Thomas Strønen Interview
Hi Thomas. Tell us about the new CD that you have coming out on ECM.
“Food will release its 8th record in January 2015. It´ll be our third on ECM and it will celebrate a change in the band’s direction. We´ve been going since 1998. In order to stay musically fit and fresh, we need to reinvent ourselves now and then. Just like in any other relationship. Our first change was from playing tunes (as a quartet) to playing more free music and also adding more electronic gadgets. Later, we turned into a duo inviting guests into the band. On our second record as a core duo, we went slightly off the groove and into an open and textural phase. Instead of playing solos, we tried creating environments. Instead of trying to play together all the time, we tried having different roles (like decorating different corners in a room) and focussed on the collective sound that came out of the speakers.”
“It seemed natural to move to another record company and we signed with ECM Records. After having done two records on ECM, it felt natural to develop the band’s sound further and I wanted to move it into more structure. The record will sound tune-oriented and with a slightly heavier sounding mix. Ulf Holand (who has worked with David Bowie, Satyricon, A-ha and others) is in charge of the sound.”
“I´ve been inside my studio for six months working on this record, so I´m really excited about this. It features Iain, me and Christian Fennesz. (guitar/ electronics).”
If I wanted to be a guest player on the next Food album, what qualities and skills would I need?
“There are so many excellent musicians out there. many of them could contribute in some ways, but to try to explain, I could say why we play with Fennesz. He brings in sounds that complete the environment and sometimes surprises us. He has an autonomy, while he also listens carefully to what´s going on. I like that he dares to follow his ideas and doesn’t always follow the forms we play (he might play alone for 10 minutes after we´ve stopped, just because he has something to say). So, I guess you need to dare and challenge, but most of all, understand the concept.”
How are the albums similar to (or different from) your live performances?
“We always play live. Studio has always been a live-situation without audience, so the records are based upon these similar ways of working. When listening back to recordings (and we do that a lot) we decide what we want to say with the record. For instance, with the album Quiet Inlet, we wanted to create one sound that lasted the length of the record, instead of having one swing, one funk and one rumba. We didn’t want to please anyone. If you didn’t like the first tune, you were likely to not like the whole record. It was like a box of chocolates with only two or three of our favourites BUT, the next record is different. This has been produced a lot and live….it will be different too!”
What can we expect to hear at the Food gig at The Komedia in Brighton on Wednesday 10th September?
“You´ll have to be there. But I can say that it will be a live-premiere of some new and exciting music. This will be the first concert trying this out, as a preparation for our upcoming release tour in the US and Canada. I´m not sure if it´s jazz, but it has the improvisational element in it. And both beauty and the beast.”
You studied on the well-known jazz course at Trondheim Musikkonservatorium. What was that experience like?
“I think that no matter what you study, the place, town, environment and people will have a big affection on you. You´re young, open, curious and keen to find out what life has to offer. It was great living in Trondheim for six years, meeting some of my strongest musical companies, which whom I still work with.”
“The didactic model the jazz academy was following (led by John Pål Indreberg and Erling Aksdal) was perfect for me. It offered a lot of freedom, so for those knowing what they wanted, it was great. Some musicians coming straight from high-school, might have found it too big a change, though. At that time the jazz academy was only two years in length (and you could build on that with 2 years of teaching-related subjects or composition) and some found themselves waking up as their time at school was over.”
“I had studied 3 years at the university first, so I was very determined, entering school at 7am every morning, having my first break and coffee at 8am with the cleaning personnel.
During my years in Trondheim, I mostly stayed behind my drums. I went home and had dinner almost every afternoon with my girlfriend (now my wife) and then went back to school again. On top of practicing, we had two or three different band rehearsals every day. When we didn’t play, we listened to records or live music.”
“Most of the teaching was based upon ear training, and that is something I´ve brought with me. I didn’t realise how important that would be to me, but luckily I took it seriously. (You actually had to; Erling’s classes were well know as torture chambers if he found that someone hadn’t done the little, but important, homework we got.”
“The fact that the school was very small, with only 6-8 students, was important and made the level very high. Now the school is larger and we also have similar schools in the biggest towns in Norway.”
What’s your approach to teaching?
“I think teaching can be uplifting and inspirational. But it is also very demanding. I think it’s crucial that one teaches what one finds very interesting, so that both sides can learn and develop. It should always be the student in focus, not the teacher. It’s important to enlighten, suggest, provoke and uplift, but the focus for me would always be to help the student in developing her or his musical ideas.”
Tell us about the multi-media project that you’re doing in Lewes.
“I’m working with theatre writer Mark Hewitt (of Blank productions) on a piece with the working- title Civilization and its Discontents. It’s still early stages, even though I’ve started writing quite a lot of music, while Mark is writing the play. The music I’ve written so far is mainly based on a drum ensemble with two string players, Eivind Aarset (guitar) and Nils Økland (Hardanger fiddle) and also variations of Food.”
“I’ve never done this before and the exciting part is that both the music and Mark’s writing will influence each other as we go along. Mark is very openminded to my role, but also giving my ideas some direction by sending pictures of scenes, small dialogues, etc.”
“The whole piece is ambitious and I’m convinced it will end up being a strong piece of art. Hopefully, we´ll get it to Norway as well.”
Saxophonist Iain Ballamy on Thomas Strønen
Iain, when did you first meet Thomas Strønen?
“Sometimes life is full of lucky coincidences! We were introduced through the most oblique of family connections, too convoluted to fit in one interview. It was 1998 I think – Thomas was just out of music college in Trondheim when he came to drink tea with me at my flat near Elephant and Castle. We got on great straight away even though we are like chalk and cheese (he skis, I like metal detecting). But all these years later, the contrast between us is so striking that it creates a kind of stability. Joan Collins has probably got married 8 or 9 times since we have been playing together!”
What do like most about performing with him?
“He is motivated, competitive and driven (his own words) and has a lot of energy. It's rarely comfortable. We have played in China, India, Japan and soon to tour USA and Canada. I think he is a well rounded musician and composer, far from being a ‘drummer' in old-fashioned terms. I like the sense of fun, danger and exploration when we play together.”
What do you find is unique about the Food project?
“I am not aware of anything quite like this – we are flexible and can work with other like-minded players or just travel as a duo with Simen Scharning, our soundman. As a trio with Christian Fennesz on guitar, we can lean in a heavier rocky direction which is exciting. We are on our 8th CD now (third release for ECM) so going strong!…”
For more on Thomas Strønen: