Field Day Preview: Mats Gustafsson Of The Thing Interviewed

Out of all the delights awaiting the listener at London's Field Day festival this weekend, Matt Evans is most looking forward to seeing free jazz saxophonist Mats Gustafsson as part of The Thing

Ohhh herregud . . . what’s that sound? That viscous, abrasive tone, resembling Albert Ayler drowning in hot bitumen? That squealing, squalling, peeling, mauling degradation of brass? That would be Sweden’s finest export, Mats Gustafsson. The prolific saxophonist has been an exponent of wildy unfettered improvisation since the early 1980s, working with everybody from improv legends Derek Bailey and Ken Vandermark to Italian hardcore math-skronk trio Zu and visonary sun-god eYe from the Boredoms.

His most stable project has been his long-standing trio The Thing, with bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love — a swinging harsh-jazz ensemble renowned for meaty deconstructions of Bowie, the White Stripes, Peter Brötzmann, Lightning Bolt and countless other unlikely targets. This weekend, The Thing will perform at both Field Day in London and the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, in support of their latest collection of free-range visceral joy, Bag It! (Smalltown Superjazz).

We caught up with Mats and poked various digits into his brain to see if anything twitched. Oh, twitching abounded. Especially in repsonse to mention of barbecues or one R.W. Penniman. One thing’s for certain — he’s no skithögar.

Who or what inspired you to first make music? Who were your early heroes?

Mats Gustafsson: Little Richard! He is the KING! Always and forever! From that ROCKIN’ starting point, I had a number of heavy heroes: Albert Ayler, The Cramps, Brötzmann, Warne Marsh and (70s Finnish rockers) Hurriganes.

Of course there were a lot of early important encounters that changed me and that still make my toes stand up in my boots . . . but to hear Richard Wayne Penniman scream out his messages with such a killin’ rhythm section and with such hip sax players — that is probably what made that seven-year-old Swede focus on music and art instead of cross-country skiing.

Is there still anything left to say in improvised music, any territory still to explore? Both on a personal level and in a wider sense . . .

There will always be new people appearing on the scene and that’s the reason why this music will still develop always and forever. Just as it’s objective fact that Little Richard is the KING! No question — PERIOD!

MG: Oh, my God . . . Hell YES! Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this. There are always new challenges and new territory to explore. You just have to take the risk of failing. That is important. But as long as you play with ass-kickin’ people, it should all be fine.

But it’s not entertainment music we are talking about here. I’m a bit romantic in these matters (and perhaps even naive?) — but music is life and life is music. ‘Music is like living, but better,’ as Derek Bailey used to say.

There will always be new people appearing on the scene and that’s the reason why this music will still develop always and forever. Just as it’s objective fact that Little Richard is the KING! No question — PERIOD!

New scenes constantly come into focus, and this is where really interesting personal languages are developed. Right now I’m very impressed with the local scenes in Korea, and of course in Tokyo, and also in Lithuania and Estonia. There are shitloads of very interesting players there . . . and a really great audience as well. Hankil Ryu fuckin’ ROCKS!

So, its all about the people behind the instruments and what they have/need to express. It’s all about communication, on all sorts of levels. That’s why improvised music will always be valid — as a music form and as a form of resistance.

How has the way in which free/improv/experimental music is received changed over the years? How have the audiences changed?

MG: My take on this is that of course it all changes and it HAS to change. New audiences appear, new scenes get established. New media is changing the availability and the forms of communication . . . change is continuous and I like to think that it is for the better all the time.

It’s a slow process, and it has to be slow, otherwise we can’t really get a grip on what the fuck is going on. The flow of information now is just too fast for us to have a chance to really digest and get a chance to really understand the meanings of the music and the arts on a deeper level.

Sounds old-fashioned? Oh, yezzzz.

How’s the scene over in Sweden? Thriving? How does it differ from your experiences of playing in the US?

