Interview: Jørgen Munkeby (Shining)
It is London. Saturday night. About a hundred of metalheads with distinct Norwegian metal insignias, from Burzum to Ulver, gathered in an intimate venue in the north of the capital for what will later turn out to be a proper metal workout mixed with intellectual jazz rhythms and patterns. The Norwegian blackened jazz-metal band Shining headlines the night. They casually walk out on stage, just a minute behind their scheduled time, and without much prelude dive straight into a deep fusion of heavy sound and sophisticated rhythm sections of the opening track of the Blackjazz album “The Madness and The Damage Done.”
As the gig progresses on without pauses between songs, the atmosphere becomes more intense. “The One Inside.” “Fisheye” with its industrial electronics and cold-blooded whispers. A short lull. Respite. Time to take one deep breath before the band’s frontman – the ever energetic Jørgen Munkeby – grabs his saxophone to throw a complex solo into the crowd. Needless to say, the crowd is ecstatic. It is fascinating to watch how this ball of energy with wide blue eyes manages to skillfully juggle between his guitar and a saxophone, then smoothly switching from high-pitched growling to whispering and back. The band just about manages to keep up. An hour-long workout comes to an end with an encore of “Blackjazz Rebels.” The riot is over. The crowd simultaneously inhales. Everyone is worn out but satisfied. The only person still running around, shaking hands with the fans, taking selfies, and packing his equipment – all at the same time – is Munkeby. When he tells me he is a bit tired, I hardly believe him.
We sit down in one of the backstage rooms and the conversation spins from industrial influences in his band’s music to transition from jazz to black metal. As we speak, Munkeby reveals that the new album is in post-production stage. Just like the previous two albums, it all will be mixed in Los Angeles and yet again is going to sound different from what the band has done before.
There is still no release date on that new record, but Munkeby is still finding creative ways to keep us interested in his band. A month after our meeting, Munkeby and Shining made the news again, playing a free gig on a Trolltunga (troll tongue), a cliff in Norway. We have video of that show below, preceding the transcription of our interview.
Blackjazz and One One One One have a rather industrial sound, yet in one of your earlier interviews said you only heard Nine Inch Nails and the likes for the first time about five years ago. Where did this industrial influence come from?
(Marylin) Manson was the guy I listened to first. And it was still long after his initial explosion. When he started getting bigger, I felt like maybe he was too theatrical for me. I didn’t manage to look past all the make-up and stuff. But when I grew older, I started appreciating the music. So, in 2006 I started listening to Manson, I think, and I really appreciated how he made it sound aggressive, but also polished at the same time. Aggressive, polished, and commercial, while a lot of – especially black metal music – it sounds aggressive, but it also sounds dirty. So Manson was like that (different), Nine Inch Nails was like that. And then I started looking at who was responsible for that kind of production and then I found Sean Beavan who had recorded and produced (Manson’s) Antichrist Superstar, a lot of Nine Inch Nails from the beginning, and he did work as a live engineer for NIN and Manson. So I got hold of him, sent him some demos, he loved the music and from there on we decided that he would mix the Blackjazz. He’s been such a great guy to work with. I love working with him. And so we started working more and more together. The idea was to combine jazz with harder metal and black metal elements and on the surface that might sound dirty and I kind of wanted to do that mix but also have it sound more polished.
Okay, it makes sense. Now, let’s talk about your band’s name. To me the word “shining” is closely associated with Stephen King’s eponymous novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film. How did you end up choosing this name for the band?
We were on our way back from our first concert with an acoustic jazz quartet and that name came to us as most band names do: we sat in the car and just talked about all sorts of different ideas we had, kind of brainstorming to find a name. I wish I had saved that piece of paper with all the options because they were pretty silly, most of them. Obviously, Shining came up. It was taken from that movie and one of the parallels we thought of was – at that time we played acoustic jazz and improvisation made a big part of it and we are all very much interested in in improvising, in silent, almost a telepathic communication when you want to know what other musicians are about to play without stopping and talking about it, so you can coordinate what you play – and in the movie The Shining there are people who shine and they can talk to each other telepathically. So that was kind of a smart-ass idea we had.
