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Mats Gustafsson: Share The Moment

By Published: October 29, 2012

AAJ: You've spoken a lot about European influences. I wonder did American musicians hold a similar importance for you?

MG: Oh sure. Those scenes for me have never been separate. It's always been the stuff that I'm interested in. It's more the people than where they actually come from. I always get that question about what is "Scandinavian" in your music. For me it's not about where you come from or your religion or whatever. It's about who you are and what you put in your language and how you put your language into the situation. I never separate the European free improvised scene and the American free jazz scene. It's more of a theoretical distinction. But of course since I grew up in Europe, I heard many more European musicians, so with the American tradition it is more from my experience of listening to records. When I was 14 or 15 I heard Albert Ayler and Peter Brötzmann, and the late Coltrane stuff at around the same time and it was like "Whoa." Playing in a local punk rock group and only playing electric piano, I was in shock. So for me it has always been try to explore, understand and feel what Albert Ayler did, and at the same time trying to understand Peter Brötzmann and Derek Bailey. Among the American players, Joe McPhee has been one of the major influences, both musically and personally, and [saxophonist] Steve Lacy
Steve Lacy
Steve Lacy
1934 - 2004
sax, soprano
, of course. It's always hard to mention just a few names because there are so many great players and humans out there who give you so much inspiration.

AAJ: Did you hear Joe McPhee on record before you met him?

MG: Yeah, yeah. I had all his records. We met the first time when the Chicago Tentet was formed in 1997. It was originally intended just to have Chicago musicians in the group, the Chicago Octet. Then I think John Corbett was the one to blame here. He came up with the idea of adding me and Joe McPhee to the mix. So I think they played one or two gigs, then we flew out to Chicago and we joined them. From then on the Tentet has been pretty active over the years. So that was the first time I met Joe. Of course I had all those Hat Art records which confused and inspired me a lot.

AAJ: That's right, they could be very different from one to the next.

MG: Yeah, exactly. And he put all his soul and his language into the situations and the music that came out was very different, but it was still always him. I couldn't understand how this worked, because he was always such a strong emotional player, but he always puts all himself into whatever situation he finds himself in.

AAJ: What makes a good performance for you and has that changed over time as you've played more and more?

MG: It's still the same. It's the meeting and if you dare to share the moment. If you are willing to take a risk, if you are willing to fail. If you are willing to step forward and say, "This is me." And, at the same time, if you are willing to take a step backwards and give the other players space if the music needs that. If you start to take things for granted or play safe then it doesn't work. You have to be on your toes. And that's what I love with this music, you can't play safe or you're fucked [laughs]. But I mean it on a very deep level. It's the same thing with life. If you want to play safe, maybe you have a safe life, but you are facing routines and patterns that might wear you out. And people are different. Some people need the comfort in routines and that works for them. But I am a very curious person, and I want to find out and I want to explore stuff. And if I feel that I've had enough, that I'm full, then I will stop playing and sit at home with records or work in the local gas station. It's so important for me. It's not just about the music it's on many different levels. So when a performance works it's because people have been willing to take risks.

I had lunch today with Paul Lovens, and he's one of the first masters that I met and worked with, in 1990. He is someone who can really make you understand things onstage. He's great to talk with about music and the mechanics, but it's all on stage and what you do, and he gave me some extremely good lessons. Some were painful and some were beautiful, but they were great lessons very early.

AAJ: What sort of things do you mean?

MG: The whole thing of repeating yourself or playing on your own, instead of listening to what others are doing. Paul still has a unique talent in making you understand that you are in deep water musically [laughs]. When you share a stage with him you understand. I haven't really analyzed it, but I think it is a lot about not playing your ego or something related such as trying to sound louder or better or faster. But unfortunately that's part of the jazz history, to just produce something. And that's what I learnt from Paul, to listen and interact rather than trying to produce something.

On The Road

AAJ: I wanted to ask about life on the road. As a listener, Ken Vandermark's facebook blog is one of the few places where you can get an honest view of what touring is like. Sometimes, perhaps even often, the schedule is grueling. How can you consistently produce art under such circumstances?

MG: Well, if you are sharing the stage with people who are willing to take those risks it's not a problem. The problems are the travelling and the lack of sleep and the lack of food, the lack of understanding from certain promoters. That is very tiring and time and energy consuming. When you are up onstage, all that shit is gone. And I hope I'm not facing the day when I stand onstage and I think, "Oh my God, I'm so tired I can't play." I mean, that has never happened, and I for sure hope it will never happen.

