|Jarle Bernhoft - Interview Exclusive|
|Written by Russ P|
|Friday, 01 October 2010 05:00|
When Span split in 2005 there were a lot of confused and disappointed faces over here in the UK - surely they were just getting warmed up for worldwide domination? Lead singer Jarle Bernhoft went one way and the rest of the band - Kim Nordbæk, Fred Wallumrød and Joff Nilsen went the other and formed the band Dog Almighty. That band still had that 'Span' sound and, with the addition of Sindri as vocalist, the band went in a heavier direction.
Meanwhile Bernhoft was strolling casually in the other direction. Depending on your point of view Bernhoft either made a radical departure from heavy rock or merely started playing with a different set of dynamics. His debut album was eagerly awaited by more than a few Über Röck scribes - none of us really caring what kind of music Bernhoft was playing just as long as we could hear THAT voice again.
The album didn't disappoint. On the contrary it made Johnny H's list of the best albums of 2009 and would've made mine if I wasn't being so damn pedantic over official release dates - all a bit of a moot point since officially the album has had no release in the UK.
I meet up with Bernhoft in the rather sedate setting of Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in Soho - niiiiiiccceeee! I talk to him about his days touring and recording with Span, his solo career and Norwegian connections against a backdrop of piped lounge jazz - surreal. During the course of the interview I learn some home truths and why the collapse of the music industry might just turn out to be good for performers like him. I meet Bernhoft in the time leading up to his performance tonight. He's cool and laid back despite having some technical problems - he's completely unfazed. Frankly I don't know how he's able to concentrate on doing an interview with his performance looming large but he doesn't share my concerns.
You're having guitar troubles? Is it the leads?
Leads...things in general...batteries inside guitars that needed changing. I needed to pull the strings off the guitar and put them on again which is always a risky business cause they might break. But I'm not too worried about things going wrong. Things going wrong have a tendency to improve the quality of a performance. They really do. It gives you an edge.
I noticed that you're using an Eko acoustic guitar.
It's not a Porsche.
It's not a Porsche at all it's more like an old Fiat.
I imagine it suits you live because you demand a lot of your guitar onstage: you play bass lines, you play chords, you play lead guitar.
Is that guitar a good workhorse?
It's a very good workhorse. It's built like a tank. And one of the reasons why I bought it was that I'd seen pictures of that type of guitar and it's got a bolt-on neck. It's not real wood, it's just plywood and metal. And they make the same necks for the 12-strings and the 6-strings as well so they're solid stuff.
What brings you to London?
I've been recording bits for my next album. Actually we've just finished recording the whole album on Friday. And it's Sunday (12th September) today so it's just been one week of finishing touches and then three gigs.
What can we expect from the next album?
Have you recorded with a full band for your new record?
No. The album is more or less recorded with me and Fred. I play most of it really. It's more or less like a solo gig but recorded in a more conventional way.
So you must have recorded your debut album - 'Ceramik City Chronicles' - as a band and then tried to work out how to play it solo for live performances?
Yeah. Exactly what happened was that we were a four-piece band who went to New Jersey to record that album. And, of course, four guys being able to overdub became like a huge band. Trying to find out how to do that without getting financially fucked. Cause it was financially fucking me to bring that eight-piece band that I have on the road. And so I was just messing around with the arrangements and I thought, you know, a four-piece band playing that type of music - everyone's heard that a million times before...so I just tried to make it special and that's what made it come about.
Was it a financial burden at home in Norway too?
Yeah. I find that society has a profound effect on music. And the way that society works, for me, was that I was just not able to sustain anything going around with a very big band. But if it's a three-piece band I'm laughing all the way to the bank. It's just me. But it's not purely financially driven cause right now I can probably sustain a bigger band but I'm still enjoying playing solo. It's very much a challenge every night to get the whole menagerie going. But it started out because it maimed me financially actually. Sad to say.
Is Norway able to sustain you? You've got massive potential to be an international act.
Thanks for the confidence. Yeah. Norway supports me. I find massive support and it's just growing. I think that the old concept of do good gigs and more will come is still in effect.
Is it true that Norway, for you, is more Scandinavia as a whole...is that where you see your fan base?
No. For historical reasons Norwegian music has never gone down very well in Sweden. Sweden is probably third after America and Britain in terms of exporting their music. And they export to Norway as well. I play a lot in Denmark...I play some in Sweden as well but it's hard. Prejudice is there.
So singing in the English language is a natural choice for you?
