It's hard to believe that Norway's Jaga Jazzist is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, in 2014. Not that there aren't other groups that have lasted as long, but look for a group whose primary composer was just 14 when the whole thing began, find a band where five out of its eight current members were there when everything started in 1994, and scope out one that has managed to remain as stylistically enigmatic and impossible to categorize as... well, you get the idea.
For those of you who are reading this, having purchased this 20th anniversary box set, a pop-quiz:
Jaga Jazzist is:
a. A jazz band
b. A rock band
c. A progressive rock band
d. A hip hop group
e. A rap group
f. A reggae group
g. A polka band
h. A comedy band
i. An electronica group
j. A classical ensemble
k. A choral ensemble
l. All of the above
m. None of the above
The answer for any who have heard the group's entire discography is, indeed, both (l) and (m) because in its two decades of existenceacross five studio albums, one live album, five EPs (CD and vinyl), one live DVD and now this box setJaga has, at one time or another, been all of these things and yet at the end of the day is really none of them. Are there strong hints of progressive rock on 2010's One-Armed Bandit
? Absolutely, especially in the group's melding of rock power and Steve Reich
-like minimalism on the unrelenting "Toccata." Does choral work figure into the equation on 2005's What We Must
? You bet; check out "Swedenborgske Rom," one of the group's most flat-out beautiful pieces. How about the unmistakable influence of electronica on 2001's A Livingroom Hush
and the 2002 follow-up, The Stix
? No doubt, from the stuttering opening moments of Livingroom Hush
's "Animal Chin" to the massively processed drums on The Stix
But for the relative few who've heard the group's almost impossible to find 1996 debut, its Norwegian-sounding title really just a pun (Grete Stitzt
, get it? Greatest Hits), there are still signs of, well, greater
things to come. A nascent Jaga Jazzist (then called Jævla Jazzist, more upon which later) schizophrenically swings and then gets down with its bad ire self on "Serafin"; polkas out, albeit briefly, at near-light speed on "Intro"; chills out with some rap-driven funk on "Jazzthang"; meshes histrionic Carl Stalling-informed cinematics with some Balkan-inflected clarinet musings on "Tyrkisk Pepper"; and effortlessly shifts during "Out of Reach (Or Switched Off)," from lo-fi swing to viscerally grooving hip hop/rap, and finally for the rest of its nearly 29 minutes, some zany Norwegian standup comedy. Oh, to be Norwegian and to understand why
those people are laughing.
Yet for all the stylistic referencestouchstones ranging, in some cases enigmatically, from Gil Evans
to Radiohead, My Bloody Valentine to Tortoise
, and Oslo 13 to Motorpsycho
Jaga sounds like all of these things... and none of them. At the end of the day, Jaga Jazzist sounds like nothing but Jaga Jazzist, having developed a personal language that's all the more remarkable when considering the 24 musicians, playing a total of over 140 instruments, that have come and gone in the past two decadesmany of whom have moved on to similar critical and, in some cases, significant popular acclaim. What band that considers (and markets) itself more rock than jazz includes, beyond the usual guitars, basses, drums and keyboards, such things as vibraphone, marimba, bass clarinet, glockenspiel, tamboura, melodica, marxophone and tuba in its sonic arsenal?
Anytime the group has faced a change in personneland there have clearly been manyit has managed to follow John Cleese's Fawlty Towers
motto of "adopt, adapt and improve," finding fresh ways for the remaining and new members to navigate compositions that may seem easy on the ears, intensely melodic and at times, positively incendiary with rock and roll attitude, but which are invariably complex under the sheetsthough never simply for the sake of it.
Lars Horntveth, who after years of shaking down is now Jaga Jazzist's primary composer and a multi-instrumentalist that onstage plays guitar, lap steel, keyboards, saxophones and bass clarinet, has very strong feelings about his approach to writing. Talking about One-Armed Bandit
, he says, "Our idea was to take a bunch of progressive elements, like a bunch of different meters"Prognissekongen" has, I think, five or six different metersbut even with all these meters we still try to make the music as catchy as possible, but it is not all
about being catchy, it's always about avoiding being complex just for the sake of it, avoiding riffs that sound too fancy. If you hear them once you might be impressed, but if you hear them again you mightor, at least, I
mightget irritated, so I'm always trying to make music that may be complex, but is catchyeven if it's only catchy for me [laughs]."
At 34, Horntveth is a confident composer who knows what he likes while, at the same time, striving to push his own personal envelope and prevent the onset of predictability often too common with bands achieving Jaga's longevity. That's no small challenge for any composer, but even more so given a musical approach that is at once epically cinematic while, at the same time, eminently accessible and singable. He may hear a multitude of references in the music he makes that few others can. "There is a fine line between being catchy and cheesy," Horntveth explains. "I tend not to like music that is similar to Jaga [laughs], and I know when people make comparisons between our music and someone else's, I think 'Yeah, but that music could be so much better if they made other choices [laughs].'
"It's the small things," Horntveth continues. "Maybe I'm being a little bit hard on myself, but knowing all the references I've been listening to when writing for a record, I mean, it's not like this music is coming out of nowhere; there are major references. But how it all finally comes together in our music is influenced by my personal musical language, the strongest aspect being my sense of melody. This is both my strength and weakness. It's a weakness because I'm always trying to avoid our new music sounding like previous albums, but I can often feel trapped by my own melodic sense, making it very difficult to write new music for Jaga. Still we always try to include new elements that hopefully make our music sound somewhat different and transcending. Hey, I'm always trying to cover my tracks!"
What band that lives in the nether region between rock and jazz, other than Jaga Jazzist, can lay claim to such instrumental diversity? And while the group's size has, over the years, whittled down from the twelve people on Grete Stitz
to the current relatively lean lineup of eightthat is of course, when not collaborating with chamber orchestras on albums like 2013's Live with Britten Sinfonia
anyone who has had the good fortune to catch a Jaga Jazzist show knows that the stage still looks like it has enough instrumentation to open a small music shop, and yet when siblings Lars, Martin and Line Horntveth hit the stage alongside Andreas Mjøs, Even Ormestad, Øystein Moen, Erik Johannessen and Marcus Forsgren, at some point throughout the group's set, every single one of those instruments will be used... and for good reason.
