Thursday, October 26, 2017

Re-Born to Rule: Mortiis Embraces His Dark Past

One of the many faces of Mortiis (Photo credit: ANGST-IM-WALD)


That’s likely the first thing that most people who are peripherally familar with former Emperor member Mortiis think of whenever his name is mentioned. Yes, the long-running underground musician (a.k.a. Håvard Ellefsen) has drawn considerable attention over the years for his ever-changing (and always out there) image. But those who have taken the time to listen with more than their eyes have also experienced a truly gifted composer who has produced everything from epic Ambient tracks to some of the finest Industrial Metal ever released.

So where does someone start if they want to understand and appreciate Mortiis’ incomparable body of work? Read on.

Those of you who are being introduced to Mortiis for the first time through this piece currently have a unique opportunity to learn about the man through revitalizations of his earliest work. Recent times have seen Mortiis partner with the Foreign Sounds label in reissuing a selection of recordings from what is commonly known as “Era I” of his career. This period is defined by a series of recordings in the ’90s that found him creating atmospheric (and often bombastic) music delivered in lengthy, keyboard-driven songs. The latest “Era I” recording to get the Foreign Sounds reissue treatment, 1994’s Født til a herske (“Born To Rule”), will be available beginning November 10 on vinyl (200 black, 200 forest green and 100 brown/green variant) and CD (limited to 500 digipaks). This US-only release features extraordinary updated artwork by David Thiérrée.

In addition to the Born To Rule revamp, Morttis will delve even deeper into his past work when he performs a live interpretation of his 1994 album Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør The Spirit That Rebelled”) during the November 3-4 Cold Meat Industry 30th Anniversary celebration in Stockholm, Sweden. Those who are interested in checking out this amazing record can download it for free – a gift from the man himself HERE.

Mortiis and I discuss his current journey through his musical past – and much more – in the following interview.

What led to this new reissue of Born To Rule?

Christopher [Ashley] from Foreign Sounds was up my backside a little bit about reissuing stuff on cassette. About a year and a half ago, he started emailing me; at that time, I didn’t feel ready to reissue all these things. I had a bit of a strained relationship with my early stuff. For a long time, I felt like it wasn’t really cutting it and it wasn’t good enough. But that boils down a lot more to my own insecurities and periods of depression that I went through and drawing up all these ideas about my early shit being crap. It took a long time for me to kind of kill that illusion. The old stuff is what it is; it’s charming and original and everything. It just took me a long time to realize that it has value.

So he was on me, kind of emailing me now and then. Every couple of months, he’d say, ‘Hey, have you changed your mind? Is there any chance we can do this?’ Finally, I kind of relented and said, ‘Okay, let’s put these tapes out.’ Cassettes were coming back, and I thought that was kind of interesting, cool and underground. That’s where I started out as a kid – with tape-trading. I have a certain nostalgic relationship to that format. So that’s how it started; he put out the demo [The Song Of The Long Forgotten Ghost], Born To Rule and Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør, which is the second record, and Keiser av en Dimensjon Ukjent Emperor Of A Dimension Unknown), which is the third record. He put out these four releases on cassette. It kind of did okay; we sold a few hundred copies of each. We did zero fucking… It’s underground, literally no promo or anything. It was cool; Christopher is really easy to deal with, and I’m pretty easy to deal with. He asked me, ‘What are the chances of putting out Born To Rule on vinyl?’ I was like, ‘As long as you just sell it in the States, because that’s the only place where I still have the rights.’ Earache Records owns it for the rest of the world. He was into that, and the whole thing just kind of grew from putting it out again to getting in touch with David Thiérrée, who does this really folk-ish, epic, mysterious artwork. I thought, ‘This guy would be perfect to illustrate that first record.’ The Born To Rule album has been out with a couple of different sleeves, but the original one – which had me in this helmet and sort of just pointing my finger – just looks a bit, what’s the word? Regal? Like, ‘Off with his head!’ (laughs) It turned out really kind of cool and became a little bit of a symbol. So he just redrew that and put it in this strange, mysterious, folklorish-type of setting. I fucking love it, man; it really came out way beyond what I was kind of hoping for.

