How To Find Magic: Motorpsycho Interviewed
, May 19th, 2014 07:19
Tristan Bath talks to Bent Sæther about a quarter of a century of exploratory psychedelic rock with Motorpsycho
"I'm not able to see quite what that is, but it's there and some people like it a lot."
The rock band format can sometimes seem so overdone. It's been at the very least some sixty years since guitars first got plugged in in the name of rock, and since then the world has been headbanging, shredding, thrashing and duckwalking; strumming out riffs in 4/4 that lead to the inevitable verse, chorus and perhaps even an almighty middle eight. And still we are yet to tire of it as each generation throws up its own spin on the blueprint. Rock mythology has always been littered with legendarily long and productive innings – consider Hawkwind's neverending cosmic trip since 1969, or Black Sabbath's initial run of six near-perfect records – but like all the best legends, the current grandmasters of the form hail from the land of the ice and snow.
Motorpsycho have always seemed unlikely rock heroes. Their emergence in 1991 as purveyors of very 'in' grunge, but with a then very 'out' preoccupation with psych-metal riffage and extended jams already seemed riddled with incongruity – needless to say their being Norwegian, which still signified musically little more than a-Ha to most listeners outside the country. Despite a 23 year gap and countless digressions, the group's grungy debut album, Lobotomizer, still holds so very much in common with the proggier Behind the Sun released earlier this year. Rooted on a classic power trio setup, Bent Sæther's crackerjack vocals make every line soar, Hans Magnus Ryan's chameleonic guitar playing crunches, squeals and shreds every note of every track into your skull with impunity, and the central pair challenge themselves with relentlessly open-ended songwriting. While persistent metamorphosis has come to define the group's history, their singular personality has kept it all together, much like Yo La Tengo, whose own prolific thirty-year history has seen them never play the same way twice, yet always sound exactly like nobody else.
Again like Yo La Tengo, Motorpsycho find themselves at the crest of a creative highpoint, producing against all convention the best music of their career some twenty-odd years and dozen or so albums in. The departure of original drummer Håkon Gebhardt in 2005, and arrival of his younger and more jazz-influenced replacement, Kenneth Kapstad signalled the turning point, and by 2008's Little Lucid Moments the group's non-stop heavy indie assault suddenly underwent a long-awaited refinement. The mean track time shot up, as did the percentage of time spent on spacious ebbs and flows and bridges, jams and links. The complexities became less macro and more micro, imbuing each individual track with a grandeur all its own, with album tracklists greatly diminishing from the overload of early albums like Demon Box (1993, 17 tracks in 90 minutes) to more palatable – yet no less powerful – symphonic permutations like Little Lucid Moments' (4 tracks in an hour). The excess of Yes' Topographic output springs to mind, except vitally in the metal-minded hands of Norwegians weaned on the NWOBHM diet. Unlike classic prog whose chief proponents would use mind-numbingly academic musicality and theatrics to reach dizzying heights, Motorpsycho's exhaustive songs and extensive interplay seek out ecstasy via sweaty far-reaching jams of the sort many bands only experience in private, locked away in garages and stuffy rehearsal rooms; unique and unrepeatable.
Motorpsycho's post-Gebhardt grandeur came to a head with 2012's The Death Defying Unicorn, an ostensible rock opera built in collaboration with Supersilent's Ståle Storløkken as keyboardist, co-composer and arranger, and recorded with the Trondheim jazz orchestra amongst others. As the cover art put it, Death Defying Unicorn was "a fanciful and fairly far-out musical fable", marrying orchestral interludes with the group at the very peak of their powers. It's a breath-taking achievement for any musician, and deserves to rank alongside the Wagnerian likes of Tommy, The Wall and Carla Bley & Paul Haines' Escalator Over the Hill as gesamtkunstwerks that go some way beyond the normal reach of mere 'albums'. Along with The Death Defying Unicorn came some hefty live gigs (even by Motorpsycho's standards), including Unicorn performed in its entirety dozens of times across Europe in 2012. Unsurprisingly, the core trio have since scaled things back a bit, at least in terms of bodies in the room. That having been said, the increasingly vital contributions of Swedish guitarist and long-time Dungen member, Reine Fiske, since 2012 have helped Still Life With Eggplant and Behind The Sun to retain something of the widescreen majesty stumbled across on The Death Defying Unicorn. In short, Motorpsycho's history is a truly singular achievement to behold – particularly when it's still being written.
