"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.
All That's Needed Is One of Those Stage Hypnotists
That’s what makes bands like Gazpacho—which are really most of the bands on Kscope—so exceptional. You guys aren’t interested in speed or flashiness. It’s all about serving the vibe and message of the track.
It gets repetitive, and when I do listen to stuff like Dream Theater, which I rarely do, it is fun to hear how amazing these guys are with their instruments. But that’s a bit like going to the circus and seeing how someone can balance 18 plates at once. It’s great, but it’s not what I’m looking for all the time.
I think that’s really true with music, which I think is still the shortcut to the soul. You can go to your shrink and talk to them, but music can also get in there and do stuff. I’m sure it applies to you as well. You know how powerful music can be, and I think it’s the closest thing we have to magic. That may sound a little goofy, but it’s really a shortcut into someone’s emotions.
It can definitely be more than just sounds and vocals and lyrics. It can change your life.
It really can, and trains of thought are like that, too. You could have calm thoughts for a moment and then jump to something very heavy a second later. It could flutter all over the place, and “Death Room” is very much like that because we wanted to get inside the mind of the demon. I would imagine that a demon has very quiet moments while also having moments of wild anger.
We wanted to make it very dynamic and change quickly, which has probably confused some listeners, but not as many as we thought. And I want to take back what I said about this being our most complicated record, because we’ve met people who think it’s not complicated at all. They say that it’s one of the catchier records we’ve made. We didn’t think it was [laughs].
March of Ghosts had a profound effect on me, especially the opening of the last track, when the first riff on the album comes back and things come full circle. It made me smile.
It’s a warm feeling when things come back again. It’s like “I’ve been on a trip and I can see my house again.”
I really admire that about the way you guys compose. You’ll throw in a couple measures with horns and then another timbre for a few seconds. Sometimes it ventures into new genres for a few moments. It’s always changing, and it’s very bold. I can understand why some people wouldn’t “get it”, but that’s what makes it special.
Yeah. Our violin player was on a website—he plays Irish violin in an Irish folk group on the weekends—and he was in this forum for people who are into that music. "Mary Celeste" came up and someone called it, “The most unfortunate version of Irish jigs ever made” because it broke a hell of a lot of rules. They have a hell of a lot of rules for how to play these jigs, and we broke every one of them [laughs]. It was funny because they just murdered it. They said it was an insult to folk music and Ireland and everything. We had a great time reading that one.
You have to take the negativity with a grain of salt, of course. The people that appreciate it cherish it. To me, it’s life-affirming; I feel happy knowing that music like this is being made. It’s that simple.
They’re happy discoveries. It was like that with me as a kid when I would discover bands, and then I realized that there are other people who feel like I do. At first you feel like you’re special and maybe alone with it, there are lots of people like you. You’re a novel person.
My father turned me onto early Genesis and Jethro Tull when I entered high school. I remember trying to get my friends to listen to A Passion Play. Again, a lot of people just couldn’t appreciate it, which is their loss.
Oh, yeah. It’s a fantastic album. Did you ever listen to The Chateau D'isaster Tapes, you know, the first attempt at that album? It’s a great album too, and I can’t understand why they scrapped it. A Passion Play was a big deal for me when I was around 17. I used to listen to it on my way to school every day. It’s mind-blowing. My favorite part is the piano intro [sings opening lines]. That’s got some vaudeville musical touchesm as well.
It’s so far removed from even Thick as a Brick, its immediate predecessor. It’s more artistic and experimental.
The problem was that Thick as a Brick took off immediately. It was huge, even in America. They were filling stadiums at that point, and after writing something like that, whatever you do next is going to be heavily judged and ridiculed. People will automatically think it’s a step down, so then they made The Chateau D'isaster Tapes, which was great but they were unsure about it so they dropped it. As you said, they made A Passion Play as artistic as they were allowed to by the record company, because if it failed and people said, “You’re new record is shit,” they would’ve just said, “Well, it was an experiment in art.” That’s how they got away with it and were able to move on.
You write most of the updates on the websites, right? You’re the spokesman, and it’s endearing to see how open you are about what’s going on behind the scenes, what you guys like to do, etc. There are so many musicians who don’t seem to care at all about having an open line of communication with their fans. They’re too secluded; for example, there are so many Facebook sites run by other people. They’ll write about the artist in the third person, and it’s very hard to get in touch with the actual person. How important do you think it is to be available to the public?
I think it’s very important. For one thing, we’re regular people and we want to be seen as regular people. We don’t want to be seen as rock stars. Like I said earlier, I’m just like you. I’m a normal guy. Once we get rid of that whole rock star thing, we can talk to each other like normal people. I want the Facebook updates to be something people want to know about.
