MORTIIS – Håvard Ellefsen Interview
By Rhiannon Marley
Photos by Altercarnated Photography
Who is Mortiis? What is Mortiis? Something to do with mortality that someone’s spelt wrong? Those of you not familiar with Norway’s lord of ambient artistry will probably be asking something along these lines. Those who are: it might be more appropriate, if more futile, to try to guess his next move instead. Notoriously hard to define, there’s only one certainty when it comes to frontman Håvard Ellefsen: you never actually can be certain of anything he’s going to do next.
Famously split into three distinct ‘eras’, Mortiis’ discography is a constant progression. More varied than Tracey Emin’s bedroom back-catalogue, it’s not just the sound of Mortiis alone that’s changed. The infamous masks and visuals within his work have turned Ellefsen into his own fantastical cult: a Ridley Scott-themed Circus of Horrors. Now it seems the days of ostentation are over; the Goblin king is hanging up his ears for the final time, and retiring back to his cave. But as 2011 reaches its mid-point, has Mortiis lost the chime of its nocturnal bell? I’m here to chat to Håvard himself about imagery, inspiration and the intractable, for Metal-Rules.com. Hubble bubble, toil and trouble…
Rhiannon Marley (RM): I’d like to ask you about leaving Emperor, and first venturing into Mortiis, alongside your other side projects. What was it about ‘dark ambience’ as a style of music that held sway over the black metal of Emperor? Was it a preference of genre, or did it just happen to be a difference in musical direction?
Mortiis (M): “It just kind of happened naturally. The fact was, back in those days, there really wasn’t anybody in town that you could play with or anything like that. Once you left Emperor, there weren’t any members around. So I thought: ‘Ok, so what about the music? Alright, let me try this out’. So I just went to a music store, and bought a keyboard, and there you go, y’know. The idea was obviously totally unrealistic, but I wanted to record all my music in old castles; I wanted it to really have this ‘atmosphere’ for it. I mean, how’re you gonna make that happen? There’s no electricity, for starters…so, that didn’t happen. But actually what inspired me to go into the whole ‘ambient’ thing was old German electronic bands, like Tangent Dream and all that shit…that’s not music specifically ‘dark’ in itself, but I took that idea and I applied my fascination with ‘darker’ sense on top of that.”
RM: That relates to my second question… Evidently, Mortiis is conceptually dark: musically and visually speaking. Do you personally lean towards embracing the darker side of your nature, or attempting to rationalise it? In the context of yourself, as well as your music…
M: “Um…I don’t necessarily ‘like’ my dark side; it’s not like it’s doing me any good. But I mean, I’m honest about it, and it’s inspiring…whatever fucked-up bullshit ever happens in my brain. It’s something you can use for creative purposes; it objectifies your demons, which is basically what I keep doing. I mean, I went through some dark times, and they were not good times. But instead of just wasting that, I’m using it for something greater.”
RM: Each of the musical ‘eras’ of Mortiis are diverse in sound and content. Diversity leads to controversy. How did you feel about the shifts in audience with each new style of era?
M: “Err…I just never really considered it. I mean…I guess I knew it might happen, but I just don’t care, y’know. The important thing is I always did this for myself. And I still do it for myself; if I wanna put out a fuckin’ jazz album, I’ll do it. If that throws away all our fans, then that’s what it does. I’m not really trying to cater to anybody except for myself. Whatever happens, happens.”
RM: Concerning the infamous image of Mortiis, you’ve been quoted as saying you don’t consider yourself to be any particular one of your fantastical influences, just Mortiis. If you had to define or describe the concept of Mortiis for Metal-Rules readers, how would you go about it?
M: “Um…I have to explain it now?”
RM: You don’t have to justify it or quantify it; just describe it?
M: “Err…I don’t know – it’s ever-evolving, really. Whatever I feel like doing, I’ll do it, y’know. And right now…it’s always image-heavy, ’cause I mean, I grew up with KISS, I grew up with W.A.S.P., and those old hard-rock bands. I could never imagine being in a bus…in a bus? In a band that looks like they’re waiting for the bus, that’s what I was trying to say…I fucked that up. I’m really hungover…oh man. All the angst is coming out; I can feel it, I just wanna scream…”
RM: We’re all hungover, too…bring angst…we like it…
M: “I don’t like it…it must go away…”
RM: Your soundtrack work on the films ‘Broken’ and ‘The Devil’s Chair’ shows a dimension to your writing which caters to specific purpose. Could you ever see yourself composing for something that took you completely out of your comfort zone; for example, a commission work for a film or project such as a ‘Rom-Com’, etc?
M: “A what?”
