Understanding The Beast:
An Interview with Mortiis
(*All photos by Anna Kalberg/Earache Records except live photos of Mortiis and Sarah Jezebel: courtesy of Matthew Heilman October 1999, Cleveland USA.)
This year marks the release of another epic release from Norway’s shadow-dwelling night crawler, Mortiis. This time around, the macabre maestro surprised fans with an unexpected turn from morose medieval dungeon ambience to a more urban blend of old school guitar Industrial and classic synth pop hooks. While it may be hard for some to accept or understand the direction of the latest opus “The Smell Of Rain,” the album exhibits a new and regenerated Mortiis, anxious to leave behind the past for legend and forge full-steam ahead into a new era of his career.
This interview was conducted via email,
and I regret not having the chance to further push Mortiis on a few
of his responses. Nonetheless, this interview shows Mortiis
as a dedicated and hard working musician with firm beliefs and true
artistic integrity, with a desire to clarify misconceptions and rumours,
and hopefully, succeed in shedding the constrictive skins he has
worn (or perhaps never wore) throughout the duration of his career thus
far. “The Smell of Rain” is the most personal album he has released
to date and it provides a keen insight into one of the most fascinating
and most misunderstood personalities in the dark music scene.
Whether or not the direction of “The Smell Of Rain” is regarded a
step ahead stylistically is not the question. It is obvious
that Mortiis is not only very well aware of his own artistic maturity
by his own self-criticism, but he is taking more daring steps with
his career and will certainly continue to do so as this new decade unfolds…
"The more well-known I become, the more ridiculed I am, and the more determined I become to prove the bastards wrong... I may not sell a whole fuckload of albums, but at least I am true to the person I truly am.."-----------------------
Starvox: You have been one of the most predominant figures in both the black metal and dark ambient genres for over a decade now. How do you feel about the numerous bands that have jumped on the black metal bandwagon? Do you feel they have in any way misinterpreted or misrepresented the aesthetics and ideas that were at the heart of the scene in its formative years?
Mortiis: I have no idea. I was only briefly involved with the whole black metal scene and have ever since been associated with it. All I can say is that I whole-heartedly support growth and progress and most of all GUTS in any given music genre or music itself. There will always be antagonists of course, people that for some reason think they are entitled to place rules as if they are the fucking creators of the scene they are in. This is bullshit, as much as I can appreciate purity and essentialism and so on, I still think growth is the Alfa Omega of survival, and as such I really couldn’t tell whether or not bands have misinterpreted anything or not. I tend to look at the big picture rather than the welfare and moral values of one small fragment of music itself.
Starvox: How long ago was it that you were 'possessed by the persona' (if you will) of a trollish, medieval goblin? Where did this idea come from, what motivated you to don this particular image?
Mortiis: I do not look upon myself as a goblin, or troll, or elf, or medieval. I am merely Mortiis. I grew up with big bands with big shows, and a love of the unknown, and the utter contempt for authority and being pigeonholed. It turned into what I am...myself...As impossible to understand that may seem to many, that is what I am. It is nigh on a decade ago now.
Starvox: Are you planning on keeping this image even as the music continues to leave behind the medieval dungeon sounds of your past?
Mortiis: The more well-known I become, the more ridiculed I am, and the more determined I become to prove the bastards wrong. I have outlived so many people; I have outwitted so many people, why stop now? People come around and they shoot their nonsensical shit, two years later I’m still cutting records and these people work at McDonald’s. I may not sell a whole fuckload of albums, but at least I am true to the person I truly am, and as much as many would love to see it taken away from me or think it doesn’t exist, I have my entire integrity intact as opposed to many in this business I suspect.
Starvox: What lead you from playing black metal music to composing ambient music?
Mortiis: I never played black metal technically;
it was trendy in our eyes back in ´91, so we called it "witching
metal". I never wrote lyrics about the devil because I hate authority and
would never bow down and admit weakness. Of course this fact has
always been widely ignored. I was always into different sorts of
music, when I quit metal I wanted to do something that hadn’t been
done by anyone out of “my scene.”
"...The near death experience of my artistic inspiration. It was just time to move on. I was sick to death of the shit I used to do."
Mortiis: I generally find classical music extremely boring, with the exception of some works by Wagner and Carl Orff, but that really goes without saying. Also, I enjoy “The Omen” and “Conan” soundtracks, but I don’t know if they count as being classical or not. Laibach had some cool ideas.
(* Reviewers note: Mortiis must not have heard much from Berlioz, Liszt, Part, Penderecki, or Gorecki, to name just a few interesting composers…)
Starvox: Many regard "The Stargate" was
your most breathtaking and epic atmospheric release, and it serves
as an astounding closing chapter for that part of your musical career.
What were some of the thematic concepts behind the album?
Starvox: Sarah Jezebel’s vocals were an integral part of "The Stargate" and added a greater complexity to your ambient style. Her vocals on "Smell Of Rain" differ considerably from "The Stargate," and they differ greatly from her work with other bands. How did the two of you approach her vocals for this release? Were there any particular guidelines or goals the two of you tried to stick to?
Mortiis: Well, she is one of three different female singers on "The Smell Of Rain," so you may think of somebody else. Sarah is a great singer and that’s the reason I wanted her on the new album as well...She had a huge impact on ”The Stargate,” but that era is long gone. “The Smell Of Rain” is a new time for me and I had other ideas. As far as guidelines, the only real guideline I had was to cool down on the choirs, don’t go overkill the way we did on “The Stargate.” A lot of improvisation actually.
Starvox: What inspired you to turn to electronic music for the new album?
Mortiis: The near death experience of my artistic inspiration. It was just time to move on. I was sick to death of the shit I used to do.
Starvox: How long have you been 'studying' this kind of music and how did you go about composing it?
Mortiis: I was studying it as I went along.
So that was pretty scary. Needless to say, each song was backtracked
some five to six times. There are still things I think could
have been done a lot better, but that’s for next time around.
"I am very happy that I have finally allowed myself to open up the way I have, though.I used to say that 'The SmellOf Rain' was the album I wish I never had to make. That kinda says it all…"
Mortiis: Fuck off. It’s not marketing I’ll tell you that right now...If I wanted to make money I’d take my ass down to the local strip. Fuck, homosexual midgets make more money than I do! I have to sell my record collection to stay alive. Most so called music fans don’t have the slightest fucking fragment of an idea how hard this business really is. Besides, I could be recording the world’s greatest album, and I’d still be slagged off for it, why? Because I’m different, and because I’m Mortiis, I have been marked, and there’s no way I can ever win that war.
Starvox: Are you aware of the multitude of competitors you are up against now by crossing over into this genre? How would you stack up the material on "The Smell Of Rain" against popular EBM bands like VNV Nation, Covenant, or Apoptygma Berzerk? How about older bands like Front 242, Skinny Puppy, or Frontline Assembly?
Mortiis: I’m not here to compete, I am here to create, and that is why I started music in the first place. I don’t know about the above, but I hope they’re around for the same reasons...besides, some of those are way more dance floor oriented than I am. Not overly worried about that.
Starvox: What track are you most pleased with and which do you feel best represents the new album and why?
Mortiis: I don’t know. They are all very personal and have earned their place on the album, so...
Starvox: In the past, keyboard was your primary instrument, and you did some spoken word. How did it feel to sing lead vocals and pick up a guitar this time around?
Mortiis: I didn’t play the guitar. I have other members as well. Doing the vocals was pretty scary, but I’m glad I did it.
Starvox: Do you plan on further developing the sound of "The Smell of Rain" in the future or do you plan to move into an entirely new direction?
Mortiis: I am definitely going to nurture what I have started and see where things are taking me. I have a feeling things will get angrier, though.
Starvox: Remixes are a popular and common phenomenon in the darkwave/EBM scene. Are you currently in contact with any bands about possible remixes or reinterpretations of your recent work?
Mortiis: Yes I am. But as with everything else in this business, it moves slowly when you have no real money to throw around. But we are talking. I might do some tracks myself as well.
Starvox: You have become near infamous
for controversial theatrics when you perform. For our readers who
have never seen you perform, could you describe the dramatic performances
in your live shows? From where do you draw the inspiration to come up with
this kind of stuff?
Starvox: Does it anger you that in some venues, you are forced to alter your show due to fire code restrictions and the like?
Mortiis: You get to deal with stuff like that, and when they tell you in advance, it’s fine, but some cunts (who either don’t read the riders or just don’t give a fuck) never tells you until you arrive and that can be aggravating as hell.
Starvox: Will you be embarking on another US and European tour to support the latest album?
Mortiis: I certainly hope so. But once again it’s all down to what’s there for us financially, but we are talking and I think it’s going to happen.
Starvox: A few years back, you toured the US with the legendary Gothic Rock act Christian Death. How did this tour package come together?
Mortiis: Not sure. All I can say
is that it was bizarre. But a good experience. What eventually did get
to me was that I couldn’t take a shit without it being blown up somewhere
into a controversial fairytale, some of which I have to downplay to this
" I cope with my concerns by facing them for what they truly are, and try to weed it out. If you understand the nature of the beast, you can fight it so much more effectively."
Mortiis: I think it’s cool that he’s still doing it. I haven’t followed the band too closely the last decade, but own a lot of their older stuff. We kept a lot to ourselves, but got along real well with Godhead whom I’d really love to tour with again actually.
Starvox: What were some of your favourite folk tales, novels, or stories as a child and what stories have a significant meaning to you and your work today?
Mortiis: None whatsoever. I always found that shit boring as hell. Contrary to popular belief I was never into Norse folklore and stuff like that. I mean when people think I was reading Viking mythology I was listening to Kiss and watching Evil Dead, you know! (Laughs) Paradoxically, I just returned from a photo shoot involving me dressed up asa scarecrow, and two little girls dressed up as princesses.
Starvox: Last year, you published your own limited edition book. A lot of fans weren't quick enough to get their hands on it. On their behalf can you tell us a bit about the book's content? Will there be any additional pressings in the future?
Mortiis: No repressing. Not in the near future anyway. It basically involves what Mortiis used to be all about. It is the last nail in the coffin of that entire era basically…a bunch of lyrics about this parallel dimension.
