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Interviews

Nils Petter Molvaer: Skeletons, Samples and Fish Fillets

By Published: August 30, 2010
AAJ: I want to talk about some of the musicians you've played with over the years. When I saw you perform live recently, I believe the band consisted of you, Eivind Aarset on guitar, bass and effects, Rune Arnesen on drums, drum loops and effects, Paal "DJ Strangefruit" Nyhus on turntables and Jan Bang on samples. Eivind has been playing with you for quite some time, and when I saw you play, his guitar playing seemed to have become, if anything, even more atmospheric and subtle than on the recordings. What does he add to your music?

NPM: He adds an ambience to a room in which I like to move around. The thing is that I try to just let everyone do whatever they like—to interact completely freely with the music. And with Eivind, I feel that we have many, many things to discover. What shall I call it? Sometimes I feel like he's my musical soul mate, even though he is a bit of a contrast to what I do. He's a great soundscape designer, and he creates these sound worlds that no one else can—no one I know. And he's a really cool guy [laughing].

AAJ: Rune Arnesen plays drums, and I think he also controls the drum loops. I think sometimes people don't associate real drumming with this music, but he plays on the records as well. What does a real percussionist add to this? Is it challenging for him? His playing has to stay integrated with, say, samples. Obviously, he needs to be very disciplined in his playing.

NPM: Yeah. But sometimes he is being sampled. Jan Bang is sampling everything live. So sometimes he samples Rune, so you'll hear something that happened 20 seconds before—it comes back, and then Rune can interact with that. And sometimes there are things on the computer as well, and he can interact with that. To me, what Rune is doing is creating dynamic and life and warmth. Sometimes he creates a tension, because he's moving away from the beat, Sometimes the beat can originally be kind of quantified, although I try not to do it that way. It can be really tight, but what Rune does stretches that.

So the sound engineer is also incredibly important—how he sort of melds these things together. And many times, people tell me they don't know who is playing what, and I think that's a cool thing.

AAJ: I had exactly that experience when I saw the band. I couldn't tell.

NPM: I kind of like that. You know, sometimes I'll play trumpet and suddenly I'm sampled and it comes out as something from Jan. It keeps it interesting and alive.

AAJ: So tell me about Jan Bang and DJ Strangefruit.

NPM: Strangefruit—well, how we started to play was just that we met and became friends at the beginning of the nineties. We were hanging out at parties and stuff; the club scene in Osco was very happening. And I started having jam sessions with Strangefruit and a deejay named AbStract [Olle Løstegård]. We did some things with just trumpet and two deejays, and I found it interesting—but, you know, they mostly think about BPMs, beats per minute. They never think about the tune or the harmonic structure, and I was just improvising over what they did. So it could be a little less than a quarter note low—they'd take the tempo up and down, and that would also make the harmonic quality go up and down. So sometimes it was really difficult! Nowadays there are machines that keep the pitch in place and you can take the beat up and down as much as you like. But in those days, it was really challenging.

But I really liked Paal's—Strangefruit's—ambiences. He was very, very open. And in 1994 or 1995—well, maybe it was later, 1997—he came up to me and said, "Hey, man, have you ever heard of Sun Ra? He'd [laughing] discovered Sun Ra. But he always played all sorts of music; he loves music. He's also a person I can relate to very much as a kind of soul mate. In the beginning, as a deejay on the scene, he used to rule everything completely. He could do anything he liked. But when my band started out, I had two drummers, a deejay, a bassist, and a guitarist. So he really had to learn to filter things out, not play so much, take it down. Now he works in a much more abstract way, using different voices, playing records from soundtracks—trying to get the human voice into the music. He's changing, trying a lot of things.

As for Jan, he is basically completely free. He usually starts from scratch and then he just samples whatever happens. It might come back 20 minutes later, or immediately after. He is the free agent in the band.

AAJ: How much of your live sets are improvised? And how much do the written songs change?

NPM: Well, there are openings that are completely improvised; they change every day. There will be a sort of skeleton, but that will change color and ethnicity when we, you know, put meat on it. At its best, our music is very much improvised—much more than a lot of jazz bands I hear. There is a lot of improvisation.

AAJ You're recently released An American Compilation on Thirsty Ear. This is, obviously, a compilation of your music—a sort of an attempt to introduce, or reintroduce, your music to the American audience. Certainly, some of your best pieces are on this CD, and while there's really no cross-fading, the album is sequenced as a continuous piece of music. It all works for me as a new album of sorts, which is why I'm asking about it. "Kakonita appears in a remix version, as does "Darker, but a lot of the pieces sound different to me. Were the other mixes altered?

NPM: Not really. I mean, some of them are made shorter. I was struggling with making this; I had to throw away a lot of things. Well, not throw away, but put aside. If any of them sound different, it might have to do with them being placed next to other things. When I sequence an album, a lot of the pieces are connected—that's true of all the albums. They're all connected. It's a conceptual thing. So that might be the reason they sound different. We mastered it in Norway—I've never done that before—with a really cool guy who mostly masters dance music. So he was, maybe, accentuating bass, and freshening it up a bit from the other masters. So he did a great job at this place called Living Room in Oslo. But otherwise, I don't think I really did much with the music—just editing, taking away things.

AAJ Well, then, the songs just sounded different to me due to the different context.

NPM I think so, yeah. This one comes up after this one, and that creates a different feel for it.

AAJ Tell me your plans for the rest of this year. You don't have a new record recorded.

NPM No, no. I'm going to do just a couple festivals. I just spent the holiday with my family, which has been really nice. I'm going to do some film music—I have two films to do. Then in November, I'm going to go to Latin America or South America to do some concerts there; maybe some in Europe, too. Then we're talking about trying to do a tour in America, but that's really hard. It's so expensive, especially if you have a big band. Taking many people on the road—it's hard. But we are trying to put together an American tour for the fall. I also have a commission piece which I'm going to start doing. But I'm still thinking about what I want to do on the next studio album. I have many ideas, many different ideas. I might start to work on that next year.

Selected Discography
Nils Petter Molvær, An American Compilation (Thirsty Ear, 2006)
Nils Petter Molvær, ER (Sula/Universal, 2005)
Nils Petter Molvær, Remakes (Sula/Universal, 2005)
Nils Petter Molvær, Streamer: Live (Sula/Universal, 2004)
Nils Petter Molvær, NP3 (Sula/Universal, 2002)
Nils Petter Molvær, Recolored: The Remix Album (Emarcy/Universal, 2001)
Eivind Aarset, Light Extracts (Jazzland, 2001)
Sidsel Endresen, Undertow (Jazzland, 2001)
Svein Finnerud, Sounds and Sights (Resonant Music, 2000)
Nils Petter Molvær, Solid Ether (ECM Records, 2000)
Nils Petter Molvær, Khmer (ECM Records, 1997)
Terje Isungset, Reise (NOR-CD, 1997)
Bugge Wesseltoft, New Conception of Jazz (Jazzland, 1997)
Robyn Schulkowsky/Nils Petter Molvær, Hastening Westward (ECM Records, 1995)
Sidsel Endresen, Exile (ECM Records, 1994)
Rita Marcotulli, Night Caller (Label Bleu, 1992)
Masqualero, Re-Enter (ECM, 1991)
Sandre Bratland, Mysteriet (Kirkelig Kulturverksted, 1990)
Sidsel Endresen, So I Write (ECM Records, 1990)
Masqualero, Aero (ECM, 1988)
Masqualero, Bande à Parte (ECM, 1986)
Masqualero, Masqualero (Odin, 1983)


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