"If we were a soda, we’d be a soda with pepper and ginger." A humorous, insightful, and honest discussion with the founding keyboardist of Gazpacho, Norway's leading prog storytellers.
Above: Press photo from Gazpacho.com
Formed nearly 20 years ago by Jon-Arne Vilbo, Thomas Andersen, and Jan-Henrik Ohme, Norwegian sextet Gazpacho currently stands as one of the most unique, talented, and consistently impressive bands in the progressive rock landscape. Often revered for their sorrowful storytelling, inimitable arrangements, and overall bold vision, the group’s releases are always met with plenty of anticipation and praise. Their eight LP, Demon, was just released, and it’s another masterpiece, to put it bluntly. I recently spoke with Anderson (via Skype) about the record, the band, and his freeing yet earnest outlook on life.
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Demon seems to be more nuanced and less immediately accessible than your last record, March of Ghosts, which isn’t to say that it’s not as good. I think it just takes more listens to fully grasp. Do you agree?
Oh, absolutely. As I said in the press release for it, it’s more complicated than usual. It was an adventure and a bold move because we’re at a point now in our career where we can have medium sized tours and it all makes sense financially. Sometimes we’re just really scared of screwing things up, but then we thought that our fan base tends to be serious enough about the music to try to listen to something five or ten times to get into it. The album is definitely a grower.
These are people who are very interested in music, or else they wouldn’t have heard about us. If you’ve heard of Gazpacho, you’re someone who is browsing specialized music websites, and you’re of a certain age and level of—well, not education but you know enough music that you’re probably listening to classical music too. If you can handle that, you can handle a progressive rock piece like Demon, although I hesitate to use that term. Would you call it progressive rock?
Well, I guess it fits in some ways, but I think that Gazpacho is one of the few bands that truly doesn’t sound like anyone else. I’ve been covering music for almost a decade, and while I love the genre, I get tired of hearing bands who are just emulating each other. It’s like, “Oh, okay. This band is copying King Crimson and Gentle Giant.” I still dig the music, but I recognize how unoriginal the genre can be these days. Gazpacho is an exception to the norm.
Thank you. Back in 1996 or 1997, I had a girlfriend who worked at Universal Music, and they had these things called Dat Tapes. They were like little cassettes. They had a room full of demos, but they never listened to them. They won’t listen to something you send in the post. Or they’d put it on, listen for a few seconds, and then just mention the band they were copying and throw it away immediately.
I used to go there to get free tapes [laughs], but it made a strong impression on me. The moment you hear who someone is emulating, you instantly loose interest in them, right? If I want to hear a Pink Floyd album, I’ll get one. Why listen to someone emulating them? They won’t be as good, anyway.
So I used to push very hard within the group. I’d say, “Well if we’re copying someone, we’re not doing much at all.” It’ll always just be a pastiche of the band being copied.
That’s true. I hear so much music these days that sounds like imitation Dream Theater. I love Dream Theater, but I don’t want to hear a hundred bands that try to imitate them. That’s why I dig what you guys do so much. It’s a rare gift.
That’s one of our strongest points, I think. I appreciate it.
Ahat’s the concept behind Demon? Is the album simply one piece broken into parts?
I once read that there are 20 million bands working on albums at any given moment, which means at there are conceivably about 100 million people working on songs and releasing them on CD or vinyl or whatever. I always thought that if we were going to make an album and ask for 45 minutes of your time, I better have a damn good reason for it. To spend yourtime on my stuff. It needs to be something that hopefully hasn’t been done before; at the very least, it needs to be interesting.
In the case of Demon, and of all our albums after a certain point, we decided to do loose stories that are written in very open way because your main interests are probably different than mine. If I break up with my girlfriend and my heart is broken, that interests me a hell of a lot, but it might not interest you as someone else living on the other side of the earth. You’ve got your own life and your own problems, so the songs are written with the hope that they can create a mental state within the listener that he or she can dream their own life into. The lyrics are certainly about something—I think some of them are very good about being about something [laughs], but they’re always meant to be loose enough so that if you just lost your dog, for example, it could be about that too if you wanted it to be.
It’s all about my respect for other people’s time. You’re main area of interest when you listen to music is bound you be yourself, because it’s a private moment. You’re spending time in your own head, and you’ve probably got a hell of a lot of stuff going on in your life and in your mind. Stuff you need to digest and think about. Worries, problems, and yeah, happy things too. That’s what you probably want to spend your time on, and that’s why the albums tend to be conceptual and the way they are. Does that make any sense?
Of course. I totally agree with you. I love concept albums, and specifically I love conceptual continuity, like when a melody from one song reappears again 20 minutes later. I’m still discovering these moments on your last two LPs.
