Interview with Gunnar Backman (October 2018)
When did you start playing the guitar and why?
Around the age of 12 and I know my older cousin had an acoustic guitar that I used to plonk on. Maybe that’s the reason my mom and dad got me one. (The why I’m still trying to figure out.)
What did you study and what is your musical background?
I still study on my own every day and I’d say that I started out as autodidact and still am. I also studied classical guitar at a musical high school after going to technical high school for four years. Prior to that private tutors and a culture school for kids, teens. During that time I played electric guitar as well , rock , metal and later things like Return to Forever , Mahavishnu etc. During music high school turned my ears to jazz and in the last year I had the opportunity to study jazz improvisation on electric guitar , even though there where not an electric guitar teacher in the school . And when I started high school it wasn’t on the curriculum only classical guitar.I “ studied “ with a saxophone teacher and a bass teacher. I listened to Albert Ayler , Coltrane , Miles Bitches, Gateway , Brötzmann etc but couldn’t get together my background , distorded guitar with the clean non bending improv of bebop and even less with the above , that took me a few years. Couldn’t connect rock guitar with jazz guitar until I heard Scofield , Abercrombie, Frisell etc. Jazz guitar always sounded dull in comparison, never utilizing the full potential of electric guitar. Bends , distortion, feedback , delays , setting fire to it etc. I started gigging as a pro around the same time as technical high school. I never considered myself a jazz guitarist but an improviser. I have worked in most fields from musicals to contemporary classical. Also as a composer , arranger, recording, mixing and mastering engineer. Later in life at 30-35 or so ,I went to a conservatory where I met two teachers , who inspired me at a time where I had lost the urge to make music. A music history teacher Ingvar Dahl and a studio / digital audio teacher Torbjörn Andersson, they both are to blame for me not quitting. A part of that period I was using midi guitar and synths a lot. I also studied Hindustani classical music. (And I play Sitar, Sarod, Oud, Dra-Nyen and Pipa) After conservatory I got severe Tinnitus and Hyperacusis in an orchestra pit 1996. I used earplugs but the volume was tooooo high , thank you french horns, timpani and percussion. It changed my way of playing. I had started with live looping around 1994 but after the trauma, (and a couple of years of not playing at all ,being too sensitive to sound to even play unamplified electric guitar ), the looping intensified and I started with sonic landscaping and long slow notes and movements. Before that I was a fiery and fast player, ( the last 10 I’ve got that back again ). I couldn’t use guitar amps anymore so I ended up in the virtual world of guitar and amp/fx emulation. I got Roland’s VG-8 believing it was a toy but… since then exclusively virtual. I’ve used all the VGs and presently Boss GP-10 and Boss SY-300. (And I spend a lot of effort into making my own sounds.)
What were and are your main musical influences?
The earlier ones as a child from my mother. She played Chopin , Liszt etc. Later rock , jazz , free improv, north India classical , world music But I mostly listen to “newer” classics , Allan Pettersson being a favorite. I hardly ever listens to music though.
How did it start the idea for the GuitCussion quartet? How did you meet Stefan Thorpenberg?
Stefan contacted me and told me about his project. At that time I had done a recording with Peeter Uuskyla:
Peeter and Stefan used to play duo. I believe Stefan heard me at a festival , don’t really recall now. Anyway , he had the idea about a “ double duo “. So I suggested Per Anders Skytt and Henrik Wartel as drummers. I had played with Henrik Wartel since around 1980 or so and Per Anders Skytt since around 1990 and I felt that they could work together effortlessly.
How would you describe the music you play together?
First it’s a group effort. And freely and completely improvised. Sonic freedom , not many words about anything. The drummers are most important musically. Together those two drummers pushes all of us , not by force ( even though they do at times ) but it’s a very different feel than playing with one drummer. There’s a lot to say about that part. The first record I don’t remember us talking at all about the music. Or playing together before recording, I don’t think we all had been in the same room before that recording. But I don’t remember exactly. The second recording we did have some ideas about some tracks, I don’t know if they made it on the record but I believe there wasn’t much if any that wasn’t recorded and released. The drummers had slightly different sized kits if I recall correctly. Stefan played his regular guitars , stompboxes and amp.
I used my double neck fretted / fretless 25 string symp guitar with a VG99 for Blue Congo and for Exit Wonderland a GP-10 (and electric mandolin on a few tunes) , both live looped with a Boss DD-20 delay to a PA system. I use DD-20 instead of the other loopers that I have, since it’s small, stereo ( a must have for all guitar in my world , amps , fx etc ) , no memory slots , two stereo loops at the same time. I utilize the delay modes instead of the looper mode. And some of the modes are weird. So of course no prerecorded loops , it doesn’t even have that possibility. Sometimes I’ll build a non tempo based loop based on different sounds and play on top. At other times I’ll manipulate the loop , not playing. Or not using a loop at all. We’re few “ synth “ sounds mostly tweaked guitar sounds , up/down in tuning. Or like a sitar through a dist and a Marshall stack playing pads etc etc. I did record the cds at the same time I played, so I had a few things to keep track of. I also mixed, mastered and did the artwork from Stefan’s photos. (Mixing the two drum kits where a very hard task.) For the sound nerds: The drums where miked with a audio technica stereo OH and a SM-58 on the bass drum, the guitar with a SM-57 and lined with a H&K red box. My gear is straight lined from headphones output in the DD-20.) [ yeah I know ]. GuitCussion is but one of many projects I’m involved in. That goes for all of us I guess.
