Nils Petter Molvaer: Skeletons, Samples and Fish Fillets

Paul Olson By

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There's no overstating the impact that Nils Petter Molvær's debut CD Khmer made when it was released on the ECM label in 1997. The Norwegian trumpeter/composer was no stranger to ECM and its founder/producer Manfred Eicher— Molvær had been a member of the collective jazz group Masqualero, that had released records on the label, and he'd played on sessions by ECM artists such as percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky. With his impeccable European jazz credentials and his winsomely melodic, atmospheric trumpet playing—distilled through a host of influences like Jon Hassell, Brian Eno, and Middle Eastern and Norwegian music—Molvær was, in a sense, the archetypal ECM artist.

Except that he wasn't, really. Unlike just about every other ECM release, Khmer wasn't a live-in-the-studio session; it was a tracked studio creation that took Molvær years to create. And while Khmer and its 2000 follow-up Solid Ether have a considerable amount of acoustic instrumentation, they're also packed with electronics, samples and beats; this was music that owed as much to musical genres like electronica, drum 'n bass, ambient—and the technologies that made them possible—as it did to jazz. Actually, it was a genre unto itself, and Molvær became immediately known as the most celebrated creator of the Norwegian musical style known as "nu-jazz. Khmer made Molvær a star—in Europe, anyway—and ECM bent its de facto rules for him, breaking all tradition to release singles and remixes of his material.

Molvær parted ways with ECM after Solid Ether, but has continued to release strong recordings through Universal (he retains ownership of his masters) like 2002's aggressive, post-911-informed NP3 and last year's more serene ER. These records are available only as imports in the United States, where he's never had the following he commands on the continent. In an attempt to reintroduce him to American audiences, the Thirsty Ear label recently released An American Compilation, a well-sequenced, career-spanning collection. I was fortunate enough to see Molvær and his remarkable band perform over the summer at Chicago's Empty Bottle (he tours very infrequently in the States) and can state categorically that I'd never before experienced such a quantity of equipment and improvisation on a stage at any one time. I telephoned him in Norway shortly after.

All About Jazz: I want to go way back and proceed historically through what you've been doing with your music and career.

You played in the group Masqualero for actually quite a few years, and in this group, you played a style of music that fell into the category of acoustic jazz. You'd also played with people like Elvin Jones and Gary Peacock and done a lot of rock sessions. But when you appeared as a solo artist with the 1997 Khmer album on ECM, you were doing something entirely different from any of that—something deeply electronica-saturated in its rhythms and overall atmosphere. This can be seen as the first prominent statement in the movement that's known as Norwegian nu-jazz. I'm interested in what got you to this point, since—even though I don't think you've ever made the same album twice—you're still exploring this territory as an artist. What got you to this point, this rethinking of what you wanted to create?

Nils Petter Molvær: Well, with Masqualero I was part of a very democratic band. And elsewhere, I was, as you said, a kind of sideman in different kinds of bands. And yes, I played with Gary Peacock. I played three nights with Elvin Jones in Oslo, which was an incredible, fantastic experience. And I played only one concert with Gary Peacock, which was very, very nice—but it's not like I was playing as a regular member of their bands or anything. But I had this idea of making something of my own, and I thought it should sort of reflect the music that I had been listening to, and the music that I liked, music that had driven me, inspired me. Like [Brian Eno and David Byrne's album] My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Sire Records, 1981), which I heard when it came out. And a lot of the ambient stuff that Brian Eno was doing, and the records he produced for, for instance, [guitarist] Michael Brook. There was a record called Hybrid (EG Editions, 1985) with Brook, Daniel Lanois, and Eno, which for me was very, very important. Just the feeling of it, you know—and, of course, the music, but the feeling of that album was incredible. And some other things. [Pianist] Harold Budd had a record called The Pearl (EG Editions, 1984), which was also an Eno thing.

AAJ: Oh, yes, I just bought the reissue of that one.

