To coincide with the release of the new version of his Secrets Of My Kingdom book, Ave Noctum had the chance to catch a few words with Håvard Ellefsen, aka Mortiis himself, and asked about Era 1, revisiting old haunts and the future. What follows is a refreshing, honest and open look at a musical life.
AN: Hello Mortiis, thank you so much for talking to Ave Noctum. I hope you are well?
Mortiis: Yes, doing OK here, thanks.
AN: So, tell us how revisiting Era 1 of the Mortiis journey has been so far. Previously you had slightly distanced yourself from these recordings I think it’s fair to say, so why now and with such eagerness with the concerts, and of course the gorgeous Secrets Of My Kingdom book with Cult Never Dies? Was the desire to distance yourself simply a reaction to youthful naivety or was part of it a conscious and natural desire of an artist to create space to progress onwards?
Mortiis: It was a result of falling into what I guess can only be chalked down to a depression of some sort. Probably triggered by a lot of insecurities I had as a younger man. It´s probably layered and complicated, mentally, but at the end of the day, it boiled down to me being massively insecure and self-conscious about the quality of my output, by the end of the 90s. I was also broadening my musical horizons, as a fan, by the early 90s, so eventually I was listening to a very broad scope of musical genres, and naturally felt that I needed to evolve. So that contributed to my distancing from the Era 1 material as well…Enter depressed, angry and confused industrial rock musician. Nothing wrong with that, from an artistic point of view, you can´t be a happy human being and pretend you´re making really angry music. Unfortunately it made me look at my early output from a very clouded and confused place, that was the downside, and I chalk that up to the depressed and overly self-conscious guy I used to be.
Anyway, going back to all that stuff has been interesting, and refreshing. I still think a lot of it could have, and should have, been recorded with better technique; some of the music, quite frankly, should not have been recorded at all. But, I am able to look at all that for what it is, snapshots and documents of what I was doing back then. Some of it was a lot better than I remembered, and some of it was inferior to what I recall, but that´s how it goes. I don´t lose sleep over it, and I think it´s very cool that that music still has an audience, and even a genre, to finally belong to. My Era 1 output (including side projects) has been like musical pariahs, and often treated as such by the media, for two decades, so I´m very thankful that enough people have sort of rounded up and created an actual proper genre to include it in.
AN: What is it like to play music from this era live now compared to the original times? In the book you describe your naivety, as you put it, in trying to come up with a full theatrical performance when all the venues wanted was you to be on stage on time! Have you been able to get closer to your ideas with your years of experience now? What has the atmosphere and reception been like at these concerts? Not having been able to get to one I think of it as being a very different kind of event from a lot of gigs.
Mortiis: I only did 15-20 one off shows back then, I can´t exactly recall what it was like, it was rather ritualistic, it was back in the days before the White Lion accident happened, and I would be using live fire torches on stage, breath fire and do stuff like that. I doubt any venue would allow that these days. I think the closest I got to a really theatrical performance was on The Stargate tour, where we had a pretty cool looking theatrical props set up, but being paid something like $400 per show, and trying to go out as a full band, with a crew, was hard on the wallet, so these days, I´m starting light. It´s still very visual, and I´m a lot quicker and more efficient at communicating with venue crew as to what I want, so I travel light, as it´s also a question of actually walking out of each show with some profit. Life today is not the same as it was 20+ years ago. Kids, house, bills, real life stuff came along…
I think the show as it is now, has an atmosphere that is kind of closer to the original Era 1 records and concepts, but that said, I´m always looking to evolve, so who knows where it ends up.
AN: How did the idea of the updated book come about? You must be really pleased with the result I’m guessing. How was the collaboration on more artwork with David Thieree?
Mortiis: Collaborating with David is always a pleasure. He usually hits the nail pretty close to the head after I´ve explained what I want, so once he gets started it´s usually a pretty straight forward job to direct it to exactly where it needs to be. As for the book, a lot of credit should go to Dayal from Cult Never Dies. He was the one that wanted to reissue, and also expand on the book, as opposed to just reissuing the book. It involved a certain amount of work, but in the digital age, communicating, and tracking people down, has become a breeze as opposed to back in the 90s, when just working on artwork with people involved weeks of waiting for printouts in the post…For people too young to have experienced that way of working, holy shit, they don´t know how easy they have it, haha!
AN: So take us back to these dark dungeon days. Do you remember when Mortiis your mind-god first appeared and when you started writing the ideas down? Did you always intend to do something with the creation? Did you ever consider writing a novel or was the music always bubbling away beneath?