I think a glimpse into the lives of the people making the music is great; I still go on people’s websites sometimes; for example, I used to love going on Kate Bush’s website and reading about her summer vacations. I don’t need to know intimate details, but I like to know what you’re up to as you’re making the record. That’s the reward you get for being on a place like Facebook. You get the info that we have. We don’t keep any secrets; why should we? Here’s the info and this is what we’re doing. We hope you’re happy and we love you all, which we do.
This might sound a bit weird, but I think that whenever someone is listening to our work and make up their own experience, I feel like we’re all in it together. When you listen to March of Ghosts, you’re adding so much to it that it’s like you made half of it anyway. We’re all just friends.
That’s a great way to look at it. I mean, I never know how an interview is going to go, so I’ll plan a series of questions and hope that the person I’m speaking with goes off on tangents that lead to other points of discussion. It’s very tedious to simply have Question A answered and then Question B answered without any deviations or elaboration, you know? I could ask you the same questions you’ve been asked a hundred times, but it’s better when it’s informal and friendly, like it is here.
Yeah. Then you get the “yes” and “no” answers, which are terrible [laughs]. I used to be a promoter for indie music, and I remember thinking that if you’re going to do an interview, the job of both people is to get something good for the article. That’s the idea, and of course any interesting conversation is fun and juicy. You’ve got to have something to work with so people want to read it.
True. A lot of interview questions are already answered on the artist’s websites, among other places. It’s better to just let it flow naturally. For example, you’ve said on the website that the chord progressions on this new record as “hell”.
Yes, they can be. You see, we’re idiots. We really are. You’ve got maybe six chords in one section, and then maybe you move on and then come back to those six chords. Sometimes when we come back to those chords, we’ll choose four different ones. You have to sort of unlearn what you learned the first time. You have to remember it but you also have to learn the new ones, as well as when section A comes and when section B comes.
Also, to change the sounds of the keyboard, I’ve now created this [shows a keyboard with labels on each key]. Here are the strings for “Hell Freezes Over”, and I can’t even read what this one says. This one is “weird” because it’s sound effects. We’ve got all of these sounds to bring along, and the only way to remember them is to right them on the keyboard.
Of course with this new tour, we’ve got to redo the whole thing, so I hope this stuff comes off [wipes at keys with tissue], which it doesn’t seem to be doing [laughs]. Oh, yes it is! Again, we’re idiots for doing all of this for live shows. It’s really hell on earth.
It sounds challenging, but it’s got to be worth it.
It is. What would be really cool is to bring along one of those stage hypnotists. You would show up at the gig and they guy would say, “Okay, one, two, three, now sleep,” and you’d fall asleep and we could just hang around and drink beer for two hours. Then he’ll say, “Okay, you will now remember having been to the greatest concert in your life. One, two, three, and wake up!” You’d think we just blew your mind. It’d be nice to do it that way, but I guess for now we’ll have to play some songs [laughs].
Yeah, at least for the moment. Speaking of constructing these songs, what exactly is the process for writing and arranging them? It seems so meticulous.
We always start with either a jam or a musical idea, and a lot of those I make on the keyboards in my bedroom. We’ll get together and work on an instrumental; we always start with an instrumental, and once we establish a mood that we want to explore, we’ll bring in Jan-Henrik to try to make vocal lines over it. If it works, we’ll see it through. About 50 to 60 percent of our songs are killed right there, because if he doesn’t have a good tune to put over them, they’re worthless.
Once we’ve got his tune, we put it over the instrumental and change the instrumental to fit his tune. If it’s a tune that should last for three minutes, that section will last for three minutes. Once that’s done, Jan-Henrick and I sit together and say, “Well what the hell is this song about?” We always try to dream what words will fit, and we make sure that the final lyrics fit 100 percent with the demo. That means that although the lyrics are extremely important to us, they’ll always be written so that they fit in the rhythm and they have the correct amount of syllables.
Then we record them, and once that’s done and we’ve got a long piece of music, we’ll build sections around to see how it all works from start to finish. We try to get some instrumental bits in there, which is always good to underline the story. Then we add sound effects if needed and record drums and bass. Finally, we’ll spend about two months mixing it all.
That sounds like a very detailed process, Thomas.
It’s hell on earth, but it’s the only way we can do it. It’s a lot of fun, though. I mean, some people go off and play computer games, and this is a lot like that. It’s a challenge, just like anything you do, but when you get it right it’s deeply satisfying.
Sure, and the music is known for being very bleak yet beautiful. Where does this tone come from? On the website you’ve joked about never writing any happy pop songs, not that anyone would want you to.
