Originally published in Guitar World, October 2007
Never mind the church burnings. Throughout the Nineties, Emperor forged the sound that defines symphonic black metal. Guitarists Ihsahn and Samoth reveal the inner workings of Norway’s infamous iconoclasts.
In 1992, the world was watching Norway as the nation prepared for the prestigious honor of hosting the 1994 Olympic games in Lillehammer. Inside the country, however, a rash of church burnings and murders were terrifying the populace and threatening to overshadow Norway’s reputation as one of the most peaceful and politically progressive countries in the world. The instigators, as the police soon discovered, belonged to an inner circle of extreme black metallers. Among them were several members of Emperor, at the time a relatively new entry among Oslo’s burgeoning extreme music scene.
“We were all very psyched about the whole thing,” Emperor’s guitarist/vocalist Ihsahn says of that early period in the band’s history. “I had long black nails and wore makeup and inverted crosses to keep people away. I realized when people hate you for being extreme, you might as well drive the point home.”
Today, Emperor are renowned less for their violent past than for helping to spawn the subgenre of symphonic black metal now practiced by bands like Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth. They’ve earned the respect of musicians and fans alike through four influential studio albums on which Emperor combined seething and malevolent vocals, progressive orchestral arrangements and haunting keyboards with thrash and death metal hallmarks like double kick drums and heavily distorted guitars. “Emperor’s sound has always been a balance between Ihsahn’s progressive melodic stuff and my in-your-face extreme death metal,” says guitarist Samoth.
The partnership was not without its artistic differences, however, and after releasing 2001’s Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire &Demise, Emperor broke up, citing a divergence in creative directions. They did so without a farewell tour, a move that disappointed their fan base. In 2005, however, after fielding many requests for a reunion, Emperor “decided to go out and do those final shows that we didn’t get to do when the band split up,” says Samoth. After sorting out the visa issues that prevented Samoth from playing last year’s U.S. shows, Emperor—rounded out by drummer Trym and touring keyboardist Einar Solberg and bassist Secthdamon—have returned to the States, performing with the passion, determination and brutal guitar assault that propelled the band during its heyday.
To understand Emperor and the sound they created, you have to go back to the Eighties and to three bands whose records set the stage for the extreme sound and attitude that would resurface a decade later in Norway’s black metal scene.
With 1982’s Black Metal, England’s Venom not only effectively named the genre but also established a few of its key tenets: diabolic themes, unvarnished production and violent, theatrical imagery. Two years later, a pair of European acts—Switzerland’s Celtic Frost and Sweden’s Bathory—pushed the emerging genre even further. Bathory’s self-titled debut featured explicit satanic lyrics, low-fi production, eerie ambience and vitriolic vocals, while Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales fused brutal thrash with progressive sound experiments. When the second wave of black metal hit the Nordic shores in the late Eighties/early Nineties, Emperor, along with bands like Mayhem, Immortal and Darkthrone, took black metal’s extreme sound, morbid visual aesthetic and anti-Christian, antisocial ideology to new levels.
But it wasn’t just the music that changed. The church burnings and murders of 1992 signaled that the violent themes of the genre’s music were being embraced as reality by younger musicians influenced by black metal’s first wave. The repercussions of their actions catapulted the Norwegian underground black metal scene into the international spotlight and solidified its mythic reputation.
The episodes began in 1991 with the suicide of Mayhem vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin, more commonly known as Dead. The singer killed himself with a shotgun blast that blew off half his head. Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, Dead’s roommate, discovered the body, but before phoning the police, he went out to buy a camera so he could document the suicide. Returning to the scene, Euronymous snapped off a few pictures—one of which appeared as the cover of Mayhem’s Dawn of the Black Hearts bootleg—and collected a few bits of Dead’s skull, which the guitarist made into necklaces.
Shortly after Dead’s suicide, Euronymous opened an underground metal record shop in Oslo called Helvete (Norwegian for “hell”). The shop quickly became a focal point for the Norwegian black metal scene, and the young crowd that congregated there—the so-called “Black Circle”—was a veritable who’s who of the black metal elite, including members of Emperor, Burzum, Immortal, Enslaved and Darkthrone. With Helvete as a base of sorts for the scene, many musical ideas were shared among the crew. “Euronymous’ shop was a gathering point for everyone. I actually wrote the main verse of ‘Inno a Satana’ in the basement,” says Ihsahn, of the song that appears on Emperor’s 1994 debut, In the Nightside Eclipse.
