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A Quietus Interview

Infuse, Confuse, Provoke: Mats Gustafsson Interviewed
Stewart Smith , November 11th, 2013 06:49

Stewart Smith talks to sax master Mats Gustafsson about a flurry of activity surrounding his bands The Thing and Fire!

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Boot!, the mighty new album from Scandinavian jazz punks The Thing, is a heavy, heavy beast.

The sonic equivalent of the Hulk doing battle with Godzilla, it bursts out of the speakers in a seething mass of molten bass saxophone, filthy fuzz bass and machine gun snare. If German free-jazz berserker Peter Brötzmann were ever to jam with stoner-rock overlords Sleep, it might sound something like this monstrosity. Following the crossover success of Cherry Thing, their excellent 2012 album with Neneh Cherry, Boot! strips things back to the trio of saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, bassist Ingebrit Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. Wrongly caricatured as macho bruisers, The Thing have always been masters of dynamics and space. Their eerie reinvention of Duke Ellington's 'Heaven', for example, takes the band into strange new territory. Boot! will kick your ass, but in unexpected ways.

Outside The Thing all three members are highly prolific. This month alone sees the release of new albums from both Gustafsson (a live set with Thurston Moore) and Nilssen-Love (a studio collaboration with Khanate guitarist James Plotkin, which bristles with weird electricity). The past year has also seen Gustafsson's heavy psych-rock trio Fire! expand into a 30-piece improv orchestra. Clearly the man never sleeps; since we spoke he's toured and recorded a new incarnation of Fire! featuring Wildbirds and Peacedrums singer Mariam Wallentin and Japanse avant guitarist and turntablist Otomo Yoshihidi. He's toured Poland with his 12-piece transatlantic Nu Ensemble and is preparing to take the The Thing to the Guggenheim Museum in New York to perform with their old friend, the free jazz legend Joe McPhee. Happily, he found a few moments to chat with The Quietus about The Thing, Fire! and his new label.

Boot! is your first trio album since Mono in 2011. Since then you've done a couple of collaborative projects, Metal, with the great British improv bassist Barry Guy, and of course Cherry Thing, with Neneh Cherry. How did those experiences feed back into Boot!?

Mats Gustafsson: In a way it's been quite a while since we did a studio record with The Thing, so we're pretty excited about it. I think from the very beginning of The Thing it's always been extremely important to do the trio as a trio and to have guests coming in to infuse, confuse and provoke. Stir things up, you know. So we were deliberately choosing musicians that would create some friction, some energy, some resistance in the music so it would take us somewhere. All those guests coming in and out of recording projects, live projects, whatever, that is fuel for the trio activity. So I think what we learned from Neneh Cherry or from Barry Guy for instance, is very fresh in the memory, and of course that is affecting the Boot! album. It's funny, when you work with a group of people for such a long time, you know each other really well and we're all freaks for vinyl and are always looking for new music everywhere. We went into this shit with... I wouldn't say a rocky approach, but it's a harder sound. The last couple of tours we did, it's been almost beat related material. When we went into the studio we didn't really know what would come out.

Ingebrit had his double bass as always, and electric. I had my newly bought bass saxophone. The shit that came out had no double bass, just electric, and there's a lot of bass sax on the record. I was quite surprised listening back to the material because it was harder than I thought it would be. It's where we are right now. With The Thing it's always been changing and that's the way it has to be.

The Thing are famous for covering rock songs – everything from Lighting Bolt to PJ Harvey – but there are none of these on >i?Boot!, just originals and jazz tunes by John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. Was this a deliberate move?

MG: It's funny, I didn't really think of that. When we cover other people's material it comes by itself, it's music we listen to, music we talk about and we'll say, ah, why not try it. I think the Boot! record is the most rocky approach with the sound, how it's recorded and everything, but there's no borrowing from the alternative rock scene, it's two jazz pieces.

Do you worry that some jazz fans might think you're committing sacrilege by doing these heavy versions of Coltrane and Ellington?

MG: I don't know what people think, it's up to anyone to think what they want, that's how music and art works. It's funny, we've played snippets of [Coltrane's] 'India', the basic riff, for quite a few years, but just touching it, never really playing it. Then in the studio, we just went with the sound of the bass sax and the electric bass, and with the drums it was such a deep sound. So we just made a structure on the spot for 'India' and it was more or less improvised the whole way through, even if it sounds quite structured when you listen to the recording. I think it's a great riff if you make it more rocky. It's a heavy riff, cos we play it really slow.

