Here is an artist who should require no introduction. (Otherwise, check out this excellent primer.) Since releasing his first demo tape in 1993, Håvard “Mortiis” Ellefsen has transported listeners to a realm entirely of his own invention. Many bands strive to provide an immersive experience for their audience, and many do succeed, but with only a few synths and an imagination as expansive as the vaulting heavens of an alien world, Mortiis has proven to be as much a wizard as a musician. When listening to Mortiis, not only are you granted entrance into a new world, but, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, when you put on Era 1 Mortiis, you always find yourself returned to that same world. That world is his kingdom. A vast and lonely land hidden within his music. And, once again, Mortiis has found a generation of adventurous listeners eager for entry.
To commemorate the re-release of this book, we caught up with the one who calls himself Mortiis. Secrets of My Kingdom: Return to Dimensions Unknown is available now for pre-order from Cult Never Dies. Given its sheer content, and insight into the world of Mortiis, not to mention the numerous guest contributions, and the fact that this book was all but impossible to get until now, Secrets of My Kingdom is an absolutely crucial tome.
Secrets of My Kingdom contains an extensive and highly illuminating interview between Mortiis and Dayal Patterson, whose role in this book’s re-release cannot be overstated, even beyond the fact that he owns Cult Never Dies. The following interview, however, strives to avoid going over anything that was already covered in the book. Lucky for us, Mortiis is an endlessly fascinating, and, it turns out, forthcoming artist. So, as you’ll see, there was no dearth in curiosity, and nothing but honesty and zero pretense in the responses. For this latter point, we must plainly thank Mortiis for being such an incredibly sincere and humble interviewee. Without further ado, then . . .
An interview with Mortiis.
All those years ago, what inspired you to start writing Secrets of My Kingdom in the first place?
Well, it all started with me writing about a dozen or so lyrics, in the summer of 1992, while I was still in Emperor, and the idea was for Emperor to write a concept album about that. Those lyrics all sort of tied together, they were all based on this dark alternative dimension. I was heavy into Tolkien and stuff like that, but I created this place where it was pretty much all dark, all dismal and all miserable everywhere, all the time. My favourite writers at the time were Tolkien, Cronos from Venom and Tom Warrior from Celtic Frost. Especially Tom Warrior I thought had a really cool, epic and dark way of writing lyrics back on albums like To Mega Therion, so that probably played into my style early on.
Once I was out of Emperor later that year, I took the lyrics with me, and continued building and developing on it, for use for Mortiis, which I started quickly after leaving Emperor, as a solo, synth based project. I can’t recall exactly when I knew that I wanted all these writings to become a book. I think I knew first of all, that I was creating a sort of mythological world, and I’m pretty sure the ambitions increased, to turn it into some sort of book, maybe by the time I had recorded the first album in late 1993 . . . Maybe even early 1994, right after I had made the move to Sweden.
What kept you from making the book widely available the first time it was released?
Well, the fact that it was a limited edition was never my choice, or at least I can’t remember that I asked for it to be limited. Earache Records, that I signed with in 1999, were supposed to release it together with The Stargate album, as a special version (so obviously, there’s a fair chance it would be limited simply on account of it being a special edition) in late 1999, but for some reason they never did. They delayed it until the summer of 2001. I never understood why. I am sure they will have a million technical reasons if you ask them. My personal impression is that they truly didn’t want to put it out. I was getting a good amount of fans emailing me asking when the book would be out. In the end I started giving them the email direct to Earache, and that’s when the book finally got released. Interesting timing, haha!
How much deliberation did you spend deciding whether or not to re-release this book, and, in doing so, making it available for, as Dayal Patterson says, “the average fan” to get?
I didn’t have to deliberate the book itself, it was always more a question of me having to overcome these personal hurdles . . . I had issues about my entire 90s catalogue for a long time, and it sort of just got worse and worse the more into the industrial crossover/metal music I was making (that I still really like by the way, and will continue to make). I really did a number on myself in a way . . . I was just so unable to see the Era 1 stuff for what it was for a long time, I was so caught up in the technical shortcomings, the mistakes made in the recordings and so on. It just drove me a bit crazy. But hey, I think I know what it must feel like to be a religious fanatic now, haha! I was so blind I literally started to develop a sort of hatred for it.
