Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Martin Horntveth, A Gentle Giant

No, Martin Hornveth is not a member of Gentle Giant if the title of this interview made you think so. Martin Hornveth is actually the drummer of Jaga Jazzist, a Norwegian jazz band with more than 10 musicians. They have recently released a new album this year called “One-Armed Bandit”. I talked with Martin about new album, other projects, their connection with progressive rock, etc.

Nick: Hello Martin. How have you been?

Martin: I’ve been working like a dog and I miss touring again!

Nick: So, it’s been 5 years since you’ve released What We Must and this year you’re back in the game with a brand new album called One-Armed Bandit. Why that long break? What happened with the band during that break? Some of band members have quit. Tell us a bit more.

Martin: Between 2002-2005 we toured constantly and we thought we should take a break before we started going on each other’s nerves. It was supposed to sbe a few months but it ended up being almost two years before we started to rehearse for a new album.

Many of the members started their own solo carriers or joined other bands. At one point we were all so busy with composing, world tours, producing that we were a bit worried about the future of Jaga.

Many of the members that quit around 2005 were original members that wanted to do other things. Two of them are soon to become doctors, others has totally different jobs. The main thing is that we’re all still close friends and the new members inspires the “old” ones J

Nick: Let’s talk about your new album. One-Armed Bandit received very good reviews. Are you satisfied with how it turned out? How long did you work on this album? Would you compare the way it was made with the process that made the previous one?

Martin: Yes, we’re very satisfied with the album. It’s so much rehearsing, quarrelling, discussing, organizing, arranging etc. with Jaga Jazzist but when the album finally was out it felt extremely good. We started to rehearse with the new members Øystein Moen and Stian Westerhus from the Norwegian noise/jazz band, Puma some time in 2007. The first song we tried was ”Prognissekongen” and people were quite shocked in a positive way of which direction Lars was leading the band into.

On What We Must we wanted to rehearse more like a rock band and we were jamming a lot with the arrangements but this time Lars had written 80% of the music and it was quite complex with written scores for all instruments. There were others that wrote music for the album but we ended up using 99,99% of Lars’ music.

Nick: I wonder have you ever been in a situation that after you had an idea for an album and you start working on that led by that idea, in the end the result turns out to be quite the opposite from what you intended?

Martin: Many times! On the ”A Living Room Hush” album it was like that for at least 50% of the album. But after we learned more about studio technique and possibilities with arranging we know a bit more about what we try to find. But sometimes we play the same song over and over for hours to get somewhere we haven’t been before

Nick: My opinion is that with this new album you made a turnout to more prog rock sound in comparison with previous works. This time there are more electronics and programming, more dynamics, I’d say. Was that just intentional or was it a logical sequence of circumstances?

Martin: Well, it’s absolutely more prog-ish than before, but if you listen to ”The Stix” you might think that it’s way more electronic/programmed than this one. Anyway, we wanted ”the best from both worlds” this time. In the early song writing process I remember Lars experimented with a ”Justice” (French band) type ”House” beat in all the songs. We talked about mixing the “uber-electronic” sounds with a more prog-rock or even jazz-rock sound. Justice meets Mahavishnu Orchestra or The Knife meets Zappa. The process is all though much more interesting than if the result ends up like planned.

Nick: How did you get in touch with John McEntire of Tortoise? I see mixing of Jaga Jazzist album as something really hard and have to praise John for the work he did on One-Armed Bandit. What did he bring to the album?

Martin: We originally wanted Jørgen Træen to both produce and mix the album. For Jaga he’s become a very important person for our sound and development. But a couple of months before we had planned to mix he got ill and couldn’t work for a very long time, so we had to find another person to help us finish the album. Lars and I were discussing different solutions and persons we’d like to work with and one of them was John McEntire, whom we obviously have been inspired by for years. Jørgen hadn’t really got the chance to start his brilliant way of transforming the material into something new so we thought that the rough mixes of the album sounded to vintage or old school and wanted John to help us get a more modern or fresh sound. In addition to have pretty much the same taste in music and sound as us he also bring in a lot of “playing around with effects and synthesizer” that eventually gave the electronic feel that we felt were missing.

Nick: As a successful indicator of the new album’s quality, I would like to point out that the album has entered top 10 of the Norwegian national record sales charts in the first week. Seems like you did a good thing in enabling two of the tracks from the album to be available for free on the Internet. Do you think that Internet should be used in such a way by all bands? Or is it more of a detriment in general?

