Monday, April 4, 2011

A Norwegian Post-Hippie Bohemia - Motorpsycho exposed, part II

Read the introduction to the Motorpsycho exposed article series here.

The last ten years there has not been written much about Svartlamoen, the quarter in the city of Trondheim where Motorpsycho in many ways originated from. With the release of "Heavy Metal Fruit" I found it timely to visit the part of town when Motorpsycho returned to play "on home turf" at the Verkstedhallen venue with experimental trio Supersilent. 

What is the state of Svartlamoen, and where is Motorpsycho heading, after 20 years as powerhouses in Norwegian alternative culture?

The article was originally published March 2010 in Norwegian readers can read the article in its original context here. Thanks to Hugh Small and Kristin Waag for proof-reading and corrections.

It is worth to mention that the UFFA house was severely damaged in a fire the 29th of december 2010, after this article was written.

Other articles in the Motorpsycho-exposed series:
Part I: Dogma 2000

A Norwegian Post-Hippie Bohemia

After 20 years Motorpsycho enjoys the same respect on the alternative scene the band sprang out from, as in the established music business. Ballade went to Svartlamoen in Trondheim to visit the band at home and find out how it has handled expanding without becoming a sell out.

Core values? The bassist Bent Sæther says ‘fuzz bass and long guitar solos’.

Besides that, Motorpsycho carved out its own niche in Norwegian rock early on through an introspective scene expression and semi-abstract visuals.

In the beginning, Motorpsycho practiced at the punk-activist site UFFA. They debuted in the tail of the cassette movement on the local anarchist label Knallsyndikatet, got help from the vulgar – nietzscheans in Turbonegro, and gave the Blitz route a new musical content.

New drummer Kenneth Kapstad (from 2007) has created a new dimension to the band, and with this year's double space rock album "Heavy Metal Fruit" the band may have committed one of its most interesting releases. But instead of exploiting magnificent reviews with a high profile tour on their own, Motorpsycho has rolled out on a nationwide tour in a bastard formation with free-improvisation trio Supersilent, funded by the Norwegian Concert Institute. A process-oriented work in progress project, where all concerts will be conceived differently and where the interaction between the bands will develop from concert to concert.

A state-funded Grateful Dead-anno-Norway-2010-concept, if you like.

The hippie movement emerged in the 1960s in the United States, and was an anti-authoritarian cultural movement in opposition to consumerism, materialism and militarism. Instead it celebrated love, not war, music, individual freedom, drugs, cosmos, and an ecological way of living in harmony with nature. In the 1970s, the longhaired protest found its way to northern Norway and the island of Karlsøy in the Troms district. The hardworking Karlsøy-hippies had their heyday in the seventies, with the band Karlsøy Prestegaard and the journal Vannbæreren (The Water Bearer) as external contact points, but the environment still exists and the hippie spirit still flourishes every summer through the Karlsøy Festival.

- We look at Motorpsycho as part of an alternative culture. We want to have artists with a kind of message that is associated with a critical view on society. For us, Motorpsycho are icons, but as I see it they are too big for us now, says Svein-Egil Haugen. He is a first-generation hippie on Karlsøy and coordinates a festival that picks its bands based on a booking manifesto.

The Karlsøy society has ramifications. In the colourful, squat-like and threatened Hausmania quarter in Oslo, there are offspring from Karlsøy just as there is in Svartlamoen in Trondheim. Ranja Bojer is the daughter of Jan Vindheim Bojer, a counter cultural veteran with a varied past from anarchist street newspaper Gateavisa in Oslo, as founder of the SUF, as citizen of the hippie community on Karlsøy and editor of The Water Bearer. Now he represents the Green Party in Trondheim city council. Ranja Bojer moved to Svartlamoen in the mid 90's. One of her first memories of the place is that she saw Motorpsycho walking past the window where she lived.

Svartlamonite Ranja Bojer. (Photo: Carl Kristian Johansen)
- "Heavy Metal Fruit" can be a kind of look back to the 90s musically, but I have to give it a few years before I can say if it reaches "Demon Box". It is a milestone in my life, says Bojer.

Over several years she ran the record store Rotrock in Svartlamoen and pushed literature on roots, rock and reggae. Bojer got bored of reggae and closed the store, but she still stays in Svartlamoen.

