Norwegian artists Ihsahn is mostly associated with black metal legend Emperor. However Vegard Sverre Tveitan, which is his real name, is concentrating for more than a decade on his very busy solo career. He manages to stay close to his dark roots but with restless bravery he expands genre and sound pallet. His experiments with electronics and diverse instruments might be considered controversial, but that’s to certain extend essence of avant-garde metal. In our extensive interview we concentrated on new album Ámr, Ihsahn’s guitars collection, songwriting approach, private life and his love for Iron Maiden.
Photos credit: Bjørn Tore Moen
Interview came out as a front cover article in June 2018 issue of Czech magazine Muzikus.
Thank you for finding time after the walk with your dogs. How many do you have?
We have three dogs. One Boxer and two Rhodesian Ridgebacks. I had dogs for most of my life as I grew up on the farm with dogs and animals. My wife’s family always had dogs too.
I can imagine it affects your daily schedule. Do you let say have to wake up early?
Not really, as we have our established routines. They need a lot of exercise every day. So we take turns and have rather strict plan with them. It works really well.
In our earlier interviews we always spoke about going into the nature for both physical and mental health. Do you prefer going with the dogs or alone?
Our lives reached a point, where it seems pointless not to bring dogs along. (Laugh) If we are out in the nature, they are always with us.
I would like to congratulate you for another amazing album Ámr. It’s remarkable how fast you are able to release new quality music. It feels as if we spoke about Arktis just few months ago. Give us an idea about the last year?
That’s very kind of you. Thank you. I am just doing my best. (Laugh) New album has been finished for some time. I think I had master finished by January 3rd. I believe that’s going to be my routine to release an album every two years. Compared to other bands, I hadn’t been touring as intensively. Therefore others have longer breaks between albums.
If I can take your latest three albums Das Seelenbrechen, Arktis and Ámr I have a feeling the latest two are very close in their nature. Das Seelenbrechen still stays as my absolute favorite in your discography, even though you often consider it unusual experiment. How would you compare these releases?
Well, as you say, Das Seelenbrechen was deliberate side channel, having done a lot of structured music over the years. At that point, working on a fifth album, I felt I needed to reset the parameters and give myself new proper challenge. I wanted to give up the control and that was the result. As a contrast to that I wanted to do almost the opposite with Arktis as I am sure, we spoke about that. I wanted to keep the form rigid in the pop rock song structure. I challenged myself to fill those thirty five minutes with music formula that I grew up on with Iron Maiden, Judas Priest or Kiss. 95% of that music can be classified as having that traditional formula. With Arktis that was the main goal. Ámr is, as you say, sort of a cousin to that in that respect. I still kept loyal to that formula. Obviously I want to write an album where the release is compact and all the songs are in some way connected together. But within that original frame work that I imagined this album to be, I wanted to stretch the parameters of how I can express myself towards that common ground. At the same time, I wanted to create individual songs that stand out with recognizable motive or phrase based on different instruments and atmosphere.
I absolutely agree that the spectrum is quite wide and I feel taste for very melodic and accessible melodies as well as being very dark. If we can start with your melodic aspect, what are your lifetimes loves within intelligent pop?
From the early days Norwegian band A-ha was a big influence. They knew how to write beautiful melodies but they were also quite bombastic and dramatic at times, which appealed to me. I think there are even some hints of that even on Emperor’s album Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk from 1997. However major part of my inspirations came from rock icons as Iron Maiden, where I loved their beautiful melodies.
Have you experienced any negative reactions during the past couple of years on your experiments with accessible melodies? I personally actually seek side projects of established authors where they give absolute freedom to their creativity, no matter which direction it goes. That’s why I always use an example of the American band The Black Queen, which is a new synth pop project of The Dillinger Escape Plan singer Greg Puciato a Joshua Eustis known from Telefon Tel Aviv and cooperation with Nine Inch Nails and Maynard James Keenan.
