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Interview: Mortiis Talks Dark Sonic Visions and Touring New Zealand

Interview: Mortiis Talks Dark Sonic Visions and Touring New Zealand

Sean O'Kane-Connolly / Tuesday 24th July, 2018 12:47PM

Auckland-based writer and musician Sean O'Kane-Connolly spoke with Norwegian dark ambient master Mortiis, who is touring throughout Aotearoa next week. The interview featured here is an excerpt from a longer conversation which will be printed in the upcoming edition of O'Kane-Connolly's Skaventhrone magazine - for more info and to grab your copy head along here.

It's been just over a year of revisiting earlier works for Mortiis, a time for focusing on his dark ambient works from the mid to late 90s, collectively known as Era I which saw the release of four longform ambient full lengths, a demo, an EP, and three side projects (Fata Morgana, Cintecele Diavolui, Vond) all prior to the release of 1999's The Stargate album. During this prolific period for Norwegian composer Håvard Ellefsen, he helped define an entire genre known as Dungeon Synth – but has a longer history of experimenting with many genres and has adapted, evolved, and captivated audiences across many cultures.

The stories Mortiis tells through his liner notes, album / song titles, and his recently re-issued book Secrets of my Kingdom, are entirely unique and paint pictures of mysterious worlds, distant landscapes, and a dark kingdom in which the artist creates his vision. We welcome Mortiis to Aotearoa for the three shows he's playing here in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch in July and August on the back of a very extensive list of shows and tours, for which he's re-purposed the material from 1994's Ånden som Gjorde Opprør...

Kia ora and good evening to you Håvard, hows things, and have you just finished work?

Well I work these 12.5 - 13 hour shifts, I just clocked off 2 hours ago, I thought today was going to be more normal, but it turns out 4pm turns into 9pm and I have to push things back a little bit.

From our understanding you’ve been doing an Era I focused series of tours and shows, revisiting the material from Ånden som Gjorde Opprør. What was the process behind re-purposing the music for the current day, and the motivation for doing so?

For going back to that stuff?


It’s kind of an old story which I’ve been telling to so many people and I’m sick of hearing it myself now, back in ’93 – you’ve gotta go back a long, long time, and study the reason I stopped playing that sort of music the first time around. To make a long story short, it was down to hitting this mental rock-bottom place, which happened quite fast, utter disillusionment with what I was doing and losing all faith in it, identity crisis and all that kind of shit. I’m definitely not the only artist going through it, you know, you analyse things too closely and damage yourself by overthinking everything. That’s probably what happened to me, I started second-guessing everything and got into this loop of fucking negative thinking, and you can’t get your mind away from the things that you could’ve done better, and you lose sight of the stuff that was actually great.

So that happened to me, for good and bad. The good that came out of it, was I really stepped up my game, in terms of being more of a perfectionist with stuff, I think I became a better musician. I started making very different styles of music after that, and for a long long time, and I haven’t stopped doing that. I’m just focusing on my past in a sense right now.

I got into the whole industrial rock thing, for many reasons, we’re not gonna get too much into that, but mainly the reason was, I just really wanted to be a frontman, and really wanted to make that kind of music. I’d gotten into a lot of Ministry, Nine Inch Nails type stuff, while I was making Crypt of the Wizard, and The Stargate, I was listening to a lot of industrial rock music at the time. Nobody could really tell that from the stuff that I was putting out, but the music I was playing at home was totally different. So I really wanted to do that, I was thinking ‘fuck man, these guys are doing the two favourite things of mine’, which is metal oriented guitar work, and really cool synthesizer stuff, I was thinking ‘fuck man, these guys have got it figured out!’

There I was in the middle of my fucking depressive period, trying to find my way, and I’m thinking ‘Fuck man, I wanna do these guys are doing, it’s what I’ve been looking for’ – so I get into that for a long time, and I actually did a quite good job at it, and I turned out to be a decent frontman and all that stuff. But you know, eventually I managed to get myself out of this, sort of, [chuckles] swamp of hatred towards my past, which just increased for a long time, and I started feeling good about myself again, and started accepting my past a bit more.

I started thinking about my old stuff, how maybe it would be cool – at first I started accepting the visual side of it. Every time I saw a photo of the mask I’m thinking, ‘I couldn’t take a bad photo with that thing’ – everything looked really cool, and I started warming up to it a lot. And that’s a few years ago, to be honest. Deep down inside I wanted to get back to it [the early material], and was curious about it, I liked the idea of doing something solo again – without the guys, you know, getting into arguments and all the drama that sometimes occurs – it can be fucking exhausting.