Yeah, for me it has been because I've tried singing in Norwegian a number of times and I always feel like it sounds shit. But it's my particular dialect. It's very staccato and not very singable.
And what is that dialect? Were you born in Oslo?
Yeah. I was raised just outside Oslo. Some people can sing in that dialect. But I found that with my particular style of singing I just hate the sound of the Norwegian language coming out of my mouth when I'm singing.
Cause it strikes me that when you sing in English it sounds perfect to me.
[Taken aback] Oh, thanks.
The Scorpions, for example...you can hear Klaus Meine's accent.
I can't hear an accent with yours...it's undetectable.
Actually I have probably been a bit anal with it because I thought, from when I was a little kid, when Norwegian artists sing in another language they'd better do it fucking well. And it's not the case in many instances. I've loosened up a bit about it as I've grown older because, you know, a charming French accent is there because it's charming and French. Now a German accent can be as charming if you're so inclined to like the German language. And what would Europe be without that special Icelandic tinge?
But still I find that I wanna do things properly. And with the language mostly what I read in books and literature and newspapers are English newspapers. Cause Norway is such a little country, it's a very small country whereas BBC - it's all over the world and it shows. It's what you get when you're imperialist bastards. [we both laugh]
Okay! So...if you were very concerned about the accent what about the lyrics? Because they're well written too. Were you worried about your translations earlier in your career?
Well...[hesitantly]...yes...I wasn't worried back then. But when I listen back to the music that's 10 years old now I tend to...argh...argh...argh...
Specifically stuff on the Span albums?
I can't hear anything wrong.
It's good English but the words don't necessarily reflect the way I feel right now about certain things. Lyrically there were a lot of depressed lyrics. I can still write lyrics that aren't open and joyful and that kind of thing but I felt so tired from the whole whiny [laughs] aspect of things. And there's so much of that in rock. Especially the grunge scene that we probably erupted from and it's all doom and gloom...get a life, get a move on.
Is that where the song 'Don't Think The Way You Do' came from? Out of that feeling?
Yeah. I've always seen rock 'n' roll as a protest movement and what we did with Span was actually protest against the bands who had just gone into the state of mind where they were just doing what the other guys were doing and not thinking for themselves. And I was more opposed to the rock and roll style that you were supposed to have. The generation before - the 60s - or even 50s - Bill Hailey - that generation of conflict - it's just disappeared - but there are a few honorable exceptions.
But I feel like a lot of rock kids and rock bands just conform. They wear black, they wear leather jackets, they wear make-up and they're in a certain style just because you're supposed to do that when you're in a rock band. And they get tattoos, grow their beards in a uniform way...and, to me, it's just a mocking of the rock and roll ideal. So I feel like that just quitting playing a rock and roll style of music and then doing totally different things is much more rock and roll to me than just being in a band and wearing a smart hat and a chain hanging from your wallet. So definitely 'Don't Think They Way You Do' was a big fuck you to other bands.
You can see I feel much the same way - I'm a rocker - no jewellery, no tattoos - I've always felt an outsider of an outsider group.
Yeah...and I think that's the most rock and roll you can be. You're actually relating to a huge cultural conflict right there. If you take Norway as an example. Take a band like Turbonegro. I find nothing in them that is provocative at all. It's Kiss all over again with a few candles and a bit of ass.
To go back to near the beginning when your band Explicit Lyrics formed into Span. When was the moment when you started to become really good? Were you already good as Explicit Lyrics?
I think that band had its great moments, especially live. I think it was a good band. But we didn't know what we were doing really. It was just a band of friends really. The bass player couldn't really play his instrument before he joined the band. It started in a very organic way. We kind of lacked a vision of what we wanted to do. And I was as much into jazz and soul music even then but I still had too much energy in me to just stop doing that kind of music. So there were a lot of different agendas in that band. Now when Span came about we tried to consolidate a vision of what we wanted to do. And that vision changed slightly as well but there was still very much a drive to go where we wanted to go musically and geographically.
And what about a moment in your musical career - it might have even been before Explicit Lyrics - that really helped shape you.
Well I had a definitive moment when I heard that Foo Fighters song 'Everlong' on the radio one morning. It just woke me up...ah!...this is it really. It was a pivotal moment actually. I must thank Dave Grohl for it. And Gil Norton as well.
I was going to bring up Gil Norton because I liked his production with Foo Fighters, Feeder, Del Amitri and I associate him with a really close, dry vocal sound that I really like.