That’s a good question because I’ve thought about it a lot. As I said, I’m not a depressed person; I’m very happy, really, but I think that maybe I’m happy because of how magical music can be. Again you have the connection to therapy. I think that the darkness comes from the fact that dramatic music in minor keys are more beautiful than what you’d call “happy music”. I can’t think of any music that I would classify that way except for maybe circus music. I mean, what is happy music anyway? Can you think of any?
Not really, but it depends on what you classify as “music”, as opposed to empty, sensationalist stuff.
Even if you look at hit singles these days, a lot of them are in minor keys. The other thing I find to be satisfying in music is power, and once you’ve added minor keys and power, you’ve established that this is basically about something monumentally important or sad or both. Once you’ve established that, you need to have a concept that fits it in some way. I think that’s why it becomes so bleak and depressing is because that’s the music that we find most beautiful. If we didn’t find it beautiful, it wouldn’t interest us, and it wouldn’t hold our attention long enough to warrant spending such massive amounts of time on it.
Would you say that the aesthetic and ambition behind Gazpacho has changed a lot over the years?
It’s changed a bit. We had no idea that it would become—I don’t mean to sound like an idiot, but we had no idea that we would ever find our own sound from the Night album onwards. We also realized that that is incredibly rare; we never dreamt that we’d be able to do that, and that’s what I’m most proud of. The ambition was to write some tunes and have fun, and now it’s to make the perfect album, which means the perfect Gazpacho album.
We’ve realized that we have the power to do some really good stuff, and we’re only now scratching the surface of it. We learn something new with every album, and like the rest of life you’re always learning something. The day you stop learning is the day you’re dead. Now the ambition is to make even better, more powerful stuff, and that’s what’s probably changed since the start.
I think you’ve easily succeeded, to put it mildly. You’ve mentioned before that everyone in the band has a day job outside of Gazpacho. How do you guys manage it all?
That is also hell on earth, but not for me because I run a studio. I own a studio as a composer, but for the other guys, who have real jobs with real bosses, they have to take vacation time just to tour. They also need to buy a lot of flowers and gifts for their girlfriends. I have a daughter, and once you have a kid it’s a full time job itself, so if you’re going to go on tour for a few weeks, you need to have a very understanding girlfriend.
It’s a massive undertaking to get this planned; even if we wanted to have a meeting, we have to get six guys’ calendars to match up for just one day, which is almost impossible. Sometimes we have to book things three months in advance to just have that Thursday evening to meet. It’s difficult, but again the only way to keep ourselves grounded and have a life like anyone else is to do it this way.
Fortunately, it all ends up worthwhile. So do you have a favorite Gazpacho record?
It always varies; I’ll go through phases of not listening to it and then I’ll pick one and think, “Wow, this is good.” Of course Demon is my favorite now, but forgetting that one I’d say Tick Tock. I rediscovered it a few years ago. Once an album is done, I’ll listen to it when I rehearse and then I’ll let it go because I’m done with it. I didn’t listen to Tick Tock for a long time because I was unhappy with the mix, but when I picked it up again I found that the mix was fine, and it’s a really good album with some great moods and beautiful tunes. The lyrics are strong too. It’s just been remastered too and released on Kscope as a vinyl album, as well as a CD coming in June. You’ll have to get them to send you a copy.
Definitely. I’ll try my best. That’s all the questions I have for today. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
Sure. Thank you as well. May I show you one more thing, though? If you’ve been reading the website, you’ll remember that I said that my daughter gave me a Justin Bieber doll. Well here he is [shows a large doll]. It’s all true.
It’s eerily accurate, actually.
It is, isn’t it? She listened to Demon as we were making it and she thought it was “so damn boring.” She was singing some Justin Bieber song from the radio and I said, “Don’t ever sing that one,” and of course once I said that she bought me this. She’s six now, and she’s a big fan of my jingles, like singing jingles for malls. A lot of them are in the style of ABBA, and she loves those, but not so much with the Gazpacho stuff.
Hopefully she’ll grow to appreciate it one day.
Yeah. I can promise that there will be no Bieber in this house by then. I think that pop music is going in a terrible direction.
It goes back to the typical conflict of artistic integrity or easy sales, like we talked about before.
How do you get a kid into prog music? Where do you start? Maybe A Passion Play. It’s got some silly bits in it. We’ll make a deal: you do the interview for the next album in a year or two or however long it takes, and I’ll try to get her into it [laughs]. Next time we’ll speak, we’ll see how it went. “Getting Kids Into Prog”; that’d be another great article for you to do.