Shining (NOR) | Interview with Jørgen Munkeby


John Coltrane once said that there is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at... While some people argue that these days it’s near impossible to come up with a truly original and innovative sound, some few and rare musicians do relate with such ethic stated by the Jazz guru, and have successfully built their own and distinct sonority. Norway’s post-prog collective Shining is one of such group of musicians reluctant to fall into conformist and over-beaten ideas. They rehash some of the best and out there elements of old progressive and psychedelic rock in the vein of Frank Zappa and King Crimson, merge it with some abstract and free jazz indebted to someone like Ornette Coleman and then add vast amounts of psychotic metal and bizarre industrial sounds, coming up with an intriguing, claustrophobic and exciting sonority that is distinctively of their own.
Does the leader, guitarist, saxophonist and vocalist Jørgen Munkeby of this extremely gifted act considers that writing music has to be challenging for the band and excludes all the guiding lines when it comes to creating music?

“Thanks so much for all the kind words about our music! I’m very happy you like what we are doing.

I have always been very interested in learning about all the rules and traditions in music; the guidelines that you refer to. I have spent years and years trying to learn and follow all sorts of rules and guidelines as perfectly as possible. But while learning about such rules, I always know that after these rules and techniques have been learnt well and incorporated into your mind and body as second nature, then the result might actually be that you choose to NOT follow them, or actually do the opposite. But at other times or with other rules, you decide to follow them because this makes the music better in that situation.

What I’m trying to say is that for me it’s not a goal in itself to break any rules. I am actually quite fond of rules, and think that rules has brought a lot of good things to humanity. Our main goal is to try to make the kind of music that we ourselves like the most and find the most interesting and intriguing.

I tend to get easily bored with a lot of music, and I’m generally very interested in discovering new and fresh ideas and expressions, both in music and in life in general – and this is probably why our music might be considered breaking some traditional pre-defined rules. We want to make good music, and part of this is to make it sound like nothing you have heard before. But of course not at all costs: The music must still have other qualities than just doing things in a “new” way.

You mention that today some people argue that it’s impossible to come up with something new. I hear this from time to time, and must also admit that I have that feeling myself. But I also know that people before me has had the same feeling, and that things we consider new expressions and styles have emerged after this.

I have read that the literary critic Fredric Jameson, writing in 1983, argued that all the worlds that can be invented by writers and artists have already been invented: “In a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum”, he supposedly wrote. But we all surely know of a lot of stylistically innovative new inventions being created after this, don’t we?”

Shining began as an acoustic and experimental jazz group in 1999 by the hand of multi-instrumentalist Munkeby, who was then a student at the Norwegian Academy of Music and a member of Jaga Jazzist one of Scandinavia’s premier and influential jazz groups. Their first two releases ‘Where The Ragged People Go’ from 2001 and ‘Sweet Shanghai Devil’ from 2003 were largely jazz records inspired by the free-thinking of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, but their third and 2005’s album ‘In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be a Monster’ saw Shining introducing progressive rock and metal elements into their experimental jazz sound. The following album ‘Grindstone’ from 2007 was their breakthrough release, highly regarded as one the greatest experimental jazz record by diverse publications worldwide, even though the influence of metal and progressive rock were becoming more and more prominent in their songs.
So it comes as no surprise that their fifth full-length is heavier than anything the band has put out to date, taking things into even more extreme territory that undeniably recall the band’s powerful and intense live presence. One listen to the raging cacophony presented in ‘Blackjazz’ is sufficient to state that it faithfully demonstrates the intense and extreme side of Shining’s live performance.
Did anything in particular motivated that decision and compelled the band to head towards this direction?

“Since our beginning in 1998, we have covered a lot of ground musically, from free jazz through electronic art-rock and to where we are now. And although these changes in the music might look like sudden and radical movements when you look at our albums, they are in fact rather gradual developments. Of course a lot happens while preparing, recording and finishing an album. But a lot of the important foundations for new expressions also happen between making the albums: While touring and playing live, while doing side projects, and working with other artists and bands.

