Lasse Marhaug: Interview
“I’m still in my 30s! A bit early to be nostalgic isn’t it?”
Lasse Marhaug has made some of the most fantastic ear-splitting noise music over the past 20 years, both as a solo artist and with a flurry of other bands and collaborators (from metal acts like Jazzkamer and Sunn O))) to a recent blistering set with Dror Feiler at No Fun Fest in NY). From his rural North Norway home where he started out making hand-released tapes, I talk with Lasse about his new label Pica Disk, his love for Iron Maiden, the best collaboration ever, and why he believes all noise is beautiful.
When did you start making music?
In my mid-teens, I started making tape cut-up/noise experiments and releasing them as cassettes in small editions. I dangled in the extreme metal/grind/noisecore scene but eventually found my way to the noise/experimental music underground. I never played in a band or learned how to play instruments in a regular way.
You recently played a blistering set in NYC with Dror Feiler. How did you come to play with him? You've also collaborated with a number of other noisicians (Fe-Mail, Kevin Drumm, Carlos Giffoni, the list goes on and on) as well as the metal band Enslaved.
I met Dror through our mutual friend Mats Gustafsson when we did a project for Swedish radio a few years together. Dror is a phenomenal artist, performer, and person. He is probably the only guy I know who has a chainsaw-scar on his leg from a tour he did in the early '80. A duo LP of us called No More Drama is coming on No Fun Productions later this year.
Are there any artist you especially enjoyed working with or hold in high regard?
Most of the people I've collaborated with have been rewarding experiences. Especially those I've worked with long-term, people like John Hegre, Maja Ratkje, Tom Løberg, Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love, Per Gisle Galåen, Kjell Runar Jenssen, Fredrik Ness Sevendal, Frode Gjerstad, Ivar Bjørnson, Tore Bøe etc., have been especially enjoyable. I'm lucky to be working with them.
Any interesting collaboration stories?
On a tour with Origami Replika in the mid-'90s we played in a forest where some punks/hippies had a commune, living in trailers. This was in south Germany I think. Year-round these people lived there without electricity, but for one evening every summer they got power from a neighbor-farm and held a big party/festival. And that year they booked us. A rather strange decision, since we at that time were known for being naked and quite physical on stage. I guess we were in the area at that date and were willing to play for food and accommodation. When I was sound-checking, one of the local people walks on stage and plugs in a bass and starts to play. With no warning or introduction. I respond with feedback-noise and we start this truly wild call-and-response sound-duel. It goes on for quite a while. So long that Origami Replika ends up not playing. I never got to know the guy's name, but after 11-12 years it's still one of the collaborations I remember best. Perhaps because it was so completely unexpected.
"Never forget: It's only music."
Back to your interest in metal. Any acts you admire?
I don't follow what's going on in today's metal scene that closely. I prefer to go to metal festivals like Inferno and Hole In The Sky here in Norway to check out new bands live. The best metal shows I saw last year were Gallhammer, Nifelheim, Watain, and good old Napalm Death. I think Iron Maiden is the best currently active metal band. Both live and on record. A Matter of Life and Death will stand as the best metal album of this decade.
Do you think the metal influence makes its way into your non-Jazkamer projects?
The metal influence has always been there. My initial inspiration to make noise came from extreme metal. Albums like "Scream Bloody Gore" and "Severed Survival" had more to say on my output than any Japanese noise or free-improv freak-out recordings. I wanted to translate the sonic brutality I heard in extreme metal to an abstract form. Something that just captured the energy and feeling of it. Actually I had no choice, living in rural North Norway, there was no one to start a band with. In my mind, I can hear the metal influence in a lot of my work, but I understand people coming from a different musical background can't make the connection. But Metal Music Machine and the big-ensemble live incarnations of Jazkamer was the first time I approached metal in a direct way, with big drums and fat, heavy guitar-walls.
Could you possibly run down a quick list of projects, side projects and bands you've performed in, or are currently performing in?
Cut and paste: DEL, Jazkamer, Origami Replika/Synergika, The Nordic Miracle, Phonoloid, MBD, Testicle Hazard, Fire Room, Field, Nash Kontroll, Sultans of Swing, Herb Mullin, Two Limited, Egoproblem, Satan Power, Rishaug Marhaug, The Sleazy Listeners, Sunn0))), Lasse Marhaug Band, Slugfield, The Zen Nuns, Tore Bøe, Climax of Copenhagen, duo with Maja Ratkje, duo with Dror Feiler, duo with Paal Nilssen-Love and others. Jazkamer and DEL are my longest running and still main focus.
When did you start Pica Disk?
I started Pica Disk in 2007. It'd been in the pipeline for years. Basically, since I stopped Jazzassin Records in 2001, it's been in the back of my mind that I wanted to start a new label sooner or later. But there wasn't the time or energy to do so until 2007. The Tapes box set was perfect for the first release to launch the label, but that was such a gigantic project it took over a year to get the music, design and packaging together in a way that I was 100% pleased with.
