INTERVIEW: GORAN KAJFEŠ North By South East

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Posted on Jul 3rd 2011 06:32 pm

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INTERVIEW: GORAN KAJFEŠ North By South East

Born of Croatian parents, both musicians, and raised in Sweden, trumpet player Goran Kajfeš has played with an impressive number of musicians and artists of international stature. As a solo musician, he has released two albums and his third, X/Y, a double album presenting two very different sides of his work, has just been published. We took the opportunity to talk with him about how his Balkan roots and Scandinavian upbringing influence his work, working with megastars, and how the two distinct sides of his new album are in fact complimentary.

You are of Croatian origin, although you grew up in Sweden. Can you tell us about your background and how it influences your work?
My background has made me a bit rootless and I think (and hope) you can hear that when you listen to my music. The Balkan tonalities and odd time signatures has more and more become a natural part of my music even if my parents didn’t listen so much to the music of their origin when I was young. Mom was a great kolo dancer (ed: a collective folk dance danced in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia) though so it probably came in the blood. At the same time the Scandinavian sense for sound and darker moods is rooted pretty strongly in everything I do. I like to travel in my music and find new places and sometimes I’m even up for leaving this planet in a rickety old UFO.

The press release for your new album mentions that you come from a family of musicians and artists. Were you always destined to be a musician? What made you choose the trumpet as your main instrument, and how did you get involved with jazz?
Both my parents were pianists, my grandfather was an opera singer and my aunt played cembalo and was married to the great pianist John Lewis (of Modern Jazz Quartet). And my sister Arijana is an artist featured on my latest album, X/Y. I played a lot of jazz and modern composers like Hindemith and Schoenberg with my father Davor. He also plays on my previous solo albums. So he introduced me to jazz. But I played a lot of classical music until I turned 18-19 when I actually chose to focus on jazz. I wanted to play trombone but my music school told me that my arms where to short. They fooled me because they needed a trumpet player to their orchestra.

What or who has inspired you to do what you do today?
A lot of things of course, but a big musical awakening was when I played with the great Lester Bowie (Art Ensemble of Chicago) ten years ago. He made me realize that your own voice and vision in music is the most important part of it. Nothing new in one way but standing beside him and playing I realized how unique he was and he gave me the confidence and power to let go.

You have worked with a number of high profile musicians and artists, Eagle-Eye Cherry to José Gonzales and Stina Nordenstam to Janet Jackson. How has it shaped the music you make today, and do you see this as a major part of your make up as an artist and musician?
I love the variety in my musical life even if some days it can feel a bit schizophrenic. But all these meetings have definitely made me the artist I am today and gave me a lot of inspiration. It is interesting to look into other musicians’ universes even if it’s sometimes just a day or two.

How did you make the transition from musician playing for others to frontman? Was this a logical progression for you?
In 1999, I started to work with David Österberg, who runs Headspin Recordings with me, and we worked on my first solo  album for almost a year, experimenting and trying to find new directions. I had been touring with a lot of pop acts during that period and was starting to get fed up and was longing for something new in my musical life. So there it was.

You are also a member of quite a few formations. How does this compare to working on your own project? Do you see this as a necessary balance in your work?
It has been six years since I last released an an album under my own name and I have once again realized that this is a big part of making me move further and beyond as a musician.

X/Y is only your third album in over ten years, and your first to be released in the UK. From what I’ve heard of your first two albums, the music reminded me a bit of Wibutee. How would you say your music has evolved since your first album?
Actually Wibutee and my band were doing some split gigs back in the days but I had never heard of them before we met on stage. I really like Håkon Kornstad’s solo album. Anyway, when I listen to my old albums there are some parts of it that I still like but my music has changed a lot since then. The two previous records where made in a more programming and computer-focused environment. On my new record, X was recorded live in the studio and is more direct and not overly produced. And Y is actually more reminiscent of my two previous albums but more scaled down and more improvised on the spot, even if it’s based on electronics.

Are there any plans to issue your first two albums outside of Sweden?
They were released outside of Sweden. My first one, Home, was on Blue Note France/EMI, and my second one was licensed to Sony Jazz Japan and some other labels around Europe.

