Mortiis Interview

When I first heard news that the enigmatic Mortiis was coming to town I figured the chance to do an interview with him was too great an opportunity to miss, a chance to get behind his mask and to know the person capable of creating such excitement about his artistic persona. After having called the offices of Earache every single day for a week and getting nothing but requests to give them my contact information – a seemingly polite way of telling me to buzz off – I managed to wrestle the name of the tour manager from their press office. With a bit of patience and the Internet at my fingertips, I was able to dig up his telephone number as well. About 2 hours before the show was set to start on the 6 October, I managed to get in touch with Dave the tour manager, a very nice English fellow who told me Mortiis was in hospital for a throat infection that would hinder him from taking on vocal duties that night. The Mortiis show was cancelled, but he kindly agreed to do the interview in spite of his ailments. Safely inside the tour bus parked behind the Folken venue in Stavanger, Norway, I set the tape deck to record…

TW: First of all I’m sorry that this interview is a bit short-notice. I’ve been hassling Earache for the past week, but no-one seems to be able to take down my number or name correctly.
M: They’re idiots. There’s nothing more to say about that – they’re completely useless.
TW: Would you prefer working more independently?
M: We’re not really dependent on Earache, they’re what you’d call ‘independent’ I suppose. The fact is that they aren’t always as competent as they should be. On this tour we’re doing now, we’re being more professional than Earache, and they’ve been in this business for 20 years. I think that says something about them.
TW: How has the tour been this far then?
M: It’s been very good actually, but we’ve been struggling a bit for the last couple of days obviously because of this virus which… [the interview is interrupted at this point by Mortiis trying to close the tour bus door. It’s a wet and cold night in Norway, there’s a draft coming in and Mortiis is sick – there is also no air pressure left for the door mechanism to work, so Dave the tour manager goes hunting for someone with a set of keys to turn the engine back on]…ah, as I was saying, everything is going well except for this throat infection which means we can’t play tonight. The doctor told me that I shouldn’t sing tonight, so then I suppose we just have to obey. We forced our way through 2 concerts in Denmark, and it wasn’t a whole lot of fun. You’re just standing up there singing and sounding like a crow. The more I strain my voice, the less chance I have of recovering quickly so we just have to take a break for a few days, considering the rest of the tour ahead. We have to look at the ‘big picture’, as they say.
TW: Except for your throat infection, how has it been taking on main vocals?
M: I think it’s been going well. One learns every day.
TW: What can people expect from your live show…
M: Tonight? [laughs]
TW: Well, no, not tonight, [laughs] but…
M: Not much tonight [laughs]. No, it’s usually pretty aggressive, I come out with injuries and bruises every day, but I think that’s good – when you’re standing on stage you’re not supposed to look like a fucking idiot so there’s usually a lot of aggression…[the engine of the tour bus starts and the door opens even wider]…fucking door!
TW: Have you found it difficult to transfer such an electronic record as “The Grudge” to the format of a good concert?
M: No, we’re a little more guitar-based live and the instruments get a higher priority than the electronics. That’s how I like it – I think it’s better live to emphasise the aggressive parts of the record, because it makes it more inspiring to perform instead of pretending to be some German dance/groovy electronica outfit, which I am obviously not.
TW: You get a kick out of the audience’s response to your music, I suppose?
M: The response is usually good, but it varies from country to country. Germans are impossible to entertain, the Danes were better and the Norwegians can be very variable from city to city. I have to admit I don’t have a good experience playing in Stavanger – I think the audience has been pretty boring here, but that’s how it is. Maybe they weren’t good and then we played worse and then they were even less good – what do I know…
TW: I heard you don’t like playing in France, that you don’t think much of their taste in music.
M: [coughs, laughs] They only like themselves. They’ve got strange laws, like performances have to have 60% French material. We’ve never even played in France, but of course if we get offered a gig and it’s well-payed we’ll go. It’s just difficult to get the French off their asses to do something. [coughs] You hear why I can’t sing tonight?…
TW: “The Grudge” crept up the singles charts in the UK somewhat surprisingly – what do you think of the fact that this record has become your chance at a commercial breakthrough?
M: I don’t actually think the record’s particularly commercial. It’s certainly the noisiest record I’ve ever done [coughs, gasps]…The last interview Mortiis ever did alive!
