Arild Hammerø: “I always try to create a feeling of hope or some sense of potentiality for something new to happen”

The conversation with Arild Hammerø was something we wanted to happen for quite some time. His artistic achievements with Atlanter and Tenderton were the main reasons, but the ideal occasion was the talented singer / guitarist’s second solo album, Lerret, which literally amazed us (our reviews here). Talking to a musician of our generation, we realized once again how crucial the DIY movement is in creating great, uncompromising music. Many of the most important musicians of our time do not have a contract with a big record company, they live in small towns, they have an everyday job, and some of them may even record in caves…

Questions: Nikos Filippaios, Dimitris Kaltsas

Hello Arild, congratulations on Lerret, it’s an amazing album! How long had you been working on those songs? Are you totally satisfied with the outcome? Would you change anything if you could?

Thank you very much! All things considered, I am very satisfied with this album. There is always a million things I would like to do better or differently when i listen back to it, but I have so many songs in me still, so I feel like every album is just a step in the Big Process of creating music. Maybe once I will experience that songwriting, playing, singing, all the financial aspects, logistics, and cooperation with other musicians will be perfect for an album, but as long as a few of those things happen favorably at the same time, I must consider an album a success.  My new favorite phrase is “next please!”.

The central figure of your painting on the album cover is a bird, your personal record company though which the album was released is called Little Birdie and your Youtube channel is named birdyvision. What is it with you and birds?

It’s an intuitive thing. Every time I am drawing, a crow or a magpie or a raven is often the outcome. I don’t know why, I just draw in the same way I did when I was 10 years old. I love birds and all animals really. Their body language and behavior is ever fascinating.

There is a big magpie nest in a tree outside the house where I live. The noise can be very aggravating, but it becomes a part of your world, and it’s interesting to observe their behavior.

In your solo career you sing in Norwegian. Why do you choose to do so? Is it easier to express yourself in your native language or does it fit better with the style of your songs?

In many ways I find it easier to express myself in the English language. Not semantically, but the emotive aspect comes through easier in English. To sing in Norwegian is an extra challenge for me. To a certain degree I find it easier to write good lyrics in Norwegian, but to sing and perform in Norwegian can become a dogmatic experience, since I believe there are different expectations from Norwegian than from English lyrics in my country. The backdrop for English lyrics in pop, rock, prog etc is so big, and there are so many shoulders to stand on, so it is easier just to fall into the melodic and emotional aspect of it and not feel that the lyric should fill any specific function. But in Norway, there are very few bands that sing Norwegian within these genres, very much of the Norwegian lyrics are in a singer-songwriter acoustic setting where the words are very central and are often made to be able to communicate to a “normal” audience (can I say that? ha ha), so I try to make it more Hendrix-like when I sing in Norwegian on this latest album, you know, a bit of an anti-singer approach, so that the lyrics kind of blend in more with the music instead of being up front all the time.

The lyrics of the songs on Lerret are quite mysterious and can be interpreted in different ways. Which exactly are the lyrical themes and what is your source of inspiration?

On this record most of the lyrics are set in a sort of conversation between two people. There are snippets of what might have happened that creates a backdrop for the mood of the lyric. It revolves a lot around movement, past to present, from where we were to where we are going, and then using that to spiral back and forth in a dreamy landscape. I often make some music first and then sing something intuitive around that. When I catch a few snippets of words and sentences, I start to build the lyrics from that. For everything, I believe, nature is the big inspiration. Not in the sense that I necessarily write about things in nature, but that being in nature induces the feeling of being creative.

On what criteria did you select your collaborators on the album? Morten Kvam is your bandmate in Atlanter and Tenderton, but this is your first time working with Gunnar Sæters, Einar Næss Haugseth, Dawn McCarthy and Nils Frykdahl, right? Since your music is primarily very emotional, how important is friendship in your collaborations?

Morten is always there, the first choice, we have known each other for 18 years, and we are connected as very good friends and have our own thing going musically. He has got a big musical repertoire, and me and him are very alike in the way that we aspire to different sounds and styles. And we like to jam and improvise.

I have known Einar for a while, but we have never been in a formal band setting before. He is very tasteful and creates a lot of interesting sounds that fit well with my melodic playing style. Gunnar is my newest friend in music. I was out of drummers for a pre-production for this album, and Morten recommended him. Luckily he had time to come for the session, and we found out very fast that we have a lot of things in common. We are from the same county in Norway, and he also listened a lot to Hendrix Experience in his youth, and has a keen ear for that loose and groovy playing style. All the guys in Råtorvåret play jazz and knows all the chords (as Knopfler would say), but seem to blend that well into a rock setting, since that was what they grew up with. And friendship comes out of playing together, because I have to have that communication when I play my own music, there has to be a feeling of enjoying the music, not just doing a job and playing the right lines.

