"The major metal magazines slaughtered Emperor's early albums." How black metal icon Ihsahn ditched corpsepaint and church burnings to become a prog master

Ihsahn 2024
(Image credit: Andy Ford)

Vegard Sverre Tveitan helped change the course of metal while he was still in his teens. The man better known to the wider world as Ihsahn was the vocalist, guitarist and keyboard player with black metal standard-bearers Emperor, whose landmark debut album, 1994’s In The Nightside Eclipse – released when Ihsahn was just 18 – brought a frosty grandiosity to this harshest of genres. 

Derided in many quarters at the time, both Emperor and the scene to which they were central are viewed as hugely influential today. Unlike Emperor guitarist Samoth and drummer Faust, who were convicted of arson and murder respectively, Ihsahn steered clear of direct involvement in the criminality and violence that gave black metal its initial notoriety. 

He remained with his hand on Emperor’s creative tiller until they disbanded in 2001 following their fourth album, Prometheus: The Discipline Of Fire & Demise (they subsequently reunited in 2006, though purely as a live band). For the last 18 years, he’s ploughed a unique furrow as a solo artist, incorporating elements of prog, jazz and pop into his expansive, inventive music. 

His latest, self-titled album is the closest he’s come to returning to his extreme metal roots since the Emperor days, though, in typical Ihsahn fashion, it’s accompanied by a companion album, an entirely orchestral reimaging of the same songs. 

“Music’s an addiction and it has been for as long as I can remember,” he says in his measured and thoughtful way. “I know that sounds pretentious, but it truly feels like it’s a blessing that in many ways I never felt like I had a choice.”

What was your earliest exposure to music? 

“Records would be played and my grandmother had a piano at her house. I showed an early interest and started taking lessons when I was about six or seven. As far as heavier music goes, I grew up on a farm and the neighbour’s twins were two years older than me. When they started school they came back and sang We’re Not Gonna Take It by Twisted Sister to me. I was immediately a fan even though I hadn’t heard the actual track.” 

Was it a working farm and was that your parents’ occupation?

 “My mother worked at the bank and my father was a police officer but also worked the farm with my grandparents. He was bound to take over the farm, and they always thought that I’d take over after him.” 

Were you quite isolated growing up? 

“I was 10 or 11 when I got my first electric guitar and I had one of the old electric organs with built-in rhythms. There were no other kids around after school. I had to take a bus, so much of my time was spent jamming alone. For some strange reason my mother brought home a four-track recorder, so even at 11 I was tracking drums from the organ, recording bass parts and then recording guitar parts. I was putting music together like a puzzle.” 

How big a turning point in your life was meeting your future Emperor bandmate, Samoth? 

“Oh, hugely. I’d tried to join local bands but they didn’t want to go anywhere. [Hometown] Notodden had a blues festival and I met Samoth at a seminar where they got kids to play these blues standards together. He was a year older, in a band with guys who were 15 or 16. I was 13 so in my head he was playing with grown-ups - they came to rehearsal on mopeds! They needed a guitarist and I had long hair and my denim jacket with Iron Maiden patches, so I joined their band.” 

By the time Emperor formed, how aware were you of something developing in Norway? 

“At that time there really wasn’t. In the death metal days before Emperor, we were in touch with Ivar [Bjørnson] and Grutle [Kjellson] from what would become Enslaved. We would go to where they lived by bus and play their youth club. Then we started going to [Mayhem guitarist/black metal central figure] Euronymous’s shop [Helvete, in Oslo] and there was this very similar collective influence from the old Bathory stuff. Darkthrone very early on switched from a death metal style to more old-school black metal stuff, but it was this gradual thing.” 

With the stage names and corpsepaint were you almost playing characters, like a more evil Kiss? 

“When you’re doing music, it’s an artform that kind of uses you. Performing and everything, in some ways you’re a medium, you’re physically part of it. I guess it feels natural to distance it from the private, everyday part of who you are. Especially when you’re young and trying to convince yourself more than anyone else, you try to make yourself into this character you want to be. Pre-internet we only saw this one picture of Quorthon with the pentagram and this one picture of Tom G. Warrior with the bullet belts. It felt very natural to go that route, to really live it. 

“And it wasn’t like we did other things and then played in a band too. It was 24/7. Going to sleep wasn’t in the mentality of black metal. With social media these days you get so close to the artist, which is not necessarily a good thing. It’s almost like a counterpart when you see bands like Ghost or Sleep Token maintaining that distance between artist and music. I’m not sure if people would have connected to our early albums if they’d had this image of spotty teenagers!” 

You adopted corpsepaint early but got rid of it quickly too. Were all the extraneous things surrounding black metal a distraction from the music? 

“They were of course, but I think a lot of the aesthetic and mentality of black metal, what attracted us in the first place, was this non-collective thinking. It was very much based on individuality. We were one of the first bands to adopt the full-on corpsepaint at live shows and also one of the first to leave it behind, because it so quickly became just… a thing. And we wanted to keep evolving and moving.” 

Did you feel a bit apart from the church burnings and violence and everything that went alongside the music in black metal? 

“I’m not sure I felt apart. I was very fortunate to not get involved in any of it in that respect, but I think we were all very consumed with the whole thing. The attention it got. All the negative attention and our local community’s reaction to it, it became fuel to the fire. It exaggerated this feeling of ‘us and them’. So I felt involved like that and in my band there were of course consequences. 

“And you can’t really deny that it kind of validated the seriousness of what we were doing. I heard someone talking about young rap artists these days who start doing criminal activity to give credibility and validity to the things they’re singing about. It’s a very strange teenage thing, some kind of rebellious wish to have power and be taken seriously. To be dangerous. Because when you’re a teenager you’re also so vulnerable. We don’t have to psychoanalyse it all but as a grown-up I think it’s much easier to see how this happened.” 

With that ‘us and them’ mentality, did you feel a sense of belonging to something bigger? 

“Yes and no. Personally, I felt I was connected with the phenomenon, the movement and the whole philosophy. On a more practical level, it was always Samoth who had the network. Every connection we had to all the other Norwegian bands and Euronymous’s shop, that was all him. I was more the nerd tagalong, taking more responsibility for the musical side of things. It’s just my personality. I never got the whole collective thing, which probably goes back to growing up on the farm. When I went to school, I felt like everybody had the rulebook of what was right and wrong, who’s who, and who’s important in the hierarchy. I didn’t get that memo. I’ve come to realise that’s just me.”

Ihsahn 2024

(Image credit: Andy Ford)

Emperor and black metal were derided by much of the mainstream metal press. Do you feel vindication when Emperor are now seen as such an influential band? 

“The major metal magazines absolutely slaughtered our first albums. And then I’ve seen these stories 25 years down the line with the first Emperor album put next to the first Black Sabbath album. I learned very early that you have no control over what people think; the only thing you can trust is your own motivation. If you put your happiness in someone else’s hands, if that’s what controls whether you feel good or bad about yourself, you’re kinda fucked. 

“But then as a consequence I’m not in a position where I can really take in all the positive stuff either. All the external things - the controversy from the beginning and now the feedback based on nostalgia and stature or any sort of cult status - it all becomes part of the same thing and it’s hard for me to connect to either. It’s like I split off those two perspectives early on. Mostly it’s a good thing.” 

It must be gratifying, though, when other musicians say they admire what you’ve done or that you inspired or influenced them? 

“Absolutely, because I know what music has done for me in my life. I know how much artists like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest meant to me, the hours I spent playing along to those records. It’s like they were mentors even though I didn’t know them. If music that I happen to be a part of had a great impact on someone’s life, or if they started playing an instrument because of that, that’s an amazing compliment.”

How did you feel when Emperor split up in 2001? 

