Jørgen Munkeby’s resumé is impressive for a number of reasons if only for the fact that the avant-garde jazz musician has remained largely unencumbered by distraction. It’s a familiar story and one not unlike that of someone like Bruce Lamont, whose own passion and love for both jazz and heavy metal were not something to be creatively viewed under different lenses. In fact, for an artist like Munkeby that coexistence is essential to fully capture influences ranging from Lester Young to Lemmy Kilmister. Munkeby’s collaborations with Ihsahn notwithstanding, the saxophonist’s crowning achievement so far has been conceived in the form of Shining, a band as perplexingly hard to define as they are irresistibly magnetic. Now fifteen years into its existence, Shining continues to forge its own path of existence in a scene too often saturated with the same old bullshit. SfB recently asked Munkeby a few questions about his own jazz beginnings, his love for metal, and what the future holds both for himself and for Shining.
Shining has been through a few significant transitions regarding its sound going from the more acoustic and straightforward jazz of its early days to the much more experimental and heavier sound of the last few years. How important is progression for you personally with creativity just in terms of how easily bands stagnate, especially within heavy music?
I think I just easily get bored by doing the same things again and again, and I seem to always be on the lookout for new things to learn. This has led Shining through quite some musical changes throughout our career. But I also think most people change throughout their lives – their taste changes, their friends change, their relationships change, and just by getting older we all change – and I think that it’s just natural for musicians and for bands also to change their music when they themselves change as persons.
While it might be initially easy for listeners to dismiss what they see as a gimmick of “jazz meets metal”, what you’ve done with Shining is something incredibly forward-thinking and challenging, and the music more than shows a vast depth of knowledge regarding those complex compositional structures existing both within metal and jazz. Are those two seemingly very distinctive music forms something you’ve always seen as being closely related, or was that a gradual discovery for you as a musician?
I grew up with metal music when I was a kid. I started playing the sax at age nine, but even then I didn’t listen to jazz. After some years, when I was around 14 years old, I got hooked on jazz music and spent every waking hour studying jazz for about ten years. But even though I had gotten both jazz and metal thoroughly into my blood, it took me about 20 years to figure out how to blend them together in a fashion that I felt sounded natural. Now I feel it’s the most natural thing in the world, and I really wonder what took me so long!
In a music industry that values easily digestible tracks over albums and compositions that require thought and oftentimes patience, you’ve largely resisted that notion of acceptability and supposed normalcy with Shining as the music manages to stay below the five-minute mark yet completely take on those characteristics of a movement. Is that compositional process one that comes fairly easy for you as trained musician, or is the struggle to create where you find most of your inspiration?
When I started writing music I was writing instrumental music, both in the jazz idiom but also for larger ensembles. In my first ten or so years writing music I never offered a single thought towards conventional song structures, and I sometimes also thought that music was cooler if the most catchy part would only appear once in a piece of music – contrary to how popular music are being built up nowadays. What was the focus instead was to create interesting music in itself. I think I never left that way of looking at music, even though I’ve lately also experience with more traditional song structures with choruses and verses. And I think that way of looking at music will always stay with me.
You’ve worked with artists such as Ihsahn and Enslaved, and I’m curious to get your perspective on experimentation in music today with regards to heavy music. Do you see the heavy music genre as it currently exists as being much more conducive and welcoming to experimentation than other styles of music at the moment?
I am drawn towards people and musicians that inspire me, and more often than not these are people who push boundaries and experiment. Outside of that, I don’t really pay much attention to music and bands that don’t inspire me. That means that I don’t think I can say too much about the heavy music scene in general, since there are so many parts of it that I don’t pay attention to. But there are a lot of great musicians and bands in the heavy music at the moment which inspires me, and I’m very happy to have been able to work with some of them!
Do you feel that many listeners and even critics oftentimes value arbitrary shifts or changes in a heavy music band’s style over a band continuing to perfect the same style over a period of albums?
Yes, I do think that critics often seem to value shifts or changes in band’s musical styles. At least they value the will to try. And yes, sometimes bands that stick with their sound for a longer time to try to perfect it, might get shit about not renewing themselves. But sometimes it can be good to stick with something for a longer period of time, too.
Where did you first discover music, and was there a specific band or song that provided that initial creative spark for you in the beginning?
I don’t remember where I discovered music as a general thing. I guess it was always around me, through my parents’ vinyl records. A few bands and artists that have inspired me throughout my life are Sepultura, Death, Entombed, John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Miles Davis, Olivier Messiaen, Arnold Schönberg, Gustav Mahler, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Meshuggah, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and of course the music my parents listened to when I was a kid, The Beatles, Cat Stevens and The Rolling Stones.
What do you see as your greatest point of creative growth since that initial moment or since your beginnings as a musician?
I would probably say the creation of our album Blackjazz, and with it the founding of what is supposed to be a unique genre, is the biggest and most important creative landmark in my musical career.
How large of a role do you see yourself in as a musician in terms of being a conduit for what you’re creating? Do you see yourself more as a facilitator for what’s occurring without regard to your attempts to control it, or are the creative variables something you see as being completely within your control?
I don’t think I’m in complete control of things, but I do believe I control, and have control over, quite a lot compared to a lot of other bands and musicians. This applies to both creating the music, producing the music, and also to business and strategic aspects of our band. I have always wanted to be hands on, and I’ve never felt that it would be wise to wait for inspiration. If I’m not inspired, inspiration comes when I start working.
Do you utilize any kind of improvisatory approach to the music of Shining, or is the music deliberately structured and purposed?
I use improvisation as one of many tools when composing. I also try make sure there are room for improvisation during our live sets by deliberately structuring our sets and songs to make room for it.
What lies ahead for you and Shining in 2014, Jørgen?
Ooh, there’s a lot of things going on at the moment! It seems more busy than ever before! We’re now touring more than we have done, but I’m also trying to write and produce music at the same time. Not really while being in the tour bus, but as soon as I get back from tour I continue the writing and production process. We currently have quite some new music, but are not yet sure about how and when to release it. Right now I’m on the plane back to Oslo from Los Angeles, where I’ve lived for two months while recording and writing.
In Norway we’re doing a four weekend long tour, with one of the shows being designated to brand new music, and another show being designated to playing the Blackjazz album from start to finish for the very first time ever. After that we’re doing seven shows together with Marty Friedman in the UK and Ireland, as support for Kreator and Arch Enemy. We’re actually playing half of our set with Friedman as a guest guitarist! Then we’re doing a month long tour in Europe in March 2015. I’m not sure what happens after that, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be busy! In addition to this, I’m supposed to write a 20 minutes piece of music for a contemporary classical music ensemble. A lot of things going on!
Thanks to Jørgen for his time.
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