The main reason for the sound on “Blackjazz” was our musical idea of trying to combine jazz and metal, or more specifically free jazz and black metal, while wrapping the whole thing in a catchy and expensive sounding package. But I must also admit that our lives of course also play a part in the musical expression. For me personally, something happened in my life before making “Blackjazz” that created a lot of anger, confusion and frustration that eventually was let out in the making of “Blackjazz”. That’s probably where the excessive aggressiveness in the music and the lyrics is taken from.”

Surprisingly, even though it’s the band’s heaviest and most extreme record to date, the songs featured in ‘Blackjazz’ are perhaps their most immediate material as well. While it’s obvious that topping the Billboard charts wasn’t on the band’s agenda the new songs point towards a more standard rock structuring with bass, drums, guitars, vocals, refrains and other elements. Was there anything in particular you wanted to do differently this time around?

“Trying to strip down the instrumentation to a more rock band type of foundation was one of the things I wanted to try out. Our first two albums from 2001 and 2003 were recorded live in the studio. After rehearsing the tunes and playing them live on concerts many times, we knew the songs so well that we were ready to record them. The fact that we had given ourselves so long time to get to know the songs before we recorded them, added another dimension of playing energy to the performance. On the other hand, our 2005 and 2007 albums were made in a much more studio-oriented way, with a lot of cut and paste and edits. Many of the guys in the band didn’t know what to play on the songs until they actually were sitting in the studio while putting down tracks.

Although these two studio production albums were fresh and full of energy in their own way, they maybe also lacked some of the energy that can come from playing songs you know really well. This type of energy we wanted to bring into the music again with “Blackjazz”, so we decided to reserve enough time to be able to rehearse all the songs and also play them live for an extended period of time before recording them. Also, consciously stripping the instrumentation down to the size of our live band, made this possible. And I think that this really comes through on “Blackjazz”.”

While we’re on the topic of immediacy, I think ‘Fisheye’ is your most immediate song to date. It melds all the prominent characteristics of Shinning into staggering five minutes duration with an absolute infectious chorus. Do you agree?

“Yes, I absolutely agree that “Fisheye” is our most immediate song to date. I also think “The Madness and the Damage Done” is a very immediate song, due to the catchy refrain, but it is also very dense.

I currently like trying to combine aggressiveness with catchiness, and we might even try to further this work on our next album.”

The title of the album reads like a statement, ‘Blackjazz’ is a word combination clearly referring to black-metal and jazz. Although most of musicians don’t like to get their music pigeonholed, Shining seem to be doing the exact opposite and putting a tag on their sound and at the same time doing a favour to various critics who used to throw a lot of different labels at their music. Why do you feel ‘blackjazz’ is the most appropriate description for the newest songs?

“I think it is fitting because I feel that the music is in fact free jazz and black metal melted together. It of course also contains industrial traces, along with ordinary metal and some contemporary music, but for the most part I feel that it is free jazz and black metal.

Also the fact that the development of black metal from death metal somehow resembles the development of free jazz in the 60’s, is a reason for the name tag “Blackjazz” and the link between the two genres. Black metal stripped away a lot of the technical and superficial focus in death metal, while also focusing more on the energy and the emotions in the music. This is also what the free jazz musicians did back in the 60’s, along with a more spiritual focus in both genres.

Right now, black metal is also going through another important change: The music itself is slowly being separated from the extra-musical elements such as face paint and religious beliefs. It is now common to play black metal without painting your face or being a Satanist. This development is a very natural and common development in new art directions, and both free jazz and hip hop and most other forms of art have been through this development.”

The new record was mixed by Sean Beaven (NIN, Marilyn Manson, Slayer), who Munkeby speaks fondly of, stating he was the prefect accomplice for the realization of ‘Blackjazz’. How did that musical relationship with Sean Beaven begin in the first place?

“It all started out with me being hooked on Marilyn Manson a few years ago. I had not listened to him before, and had thought that he was just another stupid youth phenomenon that didn’t have any other qualities than being in opposition to everything. But, I was of course very wrong! Yet another example of how prejudices cloud your vision and block your ability to learn.