We caught up with bassist Bent Sæther to talk 25 years of Motorpsycho, the apocrypha of black metal, and the pervasive influence of The Grateful Dead's never-ending noodling.
How would you describe Motorpsycho to somebody who'd never heard you play before?
Bent Sæther: I find this question impossible to answer without sounding like a pompous wanker, but at the risk of doing just that, I'll give it a go… You see, we got lucky. At some point we somehow managed to tweak how people parsed us. We went from being thought of and talked about as "a band that plays a so-and-so style of music" (a grunge band, a stoner band, etc) to "a band that plays music with a certain sensibility or style to it". I'm not able to see quite what that is, but it's there and some people like it a lot.
Our breakthrough album, Demon Box, surely has a lot to do with this. It was so stylistically all over the place that it felt like you were listening to a jukebox, but the audience somehow found a unity in it and liked it precisely for its diversity. From the feedback we get, it seems that this feeling of not quite knowing what kind of music you're gonna get, but knowing that you'll like it anyhow is a big reason people like us. This implied trust is a weird and beautiful thing, and we try our damnedest to do our bit. I guess it's kinda like the Dead or something: you can't really explain it, but once you've felt it you'll know. Or maybe it's just our good looks and stylish footwear? Not many bands are as consistently innovative as Motorpsycho, how do you stop yourselves from repetition?
BS: Ah, but do we? Sadly, as a songwriter you sooner or later finish developing your musical understanding. You find your preferred resolutions and harmonic intervals and what-have-yous, and then you either keep writing the same thing until everybody is as bored with your songs as you are, or you try with all your might to get out of those patterns. This is what a lot of the work is all about. We sometimes feel like hamsters on a wheel, covering the same musical ground we did 20 or more years ago, but we've gotten better at shooting down routine material or stuff we feel like we've done better in the past. Getting different people in the band for periods also keeps it from going stale. From Ståle Storløkken and Reine Fiske, via Ole Henrik Moe and Trondheimsolistene, to the Jaga Jazzist guys, Supersilent and Helge 'Deathprod' Sten: they are all really different from each other in terms of musical understanding and expression as well as simply being different as people, but they've all added something fresh to the stew over the years and we've learned an awesome amount of music from them all. I think this insatiable need to get to know new music is a big part of why it has lasted so long. That, and the free beer. It feels like you're at something of a creative peak 25 years in to your career - would you agree?
BS: Yeah, I do. When you've been at it for as long as we have, you go through fallow periods and blooming ones, and you know when you're on a roll and you learn how to keep it rolling for as long as you can. On Heavy Metal Fruit, with Kenneth [Kapstad] fully integrated into the band, something clicked. I dunno quite what it was, but our sense of self and of mission really crystalized around that period. Kenneth's musical prowess has surely pushed us two old timers to try harder, that's for sure! It feels like we've grown enough as musicians over the last few years to go new places, and our conceptual and compositional abilities have developed along with it, so we're pushing all the envelopes we can at the same time and it still feels like cutting edge work to us. It seems to resonate with people.
Yeah, it's been good lately!
The Death Defying Unicorn was an incredibly ambitious project, but you've since returned to more 'traditional' rock music for smaller ensembles. Do you think you'd be able to do something on same scale as Unicorn again?
BS: Yeah, I think so, but would we want to? The sheer scale of that thing was preposterous, and so was the music and the lyrics and the presentation - we even played it to a sold out opera house - twice! 'None more big' in Spinal Tap speak, it cost a fuckin' fortune, but was also exceptionally educational and a hoot and a half as well! That project was just beyond anything we've ever done and - although we thought of it as a successful venture - the workload and the drag in such a convoluted process, and the time you spend on it is just so unreasonable that you kinda think it over a few times before you commit to something as humongous again.
…That said, we have a new project underway with Ståle this summer involving the biggest church organ in northern Europe and a full choir, so … When you chose the name Motorpsycho, were you fans of Russ Meyer – who directed the movie Motorpsycho in 1965 - or was it just a grunge thing (in the tradition of Mudhoney, etc.)?
