Music Interviews

Interview: Jaga Jazzist

Jaga Jazzist can claim to be one of Scandinavia’s biggest musical exports – especially in terms of the band’s sheer size. Watching them on stage is to witness something of a small musical tribe in action, marshaled from tenor sax by the bandleader and principal composer, Lars Horntveth.

After several attempts to reach him, the busy but charming Horntveth is forthcoming on reaction to the band’s new album, One-Armed Bandit – their fifth long player. “It’s been great so far,” he says, “and we’ve had reviews from everywhere, including the States now.”

He considers the album’s place in the Jaga output. “I guess the approach is more organic than it was before, it’s not as edited. It’s about us trying to get the most out of all the musicians, and trying to be more surprising in our orchestration. There’s also much more energy than we’ve had before, so I’m really happy about that. It’s not that experimental either.”

This is perhaps a more surprising claim, given the unusual orchestration within the band, which includes tuba and vibraphone among its many instruments. “It’s difficult to write something that everyone in the band likes to play”, says Horntveth, “and something that’s fun, too – that’s always a big goal, and doesn’t happen all the time!”

“I’ve lost that ego of a few years ago!”
– Jaga Jazzist leader Lars Horntveth on a softening of his approach to composition

He admits the possibilities are not quite endless. “It’s getting more difficult to make music for Jaga. We’ve done a lot in the past 15 years, so it’s hard to come up with brand new elements. Here on this new album we have explored 3/4 time more, and I really enjoy adding these new elements. It is difficult though, there were some songs by other band members that we decided not to use.”

Candidly, he takes responsibility for these decisions. “I’m really stubborn with things like that. I write by myself, but we rehearsed so much that the arrangements have become a band thing, and people can come up with suggestions. The basis is mine, but we’ve all been doing this for so many years now that I’m used to being criticised and getting suggestions. I’ve lost that ego of a few years ago! We also have a producer (Jorgen Traen) who’s really hard core, and extremely focused on details.”

He laughs when I ask if the number of personalities in the band makes writing difficult. “It is way more difficult with three or four composers in the band. We don’t exactly want the same thing, but it is a good thing for others to have really strong opinions, and I really like that.”

But despite their musical language, the band leave little room for improvisation. “I’d say it is 90% written out on this album,” says Lars, “but we try a few things out. It’s not our strongest side, as we’re focused on composition, so on the albums we want improvisations to be as good as the written stuff. There’s some great soloists in the band though.”

More recently Horntveth has had time to concentrate on his own solo material, a project realised with the Kaleidoscope album of 2009. More classically orientated, it was nonetheless important to take a similar approach with it. “That was the whole thing, to make an album that was carefully sequenced, and to get the right balance as we do on the new record,” he says. “On Kaleidoscope it was to make the whole thing work on one song, to figure it out before doing the album.”

“Kaleidoscope is about making classical music for my kind of people, if you know what I mean”
– Lars Horntveth describes the approach of last year’s solo record Kaleidoscope

The record features Horntveth’s first full length composition with orchestra, an aspect of his work he is looking to further. “I guess so, and I will probably make some new stuff next year. It’s a cool thing for me to do that stuff, although I don’t have any musical education apart from writing for Jaga, so it’s a great challenge to write for orchestra. It’s also carried over to the Jaga album, in the way I write for horns for example. They sounded soft before, a bit like a school band in some people’s opinion, but this time we tried to make them more dynamic and aggressive. We also recorded them in a stairway outside the studio, to make it sound like a Bernard Herrmann soundtrack!”

Horntveth freely admits to the band’s musical influences, Steve Reich being one obvious example. “One of the songs on the album, Toccata, is a complete Steve Reich dedication,” he explains. “On the album as a whole there are repeating horns on many songs that are rip-offs from that sort of thing.” Does he think they bring the link between classical and pop music into greater focus? “Absolutely, but in this case to call this music minimalist is far from what we are doing, as we’re maximalist, if you like. This Toccata was more mellow, with a softer side to the music that the album really needed.”

He continues. “It is a recurring theme for me though, and Kaleidoscope is about making classical music for my kind of people, if you know what I mean. Jaga is more inspired by the progressive rock scene. We’ve always been compared to Frank Zappa, King Crimson and Soft Machine, but it’s actually only six years or so since we started listening to that sort of music. We’ve never been inspired by these people, but I guess it’s natural there should be some more links.”

He starts laughing. “On this album it struck us as funny to include some more wanky bits from the prog rock scene, especially in Prognissekongen, which translates as the ‘King Of The Prog Gnomes’! In that song there are really hard piano and guitar parts that are impossible to play, and that makes it a lot more fun. Not that we try to sound wanky of course!”

And with that delightful piece of irreverence, Horntveth is on his way back to a sound check. The band are busy touring One-Armed Bandit through the year, and judging by the mood of their leader, they will be enjoying every minute of it.

The Jaga Jazzist album One-Armed Bandit is out now through Ninja Tune. Full tour dates are listed at their MySpace.

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More on Jaga Jazzist
Jaga Jazzist @ Barbican, London
Interview: Jaga Jazzist
Jaga Jazzist @ Islington Academy, London
Jaga Jazzist – One-Armed Bandit
Jaga Jazzist – What We Must