Major Parkinson - An Interview with Jon Ivar Kollbotn.
Following their outstanding release 'Blackbox', which has been universally acclaimed by all, we're delighted to bring you all an interview with Jon Ivar Kollbotn, who has taken the time to tell us (in amazing detail) about the the background to 'Blackbox', chat about 'Cardiacs' and give us a big hint on future plans.
NMR: Your new album 'Blackbox' has been out for a few weeks now, and it's been received so well by everyone. How do you feel about the reaction?
''Well, I must say I was quite surprised over the reaction among our beloved fans and great reviewers all over. When you work so intensely with a record over time, it is easy to go blind in the process, banging your head against the wall, caught up in details. And sometimes you just feel like an esoteric manifesto of chaos, a bastard child slipping into the unknown dancing above the void on a thin layer of glass. Making music always comes with this heavy baggage though, that great iron balloon of self-doubt shackled to your limbs as you reach for the sky that in the end slowly disappears as the bottled madness is unleashed upon the world in the shape of some orange pill for someone to swallow. Therefore it surely came as a surprise that so many people took a chance and grabbed the prescription with a smile. I guess we did something right though.''
''Sometimes you just feel like an esoteric manifesto of chaos, a bastard child slipping into the unknown, dancing above the void on a thin layer of glass''
NMR: We've all had time to try and take in the album musically, and although we now have a video to watch, I'm not sure I've seen so much written about themes behind the album. So what is the 'Blackbox'??
I'm also intrigued about the Major Parkinson songwriting process. How do you actually start the process of writing a Major Parkinson song?
''Well, where shall I start?
The concept of Kalopsia really intrigued me in the working progress. The way we distort memories to make reality appear as more beautiful than it actually is. That has a lot to do with childhood and the loss of innocence, I think. "Blackbox" feels like this kind of distortion. I find it fascinating! Let me tell you a little anecdote:
I dreamt once, or was it a memory? I gently crossed diagonals in some strange arabesque Ocean. I had this big magnifying glass as I searched for starfish. Suddenly I was back in Poland, July 1989. My father was at a union strike there supporting the steel workers and I was in an overheated crimson taxi cab with my mother. We were on our way to the factory. In reality, this was a family vacation sponsored by the government of this country still ravaged by poverty, just as communism was collapsing. But I was only eight years old then, so I couldn`t grasp the magnitude of things. As my mother and I reached the steel factory in this vast and humid suburbia, I suddenly touched the cold galvanized surface of the door handle and rolled down the window for some fresh air. This was the vehicle and that was the handle. I saw a thousand steel workers gathered by the entrance, and I saw my father in the front holding a grey bullhorn in this crimson red Solidarność Utopia. His eyes; engaged, active, lucid, so alive, so illuminating. I touched the door handle again, my mind focused, yet confused. I was in the throes of something tangible, yet, unfamiliar. The cold steel handle, the faceless steel workers.
It's a very vivid moment to me, not the most spectacular one, nor a pinnacle of great beauty, but tactile and gently spawned with a melodic thread that shaped some kind of distant Symphony. Maybe its this Symphony I'll hear or see when I die - this vague, fragile mess, this seemingly chaotic heap of things that just...happened. Once in my childhood. My father with the bullhorn. In Poland.
There is a big variety of themes behind the Blackbox. I'll try to put this in perspective for myself to understand:
Come to think of it, the whole song writing process was pretty much about making the obscure more tangible, to give words and sentences more meaning by taking them out of its original context and contextualize them within a different framework. You see; For five years I studied literature at the University of Bergen. I wasn't the best student though, but I participated in all the lectures in search of new impulses that could give me new perspectives on things. I felt really humbled and privileged to gain some knowledge about this world outside of the music box. At that time I felt there was something intangible about literature that really stroke a nerve, like small pieces of Music longing to come out in the open, waiting to be revealed. So I signed up for the masters, and I studied, analysed and devoured all the classics. It was like I was obsessed by some unnamable force of nature within these ancient stories. It was pure magic. Intrigued as I was by these stories, I felt ashamed that I had never read them before. Since I was young, I always had a great fondness for literature, but the art of analysis and close reading was a total different ballgame, and there, out of all these silent and reticent books, I started to hear small melodic fragments pouring out of the pages like beams of light. Was I hallucinating? Sometimes they occurred instantly like a sudden reflex, and other times they lingered for a long time in the back of my head like a shapeless mass of something strange and unfamiliar ready to be born out of some earthly womb. Well, these little creatures were not always melodies though, sometimes they manifested themselves as a certain feeling of sound.
''I started to hear small melodic fragments pouring out of the pages like beams of light.''
Its very hard to explain this process though, but let me try to emphasize; The first song on 'Blackbox' is called "Lover, Lower me Down". However, The working title was Santiago's Dream taken from Hemingway`s The Old Man and The Sea. Since the whole essence of the melody, the sound, the choir and the instrumentation of the song was so interwoven with the whole feeling of the book, I just couldn't escape this seemingly narrow and limiting path (When you write lyrics you want to keep your options open). After we had recorded the pre-production, I started fishing for lyrics outside of the Hemingway echo chamber, but I lost that battle rapidly. So I turned off all the lights in the studio, cranked up a bottle of red wine and started looking at old footage of people fishing for marlins. After numerous of repetitions accompanied by the rigid pre production of midi tracks, I suddenly slipped into the Santiago mode, and I was back there, in Bimini in 1951 among the frothing sea and the swordfish, and the words just came pouring out. From there, the whole album actually wrote itself. That's how the cookie crumbles, and sometimes it feels like the songs are writing themselves. How I ended up kneeling before the glorious refrigerator poets of the world is another question. Yet to be answered.
