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Erland Dahlen: Rolling Bombers and Blossom Bells


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If you listen well enough, you know when the time comes to take the others with you, the audience included. That’s the exciting thing about playing open music.
The drummer, percussionist and composer Erland Dahlen is one of the most proficient musicians of the Nordic jazz community. His collaborations with top ranking musicians, such as Nils Petter Molvaer, Stian Westerhus, Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang, as well as his solo projects, have an unmistakable rhythmic signature owing to his singular instrumental voice. The natural roundness and the musicality of his drums as well as the spatiality of the cymbals and bells create an inspiring rhythmical halo. Dahlen's solo album Rolling Bomber (Hubro Records, 2012) combines the drum work with the electronic sequencing in a multi-layered rhythmical structure with a distinct melodic line.

All About Jazz: Did you grow up in a musical environment?

Erland Dahlen: I would say so. My mother used to sing in the opera choir and my grandfather played jazz for fun. He played ragtime and that kind of stuff. My brother had an impressive collection of records, a lot of pop and rock stuff that I was also listening to. That was my basic education, learning by listening.

AAJ: Do you remember your first drum solo?

ED: Yes, I do. I was maybe 14 years old and playing with a garage band for two years. We were playing Pink Floyd and Beatles covers and I remember that once during a concert somebody shouted: Drum solo! I started playing something I didn't quite understood. It worked all right, though.

AAJ: When did you start playing jazz?

ED: I was in the sixth grade, I think, when I started playing with a big band in Denmark. That was the first band with real rehearsals and gigs. I learned a lot about swing there. When I was twenty I went to Norway, to Kristianstad University and started studying drums with Bruce Rasmussen, who helped me with the techniques. I made many music friends there, and that was very helpful too because later when I moved to Oslo, I got assimilated a lot easier into the musical community.

AAJ: Can you identify the moment when you knew that you were a musician?

ED: I must have been 12 or 13 when I realized that I really liked to play the drums, and later on when I was about 25 I had that moment of realization that I am a musician and I was going to do that for a living. It was a good feeling, I must say, because I had quite a few odd jobs before and all of a sudden it became clear to me that I would not need to do those anymore. It was scary as well because especially at the beginning I was living from day to day with no regular income.

AAJ: What was the most significant moment for your evolution as a musician?

ED: At some point after I left school, I didn't want to sound like all my drumming heroes anymore. There comes a time when stop emulating your masters. That was, I think, the turning point, which brought me a new awareness as a musician and set me on the quest of my own instrumental voice. At that point it is also important to play with bands, which offer you the freedom to develop and define your style. I had that chance, I must say.

AAJ:Who were your musical heroes?

ED: One of them is Jim Keltner, he as a really nice touch always playing full sound, also Tony Williams and Terry Bozzio, are very melodic drummers. And, of course, Jon Christensen, who is a very complex musician.

AAJ: Do you consider yourself a jazz musician?

ED: I wouldn't describe myself strictly as a jazz musician. I have always played many styles, pop, rock and jazz, but I have never seen it narrowly. I am always seeking new ideas and possibilities that help me to express what and how I feel. If the area is larger, the opportunities to develop new ideas are better. This is an ongoing process. It happens quite often that I look at the objects around me and wonder what they may sound like and sometimes I try their sound to see if I can integrate it in my playing. Quite a few things, which are not meant for playing, sound actually very well if they are used in the right way. Many drummers do that. You never know what you can discover in a household or an iron shop. There's a lot of music around us. This comes in handy especially when I play film music, because that's when a lot of sound effects are required in order to suggest a certain atmosphere. The stuff becomes quite bulky with the years, so now I have rented a place where I store it and experiment new sounds and rhythms.

AAJ: Do you think rhythm is a basic endowment of each of us or rather a special talent we need to cultivate and develop?

ED: Good question. From my teaching experience I noticed that some people pick up a rhythmical pattern right away while others find it quite difficult to detect that natural pre-disposition. I had a student once, who made me realize that some people don't have the basic rhythm. I tried to work with him a whole month and I couldn't get any decent rhythmical sequence out of him. That's when I realized that we are not equally endowed. I think that we all have the internal pacing, starting from the inner rhythm of our bodies, but not all of us are capable of expressing it.

AAJ: At what point can you tell if a student has talent?

ED: I can tell it right away.