Listening to Born To Rule, The Spirit That Rebelled and the first demo now, one thing that still stands out for me still is how rich those compositions are. What professional musical training did you receive prior to the recording of those things?

Oh, dude – none! I just played by ear. I was probably a better keyboard player back then than I am now because now it’s all about the programming. I’m horrible at it now, and I was pretty awful at it back then. (laughs) As the ’90s were closing and I was entering my horrible depression period, I would listen to the old stuff and all I could hear were the playing mistakes and the parts where it was obviously very dissonant. For some reason, my ears didn’t connect with the fact that some of these notes weren’t harmonizing at all. I wasn’t able to see the big picture with these old ‘Era I’ things, and that just made me very depressed. But I’m beyond that now. I’m re-doing The Spirit That Rebelled for this Cold Meat Industry festival… I’m doing a 2017 fucking interpretation. There are a lot of playing mistakes and weird stuff on that record. I’m surprised people aren’t seeing it! You ask if I had formal training; I’m like, ‘What? Are you fucking crazy!’ (laughs) That is not format training; that is a 19-year-old guy with a crazy vision who’s going at it. That’s all that is. But I suppose as some primal level, that’s what people connect with – its super-honest and straight from the heart.

Why did you recently make The Spirit That Rebelled available as a free download?

This is probably going to sound a little bit cynical, but I don’t think the kids really care because it’s still free. It was something I did when we decided to do the Cold Meat Industry festival. I’ve done so much DIY in 30 years, and I’ve been so involved in the label and marketing and every fucking step of the way in terms of making a record and getting it out to people, that I think my marketing business brain has gotten somewhat cultivated. Of course, my immediate thought was, ‘Well fuck man, I own that record! Earache Records can’t really do anything about it.’ They own a lot of my stuff; there’s a bunch of records I can’t really do much with, but that’s one of the ones that I can still control. So I went, ‘Fuck it, man! As we announce this thing, why don’t we just put that record out there free?’ That’s the one I’m interpreting for this show anyway. It was kind of a cool combo; that’s all there is to it, really. On the cynical side, it’s a marketing tool. On the cool artist fucking rebellious ‘fuck you, record industry’ side, it’s a gift from me to all the people who might want to check it out.

That album, Born To Rule and the first demo came out during the early years of Mortiis shortly after your time in Emperor. The stuff you were doing in that period of time was obviously quite different than the band you had just left. What was the initial reaction to that early work like from the Black Metal scene at the time?

It was good, man. I had almost a perfect track record in terms of response up until I signed with Earache. The Stargate record came out in 1999, and the bigger magazines and the ‘proper media’ started [covering] it. That’s when the fucking shitstorm started and people were going, ‘You fucking suck! You’re an idiot! You have a horrible image!’ They loved Slipknot’s image – that’s like nine Mortiises in one band! They were putting millions in fucking advertising dollars, so of course those guys can’t be slagged off – although they had the exact same fucking image [as I did] in those days, if you really think about it. There was really very little difference – just masks and extreme shit in two different directions. But culturally, it’s pretty much from the same place – but one guy gets the ax and the other guys gets the blowjobs! But I digress.

Nine out of 10 times, the Black Metal guys were fucking into it. Looking back, and this sounds degrading to myself, but what I was doing back then was really kind of like the long versions of the intros that Black Metal bands would be using anyway. At least for the first record, my entire audience was Black Metal guys.

Emperor has certainly had a considerable history since your time with them, and [frontman] Ihsahn has been releasing interesting solo recordings –

Has he? (laughs) Sorry. He’s a really nice guy; I’m just not really…It’s too technical. It’s too fucking… I don’t know… music teacher shit, you know what I mean? Like, ‘Hey, look at how good you can get technically.’ But is it interesting in terms of music and songs? I don’t know, but that’s just me.

Have you had much of an opportunity to follow what they’ve done in the years since those initial times?

