Mortiis (born Håvard Ellefsen) is a name synonymous with dungeon synth and black metal. He has carved out a career as an original member of the legendary Emperor and throughout his later solo work as the preeminent Dark Dungeon Lord.

A recent photo of Håvard in his Mortiis persona.

Having being a fan of Mortiis’ work since the mid-90’s, I had the opportunity to meet him in person on his recent ‘Født til å herske’ Australian tour and invited him onto my radio show ‘Hell Or High Water‘ for a far reaching conversation (over 3hrs!). Where we discussed his influences, the early Norwegian Black Metal scene – from the Church burnings, to the murders, key players (Euronymous, Dead, Fenriz, Varg Vikernes); and a parallel dimension ruled by an evil monarch.

This interview is compiled from excerpts from our radio interview (full audio in the links) and follow up emails.
Have a read below…

Where were you born?

I was born in Skien, Telemark, Norway in 1975.

Your earliest musical memory?

My first and earliest memory in life is seeing Gene Simmons spitting blood and fire. I remember him before my parents.
It was Gene Simmons and Elvis Presley – that kind of laid the groundwork. They formed me with their showmanship.
I’m not saying I’m like those guys but Mortiis is pretty out there.

Mortiis in the early days of his Era 1 stage.

Would you say the three linchpins of the Mortiis project are:
(1) Aesthetically – Alice Cooper, KISS, W.A.S.P.?
(2) Musically – Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Krautrock?
(3) Conceptually – Tolkien?

There you go, I would say that’s true.

Alice Cooper and W.A.S.P. never influenced me musically. But visually I always referenced them because they played such a major role for me. In terms of creating something visually really striking and cool. But it’s not like I sit here and google Alice Cooper photos to come up with ideas for something visual.
I will always respect all of those bands highly, especially Alice Cooper. I mean, he’s still out there doing it and being very humble. Certain other members of certain other bands may not be so humble.

Tangerine Dream isn’t a dark band per say but they had some very atmospheric music, especially in the early days when it was more experimental and I got into the whole atmospheric side of it. My favorite era starts around ‘75 with ‘Ricochet’ up until around ‘Hyperborea’ in ‘83 which has huge nostalgic value for me.

I think the first time I properly picked up the ‘Lord of the Rings’ was in the early 90s. It wasn’t really long before I started Mortiis as a solo thing. We might have already started Emperor and perhaps it was Euronymous (Mayhem) that told me I should read it because he was into it.
I always viewed Middle Earth as this distant past, a bit like ‘Conan The Barbarian’ and the whole world he came out of – it’s reminiscent of the world we live in.

When did you start playing music and what was your first instrument?
How old were you and what were you playing?

I’ve never been a great musician. I’ve always been a studio guy ever since I left Emperor.
So the first instrument was really when I joined Emperor. It was the bass guitar. I’ve never played guitar or anything like that.

So how did Emperor come to be?

We were just friends hanging out and into the same stuff. One day Ihsahn and Samoth called me and said – ‘we want to start a project.’ We were all starting to look back to the 80’s, especially the darker themed thrash and speed metal stuff like Sodom, Celtic Frost, Possessed, the Australian stuff like Sadistik Exekution, Slaughter Lord and Slayer’s Show No Mercy – all the early stuff.
They sent me a tape with two songs on it. No vocals, no nothing – because there were no lyrics. And they eventually became the songs Forgotten Centuries and Moon Over Kara-Shehr, which were the first two Emperor songs.
It took a few weeks to get a name, I was going through my records and one of my favorite records of all time is Emperor’s Return by Celtic Frost. And I thought the word / name Emperor was fucking great. It’s short, it means something cool and you can take it a few different ways.
A little while after the demo had come out the logo was dumped into my mailbox in ‘92. Some guy from Eastern Europe had drawn the Emperor logo which they still use to this day.

Can you take us into the making of Emperor’s ‘The Wrath Of The Tyrant‘ demo (1992)?

There’s not much to say. I mean we would practice in this beer smelling, sticky, disgusting basement. I don’t think there had been a breath of fresh air down there since 1982. So ‘Wrath Of The Tyrant’ was recorded down there by Ihsahn on a four track recorder with just a couple of microphones. It was all recorded over a single weekend.
I recorded my bass and as I recall we needed some backing vocals so some of those really long screams on the demo are actually me. We tried to recreate those screams for the mini Emperor LP later on but we couldn’t make it sound as cool as on ‘The Wrath Of The Tyrant’ demo. It might have to do with the fact that once you go into a real studio the sound quality goes up and you lose that gritty fucking magic. When you record like that, it becomes very raw, naked and honest. And maybe you record with your levels a little too hot. So you get a little bit of tape distortion and that all adds up to atmosphere.

