Norwegian guitarist and composer Eivind Aarset occupies a
self-created sonic space spanning jazz, rock, ambient, electronic,
dance, avant-garde, and numerous ethnic musical realms.
Aarset was first drawn to the electric guitar after hearing Jimi
Hendrix—and Sabbath, Purple, Zeppelin, and Floyd were among
his other early influences. His next major “eye-opener” was
Miles Davis’ Agharta, featuring Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas
on guitars, an album that led to Aarset’s discovery of fusion
bands such as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and ECM jazz artists
such as fellow Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal. After a stint
in a heavy metal band in the early ’80s, Aarset spent a decade
as a studio musician, playing on hundreds of recordings (including
albums by Cher and Ray Charles).
Although Aarset had already played
with jazz luminaries such as Bendik Hofseth
and Bugge Wesseltoft by 1997, his
visibility increased exponentially as a
result of his work with trumpeter Nils
Petter Molvaer, whose landmark Khmer
album, released that year, achieved runaway
critical and commercial success.
Aarset’s emphasis on unorthodox tones
and atmospherics, combined with his
innovative melodic and harmonic sensibilities,
proved the perfect match for
Molvaer’s seductive nu-jazz formulations.
Aarset’s debut solo album, Electronique
Noire, released the following year, presented
a startling confluence of styles and
timbres, drawing high praise from other
artists and the global jazz cognoscenti
alike. Light Extracts, Connected, and Sonic
Codex expanded on that foundation, and
led to a gig with Jon Hassell’s Maarifa
Street group. Aarset appears on the iconoclastic
trumpeter’s Last Night the Moon
Came Dropping Its Clothes In the Street.
The guitarist’s latest release, Live
Extracts [Jazzland], by Eivind Aarset &
the Sonic Codex Orchestra, is a phenomenal
concert recording featuring a
six-piece band comprising dual drummers,
bass, trumpet, and a second
guitarist who doubles on pedal-steel. The
material includes entirely new, improvisation-
friendly, arrangements of earlier
pieces recast for the current instrumentation.
Aarset has also begun work on an
album of guitar-only orchestrations.
Do you think of yourself as a jazz musician?
Not really. We play mostly at jazz festivals,
and my records are in the jazz department of the record stores, but I
think of myself as more of an improvising
rock musician. There is jazz in there,
and I love classic jazz guitarists such as
Joe Pass and Herb Ellis, but that isn’t
really what I do.
Have you been using effects since you
Yes, though back then I was pretty
much limited to fuzz, wah, tape echo, and
a volume pedal. Then, in the ’80s, like
everyone else I began using huge racks
of effects. Now I’m just using pedals
again, partly because I prefer not to have
to program all of that stuff.
Would you say that sonics are as significant
in your music as harmonic structure?
While it is true that I have always been
interested in extending the sound of the
instrument, for me the great thing is when
the sounds and the harmonic structures
melt together. And, of course, the same
harmonic structures may sound entirely
different depending on the sounds you
use, or whether you play them on a guitar
or a piano or with a string section.
Step us through your current live signal
I have two pedalboards, one I control
with my hands and another I control with
my feet. My guitar goes into a Lehle
D.Loop SgoS Effect Looper/Switcher,
which has two loops. Loop A contains a
Prescription Electronics Experience
Octave/Fuzz, a Dunlop wah, a Boss OD-
2 Turbo OverDrive, and a Rat distortion. Loop B contains a Boss DD-5 Digital Delay,
an Alesis Bitrman ModFX multi-effects
processor, a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, and an Electro-
Harmonix Micro Synthesizer. The output
of the Lehle goes to a Morley volume pedal,
an Eventide PitchFactor, a Line 6 DL4 Delay
Modeler, and a pair of GigRig HumDinger
signal splitters that I use to send a mono
feed to my amp—which is usually a Vox
AC30—and a stereo feed to a MOTU Traveler
FireWire Audio Interface and a MacBook
running Ableton Live. I also have three
Roland EV-5 expression pedals: One controls
Feedback and Delay Level on the DL4,
another controls various functions on the
PitchFactor, and the third one is connected
to a Logidy USB foot controller that I use
along with a Korg nanoKONTROL to make
real time adjustments in Live.
What’s an example of a pedal you control with
A good example would be the Boss DD-
5 delay, which has some very nice algorithms.
