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Emperor Are Back to Reclaim What Is Theirs

The frontman of the black metal legends speaks.

From 1991 to 1994, Norway’s black metal scene delivered just as much depth to the genre’s history as it provided what will perpetually remain the genre’s association, justified or not, with bigotry and violence. While Mayhem’s live performances and eventual release of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas are inarguably seen as landmarks for the genre, those moments are inseparable from the dark reality of things like vocalist Dead’s suicide, the murder of guitarist Euronymous by brief member and well-documented bigot Varg Vierknes, and the myriad of documentaries and essays and interviews that have come in the wake of its release. As influential and groundbreaking in the scope of their music but again just as tied to an appalling reality is the band Emperor, who brought a kind of orchestral beauty to the otherwise desolate carnage of black metal’s aesthetic.


The youngest member of the band, vocalist/guitarist Ihsahn was seventeen years old in July of 1993 when the band recorded their debut album, yet he sounded like an ageless voice from the darkest recesses of some mythical existence. There’s nothing remotely innocent or naïve sounding about Emperor’s debut full-length, and the twenty years since its release have served to further solidify the record as a landmark for extreme music. In the Nightside Eclipse is an unrivaled masterpiece whose influence has continually showed its full breadth and reach in the years since its release. Now briefly reunited for a few European festival dates to perform the album in its entirety, Emperor’s music isn’t the only thing twenty years removed from their full-length introduction to the world. The members themselves are two decades removed from a year that saw black metal, along with the press who covered its artists, revel in the sensationalism of controversies stemming from the deplorable and inexcusable actions of who were little more than murderous thugs.

Unfortunately, the early days of the Norwegian black metal scene has offered too much facetime to individuals who dabbled in being a musician and focused full-time on being terrible fucking human beings. There is no argument to be made regarding the details of Magne Andreassen’s murder in 1992 by the hands of Emperor drummer Faust, no plausible excuse or lighter shading that time will ever provide to undo that terrible reality. By the same token, there’s little argument to what In the Nightside Eclipse stands for as a work of incomparable brilliance in music, and that fact provides a kind of hope in the timelessness of the album itself. Hearing the magisterial power in the music created by many artists whose personal lives deviated far from anything remotely understandable or even redeemable provides only as much conflict as time allows in its slow but sure erosion of the meaningless.


In talking to Ihsahn, whose work outside of Emperor has seen the artist remain unwavering in creative productivity, the retrospect provided by time and aging have provided him with a kind of endearing humility and honesty. Any and all façades of theatric persona were quickly disseminated in the first few seconds of our conversation with the now nearly forty-year-old musician less fond of looking back and far more focused on what lies ahead for him personally and musically.

Noisey: Emperor is currently in the thick of festival dates and appearances, and these performances are especially unique because it’s the 20th anniversary of In the Nightside Eclipse, and the band is performing that album in its entirety.
Ihsahn: I guess ever since we quit there’s been more or less constant little demand for “what if” and “would you be interested in this or that” for the most part. We did these things in 2006 and 2007, which originally started out as something that was supposed to be a one-off show and ended up being quite a lot more. This time it’s no secret that I’ve been very reluctant to do any Emperor reunion shows, basically because I have so much focus on my own stuff, and I would rather spend my time being creative like that than just revisiting old times for a living. [Laughs] But it’s the 20th Anniversary, and Samoth came over for coffee – I guess it would have been some time in 2012 – and said “There’s a 20th Anniversary coming up. It’s been almost 20 years since we recorded Eclipse. Would it be worthwhile to do something?” And, of course, it is an important album for us – for both me and him, because this was kind of our first full-length album. It was kind of the start of us getting more serious, if you will. It was also the start of us having had the privilege of being able to do this for a living against all odds for twenty years. For us, it was worth celebrating, and this also gave us the opportunity to not repeat ourselves. Our criteria, at least for my part, was that we didn’t do it in the similar fashion that we did it last time. I wanted it to be more limited, so it wouldn’t go out of hand, and I thought it was very cool that we could get Faust back on drums and just fully absorb the whole album in its entirety and not just a best-of collection type of thing like we did last time. Getting into the atmosphere and then celebrating for our own sake and then also we understand that Eclipse, for so many people has become one of those albums that they relate to in a special way. And there’s some new fans that have kind of picked up on that youthful thing that we did back then, so all we know is that it’s a privilege to do this. I usually quote Ford Fairlane the rock n’ roll detective, he says “Some people play hard to get. I play hard to want.” That was kind of the ammo for us back in the day. [Laughs] We didn’t do anything to be liked, and we had absolutely no commercial ambitions at all. It was quite contrary at the time. That we’re able to still perform this album after twenty years and headline some of these festivals in Europe, it’s quite bizarre. It’s just worthwhile celebrating.


