The convergence of jazz and rock is nothing new. Miles Davis explored it on such albums as 1970’s Bitches Brew and 1971’s A Tribute To Jack Johnson, while such disparate rock groups as The Rolling Stones, King Crimson, and Metallica have all cited jazz or specific jazz musicians as being an inspiration for what they do. Then there’s the Hedvig Mollestad Trio, a Norwegian threesome comprised of guitarist Hedvid Mollestad, bassist Ellen Brekken bass, and drummer Ivar Loe Bjørnstad whose music is equal parts hard rock and avant garde jazz, as evidenced by such albums as 2013’s All Of Them Witches, 2014 Enfant Terrible!, and their newest, Black Stabat Mater (CD, digital, vinyl). Though maybe it’s best if I let Mollestad explain it herself.
How would you describe the music you make with the Hedvig Mollestad Trio?
I guess it depends a little who I am explaining it to, but the best description I made once to a friend was “well, it’s drums, bass, and guitar.” He later printed me a shirt with those words. I could add that it is mostly loud, but sometimes more quiet and subtle. It sounds like rock, but feels a little like jazz, and it also feels a little like steep mountains. Or heavy rain. Or hundreds of bison, running.
Given that your music is a mix of 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? And I don’t mean if you think you’re as good as those bands are, obviously, but do you think the comparisons are apt stylistically.
I think it’s truly interesting when people have references to our music that I either don’t like or haven’t heard of, and I don’t think it is wrong in any way. Music makes you think of god-knows-what, and whatever people think they hear, it’s possibly there, even though we didn’t intend it. Or ever though we don’t agree [chuckles]. Very many people mention Black Sabbath, because very many people listen to Black Sabbath. Some of our riffs are surely inspired by them, but it is hard to find a good rock band who isn’t. Tony Iommi’s guitar sound is unique, and his riffs are historic, in a positive way. Ivar’s drumming is definitely influenced by [Led Zeppelin’s John] Bonham, as my playing is of Iommi.
But we also bring with us very many not noticeable influences. To me, Jim Hall. People rarely mention him after one of our shows, of course, but he made me love simplicity inside complexity. That is so extremely important.
Do you think jazz fans would be able to appreciate your music, or do you think it’s too “rock” for them?
We play as many jazz clubs, if not more, as we do rock clubs, so at least there is an interest. Though it is loud, not all jazz lovers like that. But people interested in good musicianship and creative improvisation should be able to find something of value in our music, and most jazz fans are into that.
And do you think rock fans would appreciate your music, or do you think it’s too “jazzy” for them?
It is really strange to speak of fans as if they like only rock or jazz. So many music lovers these days are into good, honest, true music, not divided by genre. But to those who are used to listen to vocal music only, I guess we can be a handful. Still, I have so much faith in people that I believe they will enjoy to challenge themselves, and that they can hear a strong melodic voice in our music even though there is no singing.
When it comes to bands that mix rock and jazz — but are decidedly mixing rock into their jazz, and not the other way around — the comparisons that are usually made are to Miles Davis’ electric era in the late-’60s and the early- to mid-’70s. The Hedvig Mollestad Trio doesn’t sound anything like what Miles did back then, but I’m legally required to ask, is Miles’ electric music an influence on you at all?
Very much so. All three of us have listened a lot to Miles Davis records, not only the electric era, maybe even more the earlier stuff. Birth Of The Cool, Kind Of Blue, and even when he played bebop. But we love very much a lot of the electric stuff. Still, I actually believe that the core of our music connects more with his extreme presence on his more quiet work, like The Complete Concert: 1964.
Do you have a favorite electric album of his?
The Hedvig Mollestad Trio only play instrumentals. Why did you decide to go in this direction?
That was actually not a decision, as we were a jazz band, we started out playing standards before we made our own music. It was natural to us, and never something we even discussed. I wanted to express myself through my instrument, and my instrument was my guitar. I still enjoy it very much, to let the music, the melody, the harmonies — or the lack of them — the rhythms, and the grooves be where you can set your mind free, and not get your head tangled up in words and meanings.
