INTERVIEW WITH MORTIIS BY JEREMY SAFFER
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEREMY SAFFER
Mortiis has gone through various changes in musical direction throughout his career, starting in Emperor and then going on to have an incredible solo career first with dungeon synth (a genre he helped create) before moving to a more goth industrial sound for the past 15 years. Now, Mortiis is digging back into his Era 1 material, performing and reinventing classic songs from his second album, and even considering potential re-recordings in the future. We talk in-depth with Mortiis about mental health, collecting vinyl, his black metal roots, dungeon synth and how it’s becoming a phenomenon, plenty of amazing stories of his past, and what the future holds for Mortiis Era 1, Era 2, and Era 0.
You came from a black metal background, but your music as Mortiis started off far from where you began. Why didn’t you ever go back to black metal?
Because, quite frankly, I was never really an accomplished player. Emperor was the only black metal band that I was ever in, and when I was in the band, they never called it black metal. I tried to rip off that Sodom demo that’s called Witching Metal, which I thought was a cool description of what we were doing. I wrote all of the lyrics up until they asked me to leave, and they were never about Satan or hell or damnation or anything like that, which I always thought was cool, but I didn’t want to do it myself because I didn’t necessarily truly believe in that stuff. My view of black metal at that point was that unless it was super satanic and devil worshiping stuff, then it wasn’t black metal. So, I never thought that Emperor was black metal. That was my opinion. I mean, my lyrics were inspired by Tom Warrior, Necrophagia, and all that underground grimy fucking shit, but not Satan worship. So, I never called it black metal. I never thought that we were. Whatever happened after me, that’s their thing. I’m not going to get involved in that. So, yeah, once again I digress, and I forget the question (laughs).
How did you progress from being in metal to doing synth music?
While I was in Emperor, I was getting into stuff like Tangerine Dream. Even early Pink Floyd and floaty atmospheric stuff, I discovered it, and it was a whole new world. I was actively seeking out a lot of that stuff, and Klaus Schulze, who was an early Tangerine Dream member, made fantastic atmospheric music. A lot of that stuff came out of Germany in the early to mid 70s. There was a lot of really great stuff going on. I was totally into that, then I got fired from Emperor, and I’m sitting there for probably two days thinking, “What the fuck am I going to do?” It was a shock. I didn’t see it coming. In hindsight I should have because I had a horrible attitude, but I had no experience and I didn’t realize you could get fired from a band until I got the phone call from Ihsahn and he was like, “We had a talk, and we think you should leave the band.” I was like, “What the fuck?” But in hindsight I get it. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in a band with me either at the time. I mean, they probably wanted a better player. I was adequate on the bass, but not great, so that may have been an issue, too. They never said that was the reason, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was half the reason they pulled me out of the band. Anyway, I stayed there for a couple days, and I figured, “Fuck this, I’m going to do the Mortiis solo project, and it’s going to be super monotonous, atmospheric dark synth. I’m tired of bands!” Emperor was my third band to fail for me. They didn’t fail, but I failed. “I’m not going to try again. I’m sick of it.” So, I went solo, and I walked down to the local music store one day and bought a Roland keyboard and carried it back home. And three months later we had The Song of a Long Forgotten Ghost demo.
Now you are headlining Northeast Dungeon Siege, a three day dungeon synth festival with over 25 bands performing music of a genre you created. Did you ever think that sound would go as far as it has?
No, but I didn’t single-handedly create it. There were others from the metal scene that came out maybe a year after my first record or something like that. There were others in the beginning also laying the foundations for what this became much later on. When I started doing this, my only goal or intention or ambition was to create atmospheric music and base it around this Mortiis world I started creating, and that was it. I had no other ambitions or intentions or ideas of where I was going to go with it. I didn’t have a five year plan, and I didn’t realize that way down the road there would be a genre building up around it. You never know these things. This is going to sound megalomaniac, but I’m sure the first guy who started singing the blues didn’t think it was going to be a big thing. You just do what you do because it’s in your mind and you just get it out there. I just did what I wanted to do, and I didn’t know how to play. My mind to my fingertips, and, “Oh, that’s the record! We’re done! Onto the next one!” That’s how that worked out.
