Posted on Aug 29th 2011 06:58 pm
Norwegian trio Splashgirl may have started as a fairly conventional jazz formation, but as time went on, they have evolved into a much more fluid formation, incorporating elements of other genres in their increasingly improvised music. As they are releasing their third album, Pressure, following a refined performance in London in June, Jo Myhre and Andreas Løwe talk about their predominantly acoustic approach, pushing further into improvisation, experimenting with sound and how their various other projects all inform what they do as a trio.
You formed Splashgirl in 2003. How did you guys meet, and what are your respective backgrounds?
Jo Berger Myhre: We’re from three different small places in the same area in south-east Norway (Vestfold). We met at high school around 1999/2000 and played together in various bands at that time, experimenting with different music as one does when getting curious about all kinds of (in our case) experimental and alternative music. Splashgirl however, wasn’t started until 2003/2004 when our high school days were over, and we’d started studying music in Kristiansand (Andreas Stensland Løwe) and Oslo (myself and Andreas Lømo Knudsrød).
Our musical backgrounds are very eclectic. Løwe was taught the piano from an early age, I started off with saxophone and oboe in a school band at the age of nine, then electric bass in rock bands and double bass in a symphonic orchestra. Knudsrød also has a background in school bands as well as performing a lot with the theatre/performance group Stella Polaris.
Did you already have a good idea of the music you wanted to make together, and how has it changed over the years?
JBM: It was initially Andreas Løwe who had the idea of this band, and at that time we wanted to play acoustic jazz music with a freeform approach. From the very beginning we played our own compositions, and though most of those early ones would never fit into our repertoire today, there are quite a few things there that led to what we are doing now. This has to do with the use of repetition, awareness of space and timing and focus on subtle details as well as the notion of having equality between the different instruments.
I don’t think we’ve ever sat down and decided what kind of music we’ve wanted to create, we’ve just played a lot, and spent a lot of time together, feeding each other with all kinds of influences, and all the time letting each other bring new ideas to the table. Slowly it all has merged into what we think of as our own music and our way of playing together.
You name influences from the likes of Eric Satie, Earth, Morton Feldman or Oren Ambarchi, none of them especially jazz. How would you say these manifest themselves in your music, and where do the jazz influences come from?
JBM: Our music doesn’t necessarily sound very directly like any of the above, these influences has more to do with a patient approach to music, letting the sounds you create manifest the way they naturally do in the room you play them in.
Regarding jazz influences, for me, it’s in the way I always try to play music. Even when the music is somewhat organized and arranged, I try to stick to the idea that what I am doing this very moment is in fact totally improvised – that anything may happen at any moment. For me, having such an attitude to playing is a method to keep the music and my inspiration fresh and alive, and also getting the necessary focus, concentration and intensity that have become some important in Splashgirl’s music. It is also a way to be able to improvise with the smallest fractures of the music, the texture, the sound quality. It’s not about showing off that you know that this scale goes to this chord, but being 100% present every moment and being aware of the details that together makes up the whole sound, and that they are possibly ever-changing, – on a micro as well as on a macro level.
Andreas Løwe, before your performance at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London recently, you said that the music you make is not jazz. Is this a reaction to part of your musical influences being away from jazz music? How would you describe what you do?
Andreas Stensland Løwe: My reluctance to call our music jazz may sound a bit childish or even uninformed, and I do see all the references to jazz music in what we do. Still, I find the jazz term to have become so wide that it has been void of most of its meaning, and I do believe not calling our music jazz is an attempt to connect our music to other genres that we find to be more relevant to Splashgirl’s music. In my view, our music can just as well be described as minimalist, instrumental music, as jazz, and our inspiration often comes from other areas than jazz music. Seeing as my/our musical influences are coming from all over the place, it does feel a bit stifling to be thinking that we are playing ‘jazz’. The constellation of piano, double bass and drums will undoubtedly make you think of a certain genre, and so will our extensive use of improvisation, but I do not think calling it jazz actually tells you more about the music than, say, acoustic minimalist. Having said that; if you would like to call our music ‘jazz’, you are more than welcome to do so, although we tend not to.
Your first album, Doors. Keys. came out in 2007 on Aim Records. What happened between the time you got together and the time your first album came out?
JBM: Basically, we practiced a lot, and played a few concerts in the south of Norway. Andreas Løwe lived in Kristiansand at the time, five hours on the train south of Oslo, so we spent quite a few hours on that train back and forth. Løwe was working on his master’s degree on composition vs improvisation, a result of which was most of the pieces on Doors. Keys.
