Metal Contraband’s Chelsea spoke with Ihsahn, to discuss his new self-titled record, the process of releasing an album in the modern landscape of 2024, his origins as a songwriter and musician, the complexity of the new album and its orchestration and arrangements, some musical analysis of Ihsahn’s work, including his unique approach to scales and modes, his interest in film scoring and its challenges, Peccatum and his connection of music and life with his wife Heidi (aka Starofash), partnership with Matt Heafy through Trivium and Ibaraki, and more. Check it out below:

Chelsea here on the phone with Ihsahn, you have a new self-titled album out now on Candlelight Records, and I’m very excited to talk to you about it. How are you doing today? 

I’m very good. Thank you. And you? 

Doing awesome, I’ve just been listening to your new self-titled, it’s an amazing record and everybody’s really been looking forward to this release. So how are you feeling now that this project is officially complete? 

It’s been very gratifying, the whole process. And now that it’s out there, arguably it was…I’ve been finished, you know, I delivered masters on the 1st of April last year. So it’s been quite a long time waiting to be released, with everything that went into it with, you know, artwork and Atmos mixes, and I think a total of nine different video content things that accompany everything. So it takes a while, but all in all, I couldn’t be happier with how everything came together. It’s a subjective thing, of course, but it’s nice when all the checkpoints that you wanted to check are kind of crossed off at the end of the day. It’s not always like that when you release an album. 

No, that’s true, yeah, so that’s one of those projects that’s worth the wait in a sense, because you have everything done on your end, but you’ve got all these little details and things to pay attention to that will just make the final result all the more worthwhile. 

Yeah, well, it was a very…I mean, in perspective of being a 2024 release, I’ve probably done everything wrong. You know, like, not one, but a dual concept album with two parallel storylines, it’s a really long format and a lot of details that bleed into each other with visuals that accompany different storylines and all this and generally, people’s attention span is about 10 seconds. So, again, I did everything wrong in relation to how things are usually done. But yeah, I’m very, very, very pleased with how it all came together. 

Yes. But I mean, that’s what an artistic venture is though. It’s not necessarily gearing it towards what’s popular, or what’s going to trend on TikTok or whatever, but what actually is a satisfying creative process for you and what you envisioned in bringing that to life, for sure. 

Oh, thank you for underlining that. You know, if fame and fortune and recognition and pats on the back were the main motivation, I hardly would have started playing black metal back in ’91. That would be a very bad idea. 

No, but you have a great fan base that definitely has been really anticipating this album very highly and the fact that you came through with pretty much a masterpiece, not even going to lie, just such a unique combo of instrumentation, orchestration, very unique sounds. I think this is the sort of thing that was worth that creative venture. And I’m not going to say that it’s not popular or not the fame and fortune in that sense, because you’ve had a wonderful reception to it and it’s a great product overall. Now, we know that you are the one who wrote, played every instrument, produced the album. I mean, this is really a one-man band in a sense. But of course, you do have a few other musicians involved, but it’s mainly you. So, what did that process look like physically? Did you bounce ideas off others or was it a very self-contained time of you playing and recording all of this?

For most of it, that would be the case. But of course, my secret “bouncing ideas” partner with everything creative for the last, you know, 27 years or so, it would be my wife. But it is a rather solitary experience, which I enjoy. People associate with me often with my old band Emperor, which of course is more like a band. But prior to playing in bands, my first love of putting together songs and making music was myself, my guitar, a four-track tape recorder and an organ. I’ve been thinking about this kind of like, I started out alone and then that led me to venture into the band thing where I’ve also and eventually ended up just doing everything, and just due to consequences of my way of working, ended up doing solo work. But I just enjoy piecing together the puzzle. There’s a lot of work going into, especially a dual layered album like this, and by far, I’ve said this many times now, but this is by far the most complex record that I’ve ever made. But also tenfold rewarding in the sense that everything that I got to learn, and have deep focus on during the process of making it was like, extremely satisfying for me. Because I never want my job to be boring and repetitive. You know, I love what I do too much. 

