Exclusive Interview: Mortiis – From Masks to Monsters


Few artists have managed the creative task of building entire imaginary worlds to play in – at least not to the degree that Mortiis (aka Håvard Ellefsen) has undertaken over the past fifteen years. After a two-year run as bassist for Emperor (Norway's notorious black metal outfit), Mortiis began to explore epic fantasy music in several ambitious solo projects, and the worlds he envisioned even led him to transform his appearance for live shows – including an elaborate mask resembling the goblin 'Blix' from Ridley Scott's Legend. The image ended up sticking with him for many years, through his most recent albums The Smell of Rain and The Grudge, even as his music moved further from the dark ambient/neo-classical domain and into gothic and industrial turf – and transforming from a solo effort with a cult following to a full-fledged rock band.

Mortiis retired the mask recently, but ironically his visual sensibilities have turned even darker and more horrifying in the build-up to the upcoming studio album The Great Deceiver – as revealed in the gore-drenched preview footage from the upcoming videos for Doppelganger and Zeitgeist – all of which you can see on the band’s MySpace and YouTube channel. The new material got us so amped that we had to chat with the man himself about the music and the images of Mortiis – past, present and future.

Video shoot images by Robyn Von Swank

FEARnet: You've been performing "unmasked" for a while now. What was your main reason for shedding that image?

MORTIIS: There was a variety of reasons really, but the main reason, was the music simply outgrowing the mask image. I mean initially the mask was created to lend more credibility (or something like that, anyway) to the Mortiis concept. Back in those days, Mortiis was based thematically on this dark and twisted parallel universe. It was pretty cool, and I did several records based around that. But time goes on, and people change, as did I. Eventually Mortiis, thematically, was a whole different thing, more introverted, more angsty and angry... it became a band, and the mask suddenly wasn't really emphasizing anything, and it started feeling like something I was only doing to keep the kids happy. So I eventually figured "fuck it, I’m done with the mask," but I wanted to do it in a cool way and not cold turkey, overnight, you know? Around the time when The Grudge was coming out, I came up with the idea of having the mask slowly morph off in the artwork on The Grudge and the singles released around it. I also started performing with the mask looking like it had been stitched on, in order to show some of the humanity underneath... eventually I started pulling the mask off during shows. After that, it's history.

Has your on-stage persona changed in any other ways?

I don’t really think so, at least not in a major way. I mean towards the end of the mask period, we started developing our stage presence, the aggression that seemed to saturate the band during live performances. That’s still there and keeps getting angrier, it feels like... I actually feel somewhat more liberated. I think anyone that has worn face prosthetics would agree when I say it’s not the most flexible or comfortable thing to be wearing. It kind of prevents you from moving your mouth and face. So obviously with the mask off, it’s easier to just get into the music and what’s going on onstage even more. I don’t know if anyone else did this for this long... maybe someone in a multi-season series or something did it, I don’t know... but I did this for years. It got pretty straining towards the end.

Is creating that dark fantasy world still important to you, now that you've developed a more direct rock style?

Well I suppose it is, but in a different way. Now it’s more a metaphoric, symbolic thing, if anything. Not as direct as the old stuff was – you know, fantasy worlds, dark myths and so forth. I mean that stuff was great, but I had a struggling psyche underneath it all that was really fighting to come out towards the end, and eventually I had to let it come out into the open, lest I self destruct. It was pretty bad at one point, and I needed to ventilate those past couple of years of this nameless frustration that had been building.

Anyway... I digress. I still spend considerable time thinking about our visual direction, the artwork, etc. I always wanted it to mean something; I always loved hidden symbolism and mystery, and that won’t stop. As for lyrically, let’s just say it’s a different kind of hell with different kinds of demons involved than in the past. I always dig into whatever I do; I don't wanna put out anything I can’t back up. That being said, I’ll be honest enough to say that wasn’t always the case, unfortunately. Some of the early stuff could have been better, in my opinion.
How would you describe the Mortiis sound to someone who hasn't experienced it before?