Martin: A few years ago it felt corny and sometimes wrong to give away songs for free, but the way the whole industry has become it’s much more of a necessity in the whole release plan and way of promoting the album. I personally don’t like how people feel that music should be “for free” and I don’t think they have a clue about how much work and money there is behind an album. This change in the whole music scene made it almost impossible to make our last album and we had to find totally new ways of getting the money for studio, producer, mixer etc. For Jaga it’s always been a non-profit band, but this time it was harder than ever to make it happen. That said, we use Internet and all it’s possibilities for all it’s worth all the time, and have been doing that since 1996.

Nick: JJ is an orchestra band, as your line-up is consisted of approx. ten musicians. Would you tell us how the current line-up of the band looks, besides you, Lars and Line? I have to admit that it seems hard to follow all those changes, so let’s make it clear :)

Martin: The current line-up besides Lars (Guitar, saxes and clarinets), Line (Tuba, glockenspiel and vocals) and me (Drums and drum-machines) consist of Mathias Eick (Trumpet, upright bass, keyboards and vibraphone), Øystein Moen (Keyboards), Erik Johannessen (Trombone), Andreas Mjøs (Vibraphone and guitars), Even Ormestad (Bass and keyboards) and our newest member, Marcus Forsgren (Guitars and FX)

Stian Westerhus (Puma, Nils Petter Molvær, Monolithic) played on the album and a few gigs but he was too busy with other bands and has been replaced by Marcus Forsgren from The Lionheart Brothers.

Nick: During all these years you’ve been involved in other projects beside JJ. Solo work is probably the best way to satisfy your own ego so to speak, do you find it to be helpful for Jaga Jazzist to release your own material on the side? Please introduce us to some of your other projects and contributions.

Martin: In the beginning all the side projects and other bands were struggling with JJ’s busy calendar and plans but after a while we all understood that these bands helped the members to try out other ideas and genres that wouldn’t fit into Jaga’s music. So instead of quarrelling about peoples focus, we started encouraging people to start own projects and solo carriers.

In the early 2000’s I was making a lot of electronic music and were touring a lot with my solo show but after a while I quit because I didn’t like traveling alone. Being part of a huge band with two family members close all the time I often felt lonesome in an empty hotel room or backstage. So besides of a pop group called “The National Bank” I been mostly composing music for TV dramas, radio theatre, short films, dance performances, children’s television etc. It’s too much to go through all of it but it’s all presented on my myspace site:

Nick: Let’s make a retrospective of your albums, starting from Jævla Jazzist Grete Stitz to One-Armed Bandit. How would you describe every of these albums?

Martin: “Jævla Jazzist Grete Stitz - 1996” was actually a best of album. Our debut album was supposed to be our last. Ha-ha! It’s full of various styles, genres, humoristic ideas but still a lot of serious music. It’s fun, but still a bit embarrassing.

“Magazine EP - 1998” was just an EP that later was released on Smalltown Supersound as full-length release. Also this one is extremely varied and the only red thread is the melodies and harmonies that always has been our trademark. It’s two songs recorded in two different studios and a third song that’s recorded live. It’s also a really quiet, folky song with vocals and a drum&bass remix..

“A Living Room Hush - 2001” is the album that chanced JJ and has always felt like our “real” debut. It’s our first album with Jørgen Træen and he really opened our eyes but musically and sound/recording wise. We came to Jørgen with a lot of songs and ideas but came out with something completely different and we felt that we’d “seen the light”

“The Stix - 2002” is many of the member’s favorite album; because we think we made something unique with this album. We’d been experimenting with sounds, genres and electronics for a while but on this album we felt that we’d made it into our own style.

“What We Must - 2005” was as the album title describes a must for the band to make. We had to go someplace completely different and get rid of most of the things we’d been doing over the last five years. The album is guitar oriented for the first time, it has a lot of “rock band” feel instead of “jazz band” or “electronica” feel. There’s no programming or drum machines and was very inspired by bands like “My Bloody Valentine” and “Sonic Youth”. It also has some early fooling around with prog-rock and “quasi world“.

“One-Armed Bandit – 2010” was sort of a comeback album for Jaga. On this album we wanted to continue what we’d started on “What We Must” but take it to a new level. We also wanted to bring in the electronic sounds from “The Stix” and the madness from “A Living Room Hush”. You can track some parts from early albums but the most important was to have fun while playing the music. We wanted to play complex, sometimes corny, sometimes beautiful but most of all fun-to-play music. 

Nick: Is making music for Jaga a tough task? Where do you find new elements for new tunes? I guess that you and Lars are the most focused members of the band when it comes to creating new songs, but how much are the others in on that process?

Martin: Making music for JJ is extremely difficult, and it’s seldom other than Lars that manages to do it. We all try but it doesn’t go through the needle eye. We don’t want Jaga’s music to sound like anything else and that in addition to writing for 9-10 members makes it very, very hard.

