Deathprod / Helge Sten - improvisation is a tool to compose music with

Deathprod / Helge Sten - improvisation is a tool to compose music with

Helge Sten of Supersilent aka Deathprod on his collaborations, working methods and understanding of music. An abridged Czech version was originally published in the A2 magazine, here is a full version.

Deathprod na Alternativa 2017Improvizace je náš skladatelský postup - Helge Sten ze Supersilent aka Deathprod mluvil o svých kolaboracích, metodách a názorech na hudbu. Zkrácená verze v češtině vyšla původně v časopise A2: http://www.advojka.cz/archiv/2016/25.

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Were the concerts in Praha and Bratislava special fly-ins?

It’s a tour of sorts. We played Bratislava, Paris yesterday, plus there is also Riga on Saturday.

I thought Supersilent usually play just one-off shows…

Well, it depends. It’s usually just the matter of whether we manage to find something suitable, but we definitely try have a bundle of shows.

Do Supersilent have a booking agent?

We try to work with several different people. Also, our – excellent – sound engineer is doing production for us, he is very handy when it comes to contracts and anything technical, organisation of travel and so on.

Last time I have seen the band, you played with John Paul Jones /former Led Zeppelin bass guitar player/ and there were more concerts in this constellation. I believe you first met at Punkt 2010. Back then, was the joint set really an entirely impulsive decision?

Yeah, we knew he was coming to the festival as a guest, but in the end he was doing 15 minute solo electronic piece prior to our set. So, during our sound-check I asked him whether he would like to join us.

So he never really heard your music before, it was for the first time right on the stage?

Yes! But you know, he’s a musical mastermind, he’s totally attentive and very immersed and interested in music.

Do you think he was surprised back then?

Hard to tell, but he enjoys a huge variety of musical settings. When he travels, he always brings a mandolin in case there is a bluegrass event happening somewhere, he is always ready to play.

Deathprod / Helge StenI got to know your (Helge Sten + JPJ’s) joint project Minibus Pimps (great name by the way!) /The project was named after a track featured on a compilation of Chinese experimental music – a street recording of people who work the crowd to fill taxis in Beijing/ later on. Was this an indirect continuation of the collaboration on Punkt festival?

Yeah, the thing was that he had been using the computer music system called Kyma. He was one of its first users, working with it roughly since 1990 when it first came out. And he has been working with that ever since. I’ve also known the system for a long time, but it was very expensive and difficult to use. When he played at Punkt, he presented an electronic piece made exclusively in Kyma, and it was interesting for all of us to witness that from the side of the stage and to listen to all of these sounds. We talked about this and decided to work together on what ended up to be Minibus Pimps with two Kyma systems, both me and him using it separately.

From what I know about the Kyma system, you have to spend a lot of time programming it before you can hear even partial results of the sound processing…

Yeah.

Don’t you feel detached from the creative side of music, since it takes so much time to be basically “just” a programmer?

When you work extensively in electronic music, it’s very interesting to go into Kyma, because there you can actually expand your range, do things impossible with other HW or SW. It’s hard to get into it, but when you reach that point, it’s an amazing tool. You might have an idea where you want to go with Kyma, but the process itself might actually lead you somewhere completely different. Somewhere you didn’t even realise was possible. I’m so fond of it because it opens new doors all the time. Now, Ståle and Arve /the other Supersilent members/ also have Kyma, we really dived into it.

So they weren’t turned off by Kyma’s difficulty?

Not really. It’s of course an advantage to know programming and technicalities – sound processing, synthesisers, etc.

Are you still using the old methods from the 90s (tapes, samplers, oscillators and so on)?

Not so much with Supersilent these days because of travel (which mostly means airplane). Even the stuff we have on stage today is in a way minimal. It’s the most compact we can do, and still it’s a bit too much for airlines. But then again, it’s also fine, because you get challenged to use the current system and get something special out of it. Often when you have a lot of stuff available, you get slowed down, because it takes too much time to find anything.

I have never read anywhere why Jarle (the former Supersilent drummer) actually left the band…

It was a sum of complex situations, family… Also, I think at the time, he was developing an interest in very strict, composed, tight music, which is obviously very different from what Supersilent is about. He made a dogmatic choice to do just that, so since then he didn’t work with improvised music at all for many years. But now he’s coming back to it and we actually played a few shows with him in Norway.

Deathprod / Helge StenAny chance of him returning as a full-time member again?

It’s like with JPJ or Stian /Westerhus, the Norwegian guitarist who played many live shows with Supersilent/. We bring in some close friends or colleagues who we know will “work” inside our music.

I really liked the shows with Stian, who has been a perfect match for Supersilent in my opinion. Would you say that could also happen again in future?

It’s mostly about timing, we also played with N.P.Molvaer or Motorpsycho.

Talking about Motorpsycho, that’s probably about the only thing which stands out from your (Helge’s) collaborations as being quite song-oriented (maybe also except for the recordings with Susanna /Wallumrød/).

I always wanted to work with them, they are totally brilliant and always have been. Amazing songwriters too. But you know, with them, especially in 1993, I was doing similar things I do with Supersilent, but within the frames of that rock trio/psychedelic format. I actually really like good songwriting, I enjoy it A LOT. The same goes for Susanna, but there I simply play the guitar, standard chords. I love working with these talented people.

