An Interview

Hilmar Jensson

This interview with Hilmar Jensson was conducted by email during November 2003.

Tony Reif: The music scene in Iceland is a pretty unusual one for such a small country, and of course it has gained a lot more attention in the last couple of years thanks to the success Sigur Ros (and before that of course Bjork). What if any is your connection to that post-rock/pop/ambient scene (or however you would describe it)? In a country of 300,000 people, is the music scene pretty cliquey or is there a lot of give-and-take?

HJ: The music scene in Iceland has really blossomed in the past few years and no-one really knows why there is so much activity and interesting stuff being made here. The country is so small and it is rather amazing to have a great number of bands, musicians and composers that are truly unique and have so much to offer on the international music scene.

The scene is a bit divided like in most countries BUT pretty much everyone who is doing “adventurous” music and trying to push the boundaries in any genre is aware of what other like-minded musicians are up to. There is much more cross-genre contact here than anywhere else I think. I don’t know or work with the “pop” musicians over here but I do work with and have a great relationship with most of the musicians that are on the fringe of all genres, be it rock, electronic, avant-garde, classical or whatever. We all have great admiration for each others’ work and almost feel that we have an obligation to support and inspire each other.

TR: What’s the story of your association with the more or less “underground” Icelandic labels Kitchen Motors and Bad Taste? Bad Taste is mainly an electronic/ambient/pop label, isn’t it? And Kitchen Motors is a multi-faceted arts collective doing all kinds of other things apart from releasing diverse and hard-to-categorize music.

HJ: Kitchen Motors is basically three people: Kohann Johannsson, Kristin Björk Kristjansdottir and myself. We started our collective about 5 years ago because we knew that so many musicians and other artists were doing similar things (aesthetically) but were separated by their genres. We basically wanted to unite all these interesting artists and get them to work together in different combinations. There proved to be great interest in this both from the artists and the public and after having done a few successful concerts and happenings it was obvious that we had to continue and also that we needed to release some of the music that was being made. So we became a label by accident.

We have a close “family” of artists that work with us most of the time and then others that work with us less frequently. The members of Sigur Ros, mum, Apparat Organ quartet, Trabant, Stilluppsteypa, Caput and many others have worked with us on many occasions. Also a great number of visual artists are in our “family” since visuals have always played an important role in our work.

We have also worked with a number of artists from outside of Iceland like Barry Adamson, Pan Sonic and Bruce Gilbert. But our focus has always been Icelandic artists.

TR: So what kinds of collaborations have you personally been involved in and what’s appeared on the label that has your name on it? Also what’s the collective currently up to?

HJ: Most of KM’s releases are compilations. I wrote a piece called Helvitis Guitar Symphony for 13 guitar players and played in that along with 12 others including Jonsi from Sigur Ros and Orvar and Kristin from mum. That piece is on a double compilation CD called Nart Nibbles. I am on a few other tracks on that CD as well with different people. On another compilation CD called Mororlab 1 I wrote a piece called Veltipunktur for guitar, electronics and a chamber orchestra (the Caput Ensemble).

Currently KM tours quite a bit, we recently did a festival in Belgium and then we had a exhibition in Russia a few weeks ago. Next week we’ll play in Huddersfield, England at the Ultrasound festival. Our next release is the soundtrack from a fantastic new Icelandic movie called Noi Albinoi.

Bad Taste (Smekkleysa) is a label started by the Sugarcubes and has released music of all genres and they approached me to record for them 5 or 6 years ago. I like working with them because of the fact that they are so open to music and continue to release whatever they like regardless of where it belongs in the musical spectrum. They are the ones that have “launched” most of the musicians and bands that since found a market outside of iceland: Björk, Sigur Ros, mum, Minus and pretty much everyone else started recording for Bad Taste.

TR: How do you see your records for Songlines (Tyft and now Ditty Blei) and the American musicians involved in those groups in relation to all this activity in Iceland but also in relation to the “downtown” NY jazz and improv scene which you also have a long connection with? You, Jim and Andrew go back a long way, to Boston and Brooklyn in the early to mid 90s. What about Herb and Trevor? How was the process of getting the music together with this band? Any surprises? There’s an interesting balance between the compositions, some of which are quite extended, and the solos/duos/group improvs; did this change much in rehearsal and during the recording?

HJ: When I started thinking about this record the line up was a little different even if the instrumentation was the same. As soon as I started to compose the music it became pretty obvious that I needed exactly these four musicians. I’ve known Andrew and Jim for a long time and knew that they would be just right for the music. I had of course listened to Trevor and Herb for years but I had also had to chance to play with them together with Jim, Andrew and others and there was such a great sound and feel between Trevor and Jim
that I knew it would make the grooves and feels that I was writing come alive. Herb and Andrew also had such an amazing way of playing together that I felt a strong need to “use” that sound in my tunes.

I have for a long time had a close relationship with the music and musicians of NY’s “downtown” scene. It is a VERY important part of my musical being. Even if I love doing many different things this is the core of my musical self. There are many interesting and exciting things happening in Iceland but in this particular field I am pretty much alone here. NY is where this style was “born” and where the strongest players are and it only seems natural for me to turn there when I need to realize my ideas. The fact that many of these musicians are my close friends makes the choice even more natural.