“I’VE BEEN IN AND OUT OF THIS ROLLER COASTER OF FEELING GREAT THEN FEELING LIKE SHIT. ONE YEAR IS GREAT, THE NEXT YEAR IS HORRIBLE”
How do you feel seeing all these bands that base their entire sound off of your music?
I think it’s cool. I’ve been in and out of this roller coaster of feeling great then feeling like shit. One year is great, the next year is horrible, so I haven’t been able to totally pay a lot of attention to things that have been going on because I have been busy trying not to kill myself sometimes. I think it’s great that it’s got it’s own life. I did not see that happening. In fact, when I came out of my few years of long foggy, hate everything, mental miasma a couple years ago when I started revisiting my Era I stuff, that was pretty much the same time as this genre started rising up. It’s not big or anything, but it’s definitely a thing to look at the whole dungeon synth thing, and I’m thinking, “That’s a weird coincidence.” I wasn’t aware of it, but at the same time I finally relented to this label over in Europe that wanted to reissue some of my old stuff, and I was like, “Okay, let’s do it.” So, we started working on that, remastering some of the old stuff and going, “Okay, there’s this, this is going to happen,” and all of a sudden people are going, “Are you aware of the fact there’s this whole scene blowing up, doing what you used to do?” And I didn’t have a clue! I got onto some of the forums that were just starting out. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” Now it looks like I’m trying to capitalize on it (laughs), which is not true. I was getting worried about that. That was the first thing I thought. They’re going to think I’m just trying to make a buck now, and some people did, but it hasn’t been as bad as I thought. And it’s certainly not true, because I wasn’t even aware this scene existed.
For a lot of the bands at the festival, the way they see it is like it’s the godfather of dungeon synth coming to bless them.
Bless them (laughs).
Now that you’re touring again and bringing back Era I, what is it like revisiting these songs after all this time?
Well, back in those days we did long songs. That’s another thing I stole from those German crazy kraut rockers. Even back in the 90s I feel like I was the only guy on the face of the earth that cared about vinyl. Because CDs took over the world, anything analog was just out the window, but the terms I thought in was the size of the LP. Back in the 70s these guys, like Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, what they would do a lot is do a super long, droney, melodious music that covered an entire side of the LP. So, every LP would be two songs. That was the way I did it for my three or four first albums. So, it’s not like I’m revisiting a lot of songs because obviously three albums is six songs—two on each album with 25 minute songs.
“IF I GET AN IDEA, I HAVE TO TRY IT, BECAUSE YOU NEVER KNOW, THAT COULD BE YOUR LITTLE MILLION DOLLAR THING RIGHT THERE”
I wasn’t sure if you were going into Stargate and Crypt of the Wizard as well.
No, on this tour what I’ve done is I’ve revisited the Født til å Herske album, which is my second record. I’ve reinterpreted the whole thing, and I’ve added a lot of new music on top of it, which made it a lot more percussive. Fundamentally, it’s still the same song, it’s just gotten extended somewhat. It started out as the original stuff just rerecorded and then re-interpreted. The end result was almost like a new record. It’s like 50 percent new stuff, but it all flows and works out—it’s all this one cool entity. I’m doing two songs tonight, but it’s an hour long set. It was inspiring, and I thought it was cool. I started rerecording it and started hearing all these new melodies on top of it in my head. I’m the kind of guy that’s used to turning every stone. If I get an idea, I have to try it, because you never know, that could be your little million dollar thing right there, so you have to try it out. If you get an idea, you have to try it. It may not work out, but at least you tried it. So, that’s what happened—I started hearing all this new music in my head, and I got it all down, so in that sense it became almost like a new record.
Do you think you’re going to do that with more of your earlier records?
I would like to. I have an idea to do it with my first album, which would turn it into completely different music. It is a very monotonous, more droney kind of record. It doesn’t have all the variety of some of the other ones, so that’s where I’m thinking maybe I can pull more people into it like vocals and choirs. It’ll be the same thing, but just in a different universe. We’ll see. I would like to do it, but time is just slipping away. I’ve been having this idea for two years, and I haven’t been able to do anything about it because everything else gets in the way, but I want to do it.
Do you have a favorite Era I album?