I keep it on all the time with the feedback
turned all the way up and the delay volume
turned down. At certain points I’ll bring up
the delay volume and listen to what is there.
If I have it set to the Reverse mode, I can
alter the pitch by changing the delay length,
and when it is in the Delay mode, changing
the delay length will digitally mangle whatever
sounds have been recorded.
You have several distortion pedals. Do you
Yes, all the time.
What do you use for looping?
I use the software looper in Live and control
it with the Logidy and the nanoKONTROL.
Normally I have three loops set up for recording,
but each loop can have as many layers as
I want, and the loops can be mixed differently
and be of different lengths.
The versions of several pieces on Live Extracts
differ considerably from those on your studio
recordings. How did you go about arranging them
for the live ensemble?
When I first started doing solo albums,
I was more into electronics and programming,
but that has changed gradually as I’ve
been touring. For this album I decided not
to use any electronic beats or pre-recorded
sounds. That gives the drummer much more
freedom, and gives the music a more organic
feel. The arranging process also involved taking
things away. I wanted the musicians to
be as free to go in different directions as possible,
without having to think too much
about executing difficult parts, so there
would be space for communication and getting
involved with the audience.
Why did you choose to work with pedal-steel?
I think it has a beautiful sound, and I love
what players like Daniel Lanois and Paul
Franklin do with it. My friend Bjorn Charles
Dreyer, who plays guitar and pedal-steel on
the album, hasn’t played the instrument very
long, and I hadn’t really thought much about
using it before we began rehearsals—but I
really loved the sound.
What kind of guitar do you play?
A Norwegian luthier named Jan Braahten
built my guitar. He made everything on the
instrument with the exception of the pickups,
which were made by another Norwegian
named Knut Myhrvold. The guitar is very
much like a Stratocaster, though it has a
piezo pickup with a separate volume control
and output. The piezo is built into the body rather than the bridge, and picks up sounds
I make when touching and manipulating the
instrument in various ways. It gets routed
directly into my laptop.
What strings and picks do you use?
I use DR strings gauged .010-.046 most
of the time, and Dunlop Jazz I picks.
Do you play exclusively with a pick or do you
sometimes also use your fingers?
I sometimes combine the pick with my
fingers, particularly my thumb, which I use
to get a softer attack.
Do you ever play in open or alternate tunings?
I only play in standard tuning. Whenever
I’ve tried to play in other tunings I’ve just
gotten very confused.
Describe your philosophy regarding improvisation.
I try to be inside the music as far as that
is possible. I am very happy in those moments
when I can relax and feel how the different
sounds are working both with the other musicians
and within the room. Each sound has
an emotional impact, and when creating
sounds I am always trying to use that energy
to go from one place to another, and to go
there with the other musicians and the audience.
Also, my improvisations are more modal
than harmonically based—though chords may
be built from those scales and modes.
Is there anything that you do to get yourself
in the right frame of mind for improvising?
No. I wish that were the case, but I don’t
have any technique or ritual for that purpose.
I always feel more relaxed when there is the
opportunity for a good sound check, but that’s
not a rule, because sometimes the sound check
will be great and the gig will be awful, and
sometimes there will be no sound check at
all and the gig will be beautiful. Another variable
is the energy between the musicians and
the audience—the communication between
us as we are creating something together.
In what ways did Terje Rypdal’s guitar playing
and music influence you?
Rypdal has this really strong tone and
sense of musical identity that I’ve always
liked very much. Another important thing
for me was that he came to jazz from the
rock world. He played with jazz musicians,
but he was very brave in his approach—putting
himself inside the music, without trying
to be a jazz musician. That he came up with
his own thing and had success outside Norway
was, of course, also very inspiring.
What have you taken away from the experience
of working with Jon Hassell?
I was introduced to his music when I
heard Power Spot in the ’80s. I loved it immediately,
but it sounded so different than
anything I had heard before that I wasn’t able
to figure out what he was doing. One important
thing I’ve learned from being on stage
with him is having patience as the music progresses.
For example, the way he thinks of
his melodic phrases: He’ll start a phrase and
then he might leave a long space before concluding
it. In terms of actually understanding
the harmonic world he lives in—the scales,
chords, and layers of sound—we have talked
about those things, but I still don’t know if
I really understand his music.