In hindsight it might have been a bad move for us actually because we probably sounded too much like Foo Fighters which is never a good thing that you sound very much like a band you're very much inspired by. But still I enjoyed working with Gil in many ways. I thought he was a very good producer in the sense that he pulled out the best performance that he could from any one of us. Sometimes he'd just pat me on the back and say: "you can do better than this, let's just quit now and start again tomorrow". It was a cool thing. And he'd ask a lot of good questions with the lyrics and the music - the golden question: "why are you doing this?" And sometimes if I, or one of the other guys, would just explain "it's because this goes into this" he'd say "okay, that's cool" but then sometimes we'd stand there and say "I dunno".
And that wasn't good enough.
No. That wasn't good enough. You should think things through. You have to have a reason for doing the things you do. So I learnt a lot from working with him. Definitely.
And Kevin Shirley was involved in mixing.
Had you heard The Black Crowes 'By Your Side' album that he did?
No I haven't heard that one actually but I'm an old fan of their second album 'The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion'. That album is just huge for me. But I haven't heard that Kevin Shirley album but he did transform one of my old favourite bands Iron Maiden and started their comeback in a way ('Brave New World').
From my own experience I was very layered in the music that I liked. I was into the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal at first and it took me a long time to get into other kinds of music like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway. Were you 'layered' in that way or were the influences mixed up?
I think that they were all there from the beginning. My dad was an opera singer and what I started listening to was opera, Elton John and Michael Jackson. My first moment that I can remember digging music was the opening sequence of 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road' by Elton John. And Elton John is a soul singer in a certain sense. And Michael Jackson led me into Prince and Prince led me into Sly and the Family Stone and then I was hooked. So it was all there.
I started by playing guitar and that was my main source of self-esteem in a way - so when the whole rock thing came about Iron Maiden just took me by the horns and I dove into that so much it was just insane. I ruled other things out. And then AC/DC came along and suddenly drew lines back to Chuck Berry and a lot of the music that I had a certain relationship to...and yeah...Phil Rudd just kicked me back into soul music I think. So even when Explicit Lyrics and Span started up I was into jazz, I was into classical music, I was into prog, I was into everything. So it was hard for me to get any focus on what I was doing. [rolls into laughter].
So were you ever 'just' a guitarist?
Yeah. That's how I started on bass back home and playing along with records. And the singing came about because I was just thinking: "if I was a singer, I would do it slightly different from that". And I started with this band and, because they needed a singer, I thought: "I'll do that, I wanna be in a band. I've been alone too long". And it didn't sound very good in the beginning but you know I think it's just music - it doesn't matter which instruments you pick up, tuba, flute, guitar - it's just all the same.
I got into Span late. Which is to say around the time that you'd finished touring 'Mass Distraction'. And so when you released your second album 'Vs Time' I found it very difficult to get hold of.
[Laughs] It always is with my albums.
Ironically it had the Universal logo on the back cover but it was only released in Norway. It was very alarming to me that you weren't being promoted internationally. For people like me who saw the huge potential of the band it didn't make sense.
We licensed it to Universal Scandinavia. So that's why. It stopped there. Our label was called Johnny Nowhere.
Was that accidental calling the label Johnny Nowhere? Did you feel like you were going nowhere?
Nooo. It was just an internal joke in the band...I can't even remember what it was about. Now the thing was with 'Mass Distraction' it got released in the UK. It probably went poorly in terms of British standards but went very well in Norway but Island, who were our record company, they kind of saw it as a failure unless they got a US release for it. They were aiming for it and we were actually signed to Interscope for one week.
After tons of struggle I signed the deal and I was very ambivalent towards the whole thing because it meant that we had to tour that album for another year or so and I was kind've getting sick of the songs. And then a week after we got a call from our manager telling us they'd sacked a load of people and they'd skimmed their roster. So you're out. And I hung up the phone and I was like: "great, we can start working on new material". But we didn't have the set up for it really. So that's why 'Vs Time' is very hard to get hold of. I think it's out of print as well now.
Really? So it's even harder to get hold of now?
Yeah. It might become a rarity. The sad thing about 'Vs Time' is that it's probably not as strong an album as 'Mass Distraction' but I think 70% of it is much better and the last 30% is something that we should have ditched. I think. But that's that.
I think they both hold up.
I discovered Span through friends who had seen you on that UK tour and Über Röck's own Johnny H remembers you playing in Cardiff...that's the area that I'm from...
You're probably one of the few friendly people that I've met from Cardiff [much laughter]. Cardiff is a very scary city. I've been there three times and I've been threatened all three of them so...
