Latest Release: Ámr (Candlelight)

Ihsahn has a black metal legacy from being the key member of Emperor that sets a benchmark for his solo studio material. Being true to his own musical vision has allowed him to surpass those pressures and in doing so he has explored various musical boundaries within extreme metal on his own terms. Now, with his seventh album titled Ámr about to be released, Ihsahn is coincidentally touring Australia for the first time. Gearing up for the tour, Loud Online seized the rare opportunity to discuss music with the intelligent, focused and understandably busy Ihsahn about his creative processes.

How is the world?

Well that depends – that is a big question but from where I am sitting right now it is looking pretty good.

We’ve just had some hot weather so by the time you get down to us it might be cooler.

I can appreciate a little heat but not too much. When it is cold you can always make a fire or put on more clothes but with heat, unless you’re inside with air conditioning, there is nothing much you can do really.

Therein lies the funny thing about black metal being associated with frosts and extreme cold. Yet there is the fiery depths of Hell heat aspect. I’d say being in the heat with face paint wouldn’t be much fun.

Yeah, I know but luckily it has been over two decades at least since I did any face paint.

The latest album, Ámr, is really quite impressive and has a lot of complexity to it. Is this another album where you do virtually all of the composing, performing, recording and producing? That’s a lot of work.

Pretty much, yeah. It is a lot of work but it is kind of what I like to do and of course, I have some very talented collaborators that I get to work with along the way. Working with someone like Tobias [Tobias Ørnes Andersen] for drums is a huge privilege and kind of relying on a collaboration with Linus [Corneliusson – mixing] and Jens [Bogren – mastering] at Fascination Street Studios in Sweden for the final mix and mastering. But beyond that it is just kind of putting it in there, really.

Drumming wise, looking at a previous album such as Eremita, I believe that you gave your drummer the drum parts in piano form. So, did you have a similar approach now?

I did, whereas for this album it is much more pre-produced so I recorded so much more of the instrumental parts before he tracked the drums this time. I think that especially with the extensive use of analogue synthesisers on this album, it kind of dictates more of the sound. I had a much more specific drum sound in mind for this album and it was very important to have those elements with us when we were recording the drums to match the drum sounds with some of the sounds that were going on the album.

Am I right to assume that analogue synth a prevalent feature in the album’s final song, ‘Wake’?

Yeah, it is in ‘Wake’ and it has kind of been an overall for this album to challenge myself to use more analogue based synthesisers where I normally would go for orchestral sounds. Of course, the working method is similar but still, it creates a whole different sort of sonic environment. I like big sounding music but where there are orchestral sounds, they give a very big and wide sense and it is often from the high end of the orchestra as well as from the low end brass. So that is big in that sense but with analogue synthesisers, the bigness comes from the sub-frequencies, in a way.

Did you get into any really old equipment such as the Fairlight CMI, pre Cubase sequencer gear?

I wouldn’t go that far. Most of the synths that I have are MIDI compatible but not all of them have presets so it is almost like tweaking an amplifier. It is like when you set the sound and have to record it and go from there so you record stuff live even though you could, of course, alternate things with MIDI and everything but it is much more fun in the process to be tweaking filters and envelopes while you are recording. It is kind of a tactile approach meaning very hands on with a physical approach.

Does your live keyboard player [Nicolai Tangen Svennæs] then receive a selection of pre-recorded sounds or samples to use live?

No, not at all. I mean, I am privileged to work with some talented keyboard players as well so I give them all the score and everything or the parts that I want them to play but live and studio are rather two different things. In a live set you have to have all arrangements and songs work with a nuance so I kind of very much leave it up to them to find similar sounds or sounds that work well in that capacity. Then again, for live stuff, since we have only two guitar players [Ihsahn and Robin Ognedal], I will sometimes even pitch a third guitar voice to the keyboard player and have him play it with a Hammond organ or something. So I try to, where needed, to rewrite and re-arrange stuff for the four piece that I perform with.

Keyboards are a big feature in black metal, especially for atmospherics. How would you say the use of that sound has evolved within your solo material?

Well, I guess, it was these early soundtrack influences that led to me doing more of not orchestral mock-ups but orchestral sounds that we would add on top of everything. There was not much to finesse to it really, in the beginning but obviously we didn’t have too much to work on. The entire orchestral sound of the early Emperor records were in essence the Roland JV-1080 with an orchestral card whereas these days you have so much more colours to that palette. The orchestral sample libraries that you can get these days sound amazing and especially within the context of putting it on top of an extreme metal musical expression. There is just so much more you can do but what can I say except that with each album I try to change things and given myself some new challenges of how I approach it. At the heart of it there will always be distorted guitars and screaming vocals because in a way that is how I most naturally express myself and beyond that I like to try anything to see how I will sound in that soundscape. That has been my approach since the early days to keep that momentum of excitement and enthusiasm by creating and producing. I guess that is the very selfish reason why I end up doing these sonic concepts almost, for my albums because that gets me into that mode. I like to think that if I don’t have that excitement creating it then I cannot expect anyone to be excited about listening to it afterwards either.

Your Emperor material had interesting guitar rhythms from yourself and Samoth. Where did that fast tremolo picking style come from initially?

