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WIBUTEE

Led by Norwegian saxophonist Håkon Kornstad, one of the most talented musicians of his generation, Wibutee have been, since Newborn Things, their first album released in 1999, merged jazz and electronica to create something totally unique. As they are about to unveil their third and most accomplished album, Playmachine, we caught up with the four members as they were touring Canada to talk about the evolution of jazz in recent years, the fierce independence of the Norwegian scene, the impact of technology on their work, and how their respective side projects all fuel Wibutee with energy and new ideas.

Håkon, I’ve read that you were into jazz from a very early age. How did you get into jazz music?
When I started playing the clarinet in the school band at ten, I quite soon began to improvise for myself – playing around with melodies and creating my own versions of the parts (to the conductor’s big irritation I guess). When I switched to the sax, I started listening to my parents’ Stan Getz bossa LPs... My father played Coltrane to me one day, and I remember saying something like 'he has a very sharp tone'. Uh, little did I know then. And now, I guess...

I’ve read that you used to sneak away from other kids to listen to jazz records. Did you feel ostracised by other kids because you didn’t like the same music?
No, I liked the same music as many of my friends did – I was actually deejaying at a youth club (this was in 1991) - and I was playing Snap!, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns’n’Roses and Nirvana – the usual teenage stuff at that time. I started playing sax with rock bands – and even programmed a couple of tunes together with a friend - on an Atari clone. We programmed an entire Garbarek-tune, with Eberhard Weber’s entire solo and all! I was listening to more and more jazz at that point, especially when one of the youth club workers gave me a mix tape with Steely Dan, Jan Garbarek/Keith Jarrett and Joni Mitchell.

Scandinavian jazz is very unique in the way that it is far more forward thinking than modern forms of jazz found elsewhere and doesn’t seem to rely so much on classic American jazz. How do you explain this?
It’s because of the fjords, the mountains, the big contrasts between winter and summer, and light and darkness... KIDDING!!! During the sixties, all the old-school American jazz musicians moved to Copenhagen, and all the avant-guardist to Stockholm – playing their music with local rhythm sections. Nobody seemed to care about Oslo, so then-youngsters like Garbarek, Andersen and Rypdal had the privilege of being inspired instead of being instructed on how to play jazz. They took lessons with George Russell in Stockholm and Oslo, and he must have been a good mentor – telling them to explore jazz ‘in their own sweet way’. That’s the mentality we strive for as well, 30 years after.

It also seems to be a very ‘incestuous’ scene, with people working with each other a lot, which is something that is quite common on the jazz scene in general but seems even more in Scandinavia. Is it a way to learn from each other?
Oslo is a small city, and everyone on the music scene practically know each other. In larger cities like London, Paris or New York, the different music scenes become more isolated, making them less visible to each other. A club can get a fairly good audience even if it’s featuring music in a very limited genre range. In Oslo, there are not that many music clubs, and people are somewhat ‘forced’ to listen to different music all the time. This is a goldmine for inspiration for improvising musicians with ears wide open.

Although jazz has always evolved in many directions in the past, there seem to be a lot of new blood on the scene at the moment, with artists taking the genre into new territories. Do you make a distinction between what could be classified as classic and contemporary jazz?
We use to say that contemporary jazz is music in constant renewal, and in constant search of musical sparring partners. Classic jazz is more of a museum thing. We like to do that too (at least Per and Håkon), we like to play these standards and imagine we’re on 52nd Street or even Hackensack NJ in 1957 every now and then. Others might call themselves contemporary jazz musicians as well, and disagree with our concept. Or they might agree with the fact that jazz is ever changing, but to a more ‘microcosmic’ extent (‘big intervals are so hip this year...’ etc). However - in our book contemporary jazz has always been in line with the rest of the world, and should continue to be so.

