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A Quietus Interview

Twilight Zone: Jørgen Munkeby Of Shining Interviewed
Dayal Patterson , August 2nd, 2013 08:58

Norwegian jazz/metal firebrands Shining recently released their latest album, One One One. Dayal Patterson catches up with band leader Jørgen Munkeby to discuss the spiritual connections between jazz and metal, and being led by the heart rather than the head

Formed just prior to the turn of the millennium, Norway's Shining have undergone quite a remarkable evolution since their original inception. Created by frontman Jørgen Munkeby – who, as well as tackling vocals, also handles guitar, bass, saxophone and synth (only a few of the instruments he's played over the years) - the group was initially an acoustic jazz proposition, formed by Munkeby along with a number of his fellow students at the prestigious Norwegian Academy of Music.

Despite this seemingly orthodox background, the albums that flowed forth in the years that followed captured an increasingly individualistic vision, forging an intense and incredibly hyperactive sound that brings to mind some sort of pile up of metal, jazz, rock, noisecore, progressive rock, industrial, classical and even dance as the unfortunate passengers. The climax of this progression thus far, both creatively and commercially speaking, arrived in 2010 with the Blackjazz album, a record that showcased the group at arguably their most heavy and accessible. Indeed, impressively, the band have earned a significant degree of commercial success while following their uncompromising artistic vision, not only receiving considerable coverage from the Norwegian media but breaking the national top ten, receiving Grammy nominations and, most recently, winning a fairly lucrative Statoil scholarship.

Speaking via skype, Munkeby proves just as intense, thought-provoking and energetic as his music - in fact, were it not for his clean-living lifestyle, one might presume some form of direct chemical influence, such is his conversational focus and physical restlessness, the frontman moving around the room, only loosely affected by the gravitational pull of the computer and its webcam. He's undeniably confident and straight-talking, but also a likeable character who has retained his curiosity and passion, to the extent that he eagerly investigated a number of my musical suggestions following the interview, while offering some of his own.

First of all, congratulations on the prize you recently won, that must be hugely encouraging.

Jørgen Munkeby: I haven't seen it yet but it is a lot of money – a million kroner [approximately 127,000 euro], which is a funny sum, because as a child reading Donald Duck, this was basically the biggest number you could imagine. But that's not as much as it sounds, for two reasons.

Firstly, it is expensive having a band and travelling. For people who haven't been in a band or run their own business that kind of sum sounds extremely big, but in Norway you could probably hire one person for about one year with that, and then it's gone… doing business and travelling with people it's easy to spend money very quickly. But the second thing is living in Norway; it's a rich country, but it's also expensive to live. I have Norwegian musicians, and when we travel they still have to pay their mortgages in Norway and the wages, the amount I pay them, they obviously have to compare that to other Norwegian bands, so that's not in our favour. What is in our favour is that Norway is a rich country and has money… if the government wants to export culture. But the bad thing is that because the economy has gone down in Europe, it doesn't matter how much we need to pay a mortgage in Norway, what matters is how much someone in Germany can afford to pay.

But it is a lot, it's one million more than nothing, and it will help us tour in the US. If it's a good investment, and we get a foothold there, then we'll tour more there, and it fails we tried and we'll continue focusing on Europe and Norway. So we have a three year plan, in that sense.

Even with all the hooks and the use of almost danceable rhythms and synth work, Shining is still a pretty avant-garde proposition and also a fairly abrasive one, given all the mind-bogglingly technical passages and the screaming and blasting percussion you throw into the mix. Given how challenging your music is, are you ever surprised by the level of success you have managed to achieve thus far?

JM: Sometimes I'm surprised we had so much success, other times I'm surprised we didn't get more success. Sometimes I'm surprised at the bands who had lots more success and it doesn't seem justified. I'm not the right person to ask, because I'm biased. I know when I was young I couldn't have imagined being here now, I'm further than what my dreams were then, but that doesn't mean I'm happy. I'm still pretty unhappy with the situation, so my ambitions and dreams have grown with me. If you ask Dave Grohl if he's happy with where he is, he's probably not. Well he should be! [laughs] But I'm happy if you are surprised how successful we are, in your words. That means we are doing something right, we are getting our music out more than other bands.

You mentioned Dave Grohl as an example, but to be fair his music is considerably more commercial than what you're doing in Shining. When you started blending jazz and extreme metal and who knows what else, it surely wasn't with the aim of attaining mainstream success.

JM: No we weren't expecting that. I would say we are somewhat parallel to Nine Inch Nails, they also started out as something pretty weird where the focus was making great music - art music - but there is something commercial about it. But still it's not commercial or pop. Obviously I didn't start out to become loved, or famous, or rich, or anything like that.