I guess it is just a natural evolution from heavy metal to thrash and speed metal which then eventually got into grindcore and death metal. It is just adding more speed and more aggression to it over the years. So, what I have found when I’ve been tutoring people who not as familiar with black metal but are trying to play these riffs, if you read up on some kind of tablature it looks very static. I think that people have been very surprised when they see how some of the very fast old Emperor songs were actually played. It is much more of almost like an acoustic strumming feel rather than hitting all of the notes. There are a lot of open chords where the strings would ring out and everything plus I would always accentuate the ones [opening note of each bar] by bigger strokes then let them ring out while I kept the subdivisions on the lower notes. It is not a static hitting of all of the notes of the chords all the time. It is especially like that at those most extreme speeds as with distortion you have to accentuate the underlying pulse otherwise you cannot really follow the beats. If you think of it at four hundred or five hundred beats per minute, you have to accentuate those underlying beats and we have done that all along. It might not be very obvious in with the guitars but I think that when you record it in a much more static way where you alternate pick all the chords and strings, it would be a very different expression.

Your guitar sound has a warmer tube guitar sound instead of the black metal trend of a very high gain sounding guitar. That in itself brings out more tone in your sound and probably differentiates you from other artists in extreme metal.

Yeah, I guess. If you think of the early Emperor records as a comparison, obviously we had to record with the gear we had. So, think that both In the Nightside Eclipse and Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk were recorded with Peavey transistor amplifiers. Obviously, we later ventured into using tube amplifiers but also with age, I find that I turn down the gain more and more for each album. It is just that if you have too much gain then you have to even out everything and it gets static. You get so much more attitude and the nuances of the playing from the riffs. The string attack and all that but again, it is all a matter of taste and playing style. There are a lot of amazing guitar players who play with an insane amount of gain but still get that across.

Is it a similar experience regarding tone on talking guitars with Fredrik Åkesson from Opeth? He is of relevance since he plays a guest solo on the song ‘Arcana Imperii’.

Yeah definitely and I think that he is even much more of a purist than I am because when he was about to record the solo for ‘Arcana Imperii’, he sent me a picture of a vintage Gibson SG guitar and an old Marshall amplifier that he was recording it with so he is still very much into all the vintage gear and is old school like that. I also love that gear but I think that because I don’t really identify myself as a guitar player since I put on so many [musical] hats in writing and producing music. So I have much more of an overall overview and there is a huge part of practicality to what I do, as well which has led me to playing Aristides instruments now and the guitars do not have a shred of wood in them. They are entirely made of composite material which make them sound – they are amazing. There are no dead spots or any individual quirkiness that, you know, you cannot use this guitar for that part because it is out of tune or it doesn’t really resonate on the F sharp on the G string. It is nothing like that so when writing and recording, you just need stuff that works all the time. Also, with touring, bringing these guitars on the roads, taking them out of the case after going to Japan, they are still in tune and that is the kind of thing that really matters to me, that things just play extremely well, that will not twist or you know, that action will not change with temperature or anything like that. So, for all practical purposes I have a collection of tube amplifiers in the studio or some place in storage in another studio. But, I also use very much a Kemper [digital amplifier and effects processor] for getting those kinds of sound while writing because it is so easy to put those DI tracks in there anyway and then re-amp stuff later.

It doesn’t really make much sense to take a super valuable Gibson Les Paul on the road these days.

It doesn’t and also with using amplifiers versus emulated gear which now has come to a level which is really up there with traditional amplifiers. I just discussed this with a friend of mine the other day. If you’re Joe Bonamassa and you have a full crew who can set up your vintage amplifiers and guitars every day on the road and have some semi-trailers to move all of that gear around, perhaps he will sound better and especially for that type of music. But, if you have a thirty minute change-over at a festival and if you’re miking up an amplifier with a Shure SM-57 in that environment then I would argue that even in perfect conditions in the studio then you might find the real amplifier favourable but I would bet that in ninety nine out of a hundred times, a Kemper or a finely tuned Axe-Fx [preamp and effects processor] or something at an outdoor festival will still sound better than throwing in some rental amplifier head or something that you pick along the way.

The album’s solos have great tones, particularly on the harmonised solo on ‘One Less Enemy’.

Oh thank you, I cannot remember what I used, it is all a blur but I did only use Aristides instruments for the guitars. I never even touched any of my other guitars for this album.

Given you’re touring Australia for the first time, what can we expect to hear in the set list?

It is not entirely settled yet but obviously since I’ve never been to Australia before I would like to – it is kind of divided because I will actually release this latest album on the first date that I play in Australia. So there is kind of a release party vibe going there already. So I would like to implement a many new songs as possible in that setting. But also since I haven’t played there at all, I would like to create some set lists that draw from my whole catalogue and from my whole career, I guess. It has ended up that at least I have a plan and everything with the band that we will probably do different set lists. I will be playing two shows in Melbourne for example so it makes sense to not stick with just one set and you know, rather change things about.

Looking at black metal over the years, what are your thoughts on the bands that came after Emperor. Did some get too immersed in image?

I think that is very individual. Some bands might have been created on the basis of what is should be other bands might have just been inspired by that sound and that expression so they kind of made their own version of it. I think that you see both but of course you see a lot of the preconceived idea of probably more about what black metal should not be rather than what it is which is kind of a paradox. To put it like this, who would, as a black metal fan, would you like a black metal album made on the premise that the band was super concerned about everybody else telling them what to do with their music? Ha ha, you know, that is a pretty weak kind of message to put across.

That is the classic irony of something with its own direction getting popular and becoming contrived, following guidance of tribe requirements.

Yeah, it is to put rules to this kind of expression but it is like that in any music genre with the purist idea. If that is your cup of tea, you know, by all means. I don’t really get involved with any of that because my only concern is trying to…I have enough to deal with in being my own critic. So, it would just be a mess if I had everyone else blending in as well and I stay out of everybody else’s business. Ha ha.