It was only a matter of time before this interview came to fruition. In the past few years, I’ve found myself confronted with the music of Guro Skumsnes Moe over and over again. I first saw her performing with Årabrot at Desertfest 2014. Later in the same year, my girlfriend and I saw Noxagt at Cafe Blitz in Norway, where we found ourselves blown away by a supporting performance from her band MoE. Then a video started to circulate of Guro playing a short piece on the Octobass: a 4-metre-tall stringed instrument that resembles a double bass in shape, and whose size opens up all sorts of nuances into terms of overtone and ultra-low resonances. Coincidence plays a part in my repeated exposure to Guro’s music, but it’s also down to the fact that she’s incredibly busy. Beyond the projects I was previously familiar with, I’ve since discovered her work as a live improviser, a soundtrack composer for film and theatre, and an author of several books. Somehow, all of this takes place in and around MoE’s relentless, globe-trotting touring schedule.
Most appropriately, the music of MoE also seems to thrive on the sensation of constant movement. Where most heavy music is founded on rhythmic rigidity, the trio call upon their impulses as seasoned improvisers to bring a precarious, undulating flow to the masses of sound. Rhythms wobble like towers on the brink of collapse, as the musicians stumble and stagger in a bid to keep everything upright. They’ve just put out a new album titled “Examination Of The Eye Of A Horse”, which wields this unsteady momentum within compositions of real structure and intricacy, embedding grand pianos and violins within a framework that rattles in and out of alignment with itself. Below, Guro and I discuss the new album, the masculinity of societal structures and the utopian joys of touring the world.
So it’s the day before the album comes out, right?
Will there be a celebration of sorts tomorrow?
Actually I’m going to the studio to record the octobass orchestra. It’s good to have my mind completely elsewhere. That’ll be excellent. [laughs]
You seem to have so many different projects going on.
I have a need to do all these different things. Well – they don’t seem like different things to me, but they’re all very much necessary.
So you feel like all of these projects are pushing the same button for you?
Or at least coming from the same motivation to do sound. They need to take on these various forms in order to continue to go deeper and further. Of course, having an octobass is part of pushing myself further – having an instrument that, in its nature, is far beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. It makes me more calm [laughs]. By having it, I kind of understand how I’ve always worked.
What do you mean by that?
It manifested this desire to go further. The bass goes down to 16Hz, which is below what a human ear can hear. The resonance is so magic. I’ve started to play really soft tones – just the overtones – and then it really comes alive. Even though I’m playing these higher tones, the depth that comes from the body is hypnotic and like nothing I’ve ever experienced in a musical context.
I’ve seen videos of you using it, which just made want to hear it live. I imagine those tones make quite a distinct impression in three-dimensional space.
Yeah. Last year I did my first concert with the octobass, performing the piece that I will record tomorrow. The concert was in a church and it was packed. The audience had so many expectations because it’s an ordinary-shaped instrument, only gigantic. I’ve been thinking a lot about “visual hearing”, and that I need to consider performing with this bass on another level. It doesn’t really give you exactly what you want. For me, it’s brutal to realise that your favourite instrument is four metres tall. I recently travelled to Gothenburg to play. I had to set it up the day before, and I can’t do any of it by myself – it requires two or three people. The body is almost destroyed from carrying it and putting it up; there’s so much tension because you’re afraid of damaging it. I think I’d have to have three days in order to play a good gig. [laughs]
It must be fascinating to work with an instrument for which there are no real traditions or precedents over how it should be played.
Absolutely. There are so many noise sounds coming from it, which I just embrace and love. I think this is the eighth in the world. Almost half of those are in museums. By the way – the sound of one of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park was made by an octobass. It was first produced around the 1850s by a French guy called Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume for the world exhibition in Paris. Big composers have made pieces with the octobass, like Hector Berlioz and Wagner.