Obviously all these issues were a part of a larger personal depression and insecurity issue I have had for a huge chunk of my life. You know, the on and off battles I think manic depressive people experience.
I was able to dig myself out of it, and I’m happy to say a lot of those clouds were lifting from my eyes and I started seeing my past output in a different, and artistic way . . . Not just the technical aspects, but I was able to look at it from a creative and artistic way.
Once I was able to get to that level, to that way of thinking, I felt like I could look at some of these offers to reissue the music. Dayal had been asking me about putting the book out a few times, but it took me probably a couple of years before I was able to think about that in a serious way. I was also pretty busy getting other albums reissued, but I’m glad we finally did. I really like the end result. I think everyone involved did a kickass job on it.
What was it like going back through those old writings of yours?
It was interesting. There were some things there I had completely forgotten, and to be honest I’m not sure why certain “forgotten” texts had not been included in the first place. It was pretty fascinating to see how fast I was developing my own style of writing, as back in those days I tended to date the stuff I was writing, so I noticed that within a couple of years of laying the foundation for this world/dimension, I had already gotten rather detailed and really started carving out something of a mythology.
When did you first meet Dayal Patterson, and how did it come to pass that he would assist you in re-releasing the book?
In actuality we didn’t meet until the day before the official release date. We met right outside the old Necropolis in Glasgow, before my first Era 1 show there, quite recently. Up until then, all communication had been on phone, email and messenger.
Like I said, Dayal had shown interest in putting the book out for some time . . . In a sense I think he was waiting me out. I think he understood that I needed some time.
I never realized this book included Mark Riddick illustrations from the late 90s. How did the two of you meet?
We’ve never actually met. I think at some point we just entered the same circles and became connected. The way that would often work back in the 90s was word of mouth, seeing someone’s flyers and buying or trading each other’s stuff.
Mark and Michael Riddick’s band, The Soil Bleeds Black, were signed to Cold Meat Industry’s sub label, Cruel Moon International, so that could be the way I discovered his art. Or Mark may have been an earlier fan that offered to contribute. In fact, I think that’s more likely.
Sorry it gets a little cloudy sometimes going back that far, haha.
Have you ever considered trying your hand at a fantasy fiction novel?
No and if I did it would suck. Mortiis has always existed within in its own private universe. The stuff I do works very well for what I do, but I have serious doubts that I’d do a great job doing anything else. Perhaps that’s me being too hard on myself, but you know, I’ve just been operating in this private sphere for so long, it’s just become a world of its own . . .
Which came first, the discovery of the Mortiis side of you, and the world where he’s from, or your desire to make dark ambient? Did one lead to the other?
I think one thing lead to another. I had already gotten deeply into weird and electronic music by 1991 or so, with stuff ranging from Tangerine Dream, to Coil, to GGFH and so on. So I was on my way, you know? Dead Can Dance, German darkwave, Skinny Puppy was just around the corner as another discovery, as well as Klaus Schulze and Kraftwerk.
When I made my demo in early 1993, I didn’t have this world concept planned for Mortiis, even though I already had laid the foundations in the summer of 1992, with about a dozen lyrics, that were intended for the first Emperor album. Of course that never happened, as I was out about a week after the mini LP was recorded in December. I kept all the lyrics (of course they are still using “I am the Black Wizards” and “Cosmic Keys,” since those songs were made at the time, and both those lyrics are from the set). It wasn’t until I was about done with the demo, and knew what I wanted to base the first album on, that the world concept started becoming a thing. So from 1993 onwards, I started building on the foundation I had made with that initial set of lyrics. It all just unfolded from then on, and my slow descent into arrogance, madness and self loathing had begun, haha!
In the addendum written in 2000, you say “I fell from grace,” referencing what you call leaving “the world of Mortiis behind.” Has the king returned to his world then? What did it take to be able to go back there for you?
I feel like maybe I already touched upon that in the answers above. But yeah, I am referring to finally letting the 90s go, in favour of hating it for well over a decade and a half. Looking back, it sucks that that happened, but it also opened the door for me to get to try other types of music, and learning a fair share of tricks and actually becoming more creative, albeit in a different way, as well.
