Since the demise of his teenhood band and minor black metal deities Emperor, Vegard Sverre Tveitan a.k.a. Ihsahn has had one of the most idiosyncratic solo careers around, throwing himself deep into the avant-garde pool and emerging as one of the most unpredictable and darkly witty figures in the metal underground. A decade on from his solo debut, he returns with album number six, the savagely infectious and infectiously savage Arktis, and he offered up a few glimpses into the personalities and philosophies that continue to drive this singular artist.
It’s great to have you back, man. Arktis is such an incredibly vast album. What exactly was your approach this time around?
If you are familiar with my previous album, I’d say Das Seelenbrechen was very much a mental trip. I basically approached that album in the way I would imagine Diamanda Galas or later Scott Walker would approach things, losing all the controlled parts and going very intuitively and spontaneously to obtain an atmosphere – to reset the parameters for myself a bit in this very controlled environment that is typical for how metal albums are made these days. In the process of doing that, I decided very early on that for my next album I would go not in the opposite way but try to embrace the more craftsmanship-like approach of traditional songwriting. I grew up in the ‘80s so I like a good hook or chorus as much as the next guy. At the same time as I can appreciate experimental music and more free-form music, I also have great respect for the art form of this more pop-rock formula and making something interesting within those parameters. I wanted to hopefully get a cohesive album but still try to let every song have a very strong identity with some kind of instrumental or melody or sound-thing that would form the basis of that song.
It really does have strong elements of ‘70s pop and ‘80s heavy metal in there. Is this a return to your musical roots in a sense?
I’ve been doing this for quite a long time now but over the years you try to acquire different things in your musical toolbox and they come in handy from time to time. Obviously, having been brought up on Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, it’s kind of second nature to use that as part of my expression.
The title, Arktis, brings to mind images of isolation and solitude, which have been recurring themes throughout your work. Does that tie in with any lyrical themes on this album?
I do kind of come back to that, in a way. My thought patterns and inspirations are often drawn from more individual-related perspectives. Lyrically, and some of the reason I ended up with the title Arktis, is that it is one of the most lyrically positive albums I’ve done, even though people have suggested otherwise. Maybe it’s because I turned 40 in the process of finishing the album but during this time I’ve been reflecting on more positive aspects of my life; the huge privilege of being able to dedicate my whole adult life to my passion for music, that’s part of it. I’ve been given so much choice and opportunity to follow my dreams and a lot of the lyrics also deal with aspects of the responsibility connected to that – our responsibility to take the opportunities that life gives us and not waste it and be a bit humbled, especially those of us that have grown up in Western civilisation where those opportunities and dreams are actually within reach. There are so many other parts of the world where people cannot even allow themselves to have those aspirations. Having been able to travel with my music, I’ve had the privilege of meeting, on the common ground of heavy metal, different cultures and people from all over the world and seeing the peculiarities and seeing what is special for people from different areas. I guess it’s made me more aware of aspects of my own personality and the things I create based on the fact that my belonging is in such a northern part of the world. This also has enabled me to write within the scenario that is kind of arctic and cold
I ended up doing all the artwork for the album, which is based on Fridtjof Nansen’s old pictures. I don’t know if you are familiar with him but he was a huge Norwegian explorer and also quite a philanthropist – really an inspiration. Just the black metal attitude of letting your ship freeze into the ice to flow with the ice closer to the north pole, and to try to reach the north pole by ski where no one had ever gone before. Just carving your way through this mapless landscape – in a symbolic way, this is something I can relate to and look up to. His excitement, the courage to do such a thing, is something I find quite inspiring and hope to also be an element of my life and how I approach my life. Aspects of the album were, in the grand universal scheme of things, the insignificance of this whiff of life. It’s a very short lifespan and, at the same time, the opportunity to make the most of that and cherish this small time and what, by your own will, you can fuel that with.
“I guess I’ve always been drawn to ideas and people who have that perspective on life, who do not just want to stick with conformity and break out and find the morals rules and values and perspectives for themselves rather than just committing to something that is pre-decided.”
This year marks the tenth anniversary of your first solo release. What have you managed to learn about yourself as a songwriter and as an individual within that time frame?
If I was to pick out one thing that I’ve learned most from is to trust the process. I’ve learned that I can take really different approaches, like how I had approached the previous album and how I approached this album, and how I wrote the entire Emerita album just to put a piano sound. Totally different things for each project but still trust the process that in the end, if I just keep the excitement up and just follow it through, it will sound like me either way. I’m not sounding like a copy of anything else even though I’m taking a different route, so with all the insecurities that come with working some form of artistic expression – self-doubt and all that – with age and having had the privilege of doing this for so long, I have learned to a bigger extent to trust the process of the integrity of what I do. Not to a full extent as yet but at least more. That is what I think has been the most valuable lesson from these ten years.
You’ve worked with a lot of artists of this album that you had previously, such as Einar (Solberg, Leprous) and Jørgen (Munkeby, Shining), but how did the work with Hans Herbjonsrud come about?
That’s actually a bonus track so it’s not part of the album per se and musically I’d say it hints back to the previous album more. It’s more of a link to that. How it came about is he is a local author, even though I think he is internationally quite renowned for his short stories. Of course, I had been very much aware of him and have read his books but had never met him before. He approached me as he has a local literature festival – not him, but there is a Hans Herbjonsrud committee who organises a literature festival in his name locally every year – and they will have different themes and different authors that they focus in on, and he approached me to do some music for the festival. There was a common ground of him deciding to have the poet Tor Ulven as one of the key authorships to go through both in seminars and with speakers and in the past I have been very much inspired by Tor Ulven’s poetry. There’s some select poetry from Tor Ulven’s collection so I made some music and he would recite over the top of that, and what’s on the album is basically what we performed live. It’s not the same recording but this half-improvised performance of the Tor Ulven poetry.
