“…there’s no doubt that the old record industry is dead. It has been for years and the two or three majors that are still holding on have but a few years left in them. Music is still being downloaded illegally in huge quantities but there’s also a small but important rise againts the consumerism and devaluation of music, which the old industry has been in charge of the last decade. People don’t stop listening to music but they want it as convenient as possible.”
a country who’s musical landscape has long been characterized by church-burning black metalists, has recently solidified itself as a progressive rock force to be reckoned with, in the form of Norwegian prog outfit, Airbag. Formed originally by classmates Bjørn Riis (lead guitar), Asle Tostrup (lead vocals), and Jørgen Grüner-Hagen (keyboards), these native Oslo rockers have sent waves through the progressive rock community, that are being felt all across the world, where their fans actively and adamantly support the work they do. In a time where progressive rock has traveled far from the original vision of the prog behemoths of the 70’s, Airbag’s signature sound has adapted a back to basics approach, taking nods from modern prog (Such as Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree) and paying homage to the prog of yore, most notably comparable to the sights, sounds, and experience of Pink Floyd; which comes as no surprise. When lead guitarist Bjørn Riis is not in the studio, he is running and managing the famous Gilmourish.com, a site dedicated to cataloging the gear, techniques, and guitars used by Pink Floyd’s lead guitarist, David Gilmour.
The site is a very extensive catalog of every amp, pedal, guitar, (down to even strings and picks!) used by Gilmour on every album he has worked on since 1968, organized by album, by tour, and down to each song. There are also backing tracks to play along with, gear reviews, tone tips, and an extensive buyer’s guide which details and recommends gear based on a Gilmourish.com score (how closely it helps achieve the tone) The one thing that sets Gilmourish.com apart, other than the beautiful design, is the staggering amount of engagement in the comments section. Riis takes the time to answer every single comment and question posted to every single page, which is no small feat. This dedication and love for helping others achieve their desired tone is what sets him apart from the rest.
Not long after Airbag released their latest album, The Greatest Show On Earth, it was announced that Airbag was taking a short hiatus. It was also announced that Bjørn was working on a solo album. That was released to the world on November 3rd, to incredible feedback from both fans and the press. I recently spoke to Bjørn about his latest solo album, Lullabies In A Car Crash, and about his opinions on the music industry, how this album differed from his work with Airbag, and about being a musician in today’s day and age; with the advent of high quality digital technology and the renewed demand for analog.
SV: First of all, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for us.
BR: Thank you!
SV: Your anxiously anticipated new solo album is releasing November 3rd of this year, tell us a little bit about it (the themes, the inspiration behind it, the musical approach, etc.)
BR: The project started sometime last year, when I sat down and went through a bunch of demos I had laying around. I realized that there was a lot of stuff there that I wanted to explore further and in a slightly different direction than how I’d approach an Airbag album. Lullabies is really an album I made for myself, exploring musical inspirations, different sounds and topics that I find very interesting. It quickly turned out to be much bigger than I had expected but it was great fun and it was perhaps the easiest album I’ve ever written. Early on I had a topic for the lyrics and I wanted the music to reflect that so a lot of the time I spent figuring out how to make everything fit together, without loosing the flow of it all.
SV: During recording, what sonic approach(s) did you take to give the album it’s desired sound? Did you favor analog or digital gear (for both guitars and other instruments/effects) during the session?
BR: I think I paid more attention to the keyboards and the overall sonic landscape than on any album I’ve been involved in. I wanted it to have a classic sound, only using instrumentation and sounds that had a purpose and not to fill anything. I used a lot of Mellotrons and a very few other synths. The guitars are about 50/50 digital and analog recorded. I don’t care what I have to do to get the tones I want. There’s no anti-digital philosophy or anything.
SV: Tell us about your opinions on “the loudness war”, and your opinions on digital vs. analog for modern artists and aspiring musicians.
BR: I would love to spend two months in an old school recording studio with tape machines and a huge Neve console but that’s ridiculously expensive. I don’t see any harm in recording and mixing digitally. It’s a lot more convenient and it also gives me the chance to mix and produce my own music. Still, the same principles apply and you have to know what you’re doing. Digital doesn’t mean that you can just hit record and everything takes care of it self. There’s so much stuff coming out these days that’s making it almost impossible to tell whether it’s digital or analog but you have know how to use these things and how they might fit into your music. One of the things that was important to me was to set up a few limitations. Recording on tape leaves you with limited options, which again forces you to use your creativity in a different way as to having unlimited options, which is the case of digital. There’s a lot going on on the album but I didn’t want to overdo it just because I had the opportunity to do so. We did everything digitally but the album was mixed on an analog SSL desk and mastered on tape, which is a bit of both worlds. You get the conveniency of digital and the sound of analog. Mixing on tape also meant that we could create a huge sound, without having to compromise the headroom. Lullabies is not ideal for a car stereo but it sounds awesome in a pair of headphones.
SV: Why do you believe it is important to connect with your fans, and other aspiring tone aficionados on a personal level?
BR: We live in a time when social media allows artists to communicate directly with their fans and I think that pays off on many levels. As a fan I also expect to see clips from recent shows, get the latest news and other perks instantly. This means that you have to deliver but in doing so, you get a much more loyal fan base I think and it’s an inspiration too. It’s also a cheap way of promoting your self and your music.
SV: A lot of this album was recorded in your home, and it sounds like it was recorded in a triple A studio. Can you give us a few tips on how you were able to achieve a “triple A sound” in a home studio setting?
BR: Thanks! I’m really proud of the sound we got but again, it’s about knowing how to use your equipment. My home studio is far from anything elaborate. I got a few decent mics, a pair of budget monitors and a good tube pre-amp. That’s basically it. All the vocals and guitars were recorded here and I spent a lot of time learning the acoustics of the room and how I could get the most of out the mics. We mixed all of it on a state of the art SSL mixer and then mastered on tape so a bit of professional help was needed but the recordings had to be up to standards. It was great fun and I learned a lot along the way.
