Torstein Lofthus, a blackjazzer

I’m not really sure what a “blackjazzer” is, but it seemed like a cool thing to call a member of Shining, who just released their album Blackjazz, which blends death metal, jazz, and prog. Anyway, we talked to Torstein Lofthus, the band’s drummer, about his work with the band, his other projects (such as Elephant9) as well as his influences and some other stuff.

Nick: Hey Torstein. How are you doing? I’m gonna “canvas the area” of your musical background, so better prepare yourself for this “examination”, hehe. So, “Blackjazz” is being released for some time now and I have to say that this album has gathered up pretty high ratings. Are you satisfied how this turned out? Please tell us more about creating, as well as recording process of “Blackjazz”.

Torstein Lofthus

Torstein: We are all very satisfied with the way it turned out. We started the process maybe 1,5 years before the record was released, by rehearsing new songs and playing them live. This way we were well prepared when we got into the studio, and could keep the “live-feel” on the tracks. The process was also propelled by a collaboration with the Norwegian Metal band Enslaved with whom we did a commissioned work for Molde international Jazz festival 2008. It was called the armageddon concerto. Some of the tunes on our record is from that work. As for the studio process we tracked in 3 different studios: one in Spydeberg in Norway, one in out in the woods in Sweden, and also at Jørgens home studio. It was Mixed in USA by Sean Beavan and Mastered there as well. That by the way has been of utmost importance for the records sound and success.

Nick: I have an opinion that “Blackjazz” is heavier than anything you’ve put out to date. Much more experimentation, this album brings out probably the most extreme sound you could pull out yourselves. Do you agree?

Torstein: Yes, until our next record… :-)

Nick: The title of the album itself is nice choice, in my opinion and the fact is that it reflects to the album’s atmosphere. Who came up with this title? It sounds pretty much like a genre label, so would we be wrong if consider Shining playing “blackjazz”?

Torstein: It was something we discussed when we were out in the woods in Sweden. The idea was to set a name on the music we played, and make it the name of our record. Just like the Ornette Coleman record Free Jazz, or Venom´s “Black Metal”. Up until then everyone asked what music we played, and we could not answer, but now we can: We play Black Jazz.

Nick: Basically, the music you play is described simple as avant-garde, as you mix jazz, metal and progressive rock. This looks very “multicolored” and I’m interested to know about your influences, as influences of other members of the band.

Torstein: We are a unit of many different influences which make up the sound of the band. All of the members have very broad musical tastes, and have also studied music and learned to appreciate may different kinds of music. I will mention a list of in some way or another important influences for different members off the band:


Pantera
Slayer
Dillinger Escape Plan
Sun O)))
Miles Davis
John Coltrane
Michael Brecker
Steps Ahead
Led Zeppelin
Deep Purple
Black Sabbath
Ligeti
Messiaen
Atomic
Paul Simon
Frank Zappa
Albert Ayler
Ornette Coleman
Meshuggah
Marilyn Manson
Nine Inch Nails
Fredrik Thordendal
Emperror

Nick: “Fisheye” is a song which has been chosen to be single from “Blackjazz” and it’s interesting because of many rhythm changes, as well as of Jørgen’s vocals, which vary from whispers to screams. Seems like you’ve been influenced by so called “math metal”, the bands such are Genghis Tron / The Dillinger Escape Plan?

Torstein: That’s true. We have all listened quite a bit to Dillinger Escape Plan. We like their rhythmic complex music mixed with the extreme energy that they put out. We are also heavily influenced by the Swedish band Meshuggah.

Nick: “Blackjazz Deathrance” – a simply question would be: do I hear Meshuggah in this one? Or Ministry? Not that I’m trying to make you feel guilty or something, by mentioning all these bands, all I want is to emphasize that your music varies from Ennio Morricone, over Frank Zappa to the most extreme of already mentioned Meshuggah.

Torstein: Thanks! We have a lot of quotes in our music too. A part of “Exit sun” is a quote of a Meshugah tune, and the crazy rhythm part in the middle of Healter Skelter has quotes from Messiaen etc etc… Black jazz Death trance was derived out of a composition Jørgen wrote for the armageddon concerto with Enslaved, and it just went crazier and crazier as time went on…

Nick: Since the beginnings you’ve been influenced by King Crimson, if I’m not wrong, thus it was just a matter of time when you’ll put “21st Century Schizoid Man” cover on your album and I’m glad because of that, just because you’re the band which performance of this song shouldn’t be questioning. What’s your opinion on covering songs? In thise one you’ve added your cognizable stamp and Grutle Kjellson of Enslaved did great work on vocals.

Torstein: We don’t usually do covers, but we started doing this one when the Norwegian radio broadcast had a series of programs in which Norwegian bands and artists did their own version of songs that had meant much to them. We had, believe it or not, not heard much Crimson before, but our guitar player at the time, Even Hermansen, suggested that we should play this song. It worked out great, and it has stayed on our live repertoire ever since. This time we decided also to put it on reels… :-)
We have always been seen as a heavily King crimson influenced band, but the truth is that we started listening to them after everyone talked about how influenced we were. Obviously the comparison is not wrong, and it has to do with our mix of jazz, rock and prog, and the instrumentation in our band. That said: We all love Crimson now.

Nick: Let’s talk a bit of the song titles, which are interesting, as there’s a song containing Morse codes in its title, then “gibberish phrase” of Asa Nisi Masa, etc. It would be nice if you’d give us a short info of some of the song titles. Who comes up with these titles? Also what would it mean “Goretex Weather Report”? I guess you were probably alluding to fusion jazz band Weather Report? Speaking of them, do you like them? Favorite album?

Torstein: The Morse code is BACH, as in Johann Sebastian Bach. The tune is influenced by him. Asa Nisi Masa is a kind of magic spell from a film. It is a quote from the Fellini’s movie “8 1/2″. Goretex, I’m not sure about. Jørgen comes up with the titles, as he writes the tunes. I like Weather Report. My favourite record is their double live album: 8:30´s… Just got it on vinyl!

Nick: Please tell us something more about Armageddon Concerto. You have been touring Europe together with Enslaved in 2007, Moldejazz threw their eyes on that and…

Torstein: …and asked us to come up with a commissioned work for the festival in 2008. It was a great experience, and it took a lot of work and organizing to pull off. But we made it! We also did the same concerto at the Roadburn festival this year. Enslaved are great guys, and fun to hang around as well as make music with. Their thing is simple long structures consisting of simple themes and parts which build slowly to a climax with adding more and more elements, or instruments doubling the various themes. Our music is the opposite with lots of quick changes between different complex parts in each tune, and more craziness. It was a perfect match for that concert. Two opposite meets and make something new.  Both bands are very different, but share the same fascination for progressive music.

Nick: Can we expect such Shining / Enslaved joint-venture in some time soon? I don’t know many such joints dwelling out there, besides Karmakanic / Agents of Mercy collaboration, if you know them. Which two or more bands would you like to perform on same stage in the same time?

Torstein: We haven’t thought about that yet. Shining and Enslaved have no concrete plans for collaboration in the future, but who knows? Other bands? Mastodon maybe? Or something completely different… The Norwegian Radio-broadcast orchestra? Time will show. Right now we are concentrating on ourselves.

Nick: You are in Shining since it’s forming and it’s been more than 10 years now. How would you describe the band’s course for all this time? You passed all the way from being an acoustic jazz quintet to an extreme avant-garde act.

