Interview with Stefan Thorpenberg (October 2018)
When did you start playing the guitar and why?
Oh… I can give an exact date. I started playing guitar 21 January 1963. It was my 9th birthday and I got my grandmothers old cheap plywood acoustic. It was about 10 months before The Beatles had their first show on Swedish TV, so I actually started playing before Beatles. The reason for why I wanted a guitar was that the first singel record I had was The Shadows “Apache”, where Hank B. Marvin played a Strat. I liked the sound and wanted to play like that. When I was 12 I bought a red Hagström Kent, and that was my first electric. Then I had forgotten the Hank Marvin influence and wanted to play like Brian Jones in Rolling Stones, I guess.
What did you study and what is your musical background?
I have spent a lot of time with books, and got 3 BSc:s, one in Anasthesia, one in Archeology and one in Theory of Science. I also have a Master and a PhD in Theory of Science, and is appointed to Associate Professor in research policy. But when it comes to music I´m an autodidact. I started playing to records from Beatles and Rolling Stones as a child, but grew up with Animals, The Who, Small Faces and Spencer Davis Group in the mid -60s. I read some books on music theory and learned how to play notes by myself, but it has never been my main interest to play notated music.
What were and are your main musical influences?
My first really BIG experience with music was a concert with The Cream in March 1967, I was 13 years old. Earlier I had seen solo improvisations as something that guitarists did for 10 seconds in the middle of the tune. They often played the melody again on single strings, and that was it. Cream was something completely different, the group improvisations lasted for 20-30 minutes, and it was obvious that Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker originally were jazz musicians. With Cream I started to improvise, and it was just some few months later, in May -67, that I saw Hendrix the first time… it was a chocking experience. In September -67 I saw him again, it was a lousy concert because of some technical problems that randomly made Hendrix´s guitar dead silent. Annoyed he finally throwed it over his shoulder and walked off the stage. Because of the bad concert people left the concert hall and I had the opportunity to speak with him for some minute. I started by saying: “Great concert tonight!”, and Jimi laughed ironically at me. It was perhaps not my finest music memory, but I use to say that I once made Jimi laugh. One can perhaps also say that I learned a lot from Hendrix, since I never have played one single tune written by him. But… Hendrix never played like anyone else, so to learn from Hendrix must mean that you walk your own way? In the late -60s I started to listen to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and perhaps most important, Ornette Coleman. It was his crazy playing of the violin, that was funny and surprising and made me laugh, but also his more sensitive playing on saxophone – I bought a violin because of Ornette´s playing. I heard John Mclaughlin at the Bitches Brew LP, and I still like the vibe of his early records with Tony Williams Lifetime – and like to improvise with a drummer who handle the cymbals as smooth as Tony Williams. I also digged Robert Fripp and King Crimson, and still do. In the early -70s I played only jazz oriented music in different groups, but still didn´t see myself as a full freeform musician. A lot of freeform music, especially from the UK, had an introvert and slightly academic style, boring and self focused in my view. The West-German style was so much stronger and so expressive, and it was first after a concert with Peter Brötzmann´s Hobby Quartet – with Kowald, Lovens and Schlippenbach – that I realized it was as strong as my first experience of Hendrix´s live concerts. So powerful, thunder and violence, a take-no-prisoners approach, I liked it a lot. Brötzmann has spoken about the silent and locked West-German society, which made his music sound like a cry for freedom, and I understood it immediately. So from 1974 I can say that I totally converted to freeform and avantgarde jazz, and have played like that since. I listened a lot to Derek Bailey, but can´t say that he has been an inspiration. I was more impressed by Hans Reichel and his LP Wichlinghauser Blues, where he play his homemade guitars, and it sounds just… strange.
How did it start the idea for the GuitCussion quartet? How did you meet Gunnar Backman?
I got the idea for a quartet with 2 guitars and 2 drummers from Wayne Shorter´s LP Super Nova, where John Mclaughlin and Sonny Sharrock played guitars, and Jack Dejohnette and Chick Corea played drums. There has been a similar later setting with the quartet of Derek Bailey, Pat Metheney, Greg Bendian and Paul Wertico, but that was not our inspiration. Guitcussion does not sound like the quartet on Super Nova, not at all, one has to say, but it was the inspiration for our quartet, anyway. I met Gunnar Backman at a Swedish freeform festival where I played in a duo with the drummer Peeter Uuskyla – who has played with Peter Brötzmann for many years. I saw Backman playing with another group at the festival and was impressed of his handling of many loops in a live setting. Often people play with loops on records, in a studio one can have some control over what is going on. Gunnar Backman play with loops live and have full control over the procedure, he has a bass line, an acoustic guitar, an electric rhythm guitar and something that sounds like an electric piano going on, and then put some smooth noise over it all, before he starts duelling with himself and finally can end with a brutal airplane crash. I can´t understand how he can control so many instruments at the same time, I mean live, totally improvised. There is a problem with electronic sound landscapes, though. It can sometimes develop to a quite smooth ambient music style that lack nerve, sweat and blood. And that´s where I comes in. My guitar in GuitCussion is always nervous, aggressive and annoying. Backman´s huge sound landscapes gives the opportunities for violent attacks and destruction.
