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By: Dave Cooper
Norwegian progressive rockers Gazpacho have put together many ambitious records, but their latest, Molok, could potentially destroy the universe. Dave Cooper spoke to Gazpacho keyboardist Thomas Andersen about the nature of the universe, stone age instrumentation, the band’s ever-increasing sonic palette, and the demands of bringing Gazpacho’s cinematic music to the stage.
(((o))): Molok is Gazpacho’s ninth studio album, and it’s been 12 years since your debut, Bravo, was released. Just how surprised are you to be sitting here, eight albums on?
Thomas: I am still shocked at the amount of music and the quality of all the stuff we have done over the years. We never really intended to be a “band” in the way that we have become. We just wanted to have a bit of fun in the studio and then things snowballed from there. It’s crazy.
(((o))): Your albums regularly cover a lot of ground conceptually; Molok takes on the nature of god and the destruction of the universe. How easy is it to come up with the ‘big ideas’ that have typified your albums since Firebird?
Thomas: It is very easy. Gazpacho is a band that does not aspire to have a certain sound and this leaves the canvas very open to whatever we want to put on it. With no constraints all the the normal events that go on in all lives can be put into the songs without filters and this seems to have a stimulating effect! Life is rich and is such a great adventure so we will never run out of material in our short lifetimes.
(((o))): It’s also often pretty dark stuff. Is it easier to write about darker subject matter?
Thomas: We always make the concepts after we have finished the musical ideas and as we enjoy dramatic dark soundscapes the concepts have to follow. There is also the fact that life has very dark sides and coming to terms with that is probably the most important internal fight you will have. If you can find a way to rationalize and incorporate the ugly truths into your worldview and remain happy then that is a great artistic achievement and music can be helpful in this.
(((o))): How does the band write? Many of your albums are dreamlike, more like streams of consciousness, rather than a series of songs. Is that a conscious decision, or does it all just fall into place that way?
Thomas: The writing of music is a dreamlike state where the concentration is so high that it becomes almost like a trance. Usually this will take place alone and the mood of the original idea will influence the rest of the development of the song.
As we have no fear whatsoever of boring the listener (ha ha) and a deep respect for all the people who genuinely like our stuff we can allow these sections to develop where they want to go without worrying about how they’re all going to be perceived by people on a dance floor. We believe that all people are basically the same so our credo is “if we like it, it’s probably good”.
(((o))): So can you tell us a bit more about where the inspiration for Molok came from? What was your starting point? How much did the concept change as the album came together?
Thomas: The original idea was to make music inspired by the intricate patterns on the walls of the Alhambra. One simple melody that would repeat and become increasingly complex as new elements were added. This was also intended to be very catchy and mesmerizing.
Then I started thinking about how the greatest buildings and artwork that mankind has made always tend to be stone buildings built to worship God and when you look at the size of some of them we seem so desperate to get in touch with him/it.
That led to thoughts on how, in our western secular societies, we have no substitute to sit on the now empty throne of the God that used to be there and instead our big buildings are stadiums for U2 shows and football matches. Something is still missing from our collective psyche.
The consequence of a universe without a higher mind or plan could be a mechanistic universe that blindly follows the laws of physics and in a pure mechanistic universe with no free will it should be possible to simulate the entire history of the universe given that you have the correct answer to three things. The mass, motion and movement of all particles in the universe. In our story, the main character by luck, or something else, gets the right answer and builds a machine, Molok, to simulate the universe in his search for God. He destroys the universe in the attempt as his measurements on a quantum level freeze time.
(((o))): Going back to the music, there’s always been a strong folk influence in your work, but lately there’s been a strong Balkan influence – I’m thinking specifically of tracks like ‘The Wizard Of Altai Mountains’ and ‘Bela Kiss’. Is there any particular reason for this?
Thomas: Yes, the album has a stone age theme as the machine Molok itself runs through all the early music and religions from the dawn of man and the folk music of the Balkans sounds to me like it has been left very much alone for historical and geographical reasons. I believe it is a link to early music. In the wizard of altai it is used because the song is about a boy in a very difficult situation where the wizard is a fantasy figure he has created to give himself strength and because the Balkan music has a childlike fun quality to it, it seemed to work.
(((o))): Molok also sees a couple of guest musicians in the form of musical archaeologist Gjermund Kolltveit and accordionist Stian Carstensen. Can you tell us more about what led to them guesting on the album?
Thomas: Stian Carstensen is the world’s best accordion player and an expert on Balkan music so it would be crazy not to use his genius. Gjermund Kolltveit is a music archaeologist who specialises in how stone age music might have sounded so we needed him to make an educated guess at how the first religious ritual music would have sounded like in Molok’s simulation as it runs through the first religions.
(((o))): I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the “strange sound” at the end of the album that could potentially destroy the universe. Whose idea was that? You do realise that if the album actually destroys the universe, a lot of people are going to be pretty pissed? Even if it’s very briefly.
Thomas: The idea was mine, I believed it would make the experience of listening to the album a deeper one if it brought risk into it. It is also meant to demonstrate that even if science is the dominating method for perceiving reality and even though we hear and accept what the scientists say, we still don’t believe it all deep down. We’ll still listen to the album. It’s just like how religious people might believe that there is a heaven, but they still do not want to die no matter how terrible their lives are.
