Kitano Dai O
Have you ever noticed that dream sequences in films never accurately capture what dreaming is really like? When was the last time you came across a film where you felt like “wow, that director really made me feel what it’s like to be in a dream”? Of course, it would be an extremely difficult thing to pull-off for obvious reasons, but one thing that comes to mind listening to Television Pickup’s album We Take the Bikes and Head Home is that it’s possible to get that dream sensation across using sound. Although visuals play a prominent role here — the album was initially released as a limited-edition book in 2012 — sonically speaking this music takes you somewhere between reality and some other place that’s almost beyond words, a place that feels alien yet very familiar at the same time. Bandleader Katrine Amsler imbued We Take the Bikes with strong intonations of scenery, storyline, and concept (in the form of found sounds, spoken-word passages, and general mood) but the music never spells anything out for you. It makes for a very rich experience where you’re getting all of this sensory input but have to use your imagination to fill in the blanks and yet never necessarily “understand” what you’re experiencing in a literal way.
Now, with the band’s new album Music for Runners, Amsler and Television Pickup take the open-air ambience of We Take the Bikes and retreat inward to an insular space defined by austere electronic layers that are as malleable as cloud formations. Once again, Amsler and her supporting cast make “jazz” and “rock” sound like four-letter words from a bygone era — i.e: no longer meaningful, and robbed of their bite where they once came with vague suggestions of danger. When you listen to both of these albums, you see just how toothless genre descriptors have become in terms of adequately capturing where groups like Television Pickup have arrived on the timeline of musical evolution. Like other cutting-edge acts to emerge from Scandinavia over the last decade or so, Television Pickup creates a distinct hybrid of styles while finding new expressions for each. To be blunt, it no longer takes any imagination whatsoever to blend jazz with indie rock. Music for Runners really drives that point home. Clearly, Television Pickup’s music arose in a musical culture where the mere act of combining those things is no longer daring or novel, but where the artists who stand out really strive to stretch these forms so you almost don’t recognize them anymore.
Aside from showcasing the talents of likeminded musicians who don’t operate in the binary mode of a dichotomous jazz-vs-rock (or experimental-vs-accessible) universe, Amsler is fond of laying instrumental parts — say, a drum pattern or a piano motif — over passages that were originally conceived as separate pieces of music. She assembled the Bikes tune “Thursday,” for example, out of strips of improvisation between separate pairs of bandmembers – bassist Johannes Burstro?m paired with drummer Knut Finsrud, Amsler with saxophonist Thomas Backman, etc. She applied a similar approach in several cases on Runners as well. “On this album,” she explains, “I continued to experiment with what happens when you remove a sound from its context and put it into another context altogether.” Indeed, Music for Runners abounds with contrasts. Take “Kitano Dai O,” where counter-melodic, counter-rhythmic relationships between a hypnotic single-note bass figure, ticking percussion, the sound of wheezing air, and Amsler’s spray-painted piano all conspire to imply the first stirrings of sentient life within the cold drive of a computer system. If the character of Music for Runners hews toward the robotic, then these are robots who have the potential for romance and poetry buried deep in their circuitry and waiting to blossom.
Amsler explains: “The whole record, is based on experiments on the clashes between static, quantizised, short cutouts of a soundfiles and long dynamic played phrases. So there’s a sense of clashing between programmed drums and hand-played drums, real hand-played instruments and preset MIDI sounds — one side comes from the body, the other directly from the brain. But why is that? “Why do we tend to feel that a real instrument has got more soul than a midi-instrument, and how can we change that? What possibilities are there for transference between the two? On ‘Kitano Dai O’ I used a preset MIDI piano with traces of preset strings. When you hear it, you think ‘this could be a Steinway’ but for once the Steinway wasn’t the more sophisticated option than the programmed piano. I fact, in this instance the Steinway would’ve just sounded arrogant and self- indulgent to me. And sometimes the organic clattering in the background which sounds kind of repetitive and ‘robotic’ is actually the band playing. I like exploring these kinds of contrasts.”
Across the board, though, Music for Runners refuses to be pinned-down to one mood, and Amsler is masterful at blending both instruments and atmospheres so that they add up to more than just jazz musicians doing “free” improvisation on the one hand or digital mashups on the other. With its cocktail-lounge snare sounding like it’s just inches from your face, the initial acoustic immediacy of “Eagle Mountain” swells into a wide-angle expanse as heavily compressed drums explode in climax even as the compression crushes them down to the size. At first, the instruments all sound so slack it feels if there’s no form at all. But as the various parts begin to cohere into a structure, Samuel Ha?llkvist’s haunting guitar echoes, a distant squawk over a valley that grows paradoxically more beautiful as the rest of the music gets increasingly chaotic, abrasive, sinister, and not-unplesantly nightmarish.
Throughout the album, the band also rides the line between internal and external perspectives for a tension that stirs up a delectable range of colours, emotions, and tones. Sounds that would typically feel “cold” to our ears suggest an inherent humanity and vice-versa. On “Tokini Minoru,” for example, what might have been a synth-pop hook in our conventional musical universe sprouts out of a spare Motorik-style pulse that verges on a kind of dystopian disco. Album closer “Mata Hari,” meanwhile, gives us a sense of what carnivals might sound like in a William Gibson future where cyber-beings can come across with whimsy and showmanship — although it’s unclear how much of the human element they’ve retained, the carnival is amusing nonetheless. We could go on and on for each track, but each listener will no doubt make their own associations and see different things in this music, a sign of just how evocative Amsler can be and yet still not intrude on your individual experience.
Likewise, if the sounds on Music for Runners rouse you but remain someone distant, that’s by design. “I was going for functional rather than emotional music,” says Amsler. “I guess I got tired of all the emotions and personal references on Take the Bikes and wanted to do music with more of a Kill Bill attitude — to make creative decisions with that slashing kind of confidence that Uma Thurman’s character has. As an artist, it’s important sometimes to just make decisions free of concern for the consequences. I don’t have to know what this music ‘means’ even to me. It was really freeing to just pursue something blindly and not even have a clear idea of what it was that I was pursuing.”
– Saby Reyes Kulkarni
Katrine Amsler: Piano, Keys, Microguitar, Programming
Stephan Sieben: Guitars
Samuel Hällkvist: Guitars
Johannes Burström: Bass
Knut Finsrud: Drums
Mike Højgaard: Vocals on Kotashaan and Shanghai Bobby
Lindha Kallerdahl: Vocals on Eagle Mountain and Omaha
Engineered and recorded by August Wanngren in Studio R, 6-7 February 2014
Except Wolf Power recorded by Petter Samuelsson at Inkonst, Malmö, 21 March 2012.
Additional recordings by Katrine Amsler at Valby Station during 2014 and 2015
Produced by Katrine Amsler
Mixed by Nikolaj Vinten except Eagle Mountain mixed by August Wanngren and Wolf Power mixed by Morten Bue
Mastered by Morten Bue
Cover design by Mai-Britt Amsler
Thank you: Teater 302, Mike, Lindha, Qarin, Erika and our families and friends.
Also thanks to: Eventide, Pigtronix, KTW and Steve Hubback cymbals.