While the members of Jaga would, perhaps, prefer to forget about their first album ("it was supposed to be our first and last album, jokes Horntveth, "so we started out making our farewell album") and consensually agree that the 1998 EP, Magazine
, was Jaga's first record to really assert what the group was about and would ultimately become, the truth is that the formation of a group that has, across two decades, been predicated on a relentless desire to reinvent itselfall the while remaining somehow unmistakably identifiableis a tale worth telling. It's the tale of three siblingsfrom youngest to oldest, Lars, Martin and Lineand a group of friends who all grew up in Tønsberg, a town of 41,000 people that is generally regarded as the oldest town in Norway, situated about 100 km south-southwest of the nation's capital, Oslo.
It's a tale of friendship, family and music that would likely never have happened any other way. It's also the story of a group whose impact on the Norwegian music scene may be measurable in units sold, but immeasurable in the members past and present who have also gone on to numerous other successes. It's also a tale about the vibrant Norwegian scene of the past 20 years, and how one group would become so influential that, at least for a time, its inestimably talented horn section was regularly farmed out to other projects as "The Jaga Horns"working with everyone from Trondheim Jazz Orchestra
, Turbonegro and Susanne Sundfør to Motorpsycho, Bigbang and American jazz legend Chick Corea
and whose members, to this day, continue to reap extracurricular successes as musicians, composers and producers of music ranging from film music to pop, and from singer/songwriter to jazz.
It's also a tale best told through the group's collective memory because, despite the oldest member of the band being only in her late thirties and the youngest in his early thirties, there is much that's either forgotten or remembered differently. And with each member of the band, past and present, representing something differentfulfilling a different role that goes beyond the instrument(s) they playedit's a tale that only reveals itself by listening to as many people as possible.
Early Days, Early Recruits
The five members of Jaga Jazzist 2014 who were there at the beginning all have musical backgrounds of some kind; after all, Norway is a country that still believes in culture as part of the social fabric, and the availability of music education from an early age is a given. Still, how brothers Lars and Martin Horntveth, along with sister Line, came to their respective primary instrumentssoprano saxophone, drums and tubareflects both their strong-mindedness and a general distaste for orthodoxy that was an early indicator of how and why Jaga would sound so different, break down so many musical boundaries and evolve into the square peg that will never fit into any round hole.
This avoidance of convention was particularly strong in Martin. "I never liked being taught," he says. "I really hated it when people tried to teach me anything. I hardly showed up to drum classes. That's really the way I've learned things all my life... to do things my own way. I get into stuff and try to figure out how it works; I just dive in. I didn't show up to singing classes, listening classes, piano classes or music history classes; I skipped them all and wrote music. I didn't get the education I needed, but I didn't care. I had just one goal; I wanted to be a musician, a composer."
You'll rarely find one in any bandlet alone a group that views itself as more rock than jazzbut Line's tuba has become a Jaga signature. "I began playing baritone [euphonium] when I was 9," she says, "but switched to tuba when I was 15. I ended up liking tuba more, because the sound is amazing. You have more options and it's a lovely instrument that you can use in any genre. Erik often tells me that I should practice more, and I admit it; I've never been good theoretically, but I'm just not interested. I don't want to play scales and rehearse; I just want to play music."
Unlike Line, Lars liked to practicea lotbut a bout of tendonitis in his mid-teens put an end to that, even though he remains a saxophonist who can solo with the best of them when need be. Still, out of adversity came otherperhaps even betterthings as he began picking up all kinds of other instruments. Playing multiple instruments has, in fact, become a fundamental part of being Jaga. When flautist Ketil Einarsen left the band in 2007, Line picked it up well enough to play parts that the songs required. These days, as the group considers its options after the departure of Mathias Eick earlier this year, Johannessen is learning to play trumpet proficiently enough so that Jaga can still play tunes where that instrument is key.
"We grew up in a family where our parents were amateur singers, but were also involved in everything that was happening culturally in our hometown," says Lars. "So we grew up around a lot of musicians and theatre people and were super inspired by that. There was this other big band in townan amateur big band with original music and some professional musicianscalled Slagen Storband. Line joined the band first, and then Martin joined, and a couple of years later I joined. It became the inspiration to start Jaga; the idea was Martin's and his friend Ivar's (who played trumpet), so basically we started the band with Martin's friends and family and Ivar's friends."
Ivar Johansenwho left Jaga in 2001 to become one of the country's biggest pop stars for his own brand of Norwegian rap musicfleshes out the story: "When I was 15, I joined the school band playing the trumpet, and a few years later I started playing in a large band. And there I saw Martin, sitting there smiling behind the drums. We began to hang out in all the breaks. One day we were on a bus to Trondheim and we had this idea of forming our own band instead of playing in the town band. So that's where Jaga really started."
Lars picks up the story: "When the band started it was more like a jazz club. We started watching movies together in our home, like Bird
and 'Round Midnight
not really interesting films for teenagersso we started playing. There was this very short song Martin wrote called "Jævla Jazzist" and that became our name. It actually has a really bad meaning: 'Jævla' means 'fucking'not sex, but like saying 'fucking Jazzist.' It was around 1993 or '94, and there was this big neo-Nazi thing going on in our town and Norway in general, for some strange reason, so this was like saying 'fucking that' as well. At the time there were these shows like 'Rock against Neo-Nazis' and 'Rock against Fascism'all local showsand we did our first show at the local library, for one of those 'Rock against Something' shows. We ultimately changed our name to 'Jaga' Jazzist because all our posters were being torn down; the name wasn't exactly great in the first place."
While Jaga was listening to jazz at the time, it's an important distinction that the single biggest influence cited by early members came not from the American tradition, but from the vibrantand stylistically very differentNorwegian scene; keyboardist/composer Jon Balke
and his renowned 1980s/90s big band, Oslo 13. But if the nascent Jaga was informed by Oslo 13, it was more the spirit than the letter, inspired by Balke's melting pot of American jazz, Norwegian traditionalism, contemporary classicism and so much more.
"Jon Balke always tends to be the guy we refer to, because we listened to his music and Oslo 13 so much. But at the same time, Martin and I were huge fans of rap and hip-hop," says Lars. "We wanted to combine it all in Jaga, but it was this very strange combination. At the time you had bands like Guru's Jazzmatazz, the whole acid jazz thingand, of course, you had bands like the Roots, which had some jazz in them, but more American jazz. The thing about our combination was that it was Norwegian
jazz combined with hip-hop."
