|Mungolian Jet Set: The flight of the Mighty Mung
Whereas their more vaunted Norwegian contemporaries can be neatly pigeonholed as future disco visionaries, it's nearly impossible to categorize the work of Mungolian Jetset. RA chats up the Oslo duo.
Despite its freestyle, anything-goes nature—think a star-gazing melting pot of electronic disco, progressive rock, jazz, folk, Balearica, acid and techno with a nod and a wink to both camp pop and contemporary classical music—the music of Mungolian Jetset seems to make perfect sense. Wrap this all up in a strange obsession with cod-mysticism and KLF-style myth-building, and you've got an act like none other.
The duo initially came together in the early '00s while Oslo scene stalwart Nyhus was working with Norwegian jazz legends Nils Petter Moldvaer and Bugge Wesseltoft. Invited by the latter to create an album for the Jazzland label, they put together the largely forgotten jazz-electronica fusion set Beauty Came to Us in Stone in 2006.
Since then, they've slowly been carving a name for themselves as Norwegian disco's most thrilling eccentrics—the in-house remix outfit of Oslo's small but vibrant scene. Through brilliant collaborations with, and remixes for, the likes of Bebel Gilberto, Lindstrom, LSB and The Shortwave Set, they have become one of dance music's most name-checked underground acts. What's more, they also released quite possibly the most insane cover of a Bob Marley record ever made, Pizzy Yelliot's riotous "Could You Be Loved."
Their new double-disc compilation We Gave It All Away… And Now We're Taking It All Back sees the best of these remixes banded together with new tracks, unreleased gems and the best of their collaborations. An ideal time, then, for Resident Advisor to catch up with Oslo's oddest duo...
What was the thinking behind We Gave It All Away… And Now We Are Taking It Back?
Pål: We've spent the last three years more or less doing remixes. With remixes, there is always a balance between the original parts and your own stuff. A couple of our remixes have basically just been cover versions. From the beginning, we started doing some remixes and from then started to think we would compile them in album form. In a way it's kind of the same thinking that the Kruder & Dorfmeister had with their Sessions album. With all of those remixes, there was a distinctive Kruder & Dorfmeister sound. I think with all our remixes there is a definite Mungolian Jetset sound.
You have been quoted as saying that you will now not work on remixes for the foreseeable future, which is a definite departure considering the success you've had with them. Was this album designed as something of a full stop for that portion of your career?
Pål: Maybe not a full stop, but it's very much a stop for what we have been doing for the past two or three years, yes.
Knut: We feel we have closed some kind of chapter now. The next album will be a totally different concept.
That being the case, is remixing a process that you have enjoyed?
Pål: Yes, absolutely. Remixing as an artform is very interesting, but remixing is also just a cliché. From my point of view, remixing is only interesting if you make something that is totally different from the original. To be honest with you, for some of the tracks we worked on we really had to put a lot of our own stuff in there to make them interesting. But I am happy with at least every remix that is on the album. It's fun to work with other people's recordings and create your own stuff out of them. But it is also a bit of a giveaway as well and the title of the album reflects that.
One of the most exciting things about Mungolian Jetset records is their fun and often unexpected nature. Do you have a lot of fun when you're working together in the studio?
Pål: No, we are bored and we hate each other. No, no! We do have a lot of fun, but we also have arguments. We are two very different people, myself and Knut. He is the studio wizard, and I think even my mum, who is 83, is better on a computer than me. The way we work together, when it comes to the typical sound, everything is done by Knut. He knows the studio in and out. My input is maybe more the free thinking. I think like a DJ.
I remember when we started the Marie Boine remix. We had all the parts we wanted to use, and most of the interesting sounds came from the original record. I had been listening to Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat" and that was a big influence on the way I was thinking about the beats. But Knut is not as much into records. I would kind of say that if we were Yello, I would be Dieter Meier and Knut is Boris Blank.
Knut: I'm more from the arranging and composing side. We both play the keyboards and sometimes the roles are reversed. Maybe Pål is playing something for 30 minutes and then something comes up and I'll say "that's it—stop." And he sings. A lot. He's always thinking characters—like if a band played this, what would they look like and what would their names be. Things like that.
"Every DJ tells you that he is eclectic,
but usually that means you are playing
both deep house and tech house."
The first Mungolian Jetset records on Jazzland were hugely influenced by jazz, to a point that you worked with noted Norwegian jazz players. Do you think that there's still a jazz ethic to what you do now, especially in terms of the free thinking and improvisation?
Pål: I don't really think of it like that, but perhaps. Both of us have backgrounds in a lot of different music. I used to play for ten years with Nils Petter Moldvaer and I've played with Bugge Wesseltoft. These guys are jazz figures, though I would say they step out of the jazz field to mix jazz with a DJ ethic. I supplied a lot of sounds and beats from the turntables in a live context.
When you DJ you just play records to a crowd, but suddenly I was playing with a bass player, a horn player and a percussionist, and I was opening up to another way of thinking about the way you can use turntables in a band context. What I learned from that is very important to the way we approach sound in what we're doing with the Mungolian Jetset. But I don't come from the jazz scene—I'm from the DJ scene.