The reason for starting Pica is the only good reason to start a label; to put out music that would be unreleased otherwise. Putting a record together is a process I enjoy immensely. It doesn't matter if it's my own music or not. If it's something I'm excited about, it gives me a pleasure to present it to an audience is the best possible way. Releasing Hild Sofie Tafjord's Kama album was as satisfying as anything else I worked on last year. I'd been waiting for years for Hild to record her solo album. I just knew she had that album in her, but as it turned out I had to start a label to get her to do it.
The first Pica Disk was a 4xCD retrospective of your tape releases from 1990-1999. How have you evolved musically from then? Has your creating process changed much?
Putting together the box set, listening to all those old tapes, I realized that my interest and obsession in music and sound hadn't changed all that much over the years. Perhaps I've progressed on a technical level and probably more aware of what I'm doing, but the ideas are basically the same when I was a teenager and now.
Do you miss the tape days?
I'm still in my 30s! A bit early to be nostalgic isn't it?
The first few Pica Disk releases have all been stunners. I was impressed with how the Hijokaidan and Incapacitants really showed the wild, wooly side of noise while the Birchville Cat Motel and Fe-Mail releases showed the more beautiful side of experimental drone and centered around a more classical approach. Does this reflect your musical sensibilities? Are you into the celestial drone as much as the harsh noise? Would you consider it part of Pica Disk's mission to showcase the yin and yang of ugliness and beauty in noise?
I don't necessarily agree with your description of the harsh stuff as ugliness and drone as beautiful side of noise. To me, they are both beautiful. When I hear Incapacitants, I'm filled with a feeling of joy. It aims for the same levels of sonic ecstacy as Birchville Cat Motel, just reaching for it from another angle. But these first releases do give an indication of what direction Pica will take.
Is there any other mission you'd like Pica Disk to undergo?
There is no mission. I don't even consider it a ‘proper' label. There is no ambition of it growing bigger than it is now. I will do two or three batches every year of records I feel deserves an audience. My only goal is to make records worth buying.
What does the future hold for Pica Disk? Any future releases you'd like to break on TMT?
I keep my mouth shut and never announce any release until it's 100% sure that it will happen. Which with Pica is pretty much when the records are on their way to the pressing plant. I like to keep things simple and avoid having to respond to internet rumors and gossip. But I can say that there is some juicy stuff coming up. Harsh noise fans out there will be extremely pleased with one of the bigger releases I'm working on.
"The reason for starting Pica is the only good reason to start a label; to put out music that would be unreleased otherwise."
Love your solo jams. Any new Lasse material on the horizon?
I've been working on a new solo album for Smalltown Superjazzz the last six months. It only remains to master it. Smalltown will release it this autumn. This is the follow-up to 2004's The Shape of Rock to Come and is more guitar-based and heavy-sounding. I've been working with Jon Wesseltoft of the metal band Thorns on this record. Maja Ratkje, Hild Sofie Tafjord, Kevin Drumm, and Stian Westerhus have also contributed.
From looking at your website, I can see you're an avid listener. Any contemporary acts / artists you are particularly moved by? How about artists of the past?
I'm an avid record-collector and spend many hours of the week listening to music. I've recently been listening to Brendan Murray's new album quite a bit. Kevin's new Imperial Distortion is also making the rounds. And the new 1/3 Octave Band CD on Humbug Records, although I'm not sure if I like it as much as the previous one. Other things I've been spinning lately is Eliane Radique, Bruce Haack, Richard Pinhas, Gordon Mumma, Bjerga/Iversen, and Edward Ruchalski. Excited that Trash Ritual has reissued the Mauthausen Orchestra Vernichtung Lebenunwerten Leben tape on double LP. Classic noise that deserves to be heard by a new audience. I'm also excited about the recent reissue of Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue, long overdue, but with so much incredible bonus material, it's been worth the wait.
There is an avalanche of new music coming out, and as much as I appreciate this wealth of ideas and sounds, I find it impossible to keep updated on all that's happening. I often pick up records that friends will recommend me. My philosophy is: Music is like food; you can't taste it all, but you can have a good time trying.
What are your tour plans for the rest of the year, if any.
This year, with the exclusion of the Japan tour we did with Jazkamer in February, I'm only doing single shows, mini-tours, and festival gigs. Spending more time at home working in the studio and on the label. Going to spend most of the autumn working on sound-design and music for a theatre-production here in Oslo.
You're also one of the curators for Norway's annual All Ears Festival. When and how did you get involved with the fest? I see that the 2008 festival has already occurred, but have you begun to plan 2009's fest? Any notable acts procured already?
All Ears is a festival dedicated only to improvised music. It was started by Paal Nilssen-Love. I wasn't involved in the first two years, but joined when I moved to Oslo in 2003. For a festival of such small ambitions, it's been a great success. We're blessed with a steady audience who will turn up to hear artists they've never heard before. There's always mixed lineups; a quiet acoustic set can be followed by harsh electronic noise. No genre segregation. The 2008 edition was early January this year and again was a good time for both audience and artists. We're currently in the process of putting together 2009's lineup, but it's too early to say any names. Actually, the hardest part of the festival is scheduling time to have meetings. All four organizers being traveling musicians, it's tricky. The actual festival is the easy part.
Mr. Marhaug, you are a gentleman and a scholar. I am very inspired with all you do. Any other anecdotes, plugs, or dark secrets you'd like to divulge to the TMT audience?
Never forget: It's only music.