In the beginning of 2010 something really special happened when the Norwegian band SHINING released their fifth album Blackjazz. It was the introduction of the band to many people around the world, a metamorphose of sorts, and the beginning of something quite unique. Jazz and metal eye-to-eye again but with a new voice. Almost six years later, and with One One One in the middle, the band keeps growing in that world that they’ve created. It was about that world and the new International Blackjazz Society that we talked about with saxophonist/guitarist/vocalist Jørgen Munkeby.
The new album is finally out, how do you feel, relieved or anxious?
When it has been written, recorded, produced, mixed, mastered, and when I’m done with it and I’ve decided that I’m done – and obviously done with the artwork – then that’s the point where I’m relieved, mostly. Upon until then I constantly second guess myself and constantly wondering if I should do an album it’s not that a big of a deal to me because I can’t really do much after the album is written and recorded. I hope that everybody enjoy it, but after is finished, there’s nothing I can do to change that.
Talking about second guessing, did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to achieve, writing this album?
When I started making the album I was actually planning on writing one song, rehearsing it, recording it, mixing it, mastering it, and then release it. And I would repeat that process, one song at a time, in a pre-defined time schedule. For example, I would release a brand new song every three months for a couple of years. That way we could do documentaries and video clips about how the songs were made, etc. And the songs would be different. If we were on tour then we probably wouldn’t have time to write, so maybe we would do a cover song and then we were home we could do more work. Each song would be defined by the period they were created. But pretty quickly I discovered that the three labels that we’re releasing on – one in Norway, one in Europe, and another one in the US – didn’t really agree if this was a good idea or not, and I didn’t want to spend time arguing with them, so I just continued making music. I said to myself that if they can’t decide then I’m just keeping writing and making music. Pretty soon, after that, it started to turn into the opposite and I started thinking about all the music as an album. So, when I made three songs I immediately put them together and thought of them as an album and we were kind of thinking what kind of songs would be useful for the album. If I had three up-tempo songs, maybe I wanted one mid-tempo, and other stuff to make the album as a whole interesting. So, pretty quickly I started thinking in that way and that’s how the album came together.
Are you considering to go back to that idea in the future? It’s a great idea and a great way to promote your music, especially in a world that’s so much single-orientated.
Yeah, I think it’s a great idea and I would definitely love to do it in the future. The problem is that the music business, especially in rock and metal…
Operating in the more old fashion way.
Yeah, especially more than the EDM and dubstep scenes. Those scenes are operating in a different way. They’ve been basing their career in Soundcloud uploads and stuff like that. Skrillex was one of the biggest artists in the world without even having a full-length album released – there was just an EP. And also the pop world has started taking after that. In Norway all the new pop artists that are signed to Universal, they sign deals for singles. One song at a time. I’ve never heard about that. [laughs] In the rock and metal world the whole model is based on albums. Actually, we signed with Spinefarm Records and for the first time I had a contract that says how long the album should be – for example, they talk about the minimum amount of minutes. It has to do with money, basically. A vinyl or a CD cost a certain amount of money to make no matter how much music you put on it. So, if you have a CD with two songs it is hard to charge the same price, to the costumer, for it compared with a CD that has ten or fifteen tracks. The same thing goes for vinyl, the only difference being that the vinyl has a lower time limit [generally 45 minutes divided in two sides]. Those things they define the… That’s why the album is like it is and there’s also mechanical royalties. All these rules about how much – I forgot the details – but there’s a reason why…
I remember a few weeks ago watching an interview with the rapper Lupe Fiasco and he was saying that he only receives royalties for the first eight or ten songs on the album. The remaining songs come out of his pocket.