I have a fretless headless guitar, self made, I have seen you play a real “beast”! Tell us about your guitar, How did you started playing fretless?
It started around 1976-77. I had an Hopf acoustic that I thought was off intonation wise, so I ripped the frets off. A few years ago I decided to fix the guitar up and found that the screw ,that holds the neck in position, where lose , hidden behind a lid. Without that happening, all those years back, I might not have played fretless. I hadn’t heard about fretless guitar , I was only 16 and there wasn’t any internet. So I just started playing, my first fretless recording is from 1977. It’s a long intro, with a Korg ms-20 patched to a drone, going into a more regular tune played on fretted guitar. It’s really the last 15-20 years I’ve played it seriously much due to Indian and Arabic music , but also modal improv and free form. Today I have around 15 fretlesses , acoustic steel, nylon and electric virtual ones. One 25 string electric with one fretted one fretted and one sympathetic strings neck. Regular PUs and hex PU + sustainers on all necks. One 33 string acoustic triple neck oriental “ Guitar “ with 11 sympathetic strings a fretless neck with 13 strings (6 double courses one single ) one 7 string fretted with 2 chikari strings. 2 K&K classic transducers under the two bridges. Both guitars custom builds. The Electric by Fredrik Törnkvist , nevborn guitars.
The Acoustic by Edward Powell , edward powell instruments.
How did you start your own label “Brakophonic Productions”? How many records have you released?
It really started out with recording , mixing and mastering production , composing etc. for others. That’s one part of my work. The notion of adding music to my own label started a long time ago , but come together when people started not wanting regular CDs. Before that I was on different labels. So I started Brakophonic Records. All my stuff is available on cd. But hardly nobody wants CDs anymore only virtual CDs (or streaming). So most are available on demand. I gave up on CDs a long time ago, sad but true , miss the old vinyl ‘cause of the covers even more but hey what can you do ? I have released around 50-60 cds: currently available now around 48 + some older ones like Jonny Wartel & Paban das Baul and more on iTunes etc
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.?
Improvise is what I do. I’m not sure about playing composed music even as a foundation for improvisation. Some of my stuff sounds like composed tunes. With the Group Wonka Live we always got questions about that or that song, but there wasn’t any songs just improv that sounds like a song sometimes.
I have composed a piece for Classical Guitar and a Free Form quartet released on a CD with the great classical guitarist David Härenstam. The improv in contemporary classical can sound great and in a way that’s what matters. But as with most music , being jazz , contemporary jazz , ragas , makams, different folk music, even free jazz and free form music, there’s too many “ rules “ “ traditions” etc. Not that I’m free of them but I’m trying.
I like the difference in for instance these albums of mine.
The common area being no rules , no composition , only improvisation. If a melody comes out , fine. If there’s noise fine.
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…
It’s the core of improvisation and making great music. If it’s a looper that brakes up in way you didn’t expect, a sound from one of my modelers that’s wrong , doesn’t behave. Or me , playing something off that triggers something different. Error is the key ingredient to great music , it makes it human. And in improvisation, how would ever play something you’ve never played before , if not for errors? There is of course great fantastic composed music without errors that transcends that line of thinking, feeling.
And what do you think is the “function” of a moment of crisis?
To add tension , nerve and later resolution is the obvious answer. But also to stay in it , “dream” , disappear and get lost , not trying to “fix” anything. (For a long while I only played “one song” sets , in a way following the movements of a symphony or a movie. There you have the crisis , climax , resolution. In improv the elements doesn’t always follow in that order , or that all are included.)
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
At the moment quite a few. Here’s a couple
An upcoming tour in Palestine with Akram Abdulfattah and his Jawa project.
A Mexican tour and Looping Project with Samah Mustafa
Both of whom have been a bridge into to the Arab maquam world, even though they’re looking way beyond tradition. I’m working on two solo cds, one with very freely played jazz standards, a guitar, drum duo, played on a jazzmaster into Boss GP-10 and Flux:FX, I finally found an free approach to playing jazz standards in a non standard way. One acoustic solo guitar album with the 33 string triple neck guitar into Boss AD-10 and sometimes Boss SY-300. And I’m working on a “ sonic picture “ album with Per Anders Skytt on electronic drums and fx. Short improvisations about 1min each song , like pictures in a gallery. We’re also fiddling around with Mr Skytt modular synths. I’m more messing, he knows how to patch. I just wing it. But it did give inspiration to my solo guitar synth Cd
The synth is programmed with some of the movements modular synths can offer. And I’m working on some more stuff.