BS: In 1989 two of the bands we read about were Faster Pussycat and Mudhoney. Some cinema in London showed those two films along with Motorpsycho when the band was there record hunting that autumn, and the temptation was too big: one was a standard we hoped to reach and one a standard we hoped to never slip beneath. We never went to the screening though - a fraction of the band thought it imperative we go see Supergirls in 3D in Soho instead, so we did...
We finally saw the movie a few years later, and…well, the title is the best thing about it I guess. I really liked Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and a couple of others, but with these kinds of movies the best part is the 'talking about it over a beer afterwards' bit - and once is kind of enough.
How did you start jamming with Reine Fiske, and what sort of influence has his presence and playing had on the recent recordings?
BS: Reine we got to know in the '90s. He always showed up when we played Stockholm and we gradually got to know him. It wasn't until we saw a picture of Dungen in a magazine that we found out he was a successful guitar player, so that was quite weird. We somehow always ended up discussing the merits of Steamhammer and Pink Fairies and the Blossom Toes way into the early hours, and our shared love for that era in music was obvious. When Motorpsycho felt like trying to work with a new producer after that whole Death Defying project, his name came up. Long story short, he showed up, we pressed him into playing guitar as well as being a co-producer, and it was just such a natural match that we couldn't let him go.
The one thing MP never had, was a second guitar player that could hold his own and add something to the sum. Reine somehow does, and these last two albums have more or less both been mainly about making sense out of this whole two-guitar thing and trying out stuff we never had a chance to before. It's also been a period where we've nurtured the less cerebral sides of our music, and we've allowed ourselves to rock out like good'uns again too. Just a reaction to the rock opera thingy I presume, but mucho fun! On the other hand we're also doing acoustic sets these days, so the live set's got all kinds of Motorpsychodelia in it now! What sets Behind the Sun apart in the Motorpsycho catologue?
BS: I always have problems with seeing how our new stuff relates to our old stuff - I'm better at seeing long lines in other people's music than in my own. But I know that this one feels different from the others. There's something in the texture of it that feels new and previously unheard in our music - and I have a suspicion a lot of that has to do with how Reine, who's a mellow kinda fellow. He pulls us songwriters a bit away from the hard rock direction that Kenneth - an out and out heavy metal dude that plays like a jazz drummer - pulls us in. Yin to his Yang or whatever. The balance is new and different, and it feels great. Motorpsycho have released several double and triple albums in their career - does stuff ever end up unused on the cutting room floor? What's it like?
BS: There are a few outtakes on the box sets we've released of Timothy's Monster (1994) and Blissard (1996) so you can hear some there. But generally there are always a few things that get left off for some reason or other, although the criteria for inclusion vary from project to project. A lot of ideas get re-used and made part of new songs if the first version didn't cut the mustard, and the stuff that gets left off usually contained the germ of something good but failed to reach a satisfactory state by the recording stage.
You and Snah [Hans Magnus Ryan's alias] have been together out in front of Motorpsycho forever now - how's the relationship between you two? The interplay is such a huge part of the music…
BS: We've known each other since 1985 or '86, are really different as personalities, and yet have actually never disagreed to any degree. We are really complimentary as musicians and songwriters too, and come from two total opposites in our approaches. Where Snah is a melody and texture man, I am more of a riff, rhythm and concept guy. I am much better than him in certain fields, and he surely wipes the floor with me in others, and we both know it's like that. Where I can be a loudmouth and come off as abrasive, he's a much more introverted guy, and surely the deepest thinker in the band (alert: Iron Butterfly reference!)
It's just a natural affinity I guess.
Way back in the 90s, you released an album called The Tussler. It touched upon late-60s/early-70s American west-coast country-rock, in a pretty heavily Grateful Dead influenced (or perhaps referencing) style. There are actually lots of moments when Motorpsycho sound like the Dead - particularly when fusing jazz and rock. How much did you all like the Grateful Dead?
BS: Oh - a lot! I once counted and realized I have more that 24 hours of just Pigpen-era versions of 'Turn On Your Lovelight', so I'm a total goner. Snah is also a big fan, but his fandom doesn't reach as silly proportions as mine does. We do agree though that the Lesh/Garcia tag team is an amazing thing, and that Bob Weir must be the most underrated guitar player in rock.
