by Niklas Göransson
Before giving rise to the dungeon synth genre, Mortiis was the bass player of one of Norway’s most notorious bands: Emperor. In this candid retrospective, we explore his deeply formative years in the black metal reality
This is an excerpt from the full article, which is twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #7. The same issue also includes conversations with BLACK WITCHERY, GOSPEL OF THE HORNS, MACABRE OMEN, THORYBOS, ANTEDILUVIAN, ATLANTEAN KODEX, MGŁA, Cold Meat Industry, MONUMENTUM, WARLOGHE, ORDO TEMPLI AETERNAE LUCIS, and HEXVESSEL.
– This would’ve been around spring ’91, when Slayer Mag #8 came out – the one with that legendary Euronymous and Dead interview where they lay down the law in terms of, ‘Black metal is like this, death metal is like that. And it’s a lifestyle.’ All this really resonated with me. I thought, ‘Fuck, I love what they’re saying here. It feels right.’ That interview changed my whole approach to music, my interests, and the direction I wanted to take.
Shortly thereafter, Mortiis was invited to participate in an as-of-yet unnamed THOU SHALT SUFFER side-project. Like Mortiis, guitarist and vocalist Ihsahn grew up in Notodden – about half an hour from Akkerhaugen, where the drummer, Samoth, lived.
– I guess they’d read the same interview. I was so sceptical about bands that I needed some convincing; it took them a couple of weeks to coax me into becoming their bass player. When I joined, the band essentially consisted of two songs with no vocals or titles. I had some lyrics lying around, “Forgotten Centuries” and “Moon over Kara-Shehr”, so I brought them with me to what became EMPEROR – a name I gave them, by the way. And the fucking logo. Some Eastern European guy sent it to me in the mail, so I brought it to rehearsal. I gotta admit, I didn’t know the guy’s name. I wrote him and said, ‘Thanks for the logo, I think we’re using it’, but never heard anything back. That was weird.
The artist is Christophe Szpajdel, a Polish-Belgian illustrator who has since produced logos for everything and everyone from GRAVELAND and BEHEXEN to Rihanna. By the summer of ’91, Euronymous’ legendary Oslo record store Helvete had opened its gates. The EMPEROR boys visited shortly thereafter, and then many more times over the following months.
– MORBID ANGEL played Oslo in November 1991 and everyone gathered in the Helvete basement afterwards. There was a lot of weird stuff going on down there; I did this kind of fucked up thing with a pushpin where I just drove it through my flesh, all the way to the bone. That hurt. Actually, pulling it back out hurt even more because the fucking thing got stuck; took quite a bit of effort. And I recall Euronymous watching – he was, like, ‘Fuck, man.’ I also smashed a bottle over my own head. I think it was empty, but what I remember the most is how remarkably hard it was to get it to break. You’d be surprised, I think it took me four tries.
Was the 90s black metal cutting culture already established in Norway by then?
– Oh yeah. I mean, bear in mind that Dead was doing it well before anyone else. I’d say all of that came from him; we heard he used to carve himself up during shows, so we started doing it ourselves. But I never took it as far as some people who had to go to the fucking hospital because they cut too deep. I think this seeped out a lot from Norway and into the rest of the world. That’s another MAYHEM credit, I’d say.
In July 1992, EMPEROR released the iconic “Wrath of the Tyrant” demo, garnering widespread underground acclaim and bringing them closer into the fold of the emerging Norwegian black metal scene. By then, Mortiis’ old pen-pal Faust had moved to Oslo and started working at Helvete. Shortly after the demo came out, he was invited to join EMPEROR as drummer.
– I think Samoth decided, like, ‘I don’t want to play the drums – I’m actually a guitarist.’ I don’t recall us even considering anyone else. Faust was a fantastic drummer and already on the inside with the MAYHEM guys. He’s like a year or two older than us and had a bit more history in the scene. I can’t remember whether he lived in the Helvete basement or if he’d already gotten his apartment with Snorre from THORNS by then; one of the two.
On August 21, 1992, Faust was visiting his mother in Lillehammer over the weekend. Whilst walking back from the pub, he was approached by an older gentleman who solicited him for sex. Faust followed the man out into the nearby woods, stabbed him repeatedly with a knife, and left him for dead. Two days later, after returning to Oslo, he burned Holmenkollen Chapel together with Euronymous and BURZUM mastermind Varg Vikernes.
– I think Faust had joined EMPEROR just before all that. I remember him telling me about it during a weekend when he came over to Akkerhaugen, where we had our rehearsal place. He said something to the effect of ‘’I’ve been up to some stuff – it’s been a busy week.’ It sounds fucked up now, and you kind of have to laugh, but I don’t want to make too much fun of it. Obviously, we’re much older now and would never, ever, consider doing something like that. But, yeah, I believe he’d already been in EMPEROR for… I’m guessing a month, maybe? It’s hard for me to look back and pinpoint specific dates; everything happened so fast. Those days are a blur, there was so much crazy shit going on.
