Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Motorpsychedelic Wanderlust – Motorpsycho exposed, part III

Read the introduction to the Motorpsycho exposed article series here.

After the release of "Heavy Metal Fruit" on label Rune Grammofon in January 2010, Motorpsycho experienced a series of rave reviews in Norway from jazz to metal magazines and tabloid newspapers as well as in the serious daily press.

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 Ballade.no. This article was published in two parts, and are available for Norwegian readers in the original context here and 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 IV: Cassiopeian Psychonauts

Motorpsychedelic Wanderlust - from Bjugn to Roma

Die Uhren in Trondheim ticken anders – the clocks in Trondheim do not tick like in other places, Mannheimer Morgenpost states in a review of a Motorpsycho concert in Heidelberg. 

The newspaper does not only point to the abnormally long concerts the band plays in Germany, they last well over two hours, but also to the breadth of expression. The review concludes that Norway has to be one of the leading export nations in music today.

During 20 years as a band, Motorpsycho has spent about two full years on the road in Norway, Europe, USA and Japan. The band is now on one of its many tours in Europe, a tradition they have maintained annually with the exception of some creatively difficult years in the mid 2000s. In Berlin and Bremen they have drawn about 1,000 people at their concerts, and, during three weeks in May and June, they will play for over ten thousand people in six European countries.

- If they want to, Motorpsycho can become one of the greatest crossover bands that rock has seen in many years, the Italian magazine Rumore wrote about the album "Demon Box" in 1993.

Nearly two decades later, Motorpsycho has a wider catchment area than you might think with its basis in improvisation and psychedelic rock.

While some see the pastel-colored Oslo Plaza and think progress, others may think the building is the result of a bad trip on cocaine. The 1980s was the decade of the yuppies and the fast money, the decade of a debt stricken middle class, and at the other end of the scale, a few blocks away from the Plaza, the Blitz house, another symbol of an era of disillusionment emerged.

The 80s represented a veritable cultural battle west of the Iron Curtain. As of the 50s – 60s - and 70s it was a youth rebellion, but the shape and the colour was different. Extreme conformity, unemployment, housing shortages , anti-fascism, and the deployment of NATO’s Pershing II and Soviet SS-22 missiles were among the factors in a discontent that led to frequent riots in European cities.

One example is the Zürich Opera House riots. In Amsterdam, the authorities deployed heavy artillery onto the streets when young, unemployed artists claimed cheap housing in the Vondelstraat riots. Berlin experiences a wave of squatting. The Hamburg district of St. Pauli became the symbol of the autonomous movement's struggle for self-guided options. Ungdomshuset, The Youth House, in Copenhagen was established, in Trondheim alternative culture gathered in and around the UFFA house and the Svartlamoen neighbourhood. In Oslo, Pilestredet 30 fell into the hands of the punks. The Blitz house was the basis for harsh confrontation between the authorities and police in the 80s.

Blitz Oslo, february 2006 (Photo: Kjetil Ree/Wikimedia Commons)

Norwegian punk band Svart Framtid (Dark Future) had a finger on the pulse of the times. In the name of DIY they broke with the zeitgeist and in a Norwegian context Svart Framtid created something new. In 1983 they travelled to Europe and established a channel for Norwegian bands to the continent. Punk historian Trygve Mathiesen claims this happened on the 5th of  November in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. The basis for a return route for continental bands to Blitz and UFFA opened simultaneously.

This network of underground venues, which in Norway is named the Blitz route, consisted primarily of autonomous places and squats in Western Europe but also of small rock clubs and youth centres. At the end of the 80s, the hardcore scene flourishes at the Blitz house, and with a more existential interpretation of the zeitgeist bands such as So Much Hate and Life ... but how to live it went on month-long tours in Europe. They got the continent to open its eyes to Norwegian hardcore and punk rock, albeit in a different scale than the popularity Wenche Myhre and Jan Garbarek enjoyed in West Germany in the 60's and 70's.

Jens Petter Wiig ran record label Progress and played in Trondheim band Israelvis, who also toured the Blitz route. Wiig says that the Norwegian scene got a good reputation through So Much Hate and Life... but how to live it because of their musical qualities. He believes that they created a lot of interest in Norwegian music of this kind in Europe.

- It was mostly American bands that toured the Blitz route, but there were also many Norwegian. The distribution was approximately 90% American and 3% Norwegian in this network, is Wiigs guess, as he mentions bands like Stengte Dører (Locked Doors), Kafka Prosess, and of course, Turbonegro.

With extensive touring and releases on autonomous labels Dischord, SST and Touch & Go, a new rock generation grows up in the United States. In the book Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad describes the pioneering spirit of bands like Black Flag, Minutemen, Minor Threat and Fugazi. The TV-centric president Ronald Reagan, and later Bush senior, were persona non grata No. 1, and the bands created the seeds of a whole new network of venues in the U.S.