I’ve given up and actually never really tried to satisfy my listeners. There are number of reasons. Listeners need a lot of time to develop a relationship with the songs, while the artist is getting bored of the songs. (Laugh) I am fully aware, my existence depends on my fans and I honor the fact, people go buy the albums and hear the songs on the shows. However, I believe people within this underground music scene appreciate honesty and integrity. They are not drawn to polished products, which aim to fit into certain category on the market or to be more accessible. Of course it is very selfish, to not care and do whatever the hell I want but then again that’s the most decent thing to deliver to this audience. When I am meeting people who have relationship to this music, there is a kind of trust there. I have been doing this for such a long time now and it’s quite obvious I haven’t really stuck to a single expression. So I think people expect me to do different things. Maybe one album is not their cup of tea but maybe they trust the next one might as well be. Whenever I speak about this, I love to use an example of OK Computer album from Radiohead. They had immense success, still it is one of the most prestigious indie rock albums today. And their response to that success was to make an electronic album. They changed everything but at the end of the process, even though it’s an electronic album, it still sounds undeniably like Radiohead. That’s kind of an ideal for me, like David Bowie or Prince. They are so uncompromising. You wouldn’t hear someone else. That’s what I aspire to do as well, not comparing myself to these artists. (Laugh)
Do whatever the hell I want is of course very selfish, but then again that’s the most decent thing I can deliver to the audience
I would now like to move to your darker side, which currently doesn’t have as much space as earlier, but it’s still there. Let say Tacit 2 from Das Seelenbrechen is without a doubt the darkest song I ever heard in my life. You didn’t provide us such an extreme song this time but few tracks are getting close. I believe the latest activities with Emperor kept you close to your roots, but give us an idea, how do you stay connected to the darkest corners of your soul?
At the bottom of everything that is the source I create from. Let say, I realized I wasn’t very precise in press release, where I stated: “I always intend to make the darkest possible album ever”. For people who are not well known with this type of music, they wouldn’t know what I meant. Especially people outside of that most dedicated crowd, might misunderstand my words. I should have rather said: “I always intend to make the most profound album.” It sounds maybe too bombastic but I’ve never drawn to the easy going dancing everyday style of expression. I am drawn to this music because I want to dig into those deep human existential questions. It doesn’t really have to philosophical all the time but light comedies don’t give you thrills. More dramatic or even sad, distressful pieces of art have the most emotional impact. So it’s natural for me to express myself in that way. It’s often associated with being depressive or negative, but for me it’s rather to be connected to those existential basics of being human. Things that are so profound, you can’t really put them into words. I find music such a beautiful thing, as it can communicate those things between humans, when we are missing the right words.
If you don’t mind, I would like to understand this concept, reflected on the new album, even further. I was actually listening to Ámr, mainly when I was going outside of the city and climbing various hills. It was one of the factors to help me organize thoughts in my head within personal goals and finding positives in creative loneliness. What sort of an emotions were you trying to pass onto a listener?
I guess I agree with your thoughts, but in general I am trying to keep an album open for interpretation. Without a doubt, Arktis was the most positive album I ever wrote and with Ámr I am just expanding that spectrum of emotions even further. If we take a track Lend Me The Eyes Of The Millenia I am looking at a current situation from almost a godlike millennial perspective. Let say it often happens that First World War and Second World War are often considered as something abstract. Therefore I enjoy looking at it and be rational about it. This is very hard to explain, but I am fascinated with events and people. Let say if we freeze it in time or extend time and take things out of their natural time, it becomes something else. Does that make sense?
From what you are saying, I mainly feel the clash of generations and values. What used to be crucial from one generation during extreme events, is absolutely different to a consumption society which has their priorities set up differently.
Imagine being in a warzone and seeing your friends slaughtered. Of course it’s a horrible, horrible thing. But if that battle had a huge impact on some painter, he could have done an amazing painting of that particular battle. Suddenly it is the thing of beauty. Or even a crucifixion, which is in itself horrible act of torture but for millions of people it is the most beautiful thing they know. I refer in my lyrics to marble statues. I am sure we all seen these figures in immense despair. But because it is frozen in time and in stone, these emotions become something extremely beautiful. It interests me how different art expressions can turn everything around and channel our emotions through them.
I believe you look for inspiration in literature and movies. Personally, I love war documentaries which are endless source of human behavioral studies. What were your latest sources within extreme life situations?