But I know that's just bad luck. Liverpool was just a dream and then we come to Cardiff and..."arrrrggghhh"...the windows of our cars smashed in with bats while we're still in there. Yeah. Threatening. Sorry...
...Johnny remembers you opening up with 'Peaceful' and said that it was totally impressive. Did you always open up with 'Peaceful'?
Nooooo...actually I couldn't remember that we ever did that but it makes sense in a way because it's a very sneaky song and then it just explodes and then we can take it from there. It's interesting...that concert video by Talking Heads 'Stop Making Sense'...David Byrne comes onstage and he just has a cassette player and the band comes on one by one and 'Peaceful' was that kind of song. It might have been that kind of effect that we wanted to have. But it's cool actually. I'll give that a think. I'll do something like that again.
What memories do you have of playing in the UK at that time? You've already told me about Cardiff.
Yeah, Cardiff was one. Well I have tons of memories but it takes some time to lure them out. I have one memory though that was before the release tour because Wes (Stavnes), the bass player that started...well I started out as the bass player actually and then Wes joined and then Kim came just before the release...but Wes had a bad spell of drinking and he lost all the drinking games that we played with cards and so he got drunker and drunker. In Stanstead Airport he fell asleep standing up, fell over and knocked his head on the pavement and was lying there with his eyes open and we couldn't find a pulse. I thought he'd died. Terrible. But it was a fun night up till that. It was a fun night after he woke up and started puking as well. [laughs]
There's a song on 'Vs Time' called 'Living In A Suitcase'. Did you feel like the end of Span was coming up or was that just a song about touring?
It was felt on a subconscious level. I wrote that song while we were working solidly with the album while we were a happy bunch. But still there were a number of things that, in hindsight, I can see that led up to the split or why I quit. It was just the schedule that we had in 2003, 2004 that was gruelling and it's pretty hard as well because technically I'm not a very good singer. When I sing I belt or I sing full throat all the time. If I'd been a better singer, like Ronnie James Dio, then I could probably focus the energy a bit more but giving 110% for weeks in a row just kills you. It kills the voice. And it never felt good to have people pay to see your band and you stand there and squeak. It's not good. It's not a good feeling.
After the split there was talk of a Span DVD.
Yeah. It's 80% finished. It's a DVD shot from the last gig that we did in 2005 in Oslo. And I've seen some of the footage and it looks kind've good but what I see there is a singer who's not at the top of his game. I see a singer who sings well but who's kind've tired. So it's a bit sad for me to see actually and it doesn't bother me that it hasn't been released yet. I would much rather have great sounding footage from 2003, 2004 when we were really hungry and at it. Everyone. Me included. It's the last show you can see the other guys really belting it, Kim, Joff and Fred they're just cracking at it and there's this singer just standing there with his hair in his eyes and it's sad.
Is that being produced independently from you?
Yeah. The other guys wanted to make it and I wasn't really involved and I saw some of the footage and was: "yeah, that's cool" and I probably wasn't too enthusiastic about it which probably led to them to not scrapping it but indefinitely postponing the whole project. And they've been busy with their other stuff as well you know...Dog Almighty and Fred's joined a band...a great band...we were all fans of back in the day...called El Caco. A fantastic trio. Kim is in the booking business and Joff is doing both television production and hosting. So they're all busy guys.
There's no reason why you can't be big internationally. I wondered who's in your corner with you?
Well I have a manager who's a very good guy he used to run EMI in Scandinavia. A very successful guy who pulled out of the record industry before it plummeted. It plummeted and it still is. I don't see the end of it really. So we're trying to figure out how to release my music in a way that's smart and make a bit of money. The industry is becoming more and more about live performances it's a thing where I feel like the world is just coming my way really. I'm just sitting here and waiting for the whole thing to just land in my lap because I've never made any money from record sales anyway. Even though Span sold a fair amount of records it was not enough. We made a lot of money on advances but...that's not real money is it?
You have to live on it.
Yeah. So we're just trying to figure out a way to get the music out...maybe even for free...the most messages I get on MySpace are from people frustrated that they can't get hold of my album. They can't get hold of my music and iTunes is not very helpful [due to restrictive territorial licensing for one thing]. I mean national distribution is a hassle unless you've got tons of money backing you and I don't so I was thinking if you can get out the music free via a website or something - it doesn't need to be very costly - and sell records on tour and just tour...but you know I have a family...I have a son, seven months old, and I need to think a bit differently to how I did back in the day. So my wife and presumably my kid are in my corner...all the way - I'll just bring him along so he'll have no choice for the time being.
