ØRESUND SPACE COLLECTIVE
Interview by Malcolm Humes
Different Creatures is the latest album by a loose collective of international musicians, coordinated by Dr. Space, who I knew as Scott Heller back when he was a grad student and music reviewer in Berkeley in the early 1990's.
In the last 9 years, over 40 musicians mostly from Denmark and Sweden have contributed to ØSC albums and concerts based entirely on improvisational space rock. So far, 20 albums have been released, and there's also a DVD release and an archive of concerts at the Internet Archive.
For the latest album, there is another U.S. transplant, Jonathan Segel (Camper Van Beethoven, Hieronymous Firebrain) hosting a recording session and helping mix the results. So far a 3LP vinyl/2CD album, Different Creatures, has been released, and a concert performed by most of the musicians involved.
I asked Dr. Space (aka Scott Heller) for some history about how ØSC evolved, and how this album and collaboration with Jonathan Segel came about.
SH: Before moving to Denmark in 1997, I had only listened, collected, managed a band and written about music but never really thought about performing music.
In 1998, I became really good friends with an amazing multi-instrumentalist, Magnus from the band Mantric Muse. He is a brilliant synthesizer player and also guitarist and he used to do both in the band as they could never find the right synth player. He invited me to start making sounds and space noises with (the band) Mantric Muse. We recorded hours and hours of rehearsal room jams but I never played with the band outside of their rehearsal space. This was in 1999.
I finally decided to buy my first synthesizer. It all started to evolve from there. I became friends with the guys in the Danish band Gas Giant, who were playing heavy stoner space rock with a lot of jamming. I became their manager and eventually joined the band creating space sounds and wind on some of their songs live and we toured all around Europe between 2001 and 2004. They decided they wanted to not be so spaced out and did not need me anymore so I was out and then I had no band to play with.
Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital, sits on the coastal islands of Zealand and Amager, linked to Malmo in southern Sweden by the Öresund Bridge.
In 2004, I started organizing jam sessions across the Øresund Bridge in Malmo Sweden with the guys from an all instrumental prog space rock band called Bland Bladen. These jams always included some or all the guys in Mantric Muse as well. We did this for over a year jamming back and forth across the bridge.
I created a web site and we started to upload the best of the jams there for people to hear and then we decided in Feb 2005 to play our first concert! Many were quite nervous as this was just going out totally naked and playing totally free form for a few hours in front of an audience. It was not the same as hanging out getting stoned and having a few beers and jamming in the rehearsal room.
Anyway, it went off really well and then we started to play a few more concerts and take the next step, into the studio in July 2005. This would lead to the release of our debut CD on the Swedish label Transubstans in Jan 2006.
The rest is sort of history now, as the collective has grown to include over 40 different musicians from mainly Denmark and Sweden but a few others have joined as well and we have released 20 albums (some our doubles, triples and even a 4 LP box set!) and a DVD (and a few DVD-R releases). We have played all over Europe including places like Croatia, Macedonia and Bulgaria!!
The band keeps on rolling with our newest release called Different Creatures released in November. This was a collaboration with Jonathan Segel who played violin, mandolin, guitar, hammond, theremin as well as mixed the album.
A lot of other amazing musicians joined in as well from Swedish bands like Gosta Berlings saga, My brother the wind, Siena Root, Agusa and Hasse from the Norwegian band Tangle Edge.
There is another double album from this session that will be released in the summer and the doom drone record in March-April as well.
One is completed that I mixed in my home studio called Ode to the Black Hole and we are working on deciding what should go on the next one as there was so much great material from this studio session. You can read the details on the diary at our web site: http://oresundspacecollective.com/Diaries/diaryjam118.htm.
We have released way more studio albums than live albums. It is of course all performed live in the studio. This will be our 20th album but we only have 4 live albums, so (there's) 16 studio albums. All the studio albums are studio improvs and edited mixes. We have a number of edits on our records just no overdubs. We have often removed stuff, just not added stuff.