When it comes to writing these songs, do you sit down with the objective of writing an instrumental for the Hedvig Mollestad Trio, or do you just write the song and if it works as an instrumental for the Hedvig Mollestad Trio, cool, and if it doesn’t then you’ll use it for something else?
Very often I make music with the trio in my head, imagining Ellen’s bass and Ivar’s drums. That is as close as I relate to them playing our music. But it has happened that I have made stuff that just haven’t worked out, and I have made a lot of stuff that the trio never could play. I had a period where I listened a lot to Ryan Adams and Ani DiFranco, and made very many sad songs on my acoustic. I also make jazz tunes now and then, but they are not for the trio either. But I enjoy it very much, whenever I am stuck on a piece of music, to share it with the others, asking them for new direction, or inviting them to make the next part.
Like you, the other members of the Hedvig Mollestad Trio are all accomplished jazz musicians. Has there been any talk of you guys doing a straight jazz album, maybe under a different name?
It’s a funny thought, but I really do think no. Not together. We started out that way, so it would feel very…jerk-back-to-start. But we all still appreciate and listen to jazz, in its many forms.
Your trio’s new album is called Black Stabat Mater. First, is the name a nod to Arvo Part’s 1985 album Stabat Mater?
Even though some of my most powerful musical experiences in my life have been with Arvo Pärt’s music, the reference to the musical structure, it being a catholic mess, Stabat Mater is more a reference to the textual content. Ironic maybe, being an instrumental band. The words describe a mother’s grief over her dying child. Well, actually, the words “Stabat Mater” only means “stood there, the mother,” but the original “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” [the first line in the hymn “Stabat Mater”] concerns the mothers grieving. The less known “Stabat Mater” speciosa actually express the mothers joy of her child’s birth. So, the title can stand alone, or we can see it as an expression of a collective grief on behalf of our country, and the way we don’t welcome all the refugees coming to our country, desperate in the need of a safe place to live.
And, of course, it’s a nod to our musical heroes in Black Sabbath.
One of the songs on the new album is “Somebody Else Should Be On That Bus,” the name of which just made me laugh. But given that the song, like all of the songs on Black Stabat Mater, is an instrumental, how do you come up with the names? Like, is there a funny story behind the naming of the song “Somebody Else Should Be On That Bus”?
A story, yes; but funny, no. The story behind is actually an incident in the northern Norway, having very many refugees coming in from Russia, and it became very difficult to handle it, as they did not have enough capacity to take care of everybody properly. So the way the government chose to handle the situation was to rent buses, pick up the refugees in the middle of the night — telling them to eat properly, as it would be a long journey — shuttling them back to Russia. It was freezing outside, and the weather forecast was -40 in this area at the time. The title of the last two tracks on Black Stabat Mater — “40” and “Somebody Else Should Be On That Bus”— basically came from that.
Are there any other funny stories behind the names of songs on Black Stabat Mater?
Though the color of the themes on Black Stabat Mater might be dark, we’re not always that serious, and many of the songs from our albums have more optimistic stories behind them, like “Arigato, Bitch” [from Enfant Terrible!]. That was something Ivar said to me after I passed him the salt together with an insult. [chuckles]
I assume you’ll be touring behind this album. Will you be coming to the U.S. at all?
We’ll be touring yes, but mostly festivals this summer, and Europe only. Coming back to the States is something we talk about very often, but is quite expensive and takes a lot of planning and work. So no plans at the moment, but we have a few contacts, and I am positive we will come back within a few years. We are really looking forward already.
Are there certain places in the world where your music is more appreciated than others?
No, not that I have noticed…
When you do tour, do you ever cover anyone else’s music?
We very rarely do covers, we enjoy playing our own music, I think it is that simple. But we did cover The Melvins’ “Blood Witch” at almost every concert the first year or two, ’cause it was such a kick to play. That’s the reason we do covers when we do them. We have also covered Terje Rypdal’s “Chaser,” and Black Sabbat’s “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.” And not for the last time!
So if someone digs Black Stabat Mater, which of your Trio albums should they get next?
Probably Enfant Terrible! That album is closer to what we are doing on Black Stabat Mater. The tunes are longer, and the focus is on our ability to play together, not only relying on the tune.