Starvox: Are you at all interested in seeing the film version of "Lord of the Rings" that will be released this year?
Mortiis: Yeah, but I’m not freaking out like everyone else. I’m probably one of the people that’ll go and see it when the lines aren’t three hundred miles long! It’s not going anywhere, you know? It’ll still be showing two weeks later. Same thing with this “Harry Potter” deal, which I’m not even sure I’ll even bother checking out honestly.
Starvox: The world can be a pretty bleak place at times, and throughout your career you have explored varying emotional degrees of the human experience. In your own personal opinion, what is the most beautiful and miraculous aspect of the world in which we live? What keeps you going?
Mortiis: The fact that I have found my
emotional outlet in music. It is the most fantastic thing in my life,
and the only functioning engine in my life. Without it, god knows what
would become of me...It sounds whiney but sad as it sounds, my life is
not the most positive trip around...I wish it was, but it isn’t.
I am very happy that I have finally allowed myself to open up the way I
have, though. I used to say that "The SmellOf Rain" was the album I wish
I never had to make That kinda says it all…
Mortiis: The human psyche, if nothing else, comes pretty close. I most certainly am not even close to being in control of my emotions, which is my biggest concern and my biggest enemy. Not evil in any way, but I don’t really believe in real evil. Sickos, sure, but that’s different. Many would probably want me to say Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban, but I don’t think they’re evil, they’re just culturally and religiously extremely different, but what happened was not out of evil, not in a biblical sense. Most people do what they believe in anyway. Or at least pretend to believe in. I cope with my concerns by facing them for what they truly are, and try to weed it out. If you understand the nature of the beast, you can fight it so much more effectively.
Starvox: Thanks so much for your time! We wish you the absolute best of luck with the latest release and your future epics!
Mortiis: Thank you very much.
Mortiis consists of:
Mortiis - Vocals, programming, synths
Frederik Bergstrom - timpani & percussion
Sarah Jezebel Deva - main female vocals
John Prozac - additional programming
Chris A - guitars
Alzahr - bass guitar
Mortiis - Official Web Site:
Sarah Jezebel Deva – Official Site:
The Smell of Rain
~reviewed by Eric Rasmussen
(CD cover courtesy of Earache Records website,
other photo from the official band site)
It's tempting to start off this review with some troll jokes. Nearly anyone who has heard of Mortiis likely knows what he dresses like (or is?) a troll (just glance at the album cover). Nonetheless, his appearance doesn't take precendence over the music, which I suspect is a lot more important to him than any makeup. I do have to wonder how he can play keyboards so well with big troll-like hands (you think he'd flatten them out every now and then), but aside from that, his taste in attire and makeup has no bearing on the music. And speaking of the music, which we should be doing right about now, let me say that The Smell of Rain is an enjoyable and above average album. This makes me wonder why Audiogalaxy forum visitors have been quick to call Mortiis a sell out, or to claim he plays something known only as "gay lobster techno."
As usual, the average forum-goer there
has absolutely no idea what it is he or she is babbling about. Mortiis
has dramatically changed music directions from his last outing, but this
is a move that could potentially lose fans. He took some risks within a
community where such blatantly electronic music normally wouldn't be accepted
as valid work. That is commendable, though outside of metal and ambient
music, The Smell of Rain really isn't anything experimental or unheard
of. It follows 80's and early 90's moody synth-based music pretty well.
Comparisons to Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails are accurate enough. On
"Flux / Mental Maelstrom" I could almost swear I was listening to Trent
Reznor in troll makeup. The backing guitars and spiteful lyrics/vocals
are very reminscent of NiN, which isn't too surprising given that Mortiis
has recently labeled them as a big influence.
Mortiis comes up with a number of catchy choruses and generally ensures that after listening you'll come away with several of the songs stuck in your head. Slower songs have a sort of pensive and overall sad quality to them, while faster songs may range from the upbeat to the aggressive. Mortiis knows how to use an effective programmed beat for a faster song, but he also knows when to slow things down or back up the electronics with more symphonic sounds. The percussion is mostly beat based, though occasionally more exotic drum sections will creep their way into the sound.
Sarah Jezebel Deva contributes her vocals also, and while they aren't a defining aspect of The Smell of Rain, they do add a lot of subtle touches. Mortiis is taking a fairly common sound on this CD... so I can't give it a lot of originality points. Yet he does manage to add enough personality to it to keep it entertaining throughout. He also took care to make sure it's backed by some real emotion and feeling. I get the impression he's probably been wanting to make an album like this for a while, and the bands he modeled it after consequently shine through as unmistakable influences.
The great songwriting works despite the overall lack of originality, so this CD will undoubtedly spend a lot of time in my player. I can't help but think the next Mortiis release is going to be even better if he continues to explore this realm of electronic music and adds further personal touches. For now, The Smell of Rain will do nicely. Recommended to any fans of Skinny Puppy or NiN, or any metal fans looking to branch out but aren't sure where to start. I highly doubt Mortiis fans who really appreciated his music before will dislike this release to any great extent either, and most should even enjoy it.
Mortiis - Official Web Site: