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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Talking with Paal Nilssen-Love

Paal Nilssen-Love at work. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

By Eyal Hareuveni

Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love is one of the busiest musicians on the globe. An “unstoppable train of energy,” as his comrade Mats Gustafsson describes him. Nilssen-Love performs more than 200 dates per year, leads his own 12-musician Large Unit, runs his own PNL Records label (and another new, untitled one that releases live performances), manages the Blow Out summer festival in Oslo (with fellow drummer Ståle Liavik Solberg), and plays in more than dozen outfits, including The Thing, Lean Left, Ballister, Frode Gjerstad Trio and duos with Peter Brötzmann, Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark.

This interview was conducted via e-mail while Nilssen-Love hopped between gigs in South America with Frode Gjerstad Trio and continuing European tours with Ballister trio and Lean Left quartet, and prior to a visit to Ethiopia with the Large Unit and a duo tour with Brötzmann in Japan.

You are taking your Large Unit to a short tour in Ethiopia with The Ex in the beginning of April. Can you elaborate about your special connection to Ethiopia and Ethiopian music?

I was invited by Terrie Ex and (his wife) Emma Fischer to join them on a trip to Addis Ababa back in 2009. This was a project that also included Ken Vandermark and Ab Baars. It was probably the most intense week of my life. Almost impossible to describe with words why. The music, the people, food, drink, dancing… late late nights and early mornings full of life changing experiences.

Since that first trip, I’ve visited Ethiopia almost every year. Music wise, I learned something that I had never heard before - Tigrigna - a 5 beat rhythm which is absolutely incredible. It’s from the northern part of Ethiopia called Tigray. I made a tune for Large Unit which has some of this rhythm in it and I first named it Tigrigna, then Fendika (appeared on the Book/Double disc Large Unit 2015, ONL, 2016), which is also the name of Melaku Belay’s club in Adis (and the name of Belay Band), THE most important club in Ethiopia.

When I was looking for a title for the debut 4LP/3CD box-set of Large Unit I simply googled Tigrigna and the name Erta Ale came up. This is the name of an active volcano in the northeastern part of Ethiopia. I thought that the name suited the box-set we were about to release (Erta Ale, PNL, 2014). So, it’s pretty obvious that I have strong links to Ethiopia and its musicians and dancers.

I always bring my iPod to the tours of the Large Unit and I have a playlist of Ethiopian 7” and some of the modern dance music from Ethiopia which are played before, during the intermission, and after the shows, giving a very nice vibe. This Ethiopian music also functions as a sort of tour soundtrack for the Large Unit and we all become in the same mood before and after the shows.

In 2015 the Large Unit did 38 concerts, two tours of Europe and a 15-gig tour of North America. My interest and passion for Brazilian music has been growing stronger in the last years and we were lucky enough to do several concerts in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo during the fall of 2016. When we were discussing what to do next I announced the idea of making a trip to Addis. Per Åke Holmlander, our tuba player said: “if you managed to get us to Brazil, you’ll manage to take us to Ethiopia”.

We will do concerts and workshops and also bring instruments to give to the local musicians. Drumsticks, reeds, a clarinet, effect pedals and microphones are already assembled from the band members and other colleagues. Terrie asked me to bring some used sticks for the local drummers and I wasn’t aware of the desperate need of sticks. Some years ago I managed to get 40kg drum sticks from a yearly Christmas bash which 100 or so Norwegian drummers attended.

Terrie Ex, Gretatchew Mekuria, Paal Nilssen-Love
Photo by Matias Corral from GETATCHEW MEKURIA (1935 - 2016)
We will do concerts at various venues in Addis. Terrie Ex and his family are already there, talking with local musicians and music teachers for shows and workshops (and preparing an exhibition and a tribute concert in memory of the great sax player Getatchew Mekuria). The idea is to work together and perform concerts with local musicians and dancers from Fendika and elsewhere. It’s going to be intense… The trip will be well documented and I’m planning to have another photo book with CDs, to be released later this year.

On the last album of Large Unit, Ana, you incorporated Brazilian rhythms and hosted Brazilian musicians. What we can expect from the 09Large Unit upcoming album, Fluku?