Not really. I do like my first one. I think it has a lot of charm to it. Crypt of the Wizard I really like a lot for some reason. Maybe that’s because the memories are different. That was the one I recorded in my own living room, and I had no idea what I was doing. I had bought this weird noise mixing desk and Ampex quarter inch reels. The only thing I knew about operating that was to get the tape from one reel to the other one and how to push record and play. After that I had no idea what I was doing. It’s a charming sounding album. It’s got some mistakes on it because that was the first time I wasn’t sitting in a studio. When I was in the studio, I was more self-critical. When I was sitting at home, there wasn’t anybody there to monitor me, so I was alone and let more stuff slip. I think that’s when I actually started, in hindsight, thinking, “Why did I not rerecord that track? I should have done that better!” It was because I was sitting alone, and nobody told me that I should try it again. If you have a bad take, normally either you will say it yourself or somebody will tell you to do it again because you made a little bit of a mistake. I, for some reason, had adapted the idea of “I’ll take care of it in the mix,” which is bullshit. You do a bad take, you can’t make it better in the mix. I mean, you can wash it, reverb it or something, but it’s still a bad take. So, that is when I started getting sloppy, and that’s probably the very origins of starting to feel bad about some of my stuff.
Is that why you want to go back and revisit it?
It’s a good reason to do it. I would love to do all of those records over again. Maybe not Stargate. Stargate was fine. That’s a cool one. Crypt of the Wizard is another one. The interesting thing about that album is it’s shorter songs, so that makes me more curious about going back and trying to add things. We’ll see, time will tell, or I will die and nothing will happen.
“I DON’T HATE EVERYBODY ANYMORE. I USED TO. I SHOULD HAVE BEEN A PUNK AT SOME POINT BECAUSE I JUST WANTED TO KILL EVERYONE.”
Your appearance has changed a lot over the different Eras, with you losing the iconic troll mask. How important is the visual aspect of Mortiis?
It’s always been important. The reason the mask went out in the early 2000s was because my music changed so radically and I started singing about stuff that was more personal and earthly so to speak—more introverted stuff about how I feel and how I fucking hate everybody and stuff like that. I don’t hate everybody anymore. I used to. I should have been a punk at some point because I just wanted to kill everyone. I think maybe that’s why my music got angrier and angrier for a while, but I’m an old KISS kid, W.A.S.P. kid. I grew up with these early 80s, late 70s bands, where their image was so strong and powerful, it left an imprint on my mind forever. I was always looking for the most outrageous looking band. That’s why I got into early Slayer, because it was awesome in the beginning, and Venom and all those guys as I got older. Maybe not certain musical genres. I can see why they don’t do the whole visual thing, because Nirvana doesn’t need makeup, it’s just going to be weird. But W.A.S.P., Mötley Crüe, and Alice Cooper, that’s all theatrical. I thought that was excellent. In my world, music and visuals go together. That’s what I grew up on, so for the longest time I would buy the album by the cover art. If I had a choice between Altars of Madness by Morbid Angel and Samantha Fox, I would go for the most outrageous looking record sleeve. As a 12-year-old kid, 13- year-old kid, you go with whatever looks the most extreme. Usually back in the 80s that was the way to go, too. That would be the better record. Strangely, I can’t say why that is, but I feel like it was. Even back with Piledriver, Metal Inquisition, the spiked mohawk, I remember I saw that in a magazine, and I thought that had to be the best record that’s ever been made in the history of mankind. And it was almost true. It’s a fantastic album! 1985! Canada! I like visual bands, I love that. That’s why black metal is still interesting because they’re fairly visual. The problem with black metal right now is they all look the same. They all look extreme, but they’ve all got the Watain makeup and the blood. It gets a bit watered down, but it’s interesting.
With bringing back Era I, would Era II ever make a comeback for an anniversary tour or anything like that?
It’s been mentioned. I would like that. That would be great. One day I will be back in a band scenario, and I certainly have no plans on never going back to it in my mind. I can do both at the same time. I can do one style and be a solo guy, and that’s totally fine and I can be in a band at the same time. If Peter Tägtgren can be in 40 bands, I can be in two. Never say never about that! I would love to do it for sure.
Your sound evolved from synth-driven instrumental to more industrial, and now you’re back to synth. What direction do you see the music going in moving forward, if you do any new music?
