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Interviews

Jan Bang: Head, Shoulders, Hips, Knees and Toes

By Published: July 5, 2010
....and poppies from Kandahar

Still, while Bang is the first to ascribe much of his work to honing his craft, he's always thinking of new ideas, new collaborations. He works hard, and when he's got some downtime, it's not long before he starts itching to get back to work. It was during one of those breaks, in fact, that the idea for finally doing his own album happened. "It wasn't my idea," says Bang, laughing. "It was actually my wife Nina, because when it's Christmas time I'm usually so tired; I've been working so hard, traveling with all these artists. As a musician, when I spend 14 days home doing nothing, spending time with my family—which is very nice, but once a gypsy, always a gypsy—I start wanting to do a lot of things, to get back into the studio, to start working. So, I started working on the third of January in 2009, on the first two pieces on the album ('The Drug Mule' and 'Self Injury'), and when I played them to Nina, she said, 'Why don't you make your own album this time, instead of distributing your music to the different people that you work with?'

Enjoy Jazz / Punkt / Jon Hassell Maarifa Street

"So I thought 'OK, let's do it,'" Bang continues. "I worked on it until mid-April, and when it was all completed, the first thing I did was to send it directly to David [Sylvian]. I just wanted a second opinion, because he'd sent me Manafon (SamadhiSound, 2009) to get a second opinion—and I responded to it and he was really happy about it. He replied to me straight away, asking if I'd be interested in them releasing it on SamadhiSound, which to me was just perfect. So I did the mastering, with Helge Sten [aka Deathprod, co-founder of Supersilent], which to me was just perfect—he doesn't do that much, but what he does is to make it sound more beautiful, as he did with Cartography. A lot of people make the mistake of working with bad—or just ordinary—mastering engineers; I've worked with a lot of them but have come to the conclusion that, at least for me, working with Helge is what I really need. He works in a very musical way, with levels, compression and frequencies; very subtle. Because a lot of what I doesn't contain high end—there's usually very little in the treble range; I like to take away frequencies so that I have room for other things."

Bang's approach is about leaving plenty of space in the music, rather than filling it up, kitchen-sink style—not just for other musicians, but for the listener as well. "On 'Migration,' from Cartography, for example, I tried to create something like [drummer] Manu Katche
Manu Katche
Manu Katche
b.1958
drums
[sings], but taking away the snare here and there so that it would sound more open," Bang explains. "I'm used to playing along with drummers, so when I program, I always leave something for the musicians to work with; I don't cover every hole. I try to leave it open, in general, so that there's also something for the audience as well, as an active listening experience. It's a different way of listening to that kind of music, but if you're interested, there's a lot of room for yourself in the music, as a listener."

Indeed, ....and poppies from Kandahar is the kind of album best heard in a dark, quiet room with no outside stimuli, so there's room to really hear it; to allow the mind to go where it will, creating whatever images Bang's deeply cinematic music inspires, on a very individual basis. Even the disc's stunning design, by longtime Sylvian collaborator Chris Bigg, inspires the imagination, as do the song titles—contributed, in fact, by Sylvian. Many musicians are challenged when it comes to naming their compositions, and so Sylvian's involvement was most welcome. "That's why you have a lot of ridiculous titles in jazz music," Bang says, laughing. "'Go Ahead John,'" because John is the guitarist who started the improv. Of course, I am totally aware of David's lyrical ability, and I've never worked with words—when I was working with Erik, writing songs, he was always the lyricist. When we did Cartography, David contributed spoken word—reading his poems on two tracks ['Before and Afterlife' and 'Thermal']—and so it felt natural to ask him to write song titles. So we asked him and he wrote them for Cartography, and so it was also natural for me to ask him to write song titles for poppies."

Sylvian's evocative—and, sometimes, provocative—titles provide their own context for the music. "It gives the music perspective," Bang says, "and gave me a new way of listening to the album. It's been natural for composers to work with lyricists for centuries, and I think it's also important, as a composer, to let go of certain aspects of your ego, to get a result that is often much better than if you were to do everything yourself. When you have the best designer [as David does with Chris Bigg], and to have David not only choosing the title [of the album], but the artwork for it—he chose the artist and I responded straight away because it was so beautiful to have all these different elements—to have all these different elements, if you use them in a good way, it will create a much bigger impact. You see the images and you read the titles and you listen to the music and it makes for a better listening experience. It makes a difference."

The music on ....and poppies from Kandahar is as rich and varied as the human condition, and while the album features contributions by most of the usual suspects, including Hassell, Henriksen, Aarset, Molvær, Endresen and Honoré, it also includes performances by Swedish bassist Lars Danielsson
Lars Danielsson
Lars Danielsson
b.1958
bass
, with whom Bang has worked many times in the past decade (including the bassist's superb Mélange Bleu (ACT, 2007)), and American bassist Peter Freeman who was, until recently, a longtime Hassell collaborator. But the list of samples that Bang used to shape his own music is even longer, with sources ranging as far as Vytas Sondeckis conducting the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra, and as near as a live remix that Hassell did at Punkt in 2007. That Bang can hear a connection between separate performances that sometimes took place years apart is part of the magic that makes poppies so special.

