“I’ve made some pretty unexpected moves musically,” says Mortiis, laughing. Looking back at his almost 30-year career, this seems like an understatement. From being involved with the very beginnings of Norwegian black metal in the ’90s to almost single-handedly creating the “dungeon synth” genre, he then abandoned the latter (and his idiosyncratic goblin-like face mask) to make ‘Mortiis’ a four-piece band playing harsh industrial and darkwave music. Now Mortiis is back (and so is the mask!), with renewed energy and a new direction. He’s returned to playing solo, and is rediscovering the dungeon synth genre he helped to create, with his new album, Spirit of Rebellion,out on Jan. 24, 2020 via Omnipresence Productions. With a U.S. tour coming up in early February, Mortiis talks with us about the drama and frustration surrounding his last album, about bringing his mask back and playing music again after numerous personal and band-related setbacks, and about how dungeon synth in 2020 has far fewer “merciless” hecklers than it did in the ’90s.
Interview with Mortiis by PJ Tiwari
You released your last album, The Great Deceiver in 2016. Now you’ve got Spirit of Rebellion coming out on Jan. 24, 2020. Two very different releases, right?
Yeah. Time flies, eh? A lot of stuff happened between then and now. I mean, everything leads to everything else, so if I wanted to go back and tell the whole story it would start at the day I was born, you know?
The short story, I guess, is that everything leading up to the final release of The Great Deceiver was so fucking painful, so drawn out, and mired with so many of the wrong people to get involved with, it was just an amazing amount of bottled-up frustration and anger. As soon as the album came out, we went out and did some touring, but basically it was too late. I mean, the album was fucking fantastic, it’s still my favorite record I’ve ever done and I’m still not sure if I’ll make anything that meaningful to me again. It’s kind of like The Smell of Rain part two, in the sense that it means so much to me.
But you know, just watching people around me fucking shit on everything about that record, making sure nobody heard it, and that it didn’t sell. You know, I was suddenly stranded alone, my manager left me at the eleventh hour like a fucking betrayer. He had been shitting on Mortiis for years, I stupidly listened to him for way too long. I should have got rid of him back in the fucking mid-2000s. Loyalty doesn’t always fucking pay off, does it?
Anyway, bitter fucking rant there. But everything was so poisonous and toxic that right before our third tour for it got going – that was our tour with PIG in the UK. On paper, that’s a great fucking tour, Mortiis and PIG, fantastic, right? The old KMFDM members, you know Raymond Watts and En Esch, also Gregory, I think his name is, from Combichrist was in PIG at the time. A lot of cool fucking people on that tour, you know what I mean? But again, it was booked by some fucking idiot, and it just kind of fucking bombed, you know?
Anyway, the day before that tour, I had a conversation with Levi [Gawron], my old guitar player. I could tell it for a while, but that conversation just finally prompted me to ask him, ‘dude are you even into this shit anymore?’ I needed an answer, I mean you could tell, you could smell it through the phone, he was fucking sick of it, all the negativity and all the bullshit. And he was like ‘nah, dude, I’m fucking done’ and I was like ‘yeah, I could fucking tell.’
So you know, that was a good start [laughs]. We were about to start the tour and we knew the band was fucking done. You just have to keep to your commitments, you try to forget about the whole fact that, fuck, this band doesn’t actually exist. We’re on stage, we don’t actually exist. That was pretty awful. You forget about it for an hour, because you’re so into what you do, but before you go on and after you come off, you’re like, yeah, we’re no longer a band. So that was kind of rough.
When you say people around you were shitting on the record, do you mean they were talking shit on the music?
No, nobody was shitting on the music, everybody was into the album. It’s just the work that was not done around it. Nobody actually put in any effort, or time, or any kind of energy into you know, ‘let’s push this fucking album, let’s fucking believe in this and put it out there and just get it done.’ I don’t know. You know, we were in this distribution deal with MRI which is basically Megaforce in New York. I was super excited about that in the beginning, because fuck, this is where Metallica started, they put out Venom for the first time in the States, and Anthrax, and Pestilence, they’ve got fucking pedigree, you know? But the first phone call – it was pretty cold. Never got the impression that we were popular, even after five minutes I started questioning, ‘why did you fucking sign with us?’ You’re obviously hating communication with us. You kind of felt like you were with a company that didn’t give much of a damn about you. They’re still doing Anthrax and stuff, I guess they have bigger fish to fry. Which, I get it, but I’m fucking trying, you know? You’re obviously not caring.
