[media stories: 2000: english]
Motorpsycho's Bent Sæther
Free City Media's Nick Bensen
Interview with Bent
Via e-mail July 14, 2000
NICK BENSEN: Hi Bent (and Snah and Gebhardt). My name is Nick Bensen and I'm a San Francisco, CA- based psychedelic musician and rock journalist. I have Norwegian origins (my family name was Bentsen until U.S. immigration officials dropped the t to make it sound English when my great- grandfather came to the New York a hundred years ago) but I have never had the chance to visit the homeland. I am a huge fan of your work. I have approval to do a profile of Motorpsycho in Bay Arts and Music, a free regional magazine distributed throughout the urban areas of Northern California. I also plan to do a more in-depth feature article for Free City Media, the on-line music magazine and record label that I founded with my wife Heidi. Our site has previously done major pieces on the San Francisco power-pop band Red Planet and London's Woronzow Records (run by Nick Saloman and Adrian Shaw of The Bevis Frond). Our mission is to spread the word about outstanding psychedelic music.
BENT SÆTHER: Hi, Nick - Thanks for your interest. I'll try to answer your Q's, and hope I make sense...
NB: Aside from your exceptional melodic sense and stylistic range, there is a seriousness and strong work ethic evident in your music. Many psychedelic and alternative bands have a loose, sloppy "it's all good so let's just see what happens" approach while your music is clearly disciplined and carefully thought out. I get the feeling that you apply the kind of standards to your arrangements and recordings that an old-time master craftsman would use in building a house or carving a piece of fine furniture. Do you feel that your stoic perfectionism is a northern cultural trait passed down to you or do you just happen to be personally obsessive?
BS: Whenever people ask us about psychedelic music, its relationship to drugs and that whole "taking drugs to make music to take drugs to"-cliché, there's only one answer that applies to our music: obviously you have to know what kind of mental mood you want to evoke, but to actually be able to recreate something like that in music you have to be completely straight. It might be a paradox, but it takes a lot of concentration and musical discipline to even begin to sound psychedelic if you want to communicate and not just jerk off. My problem with a lot of these so- called psychedelic bands is that they haven't understood the difference between being on a trip and sounding like one. Let's face it: the drug thing is an ego thing, good music isn't. I wouldn't know if this attitude is a cultural trait in us Scandinavians or whatever - I guess it's more about taking the music seriously, and giving it as much as you take out... Obviously, if you're not obsessive about these things, you don't take them seriously enough or give them the respect they deserve.
NB: Everyone I know who has heard your music agrees that, although there is a distinctive Motorpsycho sound, each album has a wildly different vibe (from the metallic power of Lobotomizer to the mellow jazz/blues feel of Let Them Eat Cake). Do you set out to do something intentionally different each time? Is the development just the organic result of playing together so much?
BS: Basically the three of us write songs until we "fill the hard disc" and have to empty ourselves to write more songs. Since we see each other up to 6 days a week, our musical instincts/needs/visions are pretty much in synch, and sometimes we can define the vibe and decide that "this album should be an x record" or whatever. Most of the time this happens in retrospect, though it's not until you have to do press that you start talking about what you have done, and realize that "oh, we've made an x album!" Funny, this. Our promotion tours feel like group therapy sessions! Another thing that very much applies to this is that having done ten albums we've covered a lot of ground - stylistically - and don't have the urge to do the same things as we used to. We seem to have these periodic urges to do a certain style of music until we can't do anything more or better in that context and find new avenues to explore. Commercially this is shooting ourselves in the foot (eh, feet?) but to keep the music fresh, important and hopefully good, this is vital. We are definitely not one of those AC/DC type bands that can do this one thing well forever: I know I couldn't have made, say the Demon Box today. That was what we were then; now we're some one/-where else and have other needs.
NB: 1993's Demon Box is, for me, the Motorpsycho album that shows the most direct tension between styles - the bright folk of "Waiting For The One", the rage of "Feedtime" and "Sheer Profoundity", the psychedelia of "Tuesday Morning" and "All Is Loneliness", the evil crunch of the title epic, the creepy serial killer feeling of "Step Inside Again" and "Plan #1" (especially Matt Burt's lurid imagery in the narration), the noisy but joyful rock of "Nothing To Say" and "The One That Went Away", and the Hüsker Dü influence on "Babylon" and (to a lesser degree) "Sunchild". The album is a sprawling masterpiece and was a great leap forward from your previous output. What was the band's mindset at the time of recording Demon Box?
