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Mortiis - Interview

Interview with: Havard Ellefsen
Conducted by: T.V.

One of the most important and intriguing acts inside the Norwegian dark music scene must be Mortiis. Mortiis was formed back in 1993 as a solo project by Havard Ellefsen, who started his musical career as a bassist for the black metal giants Emperor. Havard is also the only constant Mortiis member and is considered as an inventor of the music genre now called dungeon synth. Mortiis went through many transmutations throughout his career. By many the most important part of Mortiis' musical path and absolutely most influential is the, how he calls it, Era 1, and albums like Ånden som Gjorde Opprør, Keiser Av En Dimensjon Ukjent, Crypt Of The Wizard and the stunning The Stargate. Then came Era II and with the album released in 2001, The Smell Of Rain, came the change in style and Mortiis became more electro-pop oriented. It was during this era that Ellefsen decided he needed to seek members to perform in a live setting, which later helped change how Mortiis as a band sounded. Then more and more drastic changes happened and now Mortiis sounds more harsh than ever, his sound became more and more industrial based, combining grinding guitars and industrial programming. Mortiis is now in the so called Era 0, after a short hiatus when the album named The Great Deceiver was released through his own label Omnipresence Records. Just recently Mortiis released a magnificient remix album named The Great Corrupter consisting of remixed tracks out of the album The Great Deceiver. Remixes were done by some of the biggest acts out from industrial, electro, dark ambient, synthpop,... scene, like Godflesh, Apoptygma Berzerk, Chris Vrenna (Nine Inch Nails), PIG, Die Krupps, Raison D´Etre, In Slaughter Natives, Deutsch Nepal, Merzbow and many others. I did an interview with this very interesting artist Havard Ellefsen who explained a lot of things behind the remix album, about his views on the music scene, his past, influences, personal life and yet much more.

T.V.: Hi Havard, how are you? I believe that you must be in big expectations about the release of The Great Corrupter. You made really a huge effort with this remix album. Tell me, it was difficult to gather all these artists/bands to do remixes of your tracks?
: Hey, I´m good. Yeah I´m pretty excited about the remix album, but at the same time, you have to stay realistic about putting albums out these days. Sales are not what they used to be unfortunately. I know that´s not a very PR-friendly thing to say, but I prefer to be straight and honest about stuff. As for getting all these artists together for the album, no not really. I mean I knew a lot of these guys already. Like Justin from Godflesh I kinda already knew Chris Vrenna and Rhys Fulber I have known for years. Jouni from In Slaughter Natives I´ve known for like two decades now, Stephan from Apoptygma Berzerk well over a decade, and so on. The ones I didn´t personally know, I simply reached out directly, and if that wasn´t possible, I´d know someone who knew them, so there really weren´t any problems at all. You know, it takes time of course, but even that was quicker than I initially anticipated. I started contacting people in the summer of 2016, and by December, I had 20+ remixes good to go, so it was a pretty quick process. For us, it has to be some sort of record!
T.V.: But still, this is not just an ussual remix album, I believe. Not only that you played a bit with title, it has also a very intriguing artwork, actually two versions. So, I belive that there's some hidden meaning or idea behind all this, or am I wrong?
Havard: Well there are no codes or anything really profound hidden away anywhere, but when I have the opportunity, I do like to use art from artists that I really admire, like the LP artwork, which is all Hieronymus Bosch. The CD artwork is a nod towards 70s horror/suspense films, that I tend to prefer over the recent, more digitalized and FX-dependent stuff. So that artwork (the CD) is my Rosemary´s Baby tribute. Actually for the LP version of The Great Deceiver (last year) we were going to make a special edition based purely on the art of the late Zdzisław Beksiński, but unfortunately, after we had negotiated with his current representatives/rightholders for a year, they finally saw our videos, and unexpectedly told us they didn´t want his art to be associated with Mortiis. It was a huge surprise, as his art has been freely licensed out to other black metal bands. For some reason, Mortiis was too graphic or disturbing. With that experience fresh in mind, it was a great personal triumph for me when I was able to license Hieronymus Bosch art from the Italian museum that represented those paintings.
T.V.: Interesting. Now, Mortiis is in the, like you call it Era 0, but in a way this new release, The Great Corrupter, somehow goes through all of the stages (eras), and yet more. There's even some ambiental music, noise, industrial,... Is this just a coincidence or it was done intentionally?