Ole-Henrik Moe, Kari Rønnekleiv and I all own the bass, and we started an orchestra called The Touchables. In the future we want to feature other deep-sounding instruments, but this is the first one. We really want to push the limits for chamber music and exploring the border areas towards infra/ultra-tones. The five deepest tones of the octobass are kind of disharmonic – you cannot hear them. You just hear the overtones, but still the ear wants to hear the deepest tone. It’s just a huge material to work with. We want to make new music, but also use it in any format that people might want it: rock, pop etc. It’s on three of the songs on Examination Of The Eye Of A Horse.
What function is it playing on these tracks?
It makes you a bit disturbed, because you haven’t heard these types of sounds. It’s also about the overtones and how they react to the other instruments. In fact you hear it the most when it’s not there, because the depth suddenly disappears without you knowing it was there in the first place. It’s part of the intro to the last song.
Ah, I wondered what that sound was.
The type of speakers used also affects the experience – it depends how deep in Hz your speakers go. I guess we should start producing speakers too and say, “you have to have these ones otherwise you won’t hear it properly”. [laughs] Of the course, the room also counts as much as everything else.
I’ve heard you talk about the fact that you wanted to use the studio as a compositional tool on this new record, rather than just striving to recreate a “live” sound.
Previously we wanted to be “true” and represent what was live. At that point, the honesty that represented was important. But to produce the record is not necessarily more “false” than that, because there are limitations for what a live performance can do and it’s difficult to capture that sound. It was about wanting to push our material further. Now you can actually hear the vocals and the lyrics and I like that, since the words on the compositions are important. Usually it’s very difficult in this kind of music to hear them. We recorded the vocals differently this time as we actually spent time on it. Håvard [Skaset], the guitarist, recorded all the album throughout last summer. We did it instrument-by-instrument, and we’ve never done that before. It was a long process.
By doing that, we had these opened doors into putting all kinds of things into the music, taking more from our background as improvisers: I did the octobass, Håvard did tracks with various noises from the guitar…and he also plays grand piano, and we asked our friend Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen to do some percussion. The two violinists on the record are also in the octobass orchestra, Kari and Ole-Henrik. Also, Pain Jerk from Japan is on the record. We’ve hung out on our two last tours there. He’s a great guy and an exceptionally good musician. We also met him through all Ears Festival, which is the festival for improvised music I’m running in Oslo. It was all about what we felt these songs needed.
The record was mixed by Jørgen Træen, which was really important for us. It was our first collaboration on a record with him, although we know him from his noise project Golden Serenade, as well as from working with a great Singapore band [The Observatory], who we’ve toured with four or five times. He’s a well-known pop producer too. It just worked so great.
I didn’t realise piano and violin feature on the record. I guess that’s because of how all of the instruments meld into this dense, “total” sound…
I guess we took inspiration from our backgrounds in noise music – these equal and coherent layers operating on equal terms – which gives the listener the opportunity to adjust their hearing according to mood, or discover instruments they didn’t know were there. We haven’t really thought about that, but I think it just comes naturally because of our backgrounds. Noise music is a big part of our vocabulary.
On the flipside, I’ve also talk about this being MoE’s “pop record”.
Yeah. Listen to the voice! It’s there! In your face!
Did the prominence of the vocal lead you to think differently about how the voice could be used?
I’m not sure if this answers your question, but on all of our other recordings I have sung live as we did the songs or straight after we did the songs. I usually did the vocal in one or two takes. I had to just capture this presence. It could be a bit better if I did it several more times, but it’s still always a bit different each time I sing these songs. There had never been a focus on extreme details, because it was more about capturing the right energy.
So doing this record, where I had to really focus…we did lots of takes, and trying out various microphones. We ended up using Jenny Hval’s microphone, who we at that time shared studio with. It was painful to have to hear my voice. The words had to carry more meaning, since before it was very much equal to the other instruments. But then again, the lyrics don’t necessarily always mean something – it also has this rhythmic quality. Sometimes I’ve written them with one particular meaning, but over the course of the tour they actually change their meaning. Our music does that too. That’s really great. Having to stand there recording the vocals and feeling a new kind of pressure…I didn’t know if I could deliver what I was supposed to. I guess I’ll find out when the album is released tomorrow [laughs]. It was a very important process. Difficult, too.