By the time the group released Grete Stitz
in 1996, it was a 12-piece band that also included three more friends of the family, two of whom have remained with the group to this day; bassist Even Ormestad
and vibraphonist/guitarist Andreas Mjøs
"There was actually another bassist before me in Jaga, who played their first two concerts," says Ormestad. "Then he didn't show up for the third, so Martin asked me to be a sub for the fourth show and I've been a sub now for nineteen years [laughs]."
Ormestadwho, in addition to running a recording studio of his own, has, like Lars, Martin, Mjøs and Forsgren, become a busy producer outside of Jagacame from a rock and pop background, and it's that very diversity that makes Jaga so special. Ask Ormestad what appeals to him most about playing in Jaga and he'll tell you it's about finding the right part and nailing it, night after night. "I really like written parts, all the different musical details that I think are so important. The bass guitar can be very important in conjunction with what the drummer is playing. I really like to work with arrangements on that level, where every note, every beat counts."
Ask Mjøs the same question and his answer is almost the exact opposite, finding the freedom Jaga affords an appealing contrast to his original studies to become a classical percussionist. Mjøs may have been playing vibraphone and marimba when he joined Jaga, but as he says, "I wanted to play the drum kit or guitar. I wasn't that interested in classical percussion with Jaga for the first year, but Lars wrote a song called 'Serafin,' where he wanted to have vibraphone. I didn't want to do it but I was the only one who could
do it, so I started playing the vibraphone from then on. That said, the vibraphone really isn't very close to my heart."
Of all the tracks on Grete Stitz
, "Serafin" is the one that stands out as an early template for what the groupand who Lars, as a writerwould become. "Lars has a lot to be proud of on that first album," says Martin, "because he was 13 or 14 when he wrote 'Serafin.' That's pretty crazy, especially when you listen to it now."
Jørgen Munkeby is another early Jaga recruit who appears on Grete Stitz
and stayed with the band for seven years before leaving for critical and popular acclaim with his own group, Shining
. Unlike the less orthodox Horntveths, Munkeby loved the regimen of practice, whether it was saxophone, skateboarding or mixed martial arts. "I practiced a lot," Munkeby says. "My teacher wanted me to check out jazz and I didn't particularly like it, but when I became interested in scales and chords and theory it felt like jazz and bebop were the places to learn them. Even though I didn't like bebop much, I liked how they were able to improvise. I liked sitting down with chords and figuring out how to get from one chord to the next, adding substitutes and new notes."
Grete Stitz, Magazine, Early Gigging, and Enter Mathias Eick
Jaga released Grete Stitz
in 1996 and for an independent release it did extremely well, selling out 1,000 copies in just four months. More importantly, it grabbed the attention of people like Helge Sten
a former member of Norway's legendary Motorpsycho and an underground figure in the Oslo scene who would soon become far more ubiquitous, both in the then-nascent noise improv group Supersilent
and as one of the country's busiest producers and engineers. It also caused people like former skateboarding champion and Bigbang singer/guitarist Øystein Greni to stand up and take notice, along with Martin Revheim, who started Blåthe legendary club that was Oslo's most important venue for electronic music from 1997 into the new millenniumand hired Jaga Jazzist for its opening night on word-of-mouth alone, having never actually seen the group live.
"We got attention because it was such a bizarre group," says Lars. "Grete Stitz
was a very strange album when it came out. It wasn't like any one particular style; it was a bunch of things put together. So we started playing more shows in Oslo, mostly in small clubs. We signed to this label, dBut, and recorded the Magazine
EP, which was actually made in a bunch of different places and released in 1998."
While the 28-minute, four-track Magazine
EP was no less eclectic than Grete Stitz
, it was the record where Jaga's voice began to emerge more fully, with Lars' opening "Jaga Ist Zu Hause" ("Jaga Is In the House") and "Plym" both logical follow-ups to "Serafin" and demonstrating Jaga's textural breadth, long-form cinematic complexities, intrinsic lyricism and rampant multi-instrumentalism. A relatively rare Mjøs composition, "Swedish Take-Away," was culled from a live performance centered around a lengthy solo from Kåre Nymark (who subbed for Jaga's regular trumpeter, Sjur Miljeteig, on that occasion), while Martin's closing "Seems to Me" is a rarity in the Jaga songbook; an almost folk song, with Martin trading in his drums for acoustic guitar, and vocals. As good as the other tracks are, it's even clearer that Lars' writing was already defining the group's identity.
"After we made Magazine
we were working with things that were kind of drum 'n' bass-ish; I think we were one of the first bands in Norway to do drum 'n' bass," says Lars. "So we did that for a while and then suddenly we just changed direction and ended up doing more of a soul thing, which we never recorded. We were very inspired by Money Mark's first album, which I still think is brilliant, Mark's Keyboard Repair. So we tried to do something like thatthe whole Mo' Wax kind of thing. I wrote a bunch of soul instrumentals, but it was almost impossible to make it sound like Money Mark and the music was never recorded.
"It turned out to be a good live thing that was hugely popular because it was so approachabledoing the soul stuff while still playing some rap songs," Lars continues. "But it was actually Martin Revheim who, when we were talking about doing another album and going in this soul direction, said, 'don't do it, that's not what's original about your band. Skip that shit and go for the more modern drum 'n' bass.'
"We had never actually heard drum 'n' bass when we recorded it on our first album," Martin Horntveth interjects. "I was just told that drum 'n' bass was like a reggae beat, and then a reggae beat with a double tempo."
By the time Magazine
was released, another person who would go on to become a key member of Jaga was recruited to replace the departing Miljeteig (who played on three of Magazine
's four tracks). Like Miljeteig, Mathias Eick
's main instrument was trumpet, but he also played double bass and vibraphone with Jaga, even at times sitting down and playing piano beside current keyboardist Øystein Moen
"I'd heard about this gang from Tønsberg when I was about 16," says Eick. "My father and his wife were in Tønsberg and heard this crazy gang of kids playing in costumes, but they were really good; they did everything. It was like the most bizarre combination of rap and swing jazz and bebop and new written music. It was quite schizophrenic. So then I met Even, and he was really going on about the Jaga thing and I was thinking, 'Wow, you guys are really serious'they had already released an album. At the same time, I met Jørgen, and we started playing together a little bit. Then, when Sjur Miljeteig quit the band, Jørgen asked if I would think about playing in Jaga. He took it to Martin and Lars, they called me a little later and I joined in August 1997."