TW: …that would be quite a scoop!
M: No, but as I was saying, it’s quite strange that “The Grudge” turned out to be the noisiest and also the most commercially successful record I’ve done. I don’t think of it in those terms, of course – I just make music that feels good. I don’t consider whether this or that track will become a hit. That’s maybe something I’ll sit back and think about when I’m done with the record – like, “Oh, damn, that was maybe a little bit more commercial than last time.” But when I’m writing the music I don’t even bother thinking about it.
TW: How do you find the life of a relatively experimental musician in Norway today?
M: I don’t know, it’s obviously a hard life. I think most people don’t really consider that musicians also need money in return for what they’re doing. Like now, the boys are fighting over the money for our tour (several of the upcoming venues were trying to cut Mortiis’ pay because of his unexpected illness – ed.) – they have contracts and medical statements, which means we have the right to get the money regardless. We’re insured, they’re insured – it doesn’t make a difference to them or us. We actually offered to come back and play at a very low price to make up for it, but they’re trying to get away with it by paying us less now. And we can’t accept that because then the tour budget doesn’t work out. That doesn’t work. It’s a “dog-eat-dog” situation, we’re living from hand to mouth, but we have to accept it and live with it. That’s how it is at the level we’re playing at right now.
TW: Has the development in technology and the use of the Internet to spread music had any impact on your ability to survive as a musician?
M: It probably has had some impact, but I think it probably has a greater impact on larger bands who sell millions of records. They’ll notice that suddenly they’re selling 200.000 fewer copies of their album. I haven’t really felt it – I haven’t seen any sales figures for “The Grudge” yet since it’s just been out. On the other hand, it’s good that the Internet exists as a promotional tool, but one always runs the risk of getting people who just download the records off the Internet. I have at least one friend who downloads everything from the Internet and hasn’t bought a record in something like 3 years. I can’t stand what he’s doing, it’s disgusting because all his friends are musicians and he still won’t pay for any records. I think it’s alright to download songs to check out bands, and then if you like it you go out and buy the record and go see their gig. Certain people fall for the temptation of never having to buy a record again, and I can see that it’s an attractive thought – now I’ll never have to spend money on music or films again! Of course all of the independent record stores are going out of business, there are a lot of people suffering from it and it’s very sad.
TW: You’ve called your early work “Era 1”, made “The Smell of Rain” part of your “Era 2” and have now moved to “Era 3” with “The Grudge”. What was it that inspired you to move into this next phase of your career as a musician and build up a heavier sound?
M: It’s just that I hate standing still – I think it would be terribly boring to keep on making the same old records over and over again, playing the same poor riff year in and year out. Who would bother doing that? I don’t know, maybe AC/DC…I think AC/DC are pretty good actually, but I could never have managed to do that sort of thing. I think I’d panic. I want to test out a lot of new things, especially when I’m doing all of this computer-based music, where you have so many possibilities of doing different things. I’d see it as a waste of opportunities and resources if I didn’t experiment and move forwards.
TW: Could you say something about the process surrounding the making of a record like “The Grudge”?
M: Lots of programming, lots of going in and out of studios, ignoring deadlines and record labels hassling us, and also a lot of kind of “nerdy” activities, like pressing buttons and testing out new things, taking one’s time to experiment.
TW: It’s a steep learning-curve towards electronic music…
M: If you haven’t done it before, then yes. I know certain things, like what you’ll hear on “The Grudge” – of course, because I’ve actually done them. But I couldn’t sit down and do a Chemical Brothers record, because that’s what they do – beat slicing and all kinds of crazy stuff that I haven’t quite figured out how to do yet. But those are the kinds of things I want to learn how to do – stealing other beats, chopping them up, move them around, lots of sampling and looping. I’ve tried to do some small bits and pieces of this in songs like “Twist the Knife” and “Decadent and Desperate” – I don’t really know what I’m good at, since I’ve always been able to do a bit from each genre. I’ve never focused on one genre really. Wumpscutt are probably very good at filling German dance floors [does “thump, thump, thump” sound], Frontline are very good at general programming – ah, Frontline Assembly that is, and I think that’s fantastic, but it’s very synth-based and Mortiis is much more guitar-driven with real drums and a stronger basis in songs, with almost rock structures. I’m a little closer to the Nine Inch Nails camp than the rest of them, but I’ve never focused on just one thing within industry or electronica or whatever you’d like to call it. I think it’s a lot of fun just mixing together all sorts of influences.
