After what was described as a fun evening playing with The Jazz Cats, Arthur Kay Piene invited us into his apartment to hang out with girlfriend and cat. The Oslo based pianist / keyboardist spoke affectionately of the music scene in Oslo as one of the main things that helped shape him as a musician, highlighting the “insane” amount of live music the city has to offer. Arthur, or Dr Kay, as he is commonly known, shed some light on the scene that has inspired him and what it is like being a Jazz pianist in the nations capital. This was our first time meeting Arthur, although we had seen him perform before including a few nights earlier at the Munch Museum earlier. Our excitement took us over on arrival and we jumped into conversation about the times we had seen him play including a show a couple of years back at Blå which he also remembers fondly.
Arthur started out in very similar form to other pianists picking up lessons from a young age, “You know the normal classical stuff” he says, until it came to a point where it did not feel natural to practice and recite other peoples music anymore. He wanted to make his own music, play by ear and improvise, something which he felt he had missed during his classically trained years. A turning point for him musically came during his attendance at the Norwegian Music Academy where he received lessons from the head jazz piano teacher Misha Alperin. For Arthur, it was Misha that changed everything for him about music and he remembers walking out of his first session with Misha and thinking to himself, “This is it, this is what I am going to do” which begun his exploration deeper into jazz and contemporary music. Misha’s lessons in music improvisation have also influenced Arthur in his own teaching career and he tells his own students, “If you love jazz you have to listen to jazz.” He continues, “This should be intuitive but for a lot of people, myself included it was not. You really have to listen to music, you can’t just learn it by reading something online and doing some exercises. You have to listen and feel it.”
“For me if I had to choose between being able to lose one hand or go deaf I would definitively choose loosing a hand. The ears are the most important part of a musicians body.”
After a stint in both the free and modern jazz scenes, Arthur started to open up musically, experimenting with different genres. This lead him on a path that now sees him as a part of a number of projects ranging from the pop band ‘The Switch’ to a Sun Ra cover band project that started as a one off for his 25th birthday. Upon band member Kapser’s request to perform again, the one off has since turned into a psychedelic big band project that is Dr Kay and his Interstellar Tone Scientists. “Very easy to google, very hard to remember” he laughs. As a jazz musician this project feels so liberating and something that enabled him to showcase the humour that he thinks is there in all jazz music. The ability to dress up in costumes, pretend you are from space and do crazy things allowed for the music to develop beyond the general jazz audience they were used to, putting the crowd in a different mindset and allowing for a more interactive show where “You don't have to be so serious and you don't have to understand everything, just enjoy it.”
For him and the band the project is a lot of fun. Since they are a nine piece band “there are a lot of opinions and ideas but we never say no. If someone wants to try something, we say wonderful and give it a go.” The concept of their first record was the basis of one of these ‘yes man’ moments. Arthur grew up listening to a lot of BBC radio drama, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and the likes which inspired him to suggest that the band make a musical radio drama. Admittedly, he laughs, “None of us knew how to do it, but it sounded like a good idea so we ran with it… How hard can it be right.” He laughs again and says, “We still don't know how to make a radio drama but we will make another one. It is a labour of love and you need to keep hustling and do what you can when you can.” Being part of four full time projects and playing in a couple of other bands as well as working on a solo project and teaching, time is a rare commodity and The Interstellar Tone Scientists will not be rushed.
Outside of these two main projects Arthur works with the Mutual Intentions label and extended family that includes Kristoffer Eikrem, Fredfades and Ivan Ave. Working with these guys is surprisingly natural for him because they love the same music. “We just click with the jazz thing and it fits nicely. I just do what I normally do and it works wonderfully. There is no other Norwegian rapper who would be able to play gigs internationally, like Ivan, or periodically play in Paris each year, like Ivan.” He attributes this to the internet and the laid back soulful sounding music having a large life online outside of what is mainstream. “It is a sub culture with a very defined aesthetic and its good to be a part of what I think is a very globalised scene.”
