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Alf Terje Hana: The Further Edge

Alf Terje Hana: The Further Edge

Courtesy Svein Erik Fylkesnes

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My legacy is always in me but I’m only looking forward, not backward. Instead of re-doing what has been done, I’m trying to move things… further.
Unless you hail from Norway, chances are you haven't heard of (or are just hearing about) guitarist Alf Terje Hana. With a music career stretching back into the '70s and a sound that's as personally stylized and cutting-edge fresh as anything birthed in the 21st century, Hana's music and name are just starting to circulate in ears outside his homeland. This is due in no small part to Hana—and his group Athana—fortuitously catching the attention of musicians like Stewart Copeland and Gary Husband [see corresponding interview] in recent years—and pay attention they did.

After inviting Copeland to perform Athana's music as a guest with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra in 2013, the ex-Police drummer has appeared on multiple releases by Hana. After Husband (Allan Holdsworth, John McLaughlin) received a sample of Hana's work, the drummer/keyboardist not only played on two of Hana's albums, he asked the guitarist to form a band—with equal billing, no less. That band, The Trackers, released its debut album, Vaudeville 8:45 (Abstract Logix), in 2022 and was well received but perhaps prompted many a listener to query, "Who is this guy?." With plans to tour The Trackers in 2023 and the guitarist continually stepping onto ever larger stages, those queries are bound to get more and more frequent, very soon.

Alf Terje Hana spoke with All About Jazz from his home in Stavanger Norway in the Summer of 2022.

AAJ: What was your musical upbringing like in Norway and how did you get started?

ATH: Well, my family is very musical. My father was playing accordion with a dance band at that time and my older sister Hanne Brit, played in the brass section of the school band, as we all three brothers did also. But my father was also a TV/radio repair guy in the '60s and we were one of the first families on our street to have a TV. So then, suddenly, I saw The Beatles playing "Love Me Do" in '62. I was seven at the time and that made a really big impact on me. There was an acoustic guitar around our house (my brother-in-law Frode´s) and I started strumming and learning chords. It sort of just happened that this became my instrument. Then my younger brother, Stein Egil, started playing drums and we had our first garage band. We rehearsed four times a week. (Laughs) We rehearsed and rehearsed... then we started doing gigs. Also, time is like a filter. There was that period from like 13 to 20 where lots of people would drop out and some of the guys started doing other things but the ones left standing were serious about music. I've been standing ever since. My brother Stein Egil continued for a while, and also my youngest brother, Espen, joined us on keyboards, playing on our rock band's first album, but as time went on—and I was invited to more and more touring and recording situations—we kind of split up. I just had more things going on for myself than they did. I was also the guy who wrote music, organized everything and was the bandleader. I always decided where to go. Eventually, I just decided to go down other avenues to explore.

AAJ: So the first recorded work listed on your site is Wasaband, from around 1983, which is marked by what sounds like a Steely Dan-type influence.

ATH: There were a lot of demo recordings from the '70s and '80s that were just lousy cassettes and such, but it all leads up to Wasaband in a way. I was really into Steely Dan-type stuff, with more chords than just the three-chord, blues-based thing. I was intrigued by more complicated music. I got a taste for Weather Report and was also really into prog—Gentle Giant was my "guidebook." Wasaband hinted at all that but still maintained a kind of pop/rock focus.

AAJ: Your music continued on a similar tack briefly with Timebeat in 1990, then stops for a substantial period. When your next recordings appear as Athana, they're not only separated by a good amount of time, but also by a huge margin stylistically. What happened in the interim?

ATH: At that time, I was doing all this recording for others, and everyone wanted my guitar. These were all people perhaps known in Norway but not internationally. I recorded on over a hundred albums and the pay was nice, but it stole all my time. I couldn't progress on my own music. I also developed a drinking problem. So musically and personally it was a period that I just had to figure out where to go. It became important to me to start getting my own stuff together, musically and personally. So I quit drinking—which is now 27 years ago —and said, "This is the time." So Athana was born.

AAJ: For a lot of people around the world, the only term they might associate with Norwegian music, apart from folk, is "Nordic jazz." Give me a sense of what the music scene in Norway was like for you, coming up and now.

ATH: It's kind of segmented into genres, it's different in different cities but it is also obviously different by decades. In the '90s there was a lot of groove and electronic stuff happening, based out of Oslo. I'm in Stavanger on the west coast and have a different perspective on the whole thing. I feel much more free being here and not being tied to the conceptual Oslo sound. I think they are more "trapped" than I am. I feel no pressure here to be in the zeitgeist. I never thought about that, I just went for it. And if people like it, okay. If not, I don't care. I'm now just doing my true music and I'm not aiming for something that will make me more money or be more popular in "the scene." I've done that in other things I've worked on but I'm done with that. And as far as that Nordic jazz thing goes, I have never been a part of that.