That’s right. That’s why most albums have ten or twelve songs. It depends on each country you are in. But that’s correct and you only receive money for songs that have more than one minute. The hip hop albums have a bunch of interludes between the songs, but they don’t count so they have ten or twelve real songs. This is especially true in the US. Their contracts, in the US, are twenty fucking pages long. There are reasons why these things are the way they are, and I’m not saying that it’s bad – an example of a good reason is the one I mentioned before with the CD and vinyl. Another version to the idea I told you before would be having a period where we would make a couple of songs, release them every couple of months, and then stopping and then after that start making an album. I think making an album while thinking about being a bigger thing is a great way to do it, but I also love the idea of making a song in a way that is supposed to be just a single, just a song by itself. Two different approaches that for me are equally great.
“A metalhead needs to believe that I have grown up and lived with metal music, that it’s in my blood, and a jazz fan needs to feel that when I play the sax I know what I’m doing, that I really know the jazz history, and that is really a part of me.”
You’ve studied music at the Norwegian Academy of Music. I’m always curious about the advantages and disadvantages of studying music at such technical level. What’s your take on it, what does your experience tell you?
I always thought that the best way you could do to become a musician was to study music, study it intensely. Just to become knowledgeable and to become really good at every aspect of it, but – I’ve actually turned thirty five yesterday – in my last couple of years I started thinking and I’m not sure if that is the best way. It has worked for me well. It’s hard to say if it would, or would not, work out even better if I didn’t study music at the Norwegian Academy of Music. There are other musicians, in Norway, that have made really interesting, great, and unique stuff that have not been as well educated as me. I can’t, and I don’t want to tell anyone what’s the right way of doing it. I mean, I know a lot of well-educated musicians, that went through the same route as I, and that are now struggling to be a musician. They’re usually working as teachers or something else. And there are also musicians that haven’t studied music and that are also struggling. It’s possible to fail in both ways, and it’s possible to succeed in both.
In your case, you were thinking outside of the box. No one was doing what you were doing before you, regarding Blackjazz.
That thing – the combination between black metal and jazz – I wouldn’t have been able to do without going my route. Without starting listening to metal music when I was a kid and then spending an extreme amount of time and energy studying jazz music. I studied that, and only that, for ten years. If I hadn’t done that – listening to metal when I was a kid and then studying jazz – I wouldn’t have been able to combine those two things. I think that in our case both parts need to be believable, you know that I mean? A metalhead needs to believe that I have grown up and lived with metal music, that it’s in my blood, and a jazz fan needs to feel that when I play the sax I know what I’m doing, that I really know the jazz history, and that is really a part of me. If one of those parts weren’t as strong as the other it would feel fake, it wouldn’t work.
In which way do you see jazz and black metal being similar?
There are so many different ways of playing of jazz, and there are so many different ways of playing metal, obviously. You’ve mentioned black metal which is just one part of the whole spectrum – New Wave of British Heavy Metal, thrash metal, death metal, prog metal, doom metal, etc. And then in the jazz world you have Dixieland jazz, big band jazz, bebop, free jazz, etc. So, there’s a lot in these two genres (jazz and metal) and not all of these things go well together, but in my mind the two things that have the strongest similarities between jazz and metal… First of all, I would say that some jazz saxophone players with a very hard, metallic tone. They have this aggressive, intense way of playing. Like for instance, John Coltrane in his later years and Albert Ayler. They have that kind of tone, and that’s the kind of tone that I have in mind in my sax. That really resembles a distorted guitar in the metal world, they sound pretty much the same. Another similarity between the jazz part and the metal part that I kind of combine… in the jazz world, in the late 60s/early 70s, it was when the free jazz music started they stopped being that much focused on the technical side of things and they started focusing more on the atmosphere and the feeling of the music. A lot of the music became very spiritual like John Coltrane’s most well-known album is called A Love Supreme , which is like a whole tribute to God, in a way. And later on he had albums called, for instances Interstellar Space . So, it is a very spiritual thing. In the metal world you have people like Yngwie Malmsteen, who is focused on the technical side of playing, but on the other hand you have stuff like black metal which is more focused on the atmosphere, and the mood. They didn’t focus that much on the technical side. Also, there’s a spiritual side to it. Those aspects go really well together.