- Here are the punks and the hippies in perfect harmony. There may be differences, but actually we are dealing with a different expression than fundamentally different ideology, says Bojer.

- In the initial phase the UFFA house was inhabited by a mixture of old and young punks and hippies. It is not a particularly big community here. Bands that practiced at UFFA were a lot of pure punk bands, but also arty hippie bands, says svartlamonite and punk Morten Haugdahl, author of the highly informative documentary book "UFFA 1981 - 2006".

UFFA (Youth For Free Activity) opened in 1981 and showcased now legendary Norwegian bands Liliedugg and Wannskrækk, the latter a precursor to DumDum Boys, on the opening night.

- Wannskrækk was very punk at that time. Liliedugg was referring more to The Stooges, Nick Cave's Birthday Party, and that type of rock, says Haugdahl over a pressure pot of coffee at the eco-veggie cafe Ramp on Svartlamoen. There is also Morten Fagervik, formerly an associate member of Motorpsycho, and later tour manager for the band for many years. In the 90s Fagervik played in Albino Slug who also originated from UFFA.

Haugdahl describes the music scene in Trondheim as much less niche oriented than in Oslo, and UFFA as more anarchic and anti-authoritarian-oriented than its redder and more militant brother the Blitz house in Oslo. Just like today.

The UFFA house is situated a stone's throw from Svartlamoen at the bottom of Lademoen east in Trondheim. In his book, Haugdahl documents  the fate of these two sites together. When younger people, often associated with UFFA, began to move to Svartlamoen in the late 80's, supported by the municipality UNGBO program, slumming, crime, and decay on both an architectural and human level characterized the area. At the same time there were students from the Art Academy, and in parallel there was something Haugdahl calls a sneak-occupation of empty apartments. Svartlamoen then eventually became a residential area, and the struggle between an established residents' association and the municipality of Trondheim started in 1994. The municipality threatened the eradication of Svartlamoen and regulated the area for the benefit of car dealership Strandveien Auto. A lengthy tug of war was resolved in 2001, as svartlamonites gained a form of autonomy. Strandveien Auto got another area, the svartlamonites stayed, and Svartlamoen was re-regulated to a city-ecological area.

It is in the beginning of this phase that Motorpsycho establishes themselves. Kjell Runar "Killer" Jenssen, the band's first drummer, lived on Svartlamoen and met Bent Sæther at the Student Radio Association. Jenssen was replaced in 1991 by Håkon Gebhardt, who is seen as a central figure in the struggle to preserve the status of Svartlamoen as worth protecting. Gebhardt is partly involved when artists Håkon Bleken and Håkon Gullvåg produced their murals and thus establishes the argument of Svartlamoen as listed for cultural protection. Before this, Motorpsycho opened an office in Gregus gate 10, in the heart of Svartlamoen. Sæther, "head honcho" in Motorpsycho, lived in the same street, on the other side of the railroad that separates Svartlamoen from Lademoen, or La'mon in local slang.

- The office has been there all the time, but it has not been an active Svartlamoen fight from our side since the agreement came into being with the municipality in 2001, says Sæher from a sofa backstage at Verkstedhallen on Svartlamoen, where Motorpsycho will share the stage with Supersilent one hour later.

This stencil is the last thing you see before entering Verkstedhallen.
(Photo: Carl Kristian Johansen)
Throughout the 90s, Motorpsycho was associated with the Svartlamoen fight. When the then-svartlamonite Helge "Deathprod" Sten and Fagervik received the Spellemann (Norwegian Grammy) on behalf of the band, for "Blissard" (1996) and "Angels and Daemons at Play" (1997) respectively, they talked about Svartlamoen on prime time national television. The band played support gigs and released a single with Tre Små Kinesere in 1996 to highlight opposition to the demolition plans.

- Where there is cheap housing things happen. This is where you can afford to run with what you want without compromise. It is only then something genuinely good can come out of it. So for our part, it was at La'mon it all started, states Sæther.

 (Photo: Erlend Havdal)

The image of Sæther and guitarist Hans Magnus Ryan is from the concert site Fenka in Levanger in 1991, the year after they debuted at UFFA as support band to Turbonegro.

- That t-shirt I could have worn today. It is more about belief than about dragging politics into music. The only politics in Motorpsycho has been about Svartlamoen, says Sæther.