What Makes Jaga Jaga?
While Jaga's early days were more compositionally egalitarian, it didn't take long to realize that what made Jaga sound like Jaga was Lars' writing. Bands and democracies are often considered mutually exclusive, yet one thing that has defined Jaga from the very beginning is how, despite Lars being the group's primary composer, everyone in the band contributes to the final shape of the material, whether it's in the arrangements, the production or the sound and shape. In fact, for Jaga's upcoming studio recording, it is adopting an entirely different approach; rather than having the entire band at the studio all at once, Lars is acting as ringleader, bringing people in to contribute, one or two at a time.
"The way we're working now, I work all the time and then every other guy comes in, one by one, or maybe two at the most," Lars explains. "So in January Øystein came to Los Angeles [where Lars now lives for roughly half the year] to start demoing ideas and then, in the heat of the moment, Martin wanted to join in so he came along, and our producer, Jørgen [Træen]. I have preamps and a lot of microphones and everything, so we were able to record the drums properly in this studio apartment I rented in Lincoln Heights. The next time it was Marcus and me, and he didn't play guitar for the whole 10 days he stayed. He's a great producer and engineerhe's not a jazz guy at all and that fits the band very well. I think he's a fantastic guitarist; especially in a role where maybe 50 percent of what he plays is actually notes, the other half is about sound; he loves doing that stuff.
"I think it's a bit strange that I've become the primary writer, because Martin is such a big part of the band," Lars continues. "Everyone's a big part of the band, but it's pretty much me and Martin running the band, making all of the good and bad decisions. He's such a strong voice in the band that it's strange he stopped writing. Magazine
EP was the last time that he actually wrote for Jaga, except for The Stix
's 'Day,' and that was actually a leftover from some of his solo work; he did electronic music as a solo act for a while and released a couple of EPs. Martin's a guy who goes from project to project, whereas I tend to hold onto things. Over 20 years, there have been times when I've been so fed up with everything and tired of being the main force, but it's been worth it. I love being in the studio, seeing how the music evolves, and I also love playing live with people that I know, people I've known for all my life; it's super important to me."
Another thing that differentiates Jaga from most bands is that beyond the playing, everyone has another important role to play. In addition to managing the group's various social media pages and visual content, Martin is the group's on-and-offstage spokesperson, capable of driving a crowd into a positive frenzy and always spending time after the shows talking with fans and signing autographs. Line handles the merchandise alongside Erik, who also acts as the band accountant. Even takes care of all the technical details with respect to staging, including hiring and/or approval of the backline provider. Øystein manages grant applications and co-management. Andreas is intimately involved with recording, mixing and mastering. Marcus is increasingly involved in production and composition/arrangement.
Jaga also approaches the day-to-day realities of the road in ways that also reflect its clear organizational skills. "We've had this system for at least 12 or 13 years, where we alternate days for all the rigging," explains Lars. "One half of the band sets up the stage one dayputting up the instruments, the props, everythingwhile the other half has the day off, so they just have to come to the sound check and everything is ready. The next gig, we switch.
"It's about balancing the work, but it's also about balancing the irritation [laughs], because we also have a strict system for soundchecks," Lars continues. "When soundchecking with other bands I'm so irritated because there's no systempeople just come and go and everything takes so long. With Jaga, we have Martin soundcheck first and then it's Even, Andreas, Marcus, Erik, Line, Øystein and then me, because I have the most instruments. So, when I hear the bass I know what's next; there is no waiting and everyone knows. We always play the same song so we can listen and check out our monitors. What's boring about touring is there's a lot of waiting. So if you can minimize that and maybe take some time offlike if you're in Rome and it's not your day to rig, then you have a whole day to spend there. Of course, sometimes it's a pain in the ass because if you're someplace where you'd really like to look around and it's your day to rig, then you don't have the time."
No Family Exists Without Conflict
Because of its size and the number of people who have come through the group, Jaga has dealt with more than its fair share of strong personalities. Everyone refers to Jaga as family, yet no family exists without conflict. Sometimes tension, changes in lifestyle or simply the realization that there's just not enough room for personal expression has led to the departure of significant members like Jørgen Munkeby, Ivar Johansen, guitarists Harald Frøland and Stian Westerhus
, and keyboardist Morten Qvenild
who, after gigging and playing on The Stix
, has gone on to critical acclaim as a member of singer Solveig Slettahjell
's Slow Motion groups, one-half of Susanna and The Magical Orchestra
, and one-third of his own longstanding piano trio, In The Country
Unlike most bands, however, in almost every case the conflict has always been about the music. And even when there is conflictas there is, particularly epically, between Martin and Larsthere's still respect. "Martin is so much more hyperactive and I'm usually more calm and patient," Lars says. "But that's one of the fantastic things about him. He's like a method actor who gets into character before a show and stays in it afterwards. I've tried to do that as wellit's a fabulous way of getting into the music because what you want when you play a concert, of course, is not to think at all; you just want to be in the flow of it. With 99% of the concerts I don't think at all, I just play and enjoy it, but sometimes you're just not that into it. That happens, but with Martin, he just pretends; and then he believes
that he is that crazy, hyperactive guy.
"That said, I feel that he doesn't think too much before he talks sometimes, and he's not that considerate or respectful of how much time I put into this group. I'm sure he has the same feelings towards me; it's a brother thing. We have these big fights and then we try to figure out how we can avoid them. We've played together in bands since I was 11, so there's clearly something there that makes it worthwhile and these problems are always when we rehearse or record; when we play live it's just funwe enjoy it so much. But we still have some serious issues, though it's always about the music. I might make a suggestion as to how his drums should soundwhat kind of pattern I'm interested in havingand then, from my point of view, he'll always put it down; he always hates my ideas. What I try to do is to make him learn the stuff I've programmed and then try to expand upon that stuff; I don't want it to be exactly how I've done it because I'm not a drummer."