Fluku (Two tracks from Fluku appear on the Large Unit's new Selected Works 2013-2017) was recorded in April 2015 and will be released in September 2017. There are new pieces that for me are stretching the idea of composition. All musicians were given more responsibility and have to make decisions on stage of where the pieces will go. There’s even a ballad(!). It is different from our previous albums and shows the band continuous development. We plan is to tour Europe in October and then a week of concerts in Japan.

Other plans for 2017?

The Spring of 2017 is going to be intense. I’m in Brazil right now, just recorded a second duo album with Arto Lindsay in an amazing studio outside of Rio (following Scarcity, PNL, 2014). I will continue to a tour with Frode Gjerstad trio which starts in Rio, goes on to Chile, and ends in Argentina. I have 4 days off before I hit the road with the Ballister trio which will also have two new albums out - Slag on Dave Rempis’ Aerophonic Records and also a vinyl/DVD on Dropa Disc titled Low Level Stink.

David Rempis, Paal Nilssen-Love
Lean Left goes out on the road just after that tour and also has a new album out on Trost, I Forgot to Breathe. Ken Vandermark and I did two days of recording in the ESS studio in Chicago in mid-January and it was a quite a different situation. Some 5-6 minute pieces and a total of 60 pieces that were as short as of 15 seconds. The material will be released as two (very) different albums, one CD on my PNL Records and the other on a vinyl, on Ken´s Audiographic records and on PNL.

Peter Brötzmann and I are working on titles for two releases on Clean Feed this spring/fall. One vinyl and one CD of material we recorded in Antwerp in August 2015. Quite a special session where Peter had bought his bass saxophone, contrabass clarinet as well as the usual horns. I had an extended drum kit which was extended with Korean gongs and other metal objects. The music is very different than what we’ve done before. We are going to a tour in Japan this April.

My PNL Records just released a duo recording with Frode Gjerstad done in the fall of 2016, Nearby Faraway. A brand new band that had its first concert in December 2016 - the Pan-Scan Ensemble - which consists of Ståle Liavik Solberg and myself plus Sten Sandell, Anna Högberg, Lotte Anker, Julie Kjær, Goran Kaifes, Emil Strandberg and Thomas Johansson, released its debut album on PNL, Air and Light and Time and Space.

There will also be a duo CD coming out with Otomo Yoshihide, a recording done in Moscow from a tour we did in May 2016. I also want to get going a series of 7” releases with various recordings from Brazil but that will have to wait till I have some funds on my account.

Can you tell about the challenges of an independent musician who runs his own label, manage festivals, book most of his performances, runs the tours and performs more than 200 dates every year?

Doing all this work means composing the music, printing the charts, keeping them between each concert and tours, setting tours, booking concerts, dealing with fees with presenters, booking travels, applying for financial support, doing accounts, etc etc… It’s enough work for two persons, full time, I’d say, but OK, no complaints. The challenge now is to set tours as the musicians are getting more and more busy with their own projects and gigs all over. On the end of 2016, I got an agent for the Large Unit, Riccarda Kato, and she has proved to be the right choice.

PNL Records has been a one-man business up until now. I am going to Krakow, Poland, to print the CD’s there since it’s cheaper that way and it gives me a day off with friends there. I am lucky to have Petter Flaten Eilertsen on board. He administrating my Bandcamp page and deals with the mail orders. Most of PNL CDs are produced in quantities of 500 or 1000, depending on predictions of sales. Some sell and some just don’t.

I pulled out of Oslo’s All Ears festival after last year’s festival. I had been running it for 15 years. To be honest, I didn’t feel the same joy as before, and for me that was a clear sign to leave it all to Guro Moe, who’s now running the festival in a great way. The Blow Out festival is still fun, more than fun and Ståle Liavik Solberg and I have a great time putting the program together and not least during the festival. We both do two sets during the festival and keep busy organizing the whole thing with help from some incredible volunteers.

I like playing and it also keeps me in shape :). If the year was 700 days, I’d play 500 gigs, I guess. I prefer to do at least 15-20 concerts per month and the thing is that the more I do it, the more I want to do it. As simple as that. There are still many musicians that I’d like to play with and time is limited, I’m afraid. So is the amount of venues to perform at. Europe is not that easy anymore. There are less clubs, less support for the clubs, more bands touring and more bands that are willing to play for less or even the door. But I’m still doing OK.