I love the way you use your voice on this record. The way you use intonation is very interesting. It’s on the verge of becoming singing, but there’s no melody as such.
I’ve tried melodies but I find them too prominent and disturbing alongside the rest of the sound.
It’s almost like a microtonal melody, running against the rest of the sound.
Yeah. The melodies also occur after singing or screaming them for a while. These small nuances and shapes really establish. Usually I have to sing them live a lot to know them.
Did it feel strange to record vocals without having the bass guitar on you?
Yes. Getting this wildness into the voice was difficult, because I wasn’t occupied with all of these other things that free my consciousness from what I’m doing. I had to find something that has the power to reach out through this form and I don´t know, some magic to make the listener want to hear it agian. Recording is so different from live.
Compared to the rigid rhythmic backbone of most heavy music, your songs often seem to be teetering on collapse. Is there a reason why that style of sound appeals to you?
Even when I was young, I never had any connection to heavier music. I discovered Black Sabbath when I was 25. We don’t follow any rules or think, “we have to sound like this” or “we are this kind of band.” The songs evolve really strangely when we work on them. I guess that’s a part of it. It’s also about allowing things to be there for no other reason than they sounded right. On our previous albums – like 3 or the first and second Oslo Janus – people think that we’re purely improvising and we’re like, “no, no, no!” It’s all formed and we know exactly where we are. That comes from rehearsing a hell of a lot. Sometimes during concerts, you encounter things that change the music. We tend to break strings so often and that requires some spontaneous music.
Do you think you’ve become more adept over time at navigating those sudden obstacles?
Yeah. We can respond to eachother or see how things are falling apart, and the method is to not stop and just to continue.
It feels like you are always playing live shows. 2016 looks to have been a particularly busy year for you.
Yes, it’s been very busy. We’d never been to Australia before, but this was our third time to Japan. We’ve done Europe quite a few times as well this year. I really, really love touring. It’s also part of my motivation to do this band – to be able to tour like we do, meeting other self-organised bands that also have labels, that also book their own tours, that also write fanzines, and that also want to build this parallel way of doing music alongside the more commercial set of values. I’m really grateful to have met all of these bands we’ve been touring with; they’ve been the strongest inspiration to us for many, many years. Our next plan is to do a compilation album with all of these bands we’ve met through touring, and hopefully that can turn into something else. There’s so much energy in doing it this way and I believe in it so much – to be independent but together feels like a good plan. With bands like The Observatory, Gerda, DEAD, Moon Relay, Birushanah, Itaqhua, Cyberne, to name a few.
It’s so invigorating to spend time with people who are all so supportive of eachother and so immersed in their own practice. You get fed, you lend eachother equipment…it’s quite utopian in a way, isn’t it?
It is. You think, “I’m the same as all these people, but I’m on the other side of the planet!” You meet people from all of these different cultures and yet they all have the same motivations and inspirations as you. That’s why it’s so important to tour. It’s really powerful. You feel like you’re making a difference by being there and creating this energy. We never make music knowing that someone is going to like it – it’s based on our own parameters for why we want to do it. The energy created in coming to a new place and seeing that it’s received so well by all of these people…that’s so rewarding to me.
Japan seems to turn up on your touring schedule quite frequently. What is it you enjoy about playing there?
The inspiration from the bands we’ve toured with and met there is one reason, but also because their response has been really good. For this release we have distribution through these bands throughout the world: through Wallace Records in Italy that also co-release the album together with our label Conrad Sound, weemptyrooms in Australia, Aeolian Records in America, Substrata in Mexico. The most prominent distribution is Japan through Dotsmark. It makes a lot of sense to go there. At the most recent concerts, we were given presents of noodles and candy by people who saw us one or two years ago. Their English isn’t great, but they still need to communicate how much they appreciate our music. Also, there seem to be more women.
More so in Japan than elsewhere?
It’s the country where there are the most women playing and the most technicians on concerts. I think it’s just their culture – it’s just normal. I don’t think it’s so apparent in other aspects of their society as I’ve heard that it’s still male dominated. But in music, there’s much more of a balance. I can really feel the difference when there are more women at the venue and in the crowd.