That’s a good place to be. And this, this album is far from boring or repetitive. That’s for sure. I mean, you really do experiment with a lot of different things and you are truly a one-man band doing vocals, guitar, bass, keyboard, drums. I’m curious about —

I’m not doing the drums. I do program drums, but I’m very fortunate to have in my band, on recordings and elsewhere, two drummers who interchanged depending on availability for live shows. Tobias Ørnes and Tobias Solbakk, they’re both named Tobias which is very practical on tour. *laughs* But no, but honestly, two of Norway’s absolutely most talented drummers. For this album, given its rather complex nature, I actually brought both of them on board and divided the songs between them equally, and had them both in the studio at the same time to kind of bounce off that kind of drummer language in between themselves. And I was also fortunate to work with Chris Baum, who did an amazing job layering all the Violin I and Violin II parts for this album.

Very cool, that’s great. I mean, it’s mainly a solo project, but you do have a few others to move forward that creative process. Still coming back to the instruments that you do play, I am curious about the progression of learning each of those instruments for you. Was it something where you just kept picking up one instrument after another, or something that drew you to each one? Now that I’m hearing, that you kind of always started with solo stuff, was it more out of convenience? Like, “well, I need this part played, so I’m just going to play it myself”, kind of deal?

That’s always been my reasoning for doing stuff. I’ve always loved playing guitar. I started out when I was like six, taking piano lessons and all that. But I fell in love with playing the guitar. But I’m not very proficient on either. But of course, when you can play guitar, you can play a bit of bass, you know, so it’s always out of necessity of what kind of music I wanted to record and perform. When you can play some kind of stringed instruments and you know your way around the black and white keys of a keyboard, you can do a lot, especially with today’s technology. Every new project that I’ve been doing over the years, I always try to add this element of something new, an educational element, if you will. And hopefully I picked up a trick or two along the way of doing this for over 30 years. But yeah, so it’s always out of necessity of the songs I want to create. And this album in particular, given that I, from the get-go, I wanted to write this in a way so that the orchestral arrangements worked as a support arrangement to the black metal version of the album, but also in a way so that they would function individually as their own thing. That was quite a challenge, so naturally, you learn a bit of a few tricks along the way by doing something like that as well. 

Absolutely. No, I did notice that with the orchestral elements as well. They do feel like a support in a sense that the guitar has a place to stand out, but yet at the same time, the guitar works with the orchestration. It doesn’t necessarily sound like a solo instrument all of the time. It sounds like you are part of the orchestra, but then the orchestra is part of you at the same time. It’s a good blend and mix towards everything. 

Oh, thank you. No, this is something that always bothered me, also from making that mistake a number of times over my career, because I love, you know, the big orchestral sounds. I loved all those old 80s and 70s movie soundtracks and the grandeur of it. I’ve attempted, and many bands have done it successfully in the past, but oftentimes you will make the mistake of the density of an extreme metal arrangement, just sonically so extreme. And then you try to superimpose a big orchestra on top of that. And as a consequence, both have to be smaller, you know, in perception. This time I really tried to integrate it in such a way that, where the density of the metal arrangement required that space, I wanted to have the orchestra back off, and where the metal arrangement was more open, the orchestra could bloom more. So it’s not writing a metal record and trying to superimpose orchestra on top of that. I literally wrote everything without guitars and without orchestra, just with piano sounds, sketching it out as a short score. Just like the core musical elements, like chordal structures, bass parts, melody lines, countermelody lines, embellishments, just with piano sounds, and then applying that to the instruments, kind of treating a traditional symphony orchestra setup, plus three guitars, a bass, drums and screaming vocals, and just applying that music to the totality of that ensemble in a way. I’m not sure if that maybe that’s very nerdy and detailed for what your listeners might be interested in. *laughs*

*laughs* Maybe for some, but I think others will definitely get it and love to hear the behind the scenes process. And me personally, I’m a musician myself and I’ve studied music, so I love hearing this as well. And it sounds like that’s how you’re achieving that very natural way of everything blending together, in nothing is forced, nothing is superimposed. Like you said, you’re coming back to the fundamental harmonies and counterpoint and melodies of just the essential music and then figuring out how that works and what that path looks like in the orchestration instead of just forcing and jamming everything together, basically. *laughs*