And it’s a scary movie but it has also got this artsy vibe to it with all the great Bela Bartok music, and the way it is filmed, the way Stanley Kubrick has directed the whole thing, so it comes from that movie. Obviously, a lot of other people took that name too, metal bands, and rock bands, and there is a new band now from Holland called The New Shining.
How does it feel to share the name with other bands?
I think this is something a lot of bands have to live with. There are a lot of Mayhem bands, but I don’t think that much about it. When we released Blackjazz, people in the metal world suddenly started listening to us. There was a period when there was some confusion about which band was which, but after a while now there is less confusion. People have gotten used to the fact there are two bands and actually sometimes it’s been a good thing. That gives people something to talk about. We could find a new name, but it is hard to find a new name that hasn’t been taken before. We would probably have to put three words together, I guess.
You are a classically trained jazz musician and yet you play in a metal band, blending the two quite different styles together. How did this transition from jazz to metal happen?
I grew up with metal music when I was young. I listened to bands like Deftones and Sepultura back then. And then I started playing the saxophone but still listened to metal music. Then I slowly began looking into jazz music, from John Parker to John Coltrane, and really got hooked onto jazz music. I stopped listening to metal, went to the Norwegian State Academy of Music, studied jazz for several years and then got into contemporary classical composition. And that was the time when I started Shining with friends of mine from that music academy.
Everybody studied jazz music, so it was natural for us to play jazz. After a couple of albums we got a bit tired of that dogmatic, acoustic jazz music thing. So we started experimenting with studio production. I started getting more and more interested in modern metal music, I began looking into Dillinger Escape Plan and Meshuggah and Nine Inch Nails and Manson. And then suddenly Blackjazz came along. And I felt like it was a big, monumental point in time for Shining’s history. And I felt like what I’d started when I was young, when I was 10 years old, playing saxophone to my Pantera albums trying to see if it could work together, and twenty years later in 2010, I feel like I have kind of managed to figure out what pieces of jazz and what pieces of metal could work together in my mind. It suddenly started making sense. I threw out a lot of things that I felt didn’t need to be there. With the term Blackjazz, with the cover artwork, the logo and pictures and everything, it all suddenly clicked, I think. So I decided to stick with it for a bit. And as we have talked about already, we share a name with a book and a very famous movie, but Blackjazz is something that no one else has. There is one record label called Blackjazz Records but it’s not a big one, so that’s not a problem. So Blackjazz, the word was a big thing, I think, for people to check out that album.
So there was Blackjazz. There was One One One. Now you are mixing something new in Los Angeles. Tell me more about the new album. What are we to expect? What is it going to sound like?
It is finished, except for the two mixes that we need to finalise. It’s got some of the sinister aggression from Blackjazz, some of the experimentation from the Blackjazz, but it also has some of the more folky songs like on One One One. So I would say it is a more varied album then what we have done before. There is even a ballad in there, which is the first time we have done something of the kind.
In the beginning I had this idea of writing one song, releasing it, then writing another one and releasing it and then doing YouTube documentaries every time we release a song. But after talking to labels I just ended up continuing writing and then after some time I started enjoying tying this together. It has actually shaped into a conceptual little piece of work that you can listen to from start to finish.
Does it have a title?
There is a title. But it is a secret. [laughs]
Is there a release date set?
We hope to release it as soon as possible. But that will probably happen sometime during the summer. You never know. And then we plan a European tour in the fall.
Many people consume music by songs rather than by albums these days. What is your take on that? Do you think albums are still relevant?
I know that I listen to the music mostly song by song. And I know that when I made the previous album that was my intention: to try to remove the filling material that a lot of albums have and that our albums also had. We had tracks that we made to contribute to most of the album, to the concept of the album, but not the track that you’d have on your favourite playlist. We did that and I love that. But now I have kind of surprised myself by loving putting songs together to make the full album. Norway is one of the first countries that really fully embraced streaming. Almost nobody buys albums anymore, it’s all streaming. And that has affected the way people listen to the music. We are a few years ahead most of the other countries in the world.
