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Moers Festival Interviews: Spinifex

Moers Festival Interviews: Spinifex

Courtesy Michel Mees

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Spinifex will make an extremely welcome return to the Moers Festival in early June 2022. This heavily international group specialises in a collective meshing, combining the precision of composed themes with ample leeway for crashing over the barriers, splattering down onto a grassy field of wild improvisatory freedom. Heavy activity over a decade's span makes this stance so staunch with experience that any perversions of the agreed form can be confidently executed in the knowledge that Spinifex always knows where the next cooperative contusion will appear.

Spinifex are a ridiculously geographically mixed ensemble, with members drawn from Belgium, Portugal, Germany, the USA and the Netherlands. They are sharply arranged, open to a disciplined wildness when soloing, or simultaneously interacting, and pay equal attention to free jazz and spiked rock. Chief composer is saxophonist Tobias Klein, a German living in Amsterdam, which is also home to guitarist Jasper Stadhouders. Trumpeter Bart Maris hails from nearby Gent, in Belgium, and bassist Gonçalo Almeida resides in Lisbon. John Dikeman is an American, but also dwells in Amsterdam. Drummer Philipp Moser is another German in the combo.

Your scribe last witnessed the band at the Belgrade Jazz Festival in October 2021. Despite their high degree of control, the Spinifex results frequently boast an anarchic nature, with driving themes, off-kerb digressions, and caterwaul horn-parts. There's a siren empathy, with Arabic striations sometimes invading. Stadhouders stood in a howl-corridor, his terminal tunnel of guitar, constructed free, and prog-wild. Could we say how prepared in advance all of that active freebase soloing could be? A glissando interlude helped prepare for a throttling Dikeman a capella saxophone section, as a tune titled "Sex And Pestilence" turned out to be an instant hit.

Spinifex debuted at Moers in 2018, their three horns karate-chopping through dense pointy constructions, the entire set speeding over massively intricate angularities. Stadhouders car-crashed out of the Arto Lindsay academy of bent metal dismantling and strafed clatter, all of this happening across the precision bass-and-drum synco-tension of Almeida and Moser. There was something about the Festivaldorf stage, just outside the Hall, where its free-for-all status attracted a motley gathering intent on partying, amplification, smoking, group minds hitting that locked-in groove state of ritual humankind music-interchanging.

For the 2022 Moers Festival, Spinifex transmogrify into Spinifex Sings, an expanded group that now includes a pair of vocalists, Priya Purushothaman (USA) and Björk Nielsdottir (Iceland). At Moers, the latter will be replaced by Laura Polence, from Latvia. Your scribe asks Klein if the presence of a songbook repertoire might perhaps lead to a slowing of the accustomed Spinifex tempo, and an increase in the amount of space in the music. "We didn't approach it with the intention of it being more laid back, necessarily," Klein muses. "I guess that the way it turns out, there are definitely some moments of contemplation, a more lyrical mood, that seems to come naturally with the voices. It also has a lot of the regular Spinifex energy and rapidity. I would say it's a combination. We're playing mostly original songs, written for this project. We've also arranged one or two tunes."

Klein has written two of the new pieces, and Stadhouders, Maris and Almeida have also contributed new songs. Singer Nielsdottir wrote words for her own contribution, but as she's absent for this gig, that number will probably be left out of the set-list. Purushothaman brings in contemporary Tamil poetry, further widening the Spinifex scope. The two singers mostly perform together, in keeping with the band's accustomed approach.

"This fits the more collective way we have of working," says Klein. "I've asked myself how to effectively describe the music, and I still haven't come up with a good word for it. Spinifex draws influences from carnatic music, from South India, but actually, Pria specialises in the [northern] Hindustani classical style. As far as I've experienced it, on the Indian classical scene, the two maybe don't cross over too easily, but when there's a fusion in western music, that can happen more easily, I guess."

Klein considers the overall band attitude to be paramount: "One of our aims for this project was to just be Spinifex." Even with the different songbook, he's confident that the group retains its balance between composition and improvisation, keeping its intensity, regardless of the music's pace and density.

Klein himself first appeared at the festival as part of the Moers Sessions, around a decade back. The various members of Spinifex will be involved with these long-running improvising sets on the Sunday and Monday of the festival

We wonder whether the diverse roster of Spinifex was the result of an actively variegated recruitment plan. "It just happened that way," Klein makes clear. "We never really thought about nationalities. It was just the people that we knew, or even didn't know so well. There was no plan behind that."

Most of the lands of the Spinifex crew are physically close, even if they do have national borders, so hopping between Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands is not such a great trial. Way back in 2010, Spinifex decided to form a more 'portable' band-within-a-band, to play more gigs and be easier to assemble. "This current core has been playing together since 2010. Spinifex existed before, as an ensemble called Spinifex Orchestra, a 10-piece band. We stabilised a parallel quintet, and then after about two years that band kind of took over. John Dikeman joined in 2015, and about a year later, Bart Maris, as a regular member."

Klein's bandmates have a democratic vote on strategies, but if there's a stalemate, sometimes he steps in to distil opinions. Klein also books the tours, and handles most of the practical, organisational matters. "I find it important for the whole ensemble to be involved in decisions, and for them to support decisions as well. A common experience has grown, over time, mainly based on what works really well, especially in the first years. We found that some things worked exceptionally well, and some others, less well."

Klein doubts whether heavily notated music is right for Spinifex, but he also has equal doubts regarding a path towards total free improvisation. The name of the band, referring to a hardy Australian grass, can suggest resilience, hyper-spreading, and an ability to survive on parched earth. All hopeful qualities for a band operating at the extremes of out-there jazz, with tufts of punk rock, careening funk, noise-scuzz, Indian and Turkish musics.

Spinifex Sings at the Moers Festival, June 5th. The naked, core Spinifex appear at Citadelic in Gent, Belgium, May 25th, 2022...

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