“It came to a natural end and we knew. We said, ‘We’ll make one last album then call it quits.’ We were creatively in different places but me and Samoth were proud of the integrity and uncompromising nature of what we did. I think that’s much of the reason why the live shows that we do now still resonate. People trust the format.”

 Was going solo a leap of faith because it succeeds or fails on you? 

“Again, it felt like a natural step. Maybe it was coming to terms with how I work best - going back to all those hours when I was 12 years old, putting together my puzzles. It’s probably some kind of Jungian psychological trauma that stuck with me! Ha ha! I wanted to give myself three records before I played anything live. That’s why all my first albums start with an ‘A’. I set out to do three records to build a new foundation rather than picking up where I left off with Emperor.” 

A while ago you were given a cultural award from the Notodden Municipality. Was it weird that this rebellious black metal kid was now a pillar of the community? 

“Yes, but my wife Heidi was in charge of all cultural works for youths in the area - I was just involved on the teaching side of things. It was easier to give it to me as somebody ‘famous’ to bring attention to the work. I’m sure it was all good intentions but it was embarrassing getting an award for something I didn’t do. It was all my wife’s work!” 

You worked with your wife in Peccatum and she’s had input into your solo work. Is music a big shared part of your relationship? 

“For sure. She’s my secret sparring partner for everything. She’s my best friend and she doesn’t care about any of that outside stuff either. And it is a family affair. I’m a musician, Heidi’s a musician, my youngest brother-in-law, Einar from Leprous, is doing quite well for himself. My mother-in-law is a classical vocal teacher, our kids have been part of that - they’re now getting grown up and starting their own careers in music. It’s an extended family thing as well with bandmembers and crew who become almost like family. It’s a nice culture to be in and to see extend to the next generation as well.” 

Is there anything the next generation could do that would shock the black metal generation? 

“I have been wondering. I hope my kids don’t have to be part of it but what’s the next shocking thing? There was something every decade since Elvis and his hips. People said it can’t get any worse than punk. But since black metal, what’s the next dangerous thing?” 

Your new album is called Ihsahn. Is that a statement in itself? 

“Not necessarily. This is my eighth solo record and there’s a lot of complexity with two different versions of the album, two parallel storylines, there’s a lot of interweaving things. It’s probably the most complex thing I’ve ever done, so it was hard to find a title that would capture all of what it’s about. The themes are core human existential crisis stuff. At the heart of it musically is the extreme metal ensemble but also the full-on traditional orchestra. I’ve been blending these elements since forever, but for a challenge I wanted to write the orchestral side so it’d work within the whole and stand on its own.” 

Is it important to you to keep challenging yourself like that? 

“Oh yes. I have no classical education at all so it was super-hard, but these days you literally have a symphony orchestra at your fingertips and all the other tools you can possibly imagine. I want to add something more to my toolbox and do stuff that I don’t know how to do so I’m slightly uncomfortable going in. I’m so fortunate to have been able to do this throughout my entire life and I want to be as excited going in to make an album now as I was when I was 16.” 

What would 16-year-old Ihsahn think of your music and career? 

“It would be impossible to imagine. The ambition had nothing to do with fame and fortune or prestige or acceptance or money. It was just this intense driving force to fulfil this musical idea. But there’s been stuff like coming back in 2006 [with Emperor] and headlining Wacken Open Air in front of 80,000 people. Whitesnake were playing before us! If someone had told me as a kid that yeah, you’re going to befriend Rob Halford and you’ll see Deep Purple and Whitesnake around you when you’re performing and people will want to build you custom guitars - I’d have died of a heart attack at 10 years old!”

Ihsahn's self-titled new album is out now via Candlelight. Metal Hammer have teamed up with Ihsahn for an exclusive cover bundle, which includes a copy of the new album on cassette. 

Order your bundle here

Paul Travers has spent the best part of three decades writing about punk rock, heavy metal, and every associated sub-genre for the UK's biggest rock magazines, including Kerrang! and Metal Hammer