"That sibling stuff is not solved; it's still a big problem," adds Martin. "It's hard to put into words. I don't think it's jealousy, but maybe it's that you want to get feedback from your brother, but you don't and this goes on for 20 years. We also say great things to each other, but there's something in the air all the time, it's something between us that we haven't figured out. We had a long chat in some field in the middle of Bethlehem in 2000, and we really felt like we could start over. It has been much better, but we still have issues. The really big problem, when we have been fighting, is that all the other members are just waiting, sitting in the studio or sitting in the rehearsal space. Nobody gets involved because it's been Lars and I who have made the big decisions over the years. They really should say, 'OK brothers, just figure this out outside' or something, but we've always been discussing musical stuff, so it's been hard. That said, I think a lot of our discussionsthe stuff we disagree onis ultimately good for the music. So in some ways the tension is good, but it would be great to figure this out in a useful way."
"I know what I want," says Lars. "Still, if I was a really pushy, driven person I wouldn't give the freedom that I do to the rest the band; I wouldn't give Martin the spokesperson role that he has live. I remember when we toured Japan, playing to 11,000 people at Fuji Rock, one of the most amazing gigs we've ever had. This was back when Martin had this long beard, looking like a pop star, so he got recognized all the time while I was wearing shorts and looking like a tourist. So, we were hanging around the festival just checking out bands and we stopped at this place to have a smoke or something and suddenly these two Japanese girls come up and they're saying, 'Take a picture, we take a picture,' and so we said, 'Sure.' So they started taking pictures of the band and suddenly there were all these people joining them. I'm standing on the far left, feeling like this kind of fool when suddenly this girl comes up and says 'Can you take a picture?' I say, 'Sure, sure,' and so she gives me the camera and I'm supposed to take a picture of her and her friend, so I guess I don't have that much charisma [laughs]."
But it's not just tension between the two brothers. With Jaga still considered, by some, to be in the jazz sphereeven though it presents itself more as a rock group and is signed to Ninja Tune, a label more associated with indie electronic musicmany of its members are absolutely virtuosos, Lars included, though he rarely takes the opportunity to demonstrate it. There is some room for soloing in Jaga: the live version of One-Armed Bandit
's "Bananfluer Overalt" on Live with Britten Sinfonia
pays tribute to Gil Evans
and Miles Davis' classic Sketches of Spain
and features a show-stopping solo of profound beauty from Eick; and the lengthy scored intro to One-Armed Bandit
's title track on the same live album features a bar-raising feature for Johannessen.
But Jaga is simply not an improvising band. "That's always been a problem with Jaga," says Lars. "There's not always room for a trumpet solo, a trombone solo, or a saxophone solo for that matter. It's simply not what the music requires. Jaga is a band
; it's not a jazz project, where you have a lot of freedom for solos. It's more like a rock band presenting its music than a jazz band playing improvised music. But the jazz connections are in the detail of the music. It's not for people with super strong voices like Morten [Qvenild], Ivar [Johansen] and Jørgen [Munkeby]; it's totally natural for them to quit the band because it's not possible for them to get as much of their stuff into the band because Martin and I take up a lot of space [laughs]."
"With Jørgen, I think there were a lot of reasons, but in the end I think he just got bored," says Martin, so he started a new band called Shining. "He wanted to do more of his stuff, and he tried to get his more progressive music into Jaga, but we ended up saying no to all the songs. But it's great that we actually rehearsed most of his first Shining album, In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be a Monster
. We even recorded one of the songs on What We Must
. Some of the craziest, really great music that he made we rehearsed."
A Livingroom Hush & The Stix: Enter Jørgen Træen
Jaga Jazzist has yet to release an album that's anything less than superb, but members from the turn of the millennium agree that A Livingroom Hush
and The Stix
are their best. That's a tough call, but what is certain is that the introduction of Jørgen Træen as Jaga's producer resulted in a monumental paradigm shiftalmost as if the final piece of the puzzle had been found. If Magazine was Jaga's first record to represent what it was on the road to becoming, A Livingroom Hush
was the album where Jaga truly arrived, learning how to use the studio as another member of the band.
With the exception of What We Must
, all of Jaga's subsequent recordings have been produced, co-produced and/or mixed by Træen, including the upcoming studio set. "Jørgen basically changed the whole band," says Lars. "That's why we still love working with himbecause of that thing he does. He wasn't well known at the time and the reason we went with him was because he had recorded and produced a band called Sister Sonny; Martin liked the drum sound on the album so we listened to it and asked him if he wanted to produce us. "
Jaga had already been rehearsing the music for Livingroom Hush
, but what came out of the studio couldn't have been more different. "They wanted to do a live recording, but I didn't," says Træen. "The music was too complex and it just didn't sound good live, in my opinion. I had never worked with a band similar to Jaga at the time. I don't come from that kind of jazz approach; I come from rock and pop music, so it was immediately too complex for me to understand. I must admit I was slightly bored with the music" [laughs].
"So, I started deconstructing the music a bit," Træen continues. "We tried to do the live stuff as much as possible, but I was really pushing that we needed to work on a one-on-one basis. I remember I was really working hard to get away from the musician's way of thinking and more about if an instrument is there, what's its function? What's it going to bring to the song? I was more into the function
of what they were playing, a much more pop arrangement way of thinking, but in a slightly experimental way."
"None of us had that much experience with modern music production, in terms of how to use a computer, the way that Jørgen did," says Ormestad. "He really showed us how powerful a tool a computer is in the studio. If you listen to the first track on Livingroom Hush
, 'Animal Chin,' all the different soundslike the drum arrangements and the whole middle eight sectionthat's all very much Jørgen."
"We spent really long days in the studio12 or 14 hours a day, seven days a weekand then we'd go out, have a few beers and talk about things," says Mjøs. "It was a really fantastic time. The way the album sounds, the way Jørgen molded the sounds and created new ones beyond what we did. It has a direct energy. Almost all the songs are great songswe still play some of them today. But when I think back on that time I think about Jørgen, with Lars, Martin and I sitting behind him; it was really exciting."
