I never know where I am going to discover a fresh modern guitar talent. Oddly, The New York Times has become a source. The online version publishes a weekly Playlist, which spotlights recent releases, with clickable examples. Most of it leans towards execrable pop sameness, but these lists have led me to Rafiq Batia, and now Martin Miguel Tonne.
On hearing “Follow The Lights,” I was struck by his unique pitch modulated, slap-back sound, and by the musical sophistication obviously underlying the band’s pop/punk attitude and energy. Not surprisingly, Tonne is a product of the same Norwegian music education system that gave us Stian Westerhus, et al.
What kind of music were you playing when you first started playing guitar?
I played classical guitar for almost ten years. My mom signed me up, but I never really understood that music. I just kept on playing Bach transcriptions and other guitar-specific classical music, but never really getting into the music.
From what age to what age were you doing that?
From nine until maybe 17. When I was around 14, I got an electric guitar and then really got interested in playing guitar.
Do you think the classical training helped you when you got into electric guitar?
What I learned most was that I’m really bad at reading music, even though classical guitar is rooted in that. The way I learned the tunes was by listening to what the teacher played and learning it by ear. So by learning classical guitar, I learned to play by ear, because I never learned to play from written music.
It’s great that your ear developed but I imagine it also helped in terms of fingering.
Yeah, sure. I suppose it helped my basic technique.
What kind of music did you start playing on electric guitar when you started?
I was listening to mainstream rock and pop music: the Arctic Monkeys, for example. When I was in high school, I started listening to Coldplay a lot. I still think their old records have some great moments, even though they’re hated. After Coldplay and some Norwegian singer-songwriters, I started listening to the Danish band Mew. They have been famous in the last 10 or 15 years. They’re a mix of prog-rock and pop music, but with Nordic packaging. Then I started listening to Mars Volta and more experimental things, and then got into jazz. In late high school, I found a great jazz teacher at school. I love to improvise so I focused on that. After high school, I studied jazz in various forms until I ended up in the NTNU Jazz Conservatory in Trondheim. I graduated last year.
How did you end up with that Danelectro Dead On ’67 model guitar?
I don’t know if you have this in America, but I was at the kind of school that we translate here into “folk” college. It is usually a one-year school where there’s no curriculum and you do whatever you want inside one kind of specialization. I went to a place where they have good jazz instruction. Lots of good jazz musicians from Norway have gone to that school. It’s called Sund. People typically do it after high school, before university and college. It’s a boarding school, so you live there and just play, rehearse, and practice.
I was focusing a lot on playing jazz, so I had a Gretsch hollow-bodied guitar. I was playing without pedals, straight into the amp and focusing on the notes and the chords. I went to a small shop in town, not far from Trondheim. They had this Danelectro guitar on sale for about $150, so I bought it. I bought a set of really heavy strings, like .013’s or .014’s, to put on the guitar. It couldn’t handle them, so the intonation was really fucked up. I thought the guitar didn’t work. It sounded horrible. Then, when I started studying in Trondheim, I was playing a Telecaster but the bridge broke and I had to find a new guitar the same day. I put some new strings on the Danelectro and it was an awesome guitar. Since then I just kept on using it.
I had one for a little while. It had some problems with tuning, because it has that wood bridge. How do you keep it in tune?
A lot of the music I play with that guitar doesn’t require perfect tuning. I play all the time with an effect that’s chorus-like. That masks the pitch problems. Also, I’ve gotten really good at tuning it as I go. If I hear a string is fucked up, I just strike a chord and fix it. For more mellow and slick music, it’s often a bit difficult to use because you can’t intonate it perfectly so if you’re doing a lot of open chords and a lot of high up stuff then you end up sounding out of tune all the time.
What is the effect that you use? It sounds like you’re using something that has a slap delay and a little modulation.
Exactly, it’s a slap delay. It’s a Line 6 Echo Park pedal, which I have to set to a really short delay. It has three delay modes and one is analog modulation. The pitch modulation for that one is a perfect sine wave-type modulation of the pitch. I have the really short slap delay turned on quite high, mixed almost as high as the dry signal, and then add the pitch modulation. It’s a really basic form of chorus but you hear the slap delay a bit.
That’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s become your signature sound.
It started actually with playing country guitar, and then I turned the time even shorter, turned up the pitch modulation and suddenly I had that sound.
Do you play country guitar also?
I used be really interested in it, along with my jazz studies. I was listening a lot to Brad Paisley for a while.
What other pedals are you using?
I’m using lots of different distortion pedals. I have double pedal. It’s blue, and I also have it in red. [Full-Drive 2] It’s really popular, almost a classic, with an on/off switch for the pedal and a boost channel. It’s like an overdrive distortion pedal.
What amps are you using with Pom Poko?