In past interviews, you had made declarations about the importance of Satanic and Nietzschean philosophy on your life. Do these still have as much bearing on your work these days?
All these labels are not important to me at all. It’s more a matter of what I find inspiring, like recently with Fridtjof Nansen – that mentality. It’s very inspiring. I guess I’ve always been drawn to ideas and people who have that perspective on life, who do not just want to stick with conformity and break out and find the morals rules and values and perspectives for themselves rather than just committing to something that is pre-decided. Of course, like for a lot the people who were drawn to metal in the first place, or to more underground artistic routes, that adversarial perspective is still very important to me. It’s something I come back to time and time again in my lyrics. But just generally, musically, I try to remind myself to keep that in mind and embrace it, that explorer side of things and not become too comfortable in any particular scenario. I feel I am very abstract in my answers today. I’m sorry. (laughs) I’ll leave it to you to make sense of it in the end.
You do seem a very organic songwriter, quite intuitive. Is there any aspect of writing you struggle with and has that always been the case?
For me, songwriting has always been that slight bit of inspiration. I couldn’t tell you how I made some of the things that I’ve been most happy with that I’ve made over the years. What I feel are the greatest moments are ones I’ve stumbled across more coincidentally. I have no idea how I came up with it but I can take credit for it, which I think many people who make music can relate to. You just have to be ready when it appears and try to capture it. You get a glimpse of it and then there’s 90% hard work to carve it out, and that’s an element that I’ve been becoming better at, hopefully, over the years. Even pre-Emperor, the early days, it’s typical for these kind of extreme music to just patch riffs together and make them work in some kind of context, make them fit together. In later years, and especially with an album like this, it’s more about getting that one idea that is hopefully strong enough and building the whole song around it.
“Lyrically, and some of the reason I ended up with the title Arktis, is that it is one of the most lyrically positive albums I’ve done, even though people have suggested otherwise.”
Like many who come from extreme backgrounds, you have always seemed to take inspiration from classical as well as metal. I understand you are a fan of Beethoven’s work, so what other composers do you admire?
Take Bach for example, who not only made fantastic music but also if you consider his excitement at that day’s technology, writing just because he was excited about the tempered scale. If you listen to some of his music, he was so ahead of his time. He would write harmonies that at the time were considered absolutely dissonant and even close to forbidden given that he would usually do very religious music. Apart from the musical side of things, the mentality and will to explore music, that passion that shines through is very much an inspiration. For me, at this point, it could be anything. Like, I’m a huge Prince fan. Not that I enjoy all his albums and all his music but I have favourite songs from different eras of his catalogue. He is absolutely mental, of course, which I think is interesting, especially these days where everything is about what your favourite artist had for dinner. It’s very personal and direct and I enjoy the fact that we still have some larger-than-life artists who live in a different world and they don’t understand the regular world and don’t give a shit – like him. That I find inspiring as well, that claim on independence that he does, even if it is bizarre and probably horrible to be around. From the outside, though, it is fascinating. Also, and I have probably mentioned before, Radiohead. The fact that they had such a massive success with OK Computer and their reply to that was to do something totally opposite, musically; answering OK Computer with an electronic album but still sounding like Radiohead. That in itself has given me much more courage to trust the process, that if you are honest about what you do and just try your absolute best, that the integrity will hopefully shine through regardless of how you approach it.
You did come from a scene that praised a certain sense of anonymity and mythology, even. Do you feel that the sense of openness de-mythologising of musicians that comes with social media has changed that scene for the worse?
There’s good and bad sides to it either way. I was very lucky to have my starting point in an age without Facebook and social media. Tomas from Emperor said to me, “Thank god we didn’t have social media at that age. Just imagine the stuff that would be out there!” Back then, it was all tape trading but there was the imagery and everybody was in makeup, and we were from a country that a lot of people, like in America, didn’t really hear about. They thought Norway was the capital of Sweden or something. It made it so mysterious and so exotic, and that became part of the expression. These days, the internet is flooded. It’s so hard to get peoples’ attention and not fall into that common stream of thing. I see Leprous, for example, and the amount of work they have had to put in to claim their space compared to what I had to just because they are different times. Obviously, my career has been built up by this mystery and people not knowing shit about us, so Facebook is not my thing. Then again, it’s also interesting, the kind of independence that gives. I’ve been kind of complaining about the music industry, that you don’t sell records anymore. There was that downloading period which more of less disappears now with Spotify and streaming, but the money involved, the whole music ‘product’ has been devalued very much. At the same time, it’s a bad period for music business but creatively, because there is so little money involved I think a lot of artists just go back to the pure enjoyment of music rather than trying to do the right type of song to get the right record label and making it. I think the ‘80s and the ‘90s were more focused on that part of things. An artist like James Blake, for example, would never see the light of day in the ‘80s or ‘90s because you’re back to that point where you make music for your own sake and if you see success then that’s just a lucky coincidence.
Recalling my own starting point, we did everything wrong. Starting a black metal band in 1991 is possibly the worst career choice ever. The odds of having a career based on that, and even having a music career coming from Norway in the first place, is worse than the lottery. I think it’s because of that, that we didn’t try to fit into anything or try to get discovered, the product of what we did became so unique and that was what made it worth something. I’d say for younger artists, the best chance is to do it for your own sake and if you have such passion for it and you become so good at it by your own measurements, you might be so good that it’s worth something for someone else as well. But this whole ‘trying to fit in’ thing? I think that time has passed. From an artistic point of view, it’s a good time for music as an art form.