Guide to SKOPJE

Music is like living, but better


Balkon3 interview with Mats Gustavson

Even the avant-garde free-improv scene has its own stars, where among the most well known is Mats Gustafsson from Sweden, one of the guests at this year’s Skopje Jazz Festival. There are not enough words or ways to describe what this musician is capable of doing with his instrument – the saxophone. The free-improv music is a type of improvisation where no music rules are followed but the emotions and logic of the musician or musicians themselves that are taking part in those collective improvisations. As a tireless performer of this type of music, he is an author of numerous albums and has done numerous concerts, including collaborations with well known avant-garde artists like Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, or other types of avant musicians like Thurston Moore and Sonic Youth, Jim O’Rourke, Neneh Cherry, to name but a few. The band he plays most with is The Thing, and their latest release is The Cherry Thing, collaboration with vocalist Neneh Cherry. The concert at the Skopje Jazz Festival will be Gustafsson’s second, as last year he performed with his other band Fire! This year he and The Thing will perform with one of the legends of free jazz music, Joe Mcphee.

Please tell me how you initially encountered jazz music?

– I first heard jazz from a beautiful piece of 7 inch vinyl in my mother’s collection. It made an impression on me. The first real meeting with the creative form of jazz that I’m now involved in was at the local jazz club in Umeå, my hometown. I heard shitloads of free jazz when I was 14 years old and for me it was just as the punk rock I was doing at the time: pure energy and commitment!

How did you develop your interest for improvising?

– Through other people. That’s the only way to learn anything. This is all about sharing, on all levels. It’s all about communication. That’s why improvised music will always be valid, both as a music form and as a form of resistance. Let me say that all of us who play in The Thing we have different projects and bands and we have different approaches to this thing. With this band we have a book of perhaps a couple of hundred pieces and we never, ever decide what pieces to do before a performance. That’s the method that works best for us, just improvising with what we have. Whatever shows up, we play!

What was the first improvised music you heard that had an effect on you?

– The first improvised music I heard on vinyl was Little Richard or his sax section, and a bit later it was Peter Brötzmann´s Machine Gun. When it comes to live performances that was Per Henrik Wallin Trio.  Hearing his Trio as a kid in the early ’80s, I’m happy to say that we took some of their music-making tools and made them ours. All the great music we can find, we try to use — be it hardcore, metal or schlager, noise or garage rock or free jazz. We try to make it our music.

When did you first got involved in the free improv/free jazz scene?

– From the very first moment I heard it. The community is very allowing and willing to share! I liked the fact that it is also very much a DIY culture. You have to create all your possibilities, and there is no other way! Do it! DO IT! Or stay home….

Why is this music important?

– Music is like living, but better. When you know that, you feel it, you dig it. You DO IT. Music is life. Life is music.

What is your opinion on labeling music?

– I find that naming genres and classifying music to be a negative thing. You scare people away. You put a preset mind in people´s head.  It is about MUSIC. And they should just listen openly. And they will be rewarded. This music is about showing new perspectives, putting new light on things. Making people hear, think and act. If you can listen freely, you can think freely and you can ACT freely! This is a fundamental thing for me!

As someone that has enormous output and collaboration projects what are some of the most memorable musical moments or collaborations you’ve had?

– They are way too many (luckily enough !) – and they are best shared over a beer in a bar. I feel extremely privileged to have worked with some of the freakin’ greatest people and groups within jazz, free jazz, garage rock, noise, etc.

Your name is also associated with a handful of projects both music and arts. And you always seem to be working. What drives you to work continually?

– The knowledge that this kind of alternative / resistant music actually has a value and the power to change things. Small and big things. The music is a political act in itself. And the way the societies look now we surely need alternatives. Creative politics and ideologies are getting weak… other interests dominates our day to day – life. This music could be an alternative. Could be…. And has to be! It is all about sharing and exploring. I can’t get enough of it, ha ha!!! That’s a fact.

You have released many albums of improvisations and collaborations over the years, but Cherry Thing with Neneh Cherry is the first time you have done really done song form stuff. What was that like for you?

– I have been doing song based stuff my whole life, including project with rock, punk, garage groups, and I’m still doing them now. That will not change at all. Those are my roots anyway. The project with Neneh was great to do. She is an amazing singer, probably the best! We pushed each other in all kind of corners!!! I loved it! Actually, that’s what great musicians do – they push each other towards new experiences and sounds!

How were the tracks chosen for the album? I read in another interview that the band had a list of 50 songs.

– It was a shared thing. It was very democratic. We all chose from a variety of favorite songs, songs that have inspired us. And we wrote quite some new songs as well. There will be more coming out from that same session. Dynamite stuff!

Prior to the tour with The Thing this fall you will be doing a duet concerts with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. You first collaborated with him and other members of SY on a limited edition live recording titled New York – Yistad, The Diskaholics Anonymous Trio and with the full band Sonic Youth on a record called Hidros and since you’ve been playing on and off together. What has your relationship of friendship and work with Moore been like?

– I can say the same thing here. He is Thurston Moore and Neneh Cherry is Neneh Cherry.  They are different. And both really great! We are actually making a trio together in London for a single date!!! It should be fun! Thurston is great and we have the same disease: discalcholism. It can’t be cured. It goes on and on… “ a piece of vinyl per day keeps the doctor away” …It is just great to have collaborations like these with people you really like, and to be exploring stuff over a longer period of time. This includes Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark, Barry Guy, Thurston… New things happen over time. Things deepen and develop.

What do you admire most in each other’s work?

– You need to ask Mr. Moore about that. But I just admire that he is doing exactly what he is doing. And I like the fact that we have the same disease as it helps our comradeship. 😉

Another important musician with whom you have worked extensively is saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. Can you talk about your relationship with his music?

– Of course, there is a special relationship here. Peter is unique… no one else is like him. He was really the one that made me understand (with his records) what this music was and is. The energy and commitment! Machine Gun is an album that a lot of people though it was a some sort of political manifesto or an anti-Vietnam thing. Actually, Machine Gun is the nickname of trumpet player Don Cherry, Neneh Cherry’s stepfather. But it was this music that made me understand the connections between free jazz and punk rock and hardcore music that I was interested in at the time. It opened up every DNA in my body and brain.

This year you will be playing in Skopje with Joe Mcphee.

Usually these collaborations portray our different interests. We have collaborated with Joe many times and he had a great influence over us three individually and as a band. He is 72 and is kicking ass like he is 20. Actually, we are getting older while he is getting younger.

While free improve music may not be that commercially viable  do you think an artist can be true to the art while still maintaining a commercial viability?

– If you are not true to your art, you better stay at home. No compromises here. As long as you express your own personal voice in any context you do, you will do fine. But no fuckin’ compromises here! This way of making music is not for sale.

Nenad Georgievski