In December 1992, EMPEROR entered Studio S, a twenty-minute train ride outside Oslo, and recorded seven songs. Four of them were used for a self-titled mini-LP as well as a split CD with countrymen ENSLAVED, whereas the remaining three ended up on the 1994 “As the Shadows Rise” EP.
– I was only there for the actual recording session; after I’d done my bass lines and some backing vocals, my job was essentially done. I remember Samoth and Ihsahn sitting by a synthesiser, going through the sound banks and taking notes. I imagine this was probably the first time they thought about putting keyboards over the music. I wasn’t part of the mixing process either – it had pretty much become the ‘Samoth and Ihsahn Show’ by that point. I tried coming up with suggestions about song arrangements but was pretty much ignored. Then again, I was totally inexperienced back then and had no song-writing experience whatsoever, so, in their defence, my ideas were probably horrible.
What was the mood in the studio like?
– I think there was a seriousness going on, like, ‘We can’t fuck this up.’ We stayed at Helvete over the weekend and Euronymous had a tape of the ENSLAVED tracks intended for our split – they had recorded them a couple of weeks earlier and it sounded fucking great. I remember Samoth just sitting there being really… I don’t know, bummed out? He was judging their finished product against our unfinished work. You can’t fucking do that, not when you’re only halfway done! But he was, like, ‘Our album is fucking bullshit! It sucks compared to theirs.’ I got really pissed off and went, ‘Fuck, man – that’s a really bad attitude. Keep talking like that and it’s definitely going to suck.’ This was probably the reason why Samoth and Ihsahn fired me a short while later; they said it was because I got angry all the time.
See, what I find strange about this claim is that everyone says Mortiis is the nicest guy ever. He might very well be the only former Cold Meat Industry artist Roger Karmanik actually likes.
– Probably because I’m the only one who didn’t try to sue him. It’s true though, about my temper; I was young and excitable in those days. I can still flare up and be really fucking pissed off, but I calm down after a few minutes. My brain starts working again and I can think logically. I still get spikes in my mood, but I control it. Ihsahn is a laid-back guy, he’s never been like that. So, for me to have this yelling attitude, ‘You fucking asshole!’ and so on, and Ihsahn being all mellow and soft-spoken… that might not have been a great experience for him. Samoth is kind of the same. They’re both very private, sort of isolated people who don’t really talk loudly or anything like that. Out of the three of us, I was probably the loudest – I guess they just didn’t want to deal with it.
Despite no longer working together, the three remained friends. A few months later, Ihsahn acted as engineer when Mortiis recorded his demo, “The Song of a Long Forgotten Ghost”, on the same four-tracker they’d used for EMPEROR’s “Wrath of the Tyrant”. Considering that the tape was released in June 1993, I’m curious if Mortiis ever received any feedback from Euronymous.
– No, I never got around to playing him my music. I was a little concerned that he might not be into it, so I kept dragging my feet a lot in terms of letting him know about the Mortiis project. I was literally terrified that if Euronymous told me it sucked, I wouldn’t want to make more music. I can handle a lot of criticism but, at the time – as an eighteen-year-old – I’d have been devastated if Euronymous said, ‘Dude, it’s shit.’ Because he was very honest and would’ve told me in no uncertain terms if he didn’t like my music. So, I think that held me back. I do recall entertaining this little daydream that it would’ve been fucking cool to release something on his label, but, at the same time, I knew it would’ve taken forever. Euronymous was always dealing with various financial complications.
One month after the demo came out, in July, Euronymous made an introduction which would have a huge impact on Mortiis’ personal life over the next few years.
– I got a call from him, ‘Hey, can you put up this really cool Swedish girl? She’s run away from home.’ I still lived with my parents but, thankfully, they were on vacation, which meant I had the place all to myself the entire week. ‘Yeah, okay.’ So, Euronymous actually drove from Oslo to my house and picked me up, then brought us deep into the woods to this little fucking cottage. It was super small. She was hiding out there, God knows from what. Her name was Ilsa and she was sixteen years old. We picked her up and she stayed at my place. Obviously, stuff happened during the week and we started dating.
On August 10, 1993, Varg Vikernes showed up at Euronymous’ apartment carrying a knife. When he left, Euronymous lay bleeding to death in his staircase. One of the strangest aspects of this entire affair is the involvement of a famous Swedish soothsayer, the late Saida Andersson. During the 80s and early 90s, Saida was often featured in Swedish newspapers and on television. Her psychic powers were in high demand, not only from the general public but also from law enforcement and insurance companies. There are quite a few confirmed cases where she helped police find missing people, both dead and alive. She made accurate predictions of natural disasters, political developments, and even deaths within her own family. In 1988, she received an award from The Swedish Hunters’ Association after helping many of their members retrieve hunting dogs lost in the woods. According to the police report, Scandinavian news coverage, and Saida herself, Ilsa had sought her counsel in the weeks leading up to the murder. Attempting to aid Euronymous, Ilsa turned to the seeress for help in securing evidence tying Varg to various church burnings, thus landing him behind bars for the foreseeable future. Saida prophesied that there would indeed be forensic findings connecting Vikernes to four instances of arson – and that he’d be sentenced to twelve years in prison. Ilsa testified in court that when she informed Euronymous about this, on August 9, he was mortified; such a long sentence would require more serious crimes than merely torching a few places of worship.
