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Out of the Dungeon: In Conversation with Mortiis

We spoke to the true king of dungeon synth about his new remix album, the music business, and that troll mask (stream a track with Merzbow).

by Andy Curtis-Brignell
Apr 6 2017, 3:13pm

Contrary to his image as an eternally morose, dungeon-dwelling goblin creature, chatting with Norway's Mortiis (aka Havard Ellefsen) reveals him to be affable, open and eager to talk shop. After he left iconic Norwegian black metal band Emperor in late 1992, he started Mortiis as a solo project, and has been releasing his own brand of dark, twisted electronic music under that moniker ever since. Relatively recently (and following a long hiatus), Ellefsen reinvigorated Mortiis as a live act, and I caught the main man himself having just got back from a lengthy tour with industrial metal supergroup PIG. "London was great, I thought the performances were really good, the band was on fire, you know?" he told me via a dodgy Skype connection. "We played some of the best shows we've ever done."

I've been a fan of the project for a long time, and was curious to learn about what's driving him after over 20 years of activity, so once he was back home in Fredrikstad, I seized the opportunity to talk to him about about his recent albums The Great Deceiver and The Great Corruptor, the New Wave of Dungeon Synth, and what it's like to finally be in control.

"I'm a really good actor, I'm in control of nothing! I mean I'm in control of a lot of my stuff now, but it's just a lot of hard work, and nobody sells what they used to sell. It's easy to romanticize the past—fuck, I remember I used to sell tens of thousands of records and shit like that, but the reality back then was that I didn't see a goddamn dime. And for some reason I kept owing the fucking label a ton of money.," he said. "Why is that happening? You guys have a house in Spain, and I can't pay my fucking dentist bill. The label owns that album in perpetuity, on this planet and beyond. In the known universe and probably, you know if we ever get to galactic travel, they're gonna own it in the other galaxies anyway. My old contract seriously has something to that effect. If we do colonize other planets then there's a way for us to sell your shit, we have the right to do that."

We pause for a second to laugh, but being a touring, independent musician is tough, and he's been doing it twice as long as I have. Does it get any easier?

"It is to some degree more rewarding these days. It's cynical to talk about money but you fucking have to, especially since I have two kids and everything. I have to think in those ways. I probably make more money selling a T-shirt now than I did selling 20 CDs or whatever back in the old days given how fucked up these contracts were, you made maybe a dime off each sale. So it takes half a lifetime just to recoup your advance. Owning my stuff now, knowing it doesn't belong to some fucking shark who will never ever give it back, I definitely feel more motivated to sit down and create more music."

Remix albums are often a tough sell, and often vary in quality of both material and contributors. But looking at the credits for the new remix album The Great Corrupter (a reinterpretation of last year's The Great Deceiver that comes out April 21 on Omnipresence Productions), it reads as a who's who of industrial music, from Godflesh and Chris Vrenna to Die Krupps and Merzbow, as Mortiis states with trademark understatement: "You've got some pretty heavy names there, and also some more underground names that people might not be as familiar with. It wasn't that difficult to organize to be honest with you, I started the whole project last summer. It was initially supposed to just be a deluxe version of The Great Deceiver [but] when I start a project, I don't know to fucking stop. So some of the mixes were coming back and I was like, 'Wow, these are fucking cool.' 

'At that point, I'm thinking, let's change this a little bit, make it its own release, because I'm getting so many cool people on board, not to mention that we have these five Chris Vrenna studio mixes from the first session for the Great Deceiver that we unfortunately had to abandon. I had the idea to reach out to a bunch of Cold Meat Industry artists, a nod back to those days, so all of a sudden it became this really creative fun thing to do. I don't put any kind of artistic restraints on anybody, so of course it's always a gamble; I've had remixes coming back in the past where I've thought, 'Oh god…' but not here, that didn't happen. That was the real uplifting thing about this experience— every time a remix dropped in my mailbox, I thought, 'Oh fuck, another great one! And partially it's because, honestly, I think they had really good source material."

