Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dogma 2000 - Motorpsycho exposed, part I

Read the introduction to the Motorpsycho exposed article series here.

Last time Motorpsycho went through a lasting change in aesthetics was in 2000 with ”Let Them Eat Cake”. The album signalled the beginning of the band's pop jazz period which saw Motorpsycho gain a wider audience with records like ”Phanerothyme” (2001) and ”It’s a Love Cult” (2002), which faded away again after tour exhaustion, creative crisis, recess, and the departure of drummer Håkon Gebhardt in 2005.

At the time of the release of ”Let Them Eat Cake” in 2000, I did an interview with the band at the Savoy Hotel in Oslo for the Norwegian magazine Audio that digs into the band's thoughts on the landscape they were heading into at that time. It is re-presented here, on the Evil City Blog, in a translated and slightly edited version. Thanks to Hugh Small and Kristin Waag for proof-reading and corrections.

Read the other articles in the Motorpsycho exposed-series:
Part II: A Norwegian Post-Hippie Bohemia
Part III: Motorpsychedelic Wanderlust - from Bjugn to Roma
Part IV: Cassiopeian Psychonauts

Dogma 2000

Since the early nineties, Bent Sæther (bass, vocals), Håkon Gebhardt (drums, banjo) and Hans Magnus Ryan (guitars, vocals) have used the power trio format to explore ideas deeply rooted in classic rock music. On ”Let Them Eat Cake”, their newly released record, they again show versatility and variation, but while musical influences in the recent past have been The Stooges and noisy science fiction, you’ll need other references today; maybe The Allman Brothers Band and free jazz will do?

In the discussion about ”Let Them Eat Cake” some critics claim that Motorpsycho has radically developed their sound since their 1998 record ”Trust Us”. Others maintain it is a replacement of references that lies beneath the change in direction. The band’s opinion is that a development has taken place, but it is first and foremost rooted in the recording process, where an adjustment of recording philosophy was needed, and crucial for the end result.

- We went a little tired of the way we've worked before. We have tended to jam up the framework of a song, and then record material for an entire album in a week or less. We felt spontaneity became a routine.

- This time we decided to focus on beauty, with low friction as an important watchword, and unlike the past we spent a long time in production so that we could refine what we wanted to develop. Another important difference was that we had to make room for strings and horns when we made the songs. It was a great challenge for us to make room for other players, Sæther says.

Cover art by Kim Hiorthøy
Baard Slagsvold, also known as the bass player of Tre Små Kinesere, is the new addition of associate members in the ever-growing Motorpsycho family tree. Besides playing piano, he scores the horn and string arrangements on "Let Them Eat Cake".

What kind of role did Slagsvold play in this process?

- Baard functioned very much as an interpreter, and conveyed our ideas to the string quartet Strings Unlimited, Ole Henrik Moe, and the horns that contribute to the album. We could not have managed without his help. It wouldn’t have worked just to hum a melody line and then expect that the strings and wind players would understand. They needed sheet music, Ryan explains.

- We've known Baard for a long time, and we were confident that we had a common foundation to build something on. We could not have co-operated so closely with a person unless we were confident that he would maintain the essence of our songs, says Gebhardt.

You set up two rules, or dogmas, in advance of the recording. No track would be more than four minutes long, and the whole album should not exceed 40 minutes. Why the need to set so clear limits?

- Rules are made to be broken, and we have not followed these dogmas slavishly. They acted as aids, so it was easier for us to break with the old way. We would try to narrow it rather than open the floodgates as we have done so many times before, Ryan says.

You did the same thing when you released the "Blissard"-album as a successor to "Timothy's Monster"?

- Yes, you are right, some of the same reasoning was behind ”Blissard” as well, but that record was more a style choice rather than a conscious change in philosophy. The Icelandic author Halldor Kiljan Laxness once said that he had been through so many style changes that it was time to put them aside and focus on the story. We feel quite the same now, and felt a strong need to focus entirely on processing the songs in the studio, Ryan continues.

- We were very uncertain, but now, in hindsight, we are very pleased with the result, Sæther adds.

Hans Magnus Ryan, Bent Sæther and Håkon Gebhardt (Photo: Ellen Ane Eggen)

"Let Them Eat Cake” represents a fairly drastic change from the way you have recorded before. What has this transition brought with it?

- We have been accustomed to working with analogue, and at least I still have a fondness for it, says Gebhardt.

- We do like to play loud, and if you crank up the volume on digital equipment, you can literally hear the digital graphics, unlike the typical pumping that the analogue bands produce. Yet the multi-tracking equipment works well on this album because the music includes more individual components than before, he continues.

