Interview with Jørgen Munkeby of Shining (Nor)

Formed as a jazz quartet in 1999 by saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Jørgen Munkeby together with fellow students from the Norwegian Academy of Music, Shining is a band who quickly caught the eye of music lovers by always pushing the boundaries and having a very daring approach to combining a variety of elements.

For their first release, Where the Ragged People Go, a description such as modern acoustic jazz might fit. The same idea on the second one, Sweet Shanghai Devil, but this time with more elements brought from outside the jazz genre or even inside, but more experimental than classic.

Without leaving aside their jazz roots, Shining's sound started to blend progressive rock in the tunes of their next album, In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be a Monster. The mix of woodwind instruments, electric guitars, synthesizers, accordion, harmonium, church organ, clarinet and celesta, plus the experienced mixing process from KÃ¥re Christoffer Vestrheim, brought a lot of positive responses from the critics and was included in the best new music section on Pitchfork. It also won the Alarm Award (Norwegian Grammy Award equivalent) for best jazz album in 2006, same as the following album, Grindstone, in 2007, even if the style has switched to add new elements such as classical or noise.

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Jørgen Munkeby of Shining live@Ullevål stadion, Oslo
Photo: Jørn Veberg

In 2010 the band's fifth album, Blackjazz, is released via Indie Recordings. The first print was sold out from the label within three days. There's no longer so much experimentation with countless instruments, so the incredible skills in playing each of the main instrument get an increased focus and songs are much more easier to be performed live and sound closer to the recordings. The music is really intense and hard and the album title probably describes it best in fewer words. One of the tracks is a cover version of King Crimson's 21st Century Schizoid Man.

Each band's member has a bunch of side projects and collaborations but some of the most significant for the metal fans would probably be “The Armageddon Concerto” performed together with Enslaved, a concert consisting of nine movements, five of which were composed by Jørgen Munkeby and four by Ivar Bjørnson of Enslaved. Another one is Jørgen Munkeby's appearance as guest saxophone player on Ihsahn's 2010 release, After, as well as some live appearances on some of Ihsahn's concerts.

In order to try to find out how bumpy the road from acoustic jazz to blackjazz could be, I had a chat with Jørgen Munkeby and you can read below the result of it. But more than reading these words, I recommend you give Blackjazz a couple of spins and let yourself surprised by its intensity. You can stream the songs from the band's webpage, here. Or you can catch up wit the band at the festivals they are going to perform at this summer. Or just wait for the release of their live DVD. As I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of how Fisheye will look I can say it will probably make you jump in your chair/sofa in front of the TV/computer screen.

is there any short explanation about how a band starts out with acoustic jazz and they come up with the concept of blackjazz after few albums?
We've all studied jazz in the band so that was probably the natural start. We are also pretty fortunate for living in a place were it is considered ok to make music for the sake of making art. In other places, like let's say US, it's harder. You have to stick to the patterns, you don't get support for being innovative. Here it's the kind of mindset that allows you to do stuff that people don't always agree with.

Do you think the education contributed to the evolution of your sound in the way that it showed you how to switch from 'common grounds'? Or more in the way that you had enough of the stuff you learned and wanted to go in a different direction?
Both of them. I've been in the band since the beginning and so has our drummer. We grew up with metal and studied jazz. During the education years we have learned certain things that made us start as a jazz quartet and not the kind of band that we are now. Plus jazz was everything that mattered back then. And later we had to, or well, didn't have to, but wanted to, move away from that. Which was not easy. We already had the stamp of a jazz band, and even long time after we started doing something else, you still hear people labeling us at jazz.
Now I find it also hard sometimes to go away from the metal stamp, especially from people who didn't know us until our last album. I wanna make sure that the Blackjazz is not placed only in the metal department since it doesn't belong there only. It's true that we work with a metal label, but if you take, for example, some people over 25 years old who grew up as 'metal people' and it's the only thing they know and would want everything to be categorised as such in order for them to listen to it. But getting back to the question, the idea is that we wanted to move away from what we studied and now we are having this more commercial approach to making music. For example, I like all sorts of music, including some of the pop artists and I like the kind of promotion and expensive pictures and videos that they get, so I would like us to look like something that could have been a pop band. But musically, our education has allowed us to do the things that we're doing today, the kind of music we do. Which reflects a lot in the kind of persons we can have as band members. They have to have the same studies as me and the drummer, but also to be familiar with certain metal music to be able to understand the harmonies, the rhythms, the grooves. And that's hard for plenty of musicians. Many of them spend the time trying to play as fast as they can and they don't work on simple stuff trying to get the groove out of it.