Jørgen Munkeby

Torstein: We started in 1999. Jørgen had booked a jazz gig in his hometown, and needed some musicians to perform with. He went trough the corridors of the state academy and picked a piano player, a bass player and yours truly on drums. We had never played together before, but it was instantly a good musical chemistry, so it worked out great from the start. I hadn’t played much jazz before then, but I had been listening a lot to the Miles-quintet of the late sixties, and really liked the music there. I thought that Shining was a great band to play this kind of music with. We recorded two albums as a jazz group: “Where the ragged people go”, and “Sweet shanghai devil”, both recorded at the state academy with only two mics in the room, Very dogmatic… Our first record had clear Coltrane references, but on the second we managed to turn it into our own thing in some way. Then we toured a lot and started using electronicl instruments like Rhodes and electric bass both for practical and musical reasons. When it was time to record a new album we went away from the dogmatic Coltrane sound with two mics in the room, and created just the opposite: A typical studio production with lots of other instruments and utilizing of all the possibilities modern technology has to offer. We took the consequence of all the members actually having a pop/rock background. A producer was also central in our development into an “art-rock” band: Kaare Christoffer Vestrheim. He produced our two next records: “In the kingdom of kitch you will be a monster” and “Grindstone”. Our latest release “Black jazz” is produced by Jørgen in collaboration with Sean Beavan. During our career our own thing has crystallized more and more, and the culmination of this development you will find at “Black jazz”. Different members of the band has come and gone as the music has changed, but the lineup we have today is the best one ever!

Nick: What were the reasons for changing label? You’re now under Indie Recordings, an eminent label when it comes to metal (especially black metal oriented) bands. Are you content with them?

Torstein: We were at Rune Gramofon before. That is a great label, but it is a little bit small for our ambitions. We wanted a label with bigger ambitions and a clearer metal profile who would work their ass of to promote us. We found that label in Indie, and we are very satisfied.

Nick: It’s time for asking questions of the other projects you’ve been or you are involved. As far as I know you’ve contributed with many musicians, such Marit Larsen, Maria Mena, Torun Eriksen, Kurt Nilsen, Maria Solheim to mention some. Would you mind telling us a bit more? (I’m intentionally leaving out Elephant9, as I love to leave “delicacies” for the end :-) )

Torstein: I’ve always been a pop/beat oriented drummer at heart, but with a broad musical taste. Although I’ve always listened to jazz, I didn’t really play any of it before I started at the Norwegian state academy of music. There we formed Shining, and that was kind of the start of my playing jazz.  I was freelancing a lot during the years at school with different pop-acts and had a good time with that. Still do actually, both as a jazz- and pop musician. I enjoy the diversity of my musical life, and wouldn’t be without it for any reason. The only difficult thing with it is logistics… I have to mention another band in which Jørgen and me plays: Chrome Hill. This band consists of Asbjørn Lerheim who composes the tunes, the great bass player Roger Arntzen, Jørgen on sax and me on drums. We have released one record: “Earthlings” (2008). It’s a great record, and if you like Shining and Elephant9 I think you will like this band. It’s kind of cowboyish jazz with a rock attitude, or maybe rock with a cowboy-jazz attitude etc… Here’s two links: http://www.chromehill.no/livedates.htmlhttp://www.myspace.com/chromehill,

Nick: And now, Elephant9! I have to say that you guys are one of my bigger revelations in last time, I remember I couldn’t revive myself after first time of listening to “DodoVoodoo”, and “Walk the Nile” just cemented you being my new favorite. Tell me everything about Elephant9? How did it start? Influences? From A to Z, please! :-D

