Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Conversation With Bror Gunnar Jansson

Bror Gunnar Jansson (a.k.a. Gunnes Enmanna) is a Swedish one-man band who unleashes a garage-style hybrid of blues, country, and folk. He is an enigmatic performer who can ooze backwoodsy and minimalistic laments as well as unleash ferociously angular and devastatingly powerful breakdowns. His first solo full-length album, Bror Gunnar Jansson is out now, and it is a killer.

I recently caught up with Bror Gunnar Jansson, purely out of my own curiosity stemming from how much I have been obsessed with this recording, and I am thrilled to share our conversation with you.

When did you begin learning and playing music?

Bror Gunnar Jansson: Well, actually my father is a professional bass player, and his father an accordion player, and one of my sister’s a violin player, so I guess it runs in the family. In my youth there wasn’t a question wether you’d play an instrument or not but what instrument you would choose to play. For me it started with saxophone when I was 10 (well I played some fake double bass on a cello when I was really little, like 4 years old, but not for a very long period/time).

Later, in the early teens I added up with electric bass. And when I started at a music gymnasium (high school) in Göteborg (called Hvitfeldtska), everybody had to sing in the school choir, and that’s how I started to sing. It was also at Hvitfeldtska I started playing the guitar. But it wasn’t until years later that I started with the one-man-band thing...

Which artists and recordings were most influential to you as you began playing music?

BGJ: When I was young I wanted to be a great jazz musician, just like my dad, so back then I was really in to musicians like Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Pharoah Sanders and that sort of stuff, along with the local greats such as my father (of course), The Jack Brothers (Punk-jazz-blues). But I did also have a really great relation(ship) to the music of Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy (II), Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ and those guys at an early age through my fathers’ records.

As I became older my interest for american folk music, and especially blues grew stronger, and I started looking further and further back in the music history and got really hooked on everything I could find from the U.S. recorded in the 1920s and 30s. And in extent I got really hooked on the music of artists also being inspired by that musical expression. Like Tom Waits, David Eugene Edwards and C.W. Stoneking.

How and when did you begin to pursue music seriously?

BGJ: I think I was about 13 when I said to my parents that I wanted to become a musician, so I guess, somewhere in that age...

Can you briefly describe your writing and recording experiences regarding your previous recordings: Weevil (with Christoffer Johansson) and Gugges Enmanna?

BGJ: Since Weevil and Gugges Enmanna are not “real” records, and are more like like homemade demos, I am thinking that we could talk about an album (I will send you, or have sent) with a band called: Serve You Right To Suffer. The band's name is from a song, and album, of John Lee Hooker with the same title.

Serve You Right To Suffer is a band consisting of B.G. Jansson vocals and guitar, Bernt Andersson harmonica, accordion, piano and organ, Bengt Blomgren guitar, Kjell Jansson (my father) on double bass, and Gunnar Petersson on drums. A quite soft and steady, grooving band. Not very focused on individual solos etc., but more on the song, the groove, the sound and the feeling. For me this is a band with much influentials from the folk revival of the 60s. And, actually, the rest of the band have played together since the mid sixties. Check it out here:

I am in another band called Det Blev Handgemäng (old swedish for “There Was A Fight”). The band consists of me on guitar and vocals, Christoffer Johansson on vocals and guitar, Elin Engberg on vocals and double bass, and Emanuel Svensson on drums. We’re currently working on an album to be released some time this spring. We just have to mix, master and release it (either through a record label or by ourselves). You can listen to what we have here:

When you began working on material for the new album, did you have set vision for the new album, or was it more of a song-by-song accumulation?

BGJ: I just felt the need to record stuff, just for the sake of having my ideas and versions recorded, and not necessarily for an album. So, Christoffer and me set up my stuff, and a whole bunch of microphones, and as I was playing the kit. Christoffer was fixing up a good sound. And when we both thought it sounded the way we wanted, I played and he recorded as many songs we managed on the time we had in the studio. Live. Mostly first takes (mine often are, I’ve discovered).

When we had recorded the material, I realized that I thought it was good enough to make a “real” album, so then I had to choose which songs to use for the album. I think I had like 12-13 songs, and to be able to fit the music onto a vinyl (which was, and still is, very important to me, I had to choose 8 out of these songs. Not always an easy choice, but I think it’s really good for you to make those choices. Then we made a few additions (hand clap and some cymbals). And that’s about it. Well, we mixed and mastered afterwards for a whole lot of hours, of course...

How does your new album connect to your previous works? What sets this record apart for you the most?

BGJ: This self-titled album is, for me, my first real album. So everything I’ve ever recorded before has been like practice for this album.

The recording is raw, striking, and immediate. Can you discuss your approach to recording?

BGJ: It was very important for me, as a one-man-band, that this record was live (in a recording studio and without an audience, though), and that I played all the stuff at the same time, just like I would do on a gig.

Were there any artists and albums that you used as a model for this recording?