Mortiis: I think the book idea came about as I was writing lyrics/themes for the first album, as I have seen mention of a book in the English translation of “Født til å Herske”, so the book was obviously something that was brewing in my mind almost from the start. I think very quickly, the Other Dimension idea, with the “mind-God” as you say, and all the other miserable shit in that world, came to me ongoingly mainly between 1993 and 1995… I just kept adding stranger and stranger stuff to it
I never intended to write a novel, and I never did. The book is a collection of all those ideas, lyrics, texts, etc I wrote during the 90´ies. They all have this red thread running through them, they all tie in together if you pay a bit of attention, but I don´t think it´s a novel. The idea, was always to have this place, to draw concepts and stories from, as a foundation for albums.
AN: The creation is a strange, dark and almost introverted world. Amongst the monstrous and demonic beings and stark landscapes a history bubbles, seemingly a creation built by the god simply to be destroyed and dragged into the grim world you describe. Was this a reflection on how you saw the world about you at the time, or an internal urge or something else?
Mortiis: I was a pretty mentally bleak person at the time, so essentially I was trying to come up with the darkest and most depressing stuff that I could, and I showed that (albeit in a different shape and form) with the VOND project as well. I don´t know what I was subconsciously trying to do. To be honest it doesn´t necessarily have to be something deep and profound… I mean I obviously had a latent depression issue even back then, but first and foremost, I was a ´very creative person, and deeply impressed and influenced by Kiss, Tolkien, and very recently, the madness of the Black Metal world… Remember, a lot of the batshit crazy stuff everyone has heard about a million times, were still going on, or were very fresh. When the concept for Født til å Herske was created, Euronymous was still alive, so black metal was pretty extreme at that point, so that no holds barred attitude was very real at the time.
AN: I’m intrigued from the writings about how you see the relationship between the tyrant god Mortiis, the Rainbow Prince and yourself. Would you like to expand on this a little?
Mortiis: Like I said, I was coming up with stuff all the time, just expanding on the world. I might have seen some sort of link between the way I felt psychologically at the time, and “The Wanderer”, who is a very lonely and shunned being. Probably goes back to my childhood, but with a good dose of exaggeration. I wasn´t a shunned kid, but I didn´t fit in entirely either… Nor as a teenager, or ever since, but I am me, and quite frankly, I wouldn´t want to be anyone else at this point. I don´t suck as a person, while many others do, so I´m fine right here, thank you very much, haha!
AN: Was the split from Emperor a spur to your own music, or was the creation simply you logically choosing to simply move forward?
Mortiis: I would have stayed with Emperor for sure, if they hadn´t kicked me out a couple of days after recording the Mini LP/Shadows Rise 7” in December 1992. That fucking sucked, getting that call from Ishahn. Merry Christmas, man. Haha! I get where they were coming from though…I was kind of a douche back then…Angry and temperamental all the time. So yeah I get it. I pretty much started Mortiis the next day, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I had been into keyboard created and atmospheric music for the past year or so by that time anyway.
AN: I always remember those days as times when there was a lot more experimentation around the edges of black metal and a lot more things were accepted as connected to the scene than now. I think not just of yourself but of Elend, Bal Sagoth, even Cold Meat Industry bands like Arcana. How do you remember it? Were you aware of these kind of artists or were you very insular as an artist at the time?
Mortiis: You´re probably remembering the second half of the 90´ies, when that sort of stuff was happening. Some BM bands started listening to techno, wearing white, silver make up, etc etc… I think people eventually got tired of the BM rules and regulations. The reason I fell out of/lost interest in it around 1995, was because it was getting so watered out. In 1992 you had fantastic bands like Mayhem, Darkthrone, Enslaved, Manes, Tiamat, and so on…By 1995 you had 1500 bands sounding the same, so it quickly got boring. In the early days, each band was pretty unique, taking inspiration from bands that were in themselves pretty unique (Sarcofago, Blasphemy, Venom, Hellhammer, Bathory, early Slayer, Necrophagia, early Sodom and Destruction, etc. ) There were just a lot less stuff to rip off, so you had to be your own inspiration and cultivate your creativity and identity, which bands like Darkthrone, Mayhem and Enslaved (and Emperor) did a really good job at.
The Cold Meat Industry and other subculture thing, probably didn´t really happen at any larger scale for metal people, until I had at least 2-3 records, and you had stuff like Aghast, Ildfrost, etc putting records out, which were basically metal people, becoming more experimental. I don´t think that metamorphosis of genres started until 1995 or later…By then stuff like Neptune Towers was also happening, and Metalion was putting out some interesting stuff on Head Not Found, etc. He also covered Brighter Death Now in an issue of Slayer Mag, which was cool, and early. BDN is Roger Karmanik, who owns Cold Meat Industry.
AN: When I was about eleven I too began to create my own fantasy world. It grew out of my love of Norse and Greek legend, Robert E Howard, Fritz Leiber, Lovecraft, comics and such. I wrote a couple ‘novels’ as a teenager but in the end it was mostly driven into creating my own role playing game which I ran for friends for well over a decade. I remember it being an attempt to sort out my own beliefs and a way of understanding the world. Is that anything like you remember? Were they things you wanted to work through or was it pure imagination just bursting to get out?