Is there a decisive moment or aspect in the life of your band without which Shining would have never existed?
There are many that I'd name as important for me. Several albums. The guitar player in Meshuggah, Fredrik Thordendal has a solo album titled Sol Niger Within. Then I can name Dillinger Escape Plan. Or John Coltrane. On some of the Shining stuff I played a little bit like he did on the album Meditation. I play the saxophone the way he did. Michael Brecker is the guy that kinda defines how I do with the rhythmical stuff on the sax. Nine Inch Nails and Manson in the way that our guitar sounds.
I remember the first time we signed with a label for our jazz album. I was very much into Coltrane at that time, the only thing I was listening to and I was having ambitions for the band. So the boss of the label said jazz is no longer popular. I told him that John Coltrane was super big, to which he replied 'yea, but that was like 40 years ago'. And that got stuck into my mind. I was sure our band can be popular but I still thought of it as a jazz band without thinking of jazz music as some music that sounded like what we were doing. I felt more we're doing the kind of stuff Coltrane would have done. And ever since, I get people telling me all the time that this and this shouldn't be possible. And sometimes I try to prove them wrong.
So we ended up in 2010 winning 1 mil Norwegian crowns (~125k EUR) from the A-ha scholarship. Nobody thought that would be possible. And we played pop and rock festivals, mainstream festivals in Norway. I always wanted the band not to be limited to just being a weird thing. I want to make the kind of music that I like, which obviously is pretty crazy, but I want to make it in the best possible way. To sum it up, the name Coltrane has been with us all the time, we played jazz, but still the kind of jazz that rock people would listen to.

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Blackjazz album cover
Photo: Shining band

When you end up performing in other projects, like it was the case with Ihsan and Enslaved, how easy is it for you to adapt to the different style, both musically but also on stage?
It's not a problem anymore. I find it easy to switch now. For example, I played with a jazz band yesterday and on a pop album recently. I am an educated musician. The reason it is easy to do with Ihsahn and Enslaved and that kinda happened in the last year or two that I found this way of playing the saxophone in a way that sounds well with metal music in my ears and others years. That took me lot of time but now it's just natural. I am not really adapting, I am just natural. But I remember when I was younger. I played with a DJ in London and the sax at a club and a concert with Shining the day after and I really had an identity trouble. I came home after the DJ night and I had problems playing the Shining music. Hence I had to put on the kind of music that I was about to play or some Coltrane just to clear my mind. I remember a time when it was probably because I was adapting a bit too much to other types of music. But I find it easy now.
I just played a sax solo on the upcoming album of a Norwegian comedian kinda, folk musician, Bare Egil band. It's some sort of LA, Miami Vice sax sound which is not nothing that I do in Shining but it's still something I do. I don't feel like it's not me. I don't do that in Shining because it doesn't fit, but I don't have that adapting problem anymore.

I recall some more opera like parts in songs from Grindstone for example. Do you think you'd bring such elements back in the blackjazz?
In Shining I can't be sure of what's going to be, but for now I am pretty sure that is not going to happen. I am pretty happy on doing more of the blackjazz stuff. We did it on the DVD and want to do it for the upcoming album. I wanna be more of the rock metal kinda of thing. But I also want to play more and more sax so I don't think I will incorporate a bigger arrangement on the next album. But then again, you never know. I don't enjoy to be in a kinda restricted place either. So if I feel too restricted by the blackjazz genre I probably won't do that.

Besides the song 'Fisheye' in which I read you have been inspired by some Kabalistic ideas for the lyrics, most of the others seem to be mad, aggressive, protesting…
There is some aggression in the music and in the way I sing. There's also some aggression and confusion, like manic kind of stuff in the lyrics also. I like the music to be the feverish kind of fantasy or like a nightmare, but not the gothic kind, more like an energy. The aggression I feel is kind of like a positive one, the uplifting kind, used to make stuff better or to determine people to take responsibility for your their actions and life. I wanted it to be uplifting and to celebrate life. I want people to get better and stronger every day. I like the positive things and I think that aggressiveness doesn't necessarily have to be destructive. That's important for me because in metal there's so much destructive aggressiveness and I am not fond of that. I feel that it's not a good way of living since it makes it hard for you and everybody else. I personally do my best to stop focusing on negative things.

How much improvisation is there in your live shows?
More than on the album I think. We also rehearse the improvisational parts in a way. Sometime you go from a really strict part and then you have a free arrangement saying at a certain point in the song, this and this is going to be free. On another part, somebody is following a written pattern but the drums are free, or the other way around. We are all so familiar with improvisation so I really don't think that much about it. In some bands either everybody plays written stuff or everybody improvises. Most common thing is that in a band the drummer plays something that is strict and the instruments some chords and only one musician improvising a solo. But in our band I think the most improvisation is done by the drummer. And we do a lot of transition between songs live and there come a lot of these improvised moments.