I think the one thing that sets us apart from a lot of our contemporaries and peers, is the fact that we've got this improvisatory thing that we learned from the Dead. I'm not talking concrete musical tricks or approaches here, but a willingness to take risks and go where the mood takes us at any given moment on any given night. These days, the entertainment value of a rock show seems like it's counted in the number of flash pots you set off, or how well rehearsed and slick your act is. This is complete anathema to us, and when someone as respected and great as The Knife basically turn their shows into an aerobics class, it really makes me think, no wonder people don't buy music anymore! Ours is a bit different, and a much harder sell.
Most times when you try to explain, you turn to the dreaded words 'jazz approach' to make people understand, but with us it's really more of a Grateful Dead approach: using the tempo and key and metre of a song to go into unchartered territory and exploring their structures to see if there's anything new and exciting to find in an old construction… I dunno - it always seemed weird to me that not every band does this all the time, but different strokes for different folks, right?
We fall flat on our faces as often as we soar, but the thrill of the doing and the peaks you hit every now and then are life affirming moments that justify every soundcheck, every airport and every dull hour spent in a van on the road somewhere. Our fans have picked up on this as well, and some of them travel around and catch as many shows as they can. Pudding and proof and all that! Your live performances are filled with exploratory jams and medleys. How much do you plan this, and how much has the show changed over the years?
BS: We try to have as many songs semi-rehearsed as we can for a tour, and have had more than 100 songs ready at a soundcheck's notice on tours in the past. Due to an inordinate number of alternative tunings we have to have a setlist, but we write it as close to show time as possible, and try never to repeat a set, no matter how well it may have worked before. This forces a different concentration on you, kills any notion of coasting dead in the water, and gives you just that little extra bit of focus you need to be to 'find the magic'. At least it seems to work like that for us. It also makes the gigs a bit of a marathon proposal, and we regularly play for more than two and a half hour per night.
Something happens in that last hour though, both for the audience and for us. The sheer exhaustion moves the whole thing into some kind of 'id' mode, where you're just too tired to think and simply fly by the seat of your pants. That's where the magic often seems to hide: in some kinda sweaty, oxygen-free, semi-hallucinatory state, after the inhibitions are gone and you are one with the now. Kinda like in a sauna I guess… those canny Finns have it all figured out! Revisionist looks at the Scandinavian underground have revealed quite a lot of psychedelic and progressive rock in Sweden and Finland during the 60s/70s - Träd, Gräs & Stenar, or Pekka Streng & Tasavallan Presidentti for example. Norway doesn't seem to have shared that history of pioneering psych and prog, contributing more to jazz and then eventually black metal. What are some seminal early Norwegian rock bands?
We never had the same prog movement as the Swedes, mainly due to a couple of facts. The whole hippie scene was radicalized and politicized a lot sooner and more thoroughly than in Sweden. This gave us a lot of communist/protest crap, but not a lot of good music. The jazz scene was bigger and stronger than the rock scene in Norway, and people like Terje Rypdal and Jan Garbarek made their 'freak music' with jazz people instead of with rockers. This made the underground sit further underground than it did in a lot of other countries, and it never grew to e.g. German or Swedish proportions. But it gave us a great deal of amazing avant-jazz!
There are a few exceptions to these main trends though, and hard rockers like Aunt Mary did great stuff. Popol Vuh [later renamed Popol Ace to avoid confusion with Florian Flicke's better known German band of the same name] was a more proggy proposal that did a couple of really great albums. Likewise Junipher Greene, Ruphus, Prudence, Saft, Høst, Undertakers Circus and a few others - but there was no real prog or rock 'scene' as such, and no underground labels that documented whatever scene that might have been there. The closest we got to an underground institution in the '70s was Club7, a members only club that had singer-songwriters, jazz and underground music on all the time from 1965 until around 1980, and functioned as a sort of an underground hub for that whole era.
I urge all who are curious to check out Plastic Strip Records and Prisma Records and their fantastic archive and reissue work with Norwegian (and some international) avant-garde and out there music from the archives of Club7 patrons, as well as from the Henie Onstad Art Centre and NRK (Norwegian BBC equivalent). There is some truly amazing stuff to be found on their releases. On the subject of Black Metal, you guys were all around and active in music at the time it was at its peak. How visible was it in Norway at the time?
