Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Ihsahn has released two EPs this year with Telemark back in February and Pharos in September. Metal Insider contributor Jeff Podoshen called Pharos the yin to Telemark’s yang as they explore the dark and lighter side of the Emperor singer’s evolving style. We caught up with the mastermind to discuss Pharos, his extensive musical career, to his experience on this year’s 70000tons of metal just before the pandemic cancelled all shows and discussing how coincidences happen in album artworks.
The new EP, Pharos, in a way is the complete opposite from Telemark. What was the thought process behind going into two different directions?
First of all it was kind of a change of approach. I guess I realized that I’ve been releasing quite consistently another full length album every second year since I was 16. Now I’m 44, so it was nice to do something else. But more importantly, I think because of growing up with ’80s albums and these conceptual things that I have, I guess, a feeling for an album being not just a collection of songs but rather separate parts of a larger puzzle. Like with Iron Maiden albums, there’s a natural ebb and flow. The songs are kind of connected to the artwork, and it all comes together. Then there are elements of, I mean I’ve had kind of poppy elements in my albums and I’ve had extreme elements, but for now I decided to single out the two extremes and distill that part and to move further in either direction. It was spurred off by my wife challenging me to do something purely black metal related again. As a challenge that kind of resulted in the first ideas for Telemark, and to not get too bored, I came up with the counterpart that was Pharos.
You have a few cover songs on Pharos, such as Portishead’s “Roads,” what made you select cover songs?
It was a very similar approach when I did Telemark where I also picked two cover songs before that would build the textual pellet of the original songs that I wanted to write. In the same way, I picked the two cover songs that covered a lot of texture that I wanted to implement on the original songs of the EP. I would say Portishead starts out with the very quiet loop based, almost dub style element where everything is performed so quietly. Beth Gibbons’s voicein that breaking range, but at the same time all the production and the sound texture of all the sounds are really at the verge of distorting, so there’s an extreme tension to this very low key and mellow expression. Then with the A-Ha, “Manhattan Skyline,” which is kind of a rather complex pop song by today’s standards, where it starts off in this almost ambiguous melancholic 3/4 vibe and then moves something to a 4/4 pre-chorus that is really hard and guitar driven, and then moves back again to the 3/4 but this time and this huge, larger than life pop, ’80s chorus. So the two songs combine, what can I say, four levels of musical texture from that side of music that I really wanted to explore.
I enjoyed your take on the Portishead track. It’s a different layer or view of it while maintaining some of the original structure. I wanted to ask, what has been keeping you busy during this pandemic? Are you working on new music?
Yeah, I mean, I was very fortunate to be able to switch gears when this hit, because this was right at the start. I mean, the weekend at least Norway was shut down. We were supposed to be playing in Moscow with Emperor, so it was canceled just 12 hours before lights or something. I was very happy to not be standing on the Russian border. But shortly after I was supposed to, because both these EPs were intended to be performed on stage, so I was supposed to premier my Telemark show in the region at Inferno Festival and basically do a live set based on the aesthetics of that EP, and do that through the summer. Then by the release of this Pharos EP I wanted to do a set and do a European tour, a set list with more of the mellow, progressive elements of my catalog, so kind of singling out the two and building on, on the releases, but that didn’t happen. Suddenly we all had a lot of time on our hands. Me and Matt from Trivium, we’ve been pitching back and forth material for a solo album. After 10 years we finally had time to really delve into that, so I’m happy to say that by now we are like 98% finished recording and producing his solo album and on the finishing process of that, and I’ve just started writing material for my next full length. For the rest of the year I will prioritize writing for my next full album again.
You have been consistently releasing new music, and it’s always excellent work. It’s interesting having a break with the two EPs before your next full length album. I wanted to bring up the time you shared Taylor Swift’s album artwork and compared it to Telemark. Do you think that was a coincidence or is there something more to it? For instance, is mainstream music taking some sort of inspiration from different genres?
Oh, I’m sure it’s a total coincidence, absolutely total coincidence. There was David Thierree who did the drawings for my artwork, I think it was he who brought it to my attention. He did this collage thing where he put two covers together and it could basically be the same picture. It was really funny since it’s worlds apart, Taylor Swift’s music and mine, it’s worlds apart, so it’s just a very funny coincidence. But I kind of regret posting it because it got a lot of attention, unintentionally, and with all this kind of PC, or I don’t know what you call it even, but people accusing me of wanting to sue Taylor Swift for whatever. Totally blown out of proportion. Of course even Norwegian major media picked up on it, and you get a lot of attention for stuff that is absolutely pointless, and attention you never get when you actually release something worthwhile. But that’s just the way of the world. People like controversy, and it was not meant as a controversy thing to post, it was just a very funny coincidence.