'Ceramik City Chronicles' was written about Oslo. What do you like and what do you dislike about Oslo?
So many things I like and I dislike at the same time. I don't like that the integration in huge parts of the city has failed. The integration is one of the cool things - you see a lot of different cultures co-existing side by side. There are areas in Oslo where you can just sit and listen to people and you don't understand a word of what they're saying. And I find that element cool. It's like taking a trip abroad but you're only three blocks away from home.
It's the gentrification of Oslo I don't care too much about...well I care about it...but I don't like it. In the last five years there's been tons of small specialist shops and now diversity is going out - it's going down the drain replaced by 7-Elevens. It's all very gentrified and it's actually financially pushing minorities out of the city centre and making it more sterile and I like the variety. It's what the music reflects. It's comparable to Harlem in the 70s. Not that I've been there in Harlem in the 70s but I think from what I know it's comparable.
One of my favourite authors is Norway's Knut Hamsun. He wrote about Oslo or Kristiania as it was then called. Are you familiar with the book?
The alienation of the artist eh? Yeah it's a modern classic man. It was way ahead of its time. But I haven't felt that alienated or alone in Oslo. I've felt alone in London. 'Ceramic City Chronicles' is about Oslo and it's also about London, about home sickness. It's kind've given birth and shaped my home sickness and my bonds to Oslo as well.
Here's a Norwegian link for you...
I discovered Knut Hamsun via the American writer Charles Bukowski who loved his writing. A Norwegian director - Brent Hamer - directed 'Factotum' one of Bukowski's novels. Another Norwegian, Kristin Asbjørnsen, composed the soundtrack for 'Factotum' and she sang on 'Mass Distraction'. Presumably the voice on 'Missing In Stereo' is her.
A lot of the guitar that you hear on 'Factotum' is me.
Yeah. I engineered a whole lot of the music on that film. Kristin and I were together for six years. We lived together at the time. When we started recording 'Vs Time' we also simultaneously did the music for 'Factotum'. It was a bit frustrating actually because I worked all day with Kristin then left to work night-time with Span and came back in the morning and met a very frustrated Kristin because her guitar player couldn't do as much as she wanted him to do. So I was both consoler and guitar player a bit of a double, triple, quadruple role right there.
I'll be watching 'Factotum' again when I get home and having a closer listen.
I played bass and guitar and did some basic engineering. We recorded a lot of it at our house.
Does that make Hans Fredrik Asbjørnsen a relative of Kristin's?
It's her brother. A great photographer. A fantastic photographer.
He did the photography that you used for the artwork of 'Vs Time'. Did the band commission that?
Not the front cover photo. The front cover photo was the thing that sparked the whole idea. She was actually in one of our videos as well. She was a very cool woman. He just had that picture of her lighting that cigarette and I thought that's a great concept for what we were thinking of doing so we found guys that could look like we might look when we grew old.
How did that work? Was there any fighting or disagreements about who would be your elderly doppelgängers?
No. We just saw them and we thought that they fit. Actually I'm probably the one that the photo is least like. The Nilsen and the Kim and the Fred guys were insanely similar. I'm so looking forward to seeing them old and comparing them against those pictures again.
Did the title of 'Vs Time' refer to the human condition or perhaps Span running out of time?
No. We actually felt at the time that we'd made something that probably wouldn't be a great hit but would last. Stand the test of time. In many ways I think it does and that 30% doesn't. I think that some of the songs might just get picked up somewhere. I dunno. I felt a bit cocky back then. And I feel slightly little less cocky about it now. There's also loads of songs on that album that are about family relations and growing up because we'd seen so much and we'd been together for so many years doing our stuff.
Well enough about Span running out of time we've run out time. Natalie Williams takes to the stage without my knowing it and begins her set while Bernhoft and I watch from our seats. After the first number Bernhoft takes his leave and readies himself backstage for his later performance.
Über Röck will be bringing you news, when we get it, on Bernhoft's next studio album. In the meantime you can listen to some of his demos up on his MySpace page as well as tracks from his brilliant debut 'Ceramik City Chronicles' - it may not be available in the UK but you can get it from Sweden here: http://cdon.eu
Bernhoft has also released a double live album featuring solo performances on one disc and band performances on the other disc. You can only get this at one of his live performances currently but it's available to buy here as a download.
Photo Kudos - Russ P