INTERVIEW: THOMAS STRØNEN The Importance Of Being Thomas Strønen


Posted on Dec 4th 2011 08:48 pm

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INTERVIEW: THOMAS STRØNEN: The Importance Of Being Thomas Strønen

Thomas Strønen is undoubtedly one of the most talented drummers of his generation. A member of Food, Humcrush, Meadow, Monsters & Puppets and many more, his very diverse, yet highly recognisable style puts him is at the heart of these projects. With new albums from Monsters & Puppets, Humcrush and The Living Room, Thomas takes some time off his incredibly busy schedule to talk to themilkfactory about how he started playing drums, his long-standing collaboration with Iain Ballamy as Food, his relationship with Maria Kannegaard and how it led to Monsters & Puppets, and what his next solo project may be.

Thomas, how did come to play music, and what made you choose the drums?
At the age of five, visiting Kiel in Germany, I discovered a tin drum in a shop window and cried my eyes out to get it. That day I threw out my teddy bear and replaced it with that drum. I had it with me almost everywhere and played it till it fell to pieces. I don’t know why I chose drums, or even music. My grandfather, whom I never met, was an accordion player and violinist, and my much older brother was a DJ. I’ve always been playing and in my grade book from my first year at school (and the following ones) it said ‘Thomas keeps disturbing the other pupils by drumming on his desk all the time’.

Growing up, I was also massively into sport, actually considering a career as a sprinter (100m) Music always came first though. Living in a small place (Åsgårdstrand, where Edvard Munch painted The Scream and Girls On The Bridge) I was lucky to play a lot and got introduced to improvised music and jazz, mostly European, in my early teens.

I keep drumsticks everywhere, in all my bags and rooms and it drives my wife mad, I’m now about to drive my kids mad too.

You’ve been performing and recording with Iain Ballamy in Food for over ten years now, first as a quartet with Mats Eilertsen and Arve Henriksen, then as a duo. How did you meet Iain and how did the project start?
Iain and I meet through friends; (hold on!) Iain’s sister in law knew a friend of mine’s girlfriend… While visiting my friend (Lars Ådne) he decided to call Iain so we could meet. At the time, I was studying music and was of course happy to get to meet a well-known and experienced musician like him. I knew him from Django Bates’s band (ed: Loose Tubes) and Earthworks.

Iain played me some records and I played him a demo- cassette! He actually loved it and suggested we start a band together. I thought he was just being polite until I met him by accident at some festival a year later. When he wondered why I hadn’t stayed in contact, I decided to do something about it. It felt natural to ask Mats, as we where playing a lot together. I’d just done a project with Arve and he was also interested in continuing the relationship. One phone call later, we had two festival gigs at the Molde Jazz Festival, ending up with a live recording. We continued with this constellation for six years and did four records together as a quartet. At some stage everyone got extremely busy and instead of saying no to lots of nice opportunities, we decided to work as a duo, inviting various suitable guests for our performances.

How did you make the transition from quartet to duo when Mats and Arve left? Was it a natural process for you two to continue working together?
After Arve left the band to concentrate more on his solo career, we tried out a few different settings without being satisfied. To find why we liked playing together again, Iain and I went into the studio for almost a week in London. That resulted in us taking the music in a totally different direction and it got released as Molecular Gastronomy. It took quite a few concerts and long hours at various rehearsal spaces to come to what represents Food today though. To make the break even clearer we approached Manfred Eicher at ECM with new recorded music, and released Quiet Inlet last year. We’re now at the final stage of finishing off another record for ECM. This time there will be with more guests, including an Indian singer that will take you to another planet!

Food perform both as duo and with like-minded guests. Instead of tying the band up in one setting, depending on everybody’s availability and running the danger of get stuck musically, we invite musicians we think can contribute sounds and texture we think and hope can develop and complement our own.

As you’ve just mentioned, you regularly work with additional musicians in Food, the most recent of which is Christian Fennesz, with whom you have played live recently and who featured on Quiet Inlet. How do these collaborations happen, and are you planning on working more extensively with Fennesz or Nils Petter Molvær, with whom you were due to tour Japan last June, before the tour had to be postponed following the earthquake that devastated part of the country?
Last year, we played as a trio with Fennesz, as a quartet with Fennesz and Nils Petter, as a trio with Eivind Aarset, as a trio with Prakash Sontakke (an Indian singer and slide guitarist) and as a quartet with Aarset and Sontakke. We will be touring Japan in April 2012 with Nils Petter and we will continue to collaborate with all the others as well. Like most collaborations, they happen by listening or playing with new musicians or trying out new constellations when we get solicited.

This collaboration with Iain is one of your longest-running projects to date. How do you keep moving forward with it, especially with you living in Norway and Iain in the UK?
I work with both Iain and John Taylor from the UK, with Torben Snekkestad and Søren Kjærgaard in Denmark and other musicians living in different places. We tour everywhere, so it doesn’t really matter where you live. We rehearse ahead of touring or meet up for a few days to work. With Food, we always set off two or three weeks in a year, just to rehearse for long hours. On top of that, we record all concerts we do and sit down and go through them. Some end up on records too!

