Posted on Jan 19th 2010 12:48 am

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One-Armed Bandit is the first release from Norwegian supergroup Jaga Jazzist in over five years. A constantly changing formation, the band has been around for fifteen years, with at its core brothers Lars and Martin Horntveth and their sister Line. While their sound has always encompassed a variety of genres, it relies primarily on a driven form of power jazz. With their last record to date, the band took to more rock structures and abandoned the electronic textures that had characterised previous releases. With this latest offering, they once again bring electronics into the fold and swap heavy rock forms for more cosmic prog rock. Here, band composer in chief Lars Horntveth talks about the five year break, how working on external projects benefit the band as a whole, working with Tortoise’s John McEntire and spending over half his life with the band.

After a five year hiatus, Jaga Jazzist are back in action and ready to release a new album, One-Armed Bandit, and embark on a European tour. Why did you decide to take a break, and how did you know it was the right time for the band to get record together. Was there some kind of common decision, or was more of an organic and natural process?
After our last album, What We Must, and the tour that followed, three of our band members quit. The rest of the band was very tired after so much touring that year. We decided to take a break that would make it possible for everyone in the band to work with other bands and earn some money. Being a ten-piece band is very hard economically and is why all Jaga-members have worked for no money the last fifteen years. It’s crazy, but we have so much outcome that it’s almost impossible to make things work economically. About three years into the break we started talking about working with Jaga again. I think everyone in the band feels that Jaga is the mother ship in a way and we always have the best times with the band. It felt like everyone wanted to start up again and had the energy to do so. That was after the release of several solo albums, band albums and lots of producing/arranging/playing on other peoples albums.

We needed a new keyboard player and a new guitarist. These are in my opinion the most important roles in Jaga, aside from the drums. It’s very hard to find people that have the taste and musicianship we are looking for, but we found them in Øystein Moen and Stian Westerhus, both from the noise band Puma. We started out working on new songs in a house a couple of hours’ drive into the Swedish forest. We stayed there for a week and combined barbeque and new prog-rock songs. A great week.

According to the press release, you started writing for the album in 2008, but like on previous Jaga albums, there seem to be a big involvement of the rest of the band in the music. Can you tell us more about how the album came together, how the band the involved in the composition process, and also what role the music of Fela Kuti played in the writing of this particular album?
This time, I wrote everything down on music sheets. We haven’t worked like this for a long time. I had lots of ideas, many of them were quite hard to put in practice and play and we needed to rehearse more than ever before. We worked like that during autumn 2008, rehearsing maybe once a week or more. I tried to have a new song ready every week which put a lot of pressure on me. I think it was hard for everyone to see in what direction we were going, because there was so much focus on getting the right notes in, but this method of working really paid off. When we went into the studio, everyone had the songs under their skin and therefore could play the parts and switch instruments and be creative in a very good way. So it was in the studio that everyone contributed and really put their personality into it. Also, drums and drum programming are very important in Jaga, and Martin is the brain behind that.

Fela Kuti is one of many vague influences on this album. I tried to make a song that resembled some of the feeling I got when listening to him. But I don’t know if anyone would have thought about him if I hadn’t mentioned his influence.

Was it a similar writing process to that followed with previous records?
No, we worked on What We Must entirely without music sheets. We rehearsed the songs based on my demos and just playing by ear, so it was quite the opposite.

The last album showed a move towards a rockier sound, but One-Armed Bandit is much gentler and eclectic record. Was it a conscious shift?
Absolutely eclectic, but it was not intended to sound gentler at all. Actually we were thinking of XTRMNTR by Primal Scream while making it. I wanted the sounds to be really intense and organic. But as always with Jaga, we kind of follow our gut feeling and the albums turn out really different from what our references and influences may have been. And that includes Fela Kuti as well. I was listening to his records while writing the song One-Armed Bandit, but the way the song turned out, I am not sure Fela Kuti is the first thing you think of. Our previous album, What We Must, was, as you said, rockier and a little bit more basic. It also didn’t have any programming at all. The new album has many more layers and leans more toward prog-rock. We have included more electronics and programming and also used the horns differently. On this album, the horns are much more dynamic. I think that some songs, like Toccata, One-Armed Bandit and Prognissekongen, represent a new direction for Jaga, while others are very much a continuation of what we have been doing in the last ten years.

The album was mixed in Chicago by John McEntire. How did you get to work with him, and what would you say he brought to the album?
I got his email through a press agent that has both worked for me and McEntire in the States. I emailed him the rough mixes and he responded very quickly that it was something he was enthusiastic about doing. He knew the band a little from before, we played a gig with Tortoise in Oslo in 2003. I think the most important thing for us was that we knew we shared a lot of tastes and influences musically. So it would be easy to talk to each other and work fast during the mix. But mixing a Jaga album must be hard. I guess 150 to 200 tracks on ever song. So it’s important that we are there to say what is the focus of the song and what are the less important details. Since McEntire was doing the mix and not producing, we didn’t expect him to go wild and try to change everything. But he added a lot of cool sounds. For instance, we put drums and horns through his wall of synthesizers and stuff like that. A great guy and a very good experience for us.

Are you apprehensive about how the album is going to be received, both in Norway and in the rest of Europe, after so long?
The response so far has been great. Great reviews and massive response on the live gigs we have played so far. I have a really good feeling. I think the music that we make is not part of any particular trend or anything, so it doesn’t matter that much when the album is released. It really doesn’t feel like we are old news. It seems like quite a lot of people have been waiting for a new album from us. But I hope we can take this band to a new level this time. The more attention we get, the more we can go out and play live which we really love.