SV: What guitars, amps, and pedals did you mainly favor for use on this album?
BR: Oh… there’s so much stuff going on that I hardly remember. Most of the it was just an SM57 infront of a Laney Lionheart or Reeves Custom 50, usually a Les Paul and a bunch of pedals. I tweaked and tested and went with the stuff that sounded right. I did use Strats and Teles but mainly humbuckers. The choice of effects wasn’t that much different from an Airbag session but I think I used less modulation and more of the unusual stuff, like spring reverb, tape warble, reverse delays etc.
SV: How does your home of Norway inspire your creativity?
BR: Hmmm…. good question. I like to walk and I often write lyrics when I’m out walking in a forrest or something. To be able to just get away from your usual working environment and clear your thoughts is very important to get the inspiration flowing.
SV: What advice would you give to aspiring musician’s taking into account today’s changing media landscape?
BR: Be yourself. Write the music that comes natural to you and don’t let anyone tell you to compromise.
SV: You recorded this album with fellow Airbag member and drummer, Henrik Fossum. Did you employ the use of other session musicians? And how much of this album was your playing in terms of instruments other than the guitar?
BR: Henrik was a natural choice on drums. He’s very talented and we work very well together. Airbag vocalist Asle Tostrup also contributed with some programming but other than that, I’m to blame for everything else.
SV: *laughs* What mood or concept do you try to establish throughout the album? Or where do you want to take the listener?
BR: I want the listener to experience the album on his or hers own terms. It’s an emotional album and I hope that it will evoke some feelings but what that may be is up to the listener. I have tried to tell a story, both musically and lyrically and I hope that people will allow them selves to take a break, sit down with a pair of headphones and just listen for 50 or some minutes.
SV: This album employs heavy use of the Mellotron, which hearkens back to the older days of prog, evoking memories from bands such as King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, and countless others. What drove the decision to use it as an instrumental forefront in this album?
BR: The music isn’t all that different from Airbag but I wanted a different sound. I always had a thing for the Mellotron and once you start to use it it pretty much sets the mood for the whole song. That combined with my voice and bits and pieces of guitar noodling creates the template for the album I guess.
SV: Tell us how you approach writing, recording, and producing a song.
BR: That varies a great deal. Songs like Stay Calm and Out of Reach was more or less written in a day, while I spent months on the title track. Writing is one thing and recording usually goes pretty fast, because when you hit that button you should know what you’re doing. Arranging and mixing usually takes a long time because that’s when you layer everything and sort of put the colour on the sketch. Some music is about trying to find a balance between the guitars and drums but I see the mixing process as much as writing as the actual writing process. A lof of stuff can happen in the mix.
SV: With this album, we can see the heavy hand you had in shaping the Airbag sound. What were some of the things you did on this album that you couldn’t have done within the context of Airbag?
BR: The overall sound I guess. This is me doing everything but I don’t play keyboards, bass or sing in Airbag. Songs like The Chase would probably not fit Airbag and I think one of the reasons I did Out of Reach is that I wanted to really focus on the dynamics of the song and keep it very simple and barely moving. Airbag is perhaps more about layering textures and create a bigger sound.
SV: In what direction do you believe progressive rock is going in?
BR: I don’t know. To be very honest I don’t really listen to a lot of prog. What I do like about prog is that it’s gone from being very genre restricted in the 70s to having no restrictions or boundaries at all. There are bands that are called prog that’s probably more pop than anything else. And then there are metal bands that ten years ago hated prog but are now leading the front. It’s a very interesting genre and it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen next.
SV: There is a phenomenon happening in the world of music right now that history has never seen before. For the first time in history, many young people of this generation are consciously rejecting the music that the industry is feeding them, and instead seeking out the music that their parents listened to (whereas up until now it was the complete opposite). This can be observed by the explosion in vinyl record sales over the past 5 years, the flourishing of the re-release/re-master market, and not to mention the record breaking pre-orders of Pink Floyd’s new album The Endless River on Amazon (Beating out music industry giants such as One Direction, Taylor Swift, and Coldplay) as the number one most pre-ordered album of all time. What are your feelings on this generational shift, and what do you believe is happening in the world of music that caused this huge change? How do you think the music industry will have to adapt?
BR: It’ll be interesting to see if this is a short lived phenomenon or signs of something bigger. There’s no doubt that the old record industry is dead. It has been for years and the two or three majors that are still holding on have but a few years left in them. Music is still being downloaded illegally in huge quantities but there’s also a small but important rise against the consumerism and devaluation of music, which the old industry has been in charge of the last decade. People don’t stop listening to music but they want it as convenient as possible. If you offer them good products and ways of getting that product that seems fair, then there’s no reason why music can’t be profitable in the future. The industry has thought their own customers to accept that music should be free. Streaming is great but it doesn’t generate any money yet, which is a huge problem for artists trying to establish them selves. Once we get services that can generate and distribute money to the artists and give people what they want, then we’re on the right track.
SV: Bjørn thank you so much for your time, as always it was a pleasure speaking with you!
BR: Thank you!
Bjørn Riis everyone. You can purchase his latest solo album here, and you can follow him on Facebook here, to stay updated on his latest solo album shows and dates. Airbag (and many other big prog outfits) will also be performing on The Cruise to the Edge next year in November. So if you live in The States and would like to have a rare opportunity to see them, this is your chance. Tickets for The Cruise to the Edge will be on sale soon, stay updated here.
Expect a full, comprehensive review of Lullabies In A Car Crash soon!
This has been Yoel Kreisler, for Sound Vacuum.