Norway, and Scandinavia in general, have created in the last years a solid tradition in rock and in the development of an avant-jazz scene that has proved to be an incredible sounds lab. Following a personal vision, the Hedvig Mollestad Trio, formed by the guitarist Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen together with her mates Ellen Brekken on bass and Ivar Loe Bjørnstad on drums, has gradually managed to gain respect both from hard rock fans, thanks to the Sabbathian dynamics, and from the more purely jazz fans, thanks to a classic jazz trio interplay and to the virtuosic technique of Mollestad. On the occasion of the release of her new album, "Ding Dong, You're Dead", we contacted the Ålesund guitarist for a pleasant exclusive interview that touched upon many topics: from the happiness of being in the studio after lockdown to future projects, passing through the genesis of the new album and the evolution of her trio sound.
“Ding Dong. You’re Dead” is your 6th studio album recorded along with Ellen and Ivar. How did you meet with them?
I met Ivar at the university and Ellen at the Oslo Music Academy. I gathered them in 2009 to form a trio to perform at Molde International Jazzfestival where I had received a prize as Young Jazz Talent of the Year. I had heard Ivar play and really felt I had a connection with how he was playing. About Ellen, I just had a feeling it would work, but I didn’t know for sure. We spent HOURS, DAYS, WEEKS, rehersing, we still do, actually, and it took effort and hard work, humiliations and tears to figure out the directions of the music that we play today.
What changed in your way of creating music from the beginning?
In the beginning were definitely looking towards more classic jazzguitar trios, trying to break out of an old established concept that we didn’t felt comfortable with. Somewhere on the way we managed to get rid of that parallell, feeling that we were our own kind, we managed to find the core. Also, the experience that comes from recording so many albums makes you more confident on the material itself, and on our ways of approaching it - we trust ourselves more now, that keeps the focus on the music itself, and not the references you once tried to hide from.
What’s the meaning of the album title? Often it could be associated with horror movies
It is an association to a horror movie, but it started out with a comment I made, as I always felt in the mid-section of the song, those two notes (natural harmonics) in the melody, I tried to play them off both in time and pitch. As we listened through it in the mixing room, I said that I felt it sounded like a doorbell, when the technician said: "Ding Dong. You’re Dead". It kind of fell into place then, both the title of the song and of the record. It is funny, of course, and the horror association is a great parallell to black sabbath, but the title also refers to the worlds common experience with the pandemic over the last year. Suddenly, there is something really nasty at your door, changing everything.
Songs like the title track or the fantastic “Four Candles” show a different atmosphere. A little bit quieter but deeper and darker. It’s the prelude to something different in the future?
Not necessarily, we are happy people most of the time. I think it has more to do with the fact that we had more time for rehearsals upfront of our studio time. Usually, we prepare just one ballad, but this time we had the time to dig into both ballads that I brought to the table, and it made very much sense when we played them, so we decided to bring them both in. It was a great place to be, all the time we hadn’t been able to do our work for months, to just stand there in a room together, really taking our time, listening, shaping spaces together, almost kind of a contemplation, really using our ears in a more subtle way then in our regular loud and fleshy fashion.
During the last year everything was modified by the pandemic. Was it hard recording this album in this period? How much do you miss playing on stage?
It was a blessing to be able to record, and to have something happening, something that gave us the feeling that we moved ahead, that we got on with our musical project. It was very motivating. It was fantastic in the weeks in advance, when we met to play everyday, we were truly grateful that we were able to meet, play and move the music forward. We miss playing live terribly terribly much. In Norway, we are able to do a little bit of touring, as the situation here is not too bad at the moment, so we have 10 shows scheduled for March. Although, they are nothing compared to what they used to be, but at least we can play for people, while we wait for the big crowds to gather again.
Your music is often described as a sort of bridge from metal to jazz. These 2 musical genres have, maybe the most solid fan base and sometimes they talk about different musical genres as fundamentalists. Is something you have to deal with sometimes or there is absolutely no problems in this?
If we are a bridge between those two genres, then we must be sure we have the construction done right, cause it’s a damn big river to cross! There are lesser problems now then it used to be, but it was really hard to find acceptance in the European jazz scene in the beginning, because in Norway most places are used to the genres being all mixed up. My experience is that people searching for sincerity in music, those people can be found everywhere. And they don’t care to much about the boundaries of genres, they can see past that. And looking forward, I believe it will be more and more so. I mean, it has to be that way, it is the nature of human beings as well as whatever they are creating, like music - it evolves. It floats between us, and it evolves, we evolve it. The music will always be on the move.
How much is the percentage of improvisation in your music?
For you instrumental music could be a limit or, conversely, as an infinite universe to be explored? Did you ever think about including vocals in your compositions?
In the trio, unless we do a cover, we will probably never include vocals. I have made music for vocals previously, even for choir, and on my next solo release there will be small vocal parts, but only for colouring, hardly for anything else.
One of the songs on the new album is “The Art of Being Jon Balkovitch,” the name of which made me laugh. But given that the song, like all of the songs on your albums, is an instrumental, how do you come up with the names? Is there a funny story behind the naming of the songs?