NPM: Oh, yes? Well, these sorts of the things were the absolute opposite of bebop [laughing], of that kind of hard-core jazz. Anyway, for me, The Pearl was a very important record. Also, Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics (EG Editions, 1980), NYC [trumpeter] Jon Hassell. When I listened to that one, I was very excited; suddenly it seemed possible to do the things I'd been dreaming about doing on trumpet. Besides that, I'd also been listening to a lot of world music—Middle Eastern music, North African music. There was a feeling there, a sound that has a deep, deep longing for something. Something bigger than, ah—a Grammy!

AAJ: Gosh, what could be bigger than that?

NPM: You know what I mean [laughing]. So there were these kinds of things that I'd been listening to, and I felt that I wanted to reflect those kinds of music. So that's where Khmer came from, really. I was working pretty closely with a sound engineer named Ulf Holand; we were just working in between other things, and it took quite a while. I think I started this album in 1994 or something. For me, it really was a natural development, so I was really, really taken by surprise when I saw the reaction to it when we finished. It suddenly became—in my world—a big success. So for me, it was quite shocking. I thought, "Yeah, maybe I'll sell a thousand, two thousand. But—again, in my musical world—it created a huge impact! And it was really only the result of the music I had been listening to. Actually, there were lots of things from the eighties as well. I was really not listening to jazz very much; I listened more to sort of underground music, rockish kind of dark stuff. Like [Berlin techno duo and record label] Basic Channel, [techno label] Chain Reaction—Berlin minimalist techno. I was inspired by all sorts of things, and Khmer was the result.

It really just came down to choosing direction. I had to choose where I wanted to go with those influences. I wanted contrast; if you have contrast put together in a musical way, that creates tension and really appeals to me. So I wanted contrasts; I wanted to put together songs, sounds, tonalities, noises, electronic and acoustic beats—all of these things. I didn't look at it as being something very new, actually. It was something people had been doing for quite a while, in a way.

AAJ: But I think the way you re-conceptualized those elements on Khmer really was new. It was more than just the sum of those influences.

NPM: I won't argue [laughing]. No, it's nice that people experience it like that. It's nice.

AAJ: Obviously, there is a significant technological aspect to your music; there's a goodly amount of equipment involved in the creation of your sound, including the gear that creates your trumpet sounds. During the years you created Khmer, was there very much of a learning curve in terms of mastering the equipment?

NPM: First, I will say that there is a lot of acoustic trumpet on Khmer. Most of it is acoustic, actually. There's a lot of acoustic on Solid Ether, too. I've always played a lot of acoustic trumpet. It's like two different things for me: I play the acoustic trumpet and I play the electric trumpet, and the two things are really separated in a way. So I have a completely clean trumpet microphone, an [Electro-Voice] RE20, that just goes to front of house. And on the electronic side—well, it happened by coincidence, how I've discovered some of these things. I was using a Danish effect box, which is basically used for guitars. It has a very good harmonizer. It's made by TC Electronic. So I was connecting this unit to a Whammy [harmonizing, pitch-bending pedal]—an old Whammy, a Whammy-2. It's the black one; I don't think they make them anymore. So it's more of a stepless harmonizer, so you can go [his voice gliding up and down], "wheeeeeeeeeeooooooo! But then you can also take it in very small steps. And I just connect it to one of the sides, because it's sort of a fake stereo. It's mono in and stereo out. And then I found I can make progressions just by using some specific programs on the Whammy, because the left side is static and the right side is movable. So you can create harmonic progressions.

So I was just checking stuff out, just trying things and suddenly this all happened by coincidence. So there are some other things—using the harmonizer for different things, using filters, just things I've been developing over the years. I haven't done that much lately. Actually, I'm now trying to think about the possibility of using the computer instead of carrying around all these huge things. Then I'd just have a pedal board which would control things along with the computer, and then some [audio software pioneers] Native Instruments things. I haven't really started checking it out yet.

AAJ: Some of the players on Khmer and its follow-up CD Solid Ether, are musicians that are still your associates today. Guitarist Eivind Aarset and drummer Rune Arnesen appeared on Khmer, and DJ Strangefruit (Paal Nyhus) and vocalist Sidsel Endresen are featured on Solid Ether. Solid Ether is, like Khmer, a seminal recording—I think "Kakonita and "Vilderness remain important songs in your body of work, and they're featured on your new American Compilation album. Not counting any remixes, this is your body of work on ECM. How influential was [ECM label head/producer] Manfred Eicher upon this recordings? Was his influence always a positive one? Was there any way in which he encouraged things that you wouldn't have chosen to do?