MG: Well, Sweden . . . is quite depressing right now. I didn’t think that I would ever say that. But the fact is that it is almost impossible to work in Sweden these days. There are basically no clubs or festivals that are interested. There is an audience, for sure! And there are musicians. But no real chance to play . . . it was better a few years ago. But it will change again. Soon. It’s like a weird cycle — activity comes and goes.

But since there are young ass-kickers like Erik Carlsson (great drummer), Magnus Granberg (insane sax and guitar hero) and experienced butt-kickers like Raymond Strid, Johan Berthling and Kjell Nordeson, and a couple of happening labels like Häpna and iDEAL, I’m pretty sure that we can fight the stupidity really effectively!

The audience for this music is basically the same, no matter if you play in Eastern Europe or in Asia or in the US. There is a slightly younger audience in the US and Eastern Europe (the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and other great places with a huge and curious audience!) than in Western Europe. It’s much more fun to play for a younger mixed crowd than for only 50-year-old men with beards, with German beers in their hands . . . no offence, you guys!

What does your music tell us about Swedish culture, or the Nordic Region in general?

MG: Nothing.

Some artists arguably on the fringes of jazz — Derek Bailey, Zu, etc. — have objected to the term being applied to them. To what extent do you consider yourself part of a jazz tradition?

MG: I play myself. I improvise. Is that jazz? Or not? Labels on music are no good. They just give the listener some stupid preconcieved expectations, which get in the way of really experiencing the music.

Of course Derek and Zu are jazz. Of course they are rock. Of course they are it all. What the hell . . . I dont care what they call it.

How spontaneous or pre-planned is the music of The Thing?

It’s much more fun to play for a younger mixed crowd than for only 50-year-old men with beards, with German beers in their hands . . . no offence, you guys!

MG: I was very influenced by Per Henrik Wallin (Swedish free-jazz pianist and composer). Hearing his Trio as a kid in the early ’80s . . . I’m happy to say that we took some of their music-making tools and made them ours.

We have a ‘book’ of perhaps a couple of hundred pieces, all in the fingers, feet and heads… and we never, ever decide what pieces to do before a performance. That’s the method that works best for us, just improvising with what we have. Whatever shows up, we play!

All the great music we can find, we try to use — be it hardcore or metal, tropicalia or schlager, noise or garage rock, free jazz or West Coast. We try to make it our music. The Thing’s music. Our concerts are always improvised. We have to find out during playing what pieces to do. I think that makes it much more involving for the audience as well. And for sure it keeps us on our toes!

Setlists suck.

What’s the source of the highly physical, almost violent aspects of The Thing’s music? Rage? Frustration? Joy?

MG: Peace, love, fire, vinyl, grappas and good BBQ! Again, ‘Music is like living, but better.’

What’s the working process within the band? Democractic? Authoritarian?

MG: We all come in with suggestions of pieces to do. Sometimes during a concert, in fact. Playing Ellington, Black Sabbath and Sonny Rollins happened by chance. Shit just happens, I guess. It’s a three-headed, very authoritarian unity.

The band are renowned for their unlikely non-jazz covers — PJ Harvey’s ‘To Bring You My Love’, Lightning Bolt’s ‘Ride the Sky’, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Art Stars’, Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’, etc. What was it about these songs that compelled you to maul them?

MG: They’re all great pieces and super platforms for improvisation. In our distorted world they all made sense. I think it’s a pretty good method to use your different sources of inspiration as platforms for creative improvisation. And there’s more to come . . .

What’s appealing about being a free-ranging serial collaborator? What’s appealing about being in a relatively stable outfit like The Thing? Do the two fulfil different psychological needs?

MG: Well . . . I think it is really freakin’ good and necessary for the two to coexist. I need The Thing to be able to work more freely and vice versa. It’s real fuckin’ important that Paal and Ingo play in other bands as well. That will ensure that we have new, fresh ideas to bring into the unit that we call The Thing.

We would most likely go crazy if we were only doing The Thing all year. With all that BBQ-eating and vinyl-shopping . . . we wouldn’t survive.

In what ways do composition and improvisation require different psychological approaches? In what way does the method of creation change the nature of the music?