Yeah, but I think, you know, any record producer would say that like a great mix starts with a good arrangement, and then whether it’s metal guitars involved or not, when you’re bringing a lot of instruments together, like in a symphony orchestra, there are compromises and if you double up the trumpets with piccolos, even if it’s an octave higher, you won’t necessarily individually perceive the piccolo as its own thing. It just makes the trumpet sound brighter. So whatever ensemble you’re kind of writing for, you have to take into consideration how they can blend, you blend the colors like on a color palette.

Exactly. That makes sense.

And unlike yourself, I never studied music. So this is more of a trial and error and personal education on my part, that probably took the long run. 

No, but I mean, that’s sometimes the better instance in a way, because when you’re going about things that way, then you don’t think about them too analytically. You’re not studying it on paper, you’re just feeling it, and listening to it, and feeling what sounds like it would be good and learning those lessons for the future. The next time you sit down to write, you realize, “okay, well that worked. How can I develop that further? How can I keep that idea and go somewhere else with it?”

Yeah, absolutely. But all these things have always fascinated me because this was also something that I wanted to do. I always make these kind of dogmas and limitations for myself, especially because I work solo, and you don’t have the push and pull of individual opinions within the band, or what have you. But to kind of focus the creative energy to one big goal rather than just have everything be random. So I like to kind of formulate some kind of ensemble before I start writing the actual music. Also, I’ve done more experimental stuff in relation to using saxophone, or eight string guitars and all this in the past, but at the heart of the ingredients of this album, a rather standard black metal ensemble and a very standard symphony orchestra setup. And the lyrical concept is also very based on old archetypical figures like Dionysus, and Apollo, and Prometheus. So there’s really nothing new, but my approach with the duality of how I wrote it, also limiting myself to only non-diatonic chord progressions, and doing the deep dive into the tonic scales and polychords and Messiaen’s modes and all this. It’s like using all the ingredients that I know, but trying to apply them to a harmonic language, and harmonic colors that I haven’t really been deep diving and focusing so much in the past. So that was kind of the unknown factor of this project for me. 

Gotcha, that’s very cool. And you mentioned before about film soundtracks and how that always appealed to you. And honestly, the opening track alone sounds like it would be a beautiful film score on its own. Have you ever gotten to the scoring or soundtrack world at all, or is that something that would interest you? 

I would love to. My wife did a score for an Irish film some years back, and I’ve always been fascinated with that format, and really would like to do something, have an opportunity to do something like that myself. But it’s a very hard world to get into, I think. At least from the interviews I see, when they interview any of the more well-known composers, they talk about whatever music they did before. And then they worked for Hans Zimmer, and now they’re making film music. *laughs* 

It is a pretty strict world as well. You know, deadlines can get very crazy in the film scoring world. And I feel like the pressure is on more so than when you’re taking on a solo venture. You know, occasionally labels can put on that deadline pressure, but I feel like film scores are just very, very strict and it can be restricting on a composer. 

I’ve heard it’s very, yeah, very strict. And also the amount of music you have to write. I saw this with Brian Reitzel, who did the soundtrack for the Hannibal series. And even though that was highly improvised musical themes, it’s still something like 42 or 43 minutes of music a week, which is crazy. 

Definitely. And you’ve mentioned your wife a couple of times, I did want to ask you a bit about Peccatum, which was such a cool band, somewhat gothic, avant-garde, a touch of dark wave to it, just a great collaboration between you and your wife. And I know you guys haven’t done it in a number of years, but I would love to hear about some of the creative process behind that project while you were doing it. 