NPM: Well, there are two answers to that. One answer is that he is very influential on Norwegian contemporary improvised music. Very much so. And he and I became friends. So when I started to do Khmer on my own, I asked him, "Do you want to release a solo album from me? It's not going to be two-days-in-the-studio-and one-day-mix kind of thing. It's going to be a produced record that I'm going to spend a lot of time on. And he said, "Yes, sure. So we were working and he said, "It needs more focus. And I said [laughing], "Oh, yeah, I agree very much! So I was focusing more on getting it more together. Then he came into the studio for one hour or something on Khmer, and just changed one of the songs—took away the trumpet and put it somewhere else. So he was in the process. But as a producer, in the way people think of producers, he wasn't really involved very much. And with Solid Ether, I just sent him a finished master.

But in a sense, he was more like a film producer. If you're the producer of a film, you don't have to have anything to do with what the film is like. You can think of it like that—if you want to be nice. But then, I started to think about all the work I put in there and I felt it was very strange that I should just give it away for what was not too decent a deal. So I created a company, really just a paper company. I wanted to have the rights to my own music and license it out, and ECM didn't do that. So I just had to leave them. That is [laughing] one version. That's the good version. But basically, that's what it is. And my problem with ECM was really my problem with the whole business—and ECM are business people. They are no worse and no better than anyone else, except that they have extremely strong intent and taste when it comes to their profile. Which I really admire.

AAJ: So you own all the masters to everything you've done post-ECM.

NPM: I own my own masters, yes. And I'm never going to give one away— never!

AAJ: So much of your music has appeared in remix form, from the Khmer material on to the present with the remixes of "Darker and "Kakonita on the new American Compilation. Whole CDs like Recolored and Remakes consist of remixed versions of your songs. It's obvious that you're very interested in the concept of remixing, of creating different pieces from one. This is something that's always been important in the electronica and dance worlds and not at all in jazz or rock. What attracts you to this process?

NPM: Well, I find it fascinating. I must point out that I don't think I ever did a dance remix of anything. The "Darker remix on American Compilation came out as something that's very playful; that's done by the Mungolian Jetset people. For me, it's about curiosity, and it's about taking material, sound files, and giving it to someone else—and then it goes through their aesthetic filter and it comes out as something completely different. I find that really inspiring, because working like I do, at one point you have to make a choice of direction. So you choose a direction, and then you give it to someone else and they choose a completely different direction. It sort of opens up the music for me. Some of the mixes have been really, really different, and they've made me go in a different direction when I play it live.

AAJ: So their work feeds back to you and changes how you interpret your songs.

NPM: Yeah. It's a bit like recycling. Recycling sounds. You know, on Khmer, there's a sample from Bill Laswell. And I met him for the first time at a festival in Frankfurt. I saw him coming and just went over to him and introduced myself and said, "Listen, I've been using one of your samples on a track on a new album which I'm releasing. Do you mind? Something like that. He just started to laugh! He said, "No problem; I probably sampled it myself from a sample of some sample. In those days, the mid-nineties, everyone was really sampling everything and using different things. It was very much a part of the music to create this special sound. Now, there are not so many samples.

AAJ: Well, I think that's a shame. Commercial hip-hop records today don't have any samples. They just play the parts, and something's been lost there.

NPM: Yeah. There is a record coming out now by Mungolian Jetset which is basically samples. Just lots of small, small things put together in such a way that you can't even tell what it is. But that's the recycling of sounds. One of my favorite hip-hop albums is by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy—I think it's from '92. [It is—Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury, 4th & B'way Records] They used a lot of samples, and it's so good. They used samples of Miles [Davis], and a lot of other beautiful things, to get out the message, and in that way it was like My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which I think is a very political record. It's also musical, but it's very political as well. Music should reflect the time we're living in, and the way the world is turning these days, it really needs to be political.

AAJ: Well, Bush of Ghosts is very trans-cultural.

