01 October 2010

(More than) 10 Questions with...Jacob Holm-Lupo

One of my biggest regrets in life was missing NEARfest 2001.

Of course, one look at the lineup for that year…Porcupine Tree, Banco, Deus Ex Machina…and you’d be saying ‘Of course you regret it!’  While I may never get a chance to see DeM again, I’ve seen Porcupine Tree several times, and got to see Banco when they returned in 2008.

No, one of my biggest regrets is missing White Willow in concert.

I fell in love with them from their very first album, Ignus Fatuus, which came out in 1995 but which I didn’t discover till years later.  There was something about that album…so baroque, maybe a tinge disjointed from time to time, but ultimately about as pure and innocent a release as one could possibly ever hear…that connected with me to the point that it remains one of the assured constants in my car for driving listening.  From the lengthy, dark epics, to the countertenor vocals on a track or two (a voice range I have more than a passing personal familiarity with!), to the folk and medieval influences, I was hooked in a manner that precluded any chance of getting unhooked.

And I was fine with that.

I’ve followed the band closely thereafter…loving Ex Tenebris and Sacrament, finding Storm Season very enjoyable but moving away from where I was at the time it came out (note: I’ve grown to appreciate it far more today) and really not getting Signal to Noise at all when it came out (much to my chagrin and the shock of my friends, who thought I’d love it to death).  Then, silence.  The band went on a bit of hiatus, founder Jacob Holm-Lupo became involved in other projects, and a covering of frost sealed off the band.

Until now.

White Willow, in a newly organised format, is in the studio recording a new album with Tim Bowness at the console.  A new band website has been launched with a bunch of teaser live downloads (and a major download as well, about which more later) and news of all these new activities, including the forthcoming double vinyl re-release of the band’s 1995 debut with an added 15-minute bonus track.  Times have certainly seemed to come back around for this Norwegian band, and it was more than time enough to sit down with Jacob Holm-Lupo and get some information on where the band is heading as we enter a new decade.

Read on!

1. I like starting these off with a bit of history, so we’ll start with the cliché questions. When did you first get an inkling for how important music would end up being for you?

Jacob Holm-Lupo: I've always liked music and been interested in it. I loved listening to my mother's Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel records as a kid. But the first time music went from an interest to an obsession was when I was given a tape of Genesis' Duke for my 12th birthday. That record floored me - I never knew music could be so powerful and moving. So of course I followed the typical path, went back to Gabriel era Genesis, found King Crimson, Yes, and the damage was done. When I was 17 I decided to learn how to play guitar, so I could write songs and realize ideas.

2. Who were among your earliest influences?

JH-L: Obviously Genesis was my first influence. When we started White Willow I was also deeply into folk rock, so other important influences during the "formative years" were Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell and prog bands like PFM, King Crimson, Camel, Magma. And some hard rock, especially Blue Öyster Cult and Deep Purple.

3. How did White Willow first come together?

JH-L: It sort of grew out of the ashes of a folkier band I had called The Orchid Garden. Me and Jan Tariq (WW's original keyboard player) decided to venture into more symphonic territory, and after a summer of writing and arranging songs in Jan's basement (where he had Popol Ace's old mellotron and a mini-moog) we felt like we had a sound - and that was the White Willow sound...

4. What would you say has been the highlight moment in White Willow’s career?

JH-L: I'm very much a studio-lover and an AOP (Album Oriented Person), so for me the highlights are typically recording an album I am happy with, and then getting good feedback from listeners and reviewers. Other members of the band would probably mention festival gigs like NEARfest and Progfest. Those are highlights for sure, but for me the magic happens when we make the music, rather than when we are recreating it on stage. Recording Signal to Noise was a milestone for me because for the first time I got to work with a name producer and really got the sound I was dreaming of. Recording Sacrament was also a very happy experience. But probably the best stuff so far has been recording this new album - working with Mattias Olsson again, and a great new bass player, and being completely in control - since we are using our own studios and our own studio equipment.

5. White Willow’s music has followed a fairly evolutionary path. Is this something that was conscious, or did it happen organically?

JH-L: It's happened organically, but it has also always been my intention to explore as many facets and aspects of our sound as possible. I find it a fun challenge to stretch the boundaries of a band identity. How far can we go before we stop sounding like White Willow? Signal to Noise alienated some fans for that reason - we went quite far. But I always take pride in maintaining a certain WW signature on each album, even if we juggle genres and styles and types of instrumentation. I am a very restless and impatient person, so the one thing I feel that I can't do is backtrack, musically. I have to feel, even if it often is a sort of self-deceit, that I am moving forward.

6. Could I ask you to offer up a few thoughts on each of WW’s albums?

JH-L: Ignis Fatuus
I've been revisiting this now for the first time in more than a decade, because I have remastered it for vinyl release. It's a very, very naive and innocent album. We were clueless in the studio, and we didn't really have the songcraft down either. But we had vision and enthusiasm, and somehow for that album that was enough. In spite of a million flaws the album works for me, and is still a fun listen. It was our romantic prog-folk period.

