The following interview was conducted February 10, 2008, by Mr. Maxim Micheliov, a jazz enthusiast and archivist from Lithuania. The piece originally featured in the Russian jazz magazine, Jazz.ru, and the text was translated to English for publishing here in the US. The ever-candid Mats will soon enjoy a release on the new Lithuanian label, No Business Records, documenting some of the music discussed here. Be on the lookout.
The event — Gustafsson’s Feb. 9th appearance in Lithuania — was a piece of spontaneous improvisation itself. The occasion began with an accidental contact on Ebay, when a music fan from Vilnius and Mats engaged in continuous conversation about a rare LP. The contact developed into a further acquaintance and concert arrangements.
Mats Gustafsson played two sets – an explosive solo program and in a quintet with Liudas Mockūnas (saxophones), Eugenijus Kanevičius (bass), Arkadij Gotesman (drums), and Marius Aleksa (drums).
The performance was organized and recorded by a local music club, Thelonious, and will soon be released on the aforementioned No Business Records.
The interview with Mats Gustafsson after the concert in Vilnius…
Let’s talk about your project “The Thing”.
It’s the group that I always wanted to work with. Where everything is about sharing and trust and respect…and everyone in the group is just eager to play and try new things all the time. And all three are always curious to take new challenges and to question stuff…
For me, its like a dream to work in a group like this. Where we can combine our sick interest in grind core, noise, free jazz, garage rock and everything in between and make music that is just simply The Thing.
[It began] like a Don Cherry tribute…but really soon everything just took off and we started to work with material from a lot of different music traditions…basically just trying to involve impulses from music we love — but always transforming it to our own music! And it feels that we just started the whole thing…there is a shitload of stuff to still explore!!!!!!
Is there a particular concept or idea behind it; some philosophy which can be put in few words? Audiences are always looking for concepts.
No, not really a concept… it’s more to do with the fact that we can’t be without this group and the music we are doing together…we just wanna kick some ass with the most thrilling music we know. Lately the book has involved pieces by Duke Ellington, 54 Nude Honeys, Albert Ayler, Åke Hodell, Steve Lacy and others. It’s all up there for grabs! Music is music… mystery is mystery… you just have to go with the flow…
The Thing seems to perform well-structured material. Please tell about measure of composition (or “planning” in more general sense) and pure improvisation in your music.
It’s all mixed, basically. I can say that we never decide what material to use in a performance. We leave it totally open…there is never a set list. Whoever picks up a theme does… and the others can choose to join or not. So, in a way it’s all improvised, with some written bridges in between.
I heard an absolutely fantastic Swedish jazz trio when I was 15 called the Per Henrik Wallin trio. They played free jazz…some kind of free jazz, sounding like Monk meets Cecil Taylor backwards. And there was never any set list but written stuff was flying through the air. I couldn’t believe how it worked. It was like magic – pure telepathy, it seemed.
It takes a lot of working together, but I do believe that this is a form that really fits The Thing to work within. It makes it more thrilling for every evening. We never know if there will be one or fifty themes per night. It all depends…on the evening.
Please tell about input of guest musicians - Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark - into the music of the band. Who else can you imagine playing together with The Thing?
Well, of course the different guests really change the music of the group. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth inviting them. We love working with guests. It’s always a thrill, and kicks our asses!
So far Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark, Thurston Moore, Jim O´Rourke, Otomo Yoshihide and others have been doing a great job in that. Hopefully this journey can continue. Among other things, we will tour with Ken in Japan and Scandinavia in September and with Joe in Texas in November.
The Thing is obviously a constantly developing project, where is it going? What are the future plans?
If we knew that, we would just stop playing.
Please tell a “band story”, anything funny in connection with this group (maybe about that photo session?).
Well, those things are only for talking and drinking… There is way to much to tell about things that happened during tours and shit…but, this all has to be discussed in the nearest bar or record shop. Let’s see what happens!
You are playing some very unusual “Swedish folk” instruments. Can you tell about them? [at the concert Mats introduced his instruments as “folk”]
They are not especially Swedish, I’m afraid. I’m just looking for new instruments that can challenge me in one way or the other. If it is low budget live electronics, or if it is a 1922 slide sax, or a home built alto fluteophone…it doesn’t matter, as long as they add something to the music. But, the main axe will always be my Bari. I really like the idea of mixing the sound and colours up a little bit. So, with The Thing we are now using a lot of live electronics, sometimes very noisy.
Mats, your passion for punk rock has been mentioned many times and collaboration with Sonic Youth brought to you wide recognition far outside the jazz community. How deep is your connection with rock music today?
Well good shit is always good shit. Nothing can change that. My roots are my roots and I don’t want to change that fact. I’m standing with one leg in the punk/ garage bucket and the other in the free jazz/ improv bucket. Balance might vary. I’m always looking for challenging projects within any genre, and right now I think there is more thrilling music to be found within the rock scene than in the jazz scene, in general.
Do you consider yourself “a jazz musician”? Is The Thing a jazz trio?