Havard: No, it was fairly calculated. At least in the sense that I wanted to go back to the Cold Meat Industry days and bring some of my old friends from that period in on the project. I actually had already reconnected with Jouni from In Slaughter Natives a few years ago, and he helped with mastering The Great Deceiver, The Unraveling Mind and Perfectly Defect in one long weekend at his house in Sweden a while ago (he moved to Germany after that), so I wanted In Slaughter Natives to be a part of it very early on, then I got the idea that it would have been really cool to have a "Cold Meat Section" on the record... I wanted Arcana and MZ412 on it too, but unfortunately due to time constraints they were unable. I did end up getting In Slaughter Natives, Deutsch Nepal and Raison D´Etre to be on it so that was still huge for me personally. Projects like Merzbow were also a nod back to those CMI days for me personally. Through the years, I have been brushing shoulders with so many different genres and sub genres, I really had this huge pallette of artists and ideas to pick from. I never stopped liking or listening to any of it, so to me, doing these remix types of records, opens up the door to think differently, and invite some fresh, and weird blood into the mix. I try not to think just in terms of "club hits", I just want to keep things interesting.

T.V.: And this way some of the tracks got really an interesting twist, for some of them, like for example for the Merzbow one, you actually said that the track was aboused. On the other hand I was pretty amazed by what Stephan Groth (Apoptygma Berzerk) did of "Sins Of Mine". I never really thought that a Mortiis song can sound this way. Tell me, you really didn't expect that some tracks will get such twists and turns and what exactly was your innitial thought when you first heard them?
Havard: I was pleasantly surprised every time I got a mix in. The Apoptygma Berzerk mix was awesome, because Stephan has this great sense of melody, and for that one, I actually recorded some additional vocals for the mix too. He sent me some early work in progress version of the song, and asked me to come up with some extra vocal lines for the part that had become the new chorus. Which was pretty easy, as I am fairly good at coming up with melodic content myself. Stephan lives down the street from me, so it was literally a question of me bringing a couple beers into Stephan´s studio, and we tracked vocals for perhaps 20 minutes, and then went to the pub around the corner, haha! Well, the Merzbow track, in my mind sounded like aural abuse... Like something that used to be complete, had now become distorted and dirty. I loved that about it.
T.V.: If I'm not mistaken seven tracks were remixed by Chris Vrenna (Nine Inch Nails). Other artists are present with one. So why have you decided to dedicate so much place to Chris?
Havard: Actually what happened there was, we were originally going to mix The Great Deceiver with Chris Vrenna, and we started doing that, and we got five songs mixed, then Chris had to abandon the project, as he got some huge paying job that he couldn´t turn down. At that point we decided to mix the record ourselves in Fredrikstad, my home town, at the Silvertone Studio, where we had worked before. So we started over again, and I also re-wrote (again) some of the songs, as I thought they could be better. So that left us with five "Chris Vrenna mixes" I had no idea what to do with, untill we started "The Great Corrupter 2", and I realized they´d be a killer bunch of bonus tracks for the CD and digital edition. That´s the story behind that. So they´re not remixes, they are in actuality, the original mixes of several of those songs. One of those songs, the title track, was never used on the final version, unless you count "The Great Leap" - which is a completelty warped and mutilated and re-born version of "The Great Deceiver" - if you listen to both songs side by side, you´ll hear some of the same elements. Chris Vrenna did one proper re-mix though, he remixed "Hard To Believe", so he has six songs on this release. A pretty major presence for sure.
T.V.: Let's leave aside for a while The Great Corrupter. Recently you released the album called The Unraveling Mind. From what I understand the music on this "lost" album was meant as a soundtrack for a horror movie. What can you tell me about this piece of art?
Havard: Yeah originally I recorded a bunch of music back in 2006 for a couple of soundtracks. The way that began was actually back in 2005, when we were making the video for "Decadent & Desperate". The director was Adam Mason, who was also directing underground horror movies. During the making of the video he told me about a couple of movies he was working on (Broken, and The Devil´s Chair) and asked if I wanted to contribute music for those. So I started making this really sort of ambient, suspenseful and dark music. In the end I ended up with an album´s worth of material. Adam probably ended up maybe using 2-3 of the songs, the rest pretty much remained unreleased untill this year. I just never could find the proper time to release it. Mostly because I didn´t want confuse people with yet another direction in sound, but finally I just figured "fuck it" and I pressed it up on really limited vinyl, only available on tour and from our webstore. It´s not available in any stores or mailorders besides ours.
T.V.: So, are there still any other unreleased things in your vaults. Something that is waiting to see the light of the day on proper occasion?