You have been part of the Maria Kannegaard Trio for quite some time, and you have just released a collaboration with Maria on Fender Rhodes and you on drums as Monsters & Puppets. How did the idea of this collaboration come up, and what is the inspiration behind the project?
Maria and I have worked together in various settings from 1997 when we started her trio. We know each other extremely well and use each other as critical voices for our own work. We send each other compositions, recordings and ideas via the net and give advice and constructive feedback. Having played together for a long time, we got asked to play a double solo concert at Molde Jazz Festival. Just before the concert, we decided to play as a duo instead. Both being a bit bored with a lot of the intellectual jazz, we wanted to be more extreme towards noise and rock music. Monster & Puppets is the result of three hours in a studio in Oslo; everything was improvised on the go.

The album was released on a new Norwegian imprint, Gigafon. What made you choose such a young label?
Maria has been releasing her records on Jazzland Recordings (Bugge Wesseltoft), while I’ve been on ECM and Rune Grammofon. In order to not mix up ongoing bands, we looked for something smaller with a lower profile. They have a good musical approach and they have very nice covers as well.

There is also a new Humcrush album, which is a collaboration between yourself and Ståle Storløkken on one side, and, on this album Sidsel Endresen on the other. Did you know Sidsel prior to working with her? How did the collaboration happen?
I’ve known Sidsel as a singer since I was twelve years old. I’ve always treasured her as one of the most exciting singers and musicians of all times. We did a concert with Humcrush and Sidsel on the initiative of Jan Ole Otnes at the Molde Jazz Festival a few years ago. (I must mention that the Molde Jazz Festival were the first to put on Food, Food with Fennesz, Monsters & Puppets and also Meadow!). It worked out very well and we’ve now toured Europe twice and played various concerts since. We’ll be out playing again in December.

Sidsel is very critical of what she does, both on stage and in music in general. I admire the way she has stayed focused, never being tempted to take shortcuts to make life easier for herself. She never compromises. It’s challenging to play with her as it is ‘almost’ never good enough. Much of the qualities I see in her are qualities I appreciate and recognise. It’s a treat to occasionally have her in Humcrush. Ståle and I have worked for many years together and she brings something new and fresh. It also changes the way we play after we’ve worked as a trio. We try to keep what’s genuine about Humcrush whilst playing with her and I don’t feel we have to compromise in the way we interact as a trio. It is not to say that it doesn’t sound different with her onboard.

Sidsel’s approach to vocals is pretty unique and often seems much closer to the relation that musicians have with their instruments than to traditional singers. Did that impact on the music you created?
I don’t think of Sidsel as a singer, in the same way as I don’t think of Ståle as a keyboard player. They are musical contributors in sounds, texture and form. Their instruments are just a way for them to express themselves. I probably would have worked with them even if they played something completely different. It feels like this with most of the musicians I’m fortunate to work with. Sidsel is creating a new musical tradition, though. When you hear singers of a younger generation in Norway today, you realise the impact she has made on the Norwegian music scene.

Humcrush started with you and Ståle Storløkken with a first album back in 2004. How did the idea of the record come up, and did you think at the time it would be developing it into the full project that it has become?
When I took my final exam at the Jazz academy, I played a concert with three keyboard – players; Maria, Ståle and Erlend Skomsvoll. After only a few minutes, Ståle and I both knew that we should play together. We’re both concerned about time, colours and texture and seem to agree on many musical matters, or even better, disagree and give each other some resistance and challenges.

Just after this, Ståle got a commission to compose for a festival and he brought together Lars Danielsson (bass/ cello) and me. Lars double- booked himself on the first tour and that left us with Humcrush!

Parish, released in 2005 on ECM, was published with you as a leader, and was recorded with Bobo Stenson on piano, Frederik Ljungkvist on sax and clarinet and Mats Eilertsen on bass, although there was an earlier album, recorded with the same formation, but this time released under the name of Parish. What was the difference between the two projects?
It is the same band and project. Manfred (ECM) wanted my name on the record to make it clear that it was my band, while the name of the band was always Parish. That was a great band and I think we all really enjoyed playing together. Unfortunately we got together at a time where we all were extremely busy with other bands and it just got difficult to keep up with it.

In 2006, you released Pohlitz on Rune Grammofon, an experimental album which you recorded alone and for which you played percussions and electronics. Pohlitz is actually listed on your website as a project in its own right, a variation of which is also mentioned with string quartet McFalls Chamber. Can you tell us more about your original inspiration for the album, and did you always envisage it as a project?
I always do a few solo concerts every year. I feel it gives me focus and it keeps challenging me. I wanted to make an album that mixed contemporary electronic composition and a minimalist melodic ‘club’ (in the widest terms) set. It was done in real time with no overdubs and was extremely challenging to create. I immediately deleted the three first days in studio. I practiced for another six months and toured in Japan, got back and did it all in almost one day.

Reviewers drew comparisons to gamelan music, but I had no inspiration from that at all. The bells and gongs are my instruments and sound. My style has been inspired by minimalist music as well as classical Japanese music, and that’s what I wanted to express with that recording. The colours and forms are detailed, small fragments change the direction of the music.