RM: Romantic comedy…
M: “I probably wouldn’t be able to pull that off…I mean, I wouldn’t musically be able to do it. I can’t ‘find myself’…no, I couldn’t be inspired by it – it’s just not ‘me’. I mean, if somebody said: ‘I’ll give you a million pounds’, then I’d say: ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a go! I’ll try’. But I don’t think it would be any good.”
RM: There has to be a sense of creative motivation to start with, right?
M: “Yeah, it has to feel natural. That was why it was easy to write stuff for movies like ‘Broken Skin’…I’m so fucked-up, y’know…I recorded the final song for ‘Broken’, and Ad (Adam Mason – director of ‘Broken’ and ‘The Devil’s Chair’) was sharing all that. Actually, what he just did was said: ‘I’m making a couple of horror movies, and can you just come up with a bunch of shit?’. I hadn’t even seen the movies; I just brought all this music, and he was like: ‘Yeah, that’s great’. That’s not normally the way you write soundtracks; they usually have a movie in front of you, and you create music for certain scenes or whatever, but on that one, it was just: ‘Just make a bunch of music’. He used a lot of it, too.”
RM: The legend has it that Mortiis gradually solidified into a band after being intended as a medium through which to convey a story. Are you still influenced by literary, artistic or theatrical works in your musical material? If so, what?
M: “Um…I don’t know. I mean, I like to read, but I usually just read, like, crime shit or whatever, y’know. So it’s not really quite what I would be inspired by in terms of metal music. There are certain ideas in books that I might carry with me, like…some new stuff that I’m working on right now, at least lyrically…I mean, it’s kind of Orwellian, in a way. It’s all about police states, and all that shit. I’m trying to turn more, just a little bit, away from my own ego: I’ve sung so much about myself, perhaps. I’m starting to get a little bored with myself…”
RM: You’re a performing artist, who understands all areas of the creative developments of what you do. But what element of the musical process do you most engage with? The influences forming the concept; the writing and composition itself; the production and mixing of your work; or the performance itself?
M: “Err…I get the most pleasure out of, I think, the mixing part. ’Cause at that point, the whole pressure of writing a song is over; all you have to do is make sure it sounds good. Like, all the sounds are there, all the parts are there, and you just have to put it all together. That’s when you know…how do I put this…I don’t know, for some reason, it just feels more ‘creative’, in a way. I just enjoy that part.”
RM: You like hearing the finished product?
M: “Yeah, it’s just basically ‘done’. There’s just no more pressure; no more stress: we just have to put it together, and make sure it sounds good. So that’s a nice part of the whole ‘song-writing’ process.”
RM: You’re a character of distinctive originality in your work.
RM: (Laughs) What’s the matter? Do you find that funny?
M: “I hate being flattered. I never know how to handle it.”
RM: Your long-term fans surely wouldn’t think of it as ‘flattery’…wouldn’t they believe in it…?
M: “Oh, thank you. I’m sorry.” (Laughs)
RM: Now I’m the one laughing! But as such a character, what legacy would you like to leave through your creative endeavour? What would you like to be remembered for?
M: “I don’t know…hopefully, we mean something to a few people, y’know…maybe some of the lyrics might trigger a button with somebody; maybe people will see themselves in what we do. If I can do that with one person, I’m happy. If our records mean something to someone, that’s important to me, as opposed to being some fucking band who are just fucking partying or having fun or whatever, and then their music is pointless. I don’t know what I want to mean to people, but it would be nice to know that, y’know, people will remember us in twenty years, and go: ‘Yeah, that album was important to me at that part of my life’, or whatever.”
RM: My last question to you, Håvard, is hypothetical Desert-Island Disc. If you could pick three albums to take with you to a desert island, what would they be?
M: “Three records? Prodigy – Fat of the Land, I would say I would have to bring; Rob Zombie did an awesome fucking remix album, which is actually the best he’s done, I thought: American Made Music to Strip By – I love the Charlie Clouser mixes; and probably either Downward Spiral or The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails – those records have been huge for me.”
Despite the evolution of Mortiis, Ellefsen isn’t a chameleon.
Fancy dress rather than freakish deviances from humanity the costumes may be…but Ellefsen, like the rest of the deep-thinking populous, seemingly isn’t without demons. Nor is he without the principle which seems to permeate rock n’ roll mentality: Do whatever the hell you want, whenever the hell you want. Enigmatic to boot, Notodden’s dark chief is on with his musical masquerade…minus the ‘masque’. If you don’t like it? Get stuffed.
Looking forward to catching him and his other band-mates onstage before Combichrist in a little while…and as for the hangover…well, when the rest of us are all-aboard the good ship ‘Too Much Booze the Night Before’ as well, who are Metal-Rules to wag the finger…?