-I’ve never said this to anyone because it sounds a little smug, but the fact is that on this record I play all the instruments myself. We are talking to John Erik Kaada about his freshly released solo record entitled ‘Junkyard Nostalgia’. Its myriad sounds and instruments make the ear feel like a fly’s facet eye; the tunes float slowly, like little swarms of sad dragonflies. Playing all the instruments entails mastering a whole universe of sound, and a very personal universe it is, that John Erik Kaada has developed over the years. Junkyard Nostalgia is his fourth solo outing; it is a self-proclaimed homage to the thousands of Polish workers that have come to Norway to earn a better living and to fuel our economy with cheap labour.
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-I think it is moving and evocative that we live alongside each other, while their reality is so much tougher than mine and that of most Norwegians, says John Erik. I wanted to honour the brave and romantic aspects of their coming here to make a better future back home.
Words from the Stones’ «Salt of the earth» spring to mind:
Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
Spare a thought for his backbreaking work
Say a prayer for his wife and his children
Who burn the fires and who still till the earth
But Kaada’s record is far from blues, it’s Polish music:
-I have finally found a way out of describing my music to journalists. They always want to know if it’s jazz or folk or rock. This time I just say «It’s Polish»! Of course the music isn’t really Polish, but very few Norwegians know what Polish music is about, and I’m one of them. However, I found that it was fruitful to just pursue my own unenlightened idea of Polish music and make that idea the guiding musical motif of this record. Of course it isn’t all make-believe, some of the sounds and timbres are certainly genuinely Polish because what instigated the project was my rather extensive collection of east European and Polish instruments. I started playing them and trying to learn them and just got a kick out of it.
John Erik explains his operational modus as a composer and musician is pursuing kicks. Whenever he stumbles upon fun he will do his utmost to prolong it.
-It’s not always easy to keep up ones inspiration and creativity. That is why it’s important to stay with whatever is fun when you discover it. This is how I manage to keep working with music.
So how does a kick develop into a project? At what time do you realize that a new record e.g. could ensue?
-Well, that is just a matter of making a decision. At one point whatever it is that I am absorbed with ceases to be fun. From then on it is just a matter of going through with it.
You have released a Polish record without any real knowledge of polish music. This lack of knowledge and deliberate disinterest in research; does it amount to a creative strategy for you? And does not this fictive focus in fact entail that the product becomes very personal, since the references are only pretended, and really your own images and ideas?
-Firstly, I certainly think that not knowing, i.e. a degree of calculated ignorance, does free up creativity. When I say that the music is Polish, while at the same time making it clear that I don’t know anything about Polish music, that means that I’m off the hook in a way. I can make exactly the music I want to make, and no one is going to arrest me. I found that imagining what Polish music is like and even inventing fake polish words for some of the songs, became a creative ore. And I guess you are right that it becomes more personal this way, because as long as I don’t really care about the facts, in the end the whole thing just reflects back on me.
In addition to writing the music and playing all the instruments yourself you have also engineered and produced the record. Doesn’t it get a little lonely doing absolutely everything yourself and not letting a single other human being get a word in?
-No, I’m a bit of a loner I guess; I enjoy working on my own. It’s not really so much a deliberate choice; over the years it has just turned out that way naturally. Setting up and running my own studio entails a lot of focus on technical aspects of music. Instead of asking others I have enjoyed learning and exploring these things on my own, as a counterbalance to the creative work. And when I come up with a great bass sound for instance that’s the kind of kick that can set me on a path and awaken my creativity.
In addition to your solo work you also work a lot with film music. And you are also involved with other projects and collaborations, notably the band Cloroform, and with Mika Patton. How do you divide your time between the different strands of activity?
It has developed into a very well-functioning circular dynamic. The reason I have been able to set my studio is the money I earn from making film music, which is something I just stumbled into really. But now I find that the attention I get as a solo artist helps me get more commissions for films, which in turn pay for equipment and the time to make solo records. And then there are the more practical and creative synergies that come about when I work with different projects at the same time. If I have summoned a group of musicians to my studio –which in fact is a lot like a film music factory– you can be sure that I will make use of them in more projects than one.
Ten years ago, was it your goal and dream to work mostly in solitude, the way you are doing now? Did you ever want to be more of an entertainer?
-I didn’t envisage anything really. As in most cases, it has been a matter of coincidences and one thing leading to the other. But I never dreamt of being an entertainer, that’s a definite no. I’m just not very comfortable with being a front man or lead character.
Is that why there is so little vocal on your records? Many critics think very highly of your singing and want more of it.
-Well, I’m glad they think that way. But I have made a decision; I don’t enjoy being a vocalist so I will only use vocals when I feel the song need words. Most of the time I find that my songs are fine without words, and so they remain instrumental. Lyrics are never my point of departure anyway.
What kind of commercial apparatus is at work in conjunction with this record? Will it be licensed to majors like you have done before?
-Throughout I have released all my records myself, with licence deals. But this time I decided not to give away any rights to others. My platform is my web site with its web shop, which is working swimmingly I have to say. I’m not selling via I-tunes and I actually contemplated not issuing the record to shops at all, not even in Norway. But I ended up doing it anyway, even if it was a lot of work assembling and packing two thousand copies. Anyway, my records sell over long periods of time and music freaks and fans will buy them anyway, so relying on my web site is a good solution I think.
For your upcoming tour you will be bringing along seven musicians excluding yourself, and between you, you will be playing 40 instruments on stage (which probably gives indication of the number of instruments played by Kaada himself during recording). Who are the musicians and will there be any special musical stunts taking place?
-Like I said before I have a lot of musicians stopping by my studio for film music sessions. In all it is a group of forty to fifty people I suppose. So I have just enlisted some of these for the tour. We will all be playing a lot of different instruments. Most noticeably we will be using five harps, two saws (there will be a duet for saw) tubas and not to forget the gem I’m tinkering with right now, a Weltmeister Basset, which is an east German mechanical key instrument that was used to play the bass in dance orchestras of the former DDR. It needs a pre-amp, but I’m sure it will sound great.
With Kaada there is always an element of surprise involved. Carefully tended surprise and controlled unpredictability as these come together in a musical and instrumental menagerie that produces subtle, sorrowful drugged and beautiful music.