Dawn and Nils live in California, and they have been in Norway on a few occasions, and we have played together. I went there last year and we did some concerts in the States. They are true artists, and really two of my favorite people to be around. I first heard Dawn on the Bonnie “Prince” Billy album The Letting Go, and she has this lovely mystery in her voice that really takes you back to some ancient landscapes. It’s so cool that she is singing in Norwegian on this record. And Nils is a bit of a legend in the prog / heavy scene with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Free Salamander Exhibit, really fantastic bands. His flute playing fits very well with the 60/70s kind of approach, and made the tracks sound very organic.

You named your band Råtorvåret (The Year of the Raw Peat), in remembrance of the year 1921 when the peat would not dry on the northwest coast of Norway. What is the historical significance of Råtorvåret for your country?

Actually it is a joke in my family, where we reference my granduncle who was born that year. He used to say that, and it has become a phrase. But it actually did happen that year, and I guess it was many hard years like that where peat was a central part of getting the fire going. Lots of Raw Peat Years all over I guess, he he! You know, they chopped down all the trees on the coast in Norway a few hundred years ago and sold it to Holland and other countries. So there was not much wood to burn for a few hundred years, the peat was important. If you survived being born into a damp and cold world with raw peat, you certainly could boast about that.

The album was recorded at Brageveien Studio in Oslo except for the wonderful guitar instrumental L’Ιmpèratrise which was recorded by yourself in a small cave in Hustadvika, on the northwest coast of Norway. Why did you make this exception, and why did you choose this place?

I tried for many sessions to record this piece in the studio. And even though it was nice and beautiful with the perfect sound and great microphones, I just did not manage to get it the way I wanted. I had the choice between taking one of the takes I was 90 percent satisfied with or to try one last time to record it before Øyvind started to mix the record. I guess the pressure of time was essential. So I had to borrow some mikes and give it a go in a cave where I come from. The mood was right, and I managed to capture some of the rawness that is supposed to be in that piece. But I also want to record it again, maybe with a small string ensemble, so I can have a perfect hi-fidelity recording also. That piece is always evolving.

Let’s go back in time. When did you first get into music, and when did you decide to become a professional musician?

The early nineties was a good time for young people to get into guitar playing and playing in bands. I really wanted to play in a band, so I got my first guitar at age 11. I just practiced a lot (before internet and other distractions), and formed a band very soon after that, and I started composing right after learning my first chords. I was lucky to have several friends my age who were into Zeppelin, Queen, Yes and everything related to that. When Hendrix landed in my record collection, a lot of pieces started to fit. I must also admit that Metallica and Guns ‘n’ Roses was a big part of inspiring to the guitar interest. 

I started playing professionally in my early twenties, and have been doing it ever since.

Your music is far from anything we could call mainstream today. Do you do anything else professionally? If so, how difficult is it to write and play music in your daily life?

I teach at the music school, so I get to play some guitar every day there. I always work on new music, and rehearsing new pieces. There is a time before family and kids, and a parallel universe of time after, he he! So now I am in the middle of the busy day with small kids. I sometimes work on new songs on the piano while the kids are running around, and I try to get in an hour or two of playing in a small house in the garden every day. I guess I am more effective now than in my younger days.

In recent years the Norwegian rock scene is in constant blossom, especially the progressive rock field. As a Norwegian, do you have an explanation for that? Do you think there is a Norwegian scene today? Which contemporary Norwegian bands and solo artists are you favorites?

I think that Norwegian society has avoided political and financial crisis for a very long time (at least things that have changed the lives of the majority), and that has maybe been a reason as to why lots of kids have had the time to go deep into music and to practice their craft. Young people have a lot of liberty to pursue their interest and to go to the types of schools and universities they like. It is also certainly a bit easier here financially for a musician with a small audience than in many other European countries. Especially in the jazz department there are so many international players, and they build a very strong foundation in the jazz education. From those schools you can find many prog-friendly people creating complicated and interesting music. So many records of high quality are being released every year by Norwegian artists, coming out of the scenes in the different cities. Also, a few people like me are moving back to small places and work in project based bands.

One of my favorite Norwegian artists is The Musical Slave. It’s impossible to put her in a genre, but she is a free artist creating fantastic music. I have yet to see her live.  Her songs are very long, more in a punk singer/songwriter setting. In the jazz/instrumental department I think Daniel Herskedal has got lots of interesting stuff going on. The new record by Ledfoot and Ronni le Tekrø also sounds very promising. I must admit that I’ve got to get updated on Norwegian prog and jazz-rock, and get back to you, he he. 

I think you are equally good on acoustic and electric guitar, do you agree? Your style on the acoustic is basically folk, but you have a sound of your own on the electric guitar, with extensive use of the slide technique and a rather “whistling”, ethereal sound that sounds multicultural. How did this style come about? Are there any influences that led you to this?

