With a deep enthusiasm for each others individual sound, long time collaborators Bendik Baksaas and Kristoffer Eikrem released their double album Duets on the Mutual Intentions label mid 2018. The ambient electronic project continues Baksaas's exploration into the minimal and his 'conversations' with other artists, in this instance, with Eikrem and his trumpet. The music is considered to be a point of rest and reflection for the listener, crafted over two years of improvisation and 'low-risk' jam sessions from the duet.
How was the concert and album release at Vippa?
Kristoffer - It was great. Really nice venue with huge windows towards the fjord and special atmosphere. And the audience seemed to enjoy the experience a lot
Bendik - I think it was a very good match with our music, because it is calm and emotional. You see the sea and this panorama with ships slowly passing by which gives a really radical effect ‘Are they moving or are we moving?’ But it felt very good, I saw some short films of the show and it looked quite cool.
K - Also, we played quite late so the concert went through the whole sunset. It was a spot we found through the guys at Mutual Intentions. We wanted a special spot, because it is special music that we wanted to present it in a special way.
B - We have to play there again, it is a nice spot.
Is this the first full project you have done together?
B - For us as a duo? Yeah. But, we have been working with each other before in a few different collaborations. The name of the album is ‘Duets’ which is this meeting of two individuals. It is an exploration in the minimal atmosphere.
The album is nice, mellow and easy to get caught up in it. I found it to be similar to rare occasions when I do yoga. I struggle to concentrate, relax and slow down in the beginning, but then when I get in to it, the time seems to go very fast.
B - Laughs. That is good to hear. That is what we want. We want it to be a point of rest and also a point of reflection and inspiration.
K - A comment from one of our friends was that it is really nice day after drinking music, except the scary tunes. You have to skip them.
A mutual friend, Bjørn, appeared and we chatted briefly…
K - We actually did a project with him (Bjørn) last year. We played at Uncontaminated.
B - We played at Skur 13, in a huge warehouse in the dockyard.
K - It was really nice. It was a Bjarne Melgaard exhibition and there was cars hanging from the ceiling. Crashed cars and scary puppets. Bjørn had made nice visuals and lighting that was synchronised with the music.
B - So I created a composition, just to be at the installation all the time and selected some different parts he could choose from. He connected them with the different pillars of light, maybe 12 very strong lamps which he connected with midi. At the same time the light turned on it sent one sample, for example. So we just tried to interconnect the lighting and the music in a way so that the lighting could control the music and the music could control the lighting and then just let it play. Not intervene at all, but just let it play. We also did a concert as a break, but all the time the music was still a part of the interior.
How do you like those kind of projects?
K - It was really nice actually, I think some of the tunes that are on the album were made there and we played for 3 hours so we had lots of time to try new stuff.
B - I think the composition of music has a lot of similarities with architecture and interior design so it seems very relevant. Of course it was interesting because sound has its challenges. There was a very long reverb so we had to limit how much bass we send for example. It gave some dogma to work inside and also to give the pieces of music to Bjørn for him to work with further. It is a very interesting way to work, to not be the final presenter or the final sender. But to give your material to someone and say now you present it.
So did he come up with some things that you didn’t think of?
B - A lot of stuff happened that I didn’t imagine. A lot of combinations that I had never (yet) tried out. There is so much combinations and when you let a program control those combinations, there is a lot of chance in the picture.
How is the scene for your style of music in Norway and how do you feel being an artist in Oslo?
B - I feel that the style we do is one part of my voice and I become visible in meeting with someone. Usually my musical practice is focused on a duo. For example, my music with Kristoffer. I have another duo with a friend called Fredrik Høyer who is a poet and that is quite different. To get to know my artistic expression the only way is to listen to me in communication with another artist. That is the only way to inspire me to be open and free. When you say our scene of music, I don't know exactly because I don't know so much other people who make this type of ambient electronic stuff. We know one guy that we mentioned just before you came, Tortusa he is a guy who used to make beats for a long time and now makes beautiful electronic music on the Jazzland label. He is a great guy.
K - You also have contemporary music from Norwegian Jazz artists who play more contemporary of course.
B - I think that is more our area.
K - These guys Nils Petter Molvær and Arve Henriksen were very popular in jazz scene for many years especially in the 90s and early 2000s. I think maybe there was a time where, especially trumpet players, were influenced by them. To play this music you are challenged not to sound like them, because they made it so famous. It was perhaps a peak time and maybe people got tired of that genre and we play it in a different way.
How did you get into playing trumpet?