How have you seen that fandom change over the years and even how those perceptions of heavy metal have changed in the time since you first started playing it?
I think particularly black metal has gone gray like many other metal subgenres or like music in general, really. You start out new as a phenomenon, and there gradually becomes different directions in that. Some people do something new, and then some people copy it, and it becomes watered down. It becomes gray. A lot of people involved in this genre originally do a lot of other interesting stuff. The genre itself has changed, but I think extreme music – it’s more a matter of the whole music industry having changed. That’s kind of the biggest thing if you take black metal now and then. For us being here now against being there then, I guess our whole career is built on this kind of mystique almost. People didn’t know shit about us. We were just crazy Norwegians from a place that most people hadn’t heard of doing this extreme music in this strange makeup. [Laughs] So people had absolutely no clue. Whereas today you get in touch with the biggest stars on Twitter or Facebook or whatever. Nothing is private. It’s very bad times to be kind of a mysterious black metal artist, I guess. It’d be very hard to build that kind of niche again if you were a young band starting out today. [Laughs]

That mystique was obviously one of the biggest dynamics with those early days of black metal, and as you said, that mystique is largely gone. Does that put a kind of creative impediment on at least the black metal aesthetic?
If you look at it from an industry point of view the Internet sucks, but you can’t really put down the Internet, can you? There are definitely some upsides as well. It’s just changed. There’s so much to benefit from in discovering new stuff, but it does challenge people within this genre where back in the early 90s, that was the natural way of going about it and, of course, you have the avid experience from both ends now. Metal, in general, has always been very theatrical, and it’s supposed to be larger than life. It started in peril in the early 90s with the whole theatrical black metal thing where you had the grunge movement that was kind of very mundane and down to earth. These days you don’t have these kind of rock stars anymore, not to the same extent. Which, in practical terms, this is very, very good. But at the same time, I love that you still have people like Prince around, who live in their own extreme rock star world. [Laughs] It’s just something fascinating about that. It’s like when I view a piece of art, I don’t give a shit what the artist had for dinner or if he was at the gym. But the idea is that if it was an illusion back then or now, it was supposed to be. I remember as a fan of music myself, when I went to see my first Iron Maiden show, just that feeling of being within the same four walls, even though it was a huge concert, I was breathing the same air as Iron Maiden. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of my childhood heroes, and they’re really nice people, but it kind of changes your perspective. Sometimes it’s just good to have that kind of distance and to have that kind of out-of-this-world type of experience. You don’t need everything. When you get a nice meal at a restaurant, you don’t want to know the full recipe. You just want to enjoy it. [Laughs]


How have you seen yourself evolve as a musician?
Initially, when you’re a kid I think you distance yourself from a lot of stuff just to focus on one thing like “if it ain’t metal, it ain’t right,” you know. That type of thing. I stopped limiting myself both creatively and as a listener, I think. These days I just divide between music that connects with me and music that doesn’t, which leaves it quite open for what influences me and what I can do with my music and what I listen to. It’s hard to say, really, what has changed. I think I would probably say I’m less confident in what I do now because with more experience you become more self-critical. When we did Eclipse, we went in there with no experience whatsoever but with 110% confidence. The tables turn a bit over time where you start to review things and view your work in a different way and become more self-critical, which that’s a good thing. Of course my expression has changed very much, my take on things. For some reason I think, at least this is very subjectively how I feel, but especially with the three latest [solo] albums, I’ve kind of been more aware that the energy and the source of inspiration is very much the same as back in ’93 or even earlier. It sounds almost a bit banal, really, that every album I make seems to be just a different interpretation of this kind of same primal source. I think that’s something that has just been triggered since I was a kid, that I have this kind of need. And you spoke of this earlier with your question about this “need” to do this, and I’ve been super lucky to do this. Coming from Norway and having a musical career be noticed at all is kind of far-fetched to start with and black metal even more so. [Laughs] At the same time, it feels like I didn’t really have a choice in it. It affects me. If I don’t get to do this and play music and be in the studio creating, it affects me both mentally and physically. [Laughs] It’s a very, very strong driving force.


