North is the place [2003-08-10]In the matter of a couple of years, Jaga Jazzist have become one of the hottest upcoming acts in European independent music. Now signed on Ninja Tune, the ten piece, renowned for their fabulous live performances, seem ready for great things worldwide with releases in the States and rumours of live dates in Japan.
Andreas Mjøs (vibraphone, keys) answered my questions, enabling us to know a bit more about how the band works and on his personal side-projects.
m[m]: To start off, when did the band came to life? How did you guys meet?
a: Jaga Jazzist came to life in 1994, and except for the keyboard-player we all come from the same town, some of us had played in different bands together prior to this. We had a bigger line up at that time, I think we where 14 people, I remember having two trombones, two saxes and two guitars!
m[m]: All of you are pretty young, yet you seem to be quite confident with the multiple instruments you're playing on. Did you get any musical education? Does the Norwegian school system encourages people to learn music?
a: Some of us went to music teachers in the evenings, learning an instrument, and some went on to the music academies, but I`ve always thought that our most important inspiration are friends and colleagues we meet along the way. Because of the way the albums are produced and arranged we play a lot of instruments on stage, some play 3-4 different instruments. That doesn`t mean that we play all the instruments very well, if I was to play percussion in another band than Jaga I really don`t think it would work. We have always had the attitude that it doesn`t matter who plays on what as long as the end result sounds as we would like it to. You could say that our approach to playing an instrument is more similar to that of a rock band than a jazz- or classical approach.
m[m]: Looking back, what do you think about your early releases (Grete Stitz and the Magazine ep)
a: I really think they are great releases, I find Grete Stitz too crazy for words. At that time we were planning to end it all and that album was a "best of" record, a little something to remember Jaga by. But after that first record came out we decided to continue because we had so much fun. I love listening to that album, it`s really weird and in a way more experimental than our last two albums. The next album, a long ep called Magazine ep, went in a different, more controlled direction. It was recorded over a long period of time and the songs are quite diverse. It starts out with an acoustic drum`n`bass track, and contains a ballad which Martin sings on, a plain jazz tune with much improvisation, and a jungle remix of a song from the first album. My favourite song would be the one called Plym, which is the only one of the old songs that we play on the present tour, it`s produced by Motorpsycho`s Deathprod and is just a lovely piece of music.
m[m]: The Jaga story is one of a success. How surprised are you by the buzz surrounding the band?
a: From day one, nine years ago, things have only gone in one direction I think. One thing has in a natural way led to another and our great advantage is that we are many people and good friends, there has always been someone with good ideas and the will to move on. I don`t think we have rushed it in any way and we have turned down a lot of stuff, so now with what looks like a international success, I`m really not that surprised, just very happy and eager to continue.
m[m]: What's the situation like for Jaga in Norway?
a: The situation for us in Norway is quite relaxed, there was alot of buzz surrounding The Stix, but it has calmed down now. We have played just about every venue in Norway these 9 years so the name of the band is known just about all over the country, but I`m happy to say that our faces are not! This summer we`ll play only 3 concerts in Norway and it feels really good to concentrate more on abroad right now.
m[m]: How did you end up signing to Ninja Tune? What do you think of their other bands?
a: I think Martin met Jason Swinscoe (Cinematic Orchestras mainman EFM) some years ago and gave him a MD with our music, and then last year at Domino festival at AB in Brussels we met him again and also Dominic from Ninja Tune. I think Dominic liked our show very much and the next day when we played in London we met him there too, so then it started to roll. My Ninja favourites would be The Cinematic Orchestra and the afrobeat band Antibalas, my girlfriend got me into that music and I like their mix of good music and politics.
m[m]: How difficult is it to have 10 people to agree on the music / to live together on tour?
a: Well, there is a lot of things we disagree on and I think that is very healthy. Musically conflicts are important to keep the music going in an interesting direction. So we don`t agree on every detail on the records or the concerts, that`s simply not possible. When you are on tour you have to leave your ego behind and socially the tours works really well. We spend more time together than almost any family and we have a great time, and I think that help us a lot when we are on stage.
m[m]: Lars Horntveth is the main composer but what freedom is left to you and the other guys? Do
all of you bring ideas of arrangements or is it more a case of a few people arranging and the others just playing?
a: Lars is the main composer and without him Jaga would not exist, but no one is just playing in Jaga, everyone tries to come up with good solutions for their role in each song. For the arrangements we also get a great deal of help from our producer, Jørgen Træen. When we are in the studio we fool around with the songs for a long time and often they turn out very different than when we started recording.
m[m]: However excellent your studio albums, your live performance are 10 times better. What do you think about your gigs? Is it an essential part of your music, bringing a new dimension?
a: For me, live and studio are two totally different things, so I wouldn`t agree that it is ten times better, only something else. We have always loved playing concerts, to have the audience so close and experience that energy. Jaga is without doubt a live band and will never stop playing live. Studio work is more quiet, almost like a lab where you can try out everything you want, the energy that you have live is not there but the musical possibillities are multiplied. And for us the studio work inspires the live concerts more than vice versa.
m[m]: Is there room for improv in Jaga concerts?