It was hysterical seeing the comparison, and you do see a lot of different album artworks that are very similar so it makes you wonder if there is a hidden inspiration because that would have been a real interesting story, but you’re right, it was most likely just a coincidence.
I’m sure there’s an element to that, in general, and I’ve actually seen that stuff was not the same, I didn’t post that, but the photographer I used for my press shots and generally, he’s a local guy, but he’s doing a lot of outdoor things as well. He was actually sponsored, as a photographer and Instagrammer, he was sponsored by a Norwegian sweater company, a very well established one called Devil. I’m not sure if you saw, I did some very arctic photos for my album Arktis where I had like this white turtleneck, woolen sweater in this very icy Norwegian landscape. A few months passed and he was sponsored by this company that coincidentally had the brand of the sweater I was wearing. We were looking for some sweaters in that shop, and suddenly we saw pictures of Norwegian artist, Sigrid, I think is kind of a big pop artist, in a very, very similar landscape modeling for that. They were almost identical frames, and pictures, and the color tone, and everything was identical, but as commercials for their sweaters, using a pop artist. In that respect, I’m no doubt that they saw his pictures and wanted to build on that.
It’s interesting how things come in full circle. Looking back at pre-COVID days, you were faced with a number of challenges during your performance at this year’s 70,000 Tons of Metal. I wanted to know if there’s anything you wanted to say from that experience.
I think being stuck on a boat for five days went smoother than I initially prepared. All in all it was a very positive experience, I think. I had been reluctant to do the cruise. I’ve been offered many times and somehow could not see myself on stage or on a boat for five days in the Atlantic, but when we first ended up being there I had a really good experience. As for my second show being cut very short, I think it was very responsible of the crew and arrangers to think of security first. There were lamps, really heavy gear that potentially could hit the audience. There’s no rock show worth taking that risk. Everybody understood that and you have to expect something like that when you’re in the middle of the sea.
Of course. I remember, I think the second pool deck set was a very, very windy set. I was impressed by how controlled everybody appeared to be.
Yeah, I know. It was a challenge, but I was just talking to some of your Canadian colleagues, and we played Heavy Montreal with Emperor in 2018. It seems to happen to us a lot, both with Emperor and my solo stuff. At those festivals I think the weather is beautiful. 15 minutes before we go on, there is always heavy weather. I’m not superstitious or anything, but sometimes it works to our advantage and sometimes we get cut short. Yeah. All in all, as long as you make the best of the situation, and be decent about it, and not to rage as a band or be a drama queen about it, I think most people will have an understanding that everybody in the crew and audience and everything will do the best to make it safe and enjoyable for all involved.
Of course. While it remains uncertain when shows are going to fully pick up again, do you have any plans for a livestream or virtual tour?
We have, of course, been discussing that. At first I just steered off the idea because everyone seemed to be jumping, just desperately putting something out there. It’s something that I wouldn’t hurry into, but depending on how the situation develops I think that would be a natural next step. I have some colleagues who are developing some really, really interesting ideas for how to produce and present live shows like that. I think that is very interesting.
Because Norwegian Shining, it was quite early on to do a live performance like that, and in some very special locations. I kind of took part and guested one song there, and it seemed to be, as long as it’s professionally put together, I think it can be a good alternative for a while. Not a full substitution, but something worthwhile. I think it needs to be done properly. I think Trivium recently did something really spectacular and watched the Behemoth show. There are definitely people out there who can … I’ll try to see if we can take some inspiration from that and see if we can do something nice down the line if the world doesn’t change immediately.
It’s definitely questionable, but it’s nice seeing bands like Behemoth getting really creative with ideas for a livestream, making it more unique than others.
Exactly. Yeah. That’s the way to go. I think that you make it something special because that’s where we’re at now, that albums don’t matter as much as they did in the ’80s and ’90s, so the exclusive experience for an audience who loves music will be a live show. Whether that is online, or if it’s on tour, I think making the effort to make every performance there something special, it’s what it’s about. The bands that manage to do that make something spectacular and something special, whether you’re in the room or not. I think that might be the way to go.
Is there anything else that you want to say or add to your fans?
I can only say thank you for all continued support, and I hope we all can come back to something approximating normal sooner rather than later, that we will have a music industry and the live scene to come back to. I hope everybody stays safe and partly sane, and that people still will continue to love good music. I’ve been so fortunate, I’ve had my life in music, as I mentioned, since I was very, very young. The older I get, I guess the more humble I accept that it’s such a lucky draw that I can spend my life doing music and that I have people supporting it, so I’m very thankful for that.
It is awesome. Hopefully, things will get back to normal and we’ll be able to see you guys at a festival, or appearance, or tour, or something in the near future.
We were supposed to be, I was supposed to be in the states several times already, just in the next couple of months. We were supposed to be in Japan. Let’s hope we can make up for it soon again.