Just looking back at those months or years leading up to writing and recording those songs, do you see the band’s creative process for the album as being based more in a conscious effort or was it purely instinctive where each member was tapping into his own kind of primal unconscious?
You would probably suspect that it was kind of a sudden big change in our whole attitude when we went into create this album, but at the same time it just felt like very natural steps, if that makes sense. Black metal in ‘93, when we recorded the album, it was nothing. We had a lot of artistic ambitions to make this thing as grandiose with all these images that we had but commercially we had absolutely no ambitions because there were none to have. [Laughs] This genre, it was not a career choice. In 1991, when we started Emperor, among the best career choices, that would probably be at the bottom end. [Laughs] For us this was just part of a growing experience of working with our music and from working in the rehearsal room and just part of the whole thing. In the whole process of doing this reissue thing, me and Samoth have gone over dozens of tapes, the rehearsal tapes and everything, and hearing those tapes – everything you can hear on the album – that’s how we rehearsed it. It’s the same tempos. It’s the same phrasing. It was all very much crafted in the rehearsal room, which is very different from how we do things these days. And also, when the album came out it was still very underground. Some people will ask us how we experienced this kind of overnight success of Eclipse, and we just think: “Why weren’t we there?” [Laughs]


What does your own personal creative process look like from that initial genesis of an idea to the finished product? Is it largely different than what it was when you were 19 or 20?
I don’t think it’s that different. I try to make it into something different, but I always come back to the same fact that in the beginning, when I was younger, I didn’t have the experience, so when I wrote stuff on my guitar I focused on how it sounded and how it felt. Of course when you play guitar and you write music on the guitar for 25 years, the very muscle memory of my fingers, just watching my fingers play, will make me feel like I’m repeating myself. So my approach now is still kind of the same, but it’s really become more about tricking my mind outside and away from the analytical side where I’m saying “Is this something I’ve done already? Am I repeating myself? Have I gone into a loop of not expanding?” For me now I’ve come to write stuff, and that’s why I love picking up an eight-string guitar because that fucked up my whole experience with the six-string or even seven-string. Because you can’t play the same chords on the eight-string, or at least then it sounds like crap. You have to treat the eighth string like a bass string, and then if you tune it regular to F-sharp, then you have a lot of other opportunities in the upper edges with loose strings and everything else. But I basically try to trick my mind to not have any experience. I just go straight to the source and listen to how it sounds and how it feels rather than being too practical about what it sounds like and if it’s been done, if that makes sense.


You guys have made it fairly clear that these shows celebrating In the Nightside Eclipse’s 20th Anniversary are exclusively for that purpose. Does the future hold any possibility of an actual Emperor reunion and new Emperor music?
Not at all. Not at all. I couldn’t really see the point. I don’t think that would be something that would feel natural and feel creative, and that’s not meant to disrespect the other guys that I play with. But if you listen to the music that Samoth does now, there’s quite a big difference between what he does and what I do. I think, musically, we can come together and perform the stuff that we did when those musical differences were constructive. If it was up to me, Emperor now would sound like my solo stuff. Not that I would ever call it Emperor because then it wouldn’t be that as it would be compromised. For me it would just be a different logo on the front because for me in the way I want to express myself in metal now, that’s what I already do. To make an Emperor album, I’m sure financially speaking, it would be tempting. It’s a well-known brand, and you could probably do a lot of things promotion wise with it, but at the same time, it’s the fact that we’ve maintained, and the fact that we’ve been uncompromising. I think both with Emperor and the stuff we’ve done outside of Emperor, I’m very conscious about that mutual agreement with my listeners who pick up my album and make this possible. I don’t want to trick myself, and I don’t want to screw them either. So every time I make an album I honestly try to do my absolute best, and I don’t think I do my best if I start thinking about what would people want and what would people expect of me or this or that. If we did that with Emperor or outside of Emperor, people would smell the dishonesty in that. It’s not really an ego trip, either. Of course it is very egotistical and selfish of me in a very good way of just doing exactly what I want, but at the same time I think that is the most honest way of doing this. If people want to make music that people expect to have and what the market wants, that’s kind of a different genre and a different industry. [Laughs] People who want Emperor to get back together, I’m not sure if they know what they’re asking for. What kind of Emperor album would it be? Would it be something we could honestly do in 2014 or 2015? It would be easy for us to make an album that sounded like something from back in the day in the vein of Eclipse or Anthems or whatever, but who would actually want that? It would be pointless, and in the end I think people respect it. It’s like when you get older and some people start wishing “Oh, I wish I was young again.” It’s not gonna happen, but it’s a nice thought. But at the same time, if you were young again, you wouldn’t want to experience all that crap all over again either way. [Laughs] It’s kind of like that, and I honestly think that it creates a bit of trust between us as artists and the audience.

Jonathan Dick lives in darkness and/or Alabama. He's on Twitter - @steelforbrains


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