So, I’m trying to communicate with my manager who set the whole thing up – well, actually he just gave me a draft of a contract, he didn’t even look at the contract, I was the guy who went through like four fucking drafts, like a fucking lawyer! That was the kind of guy he was, he would just drop something in your lap like once a year when he finally did something, and then he wouldn’t even look at it. I was the guy who was like ‘have you seen these clauses? They’re fucking crazy!’ ‘Oh well that’s just part of the process,’ he would say. Yeah, well the process is me! I’m the fucking guy playing this out if we sign this, I’ll be fucking duped for 50 years. I mean, am I managing you? It was like that all the time, and I was too loyal. In the end, the ultimate irony was, he suddenly sent me an email like ‘I can’t stand this negativity and this craziness from you anymore, you’re the one that drives me crazy.’
He actually emailed me a few months ago, he wants to go to one of our shows now on the tour. I’m like dude, fuck off. I didn’t respond to it.
I might sound like I’m a bitter, grudge-holding guy. Like yeah, I don’t forget stuff, but at the same time, I’m not going to let it eat me alive. Speaking on this one manager guy, if he wasn’t my manager, he would be a likeable guy. As a manager he was fucking useless. That’s the way I felt.
Like it’s hard when you’re the only one who believes in something?
Yeah, and that’s the frustrating thing. I felt like everyone around me was into the album, but nobody properly went to work, you know? So, it’s confusing, I’m like, what’s going on? I think it was ultimately down to the fact there was never any real money in it, and that’s probably the thing that gets people out of bed.
Money talks, huh?
Fuck it. Yeah, it does. Anyway, so there was all that shit, man. In the back of my head around the spring of 2017, when I pretty much decided ‘the band’s over, fuck this, I’m fucking done. I don’t want to deal with this anymore, there’s too much shit.’ And my family was falling apart too, all that shit because of the music, because everything was so fucking negative, and I was a really fucking angry person at the time. So, I took a little time away from it.
Towards the end of the band, in the back of my mind, I had kind of been toying with the idea of putting the mask back on and rejuvenating that, see where that takes us. I thought maybe it’s time. But, it kind of all fell apart before I was able to put that into reality.
Well, how do you even go back to playing music after an experience like that?
You don’t want to. It’s like, OK, we put all this goddamn time into The Great Deceiver and also Perfectly Defect, because those two were kind of made at the same time, just released with a huge time gap in between. You kind of look back at the amount of work, the frustration, and sacrifice we put into all of this. You know, the band dissolved, we fired members, we fired managers, we fired more managers, we left merch companies, agents, every-fucking-body was left in the ditches along the way [laughs] during the process of making that music. So much fucking shit luggage was attached to it. Alright, so we just made all this music. And bam! Not much happened. Unless you did it yourself, you know? We made some shit happen for sure, but it was always when we did what we were able to do on our own, you know, DIY. And there’s a limit. Bands never have the same kind of muscle as a proper label, I’m not connected as a manager should be, so there’s a limit to how much you can do yourself as an artist. Unless you’re like Dave Grohl or some fucking guy like that, everybody would take his phone call, but I’m not him, so it’s different.
So, I’m kind of thinking – should we start this all over again with a new record? Do we want to do this? I’m not even sure if I would fucking survive it. I would potentially kill myself if I have to go through all this shit with the same people all over again. So, it was like, fuck this, man. The band, it was done. The day before the tour. I can laugh at it now, it’s kind of a funny little… see how shitty things can get? Yeah, I’ll tell you how shitty things can get, you can split up the day before you go on tour! And then you have to do the tour!
And look at each other in the van every day!
Well, that’s the thing with the band, we always got along pretty great. We stuck together way longer than most people would have, on account of the fact that we got along really well. I think… what’s the word for that? We… we ate more shit than most people would have. On the strength of the friendship and the belief in the band. Within the band that was so strong that, you know, we fucking endured. For a lot longer than we probably should have.
But then you did start playing music again. What got you to that point that you were able to pick up the mantle of Mortiis again?
I think the fact that I took two or three months not even thinking about music, just ignoring music in general. And I also rejected a few times an offer to play the Cold Meat Industry festival, their 30th anniversary thing.
The one in Stockholm, in 2017?
Right, in Stockholm. The promoter, he offered me a spot, I think it was a headliner spot. That’s not really the point, but he wanted me to play there because Mortiis is one of the classic acts of Cold Meat, from the golden era of Cold Meat Industry which is mid-90s to the late-90s.
I had the Mortiis VHS tape they put out!
