Jostein Smeby (Arabs in Aspic): “We don’t think about what will sell or not. We make music that we like”

Arabs in Aspic is one of the best examples of the flourishing of vintage progressive rock sound nowadays, especially in the amazing Norwegian prog scene. The release of their seventh studio album entitled Madness and Magic (our reviews here) finds them in their creative heyday and the highlight of their career to date. The conversation with Jostein Smeby (guitar, vocals) was something we wanted to do for a long time and it turned out to be a delightful process, full of very interesting info about the band, the album and Arabs in Apic’s next steps.

Questions: Thomas Sarakintsis, Dimitris Kaltsas

Hello Jostein! It was about time for this interview, we’ve been really looking forward to this. You released your latest album during a difficult time for mankind. How is your life during the pandemic and how much do you think that this situation will affect your band and artists in general?

Good evening, Thomas and Dimitris!

We have been fortunate so far, both in terms of health and work. We have daytime jobs next to the music and we have not been directly affected by leave or illness. We missed a scheduled release concert in June and there have been some issues with the delivery of the LP from the factory which may be due to Covid-19. Beyond that, we have received very good reviews of Madness and Magic. The physical record sales go very well too. We have postponed the release concert until 10.10.20 at John Dee in Oslo. We also have a couple more concerts this fall, so it will be exciting to see if we get to play for full houses or not.

For our part, Covid-19 will not affect us to any great extent, as we do not have to rely on concerts to earn a living. For those who have chosen to work with music as a full-time job, the situation is different. I expect the famous artists to succeed and get good help, while those who need the most support will get the least help and struggle the most.

All of us at strongly believe at that you have reached the top with Madness and Magic. Although many believed that this was the case with Syndenes Magi, you surprised us all. It’s a masterpiece, we can’t stop listening to it. Based on the feedback you’ve received, is the response from critics and fans the best you’ve ever had?

Masterpiece! Thanx! We all love the record also, but we have just started:) Syndenes Magi was first recorded in English, but I was not quite happy, so we tried to do one of the songs in Norwegian and we loved it. So we had to rewrite the whole album. This time we started to write with Mr. Edgar Broughton himself, so it had to be in English. He actually wrote lyrics for side A, but we agreed to rewrite and use some of his ideas. He came up with the title “Madness and Magic.” 

We always do what we want to do when we want to do it. This time the primary goal was to make a record a bit softer than before. We’re getting old you know! It’s also the first time we have written music for two drummers. The result is kind of an Arabs’ White Αlbum. It’s important for us. It’s not a compilation of songs. We often compose new songs based on the previous song. We don’t want to sound like this or that, we play the music we want to play with old school equipment, so I think we sound like Arabs in Aspic no matter what we do.

The reviews have been fantastic, so we must have done something right this time!

We have already started to pre produce our next album. I think you will get a surprise again!

What first impresses in Madness and Magic is that it’s different compared to your previous albums as well as other so-called vintage prog releases. You’ve shown that your style can be further enriched. Your new album is much groovier, it has more acoustic parts and less heavy prog. What led to this change of sound?

We wanted to make a record that was softer and more focused on our two drummers than just the ”evil” electric guitar and Hammond.

You are one of the few Norwegian bands that sound so British. While writing our review we couldn’t help but mention Pink Floyd, Genesis, Gentle Giant, and there’s also a Bowie reference in the title track, right (a lad insane…)? Do the four of you listen to the same bands / artists more or less? Can you tell us about your influences throughout your career so far?

Our music probably reflects our own record collections. Οur collections have many similarities, but they are quite different too. After all, it is a band’s strength when there are different special tastes. Everyone loves Bowie. Is it possible not to be inspired by him? We started our band with the goal of playing heavier than Sabbath and more beautiful than Bowie. That was the goal…

For my own part, I have a somewhat special record collection. I have almost only records made between 1968 and 1973. There is something about this period that has always fascinated me. Both sound and attitude. It probably had a lot to do with the time these albums were recorded, that rock was popular music then, so anyone who wanted to sell music had to play rock, even if they had a classical / jazz education, or played the blues. Of course I have a lot of British heavy rock and prog rock, but I also have a lot of European prog and Krautrock. In addition, I am also fascinated by funk, blues rock and modern music. Mountain is also a personal favorite. Eskil, our drummer, probably has a lot of the same records that I love. We’ve been playing together since 1998. In addition, he probably listens to more bands that release records today than me, in many musical genres. Stig is a classic prog rocker who was born late, so he mostly listens to records he should have been recording. Erik has more experience with fusion, jazz, newer prog and metal, but prefers King Crimson and Panzerballett. Alessandro is a diehard metal drummer who also loves old prog / jazz and heavy rock.

In recent years, we have enjoyed the flourishing of the wider prog scene in Norway. Your inspiration and aesthetic point of view are really unique. We know there’s no magic recipe, but how did all this happen? Which are your favorite Norwegian bands (from the 70s till this day)?

