Eivind Aarset: Guitar Anti-Hero
That something else took time to solidify in Aarset's mind---and fingers. Meanwhile, from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, Aarset emerged as one of Norway's busiest session guitarists, playing with popular national artists like vocalist Rebekka Bakken and Lynni Treekrem, as well as stars of greater international acclaim, like world music/synth pop group Bel Canto and singer Morten Harket, of A-Ha fame. Aarset even ended up playing on sessions by Cher and Ray Charles. "With Cher's session [It's a Man's World (Warner Bros., 1996)], it was because I'd worked with Morten Harket (the guy from A-ha), who produced a lot of Norwegian artists," explains Aarset. "He'd done a solo record [Wild Seed (WEA, 1995)], and asked me to go to England to do some tracks with Cher. Ray's Strong Love Affair (Warner Bros, 1996) was produced by Kjetil Bjerkestrand; he arranged most of the album, so he asked me to join the session. It was a lot of fun."
Listening to some of Aarset's pop work, it's immediately striking just how much of a musical chameleon he can be, as he strutted some Steve Cropper-like funk on one hand, metal-tinged Hendrixian power guitar on the other. Like most electric guitarists, Aarset began experimenting with sound processors to expand his textural palette at an early stage in his career. But even as far back as the mid-1980s, his approach began to deviate from the norm. "I had been working with a more traditional '80s guitar setup, with racks and that kind of stuff," Aarset explains." I started to use some pedals as well, and I found that I could use some of themvery simple guitar pedalsin a way that did something else; a textural thing that wasn't solo, wasn't rhythm. I found things that made sense to me and built from there.
"The most important pedal that I got around this time wasand still isthe Boss DD5 digital delay," Aarset continues. "You can't buy them anymore and the new versions don't work the same way. I was able to build feedback on the delay, and working with the delay time pretty short, maybe one secondcreate all kinds of strange stuff." Nowadays, Aarset's rig is the antithesis of the clean, rack-driven setup most guitarists favor. Instead, it looks more like a mad scientist's laboratory, with pedals and cables everywhereon the floor and on top of his guitar case, which Aarset uses as a table in performance. He also runs his guitar through a laptop computer, using different plugins to shape and loop the sound of his guitar. What's especially remarkable is that he can literally set everything up in a matter of minutesand it all works.
But it's more than just gear. Aarset can take the subtlest soundlike tapping on the back of his neck or lightly slapping the body of his guitarand turn it into something more. Playing behind the nut of the guitar is, for most guitarists, just a quick device; Aarset turns it into a sound not unlike the African mbira, or thumb piano.
Back to his formative years, along with more conventional rock and jazz markers, Aarset was listening to music that would become increasingly influential. "I had been listening to [trumpeter] Jon Hassell for many years; it may have been Nils Petter [Molvær] who introduced me to him or it may have been before that, but that was a huge, huge, influence. I listened to a lot of his music, but I didn't really understand how it was being built because, for me at that time, it was so different from the other music I was listening to. I also liked a lot of Brian Eno's albums, but there was one that was especially important, called Nerve Net (Opal, 1992). It picks up, in so many ways, from Miles in the '70s but set in a very organized, electronic fashion. There's something very similar in some of its harmonic things and the way the chords sound."
It was during Aarset's "gun for hire" period that he first encountered Bugge Wessletoft and Nils Petter Molvær. "I met Bugge and Nils Petter as session musicians," Aarset says. "We worked on the same projects from time to time, and we hung out together listening to the same stuff. Nils Petter and I toured together for the first time in the mid-'80smaybe '86 or '87. We were doing pop sessions, pop tours. But Nils Petter was much more into the jazz scene than I was [playing, at that time, with Masqualero, who recorded three albums for ECM including Band À Part (1986)], but he also did some pop gigs. And then we started in with [Danish percussionist] Marilyn Mazur, I joined her band [Future Song, which released the overlooked Small Labyrinths on ECM in 1997] because Nils Petter and [drummer] Audun [Kleive] recommended me.
During the 1990s, as Aarset continued to work busily as a session guitarist and in groups like Ab Und Zu, his own conception of sound was evolving...and crystallizing. Increasingly influenced by world music, house/drum 'n' bass/techno and contemporary electronic artists like Photek and Tricky, ambient music, and by improvising guitarists who were expanding the outer reaches of guitar as orchestra like David Torn and Bill Frisell, a watershed moment came on a session with Wesseltoft. "He didn't want anything like rhythm; he didn't want any solos," Aarset says, laughing. "For me it was really helpful to find out what that could bring."
"I heard an interview on the radio with a Norwegian contemporary composer recently," Aarset continues, "who said that his main focus was the notes, the architecture of the music, so to speak. He didn´t care so much about the instruments that played it. For me it is totally the opposite. I care, first of all, about phrasing, and about the shaping and the color of soundthis is a sort of a sensual thing. And I like to build my sounds in the atmosphere that is in a room, where the actual physical qualities of the room play a rolebut even more, the interaction between the musicians, and between the musicians and the audience."