So what happened is: first, everything was about singles. And then some pop artists started making albums again. And also getting attention for an album is easier now because there are fewer albums being released. But 12 years ago, you made singles, 10-15 of them, slammed them all together into an album but there was no thought behind making an album, it was just a collection of singles. Now there are fewer albums coming out and those that come out are created as an album. They also become better. But I think both of these things are great, just as albums and live concerts are different in my mind. We do more improvisational stuff live than we do on albums. Because when you are there (at the gig), you can see a band making an extra (special) connection with the audience but having extended improvisational transitions on albums doesn’t work that well because you might be on your way to the bus and you don’t have time to listen to what’s going on. Focus on singles and focus on albums are both cool things to do. I like doing an album now, but in the beginning, as I have said, I wanted to make it song by song, you know, something like Sonic Highways [The Foo Fighters album where the band recorded eight songs for the album, each in a different US city: Austin, Chicago, Joshua Tree, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.]. I almost wanted to make that new album like a reality show in a way. But we didn’t do that.
I am sure we will continue seeing both of these things (albums and singles). It’s like candles, people haven’t stopped using them even though we have electric lights – we still have both of them.
So Norway is ahead of most of the world in terms of embracing the new ways of listening to the music. What about the music scene in Norway? Is it still all about black metal or is it evolving?
The music scene in Norway… Black metal has been a big part of it, free jazz was also a big part of it in the 90s and early 2000s. It is not as black and white as that but when you talk about the metal world, black metal was the only thing that people did in the metal world and now it’s not. Ulver was one of the first bands to do something completely different, stepping away from black metal and preserving maybe only the imagery. People tend to think of black metal as something very big but I don’t think it is. In Norway black metal bands are known, when they release an album, they go to the top of the charts. But that still doesn’t mean they’ve sold a lot. It is a very small country. We have Ulver, we have Ihsahn, we have Satyricon, they really have pushed the boundaries of what we expect black metal to be, but then there are really young bands that a really retro. But that’s how it should be.
Black metal is heading in the direction of every other art form. Like jazz music, like hip-hop, they all started in a place where music and sociological aspects began to intertwine. If you did hip-hop back in the days, you had to be black and from New York or LA. Or if you played jazz you had to be black. And if you played black metal, you had to be from Norway, you had to be a Satanist, you had to paint your face. But then after a while the music itself becomes so strong and pure and people get to know it. And when music is able to stand on its own feet, then suddenly things like if you are black or white, if you are rich or poor, or where you are from don’t matter that much. Now you can be white, be Eminem and be the biggest hip-hop star in the world. You can be from Spain and play black metal. Or you can be us, starting as a jazz band and having metal or black metal elements in our music. I think that is how it should be. I also like the fact that some take responsibility and try to conserve the old ways of playing. Like in jazz music, you have people who are really into a certain era and that’s how they play. We also have people who push the boundaries and that’s what’s happening in black metal. And I feel that this is how it should be.
Speaking of techniques and music instruments – you masterfully play both saxophone and guitar. Do you have any preference between the two instruments?
I started with saxophone, that is what I play the best. But I like the guitar because in the music that I listen to, there has been more guitar than saxophone. It is a very important instrument in the music history. But my main focus nowadays is vocals. I try to get better at singing. I don’t have a preference but that’s how I view them. Saxophone is just something that I am good at and I just try to maintain my skills. Guitar is something… I don’t care about much playing fast on the guitar, but I like the sound of it. And vocals is something I am working hard on getting better. There is a ballad on the new album and I am singing very beautifully. I haven’t taken any lessons, but I have taught myself how to teach myself by being a musician all my life. I learn from other vocalists, I learn from YouTube, from books, from articles. It’s an ongoing thing. When I started singing, I wasn’t very good at it. I had to work on it. Now it is much better.
From Blackjazz I was trying to figure out the style of singing that suited me. I am starting to find a voice in a way, the style of singing that I like. But I am not there yet. But that’s how it is being an artist: you are never there, you are never completely satisfied. And that’s how it should be. If you are 100 percent happy with where you are at artistically, then I think that is a sign of something not being right. It is good to strive to become better. I am confident I will feel that way until I die.