Anyway, in this period of buying all the Manson albums, I also go interested in Nine Inch Nails. I bought all the NIN albums, and went to both NIN and Manson concerts in Norway. I really liked their sound, especially on the albums. It was both super aggressive and cold, but also very catchy and expensive sounding. I started thinking that I would like SHINING’s music to have the same sound, but with our own more extreme and twisted musical material. After reading through all the CD booklets, I noticed that Sean Beavan had been involved in recording, mixing and producing most of the best sounding albums. I did some research, and discovered that he, along with being involved in the NIN and Manson music from the beginning, had also worked with pop music such as No Doubt and Depeche Mode, and also mixing the best Slayer album “God Hates Us All”.

To me it was obvious that this was the perfect guy for the task! I sent him demos for the album by e-mail, and he really liked the stuff and said that he’d love to work with us. So that was it.

He is the best guy I have ever worked with. His sheer talent is impeccable: His knowledge of musical and technical theory, his understanding and sensibility for emotions in music, and his ability to reflect and discuss these things in words - all of this makes him the very best guy I have ever worked with. He is also full of great ideas on mixing, and really put his own mark on the album. On top of this, he's a wonderful person be with, and his family is super nice!

Needless to say, Sean contributed extremely much to Blackjazz, and I'm very happy that he would want to join in on the Blackjazz team. I wouldn't want to think about how the album would have been without him.”

So I guess it’s a musical partnership to preserve in future works or do you envisage the possibility to try out different names?

“I definitely want to work with Sean again! No doubt in my mind whatsoever.”

Meanwhile, ‘Blackjazz’ also marks the beginning of a new cooperation with a different record label as the Norwegians now belong to a label whose catalogue features such diverse and talented artists like Enslaved, Red Harvest and Audrey Horne. With a growing fan base, critical acclaim and more opportunities on the horizon do you see Indie Recordings as the perfect label to give Shining’s the right push into wider audiences?

“Indie’s bigger push has definitely helped us reach a bigger and wider audience. The guys working at the label are all super people, and since we started working with releasing “Blackjazz” we have all become great friends. So far it has been a great pleasure working with Indie, and I see no reason it will not continue this way in the future also.”

Since ‘Grindstone’, the band has been touring more actively outside their native Norway and just recently they have completed a small European tour to promote the new album. Do you think the songs from the new record are more challenging to play live?

“Although the songs on “Blackjazz” are denser and technically hard to play than our older compositions, they are also composed with a more standard rock group foundation in mind. They were recorded with drums, guitars and bass as a steady and more stripped down foundation than before. This makes it much easier for us to adapt the songs for a live setting, as we basically can just play what is on the album and take it from there, instead of having to first make a live arrangement of a song that was cut and pasted together in the studio, as was the case with our third and fourth album.

So I actually feel it is much easier to play these new “Blackjazz” songs live, than our older songs.”

In the meantime, the quartet will take part of this year’s Roadburn festival with two performances. One solo at the first day of the festival and one with Enslaved, with whom Shining have played in the past in Norway, a joint performance that goes by the name of Armageddon Concerto. Are you looking forward to repeat that experience along with Enslaved at Roadburn?

“Yes, yesterday we had our own SHINING concert at the Roadburn Festival, before a packed hall. It was a great experience, and we’re very much looking forward to Saturday’s special concerto performance with Enslaved. This concerto has only been performed once before, so it will be very exciting to play it again for the Roadburn audience.

While on the subject of the Armageddon Concerto, we have just released the opening movement “RMGDN” as a download on all major digital stores worldwide. The track “RMGDN” is the 13 minutes long opener for the Concerto, and was recorded by SHINING along with the rest of “Blackjazz”. It was of course also mixed by the eminent Sean Beavan and mastered by the impeccable Tom Baker.

“RMGDN” has only been available as a very special bonus track on a limited amount of vinyl “Blackjazz” records, and is now available as download for the first time.”

David Alexandre

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