– I wasn’t surprised when Euronymous was killed, because we’d talked about this a lot over the preceding month. I remember a lot of phone calls between Euronymous and I, and especially between him and Ilsa. I guess he confided in her a lot. Apparently, before we met, she had hung out a lot with Varg and then with Euronymous. Ilsa was somehow tied up with that Swedish psychic woman; I heard about her but was never directly involved. Euronymous had all kinds of schemes to eliminate Vikernes as a problem – he was really into the idea of making sure Varg went to prison for a long time, because he knew very well what would happen if he couldn’t figure out a way to get rid of him. So, there were a lot of ideas going back and forth, most of them revolving around Varg getting caught for burning churches. If Euronymous had any heavier plans, like murder or something similar, then he didn’t tell me about them. But then, suddenly, it’s all over and the cops are fucking pulling everyone in for questioning.
Following the death of Euronymous, the police descended on the Norwegian black metal scene in full force. Shortly thereafter, Ihsahn found himself the only EMPEROR member not to be incarcerated. Faust was sentenced to fourteen years for homicide and arson. Samoth received a sixteen-month sentence for burning Skjold Church together with Varg during a studio break from the recording of BURZUM’s “Aske”. EMPEROR’s new bass player, Tchort, spent two years in prison for assault and vandalism. It’s interesting to ponder what might’ve happened if Mortiis had remained in the band.
– I don’t think it had anything to do with whether I was in EMPEROR or not. But yeah, I certainly had my own plans and little schemes going; I think there’s a good fifty-fifty chance that I might’ve done something radical. I really wanted to. But, at the same time, my brain was telling me a lot about consequences. There were a couple of individuals I wanted to kill – they weren’t from the scene or anything, just people I fucking hated. I had all these plans to ‘take them out’, so to speak, yet my brain kind of went, ‘Well, that’s pretty serious stuff.’ And then, of course, before you knew it, shit hit the fucking fan and the police kept bringing me in every second day.
Mortiis points out that people who’ve never been subjected to a real police interrogation really have no clue about what kind of pressure one is put under.
– I’d just turned eighteen and thought I was going to prison; I had a police detective with a big beard staring me straight in the eye… and I’m like, ‘I am so fucked.’ I wasn’t raised in the fucking Bronx, you know. I didn’t grow up in The Godfather, nor have I ever been forced to survive on the street. I’m a middle-class kid! My parents paid for my first album, for fucks sake. So no, I’m not tough like that. They fucked me and then I had to fucking deal with it. You know, for years. People felt I’d snitched on Faust, but that wasn’t the case at all. It’s true that I did talk to the police because they tricked me. The motherfuckers tricked me. When it came to Varg, I had zero loyalty. I told them everything I knew, because he killed Euronymous. I even testified in court against that dickhead. Still to this day, I’m fucking glad I did that. As for Faust… they sat me down one day and said, ‘We know all about it, because this guy and that guy told us’, naming people from all kinds of bands. They were tricking everybody. As a teenager from Norway – if a cop said something, you took it for granted. ‘This guy told us that you know what Faust did, so you might as well just confirm it.’ They mentioned all these details before I even said a word, ‘We know he stabbed a guy about thirty times’, and I thought, ‘Shit, that’s exactly what he told me.’ I just said, ‘Okay, he told me that.’ That was it, but then some people were getting all kinds of shitty about it.
Constantly being asked about this in interviews over the next few years, while trying to promote your music, must have been frustrating?
– Yeah, a bit. When you’re in your early twenties and have something like that hanging over you… I was one of the more well-known figures the police brought in so, of course, my name got fucking attached to it. Faust was really pissed off for a long time, which I thought was weird because, obviously, I wasn’t the one who snitched on him in the first place. Someone else did; the cops already fucking knew. I copped a fair bit of shit for that, but things eventually calmed down. It only lasted for like a year or two. I’ve met Faust many, many times since and everything is cool. So, no worries. But then you have people who weren’t even fucking there giving you attitude about it? And I’m thinking, ‘Where the fuck were you? Why are you being so tough all of a sudden? Let’s see you in a goddamn situation where people are getting stabbed to death and churches are burning and your friends are killed. Yeah? Shut the fuck up.’ You know, it’s easy to be tough when it’s not your fucking ass on the line.
This was an excerpt from the full article, which is twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #7. The same issue also includes conversations with BLACK WITCHERY, GOSPEL OF THE HORNS, MACABRE OMEN, THORYBOS, ANTEDILUVIAN, ATLANTEAN KODEX, MGŁA, Cold Meat Industry, MONUMENTUM, WARLOGHE, ORDO TEMPLI AETERNAE LUCIS, and HEXVESSEL.