Mortiis (right) with Ihsahn circa 1992.
Photo by Samoth.

Atmosphere is the key word.
Every really great black metal musician I’ve spoken to or read about always comes back to the word / concept of ‘atmosphere’, can you define it for us?

It’s a little difficult to explain, we were getting into these darker aspects of life and we were listening to Krautrock and atmospheric things like Dead Can Dance and Diamanda Galas. We weren’t really interested in the original artist’s intention; we were just taking out of it what we wanted.

I find it fascinating in the Norwegian Black Metal scene that you were all so musically informed from extreme metal to the outliers of the avant-garde underground.

I think alot of that you could thank Euronymous for because he was already listening to that stuff by the time we were all converting from our heavy / thrash / death metal past into a darker, more black metal direction.
At that point he had a record collection of maybe 1000 LP’s with everything from KISS, Celtic Frost, Venom, Slayer to Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, Roger Waters, etc.

Can you tell us a bit about Euronymous?

I started writing letters with him around 1989 and I met him in 1990. I was 15 at the time. I met him at a show with Dead and a few other people.
He was very charismatic and convinced about what he was saying. He definitely had a presence about him. When I used to go to Helvete (Euronymous’ store) I was always a bit nervous because I was going to meet this larger than life fucking guy.
I had heard the advanced tapes for Mayhem’s ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’ and admired him as a musician. He was already working on his Death Like Silence label at that stage too.

Did you see Mayhem live at that time?

Unfortunately, I was never able to catch Mayhem live in that constellation because they didn’t play live that often and I was so young.
I did see Darkthrone in 1990.

Was that when they were still doing ‘Soulside Journey’ / Death Metal material?

I think they were in that transitional phase and may have done a combination of ‘Soulside Journey’ and ‘A Blaze In A Northern Sky’ material. It was primarily a death metal show and then suddenly I see these two guys with corpse paint and they were Euronymous and Dead.

Can you give us some insights into Dead at that time?

I never got to know him. That was the only time I met him. And I think I exchanged three or four sentences with him, you’ve got to remember these guys were probably around 20 at the time. I was only fucking 14-15. I was just a little snot kid wearing my death metal t-shirts discovering something new every week.

Dead performing live at an early Mayhem gig.

What were your impressions of Fenriz?

Fenriz is a pretty original person, always has been. He was always very funny.
I used to see him all the time at Helvete and he was always very entertaining. Very strange, absurd and quirky. He would sit on this couch in a dark corner of the room and just talk, drink and comment on everything. I remember thinking – God, he drinks a lot. I wasn’t a big drinker at the time, that came later.

Can you paint us a picture of Helvete at that time?

It’s probably the way you would imagine it – black walls covered in black metal merch. Euronymous had picture discs on the walls of Venom’s ‘Welcome To Hell’, Slayer’s ‘Show No Mercy’, Celtic Frost’s ‘Emperor’s Return’… It was the prototype of a black metal milieu. Everything was black and dark, very dim lighting and just metal records everywhere. It was one of the first places I had been that looked that extreme.
He had that infamous mannequin doll with the necklace that was supposed to contain a piece of Dead’s skull. Euronymous had all these photos of Dead lying on the bed with his head blown off that he had shown me, but I have no idea if he actually took a piece of his skull or not.

I’ve heard that Necrobutcher left Mayhem because he didn’t like Euronymous taking photos and using his dead friend as basically a promotional tool for the band?

I think that’s the impression I got from talking to Necro. I got the impression that Necro was a better or closer friend to Dead than Euronymous. And maybe when he realized there had been photos taken he was just like it fuck it, I’m done, which I can understand now.
Those guys were a little bit older and probably had their brains a bit more developed than the rest of us teenagers. When we heard about it we were just like – wow, that’s fucking extreme. And you connected with the extremity of it. Because that was a lot about what Black Metal was in those days. It was extreme, extreme, extreme.

Talking about extremes, another big personality of the Norwegian Black Metal scene / Helvete inner circle was Varg Vikernes (Burzum). Can you tell me about Varg?

I never got to know Varg very well. We wrote some letters around 1990-1992. The first time I met him he was still in Old Funeral which had members that were also in Amputation, that later became Immortal. I think he had joined as a second guitar player and they were doing a show in my town. He was just Kristian at that point.
He seemed like a friendly enough guy, kind of quirky. That’s my recollection of him at that point.