Do you prefer better concerts within a festival or individual shows?
I don't know, they both have their up and down sides. Festivals are a good thing because there is usually a lot of people that wouldn't have seen you otherwise. Own your own shows it's a better atmosphere since more people know your stuff. When I came up with the question, I was looking a the technical ride on your page and to my inexperienced eye it seemed like a lot of demands. And also I'm thinking of sound engineers who are used with 'regular' metal instruments but not with the saxophone.
Our technical rider is actually easy and small. We are pretty flexible and we even have about 4 other options if the main request is not doable. It's basic stuff. I also have my own mic and it's just to come with the cable and plug it in. Indeed, it is important that we have our own sound guy who joins us at all shows. When it comes to behind the stage demands, we are a pretty easy band as well.

When I saw you live, you hardly stand still in one place, except for when you sing. How hard is it to move around all the time, scream, play the guitar and the saxophone during a concert?
It surely is hard. It's sometimes a bit too much. I don't do it as much as I saw at other bands, like Dillinger Escape band. It is really exhausting to sing and play the sax in a show like ours. I can hardly breathe sometimes. How much do you practice to be ready for live gigs?
I indeed have to practice to be able to do that. All the muscles in the mouth are so small, the throat needs to be trained as well. I don't practice that much anymore though. But when I studied jazz I practiced between 5 and 10 hours each day. Now I work all the time with making music and other things, so less time to practice.
Before we do a tour I really need about a week or at least a couple of days to rehearse every day on the sax, singing and the guitar. Just to make sure that I can hang in there and the muscles are prepared. There is also something with the stomach muscles when blowing that hard. So it's not an easy task. This is a thing that actually worries me every time we play a concert because I need to prepare so much in advance. And I need to be healthy to do that.

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Jørgen Munkeby of Shining
Photo: Colin Eick

I can't imagine how it is to do that when you have a flu
I actually had one at Rockefeller when we recorded for our DVD. But despite the cold, I think that being a healthy person is a very important thing overall. I never drink when I play. I've never done that. A rule of mine is that I never played the sax even after drinking one sip of beer. I never break my own rules and that's another rule I have.

The music you are playing doesn't have, let's say, not the most common sound at a first listen. Can you recall any of the strangest comments you hard about it?
Like I said, I try my best not to focus on negative stuff
But I didn't mean strange as in negative..
I basically I end up just forgetting it since usually the weird stuff tends to be negative as well. To me if it's described as being too weird, this is not how I want to be perceived. I don't need to be looked upon as weird because I don't think it is that weird. I think that people who think it's weird, they're either too stupid or too old. So basically if I hear or read people saying or writing that it's weird, I just think 'ok, I didn't hear that'.
I personally heard a presentation of your band's music being compared to a bulldozer.
Hehe. Yesterday I got this funny twitter message saying that the bread slicing machine in a super market sounded like the drums on our 'Exit Sun pt 2'. But then again we are not trying to be weird. I know that a lot of people do. Try to be crazy, scary, weird. Not us.

What kind of challenges do you come across when recording music like on Blackjazz?
I probably forgot them. There's problems all the time, but I can't think of them now.

Would you make film music? Do you think Shining's music would be fit for movies?
I'd love to do it. I have done a lot of music for theater and contemporary dance myself. And I think all of our music would be great for soundtracks. Blackjazz would be perfect for Terminator 6 or for Grand Theft Auto, the computer game.

In the debate about downloading music, where would you place yourself? I see that you are streaming the album on your website..
This is such a big question. I think it's unfortunate on one hand and on the other I also really like the streaming thing. I find myself streaming to the albums I already have since it saves you a lot of trouble with needing space on computer, carrying CDs around or attaching an extra USB device when all others are taken. So I really like the streaming. But it's important for people to understand that it becomes impossible for the professional musician to live off the music he makes. And it applies to authors, newspapers, to a lot of stuff also. If it becomes impossible to live off that, then all the professional musicians let's say would have to do something else and they won't be as good at what they're doing and the music quality would suffer. That's important to understand. Musicians need money to eat and live somewhere so they can mainly concentrate on being creative.

But don't you think it forces musicians to go into the live concerts business and merchandise?
Right, everybody tries now to get the money from that part of the business. For a while everybody thought that's the new place to get the cash from. But then all over a sudden there were too many bands on the road and people were just overwhelmed.

About the Armageddon Concerto that you played together with Enslaved, do you think it will ever be released as a record?
The show was played 2 times. Once in Norway, once in Netherlands this year at the Roadburn festival. It was recorded both times but we don't think we'll release it. It might be available somewhere on the internet. It was broad casted on the Norwegian radio though. NRK used to have it on their website but they have taken it away. But we're all pretty busy, Enslaved are busy themselves, so I don't think it will happen. Neither us nor Enslaved only do stuff for the money so we're not speculating the people's interest in this one.

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Shining live@Ullevål stadion, Oslo
Photo: Jørn Veberg