An Interview, Review and Live feature of Post-Digital, Progressive Minimalism with Tip The Scales
On a spring evening in 2015 I attended one of countless improvised music events in Oslo, at the now defunct venue known only as “Deichmanske”, a humble gig space above Norway’s oldest library. I encountered a staggering percussion performance by a tall, mystical creature who I now know as Andre Drage Haraldsen (or affectionately referred to as “Andre the pirate” by my daughter).
After witnessing the thundering, freeform performance I talked Andre into playing with me. A week or so later we got together in his Sagne studio and started making music together. For one of the first times in my life, I found that my obsessive nature and demanding work capacity was not only met, but also challenged. It was evident that this unstoppable, fluid machine was deadly serious and eternally committed to his practice. I felt like I was with my kind.
Fast forward 4 years of good memories and having not seen each other for some time, we got together on a late winter Oslo evening, the night of his release party, to discuss his current practice and the release of his new album. With limited time to spare, we sat upstairs in the backstage room of Kafé Hærverk whilst vibraphone, marimba, and Rhodes sound checks were taking place in the venue beneath.
This setting was remarkably different from that which usually unites us. This was no pally jam or improv gig. There was structure,
SG: What you have here is what I know as the Andre Drage group, but this is going out as Tip The Scales. Was that your techno project before?
AD: “Well, I did a solo project – programmed everything, played piano, got some synthesizers but got to a point where I realised that I needed some classical musicians to do some of the scores and I needed some jazz musicians to do improvised parts. It started as a more electronic project but we tried it out with Rhodes piano and auditioned different cello players. I knew Petter on vibraphone, so he joined. Then tried some different marimba players, so Andres joined. It was a process of trying to find out how this electronic based music be played on acoustic instruments.”
SG: Is that something you had in mind when you were composing it?
AD: “I had a lot of songs written but it was based on electronic music. After a while I felt a bit limited by that way of creating music. I wanted to take it a step further. Then when I tried out this stuff with acoustic instruments, I discovered I had to write in a different way. When I write via electronic means, I had to learn to basically try to listen as though there were real musicians playing it. Sometimes it didn’t work in rehearsal and sometimes it worked really well. So gradually I got better at writing in this method – imagining what it would sound like and play like with humans and acoustic instruments.”
SG: I know when you did the Andre Drage Group release, you said that you had been writing it for a couple of years. But in the grand scheme of things, that was not that long ago. How long have you been working on this project for, in terms of writing?
AD: Well, I’ve played piano all of my life, so some of the scores are based on things that I’ve been doing on solo piano quite recently. But I think some of these songs are about 6 years in the making. But meanwhile, I had all of these other bands active. So it took a lot of work.”
Unlike Drage’s seemingly unlimited technical ability, the album is refreshingly free of virtuosic dribble that plagues most music of a progressive nature. Never does a moment occur that demands any level of patience or a conscious focussing of the attention span. Drage’s production, much like his composition and performance, never strays into monotonous territory. Each phrase is an interesting and gripping complement to the last – a continuous thread of innovation within the realms of an established genre.
But for the Kennel/Ildfjell drummer this is remarkably safe terrain.
SG: Having known you for a while and played with you somewhat, this is wildly different from the other stuff you do. One of my theories is that playing one kind of music is like eating one kind of food. Is it the same thing for you? Did you feel an urge to do something different, or are you just catering to another taste?
AD: “Well, I studied music in London, which for me, was inspiring and all that, but I didn’t find anyone there that I could write music with – people that could make the kind of music I find interesting. So when I returned to Oslo, I was kind of searching for different sounds and people. I wanted to explore different expressions in music. This project was always there, but it slowly developed into a bigger ensemble. At this point I wanted to challenge myself in the way I write music. So I took on many different projects – I think I had 8 bands at the time. Some of it was improvised music, some of it noise music, some electronic music and I did some rock bands. But I played with a band called Ildfjell. Which was really inspiring. Håkon Nybø on synthesizer really opened a lot of doors for me in music. I learnt how to really listen when you play. This experience was a huge inspiration on my current creative practice…”
This realisation is evident in Drage’s playing. He is completely in-touch with every element of the performance – feeling and responding to the character and personality of the sound, musicians and the audience. He expresses an other-worldly intuition with his band – a palpable transcendence within the moment.
AD: “…from there I started to think differently about music. I wanted to explore how I can get this electronic music out of the computer and into physical instruments. A lot of the music is pretty strictly written, but I try to have more open spaces and sounds that could change from time-to-time, sections where musicians could improvise and not have it feel too regimented. I think a lot of different stuff I did with different projects has inspired me to write, but with Tip the Scales, I now consciously write with the personalities of the performers in mind. In the beginning, it was just copying electronic projects into music and getting people to play it…”
This is yet another trait clearly and honestly evident in the performance. Drage is both catering for his own taste and for his band members’ individual playing style. There is not an ounce of pressure or tension within or between the members throughout the performance. Their attributes have been carefully selected are clearly, heavily valued. Their roles are not to just act as breathing MIDI.
AD: “…What’s interesting to me is that I’ve been really fortunate. I have all of these amazing musicians playing my music. 2 of the players have a classical education. The cello player is also classically educated, but she moved into improvisation and soundscapes. The Rhodes and bass players come from a jazz background. So I think it’s an interesting combination of musicians. They all have their own sound and a different understanding of their practice. It’s important to me that these expressions are allowed to come through in the music. I feel really blessed to have all of these great musicians, playing my music for who they are. That’s important to me. Even though this is strictly composition, I could easily pay any capable session musician to do the same job. But it’s not about that. It’s important for me and for this music that all the players have a strong creative personality and dynamic that they can bring to the stage and share with me, and our audience. It’s in the way I write, as well – because now I write for the team as much as myself. I hope it gives the audience a little bit more. It makes the shows a bit different every time. There are some open sections where someone at one point has the spotlight.”