How did Wibutee meet, and what made you decide to all play together?
Wetle, Per and Håkon met at the conservatory in Trondheim; special jazz studies. We agreed on what contemporary jazz should sound like. This was in 1996, and we’d been listening to people like Tricky, Goldie and Björk, and wanted to make jazz inspired by the new club music thing – jungle, trip hop and drum’n’bass. We first formed Triangle, an acoustic trio that played groovy jazz. For our first concert, we made posters saying ‘new direction in jazz’ and hang them all over campus. We really thought we’d reinvented jazz at that time. Soon we asked fellow students Live Maria (singer) and Erlend (rhodes/synth) to join us, and then Wibutee was formed. We got signed on Jazzland Recordings when Nils Petter Molvær heard us at the Nattjazz festival in Bergen and told Bugge about us. Newborn Thing was recorded in December 1998.

You all come from different backgrounds. What/who are your influences?
We have many different influences. But we’ve really gone through some musical phases together; in the first years we (the trio) had our respective heroes, people like John Coltrane or Jan Garbarek on saxophone, Dave Holland or Miroslav Vitous on bass and Audun Kleive or Peter Erskine on drums to mention a few. Now we’re much more concerned with form thinking, and listen to all types of music, people like Miles, Björk and even contemporary classical composers. (Håkon has even become a big fan of Justin Timberlake, who would have thought of that...). Additionally we have the same type of background – we all come from non-musical families, and we’ve all listened to jazz from quite an early age.

How would you define the Wibutee sound?
In some festival programme we were defined as ‘Mahavishnu Orchestra meets Squarepusher’, and a Norwegian radio station just recently dubbed us ‘Gong meets Venetian Snares on a jazz club next year’. BBC wrote that a track on our second album sounded like ‘Alice Coltrane’s Journey To Satchinanda played on a derelict space station by a bunch of manic depressives’. In other words: Future Jazz! Maybe good ol’ Aldous Huxley would be proud of us.

Håkon, you played with Bugge Wesseltoft as part of his New Conceptions Of Jazz for a few years. What did this bring to you? Was it your first experience as part of a formation?
It wasn’t the first group I was in, and I was only in the band from time to time, just like Wetle and Per. To play with Bugge is always fun. He’s a ‘true playa’. He’s really groovy in a very natural and easy way – things seem to come very easily to him. I guess this was the main inspiration during my Bugge years: simplicity and groove.

Has it affected in any way the sound developed by Wibutee?
Bugge in fact produced our first album Newborn Thing - a very clean, poppish and slightly dull affair I must say. I think he might have inspired us to take control over the production and to do something else than his New Conceptions of Jazz. Experiment a little bit more, yet keeping it simple, straightforward and honest, like he really succeeds in doing. Respect.

Was it hard for you as a band to get some recognition by the press and the general public?
When we released Newborn Thing, we were one of the first bands to experiment with this Nu Jazz thing in Norway, and we got so-called ‘rave reviews’ in the Norwegian press. We didn’t have a problem with getting attention from the jazz press, but what we really wanted was to be regarded as an electronica/pop band, and to play on rock/pop festivals. That has been quite a long way, and it wasn’t until recently that the more common Norwegian music press started writing about us, and for the first time we’re featuring on festivals like Quart (Norway) and Roskilde (Denmark) this summer.

When you recorded the first Wibutee album, you had a vocalist as part of the band. Since, you’ve focused on instrumental music, although Playmachine features a track with vocals from Hild Sofie Tafjord. Do you think that you will ever work with a vocalist on a complete project again?
We really like vocals, and we would want to include some singing on the next album, but not on an entire album. Wibutee is primarily an instrumental band, and, should we include vocals, it should have to be a male singer, so that we could stand long tours in a small bus. JOKING!!! When Hild Sofie ‘the noise princess’ recorded this for us, we instantly thought it was beautiful yet also very funny – as she’s perhaps best known for her hardcore pink noise together with Maja Ratkje. Maybe this added something extra to the intensity in these few seconds of vocals – the fact that the piece is sung by someone who could burst out in something else than a lullaby at any moment...

