Q&A: Jono El Grande

Jono El Grande: Phantom StimulanceJono El Grande: Phantom Stimulance (Rune Grammofon, 2/1/11)

Jono El Grande: “Borrelia Boogie”

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The off-kilter art rock of Norwegian bandleader, composer, singer, guitarist, and kazoo player Jono El Grande is like candy to fans of Frank Zappa and whimsical, progressive rock. In his 10 years of playing with The Luxury Band (née The Jono El Grande Orchestra), he has released four albums, including the multi-layered Neo-Dada in 2009 and the raucous Phantom Stimulance this winter.

Though he has enjoyed success in his native Norway, Jono’s delightfully eccentric music isn’t yet as well known overseas. Here he opens up about composing, why there’s no such thing as a “live favorite,” and how songs can take more than a decade to record.

According to your label, only one song on your newest record, Phantom Stimulance, is newly composed, with the rest being unreleased live favorites, compiled to commemorate your 10 years as a bandleader and 15 as a composer. Why did you decide to record these songs to celebrate this occasion?

There are two brand-new compositions on the album, not one — “Borrelia Boogie” and “Rise Of The Baseless Press-Base Toy.” The other songs are completely rearranged versions of songs that never reached an album and new arrangements of earlier-released songs that have evolved so much on stage during the years that they deserved to be released again, with new titles. “Live favorites” is a term that the record company came up with. Even if this record is presented as an anniversary, it is nevertheless the music that is most important. Always.

Why hadn’t the songs on Phantom Stimulance been recorded previously? Were they more suited to live performance than the studio? Are there any live favorites still yet to be recorded?

I am a composer who likes to develop compositions over time at live shows by adding new themes and parts to them. My working process is very often like this: I write the basic scores at home, then the band rehearses the music, and then we play the material live and mold it until I feel that it is ready to be recorded. And I never know exactly when each song is ready. The reason why these tracks haven’t been recorded previously is that, on earlier albums, there were other compositions that I felt were more ready than ones on Phantom Stimulance. You may call them “live favorites” — to me these tunes were the hard ones, the ones that I had to work a little extra with to make them worthy to be immortalized on an album. We used 40 to 60 tracks on each song. “La Dolce Vidda” contains 10 drum tracks, I think.

It was actually quite the same with Neo-Dada. Some compositions there date back to the ’90s. And to the last question: yes, there will be more “live favorites” to be released in the future. I just have to compose them first.

There were a lot of strings on Neo-Dada, but they seem to have disappeared on Phantom Stimulance, which instead features more hard-edged electric guitar. Is this because you composed the songs before Neo-Dada’s addition of strings? Do you plan to continue to use strings in future compositions?

To the first question: no. Actually, Neo-Dada was composed for a band without strings, but during the recording sessions, I felt that something was missing. I had never worked with strings before, and, suddenly, it was about time. I put the whole session on hold, went home and rewrote a lot of the piano parts for violins, viola, and cello, gathered a batch of string players, rehearsed, and then went back to the studio. I’m very happy for that extra effort. On Phantom Stimulance, I wanted a harder sound, so I chose to skip the strings in that occasion.

To the second question: yes, the strings will return, but not on the next album, which will be a collection of old electronic solo stuff, demos, audience tapes, and album leftovers. But you’ll hear the strings on the next [album] after that, which will be a large project with about 20 musicians.

Have you been writing any new compositions alongside the recording of Phantom Stimulance?

Yes, indeed. I compose every time that I have the possibility to do it, at home and elsewhere. I use my voice-memo app on my iPhone a lot, and then I develop the themes in Sibelius (a popular music-notation program).

The musicianship on your records is astounding. How did you form The Luxury Band? Is the lineup fixed or does the personnel change between albums?

The band was formed in spring of 2000, and it was the result of an art-rock-band idea that I’d tried to incorporate for years. The first time was with a group called Menü Bizarra, which held only three shows back in 1995; then with Grande Corpse in 1996, which only rehearsed and recorded some songs and never performed live; then with Vidunderlige Vidda (Wonderful Mountain Plateau) in 1997-’98, which actually reached some local success in Oslo.

In 1999, I composed mostly on a workstation synthesizer and performed solo. Some of this material was released on Utopian Dances. Then, in 2000, I formed The Jono El Grande Orchestra by starting with a saxophone player that I knew. I called a long list of musicians that he named as potential members until I found a batch that I thought was fit for the project. Every once in a while, some members have quit to get a steady job in a symphony orchestra or to focus on their own solo career. I recruit new musicians by recommendations from existing members.

You’ve previously stated some obvious influences on your music — Frank Zappa, King Crimson — but I was often reminded of Mr. Bungle and related bands upon hearing your work. Which contemporary artists inspire or interest you?

There are a few bands that I find interesting on the avant-garde scene today, like my Norwegian colleagues PING, elephant 9, and Phaedra, and Finnish [band] Alamailmaan Vasarat. Probably a few more, but I can’t remember them. As you assume, I occasionally listen to bands such as Mr. Bungle, Primus, Secret Chiefs 3, and Naked City, in addition to the avant-garde heroes of the ’60s and ’70s. Right now, I listen a lot to the bands of the Canterbury Scene and the original RIO [Rock in Opposition] bands.

In the early ’90s, you were part of several temporary concept bands, like Black Satan and Pez Dispensers, which would only perform once. Do you still toy with band concepts or do you plan to only record as Jono El Grande?

Well, maybe Black Satan will resurrect in a new form someday; time will tell. But right now, I only plan the mentioned two releases as Jono El Grande, for 2011 and 2012.

You’re known for your idiosyncratic live shows. What role do you think live performance plays in a band’s identity?

I think too many musicians tend to look too predictable, and that matters whether you’re playing hip hop, jazz, rock, or any conventional genre. It would help a lot of bands that look uniformed to be a little smart with their stage identity. Yet an image must be built from an authentic artistic idea, and your visual appearance should be an extension of that. In some occasions, the natural extension is just a little distinction, or being, like you say, idiosyncratic.

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