NPM: Yeah, and just playing music—that's communication at a very high level. Working together to make something sound good, working together to make the other people sound better, more honest—this sort of interaction is, to me, a political act, especially in contrast to this chaos we're living in.

AAJ: How is your music written? What's the seed of a composition? Let's take a recent one from your 2005 album ER, "Water, which is a favorite of mine. Did it begin with the trumpet melody? Or in some other way?

NPM: Now, it's very different with each song; it varies. But let's take "Water. "Water started with this keyboard riff [singing it]. That was the first thing. Then I was thinking, "I'd like to have some acoustic bass on it. The strange thing is that many, many years ago, I was doing music for a ballet, a dance performance thing, and for that, I was using an acoustic bassist. And I was trying to show him what I wanted on the acoustic bass, and my sound engineer was recording it. So later I found this recording, and I said, "Oh, this is a really cool hook line. So you can hear this bass part there—which was just me trying to show this guy, many years ago, how I wanted him to sound. But I found it and thought I could use it here, and I gave it to Strangefruit and his colleague, and they did some stuff on it. Then they gave it back to me and I took it back to the studio and took away some of their things, and I started to play some melodic things on top of it. Then I said to Sidsel, "Just go in and react to what you hear. So she did, and her singing is a first take—most of it, anyway. So the process is interactive. We don't play everything together, but everyone is reacting to what's there.

AAJ: An overdubbed improv.

NPM: Yeah. That's what "Water is.

AAJ: You just said that everything you write is composed in a different way. You don't have any consistent methodology or system?

NPM: No. No methodology. If I find something I like, even if it's a mistake, I try to use it. Sometimes I have an idea—I can remember on, I think, "Nebulizer, I had a bass line which was really, really cool. It was sort of a drum 'n bass thing. But in the end, I just had to take it away, because the song developed in a completely different direction. So there are other bass lines there—and I might use this bass line later [laughing]. I just keep it in the computer. It's a bit like food; if you go fishing, then you make a fillet, put it in the freezer and then fix it later.

AAJ: Perfect analogy. You've produced two studio records since moving on from ECM—NP3, which came out in 2002, and last year's ER. I personally like ER the best of all your recordings. I don't think these records are that similar to each other, but each seems somehow more distilled and uncluttered compared to the recordings on ECM. ER to me seems perhaps the most song-oriented yet, although you've always written very melodically. How do you think your music is changing with these recordings, and could you contrast the two albums?

NPM: I think NP3 is more angry. It's an angry record; it's darker. Probably because I was angry. It also very much reflects the people I'm working with. There was a guy called Raymond Pellicer, who was in the band, working with electronics, and he's pretty dark. His alter ego is dark Norse; I think he's half-Venezuelan or something. So all the musicians I work with sort of put their stamp on things. The process of making NP3 was also hard. It was hard in that I felt like I was struggling. Making records is always a struggle, especially making records this way, where you have all these choices to make. You're never, ever satisfied. So with NP3, I was really struggling. The strange thing is that I meet people in Germany, France, wherever, who think NP3 is the best one. You know, some people like the mother, some like the daughter [laughing]. Or the grandfather. For me, it was a process to go through, and the next one might be completely different—really completely different. That's the beauty of not having a boss; you can do whatever you like!

AAJ: The beauty and the terror. You've released a live CD, Streamer, and a live DVD as well, Molvær Live. You've included live stuff on the new American Compilation as well. I see this as being more than just something to release; I think you want to make it clear that this is performed music, music that is played in real time by a band. It can also be extremely improvisational music when it's played live—when I saw you play recently in Chicago, the set began with a long improv where the parts seem to slowly coalesce and draw together. I don't know if that improv side is really represented on the studio records. Why did you release the live CD and DVD?