There is always something behind the songs, but most of then are very private and kind of takes away the magic once explained. This one is very complicated, though, but it is a mashup of three beautiful pieces of art. I have a friend and colleague named Jon Balke. After some tours with him, he ended up just being called Balkovitch for reasons I cant explain here. And many years ago he made an absolutely stunningly fantastic song called "The Art of Being". Combining those two with a fantastic movie, and I had the title. So it is kind of an homage to a special friend and musician, from whom I have learned very much.
Are there certain places in the world where your music is more appreciated than others?
I wouldn’t know, really, but I hope it is equally spread, cause we are really ready for some extensive touring once we can move around the world again!
When you did tour (when there was the possibility of course), did you ever cover anyone else’s music?
On a few occations, we did the Melvins cover ("Blood Witch"), and "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" a couple of times. And in Germany, we played some Terje Rypdal-covers, mostly from the "Chaser" period, like "Ambiguity" and "Chaser", and possibly "Ørnen". We stick to our own stuff, most of the time.
Given that your music is a mix of hard rock and jazz, what other groups or musicians have you been compared to the most, and do you think those comparisons are fair or not? Of course the first thoughts come to the electric Miles Davis and Black Sabbath, but in your sound i hear a lot of Jim Hall and Terje Rypdal feeling.
I think we need to talk about the music, and to talk about the music, it is much better to use musicians and other music as references then genres, that’s for sure. I also think that it is hard for me to separate the difference between what is in my head and what is actually in my music. People have compared our music and playing to musicians I haven’t even heard of, or even dislike a lot, but that is the freedom of music - your own experience is the true experience - you hear what you hear, and that is not depending on whatever intent I had when I played the music. We are all differently put together. But to me, all the above mentioned are great influences to me. When I was a kid, I listened so much to Pearl Jam that the CDs were worn out. I see them rarely mentioned, but I really think their music must be lying there somewhere deep inside me, even though I don’t listen to them as much anymore.
What kind of music were you listening to during your childhood and the school years? And when you had your first approach with the guitar?
I listened to different music, everything from cool jazz (Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Art Farmer, Jim Hall, Bill Evans) to free norwegian jazz (Paal Nilssen-Love, Håkon Kornstad), avant like Nils Petter Molvær when he did his "Khmer" and "Solid Ether", I listened to Paul McCartney, Janet Jackson, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie, John Scofield, Pearl Jam, Sting, Richard Marx, norwegian pop-rock like deLillos, Whopper, songwriters like Jan Eggum, jazz musicians like Bill Frisell and Bobo Stenson, Curtis Counce, Canonball Adderley, Kenny Dorham…. It was my mother who introduced me to her guitar, and probably her who showed me how to play it in the very beginning.
There’s a great avant-jazz scene in Norway and in general in the Scandinavian countries. I think about artists as Nils Petter Molvær, The Thing, Fire!, Fire! Orchestra, Supersilent, Elephant9 and there’s also a great tradition in rock, i think about Motorpsycho or The Skull Defekts. Some of them are your label mates, how is your relationship with these artists? Do you feel to be part of the same scene or there is just a lot of mutual respect?
I have to speak for myself, as I am of the youngest of to these that you refer to, and understandably, they are far more of a look-to for me, as they were defining the music scene long before and as i started to enter it. I really think we do our own things, at the same time, but Norway is a small country, and we appear on the same scenes and on the same labels. And some times in the same band, as I have been playing with both Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love, Ingebrigt Haaker Flaten, Nils Petter Molvær, Torstein Lofthus and Ståle Storløkken, in different projects. Bands like Supersilent have defined music for a whole generation here in Norway, and I am still inspired by both them, Elephant9 and Motorpsycho.
“Ekhidna” was your first “solo album”. The approach to writing music was totally different comparing to the HM3 albums? It was a big challenge thinking about music that won’t be played by Ivar and Ellen?
I had practiced on other comissioned works I did previous to Ekhidna - one that was never recorded, "21:12" from 2017 (with Ellen Brekken on bass) and "Tempest Revisited" (with Ivar on drums) from 2018 (to be released). When I started "Ekhidna", I felt I owed myself and the music I carried within to try a different path, I felt ready for it, in particular since I didn’t have to part with the trio to do it - it was all alongside. The approach was a little different, as I felt the space could be filled with something completely different, that again would change my approach to perform the music. I tried to look at the music in terms of layers more, where is room and what is needed.
Do you think your work can be important to achieve a desired and fair gender equality even in a sector as guitar playing, almost always led by men?
It would be great to be a contribution to that, through performing and composing music.
What are your plans for the future?
We are soon releasing a new trio record, and we are playing som shows in Norway in March. I am currently working on some new music for yet another trio-format, and later this year I will be recording Maternity Beat, that I made for a 12-piece orchestra in 2020. I am really looking forward to that, as I consider it one of the most extensive works I’ve done so far.
Thanks a lot Hedvig for your patience and willingness.
Thank you so much for listening to and caring for music!