Over the past years, I have collaborated with a lot of people now and am a member of a band from Trondheim called Black Moon Circle. We have released 3 records and have a 4th coming out in Feb-March 2016. We have a series of records called the Studio Jams of which there will be at least 3 and the first one was released a few months ago. http://blackmooncircle.bandcamp.com
PSF: ØSC did a concert with Damo Suzuki from Can. I'd love to hear how that came together and any stories related to that.
SH: We released the concert as an amazing 3LP set: https://oresundspacecollective.bandcamp.com/album/damo-suzuki-m-der-oresund-space-collective
I had been in contact with Damo since 2008 and we had talked about playing together for many years but we just were never able to arrange it but in late 2012, Damo wrote me and said that he had several gigs arranged in Sweden and (he) would be flying into and out of Copenhagen and maybe we could do a gig together.
We were originally going to do it at a local club just up the street from me called Dæmonens Port but Damo said he would not play at a place with such a negative vibe (the demons gate). The place is not there anymore but the name came from a place in the Christianshavn part of Copenhagen from the early 1900s that used to help out people who were down and out, offering them food, etc..
Anyway, we managed to pull the gig together at our local club, Dragens Hule (also not there anymore) and we had a wonderful evening. Damo stayed at my apartment and we had some wonderful conversations. He is just a cool and nice person and it was a very special night as he made us play like we don't normally do.
PSF: My main question headed into your release party and your first live show with Jonathan with ØSC: How will the recording session will influence the live concert?
SH: We will likely just choose a key to play in and take it from there. Jonathan has played a bit with Alex, the drummer from Gösta Berlings Saga but none of the other guys. I expect he will play violin and guitar at the show. One never really knows. This will be the first show where we have had live sitar and we might have two sitar players. It will be very exciting.
PSF: Do you approach shows with a rough set list, or in this case, do you seek to cover or refine the studio improvs?
SH: The only thing we do at the shows is chose a key to play in and that is it. Occasionally, the guitar players might discuss some riffs but it is totally free form improvs and there is never a set list. We never try to repeat a track from a album or anything like that... OK... it did happen once in Jena, but only one time.
PSF: Henry Cow approached band politics with a band collective where anyone could veto as far as mixes or releases, as far as I understood. Is there a right of veto of ØSC players or does it ultimately come down to you as decider or trump vote?
SH: For sure, there is a veto. What I did was put all the rough mixes up in Dropbox with a voting sheet and we took the pieces that people like the most and that is what Jonathan and I focused on. The doom drone had the most votes so I took that one to work on and Jonathan mixed everything else. As it got closer, I chose some pieces that I thought would make a good sequence and album. I also consulted the (cover) artist, who was allowed to hear the music to gain some inspiration. He also was able to give some input on song titles but in the end, both Jonathan and Hasse really liked the titles that I came up with so we used those. Generally, all the musicians are free to give inputs on the titles, the tracks.. we do it very democratically.
PSF: Any thoughts on improvisation?
SH: I just fly by the seat of my pants and try to know when to play and when not to play and have learned it is most important to have fun and be adventurous and not be afraid to try something new, when making music... Don't always do what your training (or lack) of might tell you... step out of the box.... as Miles said, 'it is not the notes you play but the ones you don't!!'
I also asked Jonathan Segel for some details on the recording sessions and mixing process.
JS: I’d be very happy to write/talk about music, improv, what have you. Have you checked out the music I have on the web? It’s all at http://music.jsegel.com, sort of in an arrangement of types.
PSF: Yes. I especially liked the tribute to Daevid Allen in Echolalia. I remember seeing Hieronymous Firebrain opening for Mother Gong in San Franscisco years ago, with Scott Heller in the audience.
JS: I have been making a lot of rock-ish music lately, though it’s with a lot of improvisation as well, and the experimentalism hides in between. I had a lot of electronic-based things going on for a while and then swung back to electric guitar, but you know, it all goes back and forth. The band that ØSC is playing with this weekend is called Kungens Män and has a bassist/guitarist named Micke Tuominen, and I’ve also been recording with him lately. I had Mattias Olsson’s studio for a while last month while he was on tour with Necromonkey and Akaba and tried to make the most of it.
