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Hailing from the Norwegian town of Tromsø, situated north of the Arctic Circle, Geir Jenssen has, as Biosphere, redefined ambient music with albums such as Patashnik, Substrata or Shenzou. A former archaeology student and a keen mountaineer, Jenssen has, in the last ten years, produced one of the most consistent body of work. As he is just about to unveil his new album, Autour De La Lune, a piece based on the visionary nineteenth Century French author Jules Verne’s book De La Terre A La Lune, we caught up with the man to talk about his early days as one third of pop outfit Bel Canto, the transition between club influenced music to ambient, the gestation of his latest creation and the future of Biosphere.

How did you come to music? What were your influences when you were growing up?
I got into music in the early eighties when I heard bands like New Order, Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode, OMD, Wire, etc., for the first time. Hearing this music was like discovering a new universe. A universe that I wanted to be a part of. Two years later (1983) I bought my first synthesizer and spent more and more time in my bedroom turning knobs. Because I often worked all night I was too tired to go to University where I studied archaeology. Around 1985 I had to take a decision: continue studying archaeology or try to become a ‘musician’. I chose the latter simply because I found it more interesting. But I still get a lot of inspiration from what I learnt from my archaeology studies. Studying the Ice Age and Stone Age has definitely influenced my music.

You come from Tromsø in Norway, which seems to be a place where a lot of Norwegian musician come from. How do you explain this?
This could have something to do with Bel Canto. We were signed to the Belgian label Crammed Discs. The first Norwegian acid house records we made (Bleep, Mental Overdrive, etc...) were also released on Belgian labels like SSR and R&S Records. Because we had contacts abroad, we could also help other artists from Tromsø with their first releases. I guess the success we had also inspired local artists to make music. If we could make it, they could make it too.

You recorded two albums as part of Bel Canto, which was, and still is, a rather successful band. Did you already have in mind to work on your own project at the time?
It happened by accident. In the summer of 1988 I started listening to acid house and techno. The second Bel Canto album, Birds Of Passage, recorded in the summer of 1989, had some elements of this music. While recording Birds Of Passage in Brussels I also worked on my own material in a small 8-track studio nearby. This was the first time I used a sampler. This material became the Bleep album The North Pole By Submarine. I had to admit that I really enjoyed working on my own. I also had a few small club hits (A Byte Of AMC and The Launch Pad), in the UK. In the summer of 1990, Anneli (Drekker) and Nils (Johansen) moved to Oslo. I stayed in Tromsø, 2000 km to the north (!) reading astronomy and making music on my own. Bel Canto was signed to a major record company, but I had lost interest in that kind of music, and therefore decided to leave.

Will you ever release any more music as Bleep?
I doubt it. But a re-release of The North Pole album is very likely.

The North Pole By Submarine was quite heavily influenced by club culture, and this influence was still a bit perceptible on Microgravity. How did you make the move from dance to ambient?
It happened very gradually. After Novelty Waves (the track used by Levi’s) I felt the pressure from the record company to make a follow-up ‘dance’ album and become a pop star. 'You should start working with this drum’n’bass guy from London', etc. This felt completely unnatural to me. Drum’n’bass records were made by youths in Britain, not by a Norwegian guy living totally isolated from that scene. I wanted to go in the opposite direction, back to the underground in a way, and therefore I decided to leave R&S.

How do you actually describe your music (if you do at all)?
It’s very difficult. Atmospheric electronica?

What was your reaction when Levi decided to use Novelty Waves as the soundtrack for one of their TV and cinema advertising? Were you asked if they could use it or was it done via R&S?
The record company and the music press were a lot more excited than I was. It was the first time that Levi’s had picked an non-American artist to do the music. And a techno track! At the same time I knew that the Levi’s artists had a strange tendency to just disappear after the advertising campaign. Like one hit wonders… It was done through R&S, but with my permission of course.

You have worked with quite a few people over the years, including Pete Namlook, Bobby Bird or Deathprod. How does working on a collaboration differs from working on one of your own project?
If I am working with some really talented people, it can be a lot easier than working on my own because they contribute with elements too. What do I look for in a collaboration? What makes it exciting? Surprises I guess. Collaborators who contribute with elements I couldn’t do or didn’t think about. Still, I feel like a painter or writer and prefer to work alone.

How did you come to work with Bobby Bird, of Higher Intelligence Agency on the Polar Sequences project, for the Polar Music Festival in Tromsø, and Birmingham Frequencies? Did you know each other before?
I met Bobby when I played at the Oscillate club in Birmingham in 1994. We were sending each other records, and when I was commissioned to do the Polar Sequences project with a foreign artist, I invited Bobby to Tromsø. Birmingham Frequencies was Bobby returning the favour.

With Deathprod, you revisited the work of Arne Nordheim on Nordheim Transformed. How did you get involved in this project, and how do you regard Nordheim’s work? Have you been influenced by his work?
Nordheim Transformed was Rune Grammofon´s idea. I did not know his music very well before I received the recordings. I had heard about him of course, but I have never been particularly interested in electro-acoustic music. But I really liked what he did on these recordings.