TW: How has it been moving back to a more traditional band structure?
M: It’s been good. Instead of sitting there with a session musician who is going to be there for 3 days and trying to get him to lay down the guitar for a whole album like we did on “Smell of Rain” – it’s just a lot of stressing through the music. For this record we set aside a whole year, had permanent band members who were creative and were able to work together and it became a whole lot better. And of course I’m the boss [smiles] – I’m not afraid of saying what I want which is great.
TW: You run a dictatorship?
M: No, not really, but I have the guidelines – this is what I want, et cetera. If the rest of the band have any suggestions I’ll listen to them. If I don’t like the idea then I’ll drop it, or we’ll record it and just mute the track for the final mix if it’s no good.
TW: If we’re to look at your music in a greater perspective it seems as if there’s a lot of recurring bitterness and to a certain extent hatred?
M: Yeah, I hate everyone. [laughs] No, not really, but there’s been a handful of individuals from the last ten years or so who have made my life difficult.
TW: So you bear a “Grudge” then?
M: Yeah, at least until I did this record. After that I really felt that I had got it out of my system. It was a great inspiration – I really wouldn’t have minded seeing those 4 or 5 people in a gallows…no, what’s the word I’m looking for…? A pillory. I’d put them in one of those down at the town square for public ridicule, write their sins in their foreheads – “Thief, betrayer” and so on – and throw some rotten tomatos at them.
TW: But you won’t tell anyone who these people are?
M: No, that would make me a worse person, lowered to their level.
TW: Some of your music has launched what one might call social criticism. What is it that is happening in the world today which drives you to write these kinds of songs?
M: I don’t know if it’s really got to do with what’s going on out in the world. You don’t have to look far before you start seeing strange things. The issues I’ve been caught up in are usually based in very simple things, like on “Parasite God” and “Gibber” I’ve pointed out that society encourages us to look after one another, but as soon as you distinguish yourself from everyone else you become an outcast. Where did this hypocrisy come from? You know, I have the same problems – I judge people at face value, you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I’m sitting here talking shit about people all day. At least I have the spine to admit I’m doing it, though. So I suppose one of those irritating things is this whole problem of what people don’t understand, they hate. I think it’s very true, and that’s what I get caught up in – general social cowardice. Cowards!
TW: Many extreme metal groups have a tendency towards anti-Christian messages in their music. Would you identify yourself with this current of thought?
M: ‘Anti’ is a strong word – I can’t sit here and criticise every single Christian individual in the world. I’m sure there are lots of alright Christians out there who keep it to themselves and think that Jesus is cool. But when it comes to Christian communities, as is the tendency when any community comes together, they become less tolerant. The individual is more intelligent than the masses, as someone once said. A lynch mob is a primitive thing, but an individual might sit back and consider things in a wider perspective. So I don’t really feel a hatred towards Christians, but rather irritation towards Christian communities – they seem to accept so easily what’s written in some book. A book doesn’t serve as proof of anything – just because it’s old and based on a couple of Dead Sea scrolls found in a cave in Israel, Jordan, whatever, doesn’t mean it’s true. People were capable of writing lies. [a hint of irony] Maybe God is just a big lie?
TW: Perhaps it is the institution which is the problem?
M: Exactly, it it is the institution and it is so deeply rooted in the psyche of our society that you can’t get it out. It’s too complicated. So I write some texts about these issues, for example false priests in the United States who condemn this and that, and at the same time have hard-ons for the choir boys. That’s fucking sick, and it makes you wonder.
TW: Could we talk briefly about your physical appearance – it seems that almost all critics who review your records have to include something about your rather special image.
M: Yeah, and that’s a thing you have to expect in a way. It has developed into becoming something very strange because people never seem to grow tired of it – it’s almost as if someone is going to sit and crack the same poor ‘Norwegian, Swede and Dane’ joke (a popular theme in Norwegian jokes is the difference between the peoples of the three Scandinavian countries. Not usually funny – ed.) every year, without remembering that they told it the year before and the year before that.