PSF: Tell me about the recording session and mix process for Different Creatures and the upcoming concert.
JS: Several of us from Stockholm went down to Copenhagen last fall to record, and for the most part it’s the same people that recorded that are playing (bassist is Hans Horrigmoe from Norway, he’s flying in). To be honest, I don’t know who from Denmark is coming up with Scott! The recording was fun, but many people, and all in the same room at the same time so it got crowded. we had several amps in the room, plus monitors for the synths, including Scott’s, so there ended up being a lot of everything on everybody’s tracks. Hard to EQ and mix! That also made it sort of impossible to take things out, in terms of subtractive mixing. Scott told me that he doesn’t really like to edit tracks time-wise that much, he likes the document aspect of the jam. I think that’s cool also, I like long music.
In the studio, we had several conceptual ideas, like synths only with hand drums or starting with sitar, and those things make the vibe, but no cues nor destinations were set, just points to begin from. Some of the other ideas were things like trying a super doom heavy piece, or somebody would start with a delay rhythm idea that set the speed or tone. We ended up with several interesting tracks, I got all the audio a couple months after the recording and began sifting through all of the pieces (something like 15 or so takes between 10 and 60 minutes each!) and figuring out ways to mix drums given the bleed from things, figuring out spaces to set the pieces in.
I worked on all of the mixes except the doom piece, which Scott wanted to mix, and then toward spring, he had decided on which pieces should be finished in the summer for the release of the album, Different Creatures. So I made sure to finish those! I use Protools and a lot of Universal Audio plug ins, and then a few other things like Altiverb, but for the most part I was just trying to get minor compression and EQ to be able to work things together.
There were a lot of people involved, as I said, so it was tough finding everybody’s place, and during the course of mixing it I got feedback from Scott and Hans, who wasn’t happy with how I had the bass. I wanted the bass to be more low end, but he plays it with a lot of effects and drive and midrange, so I had to try to find the space for those frequencies with many guitars.
With the really driving pieces on Different Creatures like the first one, Ride to Valhalla and track 4, "The MAN from Wales" (so called because Scott thought it sounded like the Welsh band MAN), I found it toughest to get a decent drum sound in with the instruments, especially with the rhythmic setting coming as much from a guitar with a delay pedal and then Alex Skepp (drummer, from Gösta Berlin’s Saga) trying to keep in time with that, and then balancing the frequencies of the driving bass guitar with a kick drum as well as the other mid range instruments. There’s a lot going on. There’s always a lot going on in these mixes! "The Ride to Valhalla" is very Hawkwind in many ways, I think, and in that mindset, I used a plate reverb (usually Wendy Carlos’ impulse response in Altiverb) as the sort of old-fashioned studio glue. I use a lot of the UA Neve 1073 preamp/EQ for drums and guitars, though not exclusively. I also like to double the bass track and, as normal, compress one a bit and then use the other track through SoftTubes’ bass room, it’s sort of an amp and room emulator than creates a good low end space. Hans didn’t dig that much, so it’s dialed back in these mixes.
PSF: How does the improv process evolve?
JS: The improvisatory process on these recordings was, as I mentioned, basically just organic growth from the beginning of the piece. I always want to play guitar a lot, but with other guitarists there, I started on violin and sometimes switched midway in several tracks, or went back and forth (for example I switched to guitar in the Digestive only at 22 minutes or so, so it’s cut on the LP edit).
I used my Princeton Reverb amp for both, and when Jonas wasn’t playing guitar (he played Hammond and also electric piano and some synths through a mixer with his own reverb effects), I took the Vox amp that he used for my echo second output, as I like to use a echoed/effected image often.
Mathias Danielsson who played pedal steel and guitar used a small Fender amp that he had brought also, with a tape delay unit, but this amp didn’t have the headroom to keep the pedal steel from distorting, which was a shame (I thought).