Helvete would also serve as a breeding ground for criminal activities. Though Norwegian black metal was fertile, destruction and violence were rampant throughout the scene. From 1991 to ’93, church burnings and murders became Norwegian black metal’s calling card. By the end of that period, Emperor drummer Bård “Faust” Eithun was in prison for killing a stranger in Lillehammer, Samoth was convicted of burning churches, and Burzum’s Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes had stabbed to death his onetime friend Euronymous.
For many bands in the scene, balance between artistic expression and extremist outbursts proved difficult to achieve. Even today, the violence and imagery of the Norwegian scene has often obscured the merits of its musicians. It’s a situation Ihsahn ardently wants to remedy. “For so long, the quality of this music has been overshadowed by the reputation of some of its members,” he says. “I get frustrated when people just see me as a character and not a serious musician. Back in Norway, there were times when kids used to hitchhike from all over—Italy, wherever. They would show up at our houses uninvited and be really upset that we lived in regular houses and didn’t sleep in coffins.” Hoping to bring legitimacy to the music, Ihsahn, who’s also a seasoned guitar teacher, recently released Scattered Ashes: A Decade of Emperial Wrath, a tablature book that contains his transcriptions of 13 classic Emperor tracks.
Guitar World caught up with Emperor’s guitarists when they came to New York to play one of only three U.S. shows. In the surprisingly civil and articulate conversation that followed, Ihsahn and Samoth set the record straight on the myths, facts and musicianship of the black metal legends Emperor.
GUITAR WORLD What inspired each of you to play guitar?
IHSAHN I took piano lessons when I was seven. I got my first guitar when I was 10 or 11. That just pushed piano playing right out the window. [laughs]
SAMOTH I started as a bass player. My dad is a blues bass player, and he inspired me to pick up the bass. I ended up in a bunch of metal cover bands playing all the classic tunes of bands like AC/DC, Deep Purple and Sabbath. Then I started getting into extreme types of music, like the thrash metal of Metallica, Testament and Exodus. At some point, I really wanted to start a death metal band, but no one could play death metal guitar in my small town. That’s when I picked up a guitar and said, “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”
GW Did you take lessons when you switched to guitar?
SAMOTH I had no formal training. And actually, I didn’t even work on technique very much, either. [laughs] Thinking back, I wish I’d done more of that stuff. At the time I was more into the feel of music, like Sepultura’s groove on Schizophrenia or Bathory’s aggressiveness. I practiced a lot of palm muting and chugging. I wanted to be more extreme than your average thrash metal band, so I just tried to make my riffs as fast and brutal as possible.
IHSAHN I’m more or less self-taught. There was this blues guitarist who gave me, like, five lessons of blues riffs, but it wasn’t too helpful. [laughs] I would play this Fender Strat copy my father bought me by running it through the electric organ we had at home. Eventually I got a 30-watt Peavey. I also had a Fostex fourtrack recorder. I discovered that if I turned the tempo way up on the organ’s “disco drum” setting, it became almost like a Slayer beat. [laughs] I would record demos using that. At the time, of course, there was no internet and it was much harder to find tablature, so I had to figure things out on my own. But picking out riffs from albums and learning them was really good ear training. I eventually got the tab book for Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. I would play that album for hours every day after school.
GW How did you two first meet?
IHSAHN The town I’m from, Nottetdon, is about 20 minutes away from Akkerhaugen, the small community where Samoth comes from. Nottetdon has Northern Europe’s biggest blues festival and they had youth seminars where young people would come together and learn to play in groups. Samoth was older than me and he was already in a band. I was only 13 at the time, but I had this jacket with all these Iron Maiden patches on it. I guess his band said, Okay, this guy’s into the same things as we are. Let’s invite him to play.
SAMOTH So we started playing together in different constellations, the most well known being the technical death metal band Thou Shalt Suffer. This was around 1990.
GW That’s right around when you formed Emperor.
SAMOTH Yeah, we actually started Emperor as a side project from Thou Shalt Suffer, because we were getting very much into black metal at the time—stuff like old Bathory and Celtic Frost. I was also getting to know the guys from Mayhem. Something was happening in the Norwegian scene at that time; more and more people were getting into the extreme underground. That was the very beginning of the Norwegian black metal scene.
GW Was it difficult growing up as metalheads in such small towns?