AAJ: Well, in listening to your work in Athana from the last decade, no other descriptor comes to mind more than "individualized," though you yourself sometimes use the terms "nu-prog" and "rhythmic post-industrial soundscapes" to self-categorize. That said, there is a healthy amount of electronica influence also evident.

ATH: Yes, not because of the Oslo scene but because I was into Aphex Twin and a lot of English and Canadian electronica bands. I also draw influence from a lot of ambient and cinematic stuff outside of the obvious Norwegian sound because I don't feel at home there.

AAJ: Also, while your guitar style and sound are incredibly "you," shades of say, Jeff Beck, Terje Rypdal and David Torn seem to be detectable at times. Do any of those players exert an actual influence on you?

ATH: Yeah, I was really knocked out by the Wired (Epic, 1976) album with Jeff Beck. That was like a... it floored me. It did something to my brain, forever. But apart from that, I try to avoid listening to guitar players too much. I find a lot of them repetitive and a bit boring because I'm always looking for the story— "What are you telling me?" When I make music, I try to have that extra dimension. Instead of playing like a cool riff or something, I'm always thinking, "What is this about?" This is more interesting to me than trying to show how fast I am on guitar—because I'm not fast. I want to be a storyteller on guitar.

AAJ: Your music includes a lot of interesting sonics and soundscaping. As on the live Athana album, The May Sessions 0518 with Jody Linscott & Gary Husband (Forte Music NO, 2019), was there any sonic manipulation in post-production or is it all done in real-time, live?

ATH: Nothing was added to the original live recording beyond the normal maximization of sound quality. That was kind of a thing with those sessions. We had a week to rehearse leading up to the concert in Stavanger and we recorded every rehearsal as well. So that album consists of recordings from the concert as well as the rehearsals. But everything is played live and just mixed. That's it. The new Trackers album, Vaudeville 8:45 is more of a full-on studio production with over-dubbing and some other additions.

AAJ: So yes, let's talk about The Trackers, your new project with Gary Husband. I understand you are planning to tour. Is this something you will have some difficulty reproducing live, if you maintain the trio format that is on Vaudeville 8:45?

ATH: I was sort of pushed into a trio for the record but as far as touring goes, I said, "No way." We had this discussion with Souvik [Dutta] at Abstract [Logix]. (laughs) I'm not going to be an octopus with my guitar and loops and all that stuff, no way. So now we are going to be a quartet with a keyboard player so I can concentrate on guitar and not be super stressed onstage. With The Trackers, it is sort of complex and for people who have listened to the record who come to our concerts, I don't want to do a down-scaled trio version of it.

AAJ: What's the target date for the tour?

ATH: We were actually shooting for Autumn 2022 but Gary is so busy on tour with John [McLaughlin] and all, it's pushed back to Spring 2023. I'll be meeting Gary in Molde, Norway for the last gig of the [4th Dimension] tour and we'll have a face-to-face to discuss what bassist and keyboardist we should invite in for The Trackers tour. It's very nice that the album has had some nice reviews and seems like a cool, new thing in some circles. That makes it easier to invite people in than when it's just like for touring a three-day COVID album project.

AAJ: Before this current project with Husband, I guess your first big leap onto a larger platform was Athana playing with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra with Stewart Copeland as a featured guest. Tell a little about how that came about.

ATH: In 2008, Stavanger was designated a cultural capital here in Europe. That meant there was funding floating around. I happened to meet the head of the Stavanger Cultural Department, Rolf Norås, at an art opening and he said, "You have to apply for some money because we're going to lift you up." So I said, [hesitantly] "Okay... " And then my bassist, Øyvind Grong—who also plays tuba in the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra— brought up the idea of doing a symphonic version of my music and I said [hesitantly] "Okay... " I was like, "How the hell am I going to do this... " but we started figuring out what to do, who would do the arranging, and got the funding. Then we had a meeting and we thought about another name to really heighten [the profile] of the concert. Then Øyvind said, "What about Stewart Copeland?" and I said, [dismissively] "Ha ha... How the hell do we get a hold of him?" Then after a while, I warmed to the possibility and we started canvassing to find his email address—the firewall around people of that stature is really high. We tried for weeks and nothing.