How did you get to know each other?

It was during the production of her first album with the Magical Orchestra /List of Lights and Buoys/, maybe even a little before that. Now we have been married for 13 years.

The list of your collaborators or direct inspirations tends to revolve around some recurring figures like such as Geir Jenssen (Biosphere) or Arne Nordheim. Is the choice based more on their music or on personal understanding, or is it a combination of both?

The key is getting along musically. You can find in all of Geir’s music, which was different in the 80s, a deeply personal approach. And my music with Deathprod is quite different from what he does, but it goes very well together, it creates an interesting contrast. I’m not very comfortable about doing improvised music with just anyone. A lot of improvised music is based on a style. It’s stylistic. Improvisation, free jazz… the thing is improvisation is so many things… a lot of people have a kind of a box in which they have something they think is improvisation. But improvisation is a method of working, and with Supersilent we always say it’s a tool to compose music. And it’s important for us to have that approach, it’s about composing music, but it’s happening in real time instead of planning it out in a different time spectrum.

Would you regard yourself or yourselves as jazz musicians?

I can only speak for myself – no. I don’t find jazz particularly interesting, but that’s like with any music, there is no style I find particularly interesting. But I find musicianship very interesting: deep, original, powerful solutions for playing and composing. And that happens in any style of music, you just have to go to those places.

Do you consciously think about the way you create music? Meaning, do you already have a specific concept in mind or do you rather follow a feeling you want to achieve?

Not really… with Supersilent it’s just an amazing privilege to play with these people… I think for all of us it’s just the best place we can be for creating music (with someone else basically). What happens on stage with Supersilent is different for all of us, I think, from all the other stuff we do, be it Deathprod or Arve’s own projects. It’s a very different universe. And I think we are very pleased to be able to continue within that world. It’s kind of very transcending…

…I would say even for the listeners…

Yeah! If that happens within that kind of playing and within musicians, it goes out. That’s nothing you can rehearse. It’s something that happens within a certain constellation I think.

Deathprod / Helge StenI’ve read many times you don’t talk to each other about music…

It’s because it’s not necessary. It’s not a dogmatic idea: we shouldn’t do that. When we get together either in studio or on stage, it’s about bringing in something “on the table” that’s interesting. And there’s a complete trust! I mean you can start something and you know that others will interact with it immediately.

So there’s not even a basic, let’s say plan, like “we start in a silent way, then we finish in noisy crescendo” or anything like that?

No. The first sound that happens can change everything /*snaps fingers*/, you know. So if there is a plan beforehand and there is a sound which triggers something else mentally then you will follow the sound anyway… But that works for us, that doesn’t have to be the solution for anyone else of course.

Considering your music, this is real life magic then.

But it’s also based a lot on all the rehearsals and work and programming we all have done on our own before. At home, in private studios… we continuously work, experiment with sounds, new instruments, still finding out new things. And also when we play in other projects, we bring the experience back to Supersilent, so it’s always a continuous process. Even if we don’t rehearse with Supersilent as a band, we do in a way in this different indirect approach.

How did you enjoy playing Deathprod’s Treetop Drive album live?

A lot, it just took a long time to put it back together. All that was done on ancient digital devices, with floppy discs and everything. And I really wanted to play it as it is… that quality of sound. It’s very minimal, there are very few building blocks, so it has to be done very precisely.

And how did you come up with this idea?

There were more factors, but mostly, the Greek festival Hertz had been interested in Deathprod for two or three years, which allowed me to look into it. All of Deathprod albums are very specific in terms of composition, i.e you can’t really pull out a few tracks to listen to separately, since they rely on the album format very much. For me, it’s just one piece of music. So that’s why those shows were also dedicated solely to just one album. Because that’s how it was made.

Morals and Dogma (and especially the track Dead People's Things) stands out from Deathprod albums as very emotionally heavy.

The track was actually made shortly after Treetop Drive. Hans Magnus Ryan from Motorpsycho plays with me on both these recordings. This one was recorded in 1994, I think, and I knew right away this is something that has to be a foundation or core of a whole album. But it took a long time to complete. That’s the thing with Deathprod in general: it’s usually a deep, complicated and long process to finish something. Morals and Dogma was released ten years after Dead People's Things was created. The Deathprod project hasn’t really stopped, everything just takes long.

By the way, the very vocal-like sound in Dead People's Things is theremin?

Nah, it’s actually laboratory oscillator, a very clean sinus wave oscillator run through an Echoplex tape machine. The tape is behind most of the colouring. But it’s true it sounds very much like theremin, in fact we even used a real theremin for this particular sound at some shows.

Deathprod / Helge StenWhat are your other hobbies, if you have time for anything else besides music?

Not that much. I’m immersed in music a lot. And when I don’t work on anything, I try to do something completely different, which could be super trivial in a way, but also very necessary to “empty myself”…

What have you been listening to recently?

Hmm… I’ve been to Los Angeles in the last month (actually working on some music which might be released next year) and there is a lot of great record stores. I have always enjoyed picking up the albums released by Folkways Records, an old label from the 50s, which documented a lot of old folk music from USA, but also from around whole world. All these are beautiful, simplistic “one microphone in a room” recordings. So I’ve been listening a lot to those.


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