Oh yeah, exactly! That one [sighs]. It’s not bad, I mean I think the production budget was like $300. Can’t really complain, right? So yeah, he made his money back. He sold a couple thousand VHS tapes. Can you imagine that happening today? Selling a couple thousand of anything? Back in those days you could churn out fucking two thousand VHS tapes and it wouldn’t even really be a problem to sell them. Today you would have sold 20, you know, you would have 1,980 copies in your fucking bathroom or something.
So, what got you to finally say yes to playing that festival?
Like I said, I had somewhat started entertaining the idea of putting the mask back on. I was starting to like the idea. I had real problems with a lot of that stuff for a long time, that was mostly on account of fucking depression, lack of belief in myself, and things like that. My way of dealing with that was to attack former work that I had done, and call that bad handiwork or something. There was a lot of guilt by association, and the mask was kind of sucked into the whole maelstrom of my mentality being down the drain. That’s a really long story.
But, at least artistically, I was starting to look at the mask as a cool thing again. I’ve always been into visual things, you know. I’ve always thought bands should look cool visually. And I thought, shit, I have this amazing opportunity here that I’m not really using. I was looking at old pictures and thinking ‘shit man, I couldn’t take a bad photo with that mask! I should bring that back.’ And I was looking at other bands doing masks, and I’m thinking ‘why did I quit it?’ It was fucking cool, you know? So that kind of mentality was starting to become stronger within me, and, fortunately or unfortunately, the band went into hiatus, so I’m kind of sitting there alone, thinking about the mask.
Eventually, a couple of months later, maybe in the summer of 2017, the [Cold Meat Industry festival] promoter comes back to me and says ‘fuck, man, are you sure you don’t want to play this festival?’ This was like the third or the fourth time, you know? And by that point, I guess I had warmed up just a couple of degrees to the whole idea. So, I was like ‘I don’t know man, I’m really not sure about it…’ and he came back to me the same day, several times, increased the offer, kept notching it up, notching it up [laughs]. Until I was like, ah fuck it, I kind of want to do something. Because if I’m gonna sit here and never do music again, I am fucking going to kill myself. Because then they fucking won, you know? The bastards fucking took me in the end.
So, I said yes. I had nothing at the time, I had no music, I didn’t know what the fuck I was going to do, the festival was like five months away. So, I figured OK, I’ve got five months to come up with something. So yeah, I took the gig. Of course, the money looked pretty good, but also, it was a really good opportunity to kick myself in the ass, and just commit to something. Make it public, so there’s no fucking way back. That’s the best way to get something done, just be like ‘OK this is going to happen, I’m going to do this, I’m committing to it.’ I’ve said it now and it’s out there, I can’t pretend like I never said it.
I was originally just going to perform one of my old records, the idea was to kind of re-record the tracks to make it sound a little bit different. But as soon as I sat down, I started recreating the basics, and I just heard all this new music on top of it. That’s when I started twisting and changing things, and I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t recreating an old album, I’m making a part two, or something like that. I’m not sure how to describe it, I like to say it’s a continuation. ‘Re-interpretation’ is something I used to say, now I’m thinking it’s more like a continuation really. Something different.
It’s like you went through that dark period of thinking about your past work in such a negative light, now you’re looking at it with different eyes.
Yeah. I mean, obviously nothing happened overnight, but after a while I started feeling pretty motivated about it, I was getting a bit creative with it, I was thinking about the stage show and stuff. You know, all of a sudden I’m sitting there ordering fucking banners and setting up this fucking projector thing with all this artwork being projected, telling stories with imagery, shit like that. The day that I accepted the show, I didn’t have any of those ideas. When you open those floodgates of motivation and inspiration, it just starts happening, man. And that was great, because that was what I needed. It wasn’t just a job to me anymore, it was like ‘fuck, man, I’m creating something now. This is actually very cool.’
Yeah, you catch that fever.
Yeah. So that was nice. It was good to get out of that shitty fucking mental… grotto [laughs] that I had gotten lost in.
That’s awesome to hear, that you’re back in a good place mentally.
Yeah, let’s see how long that lasts, man [laughs]. Famous last words. I should never speak too loudly about feeling good, because I’m always at the edge of a cliff, you know? Just a matter of time before you take the wrong step.
Into the abyss.
Yeah, the abyss awaits. It’s always right there next to you.
I’m curious, you talked about changing your musical style, getting rid of the mask, all that stuff. Do you still think there’s a similar spirit in your “dungeon” albums and your harsher, more industrial / darkwave albums? Is there a common thread going through Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør and The Grudge, for example, or like The Stargate and The Great Deceiver?