"It was the way he was thinking about music from a different perspectivenot listening to all the melodies and chords and thinking, 'Well, this is a lot of interesting stuff. We need to record all this,' says Martin. "It was more like, 'I don't understand this at all. Will you either explain it to me or just skip it.' Or, 'I don't care if you rehearsed this stuff for six months; I don't get it at all.' It was much harder than with anybody we had ever met. It was so good for us because there were a lot of ideas we'd rehearsed for ages and Jørgen could be really forceful about pushing the music into a totally different direction."
"The way he recorded, it was not a live recording at all, not like we'd done before," Lars adds. "One of the songs, 'Going Down,' was hugely inspired by Tortoise and 'TNT'
; I think Martin was playing along to one of their songs and we just recorded him improvising on top of it. Then we took away everything and I added sax and we made the arrangement around that. The way we did it live it was much more epic; more like a power ballad, but the way Jørgen produced it, he was at his best, I think. He took different parts of what we had and flipped them around and changed themchanged the chorus, changed the versebasically just working inside the computer, remixing.
"So almost all the songs on that album are remixed in a way," Lars continues. "And that kind of thinking became my biggest inspiration as a producerthat you're in the studio, can use the studio for whatever you want, and don't have to think about how this is going to be played live. After we did that album we changed the whole way we were playing. We tried to make it as similar to the album as possible, and it worked quite well. We started to get much more focused on details, focused on dynamics and how to make it sound the way it did on the album, which is impossible in a way, but it's not. How we sounded after that album was so different.
"Many of the programmed electronic sounds on that album and The Stix
are very much JørgenMartin too, but Jørgen did a lot of those soundscapes. But live, our guitarist Harald Frøland was doing all of that stuff and that's when his role changed from being quite a normal guitarist to doing mostly effects. And that's become the role for all our guitarists since. Most of the time, when I play guitar I'm playing the more straightforward stuff and the guitarist is more like the effects guyhim and the keyboardist take the band away from sounding like a big bandsomething that could remind you of Quincy Jones
or David Axelrod
and into something that sounds more modern.
"Jørgen is a genius when it comes to form and sound; he's one of these guys who's super visual when he listens to music," Lars continues. "That's always how he works. We have this song on The Stix
called 'Reminders,' and there is this one section with only horns and a synth part on top. The way that we had it, he thought it sounded like a lot of cats meowing, which gave him a migraine or something. So the solution to itbecause I really wanted to keep that partwas to bring in the studio dog, and we just recorded this dog walking around the studio. That's how the song startsthis dog just sniffing on a microphone.
"Another thing Jørgen did was to make the overall sound more ... cool. He would make the horns sound super compressedso near that you could hear all the breathingand that's what we've been doing ever since, kind of like a trademark thing," Lars adds. "Also, the trumpet is usually put through a tape echo, not to use the actual echo but to overdrive it, to make it sound not like a normal trumpet." A Livingroom Hush
was also the beginning of Jaga's ongoing relationship with Ninja Tune. Jason Swinscoe, of Britain's popular Cinematic Orchestra
, was just an intern at Ninja when he first heard Jaga. "To me, they are one of the best live bands around," Swinscoe adds. "Their sounds are always growing and expanding."
Martin had gone to a club in Oslo where Cinematic Orchestra was playing, with the intention of giving Swinscoe a minidisk with rough mixes of Livingroom Hush
. Because Swinscoe had to leave the gig early because his wife was ill, Martin gave the minidisk to the group's tour manager, who gave it to the sound engineer, who ultimately gave it to Swinscoe. But it was not until a few months later, when Jaga Jazzist was performing at a festival in Belgium with Swinscoe and Ninja Tune A&R man Dominic Smith DJ'ing on another stage, that Martin learned Swinscoe had receivedand heard the minidisk, and pushed Smith to check Jaga out. "We were so extremely stoked," Martin recalls. "Dominic said, 'I've listened to your minidisk. Call me Monday. You have a record deal.'
"The biggest thing with Ninja is that they helped get us out to the whole world," Martin continues. "We played in Japan for the first of four times; Singapore... places we'd never been to with tons of people coming to the shows because they'd heard the name or about the band. Our records had been in their shops and online for years already, so it was really helpful."
That said, asked what his most vivid memory of Jaga is, Swinscoe jokingly refers to "hanging out with Lars at taco trucks in LA, especially when he falls asleep vertically, waiting for his Carne Asada!"
What We Must, Time for a Break, and Coming Back
Lars continues to work with Træen on projects outside of Jaga. "He has strong opinions," Lars says. "We've done 20 or 21 albums together and it's always something, but that's what I love about him; I need someone to say 'No' or 'Yes'; to contribute some ideas." But after two albums, when the group came to record What We Must
, it was Træen who suggested that the group turn to a different producer for a change. An initial attempt in Germany helped push the band into a lot of positive new directions, but ultimately they felt that they needed to get someone else on board to fully realize and complete the album, so the group returned to Norway and looked to Kåre Chr. Vestrheim, one of the country's biggest producers.
"They called me and asked me if I could help them bring it home," says Vestrheim. "I'd never done something like that before, taking over half-baked stuff, so it was a challenge. I was a bit unsure where it would go, but I've always liked Jaga both musically and personally so, of course, I was up for the challenge.
"They had some material that they were not happy with," Vestrheim continues, "and so we deconstructed a lot of it; we just looked at what we could keep and what we should replace and what we should do to make it betteropening the songs up, taking them apart and trying different instruments. A lot of arrangements and new parts were introduced, and we recorded most of the drums again with a different approach."
"What We Must
was fantastic," says Lars. "And working with Kåre was great in many ways, but I missed having someone from a different musical place to work with. We shared so many of the same influences because he also comes from a jazz background. I need the resistance that I get from Jørgen; I need someone to look at it with an outsider's point of view, someone that doesn't see all the theory. That's important with Jagacutting out the more academic/theoretical side of it. I never want to make challenging music just for the sake of it and Jørgen is good quality control, always asking 'Why do you have this? Why do you want to do that?'
"It doesn't matter if I've worked on a song for six months; if we're in the studio and somebody comes up with a great idea and changes the song for the better, it doesn't matter how much time I invested. It's what's happening now
and what's on the record that matters. That's something I'm kind of proud of actually, being the main writer; I think I'm quite good at trying to be objective about it and seeing that this is not personal, this is music
and I need people to get in there and fuck with it. Many times we've been in the studio with Jørgen, working on a song for maybe an hour or three hours, or five; going cross eyed and then I realize this is just the worst music I've ever heard! Then three hours later you come up with something very different for the song that triggers something that triggers something else. I think it's important to go through these embarrassing processes in the studio because you always end up with something surprising on the other side, something clearer. That's the value of the studio."