Well, we have the internet now, so it’s not really difficult to check it out. I see their name here and there. Of course, for some reason, every year Emperor does a fucking shitload of festival shows – which is odd for a band that’s not supposed to exist. But that’s their choice. I see that they’re doing stuff, and I know Ihsahn has his thing and now they’re playing a little bit sometimes. That’s about it, man, to be honest. When I left Emperor, they did their In The Nightside Eclipse sort of Black Metal record; since then, it’s kind of drifted into more of a technical/Death Metal area, hasn’t it? Especially with [Emperor member] Samoth’s Zyklon project and The Wretched End. He went back to the kind of musical guy he was in the ’80s, which was like a Death Metal dude, you know? That’s where both me and him started out – as Death Metal fans. He kind of went back to that, and I went my own ways when I had my Gothic period and my Industrial period and my fucking Iggy and The Stooges and Misfits period. (laughs) I was really discovering stuff, and I think he went back to his roots, to be honest. He might feel differently.

The three of us met and jelled in 1991/1992, and then we just blasted off into all different directions as individuals. That said, I haven’t really paid too much attention. I keep in touch with Tomas – Samoth – on and off, so I kind of have an idea of what he is doing, but Ihsahn I haven’t spoken to in forever. We were kind of close in the Emperor days and a little bit after that, too. We got along quite well, but people drift apart. I moved to a different town, etcetera etcetera. I moved to Sweden for fucking six years, too. It’s not like I was the easiest guy to fucking get a hold of.

What can we expect from Mortiis is 2018?

Mortiis as a band that’s putting out the crossover Industrial Metal stuff is a little bit on hiatus right now. Touring with that band was done occasionally, and it was always a fucking pain in the ass because we always got fucked over by organizers. It was like work your ass off so you can break even. Take time off of work and put your family through four weeks of way fucking less money than they’re used to. It becomes hard to justify after a while. So right now, that project s alive, but is it currently a touring entity? It’s not at all. Maybe in 2018 we can regroup, but I think we just needed a break from the bullshit and clean our fucking heads out and find out what we’re going to do. Right now, for me, my basic focus is just getting this Spirit record interpretation up and good to go, and then I’ve got like three festivals confirmed…I’m hoping for a little more to happen. We’re taking about London and Glasgow. As for the States, that’s always a fucking pain in the ass because of the way the work visas are set up these days. It’s absolutely grim; it’s almost impossible to get it unless you apply like a year in advance, and you have to pay a fuckload of money. It’s like you have to play a handful of decently paid shows to just fucking break even from legally working in the States. It’s fucking rough as shit.

It’s been roughly 25 years since the beginning of Mortiis. What has been your greatest accomplishment under that name so far?

Surviving, I guess. We’ve been through so many failures and disappointments. You read a history of so many bands, and they always break up over money or the fact that they’ve not becoming successful enough. They just vaporize and decide to become fucking doctors or plumbers or fucking whatever. They just give up on that dream. I’m not dreaming still; I think I gave up on the dream and became realistic. Now I’m just doing it because I like doing it. It’s a creative outlet. Maybe the reason why I’m still doing it is because I would probably go fucking mental if I didn’t have something to do that is creative like that. What am I going to do – go to work, go home, eat dinner and fucking take a nap and wait for some fucking nighttime talk show to come on? What the fuck? I can do that stuff, too, but I need this fucking other creative outlet in my life at the same time. I’ve got to stay sane. If I didn’t do this, I would definitely fall into the biggest goddamn depression of all time. It’s a way to keep the fucking demons at bay.

Back in the old days, of course I had this unrealistic dream of selling a fuckload of records and becoming like a big rock star. Everybody has that; they want to be as successful as possible. But after all these years, fuck that. If people like it, that’s great. If I can do some shows now and then and get a little bit of money in my pocket, that’s fucking great, too. It’s a part of my DNA now; I can’t just rip it out. It’s been too long, and I’m in this for the long haul. It’s too late to turn back.

*Portions of the above interview were edited for clarity.

UPDATE: Mortiis’ Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør and Keiser av en Dimensjon Ukjent albums have been reissued on various vinyl colors and can be purchased from


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