Hmmm. That’s kind of hard to say. Back in the ’90s, when I was doing the Era I type of material, what they call “dungeon synth” these days, it’s been so long since then that I can’t really put my finger on what exactly was the driving force. It was just me being creative and making what I thought was cool, atmospheric music at the time. That might be the thread, you know. Even going through records like The Smell of Rain, Perfectly Defect, The Great Deceiver, The Grudge, and certainly stuff like The Unraveling Mind – I don’t know if you’ve heard that one, but it’s a very ambient record – I’ve always been into atmospheres. Even in the harder songs, I like to get stuff in there that conveys a certain atmosphere. So, that’s always been a key element even if the music gets hard, and angry, and frustrated. It’s never just about the aggression, you want to convey certain atmospheres. So, maybe that’s a thread. It’s definitely not conscious.
I always thought that I’ve made some pretty sharp, unexpected moves musically. From The Stargate to The Smell of Rain, for example, that was one of the more unexpected moves that I made. And then the music just got harder, and harder, and harder, which I suppose is more of an evolution. And then suddenly here I am doing Spirit of Rebellion. Honestly, I don’t know if I have a great answer for you. I don’t really analyze myself that much. All I know is, if I feel like doing something and I feel good about it, then I’ll just do it.
Well, speaking of Era I, you toured the U.S. during the “dungeon snyth” era of Mortiis, in the 1990s, right?
Yeah, I went over there a couple of times.
And one of those times was for a tour with Christian Death?
Yeah, Christian Death was the Stargate tour. That was ages ago!
But then you also toured in 2019 playing your dungeon synth material. Is there a difference in the way that audiences reacted to you playing dungeon synth in the ’90s and in 2019? Has there been a dungeon synth explosion in those 20 years?
I’m not gonna go and call it an “explosion.” I think there’s definitely an interest out there. I’m pretty sure there’s going to be like 50 people who can respond to that question better than I can, a lot of these dudes who are creating cassette, and to some degree vinyl, labels right now, they probably have a deeper understanding of that scene than I do. Because, quite frankly, I didn’t even realize it was there until I started reissuing my older stuff. Then, all of a sudden, that’s when I started seeing these forums, for example on Facebook, popping up with a few thousand members in them. So, there’s something happening for sure.
Even though I’m one of those dudes that these… what do you call them, dungeonites? [laughs] Whatever they call themselves, they seem to credit me with being almost like the first, sort of like Patient Zero for this thing [laughs]. I don’t know if that’s true, honestly, I just see people say it. I’ve just been operating on the sidelines in my own little fucking universe, like I’ve always done, in and out of whatever mode I’ve been in and out of, industrial, ambient, whatever. Has it exploded? I don’t think it has, but I think it’s growing steadily. That’s my impression.
In terms of the audience reactions, I thought it was pretty cool on the tour last year that I was headlining, you could tell that they were there to listen to my music, and they were fucking into it. And merch sales were fucking great. So that is definitely a sign that people were into it, I mean they were buying like crazy, we were very surprised at that.
Thinking back to when we supported Christian Death, I think definitely the crowd at that point, at least some of them, did not have an understanding of what Mortiis was all about. They probably thought it was very bizarre and weird. I have some recordings, actually, of some of the shows from that tour, I found them on VHS tapes and I’ve been ripping the audio into my computer. And you can hear the crowd, man, and they’re like… it’s a rough crowd sometimes. I had actually forgotten all about that, but on the recordings, because obviously it’s some kind of camcorder in the middle of the crowd, it’s like… fucking hell! Some of those dudes are just, they’re merciless, they’re just yelling shit. I can’t really make out the words, but you can hear the tone of voice, it’s like, these guys are not fans.
Yeah. I guess I kind of paved the way for these new dungeon synth people, because they don’t need to deal with that shit that I fucking dealt with back in the day.
You blazed the trail?
I… kind of think I did, a little bit, you know? I hope they don’t have to deal with that, because I’m not sure if they’re… I mean, would they be mentally fucking prepared for being booed on stage? All you want to do is play your keyboard and create some atmospheres, all of a sudden you’ve got ten guys fucking booing you? Are you ready for that shit?
It’s not like you’re in a punk band, where you beat up the crowd and the crowd beats you up, that’s a whole different energy. If it was, you might even be able to deal with that, because you’re so frenetically busy with your fucked up physical performance anyway, you might be ready for a bit of a fight. But a dungeon synth performance, where things are very calm and cool? Nah. That would throw you off, wouldn’t it?