BGJ: We used a few recordings as a references. I remember that we used one of those really rough Howlin’ Wolf recordings from the early/mid 50s and a song with The White Stripes (I don’t remember which song or album).

Christoffer Johansson recorded your new record. Can you discuss your ongoing working relationship?

BGJ: Christoffer and I have been good friends for quite a while now, and we got to know each other (really got to know each other) at the same time as we really got to know the old american folk music. So we showed each other when one of us found some great recording from 1927 or when someone had learned a new finger technique. He played me Skip James and then I played him Charley Patton and so on. And since then we’ve had a very close musical friendship. It has even got to that point that our friends sometimes joke about us being the same person.

How does your local music community in Sweden influence and inspire you?

BGJ: I have somewhat of a ambivalent relation to the Swedish music community, because in one hand swedish bands and musicians are really good and really brave and can do so great music that is really special and fresh. But on the other hand, since Sweden is a quite small country the commercial music takes all too much space, and many bands and musicians, even the ones in the un-commercial, alternative music scene, gets drawn into doing stuff just because they think it will be popular.

But maybe that goes for any music community anywhere in the world. Anyway, here are some great local bands and musicians everyone should listen to! The Jack Brothers, Old Kerry McKee, The Western Toneflyers, Musette, Den Stora Vilan, Ìxtahuele, Franska Trion, Anna von Hausswolff...

Can you talk about your approach to re-arranging and interpreting traditional tunes?

BGJ: For “Pretty Polly” I wanted to do a version from Billy/Willy’s (the murderer’s) point of view. In the versions I’ve listened to and heard of this traditional song, the lyrics goes “He stabbed her through the heart...” etc., my version goes “I stabbed her through the heart...” and so on. I also wanted to make it about one of the characters I often use for my songs: William Joseph Dean.

William, or Billy Mean, is a mix of the traditional character of “Pretty Polly”, an old folk tale from Lerum (a village outside Gothenburg, SWE) about an evil Sheriff that/who gets hanged to his death in a big Oak tree by an angry mob formed by mistreated villagers, and (some) stuff I made up on my own. I’ve made several songs about William, and I’m quite sure I will make a few more. “Mary Lee” about his mother, “William Joseph Dean”, “Mean Old Billy’s Cry For Freedom” (recorded with “Det Blev Handgemäng”) both take place around the time of his death/hanging.

“He Had A Knife In His Hand” a song from one of William’s victims point of view. “William Is Back” (my latest song about W, will be on the forth-coming album with the one-man-band, to be released at some time in 2013) in which William comes back from the grave to haunt his foes.

Overall, I like to use characters. Before I started using characters for songwriting I often found myself having a hard time to write/compose anything at all. Sometimes I couldn’t make one song in a whole year. Now I sometimes can make several songs in a month! My latest character is named Butch. He’s a boxer (and yes, he’s quite similar to the man with the same name in "Tarrentino's cult classic “Pulp Fiction”). I think I’ll make some more songs about him.

I have also used real existing musicians as characters or inspiration. In my song “The Wandering Spirit Of B.F. Shelton” (also found on my self-titled album) the main character finds himself in a similar environment/story as in the songs of the banjoist and singer B.F. Shelton from Kentucky (who recorded a few traditional songs ("Pretty Polly" amongst others) in 1927).

How do these tunes influence your own songwriting (both musically and lyrically)?

BGJ: I often steal or borrow lines (both musical and lyrical) from old and new songs. “Mary Lee”, for instance, gives some lyrical hints to the western swing-classic “Mama Don’t Allow It”.

“William Joseph Dean” has a few lines stolen from Dock Boggs and C.W. Stoneking. And “My Gal Drinks So Much Whiskey That She Staggers In Her Sleep” is a lyrical comment to Furry Lewis’ “Good Looking Girl Blues” and is musically based on a riff of Willie Brown.

Any plans to come to the US?

BGJ: Yes, of course! Well, not actual plans yet, but I’ve always, since I was little, dreamt of going to the US, traveling around, just like in a road movie, playing music and meeting people. Man, I would really love to go to USA!

What's next for you in 2013?

BGJ: Actually,  I am currently working on my next “solo” album. Just like the self-titled album, this one is being recorded/co produced by Christoffer Johansson, but all of the songs aren’t going to be recorded live. And through that, I would say, I’ve chosen a different approach for this album (to be released, hopefully, before summer this year). I would think that this record is going to have a bigger sound. More instruments, more additions, guest musicians...

I am also in the making of a full-length album with Det Blev Handgemäng. It is a little bit more of a happy band than BGJ, with songs mostly written by either Elin or Bror Gunnar.

What have you been listening to lately that you have found significantly inspiring?

BGJ: Rose Mitchell! Damn, she’s awesome! But I have only found one song recorded with her. A really groovy and melancholic version of “Baby, Please Don’t Go”. I’ve also listened a bit to the late works of Gil Scott Heron. This summer I heard Tinariwen for the first time. That was a great concert experience. One of the best of 2012.

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