Ihsahn: Emperor of the North
GUITAR WORLD What's up with the skeleton? Is that real?
IHSAHN It is real. It’s a Russian soldier. My wife and I found it lying around a cellar in a school somewhere. It wasn’t being used for anything, so we brought him here and gave him a home. But it’s all legal and properly registered.
GW How long have you been working out of this studio?
IHSAHN This studio has played a major part of everything I’ve done since Emperor’s  Prometheus album.
GW You have so many musical projects. Creatively speaking, what do the Ihsahn releases satisfy for you?
IHSAHN They are the metal side of what I do. With them, I don’t fiddle about with so many keyboards and strange sounds; I just start out with the guitar riffs, because that’s what metal is all about.
GW So you intended your first solo record, The Adversary, to be a metal record?
IHSAHN Yeah, I needed to do a more straightforward metal album. I tried to narrow my focus on The Adversary, even though it’s still musically a bit all over the place. I wanted to do something inspired by Seventies progressive music and rock operas, like what Judas Priest did on Sad Wings of Destiny, with pianos coming in and out. As a result, The Adversary is kind of thin sounding, because I didn’t want to fill it with layers of guitars—I wanted to keep it simple, with one guitar in each speaker, vocals in the middle. And then I added keyboards! [laughs]
But with this new record I’ve gone with a more contemporary way of doing it. angL’s got layers of guitars and a much heavier sound. I wanted to focus on what I think worked best on The Adversary. That album was really an experiment—an outlet to try the different metal things I couldn’t do within the boundaries of Emperor. I think angL is more focused and introduces some new angles that I haven’t tried before.
GW What would be an example of a new angle?
IHSAHN Well, I had some progressive stuff on The Adversary, but I think my exploration of different tunings on new tracks like “The Alchemist” is pretty different. That’s a progressive track with odd beats and a DADGAD tuning, which I’ve never used before. I also tried new vocal styles and ways of layering vocals. But at this point I’m still really close to the album, so it’s hard for me to be objective.
I worked with the same drummer I did on The Adversary, Asgeir Mickelson, and had Lars Norberg on bass. They’re both outstanding musicians from this immensely progressive band called Spiral Architect. I started writing guitar riffs, and then I programmed the drum parts just the way I wanted them. Then I sent the files to those guys.
GW I imagine this modern recording technology really helps you maintain a more solitary life in Notodden.
IHSAHN Yeah, I think so. Earlier on I thought that maybe it was important to be in the center of things. In a small town like this it’s very hard to come by musicians that can contribute and tune in to what we do. But with today’s technology that whole thing has changed. You can easily work with people whether they’re in Japan, Oslo or the U.S., which really allows us to expand the creative playground. I think there’s even been experiments done where recording sessions happen just using web cameras. It’s really getting like Star Trek. Soon you’ll be able to just beam over. [laughs]
GW Do you feel your isolated location helps you stay truer to the black metal aesthetic?
IHSAHN No, not really. But I think growing up in this environment…well it really forms you. There’s a reason why this expression of Norwegian black metal came out of places like Notodden. Many journalists have told me when they arrive here they finally understand, after years of listening to these records, why they were created here. Experiencing this environment adds another dimension to the music. I don’t think I could lose that wherever I would move to. At some point it makes sense to move to New York or L.A. and be part of all that, but it would be strange to be sitting in some very hot sunny place creating sad, black metal music. [laughs]
GW For angL, you also collaborated on a song with Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth.
IHSAHN Yes, that’s true. He did a fantastic job on the song “Unhealer.” It was especially amazing because he was so busy recording the new Opeth album.
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