Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Cassiopeian Psychonauts - Motorpsycho exposed, part IV

Read the introduction to the Motorpsycho exposed article series here.

In May 2010 I followed Motorpsycho from Berlin to Bremen on the "Heavy Metal Fruit Tour", which resulted in a series of articles in the web magazine This article is available for Norwegian readers in its original context here. Thanks to Hugh Small and Kristin Waag for proof-reading and corrections.

Read the other articles in Motorpsycho exposed:
Part I: Dogma 2000
Part II: A Norwegian Post-Hippie Bohemia
Part III: Motorpsychedelic Wanderlust

Cassiopeian Psychonauts

Motorpsycho has embarked on a European tour that brings the band to Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Italy. But they do not travel alone. As usual, the band is followed by a van full of fans of the most enthusiastic and faithful type called Psychonauts. 

- Psychonaut is a term for an inward traveller. It fits the psychedelic quality of the band, says Alexander Schulze.

Motorpsycho celebrated their 20th year with an anniversary tour last fall, but it is 20 years ago this spring that they played their first concert at the alternative UFFA house in Trondheim.

Except for a few years in the middle of the last decade, the band has made at least one European tour a year since their debut outside of Norway, in Copenhagen 1991.

As early as 1993, Motorpsycho was described as a cult band by Norwegian capital newspaper Aftenposten. In the mid-90's enthusiastic Italians drove minibuses to Svartlamoen in Trondheim to get a glimpse of their idols, and legend says that the number of Inter Rail travellers to Trondheim between concert seasons are many.

There are also those who travel after the band on tour. They are called Psychonauts, and they let family life be family life, work be work, and travel from across the globe to follow the band up close for a few weeks throughout  Europe.

But what does a Psychonaut look like? Are they uniformed in band-effects such as Turbo Jugend, or do they wear leather vests, billowing shirts, and headbands like Dead Heads?

Around a table in the pub Cassiopeia, a stone's throw from the venue Astra in Berlin, is a diverse group of these inner travellers. Both Alexander Schulze and Ingo Seufer are Berliners. When Seufer had a son a few years ago, he was named after bass player Bent Sæther. Anders Danielsen from Oslo has moved to Copenhagen to be closer to a happening Europe, Vilhelm Bloch Helmers is from the town of Florø, and plumber Lars Magnussen travels Oslo-Berlin and back to experience the band for this one evening at Astra. Øystein Winsnes represents Stavanger. From Fukuyama, Japan, comes Akane Nakamura. Her day job is selling Norwegian salmon in a fish market in her hometown. Since 2001 she has travelled annually to Europe to experience Motorpsycho.

From left: Alexander Schulze, Anders Danielsen, Lars Magnussen,
Vilhelm Bloch Helmers, Øystein Winsnes, Ingo Seufer
(Photo: Carl Kristian Johansen) 
They look like ordinary people. Confident, but without ostentatious gestures, and with lots of self-irony. And then they have the passion. The Motorpsycho-passion hovers between the beer-glasses like marijuana smoke in the regular pre-concert ritual that unfolds at Cassiopeia. Some of them attend Motorpsycho gigs to surrender to the magic, while others are more scientifically constructed. Some of them time the improvisational parts and compare them with the 90s versions. Others want to close their eyes and fantasize about astral scooters, while others again will update social networks on the Internet with the set list. Nakamura doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything but getting blasted in front of the stage. Seufer wants to be spaced out at each concert.

They travel after Motorpsycho’s night liner in their own Magic Bus, and have been to concerts in Eindhoven and Amsterdam before Berlin. There’s an aura over this reminiscent of the bus Furthur and the acid heads that are described in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.

The Grateful Deads debut album
Simon Reynolds once described The Grateful Dead as a band slowly built up outside conventional networks with a reputation as a cult band based on their impressionistic, trippy shows.

The same words could describe Motorpsycho in 2010. The feeling of being close to an anachronism can be intrusive when you spend much time in the Motorpsycho universe.

A few hours earlier I had discussed with Motorpsycho guitarist Hans Magnus Ryan about the different drug preferences of the members of The Grateful Dead, the influence on the music, and whether acid was the  thing that tied the band together. There’s no clear answer to that. Motorpsycho do not take drugs. Pragmatic as they are, they rather represent an intermediate position between the sex, drug & rock and roll mythology established in the 60's and the anti-thesis of straightedge philosophy from the 80s.

The Psychonauts at Cassiopeia are no acidheads either and The Magic Bus is a black van rented for the occasion, not a fixed home.

- The Grateful Dead references in the Motorpsycho-universe are endless, says Schulze.

- It starts with the Maiden Voyage cassette that they released in 1990, and it just goes on and on.

Schulze is almost in despair because of the size of the topic he has embarked upon. It is not just about song titles and riffs, but also about Dark Star and structural ideas. And the reference package is not just about The Grateful Dead.

- It is more on the quotes level than that they steal, even if the Superstooge-riff from Trust Us is lifted almost directly from Funhouse by The Stooges. It was too obvious and they must have thought that this we cannot hide, laughs Danielsen.

- The variation in quotes and references in their aggregate song material is just unbelievable. If you are cynical, you can argue that Motorpsycho is only stolen quotes and references. It goes as far as to the things Bent says on stage. Sometimes his whole stage performance is a quote. If you know all these details it is easy to be amazed and you can sometimes wonder if there is anything Bent says that is not a quote, says Schulze.