This occurrence is quite a humbling experience. To see ‘band-leader’ allowing the creative contribution of each, selected musical personality to individually and collectively flourish in the setting is both uncommon and heart-warming. This caring attitude and attention to detail is a continuation of Drage’s approach to the record’s production. As he not only composed this record in it’s entirety but supervised all elements of the production from engineering to mixing and mastering.
SG: So how long did it take to record this? Was it recorded live or multi-tracked? It sounds amazing.
AD: “Well, we did an EP and a single which were all recorded live. But for this record, it was impossible to do it live because the marimba and vibraphone are so difficult to record next to loud, acoustic drums. We recorded the drums first at Olyp, which is a sound studio at Carl Berner. We did 3 days there recording to click tracks and guide tracks. Then we did the marimba and vibraphone in a much bigger room. Then we analogue mixed it all over the course of a week at Røff Sound recordings at Frysjå with Vegard Liverød which was the most important process to get the right sound. Vegard is really patient and can cope with my crazy ideas.
SG: It helps when you can work with people like that.
AD: “He’s amazing, he has a nice view on music. It was then mastered by a guy called Magnus Kofoed at Brygga Studio in Trondheim.”
This album is the second release of the new venture of Oslo venue Kafé Hærverk’s – Hærverk Industrier. A new record label and partnership between Turbonecro’s Vegard Heskestad and Oslo noise lifer/label connoisseur, Petter Flaten Eilertsen – both founding members of the venue.
SG: You’ve done quite a lot at Kafé Hærverk since the very beginning. How did this label offer come about and why did you go with it?
AD: “Well, I was basically signed to Apollon records in Bergen. For me, I try my best to create something people have not heard before with these instruments and with this set up. When I started to hang out here at Hærverk. I was really inspired by hearing music I hadn’t heard before and the people working here. This was an important scene for me and it was great to get to know more good musicians…”
The event united an eclectic audience demographic. The room filled up with a diverse mix of people – fresh faces getting their first taste of the experimental music community alongside seasoned, senior jazzers and everyone in between.
AD: “…There’s a great atmosphere here and when they offered me a record deal on their new label, it was completely natural for me to go with it. I think Kafé Hærverk and Hærverk Industrier are more up-to-date with what is happening now around the world. They’re not clinging to an old idea of how things are supposed to sound, which I really like. So it was only natural for me to hold the release party here. I think this is one of the best places in Oslo to discover new music. There’s a lot of different stuff from all over the world here. It’s an inspiring place to be. It’s the best place I could have had the release.”
SG: One thing I pulled out when I first listened to it is that there is clearly bits of minimalism and progressive rock in it. You can obviously hear the influences from older styles but it’s produced in a really, really contemporary manner. Was older music an inspiration for you, or did you try and take the inspiration from more modern music?
AD: “Well, there’s some obvious references there – Steve Reich, György Ligeti, I’m inspired by classical music and contemporary art and contemporary music. But I also enjoy King Crimson, Frank Zappa, The Melachrino Orchestra; jazz rock/progressive rock from the 60’s and 70’s, I try to mix that with ambient music like Brian Eno and Aphex Twin. I don’t necessarily want a modern production sound but I try to structure it in a way that’s pushing towards new music. I’m not trying to deliberately copy anyone. I used the production methods that I feel suits this kind of music. I hope people appreciate that mix.”
This meticulous, and to some, seemingly dogmatic effort speaks volumes. The incorporation of analogue mixing gives an unarguably tight and warm flavour to the record. Not only is it complementing to recording and performance but an honorary reference to the ‘older’ influences of Drage’s work.
Another traditional element of mid/late 20th century music traditions carried forward by this project is the live rig. Tip The Scales by no means complies with the millennial comfort found in the contemporary live rigs. Despite being of the USB-stick rig generation, Drage makes less compromise in the live format of his music than any other area. Performing with a complete 6-piece ensemble of marimba, vibraphone, cello, bass guitar, Rhodes electric piano + electronics and drums. ‘Using’ large, heavy, humidity sensitive instruments is not for the unenthused performers of today. There is no chance of the audience being mislead or disappointed by the performance format, or indeed, the delivery.
SG: So where are you going to go next with Tip The Scales.
AD: “Well, now we are looking for a booking agent. As you can imagine, this is a really hard band to manage. All of the musicians are professional – they are touring abroad all the time, so it takes a while to make a gig happen. It’s difficult and expensive to travel with the huge instruments, so we need to get the booking agent. I already have a new record written, but it’s going to cost a lot of money to make it; so one step at a time.”
SG: Anyone you’d like to thank before we sign it off?
AD: “Obviously all the musicians in my band and the people involved in the recording and production. I’m really grateful to Hærverk for inviting me to release the record here and helping me out with publishing, and obviously everyone at the studios involved in the production – thank you.”
Needless to say, this record comes highly recommended. As an album it justifies the quality of the craft and musicianship contributed to its conception and creation. But the live experience of this band is the most fulfilling for those lucky enough to have the opportunity.
Tip The Scale’s self-titled album is now available as a screen printed, single sided 12” or download from Hærverk Industrier.
Words: Simon Gore