There’s a questionnaire on Norwegian group Jaga Jazzist’s page on the Ninja Tune website which invites the reader to choose one of 11 alternative definitions of the band, including jazz band, rock band, hip hop group, electronica group and classical ensemble. Which one mostly closely applies? The answer is all of them and none of them.
The totality aims to be unique; that’s another of our rules
“As a group, we have a few rules about how we do things,” says Jaga saxophonist, guitarist, composer and producer Lars Horntveth. “An important one is, try to make the opposite of what we did last time.”
Starfire, the group’s seventh album since 1996, and its fourth since signing to Ninja Tune in 2001, certainly follows that rule. It is, ultimately, uncategorisable, although house and electronic music figure large in the mix. It is, also, quite wonderful. A synthesiser-rich cosmic romp which, if it could be photographed, would resemble one of those deep-space galaxy shots taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Vast in scope but revealing a seemingly infinite number of tiny details when magnified.
Lars Horntveth formed Jaga in 1994 with his drummer and programming brother Martin, and keyboard player Ivar Johansen, who later left the group. A third Horntveth sibling in the line-up is sister Line, who plays tuba, euphonium and flute. Starfire was recorded by the eight-piece core band, most of whose members double on synths, augmented by a seven-piece string section, co-producer Jørgen Træen on Korg MS-20 and, on one of the five tracks, Leon Dewan on Swarmatron.
I enjoy having two homes and it’s inspiring to meet new people
I spoke to Lars Horntveth shortly after he’d arrived in London from Los Angeles, where since 2012 he has spent around half of each year. Los Angeles to London is the mother of all red-eye flights and Horntveth must have been near dead on his feet – particularly as, despite taking four sleeping pills on take-off, he hadn’t managed to get any sleep on the flight.
Why did you start making this seasonal relocation to Los Angeles three years ago?
Avoiding the Norwegian winter is pretty much it. I usually spend the summer based in Oslo, when a lot of the European touring happens. I enjoy having two homes and it’s inspiring to meet new people and play with different musicians in Los Angeles.
For the last 15 years I’ve also probably spent two months a year in New York, composing. When I see in my calendar that I’m going to be doing three or four months just composing, I prefer to do that somewhere other than Oslo. Because in Oslo I know everyone and everything’s really familiar. Even New York was becoming familiar. It’s so much easier to isolate yourself and focus when you’re alone in a new place. When I first went to Los Angeles, I didn’t know anyone. I like that challenge.
Another good thing about being in the west coast timezone is that you’re nine hours behind Oslo. So when I wake up in the morning all my emails are there. I spend an hour or so doing my replies and then the rest of the day is totally mine, to spend composing or orchestrating or whatever. With Jaga, I do a lot of logistical, organising stuff, which is not the best thing to combine with composing, so it’s good to get that out of the way at the start of each day.
I wanted to make longer tracks than we usually do, but with less happening at the same time
Also, quite soon after I moved to Los Angeles, I started working with Dominic Smith as a manager, and he’s based there. Dominic actually signed us to Ninja Tune 10 years ago, and now he’s managing Cinematic Orchestra and us and a couple of other acts. So that was one of the reasons as well. I wanted to work closely with him and also Ninja Tune has an office in Echo Park in Los Angeles.
The first two years I was there I was mostly writing and recording Starfire, but I finished it in November 2014 so since then I’ve been mostly writing stuff for other people and producing. I also do a lot of orchestra arrangements, it’s like a side job.
Given how cinematic Jaga’s music is, did relocating from the east coast to Los Angeles also have something to do with getting closer to Hollywood soundtrack work?
Not really. I haven’t really tried to get into the film and soundtrack scene, because I’ve been so focused on making Starfire. But of course, I’ve made soundtracks before and also musical theatre, so it’s something I can do. But you have to meet the right director, find the right project. I’m doing a little. A pretty stable gig for me is playing on the soundtrack of the NBC TV series Hannibal. On it I work with Brian Reitzell, who’s mostly known for doing all the soundtracks for Sofia Coppola. For three years I’ve been doing that every couple of weeks.
How did spending so much time in Los Angeles, away from the rest of the band, impact on the process of making Starfire?
I worked on it for about a year before I started bringing the guys over to Los Angeles to record. It started with my brother, and also the producer came over. We spent about a week in Los Angeles recording. Then a month later the guitar player [Marcus Forsgren] came over. Then I went back to Norway and recorded more stuff, then back to Los Angeles. So it’s been back and forth.
The process was basically to replace what I’d written or recorded already, to use that as jumping off points in the studio. And because we’ve mostly been working one-on-one it’s been much easier to be creative. When you work one-on-one everyone can relax and come with their ideas. It’s liberating.
When we did the One-Armed Bandit album , we rehearsed a lot for several months, everything was written and scored, and then we went in the studio and recorded it quite quickly, in a couple of weeks. Then we did the Live with the Britten Sinfonia album , where again everything was written out and very much rehearsed. When we rehearsed One-Armed Bandit that was like nine people in the room, and a heap more for Live with the Britten Sinfonia. Starfire is trying to do the opposite of that.
One of the important things for Starfire for me was to have some sort of concept for the entire album. I wanted to make longer tracks than we usually do, but with less happening at the same time. That was the basic idea. But of course, two years later, there is a lot happening, it’s pretty packed. You just have to go with the flow. But that’s the idea I started with. I’ve still got the longer tracks though.
I grew up with Norwegian jazz, not with Miles Davis or John Coltrane
I’m really really interested in making albums, with tracks that have a huge dynamic range but also hang together as albums. The tracks on Starfire are very much written so that they fit with the other tracks. That’s why the third track is like very quiet for at least three minutes, and it builds up quite slowly because the first two are so intense.
In Britain, people sometimes ask what the words “jaga jazzist” mean in English. Is there a literal meaning?
Basically it’s a Norwegian-language pun, making fun of the neo-Nazi movement that was so active when the band was formed. It’s a pretty stupid name, but we’ve had it for 20 years.
Having jazz in the name is kind of stupid as well. But there is improvisation, jazz elements in our music. Though on Starfire there are no solos. Jazz is just a part of the pool of influences on the album, in the melodies particularly. The melodic part of Jaga is based on the melodic side of Norwegian jazz. I grew up with Norwegian jazz, not with Miles Davis or John Coltrane. I grew up with the ECM label, Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett. From the late 1960s, early 1970s, [ECM label founder and producer] Manfred Eicher made music that was not based on traditional American jazz. It was more folky, more of its time and place.
So I’m happy that jazz is part of our name. Jazz is among a lot of important references in our music, even if we try to hide those references. The totality aims to be unique. That’s another of our rules.