How do you manage to maintain such high levels of intensity and energy throughout so many performances and along the years?

For me, music is something serious BUT it’s also fun. And as Joe McPhee says, he takes having fun seriously. It’s important to have fun on stage. That said, it’s still serious. When entering the stage, it’s serious. It can be pleasant and it can be not so pleasant. You’re naked up there... There’s also the fact that people have paid to see and hear you and you can’t walk up on stage with the attitude that it’s just another gig and that you’ll repair whatever mistakes (if that’s how you think) on the next gig. It’s now or never. So, with the music we play, I feel it lies within the nature of the music. The music pushes you, you push the music, the musicians push you and hopefully you walk off stage in the same elevated feel that maybe or hopefully the audience is in. To me, music is a social experience and sometimes an out of the body experience where you loose control... and that kicks at least me into a set of mind where the sense of time or perception of time is gone and you go go go and there’s no way back. No time to think about what’s going on until it’s over... and still then you might not know what just happened.

The intensity feels natural for me. I can’t do anything 50% and for sure not music. It’s a cliché but you have to, and you should do, play the concert as if it was the last thing you did. How can you lie on your deathbed after doing a mediocre gig? You have to give 100% every night! The music gives you energy and not least, the people you play the music with should give you the same energy you’re putting into it. And from concert to concert, you’re also somehow depending on the audience's energy. It’s a situation where you give and receive on all levels. I can’t walk off stage without feeling this high energy level on every show.

You have maintained along the years a close circle of trusted musicians that you continued to play with - Frode Gjerstad, Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Ken Vandermark, Peter Brötzmann, Joe McPhee and Lasse Marhaug. What is so unique in such experiences?

I like the idea of first-time meetings and find it challenging and a learning experience and I would not want to be without these meetings. That said, I really enjoy working with bands and the same musicians over a long time. Most of the people I work with are quite active in many other groups and this feeds off to the groups I’m in and vice versa. The experience you get from one group rubs off in all other groups. You develop a language together and you go on expanding this more and more. The music gets deeper and deeper. I have my own rule that is this: you have to be surprised or experience something new from yourself, your band members on every concert, also, you have to experience something new between you and your band members. If this doesn’t happen, then it’s time to wrap it up. I’m not into doing the same tunes over and over again and don’t want routine to run the shows. Of course, you have your own language and you can’t avoid repeating yourself but one has to push things forward and further.

There are several key figures within the pool of musicians I work with and it’s all long-standing relationships; Ken, Peter, Mats, Frode, Ingebrigt, Terrie, Joe, and Lasse and whoever I forgot to mention. They are all very close friends and we all work very hard. We expect the most of each other as we do of ourselves.

You are known as a discaholic. How much does your vinyl collection weigh, compared with the Mats Gustafsson's 2.5 tons? Are you going to hunt vinyl in Ethiopia?

Mats has probably got the most complete record collection of free jazz, improvised music and in fact, mainstream jazz. He was out early when things were still cheap or affordable and not least before vinyl collecting became a business. And these days he’s trading vinyl and what not. I’m into vinyl for sure but it’s about the music. If I go to a country with a strong music tradition - which is why I go there anyway - I always search for record stores to take back music from the country I’m in. It can be CDs, cassettes, memory sticks with mp3 files of whatever. For me, it gives me the chance of extending the trip and all the experiences from whatever country. If in Ethiopia, yeah for sure, it’s great to have bought a few 7” vinyl singles but I also come back home with a bunch of tapes and whatnot but I love just extending every trip I do. I’ve got about a ton of vinyl records and CDs and cassettes from all over the world.


Captain Hate said...

Thanks for that excellent interview with one of the truly good guys of free jazz. Over ten years ago I noticed an open date in a late November Midwest/East coast tour of The Thing with Joe McPhee. I knew nothing about how to get a gig going but PNL was the contact person and was very helpful in walking me through what I had to do about contacting clubs and setting things up. The gig ended up happening which we both felt good about and, since he's a touring machine, he's easy to stay in touch with.