The Svartlamoen fight in the 90's has never characterized the textural contents of the band. One can certainly trace a pronounced anti-authoritarian attitude in some of the band's lyrics from the first two albums, as TFC from Lobotomizer and Sheer Profoundity from Demon Box display, but they should be attributed to the basic rebellious attitude in rock rather than the standpoint of anarchism and a lifestyle influenced by hardcore and punk, as one could find traces of in the UFFA and Svartlamoen. 



- Under responsibility, Sæther answers.

The band was in contact with the anarchist punks who stayed at UFFA, but that is because the environment was small and mixed more than that they shared any punk ideology. But Sæther became a vegetarian at this point, something he attributes to an ethic that came with hardcore music.

- We rehearsed at UFFA and went there to eat dinner, drink coffee and hang out. Most of what was musically interesting for us was there. Bands that played at Blitz in Oslo came to UFFA; Norwegian hardcore like So Much Hate and Life... but how to live it, and English and American bands of that type. Much of the politics of that scene, how the bands and the autonomous houses were organized and how they were thinking, we perceived as sensible and as a genuine alternative to how, among other things, the record industry worked in Norway in 1990, says Sæther.

Haugdahl and Fagervik believe UFFA has been more receptive to other types of music than just pure punk and pure hardcore, certainly more than other youth houses and squats elsewhere in Europe around the same time.

- It's probably one of the reasons that Motorpsycho were seen as a pretty fresh band on the Blitz route, because they played a different kind of music, says Haugdahl.

- Motorpsycho was a completely different thing than those who had staked out the route, says Fagervik.

- We played our first gigs at UFFA and Blitz, and we entered the scene at the tail end of the first hardcore period at Blitz. We started at the end of hardcore and led it in a new direction. There is a shift in musical direction at that point, and we are one of the first bands in Norway representing that, says Sæther.

Another band that represents something new on the Blitz route at the same time is Turbonegro. The Oslo band had not yet defined its death-punk formula, and is described as wild, feedback-oriented, with screaming vocals, politically incorrect lyrics, and grunge and Sonic Youth in the rear-view mirror. Turbonegro gives Motorpsycho their first gig as support band on the 29th of April 1990 at UFFA. A few days later Turbonegro invite Motorpsycho to Oslo for a gig at The Voice Club, in the basement of Chateau Neuf.

- Turbonegro was actually the first Norwegian band we felt we had some sort of joint thing with. Musically, and also what they stood for in a way. A kind of misguided aesthetics blended with an American hardcore derivative. They were more on the Amphetamine Reptile-thing and the narcotic vibe than we were. Yet there was some close connection there, says Sæther.

(Amphetamine Reptile Records in the United States promoted, among other things, records by Mudhoney, Helmet and the Boredoms, and a series of compilations called Dope, Guns & Fucking in the Streets.)

- But they are much smarter than us, much more brainy and thought out. We have never had a career plan. Making music is the only vision we have. There are two completely different worlds now, but we were in many ways quite content overlapping in the beginning, says Sæther.

In 1993 Turbonegro released the single (He's a) Grungewhore, a poignant piece of satire about the heroin addiction of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s transition from indie label Sub Pop to major company Geffen. Fagervik tells of singer Hank von Helvete, who performs with Rasta braids at Turbonegro concerts and talks Trondheim-slang between songs to mock the seriousness of Motorpsycho, but it doesn’t run deep, according to Fagervik. When Turbonegro are honoured with the tribute disc Alpha Motherfucker in 2001, while Hank is in heroin-exile in the Lofoten Islands, Motorpsycho contribute with a jazzy version of Grungewhore.

With the stroke of a pen on the Geffen contract, Nirvana distorted the idea of what had been perceived as mainstream and underground, also in Norway.

- When the grunge thing became successful to such a commercial degree, there was a sudden need for Britpop and trip hop to create a distance between anything to do with guitar histrionics. It was a strange experience, and there were many who thought their band could become stars; Turbonegro and Seigmen went big by Norwegian standards, says Sæther.

Motorpsycho went major in their own way via a licensing distribution deal through major company EMI with the album "Timothy's Monster" in 1994. Ivar Matlaus, the music and bookshop in UFFA and Svartlamoen refused to sell the album for ideological reasons, but that cannot prevent Motorpsycho reaching out to a European audience the same way they did in Norway with the "Demon Box".

