Ballade’s Carl Kristian Johansen has a thorough talk with Thomas Dybdahl about his latest album, the circumstances of its creation and of Dybdahl’s artistic project in general. Interviewed while still in France, Dybdahl has since made two appearances in Oslo, both at a sold out Sentrum Scene
With the aid of a cluster of musicians drawn from the scenes of improvisation, jazz and alternative rock Thomas Dybdahl has made a friction-free, ambient and tranquil fourth album.
“Science” is certainly his most cohesively moulded album to date and it challenges the established image of Dybdahl as a melancholy singer/songwriter.
So what about characterisations of Dybdahl as the pop-version of Arvo Pärt, the soul-version of Morton Feldman, the soft rock edition of Neil Young’s “On the Beach,” or Marvin Gaye as a folk-rocker?
-Right now I could probably issue an entire album of yodelling without changing people's conception of me, says Dybdahl.
Scrutinizing Dybdahl’s albums since 2002’s “That great October sound” reveals components and tracks that disclose him as a much more complex musician than usually indicated by the singer/songwriter categorization.
That album, his debut, features the track “Postulate” which is based on a conversation between the composer Morton Feldman and a German journalist. Feldman was a composer who concerned himself with time, silence and “planes of timbre,” and with “extended temporal progressions.”
Essence in the time-outs
-It is not so much about Feldman any more, over the last year I’ve been especially engaged with Arvo Pärt.
But it’s always hazardous to list references. I belong in a pop world, and I’ve experienced that if I make use of references of this kind the music seems to pivot into a different genre, and I’m considered freeloading on other people’s credibility.
How is Arvo Pärt’s influence manifest on “Science”?
-Most unequivocally in the larger arrangements, with the strings and choir. I’ve been listening a lot to “Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten” and I’m fascinated by the way Pärt uses harmony leads and “voicing” rather than a distinct melody that runs through the entire piece. The influence Pärt has had on e.g. Thomas Newman, who composes for motion pictures, is evident. The reason is perhaps that Pärt’s technique is so well suited to images by leaving a lot of room and leeway for “instructive” (visual) impressions.
-This aspect is important on “Science” even though the context is a completely different one.
The four albums from Dybdahl’s hand include a number of tracks that cannot be performed on guitar or piano, something which testifies that his focus is just as often on exploring new formats as it is on writing pop songs.
The aforementioned “Postulate” is a case in point as it features, in addition to the Feldman interview, a repeating groove and a careful contrast of noise elements. One review labelled this track a “time-out” on the album, but could it be that it is exactly these breaks that manifest much of the essence of Dybdahl’s aesthetics?
-I’ve tried using different harmony cycles in repetition. On “Stay Home” form “Stray Dogs” (2003) a loop of five chords is repeated throughout, thus constituting the leitmotiv of the song.
“Science” features a lot of this kind of structuring, which makes it more arranged than previous albums,” says Dybdahl.
Compressed energy in human form.
As is his habit, Dybdahl has brought in a number of musicians from disparate genres on “Science”. Frode Gjerstad, a figure one usually comes across in contexts that emphasize on explosive free jazz, improvisation and orchestrated clamour, has appeared on several Dybdahl albums. “Science’s first track features him on double bass saxophone and saxophone, laid down in layer upon layer.
Gjerstad shares some thoughts on working with Dybdahl:
-Thomas does not restrain me with limitations. He allows me to keep “at it” until I come up with something he believes in. In terms of initial guidance I barely get a bass line or a beat.
-He records everything I play, which will then reappear as fragments in the most unlikely places. I still don’t know what my contribution to “Science” really is, a truth also exemplified by the fact that the sax that opens his third record was actually recorded for the second.
He describes recording with Dybdahl as going through myriad ideas; a process where the word ‘no’ is banned and in which Dybdahl allows himself ample time.
-In my ears he is a very “modern” composer, with huge personal archives of sounds and excerpts available on demand. It would not surprise me if he were able to put together a whole new album using already recorded material in new ways and structures.
Dybdahl for his part, says he has benefited greatly from working with Gjerstad, most of all from the open-minded attitude and willingness to try out novel things.
-It is always a good experience to include people that stem from a different kind of (musical) reality. They automatically play things completely differently from what I had envisaged beforehand.
-It is good fun to be joined by Gjerstad, he is preserved and compressed energy in human form. He almost explodes the minute he gets started. And he is not very puritanical about me editing his original recordings, beyond recognition sometimes, in order to get what I’m after.
Gjerstad makes a point of how you put together your songs. Does he have a point when he says that you can create a whole new album using already recorded sounds?
-It is an interesting thought to go to the “library of sounds” and create an entirely new album. It’s quite a Frank Zappa-notion; asking people to play different songs and then edit the recordings into something completely different. I definitely have ambitions of going a lot further, going more “nuts,” than I have so far.
Dybdahl describes himself as a recovering control freak, which used to entail that any process was halted if he thought it was on a wrong track.
-Now I’m falling more and more in love with the idea of pursuing (also) what I initially don’t like, for suddenly the whole thing pivots. I think I ought to be less wary of exploring things I don’t fully believe in from the start.
And what would this stance entail in praxis?
-As a vocalist and composer I would like to collaborate with a contemporary ensemble. I envision giving them crude sketches and unfinished songs without any specific idea of how or where they should end up. Hopefully, my artistic life will be long, and I need the opportunity and liberty to do other things than working within my core expression, which is of course the old pop-folk-soul.
The celebrity key card.
Dybdahl is in France at the time of this interview, and he experiences the way he is written about there as very different from back home.
-Reviews outside of Norway tend to focus a lot more on the music, since I haven’t had the same personal exposure in the media.
-In Norway there exist general notions of who I am as a person. This is something I have to accept, but it is very frustrating to read reviews that fail to discuss the music itself, after two years of work with a record!
-Right now I thing I could probably release a whole album of yodelling without changing people's conception of me. It is an interesting question how many records one can sell before it wears away at one’s musical credibility.
-I’d like to return the “celebrity key card,” it takes focus away from the music and it’s bad for one’s private life.
The compromise that made everyone sulky.
With “Science” he has changed record label, from the local Stavanger label Checkpoint Charlie Audio Productions (CCAP) to Universal, a major multinational.
Has this had any impact on your music?
-Not the least.
The album was completed before I decided who would release it. I opted for the company offering the kind of apparatus I would like to work with.
In addition to using friends as musicians he also confers with his friends regarding which songs to select as singles. The single from “Science” is “Be a part,” which is a hidden last track on the album and is not listed on the cover.
-I just couldn’t find place for it when I was putting the album together as an entirety. Making it a hidden track but also the single was a nice compromise that made everyone I had asked for advice sulky.
That giant leap
“Science” seems textually more introvert and self-reflective. Do you agree with this assessment?
-Yes, to a certain extent. Some of the writing belongs to a different subject matter than what I normally concern myself with: Being an atheist means that I have the same need for understanding and explaining the world that surrounds me as religious people do, but I look for answers in different places, in science, that’s how the album got its title. The opening track, “Something real” is about what I can see and touch; what is real to me.
According to Dybdahl the phrase “that giant leap” from the same song was described by the daily “Dagens Næringsliv” as a song about changing record label, from CCAP to Universal.
-This unbelievably shallow interpretation really made me laugh. The real reference is Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s “giant leap of faith,” and I really hope people don’t believe I would dedicate a whole track to something so incredibly trivial and boring as a label- transition.