Mortiis: I think it was more personal creativity…It´s hard to answer that one. Ultimately I wanted to create a universe for Mortiis to exists in at all levels.. Creativity, albums, mythology… There was probably some psychology involved, but at a rather personal level…I wanted as little to do with the human world as possible at that time…I had very little interest in trying to understand it, the people in it, and why they did the things they did.
AN: Do you think the constant and ubiquitous nature of the internet, on mobile devices in particular, is having an effect on these kind of creations as young people spend less time purely in the company of their own thoughts? Or do you think people who are inclined to create such things well always find the place to do so?
Mortiis: I think if you´re a creative person, you´re probably going to find a way to express yourself. I don´t exactly know how people find their mediums these days…Everything is just so disposable and fleeting. So while being creative 20+ years ago, might have meant writing a book or an album, being creative today could translate into understanding how to get a million followers on Youtube…To me that´s pretty depressing, because eventually you´ll have nothing to show…Except old videos of you bathing in custard for views… There will always be creative people that look deeper into themselves and feel the urge to create something meaningful, something that will stand the test of time.
AN: One thing I used to do while running my games was play CDs of ‘Crypt Of The Wizard’ and ‘Kaiser Av En Dimensjon Ukjent’ in particular as I found the dark, sombre atmosphere perfect for my world. Did you have any idea how people might not just listen to Mortiis music but use it as well? Have you ever thought about or been approached about film or game music?
Mortiis: Most of the film projects I have been approached for, have boiled down to being very insincere, broke-ass “film makers” ranting about “great promo”, so unfortunately that is something I rarely get a shot at trying out. I have had my fair share of dismal experiences with music industry vampires and leeches, so I´m pretty merciless in terms of how I deal with people I perceive to be opportunists and timewasters.
I did hear pretty early on, that my music was being used as personal soundtracks to various activities, and not just role playing games, if you know what I mean, haha!
AN: The music of Era 1 as it is known is, for all its being based on synths, a very organic sound as it still required human playing. It still sets it apart from modern dark ambient. Do you think this is part of its undying appeal and influence? Do you listen to much modern dark ambient?
Mortiis: Well I listen to a variety of music, but to be honest, modern dark ambient doesn´t happen too often. I´ll listen to older 70s stuff by Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, which comes kinda close, sometimes…In general, I tend to listen to a lot of old hard rock, weird synth and industrial…I´m pretty frozen in time to be honest. I don’t get all this young music, haha!
I think the appeal of Era 1 is the whole package…The visual aspect, the fact that´s it´s getting on age wise, so there´s a mystery to it…it´s gotten to the point where there are rumours and stories out there, so you can add that air of mystery to the music as well…The fact that all that stuff was played by hand, and not programmed or fixed up in MIDI (for the most part) may play a part in it too. That was the main reason I started having problems with the music personally, because I couldn´t get past all the playing mistakes, which would have been an easy fix if I had been using MIDI. But at the time, I was clueless about that way of making music.
AN: Musically have you any inclination to revisit it for new compositions? Are you still in touch with the world in an artistic sense, as I assume from my own much smaller experience that the world itself never leaves you entirely.
Mortiis: I´ve never been great at staying in touch with anyone. I mean I know a million people, because I´ve been around a lot, for a long time, but I´m like a lot of other people you know, we don´t have to talk every day to maintain a relationship. I can hook up with people I haven´t talked to for years, if I play in their town, and we´ll reconnect right off the bat, no problem. Alcohol is great like that, haha!
As for revisiting, I did re-record the Ånden album, and extend it by about 15 minutes, adding a lot of new music, structure and melodies, so in a sense I already did that. Currently that music can only be heard live though.
AN: Where next for Mortiis? Are there any plans following The Great Corruptor yet?
Mortiis Currently I have twenty odd shows lined up around the world for the Era 1 shows, so that´s a big focus. There will be band-type music coming as well, but I can only be in one place at a time, so it´s really more a matter of time, and not will, at this point.
AN: Well thank you for your generous time, Mortiis. I really appreciate it. Anything you would like to add?
Mortiis: Thanks. Id like to mention that Mortiis has been a pretty independent entity for a long time, not really shackled down to abusive record deals and so on, so if people are interested in merch and records, they can get them from our own webstore: https://mortiiswebstore.com
So there you are, a whole world of imagination, creativity, words and music to explore: Buy the book and catch up on the music at the links above and below. It’s a truly unique and intriguing world.
I’d like to extend my thanks to Mortiis for his generous time with my questions, and also to Dayal at Cult Nerver Dies for helping arrange the interview.
Interview by Gizmo