They prolonged punk into a faster form, combined it with new artistic ambitions and retrieved impulses in metal and hard rock from the early 70's like Black Sabbath and The Stooges. Independence from the established concert and record industry is a virtue and ‘indie’ becomes a favoured terminology. They travel to Europe and the most political of them, post-hardcore band Fugazi, tours the leftist Blitz route.

A slice of the cover of Michael Azerrad's book

In September 1990, before Motorpsycho leave the country for the first time, Fugazi did a concert at UFFA with Life... but how to live it as support band. A few days before, So Much Hate opened for Fugazi at Schlachthof in Bremen. Fugazi-frontman Ian MacKaye, former Minor Threat mouthpiece, transformed Fugazi into a tool not only for the exploration of rock and funk, but also a kind of missionary for raising awareness of a disaffected younger generation - "In response not only to a corrupt music industry but to an entire political and economic system they felt was fraught with greed for money and power, the band developed a well-reasoned ethical code. In the process, Fugazi staked out the indie scene as the moral high ground of the music industry; from then on, indie wasn't just do-it yourself, it was Do the Right Thing."Azerrad writes. 

While Minor Threat only existed for a few years in the early 80's and released one album Fugazi has sold over two million albums without giving in to the routine for bands of a certain size: Signing to a major label, Azerrad writes. All discs are released on MacKaye’s own Dischord label. Fugazi was no sell-out. Politically correct or not, Fugazi showed that one can find one’s own way of doing things in the music industry.

What The Grateful Dead practice is the basis for much of Motorpsycho’s penchant for psychedelia, and thoughts about recording pace, touring and a willingness to improvise. But it is the mix between American indie-rock philosophy and the emergence of a European network of low-threshold venues that opened a road to Europe for Motorpsycho.

Through the agents of Turbonegro, Bad Afro in Denmark, Motorpsycho get their first gigs outside Norway after their debut album Lobotomizer in autumn 1991.

- In the beginning we played in youth houses and in occupied houses and squats, but sometimes also small straight clubs. Some places we would not return to because they did not function very good, other places we would because they worked very well. It just grew up and has continued to grow, says bassist and vocalist Bent Sæther.

Motorpsycho had clear ambitions beyond playing in the network that constituted the Blitz route. "Demon Box" (1993) showed that the band also had artistic visions that went beyond hardcore and heavy rock, or grunge, as the music was called at the time. With "Timothy's Monster" (1994) the band was about to find its own niche musically, but also in the way the band organized their business.

The band signed a distribution deal for Norway with multinational EMI, after the break, and trial, with the Norwegian indie company Voices of Wonder (which dealt with copyright issues related to the first three albums). The band kept the other foot in the indie-segment by establishing Stickman Records in Hamburg, also in 1994. Stickman has published and distributed Motorpsycho albums in Germany through its own network of international partners.
Kenneth Kapstad, Bent Sæther, Hans Magnus Ryan
(Photo: Carl Kristian Johansen)

- We were so fed up with all things indie and alternative and looked for other opportunities. Then we thought that EMI is the biggest and most transparent of all the multinational record companies and we signed with them just to get it completely straight, says Sæther about the co-operation with EMI and later Sony.

- In good times, Stickman signed other bands and made some obscure projects that we have said that they should do. We have generally had a veto on what comes out of Stickman, he continues.

Norway is the most important market for Motorpsycho, but overall, Europe is a precondition for the band's existence business-wise, but first and foremost artistically. It is the process-oriented mindset that keeps the band vital and drives them through month-long European tours.

- There are some who think that to follow us is a great way to spend their holiday. They have grasped an important point. It is the process that is interesting. We never have pushed anything to maximum effect it is the new solutions at every concert that keeps the band vital. I think some people like to be part of that. You maybe get a better insight into what the band is all about, says Sæther.

The license-based distribution agreements with EMI and Sony and the creation of Stickman seem like a thoughtful strategy, but Sæther insists that the band does not consist of "business people". The ability to keep the creative space open is always the main point. Words such as family and trust is something that appears when approaching the band.

- It quickly becomes very small and intimate. It's a family feeling to a much greater extent than a business thing. That is both good and bad. You rely much more on someone you know than others, at the same time you let it slip a little longer before you put your foot down. Motorpsycho is a small family business. It is a pleasant way to work and we like to keep it like that.

- It's all about music and touring, not about marketing, says Wieland Krämer who have booked the band in Germany since 1994. In the late 90s the concept of sponsorship began where music magazines presented tours among other things. Motorpsycho would not have any of it, not even with the alternative media in Germany like Visions, Spex or Intro. Motorpsycho paid for their posters and had no other logos than their own on them.

Wieland Krämer at Powerline Agency
(Photo: Carl Kristian Johansen)
Krämer said that the band at first was close to the hardcore scene, both musically and ethically. When he refers to Motorpsycho anno 1994 as a "post-hardcore band” it is based on a notion that they were not dogmatic and did not look to the hardcore scene for recognition.

- They were clear about what they liked and not. So Much Hate and Life... but how to live it continued a few years into the 90's, but Motorpsycho grew in a completely different direction, says Krämer, who works at Power Line Agency in Berlin.