Ah man, I dunno... we've gone through a lot of metamorphoses through the years. It really sort of depends on what you're into. In the early days, it was like a medieval-inspired ambient sound, that turned into a much bigger sounding, “soundtracky” thing with The Stargate... which, by the way, I wrote all the ideas and lyrical themes for in 1992. Boy, was I pissed off when the movie came out in 1995, and I hadn't written the music yet! The movie was exploring exactly the same ideas and theories that my Stargate was about, albeit much darker than the movie, and without the cheesy Egyptian gods that step in and ruin the suspense.

We got into a sort of electronic/industrial/goth-inspired sound with The Smell of Rain, where I did lead vocals and added guitars for the first time. We took that sound and made it a lot noisier, more industrial and metallic on The Grudge, but we also started experimenting a lot more with effects and sound design, resulting in a much denser sound, and some really off the wall ambient songs as well. Around that time I also started remixing other bands, creating a different sound again... usually a bit more synth-based. I was getting into the UK big beat thing – stuff like Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim – that i found inspiring for remixes sometimes, while for the main Mortiis sound it was mainly being inspired by Ministry, Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails at the time. Since then we've been morphing through various types of sounds, from dark soundtracky instrumentals, to big sounding Enigma-inspired pieces, to absolute relentless metallic industrial stuff.

So what can we expect from The Great Deceiver? From what I've heard you're going even heavier with this one.

Yeah, in a sense it is heavier. If nothing else, a lot more focused. Where The Grudge was in many ways a virgin experiment – on a lot of levels, resulting in sometimes chaotic and dense music – The Great Deceiver is more mature, in the sense that the noise, the anger, etc. is more musically focused; its all pulling in the same direction. Like, it has one pulse, and not ten the way The Grudge sometimes had, if that makes sense. It just pulses and moves along as a solid entity. It's very compact and big-sounding most of the time, occasionally breaking into this ominous sounding soundscape. It's probably more guitar-heavy than before, but it's a far cry from an ordinary "metal record." We use guitars as a part of the sound; a lot of times the guitars are super-processed post-recording, other times they’re guitars... whatever the song demands, or whatever we come up with after experimenting.

Is it true that industrial icons Chris Vrenna and Rhys Fulber are associated with this project? If so, in what way are they involved?
Chris and I knew each other from being in touch earlier about him possibly doing a remix for the Some Kind of Heroin remix album we did, that didn't happen because the budget (courtesy of our previous record label) was very restrictive, and I believe he was pretty busy anyway. But we remained in touch and would hook up whenever he was in Norway playing with Gnarls Barkley or Manson. I remember I just asked him once whether maybe he’d like to mix the record with us, because we’d just finished recording it. We eventually made it over to LA, where we were doing the videos and also started mixing the music at his house. We were supposed to do it all with him, but unfortunately he was unable to finish more than five songs due to bigger commitments, like the new Manson record he was also working on at the same time. Regardless, though, we were super happy with the five songs he did, and I really believe we picked out the five songs that fit him the best, so it's all good.

Rhys got involved actually in a similar way: I wanted him to do a remix for Heroin but for the same reason as Chris it didn't happen. We were actually talking about Rhys producing the whole thing, however that never happened. Rhys is a great guy – we met up at one occasion, really early on, during that Danzig tour we did, and had a great time, but somehow nothing ever came out of it. We spent forever re-recording everything and creating a ton of new music, and he got involved in other projects in the meantime, so Rhys isn't involved on this record, but hopefully we’ll get to do something together at some point.
You seem to enjoy experimenting with new music technology, but your sound is also becoming more organic with each album. Do soft-synths and digital effects still play a key role, or do you see yourself leaning more toward old-school guitar-based rock?