K - Laughs, that was though marching band in school when I was 13 years old. That was 16 years ago. I have played for some time now. Bendik and I knew each other through friends and I played in a Jazz band called Mopti. We had this release concert for our first album and it was my idea to have a producer to make a remix of the album to be played after the gig and that is how we met. Bendik made a remix of the album which was very nice but he was more into beats, hip hop and disco at that time. We liked it and thought we should do more work together so we made an album as Mopti and Bendik Baksaas. During our concert at Oslo Jazz Festival in 2015 we got a challenge from saxophone player Harald Lassen in the band, “You have to play a duo piece, you two, improvised” and that is kind of how it was born.
B - Born in that moment.
K - I listened back to the recording afterwards and there was really nice spots in it. That piece is actually part of the second album, it is a live take called 'This Is Nothing Personal'.
And the thing with Mutual Intentions was around that time as well?
K - This was in 2015. Bendik then invited me 6 months later to make some ambient music. I knew him mostly as a disco and beats producer and as a friend of course. I decided why not and then we recorded some music one evening. He fixed it and it sounded very nice… Well lets make an album then. It was not so easy to release it as we initially thought, so we decided to make some more music and then thats how the second album was made. I sent it to Fredfades who is really into music and he liked it right away, presented it to the crew and yeah, that was last year I think.
B - For us it feels good to be part of that scene, because we do electronic music that is of course a bit alternative, but it is easy listening as well. It is music that invites you inside. It is not extreme music for the very few ears that are on the inside. It is music that is quite different from pop music, but it has a lot of the same qualities as pop music. It is simple…catchy, I would say. We really want to present a space that is not demanding of the listener, but a free space to chill out. So it is not necessarily a goal for a specific use, but at the same time I really feel interested in functional music. Not music in isolation, only music in context. Just like club music. It has some dogma’s. It needs the steady bass and rhythm and to be up-tempo because the function is dance. Here, it is the same, but the function is relax or reflection. It is for use while travelling, relaxing, before going to sleep or after waking up. You can use it in any context but it has qualities that you can appreciate in daily life and that is the importance.
How do you get into that mindset to be able to make that kind of music?
K - Good question and we were discussing that before you came, sometimes it is like we are jamming. We realise it is kind of special music to just jam out though.
B - I think we have some similar ideas about what is beautiful and what is comfortable. What is soft and what is too soft. What is soft, but exactly edgy enough that it still feels right. It is always this balance between tension and release…
Do you still get that feeling when you are jamming, even though it is a relaxing time for you both, that you still are releasing a lot of the tension with the music?
K - Most of the music is made by improvisation so it keeps you a bit on your toes and in the moment. Over time we listen to it and work on it until it becomes melodies and the ideas we are trying to express form more clearly. It is fun to work with Bendik because he is very enthusiastic about my things and I like his things. He makes one beat which maybe he didn’t think about it at all but I am super impressed and vice versa.
B - It is a very constructive way of collaborating and most of the songs are made either by me having a piece a music that is so fragmented it can barely be called an idea, it is maybe just one sample and I give it to him and make him jam over it. Then I start to cut and put it inside to start to create something out of his first impression… and maybe even throw in another round of him jamming. This way of creating. It is also the idea behind the duet, it is not me composing and him playing over, or the opposite, it is always interplay, a conversation.
It must be nice to be able to play something, whatever comes to mind over a piece of music…
K - It is also very demanding ‘What should I play?’
B - It is low risk.
K - It is always low risk with you, laughs.
Where do you normally play?
B - I have had a few different studios over the past years and I am in between at the moment, searching for a spot to stay for many years. To find a place with friends I can stay for a long time.
K - I dont have a practise room, so my neighbours must love me laughs. I think I have some isolation there because I live right next to a tram stop so I just play during day time when not many people hear me. I also live together with two friends who are also playing trombone and trumpet. The other guy plays a lot on TV and is the loud lead trumpet type… I have always had a softer approach to trumpet playing.
Being a musician in Oslo and Norway, how do you feel this has helped shape you as musicians and how has that experience been?
B - To be a musician is the best experience of my life. I think it is so good and we have a lot of possibilities here. It is a busy city and people are interested in a lot of different niche music, which our music is. It is not for the larger crowd, but still we can survive here as there is a lot of different types of music and it is also possible to get support from the government if you go on a tour, for example. Our album is created also with a little bit of help we got from the government. In Norway, it is very possible to get it compared to other countries where things like this don't really exist. In other countries that are the same size as Norway you can't live of just doing music, especially if you do alternative music. But, for us, it is possible to do a lot of stuff even if the economics of it is just how much money did we make on this one gig, which may not be a lot. On the broader scale you can manage and that is a very big gift which gives Oslo and Norway a very rich and variated scene in all types of culture, but in my experience, music. There is really a lot of music that can grow here and I am very grateful.