Mats, the guitarist who played the delay rhythms on "Valhalla" and such, used a computer as effects and then sent a stereo signal that was a full spectrum reverbed sound, so again, tough to mix into an ensemble setting. His monitor amp was an enormous Fender (Bandmaster maybe?) in a separate room with the bass amp.
Scott was in the middle of the room with his synth setup and then KG Westman had his synth setup and a smaller Vox amp for his sitar. They had two Mackie monitors on stands for the synth sounds in the room. In a full session, the room had Alex/drumset at one end, then moving clockwise, Mathias, me, Jonas, (many keys and Hammond), KG, Scott, Hans and Mats.
For the pieces “Bon Voyage” and “Juggle the Juice,” we had the idea to use only synths and African hand drums that Hans had brought, though I played theremin on these (that counts as synth, right?) and Hans ended up switching to bass again. These are both edits from one continuous jam.
On the two sitar-based pieces on this album, "the Digestive Raga" and "Raga for Jerry G," the sitar determined the scale/mode and tone of the piece right from the beginning. "The Digestive Raga," so called because it was recorded right after dinner, was very organic in its development. I started off with a four string electric mandolin (a la Srinivas, I suppose.) Mathias (plays) a very spacey pedal steel, (and) one of the ideas that Scott presented was of doing this sort of “space rock” with odd combinations of instruments, like sitar and pedal steel, and the other sitar based piece on this album, "Raga for Jerry G," was a direct result of that, the idea of having a combination of essentially “country music” elements like pedal steel and violin mixed with sitar and then the space rock world!
The last track on this album is one of the three long pieces from the session, 45 minutes in total, it goes through a couple different worlds. (though the invisible door!). It has a synth sequencer as the rhythmic driver, so again had to have that in the room so there was a lot of track bleed. Nonetheless, I was mostly interested in getting the best sounds out of the tracks themselves that I could and blending the whole thing into a cohesive unit.
In general, I try to let the jams be what they were without adding or taking away things. Obviously as the mixing engineer, I did end up coloring things in ways that other might not have (I’m sure my playing is well represented... I don’t know if that is specifically conscious or not because of being the player, so much as probably because of my aesthetics of wanting to hear melodic phrases—the same aesthetic that made me play them in the first place!).
There are still many pieces from this session that are in the queue. They are all nearly done, just on hold while we finished up these ones. Some great stuff, I think, I especially like the longest pieces. There is one that is an hour, but the studio’s computer hiccuped in the middle so it was missing a little, but luckily, Sabine from the record company was shooting video so I could fill in the gaps with audio from the video and step into a different room for these moments!
On these and a little bit on 20 Steps From the Invisible Door, I did use some added effect auxiliary sends with tape echo or moving filters. Mathias plays a constant rhythm on his SG with P-90s on 20 Steps, with a slow wahwah pedal so I augmented that a bit with a Moog filter with LFO so that he moves around a bit. I have my shadow guitar track on that one, so I didn’t need much more, effect-wise!
In general, the way these mixes are set up is that drums and bass are centered, Mathias is always on the right and I am always on the left (and when I got the Vox amp for my reverb/echo shadow, that went slightly right, across from my base track). Mats had a stereo image, so he is fairly centered as well, Jonas is slightly right of center when on guitar, otherwise his stereo image is as he presented it from his mixer. KG’s sitar is usually central, his synths also, Scott’s synths move around constantly panning over the stereo spectrum. Since it was all recorded together in the same room, and with the bleed involved, I thought the classic recordings of rock bands and '60's and '70's jam sessions were a good model for the overall sound. It’s not extremely high tech sounding, which is perhaps different in some ways from other ØSC recordings where the drums are very dry and up front.
That could have been easier to pull off with better separation, or fewer people playing, perhaps, but I like the results of these sessions in the end (though I have to say that I don’t think the mp3s sound as good as the higher quality files. We’re not making pop music and mastering it for your iPhone, I guess).
NOTE: The other two albums from these sessions are still pending release in 2016. http://music.jsegel.com
Live show of the Different Creatures release concert:
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