A lot of Norwegian jazz musicians integrate a lot of technology usually associated with dance music in their work, but you have so far chosen to keep to predominantly acoustic instrumentation, although you have used electronics on Arbor, and even more on your new album. Is this essentially acoustic approach something you see as integrant part of what Splashgirl is?
JBM: Yes. From the beginning we’ve always been interested in how we can blend the sounds of our three acoustic sound sources into our own unity. Our music is very much about reverberation and how sounds from our acoustic instruments resonates together – and in the room where they are played. From there, and since working on Arbor, we’ve tried to find ways of expanding our sonic palette with other sounds (acoustic and electronic), that can add new and hopefully unheard nuances to the sound of piano, double bass and drums. But it has always started from the acoustic instruments, and probably still will in the future.
Your second album, Arbor, was the first release on Hubro. How did you get involved with the label, and was it daunting to be the first on a new label?
JBM: After recording Arbor, we were not quite sure where to release it. We had played it to a few people here and there, and had a couple of options going. And then suddenly Andreas Meland (a friend of a friend sort of) sent us an email explaining that he was starting a new label, Hubro, based on his work for the bigger Norwegian record company Grappa and ECM, and that he’d heard Arbor and thought it was a perfect fit for it. The possibility of being the first release on an ambitious new label, seemed like a fresh start to us, and Meland seemed to be genuinely interested in our music seeking us out like that, so it sounded like a very good idea to us. It was of course also exiting to be the ones to first ‘define’ a new label musically.
On Arbor, you considerably expanded the scope of your music compared to your first album. How did you approach this second album? Did you follow a different process to open up new grounds for you, or was it more of an organic progression?
JBM: I think both. At least we wanted to move away from the clear jazz references of our earlier music, but keeping the element of improvisation. The concerts and rehearsals prior to recording Arbor were getting more and more freely improvised. We had our repertoire from Doors. Keys. and other not-recorded songs, but found it rewarding to not make a setlist, just go on stage and start playing. Then songs would pop up during the set, if they wanted to.
When we recorded Arbor, we had a few ideas, sound- and song-wise, and they had mostly emerged during improvised concerts and rehearsals. At rehearsals, we’d improvise long stretches of music, and always record on a dictaphone, then play it back to ourselves and pick out the bits and pieces that worked for us. This was basically the method of the making of Arbor.
Your third album, Pressure, is about to be released, once again on Hubro, and while it has some similarities with Arbor, it seems that it represents a steps forward again. The music seems more confident, more ambitious, you use electronics to underline atmospheric moments… Was that a conscious effort when you started working on the album?
JBM: The reason why Pressure seems more confident, and perhaps less blurred than Arbor, is probably because the compositions were composed beforehand, and within a short timespan, by Løwe and me. So the compositions were very much inspired by each other, contributing to make the album feel more complete musically. Then we also recorded and produced them within just a few months of composing them, and therefore had to go with immediate, impulsive ideas, not having the time to go back and forth so many times.
It was intentional to make an album that if not being conceptual, at least would have a strong core and a definite ‘sound’ to it. Therefore we decided to record it with the Norwegian rockstar Alex Kloster-Jensen (Madrugada/Ricochets/Kitchie Kitchie Ki Me O), and have Randall Dunn (Earth/Sunn O)))) mix it. These are people who are used to think about an album or a sound as a whole, a total thing, and being very aware of making the music come out the best it can through the production of the album. I don’t think they ever thought of Pressure as a jazz record at all, just exiting music that they could relate to and help us make it as good as we could.
Regarding the use of electronics, it was conscious, yes, but the idea developed naturally. We feel that the electronics are organic sounds, analog, warm and blending well with the acoustic instruments and adding unexpected dimensions to the music.
When we rehearsed, we also tried the same method as on Arbor by collectively improvise music that we hoped would turn into compositions, but it didn’t seem to work that well this time. The only piece on the album that is in fact a result of this method is the title track.
You have worked with a number of musicians on this record. Did that affect the dynamic between the three of you during the recording? Did you feel your music needed these added components?
JBM: The music on the album was rehearsed and arranged with the trio only, and as we did that, ideas started to pop up about how certain sounds could underline and add other qualities to the music. I guess we could have recorded the music without the guest musicians, but involving them was important for us in order to make the music reach its full potential, in our opinion. And also make a statement that it was not our intention to make a jazz trio record.
On The Other Side, you worked with vocalist Mari Kvien Brunvoll, whose contributions remains pretty discreet. Is working with vocalists something you’d like to explore further in the future, and if yes, do you have any idea of how you would like to do it?
