Mortiis is one of the more interesting figures to come out of the 90s Norwegian black metal scene that has lately gotten renewed attention thanks to the Lords of Chaos film. After spending time as bassist for seminal Norwegian black metal band Emperor, earning his chops playing on Emperor’s foundational 1992 Wrath of the Tyrant demo, Mortiis—the alter-ego of Håvard Ellefsen—set out on a path of dark ambient musical innovation that continues to this day. Through an array of projects—through the Mortiis project itself, but also through side-projects such as Vond, Cintecele Diavolui, and Fata Morgana—Ellefsen became one of the founders of a genre that has come to be known as “dark dungeon synth.” Recently, Mortiis announced a North American tour where he will both revisit his dungeon synth (Era 1) soundscapes and perform material from his new LP, “The Spirit of Rebellion,” details of which are below.
But it’s worth saying a few things about Mortiis’ 90s dark ambient projects first. After leaving Emperor, Mortiis landed among a roster of noise-industrial artists that were operating within the Cold Meat Industry label’s underground milieu, playing shows alongside acts like Brighter Death Now, Deutsch Nepal, and Ordo Equilibrio. “I never coined the ‘dungeon synth’ phrase,” Mortiis states in the interview below, “although the record label I started in the 1990s to retain control of my music was in fact called Dark Dungeon Music.” Mortiis’ dark ambient soundscapes from this time period of the mid- and late-1990s—a time period in his catalogue now referred to as “Era 1″—are evocative, gothic, filmic, dreamy; they have a unique power within them to inspire dark reveries, like the movie soundtracks of Tangerine Dream or Popol Vuh. Releases like the Ånden som Gjorde Opprør and Keiser Av En Dimensjon Ukjent LPs have all the seeming of soundtracks of some vast, dark epic film unfolding.
Accompanying Mortiis’ sonic experimentation, and something that has
—for better or worse—attracted possibly even more attention than his music, is his striking stage getup. Looking a bit like the goblin Blix from the movie Legend mashed up with a troll-like denizen from the darker side of Middle Earth, Mortiis’ stage appearance looks like it could be the work of a master monster FX artist. (“I have eaten a lot of shit and ridicule over the years on account of the visual aspects of Mortiis,” Mortiis explains below. “Friend, foe, media, or just complete strangers, they have all tried to take shots at me, and they have all failed. I’m still here.”)
Mortiis has announced that with his new LP, “The Spirit of Rebellion,” he’s returning with the theatrical prosthetics and invoking his Era 1 dungeon synth material. But it’s better to let the artist himself doing the explaining, below:
Mortiis was interviewed by Oliver for CVLT Nation in March, 2019.
So, Mortiis, you’re going to be playing a small US tour soon — can you give us the details?
Mortiis: Yes I am. I’m doing 10 shows, 8 in the US and 2 in Canada. I didn’t give this tour a big fancy name this time; it’s just called “North America Tour 2019.” I’ll make it up to everyone next time by calling it something really porny and offensive! The tour dates run from March 28 thru April 7, and people can get more info by clicking on to my Bandsintown, for example, right HERE. (Or see dates below!)
Off the top of my head, we’re going to places like Baltimore, New York, Worcester (outside of Boston), Montreal, Toronto, Joilet (outside Chicago), Seattle, Portland, Oakland, and ending in Los Angeles on April 7th at the Lodge Room.
Are you touring to support a new EP, LP, or single? Will you be playing the synth-based “dungeon synth” stuff, metal, some combination of the two?
Mortiis: Well, the music I’m performing live right now is taken from the upcoming album “Spirit of Rebellion,” which began its life as a re-recording of my 1994 album “Ånden som Gjorde Opprør.” Now, I say it began its life as a re-recording, as that was the original intention, but it quickly escalated into this frenzy of added melodies, layers, rhythms, rearrangements, instrument replacements, and entire new parts… In the end, “Spirit of Rebellion” has become a new album in its own right. The 1994 “forefather” album—again, “Ånden som Gjorde Opprør”—was a solo effort, and so was this. So that’s the state Mortiis is in at the moment.
“Ånden som Gjorde Opprør” from Era 1 was a keyboard-based album, and the music was fairly sombre and dark, with orchestral parts. Many years later, it came to be known as one of the earliest Dungeon Synth albums. I never coined the “dungeon synth” phrase, although the record label I started in the 1990s to retain control of my music was in fact called Dark Dungeon Music. The new “Spirit of Rebellion” LP probably sounds a lot bigger, more rhythmical, and soundtrack-y than most of the Dungeon Synth that is coming out today. I think it works great live. I use a lot of sub bass in my music, which works great live, as long as the sound systems can handle it.