NPM: Well, the live DVD was sort of an offer from Panasonic. They were recording a concert we did in Germany, and they said, "We have really good material and we'd like to make a DVD. I said, "Yeah, sure, why not. So I went down there, we were mixing it and we talked them into doing all this extra stuff —some shooting under the river outside of Hamburg in these tunnels there. It was a cool way for me to distribute the music. And it's the same with the live album, actually. I was thinking about doing one and everybody said, "Oh, you have to do a live album because it's really different from the other stuff. The songs are so different live. So we recorded one gig in London, and we recorded three or four more gigs, but the tapes were destroyed. So we had two concerts left—one was a live thing in Finland, and the other was the one from London. Then we just sat down and thought, how do we do this? Luckily I had Strangefruit there, so we could discuss it and cut things down together, because some of the songs were 30 minutes long. So we did it. Actually, that record Streamer is also mixed in surround, and that sounds incredible. That's like, really, really cool. This very nice guy who does work for Pete Townshend was mixing it in Pete Townshend's old house in London. Yeah, that was nice. A lot of blood on the walls [laughing] from him rehearsing with his guitar. I have the finished surround master and I have to figure out what I'm going to do with it.

AAJ: I want to talk about some of the musicians you've played with over the years. When I saw you perform live recently, I believe the band consisted of you, Eivind Aarset on guitar, bass and effects, Rune Arnesen on drums, drum loops and effects, Paal "DJ Strangefruit" Nyhus on turntables and Jan Bang on samples. Eivind has been playing with you for quite some time, and when I saw you play, his guitar playing seemed to have become, if anything, even more atmospheric and subtle than on the recordings. What does he add to your music?

NPM: He adds an ambience to a room in which I like to move around. The thing is that I try to just let everyone do whatever they like—to interact completely freely with the music. And with Eivind, I feel that we have many, many things to discover. What shall I call it? Sometimes I feel like he's my musical soul mate, even though he is a bit of a contrast to what I do. He's a great soundscape designer, and he creates these sound worlds that no one else can—no one I know. And he's a really cool guy [laughing].

AAJ: Rune Arnesen plays drums, and I think he also controls the drum loops. I think sometimes people don't associate real drumming with this music, but he plays on the records as well. What does a real percussionist add to this? Is it challenging for him? His playing has to stay integrated with, say, samples. Obviously, he needs to be very disciplined in his playing.

NPM: Yeah. But sometimes he is being sampled. Jan Bang is sampling everything live. So sometimes he samples Rune, so you'll hear something that happened 20 seconds before—it comes back, and then Rune can interact with that. And sometimes there are things on the computer as well, and he can interact with that. To me, what Rune is doing is creating dynamic and life and warmth. Sometimes he creates a tension, because he's moving away from the beat, Sometimes the beat can originally be kind of quantified, although I try not to do it that way. It can be really tight, but what Rune does stretches that.

So the sound engineer is also incredibly important—how he sort of melds these things together. And many times, people tell me they don't know who is playing what, and I think that's a cool thing.

AAJ: I had exactly that experience when I saw the band. I couldn't tell.

NPM: I kind of like that. You know, sometimes I'll play trumpet and suddenly I'm sampled and it comes out as something from Jan. It keeps it interesting and alive.

AAJ: So tell me about Jan Bang and DJ Strangefruit.

NPM: Strangefruit—well, how we started to play was just that we met and became friends at the beginning of the nineties. We were hanging out at parties and stuff; the club scene in Osco was very happening. And I started having jam sessions with Strangefruit and a deejay named AbStract [Olle Løstegård]. We did some things with just trumpet and two deejays, and I found it interesting—but, you know, they mostly think about BPMs, beats per minute. They never think about the tune or the harmonic structure, and I was just improvising over what they did. So it could be a little less than a quarter note low—they'd take the tempo up and down, and that would also make the harmonic quality go up and down. So sometimes it was really difficult! Nowadays there are machines that keep the pitch in place and you can take the beat up and down as much as you like. But in those days, it was really challenging.

But I really liked Paal's—Strangefruit's—ambiences. He was very, very open. And in 1994 or 1995—well, maybe it was later, 1997—he came up to me and said, "Hey, man, have you ever heard of Sun Ra? He'd [laughing] discovered Sun Ra. But he always played all sorts of music; he loves music. He's also a person I can relate to very much as a kind of soul mate. In the beginning, as a deejay on the scene, he used to rule everything completely. He could do anything he liked. But when my band started out, I had two drummers, a deejay, a bassist, and a guitarist. So he really had to learn to filter things out, not play so much, take it down. Now he works in a much more abstract way, using different voices, playing records from soundtracks—trying to get the human voice into the music. He's changing, trying a lot of things.