But, just as an example which is quite funny, we had a tour with The Thing two years ago. It was a two-week tour and the first week we had a gig every day, and we were travelling and the travelling was extreme. We had to get up at 5.00 a.m. every morning and we had to travel 12 hours to get straight to the sound check. And there were delays to the trains and cancelled flights, and it was unlucky as well. In the whole week we didn't sleep more than two hours any night. It was completely brutal, and the food situation was terrible as well. And then we decided to take some new promotional photos, because there is this amazing photographer in Ljubljana called Ziga Koritnik, one of the best jazz photographers on the planet. And since we were playing in Ljubljana we asked him if he could come and take some photos, and he did. But the result is, of course, you can see that we had been touring a week with no sleep and no food. They were terrible photos. It wasn't his fault but we looked like shit [laughs]. In a way, we should publish those photos because it's scary. Ken and me and Brötzmann, whoever is touring, can tell many, many horrifying stories. But it's part of what we do.

AAJ: Do you ever hear it in the music?

MG: No. Paal Nilssen-Love, who is the hardest working of us all, I mean he is on tour 300 days a year or something, I have never heard lack of focus or lack of energy in his playing. I know the way we are living and I know how brutal the schedules are on traveling and late nights and everything. And still I haven't heard a slight dip in energy or focus. If that happened it would be terrible but no one is using any drugs, so if you start to talk about that kind of thing which has completely destroyed such a big part of jazz history, then you have a real problem. We are trying to keep healthy, but that abuse is a different story. But of course we know people who have problems and then you can tell by the music as well immediately. If that gets too much, it affects the music. But the people we work with are extremely supportive and generous. And if someone has a drink problem or whatever, or a family related problem, people are there for you. It's actually a very, very amazing community, in my experience, and that's part of the music and why it works the way it does.

AAJ: That tells me that the kick and charge you get from the music must be massive.

MG: You get so much back. We talk about that all the time actually, especially with The Thing, you get so much back. And all the new people you meet during touring, all the new cultures. I was down in Ethiopia with Paal Nilssen-Love about a year ago, with The Ex [Dutch punk band], and I had a big smile and was shaking my head all the time for those ten days. What am I doing here? Born up in Lapland where there is no sun, and cold weather. Then bang! I'm in Ethiopia working with this amazing Dutch group and all the local musicians. The kick you get out of such collaborations you can't comprehend. So then it's not in question. OK, we complain a bit, and maybe it looks pretty bad on Ken's accounts on Twitter and Facebook, but what we get back is so much more. There is no reason to complain about it. I understand why Ken is doing what he is doing, but that's not my cup of tea to expose details. That's something that's between me and my colleagues. I totally respect what he is doing and it gives a unique perspective. It's very interesting what he's doing but I know that a lot of people have different opinions on his Facebooking and Tweeting.

AAJ: I like it. I like the insight. I like the honesty.

MG: Yeah, he is totally honest about stuff, and I admire him for that.

AAJ: Is life on the road different now than it was ten years ago?

MG: I don't think so. Of course I'm more experienced now, maybe more stupid too [laughs]. But I love it. I love being on tour. I love being home too. And in a way I need both. It's the same thing with working groups and new collaborations. The one helps the other. The one feeds the other. And as soon as you recognize that, it's not a real problem. It might be hard for my four year-old daughter to understand the concept of time when I'm gone. When she was smaller she didn't understand a week or a day. But now she gets sad when I leave. It's a matter of communicating what you are doing and why you are doing it, so she can understand why I have to be gone. Also when I come back, that I can just be home. That's one thing I learned over the years as a private detail; the way for me to make this life work, because I love my family so much that I wouldn't risk anything, like touring too much. So one key for me is to work while I'm on tour, like emailing or applying for Arts Council money, putting projects together or listening through master tapes or whatever; I bring everything on tour. So when I'm home I can just be with my family. And that's something I didn't do before, and then it gets very tricky to have a working life at home I think. So that is different with touring nowadays.

Another thing that is different on a totally different level is that in the last few years the scene has changed slightly geographically. So there is much more activity in the former Eastern bloc countries, as well as touring in more exotic places likes Brazil, New Zealand or Ethiopia, which has been completely great on a different level. In the past five or six years there has been a lot of activity in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, the whole of the Balkans. I love it. The audiences are amazing. There's a hunger, there's a need for creative music and you can really feel it. And the audience is much more mixed by gender also, which I think is a very important thing. Every gig is a challenge and every day is a new day, as Joe McPhee says, but I find it more interesting to play for a mixed audience in age and gender in Poland say than to play a gig at a club in Holland for thirty 50-year old men dressed in black with beards.