All in all I tried a different angle on this album, in terms of lyrics. I thought to myself: "why try to hide the references of inspiration when you can keep them out in the open so the listener can participate and understand more of the associative aspect of songwriting?" On 'Blackbox', I try to show where the melodies come from in some kind of associative Journey. If it is a passage from a book, a painting or just something as obscure as a baseball match from 1950. In other words I try to remove the distance between Words and Music.
NMR: Clearly 'Isabel: A report to the Academy' is a huge musical centrepiece of the album, but lyrically (at least to me) it as astonishingly complex as the music, can you explain more about this track in particular?
''Name the unnamable Object with a word - a word, little parakeet!
Isabel: A report to an academy; Although the title holds a clear Reference to Kafkas short story from 1917 - the tale of Red Peter, an ape who has learned to behave as a human being, juxtaposed with an obscure Salvador Dali painting from 1945, Isabel takes you along on a musical journey through a stream of consciousness in some kind of dream sequence on collision course with reality transcending time and space. Through the peep-hole in the mouth of Hieronymus Bosch you can see the manicured finger of Magritte writing himself out of solipsism with some chalk on a floorboard. I can't believe I got away with that one though.''
NMR: 'Blackbox' pretty much seems to feature every possible musician and musical instrument other than a Japanese girl with a rusty tambourine. Was it always your intention to write something so vast, or did this just 'keep growing legs' every time you touched it?
''Most of the tracks on the album contains a large variety of instrumentation. Merely because it was the basic idea in the first place. The mantra: The instrumentation should always serve the song. This is very intuitive. The challenge though was to convert the initial midi tracks from the demos into actual instruments. When the idea is so crystal clear in the first Place, it is hard to get away from it. So, if there is a big fake horn section in the preproduction, you can't just remove it. It's there for a reason. The real kick though, is when you hear the dynamic feel of the real instruments replacing these tracks. Oh god, it's like a sleeping monster coming to life. It's beautiful. It is magic.''
NMR: I think there's a compulsory question I have to ask which relates to 'Cardiacs'... so I'm sure I read somewhere that you came across Cardiacs quite late, is this really true? And given my first memories of listening to Cardiacs are so vivid, can you remember how and where you first came across them, and what your memories and first impressions were?
''Oh, My first encounter with Cardiacs was when I saw the "Tarred and Feathered" music video on Youtube about ten years ago. This was right after we had released our first album and I was dying for some new musical impulses. Suddenly, like a child in the immediacy of immanence I was drawn into this strange and erratic display of pure energy. Yes, the band members were acting quite kooky and elephantine in this fraudulent garden with their painted faces, uniforms and plastered smiles, skipping around among the yellow flowers.
"Time is of the essence, shall I put up some resistance?
Cursed with the awareness of my own existence"
Yes, this was a 60s talk show pastiche portraying an army of manic postal workers armed with musical instruments and rusty kitchen equipment; and there, in the middle of this domestic circus of obscurity, Tim Smith with his lime green guitar behind Hank Marvin-glasses frenetically jumping up and down.
"A slice of life a piece of mind Laid on a plate of my own kind"
"Time tends to pass by quicker than the nail That boxes me together forever it forms the seal Is the knowledge of my own existence real?"
Later on, as I dug myself through their exquisite back-catalogue, I found out: The more I listened to the music, the higher I climbed the ladder of exponential bliss. And behind every corner, a new surprise, then a new one, then an even greater one, I found the most beautiful pop songs within this strange and chaotic universe. I had reached the Klondyke of Music, and it was perfect!''
NMR: I guess the question which also has to be asked is... Have you any idea where you think you can go from here? Is it possible to make something at the same scale or even bigger, or is the temptation now to go to the opposite extreme and write an acoustic album, or maybe a 'Major Parkinson Sing Hits from the Musicals' or something?
''We are already working on a quite new and interesting concept as we speak. I really can't say too much about it but it's going to be great. We will make music great again! I'm a sucker for demagoguery.''
NMR: As we've now reached the end of the year, are there any other 2017 albums, particularly by Norwegian bands / artists you recommend??
''Sure, I can name five artists in random order; Kaada/Patton - Bacterial Cult (Looking forward to more of this cinematic Morricone madness), Aiming for Enrike (The last album Las Napalmas is brilliant, sounds like Battles, only with more attitude), Misty Coast (If you like Twin Peaks, you`re gonna love this!), Ulver (The assassination of Julius Caesar is totally shameless, in a good way though), Jaga Jazzist (Their last record was awesome!).''
NMR: Finally, you have a really loyal and appreciative support base across the world, in Europe in particular. What are the chances we'll finally get to see live performances in the UK and in other European countries in 2018??
''At the moment, we don't have a booking agency outside of Norway, so we are going to do this guerilla style. That means that we get help from our fans. Currently we are in dialogue with several venues all over Europe and USA. We will keep you posted.''
Thanks for your time Jon, and for such incredibly detailed answers, and we all look forward to hearing more news about the live dates! Don't forget Major Parkinson are featured in our 2017 Favourite Albums list, which you can find at the top of the page.