurrent” and “On These Shores,” which share the same melody. They both represent the same theme, and I had him play the lines a certain way. Of course, overall, there was room for improvisation. It was a pleasure working with him in the studio. I didn’t expect him to catch on to the atmosphere I wanted on the first take, but when I showed him some images and explained to him abstractly what I wanted, he caught on very quickly. He was so in tune to what I wanted. I was very lucky to have played with him and he actually performed with me at the Inferno Festival in Oslo back in April and in London, where Shining supported me, last Friday. He won’t be here tonight, I’m afraid.
After contains lots of riffing with your new Ibanez eight-string. What was the most challenging thing from making the transition from six to eight strings?
IHSAHN I’ve been using the Ibanez seven-string for a while now, actually. I first bought one while I was on tour in America with Emperor back in ’99. That guitar actually inspired a lot of the riffs of the final Emperor album, Prometheus. It’s just inspiring to have that extra range.
When we did the Emperor reunion show in Los Angeles, I met up with Mike Taft [from Ibanez] and he brought me a prototype for the eight-string. He wanted me to try it out during the soundcheck. It didn’t feel that weird to me. It still had that RG neck which I’m already familiar with, except it was a bit wider. The only challenge this time was, like with the seven-string, that you can’t go much deeper with power chords. You have to treat those lower strings like a bass string, which is generally what it is. That’s also how I felt when I got my seven-string. I didn’t want to just transpose all my riffs for the lower string. I wanted to implement the eighth string with more string-skipping things, such as ringing notes. I don’t want to use it as a tool to play two guitar parts because it just sounds different. The extra range just provides me with more opportunities. The best thing, especially for someone like me who’s been playing guitar for 25 years, is to watch your fingers feel out the neck as if it was your first time. That’s why on the second album I did some songs with alternate tunings just to keep it fresh. Even with the eight-string, you have to skip the analyzing part and go straight into the listening part. I think that’s the most important for me.
Did you have to get new gear to accomodate the eight-string’s lower notes?
IHSAHN I did get some new gear after I got my guitar. I’ve been really focused on getting gear that can help sustain and contain the lower notes—especially the cabinets. I’m with Blackstar Amps now, and I play the Series One 200 amps. Gus G. actually uses the same amp. It’s a very nice one. It’s super easy to dial in your tone. A funny thing that I’ve noticed is that although the cabinet has Vintage 30s, my speaker preference, my Engl cabinet with the same speakers seems to be tighter. I don’t know if there’s some damping on the back of that cabinet or what, but the Blackstar guys are working on a new cabinet now. I notice this especially during rehearsals, where we have three eight-string guitars, and the sound can get unfocused and sloppy.
Your playing and technique has come a long way since your beginnings as a black metal musician, and I’m sure your musical tastes have expanded, as well. What do you enjoy listening to now?
IHSAHN For a long time, I’ve enjoyed listening to anything Radiohead. Apart from that, it’s a mix of new and old things. I recently bought Mastodon’s Crack the Skye, and I really like it. Actually I’ve been reading about it in Guitar World. [laughs] They use a lot of old analog tube gear, which always interests me. I listen to a lot of things that I’ve been listening to forever as well as some jazz things and soundtracks. I also really love the new Massive Attack [Heligoland]. I didn’t like 100th Window much but this one I really like.
Your playing has gotten more progressive and, in a way, more ambitious with every album. Was there ever a point while tracking guitar that you felt like the music has gotten too progressive or technical for the average listener?
IHSAHN No disrespect to my listeners, but I never take anyone into consideration while writing. I feel that I would cheat myself and my listeners if I considered outside opinions. I always maintain the idea of doing my absolute best. I wouldn’t say my playing is becoming more ambitious. I would say that, with the eight-string especially, I’m merely keeping myself entertained and excited. I feel that with After, I was even less occupied with technicalities. I just went straight to the source of myself and just listened to what I was doing. I also think that with this being my third album, I’ve gotten a lot more confident. I would never have guessed that I would have a 10-minute song with two chords [“On the Shores”]. It’s a pretty slow song and I went for the feel. I didn’t care if I was going to be boring people. It just felt right. My guitar playing is as progressive as I’m curious. I always write guitars with two parts and with a counterpoint. Unfortunately, I’m not good at writing one-guitar riffs. I wish I could. All the classic riffs are just single-guitar riffs. [laughs]
Finally, you mentioned After is the end of a trilogy. What’s next for Ihsahn?
IHSAHN A new album, but beyond the framework of the trilogy. I started my solo career with a trilogy to give myself time for what’s next. The processs has allowed time for me to build myself up to where I want to be. And with After, I feel like I have come to where I wanted to be. I’m now more confident in going even further. After is a departure from the previous two albums so I don’t think people will know what to expect next. And I think that’s a good starting point.