Ivar Matlaus at Svartlamoen refused to sell the "Timothy's
Monster" album (Photo: Carl Kristian Johansen)
The reason that the band signed a distribution agreement with EMI lies partly in the inflamed relations Motorpsycho have with Voices of Wonder, now Voices Music & Entertainment, which owns all rights to Motorpsycho recordings including "Demon Box". From "Timothy's Monster" on, the band controls the copyright to their music. Motorpsycho followed their contact with EMI to Sony after the "Timothy's Monster" album, a relationship that lasted until 2006. In 2008 came the news that the band had signed to the prolific indie record label Rune Grammofon in Oslo, a company with a release schedule that follows the taste of its owner Rune Kristoffersen, who has a reputation for releasing experimental projects in electronic music, free jazz, rock and contemporary music.

- If we are one of the few artists who can make money on releasing records then it's much cooler to be funding Rune’s life's work than that the money gets lost in an anonymous Japanese business man’s pocket. A certain percentage of what we earn must go to those we do business with, therefore it's better that we are invested in new releases from Rune than Idol-records. We have our path clearly mapped on this and it feels good. It feels like we're doing the right thing, says Sæther.

A similar philosophy characterizes the band's approach to the concert market.

- We have always been aware of cultivating the venue so we can go back there rather than fleece them. It is much better culturally and politically for the band, and it is better for our own future, says Sæther.

In a Norwegian context Demon Box is our Nevermind,
while Timothy's did the job in Europe, says Bent Sæther
(Photo: Carl Kristian Johansen)
After holding down practice space in the Dora-bunker, a stone's throw away since the 90's, Motorpsycho recently built a practice room at Svartlamoen. After having struggled against an external enemy they are now in the middle of an intermediate phase.

The svartlamonites are ten years older; they have children and are rounded at the edges. The struggle now is to enable the houses. The compromise that was signed in 2001 means that residents pay rent to the municipality of the area through Svartlamoen Housing Foundation, where residents are represented. The foundation is responsible for maintenance of the houses, often volunteer-based, but in practice many of the residents upgrade their apartments independent of the foundation. The rent money has not made up enough to finance the visible rehabilitation of dilapidated houses, which in turn has meant that residents have voted rent increases several times to fund the maintenance.

- We need not go to demos anymore, but with this pace of income it is going to take 60 years to renovate all the houses. The council has not spent a dime here since the 60s, says Fagervik.

Haugdahl loves Svartlamoen, but thinks that the place is no longer cutting edge in the same manner as in the 90s.

- Now it is the renovation and rehabilitation of the houses that matters, plus there have been other things like Verkstedhallen Concert Hall and other enterprises. Svartlamoen should still expand further and do new things to legitimize existence. And it should build more houses; otherwise it ends up being a nice wooden house environment with established ex-squatters and alternative lifestylers who live relatively cheap.

Ranja Bojer believes it is important for the area to preserve the feel of the counterculture so that Svartlamoen doesn’t slide over to be like any other neighbourhood.

- We try to bring in some younger people. There is no doubt that the average age is much higher than before, says Bojer.

Bent Sæther has lived in the area for 20 years, and has followed the process that has developed Svartlamoen houses from "hovels to slightly more modern hovels. "

- The reason why something happened here in the beginning was that it cost 650 kroner a month for an apartment. Now it is equally expensive and the advantage of cheap housing is gone. But it has gained an identity as a kind of ideal, and there are thoughts and ideals that still have the right to exist. This is a huge experiment and some things necessarily do not work as well.

- But I see no reason to move to achieve something. I work fine here, says Sæther.

Svartlamoen is established, and Motorpsycho is an institution. Where to go from here?

- We have no specific perspectives. The only thing that concerns me is the next song or next practice. When it is full it must be emptied out and then there will be a new record. It is the only focus I have. Where does that bring us? I do not know. We have followed our noses for 20 years; if anyone has a good business model, let’s talk about it.

The Motor section of the MotorSilent-project with Supersilent
(Photo: Carl Kristian Johansen)
One hour later Sæther, Ryan and Kapstad are on stage in Verkstedhallen with Supersilent. The bands collectively explore Rune Grammofon-Motorpsycho-era songs. They are cheered back on stage for encores.

Not bad for such a freaky project.

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