I just participated in the music for a film by this Mexican director called Amat Escalante, and his move is called The Untamed. His movie shows the brutal side of Mexico, although it’s no more brutal than the truth. But most people don´t want to see the truth. It shows a very macho culture. So we’ve toured in Mexico twice and you can see it when you’re there, but I’ve never been frightened or hurt by it. I remember at one interview after a concert and the interviewer saying that there’s all this violence against women, and talking about what I’m representing by doing the music that I do. They were saying how a woman in Mexico could never play this music the way I do it.
Because it would be frowned upon?
Yeah. It gives the feeling that there’s no space for women to take that role or to be that person. It’s just brutal and horrible to be faced with this reality. Whenever I play a show, I never have to think about whether I should or shouldn’t be doing it. It was difficult for me to answer.
You mentioned your film score; how do you find the experience of composing music with an explicit narrative and visual basis?
A love making sound for image. I also make music for the puppet theatre Plexus Polaires. I’m in a position where I can more or less expand what the eye sees with my sounds. That’s something that I’ve felt great motivation for doing and I love.
I also know Amat’s brother and father from touring Mexico. Those contacts actually came from Lasse Marhaug, as he’s also done sound for Amat’s second and third movie. So when we went to Mexico, we asked Lasse, “do you have any contacts?” It’s the same when we went to Singapore and other places. We ask Lasse because he’s been there. He’s been so important for us. When we were in Mexico on tour last year, it was two weeks before I got my octobass. Amat came to a lot of our shows and we started talking about the bass and his movie. He was interested in having the bass in the movie. I also ended up doing most of the music in collaboration with Lasse and Martín Escalante.
Escalante’s images are so dense and rich – there are so many layers of humanity and the brutality of humanity. It’s like working with an open score; you have to twist your brain in other ways compared to when you’re composing other kinds of music. There are problems and adjustments that require certain types of sound. I find it so fascinating to work with.
I couldn’t produce sound for film in the same way I do for theatre. In the theatre, you can have a deeper music with more layers because it’s perceived there at the same time. When it’s two-dimensional, it has to have another honesty and clarity, and that requires something else. It was cool to have all of these different processes and challenges; once again, all of the ground beneath you falls and you have to build it up again.
Speaking of your other projects…I hear that you released a book recently?
Yeah. I’ve always been writing, whether it’s lyrics for songs or tour diaries. One of my tour diaries actually became a fanzine, released some years ago. For these texts I bought a special notebook in Boise on tour in 2012 with the band Sult, and ever since then I’ve been writing in this book every now and then. It became an important outlet for texts that I had nowhere else to put. I never thought about whether they would become anything, but all of a sudden last year they felt finished. I wrote them all down and structured them a bit, and I got help to set it up to send it to print. And then I had a book. To me the texts are more or less around the theme of being surrounded by a profound, strong presence, about choosing the light and to listen much higher than you speak.
Does it feel strange to know that these writings now have an audience beyond just yourself, given that the book was originally just a means of getting these thoughts out of your head?
When we release an album, we now know the process. People buy it, put it on the record player and sit and listen, or they listen while they do other stuff. With releasing a book, you can never know how your text reaches the person who reads it. A book is such a rewarding format – you can consume it wherever you want and choose where you want to read it. I like the process of making a proper book; I’ve done two poetry collections before, where I made the book myself. The first was in 12 editions and the second was in 18. This one was 270 books. But of course, words are very powerful and I’m afraid of words. I guess that’s why I tour so much. I believe more in doing than I do in words.
I think the reason I wanted to do the book is the same for a lot of people who write, which is that you don’t find a language around you that you’re comfortable with. For me, being on these tours and exposed to the structures of the music business…it’s very masculine. I think any structures in society are masculine, not just in music, actually perhaps less when I think of it, but not that it´s purely a gender related issue either. It´s just in lack of a word. A word for the fear of not knowing which I find to be masculine as to acknowledge the strengths in not knowing which I find to be feminine. And this requires a trust in your insecurity somehow. It’s been a struggle. finding a language that I’m comfortable with.