- Around 2000, Motorpsycho was at a level where they could have grown more if they wanted, says Krämer.

MTV and VIVA in Germany played their videos at a time when Motorpsycho’s music was characterized by a style change as the band's "pop jazz period" started. New audiences flocked to the band, while the old, to some extent, quit going to concerts.

- Some years at the beginning of the 2000s we had from 1000 to 1500 people at the concerts, they played at all major festivals such as Rock am Ring and Rock im Park with a good spot, and they had the covers of music magazines. They were not large in a strict commercial sense, but on the alternative scene, most people wanted to see them, says Krämer.

- A lot of new people attended their concerts in the period up to 2002 when the band had its biggest buying audience. In Amsterdam they had two sold-out houses at the Paradiso, which has 1500 in capacity, in seven months, says Anders Danielsen, a Psychonaut who has followed the band on tour for over ten years.

But the pop-jazzy version of Motorpsycho grew into a near crisis. Sæther relates it to "fourteen years of accumulated fatigue."

The band started to play country music, releasing an album with The International Tussler Society, while they tried to figure out the future. The result was that the band cut off blowing sections, string players, pianists and xylophonists and returned to its original trio format. Drummer Håkon Gebhardt quit the band and continued his career as a banjo player and producer.

When the double album Black Hole / Blank Canvas was released in 2006, Motorpsycho was a duo. Sæther plays drums on the album, and Dutchman Jacco van Rooij is hired as concert-drummer. The album shows a band on the way to a new phase, but it's not an overflow of energy that characterizes the recording. Black Hole / Blank Canvas is a "do or die", in the Motorpsycho catalogue.

In the years when the band didn’t tour Europe they lost some of their audience. Psychonaut Alexander Schulze from Berlin has also been travelling with the band for over ten years and describes the audience development as seen from the concert halls.

- Suddenly, Motorpsycho was gone for a while and they lost half of their audience. From having drawn 1,300 people in Columbia Halle they reached the bottom point in 2008 when they managed to draw only 700 people in Berlin. With the last three records they are in the process of building up an audience again, says Schulze.

In 2007, Sæther and Ryan recruited a new drummer. Kenneth Kapstad has been involved in "Little Lucid Moments" (2008), "Child of the Future" (2009) and "Heavy Metal Fruit" (2010). The deafening consensus around the fact that Kapstad has been a positive addition for Motorpsycho is perhaps best illustrated with Wieland Kramer's words.

- Kapstad is a musical kick in the ass. It's not often that a band has such a long career, but I think it is not so bad if you're out a couple of years and then get back.

Kenneth Kapstad (Photo: Carl Kristian Johansen)
The audience is now growing back to the heights reached at the beginning of the 2000s, not least because of the musical qualities the band has developed with Kapstad. But it is also the result of a word of mouth effect among the above average music audiences, than a well thought out media strategy.

- They have no website, they have released a vinyl-only record, they advertise their tours late, they maintain no social network profiles, says Psychonaut Alexander Schulze.

- They have released their best album in years with "Heavy Metal Fruit". They build up huge expectations and gets rave reviews but they don’t capitalize on that at all. Instead, they go on tour in Norway with Supersilent. It does not smell of a band that is looking to attract the great masses, says Danielsen.

But the situation seems comfortable for the band. They have a large enough audience that is being renewed both in continental Europe and in Norway, and they have created a space for themselves where failing means that the audience travels to the next town to see them again.

Bremen is for Motorpsycho what Hamburg was for Turbonegro, and Schlachthof is known to be the place in Europe where Motorpsycho do their best concerts. The old slaughterhouse was occupied around 1980 and is today a city-sponsored, non-profit cultural centre. That is a trend that applies to many more houses from the wave of occupation and squatting in the 80s. In Trondheim, Svartlamoen is today an urban ecological area and squat is not the first thing you think when you look at the newly refurbished Blitz house in Oslo.

On the Heavy Metal Fruit Tour, Motorpsycho have over 100 songs ready to play in the repertoire. Most of the material performed, about 60 songs, is based on "Heavy Metal Fruit", "Timothy's Monster" and "Demon Box". No tracks from the pop jazz period have been presented.

In March the band played in Bjugn with Supersilent instead of travelling to Amsterdam, Rome, Berlin and Brussels in order to capitalize on the buzz around the "Heavy Metal Fruit" album. The band's insistence on the independent line of thinking is reminiscent of the Fugazi and Ian MacKaye credo to follow their own convictions. In such a context, the band's shift from Sony to the indie Rune Grammofon in 2008 can also be seen as a kind of confession to the independent ideals of the 80s.

- They are uncompromising in the way that they want to have control at all times in every paragraph. It has proven to be very wise of them to constantly keep a very high degree of artistic control. It has had its price for them too. They could have been much more commercially viable and sold more records, says Harald Nissen, spokesman for the residents of Svartlamoen in Trondheim.

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