When you do this tour, are you putting back on the stage makeup and doing the classic Mortiis appearance?
Mortiis: Yes. That’s what Mortiis was back in the Era 1 days, so obviously that carries on into this revival. The initial idea was born out of a few different elements that had a huge impact on my life. Firstly, my
growing up with big image bands like KISS, WASP, and Alice Cooper. Once I became a teenager that stuff carried on over to bands like early Slayer, Venom, Mercyful Fate, and so on—bands that were striking visually. Then, when I got into black metal, bands like Blasphemy and early Sarcofago, I felt the same way, and right around the corner you had the early days of the Norwegian Black Metal scene that I was part of.
Mortiis: Everyone in the early Norwegian black metal scene pretty much had the same idea, that visuals were an extension of the music, and were integral. We obviously added a very extreme element to it, which was our attitude, and we had the belief that black metal was a way of life. It was not just something that existed within the music and on the albums. It was a 24/7 thing. That extremist attitude was something I carried with me when I started Mortiis as a solo project. It’s a little hard to explain exactly how that works in practice, but in hindsight, I think that the extremist attitude, in my case, manifested itself in the sense that I was willing to do whatever it took to make my project be true to me. I never balked at doing what I wanted to do, regardless of the opinions of people around me. I have eaten a lot of shit and ridicule over the years on account of the visual aspects of Mortiis. Friend, foe, media or just complete strangers, they have all tried to take shots at me, and they have all failed. I’m still here.
Anyway, the final element in all this was obviously Lord of The Rings, and Tolkien literature in general. I got into that pretty much 2 minutes after the Norwegian Black Metal thing got going, and the visuals that Tolkien dreamt up obviously had a huge impact on me and early Mortiis in general. I just added the 80s image bands and the 90s black metal extremism into the pot and made it all much darker, more violent, and way more bleak. And that’s pretty much the Mortiis look, and the Mortiis universe right there. Back in those days it was Burzum and Mortiis taking ideas from Tolkien, although we quickly headed off into two very different directions. But the first couple of Burzum albums are heavily inspired by Tolkien, the way I see and hear them.
Switching gears for a second, let’s talk Lords of Chaos… Have you seen the film? If so, what are your thoughts, and how do you think it portrayed that Norwegian scene of the early 1990s? Accurately, inaccurately…?
Mortiis: I don’t know about Lords of Chaos because I didn’t watch it. I have no intention of watching it, either. I’m not a fan of something tragic and unnecessarily being monetized, but I suppose I can understand why someone would want to make the movie. But instinctively, I am not into the idea of a movie of Lords of Chaos, so I will not support it by watching it. That said, a more valid (I guess) reason for not watching it is that I refuse to believe that Hollywood will accurately portray the movie in an even remotely true light. I find it very dubious, and I seriously question the sincerity of the creators, when they’ve chosen to name the film after the book of the same title, which was written by a guy that has been, if nothing else, assumed to be right-wing friendly. I’m not saying he actually is. I thought for awhile that he was, but I may be wrong.
But I do think it says something about the depth of research made by Hollywood, as they’re not exactly known to be over excited about right-wing leanings. So with that in mind, and the fact that I don’t think this movie was done by people with any kind of fan relationship to black metal… I chose not to watch it. Of course, this dipshit playing Euronymous going on record saying “Euronymous was a sweetheart” clearly didn’t bother doing any research either. What a fucking dolt.
I haven’t watched Lords of Chaos yet, either, and I’m not sure if I will. So I don’t know the answer to this, but are you actually in that film? By that I mean, does anyone portray you in it?
Mortiis: No, I am not in it. I probably didn’t play a big enough part in the events that went down. I mean, most likely they never researched, or had any interest in, characters that didn’t burn a church, kill someone, get killed, or kill themselves.
I mean I could be wrong of course, but when I see these utterly ignorant statements about Euronymous being a sweetheart, these made-up girlfriends in the movie, etc., it pretty much just strengthens my suspicions that very little, or at best only sloppy, research was done prior to filming/writing the movie. I think Metalion from Slayer Mag is in the movie, so that’s pretty cool. Metalion was probably their most important supporter in the pre-BM era (which means 20 years prior to the hipster era). At least they got him in there. Whether he’s being portrayed in any way correctly is another question, and not up to me to answer. I wasn’t there back in 1986-1987. I did start writing letters with Euronymous in 1989, and to Metalion around 1990 unless I am mistaken. You should probably talk to guys like Faust, Frost (Satyricon), and Metalion himself… Those guys are a bit older than me, and were around a little earlier.
Do you keep in touch with the folks from Emperor? What is your relationship these days, if any, with folks like Ihsahn, Samoth, or any others? Has the idea of re-joining them for a reunion ever come up?