AAJ: Your sound on the drums has a melodic, velvety texture and a fine deep roundness. Were you consciously working towards a certain tone quality or it just 'happened' along the way?

ED: I really like to be melodically involved with my instrument, especially when I work with Eivind Aarset and Stian Westerhus, because they use long tones and that offers a good opportunity for developing the melodiousness of the drums. I also like to listen to Nils Petter Molvaer's improvisations during the rehearsals and try to put some notes in there, not only the groove. I can produce notes by alternating the tone of the toms. That is my musical concept, but when I improvise I don't think at all, because then I am inside the music listening to what the others are doing. If you listen well enough, you know when the time comes to take responsibility and take the others with you, the audience included (laughs). That's the exciting thing about playing open music. If you play rock, you have a more or less straight line, but in jazz you have a lot more freedom.

AAJ: We all develop certain patterns, in behavior, writing, music, which tend to repeat themselves. What do you do to avoid them?

ED: When I was younger I learned all those drum patterns called Rudiments or Para-diddles until they became part of me. Nowadays I don't think of them anymore but they are there. Any rhythm has a pattern and I think it is rather a matter of how you combine those. Sometimes when I record a concert I listen back to it and I hear things I wasn't aware of playing, and the funny thing is that sometimes I can't play it again, because I don't know how I've done it.

AAJ: Do your pieces have a narrative structure?

ED: Sometimes I plan the structure of the piece but I don't know all the lines in-between. What would make a piece of music similar to a story is the fact that it also needs to build up and to release tension. You always want to give the people an emotional experience, and I think that makes music come close to literature.

AAJ: Tell me about Rolling Bomber.

ED: The kit of the album?

AAJ: Start with the kit.

ED: The Rolling Bomber kits have been produced in 1942 for a very short time. These drums have wooden hoops and are very hard to find. In those days they were allowed to use only ten percent metal because the metal was needed in the war industry, so they ended up being made of wood. I saw a drummer once in Oslo, his name is Jay Bellerose, playing on a Rolling Bomber kit and I liked the natural resonance of the sound. Then I met Roger Turner, a British percussionist who is also a collector of drums, and although at the beginning he wouldn't hear of it, in the end he sold me a kit. I drove all the way to UK to get it. Those are big size drums and the wooden structure gives the sound a natural kind of deepness. I take them with me to gigs whenever I get the chance. If not, I always try to tune and prepare my drums with tape, so that they don't resonate too much. I don't like the sound to jump back at me.

AAJ: And the Rolling Bomber project?

ED: I based my solo record on these drums and therefore I thought that Rolling Bomber would be a good name for the album. I had about ten ideas I took to the studio, but most of the stuff was improvised. I had the outline of some structures and all the rest happened in the studio, while I was recording. Because I am playing so much with other musicians I wanted to see if it could work to do something all by myself. The plan was to use a lot of percussion and some electronics, like drum machine and certain devices that helped me modify the sound. That was the whole idea. It worked out all right and it was a very exciting project.

AAJ: To what extent can you reproduce in a concert a studio session mostly based on improvisation?

ED: I take the essence out, the tone of the drum. When I play, I use the same tonality, also for the drum machines. The melodic lines are written down, so I will be sure to use those, but all the rest is new each time. All the drums are improvised. The idea that people want to listen to what I am doing is very inspiring.

AAJ: What defines the synergy of your work with Nils Petter Molvaer and Stian Westerhus?

ED: It is always fun to play with Nils Petter because he is open-minded and gives a lot of freedom to the musicians. I started playing with him on Baboon Moon (Sony, 2011) and the music changed a lot ever since but we change together in a good way. Stian is a very inspiring musician.

AAJ: Do you listen to your own music a lot?

ED: Not immediately after the release, because by the time a record is finished, you don't want to hear it anymore (laughs). But after a few years I get back to it to and see how I developed or how I did some things before.

AAJ: What are you listening to these days?

ED: I listen to Bill Frisell, and you will laugh, I like to listen to Elvis Presley.

AAJ: Future plans?

ED: I am working on my second solo album coming out probably next year. It will be based on many very melodic bells, and therefore I think that it will be called Blossom Bells -those small bells with a very large chromatic scale. I may bring in some electronic guitar sound as well. I am also going to play with Stian's band and I will go on tour in Germany, in October next year, with Eivind Aarset. We are also planning a couple of gigs with Tore Brunberg. I am lucky to play with all these people.

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