- There is a catch, however, to recording in this way. When you have the chance to concentrate fully on yourself, in my case the guitar, you can quickly become very detail-oriented and automatically prioritize yourself rather than the dynamics of the band. Can is a good example of this in their time. They didn’t seem to cope with the transition to digital equipment, and at one point lost the intensity and vitality that helped define them in the beginning. According to the band itself, they transformed from a collective to a band made up of individuals in line with the transition to multi-tracking equipment. But for us this was a desired transition, which we would try as a part of our need to break with the processes we have been through a hundred times before, says Ryan.

- Brian Wilson is a good example of how it may work out just fine, says Sæther, but the old way to work in the studio will soon be a lost art. Issues such as distance between instrument and microphone, how many microphones you would have in relation to how many instruments, and which instruments fit together and not. Lou Reed for example, would not have Moe Tucker playing cymbals in the Velvet days - he meant they ate up the sound from the guitars. Today you can fix everything in a mixer. It has opened many doors, but it has unfortunately closed many as well.

How will you present the new songs in concert?

- We don’t know yet. It will probably create problems when we play these songs live, but we are not entirely unfamiliar with this transition from before. We'll wait and see what it becomes, says Sæther.

The only instrumental on the record, The Allman Brothers Band-”pastiche” Whip That Ghost, reminds me a bit of the flow that John Coltrane and Miles Davis represented in the 60's?

- Yes, right here we have a lot in common with Baard, who also is a trained jazz piano player. It is perhaps a little unsatisfying to play bass in Tre Små Kinesere when you have that background. But it's hard not to mention the dynamics between Coltrane and Elvin Jones and Miles in different band constellations in the years around 1970, when we are talking about it, Sæther says.

Does your fascination for jazz suggest another stylistic direction for Motorpsycho in the future?

- Too early to say, we would like to try it out. But it is not overwhelmingly likely that it happens now. It is difficult to play jazz with electric guitar, it's probably not easy to avoid the paths of John McLaughlin and the stuff he did with Miles and later with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Sæther says.

Gebhardt see several exciting jazz projects underway in Norway, and points at two of them.

- Jaga Jazzist is a very good orchestra, and The Trio is also exciting.

- Krøyt is also very interesting although they may sound a little unrefined right now, says Sæther.

Although the smaller venues are the exceptions, there is a general tendency among concert halls in Oslo to stage bands with a clear retrospective sound. Besides Motorpsycho bands such as Madrugada, Big Bang and Kåre & The Cavemen benefit from this. But what is Motorpsycho’s stand on the living conditions for the music of a more experimental nature?

- We don’t have an overriding desire to be innovative, we would rather be inspired by the music we like, and create the music we feel is right for us. We will at all costs avoid compromises, and organize ourselves accordingly. We also feel that we have taken a chance in relation to the audience by turning as we have done in the framework of the last two records, but the need to do our own thing is important to us. Moreover, rock has not been innovative since a period in the second half of the 50-ies and between 1966-72. The last period we find unfettered inspiration from, and we cannot see why we should not continue with that.

- There have clearly been guitar rock bands that can be called innovative from the 90s as well, such as Slint and My Bloody Valentine at the beginning of the decade. But even they cannot be separated from what is made in advance of their most significant records, respectively "Spiderland" and "Isn’t Anything", both from 91.
Hans Magnus Ryan and Bent Sæther

Sæther talked about a network of artists from New Zealand, Japan, Norway and other European countries that are trying to develop music within a rock context.

- This movement has gradually moved from New Zealand to Trondheim and Oslo, and includes artists such as Continental Fruit, Slowburn, Lasse Marhaug, Truls Haugland and Kjetil Brandsdal, with record labels such as Smalltown Supersound and Apartment Records behind them.

- Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth is very interested in this scene, and is featured on a compilation album with these artists, "We'll Sail Out Far ... Maybe A Little Too Far” on Apartment, where we actually contributed with a song. You may want to call these projects innovative, but much of the so-called avant-garde music related to rock I've heard by now, sounds like experiments for experiments sake. Experimental guitar rock is not as vital today, Sæther claims.

- Arne Nordheim must be considered if one wants to talk about new music. I also like the experiments of Steve Reich in this context, say Ryan.

Motorpsycho also plan on releasing another live record, Roadwork, vol. 2.

- It will consist of a concert recording from the Kongsberg Jazz Festival in 1995, where we played with The Source. It will be released when we find time for it, says Sæther.

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