I remember Frank Zappa saying that it was Edgard Varèse’s The Complete Works that made him realize that anything was possible, even if it sounds weird as fuck. What was the artist that made you realize that it was possible to blend almost anything?
To me, I would say that it was several artists that have opened up different doors. I started with metal music and the artists that made me feel that that music is important was stuff like the Swedish band Entombed and Pantera – those were my favorite. And then I started to realize that you could mix different elements when I discovered Dream Theater and the death metal band Death, their latest era when Chuck Schuldiner started to infuse some jazz in it. In the jazz world, John Coltrane was the first artist that made me feel that I truly love jazz music, because before that I didn’t really like it. He really made me love jazz music and he also opened up a lot of doors when it comes to harmonies, expanding the theoretical harmonic side of music… He did a huge job expanding that world. Miles Davis was one the jazz people that started introducing studio work and electronic instruments into jazz music, which was another revolution. I think that Dillinger Escape Plan is also one of the bands who’ve expanded my thought of what’s possible. And also Meshuggah with how they play metal in a very specific and very unique way, and how they focus on getting that swinging groove which I think is something that a lot of metal bands are not that good at.
We really need to talk about the concert you played in a mountain, in a cliff-top 700 meters above ground. First question: were you thinking about cool ways to leave this world when you had this idea?
[laughs] Actually, it wasn’t my idea. The idea came from a guy from that area that contacted us. He has been organizing festivals for some time and he knew about our band, and he knew that we’ve done weird stuff before, playing in weird places. So, he felt that we were the perfect band to do this, and I will tell you that as soon as I saw that email from our booking agent I thought it was a great idea. But I also knew that it was going to be really hard to pull it off, and I knew that it was going to be really dangerous… and really expensive. To be honest, I didn’t really think we would be able to do it, and to make it even harder we were confirmed for a festival show in Belgium for the day before. I didn’t think it was possible, but we figured that we could take a plain, in the evening, from Amsterdam to Bergen and there was a chance of getting there on time. We spent a lot time planning everything and making sure we brought what we needed and nothing more because we had to fly all the equipment up so we couldn’t bring backups of stuff and needed to have exactly the equipment we needed because if we had forgotten one extension cable then we wouldn’t be able to play the show. It worked out, but it was really dangerous. To tell you the truth, we didn’t even know if the cliff would able to take all that weight. We didn’t know what the loud bass frequencies could do, and stuff like that. The truth is, no one had ever tried that before.
“Sometimes I feel that we spent a lot of time and we’ve travelled really far, and sometimes I feel we’ve just started and that we haven’t travelled that far.”
I have this question in my head for the last five years. Was King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” cover chosen simply because you love the song, who did you want it there to help people understand what you were trying to achieve with Blackjazz in general?
We were invited to play on a radio show in Norway, where the whole idea is artists come in and talk about another artist, they play some songs from that artist, and at the end of the show they perform a cover song from that artist. “21st Century Schizoid Man” was one of the options and we had some ideas on how to adapt that song so that it could work with our band. It was really a practical kind of decision. I like their music and I love to talk about it even though it’s not something that have really defined me as a musician. I mean, I still bought their albums because it’s an important band in music history. After that time playing the song we continued playing it live because we liked the version that we’ve made and then on the album… We weren’t sure if we were going to include it but we recorded it and worked a little bit on it, to make sure it sounded less blues rock and more industrial. Basically, we managed to get it to sound like the other Blackjazz’s songs. Like you said, we felt that it would help things in historical context. It would kind of explain, like you said, what we were doing and where we come from, and link it to another band has linked these kind of elements before. Because without a doubt King Crimson has been a link between jazz music and metal music before we were that link.
International Blackjazz Society. Would it be fair to say that you guys went for branding with this title?
Yeah, I think we already went for a branding title when we released Blackjazz in 2010. This is like expanding it, or making it bigger. Even solidifying the whole idea. It’s a statement.