Most of the time, I use the amps where I play. When we started I was playing through a Fender Blues Junior with the gain knob turned all the way to 12 all the time. I really loved that amp but now it’s broken so I need to fix it. I made a pedalboard with an overdrive pedal at the end of my chain, so I always have that type of sound even though I’m playing through some sort of clean Fender amp. I actually prefer the Fender Deville amps where you can get some distortion easily. Sometimes when I have to play with a Vox amp, it’s really horrible, because my guitar is so bright, and I only use the bridge pickup. Through the Vox, it’s terrible.
It doesn’t sound like you’re using that much distortion most of the time. It sounds like some break up but not a lot.
For the recordings the basic sound may not be that distorted, that’s right. I have three or four distortion pedals I use live for different parts or different sounds. For example, the last single we released, “Follow the Lights,” has an EarthQuaker pedal called Bit Commander, which I really love. I also have a Death By Audio distortion pedal called Supersonic Fuzz Gun, which is really cool. I used it on lots of songs from the record coming out, but it’s hard to use live because it changes so much from place to place if the current changes or anything. It has lots of weird controllers. It’s not like normal fuzz; it’s more for making noise. For live playing, I’m using a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory now. It’s a bit easier to control and you can get the same type of hardcore, gated fuzz sound.
Is that the Bit Commander on “You’ll Be Fine?” There’s a live version of that where it sounds like bit-crush distortion.
That’s a Dunlop Mini Fuzz Face.
Which overdrive are you using at the end of the chain to get the amp-like distortion sound?
I am traveling with my fucking pedal case and am ruining my arms from carrying it around, so I’m really wary of big pedals now. I bought a micro version Ibanez Tube Screamer. It works quite well. It’s not the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard, but it’s small and it works for my purpose. If there’s an amp I can make distort without killing everyone in the room, volume-wise, then I don’t use the Ibanez.
How did Pom Poko get together?
We knew each other from the folk college. I was there for two years, with one year in the middle where I was studying jazz. When I came back the second year, I met the bass player and the drummer from Pom Poko. The year I wasn’t at the school, the singer was there. We all went to the same school but at different intersecting times. The drummer, the vocalist, and I were in the same class in Trondheim, and then the bass player was in the same gang of people. I had a noise improv trio with the bass player and the drummer that would play concerts at gallery openings and stuff like that.
We got asked to play at a literature festival and the bass player suggested a vocalist. He asked Ragnhild, who sings in Pom Poko. Because we had a vocalist, we thought we had to make up some songs. We tried writing lots of punk songs quickly, the night before the show and then played them. I don’t think many people liked it at the festival. The only comment we got from the organizer afterwards was, “Yeah, that was loud,” and then he just walked away.
But we had a great time, so we went straight back to our rehearsal space after the show and recorded a couple of tunes.
How do you write the tunes?
We write them collectively. We jam and, if someone has an idea prepared, we play something based on that idea. At the end we discard the original idea and have something new. It can be difficult to write with four people, but with us it just works. We’re lucky with the musical chemistry.
You’re also doing some covers: the version of Joni Mitchell’s “The River” is beautiful. When did you pick up that artificial harmonic technique?
After high school someone showed me a guitarist called Nils-Olav Johansen. He’s amazing; you should check him out. [Editors’ note: I did. He is. You should too.] He’s probably most famous for playing in a band called Farmer’s Market. They play Balkan music. He has one solo record [My Deal] where he plays standards. He does lots of harmonics. When I started studying in Trondheim, he was the guitar teacher there. I had been listening to a lot of him and suddenly he was there. I can do it in a simple way, but he has figured out lots of different things with the harmonics.
You do another cover by someone called Tove Lo.
That’s a Swedish pop singer. We were at this radio show where you have to play a cover song of one of the songs that are on the radio station’s list at that particular time. So we listened through the songs, found that one, and started playing it.
Is Pom Poko is your main project now?
Yeah, it is.
Are people in the band doing other projects at the same time?
We’re doing some other stuff on the side, but Pom Poko is what’s taking up most of our lives. I’m really into recording and producing, so I’m doing some of that. I’m also working on an instrumental project that it hasn’t taken off yet. I’m just writing songs. All of us do other stuff.
It sounds like Pom Poko’s starting to take off. When is the record is going to be done and out?
It’s done now. We actually listened to the test pressing yesterday. So it’s coming in February.
Will you be touring when the record comes out?
I think so.
Has there been any traction in the United States? Is there any chance of coming over here to play?
The only thing we’ve had is the New York Times thing. That was cool, but apart from that I don’t think we’ve had any real anything in the U.S. For now, Norway and Europe are working out quite well for us and the U.S. seems to be a difficult market to dive into. It’s so big, so we’re hoping for fun go over and do some shows and see where that can take us.
I wish you luck. It’s a great band that has so much potential because you are all schooled. Though it has a punk energy, it’s not like standard punk band where they’re at their limit and can’t go anywhere else. If you stay together and do a second record, it’ll be interesting to see how it progresses and where it goes.
That’s the plan. We’re writing songs now. We just went in to record new songs.