K - I have lived here for 10 years now and I don't live just as a musician anymore, I used to, but now I also work a full-time office job. I surely miss the musician days… It has good sides and bad sides, but mostly it feels very nice to be a musician and I still get to make albums and will make some more. I have heard from people that have been on tour in Australia that the music scene is very supportive there and bands and artists are supporting each other which I think is missing a bit here. It is competitive and everyone is focused on their own thing.
B - The biggest challenge now I think is to get paid for releasing an album. It is so much work of course and when you are working in genres like we do, a bit off the commercial scene, to make money off actually selling music feels very difficult so we need to find out which way the listener wants to contribute. That is the question. Because it can be okay to release albums and make no money off it if there is the possibility to get a lot of gigs. This is how it works now. I want to be able to give a product to the listener as I think it is an important emotional investment in the artisanship. It is a known psychological effect that if you pay money to go to a gig you will have a better art experience than if you went there for free. We put intention in the buying of something and hope that it is good. It is also for our listener to feel close to our music. If they buy a vinyl, that we created then this object is directly connecting them to us which I think is a very important way of communicating now that most music is listened to online. It is a bit more vague and if you forget the artists name you will never find it again. It is what you own and what you don't own. What is part of your musical sphere is more vague, it can be a link from a friend, but you have to hold on to it in someway. So to explore further what is existing in that format is interesting for us, which is why we made the cassette tapes. The downside is very few people have Walkmans, laughs. It is quite cool and tape gives such a beautiful and special sound to the music. It gives a compression to it and the sound is not stable, it is a very different experience from digital. I have a Walkman where I can play in half tempo and there is also a wheel, just like on the turntable, where I can make it slower and faster. You can listen to the music in so many different ways on this small gadget and it is also great in getting free time from the phone. The Walkman has a function.
K - Also before the concert we recorded some trumpet for specific songs and used it as a sample and recorded throughout the show. There was a very special distortion on the cassette it is very nice.
Do you record these sound samples often?
K - Bendik does from Japan and Africa.
B - Yes and from here in Oslo. I love to work with field recordings. As our music is very minimal and concentrated on the smallest expression we realised that this expression is around us all the time. The way of using field recordings is a very fast and effective way to create a space. So when you are listening, you can think, ‘Ok now I am somewhere’. It is a recognisable, emotionally strong effect. When you have that you can combine one small element and now it is music. Of course it is already music but many times we fail to realise it. But, when there is one tone it becomes obvious. There is a very fine line between atmosphere sound and composition. The intention of using it as music is enough, which is why I am so interested in limitation.
You seem to have simplified your whole approach from what Kristoffer was saying earlier about the time you met and the music you were making then.
B - Yep, I am just digging away less and less and less. Because that is absolutely my preference, the minimal way. The way to strip away and take away. How about without bass drum? How is it then? To take away and to find what is the pure essence, that is really my interest.
K - Also there is a big difference, for me at least, between the first and second album. The first recorded album is actually the second half of the album and if you listen carefully then there is much more field recordings, more noise and no drums at all I think. The second, which is the first part was made one year later and we have shifted direction slightly.
B - A little bit more rhythm. We imagine, our prophecy, is that the next album will be even more rhythm.
K - I am going to invest in a drum machine and we can use it together.
B - Now when we have the same drum machine then we are working together.
K - Maybe some synthesisers.
B - I work a lot in the club music, minimal techno and this very bass driven up-tempo music. Our experience from the gig now was that we started with an uplifting, upbeat song and ended with a house track. In the middle was a lot of ambient and different music, but I think with both the starting and the ending we got some really good response from the crowd. It is a way to frame this very emotional and intense music that makes it more manageable when you can get this steady energy and drive.
Aren't people more used to that?
B - I think people are more used to it and also it is for everyone. There is a reason upbeat music is popular, it gives energy for movement and a bit of speed. It is not too reflective or heavy on the emotional stuff. That is a lot more digestible when you know there is a carrot at the end.
If you liked Duets, be sure to catch Kristoffer Eikrem at Parkteatret on October 11th and stay tuned for Bendik Baksaas's upcoming release, Seine sviv, with fiddle player and singer Helga Myhr.
Interview photography by Ronja Penzo
Album photography by Jan Tore Eriksen