Detail from the Maiden Voyage
- I see it as highly original music. They've had some periods, mainly in their pop jazz period early last decade, when the quotes were quite obvious and not so smart. They sounded like the Allman Brothers Band on one track, The Doors on the next, and perhaps Miles Davis after that. Now they have become a band others refer to. I cannot think of another band that sounds like Motorpsycho, even if it is only a guitar-drum- bass line-up, says Danielsen.

After many years on the road, painstaking studies of the many releases, and knowledge of all the public statements from the band, the Psychonauts know all the nooks and crannies in a Motorpsycho-universe that is much larger than a person with less than 20 gigs can only imagine. The Psychonauts know the rules of the game, and it's not just about references to other music. Going to a concert night after night has opened up a whole new understanding of the band.

It revolves around the fact that Motorpsycho seldom have a support band because they can easily hold concerts over three hours, and it's about how they are received by the audience in various cities in Europe. They know all the details about the stage setup, they can identify changes that have happened to the band's sound as the engineers have come and gone, they know all the flowering stages and all the style changes to their fingertips. Based on experience, the Psychonauts with great certainty can say which songs might survive from one night to another. If the band fails with a song one night they play it again the next until they are pleased.

If the Psychonauts don’t get Un Chien D'Espace, or ”the dog” as they call it, they know that it comes at the next gig or the next tour. Starhammer has already been renamed MountainHammer after it was jammed into the tail of Mountain in Berlin, and Timothy's Monster was embraced as a good old friend, not only of Psychonauts, but by a packed Schlachthof in Bremen, after it had been left out of the repertoire for many years.

The number of Psychonauts that belong to The Magic Bus are about 30 people, but everyone does not participate on all tours. There are several of them who do not travel anymore because of family obligations, but the ones at Cassiopeia are about to slide over 30, 50, 70 and 150 Motorpsycho concerts. But the Magic Bus-Psychonauts do not behave like a closed circuit. They have mostly embraced the free spirit from the past and they have done it without becoming stereotypes.

Alexander Schulze (Photo: Carl Kristian Johansen)
- I have travelled since 1999. Sometimes I'm amazed at how large the number of travellers is. Not everyone is as active as us, but there are people who have travelled in two to three concerts on each tour for the last ten years and we suddenly meet them for the first time in 2009. Sometimes it seems like half the audience are travellers, says Schulze.

That rock bands have a tail of their most ardent fans travelling after their tours is not anything new. But there are not many bands of the relative size of Motorpsycho that have so many travellers behind them. Danielsen believes it is simply due to the band’s concert practice. Both Pearl Jam, another band with travelling companions, and Motorpsycho have over 100 songs in their tour repertoire and they play different set lists from night to night.

- A similarity between these bands is that they change and evolve live all the time. It is difficult to find such a well-developed fan community for bands that are more static on stage and who do not renew themselves from evening to evening, says Danielsen.

It is the improvisation-based attitude that everybody around the table ultimately pulls out as the most important factor. It is Motorpsycho’s  willingness to let it all loose, and maybe fail, that makes the Psychonauts attend concert after concert. They maybe don’t get complete magic every night, but it is the expectations that drive everything forward.

Motorpsycho at Schlachthof, Bremen (Photo: Carl Kristian Johansen)

Motorpsycho draw a full house in both Berlin (Astra) and Bremen (Schlachthof). Bent Sæther is master of ceremonies for 1000 people every night and leads the band in and out of identifiable structures, alien improvisations, familiar riffs and extensive marathon jams. In Bremen, Sæther makes 1000 North Germans and travelling Psychonauts lose themselves and sing the chorus to Feel in full voice. They present new material, test Timothy's Monster songs before the festival in August, the clichés heavy metal-pose is implemented wholeheartedly. It is unhip, but wild, and the audience behave as if they were at a rave party in both cities. The sound is larger and clearer than ever, Snah sings almost pure, and the band is flowing with creative energy. They go far and they go in many directions. It seems as though everything is possible.

The Magic Bus-Psychonauts are all convinced that the direction the band has taken after Kenneth Kapstad’s entry on drums is good and positive.

- From the outside, it is clear that they are in love with each other musically. They have found a soul mate musically in Kapstad. One should not speak ill of people who are not present, but it's no secret that Bent was not particularly happy with Gebhardt’s loss of interest in playing drums. Kapstad’s powerful drumming does not seem to have limits. He makes Motorpsycho able to do a lot of things you might not think they were capable of, says Danielsen, while the other nods.

Most moderate themselves a bit when they say that Heavy Metal Fruit is the best album Motorpsycho has ever released.  I guess it's out of respect for Demon Box, or Timothy's Monster, which changed their lives radically once in the 90's.

Having followed the band throughout that decade, the trip won’t be as long this time. Motorpsycho loses its North European Psychonauts in Heidelberg, some jump off before. New ones replace them when the band enters Italy. Most can manage one trip on the bus, but to run year after year requires a completely different endurance. How long will the Magic Bus be part of the journey? Will Motorpsycho shake them off in the end?

Winsnes believes that one week every tour works for him. Helmers began travelling last year because of Kapstad’s quality drumming.

- They are so incredibly good right now. They can take it as far as they want, he says, suggesting more travelling.

Akane missed the 90's and will continue to cut the slack. She will also attend the Øya Festival this summer.

- I expect them to keep going another 10-15 years. Bob Dylan is still on his Never Ending Tour, and he is 69 years old. I'll be disappointed if Bent and Snah don’t do the same, says Schulze.

When I start the withdrawal from Bremen a text message from The Magic Bus en route to Groningen in the Netherlands ticks in.

"Consensus among us is that the band have managed to surpass themselves. What a show! Looking forward to meet you again next tour:)"

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