Do you think in Norway it's easier to have success with quote/unquote "extreme music" than it is elsewhere? After all, you are getting airplay on relatively mainstream radio with music that is decidedly technical, experimental and aurally harsh, a feat that might be somewhat harder to achieve in a territory such as the UK…

JM: We've been around longer in Norway, it's a smaller country and being around longer we've built ourselves up and have become quite established. You're a force to be reckoned with, you're taken seriously. I don't know how the radio works in the UK or US, so it's hard for me to know how that works. Actually, I don't know how it works in Norway either! The last couple of years - before we got this song on the radio – I haven't listened to the radio, and I haven't had a TV for 14 years. But when I do pay attention I'm constantly surprised how much shitty music they play. The reason they play music on the radio is not because they like music, it's because they want to keep people glued to the station until the adverts come on, that's really the business plot of the radio. When I discovered that – and I hadn't really thought about it – that suddenly explained why they play a certain type of music on the radio, music 'everyone' can like. But it hasn't been an important part of my world.

Would you say that we live in conservative times, artistically speaking?

JM: That kind of resonates more with me. I'm surprised we're not bigger, I'm surprised that it's hard to get great music around. Almost the only thing they play is the super-commercial stuff - that's what surprises me. I was born in the 1980s and this is the only life I've lived – that I know of [laughs] – so it's hard for me to know what life was like for 25 year olds in the 1970s. But I mean, Jimmy Hendrix was pretty far out, right? For me it seems like the mainstream now, and for quite some years, has become very, very safe. That and the music industry is struggling economically, the money comes first, but I think in the old days they had the guts and felt they had time to try out stuff.

Guts perhaps, but also a financial safety net that allowed longterm investment in groups, in a way that might be rather more risky in an age where the economics of the music industry has been depleted by illegal internet downloads and the like.

JM: Yes, they would probably have the money to develop ten bands and one of the ten became Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin. Now there isn't the money or time to do that. Now there's no time to navigate. That's probably a big reason things are like they are, but I don't think people are happy with that, I think people need more than that and hopefully it will even out. You see glimpses of stuff. Skrillex - people really like that and that's pretty aggressive, so that's impressed me. I'm not pessimistic, I'm quite optimistic. So to answer your earlier question, I'm surprised we're not bigger, I'm surprised bands like us aren't bigger, and I'm surprised that bands that are popular to me don't make quality music.

Talking of making music, what do you feel are the main differences between your new album One, One, One and Blackjazz? Did you have any specific aims going in this time?

JM: This is our seventh release if you count our live CD and DVD [Live Blackjazz] so we've done a lot of stuff, and we started out as a jazz band, so we've gone through a lot of changes as well. I would say after every second album we've gone through some big change; our first two albums were jazz, the third and fourth were studio-oriented art rock, in a way. The fifth album was Blackjazz, which was developing something pretty unique, we were bringing in more metal elements and we excluded a lot of elements that we had incorporated before, contemporary elements, we stripped it down to the metal and the jazz. Then the sixth album was basically a live Blackjazz album with a visual element and more of the improvisational transition parts, and we also adapted older songs into the Blackjazz sound. I wanted to show the physical side of the Blackjazz music, I wanted to show that it wasn't programmed, it was played by musicians. The musicians are jazz musicians, and for some parts we don't stop for like thirty minutes.

I would say that since both Blackjazz and Live Blackjazz were concept albums in a way, they are pretty long, and some tracks aren't songs you'd listen to again and again, they are more there to make the album better. This time I wanted to see if we could use the two tracks from Blackjazz that I liked the most – 'The Madness & The Damage Done' and 'Fisheye' - I wanted to make those the album's starting point. Songs where the vocals are a big part and choruses are easily definable and more conventional, especially compared to our other stuff. So I wanted to write more like that, go straight to the essence and strip things down and just have the essential stuff.

The title of the album obviously prompts some questions. Is it related to your apparent interest in numerology which dominated songs such as 'Fisheye' ("1, 3, 7, 5 / Never 4, never I / Wheel turn, God's eye / Thirteen, fish eye") or was it a reference to something else?

JM: I was really into numerology a long time, but I'm not that interested in it now. It's actually three things. First, it's referring to the fact that on this album I was wanting to get straight to the core and take away the filler material that is usually on albums just to make them varied. So I wanted to cut that away and make better songs. Before I did not really focus on individual songs, before I was composing more as a classical composer rather than a songwriter, and this time I wanted each song to stand alone and be played alone, as people often do now on Spotify and MP3 players. So the title refers to a series of ones - I wouldn't say number one hits, but I have tried to make them more hit-ish. I also look at this album as Blackjazz 3 because it's written and mixed to be like Blackjazz and Live Blackjazz, which I view as a proper release. And in the binary number system '111' equals '7' in our decibel system, and it is the seventh release. It has a numerological meaning, but I was more into that before when I wrote 'Fisheye', that's why I used the words "one, one, one" rather than the numbers, because I think the use of numbers in metal is a little bit cliché and I've been there already.