Apart from the vocal aspect, how would you say has your sound evolved since?
The first album was quite popish and hi-fi. After this we made Eight Domestic Challenges – instrumental, and the first album to be produced by Wetle, Per and Håkon. Based on free improvisation, the forms were perhaps a bit more blurred, going beyond than ambient. But it was a necessary step forward and away from the faux-Massive Attack vocal Wibutee – and into finding our own expression. Then, after the second release we actually encountered a band crisis! We focused for a while on separate projects, but then we decided to record again (after a bit of touring in Norway) and we instantly felt that this new material had great strength in it. When we started the editing process for Playmachine (with Wibutee the composition process really takes place after the recording session!), we had a very good feeling, and we all agreed on making an album that was more edgy, in-your-face and at the same time melodic and ‘simple’ than the two we’d made before.

Why did you decide to concentrate on instrumental music since?
We had started listening to the sounds of 70’s Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock more and more, but also newer acts like Autechre, Plaid and Aphex Twin. We wanted to combine a free-ish jazz sound with contemporary beats – and we’re convinced that if Miles lived today he would be working on his laptop, but we would still be better than him, as we grew up with computers and have it in our blood.

Håkon, you recorded an album, Space Available, with Mats Eilertsen and Paal Nilssen-Love as the Kornstad Trio, and you are also working on a separate project with Paal Nilssen-Love. Were they people you wanted to work with for a long time? How did these projects start?
They started in the same way as Wibutee – at the conservatory. We just played together some sessions, and that was it! The duo was actually ‘formed’ when Mats didn’t get his bass in time on a trip from Chicago to New York, and Paal and I had to do the first set at the Knitting Factory alone. That’s the first time we played solo together, and I’m glad that it was captured on tape, and later released as Schlinger on Smalltown Supersound.

Are you planning to record a follow up to Space Available?
We have already. The new record will be out this autumn on Jazzland. Paal has left the band to play with Peter Brötzmann Tentet, so I guess the music will become a bit more quiet and melodic from now on.

You also mentioned once that you were thinking of recording a solo album entirely based around your saxophone and flutes. Is it still something you are working on, or are planning to work on?
Yes, I’ve been playing some solo gigs lately, in Norway and in New York. Just the saxophone, nothing else. The repertoire has slowly been developing, and I really don’t want to rush this. But when we get our Wibutee studio up and running, it’ll be one of the first recordings that I’ll do there on my own, maybe with Wetle as a producer.

Rune, you had your own solo project, Sternklang, before joining Wibutee in 2001. How was it like to come from working on your own to working with three other people on a project that was already established?
Very refreshing indeed! When I joined, Wibutee was already taking a new direction, so it wasn’t like I had to readjust to some old idea of what Wibutee were and what we were going to do. So each member had to try to think differently, I guess. It took some time to find out what we wanted, but now I feel we have found a musical direction that we can take further. But I must admit that the thought of playing with such skilled musicians was making me a bit nervous at first, so it took some time for me to dare play keyboards. I have always programmed my stuff, so I don’t really know how to play any instrument. I hope my naive approach to keyboard playing is adding something to the sound that a trained musician wouldn’t consider.

What’s happening with Sternklang? Do you still have the time to work on this project?
Wibutee takes a lot of my time right now, but I am working on the fourth Sternklang album in-between, and I’m hoping to finish it after this summer’s festivals. I think the time spent with Wibutee is good for Sternklang, as I see ways of doing things that I might not have considered if I was just sitting in front of my electronics and working with my own stuff.

You also featured on Rotoscope’s first album, Great Curves, which we reviewed a while back. Are you still involved with the project? Can we expect a second album soon?
Well, Andreas (Mjøs, member of Jaga Jazist and Rotoscope leader) is doing all sorts of stuff at the moment, so I wouldn’t hold my breath! Also, the line up for Rotoscope is quite loose. It’s mainly Andreas’s project, so who will feature on the next album is up to him.

Per and Wetle, you also work on other projects and regularly play with other musicians. How easy is it to combine all these activities?
The fact that we do so many different things beside Wibutee gives a lot of input to the band. Our philosophy has always been not to discriminate and let all our backgrounds contribute to the sound. This way all our different side projects actually fuel Wibutee’s music. It prevents us from getting bored with ourselves too.

