The first Mortiis albums were recorded live, using just one cheap Roland synth. That was it, no sequencers, processors, no nothing: just a synth, recorded live straight onto tape. I didn’t even know I could program stuff using a sequencer; I had no fucking idea . . . Took me years to understand what an arpeggiator was, haha! (Photo: Sebastian Ludvigsen)
Mortiis, aka Håvard Ellefson, has come a long way since he briefly picked up the bass for epic black metal titans Emperor back in 1992. Swiftly moving on to a solo career, Mortiis captured the atmosphere and emotions of the black metal in which he was immersed in his early recordings such as Født til å Herske and Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør, both from 1994, but using the medium of the humble keyboard. These early recordings (Era I) would go on to lay the foundation for what has become known as ‘Dungeon Synth’, with artists such as Old Tower and Balrog further developing the frequently quasi-medieval feel as well as the instrumentation of this niche but growing style.
Moving through another three distinct eras under the same name, Mortiis’ career has been eclectic in terms of genre – covering industrial metal, baroque/synth pop, dark ambient and more – whilst retaining the same dark and fantastical atmospheres that have always been present. His side-projects such as Vond and Fata Morgana provide further outlets for musical and thematic exploration, which cross over with and diverge from his main project in equal measure.
Mortiis has been especially busy recently, touring, re-issuing his discography and releasing new music, so Echoes & Dust is especially grateful to him for taking the time to speak with us. Following a recent London performance of his majestic masterpiece Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør in its entirety, we discussed his personal mythology, returning to the dungeon synth days, Conan the Barbarian, and being a musical archaeologist.
E&D: London is the proud site of an amazing record store named after your sixth album, Crypt of the Wizard, where you recently held a book signing. How did it feel when you heard about the store and its name?
Mortiis: Well I was told about the store shortly before we went out on the UK tour with PIG last year, so naturally we dropped by when we came into town. I thought it was flattering that someone would name their record store after one of my records. I guess I got this sense of “do I deserve to have a record store named after me?”, but you know, it’s a pretty cool title, so hey, why not? The guys are very nice people so I’ve had nothing but great times there.
E&D: Your signing there was for the re-released version of your book Secrets of my Kingdom. It’s been out of print for a long time and has become something of a cult classic. Please could you tell us a bit about the book generally, and about the process of reissuing it?
Mortiis: Well the book sort of deals with this parallel universe that I started creating while I was still in Emperor, circa the summer of 1992. I was really into a lot of 70s’ bands at the time, and I really liked the idea of concept albums, but I wanted to take it further (as usual), so I figured I could just create this really dark, miserable world (I was a black metal kid, after all), a world I just keep creating and expanding as I went along, that I could just draw themes and stories from for each album I made…Theoretically just going on and on for as long as I wanted.
It was all written way back in the 90s, predominantly between 1992 and 1997, with some additional material written and reworked between 1998–2000 or so. Earache Records, whom I was signed to from 1999 to 2005 or so, were going to put the book out originally in 1999, as a special edition of my album The Stargate (based on the idea of using stargates to travel between dimensions. I worked out the concept and lyrical content in 1992, and I was pretty miffed when the Hollywood film came out a few years later, with the same sort of idea). But for reasons that still mystify me to this day, they delayed the book release until 2001. I think it pretty much boiled down to them not wanting to put the money into it and were just trying to forget about it. Eventually they did release it, and it sold out pretty quickly. They never reissued it.
Dayal from Cult Never Dies approached me a few times about putting it out again, and I sort of finally relented, because I simply wasn’t sure I wanted to do it, but that was mostly due to my own insecurities about a lot of my 90s’ output. Once I overcame that bullshit, I was ready to go. Dayal has been a great driving force in turning this reissue into its very own product, and it totally towers above the original: It’s way more interesting (on account of a lot of added bonus material). I mean the guy had me crawling around in my own attic, trying to dig out interesting stuff to put in it – haha!
E&D: One of the most interesting things about your music is the personal mythology you have developed, linked to Secrets of my Kingdom. I’d like to hear a bit about this mythology and how you have developed it over the years.
Mortiis: It was pretty much the result of me being a hard rock kid, always looking for the next exciting thing, and the further someone took visuals and music, the more hooked I was. I saw Gene Simmons spitting blood on TV as a four-year-old kid, and I thought that was the best thing in the world. Then someone brought the first WASP album into our house circa 1984, when that thing was brand new, and I forgot all about KISS, and WASP was the shit for a while; that’s sort of how things developed. I eventually found myself being engulfed by Tolkien, Occultism, Bathory, and Venom; Norwegian Black metal was coming into existence and I was in the middle of it, with my own band. It cultivates your mind, so to speak, so I started developing this miserable, bleak, Tolkien-esque world, except it was pretty much all dark and horrible. I was getting into some of the German electronic pioneering music as well, which I always thought was pretty fucking hard listening at the time, but I loved it. It was so weird and out there, that it worked for a lot of us black metal kids – Klaus Schulze, early Tangerine Dream, and so on. We were also getting into the industrial underground, stuff like Throbbing Gristle, Coil, In Slaughter Natives and so on; that shit would often be at least as disturbing as the shit we were putting out ourselves. It all was part of forming a kid like me.