In the early 70’s the Norwegian prog scene was mainly inspired by British rock. We had fantastic bands such as Popol Vuh, Ruphus, Junipher Greene, Aunt Mary, Høst and Titanic. These bands are still some of my all time favorite bands. My favorite prog bands in Norway today are Ring van Møbius, Wobbler, Kryptograf and Airbag. Apollon records and Karisma records makes it possible by signing a lot of new interesting prog bands.

The four of you guys (Jostein, Stig, Erik, Eskil) have been playing together in Arabs in Aspic for more than ten years. Your discography proves how hard you’ve been working through all these years and it’s pretty obvious that you’re all dedicated to the band. What does Arabs in Aspic mean to you?

For me, my main goal is to make a record that I miss in my own LP collection. We don’t spend too much time together in private, but we really enjoy each other’s company when we play music.

Percussionist Alessandro G. Elide was a guest musician in Syndenes Magi. However, his presence in Madness and Magic is even more distinguishable. Do you consider him as a fifth band member?

Yes, he is. He is a fantastic musician and a smooth guy.

Most songs in Madness and Magic have a more distinctive pattern compared to your previous works. What’s the songwriting process in the band? Do you jam endlessly, do you come with ideas and then connect them or both?

I often compose the form of the song. I use a metronome, an acoustic guitar and do the lead vocals. Then we add drums, bass and keys separately. We often re-record the guitar and drum parts. When we let the guitar and drums, bass and keys do what they do best. On some songs we record bass and drums together. We do the percussion, the solos and the vocals after the form is set. We don’t practice a lot, but we spend time in studio every week.

How was Heaven in Your Eye written? By the way, do you agree it’s one of your best songs ever?

The composition of Heaven in Your Eye was actually done in one day. I grabbed a 6-pack of beer, went to the studio and recorded the almost 17 minute-long song based on pre-recorded riffs. The lyrics were written in the hospital when my mother died of cancer. For me it’s a strong song of course, and I think we show what we are capable of doing in a good way. I really look forward to play this song live.

Let’s talk about the artwork and the lyrics. Starting from the cover art, on every Arabs in Aspic album there’s always a central female figure, each time showing a specific aspect of her nature. Is there a specific philosophy behind this? By the way do you feel that Julia Proszowska’s work is the ideal connection between your music and your audience?

We are so privileged to have our own professional artist who loves prog rock and not only Arabs in Aspic. She lives in Norway, but she is from Poland and has broad experience from both art history and music history. We collaborate since 2004 and she is considered as a band member. She gets pre-productions of the music and text material, then she interprets the mood and paints what she hears. We have a close dialogue all the way, so she usually makes several sketches. The female character is the artist herself in different settings. If any readers should have some money left over, then it is certainly possible to buy one of the original artworks.

Syndenes Magi Madness and Magic. It is pretty obvious that you like magic as a concept. Since the lyrics in Syndenes Magic were written in Norwegian, can you tell us if there’s any connection with the lyrics with Madness and Magic? What is it with you and magic?

Syndenes Magi is a record basically about ethics, morals, religion and who is the owner of the truth. The seven deadly sins were the heart of the lyrics. Madness and Magic is an interpretation of contemporary times with many similarities to the lyrics of Syndenes Magi. Of course, the color of the language is fuller in Norwegian.

The lyrical concept in Madness and Magic is extremely interesting and very relevant today. Although your desire is to leave the subject to the listener’s judgment, it is clear that you have been preoccupied with the subject of technology and how it absorbs man. Do you want to be more specific?

I’ve been working as a teacher for almost 20 years and I’m also a parent, so this topic is very relevant in my daily life. The technological development goes extremely fast and I don’t like it. The statistics indicate that youth in Norway spend 1500 hours a year being entertained by a screen. You then need to take all these hours from something else you could, or should have done instead. Many children struggle with social anxiety and poor self-esteem. That’s why I wrote a record about it.

We know that being in a progressive rock band is not the ideal career choice for a professional musician, at least in terms of making money. How difficult has it been for you and how much has the situation changed since the band’s early days?

That’s not a problem for us. We all have daytime jobs and we don’t have to think about what will sell or not. We make music that we like. If we think it’s good enough, more people will  probably agree.

The excellent Live at Avantgarden (2018) captured how tight and experienced band you are. Many people in Greece would love to see you play live here. Despite the unpredictability of the consequences of the pandemic, are there any plans for the future regarding live performances?

Because we are a band of musicians who have other jobs, family and young children, we have never prioritized playing concerts so often, but we plan to offer the music live to a greater extent in the years to come. The kids are getting more independent and it gives us more leeway to go around the world being rock stars. We have played a lot of concerts abroad and we really enjoy it. We have never played in Greece, but we’d happily set up a Woodstock rig on a Greek island.

We know that you’ve arranged to play live in October. What should we expect from Arabs in Aspic in the future?

More live gigs and a superheavy prog new record. We also have something going on in the studio with a couple of rock legends.

Thank you very much for your time gentlemen! We hope that you’ll never seize to surprise us and that we’ll meet in Greece sometime soon!

Thank you guys for the interesting questions and a detailed and good review of our album.

We would love to play our music in Greece!

All the best to you guys, all prog rock fans and all Greek people!