What is jazz? What is a musician? What is the Thing? I have no idea. But, jazz is my love, rock is my blood, and vinyl is my addiction. It’s all a sick mix, with sometimes surprising results and sometimes not. You can never relax about it, you can never really lean back and feel satisfied…that will fuck up he music and the flow. You have to continue the search. It takes a life…it has to. It should take a whole life to just explore. Maybe you will never really find the answers, but it is for sure nice to research, and a privilege to share that journey with others.
What other music apart from jazz catches your attention and inspires you?
Lots of different stuff of course, and I do not care what you call the music. Lately I’ve been listening to different stuff like: Howard Riley Trio, John Fahey, Anti Cimex, Merzbow’s “Merzbox”, PJ Harvey´s Peel Sessions, DräpEnHund, Lasse Marhaug, Tommy Flanagan Trio, Jackie McLean, Entombed, Serge Chaloff…
Do styles in music have any importance at all? Are they going to survive or is music melting…styles blending together to become something global and all inclusive?
If you blend and mix and make something good out of it, fine! If not… Of course it is important to keep some traditions as they are. You cant really fuck around with Biber or Bach that much, but when it comes to more improvised music traditions its all a different story, I believe. Just go with the flow. Make it your own music – make it your own language!
Did you enjoy your concert in Vilnius?
Man, it was amazing. Perfect situation, kicked my ass, seriously. Great room and an attentive audience! Good situation for creating some noise.
Your solo performance was a “hard nut to crack” for many in the theatre. What was your feeling about the audience?
It’s always up to the audience what to think. I can never tell them what to hear or what to think. If it is good or bad, it’s always up to each individual how to approach the music. I think the audience were great. I had a good time. Perhaps some of them were not used to this kind of noise, and that is great!
There is always something new around every corner, if you want to see it. Not everything is good, and a lot smells really funny. But there is always new shit to find and explore and to get inspired by. Otherwise you ought to stay home, if you don’t want to see that.
What can you say about your spontaneous collaboration with musicians from Vilnius?
I really fucking enjoyed it! We had a good time on stage and some of the sounds really fucking made sense to me, at least. It was for me a very good moment musically, everyone sharing the moment. Right on! FIRE!
There is of course a really interesting history and tradition of creative music from Lithuania with Chekasin, Tarasov and Ganelin and others. And I really have a feeling that we can start with some serious exchange across the water now.
The scene in Scania, where I live now, is also really interesting in the same way. Some interesting record labels are starting up and a couple of new places to play and to record. I think we might have some really interesting years coming up with good activity and exchange between Scania and Lithuania. We just need to make it happen, and we will!
Liudas is ROCKIN. And I think there are many more names after him that I haven’t heard of yet in Vilnius. Who knows - maybe 11-year-old Lukas will rock the scene in some years. I met him backstage at the theatre where I played and he has got he right energy to make things happen…already! I can’t wait to see what will happen.
The concert was advertised as “Mats Gustafsson & Friends”. How do you normally pick “friends”?
Usually other musicians share experiences and give advice. And since it all has to do with trust and respect, you really like to try those names out. My feeling is that it is almost all the time through other musicians that you hear about the good stuff. Not via newspapers or on records.
I just always want to play with musicians that challenge me in one way or the other. I don’t want to be sure about what will happen. It’s all about sharing that mystery moment.
What makes a good improviser? Please tell about onstage understanding between musicians.
Big ears…big heart and soul… The willingness to experiment. There are a lot of factors, of course. And those factors can only be negotiated on stage. You cannot learn it in school.
Learn by doing it, always!
You constantly work with musicians from both the United States and United Europe. Is there any difference? What can you say about modern American and European scenes?
Well, again — I see no differences really. It’s almost the individual person that is the most important factor. Not from where he or she comes from. That is the beauty with making improvised music together.
You can improvise with people from anywhere on the planet. It all has to do with who they are. I think that is really important. There have been way too many misunderstandings about that in the history of this music, I believe.
Have you played with musicians from Russia?
I only played with Sainkho Namchylak years ago, but I m always waiting for a new challenge.
I know that you last visited St. Petersburg over 10 years ago. What are your expectations for the new visit to Russia?
Just that we will meet and make new friends that could challenge us in one way or the other! Yeah — we cant wait!!!!!
Where do you see the future of music and jazz in particular? There are these endless and pretty dull discussions on whether “jazz is dead” or not.
If I wanna hear good jazz shit, I’d rather listen to vinyl with Clifford Brown, Bird, Bud [Powell], Monk, Hal McKusick, Warne Marsh, etc. There are really not many jazz players these days I want to listen to. Bernt Rosengren and Joakim Milder are two Swedish guys that still can play the real shit.
Jazz is dead, but music will always stay alive. As long as there is communication between people there will always be good music happening, and I don’t care what you call it. Jazz finally died with Derek Bailey’s cd, Ballads. It was about to die for a long time, but that was the final nail in the coffin.
Partial sessionography, The Thing
forthcoming : The Thing “NOW AND FOREVER”, 4 CD BOC, Smalltown Superjazz
Mats Gustafsson, “THE VILNIUS EXPLOSION”, No Business Records
~Interview by Maxim Micheliov, photos courtesy of Dmitrij Matvejev