For “One-Armed Bandit” Lars worked really hard and set a goal to write a new song for each rehearsal. It ended up being 99,99% of Lars’ music on the new album and that’s basically because he managed to write enough music and create a “universe” for the whole album.

The other members are very involved in shaping the music into what it becomes but that’s only “done in advance”, meaning that Lars writes music that fits the musicians well. He knows what we all stand for and except for the drum parts the whole new album was composed with written scores. In the rehearsal process we’re all involved in jamming on the riffs with different instruments, rhythm parts, instruments playing the melody, percussion, arrangements, drum programming etc. We’ve never rehearsed as much as for this album and that’s a BIG part of the song writing process as well as the actual composition.

Nick: What does Prognissekongen mean? I’ve tried to translate that using a Google translate tool, and it showed me “Prog elf king”, Is that correct?

Martin: Ha-ha! Yes, for us it’s more like King Of Prog Nerds, but the exact translation would be something like Prog elf king. The title is describing both the music and our love/hate approach to the genre. We like a lot of it very much but something of it is just hilarious and comic, but still we like it because it’s funny… Hard to describe in English, but hopefully the title speaks for itself.

Nick: How much of Jaga’s sound is based around progressive rock? Which bands are your favorites, as well as influences?

Martin: Very little. People have been calling us a prog band for a few years now, but we never understood why. I’m not saying that we weren’t a prog-band, but we didn’t know because we’d never listened to it. We started to check out some Progressive around 2004/2005… Well, over the years we’ve been introduced to some bands but we never liked it, and most of the time we thought the music was really ugly and dull. Around the making of What We Must we heard some bands like “Yes” and “Mahavishnu Orchestra” and for the first time we wanted to dig into this genre. We’re interested in songs and melodies and not so much riffs and jamming so maybe that’s why it took so many years for Jaga to feel the connection with Prog? On the last album we’ve “fooled around” with this genre a bit more and are very happy about being called a prog-band. I guess the influences haven’t been that many prog bands except for the ones already mentioned and a few others like “Robert Wyatt” and “Genesis”. It’s more the way of thinking and the “open mind” that has inspired us. “Over the top” arrangements, sudden key and time changes, corny fanfares, pompous church organ, complex melodies and time signatures etc. Actually, Lars was very inspired by slot machines or One-Armed Bandits when he wrote the songs and that inspired to a lot of the stuff mentioned above plus the title of the album.

Nick: Would you tell us about some funny situations from the tour? Being in a band with so many members probably leads to a lot of interesting situations, such as someone being left behind when the band goes on tour, or something.

Martin: This recent tour has been so far quite calm and under control. Probably because we have some new members, a new crew and just had a fantastic time together. On previous tours we were sharing the same bus for 7-8 weeks and since we’d lived on top of each other for years it became a lot of tension, some aggression, quarreling, leave-behinds etc, but this time it’s been pretty calm. That said, for us the friendship and music is very important, so too much “sex, drugs & rock n’ roll” wouldn’t be acceptable.

Nick: I guess you will probably know why do I ask this, but are you a gentle giant? :D

Martin: I’m a very gentle giant :-) I think the man on the “Gentle Giant” album could be the “Prognissekongen” that Lars thinks of.

Lately I’ve been thinking about that band and the resemblances with our band. We were watching a live concert with Gentle Giant in John McEntire’s studio and I didn’t know that the members were SO good instrumentalist. It was really cool to see them change instruments all the time and play them all so brilliantly. We have a couple of members doing the same thing and it was truly inspiring to see.

Nick: Besides being a musician in an eminent band, you also have a serious role in your life, that of a father. How do you find time to balance between these “two worlds”, if I may?

Martin: Being a father has been a fantastic change in my life. I’ve been used to work 14 hours a day, 7 days a week except two-three weeks holidays and it was absolutely about time to prioritize my son and girlfriend. I love touring and living in a bus for weeks, but nowadays I miss my family after two weeks. I think that’s a good thing.

Nick: Is there anything you’d like to add now that I’ve run out of questions?

Martin: I’d like to add that if it was up to the band we would have traveled all over Europe including you country, the states, Australia, Africa and all the other places we haven’t been before. I hope the most eager JJ fans will travel to the nearest cities to see us all though it can be a bit far away. Traveling with this band is very expensive and promoters struggle hard to make it work so it’s not that we don’t want to come to all the places we’re invited.

Nick: Thanks for the interview, Martin. We wish you and your family all the best.

Martin: Thanks and hope to see you some time in the future!

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