(Photo Credit: Anthony P. Huus)
Originally formed in 1994 while they were just teenagers, the Norwegian experimental jazz band Jaga Jazzist has been a family affair, led by siblings Lars, Martin and Line Horntveth. While the band originally had more of the hip-hop feel to it, Jaga Jazzist has come a long way in their 20-plus years, and transformed into a wonderful sound that stretches their own limitations experimenting into those areas where the ideals of jazz, prog-rock, hip-hop and electronic music continually bend and weave through each other.
With a steady body of work under their belt over the past couple decades, Jaga Jazzist recently released their newest album Starfire on the renowned Ninja Tune Records imprint. Lars Horntveth, after moving from Oslo to Los Angeles a few years back, took more of deliberate approach into crafting Starfire, but its results recount electronic influenced jazz of previous eras but with a modern twist.
Recently, I was able to chat with Lars Horntveth about the band's sound, and how complicated it is to make music with siblings before their upcoming show at the Electric Forest Festival in Rothbury, Michigan.
You guys have been around for over 20 years. When you look back to those early years, what are some of your fondest memories?
I think what's cool actually with this band is that its been five of us that's has been in the band from the beginning and those five are of course my brother and sister, and also the vibraphone player and the bass player. We've basically known each other for way longer than we started. It's a pretty deep connection. Jaga has always been very focused on getting as much as we can do with this band, but it's also been very focused also doing a lot of other projects. It's more like a steady curve upwards, in my opinion, but slowly getting somewhere. Basically, what's cool with Jaga is traveling to bunch of cities I would never go if it weren't for the band. That's the fun part about this band is the live playing and just hanging out.
How do feel like the band has progress in these 20-plus years?
When we started out with the first album we did when I was 15 years old, that was like a rap/hip-hop kind of album. A lot of things changed when we started working with our producer Jørgen Træen. We started with him in 1999 and that was a huge change of how we thought about the band's music and how it was supposed to sound basically. The production was completely turned around. That was super inspiring to work with him and think about the studio as a place where you really can explore and make stuff that you basically can not do live in a way. What we did after that was try to copy what we did on the album as much as we could and that turned into a way of thinking about the live set, which was totally different than before. The band's motto or policy has always been to try to make an album which is the opposite basically of the previous one. That's always been what we tried to do, and that's almost impossible in a way. It's still a good goal. That's what I'm still thinking now when I make music. For this new album, it's very much done in a way that's the opposite of the previous two albums. Those two albums were totally written down in scores, rehearsed for months and months in Oslo, and played almost everything live in the studio. This album is much more like an album where we're thinking more in terms of remixing at the same time as you make the music. Its an album where we haven't rehearsed at all before we started, so after a year or something working with this music, I started getting "one on one" person from the band to come to Los Angeles and do their parts, but not only doing their parts, much more like being part of producing the album. It's actually a better band feeling this time in a way because everyone is more involved in the music than before. It's difficult when there are so many people in the band. We rehearse at my studio in Oslo and its quite big, but we have so much stuff. It gets loud and noisy, and for everyone to actually understand what we are doing, it's quite hard. It's actually much easier to make an album where you listen to studio speakers and understand what you are doing. It's been a lot of fun making this album.
Going into this album, what sort of sound were you striving for?
Like an opposite of the previous album, more like a flirt with late 60s/early 70s prog in a way. I think this album us a little bit darker and I wanted to be much more synthetic and electronic, also with a beat. The beats on this album are a little bit more straightforward. Not as phonetic as we have done before. I wanted it to be a longer trip, that every song is a journey. I really love the concept of making music that is filmatic in a way. I tried to do this album to make the songs longer so it can spread out all the melodies instead of having everything on top of each other all the time. That's basically the reason the songs are long. The fun part about making songs like that is how the dynamics work. If you have a really intense build up to a chorus, then after that, you need something that is much more sparse, a lot of room to get to the next place where there's a lot of stuff that's happening. Just finding those curves in a way. The songs react to each other also in that sense. For example, the third song is like an acoustic guitar, almost hippy guitar thing, and if I made that song not as a part of an album, and didn't think of the album as a whole, that sound would probably be much shorter. Since the first two songs on the album are pretty intense, then I think we needed much longer intro, much more quiet, to balance the album out. The same thing with the last song on the album. We actually did that song in a live version with a symphony orchestra, but this version is much more stretched out because it comes from this other song, which is super intense. I find stuff like that interesting. It's kind of old school in a way to think about albums in that way, but I love listening to classic albums which are thought out in that way. It's quite difficult though, because the songs are that long, so its not much you can do with the sequencing of the songs on the album. That's the reason you have to do those dynamic curves inside the songs instead of the track listing.
You moved to Los Angeles a few years ago. Why did you move?
It started as just a vacation actually. I went here with a friend. Both of us had super sketchy, not really good relationships at the time, so we were like okay, lets go to LA, celebrate Christmas, and relax for a month. Then, during that period, I was looking at my calendar, I just mixed and edited the live album we did. I just finished that a couple days before I left and I was like 'What should I do now?' I basically understood from the rest of the band that if we're going to do another album, we can't do it the way it was done before with rehearsing for four months, because five other guys in the band have kids and it used to be really difficult to get everyone together to do rehearsal in Oslo, although everyone live in Oslo. That has always been a challenge, but now with the kids and everything, its even more challenging. I was just thinking if we're going to do this album, I just basically have to do most of it myself, then bring in the other guys after a while. The move to LA was really looking at the calendar and seeing the next six months there is not really anything I have to do back in Oslo. I can actually be here and write, and I write for other people as well. I'm doing a lot of orchestra arrangements for symphonies in Norway. That's a side job for me. I brought all the work I had over here and started working with this album and also producing a couple other bands bringing them over to Los Angeles instead, which everyone loves basically because its summertime. That's also part it of course; skip the whole winter thing in Norway, which is brutal. I guess you know about that in Michigan; kind the same thing. It's funny actually so many people from Scandinavia moved to Michigan, the promised land. Let's go to an even colder place!
With having so many family members in the band, what sort of dynamic does that bring?
Its pretty weird the whole thing. Me and my brother have always quarreled and fighting like crazy. He's a very big part of Jaga Jazzist. I think he's a fantastic drummer. He's a very creative person, great composer. He hasn't made any music for Jaga since 2001 or something, so he's been focusing on mostly soundtrack music or orchestral stuff. He's great at that. Being the younger brother and having my older brother and sister in the band is kind of weird. Me and my brother are fighting all the time. That's also a big part of why we did this album this way like "one on one", instead of being with the band in the rehearsal space because since we're fighting all the time, a lot of the time its not constructive at all. For the other guys to be there and listening to this bullshit between me and him, and we're kind of crazy both of us, so its not a creative atmosphere. So, that's a reason I wanted to do this, this way. We've been fighting on this album as well, me and my brother, but then it's been me and him and not the whole band together. It's been a much better process in that way. That said, the only times we fight or have big discussions is when we make music in the studio or rehearsing. When we're on tour, we're working with a bunch of other things together, that's a totally different thing. That's the social thing; it's very different from the studio setting. It's actually really nice. We're touring and hanging out. It's really nice between us. It's not like the Oasis brothers or something.
For those going to the Electric Forest Festival, Jaga Jazzist plays at The Hangar from 10:30pm-12am on Thursday, June 25th. For more information on Jaga Jazzist, visit jagajazzist.com.