There’s an opportunity here, people are interested, there’s never going to be a better opportunity than this. If I don’t jump at this, I’ll probably regret it. So I just did it.

What do you know about New Zealand’s dark ambient, electronic, industrial & experimental music culture?

Not much, I’ve got to admit it, I really don’t have a lot of time to pay attention to a lot of stuff. I know there’s like an 'Auckland Dungeon Synth' group, I’ve seen that one, and it’s cool. That’s as far as it goes to be honest with you man, I know there’s a scene down there, but unfortunately I couldn’t mention any band names, artists or anything. I just know there’s something happening. Hopefully I’ll know a lot more by the time I’ve been down there, we’re doing three shows, and I have no idea how they’ll turn out. But it’s gonna be cool, as I’ve never been there. I’m looking forward to it.

It’ll be different in every city I can assure you, there’s a huge amount of artists in the sub-categories of the dark-end of electronic and metal music here, so I’m sure you’ll have a blast. Even if fifty people show up…

I mean yeah, I’ll be happy with fifty [laughs] in New Zealand man I have no idea what your scene is like, so I’ll be totally satisfied with that.

We’ve had some big Norwegian acts come down here in the last year, Mayhem earlier this year, Aura Noir last week, and Dimmu Borgir arriving in October. We get the occasional act that brings people out even on a weeknight, and can pack out a show. Everyone’s there for a different reason, whether it’s out of fascination, or they’re long-time fans, it’s quite an eclectic crowd.

Everybody’s an individual, some people have been around like twenty plus years and know everything, - then there’s some people who don’t know every song, and of course some are there who’ve just started out, and we gotta support that.

Indeed. Last year we saw the release of The Unraveling Mind, recorded in 2006 – a proposed soundtrack for a horror film, full of haunting atmosphere, suspense, and a percussive pulse that drives the whole experience. When you’re composing in this style, what inspires you? Is there anything different about your musical approach?

It’s been a while, the thing with that album, is I was just experimenting a lot. Every sound went through a million processes. There’s some hardware stuff, then plug-in after plug-in – trying everything out until either you realise ‘this sound is never going to be any good’ so you throw it away, or something completely unexpected happens – and there’s something you can keep building on.

I’ve never had a fixed way to work, there’s no recipe to the way that I work. It’s a lot of experimentation, I’m just trying to fuck around with sounds and see what happens to them. If that’s inspirational, then it will usually trigger additional ideas, melodies in my head, and keep fucking around with it – there’s no limit.

Whatever gear I might have at hand, I just try to put it through that process, and see what happens, and if it sucks, just don’t use it! [laughter]

A lot of stuff that I do, more than anyone would probably think, is a sort of ‘accidental art’ – [jokingly] that sounds really pretentious – but I don’t really know how else to describe it. The Unraveling Mind is a really good example of trial and error, if you have a good base melody – you have a good ‘song’ – at the bottom of everything you fuck around with, then, how bad can it be?

If you’ve got something solid to build on, you have something you can add to, improvise over…

Just make sure the fundamentals are there, the spine, the body of the song. If it’s solid, and good, be it a good beat, or melody, or structure, then you can fuck around all over it. Trial and error, take things away, add layers, and just try shit out.

Like I said, if it’s kinda sucky, take it all away and start again.

Learning to work with new gear, and its limitations, can sometimes give way to a great song idea, and a great concept for an album…

…and something sonically interesting could happen, I have quite a lot of different and weird gear, and I’m not really good at using any of it. I’ve never been like a studio tech-head or anything like that, you’re not gonna get Pink Floyd stuff out of me, it’s not gonna be that ‘high end’ expertly recorded & edited stuff. It’s gonna be experimental, but from the heart. That’s the way I’ve always been.

Sean O'Kane-Connolly is a local musician who runs the Swampkult Productions record label, and is an editor for Skaventhrone magazine, both of which deal with dark ambient, dungeon synth, metal, and experimental music worldwide.

Mortiis is performing at Christchurch's darkroom on Tuesday 31st July, Wellington's Valhalla on Wednesday 1st August, and Auckland's Whammy Bar on Thursday 2nd August. For tickets and more info head along here.


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