TW: …The music press has gone demented?
M: They have, they’ve all got Alzheimer’s and it seems as if they aren’t able to understand…is Alzheimer’s the disease I’m thinking of, by the way?
TW: I think so. I hope you won’t get sued by an Alzheimer’s rights group now.
M: [laughs] Yeah, but the music press has to include those clever little jokes, you know – it’s just like, “Can’t you quit that already?” But it’s probably that they don’t know how to handle it. It’s yet again the same symptom – they see an image, but that doesn’t mean that they have to talk about the image. There’s music on the records which they can talk about as well. If you look at bands like Slipknot or Manson, Zombie, Mudvayne, that whole gang – the press doesn’t bring up their image any more. But with Mortiis it’s gotten…Slipknot have a more extreme look than we do – they’ve got Pinocchio where his nose is like 7 meters long. They’ve got 9 people with that kind of image. But that isn’t brought up. With Mortiis we’ve got this thing in the press where image has to be brought up.
TW: Why is that?
M: That’s what I don’t understand. I think it basically has to do with the fact that journalists are terrified at the prospect of not fitting in. Yet again, they do it because everyone else does it. I think they’re a bunch of cowards, actually.
TW: I suppose that’s a very plausible theory.
M: Yeah, what the fuck. If they’re going to be talking shit about me, then I’ll talk shit about them…it’s not like they really talk shit about me, but it’s those first 5 lines in a Mortiis review…which are actually quite good – we get good criticism these days, I have to say, and we’ve been getting good reviews for a long time. It’s rare that we get negative criticism. But it’s always that whole cliche beginning – “The Man with the Rubber Nose”.
TW: Our favorite Norwegian troll and all that?
M: “Rock ‘n’ Troll” and so on. The sickest and worst part of this is – and it just goes to show general ignorance amongst people – what is it that makes you believe that this is how a troll looks like? Have you ever even seen a troll? A troll is a Nordic mythological being. When we think of a troll we tend to think of the half-bald guy with the pine tree growing out of his nose. It’s not even getting close to Mortiis. I’ve certainly never had trolls on my mind when developing the image of Mortiis.
TW: But why have you developed this image if it gets in the way of your music?
M: Ah, I don’t even remember any longer. It’s such a long time ago…I suppose it’s a combination of my black metal period and growing up with lots of image-based bands like Kiss, Wasp, Twisted Sister, Alice Cooper and that gang from the 80s and 70s…well, I didn’t grow up in the 70s, I was born then, I don’t remember that time…but in the 80s when I was like 7, 8, 9, 10 years old I was receptive to lots of visual things. You don’t forget the first train set you get, that’s how you remember, right? So I remembered Kiss, and I got into a Tolkien period where I was reading “Lord of the Rings”, like everyone else has. Those three things have probably contributed a lot to the image of Mortiis. That’s the theory. But where the hell those trolls are coming from I don’t know. It irritates me – like, if you’re going to get caught up in the whole image, at least get caught up in the parts that are correct. Call it something else. I don’t even know what it is, Mortiis is just a thing I made up, but he’s not a troll. Maybe it’s just a small thing to the rest of the world, but to me it’s like, if they’re going to be doing it at least come with some references that make sense. Anyway, fuck it, that’s how it is, that’s how it works.
TW: Do you still get questions from people about your past as bassist in the legendary Emperor?
M: No, not really…
TW: Why did you in a way distance yourself from the metal community after Emperor?
M: I have never really tried to do distance myself, it’s just happened. I make the music I do, and I think people have distanced me more than I have distanced myself from metal. But in a natural, developmental sense personally I listen to less and less metal. I think there’s a lot of good music out there, but I’m more of the “old school” type who listens to records that came out between ’75 and ’85. between ’83 and ’87 I was most into heavy metal, before I went over to thrash and speed and black metal. Those were just minor phases actually, I’ve gone back more to the music I liked as kid. Hard rock records, like Alice Cooper and Deep Purple.
TW: You’ve also gone back into the traditional band structure with “The Grudge”, just like when you started out as a musician.
M: Yeah, it could have something to do with that, the fact that I’m running more of a lead role now. I grew tired of the things I was doing.