I am curious to know more about his various projects that appear on the surface level to be very different sounding and spanning across multiple genres to which he replies that, “Variation is the only way I know how to be a musician. To do very separate things and not specialise.” A lot of his music and influence, however, is very rooted in a specific period. If you look at musicians like Miles Davis, he says, “You can hear whether what he is playing is 1956 or late 60’s, he kept on changing and I think it is a big thing to have that freedom to change.” It is a common problem in every creative persons life, when you become successful or known for one thing, then you are expected to keep on producing the same or similar thing “because the public think they know you.” Dr. Kay moves on from projects when he feels he is done and likes to keep an open mind as to what he will do next laughing as he says, “The joy of not being too successful.”
We continue talking about his versatility across genres and how he feels music in Oslo has changed over the last ten years. A lot of the things he acknowledges that were working then, are still working now, such as Blå. There are some small changes to the scene and new bars opening up but the main thing he finds different and interesting, comparing now to when he was a student, is that the younger musicians have become more comfortable moving across the genres/scenes. “When I was a student playing in a pop band, I didn't see that many other people doing it, if you went to jazz school you played inside the conservative society, in jazz.” There is a lot more collaboration now within the music and art scenes, as different artists realise they have a lot in common and things such as music night at the Munch Museum, where he performed alongside Ivan Ave, is one example of this. Arthur is a bit of a showman and in front of classic work by Edvard Munch, had and L shaped set up where he was playing piano and synth at the same time, as well as setting loops and messing with things on his laptop. As impressive as this is to see in person ‘The Doctor’ shrugs off the compliment letting us in on the secret, “When you play piano you have to use both hands and you have to work hard to try and separate the left from the right. Part of playing the piano is making the hands do different things at the same time. He laughs “The brain says no, but once you learn to do different things at the same time it doesn’t matter where the second hand is, although you do get into some crazy positions at times.”
Norway is pretty good when it comes to the music scene and there is a lot more government support for music, compared to fashion, which kind of lands itself in a grey area between art and business. The music business is not without its downside and the flexibility of funding for projects/making records is one area where he feels there could be improvement as well as the strange concept of trying to pack everything into ‘culture houses’ which from a musicians viewpoint, he does not seem to understand. The “grey castles” that are built around Norway do not cater to young musicians, are costly and also places where he feels it is hard to make creative music. Norway has a number of informal spaces that have helped him as a musician and he does not know how you can “play jazz music in these boxes that are black, dead rooms.” The live space is something he feels passionate about and something that can keep on living because people want to be part of that culture. Arthur thinks Khartoum and Hærverk are two of the most important new places that have started in recent memory and finds them much nicer than the larger venues. We agree and don't understand why music cant be kept informal and also why some people have the desire to have a large building, where you can drive your car into the parking lot, go up the lift an experience “culture” before driving home again. In a way he agrees that culture should be accessible as “It is a living thing and people want to be part of a living culture, they don't want to go to a museum or an empty hall.” The more informal spaces offer a unique energy and you, as a consumer of music, want to go to that place to get a certain feeling that you can’t get at another venue as the rooms are such a big part of live music. “The place itself has its own soul and energy, if you take that away, I think live music will struggle to find a dedicated, young audience outside the big cities.”
Arthur is invested in a lot of different time consuming projects. He admits that it is pretty hard and would not have been possible had he needed to be the driving force of everything. He confirms my suspicion that it is hard to be a freelancer and when you get a lot of calls, work is easy, but, when you don't have much going on “you need to make a system and do something useful each day.” For him there is so many things to do and when he has an open day, finding something productive to do is important, even if it is just to write. Sometimes these days feel completely hopeless to him due to sleeping in or other distractions but, “Looking back you see that you wrote two great songs, which is great, but, you beat yourself up over the four hours you spent that could have been more productive instead of realising what you actually got done.” However, he laughs, “Everyday cant be like that or you would be on NAV.” As a very talented and sometimes eccentric jazz musician Arthur concludes by saying that he also holds a “normal Norwegian job," teaching at the music academy. He finds that having a job like everyone else allows him to keep the lifestyle of a normal Norwegian and laughs as he tells us, “I can’t go off completely artist, I like to be grounded by Norwegian society in way. I also like teaching, it feels good and useful.”
All photography by Ronja Penzo