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Lasse Marhaug: More is Better

On Friday, July 22, from 6–7pm I presented a Test Pattern (see the playlist) devoted to the music of Norwegian noise musician Lasse Marhaug. In honor of this momentous occasion, here's a profile that I wrote on Lasse in 2004, a slightly different version of which first appeared in the magazine Grooves.

?Quantity,? says Norwegian noise musician Lasse Marhaug with mock emphasis and a laugh, ?it?s a good thing. Quality is relative, but quantity... it?s solid! If you do one record, that might be good and people can argue about it, but if you do a lot of records, there?s no argument—and I?ve done a lot of records!? And he's not just whistling dixie: By his own conservative estimate, Marhaug has released over 100 records, CDs, and cassettes, if you count both his solo work and his innumerable collaborative projects. Admittedly, it?s his early tape releases that push the numbers into the stratosphere, but even discounting those voluminous cassettes, the 29-year old Marhaug has produced a veritable mountain of music in a short span of time and shows no sign of slowing down. When we talked on the phone in early April 2004, he had just released two full-length solo albums, a duo record with free jazz luminary Frode Gjerstad, another with Reynols? Ania Courtis, and had a collaborative full-length release with fellow Norwegian noise artists Fe-Mail at the pressing plant. Oh, yes, and in addition he had just started a new trio with Swedish improvisers Mats Gustaffson and Dror Feiler (tentatively titled Nash Kontroll) and was preparing for a US tour with Jazzkammer, a duo with John Hegre, which is probably Marhaug's best-known project.

The Himalayan proportions of Marhaug?s discography and oceanic breadth of his collaborations belie the complexity of even his most viscerally noisy releases. He may poke fun at the notion of quality, but his recordings are not slapdash or disposable, favoring empty agressive gestures, over craft. For instance, although The Shape of Rock to Come (Smalltown Supersound), one of a pair of current Marhaug solo records, closely approximates the immense cathartic roar of his live sets, it is the product of months of work in the studio. Hidden within the surging waves of sprawling guitar feedback that swirl, crash and engulf are dense, web-like collages of samples. ?It?s really bits and pieces very carefully put together,? Marhaug says of the record. ?I wanted it to sound raw and unpolished and to have a natural, organic sound, but it was still heavily edited like I always do.?

With a few notable exceptions (such as an upcoming record in the Music for... series with singer Maja Ratjke, which was recorded in a single day, and edited the next), Marhaug?s various and sundry recordings undergo an extended period of gestation in the studio, as he layers and edits and evaluates the material. ?Listening,? he explains, ?is really a large part of making records for me. I will keep listening and listening to some of the stuff that I record for weeks and months until I decide that it?s good enough to release. I?ll be doing my email or something and have this music running on the stereo, getting used to it. It?s a way to really get to know the material. The recording of the music is done quite quickly," he concedes, "because these sounds are quite easy to make; but it?s how you put them together that is the whole point. It?s easy to make a loud sound, but to make two of them and have them go together in a way that?s interesting and worth someone else?s fifteen dollars ? that?s the challenge.?

Marhaug began making music as a teenager, while still living in his small hometown, which was just north of the arctic circle ? ?It was really the middle of nowhere with no live music whatsoever,? he recalls. In this isolated setting, his introduction to experimental electronics came through the underground cassette trading scene. Initially, it was a means to score the latest in Norwegian extreme metal, but it became Marhaug's entré into much more abstract noise music and he soon began making his own recordings using tape decks, turntables and such. When asked what these early experiments sounded like, Marhaug laughs. ?My first recording I think sounds quite a bit like my most recent recording. I haven?t really evolved at all. I found something I liked early on and I stuck with it.?

Though his basic approach may have remained relatively constant (although some of the tools he employs may have changed), Marhaug uses it with exceptional versatility. At any given time, he has a dizzying array of projects in the works, often using the same set of sonic ingredients to create very different records. ?I think it?s good to work on several projects at the same time,? he explains, ?I think it increases the quality of them. If you look at the first two Jazzkammer albums, Timex and Hot Action Sexy Karaoke, which are totally different records, they were made at the same time using the same material. They were defining moments for Jazzkammer. We didn?t know what we were going to sound like, so we just kept recording and trying out things and realizing okay this project is not going to have a specific sound. There?s going to be room for a lot of different stuff, so we just did two very different albums.?

Jazzkammer has continued to be a fascinatingly Janus-faced project: While their recorded output tends to be meticulously crafted and whisper quiet, in live performance they take on a considerably more ferocious, unpredictable character. ?Jazzkammer is like two, very different bands,? Marhaug admits. ?One is a studio band and the other is a live band and I think each has a really different chemistry and way of working. I often feel that it?s like two different projects. What we do live is always improvised and we tend to do very raw, physically intense shows; but on our records, we work with layers and take a lot of time. There?s a lot of back and forth and a lot of process over time and they tend to be much more quiet.?

In the past Marhaug and Hegre's studio collaboration had always been a long distance one, (Marhaug lives is Oslo, while Hegre lives in the city of Bergen). The two exchanged sound files by email or by regular mail, and thrashed out aesthetic issues over the phone. It was a slow, labor-intensive process. With their next album, however, Marhaug announces by email a week or so after our first conversation, the duo have decided to to inject the spontaneity and uncertainty of their live shows into their studio work. ?From now on all Jazzkammer recordings will be done live, together in the studio,? he says emphatically. ?It might really screw things up, but after six years together, we need the change.?

Of course, the next Jazzkammer record is eons away at this point and Marhaug?s got plenty of sonic fish to fry in the meantime, with a slew of shows and releases in the works (?as always,? he laments semi-ruefully) . ?I think I?m just looking for holes in my record collection that I want to fill,? he says, when asked to explain his prolific nature. ?I make the records that I want to hear and play shows that I myself would want to go see. Hopefully, there will be some young musician from Norway who will come up and make a lot of records and play a lot of shows so that I can retire and won?t have to do all these things. I?m turning thirty this September. Maybe I should retire and stop making records when I turn thirty.?

(Note: That fateful birthday has come and gone and Lasse's discography continues to grow unabated. Thank heaven for really big miracles)

—Susanna Bolle


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