Havard: Nothing album-length wise, but there´s a couple of things that haven´t been released physically, or very widely... At least one unreleased song from the Perfectly Defect album, another couple of songs from years and years ago... It´ll all come out eventually.
T.V.: Beside working with director Adam Mason, you recently worked also with Norwegian filmmaker Reinert Kiil on some short films. How were you satisfied with that collaboration and what can you tell me about that experience?
Havard: That collaboration came through Levi, our guitar player, who also works in the movie industry, setting up lights and stuff like that. Levi had worked with Kiil on one of his horror movies and had told Levi about a project he had, with some really violent short movies, and he asked if we´d be interested in providing the music for them. He was interested in songs that were already in existence, which was fine, and the deal was pretty simple, in that he got to use the songs, and we got to use the finished results are promo videos for ourselves. That´s really all there´s to it. We didn´t really have much to do with the visual end of it, that was mostly all Kiil´s vision. I thought the violent bits were really cool.
T.V.: And if you were about to direct or to do a screenplay for a movie how would that be? Have you ever thought about this option?
Havard: I never really thought about that. Not sure if I have the technical know-how to do something like that. I´m pretty creative though, so I'm sure I could come up with some very weird and disturbing ideas for movies!
T.V.: But what about the videos that you released lately? Pretty weird dark horror stuff, at least the one for "Demons Are Back" to point at one... Wasn't that screenplay your idea or did you leave it completely to director? And btw... can we expect a video for any of the remixes?
Havard: I don´t think there will be a video of any of the remixes, unless I can get someone unexpected to come along and do something cool. Never say never. As for the "Demons Are Back" video, it kind of came together in very "patchy" way. It started with me wanting to license scenes from Charlie Deaux´s 'Zoetrope' mini film, which are all the fast-cutting black/white scenes in the movie, the suicide by hanging at the end, and all the stop-motion stuff... That´s all Charlie Deuax/Zoetrope footage. Initially I just wanted to edit together a video based on that footage, but Charlie suggested that we add some other stuff to cut in with, so we got some props together and rented a room for a day, and shot some additional stuff. The mask with the fucked up spiked teeth, was inspired by a mask I happened to see online. I just sent that picture to an artist friend of mine here in town, whom I knew had made masks before, so she designed that one together with me. The spikes are actually from my own house. I was ripping down our old kitchen, and discovered these really brutal looking huge nails in the old walls and I just used that old wood as firewood, and for weeks I would be picking out these schorched, huge and very old nails from the fireplace. Eventually I´d have enough of them to put into that mask as teeth! Then I went and got those hoses you use in aquariums and attached two of them to pressurized water bootles, that I filled with fake blood, and had the pressurized blood squirt out of the eyes and mouth of the mask for the end of the video. It was all totally amateur, but it kinda worked. We used an old dentist chair for me to sit in and the blood was all over it, and this white floor underneath, normally used to TV production, so we got fined about €1000 as they had this massive cleaning job to do after we were done, haha!
T.V.: Oh cool, I can imagine how much of a job the cleaners had to do after that. As you mentioned the mask, I wonder what happened with your legendary mask that you used back in the days?
Havard: Haha, well Levi tried to clean it up, but apparently the red blood against the white painted floor was just impossible to clean up, so in the end the local TV crew had to repaint parts of the floor and so on. The mask, it just always stayed here with me, it´s never far away, haha! It´s back to some degree now and probably to a larger degree starting a little later on this year, or the next.
T.V.: I just saw that there will be special 30th anniversary 'Cold Meat Industry' festival in Sweden later this year. And Mortiis is headlining... Time to bring that mask back on?
Havard: We´re working on it. To be honest I don´t have much more info than that. The idea is to bring that Ånden som gjorde Opprør album from 1994 into the light of 2017 and see what happens. I´ll be doing some sort of interpretation of it.
T.V.: When I saw the announcement for this festival I thought that this is some kind of a joke, all these legends at the same place... But it seems real. Tell me who is behind all this and how this idea was born?
Havard: Death Disco and Cold Meat Industry are organizing the festival. It´s a really cool line up of bands and artists. I don´t know how they came up with the idea, other than that it´s a 30 year anniversary for CMI. I was asked a couple of times to do it, and I wasn´t really keen, but I sort of warmed up to the idea and I finally relented.
T.V.: By many you are considered as originator of the genre called 'dungeon synth', you actually invented the term "dungeon synth music". How do you feel about that and I wonder if you follow the evolution of this specific style?