There were some surprises in the rehearsal process. First of all the music proved to be more complicated than I had realized! I knew what I had written of course but to me it was all melodies and grooves. I knew that some of the melodies were a bit complicated and the rhythms complex and the odd time signatures and time changes pre-dominant but I did not expect to it be this hard to get it together. I fortunately had surrounded myself with some of the best musicians in the world (in my view) so it all worked out. The fact that because of the DSD recording equipment that we used we could not make any overdubs made it even more crucial to have the music well rehearsed and it would have been disastrous with less-accomplished musicians than these four. All other surprises were pleasant ones. Like how much the sound and musicianship of everyone added to the tunes and how hard they worked at finding the right balance and transitions between the written material and the improvisations.

TR: Could you say something about whether/how the music of Ditty Blei, with its recognizably jazz line-up and approach (acoustic quartet + guitar) developed out of the acoustic + live electronics, largely improvised and subsequently collaged experiments of Tyft? In a more general way, how do you see jazz and what’s often called ambient music (although that covers a lot of different ground and a lot of different kinds of “fusions”) coming together in your music? Are there other musicians bringing jazz and different kinds of new music together who have inspired you? Not to get into contentious definitions, but what does jazz mean to you these days and where do you see it going?

HJ: I don’t think that Ditty Blei is a continuation of Tyft, really. I think of it more as a reaction to it perhaps! Since Tyft was so improv/electronic I felt the need to do something more structured and composed. The people that have inspired me are mostly the ones that I’ve worked with, those that are on the CD plus, Chris Speed, Skuli Sverrisson, Eyvind Kang and Tim Berne to name a few. But there are others that inspire me too like Jim O´Rourke, Kevin Drumm and many others.

TR: I was wondering where the rhythmic complexities, the odd meters (often changing during a piece) came from, and for that matter the interesting harmonic language. I can see where Chris Speed’s de/re-constructions of Balkan and other folk/dance music might have inspired you but the effect in your hands is quite different.

HJ: My interest in odd meters and rhythmic complexities goes far back and I can’t really remember how it got started! It wasn’t the Balkan thing though. I was starting to write this type of rhythmic material when I lived in NY and Chris and the others had just started to be fascinated by Balkan music. For some reason I was fascinated by having meters change all the time, bar by bar, which is very different from the folk music were the odd meters are always consistent throughout the piece. I wanted the music to “limp” a bit! Whatever that means! Even on my first CD Dofinn the tunes are in constantly shifting meters.

As far as the harmonic language goes I think that Tim Berne as well as Chris, Andrew and many others had a strong impact on my writing. Jazz doesn’t mean anything to me anymore! It serves no purpose really and it is way too broad to define and that is good. I think all these different genres are melting into one indefinable style of music with plenty of room for variations and no need to be ANYTHING except for good and interesting.

TR: A question for guitarists: what equipment do you use and what do you try to get out of it regarding timbre, effects etc.? There’s so much to choose from these days, but it seems to me that your aesthetic is pretty distinctive and well-defined. How did you establish your sound and style?

HJ: My equipment is fairly basic and has been pretty much the same for many years. A Yamaha SA800 electric that I’ve had for almost 20 years. My acoustic guitar is a Lowden F10.

I have an old Fender Super Reverb amplifier and a small Trace Elliot for the acoustic guitar.

My effects that I always use are a DOD volume pedal, Klon Centaur overdrive, Rat distortion pedal and Lexicon JamMan that use as a delay only. I also have a few other effects that I occasionally use like a Boss octaver and Moogerfooger ring modulator.

I’m not much of a “gear-head” but enjoy good-sounding equipment as much as the next guy.

I am very into using preparations and extended techniques on the guitar though. I use bows, alligator clips, mini-fans, screws, e-bow, drumsticks, a snare and various other things.

I don’t know if I have a sound or a style yet, it feels like a work in progress. But everything that I’ve done so far has in one way or another molded me as a musician and I have made a conscious effort to try to develop myself “from the inside-out” so to speak and rely on my musical ideas and visions rather than seeking too much influence from elsewhere. There are however many musicians that have deeply affected my playing and I guess anyone who listens closely can tell who they are!

TR: Aw, c’mon, who are your heroes? I don’t hear many of the usual jazz influences (Metheny, Frisell, Scofield, Abercrombie) in your playing but I’m definitely not a jazz guitar expert. Perhaps some avant-rock players (Zappa?) have influenced you more?

HJ: All of the guitar players that you mentioned were HUGE influences on me. Especially Frisell and Scofield! I guess a lot has happened since and hopefully their influences on me are not too blatant. But I basically learned how to play through listening to those guys and others (like Wes Montgomery for instance). I did however quite early on get “fed up” with the guitar and sought inspiration more from other instrumentalists, particularly Miles, Jarrett, Ornette, Zorn, Paul Motian and others.

The avant-rock influence is quite recent. I have of course followed the blooming Chicago scene with great interest for the past few years and that has led me to check out some other stuff that I had never heard before. My Bloody Valentine, Blonde Redhead, Gastr Del Sol, Talk Talk and Radiohead are some of the rock bands that I enjoy listening to. But my eyes (and ears) have also opened up to a lot of composed, improvised  and electronic music in the past 7-8 years. Some important figures in those fields for me are Mats Gustafsson, Günter Müller, Bernard Günter, Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, Luc Ferrari and on and on.

TR: Where does this particular quintet and its music go from here? I know you’re planning to tour it, are you also writing for it or is it more a question of working with the material on the record?

HJ: I feel like I’m not finished with this project. Of course I hope (and plan) to tour with the group. We have only played one gig together and it was soooo amazing it really feels like a band! I plan on writing more music for this group and hope to be able to make another recording with these musicians.