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Choosing colourful music over money [2003-11-02]

Mats/Morgan is a Swedish band formed by and around drummer Morgan Ågren and keyboardist/singer Mats Öberg. The couple made several albums as well as contributed to other people's records. Their music isn’t easy to pigeonhole in a certain genre, but ‘a jazz/rock fusion with pop’ should be pretty much give an idea. Their last album On Air With Guests has been out for a while and a new one is in the works. Morgan is happy to answer some questions regarding Mats/Morgan and anything else that is (or has been) going on in Stockholm.

m[m]: What projects are in the works at the moment?
Morgan: Two drum DVD’s are in process. They will feature live-clips with Mats/Morgan Band recorded during recent tours in Japan, France, Belgium and Sweden. We are also recording material for a new Mats/Morgan CD. Next week I will work with my brother Jimmy Ågren to finish his coming CD. Most of the Mats/Morgan Band are featured on his coming CD Close Enough For Jazz. That is some of the stuff that I am working on at the moment.
Another lovely "project" is my 10 weeks old son; Alvin! I am having a great time with him a lot also!

m[m]: Any idea what the upcoming Mats/Morgan cd will be like, any new directions?
Morgan: Yes, new directions I would say! It is all in my head, but it is hard to explain exactly. I would say it is more groove-oriented then before.

m[m]: How 'drum' will the DVD's be? Will they be interesting for non-drummers as well?
Morgan: Could be. I have not decided how to mix it all together yet. I have material for 2 DVD's. I have two old VHS videos; Live In Magic which is live and studio material from 94-98. And Trum, which features all the music that was performed during the Swedish TV-show that I did, called "Trum" with Mats/Morgan Band featuring Fredrik Thordendal (of Meshuggah) Jonas Knutsson, Jimmy Ågren Band, Spoonman and more. These two videos will be released as DVD's separately, or mixed together. With added material from the recent Mats/Morgan tours. So, to answer your question; yes, it can be interesting for "non-drummers" cause there is a lot of songs as well, not only drumsolos.

m[m]: Some of your music, especially your part of The Music Or The Money, seems to be constructed in a mathematical way, is it conceived as cerebrally as it seems?
Morgan: I was always terrible in maths... maths was never my thing. But I need a computor/sequencer in order to compose. Almost all of my composing is done on a sequencer. I can't play keyboards, so I create my sounds on a sampler, and I make music out of it. The musical ideas are usually in my mind, I just need to get it out through something. Samplers and sequencers works for that. But nobody in our band is into mathematics, or theory at all even. I am very happy the way it all works in the band, because it’s so easy to work together. I have never been able to explain so much about what I do theoretically anyway. Me and Mats just compose and play without thinking about what we are doing theoretically, and when the guys in the band are listening to a new piece, they approach it in a very natural way. I print most of my music to scores from the computer, but Jimmy can't read music at all, Mats is blind and I read bad, so...

m[m]: How important is technique for you, as a listener and as a player?
Morgan: The technique by itself is completely unimportant for me, both as a player and as a listener. I never want to play complicated stuff if it does not fit into the music. However, there seems to be a bunch of musicians who use technique even if it is not appropriate for the music. It is of course a matter of taste, not necessarily a "right and wrong" thing. As an example, when I was listening to Narada Micheal Walden playing drums with Mahavishnu Orchestra, I never thought it sounded like he was showing off technically, even if he played a lot sometimes. His playing was just perfect for the music. Mahavishnu’s music asked for this kind of drumming. But there are also groups today that I think play technically without making music that good. I can give you one example. I saw this drummer Marco Minneman playing at a drumclinic. He played doublebassdrums at high speed, with tricky things etc, but he played it to the Star Wars theme! To me it sounded incredibly ugly. I mean, the music sounded horrible to me and I could not care less about what happened on the drums. I want to hear good music, whether it is slow or fast, easy or hard to play. In fact, one of the more memorable concert memories that I have was watching AC/DC about 10 years ago and I am not kidding. To see Malcolm Young play rhythm Guitar was just amazing. His touch and feel is awesome! Tom Waits was another great concert I saw, where there was no “technique” involved. But of course I have no problems listening to busy music and busy drummers when it sounds together. I grew up listening to that.

m[m]: How would you describe your approach to rhythm and your instrument?
Morgan: Oh, that is a big subject. But I see drums as a very colourful instrument. By that I mean: drums can be used to play colours and sounds without having to play in time or in tempo at all. And in the same time, drums are of course the heart of many things. The beat and the groove are important, but it depends on the situation.