X/Y is a double album which presents two very different sides, to the point where they could as well be two distinct releases, with X sounding quite orchestral, with a strong fifties/sixties soundtrack feel to it, and Y being much more electronic an minimal. How did the project come about, and how do you explain these very distinct set ups? Why did you choose to release these two as a double album rather than as two separate pieces of work?
I was working on one album first (X) but I realized that I didn’t hear the trumpet in focus in that musical landscape so I got a bit confused because I love playing the trumpet and it felt strange to release a solo album where the trumpet had such a small part in it. So I decided to make one more album (Y) that was really based on the trumpet. I liked the fact that there ended up being a strong contrast between the albums. At the same time as I think they have a repetitive, trancelike aspect in common. The combination of them made the whole album more interesting I think.

Were both recorded at the same time?
X has been a work in progress for a couple of years. Finally, together with mix engineer (and great musician) Johan Lindström I found the sound I was looking for. Y took about two weeks and that album was done after X was almost finished.

There are some hints of oriental sounds and melodies in this album, especially on X, like the percussions and guitar on Solar Still for instance. Where do these influences come from?
On Solar Still there is a great musician, Majid Bekkas, from Morocco  whom I met when I was playing at the Rabat Jazz Festival. I love what he was playing and singing when I heard him there and asked him if he wanted to join me on my album. The tabla player, a woman,which is not so very common, I met through a friend when she was visiting Stockholm so that was just a lucky coincidence. The oriental influences are of course strongly connected to my Balkan background.

On Subtropics/Kankani Boulila, you’ve worked with African singer Majid Bekkas. How did this collaboration happen, and did you expressly want to work with vocals on this album?
It was his suggestion to sing a traditional Gnawa song. I really liked the idea of that as I like a lot of the repetitive structures in their music and base a lot of my music on similar ideas. It was funny because he came from Rabat to Stockholm and did the song in one take, so I told him that he could tell his friends that he went to Stockholm just to have a coffee.

You’ve assembled quite a big formation with the Subtropic Arkestra for this album. Did all these musicians work on the two records?
No the Subtropic Arkestra plays on X. On Y it’s only David Österberg and me.

Is collaborating with others important for you as a musician? Do you let these artists get their input in the music or are you very directive and know what you want from the start?
It is very important to get their input and when you are surrounded by such great musicians you have to let them. It’s a waste otherwise. I bring different musical parts that I put together when we are in the studio. I like the way it happens at the moment of the recording, it’s good when the musicians aren’t too secure about where we’re going next and keep their ears open wide!  But of course I have a final vision of what I want it to be like. Or do I?

There’s quite a big sense of fun throughout X, while Y is more austere, contrived, processed. Was that something you had in mind when you started working on the album?
Yes, one of my inspiration was Bollywood music for X. Music with a bit of humour  and unexpected  combinations like tabla, Moog synth, handclaps and crooked horns. With Y I wanted the trumpet to lead you through more abstract surroundings.

On Y, you use modular electronics, loops, delays and effects. Does this mean that the compositional process is very different, more introspective, more solitary perhaps?
Me and David Österberg set up a few scenarios in the studio with the modular synthesizers and the trumpet in the centre. It was important for us to keep an improvisational edge to the music. We were talking a lot about the music in pictures, for example we had an inspiration from fifties science fiction movies with UFOs, where you almost can see the hand shaking them. An era where there was big hope and excitement for the future. Also photographer Carl Kleiner, who did the artwork for Y, came up with pictures that gave us new ideas and angles. We realized we had become a trio.

The album is packaged as an art book which contains two different set of photographs from various artists. Was this your idea, and did you know the artists who have contributed beforehand? How did you select the works featured?
It came out of that I was sick and tired of the small CD covers and wanted to do something that reminded of the old vinyl gatefolds that you could look at for hours while listening to the music. An extra dimension. I have a personal connection to all the artists. For instance Roger Andersson did the cover of my first album, Ulf Rollof I met in Mexico when I was touring with my band and he showed us around Mexico City. Moki Cherry I met when I was doing a Don Cherry memorial concert in Italy with Neneh and Eagle Eye Cherry. After that I stayed in her loft in NY for a couple of months. Arijana is my sister and so on….

Are you planning to take the album on the road, and if yes, what’s Goran Kajfeš like on stage?
I am out playing with the Subtropic Arkestra right now and it’s expressive, fun and energetic.

How do you see your music evolve in the future?
I will play a lot live with this album and that usually gives me many new ideas and inspiration. I am also planning a more performance-based concert on the music of the Y album.

If you had to name five records, books or films that have marked you, which ones would they be?
Don Cherry: Brown Rice
Panda Bear: Person Pitch
There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson
Ask The Dust by John Fante
Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle

Email interview June 2011. Thank you to Goran Kajfeš and Jim Johnstone

Goran Kajfeš | Headspin Recordings

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