Nah, I still love synths. Hardware more than software, actually. It’s probably just my head fucking with me, but my hardware synths (I always turn to my Nord Lead 2 and my Roland JP8080 - people say it sounds like a trance synth, but I’ve been getting some mean sounding shit out of it) sound better to me. There’s a certain grit and depth to hardware synths that I’m not sure I’m getting out of the software ones, so I've tended to stay at least 80 percent hardware on our records. I love running shit through software FX however, and soft FX like Absynth & Reaktor gets used a lot, plus other more obscure plugins – whose names elude me at the moment. I also own a Sherman Filterbank I have no idea how to use...

As I said, organic stuff like guitars, vocals and drum loops routinely get abused in various ways – mostly in failed, uncool ways, but you guys never get to hear that. You’ll get to hear that "attempt at cool chopped-up loop with filter #27." You also do not get to see me rip the room apart after two days of trying to make something sound decent and it just sounds lamer and lamer [laughs].

From what I've seen of the new video, you're going for extreme horror visuals – zombies, severed heads, blood spraying everywhere... what led you in that direction?

That was me and Robyn Swank the director, having enough time to put our heads together and do some serious brainstorming and coming up with it all. I wanted something really disturbing, but something that had artistic value and real plot. It’s a two-part theme, spreading across the songs Zeitgeist and Doppelganger. The videos are supposed to symbolize the ultimate in self-loathing, with a lot of free artistic thinking thrown in for good measure [laughs].

I think another reason was I was paying for those vids out of my own pocket at the time [and] I had to perform miracles to raise the cash – no label or industry people involved – but I made that happen, so in my mind this was totally mine, no fucking label jerkoff going "you can’t do this, you can’t do that," which we had a lot of in the past, and it had driven me nuts before. I knew that all that blood and gore could be an issue with a label and lots of TV stations, but to be honest, I didn't care. I just wanted to fully be able to embrace my own vision and freedom before someone came on the scene and ruined it all. So yeah, we just totally indulged in the insanity for a weekend. It’s funny, 'cuz the one time I’m able to be left alone with my peers, like Robyn, and just totally go with our instincts and ideas... the result is so above and beyond anything we've ever done before.

The behind-the-scenes footage looks totally wild too, with live mutant animals crawling around and equipment blowing up. Can you tell us a little more about what went down during that shoot?

It was pretty bizarre, because the workshop where we did both videos in one long weekend shoot was pretty much buzzing with weird people and creatures all the time... like, you get the lab-experiment guy/zombie type walking around with a terrible-looking face and massive surgical scars all over his body; you get Robyn walking round mixing blood into oatmeal; Nick has a smoke machine blow up all over his legs (and I don’t have a clue what happened there, I was somewhere else in the building at the time). I spent a lot of time in makeup actually, or complaining that American soda is undrinkable – you put too much sugar in that shit! The insect/animal guy was this great, huge tattooed guy, who I believe used to be a bounty hunter... or if he wasn't, he just liked to shoot people! Actually one of the most unpleasant moments was when I was doing the surgical self-mutilation scenes: I was getting rather covered in blood, and eventually I got stuck to the stretcher thing I was laying on, and they’d frequently have to spray water on me so I could come off it; the blood was so sticky I actually couldn't get up off it without risking breaking skin. Had the same problem in the collapse scene towards the end, where I had to fall on the floor and stay down... blood glued me to the floor!

The weirdest thing for me was the fetus scene where I hold a fetus, like a dead and bloody one. It was weird for me, because at the time my daughter Enya was about 2 weeks old, so in a way it felt wrong and violating somehow... but hey, it’s art!

I also remember I came up with this idea of me pulling out one of my teeth with some pliers – which was unscripted – and I remember the idea came from the fact that I had had to surgically remove a really bad tooth a couple of weeks earlier, and I had also brought it over in case we’d need it! [laughs] I can’t remember if we used the actual tooth for that scene, or if we used a fake one!
You contributed to the soundtrack of Adam Mason's very twisted horror film Broken, and I heard excerpts from Doppelganger in the trailer for Mason's The Devil's Chair... tell me a little bit about those projects, and how you got involved.