Mortiis: We don’t keep much in touch. Occasionally I’ll exchange some words with Samoth. We have never discussed a reunion and I don’t see it ever happening.
You’re often credited with inventing a genre that’s now referred to as “dungeon synth.” In the past few years, with online music outlets like Bandcamp and others, it seems like other musicians have taken up this style and proceeded in your footsteps. When you were making “Ånden som Gjorde Opprør,” for example, what influenced you?
Mortiis: Yes, Bandcamp covers Dungeon Synth on a pretty regular basis. Before all that, they were going to interview me, but it fell through because of a really badly-timed misunderstanding, and they now think I’m a pervert… If you notice their Dungeon Synth articles and interviews, my name doesn’t even come up in them. Oh well, shit happens.
I still use Bandcamp for a lot of stuff, and I love that they’re around. When I was making “Ånden som Gjorde Opprør” in the mid-90s, I was trying to develop a little bit beyond the pretty monotonous sound of “Født til å Herske.” I think I had just started to listen a lot to the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack. The influence of that music is more obvious on certain parts of the 1996 “Crypt of the Wizard” release, and lots and lots on “The Stargate.”
Mortiis: By the time I was recording “Ånden…” I had gotten pretty deep into writing and developing that “Other World” in which I had placed Mortiis as an entity, within, and I was very focused on my albums being like soundtracks to this place. I can’t really name any specific influences on this period. I always was a heavy metal/hard rock guy at that time (although I was discovering a lot of industrial/experimental music as well) and I did these little infusions of metal “ideas” in my music all the time. I’d lift a riff from some metal or hard rock record LP I liked, and do something similar, but in the Mortiis sphere. And it would sound totally different. I remember on one of the songs on “The Stargate” I snuck in this totally dumbed down version of a bit from “Highway Star” by Deep Purple, haha! Well, at least I thought that I did, haha!
What brought about your embracing of your older work recently, the Era 1 stuff, and your starting to plumb those depths again?
Mortiis: As for the return to Era 1, I guess you could say the reason I didn’t return to it sooner was because—and this is making a long story really short—I was very unhappy with some of the original results from a technical perspective. But another major factor that ties into this was that my psyche was not in a good or healthy place for a long time and that very likely clouded, or darkened, my view of my 90s output. I was unable to look past the negatives, and I couldn’t see all the positives for many years. That slowly changed, and when the band version of Mortiis disintegrated around 2017, I decided that now was a good time to try a return to Era 1 and see how it felt. The main reason for that was, I think, some of the more lingering clouds finally sort of dissipated (albeit slowly) and I was able to look at my Era 1 stuff from a different perspective.
Mortiis: I had not been able to understand why fans would tell me how special the early stuff was; I just couldn’t see what the big deal was. Once I was able to look at my stuff from a fan perspective it was very liberating. I don’t want to come across as this self-congratulating douche, but as a fan of many bands and artists myself, it was a good experience to finally be able to see my stuff (in my view) finally sort of find its place among artists and bands that did something special. Once I was able to get into that mindset, I felt very inspired and motivated to get down to work and revive this thing.
A question a fan wanted answered: What actual occult or magickal-type practices do you involve yourself with?
Mortiis: Frankly—none. I was fascinated by stuff like that in my youth and I would read books like Francis Barrett’s The Magus and so on, witchcraft type stuff, books about various types of magic, etc., but it sort of became less and less of interest to me to be honest.
Will you perform any earlier material (from Era I, etc) on your upcoming tour? Any side-project stuff, like Vond?
Mortiis: I will perform the new LP, “Spirit of Rebellion” in its entirety, which, as I explained earlier, is the re-interpreted version of “Ånden som Gjorde Opprør.” People seem to really like it so, so—so far so good.
What are your primary artistic and songwriting inspirations these days? Do they stem from the occult, from literature, from film…?
Mortiis: Maybe I come across as arrogant, but I can’t really think of a lot that influences me at the moment. “Spirit of Rebellion” was just a really inspired album where I heard everything in my mind before I really had time to think about it. I’m working on some new Era 1 type material, where I hope to bring a lot more vocal elements in, and this is an area where I might have to look to other artists to see what they’ve done…
MORTIIS 2019 North American Tour Dates
March 28 – Metro Gallery – Baltimore, MD
March 29 – Brooklyn Bazaar – NYC
March 30 – The Raven – Worcester, MA
March 31 – Petit Campus – Montreal, QC
April 1 – Velvet Underground – Toronto, ON
April 2 – The Forge – Joliet, IL
April 4 – El Corazon – Seattle, WA
April 5 – Hawthorne Theatre – Portland, OR
April 6 – Metro Opera House – Oakland, CA
April 7 – Lodge Room – Los Angeles, CA