As it stands right now, I’m back to the Era I thing that is really not that industrial. There are some minor industrial elements in some of the percussive stuff I’m doing in the current Era I versions, which I think is more of me not being able to let go of my ideas from that time. There are some percussive things that are going on that are very typical things for industrial music I suppose. As far as the future, I don’t know. Right now the focus is on getting this Era I type music out. It’s going to be atmospheric. As far as a couple years from now, who knows what’s going to happen? I could be going back to ripping off The Prodigy or something, that heavy bass stuff.
Would either of your side-projects Vond or Fata Morganaever end up being reincarnated in some way?
I don’t know. Vond might have been interesting. I don’t know if Fata Morgana makes a lot of sense. Fata Morgana was essentially Mortiis with slightly lighter melodies and slightly lighter atmospheres, but never say never. At this point in time I’m not gonna. If I’m going to revive these projects, that also means re-recording everything and pimping it up and making it more presentable for 2019 or 2025 or whenever it would happen, because production techniques have changed over the past 20 years. Remasters and reissues are cool and all that, but if you were to bring it up onstage, you want to beef it up a little. I don’t want to just bring these old tracks up there and it’ll be like, “Eh, it isn’t really that powerful is it?” I want to make an impression if I’m going to do it, and this probably goes back to my little issue with being critical towards my 90s stuff. It’s charming and cool and I’m willing to accept that, and that’s fine, but if I was going to bring it to the stage, I would want to do it over again. Re-record it, it’ll be the same but fatter, bigger, and more epic sounding, so that involves a lot of time. So, that’s what I’m thinking with Fata Morgana or Vond at this point in time. With the focus on Mortiis, there’s more than enough in that catalog for me to bring back out of the past and work on.
Now that you’re back to a more synth-driven sound, would you ever do film scoring again?
If they ask me to do it! No one’s asking me to do it. That’s the only thing between me and movies is that nobody is asking me. I would love to do that, but the requests aren’t there, so I don’t know what’s going on. I just got a new agent about six months ago, and that’s actually one of the things we are talking about, so maybe he’ll make stuff happen. I hope so, I’d love it.
Your music with visuals would be incredible, like the music video you just did.
Yeah, those guys are good. We’re definitely going to make a part two, because what I always like about my music videos now is I leave things open-ended so you can actually build on the story, make a part two, and it will be a continuation of whatever happens after that whole awakening of Mortiis out of that cocoon thing. Part two I’ll be hitting the bars and drinking (laughs). “Oh, I haven’t had a drink in 20,000 years!” (laughs) Just kidding. I like leaving things open-ended because of sequels and you can work it into a bigger picture.
“I’M TOO HONEST. I LIKE BEING STRAIGHTFORWARD ABOUT MOST THINGS.”
Overseas touring has become more difficult for bands. What are the biggest challenges you face when you come over to the US?
In the past, we always struggled a lot with those work visas because we like to do things legally, obviously. I don’t exactly know the repercussions of not doing it legally. You could easily just travel here and pretend like you’re a tourist and start doing it like that. I’m sure a lot of bands do that, but as far as I know, if they catch you doing that, they throw you out of the country. And I don’t think you can come back for like a decade. I’m not going to take that risk, and I’m too honest. I like being straightforward about most things. So, just acquiring the work visa, which is a long, arduous, frustrating process, that was one of those things where my new management really kicked ass. They handled most of it. I just had to deliver some information, sign a few documents, and fill out like a big 60 page questionnaire. Beyond that, they handled most of it. I paid for it. It was thousands of dollars, but I have a visa for a year now, so it’s cool. I can come back and do another tour, at least we are working on it.
What is the best way a fan can support a touring musician?
Turn up to the show (laughs) and buy a shirt! That’s the way to do it!
How has the reaction been so far to the Era I shows?
Really good. I’ve done a couple of lame shows, but it’s mostly been festivals where I feel like, “Why did you guys book me? It’s a bunch of pop fans here, but if you want to pay me thousands of dollars to come to Romania and do a show, I’ll do it! I’ll sell two shirts because nobody gets what I’m doing, but I’ll do it!” It’s a job, so I have to be that cynical about it and that’s not a secret. I feel like a lot of musicians feel the same way—you pay me, I’ll show up! It’s not a cool answer because it makes me sound like a money grubbing asshole, but it’s reality at this point. I still do this because I love it. I could do way better just staying at home at my regular job. I do a lot of health care stuff, and I can work my ass off doing that and get $7,000 a month. I’m not making that kind of money doing this, but you know what I mean, that’s why I keep doing it.