m[m]: Do you actually 'see' colours when playing? Like Zappa saw shapes when improvising?
Morgan: No, and I don't see colours either (like Elvin Jones does). I just hear things. Stuff that has no beat or tempo, it is more about different kinds of energies. This is a big subject and it is hard to explain. Maybe it is a bit like with painters. Some guys paint portraits, and some guys throw buckets with paint on the wall to create moods and tensions. While playing drums; I like ‘throwing buckets of paint’ more then ‘painting portraits’, at least when it comes to improvisation and soloing. There is a drummer named Ronald Shannon Jackson, who used to play with Ornette Coleman. I love his playing: it’s very loose... sometimes it sounds like he even has a problem playing at all (!). It’s very unpolished but I like the tension that he creates and his kind of melodic playing.

m[m]: Do you and Mats work separately or together?
Morgan: Mostly separately these days. Me and Mats make a bunch of tunes, then we meet and pick the best ones out and work on those together. After that we melt it together with the rest of the band. The material really improves when the guys in the band add their creativity. They add a lot of "colour and body" to our tunes.

m[m]: Who are in the Mats/Morgan band these days?
Morgan: Mats Öberg on the keys, Jimmy Ågren (my brother) on guitar, Tommy Thordsson on bass, Robert Elovsson on keyboards and myself! It is a dream team I must say!!

m[m]: How would you describe your relation with your longtime musical partner Mats?
Morgan: The most amazing meeting of my life! In 1981 when I was 14 years old, I received a telephone call came from a lady that was organizing a concert in a little village outside Umeå, Sweden. She asked me if I could come and play with a blind pianist, named Mats. Mats needed a drummer, but he didn't have anyone to play with. The lady on the phone told me that she knew about me and that I might be the right one for Mats: about the same age and maybe the same musical taste. Mats had problems to find people close to his age, with any interest whatsoever in playing the music that Mats liked. You see, Mats was actually listening to Miles Davis before he could even walk! As well as Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa. I know that Mats, at age 7, even forced his parents to buy him the latest Earth Wind & Fire record once, otherwise he would jump down the stairs at home . Anyway, I told her I was interested in playing with Mats, and a few days later I met Mats at the venue. Mats walked towards me with his dad, and he looked like he was seven years old or something. We shock hands and started to discuss what we could possible play this night. This was only about two hours before our show! We obviously had to play some covers. Mats asked me: "Do you know Frank Zappa"? I said: “I guess I can do Bobby Brown without any rehearsal”. Now we had one song! Mats continued: “Do you know Stevie Wonder?” I said: “I know this song Master Blaster, do you know that one?” That turned out a pretty stupid question since Mats seemed to know almost everything already then, at age 10. Mats continued: “Beatles?” Me: “I can do Help!. We were supposed to play only 20 minutes, so we now had enough material. When we started to play, I watched Mats in complete disbelief, he was only ten years old but he played unbelievable, and sang the lyrics with perfect pronunciation, sounding like the Jackson Five on crack. After we finished, my dad was almost in tears. Mats’s daddy was also really amazed and said something like”:”maybe you could...I and play together some more!?...We have a Drum set in our basement..” So we did, and have spent time doing music all the way since then. I can tell things about Mats for another 500 pages, but I must say that he is one of the most amazing musicians ever lived. He really is. I rate my meeting with Mats as one of the biggest gifts and most important of my life.

m[m]: The love for Zappa of you two has been well-documented, which other artists do admire?
Morgan: When I am home I like to listen to quiet things as well. Jan Garbarek, L. Shankar and other ECM (label) artists are nice. XTC and Hermeto Pascoal (which is not so quiet, but anyway). I always come back to my roots like Allan Holdsworth, King Crimson, Univers Zero, Captain Beefheart etc. I actually bought some old Gino Vanelli records that I think just came out on CD. Mats and I were listening to him a lot while we grew up. I was very nice to listen to these albums again...

m[m]: The artists that you mention in interviews as inspiration are all from the seventies, are there more recent musicians/composers/bands that you admire? How did you come to listen to all those seventies artists at the young age that you must've been?
Morgan: I don't know why the ‘70’s appeal to me. I just liked what was happening at this time, and I like the sound of the ‘70’s as well. There was something fresh and adventurous about the ‘70’s. Music of today is not as easy I think. The whole music market is sooo much more a business thing compared to 30 years ago. It is all about money too often. I bought a fantastic CD with Brazilian composer and legend Hermeto Pascoal recently, but he also is from the ‘70’s, so he is not a new guy and I have all his records since before. I love some of the stuff Hermeto Pascoal is doing! But I think it is also harder to get amazed now as when you were 18 years old.. But regarding recent music: I can enjoy listening to Squarepusher, Tortoise, Aphex Twin and stuff like that, for a little while anyway.