And the next time he shows up a year later, he’s Count Grishnackh from Burzum and Euronymous is really excited because the music is fantastic. Basically, it’s like perfect black metal. Those early Burzum records really went a long way to inventing black metal ‘atmosphere’ where it’s very little to do with aggression, speed or ferocity – it’s about the fucking vibe.
Varg is definitely a creative kind of guy. I think the next time I met him was at a Morbid Angel show in Oslo. He would walk 10 feet behind everyone else and was a real loner – he wasn’t really into socializing at all. I tried to talk to him at the time and he just got annoyed with me for talking too much. I think he was already in town from Bergen and staying at Helvete.

It sucks that he became what he did and he and Euronymous had that crazy falling out. I don’t think anyone really knows what happened between them – if it was contractual disputes or jealousy. There are all these theories about it but at the time it just seemed that all of a sudden they were enemies.
Varg always came across as one of the smarter ones in the scene. I guess he would’ve got away with 4 church arsons if he hadn’t killed Euronymous and hadn’t done the interviews. He might have still been out there.

An early 1990s promo photo of Varg Vikernes.

I’d like to ask you about the Church burnings because as you mentioned Varg along with Euronymous and members of Emperor were involved. Why weren’t you?

I just never got around to it.
I remember sitting there at the time and I thought it was cool. I enjoyed the extremity of it. And I wanted to do it, I just don’t know if I could have pulled through with it because I was a pretty nervous kid at the time.

How did you feel knowing that things were getting more extreme at the time – the church arsons, Dead’s suicide and Faust (member of Emperor) with his murder?

Faust told us about the murder at an Emperor rehearsal. He even showed us the knife that he had with him. I thought it was really cool. I understand that it’s probably a very politically incorrect thing to say but that’s the honest truth. You’re 16-17 years old in a really extreme environment and you’re apart of it and completely on board with what is going on. It was just the black metal philosophy – be extreme, hate Christianity and hate people.

Of course Faust’s not proud of what he did. I’ve spoken to him about it and I don’t think there is anything he would’ve wanted more than to have that murder undone.

Aside from ‘being extreme’ what were some of the other philosophical or ideological underpinnings of the Norwegian Black Metal scene?

To be honest, I don’t know if there was any other philosophy than being extreme.
At the very bottom of everything was the music. The music was the glue. It had just expanded into these crazy territories like violence, murder and fucking burning churches. That wasn’t really the glue. That was just something that we thought was fucking great.
If somebody had made a great record we all talked about it, like when Darkthone put out ‘Under A Funeral Moon’, which is a fucking brilliant album. Or a new Burzum record which he would do every three months. As crazy as it got, it was always about the music, but musicians who did crazy things.

It is alleged that Euronymous identified with Communism and obviously Varg went down the path of National Socialism / Odinism?

That came later for Varg, you didn’t see a lot of that while Euronymous was alive.
I remember in ‘94 the whole scene wondering if Varg had become a Neo-Nazi. Because he did seem to be associating with some organizations that definitely had some brown shades to them. But by that point I wasn’t really paying a lot of attention to him due to the fact that he had killed my friend and I wasn’t interested in his music anymore.

When it comes to Euronymous and communism, I get the impression he may have been flirting with it back in the 80’s. I never talked to him about politics or communism. I think he had a fascination with exotic places or obscure countries.
He helped give exposure to bands like Hadez from Peru, Tormentor from Hungary, Sarcófago from Brazil… I think if it wasn’t for him maybe we may have never heard of a lot of these bands.

Another aspect of NBM that I’ve always been fascinated by is the inverted commas “spirituality” of the music / movement.

I can’t say that I thought much about that. Other than that we extracted the darker aspects out of things that we liked to look at or listen to. I just took out of black metal what I wanted. There were bands like Enslaved who went in the more Pagan / Viking direction, etc. But to be honest with you I was more into the 80’s thing and was probably quite superficial.
I don’t think Sodom had much of a spiritual idea behind ‘In The Sign Of Evil.’ It was just cool music, with a cool image that we fucking loved.

Tell me about your end w/ Emperor in December ‘92.

Ihsahn called me up one day and said – ‘we think it’d be better if you left the band, cause you’ve got a bit of an anger problem and we think it would probably be best if we split ways.’ So that was a bit of a devastating blow because at that point I knew I was in a really good band. The songs were starting to come and I knew good things were going to happen.
But quite frankly, what they didn’t say and what I suspect is that they wanted a better bass player. They never said that but I’m pretty sure that’s the reason.

A photo of the very first Emperor gig – Spring 1992.

How did Mortiis begin?