TW: Over to something completely different, by the way…I saw a documentary where you were mentioned in terms of the “Notodden music community” (Notodden is a town in Norway, supposedly renowned for its vibrant music scene – ed.).
M: …it was a program by “Lydverket”, wasn’t it? (popular music program on Norway’s state channel NRK1 – ed.). There was an interview, wasn’t there? I think that’s where I criticised Notodden actually. I was sitting with Thomas and Kai from Zyklon, and Vegar, Ihsahn, Peccatum, whatever…maybe that was something, but I just remember complaining about Notodden because it calls itself a “culture city”, the blues town you know, but according to reliable sources – I haven’t checked for myself – there was a Norwegian blues artist who played during the annual blues festival, and it was full of people watching porno italiano. It didn’t make a difference whether the band was popular or not it seemed, just as long as it was live and it was blues because people were going out to drink and party for the whole weekend. This band had then played live several months later in Notodden to something like 15 paying customers. Notodden is just a blues town for that one weekend every year…and anyway, Notodden kommune (municipal authorities – ed.) did nothing to help upstart bands before. We had to go out of town, where another band had heard of an available house for practicing where all the bands moved in to. It’s times like that when you feel you have a right to make yourself heard – it’s like Notodden, with lots of great bands and music festivals, but they can’t even be there for their own local groups…I think all that culture talk limits itself to a couple of hardingfeler (a traditional Norwegian fiddle – ed.) and a few people into hekling (a traditional Norwegian form of knitting – ed.) old table cloths, restoring the stave church in Heddal every once in a while. And of course there’s Knut Buen (Norwegian Hardanger fiddle player – ed.) who doesn’t even live in town.
TW: I’ve only got one more question now and then I’ll let you get back to being sick. What are your plans from here? Will there be an “Era 4” with a new sound? M: Probably. It’s impossible to say when and why, but if I’m living then it will happen. The short-term plans are getting this throat virus sorted, completing the tour which is still a long way to go. I’m going into studio to work on another single, we’ll be recording another video after that. Beyond that I’m a little uncertain what’s going to happen – probably more touring, maybe in the United States, but it’s always hell over there. Unless you’re big you won’t get much for playing and they treat you like shit.
TW: I always thought the US had a decent metal scene.
M: No, it’s brutal. I’ve played in places where the backstage area was a garage. Another place it was a caravan. I’ve played in places where the window to the street was behind us and behind the audience there was a row of washing machines so people could do their laundry and get a beer in the bar while they were waiting and listening to Johnny Cash on the jukebox and our band was playing. I’ve been through so many strange things over there…One time we came backstage and the promoter was doing heroin. That was real nice. We’ve come in places where a couple of slices of bread and a sixpack of water was waiting for us.
TW: Payment!
M: [laughs] Another time we were paid in counterfeit money. It wasn’t the promoter’s fault because he’d been given the money by someone else…We travelled back and got the real money from him, and I remember him telling us that, “Now there’s a junkie in this town whose shoes I wouldn’t want to be in.” That was a little dubious…
TW: You’re living the life of rock ‘n’ roll, I suppose…
M: That’s right, rock ‘n’ roll! All this is actually from one long tour, we’ve only done one tour in the US besides a couple of one-off gigs here and there. But we’ll see – we have to get some things going over there as well – it’s tough conditions. I couldn’t be bothered to do a six-week tour there, just sitting in a van…because this is a pretty good set-up right now. I doubt we’ll get such a good bus over there.
TW: You’re living in here with Susperia as well, right?
M: Yeah, everyone sleeps upstairs. All the beds are up there.
TW: Sounds cosy.
M: Yeah, but it’s getting a bit claustrophobic now in our 4th week. Everyone is good friends of course, we’re staying together for 9 weeks and it won’t work out if we start fighting.
TW: Well, thanks for your time, doing this interview even though you were sick and all.
M: Ah, at least I’m doing something useful with my time. I’ve just been watching X-Men for the last couple of days.
TW: The series or the movies?
M: I watched the first of the movies yesterday. They’re not that bad, I’m working my way through the second one now…

We get out of the tour bus, walk through the rain to the venue to see Susperia do their show and Mortiis bids me goodbye as he is swarmed by a pack of groupies.

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