A conversation about dub music with Nils Petter Molvaer
I had the pleasure to meet and talk with the Norwegian trumpet player Nils Petter Molvaer at the 22nd edition of Garana Jazz Festival, where he performed alongside the reggae legends Sly & Robbie, and his Scandinavian collaborators Eivind Aarset & Vladislav Delay.
It was a real privilege to be able to conduct this interview with a musician who is so passionate about improvisation and who’s music experience varies from jazz to electronic, and from reggae to classical music. The interview follows one of his latest releases, Nordub, an album realized alongside the reggae duo Sly and Robbie.
| How did Nordub came to life?
I first met with Sly & Robbie in the summer of 2014 and we rehearsed for a week in a castle from France. Then we did two tours performing together and on the second one we had three days off in Oslo. I just asked a friend of mine who owns a lot of restaurants and works in the film industry also, if we can borough his studio called Paradiso. It’s filled with old vintage studio gear with a lot of analogue equipment, synths and amps. We entered that studio to record the ideas from our tours and then I asked my friend Jan Bang, with whom I also play live, if he can produce it. In three days we recorded something like 3 or 4 hours of jamming and the next step was to cut it down into songs.
The live dub on Nordub is done by Sasu Ripatti aka Vladislav Delay, he is the one producing those sounds and percussions both on the LP and in the live act. He cut the songs up, mixed them and then we started to listen. We liked them, did a bit of overdubs separately and then it was out of my hands.
Everybody did their thing, this is the whole purpose of such albums.
| From jazz to dub music, when did the journey begin?
I have always liked reggae since the first time I heard Bob Marley’s songs and Black Uhuru albums. Of course, Sly & Robbie have done so many things, tens of thousands of riddims and they’ve been on so many albums, from Grace Jones to Bob Dylan and Peter Tosh. Wicked man! I liked the basslines the most, the beats too, because they are so relaxed. This is what I like the most about Jamaican music, that reggae and dub are so relaxed. I also remember enjoying the music that was related to these genres, Massive Attack and Smith & Mighty from Bristol. My first dub songs were made when I worked with producer Bill Laswell and musicians Karsh Kale and Jah Wobble in Orange County, New York, on an album called Dub Chamber 3.
| Even before this album you have experienced with dub energy on different racks such as Artic Dub on Revision and the dub-rock Recoil on Baboon Moon.
It’s true! It all started with Bill Laswell who did dub remixes for two of my songs, one is called Ligotage and the other Simply So. I always liked dub as I am a very big fan of bass lines, I played bass myself for a long time.
I started very early to play a blowing instrument, never took it too seriously as I was playing in marching bands, then I started playing in rock bands. When I was growing up, I played drums, guitar and bass. At 18 I started to really work on the trumpet. Then I went to the music Conservatory, but I left because I found it extremely boring. So I don’t have any music education at all. Then, I moved to Oslo from Trondheim who was up in the north-west. I was playing live theatre music with Jon Balke, who has done some records with the ECM label and with Arild Andersen. We started the band Masqualero together. After that experience of making music with those musicians I never went back to school, I just continued within the Norwegian scene. So this is why I like to play ambient and rock music too.
| Some of the songs on this record are social commentary and political statements of the nowadays life. Songs like Politically KKKorrrekkkttt, Was in the Blues, Rock-Stone Noah Bingie or Neil Five are such examples. How did the names for the songs came?
The three K’s there are clearly a reference to politics. I hope it is a subtle statement about the times we are living. The Ku Klux Klan is still around.
We had the songs finished and then Robbie was coming with name ideas for them. But I also came with the naming on some songs: Strange Bright Crowd and Dream Drifter, for example. We just played music and decided what feelings they’ve triggered on us and named them. It’s important because the name can give the song a deeper meaning.
Was In The Blues has some special lyrics and message, it is about going and planting a seed who will grow and then bloom into fire. Robbie tried to explain it to me but I didn’t fully understand it. The Jamaican patois slang is not easy to understand all the time. Sly, on the other hand, has not such a strong accent. Robbie lives in Miami and Sly is in Kingston Jamaica, but they travel a lot.
Neil Five has an amazing bassline. That took forever to finish, as it was done very late in the sessions and we were out of tune. So when I tried to perform the trumpet part, I constantly felt something was wrong, the trumpet is a fixed instrument it doesn’t go out of tune so we had to pitch the other instruments. I like this song, Eivind’s guitar part after the bass groove and the whole song it just flows so naturally.
| The cover of the album, the tree what does it mean? And where has the group cover of all of you been taken?
The back cover, our group picture was done where we rehearsed in France. We were in a castle outside Lyon and this building façade with the amazing architectural details and decorations was done by a postman. We played just next to it but I don’t remember the name though. The meaning of the tree on the front cover just escapes me. They’ve sent it to me and I really liked it, so I had no problem with it being on the cover. I could have thought of another way to represent our music but this one seemed fit as well. Both with artwork of the album and the song titles it’s the people who hear it and they interpret it, give it a meaning. For me, I prefer to focus on the music and not the pictures. I just try to be in the moment.
| Have you ever thought about a continuation of Nordub, maybe a second album made in Jamaica?
Maybe. I mean we have some very busy schedules. I for example, have to do an album with the Oslo Symphony Orchestra in January. I have written some classical music and we have this planned. I love classical music and have also written music for ballet.
Nordub is freshly released this year and maybe in two or three years we can do another.
But yes, I haven’t been to Jamaica. We have talked about it though. Sly said something like “Yeah, my friend, you would love it there, love it!”. We should go there, we will see if we can do a tour in the islands. That would be nice! Do a gig, 5 days off, then to the next island. Swimming and diving. Maybe do some jamming in some little studio there. It would be great!
You know they have talked about nominating Nordub to the Grammy? We haven’t got an official answer, but that could mean a lot of touring and have more exposure. Also Chris Blackwell from Island Records, the guy who made Marley famous liked Nordub a lot. Now we need to see what happens. We should take it one step at a time.
How is the promotion of the Nordub album with the label Okeh?
I have my own label called Sula Records, but it is a publishing house that holds the rights to my compositions. Okeh was founded in 1916 and has released a lot of classic jazz, artists like Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Little Richard, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra and now it is a strictly jazz sublabel of Sony Germany run by Wulf Miller, who used to be the head of Universal Music. The label has now artists like Dhafer Youssef, Dee Dee Bridgewater & The Bad Plus. Basically, this album is on my record deal, but it is very much a collaboration. It’s not my thing, it is everybody’s.
I know it’s called Sly & Robbie Meets Nils Petter Molvaer, but everyone’s contribution is instrumental: Eivind’s guitar works with so many special layers, Vladislav Delay’s live dubbing and percussion, Jan Bang’s production and arrangement, Erik Honore with the field recordings and so on.
| What do you remember from the Mezzo produced Jazzed Out Oslo episode? The concept was ten bands in ten days and you performed in a special place.
It was in a mausoleum. It was a totally free performance and it was a place with an enormous reverb, like 14 seconds so we just played accordingly trying hard to use that. They wanted us all to play different places than usual, difficult places, some of the musicians played on a bridge and on a boat. The concept was to put things in the context of the city’s life. It was like a challenge to take the music into a place where you might feel it doesn’t belong.
The Japan episode Jazzed Out Tokyo had a pianist playing in a meat factory with carts meat packages being transported around him. Yes, Japan is a special place. We are going with Nordub there in September at Blue Note Tokyo for three concerts.
Some days off and then I will do a concert with Dai Fujikura, Eivind Aarset, Erik Honore and Jan Bang. We are going to do a remix of a Ryuichi Sakamoto piece in the Born Creative Festival there. Ten days staying at an extremely posh hotel and I’m just going to eat nice food and walk around.
It’s a fascinating country and people. Musically it’s very good but the whole culture is very interesting too. From what I understand there is a little bit of female discrimination and they are racist. but they keep it very much to themselves.
I remember the event at the World Cup in Russia when Japan was playing against another team and after the match they cleaned everything up, all the mess, the trash they made on the stadium. Also the Japanese team in their locker room they cleaned everything, towels and all. They just left a small note in Russian saying “Thank you so much!”. That says a lot about Japan. All the countries have bad things which you don’t see so much when you are touring, you only see the good parts.
| You have mentioned a Sakomoto remix. How do you view the jazz world mixing with electronic music? You have some albums labeled as Future Jazz and of course it seems natural in 2018 to do that, but do traditional jazz musicians and the audience embrace this?
I don’t look at myself like a traditional jazz player. That it more likely to happen in Afro-American jazz, it is a different kind of thing. I just look at myself like an improviser, I adapt to different genres, if the music is good, it doesn’t matter if it is country or western, singer-songwriter or contemporary composer. As long as I like it, it doesn’t matter, genres are like boxes and they are diminishing it for me. Open-minded and improvising musicians are the whole idea of remixing. It’s refreshing for me, take the album I did on ECM, Khmer my debut solo album, after its release I did a whole remix album for it, called Recoloured with contributions from Bill Laswell, Jan Bang, The Cinematic Orchestra, TeeBee and Pascal Gabriel. In my discography I released 2 more remix albums, I did some remixing myself for a rock band and the Prince song Sign of the Times for the Shockadelica compilation with his impact on Scandinavian music and artists.
Remixes are about sounds and art that inspire musicians and producers. Sometimes it can get out of hand as someone has done a remix for Nordub, which is not my favorite remix so to say. We are waiting now for another remix from a young Norwegian producer called Stian Balducci. He is very young and has won the Norwegian Grammy for Best Electronic Album 2018. We are waiting to see how it sounds and maybe put it out there on Spotify or whatever. And these are all commissioned by the label of course.
On my own albums I tend to have more control or want to have as much as I can. On this album we have two managers and a few lawyers involved here and there and yes it’s a project with many people contributing.
| With Spirit Cave, the band with Marylin Mazur, do you plan an album? Like the jamming you did with Sly & Robbie that got transformed into a studio album, will this be the case too?
It’s even more. We talked about it and there are many interested people but we have to find the time. Everybody is so busy. We have been talking about it for 2-3 years now.
I hope we will go into the studio next year and see what happens. But that is 100% improvisation, with Marylin, who has played in the past with Miles Davis, she maybe starting something on the bells and then we don’t know where we are going, we’re just playing to see what happens. This is how it always starts and it’s always sincere and unpredictable.
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