The process of taking a composition from inception to completion can, indeed, be a long and arduous one, especially with a band like Jaga, where the writing brims with minutiae and requires a plethora of instruments. One idea sometimes leads logically to the next, other times it becomes a dead-end, but it's through such experimentation in the studioallowing for any idea to be investigated and looking for those tangential thoughts that sometimes lead to the real magicthat allows music as idea-rich, but easy to grab onto as Jaga's to evolve and develop.
After the release of What We Must
, the group began, in some ways to disintegrate, losing Frøland, trombonist Lars Wabø, flautist Ketil Einarsen and keyboardist Andreas Schei. There were a few gigs but, after touring extensively between 2000 and 2004, the group remained relatively quiet for a couple of years. By the time the group returned more decidedly in 2009, only six of its original members remained. Trombonist Erik Johannessen
had joined the group after What We Must
was recorded, getting the chance to tour heavily before things quietened down. "It's strange being in the band so long and only making two records," says Johannessenwho, despite joining the group in 2004, made his first recorded Jaga appearance with One-Armed Bandit
six years later.
"I think we were tired actually, to the point that people started leaving the band because they were having to make decisions, like 'Do I want to be in a band or do I want to be a doctor (both Lars Wabø and Andreas Schei went on to become doctors)?' It was so depressing because there were people who weren't happy," Lars recalls. "I felt the band could reach much further; I still do. At that time the keyboardist, the guitarist and all these other people left and that's when I started doing my solo stuff, like the Kaleidoscopic
album. I was having a hard time because I was thinking, 'Is this it for the band?' It had been such a big part of my personality and my friends and family. I'd spent so much time doing it and now I was doing a solo album and it was fun, but it was not the same as having a band. And doing the semi-classical thing that I did with an orchestra, it was difficult to play live; it was too big a project to go on the road with, financially. It seems like everything I do is kind of wrong [laughs]. Always too many people, too costly." But when the band came back with One-Armed Bandit
, the surprising thing was that we had a larger audience than we'd ever had."
Johannessen's story of joining Jaga is not unlike the tale told by American jazzers like John Scofield
and Dave Liebman
, when asked how they ended up playing with Miles Davis. "Just on a smaller scale," the trombonist says, chuckling. It turns out that some of Erik's friends had been calling him once a year, pretending to be Lars and asking him if he wanted to join Jaga. So when the call finally came through in 2004, it took some real convincing to make the trombonist believe that this time, it really was
Lars calling with an invite.
"It was challenging to join because the band had known each other for so longsince they were kids," Johannessen says. "It was unlike any other band I'd played in. Still, it felt like they really accepted me as a member after just a few months. They always think of me as the stable guy."
Moen joined Jaga while still studying in Trondheim. "I think we were playing in Oslo with Puma, and Lars and the others were at the venue. I think it was actually Erik, because he had been playing with Jaga for five or six years, who said they were looking for a new keyboardist and guitarist. Stian [Westerhus] and I knew Erik, and he said, 'Maybe you should go and check these guys out.' We joined in 2008."
With Westerhus playing only a handful of gigs and recording One-Armed Bandit
with Jaga, by the time the album was released in January 2010 there was also a new guitarist: Marcus Forsgren
. It was the beginning of the group's most stable lineup, one that continues to this day, barring Mathias Eick's recent departure.
"I was in a band called the Lionheart Brothers," says Forsgren, "that released two records. That's the way I got to know Lars and Jaga, because I think they were fans of our band. My first gig was in January 2010, when One-Armed Bandit
was released; I joined them right after they were done with the recording and were about to release the album."
If Johannessen brings more jazz to Jaga and Moen more sound and color, coming from the rock and pop world, Forsgren brings both an attention to texture and a love of good writing. "I love sound," says the guitarist. "I work with sound almost every day; I have a studio, producing bands and recording albums. I've never been a guy to spend hours practicing and I'm seldom impressed by guitar solos. I can find them impressive, but they're not something I feel in my soul. I'm more into compositiongood songs. So I love a guitar solo when the melody hits me, when it contributes to the song rather than just being a solo for the sake of it."
While One-Armed Bandit
is rightfully considered Jaga's most progressive rock record, it was another case of triumph over adversity. "We rehearsed like crazy, and then we booked two weeks in Even's studio in Oslo," Lars says. "Jørgen was having a lot of trouble sleeping and he's had tinnitus since he was 17, so things escalated until, after the album was recorded, he became sick and couldn't work for eight or nine monthsnot because of that album, but because of everything.
"So we brought in [Tortoise's] John McEntire for the mix. It would have been so different had Jørgen not gotten sick; it's an example of how important it is to have other people coming in and working with you, because it was basically ninety percent all my ideas. I wanted
people to fuck with it and do something different with it. As it ended up, I'm very happy with the production, but it didn't surprise me. When we asked John to mix I don't think I was clear enough that I wanted an extended
mixing situationto do more than EQ'ing and basic things like that."
"What we wanted with John was that he would alter the musicrearrange, add and remove stuffbut he only had one day on each song, so he tried to mix as well as he could in that time," adds Mjøs. "The reason I'm personally so disappointed is because I think the songs on One-Armed Bandit
are the best Lars has ever written for Jaga; all those songs are great songs."
"I totally understand, because each song on the album was like 200 tracks," Lars continues. "Where do you start? Where do you put the focus, which is so important with the stuff that we make? If you have a more conventional band with the singer, you have an immediate focal point, but here you have a bunch of focal points: in one section it's a synth; in the next section the bass clarinet may be played softly but it's supposed to be brought up high in the mix...things like that.
"Still, we ended up with a nice mix, though we had to do a couple of things afterwards when we mastered the album, pushing the levels to get a little bit more energy. There's a song, 'Touch of Evil,' that we play a lot live, for instance, and it's the loudest song in the setit's supposed to have this big takeoff thing, and I think the way it is on the album is quite tame.