The title track of the new album was made available for free on the web a few weeks ago, and more recently, Toccata was too. Was it the band’s choice to do so, and, as this is a process that is becoming more common, do you think it actually benefits album sales further down the line?
These tracks are shorter versions of the songs and just teasers for the album. It was a choice shared by the record company and us to release these ‘singles’ for free. It’s not easy to get this kind of music on the radio so I think it’s a good thing to use the internet to create a buzz before the album gets released. Hopefully, our audience are aware that the Jaga music is all about the album format. The general record sales have gone down so drastically since we released our previous album. I hope these teasers will make people buy the album and support the band.

The band features two new members, Øystein Moen (keyboards) and Stian Westerhus (guitar), and there have been a few changes in the line-up over the years. Do you see this as a part of what Jaga is, and as a way to renew yourselves? How did you meet these new guys, and how do you choose new members to join the band?
Jaga has always had some change in personnel, but not as much as it might seem. There are still six of the original members. But we’ve had some changes and most of the time it has been for the better. Something happens with the group dynamic and often makes us go in a new direction. The hard part is to find new members who understand that the band is very collective. It always takes some time to rehearse with new members and get them to get what we are about, especially when it comes to taste in sounds and production. With Øystein and Stian, we heard them play a gig with their noise band Puma and thought that they had the right attitude in music. But it was a long way for them to come from totally improvised music to something very structured like we do. It turned out good though. Ironically, Stian had to quit the band this summer because he has too much stuff going on, so now we have a new guitar player. The story continues.

You have all worked on various other projects beside Jaga, including solo projects. Does it affect or transpire into the band in any way?
Absolutely. I think it is very important for everyone to have other projects. It makes it easier for us to work in one direction and not try to include everyone’s needs all the time. The egos are fulfilled with the solo projects. It also works as inspiration for the band. We do so much stuff on the side and it inspires us to make different music.

Jaga Jazzist has been around as a band for over fifteen years, but One-Armed Bandit is only your sixth album. Why haven’t there been any more records?
It’s very much got to do with the previous question. We need some time between each record to do other stuff. The time between the records really helps us find new directions.  We are very active on the Norwegian music scene. I don’t know the exact number, but we must have been involved in around 2-300 records, as musicians, producers or arrangers. We are not exactly lazy.

You are due to play live across Europe this winter and spring. What can people expect of Jaga on stage this time round?
I think we are better as a live band than ever now, the energy is really high. We really look forward to play our new material and meet the audience. And the stage is filled with even more instruments of course.

You were not even fifteen when you started Jaga Jazzist. Did you ever imagine that it would last this long? Is it a bit of a surprise to still be around with the band now?
I didn’t expect that much when we started; it was more like an experiment. Now I have been in the band for over half of my life. It’s very much a family thing for everyone involved. We have worked idealistically for over fifteen years and it’s been all about the music. It’s been very hard at times, but also very rewarding musically. I think we have worked up something special, and it makes it hard to let go. Musically, I think we have so much more that we can do. There are so many ways to go with this type of bands as long as we try to expand our influences and learn new instruments.
It’s strange that we have made it work for such a long time. I don’t have that much fun with any other band musically speaking.

Did you already have a strong idea of the kind of sound you wanted to achieve back then?
No, not really. We were doing a lot of different stuff in the beginning. Our first record is very schizophrenic: rap, avant-garde, gipsy music, contemporary jazz, soul etc. It wasn’t until A Livingroom Hush that we really felt we had something that had a direction that we wanted to follow up.

You are highly successful and recognised in Norway and have been for years, but it took a little longer to gain recognition abroad, after you signed to Smalltown Supersound and consequently were licensed to Ninja Tune. How did you get to work with Smalltown Supersound?
I think we met Joakim Haugland of Smalltown Supersound in 2000. He had just released Kim Hiorthøy’s Hei. He first released an EP with Martin Horntveth and they became friends. A Livingroom Hush was a huge success in Norway, selling almost twenty thousand records at the time, but nothing was happening outside Norway. Smalltown released it, and six months later Ninja Tune wanted to re-release it and do some more albums. Smalltown Supersound have been very important for both Jaga and us as solo artists.

You have released two albums in between Jaga records, including Kaleidoscope last year, which consisted of just one piece and was recorded with the Latvian National Orchestra. That was a very different project to your work with Jaga. Was working with a full orchestra something you’d wanted to do, and was it a very different work process for you?
I had worked as an arranger for various Norwegian symphony orchestras for some time. I don’t have any musical education so for me it was fantastic to be able to learn how to do this while actually working with an orchestra. Kaleidoscopic was very different from Jaga. It is just one forty minute piece and is inspired by classical music and soundtracks. Since I have such strong input in what the Jaga music sounds like, I wanted to work with a very different setup. In Jaga we work with songs and often verse/chorus/bridge forms. It was really cool to go out of that world and make orchestral music that doesn’t have that form at all. It was really inspiring and I want to do more.

Do you intend to focus entirely on Jaga for the foreseeable future, or do you think you will try to combine your role within the band and your solo work from now on?
I need to do stuff outside of Jaga obviously. In the last years I have divided my time between writing music for my other band, The National Bank, solo albums, film and theatre music and producing albums with artists such as Martin Hagfors and Susanne Sundfør.

I hope we will tour as much as possible with Jaga Jazzist in the future and that it will not take another 5 years to make a new album.

Email interview January 2010.

Jaga Jazzist | Smalltown Supersound | Ninja Tune

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