Adam did the Decadent & Desperate video, and I always thought we saw eye-to-eye on things. So he wanted to use more music like Asthma [an ambient piece from The Grudge] for this movie project he had going on that became Broken (although that wasn’t the working title at the time). I ended up writing a whole album’s worth of material, really deep and atmospheric, droning sort of music, and he ended up using several of those songs divided up between Broken and The Devil’s Chair. I was sending him demos of music I was making at the time, and he wanted to use excerpts from Doppelganger, and possibly another rock/industrial song we’d done, to the point where we thought it sounded decent enough to let him use those versions. I think Doppelganger was primarily used for a trailer for Chair, which I thought was a pretty good fit when I saw the trailer. Unfortunately since then, Adam has fallen off the face of the earth, at least as far as I know...

So anyway, there’s a whole album’s worth of really cool music, written for those two movies, that we’re hoping to be able to release as a real record one day. They totally stand on their own and I just think it’s a great legacy to the variety of music we’re able to produce... one of our many faces, so to speak. That sounds really conceited, I suppose, but it is what it is.

Do you have any other horror-related projects in the works?

With our previous record deal, things were incredibly restrictive; I couldn't break wind without having to refer to the contract in case I was in breaking the deal. So naturally, it was difficult to do anything under those circumstances. We did the two movies for Adam, and we've been looking into that area since. I mean, be it the rock/alternative/industrial side, or the atmospheric, eerie side of Mortiis, we’re pretty much cocked and loaded for anything. We've been talking to some interesting people, and whether we’re looking at licensed music or actual scores, we’re planning on developing this side as well. This is something I am personally very interested in (music soundtracks), so yeah, we’re definitely on to this.
What are some of your favorite horror movies?

Well, I’m probably nowhere near any of your readers in the horror collection department, so my faves are probably not interesting reading, or anything anyone hasn't already seen a million times... But the horrors that I always dug were Hellraiser (I like the first two, but the novel is more interesting still), The Omen (the soundtrack carries the movie so well), The Exorcist, The Cell, Prince of Darkness and The Thing (I’m a sucker for '80s John Carpenter), Evil Dead (surprise), Rosemary’s Baby... these are mostly older ones, shit I grew up with.

What do you think of today's horror movie trends?

I tend to dislike the new horrors... you know, the five teens camping or going on a road trip (the hot chick whose slightly whorey, the dick with the big mouth who gets wasted first, etc.), or the person who recently had a traumatic experience and is starting to see things... it’s like those two concepts are the only allowed story lines in horror right now; it’s gotten real old real fast. I'm sure there is a lot of great shit out there, but over here, what makes it to the DVD store, that old trauma and those silly kids in the woods... that’s what we get.
What's your greatest fear?

Well, failure is my greatest fear, unless we’re talking actual fear of pain or physical injury and torture, death of loved ones, etc. which obviously is a lot worse than making a bad record or something.

Do your fears influence your art?

The "pain and death" fear I do not really cover in my art – I just don’t consider it tasteful or more importantly, befitting of what I do. In that sense, I do not explore my greatest fears. I do explore my fear of failure now and then, though, as it’s a more real and tangible sense of fear than the kind of senseless dread that your family might be kidnapped by terrorists or run over by a bus. The fear of failure is a fear I face every time I stare at the computer screen trying to build up the courage to start working on music. Every time I try to lay something down, create something new, I always fail in the first few attempts, and as such is a very real fear that I deal with very often... and it sucks every time. So yeah, of course it will find its way into the art in some form. It’s an enemy, but at least it’s inspiring... in a kind of shitty, ex-girlfriend kind of way.

Details on the new album and videos are coming soon, so be sure to keep an eye on FEARnet for news, and check out the band’s official site for more creepy-cool stuff.