After the initial disbanding of his iconic black metal band Emperor in the early 2000s, Vegard Sverre Tveitan -- better known as Ihsahn -- wasted no time in continuing to create boundary-pushing extreme music. He teamed up with his wife, Heidi (aka Ihriel), in the avant-garde band Peccatum and has released more solo albums under the Ihshan moniker than Emperor ever made, although that band has also reformed for numerous performances in subsequent years.
This month he released Ámr, his seventh solo album, which continues his trajectory of expanding his sound while still judiciously including his trademarks of screaming vocals and distorted guitars. While still proudly experimental and abrasive, the record also explores Ihsahn's fascination with traditional song structures and tweaking them enough to avoid erring on the side of simplicity. He spoke with us to discuss his ever-expanding palette, why he's still happy to make music using many of the same elements as Emperor, and his favorite ABBA song.
AllMusic: Do you write only when you sit down and focus on it, or are you writing all the time?
Ihsahn: When I start any of my solo albums, I do a write-up, gathering sounds and images that create a general atmosphere for the album, so everything that I write for that album will deal with a certain core for the entire album, it’s not just a collection of songs that I happened to write in that period, I want it to be more cohesive. I try to keep very strict working hours, from 8 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon, but when I’m walking the dogs or something, some lyric might come along that you can write into your phone. I was going through some of the sound memos on my phone, and the main themes for two of the songs on this album were bursts of inspiration where I just hummed the main riff.
AllMusic: What was the core idea you came up with this time?
Ihsahn: It’s probably easiest to describe in relation to my previous album, Arktis, whereas the title and artwork implies, it’s set in the Arctic, and the metaphors I use lyrically will often fit into this theme. So there’s not a concept in any narrative way, but it’s very much about the inside, and that’s resulted in a different sonic expression, where I have a tendency to be very open and wide, and there’s still a big-sounding arrangement embellished with orchestral sounds. This time, since it has this inside vibe, I wanted the emphasis on how big it was to be more in the sub-frequencies. I grew up in the 80s with albums from Iron Maiden that you could feel that all-over vibe, like Powerslave, you’d hear those Egyptian scale riffs in there and it all made sense, how you’d look at the artwork and everything. It’s something greater than just a couple of songs.
AllMusic: "Sámr" manages to create a sense of drama that reminds me of Emperor, only far less punishing. It has elements that could even be called ballad-like.
Ihsahn: I guess it does, somewhat. It has the very dynamic lows of the verses and it builds, and it’s rather harmonic, so it’s classic in that sense. As with Arktis, I was still writing within the very traditional format of pop rock songwriting, with a very clear melodic main theme, verse, chorus, bridge, structure. With early extreme metal and early black metal, we didn’t care about that structure, so that’s why so many bands of that genre would just pour in 20 different musical ideas into a song, and sometimes it comes together and sometimes it sounds like a succession of 20 different ideas. So over the years, I’ve been more fascinated with the craftsmanship of writing to a formula, because even in classical music, there are very clear formulas, so the challenge is to fill that formula with material that is still exciting and surprising.
AllMusic: You've spoken about finding collaborators who will understand your unorthodox ideas. What about this album did you consider to be unorthodox?
Ihsahn: It’s more of a scrapbook that works in my head, but I assume for people outside my head, it might not really make sense, so in that way, it’s very abstract. This is the first time I shared that information with everyone who was going to work on the album. Seeing them grab hold of the elements I wrote down, and the images that inspired me, that helped their imaginations for things like videos and the cover art, and it helps people get on the same wavelength.
I had all these images, like film stills from Stanley Kubrick, and I think those inspirations are in the sounds of the album; things are very symmetrically patterned, as they often are, but also exaggerated in this case. The drums are almost entirely mono, and it’s reflected in some of the symmetrical aspects of the album artwork. It doesn’t have to be that obvious, it just has to be there in the background to fill in the gaps, and hopefully when you think about them enough, it leads the listener to be able to comprehend it as a full thing.
AllMusic: What particular elements of Kubrick came to mind?
Ihsahn: I’m a connoisseur of movies in general, but specifically 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. In movies there’s a tendency to have all these theatrical scenes, where things are all symmetrical, which isn’t how they are in real life. I loved the Hannibal TV series with Mads Mikkelsen, all of the scenes are so beautiful, and there are these symmetrical lines that go through everything that make it out of this world, it takes on another dimension. It’s not supposed to mimic real life.
AllMusic: You recorded this album last June, which was around the time Emperor was performing shows focused on Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. Did you have to keep those songs out of your head to avoid them bleeding too much into your new work?
Ihsahn: I think it’s quite the contrary, I think that revisiting those songs very physically and playing them again hasn’t been a direct influence, but it’s connected me back to those songs, because they’re so programmed in my music DNA. For me, every new album, I try to add to the palette of my experience with music. There will always be, in most of my music, distorted guitars and screaming vocals, because for me, that’s become my most natural tools of expression. That’s what comes easiest for me, and from that foundation, I try to add to the palette and explore different ways of how I can express myself, but I never really intend to try to sound like something else or someone else, it’s more trying to still sound like me, but in a new way.
AllMusic: When you would sing on the old Emperor records, sometimes it sounded to me like a kid trying to make his voice sound older. Now it seems that you've aged into those vocals and continue to improve your clean singing voice.
Ihsahn: I hope so. As many others, I’ve had a very strange relationship to the sound of my own voice, so maybe that’s always been more natural for me, to use this more traditional black metal voice as the tool of expression. The nature of that voice is not your speaking voice, so you can detach from it, although it’s not less personal of an expression. With my singing voice, that’s something that I’ve had to try and force myself to be more comfortable with over the years, and I think I’ve come to the point now where, if not totally pleased, I’ve at least come to peace with it in some way and accept that that’s the way I sound and make the most of it.
But I agree, and not only with my voice on those early Emperor records, but I think we just wanted to sound older, more experienced and larger than we had any experience to do, so what we lacked in experience and skills, we made up for by conviction and a youthful driving force.
AllMusic: In addition to using the screaming to detach yourself, you've also always used a stage name. Has that served a similar purpose?
Ihsahn: Originally it was like that, with the stage names. At the time everything was very theatrical, and the kind of expression we wanted to put out there, the atmosphere that we put into it was something otherworldly, with the makeup and everything. We didn’t want to make music that dealt with teenager stuff, so the idea was not to present something that was associated to us as regular teenagers, it had a much more theatrical dimension to it, like costumes. Game of Thrones wouldn’t be the same if they came in jeans, it’s part of the experience. The stage names and everything, that was in the metal culture for a long time, but very quickly it became more like a nickname. Especially when you’re dealing mostly with foreign markets and labels, it was easier for them to pronounce my stage name versus my given name. So now I answer to both, equally naturally, especially abroad.
AllMusic: Are you still happy with the stage name?
Ihsahn: It’s just become natural, you become accustomed to it. The guy who produced and recorded the first two Emperor albums [Eirik Hundvin], his nickname was Pytten, which basically means “a puddle of mud.” He got it from falling into a puddle of mud when he was a kid. Now he’s probably in his 60s and people still call him Pytten, and he answers to that, that’s who he is.
AllMusic: You guys were teenagers when you made those early Emperor albums, is it strange to you that people are still so passionate about something you made when you were that young?
Ihsahn: For better or for worse. With all the imagery and everything, I don’t think people actually saw us as kids. I’ve made jokes about it to the guys in Leprous, they are my backing band and are 10 or 15 years younger than me, and they always had this kind of label to them, “the young guys in Leprous,” even when some of them were 30. But we were never seen as “the young guys in Emperor,” and we quit when I was 25. So in some way, because of the makeup and all that, and the seriousness of that whole early black metal scene, we were never really perceived as teenagers.
In some ways, it’s strange, for people to be so passionate about stuff I did as a teenager, but at the same time, it’s humbling, as well, knowing what some of my favorite albums did to me, if any of my music has had a similar effect or place in people’s lives, that’s an amazing thing. I see that when playing live, especially with these old songs and seeing people’s reactions, grown men will cry over some of these old black metal songs, because they’ve attached a lot of memories or experiences to music we happened to be part of.
AllMusic: Is there an album you wish you could have watched be recorded?
Ihsahn: To be a fly on the wall when they recorded Michael Jackson’s Thriller, just to see the people involved and how they would craft all the simple nuances, where everything has such a clear purpose, that would be very interesting. Or any ABBA record.
AllMusic: Do you have a favorite ABBA song?
Ihsahn: If I had to pick one off the top of my head, it would be “Voulez-Vous.” The craftsmanship of how they used thematics and fit in small hooks in between verse lines, it’s ingenious. It’s absolutely amazing.