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Thomas Stronen: The Tin Drum

Adriana Carcu By

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This is what they say in Japanese music: if the next hit won't change the music, then don't hit it. It is like the opposite of jazz in a way, where there's too much information all the time.
One of Norway's most prolific drummers, sampling percussionists and composers, Thomas Strønen is the co-founder of Food, along with British saxophonist Iain Ballamy. The group—which, since 2005, has whittled down from an original quartet that also featured Norwegians Arve Henriksen on trumpet and Mats Eilertsen on bass—released its most recent record, Quiet Inlet, in 2010 (its first for the German ECM label), and regularly includes guests that vary from one show to the next. It is this special element that heightens the feeling of immediacy specific to the group's sampled improvisational music.

Strønen is also one-half of Humcrush which, since coming together in the early part of the new millennium with Supersilent keyboardist Ståle Storløkken, has taken its own path down the road of in-the-moment composition. Its third album, Ha! (Rune Grammon, 2011), has just recently been released, and documents the duo's ongoing collaboration with experimental Norwegian singer Sidsel Endresen. Blissful Ignorance (Hecca/Edition, 2010) documents the first meeting of the lyrical Meadow—a trio with Strønen , Norwegian saxophonist Tore Brunborg and British pianist John Taylor—while The woods are not what they seem (BJK-Music, 2010) represents another first-encounter of sorts, by the newly formed Needlepoint, a trio with bassist Nikolai H. Eilertsen and guitarist Bjørn Klakegg.

With so many concurrent projects, there's an unmistakable thread that runs through them all: Strønen's remarkable ear for color and texture, and an approach that values the collective over the individual.

All About Jazz: Where is your music coming from?

Thomas Strønen: If I look back now, I don't know why I started playing drums at all. I am half-German—my mother is German—and we were in Germany visiting when we passed a shop, where I saw this little drum in the window, like the one in the film The Tin Drum (1979). I was five years old and I just stopped in front of the window and said, "I need that drum." My mother didn't even think about it. This was probably the only time I've cried for hours, so at the end my parents gave after and bought me the drum. On that day my drum replaced my teddy bear; I had it with me in bed, I had it hanging round my neck while I ate and while I was brushing my teeth. I had it with me practically everywhere and I got an extremely big kick out of playing it. Obviously I was doing all the other stuff kids do, like playing football, but drumming was definitely The Thing.

AAJ: Were you active musically in school?

TS: Yes, I was very active. At age nine, I started in a school band and three years later I started a rock band together with three friends. We began to write material and lyrics quite early. We were ten or eleven when I wrote my first lyrics (I can still remember them) and wrote songs just by trying them out on piano and guitar. We were playing a kind of soft rock. We thought that we were pretty heavy at that time, but in fact it was really soft.

By chance, a local composer and trumpeter called Terje Johannesen, employed as a kind of social worker meant to encourage and promote young bands and musicians, helped us out. He was also the leader (and composer) of a semi-big band called Slagen Band (a band that included many great young musicians, like Martin and Lars Horntveth of Jaga Jazzist, and Vidar Johansen, at different times). The band was a bit similar to Oslo 13, which was Jon Balke's first project with a larger ensemble before starting the Magnetic North Orchestra. At age 14 (and with no references to improvised music), I joined the band. Most of the musicians were in their thirties and forties, so the learning curve was rather steep.

The guys in the band started giving me tons of records and took me to concerts; they sort of raised me musically. I played in that band for six years and that's when I started improvising. I didn't know anything about the American jazz tradition at that time; I only knew European and Norwegian jazz-influenced music. I never got to know (or like) the fusion jazz-rock scene because I went straight for a more open kind of music—ECM Records and that stuff.

When I went to high school, I decided to study to become a marine biologist, studying math, chemistry and physics and stuff like that, because I thought that was the right direction. During high school, music took most of my focus, and so I changed my mind and went to the Trondheim Jazz Academy to study jazz and composition for six years. At this stage I discovered the American jazz tradition through lots of recordings and concerts.

AAJ: What are your main influences?

TS: Because of my background, I was never concerned about different genres or if something was "real" jazz or not. I had periods when I was listening to the different periods of Miles Davis' music, John Coltrane and American music in general. Later, I got very influenced by Japanese music, electronic music, classical music and choral music. I got very interested in Eastern music in general, like Pakistani and Indian music. I also discovered classical music, fell in love with Glenn Gould's interpretations of Bach, and various string quartets.

Looking back, it's obvious I was living in a bubble while studying in Trondheim. I got up really early, was at school at seven in the morning, practicing and listening to records. That, and going to concerts, was all I did. I realize that I was a very structured student all those years, as if I knew that, after that, a totally new life would begin.

I was very lucky at crucial points in my life, in terms of meeting people that would influence and inspire me. At the jazz academy I met [trumpeter] Arve Henriksen, and shortly after, I met Iain Ballamy, and we started working together. You know, I met people with open minds and I started being part of their playing.

Suddenly, you find yourself onstage, realizing that music moves you and takes all your energy. The only choice was to take it seriously. I guess I've always been focused on playing my music, the music I wanted to play. I've never been a drummer for hire, just playing a drum score. So it was pretty clear to me, quite early, that I needed to find musicians who fit my way of thinking and playing, and that I was more of a colorist and soloist as a drummer. I like to be in the center, where everything is happening, I like to have the possibility of changing direction, not just be polite, sit aside and follow up the soloist. I need to be in it.


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