Shenzhou was based around the work of Claude Debussy. What started the project, and how did you work on it? Did you have to follow a different process than usual?
Yes, Shenzhou started with a loop. I bought Debussy’s Complete Orchestral Works looking for orchestral samples. The first loop became the first track, the second loop became the second track, etc… and the whole project was finished in just two weeks. A very simple approach: one track consists of just one loop plus effects.

You’ve worked on the soundtrack for Insomnia, and have also scored Man With A Movie Camera with Per Martinsen, of Mental Overdrive. Do you have any more soundtracks in the pipeline, or would you like to do more film music?
I could always do a soundtrack, but the stress and deadlines involved in such work doesn’t appeal very much to me. I often receive requests from film directors and producers asking if they could use a track from one of my albums. That’s easy work!

You also regularly remix other people’s music. What makes you decide to remix a track?
I did remixes years ago, but not anymore. I find it too boring.

Your work has also been remixed by others. How do you react to musicians interpreting your work in that way?
It can be interesting to hear other people interpreting my music, but I have the feeling that remixes belong to the eighties and early nineties. I liked remixes a lot when I was collecting Depeche Mode 12 inches in the eighties, but at the moment I don’t care much.

What usually inspires you to write music?
A good sample! I guess being outdoors inspires me a lot, but only in a subconscious way. When I write music in the studio I generally try to think of ‘nothing’. Sometimes I work in a less abstract way: On a track like Chukhung, I tried to describe the feeling of sitting alone on the summit of Chukhung Ri (5700 m) in Nepal looking down at the neighbouring glaciers and valleys. I only work in the studio when I’m very inspired. If not I just drive out of town, go skiing, climb a peak, take some photos, or play with the kids.

People often refer to the long nights and icy landscapes of the Polar Regions when talking about your music, which seems an easy cliché. Does it bother you to always see the same kind of references?
When we formed Bel Canto in the mid eighties I wanted to make something I called ‘Arctic music’. The idea came to me while taking part in an archaeological excavation in a remote area of Northern Norway. I guess I am still influenced by this idea, but probably in a more subconscious way, as I’m not trying to describe the environment as, let’s say, in a painting. Or maybe as in a very abstract painting… I have tried to avoid words like Arctic, Polar, winter, cold, frost, etc... for many years know, but the journalists obviously find it very tempting to use them when describing the music. But I should also admit that it works when promoting a record.

Autour De La Lune is very austere compared to your previous work. Did you set off to produce something as minimal as this? Was this what you originally in mind?
The original idea was to sample bits and pieces from a dramatisation of Jules Verne’s Autour De La Lune (from 1960) and make a soundtrack for these samples. Unfortunately it did not work out because the voices were not good enough. They reminded me too much of cheap B-movies. But while working on this project I bought a very good Russian telescope. Studying the moon with this telescope gave me the idea to make a soundtrack for ‘studies of the moon’, still inspired by Jules Verne though.

What attracted you to Jules Verne’s De La Terre A La Lune?
A few days after receiving the invitation from Radio France Culture, I was watching a documentary about Jules Verne. This gave me the idea to make a piece based on one of his works.

It was originally a piece for the Radio France festival in Montpellier last year. Did you have to adapt the piece for the album? If yes, in what way?
It was supposed to be performed live, but the festival was cancelled due to a strike. The piece has later been adapted for the album by deleting a few tracks that I wasn’t very happy with, and by adding a few new tracks.

You regularly play live all over the world. I would assume that playing live involves a complete different process to working in the studio. Which environment do you prefer?
I definitely prefer the studio. There I can experiment and make mistakes for hours until something interesting suddenly emerges. I don’t dare to use this approach live.

The legend has it that you were once contacted by what would become Royksopp, and put them in touch with your then label, Apollo. What did you think of their work as Royksopp and the attention they have received over the last couple of years?
Yes, it’s true that I picked out the best tracks from a cassette they gave me around 1992 and delivered them to R&S/Apollo (Aedena Cycle: Travellers Dream EP). I still have the tape. I really like some of the tracks on their album, and their success is just fantastic!

You are regarded as one of the most important ambient musicians around, and are often associated with people like Brian Eno. How do you react to this?
Very flattering.

What do you listen to when you are at home? What is the last album you bought?
Mostly electronica, but I am also discovering ‘electro-acoustic’ composers like Salvatore Sciarrino. Last album: The Staedtizism 4 compilation from ~Scape.

What are you currently working on, and how do you see Biosphere evolve in the coming years?
I have just finished painting the house, and will hopefully finish the next album next month. This will not be as austere as Autour De La Lune (my last ambient album for a while), but more ‘pop’ influenced. I am also supposed to finish an album based on a trip to Cho Oyu (8201 m) in Tibet. I am not sure how Biosphere will evolve in the coming years. Biosphere should be as unpredictable as the weather is up here!

Email interview July 2004
Thank you to Geir and Jim. Photo Marianne Sørheim.

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07'01 Substrata 2
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05'00 Polar Sequences / Birmingham Frequencies

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