Elephant9

Torstein: Thanks! I started Elephant9 when I took my masters degree in jazz at the Norwegian State Academy of Music. Musically Ihave always loved anything that came out of the late sixties and the early seventies. Both in the jazz/fusion field (Miles, Mahavishnu, Return to Forever, Weather Report etc…) and the rock field (Deep Purple, Hendrix, Zeppelin etc..) At the time I was heavily into the early seventies live recordings of the bitches brew material from Miles Davis. Albums like “Black Beauty” and “Live at Fillmore” was heavily rotated at home. I wanted a band that built its music up the same way, with long collective improvisations based on riffs and ques with short composed phrases. I also always wanted to play with Nikolai (bass player in Elephant9) as he also is rooted in this area of music. The perfect keyboard player for a unit like this would of course be Ståle Storløkken with his improvisational expertise and sonic universe. I called them, and we had two rehearsals and played a concert. Mostly old Miles/Zawinul material at the time. It worked out so well that we decided to continue as a band. We did some gigs now and then, and then we recorded our first record. We went into the studio, took about three takes of each tune without listening to them afterwards. Tried to capture the raw live energy on tape. If you listen too much back on it in the recording-process you start picking on things that really is not that important in the big picture, and you can end up doing take after take and loose all the energy. We didn’t want that to happen, so therefore we did it this way. On our second album we produced it a little bit more, but we still had focus on keeping the live energy in there. On both albums we recorded everything directly to tape in an analogue studio in Oslo. Our engineer Christian Engfeldt was central in realizing our sonic vision, and creating the pre-digital raw sound of these two records.

Nick: I have to say that this Hammond driven music you present with Elephant9 fits very well with me. I will try to get Ståle for an interview, as I kinda can hear influences of Bo Hansson in his playing. At the other side you’ve done some pretty nice drumwork on these two albums. Which drummers are your influences? Besides, which artists/bands have influenced you so far?

Elephant9

Torstein: Drummers who have influenced me are John Bonham, Ian Paice, Mitch Mitchell, Tony Williams, Ronnie Tutt, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Buddy Rich, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, Jeff Porcaro, Abe Laboriel Jr, Per Lindvall, Steve Jordan, Ringo Starr, Bernhard Purdie and last but certainly not least my biggest hero of them all: Steve Gadd.
Bands which have influenced me are Kiss, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Weather Report, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Beatles, Meshuggah, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and so on..

Nick: I just got an idea, as I am listening to Elephant9 and I already mentioned Bo Hansson. You and Ståle could make some project like Hansson & Karlsson have used to work on. That would be interesting. What are you saying? :)

Torstein: MAYBE? I must admit that I’m not too familiar with the work of Hansson and Karlsson, but checked them out on MySpace, and they had a nice sound! Let’s see what time brings :-)

Nick: What are your all-time favorite albums? And also, how would look the perfect line-up, in your opinion? Classic line-up, consisted of vocals/guitars/keys/drums/bass, but you may add any “non-standard” instrument if you like?

Torstein: All-time favourites? Difficult, but just to pick some records out of the pile:

Physical Graffiti – Led Zeppelin

Black Beauty – Miles Davis

Unmasked – Kiss

Songs in the Key of Life – Stevie Wonder

A Love Supreme – John Coltrane

Torstein Lofthus


When it comes to line-ups it depends so much on chemistry that a theoretical “super- group” usually doesn’t work. That said, MilesDavis was a master in creating dream-constellations of not-yet known musicians. The late sixties quartet with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, or the later bands with Chick Corea, Jack deJohnette, Keith Jarret etc… If these bands would have been formed today when they are all stars that maybe would have been the ultimate super-groups.

My dream constellations already exist on records:

Plant, Page, Jones and Bonham.

McCartney, Lennon, Harrison, Starr.

Davis, Williams, Carter, Hancock and Shorter.

The list goes on and on… These are bands in which each member’s signature is equally important to make up the bands identity. Take out one member and it wouldn’t be magic. Beatles would not be the great band that it was if we replaced Ringo with another drummer, even if it was a better one. It’s all about chemistry, taste and sound.

Nick: I’m out off my questions. Is there anything what would you like to say?

Torstein: Check out my other project Chrome Hill! Otherwise, 19 questions should cover the most important things.

Nick: Thanks for the interview, Torstein. Hope you enjoyed answering some questions :-) Keep up good work!

Torstein: Thanks! You too!

Nikola Savić is a prog enthusiast, blogger and author, in addition to being the founder of Prog Sphere, Progify, ProgLyrics and the ongoing Progstravaganza compilation series.
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