JBM: The human voice is the ultimate instrument, but as we can’t make the best out of it, we play crafted musical instruments instead. All of us have worked a lot with vocalists in other settings, and we have no dogma that Splashgirl must be an instrumental band, so if we happen to make music where we think vocals would make the music better, then vocals there will be.
I have an idea that a vocal mantra or chant would be a natural extension of Splashgirl’s music, not Allen Ginsberg style, but repeating words over and over to make textures. Basically how we do with our instruments already.
There are moments on the new album when you veer close to post rock territories, especially on The Other Side, something which contrasts quite drastically with the more gentle side of your work. Is this a sign of how you see Splashgirl evolve in the future?
JBM: All of us have played a great deal of experimental rock, and post rock in the past, in other bands such as Blokk 5, Lama and Post. The great thing with Splashgirl is that we allow ourselves to bring in influences from other bands we play in, and post rock references seems to fit very naturally with our minimalist approach to composing. This song in particular features a heavy guitar solo that definitely is extreme, – I must say it felt very good to go this far with it, to push the music further. It really feels like we’re always going to be interested in doing that.
As you’ve just mentioned, you all work on other projects, and collaborate on Blokk 5 (Jo and Andreas Lønmo Knudsrød) and Lama (the two Andreas). How do you combine all these projects, and do these feed into Splashgirl in any way?
JBM: They definitely feed into Splashgirl, and vice versa. All of us spend a lot of time working on other projects with a lot of other musicians, and gain much inspiration and ideas from that. In order to create new, exiting music, it’s important to us to allow us to try any ideas that we think might fit into making the melting pot that Splashgirl is. In time, if the ideas work well, a new whole is taking shape, and a new form of music is born.
You are also part of the Kennel collective of Oslo-based artists. When was the collective formed? Can you tell us more about its aim and about the other artists involved?
JBM: Kennel was officially formed in the spring of 2008, but has really existed for longer than that. When we established Kennel, it was basically just giving a name to something that had already naturally existed for quite a while. It’s a social thing really, just a bunch of friends who play in different bands together. By giving this scene a name, we’re aiming at helping each other out, inspire each other and making it more visible to our different audiences that these band are closely (socially) connected.
We’ve set up a small record label so that people within Kennel can release music easily, but we’re mostly about making and performing music and not so much about administration, so so far, all our releases has had quite limited distribution and quantities.
The music across the different bands within Kennel varies quite a lot, but coming from the same group of artistic minds, it seems to have a common ground in being creative and intuitive and with close to no respect regarding genre.
Beside Splashgirl, Kennel features among others the singer/songwriter/sound artist Lasse Passage, alt-pop trio Philco Fiction, indie/noise rock outfit Blokk 5 and eclectic electronic pop duo ONTZ. In addition to working with these bands, Kennel also hosts an annual music and arts festival in Oslo, called Kennel Connects.
Do you think this is important for you as a band to be part of such a collective, and how?
JBM: The major thing is inspiration between the different creative people. I’ve been working closely with Lasse Passage as well as writing songs for Blokk 5, drawing inspiration from that into Splashgirl. Lasse is very into electroacoustic music so it’s natural for Splashgirl to involve him in making sounds for us. For instance, on Pressure, he made the whole transition from Devata to Creature Of Light. We just gave him some sounds that we liked, and said: ‘Do whatever you want with this to make a two minute transition from the ending of Devata to the opening of Creature of Light‘. And it turned out better than we’d hoped. These kinds of collaborations go on all the time across the different acts in Kennel and are extremely valuable to all of us.
Are you planning to tour following the album release?
JBM: As of now, we don’t have any big plans scheduled for the autumn, but we’re hoping that Pressure will gain some attention that makes it possible for us to perform more live. It’s likely that we’ll do a few concerts this autumn, but more in 2012. We’d very much like to get around more, so promoters; don’t be shy!
If you had to take five records, movies of books with you on tour, which ones would they be, and why?
JMB: Record: Earth – Hex: Or Printing In The Infernal Method (Southern Lord) – focus reminder
DVD series: Carnivale – Season 1&2 (HBO) – a matter of life and death
Novel: Mark Z Danielewski – House Of Leaves (Random House Press) – inside and outside search
Autobiography: Keith Richards – Life – reality check (?)
Record: Oren Ambarchi – In The Pendulum’s Embrace (Touch) – to the core of necessity
Email interview August 2011
Thank you to Jo Berger Myrhe, Andreas Stensland Løwe, Andreas Lømo Knudsrød and Jim Johnstone