Sunday, May 22, 2011

Mats Gustafsson: - Energy is the most important parameter in my music


This interview was first published at the website June 2004. It was translated by myself and published again in this blog in relation to his nomination to the Nordic Council Music Prize 2011. Other articles related to the 2011 nominations at the Evil City Blog: Kristian Blak/Lotte Anker. More information on Gustafsson on this page. His own website is available at this link.


At Kongsberg Jazz Festival this summer Mats Gustafsson will improvise with Joe McPhee at the Avant Garden venue. Gustafsson is also part of free jazz trio The Thing who share bass player Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love with Atomic.

The Thing debuted in 2000 with material mainly consisting of interpretations of Don Cherry songs. This year The Thing will release their fourth album, dubbed “Garage”, where the trio interpret new and old garage rock songs by bands such as The Sonics, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The White Stripes.

- Free jazz from the 60s and modern garage rock are rarely connected genres and are more or less separated musical worlds. Can you describe the musical leap from Don Cherry to The White Stripes?

- Actually there is no leap. The idea is, and always has been, to use material that is challenging, or that we simply think is good. Then it is important to choose the material freely. Whether it is The White Stripes, Don Cherry, Albert Ayler or The Sonics play no role. If the material can be transformed in our group it is interesting to work with.

- What do you do with songs?

- We borrow the skeleton, the foundation, riff or melody, and we remake parts of it. In the case of The White Stripes, we keep the riff just as it is, but we stretch it out and extend it so that it becomes a much longer version. The original is about two minutes, our version is usually from five to six minutes long. That means that it is more room for improvisation. 

Listen to "Garage" at Spotify.

- Is the choice of material also a way to reach out to a new audience?

- It was not with that idea we started working with this material. We all like the kind of music we work with. When I was fifteen the Swedish punk bands were important to me. They were more important than the English and American bands, and represent my musical roots. Later it was garage music and then improvised music and free jazz, which was natural since I played the saxophone. So for me this is also a way to get back to my roots. I’m searching for similarities and try to use the energy from punk in free jazz. Energy is the most important parameter in my music.

Blå, Oslo (Photo: Carl Kristian Johansen)
Those who have seen Gustafsson on stage may have experienced the transformation to a body of pure energy and power, with an all consuming concentration and focus on communicating with his band.

The concert with impro-trio Gush (Raymond Strid, Sten Sandell) at last year's festival at Kongsberg progressed with a small, but ecstatic audience. Gustafsson's versatility brought him to Kongsberg Sports Arena when Sonic Youth entered the festival's main stage in 2000, and played during the Lightning-piece. He was in his right element both places. Again he represented a link between free jazz, rock and improvisational music.

- The way into the improvisational music has often been paved by jazz music?

- Impro-musicians used to come from jazz, but it's about to change completely. There is a new generation, which is very present in Norway now, where people come from other genres like electronica and noise. Sonic Youth is the best example of this. They work a lot with improvised music and free jazz groups. It's crazy that so few rock bands, garage bands, or indie groups borrow material from jazz, and the other way, that so few jazz groups borrow material from rock and pop music. It is catastrophic and means that we lock ourselves inside a genre. The Thing tries to open up to other genres to make our expression broader. I believe that all musicians should be open to music they find interesting, whether it's Beethoven, Bach, Purcell, or Baroque music for that matter. It's what you do with the material that’s important, and as long as one retains ones own signature everything should be allowed.

- So a part of The Thing is to break down barriers?

- Yes, someone else built the barriers, it is not something we want. Music you think sounds good, and you think you can express yourself through, is good material. The first album with Don Cherry-material came about because he is close to us musically. We talked a lot about him at the time and we still think his melodies are very strong and good. But even at that time we might as well could have used PJ Harvey or The White Stripes or other rock music we perceive as good. It was more coincidence that it was Don Cherry on the first album. This time we also do The Sonics, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Peter Brötzmann and Norman Howard, and a song I made. It is a nice blend.

(Photo: Cato Lein)

- Is the audience also interested in this philosophy of free inspiration?

- I think so. A lot has happened for my own part after I started working with Sonic Youth, Bob Hund and Guy Picciotto of Fugazi. I have reached a new audience which is an effect of these cooperations. Among the most important things Sonic Youth stands for is that they constantly run groups like Sun Ra and Peter Brötzmann Tentet as support bands, and that they are talking about radical and experimental music such as Frank Wright and Pierre Henry in all the interviews they do in major publications such as Rolling Stone and Mojo. This means that younger listeners are looking in that direction, and that is incredibly good, says Gustafsson, and continues enthusiastically:

 - I respect those who just want to listen to one type of music. It's OK, it is a pity perhaps, but it's perfectly OK. At the same time I wish this attitude, and the free music, could reach out to as many people as possible. If one understands the mechanisms of this open approach to music, I think you will start to think freely on other issues as well. As Dror Feiler puts it: "Free listening, leads to free thinking, leads to a free way of acting." This has meant a lot to me. If I can encourage anyone to think freely and then act freely, and not in relation to all standards, I believe that everything will be better. This is more important than the music.

"Garage" was released on Smalltown Superjazzz in 2004. May 20th this year Mats Gustafsson released the album "Unreleased?" with Swedish trio Fire! and Jim O'Rourke as guest, on the label Rune Grammofon. Paal Nilssen-Love was nominated to the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2009. 

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