Playmachine has a more 'live' feel than Eight Domestic Challenges, and the sonic scope is a lot more varied and rich. How did you work on this album? Did you conceive it with live performances in mind?
No, we really had to practice the tunes like we were covering some other band! Our production process can be seen as three different phases: first, all of us work on sketches for new tunes. It can be grooves, sounds or a melody/phrase. Secondly, there are the studio sessions – we try to capture the spontaneity in the improvisation happening on the spot. Then, in the last phase, we settle down for weeks of editing, mixing and mastering. We did this for Eight Domestic Challenges too, but when we recorded Playmachine, we knew that the sketches were better. Then, we must have improved as musicians during these three years – perhaps listening a bit more, and giving more room to each other. And we’ve been working a lot with the software, so we’re definitely better producers as well. So, because we were better in all the three phases, Playmachine is an album we can be proud of.

How would you define the new album compared to previous Wibutee releases?
On Playmachine we wanted to make shorter tunes that could all bring something individual into the album. Like a box of chocolate, where each piece has its own taste, but then it’s still chocolate... We’ve also tried to get rid of long intros and outros. In some way this new album is more advanced and deep than the two earlier ones (i.e. all the beats are built almost entirely with saxophone sounds; slap tonguing, keys snapping, avant-garde techniques... There’s a lot of work beneath the instantly audible surface). But at the same time, it’s a more straightforward album than anything we’ve made before.

You have a few live dates planned in the near future. What can we expect?
You can expect the in-your-face feel from the album, combined with whatever may happen live. We have practiced quite a lot on the tunes, we’ve actually got more of a show now than before. We’re yelling at each other like a rock band if the forms aren’t right... We’ve skipped the long intros, and the sounds from the album are very recognisable. At the same time, we’re still quite open for new things to happen en route. We have to be, it would be boring to play the same shit every night.

On the press release available from the Wibutee website, there is a mention of you working with Norwegian experimental designer Marius Watz, or Amoeba, on visuals for the live shows. How will this concretise? What can people expect to see?
When we can afford it, he’s with us on tour. Marius is one of the bosses on that hidden floor between design and art. He has programmed his own software to follow our sounds, they generate really beautiful graphic backdrops to the music, and people can see that it’s created on the spot, along with the music.

Håkon, the visual aspect seems to be equally as important as the music itself for you. You have created a lot of covers for Jazzland records, especially yours, and you have also designed both the Jazzland and Wibutee websites. Do you see visual art, either graphic or for live shows, as an extension of your work?
It’s all part of me, yes... I’ve tried to quit many times, saying to myself and others: “I’m a musician, I should stop doing graphics”, but it never works. I love putting together visuals and typo, photograph and to illustrate, and I think I get both musical and visual inspiration from the art world. We travel quite a lot, and instead of running down the record shops to buy albums I could order on Amazon or eBay, I go to art galleries. One of the best things I know is to go to Chelsea in New York, and visit every little gallery that there is. I’m like a little boy in a theme park when I go there. (I get sick too!)

What brought you to graphic design?
Can you remember the term ‘Desktop Publishing’? When I got my first computer as a kid, I was instantly hooked on fonts and typography, PageMaker, laser printers... It was part of the exciting (doh...) adult world I guess. I remember making my first brochure for an artist who lived up the street when I was fourteen. On tour in England with the school band, I was constantly on telephone to the printers in Oslo to check that everything was okay with paperweights, colour profiles and file compatibility. Weird little kid. I’m glad they didn’t have things like ADHD back then...

How do you see Wibutee evolving in the future?
With Playmachine we have found the method, and that’s perhaps the most important thing that’s happened to us so far. We’re in the flow – next January we’re already in studio again to record our fourth album. And the planned Wibutee studio is also exciting stuff: We’ll gather all of our equipment in one place, using it for solo projects like Sternklang, Zanussi Five and Kornstad Solo, and working alone or together as producers on all types of projects, with Wibutee as the mothership! So ladies and gentlemen: We are in Space, and so are you...

Email interview June 2004
Thank you to Håkon Kornstad, Per Zanussi, Welte Holte & Rune Brøndbo

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Reviews
07'04
Playmachine

THE SURFER'S GUIDE TO WIBUTEE
Wibutee
Jazzland Records
Kornstad

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