IHSAHN There weren’t too many of us, and we definitely got a lot of shit for being metalheads, especially when the other things started happening. Although that’s one good thing about growing up in a small town: it’s very easy to stand out. [laughs] A small, conservative community is the perfect thing to be in opposition to. We sure got a lot of inspiration from it.
SAMOTH Growing up in my tiny little village of Akkerhaugen wasn’t really that difficult. Of course, there weren’t very many metal heads for me to play with, and as I grew into more extreme forms of death and black metal, I became an outcast even among the average metalheads listening to AC/DC.
GW Did you find inspiration in the isolated, rural landscape?
SAMOTH Growing up in such a remote area surrounded by such great nature has inspired me in many ways. I was really taken by the visual aspect of living in such a place. I had a lot of solitary experiences, especially in my black metal years, where I was very focused on desolation and being along in nature. Those experiences definitely inspired me musically and conceptually with Emperor. One of our goals was to create an epic, bombastic feel with our music. If you see the Norwegian scenery, it’s very easy to understand the connection between the feeling of Emperor’s music and the natural landscape.
IHSAHN I grew up on a farm, and I had to take the bus to get anywhere. The only time I saw kids was at school, so I didn’t get to hang out and form those typical social bonds. I think that left me kinda naïve socially. I guess maybe I’m also a bit naïve by nature. When you’re like that, you trust people too easily, until, all of a sudden, you realize things aren’t as they seem and you get disappointed. Every teenager has a lot of insecurities and frustration, but when I did the metal thing, I became even more of an outsider. And after that became my label, I just embraced it and used it to increase the difference between myself and others. As a result, my clothes and expressions became more and more extreme.
GW So you turned the thing that made you an outcast into your source of power.
ISHAHN Definitely. And I think many metalheads can relate to that. But I even saw things differently than most black metal people. Many people think about metal as a unifying thing. I feel like the outsider/individualist ideology of black metal is inherently at odds with collective thinking. So even within the small black metal community, I’ve always been on the outskirts. [laughs]
GW Do you feel that the grimness and extremity of the black metal genre could only be born in such a realm as the Nordic countries?
IHSAHN The source of it is hard to pinpoint. However, I think to some extent all artists reflect their environment; I see it as a kind of emotional or spiritual “digestion,” if you will. So for Emperor, our sound and imagery couldn’t have been the same if we lived somewhere else, even if our intentions, preferences and attitude were the same. I definitely think the Norwegian environment, both culturally and geographically, influenced the Norwegian black metal sound.
But I also can’t complain about where I came from. For years, Norway’s been voted by the U.N. as one of the richest and best countries in the world. It’s always been kind of a paradox having the Norwegian black metal scene bitching about everything. [laughs]
GW Samoth, you played drums on Emperor’s demo, Wrath of the Tyrant. What inspired you to swap your guitar for a drum kit?
SAMOTH When Emperor first started, there was nobody into the whole black metal scene who wanted to join us on drums. I had always been playing drums during rehearsal breaks, just for fun. I wasn’t a proper drummer, but I knew the basic beats. It was okay, because the intention with Wrath of the Tyrant was to go fucking primitive with some back-to-basics black metal.
IHSAHN Yeah, compared to the epic death metal of Thou Shalt Suffer, Emperor were really a back-to-basics group, like Celtic Frost, Hellhammer and Bathory. Wrath of the Tyrant was recorded on a four-track in a rehearsal room, but that’s what got us signed to Candlelight. I was only 16 at the time.
GW Samoth, you moved to rhythm guitars when Faust joined after Wrath. How did you hook up with him?
SAMOTH He was in the scene. He had a distribution service in Norway and I traded tapes with him. We gave him a copy of the demo and asked him to try out. He came up and played the whole thing perfectly. Faust’s drumming is amazing, and he really lifted the band up.
GWIn the Nightside Eclipse is widely considered to be the quintessential Norwegian black metal album. When you were writing and recording it, did you know you were creating something special?
IHSAHN The energy of our first album is that of youth and courage, the one-sided kind of energy where you don’t question anything that you do; you just give 110 percent and go straight ahead. I think that’s why that album still sells, because young people can still relate to that kind of focused energy. Only when you get older do you start questioning stuff.
SAMOTH We knew we had strong material. But we weren’t aware that we were making a groundbreaking album that would be seen as a classic. We were quite young at the time—I was 18, and Ihsahn was 17—but we were very enthusiastic and diehard about our music. There was no other way. Emperor was our life. We gave our heart and soul for this band.