Ex Tenebris
Another naive and slightly awkward album, but very important for me for several reasons. By that time White Willow had gone from being a somewhat democratic band project to being mostly my own baby. I wrote all the material, picked the musicians and "produced" - if you can call it that - the album. I also felt that I was finding my identity more as a songwriter. I brought in influences that were central to me but that hadn't fit into the retro-prog ethos of the 1st album: More gothic dark atmospheres informed by bands from 4AD and World Serpent. So it was a sort of neo-folk/goth meets prog kind of thing. The recording was impossibly primitive, and it sounds that way too. It is what it is - my first step towards independence and identity. Lyrically it was very personal and dealt with Gnosticism.

A much more mature and accomplished album. I had a real band, we had practiced, honed and fine-tuned the material before we went into the studio, and you can tell, I think. Some of the arrangements still impress me, and the playing is miles above anything we had done before. The production is a little anemic, but the performances have fire. This was more of a foray into classically inspired prog.

Storm Season
This is a favorite for many, and it sort of is for me too. I don't have fond memories of the recording, it was full of technical mishaps and strong tensions within the band. It felt like a real trial by fire, making that album. The drums were a pain in the ass to record, and we never did manage to make them sound great. But it was worthwhile, and you can sort of hear the strife and turbulence in the music, and the album is stronger for it. Sort of a concept album, and sort of our hard rock album. It was the first album we made with Lars Fredrik, and having him was a true joy. Without him I might have given up trying to make the album. We also upped the guitar ante on Storm Season, which was fun.

Signal to Noise
From an audio and production perspective this is my favorite album. It sounds great (in my opinion), and recording it was awesome. Working with producer Tommy Hansen was both fun and educational, and he really brought out the best in all the musicians. Trude's vocals on Signal to Noise are a highlight. I also thought the tunes were quite strong, even if it was too poppy for some. People's reactions to the album were sort of funny. Lots of people liked it, and reviews were very favourable. But some old-school fans thought it was waaay too glossy and sounded almost like AOR or neo-prog. The thing is - the retro sound was never my thing. I love vintage instruments, and always include tons of authentic analogue stuff. But production-wise I'm not a fan of that early 70's cardboard sound. I like the vocals to have some gloss and sparkle, the drums to have some size and dimension and the bottom-end to have some... bottom. So for me this is what every WW album should have sounded like...

7. You just offered up a set of demos for Signal to Noise on the band’s website. What inspired you to offer them for download?

JH-L: My Mac was in for repair, so I had to use an older computer for a while, where I found all the demos. I figured some fans might be crazy enough to be interested in them, as they give some insight into how songs take shape in White Willow. Also, since some reacted to the studio gloss of that album, they might like to hear something lo-fi and warts-and-all...

8. Is there any teaser information you’d be willing to share regarding Terminal Twilight, the band’s in the works album?

JH-L: Well, most of what there is to say has already been disclosed. Tim Bowness will sing on a track and has a co-writing credit. Some folks from Gösta Berlings Saga have dropped by the studio. Mattias Olsson is back as drummer for the first time since Ex Tenebris. And Sylvia is back as our lead vocalist. Musically I guess I can divulge that the new material is a good deal proggier than anything we have done for a while, with quite long and complex tracks, and a fair bit of audio craziness. I think this album will have a LOT more appeal to those fans who like our earlier stuff than the last record did. Not that we're doing the dreaded backtracking, but I think after the slight excursion of Signal to Noise I am much more comfortable doing pure prog again. And Mattias also felt a lot of joy and enthusiasm working with prog again, so it sort of leaks into the music. Prog enthusiasm!

9. Will the band be touring in order to support the new release?

JH-L: It's too early to tell. We have been approached by some festivals, but it's a question of logistics.

10. Have you considered any kind of live release for the band?

JH-L: We don't really have any multi-track recordings of live performances with White Willow. It's one of my great regrets, because White Willow live is a completely different beast from our studio identity, and too few people have had a chance to hear that. Live we can be quite heavy and reckless, and interesting things tend to happen. So I hope that one day we will be able to do that. For now, all I have are audience recordings, which are fun but not ideal for release. There are some tasters on our website.

11. You are also involved in the band Opium Cartel. What were your goals with that band that differentiate it from what you do with White Willow?

JH-L: The Opium Cartel is a kind of breathing space for me. Making prog is hard work, sort of. With TOC I don't spend weeks pondering an arrangement. I write a song, record it, and that's that. So it's my fun project. When I recorded the TOC debut album I also had a need to get away from prog for a while, so it was therapeutic for me. I explored some of my other loves - folk, electronica, indie. I don't have any goals beyond my own gratification with TOC.

12. You are one of the founders of Termo Records, along with Lars Fredrik Frøislie. What led you to decide to start your own label?

JH-L: Disillusionment with the industry, basically. We were fed up with waiting for things to happen, for money to get paid and promises to get fulfilled. So we decided that if you want something done, you have to do it yourself...

13. Could you share a little bit about the other performers/bands on Termo Records, for people who might perhaps be less familiar with them?