m[m]: In titles and several skits on the CD's you use a lot of your native language. How did growing up in Sweden influence your music or do you feel it's of any importance at all?
Morgan: Sweden as a country was not that important I think. We don't have wars going on here, that is good. But to me, meeting good musicians is important. I was lucky too meet very charismatic musicians at an early age here in Sweden, not only Mats. I played with an electrified string quartet called Flesh Quartet, that gave me a lot. Sweden has a lot of great musicians. Although I must say that there is not so many exciting groups in Sweden.

m[m]: The Norwegian jazz-scene seems to be pretty ‘happening’, as they say. Are you aware of that?
Morgan: They seem to do some nice things. It feels like they are trying to do new things. In Sweden there are many great musicians,but not that many exciting groups I think, just a few. In Norway Bugge Wesseltoft and his Jazzland label seem OK. Jaga Jazzist do some cool things and of course I love some of those ECM recordings. A fantastic thing this ECM, I mean that they started it, and how well they have grown as a company!

m[m]: You moved from Umeå to Stockholm, I presume to be less isolated. Can you imagine moving to other countries for that reason?
Morgan: Probably not any longer. I maybe would have 15 years ago but I am happy here now.

m[m]: Any musicians you'd love to work with but didn't have the chance (yet)?
Morgan: Hm.. There is quite a bunch that would be fun to play with. And there might also be a few that still would be really nice to play with.If I got a call from someone like Wayne Shorter (just as an example) I would be honored of course and it would probably be great fun, but it is still not a dream that I have. I am not walking around hoping he would even call me, understand? I had the dream to play with Frank Zappa for many years, and it actually happened!! I don't have so much more dreams like that today. My only wish is to sell my own music, and keep making a living out of that, that is all. There is actually one more teenage dream that I had, and that would still be special, and that is Allan Holdsworth. Me and Mats have met Allan a few times, and we have actually talked about doing something at some point, so we'll see. It is an old fantasy that would still be fun! When I grew up I was listening to Allan a lot! I still think he is an incredible guitarist and I still love a lot of his music!

m[m]: You obviously chose 'The Music' instead of the 'The Money', can you get by financially? What do you do to get by?
Morgan: The last 2 years I've been pretty well, finally... I used to teach a little on the side, I run my own record company (Ultimate Audio Entertainment), which I partly run through my homepage. I play live with my band, I sell cd's live and on my homepage, I play on other peoples cd's sometimes, I sell 3 cymbals that I don't need, I do music for a film etc.I play the music that I love, and I still don't starve, so it is ok for me! BUT one can also look at things differently. For instance; a politician or a guy who works with computers or the guy at the bank etc. All these people make much more money then me, even if they don't know their profession better then I know mine... If I had the same skills on computers or as a politician, I would probably be a millionaire. It is a bit odd. Who decided that the guy working at the bank should be paid so much better?!

I decided to start my own company in 1996, cause as you know, it ain’t easy to get a contract with a company that releases music outside the MTV world... I have released 15 titles since 1996, and I am very happy with most of the CD’s. But it is just so much work for me. I am responsible for too much, not only composing: it is mixing, mastering, cover lay-out, webshop-orders, distributors, booking, mailorders, taxes, book keeping etc. I wish I had a real distributor worldwide. A booking agency would be good too. The best thing would be if a bigger company could support me as a sub-label, and give me free hands with the musical direction, and help me release and distribute the CD's. You see, I get emails from a lot of places, were people want to get a copy of a certain CD! It is great, because because it makes me wonder how someone in let’s say, Ontario, Canada found out about us! Some people even send cash in envelopes, with a message: “I want your CD, here is money, ship it to me!” So, people want this kind of music for sure. It’s great when the quality of an album can reach an audience without any promotion AT ALL. It seems like good music gets to the people sooner or later, by its own power!

m[m]: You released Sol Niger Within by Fredrik Thordendal’s Special Defects and you and Mats both played on it as well. Despite the obvious jazz/fusion in Fredrik's playing he's still very 'metal'. How did you come to work with him, was this still in Umeå?
Morgan: Fredrik and I are both from Umeå. We knew each other. I liked the stuff he did, and he liked my drumming so it came naturally! The recording of his cd was not easy. I almost never play doublebass, but I had to do it on some of the parts on his cd. I injured my hands from playing too long and hard...We were recording after midnight, cause we had access to the Swedish radio during night time. So we were locked in, and could not get out as far as I remember. Anyway, it was a struggle. But I am glad we finished it, it is a great album!

m[m]: I always wondered: did you get your drumkit into church and just started jamming?
Morgan: No, the drums were done in the studio and the church organ later.

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