GW During this time you were hanging around Euronymous’ record shop, Helvete, in Oslo. What comes to mind when you think about those days?
SAMOTH I have great memories from that time. But you have to keep in mind that we were just teenagers, and as teenagers you think you can conquer anything, that you’re on top of the world and the future doesn’t mean anything. You just live in the moment. That’s how we existed. At first we were so consumed by the music; we put so much energy into being artists. But eventually all the darkness consumed the scene, and it became very destructive.
IHSAHN Samoth stayed there for long periods of time. I was not there as much or involved in it as much. But we would all go to different shows together and attend gatherings at Helvete.
GW By many accounts Euronymous was a very influential figure in the Norwegian black metal movement. Did he directly affect your work on Nightside?
SAMOTH We weren’t inspired by any one person but rather by the general vibe of that little scene. If you look at the bands from that time—Thorn, Mayhem, Immortal, Burzum, Emperor, Enslaved and Darkthrone—none of them sound the same, even though we all had the same inspiration and liked the same bands. If you compare that to the current scene, today’s black metal seems so watered down and without personality. That is very different from the Norwegian scene. Back then, all the bands had individual personalities and stood out on their own.
GWNightside was recorded in Bergen’s Grieghallen concert hall. Do you remember anything in particular about the recording?
IHSAHN I remember mixing some of the songs and feeling frustrated. Back then it was all analog, no automation. We weren’t very good musicians yet, and there was a lot happening on that record: different guitars, keyboards, extra vocals. It was really hard stuff to mix right.
GW What were your setups at the time?
IHSAHN I was playing a black ESP six-string. It was fairly nice. We used transistor Peavey amps, because they have that really harsh black metal sound. I think I went straight into the amps, no effects. It was a simple setup. I also used Roland keyboards.
SAMOTH I was using a Kramer, the Peavey Bandit 112 and a Boss OS-2 Overdrive/Distortion pedal. It was a very primitive setup and there wasn’t much power, but those Peaveys had lots of distortion. Ihsahn had the higher-pitched buzz-saw sound, and I had the bottom-end buzz-saw sound. [laughs] To give the riffs a floating feel, we used a lot of reverb and delay. Actually, you could say we overdid it a little. I think the production is really good, but at the same time it’s very hard to decipher certain things because there’s so much “float” in everything.
GW You mentioned keyboards, which are definitely a distinguishing element on Nightside. How were they accepted by the extreme metal community at the time?
IHSAHN I think many people were skeptical, because no one at the time used keyboards. I think we can safely claim to have brought the symphonic approach to black metal.
SAMOTH I’ve always thought the response to it was really great, because it was something new for this type of black metal music. We didn’t want to play just rock and roll; we wanted to have more symphonic parts. We wanted to create something epic, huge and mighty.
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.
GW Samoth, after you and [Bård] Faust were arrested, was there ever a point when you thought Emperor were finished?
SAMOTH There was never a time when we considered giving up. Obviously there was a lot of hard times and turmoil after what happened in the fall of ’93. It was a very difficult time for Emperor because we lost our drummer, and I was taken into custody. Yeah, there was a lot of bullshit going on.
Because of all that shit, there was a big delay in Nightside’s release. It was recorded in the fall ’93, but it didn’t come out until early ’94. But in retrospect, I think we actually benefited from that. “Inno a Satana” and “I Am the Black Wizards” were going around the tape-trading scene and really helped build everything to a climax. By the time Nightside was released, there was so much hype surrounding Emperor. Everybody wanted that fucking album.
IHSAHN We never even considered quitting. Samoth and I have played together since we were so young. We were always the main force and core of Emperor. To keep the band going, Samoth and I just figured out how to send each other riffs by tapes.
GW So for your second album, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, you two traded riffs by tape while Samoth was in jail? How did that work?
SAMOTH I was using an electric guitar and a four-track that I could record ideas and basic stuff with. Ihsahn would send me tapes and also tablature. I remember getting the tablature for “Thus Spake the Nightspirit” and learning it.
I spent about one and a half years in jail. It wasn’t all that bad. When I was granted a leave of absence, we would go in the rehearsal room and nail down songs. It was during that time that we tried out some really good drummers. We tried out Hellhammer [of Mayhem] and Eric from Immortal, but it didn’t work out. Then Trym from Enslaved tried out for us, and he worked out really well.