I was really impressed with “House of Control”. How that song came to be?
Like I said to you in the beginning, early on I started to think the album as one big album and after a while I felt it would be cool to see if we could have, if we could write a song that was softer. When we play headline shows and we play for an hour or more, sometimes… I thought it would be cool if we could have one song that could take it all the way down because we don’t have anymore. We used to have that a long time ago, but since Blackjazz everything has just been really hard. Those two reasons – to give a variation to our live set and also to give a variation to the album. That was the initial idea and then definitely the song “Hurt”, by Nine Inch Nails. One of NIN’s biggest songs, one of my favorite. They are known for their aggressive music while still they were able to make these ballads that didn’t sound cheesy. I felt that it could be possible and I started writing with that in mind. I actually thought about the possibility of making that song using just vocals and keyboards/synths, no band really, but then I sent two versions to our producer Dag Haaland Sætran and he liked the band version the most so we decided to go with that. Another place where I took some inspiration was from Queens of the Stone Age’s “If I Had A Tail”, from their latest album …Like Clockwork. It starts with Josh Homme singing and playing piano and there’s the band comes in, in the pre-choruses… It has kind of the same thing on “House of Control”. But I know that it is probably not possible to hear the similarities now because I’ve worked a lot with it and things changed. But yeah, those were my starting points.
Does it feel that you’ve travelled so far musically with Shining?
You know, sometimes I feel that we’ve travelled so far and mostly that we’ve been trying for so long that I might as well just give up. We’ve been at it for fifteen or sixteen years. BUT then I remind myself that actually we can split our history in two. When Blackjazz was released that’s when something special happened, I think. That’s when a lot of people discovered us and Blackjazz is also the name of the music we make now. You can think of our band as if it started in 2010, and if I think that way then I would say that we haven’t really travelled that far, we’re still making music that sounds sort of like Blackjazz, and we’ve done pretty well since 2010. [laughs] A lot of musicians play in a lot of bands during their life. They change bands, they change the name of the band, and there’s always a new band coming into the picture, while we’ve made new bands all along but we kept the name. Sometimes I feel that we spent a lot of time and we’ve travelled really far, and sometimes I feel we’ve just started and that we haven’t travelled that far.
Have you been following the Middle East refugee situation? I’m curious to know how things in Norway in that regard are.
I have. I actually spent quite a bit of time working on stuff related to that, in the last couple of weeks. A group of people in Oslo started a group near a local police station where the refugees come to get their papers processed. They started to have so many refugees that they have a hard time dealing with this situation. The refugees don’t have a proper place to sleep, don’t have proper foods. Just stuff like that. So, local people living there saw that and they started making food for them, they started dropping by to see if the refugees needed clothes, and stuff like that. After a while I felt that they needed more help to do this. They started a Facebook group and they wanted a logo so I made a logo for them so that they could use in their pages, maybe use it to make some jackets for when they were working with the refugees – that way you could see exactly what they were doing. So, that’s really taking off in Norway. They started two weeks ago and now there are more than 60.000 people in that group. There are fifteen other places in Norway their local places to help the refugees. I’ve been adapting the logo to all these places.
How’s the Norwegian government dealing with it?
At the moment we have, unfortunately, a right-wing government. After the actual government took over we had for eight years a left-wing government, a socialist government. Those years were really good – the economy, we were able to deal with crisis like that terrorist attack in Norway, etc. – but people just decided that they wanted something different and so we got a bunch of idiots to rule the country for a couple of years. That’s where we’re now. It’s two parties in the actual government, one that I would say it’s like the Republican party (basically for the rich guys) and then you have another one that’s even more right-wing than the first. Those two run the country together and they don’t want to spend the money on the refugees, they are trying to make it like the refugees are coming here to take our jobs and to live off of our society. They try to make people feel like we’ve worked so hard to make the country while in fact we were lucky because we discovered oil 40 years ago. [laughs]