This interview with Mikkel Ploug, Sissel Vera Pettersen and Joachim Badenhorst was conducted by email during August 2014.
Tony Reif: It’s 3 years since your last release, Walking Voices. What’s been happening with the group during this time? Have there been any obvious changes in the music or the way the collective operates, its group dynamics? Two of you live in Copenhagen but you, Joachim, are based in Antwerp and are involved in a lot of projects, both jazz-based and in other areas contemporary music. Would each of you say that Equilibrium’s music has been affected much by your musical lives outside the group during that time?
Mikkel Ploug: We have all been very busy touring and recording with other groups in the last few years, so we are definitely incorporating elements from all these experiences into Equilibrium today. But we are more experienced musicians today. All of us have toured, travelled and worked with so many musicians since we did the first two records, and I guess we have grown older and (perhaps) wiser. But essentially I believe we still look for the same goal – to melt our sounds into something that moves us.
Sissel Vera Pettersen: Yes, I think everything we experience will have some sort of influence on our musicality and way of playing, but our signatures are still the same. So you still hear our distinctive sound, it just contains more lived life. (I have had two children during the last 4 years, which also reflects in my musicality on a deeper level. That might not be noticeable for others, but for me it has been quite significant.)
Joachim Badenhorst: Since the last released I have relocated back to Europe. But I still move around a lot, and these impressions definitely affect me musically and otherwise. Besides starting new collaborative projects, I have been focusing on more seriously developing my solo language in the last couple years. I am not sure if all this adds up to a significant influence on the way this record sounds.
TR: Mikkel, you mentioned that this recording marks something of a return to the feel of the first release (the one titled Equilibrium, before the group had that name). I can hear that in the first half or so, where some of the your compositions in particular might remind listeners of pieces from the first record, but the last third especially seems freer in a way that I think sounds more like the second record. Of course, that balance between composed pieces and more soundscape-like extended improvs has been a hallmark of the group from the beginning. So I’m wondering what exactly you meant, and also whether there was anything substantially different this time in how you approached the recording process.
MP: We talked about going more in the direction of the spacious sound of the first album. And my contributions like “Praha” and “Sweep” are more in the vein of our first album. And like with the first record, we mixed in Oslo at Rainbow Studio with Jan Erik Kongshaug, which keeps it closer to the first album in the mix also.
TR: Jan Erik is of course best known for his many recordings for ECM; I know you’re fans of his mixing style and his reverbs. And the mixes are beautiful. Tell us a bit about the process of mixing the record. Did you have a sound in your minds for this record before you got there, and did it end up just as you’d planned?
MP: Yes, we had the sound of our first album in mind, but if possible an even better, upgraded 2014 version of that. He is indeed a master, and working with him was exactly as we knew it was going to be. He immediately gets what we are hoping to achieve and executes it to perfection.
SVP: We wanted the music to be wrapped in his particular sound. So mixing with him is basically about leaning back and letting him do his magic.
TR: Critics have reached for words like “serenity” to try and describe the vibe of your music, although there are certainly many moments that are far from serene, pieces that might more accurately be described by words like grotesque, uncanny. But maybe at both ends of this spectrum there’s an attempt to evoke and perhaps even enter (in performance) altered states of consciousness? One critic called your first record a ritual. I’m tempted to bring up the dreaded notion of “new age” to try and get a handle on this aspect of the music, which suggests to me an unconventional (pagan? pantheistic?) spiritual dimension, one that can’t really be reduced to cliché terms like psychedelic or explained by the more superficial aspects of drug experiences. Is this something you talk about? Or the yoking together of wide-ranging influences from traditional music from different parts of the world, from cultures with perhaps a less materialistic worldview than our own, but at the same time using our technology (such as electronics) and the languages of contemporary art/popular music and the process of improvisation as a sort of a crucible to stir everything together in?
Is creation in the moment a key element in this music? Is there an aspect of mindfulness, of being present in the music?
MP: What can I say, we have three crocked minds, and when they come together this stuff happens!
One thing that keeps things a little “outside the box” is that we are really very very different as musicians. When we’re not playing together in Equilibrium we do very different things, so in some ways the line-up is an odd one. And we are not really working the same circuits outside this band, so somehow Equilibrium stays weird and unique to us, and hopefully to listeners too.
A huge part of what makes this trio unique is that we bring totally different things to the table, using an unorthodox instrumentation as well.
It might be a blunt reference, but I think the magic of Miles’ 60s quintet was partly due to the fact that everyone had such a strong, yet very different voice. We’re an unusual group of people really. It’s not the obvious choice! And I think what we achieve together in the trio is to leave half of our usual selves on the doorstep and keep the other half open to go with the others. So it becomes an open dialog of the three different worlds we represent musically. Often none of us knows what will come next – it’s a very undefined sound for us, still, after all these years of playing together.
SVP: What makes this trio so dear to me is the fact that making music together feels very fluent and in the moment. It´s like a good conversation, you just dive into it without a fixed idea of where it will lead, and along the way it twists and turns in its own organic shapes and with its own dynamics. You might touch on themes that surprise you, and that you didn´t even think of before, without really knowing how you ended up there. To me that’s the best place in music, when it all melts together into one flowing energy, and you become one with each other, the music and the now.
About 50% of the music on this album is improvised in the moment: “Eupnea”, “Totemic” (I & II), “Respire”, “Air”, “Motels Mono”, “Hiro” and “Statolith”. In my solo “Respire” I wanted to work with the sound of the sustained voice, to build chords and soundscapes without the use of loops, more like improvising on a piano. I sang/improvised arpeggios, using a very long reverb, so that all the tones of each arpeggio would be sustained and make chords. It’s absolutely about being present – almost like a meditation. And that goes for all of our improvs, I would say.
JB: In the moments when we improvise I strive for a sense of “unknowing”, to enter the conversation with a blank state of mind and just go along with the energy flow, like making a painting together on a blank canvas. That is of course an ideal, to reach such a selfless awareness. Sometimes when Mikkel and Sissel set up their loops in a certain “tribal” atmosphere, then it does provoke some images in my head, and I feel as if I’m playing in a particular setting, as if I am part of a group ritual in a remote village, as if my clarinet was a ney or a shakuhachi. That’s not something we discuss beforehand, nor do we talk about it afterwards. One of the improvs we did, which didn’t make the final cut, reminds me a lot of pygmy songs. Since we are all busy with our own lives and musical projects/interests, it seems only natural that our music flows through some of these different themes, along with layered nuances that drift in and out of these atmospheres.
TR: So what’s next for the group?
MP: Continue to perform live, work on new pieces. And perhaps work with some guest musician, as we have often toyed with the idea of seeing what happens to the group if joined by someone else.
JB: I would love to tour in Canada with this trio!!