A conversation with Norwegian riff queen Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen
It’s no exaggeration to say that no one wandering this great big land of music is making a noise quite like the Hedvig Mollestad Trio.
Consisting of guitarist Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen, bassist Ellen Brekken and drummer Ivar Loe Bjørnstad, the Oslo, Norway-based power triad straddles two worlds, blending hard rock swagger with jazz harmonic precision and a psychedelic atmosphere. Cheeky nicknames like “Jazz Sabbath” aside, it’s a potent brew of fiery improvisation and raw power that explodes like a bomb. This writer witnessed a South By Southwest performance at a tiny craphole of a bar with Rolling Stone writer David Fricke front and center, grinning ear-to-ear as the HMT melted brains via friendly smiles and jaw-dropping instrumental facility.
The band’s sound reaches a new apex on Smells Funny, its fifth album. Two-fisted monsters like “First Thing to Pop is the Eye” and “Bewitched, Dwarfed and Defeathered” alternate with lyrical concoctions like “Jurasek” and “Lucidness,” delivered through Thomassen’s six-string wizardry and the flexible foundation of Brekken and Bjørnstad. The record’s musical flights of fancy will stimulate guitar nerds, but the inherently riff-oriented melodicism will make friends with rockers (and jazzers) who just want to have a good time.
We spoke with Thomassen via e-mail about the creation of the new album and where the band goes next.
First of all, congratulations on the best HMT album yet.
Thank you so much, I’m pleased that you think so!
Fusion is a much-maligned word. But it’s appropriate for HMT music, as it draws so many elements – jazz, hard rock, psych – into a unified whole. How conscious are you of the melding of these elements when creating the music? Do you think, “This death metal riff will go great over this 5/4 jazz rhythm?” Or is it more organic than that?
Haha – definitely less robot-like than that! I don’t think we have similar approaches to all the songs, but to dig straight into the material of Smells Funny, the riff of “Beastie, Beastie” comes just from playing – untouched by human brain. But for the melody, I wanted it to be on a scheme that moved a little more around than just a few chords – it is much more fun to play when there is at least some harmonic changes underneath. So that one is made more phrase-by-phrase. Although the form is a twenty-bar blues-reminiscent scheme, the beat is a non-negotiable 4/4. But what I am thinking as I compose for a new album, at least when I have come a little further into the process, is to have a thought for variety – in beat, tempo and harmonics. Ellen’s riff on “First Think to Pop” changes from a six-beat into a five-beat, and that is only to gain intensity out of the riff and into the solos. On that riff we worked quite methodically, and tried it in so many different versions (4, 5, 6, 7) to check out what grooved the most.
What are the challenges of combining jazz and rock?
Today, isn’t that like asking what are the challenges of combining pasta and tomato sauce? I mean, it has been a safe zone since Mahavishnu – just choose high quality ingredients, prepare them well and trust your instincts.
Song titles like “Sugar Rush Mountain,” “Lucidness” and “Bewitched, Dwarfed and Befeathered” are very evocative. Without lyrics to use as reference, how do you come up with the titles? Do you think, “What would ‘Sugar Rush Mountain’ or “The First Thing to Pop is the Eye” sound like?” Or do you write the piece and then think, “This sounds like ‘Lucidness’?”
Our titles are never random. They contain meaning, but most of the time it refers to internal happenings. Except “Black Stabat Mater,” which was a direct response to political issues in Norway concerning refugees. “Beastie, Beastie” is a simple nod to Beastie Boys/”Sabotage.” “The First Thing to Pop is the Eye” is an awful story told by a peculiar driver we once met in Finland. “Juracek” is the name of a horse in a Croatian movie. And “Lucidness” is simply an antonym to “Ambiguity,” the name of a (fantastic) Terje Rypdal song, that I quote waaaay too much in the intro of our track. With very few exceptions, music comes first.
VIDEO: Hedvig Mollestad Trio – “First Thing to Pop Is the Eye”
Of what song on the record are you most proud?
The favorites of a record tend to change as the years go by – I have different favorites now on our first records from what I had when we recorded them. As a song structure, I like “Jurasek,” but as a take and a moment of common clarity, it is “Lucidness.”
As Smells Funny is a new peak, what is the next challenge for the band?
