Spotlight: Stephan Meidell

You may have noticed Stephan Meidell playing in the video of Thomas Dahl at Danmarksplass. Yes, Meidell is another Norwegian, this time based out of the beautiful city of Bergen. Whether it is the long nights, or the state financed schooling and music, Norway seems to turn out adventurous musicians like America turns out reality TV stars. In his wide variety of projects—Cakewalk, Velkro, The Sweetest Thrill, Krachmacher, et al—Meidell exhibits a personal approach to the instrument and a musicality that cuts through even his noisiest excursions. He is also a kindred spirit as, like me, he is a music critic and curator for new and experimental music.

STEPHAN MEIDELL from Stephan Meidell on Vimeo.

What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?

I started out with blues and Pink Floyd guitar solos. I quickly moved to jazz, because improvisation was the first thing that got me into music and later because I found the complexity very appealing.

What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?

I don’t come from a musical upbringing, so I’m a disappointment when it comes to campfire guitar playing. Because of the lack of conventional musical education at an early age, I think my ears where always more open to more experimental music—harmonically speaking. I think there were two main things that led to me taking a more experimental route later on. First, a workshop with the great improviser and trumpet player Arve Henriksen—that was a real ear-opener to me. I had previously listened to a lot of Pink Floyd’s more experimental works—Live At Pompeii for instance. But, when I started playing jazz it was all about getting the chops to begin with. Arve showed me a way in between.

Another important thing for me was a year at a Folk College called Sund. I was playing a lot of straight-ahead jazz before that, and there I got a taste for experimenting and free improvisation. This bore fruit a year later, when I was living with some other musicians in a house with a rehearsal space in the basement. We were jamming a lot—just testing out stuff and experimenting.

The weird thing is, when I later started my music studies at the Conservatory in Amsterdam, I went back again to a more traditional jazz-oriented approach. It had a lot to do with the mainstream teaching there, and their focus on craftsmanship rather than personal expression. For a couple of years I practiced my ass off, trying to find my own way through the mainstream, modern jazz maze. It was a dead end. Once I realized that and started improvising more freely with others again, I returned to the expression I had as a musician before the studies.

But it hasn’t been in vain. I learned a lot from the intense rhythmic and harmonic studies I did, and could then incorporate this in more texture and rhythmic oriented music, and also expand this repertoire with loop-pedals and other effects. Since we didn’t have many bass players around, I was always playing a bass role using an octave pedal, which naturally led to music that’s further away from mainstream stuff. I always played too loud for most of the double bass players anyway. I still remember doing a duo session with a drummer after a summer break, and a guy from the staff came in screaming with a decibel measuring-device in his hand. I guess it was time to leave school.

Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.

I love the early electronic works from Pierre Schaeffer, Edgard Varèse, etc. Saxophonist John Coltrane is easily one of the most inspiring musicians/persons to ever have lived. Listening to his stuff never gets dull. Krautrock from Can and Neu! always gets my blood pumping, and I really enjoy “Electronic Music For Piano” by John Cage.

Present music that inspires me can be anything from minimal, no-bullshit techno in a stuffed bunker, to the incredibly inventive and well-orchestrated works of Helmut Lachenmann. Some bands and artists I really like are The Skull Defekts (dronerock), Deerhoof (avant-garde pop), Kris Davis (contemporary jazz), Ultralyd (noise-drone-dance-rock), Pan Sonic (electro-noise-techno) and Contest of Pleasures (minimal improv).

How did you get better at your current style?

Spending time on perfecting each element of the music and practicing/rehearsing a lot. Being curious and trying out new stuff is also a must.

What are you trying convey with your music?

Other than combining all the music I like into one wholesome expression, I don’t have a defined “mission” or goal with my music. I mainly use my gut feeling as an aesthetic compass for what I do. Hopefully it speaks for itself and has a sense of direction.

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?

I have many different setups, and they change a lot. But in my current solo setup I use a Fender Jaguar Baritone guitar. The baritone is more the register I “hear” It feels more natural to me. I rarely move beyond the 12th fret on the high E-string on the regular guitar, but almost always want to go deeper. It also gives a lot of flexibility in terms of playing in a band without bass. I love riffing more than playing shredding solos. I sometimes use a small acoustic guitar I found in a shop in San Francisco).

The pedals I use are (in order): a Moog Ring Modulator, Malekko Spring Reverb, Fairfield Circuitry Fuzz, Zvex Box of Rock, Digitech Hardwire Reverb, Volume Pedal, Strymon Timeline, Zvex Lo-Fi Loop Junky, and HEXE Revolver. The two reverbs sound very different. I use the Malekko before the overdrives to get the explosive effect this generates. The Digitech is more for pure reverb. On the first track of my solo recording Cascades, I’m playing around with the Digitech’s gate setting in combination with another reverb plus the reverb of the space itself. The reason for placing them before the volume pedal is so I can use extreme settings on the reverb and control the volume of it, instead of the classic volume-swells-with-huge-reverb-trail. I also like the effect of making a massive sound suddenly dry up.

For amps, I use a Ceriatone Hey What! (a modified Hiwatt clone) with a 4×10 Ampeg cabinet, a Ceriatone HRM (a 100 watt Dumble clone), and a modified Marshall 1936 cabinet. I use a microphone to record the output through an RME UCX, into a computer running Ableton Live and a few different looping-setups (some I’ve programmed in Max/MSP), and Geist (a drum machine program) controlling a DSI Tempest analog drum machine. I use a Novation Zero SLII and a Keith McMillen Softstep to control Ableton.

Using the computer this way I don’t get any latency on my guitar signal because I route the computer signal to the PA and only use it for looping and controlling the drum machine. I used to use some effects in Ableton Live, but somehow it didn’t really work for me. I might sometimes use reverb effects.

Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?

I enjoy recording, because I have time to dig deeper into the music, and a chance to take a step back and see the big form, and live, because it’s such a thrill creating music instantly and constantly having to go forward. The energies are so different, but equally appealing to me.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

I don’t know if I have. I just keep at it and do what I do without thinking too much about whom and how many are listening to it. One thing I discussed with someone is why some musicians stop developing, but rather stick more or less to the same thing once they’ve reached a big audience. That person’s perspective was it’s confusing for fans/audience if the musician is constantly changing direction and doing new and unexpected things. I want to be a musician who is unpredictable and always looking for something new, and to have this be the reason people want to hear me play. For that to work my aesthetics have to be fundamentally clear, so people trust that, whichever direction I take, the music will still follow a convincing path, or grounded principle, so to speak.

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

It would be great to do something with the Finnish techno-legend Mika Vainio—he does some amazing things. Another one is piano player Magda Mayas. She played in my hometown a couple of years back and I really liked her approach. It would be fun to see what might come of collaboration.

Stephan Meidell & Birk Nygaard – Dialogues from Stephan Meidell on Vimeo.

What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?

Currently I’m working on my solo album, which will be available sometime during the next year. I’ve recently released a video, but the album will be a bit different musically. Still focusing on rhythm, but I will also collaborate with some musicians from the Berlin scene. My previous solo album was released on the Norwegian label Hubro and is available here. I’m releasing a record with the duo “Strings & Timpani” early next year and another album in February with Erlend Apneseth, both of them also on Hubro. Erlend plays the traditional Norwegian instrument Hardanger Fiddle, and we’re trying to mix folk music and improv. Later in 2016, the plan is to release albums with Velkro, Krachmacher, and Cakewalk as well. It’s all been recorded, but let’s see if we have enough time to mix it all.

 

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