(((o))): You’re also touring the record, of course, with the usual small set of dates. Would you like to play longer tours with more shows, or is it just logistically too difficult? I know most if not all of you have “day jobs” of some kind. Plus it must be an extremely costly endeavour to tour outside of your home country.
Thomas: We tour small tours as they break even financially and still allow us to tour in comfort. As I’m sure you understand, the kind of people who go to Gazpacho shows are quite the bunch of characters and it is genuinely fun and even moving sometimes to meet and talk to them. We would have liked to do longer tours, but reality does not allow this at the moment.
(((o))): Do you feel the touring side of things is getting easier or more difficult? Are some countries a lot easier in that regard than others?
Thomas: The touring is easy as we have found a good team and we are all great friends who make an effort to make the tour as good as possible. I think all countries are basically the same and all the people we meet are friendly and intelligent.
(((o))): This time out your support act is the Russian band Iamthemorning, another great band from the Kscope stable. Was the partnership the band’s idea or the labels? Have you heard their material?
Thomas: Iamthemorning are managed by our manager so we’re part of the same family. We also loved their stuff and when they were willing to support us we believed it made a great addition to our show and were honoured to have them along.
(((o))): What are your favourite and least favourite things about touring? I imagine that rehearsing some of the longer, more complex songs can be really difficult – what is the band’s rehearsal regime?
Thomas: The rehearsal regime is harsh in the sense that everyone is expected to arrive fully rehearsed at the first rehearsal. This is because, as you mention, some of the songs are very long and complex and finding the technical solution for performing them live is difficult and almost impossible unless everyone knows exactly what their parts are. Touring is like war, a mixture of 90 percent boredom while waiting around for things and 10 percent of the best fun in the world while playing the gigs.
(((o))): Nine albums in twelve years is pretty damn prolific. Have you ever struggled to get started on an album? Or is the problem more of having so many musical ideas that you have to decide what to keep working on? Are you working on ideas all the time, or do you set aside specific time to write?
Thomas: The problem is having so much material that the time spent recording and touring almost seem torturous as we want to get cracking on a new one as soon as we can. If we had this as a full time job we could have made two or three albums a year. My brain is constantly writing, even when I do other things the subconscious grinds away.
(((o))): I know most musicians would baulk at this, but: if you had to choose the Gazpacho albums you’re proudest of, which albums would you choose? Have you ever been disappointed with a record after it was completed?
Thomas: At this time Molok is to me our finest achievement closely followed by Demon, Tick Tock and Night. My least favourite album is Firebird, which was rushed during the mixing process. It’s still good, but it could have been so much better with a few extra months. I do love ‘Do You Know What You Are Saying?’ though.
(((o))): You guys do love your conceptual records. Is it a conscious decision to base each album around a central idea, or does it happen by accident? Is it easier for you to write around a central concept?
Thomas: I think that if you make an album you need a damned good excuse to make one. There are so many bands making records of songs of varying quality and I think the market is saturated to put it mildly. In my day job I make jingles for commercials and very successfully too, but making a catchy song is still work and doesn’t do much for me. A concept album is a rich fertile soil where you can indulge yourself in complex ideas and immerse yourself in a state of contemplation where all you’re frustrations love and feeling of wonder at whatever the subject is can flow freely with no constraints. How anyone can be fulfilled not doing concept albums is a mystery to me.
(((o))): What would you say are Gazpacho’s biggest influences?
Thomas: There is no doubt that in the construction of an album Kate Bush is the dominating influence. ‘The Ninth Wave’ from Hounds of Love to be precise. Marillion were also a big influence on the early version of the band. Lately we have started incorporating the musical aesthetic of some of the more modern classical composers such as Bartok and in our weaker moments Schoenenberg. Especially on tracks like ‘Death Room’ from Demon, which I consider to be the closest we get to a masterpiece.
(((o))): Since Night, you’ve worked pretty much exclusively with Spanish artist Antonio Seijas to illustrate your records. Can you tell us a bit more about how you first contacted Antonio and what drew you to his work?
Thomas: We met him in the Marillion fan circles and when we heard he did artwork we decided to give him a chance. When we received the cover ideas for Night we were blown away and have been ever since. As he works alongside us when we finish an album some of the songs someone take inspiration from his take on the concept as we interpret his sketches for the artwork. He seems to completely understand what we are about and is a 7th member of the band in every way.
(((o))): You’re now signed to Kscope – just how much of a difference has Kscope made to the band? What are the best (and worst) things about being signed to the label?
Thomas: I could gush all day about Kscope. First of all it is an honour to be on the label which we share with some of heroes. We also feel that being on Kscope is like a stamp of quality on the band. It has changed our situation immensely as they do all the boring stuff, dealing with promotion, distribution and all the things which we would never be able to handle competently ourselves. They also never interfere with the music and leave us alone with whatever craziness with are up to completely trusting us to come up with the goods. They are the best.
(((o))): So what’s next for you guys? Where do you go after attempting to destroy the universe?
Thomas: Great question and one to which there is no answer at the moment. We have been playing around with some ideas, but I think the best thing to do now is nothing and wait for something to materialise. It always does.
(((o))): Anything else you’d like to add?
Thomas: Thanks to all the people who buy the albums and generally support us. It has enriched our lives enormously and we appreciate it.
Lots and lots of love.