MG: Hmmm, that’s a real long discussion, I guess. And a very interesting one. There is a book to be written here, but I don’t have the time right now…

With The Thing, the basics are in the communication. We use whatever tools we need in order to surprise and challenge each other — pre-composed, instantly composed or improvised… in a way it doesn’t matter and in another way it does.

To what extent is successful musical improvisation dependent upon personal chemistry? Do you have to like someone to make good music together?

Someone that it’s necessary to check out is Bengt Nordström — the Swedish master of jazz and silence. He made ASSFUCKINKICKIN’ solo sax recordings as early as 1964! Unbelievable shit… Mindfuckinblowing!


It’s all connected and will always be. If there is good chemistry at the bar and at the local BBQ there will be good shit happening on stage!

I don’t wanna play with driitsäckar (Norwegian for assholes) or skithögar (Swedish for driitsäckar).

On the other hand, playing with driitsäckar can create some interesting vibes musically, but I try to avoid playing with anyone from the Assholes United Big Band.

How do you adapt your playing style to your different collaborators — how did playing with eYe differ from working with Zu, for example?

MG: I play myself. If you adapt too much, it’s not you any longer . . . then you are on an impossible mission. But in any situation where your personal language adds something to the musical situation, it’s OK! Then it is more than OK. Then it is fuckin’ alright!

Which of your collaborators has had the greatest personal impact on you, and in what way?

MG: Aaaarghh! It is, of course, impossible to say . . . but I tell you that I have been seriously kicked in my butt by some very influential people and I hope I’ll be kicked again in the future. If you just sit back and relax, nothing will fuckin’ happen. You have to take risks. It’s all about risk-taking. And some collaborators make you take those risks. It’s necessary!

I feel extremely privileged to have worked with some of the freakin’ greatest people and groups within jazz, free jazz, garage rock, noise, etc.

It will all be published in my memoirs . . . ha ha!

Which incredible artists that we’ve possibly never heard of would you strongly recommend that we seek out?

MG: Hankil Ryu in Korea is kickin’ serious ass. So is Dieb 13 in Vienn. Ami Yoshida in Japan… Bill Nace in Northampton… Jakob Riis in Malmö . . . and who the fuck is Wyrd Vision? [Mats may or may not be referring to odd-bod Toronto folk chap Wyrd Visions] Ugly Ducklings if you are into early garage stuff . . . Hell yeah!

Someone that it’s necessary to check out is Bengt Nordström — the Swedish master of jazz and silence, who produced Albert Ayler’s first LP in Sweden in 1962. He made ASSFUCKINKICKIN’ solo sax recordings as early as 1964! Unbelievable shit… Mindfuckinblowing!

What’s really amazing is the music that was made just before a label/genre was created — the music in between two eras . . . Between the hard bop of the late 50s and the birth of free jazz in the early 60s there was some freakin’ unbelievable music made by people like Gilbert Holmström, Joe Harriott, Marzette Watts, Joe Maini and others. Check it all out — the shit that was made just before. . . .

What’s the point of music? What’s it for?

MG: Again, using Derek’s words: ‘Music is like living, but better.’ I hope Derek would forgive me for using his line so many times.

What’s next for Mats Gustafsson?

MG: Some serious time off after an insane winter and spring AND summer. Just hanging out with my two daughters and girlfriend, enjoying the silence and each other.

In September, a tour with The Thing and Otomo Yoshihide in Japan and Korea! Smalltown is releasing a record of Thing/Otomo quartet recordings from 2007, recorded by Jim O’Rourke. Sonore [Gustafsson’s sax trio with Peter Brötzmann and Ken Vandermark] is touring Europe in October — and so is the new combo FIRE!, with a CD and LP ready for release on Rune Grammofon in the fall. And a shitload of tours with ass-kickin’ people in the winter . . . and can’t freakin’ wait for the first long tour with Per Åke Holmlanders and my new group Swedish Azz in Feb 2010.

Also, looking forward to following Zlatan Ibrahimovic´s adventures in Barcelona…

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