Well, It was all pretty much blown out of proportion to begin with. I estimate that whole scene had to have been made up of about 30 guys - 50 at the most. Most of them played in each other's bands, and when the 'I'm-more-like-us-than-thou'-gene kicked in (as it always does in these cult situations), it got outta hand. Due to the corpse paint, the church burnings and the murder, the press went ape over it and made it an inescapable phenomenon, but it was really just a teenage subculture that devolved into some fucked up Lord of the Flies scenario.
The music was mostly run of the mill post-Venomisms, but a few of those albums stand on their own as weird ass works of outsider art, and are great artefacts of a bygone era. These days it's an industry like anything else, and only a few of the surviving bands do anything worthwhile from a musical standpoint.
Did it have any profound effect on Motorpsycho at all?
BS: Not really, but it got so much press for all the wrong reasons. We were on the same label, as a lot of these bands, and our album was called Demon Box… We got a lot of weird press over it, press that had nothing to do with us, or our music. Back then it was impossible to have any kind of ironic or distanced relationship to it at all, and it was simply a pain in the ass. How do you feel like Norway's role in rock music - and pop culture in general - has changed over the last quarter of a century?
BS: When we started out, the only bands that played outside of Norway were either mainstream bands signed to UK majors (a-Ha), heavy metal acts (TNT!) or hardcore bands from the squatter scene (So Much Hate, Life... but how to live it). There was no underground to speak of and the idea of making a living out of playing the music that we did was preposterous. It still kinda is I guess, but these days the floodgates have opened and then some. The scenes aren't as hermetic as they once were and musicians play with each other across the stylistic divides and make new music. The most important things that happened as far as I can tell, were at the Jazz Academy at the Music Conservatory in Trondheim, where young musicians sharpen their chops and get so fed up with jazz that they start playing weird pop (Highasakite), noise (Supersilent), doom (Sunswitch), and all kinds of new and avant garde music (all the rest of them!). The way this has combined with the local and national rock scenes and so forth has really given the whole musical climate a shake up. The other important thing is that labels like Rune Grammofon, SmallTown SuperSound, and lately Hubro, Jansen and Impeller among others have helped these new constellations get an audience both domestically and abroad. It's really changed a lot! What music did Motorpsycho grow up listening to, and how did you get it in Trondheim? Good radio stations and record shops?
BS: Oh, Snah and I were children of the NWOBHM [New Wave of British Heavy Metal]! That was our thing. Before it we dug Kiss, Mötorhead, Van Halen, Rainbow, AC/DC, the Sabs and Thin Lizzy, and after it we got into thrash. Then we found Led Zeppelin and spent the next years getting into Rush and prog and Detroit and psychedelia and all of that until we caught up with our own time again around 1987/'88: You're Living All Over Me, Sister, Your Funeral…My Trial, Warehouse; Songs and Stories, Locust Abortion Technician, Children Of God… There was a flood of good music around those years, and eventually we recognized our own generation in the first stirrings of grunge.
Both Snah and I grew up in the sticks, about 200km north of Trondheim, so the choices were few and far between, but it got better as the 80s rolled along and good when we moved to Trondheim. I worked at a college radio station at the time, and the band more or less grew out of that scene.
What's life generally like in Trondheim? - it's incredibly remote for a European city. Has life and the scene there had any major effect on your music?
BS: I used to think that living here was good for concentrated work since it's so far removed from the biz, but I dunno if it ever mattered… I am of the opinion that you can't really get away from (or find) yourself anywhere else, that place is unimportant and that your ego is inescapable no matter where you are. So if the place influenced my writing, it must be subconsciously. There is obviously a grandeur to the nature around us, and I guess you could read something relating to that into the size of some of our music, but I have a sneaking suspicion that might just be the Ritchie Blackmore influence and not really related to Norwegian nature at all!
These days both Snah and I have children and lead normal urban lives I guess. Parenthood takes up a lot of time, but also makes what time you have left over for work even more precious, so I think the work ethic is even sharper than it used to be.
What Motorpsycho release do you still listen to the most often yourself?
BS: The next one, the one that isn't finished yet!
Behind The Sun is out now