I don’t know. Bit from here, bit from there. (Laugh) You know, it is hard to say sometimes. Just esthetically Hannibal TV series has been kind of influential. First of all, it’s so artistically made in contemporary crime aspect. Especially in those Stanley Kubrick-like symmetrical scenes. I guess the main character of this series descends himself from humans. He kind of acts out as Lucifer or Übermensch kind of perspective and sees everything like a game. I think it’s very intelligently played and you can feel all of his emotions just watching it. Even though he is the bad guy, you are still supporting him a bit, as this perspective is refreshing. Please don’t quote me on everything, as people might interpret me wrong. (Laugh)
I always intend to make the most profound album
Don’t worry, I will use only few parts and in the worst case, you gave me a great tip. I loved all the movies, so, thank you for a series tip. (Laugh)
(Laugh) If you liked the movies, you will like this too. Mads Mikkelsen absolutely kills it. I love the fact it’s brutal, but the violence is not really a part of it. You only see the result and it’s always a piece of art.
Are you watching this series with your wife Heidi?
Yeah, we watch it together.
Glad to hear that. It’s really nice, when you have a common taste for TV shows, as well as having interconnected music projects.
Oh absolutely. I think the series has more appeal to me than to her, but I think she liked it. But it was great, we actually had time to watch television together. (Laugh) Creatively we have our separate projects but she is always my most valuable partner for my solo stuff. She is the one I go to every time I am stuck at something. Let say the cover artwork was her idea, including the chair and even the title. I believe it was the same with Arktis. She also found Edgar Allen Poe’s poem that I used for the bonus track. We have that collaboration and I hope I have some similar function for her as well. (Laugh)
Church of Arium
It is already a couple years, you started a cooperation with a brand called Aristides. It’s quite revolutionary company and at first they often get skeptical looks. How did your relationship progressed over the years and what are your latest discoveries as a user?
I was pretty much sold as soon as I tried the first guitar they sent me. I was obviously skeptical, as everybody else, at first regarding composite guitars. Image of a guitar without wood is quite unorthodox. But from what I know, everybody who gave it a try, find these guitars “obvious”. It is amazing to pick up an instrument which is so well balanced and as it is produced as a synthetic product, it’s very reliable. Arium, which is used to make it and forms the core of the guitar is a patented substance that is meant to emulate perfect piece of wood. I had a privilege to play very fine custom shop instruments over the years but nothing really compares to Aristides guitars. Esthetics is one thing and they can offer crazy finishes, whether you enjoy old school or modern look. But as a working tools, I appreciate it will stay untwisted under any conditions. I need an instrument which will resonate just as fully in any register of the fretboard. I have several wooden guitars, but they sound good only at certain parts. Currently I have six Aristides guitars and they differ in the amount of strings or pickups. But individually they sound great in all registers. For me as a studio working musician, it is important to have tools in a studio that are reliable, easy to play and sound well. You will probably have to shorten that up a bit, (Laugh) but I really love the brand and their philosophy including great customer service. They are very easy going people and I visited the factory twice and they were always really cool and down to earth. As a representative artist for the brand, it is a big deal for me to trust them to an extent, I would buy the guitar, even if I wasn’t sponsored.
I am glad for a longer answer, especially as I spoke to few other satisfied Aristides customers. Were there any user tips exchanges between you and others, especially guys from Leprous?
When I discovered these guitars I went right away to TorO and Øysteinem, while he was still in Leprous. However it was actually Mark Holcomb from Periphery who introduced me to Aristides. So it’s pretty much all about word of mouth, as they don’t do any marketing campaigns. I also appreciate, they are in a contact with me during the whole process, sending me pictures and accessories options. Next to that, I am also glad anyone who buys their guitar will get exactly the same follow-up, even though all of their products are custom instruments.
Your guitar collection also includes among many, also Ibanez custom model from legendary jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. What other rare pieces do you have home for acoustic playing?
I am almost sad to say that most of my previous guitars are now in storage. I keep some of them around, especially few Ibanez pieces or a Telecaster close to the studio. However, for the new album I relied exclusively on Aristides instruments. It’s just the nature of the album and how I work in the studio. It was just natural to reach for the instruments that I know. Obviously I will keep my other guitars and maybe in a future I will bring them out, because you cannot emulate all sounds. To be fair, I am still very new to Aristides guitars and there are still so many options to explore with them.