"Usually, before Punkt, I spend some time preparing some things," Bang explains, "and I did a sample of Kammerflimmer Kollektief, and created some programming that would become the basic structure for poppies' 'Passport Control.' There was a remix at Punkt, in 2007, where Jon [Hassell] asked Arve [Henriksen] to participate, and I ended up using their performance. But it actually came from a suggestion by [turntablist Pål] 'Strangefruit' [Nyhus], who said, 'Instead of having someone play solo over it, why don't you just sample it and play a solo yourself, on your sampler, use it is your instrument?' So that's what I did; I grabbed the performances from both Jon and Arve, and played them the way I play them—in my own way—and that really worked well within the track."

In some ways referencing the Fourth World music of Hassell, the sensuous yet cerebral, "Passport Control" is poppies' longest track, and certainly one of its best. A gentle groove supports a trumpet, buried in the weeds, repeating a two-note pattern reminiscent of 1970s-era Miles Davis, but resolving into an Afro-centric coda, where an mbira-like melody (that reprises on the disc's penultimate track, "Ululations") comes from, of all places, Eivind Aarset's guitar. "We had a session together for Nils Petter's Hamada (Sula, 2009); it was with Eivind Nils Petter, myself and Johnny [Skalleberg, Molvær's soundman]," Jan recounts. "We were at Nils Petter's summer cottage; we did a lot of things there, and some things ended up on Hamada, but because Eivind did some of his 'string' things, where he plays behind the nut on his guitar, and because he has a contact mike built into the neck of his guitar, you can hear all these [sings] 'pling!' things, like a percussive instrument. So I grabbed a few samples and put it into the MPC 3000. Then I programmed a sequence of it, using what we call a 'stumble beat;' where it goes forward, but not necessarily with a metrical pulse. So you have something that is both metrical and not metrical."

Another track, "The Midwife's Dilemma," features Sidsel Endresen, whose innovative work in recent years has been to create a collection of small vocal cells—tiny articulations, sounds or vocal approaches—to build what has truly become a new vocal language that is remarkable in it being entirely acoustic, despite often sounding as if it is not. "I did a clapping overdub—three tracks of clapping, that I pitched down so it sounds more like Bootsy Collins," Bangs explains, laughing. "Then I was thinking that this would work very well with Sidsel, and so I booked a session at a studio belonging to a guy I used to work with, and what I did was to send the track to Sidsel in advance. But when we came into the studio, she said, 'I have no idea what to do,' and so I said, 'Why don't you just do something like this? [sings]?' Some of those sounds that she does so well. So I tried to just encourage her to do what she does, and she did; it was a first take, and what I like about it, is that it sounds like everyday life, and yet it sounds so completely different."

Bang first met Endersen in the late 1980s, in a context a far cry from her more recent experimental leanings, and even the starkly beautiful acoustic albums she would later record for ECM—1990's And So I Write and 1994's Exile. "She was a Norwegian pop star," Bang recounts, "working with [guitarist] Jon Eberson Group, they had a huge hit called 'Jive Talking.' I did my first solo album in 1988 on CBS, a soundtrack to an Icelandic film called Foxtrot. That was the year Bobby McFerrin
Bobby McFerrin
Bobby McFerrin
b.1950
vocalist
had that hit, 'Don't Worry, Be Happy,' and so I sang on it, and went into the studio because the [film] producer wanted to make a record. It wasn't a very good record, but there was one song on it that Erik and I wrote, called 'Merciful Waters,' and I specifically asked for Sidsel. So, together with Sidsel and Morten Harket [of A-Ha], it was sort of a trio thing. Asking Sidsel to work on poppies was kind of like paying her back, because I know she wasn't paid for the Foxtrot session, since she was on CBS as well.

"The next time I met Sidsel was when she was working with Bugge on an album called Duplex Ride (ACT, 1998)," Bang continues, "and Bugge asked me to do some sampling of her voice for one track. I went into the studio and did a very rough thing, but when they put it all together it sounded really good. I think of Sidsel now, comparing her to the last period of Picasso. He had this 'blue' period, that was very easy, very accessible, and then at the end of his life he did all these childlike paintings that were somehow very clean, and felt so real, so universal. Sidsel has invented her own language, and while she's a fantastic poet, I love this quasi-linguistic thing so much more, because it's full-bodied, it touches me so much more. I like to call it 'head, shoulders, hips, knees and toes,' because it has all these different human elements. I just love working with her; she is, by far, the best singer I know, certainly, at least, in this part of the world."

Contrasting with the sensual groove of "Passport Control" and quirkiness of "The Midwife's Dilemma" is "Heidigger's Silence," structured around Bang's sample of classical composer Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" (1865), Aarset's guitar and Strangefruit's turntables. "This was from a tour with Nils Petter, and during a sound check there was something that Pål did, a kind of scratching thing back and forth, and together with Eivind doing this chordal thing, I just took it and reversed it, working in motifs from 'Tristan' and working with samples from the late Arne Nordheim, the Norwegian composer who just passed away recently [June 5, 2010]. So there is a sample from Arne Nordheim in there, and a few other things, but it's quite dark. It's one of the darkest pieces on the album, in fact, but I'm not afraid of going there; I think it's something that's just as natural as working with any other 'head, shoulder, hips, knees and toes'—we are diverse as human beings, and I think it's important to allow these things to come to the surface, just as I allow they rhythmical thing to come to the surface, or humor or romance. I'm not afraid of using all of these things, musically."


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