As for Jan, he is basically completely free. He usually starts from scratch and then he just samples whatever happens. It might come back 20 minutes later, or immediately after. He is the free agent in the band.

AAJ: How much of your live sets are improvised? And how much do the written songs change?

NPM: Well, there are openings that are completely improvised; they change every day. There will be a sort of skeleton, but that will change color and ethnicity when we, you know, put meat on it. At its best, our music is very much improvised—much more than a lot of jazz bands I hear. There is a lot of improvisation.

AAJ You're recently released An American Compilation on Thirsty Ear. This is, obviously, a compilation of your music—a sort of an attempt to introduce, or reintroduce, your music to the American audience. Certainly, some of your best pieces are on this CD, and while there's really no cross-fading, the album is sequenced as a continuous piece of music. It all works for me as a new album of sorts, which is why I'm asking about it. "Kakonita appears in a remix version, as does "Darker, but a lot of the pieces sound different to me. Were the other mixes altered?

NPM: Not really. I mean, some of them are made shorter. I was struggling with making this; I had to throw away a lot of things. Well, not throw away, but put aside. If any of them sound different, it might have to do with them being placed next to other things. When I sequence an album, a lot of the pieces are connected—that's true of all the albums. They're all connected. It's a conceptual thing. So that might be the reason they sound different. We mastered it in Norway—I've never done that before—with a really cool guy who mostly masters dance music. So he was, maybe, accentuating bass, and freshening it up a bit from the other masters. So he did a great job at this place called Living Room in Oslo. But otherwise, I don't think I really did much with the music—just editing, taking away things.

AAJ Well, then, the songs just sounded different to me due to the different context.

NPM I think so, yeah. This one comes up after this one, and that creates a different feel for it.

AAJ Tell me your plans for the rest of this year. You don't have a new record recorded.

NPM No, no. I'm going to do just a couple festivals. I just spent the holiday with my family, which has been really nice. I'm going to do some film music—I have two films to do. Then in November, I'm going to go to Latin America or South America to do some concerts there; maybe some in Europe, too. Then we're talking about trying to do a tour in America, but that's really hard. It's so expensive, especially if you have a big band. Taking many people on the road—it's hard. But we are trying to put together an American tour for the fall. I also have a commission piece which I'm going to start doing. But I'm still thinking about what I want to do on the next studio album. I have many ideas, many different ideas. I might start to work on that next year.

Selected Discography
Nils Petter Molvær, An American Compilation (Thirsty Ear, 2006)
Nils Petter Molvær, ER (Sula/Universal, 2005)
Nils Petter Molvær, Remakes (Sula/Universal, 2005)
Nils Petter Molvær, Streamer: Live (Sula/Universal, 2004)
Nils Petter Molvær, NP3 (Sula/Universal, 2002)
Nils Petter Molvær, Recolored: The Remix Album (Emarcy/Universal, 2001)
Eivind Aarset, Light Extracts (Jazzland, 2001)
Sidsel Endresen, Undertow (Jazzland, 2001)
Svein Finnerud, Sounds and Sights (Resonant Music, 2000)
Nils Petter Molvær, Solid Ether (ECM Records, 2000)
Nils Petter Molvær, Khmer (ECM Records, 1997)
Terje Isungset, Reise (NOR-CD, 1997)
Bugge Wesseltoft, New Conception of Jazz (Jazzland, 1997)
Robyn Schulkowsky/Nils Petter Molvær, Hastening Westward (ECM Records, 1995)
Sidsel Endresen, Exile (ECM Records, 1994)
Rita Marcotulli, Night Caller (Label Bleu, 1992)
Masqualero, Re-Enter (ECM, 1991)
Sandre Bratland, Mysteriet (Kirkelig Kulturverksted, 1990)
Sidsel Endresen, So I Write (ECM Records, 1990)
Masqualero, Aero (ECM, 1988)
Masqualero, Bande à Parte (ECM, 1986)
Masqualero, Masqualero (Odin, 1983)

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