Then it came to mind that a very good friend of mine, Charlie Chandler in Kingston, runs the guitar shop CCGX, where a lot of big names go— Jeff Beck, Sting, Gary Moore, etc.—and he said he could help. Two weeks later I got Stewart's contact information and I froze a little. (laughs) So I had Øyvind contact him, as a member of the symphony, with the request and links to the music. A week later, Copeland replied," Yeah, I'm in." After that, he came over and we rehearsed as a quartet for a week and it was unbelievable. I mean, to have Stewart next to me, rehearsing my stuff? It was totally amazing. And now we're friends, He's been on a few subsequent recordings of mine and he's slated to play on an upcoming release of mine as well.

AAJ: Well, that's a pretty special experience. Aside from playing with Copeland, I'm also interested in your take on playing in a symphonic context. The pairing of electric guitars with an orchestra can be a dicey proposition if not done correctly.

ATH: I was really specific with the two people writing out my music—it was too massive for one person to do. I went to Oslo to meet with them and sat and explained what to focus on. I didn't want to be a guitarist playing in front of a "string machine." I wanted to be a part of my own music but really have the orchestra telling that story. I was really pleased with how it came out. Also, I'm pleased with how the Blu-ray of the concert came out as well. It was filmed with multiple cameras and the audio was recorded onto 48 tracks. It's really high-tech and nice-sounding. That's good too because though I own the music and could have performed the music with other orchestras, it was too expensive a production to mount again.

AAJ: You have a sizable amount of remix albums in you body of work. To those coming primarily from a jazz listening background, remixes may be something that they are peripherally aware of but not truly familiar with, as they were a phenomenon spawned in other musical realms. Explain the remix process and why it's an important part of your work.

ATH: The remix thing is a big part of me. I've never done one for someone else but I've always been fascinated by another's take on my music. My band mate Torgeir Nes is also a big influence on me and brings that element into the Athana mix. When I send files to a guy in the US, for example—and I don't point anywhere [for them to go with it]—in a month, when I get them back, it's like Christmas. People leave their own fingerprints on it. It's so them, but all the sounds come from me.

AAJ: But, in that way, remix is a deceptive term. It's actually much more than someone just sitting down at a mixing console and mixing the tracks to their liking.

ATH: It's recomposing the song, in a way. They kind of slice it up, rebuild it, and put their input into it. It's not merely fine tuning, doing another mix on a track, or bringing up the drums. It's a total breakdown, and then a rebuild, of a track.

AAJ: Do you know what the process entails?

ATH: Different people use do remixes in different ways. Some work alone, and some are partners who work together as a team. They drop it all into their system and build them from slices, bits, and pieces. I think it's very interesting. In this time we live in, the technology can give us such a weird creative window on the music. I'm very attracted to that. At the same time, I like to do things in an old-school way when it comes to playing. But then, after I've played it, I can also do this!

AAJ: Remixes started with DJs at clubs mixing together the sound of two records on different turntables, correct?

ATH: Yes. Originally it started with DJs playing records to a dancing crowd. This is now like level two or three, in the digital realm. [Remixers] have become more like musicians in a way. They've gotten deeper inside the music. Not quite instrumentalists, but a different kind of musician, kind of in-between. They're definitely not just guys with a cool haircut spinning records anymore.

AAJ: But you know nothing about the actual process?

ATH: No... (laughs) But I love sending my material out and getting it back because they do things with my music that I could never think of. What they want is the whole session, just the tracks—no effects. They enhance this, slice up that... and I really enjoy it.

AAJ: So when you get those back, are you inspired to re-interpret your own material, based on the remixes?

ATH: Some of those mixes do change the way I want to play those songs live. Even when we played that big gig with Stewart Copeland and the symphony orchestra, some of those songs have elements from the remixes. No one else knows it but I know it. (laughs) It makes the creative canvas in my head even bigger and shows me ways to make the most of my material. It's not like I have them done constantly but from time to time, there are pieces that kind of call out for it. I feel like it gives me a bigger field to work on my material, and it feels nice.

AAJ: Do you approach people to do remixes for you, or do they approach you?

ATH: It's a different playground. These days, I'm into so many more big-scale things and it's more of an underground thing so it's not very common for people to approach me about doing remixes. But I have my little cluster of favorites that have done things for me over the years that I can call on when needed.

AAJ: That's interesting that you get that reverse inspiration from the remix thing. In reading the liners from one of your albums, you also employed an unusual conceptual inspiration to conceive and compose one of your albums. Would you talk about that a bit?

ATH: I have this album called Paviljon (Forte Music NO, 2013). It's the first album of mine that Stewart Copeland played on, just prior to the Stavanger Symphony concert. I had this concept, to make that album in an architectural way, like a house. Meaning that with each song, I would lay down the tracks in a foundational way. The first song will be with rhythm, then the next an ambient track, the next track with rhythm, then an ambient track. And then each track is exactly five minutes in length. So it's kind of like a house, a "paviljon," the same wall sizes, but with different musical content behind each facet/window. So it was an interesting idea to make an album with strict rules like that.