Havard: To be honest I´m not following it, but then again, I never followed the evolution of any genre of music. It´s not that I´m not interested, I just don´t seem to have the time or the focus. I´m sort of all over the place and for periods of time I´ll zone out completely and I won´t even deal with anything related to music. I admit that sounds strange... I tend to listen to stuff that was made in the 70s and 80s, whether it´s electronic or rock based music. I just seem to prefer the sound of that period. A lot of cool stuff is being made today, sonically, but it seems the best songs and music was made a long time ago. As for being an originator of dungeon synth... Well, that´s cool, but I used to call it dark dungeon music. In fact that was the name of the label I used to release a lot of my stuff on in the 90s. I think it´s cool and a little weird that this genre has developed and I get (apparently) so much credit for that. It´s nice to see that my old stuff is still alive out there.
T.V.: You certainly are the main influence for many artists that are labeled as such. If we remain a bit more at your early period... My first contact with your music was the album, Keiser Av En Dimensjon Ukjent, released back in 1995. Just out of my curiousity, because it's still one of my favorite albums of yours, what can you tell me about that one. How important is this very album for you?
Havard: Well that one was recorded around February of 1995, and it´s pretty much the "sister" album of Ånden som Gjorde Opprør, which was recorded only about six months earlier, I was pretty much messing around with the exact same sound and ideas on both records, so they sound quite similar.

T.V.: Ok, and if going still a bit more back in time, I can't go past the fact that in metal community you are best known as a former member of Emperor. Tell me, how do you look now at those times and what does this really represented for you and your further musical evolution?
Havard: Not sure if I agree with being best known. Those times were pretty good, they became crazy after with everything that was going on, and the focus definitely shifted away from music and got way more focused on the various actions and events that were starting to happen. I´m not sure how being in a black metal band affected my future musical development, but it certainly did leave me with sort of an extremist attitude, and my tastes in heavy image got even bigger during those times too, which I think is very obvious in the early Mortiis photos.
T.V.: I meant best known in the 'metal community', not in general. Now, after almost seven albums that were released by Earache Records, you decided to release the album Perfectly Defect as a self-release and later on you formed your own record label Omnipresence Records. Why you took this decision? Was because of being disappointed with other labels?
Havard: Yes it was mostly from being disappointed. Once I signed with a bigger label, after Cold Meat Industry, I was selling a lot more records, and at the same time, all my rights and income completely dried up. I lost a certain portion of artistic control (not musically, but for example, I never wanted any fucking chicks in my videos, like in "Mental Maelstrom" and "The Grudge", that was something the label wanted)... So that on top of things being really hard financially, I decided that I had had enough of big record labels (and to some extent, the music industry in general) and just decided to go against the grain (at the time) and give the record away for free, as a big "fuck you" to the record industry. The message I tried to send was, I´d rather give my music away for free, than to deal with you assholes again. Of course I cooled down a bit later, and did try for a long time, to negotiate a fair deal with a few record labels, but surprise surprise, that turned out to be pretty much impossible, so we ended up doing it ourselves. We still do it to this day.
T.V.: So this way you formed Omnipresence Records... Tell me, is this label meant to release only Mortiis' albums or is it open also for other artists and bands that might be interesting to you?
Havard: It was always just intended for Mortiis releases. I am already absolutely overworked just trying to promote my own releases, work on music, and not to forget my two dayjobs which I need to provide for my family. I´d never be able to deal with other bands, it would be a nightmare to be honest. I like the idea of digging out old releases that haven´t been reissued, or properly distributed, so that might be fun, but I´m not planning on it currently.
T.V.: And you already re-leased the almost forgotten Vond albums, is there a chance that you'll re-release also other side-projects of yours like Cintecele Diavolui and Fata Morgana?
Havard: Yes we are already planning those with Funeral Industries actually. As well as a handful of older Mortiis albums, among them, there will be a couple of rare and unreleased tracks too.
T.V.: Fantastic and I'm looking forward for that! Is there a chance that you'll revive any of this old projects of yours? Or do you consider them dead and buried?
Havard: I consider them pretty much dead and buried, but you never know...
T.V.: Ok, you are always full of surprises. Now tell, regarding to your musical evolution you divided your creations into something that is described like "eras". I was wondering... why is The Great Deciver considered like the first album of Era 0 and not logically Era 4?
Havard: Because I thought that the "eras" thing was getting a little tacky... Where does it end? Haha. So I  figured, fuck it, I´ll just screw with people´s heads, and call it Era 0. I didn´t think everyone would ask about it, and now I have to explain that in every interview, haha!
T.V.: Now, before we go into the final lines of this interview... I know that you're a hard working man, but who is Havard in its private life?