I think those are powerful moments because it confirms that we’re still in the same story. I love it too.
So what is Demon about?
Well, I’ll quickly run through the story. I talked to my dad a couple of years ago, and he’s very old. He’s about 83. In the middle of our conversation, he said that there seemed to be this air of darkness or ill will working throughout history and in people’s lives. That sort of creeped me out, and then I saw a really bad film called Insidious later that year. Have you seen it?
Yes, although I don’t remember too much about it.
There’s a scene in it in which there’s a demon in the man’s office and he’s sharping his very long nails. He’s listening to Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe through the Tulips”. He was so happy that bad stuff was going on, and it got me thinking about how if something bad is happening and you aren’t gaining anything from it, yet it still pleases you and makes you smile, well, that’s a fascinating mindset. I have no idea what my dad meant by it, but I think there’s an element of truth to what he said. I later asked him to elaborate on it, but he really didn’t.
He told me about a story he heard when he was in Prague in the '70s, about an empty apartment. No one was living in it yet someone found a manuscript about a guy who’d been stalking an evil presence. No one knew if he died or disappeared or what, but that’s what he wrote. For centuries on earth. An evil will working in nature. The manuscript was like a diary; it had calculations and things.
Obviously the man was crazy, but the thought of that manuscript and this guy who thought he’d found the source of this force of darkness really got to me. I went to the band and said, “What if we make an album which would be the diary of this guy. We’ll make the diary and imagine it and make a concept album about it. We’ll base it around evil.” So that’s the long answer. The short answer is that Demon is about evil and our internal demons. Everyone has them.
Unfortunately, I think you’re right.
There’s a bonus track for the album called “The Cage”. It’s about this nagging feeling that I get—and I’m not going to speak for you or anyone else—but I sometimes get this feeling like I’m not good enough. It says, “You can’t speak French. You’ll never make it. You’re not good looking. You’re not a rock star.” I think that that voice is another demon in my mind, and everyone has something like that.
So the album is about two things: the actual fact of what we now call “evil”, which is a redundant term anyway, since the old fashioned, secular world idea of God and the devil is sort of gone now. It’s about bad stuff happening in the world and throughout history, but also about the demons we have inside us. Hopefully, it’s designed so that you can philosophize about the concept of evil, but you can also stand up to your own demons.
I can completely empathize with that. I have that sorrowful, nagging feeling every day, as if whatever I’ve accomplished so far is meaningless and I’ll never do more.
You feel like you’re wasting your life and you aren’t getting anywhere and progress is slow and you should have done more. Are you working hard enough? There’s all this stuff. It’s like there’s seven billion other people, so who are you? Just a grain of sand. I think everyone has this going on.
Yeah, and I think creative minds probably suffer with it more than others. It’s comforting knowing that you know what it’s like, too.
I do. I mean, we aren’t rock stars in this band. We’re regular guys with regular jobs. That’s one of our strengths. I’m living the same life you’re living. We’re the same. I’m not living on tour, which is what some of these guys do. When you’re on tour, life is a bubble, and when you’re in the studio, life is a bubble. That’s the life of a rock star, and I think that regular guys have more interesting things to say about life.
Totally. Part of the frustration of doing what I do is that I speak to people who aren’t nearly as famous or successful as other musicians, but they’re infinitely more talented and worthwhile. It’s depressing.
Yeah, but it shouldn’t bother you too much. Music is a product, so like with all products if you’re going to sell something on a big scale, you need to streamline it and have a huge marketing force behind it. You need to have cash to push it. If we were a soda, we’d be a soda with pepper and ginger; you know, something that would never sell large amounts anyway, so no one would back us and make us big. We’re all happy with that, though.
I think that the people who would want to discover us probably already have because they’ve decided to make music a big part of their lives. They’ve already gone on the internet, and thank god for the internet. If you watch a video on YouTube, you’ll be offered maybe five other bands, and we might be on there, so that’s good. I think we’re being found by the people who want to find us.
I’m always happy to see the press you guys get. I think it’s the struggle every artist faces: would you rather keep your artistic integrity and vision, or sell out to be famous and rich by being generic and easy to take?
We meet a lot of the fans at the gigs and we always talk to them. That’s always interesting and fun, and I notice that I’m having really good conversations with them because they’re unique people. I’d rather have those experiences than play big stadiums.
As for cash, I make enough in my day job, which is making jingles and music for films and commercials in Norway. I don’t need any more. It’s funny to think that I can make more money in one day, with a car ad, than I will with a Gazpacho album. That’s a huge, huge job to do, whereas a car ad might take me two hours or so.