What kind of health care work do you do?
A caretaker for mildly mentally impaired people. They’re not really able to fend for themselves, so it could be anything from car accident brain damage to people with psychosis. It varies. I’m doing my bit. It feels good. I’ve been doing it for like 10 years now.
It’s well known that you’re an avid vinyl collector. What are some of your prized records?
I’ve got a whole bunch of different colored vinyl of famous black metal bands that are very hard to find—a few dozen copies from back in the mid 80s. They are a couple grand per copy. Stupidly, I got into collecting old Slayer and Metallica bootlegs at the same time, and it’s just a myriad amount of shit to pick from, so that was a dumb decision. But once I get my mind on something, I never stop obsessing over it. I’m collecting Metallica bootlegs now and Slayer. Megadeth don’t get a lot of bootlegs. Anthrax I have a few cool ones—they aren’t expensive, so it doesn’t really matter. But, Venom, very expensive stuff. Some of the Metallica shit is crazy, but Slayer bootlegs, some of those really old ones…I got this old one called Fuck the Slayer, which was like the first Slayer bootleg that was ever made. There’s only one hundred copies, and it’s like $1,500. I got that one. I got a lot of those things. I can’t tell my wife this because she would have a fit if I showed her. “Hey, these shady looking bootlegs, this one is worth 1,500 bucks, that one is actually worth 2,500.” Oh, she would flip. She would say, “Sell them right now! You have kids!” I had to sneak shit upstairs. That’s where my collection is.
Being that you’re a collector, a lot of the things you’ve been putting out lately with remastering, repressing is a gift to collectors like yourself.
I love that stuff. That’s why I keep telling these labels, because some of them, if I didn’t keep reminding them, “Hey, we should do this record in three vinyl colors because there’s a lot of guys out there that are going to buy all three of them.” That makes me sound very cynical, but there’s two parts to the story. 1) Yeah, it’s a business thing. 2) It’s a collector thing, where I know, me, as a fan, would love the idea of, “I got the black vinyl! What? There’s an orange one? I didn’t know about that! I got a new mission now! I have to hunt that thing down!” It’s interesting and it’s exciting, so that’s why I’m doing that. If you put out a record on black vinyl—500 copies—it’s going to cost what it costs, but if you want 100 of those to be orange, it’s much more expensive. That’s the way these guys think, because they’re business people and that sucks, so there’s always a little bit of I have to talk these guys into doing this. But they see they sell out, and they do okay, so it’s not really a problem. They’ll do it, and the collectors love it.
There are so many completionists out there that need to have everything.
Yeah, and I’m the same way. 30 percent of the reason is I think they’ll sell out quicker if we put them out in three different vinyl colors as opposed to just black, and the other 70 percent is just me being a nerd about vinyl and I just want to see my stuff on all these weird colors. I like the variety of it.
What are some records, like your holy grail, that you haven’t been able to get?
Flames of Hell from Iceland is one I want, which is from 1987. It came out in like 100 copies. That’s one of those $2,000 fucking records. I don’t have Deathcrush, the original. I had the opportunity a couple times. Actually, when I was a kid I broke into a guy’s house and stole his record collection, but Thomas from Emperor said, “I know you’re going to break into his house,” because I was planning it. I was an asshole. He said, “I don’t care what you do, just don’t take Deathcrush because I’m going to buy it from him.” So, I was there, and I took everything he had. I still have some of it in my collection (laughs). Uh, he was an asshole! I left Mayhem Deathcrush there out of respect for Thomas because we would have had a major falling out if I had taken Deathcrush. He would have flipped, so I left that for him and he bought it.
Are you going to continue doing more Era I music in the future?
Yeah, I’m working on a piece. It’s probably going to be one long song, and I’ll just make it one album. I’m taking it from two songs per album to one song per album, just going in the more extreme direction. I’m working on that, and my ideas and inspiration is feeling is pretty cool. It’s a very momentous piece. I need to make it more active and happening. That’s pretty much my main project after this tour and up until fall. The idea is to complete that recording and get that out hopefully at some point during 2019 and then see what happens beyond that. I don’t have a five year plan or anything like that, but for the next six months I’m going to work on music.