"I'm super happy with it," Lars continues, "but it could've been very different. The reason to have a band is to have people that you trust and collaborate with, like Jørgen. I think he's a much better producer than I am, even though I've produced quite a few albums now. He's been like my teacher; he's helped me to understand music in a different way than I did before. He's a rare combination of someone who is mostly into really far out stuffhe listens to modular synth musicbut who also understands when a song is the single. We can do this and that and it will work in a pop sense, like if I take this bar and remove it, or move this one around, and suddenly the song becomes super catchy. I've great respect for pop craftsmanship, and think that it's possible with instrumental music as well."
Perhaps Jaga's most direct
album while, at the same time possessing more inherent complexity without losing its intrinsic accessibility, One-Armed Bandit
was met with universal acclaim, winning the Spellemannprisen
) and bringing a significant number of new fans to the group. Live, the material takes on a life of its own, something that can be heard on Live with Britten Sinfonia
, a remarkable recording that stemmed from Jaga's collaboration with British journalist and radio host Fiona Talkington, whose Conexions
series was designed to bring like-minded musicians from Norway and Britain together, and for whom Live with Britten Sinfonia
may be the series' crowning achievement.
Anniversaries and Futures
As Jaga Jazzist celebrates its 20th anniversary with this vinyl box of remixes and a new edition of A Livingroom Hush
, things have never looked better for the group, as its next studio record nears completion. A recently acquired three-year grant from the Norwegian government is providing the funding to help take things to the next level, with new management and the group's most committed incarnation yet. With all of its members in their thirtiesmany of them now with familiesthings have
changed, though. Jaga is a little choosier about how
it gigs, even as it looks to play to fans in places it's never been before.
"I think it's the best band that we've ever had, musically, socially and commitment-wise," says Line. "That's really the most important thing. It's commitment that keeps us going, because you have to have people that are interested in doing all these great things. But because we don't play as much there are times where I really miss Jaga. I don't miss the six weeks on the road earning nothing, but I miss all the concerts and all the time we spend together."
"Everybody loves to have Line in the band," says Martin "She thinks differently and she's always been watching the younger boysespecially when we toured for many weeks and there was a lot of drinking and stupid behavior. I think everybody feels like she's the person you can always talk tothe mild mother in the band."
With families and plenty going on outside of Jaga, when the group does get together to gig it's like a homecoming, with lots of catching up to do. "It's always really fun being on the tour bus with the band," says Johannessen. "We don't listen to music anymore, we just talk. It's really fantastic; we're just really good friends."
"We're a really tight-knit crew and we know each other so extremely well," says Ormestad. "We've known each other in so many different situations and through traveling so much together. The environment, the level of commitment, the appreciation of hard work and detail, that is actually quite unique. It's a very conceptual thing."
"One of the best things about Jaga is meeting so many different people," says Mjøs. "Especially the band and crew, but also the fans and other people we meet on tour." Of course, it's not always a bed of roses. "We once played a festival up north in Norway," Mjøs continues. "The dinner we were served was so bad that I chose not to eat (smart). After the concert there was a party that went into the next morning, and then we left for the airport (also smart). I didn't feel great on the plane, and when we landed at Gardermoen, Oslo, and I got up from my seat I fainted. I fell back, and was laying and the floor. A woman shouted, 'We need a doctor! We need a doctor!' (I think there were actually two doctors on board). After awhile I sat up in my seat again and replied, 'I don't need a doctor, I need a cook!'"
"Martin, he's such a soulful guy," says Forsgren."And everyone always has something going on. One of the benefits of playing in Jaga is you get to know so much about so many people, not just those in the band. The Norwegian scene is like a tree with many branches and it's a real benefit being in Jaga because, if you need somethingsay if you need a harpistsomeone will say, 'Yeah, I know the perfect person for you.'"
"One of the strengths with Jaga is that everybody is so involved and they really play together," says Moen. "When we have those momentswhen we are really able to play together and have good sound onstageit really swings
"One reason I want to continue with Jaga is that I don't want to start from the ground up again; the other is that we get to travel to these really crazy places that we wouldn't be able to with other bands," says Lars. "I don't want to be stuck in Norway, making music for TV or producing things for film or whatever; it's nice work, but it doesn't go
anywhere outside Norway. Jaga started out pretty well being with Ninja Tune and being internationally recognized. It would be stupid to stop, because musically there are still a lot of things we can do, and commercially there are still a lot of opportunities."
With an abundance of talent and ambition, in addition to a brand new studio album in the works, there clearly is far more potential for Jaga, both commercially and artistically. A group that always challenges itself to make each album almost the opposite of the one that came before, its new record will be far more electronic than One-Armed Bandit
, with a greater emphasis on synthesizers and even longer-form writing. You'd best grab onto something now because no matter where Jaga Jazzist goes, you can be sure it'll be one heckuva ride!
© Ninja Tune and Jaga Jazzist A/S 2014. Used by permission of Ninja Tune and Jaga Jazzist A/S.
'94 - '14 can be purchased here.
Contact John Kelman at All About Jazz.
With the realization that there will always be more music coming at him than he can keep up with, John wonders why anyone would think that jazz is dead or dying.
Andreas Mjøs: vibraphone, guitar, Korg MS10, marimba, glockenspiel, crotales, percussion; Martin Horntveth: drums, drum machines, percussion, bulbul tarang, marxophone, mandolin harp, psaltery, bells, temple blocks, spike piano, programming; Lars Horntveth: guitars, clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, baritone saxophone, flute, Roland SH-2, keyboards, piano, lap steel guitar, eBow-banjo, programming; Stian Westerhus: electric guitar, baritone guitar, 12-string guitar, harp, effects, percussion; Line Horntveth: tuba, flute, percussion, glockenspiel, vocals; Even Ormestad: bass, keyboards, glockenspiel, percussion; Erik Johannessen: trombone, marxophone; Mathias Eick: trumpet, upright bass, keyboards, piano, French horn; Øystein Moen: synthesizers, piano, organ, percussion; Jørgen Træen: Electronics, Keyboards, Percussion, Synthesizer; Jørgen Munkeby: flute, alto flute, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, keyboards; Harald Frøland: guitars, effects, synthesizer; Ivar Chr. Johansen: keyboards; Lars Wabo: trombone; Mathias Eick: trumpet, keyboards, double bass; Nils Olaf Solberg: viola; Frode Sævik: violin.