There’s something else driving me other than financial gain. Also, although it doesn’t sound like it [laughs], making those records keeps me happy. I’m a happy guy. I have a great time at it because everything fascinates me. I’m always looking for new stuff and new ideas to write about, and I keep getting them. I’ve got some really strange ideas for an album now, like recording the manuals for vacuum cleaners. They’d be the most beautiful songs you’ve ever heard but they’d be about instruction workbooks. I think that that could be a fun side project.
It’d be quite the juxtaposition.
If you can imagine Jeff Buckley singing “Hallelujah” it’d be with that kind of conviction. It’d be so weird. If I found out it existed, I would buy it just to hear what the hell it sounded like.
Absolutely. It’s something that most people wouldn’t get, but those who do would cherish it. So how would you compare Demon to previous work? I’ve read that you think it’s more complex, which I can see, too.
Yeah, musically it’s more complex, and we pulled off some things that I thought would be quite difficult. For example, the parts with the old 78 gramophone recording. We managed to play along to this woman singing a song called “Have you news of my boy Jack?” which is based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling. He wrote it about his son, who went missing during World War I. I wanted to use sections from that because the deaths from World War I were just so stupid. It was such a meaningless event; there was no point in these guys running off like they’re going to a party, but they wind up dying in the mud. I certainly think the demon was there, don’t you?
It makes sense, sure.
Pulling that off was exciting. I thought that using sections of that beneath a traditional rock section of the track was interesting and difficult to pull off. Also, the last song on the record, Death Room" has dissonant chords and very strange changes, and I remember that when we were making it we said, “Well, that’s the end of the band, guys. We’re done.”
Lyrically, it’s a difficult album because they can be difficult to understand. Every chord and lyric has a meaning, like how there are no deals about death. What’s done is done and you can’t change what’s happened. Elsewhere, the demon comes in and gives you a wakeup call about the fact that there is no holy land or mantra to save you. I suppose he’s the guy we talked about earlier, who says, “You may hope that God will greet you with open arms at the end, but really you’ll just be gone. Have a nice evening.”
It jumps all the time, which makes it challenging lyrically. And again, it’s open-ended. The lyrics will mean something different for you than they do for me. It doesn’t matter to anyone else what they mean to me, and all of these lines together will create a story that’s unique to you, based on your life and your experiences. That’ll be the best listening session for this album that you can have.
The poeticism and universality of it makes it so artistic. It’s an experience.
Last night I was having drinks with my girlfriend and we put on Close to the Edge by Yes. It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to it. I imagine that you know that album well; I used to listen to it when I was seventeen or eighteen and I’d go into the woods to smoke cigarettes. It struck me how similar the lyrics of Jon Anderson are. They’re incredible open-ended, and he’s always been mocked because his lyrics are so bad. I mean, if I ask you what you think “Heart of the Sunrise” from Fragile is about, you probably have your own interpretation.
Sure. His words are extremely spiritual, so it’s a reflection on the person who hears it if they can connect with it, or if they just dismiss it as too fanciful and silly.
It’s very visual, and if we wanted to make fun of him, we could easily do it. We would laugh our heads off if we wanted to take them that way, so you have accept that he’s going to say some strange stuff. If you try to get into it, you might have a good time and you might learn something.
You can always make fun of something and put it down, especially with people who open themselves up like he does. But if you give him a chance, he’s got something to offer. I get a lot of satisfaction from most of the Yes albums, and of course it’s because of the mix of music and words. When they get a great fit, it’s beautiful. Of course, sometimes I’m not sure what it’s about, but if I like it, I like it. It’s that simple.
And Gazpacho’s vocals are very unique, especially with the harmonies and falsettos. You can grasp the emotion without necessarily knowing what the lyrics are or what they mean.
It’s the same thing. It would very easy to make fun of it. A lot of people have said that our singer was a girl around the time of our first album. It is what it is and if people don’t like it, that’s fine.
I’m not sure why they would have an issue. Jan-Henrik Ohme has such a distinctive voice.
He grew up loving The Rolling Stones, so that’s where he got his falsettos from, and then he moved into all sorts of weird music. There’s an Old World air about him, as well as a Berlin vaudevillian thing. Sometimes it’s almost like a musical when he lets himself go. It’s a very particular sound for a rock album, and it’s a very recognizable voice, at least to me. It’s capable of carrying very strong emotions.
I think a lot of prog bands dismiss the importance of vocals because they’ve got these very strong egos between the guitarist and the keyboardist and the drummer. They’ll say, “Okay, finish your singing because I’ve got a solo coming up. Get it done. We’re all waiting for the guitars to start.” That’s such a shame because in my experience, I think 99 percent of people listen to the vocals, and maybe just the vocals. Most people probably can’t tell the difference between a bass guitar and a six-stringed guitar.