How would you describe the music you play together?
I would describe the music as “instant composing”. We don´t like the freeform style where you start with a vague idea, that perhaps can develop to something interesting, if the others in the group hopefully take up the initial idea. No… a recording of an all improvised “tune” should start suddenly, with a clear intro, that soon develop to something interesting and then goes on to something big – or small/strange – reach a top level and then develop to something different, and finally goes down and has a clear ending. I have seen many good freeform musicians doing that. Take Art Ensemble of Chicago, they always made only one “tune” per night, and it started abruptly, with full focus on what was coming – no vague uncertain search for ideas. And it went on and on for hours and was interesting all time and it ended abruptly, like it was all perfectly rehearsed.
We had no idea from start that it should sound like that. Groups with 2 guitarists often tend to play rhythm and solo parts, but that didn´t work for us. Since I play through an old tube amp (a Fender Blues Deville) and Gunnar Backman play through 2 digital units, it at once developed to something like the difference that Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew once had in King Crimson, where one plays the more synth oriented digital sounds (Fripp), and the other (Belew) have a more traditional distorted tube amp sound.
What does mean improvisation in your music research? Can we go back to talking about improvisation in a repertoire so encoded as the classic or you’re forced to leave and turn to other repertoires, jazz, contemporary, etc.?
I have never met a musician from the classical music field who has been a fluent improviser. I have difficulties also to find musicians from classical be-bop jazz who can impovise freely, they often have so many academic hang-ups on scales and modes, probably since they are trained in an academic setting where it´s not accepted to play “wrong”. I get the impression that they are nervous and perhaps slightly afraid to make mistakes? It´s very different from the two records “Blue Congo” and “Exit Wonderland” where there are no preparations at all. With a blank mind, we say nothing, and think nothing, but just start when the tape recording goes on. And the idea is, as said above, to make an “instant composition”, a full tune from start to end. But it can´t be said that we play “freejazz”, the music has more influences than just jazz. I prefer the term “freeform”, we pick up what we need for the moment. If it comes from jazz, fusion, rock, techno, folk music, modern avantgarde, or is just ugly annoying noise, or total chaos, doesn´t matter really.
What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises…
We can always say that an error can lead to new opportunities and surprising results, and if so there can never be a real “error” in freeform music. And if so, come to the conclusion that the worse the better, more errors makes better music. However, it´s obvious when you record for 3 whole days and listen to the material to pick out the best “tunes” for a CD, that not everything is good enough. That´s also an “error” of course. The recorded music must be so expressive that it goes out of the loudspeakers and take a grip on you. And that happens often, but not always. The more you play, and the more experience you get, it becomes easier to come into that creative mode, where the instrument plays almost by itself. And you make nothing that can be interpreted as an “error”, but is almost always up on your toes. I wrote a novel about a unsuccessful freeform guitarist, that discuss how to develop ones expression in music – the most important thing for a musician, that is almost never discussed in ordinary music education. The novel is called “The Improviser” (Swedish: Improvisatören), and has Derek Bailey´s book “Improvisation” as a background.
And what do you think is the “function” of a moment of crisis?
If we come to a moment of crisis in the music, someone must try to solve that problem and it will probably lead to new roads to travel. But one perhaps has to remember that the musicians in GuitCussion has played freeform for more than 40 years. Moments of crisis is perhaps just normal for freeform musicians, we are somewhat like parachute jumpers, throwing ourselfes out of a plane with a sack of cloth on our backs, hoping that it should end well this time too?
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
We have some difficulties to find gigs for the group, the culture politics in Sweden is not so generous for controversial music, and therefore it´s a problem for a group like GuitCussion to put up new projects. We have made 3 CDs, “Blue Congo” and “Exit Wonderland” mentioned above, and also a CD with texts written by me, performed by Michele Collins and with the saxophonist Jonny Wartel (Position Alpha) and the bass-, violin- and tuba player Bo Stenholm (Backa Teater). We have got good reviews for all 3 CDs but not so many gigs. The interest in Sweden for new music is just very low, that´s my impression.
Last question: a few years ago, during an interview with Bill Milkowski for his book “Rockers, Jazzbos and Visionaries” Carlos Santana said, “Some people have talent, some people have vision. And vision is more important then talent, obviously.” I think all of you have a great talent, but … what is your personal vision?
Perhaps the vision for a group is what young people often talk about? The vision for GuitCussion is of course to make free music that is so creative, expressive and powerful that everyone can hear what it´s all about, no matter if you´re young and have only been listening to rock or pop before. But as said, the majority of the musicians in GuitCussion has been playing freeform for more than 40 years. Henrik Wartel, one of the drummers, started touring in Europe with Swedish trombonist Eje Thelin in the early -70s already. Per Anders Skytt, the other drummer, has been teaching poly-rythmics at university level for decades. Gunnar Backman has been a freeform musician and released many solo records since the -80s. And I started myself with freeform in the early-mid -70s. So the vision is there, and it´s very strong, otherwise one should have abandoned this kind of music a long time ago. But we don´t speak so much about it. There is a Swedish saying that goes: Art starts where the words end. And we are quite cool about what we are doing, actually.