With the recent release of their Ancient Astronauts album, TPA’s Roger Trenwith spoke to Motorpsycho‘s Bent Sæther about the album, the band’s way of doing things after evolving for so many years and future plans…
This summer, the land has burned, literally and figuratively across Western Europe, even in England! I hope you managed to keep cool in Norway. To compound the sense of unreality, just recently we in the U.K. lost what seemed like a permanent link in the chain. It feels like the Apocalypse is near!
It’s been a crazy few years hasn’t it? It seems like ever since the Russians invaded the Crimea, everything’s just gone down hill… the Brexit vote, electing Trump, COVID, etc… I dunno, it’s easy to get depressed thinking about it, but like you say ‘stay calm and carry on’, and if you can, try to add something positive to the world. That’s all we can do, isn’t it?
I’m enjoying the new album Ancient Astronauts, and I acquired the lovely vinyl version. Of course, it sounds fabulous! It seems to be a bit of a departure from the rock heaviosity of the previous two albums, and seems to be more symphonic in structure, while retaining the band’s signature psychedelia. Was that a conscious decision, or more to do with its connection to the ongoing film project mentioned in the PR handout?
We kinda discovered the core of this album when we played Mona Lisa/Azrael and Chariot of the Sun as a part of the Sacrificing dance performance by Impure Dance Company back in 2020/2021. They had a certain something to them that felt like the core of an album to us, and when Deathprod [producer] came by and saw the show, he agreed. The music wasn’t conceived as ‘tunes’ as much as ‘extended pieces to move to’, so they ended up less riffy and looser/longer than some of the tunes on the last few albums, that were thought of more as trad rock songs. The film project started out at the same time as the dance performances, and to make life easier, we played the same music in both contexts, and the different settings influenced each other a whole lot and both helped shape the music. It was fun pre-producing an album by playing the songs live again too – it’s been a few years since we did that!
The epic on Ancient Astronauts is the 22-minute Chariot of the Sun. The symphonic structure is evident here. Can you tell us something about the writing process, how this mighty tune came to fruition? The words “Theme From an Imagined Movie” are in the subtitle, much like Begynnelser. Is there a connection?
This song was the opener of our film/dance set, and felt like the opening number of some big epic film to us, so we acknowledged that in the title. ‘Imagined’ since the film project has no funding and has ground to a halt for the time being! It is one of those cyclical songs that ends the way it starts, but dynamically reversed, so you can put it on an endless loop if you are that way inclined. I dunno why, but it seemed like a good way to do it when we wrote it: that chord sequence sounds good whether it’s waxing or waning, you know? The verses themselves were kept instrumental/hummed for the shows/film recordings, since adding words would’ve staked out some kind of thematic direction a bit too clearly. When we recorded it, we’d just gotten used to it being like that, so we left it wordless. I actually like that a lot, it opens up the floor to all kinds of interpretations as far as what the music ‘means’ or what the structure implies narratively. Oblique, but in a good way! The title just gives you one possible interpretation.
The people we are doing this on/off film project with are the same ones as we did Begynnelser with (free theatre group ‘De Utvalgte’), and in both Chariot of the Sun and Mona Lisa/Azrael we are reusing themes from that theatre piece that we felt could handle a little more mileage. Waste not, want not!
The obvious question that probably doesn’t deserve answering… Who are – or were – the ancient astronauts? My take on it is that it represents the guiding hand of your collective muse. Maybe the answer is different for everyone?
Yes and yes!
There is something in all this pseudo-scientific stuff (tarot, astrology, magic, etc etc) that resonates differently than scientifically provable stuff does: it’s not quantifiable and measurable, and in many respects functions like art does: it appeals to the same part of the brain and tickles the same nerves as music does. Being musicians, we’re always enjoying stuff like this, and the notion of Ancient Astronauts is an appealing one. Not least since you in music often feel like you’re just rediscovering something someone left there a long time ago. And in cocky moments, you might find yourself hoping you’re the one leaving nuggets for others to find. 🙂
Deathprod is in the producer’s chair. His long association with Motorpsycho kinda makes him your George Martin! What does he bring to the table?
He is a very articulate guy who is unambivalent about what he likes or not, and what works for him or doesn’t, and that makes it easier to decide on stuff and commit to a direction or a sound or what have you. We are almost joined at the hip as far as fundamental influences go, and most of our non-working correspondence involves sharing obscure Led Zeppelin recordings and geeking out on gear. Since he lives in Oslo and isn’t a part of the writing process, he always has a fresh take on the qualities (or lack thereof) in the music, and he’s someone we really trust. And he’s funny.
COVID travel restrictions meant that the band was without Reine Fiske for the recording of Ancient Astronauts, and the band reverted to the core trio. Beyond the obvious adjustment to the arrangement of the songs, did this have an effect on the way the songs evolved, or in the way the album was recorded?
Reine is a very articulated player in his own way: he has a signature to his sound and a very clear voice on the guitar. He also shares a whole lot of aesthetic loves with us and him being there probably accents those common denominators more. Having to figure out how to do these fairly involved pieces as a trio meant working out who plays what in this and that bit and everybody doubling/tripling up on instruments. Extremely work-intensive stuff, but a whole lotta fun too, once you get your head around playing both guitar, bass, bass pedals, getting the loops to work, keyboards and singing – all in one tune!
Since Deathprod liked the live versions he saw a whole lot, we decided to try to do all of these as live as we could, just to try to keep that intense feel that gives it. We cheated a bit and added some detail stuff later, but the core of all of this is played live, solos and all. The Flower of Awareness is so live it’s actually an improvised thing Deathprod and Tomas [Jämyr, drums] played one day while waiting for something else. We like that kind of thing too – it contrasts well with the highly worked-out nature of Chariot of the Sun and Mona Lisa/Azrael for sure!
I also read somewhere that the band lived communally while making the record, the famous “getting it together in the country” beloved of bands at the turn of the ’70s. Did that work well? Who did the cooking?
Hah, gotcha! This is a running gag we pull every time it feels like the interviewer wants the myth more than the facts. So we do occasionally giggle and make up stuff that could be true just to play with it all. By 2022 this is such a minefield of clichés, you have to laugh at it a bit, even if the music bit is deadly serious!
In these troubled times of false democracy, war, corporate profit gouging, alienation, climate crisis, do you think your music is an escapist safety valve, or maybe a soundtrack to meltdown? A bit of both, I reckon!
I reckon you got that just right! By employing myth and pseudo-scientific notions in our thing we hope to help us take a longer view and to not lose faith: if the son of the Sun god managed to total dad’s car thousands of years ago, it is not a new thing – we’ve been there before, and we’re still here. Most of all this other stuff has historical precedence too, and we somehow made it through all of those to be here today. It’s hard, but it’s doable. Hopefully. More so if we can play with it, anyway!
The age of the rock star is well behind us now. Is rock music still relevant in the 21st Century? It seems to get lower on the list of priorities for each generation, sadly.
It is not the mainstream music it was when we started out, for sure – but neither was jazz when all my favourite jazz was written, so I don’t necessarily think that is a problem. By now rock’s a codified artform we all know the nominal rules of, so we are all able to judge if it’s any good or not, and that is a good thing, but it means that it takes more radical stuff to keep us interested. That’s what we’re here to try to do: to open up and expand on all those notional ‘rules’ most rock bands seem to adhere to – to keep the good bits, but throw away the overused ones and make the music interesting again, even if it’s usually well within the rock universe. We routinely fail, of course, but at least we try! By now punk is as dull as prog was in 1977, and its a brand new day, but bands like the UK’s very own Black Midi makes me believe there is a future in this rock lark still!
Indeed, this new “post-post-punk” thing has that same vital energy I remember from the first time round (yes, I’m quite old!). Wire turned out to be one of the most influential bands ever in my opinion! Actually, of late I’ve been getting into the nu-jazz scene, mostly centred around London, and everything Shabaka Hutchings has a hand in. I particularly love the psychedelic groove of The Comet Is Coming. Does any of that scene grab you? I can imagine Motorpsycho on a space-jazz trip!
We have been big jazz people ever since seeing the light with first Coltrane then Sun Ra and that whole universe back in the mid-’90s. We’ve played a few jazz festivals over the years, for example we did a 20-minute Space is the Place with most of Jaga Jazzist at the Molde Jazz Festival way back when, and even recorded an album with them (In the Fishtank, 2003), so we have swum in those waters too.
Also both Tomas and our previous drummer Kenneth Kapstad are alumni of the jazz conservatory in town, and… well, that kind of thing influences how you think and how you play!
I’ve been listening a bit to some of the newer jazz stuff lately – Mansur Brown, Moses Boyd, people like that – and I am developing a hankering for congas… so you never know! Thanks for the tip – will check out!
You have a vast discography, and I will admit I’ve not heard it all by any means! Give me three albums in your canon you think are pivotal, and I’ll track them down if I’ve not got or heard them!
If you like Ancient Astronauts, I’d advise you to just go chronologically back until you don’t like what you hear anymore! We have had several ‘lives’ and no two albums are the same, and sometimes we’ve jumped quite drastically from genre to genre, so it will be confusing, but we do have a certain something that makes it sound like us however much we try not to, and if your mind is open there should be a lot of music in the catalogue you might enjoy! No two Psychonauts agree on what our best three albums are anyway, and who am I to judge?
While COVID has certainly not gone away, it has become possible for bands to tour again. Will you be jumping the additional obstacles placed in your way by the Brexit fiasco, and visiting the UK anytime soon?
Not as part of a normal European tour, no, but we hope to fly in and do a little UK mini tour sometime within the next year or so. Fingers crossed!
What’s next on the Motorpsycho calendar? What motivates you all after so long at the sharp end of music creation?
We have a few gigs both in Europe and in Norway this autumn, and are as usual writing and rehearsing all the time, so we aren’t going away any time soon. it’s a bit too early to announce anything, since stuff isn’t quite decided on yet though, sorry.
We are total music geeks and find nothing quite as exciting as finally finding the perfect chord in a song, or the perfect arrangement of a number or finally solving a musical puzzle we’ve gotten ourselves entangled in, so it is a pretty self-perpetuating process with us: we have never really needed to get bigger or sell more or kiss more girls or drink more beers or any of that, so our definition of ‘ambition’ is a bit different than most other band’s I guess. Every musical shape has an innate zen, and discovering that and getting it right is just about as ambitious as we ever get, and that is quite enough to last us, thank you!
A few questions from our readers:
Alan asks: Any further projects planned with Ståle Storløkken?
No, not right now, but we are playing with him in Belgium next week! We are still mates and still see each other, and no doors are closed!
Jonathan asks: I’d like to know what the plans are, if any, for the acoustic and semi-acoustic home recordings they sent to Reine Fiske.
They will be released when they are finished! They sound really good and show off a different side of Motorpsycho than the one we have shown the most lately, so hopefully even prog-heads might find something enjoyable in there! Keep your eyes peeled!
This was fun, thank you!