Obviously Shining have been pretty adept in avoiding anything close to clichés. How then would you categorise your own music?

JM: I've heard people mention the word 'progressive', but I had some trouble understanding what progressive means. And I can elaborate. How I perceive the word 'progressive' is something that doesn't stagnate, it's on the cutting edge. But what a lot of people mean when they define 'progressive metal', it's something very retro. It's about King Crimson and it's retro. So I'm in two minds about what 'progressive metal' is. I mean, how new is 'nu metal'? It would have to progress to justify the name, and progressive music would have to progress if it was going to justify being called progressive. But I'm happy with being called progressive, 'cos we are metal with some jazzy parts that sound '70s. And in those terms we are less progressive [on the new album] because the new songs are shorter and don't have noodling parts that go nowhere, because I tried to take those away. But we are progressing. If we made another album like Blackjazz we wouldn't be progressing.

Is that the most important thing for you as a musician, not to stagnate or repeat yourself in your creations?

JM: It's not a cerebral thing, a mental thing – I don't say to myself, 'Jørgen, don't stagnate', I don't write it on notes to remind me. I find when my musical and production abilities get better it's also easier for me to make what I had in my mind, to hit the sound I had in my mind, and that's good. A lot of the difficulties and boundaries that you have as an artist are removed, and what remains is what I don't have control over. There's something in my heart that defines what I have to do. There's something in my gut that defines that. What was your question again?

Whether it's important not to stagnate as an artist.

JM: No I wouldn't say it's important. If my heart said what was important was to do the same over and over again, that is what I'd do. I don't have any rules. It's just what feels right. That's been the leading star all the way. I made the changes I felt were right and which would let me make better music. If that was to repeat myself I'd do that, but until now it's been a slow but steady change.

You've made a name for yourselves with your almost transcendental live shows. You've obviously put a lot of thought into the presentation and arrangement - did that influence your songwriting?

JM: That's one of the reasons I really wanted to have a live release, 'cos I feel that albums and concerts are different media and should be treated as different things. Maybe you should even change the tempo because a song is better slower or faster live. The songs on the new album, almost all of them are around four minutes, they are very short but live-wise we have made new endings on a lot of them which allows them to flow seamlessly into one another. Even with the new music, we have arranged them for live use and have combined them with older songs. Obviously we're trying to better our live performances all the time.

Do you ever feel you're a hard taskmaster with regard to pushing your bandmates to their limits on stage?

JM: I push myself, and I push them, and they push themselves, and when they're tired of being pushed by themselves and me, they usually want someone else to take over for a while.

John Doran was telling me that at this year's by:Larm festival the rest of the band looked like they wanted to kill you by the end of your encore …

JM: [Grins widely] Well that's a good story and I wouldn't want to ruin a good story! That's a fun observation but I don't really think that's correct. They're just as fond of this being energetic, they're just as fond of this being hard physically, as I am. But it's a good story and I don't want to ruin that [laughs].

Today, you and drummer Torstein Lofthus are the sole founding members. Is it hard to find like-minded musicians to push the band forward would you say?

JM: I grew up listening to Pantera, Sepultura and Death and I don't really listen to that now, I had a time when I listened to hip hop – I still like it but I don't listen to that so much now - so things change. I think it's the same for other people in the band. Maybe they decide they want to be a doctor instead of a musician, they should do that. Maybe suddenly one guy has a kid and wants to earn money, 'cos even though we do pay our musicians, there are other bands who pay a lot more because they have more fans. So things change but I'm not the tyrant, I don't think I am at least.

Do you think the clean living lifestyle you've mentioned in previous interviews is part of the reason you have so much energy as a group?

JM: Maybe you can turn it round and say maybe I wouldn't be able to do this stuff if I were drunk or ate unhealthy food or stuff like that. The guys in the band are the same. The keyboard player quit the band - he was one of the guys who was most into what we're doing, but he discovered he had bipolar and couldn't tour - but when he came with the band he made us change the hospitality rider, and from that time we've had that. When we come to a new venue, we need to know the nearest swimming pool and gym. I never have the time on tour to do that stuff. But the rest of the band go to the gym every other day, or even every day, so the other guys have the same kind of lives. I think it's important - we wouldn't be able to do what we're doing if we were drunk.

You originally made your name playing saxophone in the experimental jazz outfit Jaga Jazzist and indeed, Shining was originally very much a jazz proposition. How on earth did you go from there to fronting a futuristic genre-bending metal band?

JM: I had a piano and a guitar in my house as a child but I started playing sax. I have no idea why - I hadn't listened to any sax music, but I played in rock bands, playing guitar and even the saxophone in rock (or fusion) bands. And as I got older I started playing saxophone along to my metal CDs, but I didn't really stumble upon any… it wasn't really easy to get the sax and the metal music to fit together. So for a long time those were separate things. But after discovering John Coltrane, that was the sort of musician I was; a jazz musician. I didn't want to get involved in computers or anything like that because I felt I was a jazz musician.

I wouldn't have wanted to do the same things with two bands, so when I was mixing electronic music with Jaga Jazzist it made sense to keep Shining as a pure acoustic jazz group. But when I quit Jaga Jazzist I began to feel that this music was not just a music of another time, but of another country - you know, the US, it was from black jazz musicians from the '60s and '70s. So I thought, 'Shit, it must be possible to play jazz music that I myself like, and that people like from my own generation,' so we started exploring with Shining and I bought a computer. And then I started discovering new metal – obviously not nu metal – but newer metal bands like Meshuggah, Sunn O))), The Locust, stuff like that, bands that didn't exist when I was young and that reignited my love for metal. It was like coming home after travelling the world and getting a new set of knowledge and combining it with your roots.

What about the electronic parts, can you pinpoint where those came from?

JM: I never listened to Manson or Nine Inch Nails when I was young, so the industrial part is more a production choice rather than a musical thing. I've heard people say, 'Okay, I'm okay with the 'black jazz' name, but where the hell is the industrial?' and probably there should be whole lot more [things added to that categorisation]. Even when we were a jazz quartet, the musicians had wide musical tastes.

Is it hard to combine the free nature of jazz with far more rigid structures of extreme metal and industrial? And do you see any parallels at all, any shared musical traits, between these very different strands of music?

JM: I think that's why a lot of people like us, because we do combine the rigid stuff with the free stuff. On the new album the freer stuff has been toned down, but we wanted to have a lot of free stuff in our live shows and we still do that. I think industrial music should have more freedom because it can be a bit stiff, and a lot of industrial bands have tackled that by being sloppy, or they have slick grooves but then the guitar and vocals are sloppy, to give it a human feel. But what we have done is to have a drummer who can play, so we have human fills. It's an interesting twilight zone between these two things, between strict stuff and freer stuff.

There are parallels to black metal too, because compared to death metal or Pantera, black metal is very spiritual and the free jazz that I like has a very spiritual side. And with both [Shining and black metal] the mood and atmosphere are very important, with death metal the technical stuff is important, whereas black metal the mood is most important. And in free jazz the mood is much more important than in bebop, which is more technical.

The saxophone has a lot of energy and when blown hard sounds like an electric guitar, so that is another parallel. Ever since I was playing saxophone to my Pantera records I was trying to figure out how to get sax to blend with metal music. I tried to approach it as Charlie Parker would have done, with bebop phrases, like David Sanbourne with a '90s LA sound, like earlier John Coltrane stuff. Eventually I felt John Coltrane's rhythms and pitches - he plays these repeated patterns and that works really well with what we do - and that singing way, that melodic way, that Albert Ayler has, I felt that worked. So for me it was about combining the right elements, and I was trying a long time but suddenly I felt I had the right way. And that's how I play now. I play the same way as I do with Ihsahn's solo project. My saxophone palette [within the band] isn't that broad, I have a wider palette than I'm using. But it's about seeing what doesn't work, and what brings the wrong associations."

Did you listen to any other artists who had attempted to blend metal with jazz?

JM: I'm only aware of John Zorn. I haven't listened that much to him but I know he's known for playing sax with metal. But I would say the kind of metal he does is the '90s stuff with Mike Patton and Painkiller, which is somewhat different to what people do now. In those days they kind of skipped between cliché jazz parts and almost-cliché metal parts, and skipped back and forth in a sort of cut-and-paste way. That might feel a bit dated now. Today I do not know many bands mixing metal and jazz that have jazz musicians. There are metal bands using elements of jazz such as Opeth, Ulver, even Meshuggah, probably Animals As Leaders, but bands coming the other way and have gone as far as we have… you know, we're not a jazz band with a little bit of metal stuff. We've gone a long way - we started as jazz musicians, and I think you can hear in the sax and the drums that we had studied jazz for decades.

Shining's One One One is out now via Prosthetic