Have you heard William Parker's Essence Of Ellington album? In the sleevenotes Parker says that the essence of Ellington is to be yourself. There's no point copying him, because you can't out-Ellington Ellington.

MG: Oh shit, I've not. But yeah, Ellington is one of the few geniuses of the jazz scene. The compositions, the arrangements, the playing, everything, it's fucking fantastic. In a way, if you call yourself a jazz musician it's your fucking responsibility to go deep into at least some of it. It's so rich.

He's got some heavy stuff, amazing tunes like 'Skin Deep' with Louis Bellson's double kick drums pounding away.

MG: Oh yeah, it's fantastic. I love it. I love also the really small groups like the duos with Jimmy Blanton and the trio with Mingus and Roach, Money Jungle. It's fantastic and it shows how great a musician he is, not just the orchestral leader. [On Boot!] I had the idea of using this pretty simple theme [from 'Heaven', part of Ellington's Second Sacred Concert, recorded in 1969 with Swedish singer Alice Babs] and doing something different with it. Just take that melody and put it in a new situation, a new riff. I was playing around with one of the phrases at the end of the piece, I used that as a base for the riff. So that's the only one that is pre-arranged. Everything else basically happened in the studio. We had a really good situation with no stress. Usually with this kind of music you have one day in the studio, but here we had three days, and then mixing. Three days is a lot for a free jazz unit. We could do two or three pieces a day and really take it easy, talk about it, experiment with mic positions. It was the best situation we ever had with The Thing in the studio, the most relaxed, and it means a lot for the music.

Boot! is the first release on your new label, The Thing Records. What's the plan with the label?

MG: Since Smalltown Supersound [The Thing's former label] is restructuring, it took time for Joakim [Haugland, label owner] to find a way for it to work. Mono happened to be squeezed between these two processes, so in a way it never really got a proper release. Now we're rereleasing it on The Thing Records as a double vinyl with some extra tracks. Starting our own label, that's a big step, a lot of headache and energy and money. It's great because we had no beef with Joakim, he's a great guy, a really good friend, but the way the music business works we thought it would be easier to try to control things ourselves a little more. It's probably going to be a complete catastrophe, but we are trying! [laughs]

So your aim is to get all The Thing releases in one place?

MG: Yeah, that's the idea. Joakim is running a label not just with The Thing, so we thought this would take a little bit of shit away from him. He has better things to do as well. We'd really like to get all the albums available, both on vinyl and downloads. The first couple of records we did were on the label I ran in Sweden with two other guys, Crazy Wisdom. They're not available anywhere, so they're probably going to be the ones we start with rereleasing. Then all the records, live records, studio records, will be available. It will take some time, but that's the whole idea. Downloads you can get directly from our page and also our partner Trost Records. [Trost boss Konstantin Drobil] is a great guy too, he lives in Vienna where I live, so it's really easy to work with him. He's our partner in crime.

This year you've released two fantastic Fire! albums, one as Fire! Orchestra and the other as a trio. It's interesting that as with The Thing, you've made all these collaborative records, then you've gone back to basics with the core trio.

MG: It's been a crazy couple of years for Fire! I mean the group started as a 3am decision. One of my best friends Conny [Lindstrom] who is running different clubs, and he was also running the Crazy Wisdom label with me back in the day, he just wanted to put together his dream team, his all- star band in Stockholm, so he picked me, Johan [Berthling, also of Tape] and Andreas [Werliin, Wildbirds and Peacedrums] to play a gig in a hip bar in Stockholm. And we played almost on the bar desk, doing acoustic music. Then he said, let's take it to the studio, see what happens. So the first gig we did was a complete free jazz freakout, like Archie Shepp on acid, then we go into the studio and suddenly Fire! is there. Me playing some keyboards, [Johan on] electric bass, totally different music. So we thought we have to explore this. As always the trio is the base. And then we had another 3am decision a couple of years ago at the end of a tour: we should get all our friends together and have a big party and play the pieces we do but bigger! Four bass, four drums and blah blah blah! And then we have the orchestra, 30 piece, impossible to book, impossible logistics. But you know it works, and festivals actually want it and pay for it. I just put together a tour. We're doing eight gigs in nine days in January in Scandinavia, which nowadays is quite extreme, especially for a 30 piece band. So we're really surprised or shocked that the Orchestra would work so well and that everyone in the band contributed, putting egos away and being very positive and giving everything to the collective. It's been a great journey and next year looks amazing.