I digress a bit, but that’s what it was like, soaking up all these emotions and ideas and states of mind: it turned me into Mortiis so to speak, this weird kid with a massive escapism issue I suppose. I never wrote Secrets of my Kingdom as a book, although I always wanted it to become a book eventually; the process was slow, and I would write a few sets of lyrics, or texts, when inspiration came along. One idea put to paper would often trigger a new idea, so it might have been a sort of binge writing type of deal, where a handful of texts were written in the same day, then nothing for weeks. It was just a really long work-in-progress that stretched on forever, and in the meantime I was putting out records that always drew their themes, or concepts, from this place that was slowly coming into existence.
E&D: Tolkien has been a big influence on your work, but have there been any other authors or artists outside of music (authors, film makers, visual artists etc) that have been a major influence?
Mortiis: To be honest I was pretty high on myself back in those days, so once I felt like I was breaking a bit away from the initial Tolkien influence, I didn’t feel like I needed to draw much inspiration from anything – I mean with the exception of the amazing Conan The Barbarian soundtrack (the 1981 Arnold original, not to be confused with the ‘The Destroyer’ follow up, or the fairly recent remake) by Basil Pouledouris. My main inspirations would just sort of seep in pretty unexpected, and to a large degree, unheard. I’d get ideas from listening to Deep Purple – some break I liked that I imitated using totally different sounds – or the epicness of old Manowar. I was just sort of copying the idea of making something sound large and bombastic, taking ideas and carrying them over into a different format, so no one would be able to tell where I got it from originally.
E&D: You have recently reissued your back catalogue in beautiful, lavish editions. What was it like returning to your old material after so many years? What was your approach to reissuing the material?
Mortiis: I don’t know if I had a specific approach. I had several reasons for wanting to reissue. I mean the offers were there, but I hesitated a while, because of the insecurities I mentioned above; once I was able to discard those and feel proud of my 90s’ output, I was starting to get a bit more creative with it. I was able to get the labels along with the idea of releasing the reissues with different artwork; I have done this before, and basically been getting away with it. It’s not something everyone can get away with, but I can for some reason, maybe because I did that even way back in the 90s. For the three first Mortiis albums, I wanted to create artwork that closely resembled the original, but seen from slightly different angles, revealing so far unseen sights and scenes that were not visible to the viewer in the original art. I just realized that this is a chance to make those settings come a bit more alive; I can give them more depth and story. I think it worked out pretty well, and it also made the process a lot more interesting and creative for me, as opposed to just rescanning some old sleeves and pushing the albums out there.
E&D: The London Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør show was stunning. As I say, I loved what you did with the album – I think it retained the atmosphere of the original but was very much revamped and rejuvenated for Era 0 and 2018. Please could you tell us about re-imagining and updating the album for the tour?
Mortiis: Thanks. Yeah, the new version is bigger and grander sounding. I just wanted to recreate the music the way it probably would have sounded if I had created it from scratch now; there really isn’t any deeper idea behind it than that. I think one of the more interesting things that happened during the process was realizing that the fundamental melodies/chords inspired me almost instantly to expand on the music with new/additional melodies, extended sections, and sections that are more-or-less brand new, but always going back to the original music and melodies, blending with it. It was cool, because I didn’t expect to feel that inspired melodically, when I was working on it, but I just kept churning out these new melodies: my mind would never have let me not do it, it was almost a compulsive thing. I actually caught myself thinking, “How come I didn’t come up with this melody back in 1994? What the fuck was I thinking?” – but I assume my head is more tuned into stuff now, than it was then.
E&D: Do you have any plans to give your other Era I material the same treatment in the live arena?
Mortiis: I’d like to; maybe I won’t be able to do that to everything else, but there are certain albums I think could benefit greatly from an overhaul so to speak. I don’t mean that as in those originals are shit; I mean that as in, when I hear them now, I’m hearing a lot of potential for what could be done to enhance that music and taking it to the stage. Time will tell I guess.
E&D: Født til å Herske is often credited as single-handedly instigating the Dungeon Synth genre – the label didn’t seem to even exist at the time. Clearly you came out of the Norwegian black metal scene, and dungeon synth shares some aesthetics with that scene. But were there any musical influences from outside black metal that directly influenced those early recordings? Classical composers for examples?