Well, it came out about an idea of just, because we were all taking, classical singing lessons because my mother-in-law is a classical singing teacher, and we were studying some composition with an older composer from this area. And just a very high enthusiasm between us to do something radically different, and throw all traditional band conventions out of the window and just see what happened. I think we, especially with the Lost in Reverie album, I think we ended up in a very interesting place with that. But then, after a while, I think we kind of spread out, that was the kind of common denominator for all our creative work for a period, and that it kind of extended into the studios that we have and everything else that we do. So, Mnemosyne Productions became kind of the larger umbrella, and within that, now I do my solo albums. She’s still working with her own releases under Starofash. And we’ve been producing for other bands. So our, our creative collaboration is still ongoing, but it’s just the not on the same albums. And as I said, she’s always my creative sparring partner for everything that I do. And I hope I have a similar role for her. 

Oh, that’s great. And that’s, that’s wonderful to hear that as well. No, you also have a great partnership with Matt Heafy. You’ve done a lot of work on Trivium and Ibaraki tracks and he’s done some vocals for you too on Arctis, for example. So how did you two first connect?

We were connected through my friend, Darren Toms at Candlelight Records, and that must’ve been back in 2009, 2010. And because Matt, he has always been a fan of all kinds of music, I think, but also extreme music, and a fascination for Norwegian black metal from way back. And through that connection, we talked about, he always wanted to kind of dip his toe into that more extreme side of things. And want to do something inspired by his passion for the Norwegian black metal scene and all that. And he wanted me to produce it. But then, you know, I’m a busy guy, he’s a busy guy. *laughs* These things tend to take time. But when the pandemic hit, we finally had an opportunity, both of us, to get together and make the album. But during all those years, we were back and forth and demos and everything. And we ended up in a place where, I’m very happy that we did, instead of trying to lean on his associations with something that was very foreign to him, with the Norwegian Black Metal and Norse gods and what have you, we found a place where he could explore the similar mythologies and similar dilemmas and juxtapositions within his own roots, in his Japanese roots, which I think made the project even more interesting, and more personal and have a deeper integrity from his perspective. So I’m very proud of what we managed to achieve. And he’s such a lovely guy and so open and still versatile. So this was like the really first album that I officially produced for someone else, and he made that process so much easier for me. 

Very cool. No, I agree. That was such a unique approach as well. And it helps it have that integrity, like you said, where you’re still using genre conventions of keeping it as a “Black Metal” album, but because that has the strong roots in the Northern European region, taking it and putting it into, to his roots and his origins was definitely a very cool kind of twist on the genre in a sense. 

Yeah, and that made it also even more interesting to me, you know, rather than trying to play on kind of my experiences and my kind of natural habitat, if you will, here in Norway, and that kind of culture. It was much more interesting for him, since it’s his project, to define the similarities within the roots of his own culture in Japan and to really dig deep into that. That was also made all the approaches and all the songs more interesting for me to work on as well. Yeah, let’s hope we get to do another one.

Yeah, exactly! Well, for right now, the focus, of course, is the new self-titled Ihsahn album. It’s on many people’s radars and playlists, and it’s a fantastic musical work, and I do congratulate you on the release and great work. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. 

Thank you so much for the kind words and for the support. It was good talking to you. 

Thank you so much. Before we wrap up, can you give us a little quick outlook on what’s coming up in the world of Ihsahn? 

Right now, I’ve been doing loads and loads of press, which is of course great that people pay attention and want to hear about what I might do. But I just played my first show with my solo band a few weeks back in London, where I incorporated the new material and I can happily report I’m very confident about how the new songs translate live on stage. It’s sometimes hard to tell before you actually go there. And yeah, this weekend I came back from Glasgow and Dublin playing with Emperor. And that’s probably how the rest of the next six, seven, eight months will look like for me, with playing back-to-back with Emperor, and my solo stuff all across Europe and some other places as well. Sometimes even on the same day on the same festival. So it will be busy, but hopefully…Within that time, I can find some time to actually start writing again. But yeah, there will be no long days on the couch. 

Fair enough. But as a musician, those days are rare anyway. So good for you!

They are, thank you so much. 

Of course. Thank you so much again for talking with me. This has been awesome to get some insight into your creative process. So, best of luck with the press and the shows. Hope to be seeing you out there soon. Thank you so much. 

Thank you.