Jaga Jazzist in the city you can’t see the stars.
Light pollution has robbed us of that, almost to the point where we have stopped even trying to look up in awe. Instead, we seek that essence of astonishment elsewhere. You can look down into a book to find the mind-expanding philosophies of Jorge Luis Borges, or down into the street only to be lifted out of it by the perspective-shifting works of pavement artist Julian Beever.
Not long after releasing their retrospective, Jaga Jazzist have returned with another offering; Starfire, another example of food for the soul. With dystopic sonic pathways reminiscent of Vangelis and Moroder, coupled with the cosmic free-wheeling akin to the likes of Pharoh Sanders, this latest offering from the impressive Norwegian collective is mandatory ear-food.
Thanks to a fortunate last-minute stop over to the UK we were offered the chance to sit down with Lars Horntveth in the meeting room of Ninja Tune HQ. The walls are plastered with evidence of innovation; old promotions from other artists in the impressive NT stable: musicians who have dared to push through the boundaries of music as we know it. Jaga Jazzist are a shining example of the rule.
Congratulations on the album, the title fits the music. The song titles are also very interesting, for instance with ‘Oban’ I think of the whiskey. What were the influences behind those choices?
Yes, it is the whiskey [Grins] I’m not sure if I was out at a bar drinking it when I came up with the name. I’m actually quite lazy with the song titles; for instance, ‘Starfire’ was the name of the guitar I was writing the song on, but it’s interesting that the track became sort of cosmic. I’m not sure which came first or which influenced which, it’s funny how that worked out. ‘Big City Music’ is the name of a music equipment store in Los Angeles where I had bought a new device and I liked the name. But also when you take the size of LA into account, again, it kind of fits.
Horntveth moved to Los Angeles last year, where most of the album was written. Relocation has not only influenced the production of Starfire, but also other aspects of his musicianship:
Being away from the rest of the band meant that I would mostly write in my small studio and the guys would fly over and add one piece at a time, mostly on keys and synth as I don’t have all of my instruments there, most of my equipment is back in Oslo. Usually it’s me and my brother writing, and with previous albums the whole band would be rehearsing together in a studio like crazy for months, adding parts all at once, which can take a lot of time. This process has been maybe a bit smoother because instead of eight of us fighting at once there have only really been two at any one time.
You seem to have found a middle-ground in song length. Your solo album ‘Kaleidoscope’ was one 40 minute song, and previous Jaga songs have been somewhat shorter, is there a reason behind that?
I suppose, the timing fits the kind of music I wanted to make, like parts of a bigger piece. Halfway through we wanted to take it down a bit, for instance, the first half of ‘Shinkansen’ is a step back from ‘Big City Music’, it’s very calm, but then it goes straight into something like ‘Machine Gun’ by Portishead, that was a big influence.
A lot of what you write has a cinematic feel to it, have you considered writing for tv/film?
I have worked on some projects, some short films with friends, but as for composing something bigger for a film or something, no. The music itself is the main focus.
You’ve been known to tinker with instruments, for instance modifying a lap steel guitar. There is a young British jazz musician (Jacob Collier) currently working in MIT building an entirely new instrument. Have you ever thought of doing something on that scale?
I do like to play around with things. Over the years many of us have learned how to play new instruments. For instance, when we lost a flute player we simply asked my sister Line to learn to play the flute, it seemed easier than bringing in a new person. But building a new instrument? No. I haven’t through about that, but it might be interesting….
There is a French children’s book called Le merveilleux chef-d’oeuvre de Séraphin; A man makes a massive instrument out of bits and pieces of every instrument all together, and he can play anything in the world on it. I think when we started Jaga that was the sort of thing we had in mind, this one massive instrument that we would all play.
It’s interesting to imagine Jaga not as a band, but as a collective instrument, much like the one in the children’s book. What started as a ground-breaking and experimental machine has evolved into something far greater. The core elements are still there, held together by the nature of the compositions and the musicians playing them, but new elements are added each go-around. When these guys take a hiatus between records they don’t pause; they are working on other projects, developing new skills and sometimes even learning new instruments. Each album is a veritable milestone marking the progression of the band’s combined technical prowess and musicality.
You’ve also been working with other people, like The National Bank and very recently you revealed that you have been working with A-Ha, can you tell us more about that?
The National Bank is more of a pop band but not conventional pop. My brother and I work on it along with Thomas (Dybdahl). We sold, I think, about 70,000 copies of the album in Norway so we had some real success with that. We haven’t done anything in a while, my brother is busy touring and working for the NRK. I enjoy working with the bass player in that band, Nikolai Eilertsen. In my opinion he is the best bass player in the world. As for the A-Ha thing, that’s been really exciting, those guys are … intense. [Laughs] Yeah, I can’t really talk too much about that, but it’s sounding great.
What else do you have lined up?
Mostly touring, we have a big show in LA coming up to kick off a big American tour where we are returning to a lot of places with the new material, we haven’t played much of it live yet so we’ll see how that goes. Our audiences are great, very dedicated music fans, but with a tour the vibe can change with each show. In Japan we played Fuji rock to thousands of people, and then we’d go to Tokyo a couple of days later and play to maybe a couple of hundred, it’s a very different energy.
Where have you found your favourite audiences to play to?
I’d say Canada, I think they’re famous for being some of the best audiences in the world, and again Japan, it can be very intense.
I see there was a listening party for Starfire in a bar in Tokyo pre-release, were you there for it?
No, we weren’t there, but we know those guys. It was in a bar called ‘Fuglen’ in Tokyo. They had a place in Oslo for about fifty years and we stop there when we can.
The promotional material and album artwork is astonishing, what influenced it?
Well, of course the music, but we wanted to explore some kind of anamorphic design. We played around a lot with ideas for a while but we couldn’t quite accomplish it, saying that, I’m really happy with how it turned out… let me show you.
[He produces a copy that looks already worn out; the plastic sleeve is covered in a clouded myriad of fingerprints. He proceeds to demonstrate how the design works, pulling slowly to reveal a cosmic illusion. As he does this his smile grows wider, almost childlike.]
I only got this yesterday and I have been playing with it ever since. Yeah… I’m very happy with it. Jaga Jazzist