AAJ: That's me! [laughs]

MG: [laughs] That's me as well, but you know what I mean.

AAJ: I know. I feel better as well when there is more of a mix of those people in the audience.

MG: My intention is not to offend anyone. But it's a very interesting new perspective.

AAJ: What's your take on why Eastern Europe is so supportive now?

MG: It's a lot of reasons, but a lot of those countries, their economies are growing stronger, especially Poland. Without going into the European Union discussion, it is slowly getting better I think for creative art and music. There is, with the help of the internet and other things of course, a much larger interest for this kind of music. We've been very fortunate with The Thing for instance to be able to travel a lot in those countries and we met amazing people with pure energy. In a way the scene has never been as creative and interesting as now, to be honest. I like to be positive about things. Of course, at the same time, it's a struggle because, I don't like to use the word competition, but there are so many more active musicians now than 15 years ago. You can't even compare. And you have all the previous generations still going. If I was 20 years old now and trying as a newcomer to get gigs and to make records it would be so hard. It's almost impossible. So it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand it's extremely difficult. On the other the scene is bigger than ever.

The big downside is the whole economy in Western Europe, when it comes to culture, has been cut down so brutally. If you look at Belgium and Holland and Sweden as well there were major cuts in culture. In Holland there were a whole handful of clubs that just closed down the day after they made a major cut in the budget. So there are some very negative things going on. But on the other side I think the audience has never been as big as now. The only country that has a different trend is Norway. Over the last ten years the amount the government has spent on culture and music especially is overwhelming. I think it is a really good decision, because younger musicians get the opportunity to travel from an early stage. If they can build their own networks internationally, if the money and oil disappears from Norway, those guys still have their networks going. If they do good stuff then they can continue to do good stuff. The Norwegian government is thinking long-term, but everyone else is just thinking short-term. Let's cut culture, but also childcare and hospitals. It's all very political, it's all about money, and it stinks. Sorry, but it is very upsetting what is going on.

AAJ: To finish, you are a famous record collector: there was a program on UK TV, How To Get Your House in Order, where a guy had to drastically slim down his record collection-are you ever worried you might face a similar situation?

MG: Yeah, I'm sick. I have the bug. But also, I think the older you get, you get a different perspective on it. I live with my collection and I love to refine it, to make it better, to find more stuff that inspires me. I like to have a complete Derek Bailey collection. But when I look at it I would rather spend time and money, if I have money, on records and art, something I can be inspired by, rather than having money in the bank, or buying stocks or making stupid investments. If there is any money left over at the end of the month, then I would rather spend it on a record than something else. Then if I have the record, if there is a situation where I need money then I can sell it. And then I have it for ten or 20 or 30 years and I've been enjoying it, then it's gone. Maybe now I'll be excluded by the Discaholics Anonymous Association, but it's a very important thing to have.

Also, collecting records for me is an important part of my life when I'm on tour. You have a couple of hours left, sometimes. Sometimes [laughs]. Some people go to the museums, some people take long walks, but I try to go to the local record shops. For me it's a chance just to be in my own little bubble. To have my own moment so to speak, almost like a therapeutic effect. And I enjoy it very much. Also, to buy records for other people; I have a lot of collecting friends and I know pretty much what they are looking for. I found a cassette with Little Jimmy Scott in New Orleans a couple of days ago, and I know how much Paul Lovens loves Little Jimmy Scott, so I bought it for him. I love doing that. And I love when other people think about me and find something I want and give it to me. So there are a lot of levels and I can talk forever about this [laughs].

Selected Discography

The Thing with Neneh Cherry The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Superjazzz, 2012)

The Thing with Barry Guy, Metal! (No Business Records, 2012)

Sonore (Brötzmann/Gustafsson/Vandermark), Cafe OTO/London (Trost, 2011)

Tarfala Trio (Gustafsson/Guy/Strid) Syzygy (No Business Records, 2010)

The Thing Bag It! ( Smalltown Superjazzz, 2009)

Barry Guy New Orchestra Oort-Entropy (Intakt, 2004)

Sonore, No one ever works alone (Okka Disk 2003)

Gustafsson,/ Håker Flaten/ Nilssen-Love The Thing (Crazy Wisdom, 2000)

AALY Trio + Ken Vandermark Live At The Glenn Miller Cafe (Wobbly Rail, 1998)

Peter Brötzmann The Chicago Octet/Tentet (Okka Disk, 1997)

Gustafsson/Guy/Lovens, Mouth Eating Trees and Related Activities (Okka Disk, 1992)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Ziga Koritnik

Page 4: Michael Hoefner

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