IHSAHN Because Samoth and I had been working on music the whole time he was away, we were already quite far along in terms of writing Anthems. So when he got out, we basically went straight back to Grieghallen to record.
GW The production on Anthems is much bigger than on Nightside. What were your goals when you entered Grieghallen for the second time?
IHSAHN By the time we did Anthems we were very conscious of what we were about, in terms of sound. I think what really helped Anthems sound bigger was the addition of an orchestral brass section.
SAMOTH We also wanted to add more Morbid Angel–like brutality to our sound. They’ve always inspired us, and you can hear their influence on certain songs on Anthems. We were also after the whole live vibe. So we toned down the delay and reverb and “floaty” stuff and made the guitars heavier, clearer and more in your face.
GW The songs were also faster and more technical on Anthems. Did you practice certain techniques to get your chops up?
IHSAHN No, I never really did that. My training came from playing. I wanted to be a very good guitar player when I first started out, but after awhile I realized that I couldn’t just sit around and do arpeggios and sweeps and all that. Making music was what I had passion for. There are so many great guitarists out there who unfortunately just end up in their room being great guitar players. My focus is the songwriting and doing stuff in the studio. As for whatever chops I have, they just came along naturally.
SAMOTH I didn’t practice to get faster, but some of Anthems is way more technical, so I had to rehearse the riffing to get it perfect. If you compare it to the material on Nightside, where the rhythm guitar is very basic, Anthems is much more intricate and less atmospheric. Just look at the riff changes and highly technical stuff on a song like “Thus Spake the Nightspirit.”
GW Your next album, 1999’s IX Equilibrium, has a much more progressive death metal sound to it. What was different about your approach to writing and recording it?
SAMOTH At that point, we had some Marshall stacks, and we used DigiTech distortion modules. As far as guitars, I was playing a Jackson U.S. Custom Randy Rhoads, which I still own to this day.
IHSAHN Yeah, I had a really nice Jackson, too. Also, we recorded Anthems in a different studio [Akkerhaugen Lydstudio] and did a bunch of double tracking. I think by the time we did Equilibrium we had done much more touring. So when we started writing for Equilibrium, we were influenced by the catchier riffs that we knew would work well live. That’s why Equilibrium is more massive, upfront and death metal sounding.
GW Ihsahn, on IX Equilibrium your vocals take on a King Diamond–esque quality. Had you been taking voice lessons?
IHSAHN Doing all the harmonies for “With Strength I Burn” [from Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk] made me realize I needed to get some training. So I started taking classical singing lessons to work on my technique. But even though my vocals sort of sound like King Diamond—and I’m a huge fan of his high-pitched vocal stuff—what I really tried to do was the rougher Rob Halford thing. But I can’t do it, so it ends up sounding way smoother like King Diamond anyway. [laughs]
GW Samoth, you and Trym started Zyklon around this time. Were you frustrated with the direction in which Emperor were heading?
SAMOTH The balance between Ihsahn’s progressive stuff and my death metal was exactly the balance that made Emperor what it was… and is. But it became more and more extreme. He became more progressive and I became more focused on raw, pure extreme metal. We just kept moving in different directions. Around IX Equilibrium and the preproduction stages of Prometheus, it became clear that we wanted different things. It was around that time when Trym and I formed Zyklon. We spent more time constructing what would become the first Zyklon album [World Ov Worms] rather than working on the final Emperor album. So it was clear from the start that Prometheus would be Emperor’s swansong. None of us wanted to compromise, so basically it was time to end it. Emperor had always been uncompromising, and we didn’t want to change that.
IHSAHN It was never our intention that I would write all of Prometheus, but I said to the guys, “If we’re doing this, I want to do it in my studio and do it properly.” It just turned out that I did it all. At that time I was handling most of all of Emperor’s business anyhow.
GW Songs like “The Eruption” reached new levels of complexity for Emperor. Ihsahn, what inspired the direction you took with your writing?
IHSAHN At the time of Prometheus I was trying to implement more fugues and classical theory into Emperor’s music. In physical volume, extreme metal is very much a straight line but not very dynamic. So I tried to use the orchestration and arrangements to give the feeling of dynamics.
GW Samoth, you’re credited with “additional guitars.” What does that mean exactly?
SAMOTH Ihsahn did the main parts of the album. I recorded my guitar parts, but this was right before Zyklon went on a full European tour with Morbid Angel. The timing wasn’t so great, and Ihsahn ended up writing the whole album. But I do play on Prometheus.