I did record a new Pohlitz record about two years ago, but as I started another project (writing for strings) it never got released and I’m not convinced that the world needs another record like that.  Some of it is used as film music, though.

After I did Pohlitz, I’d been working with bells and gongs with electronics so much that I had to do something else for a while. I started writing music for a string ensemble and was lucky enough to being offered a commission to write music for the celebration of the centenary of Edvard Grieg’s death, in the UK. I wrote about forty-five to fifty minutes of music for violin, viola, cello and contrabass and we toured in the UK. I recorded the music two years ago and ECM was going to release it this summer, until Manfred changed his mind and wanted to produce the record. I will have enough material for a new record in a few months time, so hopefully it’ll be out there soon.

Where did the idea of confronting percussions with a string formation stem from, and how did working with the McFalls Chamber impact on your own performance?
It all started many years ago playing together with a larger ensemble, Cicada, a Norwegian string quartet. In the middle of their sound check, I started playing and thought it was a beautiful feeling sitting in the middle of such nice instruments. In the early days, I played more actively, but the last pieces I’ve written leave me more out of it, doing more textures and solo parts in between the compositions. It does have a great impact on how I play, as the dynamic range is compressed and I have to try to get the drums to melt together with the quartet.

Is it easy for you to adapt to the various formations you work with, especially considering how different Food is from Humcrush, or Monsters & Puppets from your solo work? Do you fall back into the necessary mood instantly, or does it take you a while to find your feet again?
I like the combinations I do. Rather than using my whole vocabulary in one (or each) band, I like to give myself different roles in the settings I play. I love working with electronics in Food and Humcrush and then I really appreciate only having acoustic sounds in Meadow.

I like a lot of different music and I don’t like to categorise the different styles I might be touching. I feel that it just sets limitations. I’m more concerned who I play with than which segment they might belong to. I work with composition and improvisation, with texture and with melody, with beat and with ambience. Some call it jazz, others film music, whatever that is. What’s important to me is being able to be Thomas Strønen every time I play. That’s my freedom.

You spend a lot of time on the road playing live and touring. How does playing live compare to playing in the studio for you?
There is really no difference. Most of my concerts are also being recorded, so there’s really no difference, except that it’s more relaxed in the studio. Going to a studio feels almost like having a proper job, which can be a nice illusion sometimes.

With most of your work based on improvisation, was it always part of how you conceived playing music?
Back to as early as I can remember, I had problems being told what to play. I always felt I had a better solution than my teacher at school or in the school band. I must have been a nightmare to work with. I started in a modern mini big band when I was thirteen and didn’t read music very well, so I was dependent on learning things by ear. Music was also quite difficult for me to play, with a heavy-rock background, and I had to have good ideas to manage to get through it.

Even as a composer, I think it’s important that sometimes musicians have ideas that might be stronger than what’s composed, so I’m always open for that. Having said that, I actually love playing good parts, like when Food played with the London Sinfonietta. I had to read the whole score and make my own drum part visual to keep up with the orchestra.

You’ve got a very personal and recognisable style which extends far beyond conventional drumming. What or who has inspired you in your formative years and in your career since?
As mentioned above, I’ve been influence by lots of different styles, genres and people. I got into improvised music in my early teens and was lucky to play with better and more experienced musicians at an early stage. I dug into the jazz history while studying music for six years, but also got into Japanese music (koto, vocals, drum music), classical music (from Bach to Shostakovich and Cage), electronic music (From Varèse to Nordheim and Squarepusher) and also singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.

If you had to take five records with you on tour, which ones would they be?

Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations (Bach)

Miles Davis: Live At The Fillmore East

Arvo Pärt: Te Deum

Arne Nordheim: Dodeka
(or Biosphere & Deathprod: Nordheim Transformed)

Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartets No 2 & 8 (Beethoven Quartet)

Email interview November 2011. Thank you to Thomas.

Thomas Strønen | Rune Grammofon | ECM | Gigafon | Ilk Music

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Comments (5)

5 Responses to “INTERVIEW: THOMAS STRØNEN The Importance Of Being Thomas Strønen”

  1. Yelena Eckemoffon 05 Dec 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Great interview!

  2. themilkmanon 05 Dec 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Thank you. As a long time fan of the man, it is an honour and a privilege to have been able to do this, and I hope people enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed it, and hopefully get to find out more about his work.

  3. psicoverdeon 09 Dec 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Great interview, great musician.


    “I did record a new Pohlitz record about two years ago, but as I started another project (writing for strings) it never got released and I’m not convinced that the world needs another record like that.”

    Bad news. I’ve been wanting a new Pohlitz for five years. Really loved that solo album, a true wonder of contemporary music. I hope he will give us someday more of his blissful bells and gongs.

  4. themilkmanon 10 Dec 2011 at 1:51 am

    I’m very much like you, I could definitely take on a second album of that stuff.

  5. Colinon 10 Dec 2011 at 10:49 pm

    Me too – new Pohlitz record please! The first one was fabulous. Also looking forward to hearing the Cicada Quartet with Strønen. I loved their work on Annette Peacock’s Acrobat’s Heart.