a: We use drum-machines on almost every song now and the arrangements we are playing are a result of long-time search for the best solutions, but we have some improvisation. Not the jazz kind where you have no idea where the song`s going, but we have solos and parts that can be extended if we feel like it on stage.
m[m]: Norway has a very exciting music scene and yet it's a very small country. Countless bands, countless labels (Telle, Jazzland, STS, Rune Grammofon, Jester). How come there is so much good music coming from the Fjords?
a: I think that surrounding success you will always find something else that is also successful, meaning that if for instance Røyksopp or Bugge Wesseltoft makes it outside Norway something else will follow right behind them. When somebody "makes it", it inspires everybody else. And also the fact that "good music" often means the same as "new and different music" helps us a lot. What else can you do to be heard when you`re living in the outskirts of Europe than make "new and different music"?
m[m]: Lately there have been a few changes of musicians in Jaga. It doesn't seem to make any difference in live performance. How do you manage to get musicians who are both talented and able to get with the rest of the band? Why did the other guys leave?
a: Morten and Jørgen left Jaga to spend more time with their band Shining, which is an acoustic jazz-quartet, very different from Jaga. They told us they where going to leave months in advance so we had time to get really good musicians to replace them. We chose guys that we knew a little bit from before so that there would be as few social problems as possible, and then we cope with the musical ones as we go. The new keyboard-player`s first concert with us was at the Roskilde Festival in front of 5000 people!
m[m]: Some of you have musical projects beside Jaga...
a: We are all involved with different bands and projects, on our website there`s a list of all the recordings we have contributed to and it`s a lot. Lars writes and arranges for many, many bands and I`m told that he is also working with a solo-album now. Even (Ormestad, bass and keys EFM), is working a lot in the studio and will soon build one, Martin (Horntveth, drums -FM) continues to explore the world of mad man electronics (now also with pop elements), and also Mathias (Eick, trumpet, upright-bass, keys FM) has his own band that recently toured Scandinavia.
m[m]: You released your own material under the name of Rotoscope on Jester records. Could you
tell us a bit more about the Great Curves album and the people playing on it?
a: On Great Curves we are 6 musicians with very different background. I really wanted to work with vocals after all those years with instrumental music, so I invited Christine from the pop band Ephemera to join us. I had played with Ephemera on a couple of occasions and liked her voice a lot. One of my teachers from the music academy, Rob, also came along and played the vibraphone, it was fun to work with him because he is older than the rest and has totally different opinions. I guess he was the strongest critic when we had finished it and now I see that some of the things he said was right. Lars also played on it and made a beautiful arrangement on Carpet illusions. Jørgen Træen helped us producing it and putting the very diverse and ambiguous album together. I like the craziness of Great Curves but I don´t think we succeeded in making a good record, we learned a lot that will help us on the next I think!
m[m]: The music on that album is rather experimental, loads of electronics and cut-ups. Yet in your playlist on the Jester Records website features only songwriters album, more traditional music and your new material is said to be more song oriented. Is there any particular reason for that difference between Great Curves and the new stuff?
a: Well, to me noise and cut-ups are boring without chords, melodies and sometimes lyrics. I use electronics to spice up a good song and try to make music without a date label stuck on to it, music that is based on the sound of it or the programming of it isnt that interesting.
m[m]: Do you think that the Jaga success will have any effects on Rotoscope saleswise?
a: Hmm, maybe. I have sold 25 copies so far at Jaga concerts..(!) We`ll see when the next Rotoscope album comes out, Great Curves is getting old and I really don`t push it that much.
m[m]: How far are you in the composing/recording process of the new Rotoscope? Any schedule? Any labels interested?
a: I`ve written 5-6 songs, one of them is recorded and finished. Christine has written a couple of song and we may use them too. We have just received some money from a fund in Norway and I think we`ll use it buying recording equipment. Hope to get the record out sometime next year, but I`m definitely not in a hurry when it comes to Rotoscope, and now I`m producing another band which takes just about all of my time. Also I`m writing a contemporary piece of music for an percussion ensemble in Bergen, they commissioned it a long time ago so I`ll have to finish it sometime soon I guess. When it comes to labels I just don`t know, it depends on how the music turns out to be, but I think we`ll keep it in the family so to speak.
m[m]: Could you tell us a bit about your other projects?
a: Well, besides Jaga I`m working a lot in the studio and I go to the Academy of Art here in Oslo. Although it`s primarily a school for visual art, I`m allowed to work with my music there. I hope to get more into the visual stuff sometime. I`ve also produced music for others, like a theatre music record, a rock band and now a jazz duo with the former Jaga-keyboard-player Morten Qvenild and the brilliant singer and composer Susanna Wallumrød. The album is being mixed as we speak by Helge Sten, also known for producing Motorpsycho, and will be released by Rune Grammofon early next year.
m[m]: Who were the bands / musicians that gave you the desire to do music?
a: That`s a very, very long list... From when I was a teenager I`ve listened to and played a lot of classical and contemporary music and I think that has inspired me a lot. Martin and Lars of Jaga are also a huge inspiration, we often disagree but their attitude towards music is so unbelievably great.
Rotoscope and Jaga Jazzist reviews to be found in our archive.François Monti