GW Ihsahn, you picked up a seven-string Ibanez around this time. Did you have to adjust your playing style?
IHSAHN It actually helped me a lot. Since I never had any real tutoring, I had a very weak pinkie. But the wide neck of the seven-string forced me to use my pinkie more. Now I have better stretch and control.
GW After Prometheus was released, Emperor called it quits. Why did you decided to reform for a tour in 2005?
SAMOTH I guess we needed to get away from Emperor for a period of time to get back to the right feel again. When we split up in 2001, we never did any live shows. As time went along, the name Emperor actually became bigger and stronger than it was before we split up. More fans were getting into our music and there was such a great demand for Emperor to go back out and do some shows. There were lots of offers, but we waited until it felt right. So we got together, played some classic tracks, like “I Am the Black Wizards,” and said, “Fuck it. Let’s do it!”
GW You’re performing only in New York, Chicago and L.A. and at a couple of European festivals. Why are you playing so few shows?
SAMOTH Actually, we planned the whole reunion as a more exclusive thing. We want to keep it special. In fact, we only came back to the States again this year because I had a delay in getting my visa last year and wasn’t able to get in to play those shows.
IHSAHN Plus we never wanted to fully reawaken Emperor. We wanted to work at a level and speed that everyone was comfortable with.
GW What are your live setups for these reunion shows?
IHSAHN I brought my Ibanez RG320Q, which is a very nice quilted maple top guitar I got from Ibanez last year. When I came through Chicago, Ibanez had a Special Edition RG220 from NAMM. The finish is this really nice chocolate color and so thin that you feel the wood the whole way through. We’ve been using the Engl Powerball E 645 amps. I like the Powerballs because they’re versatile and don’t have the typical Marshall scoop in the middle. I match that with a vintage cabinet filled with Celestion Vintage 30s speakers. Emperor’s sound is so straightforward that I just have a tuner, and that’s mostly there to extend the cord. [laughs] The Ibanez into the Powerball just sounds so nice.
SAMOTH I’ve been working exclusively with ESP guitars. For the tour I used the ESP Eclipse and a couple ESP LTDs: the EX 400BD and a V500. I really like the sound of the Eclipse’s EMG pickups. They’re powerful and have a lot of sustain and boost. I also like the guitar’s thin neck. I use D’Addario or GHS Boomers .010-.046 strings. I don’t use any effects for the Emperor tour. The Engl Powerball amp has so much power and boost that you don’t need any pedals at all. It’s just plug and play.
GW Are there any plans for a new Emperor album?
SAMOTH That’s the big question, isn’t it. [laughs] But no, there are no plans to write anything new. People are going to have to enjoy what Emperor have done and look forward to more Ihsahn and Zyklon albums.
IHSAHN It’s strange that people are so eager for a new album, because when Equilibrium and Prometheus were released, many people were like, “They’re good, but they’re not Nightside and Anthems.” So based on that, if we would do a new Emperor album I don’t think anyone would be pleased with it, no matter how good it would be. [laughs]
GW It would be like competing with yourself.
IHSAHN That was always an obstacle for me, feeling that I had to compete with my own past. And around the time of Prometheus, Emperor were getting a lot of attention and getting bigger, but it started to feel like it was becoming something I couldn’t control, something that people were trying to take away from me. So I guess Prometheus became a very introverted album. Where the previous albums would build up and finally open up, Prometheus builds up and then dives into something dissonant and ugly. When it came out, people said it was really hard to get into. I didn’t understand it back then, but listening back to it now I can. It’s not a very sharing album. [laughs]
GW You’re respected by artists and fans alike. What do you want Emperor’s legacy to be?
IHSAHN Respected? So I hear. [laughs] I don’t read a lot of metal magazines. And I’m always really surprised when people have actually heard of us or when I see all the dedicated fans that still come out to see us. People flew in to see these shows from Australia, Japan… everywhere. I just hope Emperor can be remembered as a noncompromising band.
SAMOTH Yes. I want Emperor to be remembered as a band that stood out and did its own thing. It’s amazing to me that we managed to make albums—like Nightside or Anthems—that to this day people consider classics in the same context as Metallica and Slayer’s records. I’m very proud that we made albums you don’t just put on the shelf and forget. Emperor’s made albums that people will constantly bring back and listen to. For me that is a great personal accomplishment.