AAJ: It feels paradoxical but it often seems like the more restrictions artists place upon themselves, the more it unlocks their creativity.

ATH: It's does, it's true. You know, I get bored with the normal new album, new music, blah, blah, blah. I'm always looking for new windows, new ways to do stuff.

AAJ: So let's get back to your current band, The Trackers. After meeting and playing with Stewart Copeland, the next big lift in your career was meeting Gary Husband. Tell a little about that and the genesis of The Trackers from your perspective.

ATH: Well, the first thing that happened was I invited Gary to play keyboards on a tune from my Invisible Colours (Forte Music NO 2016) album. It was called "The Elders Too" and it had a very Weather Report vibe to it. I had been listening to a lot of those video clips he puts out on the internet and it got me thinking of Gary playing some of his magic keyboard stuff on that track. It's like he comes from another planet with his playing. I don't get what he's doing but I just love it. So, because I had worked with Stewart Copeland and had that great experience, I wasn't afraid to just send Gary an email asking if he would be interested in playing on a track. He was just the sweetest guy and said to send him the music. So I did, and he fell in love with it. When I heard that I was very excited.

When he got the mix of the track back, he said he also played it for John [McLaughlin], who listened to it on the headset. Gary said that normally when he plays John something, he listens for about 30 seconds and says, "Yeah, nice." This time John listened through the full eight minutes and said, "Great!" That was really nice to hear. Then a while later I got an email from Gary that he had this idea for a new band, Gary Husband and the Trackers, and he wanted me to be the guitarist in it. Well, I didn't see that coming and was totally stunned. So immediately I was super happy and scared shitless. (laughs) I was thinking, "How the hell can I fill those [guitarists'] shoes that he's been around?" But he just told me that he wanted my sound and the way I play—because I wasn't anything like those other guys he had played with. From that point on, I started writing music for The Trackers. That was five years ago now and you know, stuff happened and the world was changed [by COVID]. The original label wasn't that interested in Gary as a solo artist and it all kind of slowed down, but I just continued writing music, I was so inspired. Then everything picked back up again. We got the same label as John McLaughlin, Abstract Logix, interested in doing it, and then it all became a reality.

AAJ: The synergy the two of you have is fairly palpable on the album.

ATH: Yeah. When Gary and I were sitting in my house and in Studio 110, for a week mixing and listening to the album, there were almost no discussions because we were always thinking and pushing in the same musical directions. It's uncanny. We have the same mentality for the music. There was a point when Gary said he just wanted it to be called "The Trackers," with us listed below, as equals. He was so kind to raise me up like that. I mean, who am I? Nobody, and he's like...

So then he started bringing in bassists, each one more famous than the last, to play on the album. Jimmy Haslip, Jimmy Johnson, Etienne Mbappe, etc. I even asked if he could get Mr. Level 42, Mark King, to play on a specific track, and he did. It all sort of clicked in and the guys are all so terrific for the different tracks on the album. I must also mention my bassist Øyvind Grong, along with Kevin Scott and Guy Pratt.

AAJ: So I guess, in a way, that makes it all the more difficult to find the right bassist for the tour. I guess we'll have to wait until The Trackers tour comes around to see how you solved that dilemma. Do you have any other projects in the works?

ATH: I'm working on a new Athana album, slated to come out in November. Stewart will be on one track, Gary on two or three tracks, and Jody Linscott on two tracks as well. Plus it will feature my regular band from Stavanger. It will also include new versions of some Trackers songs. The album is called Garden of Bliss.

AAJ: From the wealth of material on your Bandcamp page and listening from your oldest material to the most recent projects, it's been quite the stylistic journey for you. You are pretty far afield from where you began.

ATH: I've definitely changed over the years but it's like I'm still from the '70s, just with a 2022 outlook on things. In that way, I hope to keep what I do relevant, instead of just looking back.

AAJ: Well, your style spans jazz, rock and electronica. I'm not asking the dreaded (and often useless) question of how you would describe your music to someone else but...

ATH: (laughs) It's one of the worst questions I get... (laughs)

AAJ: What I'm asking is, how do you view yourself as a player?

ATH: I guess I'm a fusion of old and new. It certainly depends where I'm at and what I'm doing in that moment, because I can go really far out with an insane sound and then back again with a riff like Beck or Ritchie Blackmore. So I have a span, but to be me is like... to have total freedom. And I do feel free but I always hope there is a part of me—at my core—that is coming out on the strings, no matter what I do. I'm also trying to have an edge. My legacy is always in me but I'm only looking forward, not backward. Instead of re-doing what has been done, I'm trying to move things... further.

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