Enter the Crypt of
Nathan T. Birk
Arguably, Mortiis is one of the few genuine enigmas left in modern music. A household name in heavy-metal circles but virtually unknown elsewhere, Mortiis was a founding member of Norway’s flagship black-metal band, Emperor – it’s what he did afterward that truly garnered him a name. In 1992, at the tender age of 18, Mortiis made the seemingly brash move of forever abandoning his bass duties just as Emperor was beginning to make waves with their now-legendary Wrath of the Tyrant demo. Though he’s since kept the peace with his former bandmates, Mortiis intimates that much of the fracas largely stemmed from his admittedly flaring temper and a general at-odds disposition toward the band’s direction.
However, the direction Mortiis as a solo artist would take couldn’t have been more shocking at the time to the largely insular, largely close-minded black-metal scene: sprawling, languorous ambient-keyboard instrumentals at a time, no less, before keyboards became trendy and passe in the scene. A lone two songs comprising the album’s 53 minutes, the Fodt til a Herske debut became Mortiis’ statement of purpose, a bold, non-conformist epic of dark, elegant artistry. Over the course of four more albums, the Mortiis style subtly evolved into one of the most idiosyncratic around, culminating with his Earache debut, The Stargate, displaying in no clearer terms that these otherworldly soundscapes could only come from some long-forgotten/distant time – or from a exceptionally furtive imagination.
But Mortiis’ furtive imagination knew no bounds and, from the beginning, stretched beyond the recording studio to his carefully cultivated image. Decked out in layers of PVC and face paint, fake pointed ears and nose, spiked armbands, a bat-winged cape and even a skull codpiece, Mortiis’ trollish appearance looked as otherworldly as his sound. In no small part because of this, Mortiis’ audience soon spanned more than just the metal underground, luring curious souls from both the gothic and industrial netherworlds. Underneath this intimidating exterior, though, lies a man of affable pedigree and keen wit – hardly the ghoul the more-mainstream press makes him out to be and, refreshingly, nowhere near as pretentious as most instrumental composers come off in interviews. Thus, Mortiis was ready and willing to discuss his music in the most honest of lights.
Essentially, the Mortiis sound is a dark, keyboard-driven, mostly instrumental one, yet there’s a rather epic and triumphant quality to all your work. Where is this drawn from? Your metal roots, possibly?
I don’t really know where that comes from exactly. I guess it’s a mix of all the music I really like. As far as I’m concerned, my musical tastes are pretty diverse, y’know, quite horizontal. So in that sense, I’m not really afraid to be inspired by all kinds of things. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint one thing, one particular style I’m inspired by – that wouldn’t be fair.
For most listeners, your music is quite otherworldly. Anything tangible – or intangible, for that matter – that inspires this?
I used to have this concept with Mortiis about other worlds and all that [laughs]. But I don’t know if it’s me telling people so much about it that they start thinking that the music is… different or me being a genius and not knowing it [laughs]. So, again, I really don’t know.
Well, I had always thought your music was otherworldly. The thing is, I was doing some background research on the Internet, trying to discover how you viewed your aesthetic, and I found numerous mentions of you saying your sound is an exploration of other worlds, both conscious and subconscious, and parallel ones.
As far as the subconscious and parallel worlds and all that, it’s basically a fascination thing. There’s nothing nobody can really prove, y’know what I mean? So, basically, it’s something I’ve been fascinated with through the years, but it’s been a while since I really thought about it. I mean, I don’t want to come sounding like some expert on these things, because I’m really not – it’s just at a fascination level, that’s about it. Since I’ve been talking so much about it, I guess I come off being this weirdo or something like that. [I’ve] got [this] image, so there’s this whole fake universe built around me. It’s not like I really try, it just happens. You talk about it enough, and, suddenly, it builds up this big castle and you don’t even know about it.
And, of course, the more people read in the music press about something being a certain way, the more they’re going to believe it – it’s merely human nature. Carrying on, there’s been a distinct evolution from your first album (Fodt til a Herske) to your newest one (The Stargate), yet you’ve maintained such an idiosyncratic style. How would you characterize this evolution over the years?
From the first one to The Stargate, all I can think is that I’ve become better at making music. I mean, The Stargate is still pretty underground – it’s not a commercial album – so I still have a long way to go. It’s not that I really want to become commercial, but you want to be… world class. I guess that’s a better way to pronounce it without sounding like I’m selling out. But I have a long way to go. I’d like to think I’ve taken a few steps since the first one and The Stargate, as far as structuring songs, putting more into it – musically, being more aware of what I can do.
Would you say that, over the years, through recording and whatnot, that you’ve become a better keyboard player? A better composer?
I don’t think I’ve become a better player – I’ve probably become a worse player.
Yeah, I think I probably have. The thing is, I don’t really play. What I really do is put music together; that’s what I’ve been doing these days. With the first album, everything was live. These days, I try to only use technology to make songs better rather than make my playing better, like songwriting, structure, arrangements. So, in that sense, I actually play a lot less now than I fuck around with the songs, if that makes sense to you.
Yeah, I can understand that.
It’s like I told this guy last night, actually, it’s like making a statue or something like sculpting. You get a big piece of rock and it’s gonna’ end up a different way – deducting, y’know? At the end of the day, you have results rather than just giant rolls of live clay. And you can do it that way, too, but this is just the way I do it.
For me, when I make songs, I have a plan. Obviously, you have a certain idea of how one song is, but you can take all these different turns, because what I do is split up the songs into so many fragments all going to each and every one of them – this is for the stuff I’m doing now. But if you have all these small fragments, I can cut a song into pieces and then go into each and every one these pieces and make small changes all over the place. And that’s pretty cool, because all of a sudden, the sawdust comes down in front like crazy… And that’s not really what I used to do until all this great theatre, and then when I play live music, finally having some way to stop it. That’s why we have samplers, sequencers, and music software these days… coming from a troll [laughs].
It’s an interesting juxtaposition. What was the main concept behind the 12” EP series collected on Crypt of the Wizard? Because you do explore certain melodic motifs from 12” to 12” there…
You want to me to talk about the “crack album” now, ok. Well, that’s one album I… [laughs] could’ve done better – I’ve done a lot of crap. I’ve done some good stuff, but I also have a lot of crap; I’m like the “King of Crap.” Y’know, it’s one of those things that could’ve been good if I had taken the time and effort to do it. It was my first attempt at recording myself, in my own living room, so there was nobody there to tell me something was shit. No one told me that; there was no one else but me, plus I was drunk the whole time [laughs].
The concepts, basically, were these elements taken from the Mortiis world I’d created years ago. And I picked one theme on each album that I would do for, like, 50 minutes, and felt that I had all these themes I never had the possibility to really delve into and I wanted to give them a chance in a 12” EP form. So, basically, that’s what I did with Crypt, this one chance I had to make a 12” series, which I did. Mainly… [tape static]…but there were five themes I got to write songs about and two songs for each (theme)…[more static]…
Sadly, just as Mortiis was warming up, the rest of the interview got botched: more than a half hour of tape lost due to a faulty recorder. Chalk this one up to experience, I guess. However, if you ever have the chance to witness one of Mortiis’ visually dramatic live shows, don’t be afraid to walk up to him afterwards, buy him a pint, and strike up a conversation – you won’t leave disappointed. And as we speak, the man is preparing another new album, which, he revealed, might include prominent use of guitar. But, as he just as quickly dismissed, there will be never be a reunion with Emperor… at least under that moniker (hint, hint).