BS: D.B. was the first time we dared to pull out all the stops, and just do what we needed to. A lot of it had to do with self-confidence and attitude: "No, we're not just that; we're this and this and that too! and if you expect heavy, you'll get mellow. If you need us to be this one defined musical thing, we refuse!" I guess we saw that we weren't mad at the world all the time or in love all the time and needed to show this in the music. We wanted - and I can't really say this without sounding pretentious - to show the whole human experience, not just one defined part of it like everyone else seemed content to. We were young, ambitious, and I sometimes think we pulled it off ... In some ways the scope and ambition of Timothy's Monster was even bigger, but if it managed to capture that zeitgeist-thing that D.B. had, I'm not sure of. In retrospect T.M. sits better with me, but that's a matter of taste, I guess.
NB: "She Used To Be A Twin" from Another Ugly ep is one of my favorite Motorpsycho songs. What's the story behind that song - was it based on people you knew or were they characters you made up?
BS: The title was something we got from a Dutch friend of ours. We stayed at his place on an off day on the D.B. tour, and across the street an extremely obese kid was playing. We were talking about this poor kid when he observed, the wiseass that he is, that "she used to be a twin, you know, but then one day..." and then he made this sucking sound to indicate how she'd melted together into one... It's kinda gross and cruel, but the words stuck in my mind and I took it somewhere totally different when I wrote the lyric. The people were made up, but the story feels - and could've been - true. I'm sorry if this ruins your relationship to the song, and I don't like to explain or discuss the words.
NB: On the contrary, I'm even more impressed that such a moving and vivid story song resulted from a weird random joke.
BS: People should make up their own minds and decide for themselves what the songs mean. That way they mean more to them, and as often as not, I don't have the best or final interpretation.
NB: I've never visited Trondheim and it's not really a large enough city for Americans to have a ready stereotype or general sense of it. Could you describe what it's like to live there?
BS: Trondheim has approx. 150,000 residents, is the 4th largest city in Norway, lies a 7 hours drive north of Oslo, has been a town since 998 A.D., has one of 4 universities in Norway, and is slow enough to be a great place to focus and create, but fast enough not to be too boring. It's the administrative center for this part of the country, and doesn't really have one central industry. The one outstanding thing I can think of is that our local soccer team (Rosenborg or RBK) has been one of the ten best clubs in all of Europe for the last 3 or 4 seasons. If you want to compare it to U.S. standards, I guess Flagstaff or Austin, with a bit of an old world vibe thrown in, would be the closest in terms of size and feel. You know: the sticks but not quite.
NB: You have been active in the preservation of the bohemian Svartla'mon area of Trondheim. How does the future of the neighborhood look? Have the developers and politicians been kept at bay?
BS: For the last couple of years, things have been quiet. People are just waiting to see what the powers that be will cook up next. I've heard various rumors, but nothing definitive. The city is growing and the value of the land is growing by the week, so I wouldn't be surprised to see it all laid waste and rebuilt. We'll just have to wait and see.
NB: Let's talk about upcoming releases. I understand you are doing an EP with Man's Ruin Records and have a second Roadwork CD ready at Stickman. When will these be available? Are there any other projects in the works?
BS: We have a 7 song - very R'n'R - mini-album ready for release. We've been talking to Man's Ruin, but as I'm writing this it's all a bit uncertain, so frankly I don't know if it's going to happen. We seem to be on the weird side, or maybe a bit too demanding/knowledgeable about the business side of things for U.S. labels. I don't know - maybe we're too European in their eyes? Anyhoot, we'd love to come over to play and have someone release our stuff, but you know there's a lot of money/organization needed to do it, and so far it's not been possible. The second Roadwork volume is almost ready too. There's some cover art still to be taken care of, but hopefully it'll be ready by Christmas. When people get back from vacations we'll start working on new material, but I don't see us in the studio before next year.
NB: I was very sorry to read in Looftpage, May 2000 that Gebhardt is going deaf. How severe is the hearing loss?