Mortiis: I never liked classical music much. I respect it, just like I respect most music genres, even though they don’t appeal to me musically. I mean this probably sounds like sacrilege, and I know it’s not true, but I find classical music insanely boring. I understand a million things are going on and it takes a very talented mind to compose it, but it just bores the shit out of me. I’d rather listen to Hellhammer, and I say that as a fan of Hellhammer – probably the polar opposite of classical music, haha!
I remember being impressed by the early Burzum synth tracks. I’m not into Varg as a person for obvious reasons, but he did some really good music back in the day. I also liked that he changed the language from English to Norwegian, so that was inspiring to some degree. Apart from that, to be honest, I was just messing around making my own kind of music. I wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, I was just not a good enough musician to be able to sit down and emulate someone else’s sound. I’m still not; I still dabble in my own private universe, and whatever happens, happens.
E&D: The technology you use for this kind of music clearly must have moved on a good deal since the 90s. How have the tools you use changed since you created Født til å Herske originally?
Mortiis: The first Mortiis albums were recorded live, using just one cheap Roland synth. That was it, no sequencers, processors, no nothing: just a synth, recorded live straight onto tape. I didn’t even know I could program stuff using a sequencer; I had no fucking idea. I couldn’t figure out how albums by Tangerine Dream sounded so tight, I just figured they must be really good players. Took me years to understand what an arpeggiator was, haha! I didn’t really get into programming until I started working on The Smell of Rain years later, and, with no one around to show me anything, I just sort of figured it out on my own. I think I probably stagnated around 2008 technically; I just don’t give a shit (for the most part) what is happening out there. If I did, I’d probably find myself trying to make music on an iPhone. I’m just not into it. I like hardware synths and boxes. I use my Mac for the arranging and the tracking of audio and MIDI of course, and a variety of plugins, mostly for fucking around with FX to see what happens, and some standard studio tools…But I’m still sort of a hardware guy, screaming in the studio at gear that won’t make a sound, when it worked the day before, haha!
E&D: While I’ve been listening to it for a while, your London show was the first time I’ve seen Dungeon Synth performed live (I’m excited to see Old Tower perform at Roadburn later in the year). Listening to DS always seems like a very isolated, personal experience, often associated with solo artists and home recordings, but it translates very well into the live arena. Does performing this kind of music live present any particular challenges?
Mortiis: I’m not sure; it depends on what you’re trying to do live. I haven’t done these types of shows in a long, long time – back in the 90s I did more of them. I’ve only just started performing it live again, and the London show was only the fourth show so far. I mean as usual, I just do my thing, whatever genre it sort of gets swallowed into, is almost beyond my control. I think it’s cool, and also probably about time, that the kind of music I was making in the 90s gets its own genre – but that genre was actually something that arose in my absence so to speak, and I get the impression there are certain rules and regulations in it. Just like any other genre, people are already arguing whether this is true DS or not. I don’t know what to think about that. . . it’s cool that people are passionate, but at the same time, either the music is good or it’s not; at the end of the day that is all that matters.
E&D: Would you like to see more Dungeon Synth artists taking their work to the live stage?
Mortiis: Of course. All musicians should take their work to the stage, assuming that they want to. You can’t force, people, obviously, haha!
E&D: I’m sure like all music fans and performers, you listen to a lot of other music. Are there any artists you’ve been listening to recently that you’d like to recommend?
Mortiis: Nope. I don’t listen to new music. I should, but I never do. I almost exclusively listen to old hard rock, obscure early industrial, punk, that sort of thing. I’m basically a music asshole, but at least I know it. I prefer the term “musical archaeologist”, but to most people I probably come off as a grumpy old douche that refuses to adapt to the times.
E&D: One last question for you: we’d love to hear about your upcoming projects. What’s next? Do you have a new album in the works?
Mortiis: Well I think we’ll just have to see. I have a lot of shows coming up so there’s some focus on that. I’m hoping to make it back to the UK for a few more shows later in the year. I would like to release the Ånden re-interpretation as an album at some point; I think it deserves that. I’m just super reserved against most record labels, as my experience has been abysmal at every level when it comes to handing over rights to labels. I’m not flushing my livelihood and my fucking creativity down that record industry vacuum again, so unless a deal is in place that I can actually live with, then I’m totally fine just doing things on my own, my way, the way I have for a long time already.
Mortiis continues touring Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør around Europe before heading off for a tour of Australia and New Zealand later in the year. Mortiis’ book, and all of his music and merchandise can be purchased directly through the official Mortiiswebstore and Bandcamp site.