JH-L: Our flagship is Wobbler, Lars' other band, who are pure retro prog. Their 3rd album is almost finished now. Then we have In Lingua Mortua, Lars' extreme metal project, who just released their 2nd album, which mixes jazz, symphonic rock and black metal. We have Rhys Marsh, a British and incredibly talented singer/songwriter who writes music somewhere between King Crimson and David Sylvian. And then there's the above mentioned The Opium Cartel. All our artists can be found at termorecords.com.

14. So much has changed in the world of progressive music since White Willow released their first album in 1995? Where do you think things are headed?

JH-L: I have no idea. The music business is a very confusing place these days and no-one knows what's going to happen. Will people stop buying records altogether, will no-one get paid for making music anymore? As for prog, I haven't really paid enough attention to what has been going on for ages. There's a lot of the music that gets written up in places like Classic Rock presents Prog that just means nothing to me - it's like retreads of rehashes of recycled stuff - bands inspired by bands that were inspired by Marillion who were inspired by Genesis... that's sort of senseless to me. Every band seems to either be playing some kind of neo-neo-prog or they are ripping off Porcupine Tree. To me the whole point of progressive is that it is a melting pot of influences. The hallmark of a progressive musician - in my understanding of the term - is that he or she listens to anything and everything and brings whatever he finds of value into his own music, without prejudice and without too much reverence. I am not hearing a lot of that in today's prog. But there are exceptions. Sweden's Gösta Berlings Saga for instance, are an amazing band who bring together a sort of neo-bop jazz aesthetic with post-rock, Swedish folk influences and 70's prog influences. That's a fresh combination that I enjoy a lot.

15. What do you personally feel music has to provide in order to ‘matter’ in this age?

JH-L: It's a little hard to say. The rules have changed. Innovation used to be something valuable in music, but it seems to have little relevance these days... I notice it in myself too - I have a feeling that everything has been done, and that I have to delve into myself and find some kind of "personal" music to bring forth rather than try to come up with new and impressive ideas. So I guess what I value today is music that has that personal quality - so that even if it is a rehash of things that have gone before, it comes from an internal space that is unique to the songwriter. To be unique without having to be a trailblazer, that's the most we can expect from musicians and songwriters today, I think. Everything is so much of a commodity these days, including "alternative" music like prog and indie, there's a template for everything. I like to see folks sidestepping those templates, and showing some courage in the face of extreme cultural streamlining. God, I sound like a grumpy old man, don't I?

16. Is there something that continues to drive you to create?

JH-L: Surprisingly, yes. I wake up every day expecting that drive to be gone. I have kids, responsibilities, mortgage, a station wagon - and I am happy with those things and I wouldn't hold it against the universe if it told me "You've had your creative time, now rest in suburban dreaming"... But it hasn't happened. Everytime I sit down by a piano or with a guitar music comes, and ideas for lyrics, things I want to express, keep interrupting my suburban coma. So I guess I should be thankful!

17. Do you feel the rapid shift to a more digital lifestyle has impacted people’s ability to internalise or connect with music?

JH-L: Yes - absolutely. The attention span afforded to music listening has dwindled to a fraction of what it used to be. It goes for me as well. It's rare that I am able to sit down and listen through an entire album, or even a song, without doing anything else. Most of my listening is on an iPod on a train or bus, or in the car on my way to somewhere. It's sad. I had the house to myself the other day, and dusted off my old record player and pulled out some LPs. The experience was magical. Even though I have all my music ripped and stored on harddrives and loaded into laptops and iPods, sitting down and listening to those crackly old records was a WHOLE different experience. There was such a sensory explosion, colors, sounds, it was all-encompassing. I was engaged. After that I have felt sort of terminally depressed by my iPod and my Spotify library. We are all missing out on something essential - engaging with the music, and letting it take us places.

18. How much has downloading affected the bands you have worked with, either as musician or in your role with Termo Records?

JH-L: A little, but not as much as some. Prog fans are pretty loyal and conservative, they like to own an object and they care about sound quality. I really appreciate that, and I am thankful for that audience. I noticed with The Opium Cartel, which appealed to a younger and more mainstream demographic, that sales were more affected by downloads. But yes, it is an ongoing concern both as a musician and as a label. The only thing you can do is try to offer products that are desireable - albums with great sound and tasteful packaging. But it's a losing battle in the end.

19. Are there any bands you’re currently enjoying when you find time to listen?

JH-L: I've always been very up-to-date and obsessed with discovering new music, but lately - the last couple of years - I have to admit I have lost sight of the new stuff. Every new record I hear has that hyper-compressed, zero dynamics sound that I have grown so very tired of - I simply can't listen to most new releases anymore. The new stuff I listen to these days is mostly by friends or people I work with. Gösta Berlings Saga is one. SynKoke, our bass player's band is another - great, quirky, energetic jazz-prog-rock. I kind of liked the latest Midlake album, and I'll still listen to some M83 and Air, but mostly I've gone back to the old masters. Mostly records that sound great. Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, mid-era Genesis (again...), Pat Metheny Group, Weather Report. Dynamic stuff.

20. As we wrap things up, do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?

JH-L: Just thanks for the interview and for keeping the good music alive!

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