BS: He has some tinnitis problems and a 35dB dip at around 2kH in his left ear, but as long as he wears plugs when playing it's OK. Anyway he's getting good at reading lips, so ...
NB: Baard Slagsvold played a big part in the sound of Let Them Eat Cake with his keyboard playing and arrangements. He's also been playing live with you guys. Has he joined the band or is he a guest performer?
BS: Baard is a guest performer. He has his own band(s) and a lot of session work with other people in Oslo, so I don't think he'd move here to do only Motorpsycho.
NB: Your band has achieved a great deal of popularity in Europe while staying independent and retaining control of your creative process. Do you have any words of wisdom to share with bands that are just starting out?
BS: Don't sign anything until you've thought about the alternatives. It's your and only your music so don't give it away too cheaply. The music biz isn't there to help you. It's there to take your money. If you do it for the right reasons, you might not sell shitloads, but you'll have made something that's true. Fame is basically a hassle, and has no value whatsoever if it's not on your own terms. Anyone can be a whore - there's no art to that - and being famous for it ain't too much to be proud of.
NB: Have you ever toured or visited the U.S.? If so, what did you think of American life? Are you planning to tour here in the future?
BS: We did a showcase at South by Southwest in Austin a year ago, and that's the only thing we've done in the U.S. so far. I spent 5 weeks in San Francisco in 1991, and drove from NYC to San Fran with a friend last summer. I don't know - it's different from Europe in many regards, but quite similar in others. The main difference is the feeling I get when I'm in the States that nothing is built to last. It has an urgency and a feeling of transition that I find fascinating. Where most European countries have a settled and stately feeling to them and a sense of solidity permeating them, the States seem in flux -as if the center is too weak to hold and everything is pulling in different directions. Most American states or cities also feel the same. There isn't too much difference between say LA and Newark - it's all a big sprawl with no defined center like most European cities have, and you don't see the cultural differences as clearly as you do in, say Italy and Sweden. Like I said earlier, of course we'd like to come over, but not at any cost. It'd have to feel right, you know?
NB: Are you free to talk about your court case against the Norwegian label Voices Of Wonder (for control of Motorpsycho's early work)? If so, how's it going?
BS: We're currently waiting for the verdict, so there isn't too much to tell, but it feels good to have put the foot down and said no. But it's also kinda sad to have to drag them to court to get things straightened out. It's not what I thought I would have to deal with when we first started working with them. I just hope we get our stuff back and can get on with life without VOW.
NB: The musical references in your work show an encyclopedic knowledge of rock history. Aside from the obvious influences (The Who, Sun Ra, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Motorhead, Kiss, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Metallica, Soundgarden, etc.), which bands do you listen to these days?
BS: Mostly Jazz: Coltrane, Mingus, Sanders, Sun Ra, Miles, but also a lot of overproduced late 60s LA sunshine pop (Sagittarius, Love, Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks, etc.) and I'm also catching up on some of the classics (Van Morrison, Serge Gainsbourg, Todd Rundgren, etc.).
NB: Bent - were you ever a fan of Chris Squire (the bass player from Yes)? I thought of him when I first heard your playing on the more progressive parts of Angels And Daemons At Play and Trust Us.
BS: I was a huge Yes fan, but haven't really paid too much attention to what they did after 1975. Chris Squire was (and probably still is) one hell of a bass player, and I probably picked up some stuff from him, but my big idols ,"bass"ically speaking, are John Entwistle, Phil Lesh, Mingus, Jack Bruce, Carol Kaye, Lemmy and Paul McCartney.
NB: This e-mail interview is kind of an odd, one-sided format. Is there anything you would like to say beyond responding to the questions I've asked?
BS: Not really. I'll probably think of something later, but right now I think this covered most of it. As for the future, I hope I someday can write something as beautiful as "Surf's Up". That's about as perfect as life can get.
NB: A number of your pop songs like "Sungravy" (Timothy's Monster), "The Nerve Tattoo" ( Blissard), "Wishing Well" (Starmelt ep) and "Big Surprise" (Let Them Eat Cake) come pretty close to that standard of perfection. Thanks a lot Bent. You guys rule!
Interview © 2000 Bent Sæther and Nick Bensen