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

John Kelman By

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....and poppies from Kandahar

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

Enjoy Jazz / Punkt / Jon Hassell Maarifa Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


With ...and poppies from Kandahar now available internationally, Bang is putting together plans for touring it. "I was thinking of doing an intimate thing in Kristiansand," Bang says, "inviting people for a listening session, just to talk to people, to make it a beautiful evening for people. Eivind and I will also do some duo gigs with it; we're playing in Australia in October, and plan to do a tour in January, maybe February. But Punkt 2010 will be the first place I play poppies, though that'll actually be without Eivind [who will not be at Punkt for the first time since its inception, as he'll be in Japan with his Sonic Codex Orchestra]; it'll be with Arve, Lars Danielsson and Erik."

Always thinking ahead, Bang's near future is as is busy as it's ever been. "Erik and I are working on a duo album now," says Bang, "that is also related to Cartography and poppies, so it might turn into a trilogy. I'm hoping it'll be ready by this summer. I'm also working with Eivind on his new record [a solo guitar record, which Aarset describes in a recent AAJ interview], and am doing a piece for Sidsel's new album. I'm probably going to do some duo things with Jon Hassell, and slowly start working on Arve's follow-up to Cartography. It's a lot of projects, a lot of things to do; it's an exciting time."

One of the most interesting aspects of Bang's sampling work is that he doesn't constantly upgrade to the latest and greatest; he's been using the same AKAI Remix 16 sampler for 15 years, and as long as he can purchase more copies of this long unavailable sampler at places like eBay, he'll continue to use it. There's no doubt that, compared to more recent models, Bang's instrument of choice—and it clearly is an instrument, like a specific guitar that may not be as good as another, but just feels right—has some inherent limitations. But for some, limitations are restrictions; for others, they become opportunities. "Because of the limitation of my instrument—it only has a floppy disc—I usually have to throw away samples, meaning that, for me, music is something that passes by. The MPC has an internal memory, but if you want to save a sample you have to save it to floppy disc, which means you can't save too much information, and so the sample has to be really good. I usually just turn off my samplers, and for several reasons: one is that there's not enough room to save a lot of information; the other is because I'm afraid of repeating myself. So before, when I did a lot of remixes, I'd spend 24 hours working on them, and then when I was finished and had everything on DAT tape, I just turned everything off and sent it to the record company that asked for the remix.

"I used to have a hard drive in the MPC, so I could save more samples, but at one point I began to feel as if I were repeating myself. Then, the drive somehow got broken, and I actually felt it was a liberating event, because then I could go back to turning off the sampler and the sounds would be gone forever. Perhaps that creates more tension when you are programming, because you know that this is the moment and then it will be gone, so use the moment and try to be as good and creative as you can be, try to do something that will surprise you, because if it's not good you can't go back and fix it."

Making it all the more remarkable, then, that Bang can recall so much, and work so quickly in real time—the reasons why he has become so unique in the world of sampling and remixing. Since Bang innovated the concept of Live Sampling 15 years ago, others have begun doing it, but his reputation remains unique, his work much in-demand. "Everything is sort of connected," says Bang. "Because I don't save a lot, I probably have a good memory [laughs]. I work very intuitively, I work very fast; for me to go and pick out the different things that I feel are somehow related, it happens very quickly, and usually I find that they are connected."

Bang's relationship with Aarset is a curious one, since the guitarist is almost a diametric opposite; a slower, more methodical alternative to Bang's rapid pace. "It's a different approach, but together we work very well," Bang says. "It comes down to what kind of a person you are, but maybe that's why I work so well together with Eivind; he's been one of my main musical partners for at least 15 years."

Another factor in Bang's longstanding relationships with artists like Aarset, Henriksen, Molvær, Honoré, Endresen and others is trust. But not only does Bang have to trust others, in order to make the kinds of split second decisions that affect his work as a live sampler and live remixer, most important of all, Bang has to trust himself. "It's all about contradictions, isn't it," Bang poses. "How to move forward and how to stop; where to leave space and when to give space to others; when to take space and how long to keep those sounds there. It's all about these contradictions, and being aware of them. It has to do with trust. We normally say, 'It's better to wait for the music to happen then to force it to happen.'

"But I also think it's also about trusting your instincts," Bang continues, "meaning that if you stop at the right moment, then this will be the best piece you've ever done [laughs], but if you work on it more you will lose that special thing—and you don't know what it is, so what it is becomes lost. I often go back to earlier mixes, just to listen to what I did if I feel that I am somehow becoming lost. If I feel something that I can't define has been lost, then I go back and look at different versions. If I don't feel that I'm lost, however, then I just continue working."

If this all sounds remarkably like the kinds of decisions facing any modern improvising musician, there's good reason: Bang's instrument may be a black box with buttons and dials on the surface, and filled with chips, circuits and wires, but it's a musical instrument just the same. The beauty is that Bang can, one moment, be a trumpet; the next, a guitar; the next, a full symphony orchestra. But regardless of the texture, irrespective of context, Bang is, indeed, a true improvising musician; one who may have begun in the world of beats and pop music, but who has evolved, in the past 15 years, into a sophisticated player searching for serendipity everywhere. An artist always on the lookout for those magical moments worthy of preserving—if only for a moment—to be altered in distinct and personal ways, and fed back to the music from whence it came. Bang's voice may be harder to define, compared to those working within conventional instrumental orthodoxy, but his voracious musical interests, clear compositional voice and intuitive musicality are finding an ever-expanding place in the world of music without borders, as more and more artists look to Kristiansand—a small but increasingly vital point in the world—for ways to reshape, recontextualize and redefine what music is, what it can be, and what it will be.

Selected Discography

Jan Bang, ....and poppies from Kandahar (samadhisound, 2010)
Jon Hassell, Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street (ECM, 2009)
Nils Petter Molvær, Hamada (Sula, 2009)
Arve Henriksen, Cartography (ECM, 2008)
Punkt/Jon Hassell/Sidsel Endresen, Live Remixes Vol. 1 (Jazzland, 2008)
Nils Petter Molvær, Re-Vision (Sula, 2008)
Punkt, Crime Scenes (Punkt, 2007)
Nils Petter Molvær, An American Compilation (Thirsty Ear, 2006)
Nils Petter Molvær, er (Sula, 2005)
Arve Henriksen, Chiaroscuro (Rune Grammofon, 2004)
Bang/Honoré/Almedal/Moe-Repsta, Going Nine Ways From Wednesday (Pan M, 2002)
Bang/Honoré/Wallumrød/Henriksen, Birthwish (Pan M, 2000)

Photo Credits
Page 1, Portrait, Page 6: Courtesy of Jan Bang
All Other Photos: John Kelman

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