I came up with the name Mortiis just before I joined Emperor. But after I split from Emperor I knew that I had to go solo because I wanted to continue with music. I wanted to do something completely different and was getting into the atmospheres of music and realized it didn’t have to be traditional metal or organic sounding, in terms of live drums, live vocals, live guitars, live bass…

I had gotten into electronically made music and started discovering Coil and Throbbing Gristle alongside Tangerine Dream. The darker, stranger and more artsy aspects of non-traditional music. It was like this whole universe opening up and I just took the atmosphere out of it. It was the fact that you get a lot of the same vibes out of that as you do with black metal but with completely different sounds. I wanted to create an environment that triggers the imagination or reminds you of things.

Back in ‘92 I had written a series of lyrics that laid the groundwork for this parallel dark, fantastical world. Two of them got used in Emperor – ‘I Am The Black Wizards’ and ‘Cosmic Keys To My Creation.’ I was never into calling Emperor “black metal” because I thought black metal was becoming a trend in ‘92. But I don’t think those guys were completely into my idea of the conceptual direction of Emperor and I didn’t want to do the whole Satan thing etc. So I wasn’t going to be in the band anymore and I took all my lyrics and concepts with me.

Can you tell me about this parallel universe?

It’s hard to explain, so you really need to read the book (‘Secrets Of My Kingdom – Return Dimensions Unknown‘, Cult Never Dies, 2017) which I think is actually sold out again at the moment.
But, basically it’s this really fucking miserable, dark world that is ruled by this horrible, all powerful, evil monarch that has abilities to travel anywhere in time and see everything in the universe at the same time. It’s like the world that would have been had Sauron won in ‘The Lord Of The Rings’.

How does Mortiis as a being or character fit into it all?

I always envisioned Mortiis as me in this world and I was creating these ideas and by writing them down they became real in the other place at the same time. If that makes sense.
So the first line or the second line of the ‘Født til å herske’ spoken word part, says that – ‘he was born to rule’. But he was born into the wrong world. And it was sort of writing his real world into existence without really properly knowing what was going on. For example, ‘Født til å herske’ is a story or a snapshot of the Mortiis universe.
All the records are linked, not in a chronological way, but they are all snapshots of the Mortiis universe. But as I say it’s hard to explain without sounding cheesy so if you’re interested you’ve gotta get the book.

I wanted to ask you specifically about ‘The Stargate‘ (1999) which was my first introduction to Mortiis when I was a teenager.

I had improved a lot as a musician by The Stargate. Conceptually it was set in this dark universe or parallel reality. The evil monarch that I mentioned has the ability to time travel and teleport around the universe.
I actually came up with the concept of The Stargate way back in ‘92 when I was still in Emperor, the idea of these gates to travel through the stars. It was kind of inspired by Stonehenge, all the crazy stories about it being an alien portal and whatever. And the concept sat there for a really long time because I plan things years in advance. But then of course Kurt fucking Russell made that movie in ‘95 didn’t he? And I’m like “Hollywood stole my fucking idea” (laughs). Because The Stargate I had envisioned was very similar – some big ring that opens up and you walk into this mysterious realm and then bam you’re in a different reality.
So the record is talking about traveling through The Stargate and conquering new places.

Matt’s signed copy of Mortiis’ 1999 LP, ‘The Stargate.’

I’ve always loved the cover of ‘The Stargate.

Yeah, I think it has a whole meme page of it’s own! (laughs) I’m sure it’s happened to every artist where things haven’t turned out exactly as they would’ve liked. My idea was to have this figure suddenly appear as if they had just travelled through The Stargate and appeared out of thin air. Unfortunately, it came out looking a lot cheesier than I had envisioned.
If you look closely, the bat wings I’m wearing, which is like a Gene Simmons homage, have all these stars, galaxies and planets in them. I was always putting Easter eggs into stuff in those days.

Will ‘The Stargate’ get a vinyl reissue?

I’m not standing in the way of it.
A few years back, Earache Records were talking about doing a whole bunch of Mortiis reissues with different coloured vinyl, deluxe editions, etc. I spent a considerable amount of time pitching ideas and eventually those guys just stopped communicating. So who knows if it’s going to happen.

Thankyou for chatting with me, one parting question – fave record, book and movie?

Pentagram – ‘Relentless‘ (1985)
F. Paul Wilson – ‘Nightworld‘ (1981)
Francis Ford Coppola – ‘The Godfather‘ (1972).

Mortiis during his Emperor days – Circa Spring 1992.
Photo by Samoth.


Matt and Mortiis circa 2024.

Images from Mortiis, Matt Malone, and sourced online.