Well, on that note, you have another US tour coming up in early February right? That’s like next week! Are you excited?
Yeah, if my merch can make it on time! There’s still some stuff out that hasn’t arrived yet, so I’m fucking biting my nails, man.
Yikes! Well, on the plus side, it’s great to see you returning to the States again so soon. Before 2019, your last U.S. tour was back in like 2015, when you toured with Mushroomhead, right? It seems like you’re back much sooner this time.
Yeah. The thing is, I’m not really a fan of going out for a month at a time now. I have a family, I have kids and stuff, so it’s a little bit in consideration of that. And also, I wanted to test the waters a little bit. I didn’t want to do a four- or five-week tour that would bomb, and then you have to stay on that tour for four weeks knowing it’s a fucking piece of shit tour. So, the last couple of years, I’ve been going out on shorter tours, anything from like six days to 10 or 12. I’ve done a whole bunch of those, South America, Australia, United States.
I’m going back to the States now for 15 dates, so I guess I’m increasing it a little bit, but the main point of this tour is to cover the areas and cities we didn’t do last time. Because last time was kind of a short tour, it was 10 days, so there’s a limit to how many towns you can visit with 10 shows. So, we’ve booked 15 different places. The only places that are kind of the same, well LA is exactly the same, so I hope that one does well. Last one was fucking great, but that doesn’t mean everybody’s going to come back nine months later, we’ll have to see. San Francisco is kind of the same, we did Oakland last time, but this time it’s right in the middle of San Francisco.
You mentioned that the visual element is very important to you, and I remember at the Oakland show you had a cool stage setup with scary looking trees and a screen with images being projected onto it. My friends also told me about the show you played at the Covered Wagon in San Francisco in the ’90s, where you “sacrificed” a woman on stage. Can we expect some trees and some sacrifices on this upcoming tour?
I’m not going to sacrifice anybody [laughs]. I’m bringing more banners out now, so that’s going to be cool, depending on the size of the venues. I know they scheduled me at some smaller ones and some slightly larger ones that are hopefully more theater-sized, with higher ceilings. I think the side banners are like 12-feet, so they’re going to look great, the times we’re going to be able to use them. I built them myself, this summer, actually, just out here on the veranda. And I’m thinking, ‘I hope this isn’t going to turn into a Spinal Tap moment. Or actually, a Black Sabbath moment, you know, when they built the set that was too big? Fuck, I would so fire that fucking stage designer, couldn’t you have checked the size of the entrance to the fucking venue before you started making mountains?
Anyway, we’ll see. What you’ve got to consider is, we’re playing mostly new places, they haven’t seen the show from last year anyway. So, it’s not like it’s all new stuff, it’s pretty much the same but more. And there’s some improvements that I’ve made, like I’ve chopped up the music a little differently, in a way that gives me more control on stage over certain things. I’ve given my stage guy the job of getting hold of the trees, and I told him, ‘we want more of them this time, and if you can make them creepier, that would be great.’
More trees, more creepy?
More creepy, more trees. More creepy trees. And I ordered like, I don’t know, eight cans of cobweb spray. It does sound cheesy, doesn’t it? But the thing is, once you get all this stuff combined, and you get a good light guy, that shit looks great on stage, man. It’s about the atmospherics, you know?
So, Spirit of Rebellion comes out on Jan. 20?
No, it comes out on Jan. 24, 2020!
Oh! For some reason I had Jan. 20, 2020 in my head…
A few days doesn’t really matter, it’s not the new Depeche Mode album, you know? Is it Jan. 20 or Jan. 24? I don’t think that’s going to have much of an impact.
We’ll see, right? Hopefully people catch wind of the new album on your tour, get excited, and the album does really well! Anything you need to get done before you leave for the U.S.?
Well, yelling at a lot of people, as usual. Where’s my fucking merch, motherfuckers?! How do you expect me to make a living if I can’t sell merch? Some stuff is showing up now, but a lot of stuff is not where it should be.
Look, I may come across as a pretty frenetic person, but the thing is, I have 25 years of experience, I know that we should start early on everything. Don’t fucking tell me you’ll have it the day before tour, because there’s no margin for error at that point, and there will always be errors with postal services and stuff. Just one rainy day and your tour is fucked up the ass. So, don’t tell me that, I’m stressed out!
Sounds like we should let you go and deal with this shit! Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Well, I hope people come out for the fucking dates, man! Well, not all of them, I guess, but the one that’s closest to you…
Hey, that’d be cool, if people followed you on tour, right?
Yeah, depending on who they were! Some people can follow me, other people… don’t do it, please.