We’re gonna do some extensive touring in 2019. With this being our fifth studio album, we want the sixth to be slightly poorer, so we can easily notch it up again on the seventh. So I guess the next challenge is we’ll be spending time trying to make just a little less good music. Hehe.
Your Facebook page mentions a collaboration with Mats Gustafsson [The Thing, The End, Fire!], another jazz-trained musician who sees no boundaries between styles of music. His band Fire! has a similar aesthetic to HMT, so this sounds very exciting. How did this come about?
We just invited him in. We thought it’d be a perfect match. Mats is a great friend of ours and he is such an inspiration to work with and be around. He is very pure, open minded, kind, and has heard so much music he is a walking library. He’s got vision, passion and severely good taste. He joined us for a gig in a barn outside of Bergen, and it was just killer. Ivar and I have also joined in on different versions of his NU Ensemblen, and we really hope to collaborate more with him in the years to come!
VIDEO: Hedvig Mollestad Trio + Fire! – “Run Grammofon 20 år – FÅ BILLETTER!”
What musicians inspire and make you want to push your music forward?
Ellen and Ivar inspire me a lot. They are fantastic musicians, both in hands and in minds. I’m also very inspired by guitarists like Job Eberson, Hans Magnus Ryan [Motorpsycho] and John McLaughlin. And also Norwegian keyboard player Jon Balke has a phenomenal way of working and thinking.
How did you find Ellen Brekken and Ivar Loe Bjørnstad? They’ve been with you for the entire lifetime of the band.
When I was awarded the Jazz Talent of the Year in Molde [International Jazz Festival] in 2009, I wanted to form a band, a trio that could consist longer than through the project concert. The pragmatic way into it was that the core of the band had to be few in numbers but strong in force and heart – and not too busy. I’ve always wanted to play with Ivar since I first heard his mindblowing graduation concert at the Academy, and Ellen was a natural choice playing both upright and bass guitar, and being the smoothest bass player and person I knew.
You also make music outside the band. How does that inform and influence HMT?
It is only the past two years that I started to make a lot of music outside of this band, but I do think that it is a enormous development for me as a guitarist and composer. Even though one might think that the trio have this one sound, it is a quite flexible ensemble, and the trio is my safest playground – my musical home where I feel free to test ideas that are unfinished, and where I truly come to life as an improviser. To me, this become more clear when I work outside of the trio, naturally, and I really think it is crucial that we expand our comfort zones, so we can get better and make the art as sparkling as it can be. That should be our primary goal in performing arts and in the making of music. So I hope that my experiences as a guitarist and composer outside the trio is something that the trio will bargain from!
When did you know you wanted to make music?
I’ve made music since I was very little, I even remember the very first songs I made. I also made a short theatre piece, with music, when I was very young. But I think that is a very common thing for children to experiment with – even my three-year old is constantly composing songs and lyrics while playing or drawing, and I don’t think that necessarily makes her a future composer. It is a way of expression that belong to humans, not musicians. At the same time, the acknowledgement of the effect of music, and the comfort zone in making it (here I mean comfort as a good, challenging place to be working, not that it is comfortable all the time – not at all) has always been there, as I reflect on it now. But I didn’t utter a self-conscious choice of doing this until I started the academy, I think.
When you attended the Norwegian Academy of Music, did you have the music you’d make with the HMT in mind already?
No, by far no. It really took time to plunge into that. What lead me was the urge to have my own main project, my own common ground, as I started to play more and more around with other people’s music and projects. I didn’t feel complete – I was searching, I felt I was going to have my own base, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was going to be. That award from 2009, challenging me to put together a concert of my choice, was exactly what I needed to launch this.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned there that you still use today?
Attending the academy is so much more than taking part in the classes. It is years of very important character formation, stretching over years, so it is impossible to strip it down to different lessons learned. It is like being milk and becoming cheese. But one very concrete thing that I try to come back to is that very deep concentration and presence I would have when I played with my teacher Jon Eberson. I felt so in touch with every stretch of the music, so able to move around in it, without being judgmental, only acting on the impulses given. I try to go to that place each time I pick up my guitar.
VIDEO: Hedvig Mollestad Trio – Taktlos 2017