Again, he pauses and lands as if to let a joke land, but the truth is that, Mortiis had been working on those songs ever since he built his own studio last year. As he admits, "We spent so much time on The Great Deceiver, more time than I even like talking about, because to a lot of people it would seem like we just fucked around forever. We didn't, but we did go with almost surgical precision on a lot of the stuff. The mixing stage for that record was ridiculous, I think we averaged two or three days per song. I think if a real producer or engineer had spent that kind of time on it, it would come off as over-polished and overproduced, but at the end of the day, Levi [Gawron, guitars and programming] is this incredibly technically-minded guy, whereas I'm a more raw, pure from the heart artist dude. Our talents combined to make a record that sounds really cool, but it's not a big Pink Floyd production. With our naivety, we retained this kind of rawness and 'punkish' attitude that a lot of the songs have. I hope we can redo it, but knowing me, I'll take some kind of weird left turn."

"Maybe I sound more confident nowadays, [but] it's definitely not deliberate. We haven't been the most active touring bands, but when we do tour our shows are very intense. I think that as a performer, I've grown in strength, so I really think that does affect my performance in the studio, especially when we're talking about vocal delivery and things like that. There's so many things you can fuck up, and it takes many years of practice, but maybe I finally reached the point where it started to pay off and kind of clicked. Wonder how I can fuck that one up later [laughs]. Sound like a fucking dying duck or something."

The elephant in the room whenever anyone seems to talk about Mortiis is his image. For nearly the entire existence of the project, Mortiis has altered his image using prosthetic masks, body paint, dreadlocks, and prosthetic elf ears. In recent years, he's abandoned the more over-the-top elements of his presentation and stashed the goblin masks at home, but he still makes for an intriguing figure onstage, using different face painting techniques and his signature wardrobe of rags. In the pre-Slipknot/Mushroomhead era, most people just weren't quite ready to embrace their inner latex goblin, and the man himself acknowledges that he'll always be to some extent 'that guy'. 

"People focusing on the mask doesn't bother me because I'm so used to it," he explains. "To a very, very small degree, I do still use the mask for photo shoots; I pull it out of the tomb, out of the dungeon—I was trying to avoid that word—out of the dark dungeon, maybe it can play some dungeon synth on its own. When it feels right, I'll do it. I think the focus has definitely gone away from the mask, slowly but surely, so other than the occasional dumbass social media comment like 'Bring back the mask!', but unless it's a total psycho, I just ignore that. Didn't you notice that I kind of did? What are you yelling for? My mantra is always if you don't like it, go do a better job yourself. But actually you know what I always say these days? I'm just really glad anyone is still paying attention, because we were gone for a while so it's so cool to see people fucking giving us a bit of attention!"

Attention can be bemusing though, and Mortiis certainly seems a little baffled but proud of the recent surge of so-called dungeon synth via Bandcamp and Soundcloud. Dungeon synth, for those not in the know, is Norwegian black metal's Dungeons and Dragons-obsessed, Ren Faire- attending little brother. MIDI instruments and keyboards are used to create creepy, synthetic medieval atmospheres you would normally associate with early RPG video games. The genre was pioneered almost simultaneously by the notorious Varg Vikernes of Burzum, Satyr Wongraven of Satyricon (with his solo Wongraven album) and Mortiis himself, the latter making his first solo recordings after being fired from the bass guitar position of legendary Norwegian black metal band Emperor. Albums such as The Crypt of the Wizard, Fodt til a Herske, and The Song of a Long Forgotten Ghost may have had some limited success at the time, but more recently they have inspired a number of popular projects (primarily in Eastern Europe) such as Skarpesian and Cernunnos Woods.

"It''s cool, I love seeing that happen!" Mortiis enthuses. "It's a bit strange because it's a long time ago. Back in those days, those records did quite well for underground stuff, they really worked for the early Scandinavian and European black metal scene, because it was so dark and bleak,and kind of monotonous which was kind of a thing in those days. Those records sunk back into obscurity for a long time, then all of a sudden, this dungeon synth thing...it's a thing! It seems to be on the rise, and it's just weird because it happened so long after the fact—twenty years later, people are tagging on to it. I was super disillusioned with those records for a long time, but that was more on account of my fucking depression and my issues. It's very hard to look at it and think clear headed when you're not happy with yourself. But of course things are better these days, so for the first time in a long time I'm able to look back at my stuff from a place that's not clouded."

Maybe Mortiis will never come entirely out of the dungeon, but he certainly seems a lot more comfortable with the world outside it than ever before.


Andy Curtis-Brignell is lurking on Twitter.

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