Havard: I guess I´m pretty regular. I bitch about my neighbours, I think beer is too expensive, I almost always work these days (I care for people with mental disabilities, for the most part, but it varies) which is great for money and the family, but it makes it hard to focus on music and promoting it, but I try to do that job as well as I can. I take my kids to school, kindergarden, although my wife is much better at that than me. I think the other parents think I´m a weirdo. I suck at social life, I basically have none, so I tend to grab a six pack of beer when I have some days off, and get semi-drunk in front of YouTube digging out old heavy metal and hard rock videos from the old days. I am very nostalgic and I am probably a very out of touch guy... But I don´t like most of what is coming out these days in terms of film or music. It just seems to me that for the most part it´s more about being hi tech and flashy, as opposed to the actual art of making good songs or good movies. But that´s me... I tend to dive into long monologues in front of the TV, when I see stuff I think is fake or just there to sell lies and bullshit, so more or less all the time, and my only audience is my family, who pretty much just ignores me, haha!
T.V.: Hahaha, what a description! In a recent interview I did with Stephan Groth (Apoptygma Berzerk), he told me that you introduced to him a lot of good electronic music that he didn't know about. So I believe that you must be passionate about that as well and you must have quite a knowledge about it. Any recommendations for our readers as well?
Havard: I can´t quite remember what I introduced him to, but I know last time he was here we were listening to old German act Eloy, more prog rock really, but they use synths a lot, and I did find this old LP by Ad Visser in an Oslo basement that I played him and he liked... Beyond that I played him Laser Dance from The Netherlands, which is similar to Italo Disco I guess, so it´s got this cool Giorgio Moroder vibe, I think I played him Synergy too, maybe Space from France back in the 70s (Daft Punk must have picked up an idea or two from them), I found an old 12" by this disco meets Kraftwerk type artist called Reggie Griffin & Technofunk a while ago. I played him that and he really liked that. I played Stephan and another friend "Wunderbar" by Riechmann, a German electronic artist from the 70s that I know they got very excited over too, haha! That was something I bought back in the 90s from a guy that was selling his collection and I was in the middle of my Tangerine Dream/Klaus Schulze mania, so anything from that time with lots of synths, I would check out.
T.V.: Very interesting. I believe that you could give some interesting lectures about it. And what's mostly spinning on your music player right now?
Havard: Well I also listen to a lot of silence, it sort of depends what I'm doing, sometimes I find sound distracting. Lately I have tried catching up on various stuff I have bought... So it´s been extremely varied. According to my Discogs collection page, I have been checking out mostly older heavy metal like Tyrant (Germany), Quartz, Arakain (Czech), The Unsane, Nightwing, Mass, Picture, etc but in the more synth/pop end of the world, I have listened to Ad Visser, DAF, Electronic Division (cool 80s synth artist from Poland), The Neon Judgement, Propaganda, and so on... For periods I buy a lot of second hand stuff, so it takes me a while to go through it.

T.V.: In a recent phone conversation we had a while ago you told me that you already are working on a successor to The Great Deceiver. You said that it will have elements from your early days, but can you be a bit more precise what can we expect from Mortiis in the future?
Havard: Well it´s still in the very early phases, but I have some material that is "closer" to the older stuff, but not necessarily in the dungeon synth way, more in that the songs appear to be long and not necessarily very aggressive. But I shouldn´t say more because I know I´ll throw it in a thousand directions before it´s finally done, and it´ll be nothing like what I just said, haha!
T.V.: Lets wait and see... You already did a lot of collaborations with many different musicians, but if you could have absolutely no barriers and unlimited options, which artist/musicians would you choose to collaborate with and do some music together?
Havard: Someone like Diamanda Galas or Annie Lennox. But I don´t think I could make music that could carry someone like Diamanda Galas, or Annie Lennox... I´m not accomplished like them, but it would have been pretty awesome.
T.V.: Nice choice! Ok Havard! Let us end here. Thank you very much for your time and very interesting answers. I believe that our readers will enjoy in this interview. Is there anything that you would like to say to your fans at the end of it?
Havard: Cool! Glad to hear it... Parting words... Well I always appreciate it when fans stay around to check out what we do next, so naturally we appreciate that. If people are interested in our stuff, a lot of it can be purchased from our webstore - we are also in the process of including free downloads with a lot of the stuff we sell there. We also have a webstore over at Bandcamp, where free downloads are pretty much the standard.

Mortiis links: Official website, Facebook, Bandcamp

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