Thanks! Right now, I feel that my acoustic game has gone up a few notches the last few years, so I am again back to practicing a lot of electric guitar so I can find new sounds and palettes. My slide playing is very inspired by Steve Howe, he has got a very ethereal style, and I love that. I think George Harrison was the first slide player I heard that really made an impression on me. I think the kind of eastern thing I have in my playing is mostly inspired by Zeppelin and bands like that who used some phrygian moods and stuff to spice up their music. I have listened a lot to Indian music, but I have no qualifications in that regard, except for some knowledge on how difficult it is to play! I would rather say I have a Silk Road kind of approach to the melodic, so not directly eastern, but more of someone who has eavesdropped to a lot of different cultures. Right now I am blown away by the great Derek Trucks. He blends the blues and eastern phrasing influences in his music like a master. I also love the playing style of Bombino, a player that is already a legend for many guitarists. And my biggest inspiration is of course Brian May; the tone and the melodic sense are unique.

In the press release for Lerret you mention that the tracks flow into each other, as a tribute to your favorite 60s and 70s bands. Which are these bands, and your favorite albums?

Queen, Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Hendrix. Close to the Edge, Queen II, Selling England by the Pound, Electric Ladyland, Relayer etc.  I guess this is a list that is fairly similar to many other prog and rock fans. Many of those records are not concept albums at all, they just have an organic and cohesive feeling to them that kind of creates a world where every song is connected to the others.

Norway and generally Scandinavia have a very rich and noteworthy tradition in psychedelic, folk, progressive and jazz rock, already since the late 1960s. Are you interested in this tradition, do you draw your influences from it? Do you see your music as a continuation / renewal of this tradition?

Terje Rypdal, Garbarek, Hoola Bandola Band etc. All of those things are great. I believe many artists now are inspired by the experimental musicians from the 60s and 70s. I really like a lot of those artists, but I did not listen very much to the Scandinavian ones when I grew up, so I got up to date on those artists when I got older. For this record, there are some references to the Hoola Bandola thing, loose and positive.

Your music combines vintage and modern elements and sounds quite up-to-date without following a contemporary music wave, while exuding positivity, which is probably the most retro element in your music. To what extent is your music a form of expressive redemption for yourself as a creator, and how much does it depend on the response it receives?

Thanks, I always try to create a feeling of hope or some sense of potentiality for something new to happen, in my music. If music feels good when you are listening to it, and it also leaves you feeling inspired afterwards, I think the goal is reached. It’s like food. Some foods taste good, but don’t feel good after a while, you know. But if the artist has made something with the right state of mind and for the right reasons, I think the listener can hear the traces of that in the final product. For me, making music is an intrinsic part of who I am, so no matter how many will hear it in the future, I will continue to do it. It makes me happy, and I am not comfortable if I haven’t played for a while. I really appreciate it when people come to hear me in a concert or give me feedback on records I make, that is certainly a big reward.

It is now undeniable that the last ten or more years have been marked by a multifarious crisis on an international level, a crisis that casts its shadow in the fields of economy, society, politics, culture and the psychology of all people. Its latest form is the Coronavirus pandemic. What’s your opinion on this whole situation? Does this long crisis affect your music, especially regarding its content, i.e. the ideas that your music expresses?

This is such a big theme that I cannot answer it in full here. But for me, the pandemic was not at all a surprise, there have been so many signs as you say the last ten years (and before that really) for something like this to happen, so it was more like “ok, here it is, let’s see what will happen now”… Current events never affect my music directly, and here in Norway you can still play concerts for a limited number of people. And frankly speaking, that is what I always do, ha ha, so I might not be the right person to ask about how this affected my musical career. And on top of that, I was mainly doing studio work for my album when this stuff happened, so I had very few things planned. The only thing that was cancelled was a summer tour in Norway I was planning together with Faun Fables (Nils Frykdahl and Dawn McCarthy). But they had to stay back home in California.

We can’t help but ask, when will Atlanter return with a third album? Is there any plan? Have you talked about this with Jens Carelius?

There are no plans for the time being. But everything is possible!

The debut album of Tenderton left us with the best impressions. Are you planning to reactivate this band in the future.    

We were just recording this weekend, and the vibe was really good, so I hope there will be a new record out next year. It’s such a trip to play with Tenderton!

You recently played songs from Lerret live with your band. How was this experience given the difficult conditions with the pandemic? Will you play live again in the near future?

I will do solo gigs and shows with my band, hopefully a few more before Christmas and then just try to tour and have fun next year.

Thank you very much for your time Arild! All of us at wish you all the best and we wholeheartedly hope that your music will reach all the audience it deserves.

Thank you!