Mortiis on Masks, ‘Game of Thrones’ and the KISS cover that almost was

photo: Pete Beste

Dungeon synth pioneer. Black metal OG. Dedicated Curb Your Enthusiasm fan. The artist formerly known as Håvard Ellefsen is all of these things. But you know him as Mortiis, the troll-masked keyboard overlord and former bassist for teenage black metal felons Emperor. After many years of presenting Mortiis as an unmasked industrial rock band, our man has returned to his solo/masked/dungeon synth roots with Spirit of Rebellion, a re-recorded and very extended revamp of his 1995 dungeon synth milestone, Ånden som gjorde opprør. In some outtakes from our full Q&A in the next issue of Decibel, the Norwegian legend discusses the slow disappearance of his infamous mask, his decades-long struggle with depression and the KISS cover that Emperor came this close to doing while he was still in the band.

In October 2017, you performed in your mask at the Cold Meat Industry festival, after many years of not wearing it. Why did you abandon the mask to begin with?
It’s a long story that I won’t bore you with but it basically boils down to some pretty heavy depression issues I had that started in the mid-’90s and culminated with me be pretty damn miserable by 1999 or 2000. It made me question myself in unhealthy doses. You feel useless, like you don’t know what you’re doing. You think everything you’ve done sucks. That’s where I was, and it’s a pretty dark place to be. So I really wanted to get away from all of the stuff I was doing. My brain was telling me, “Everything you’ve done so far as an artist is absolutely horrible and useless.” You can’t really talk sense to depression, you know? It is what it is—self-loathing and all that stuff.

That led up to the period of your career that’s referred to as “Era II”…
Yeah. That’s when I started creating The Smell of Rain and radically changed my musical style because that’s the first thing I lost faith in. I held onto the mask for a couple more years, simply because I still liked it—although I was questioning its relevance in terms of the lyrics I was writing and the music I was making. It didn’t really fit in. I just didn’t feel like the mask was relevant anymore. I was singing about people I didn’t like. I was singing about a world I didn’t like, that I didn’t feel like I have a place in. So the mask just wasn’t needed anymore. It didn’t have a natural place, near the end.

You didn’t just drop it, though—there was a process…
After we toured The Grudge for a couple of months, around 2004, I started pulling the mask off during live shows. I kinda made a show out of it because I knew it was a transitional period. I knew I was gonna lose the mask, but I didn’t wanna do it cold turkey. Losing it overnight didn’t feel natural, so I wanted to do it slow, in a more artistic manner. That’s why you see these stitches in the mask on some of those singles. That was my way of making me seem more human and the mask seem like less of a freaky, monstrous thing. I wanted it to look like there was a human being underneath, so slowly my face comes around the mask disappears. I don’t think anybody got it, but it’s not like I told anybody. [Laughs]

In the press release for Spirit of Rebellion, you say that you’ve had to “fend off a lot of demons to get to this point.” Is that a reference to the depression you were just talking about?
Yeah. It comes and goes. But there’s also the demons of self-doubt and fear, the fear of failure. I’ve never been a very self-confident person. I’ve always felt like things aren’t gonna work out. So you have to overcome a lot of those obstacles in order to do the things you wanna do. Returning to the mask took a lot of courage because I wasn’t sure it would work out. Am I gonna look stupid? Is this gonna work out live? That was the main thing I was worried about at the time. Can I pull this off, or am I gonna be up there looking like an ass? [Laughs] These are the things you care about. No one wants to come offstage and hear, “Hey, man—that sucked. You looked like an asshole.” [Laughs] Oh, cool.

The first and final movements of the Spirit track “Visions of An Ancient Future” are reminiscent of the Game of Thrones theme. But you wrote that song like 20-plus years before the show. Have you noticed that?
No, because I’ve never seen the show. But you’re the second or third person to mention it, so I feel like I should look into it now. I really hope whoever wrote that hasn’t heard my record, because that would be really irritating. [Laughs] But it’s not like the stuff I make is super original. They’re pretty basic melodies if you ask me. Anybody could come up with it. It happens sometimes—you come up with ten seconds that sounds like something else, and you never knew. But I guess that’s kind of cool, because it’s a popular show. So I guess I was onto something, but I’ll never get credit for that! [Laughs] I’ve been meaning to watch the show, but it’s like nine seasons, right?

There’s a lot of material to absorb.
Yeah, and if I really like something I’ll binge it. I don’t even have the time to risk getting into that show because I won’t get shit done for like a month. That’s why I stopped watching TV and playing video games. I used to be into it, but it just takes over your life, man.

In closing, I have to ask you about the cover of KISS’s “Do You Love Me” that Emperor was plotting while you were still in the band. I would’ve loved to hear that…
Oh, it would’ve been fantastic. But I don’t know who would’ve sung it. None of us really have that kind of Paul Stanley voice. I didn’t sing at the time, and I don’t think you could get Samoth in front of a mic with a shotgun. So it would’ve been Ihsahn. He does clean vocals now, but back in those days he was a screamer. It would’ve been done black metal style, but it would’ve been cool. Fans would’ve been like, “What the fuck is this?” And that had great appeal to me—and I think it did to Samoth and Ihsahn at the time—but we never did it, probably because we got busy with other stuff. We recorded the mini-album and two hours later they fired me. [Laughs] But I remember we were very keen on doing it.

Do you have a good relationship with those guys at this point?
It’s been fine for a long time now. It was a bit weird at first, when everyone was going to trial and jail, but that only lasted for a couple of years. We’ve been adult about everything ever since, but we haven’t really been in touch. I think the last time I spoke to Thomas—Samoth—was when he needed me to sign all those inserts for that giant box that they did. He came to my house with like a thousand fucking inserts. It took me like four hours to sign them—it was fucking horrible—but that was a couple of years ago now. But we’re basically good. There’s no reason for us not to be.