As for returning kings and so on… I don’t look at it like that, haha! To me it’s just a relief and a joy to be able to look at all that old stuff, and feel proud. I’m currently very happy to be able to regain control over the titles I actually have control over, and dust them off and put them back out there in new and interesting versions as well. I have also re-recorded and re-interpreted the 1994 album Ånden som Gjorde Opprør, which I’m really excited about. I realized there were so many hidden melodies and opportunities there, when I was working on it, it was actually very inspiring. So the new version of that album (currently only performed live) went from the original, which is around 40 minutes long, to a 55 minute extended version, with a lot of altered and, quite frankly, new material included.
Wow! That’s amazing that there’s a new version of Ånden som Gjorde Opprør coming out! Speaking of performing live, how did the Cold Meat Industry 30 year anniversary show go for you?
I think it went OK. I mean that was the first time I had performed any Era 1 material live in 18 years, so I was naturally pretty nervous about it. I think I did OK. I’ve done a few shows after that, and I think the performance is increasingly becoming better. The response from the CMI event has been predominantly very good. I’m sure I didn’t please everyone there, but it was a very diverse crowd, which is pretty natural at a CMI event, in my experience. I recall back in the 90s, I toured mostly with other CMI artists, and we’d draw very diverse crowds.
Your work under Mortiis has been divided into different eras. How did you know when it’s time to move on to a new era for Mortiis?
During the creation process of what become the next album usually. It’s never planned, it’s just when a feeling of my life and the vibe of the record become very different from the previous period, that’s when I normally felt that I should indicate somehow that changes have occurred. The whole “Era” thing was really just something I felt was necessary when we put The Smell of Rain out, because it was just so radically different, with guitars, lead vocals, the programmed synths, etc etc – I just wanted to be honest with the fans you know . . . Something has changed, a lot, and you should all know that before you buy the album. So I added “Era 2” to the logo, and we made it very clear in the marketing, too, so everything that had happened in the 90s automatically became referred to as “Era 1.”
Of course you must have noticed this recent resurgence in appreciation for dark ambient and dungeon synth. But when did you first start to suspect a comeback was on the rise?
I don’t know to be honest. I just came out of my cloudy, disillusioned shit and started talking to labels, etc. about getting some stuff reissued. I think I started noticing when all these Dungeon Synth groups were popping up, and I was seeing all these new projects coming out . . . I’m not the best at paying attention, but I’m better than I used to be by a million miles. I literally lived in a different reality for a while, when it comes to the dark ambient musical style . . . I don’t really know what the fuck I was doing for a while, it’s just kind of a blur.
At what point did you notice that you had inspired minions of other musicians to take up the style?
Well, I guess once I started checking out the groups, and seeing how often I was mentioned . . . It’s very flattering of course. The timing couldn’t be more strange though, like I said I was coming out of this mental mire of shit and self loathing, at a time that seems almost synchronized with the rise in popularity of that old genre, so in a sense that’s pretty inspiring to me. I haven’t had too many things “go my way” in my life. Nothing has ever been given to me without a solid fight and [an] even bigger sacrifice, so it’s nice to have these little things happen. Even if they don’t necessarily mean anything.
How is modern dungeon synth different from what you were doing back in the 90s?
I don´t know, haha! I played my shit live, straight to tape for the first 4 albums . . . I used a sequencer for The Stargate, but I never programmed anything. Nothing was on the grid or by MIDI. I’m not saying that’s the way it should be done, it’s just the way I did it, because I didn’t know how to do anything any other way. I can’t really imagine any DS bands recording like that now . . . But I might be wrong.
Seems like emotion and feelings that need to be ventilated are powerful motivators for you. What were you getting off your chest with your demo, The Song of a Long Forgotten Ghost and the other recordings that make up Era 1?
Nah, nothing, in those days I was just a really creative, motivated and hungry kid. The frustration, hatred and need to ventilate came later. I did it to some degree with VOND, but that was more a question of having an outlet for some personal darkness. The anger and frustration came later, with the industrial rock Mortiis, so to speak. I wanted to set the world on fire for a while. At that point, I felt like everyone was fucking with me, and to some degree, I was right, so I was angry. Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t kill someone.
You’ve already kind of answered this with the mention of an impending re-recording of Ånden som Gjorde Opprør, but will you ever make another album in the Era 1 style again?
I hope so . . . We’ll see what happens. I’m not a fan of locking myself down to genres with all its rules and regulations . . . So we’ll have to see what I end up doing eventually.