How does Aristides fit to other aspects of your gear? I am mainly wondering about your cooperation with Blackstar and also some discoveries within effects.
With that reliability they are very much sustained instruments. People are actually surprised how loud it was just acoustically. Therefore they would work with any gear. I am still with Blackstar but as a touring and a studio musician there is the practical aspect of getting the tone and reliability. Therefore I have been using Kemper very much for my day to day studio work and from recently also live shows, as I am doing mainly flying gigs. Blackstar were always super supportive in local arrangements of amps but sometimes they don’t have my preferred head in stock. They could offer various alternatives but Kemper can solve it all. Yes, there will be always a clash between real and simulation but I would argue on festivals where you have thirty to sixty manages for changeover, it’s challenging. In an ideal world, where you are Joe Bonamassa, you can bring all of your amps on stage and your engineer will also bring your favorite microphones. There might be a difference, but for all practical purposes, Kemper is the best choice, especially in a festival chaos.
In an ideal world, where you are Joe Bonamassa, you can bring all of your amps on stage and your engineer will also bring your favorite microphones.
Give us please a background of your invitation for Fredrik Åkesson from Opeth on the new album. I met him few years ago at Brutal Assault. He might seem at first as inaccessible, but he turned out to be the nicest guy. I guess you can confirm that, right?
Absolutely. I met him the first time during my first-ever solo gig because I played as a support for Opeth in Oslo. I know Mikael Åkerfeldt for ages and we met at Brutal Assault and other festivals multiple times, where we talk about music, gear and beer. Last time I was in Japan at Loud Park with Emperor, I saw Fredrik playing again. He is truly one of my most favorite guitar players. We are about the same age and we look up to the same heroes back in the seventies and eighties. But his choice of tone and fluency as an instrumentalist is just amazing. He has all the technical chops, but his choice of notes and how he performs it is absolutely beautiful. I told him how I felt about his playing and if he wanted to contribute, it would be an honor. He was into it immediately and from then on it was very easy. I sent him the part and he sent me his idea very quickly. He used vintage Gibson SG and couple of his favorite pedals he wanted to tryout. As most of us now, he has his own recording set-up. The only downside of having him on the album is he puts all my playing to shame. (Laugh) But again, I knew that risk. (Laugh)
When we mentioned Brutal Assault, you played on this festival multiple times in various line-ups. What are your memories on this unique festival area?
The whole castle-like setting environment is amazing. I also remember people who work there and they are all very friendly and down to earth. I always enjoyed playing there.
Iron Maiden are never a waste of time
We are getting close to the end and I would like to go back to the beginning, where you mentioned multiple times Iron Maiden. What is your most favorite album from their discography?
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son! It is definitely the album I heard the most times. When I was a kid, there was no YouTube or something similar. So most of what I have learned from playing guitar I learned from playing along this album. I also went to see them during Seventh Tour of a Seventh Tour in 1988. Since the first song I can’t remember having a plan B with my life. (Laugh) That album and that tour was super important for me. I also did plenty of interviews on that subject for an occasion of thirty years anniversary.
Is this album so close to you because of its sound or even some specific song? Iron Maiden were never afraid to experiment with production as we could hear on Somewhere In Time and they always knew how to write epic pieces as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Alexander The Great.
They inspired me in many ways. First of all, based on their albums in the eighties, I always consider new songs I am writing in the context of a full album. Somewhere In Time truly has very unique production and I always considered it very much Adrian Smith’s album. (Laugh) Melodies are very specific and I love his supporting vocals in Wasted Years. It is one of the reasons why it sounds so futuristic. Same goes for Powerslave with all of those Egyptian sounding riff and scales. It gives an impression the whole album feels like the cover artwork. (Laugh) Same goes for Seventh Son of a Seventh Son which was also quite revolutionary. They were criticized for using keyboards, but I always considered it natural and I believe it was one of the reasons why it is such a massive album. That added dimension was crucial and I apply this philosophy into my music. I always follow the demands of each track and it doesn’t matter, if I write a ballad or a longer epic piece. Structure of Iron Maiden albums was always an inspiration for my music career.