Knut: I don't really come from the jazz scene either, but I have been looking into it for some years. We don't jam so much together in the way a jazz band would. We are kind of more strict actually, writing stuff down as we go.
You've been previously quoted as saying that you're on a voyage of discovery. Is that how you see it?
Pål: Yes. I think that's pretty accurate. In a sense we're very much maximalists instead of minimalists. It doesn't mean that every track has to be full on, but our music has a story telling quality to it—something that I feel that comes more from the classical world.
Classical music always has that—there is an intro, certain parts where it does particular things, and then it will go in a different direction. From my point of view, I think that it is important that our music should be entertaining, and I feel there is maybe a kind of a Monty Python ethic to what we do. A kind of cartoonish quality, especially with vocal parts. Our music should be serious, but there should be a surprise element which is fun.
Every DJ tells you that he is eclectic, but usually that means you are playing both deep house and tech house. That is not eclectic at all. I just think it's much more fun if you can make a disco track and suddenly there's a Chinese horn section in it or something. It's just playing around, you know, not thinking of genres or styles. There are about two zillion producers out there who are thinking in terms of genres, so you at least need one group from Norway who is mixing it all up.
"You should never be afraid of
experimenting. It should be both
Stockhausen and Liberace."
It's testament to the relationship that you have as producers that you're on the same wavelength, because that's not always the case with people who work together musically.
Knut: Yes, that is true, but we put a lot of energy into making it work. We work together nearly every day.
Pål: We're on two separate wavelengths, but together that makes one wavelength. Knut is much more of a calmer person than me. Both of us are very different characters and that's also very important. If I did work with a more like-minded DJ, maybe our work would be a bit more formal. But we're not interested in making formal music. We'd much rather make something that's entertaining and challenging and a bit more open. We're not afraid to experiment.
Do you think that this keenness to experiment musically is what gives Mungolian Jetset that edge?
Pål: Absolutely. If you take the word "experimental" and put it into "experimental music" that usually means "very strange," and it can be very boring. I think the interesting thing with experimenting is not being afraid of, say, avant garde music, but also not being scared of Barbara Streisand or just plain cheese. Obviously some of the stuff we do is a mix of a strange avant garde music and camp pop. The camp thing probably comes from me. Is that true Knut?
Pål: That's because I'm the bird. A lot of experimental music is also boring because it has its own rules. Experimenting doesn't really mean that. You should never be afraid of experimenting and make your own rules. It should be both Stockhausen and Liberace, just to put a silly metaphor to it.
"We are two very different people, myself and Knut. He is the studio wizard, and I think even my mum, who is 83, is better on a computer than me....I would kind of say that if we were Yello, I would be Dieter Meier and Knut is Boris Blank."
"We're always building a big sound, yes. Personally I'm very interested in orchestral and large ensemble music. We always put hundreds of tracks into the computer. We can go minimal in some parts, but then we have to go the other way—double maximal."
One blogger suggested that you were "committed to an ethic of excess" in your productions. Is that a fair comment?
Knut: We're always building a big sound, yes. Personally I'm very interested in orchestral and large ensemble music. We always put hundreds of tracks into the computer. We can go minimal in some parts, but then we have to go the other way—double maximal. We tried to do some minimal stuff, but it ended up extra maximal.
Pål: That's true. We have started out trying to make minimal stuff, because we love some minimal music, but it just doesn't work for us. We tend to build on things. I guess it's just the natural sound of what we can achieve together. I'm not really thinking of excess, but I guess that comes from some of the camp elements we're not afraid to use.
I think I once said in a Norwegian interview that the most dreadful music ever made has been written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, but I can see there's a bit of that in our music. Not in terms of the musicality, because I really hate musicals. Knut is fine with it, but I think there is a strange element of musicals to what we do. It's a bit of a contradiction actually. If you are pompous, it can be quite dreadful, but if you are ten times more pompous it can be quite good fun.
It's like trance music. Not like Tiësto, but really trancey music. You don't understand it to start with, after five minutes you're bored, but after ten minutes you start to get into it. It's the same if you go pompous in a really serious way. You get a bitter taste in your mouth. But if you put some fun into it, it just explodes. Then it can be good fun.
It's interesting what you say about pomposity. A lot of your music is particularly grandiose. Are you heavily influenced by progressive rock, which often deals with similarly grandiose sounds and concepts?
Knut: We definitely are. Sometimes a track is made like a journey from A to Z. Something that's there at the start might change and reappear at the end, having been through some kind of history or story.
Pål: With the prog rock thing, I think that's the one thing we both agree on. It's more the progressive rock ethic rather than the music. It's like musicals—a lot of prog rock is the most horrible music in the world. But personally, Dark Side of the Moon is still my favourite album in the whole world, ever. What I liked about prog rock, particularly the early prog rock—I'm thinking more of bands like Pink Floyd than Yes—was the imagery they used. It was very cosmic. That whole surreal artwork that was part of the '70s. If you go to disco, a lot of that was also very progressive, particularly the orchestral side and bands like Cerrone. I always found that sort of stuff interesting.
"I spent the whole early '90s
listening to Adventures Beyond
the Ultraworld and Chill Out."
That idea of prog rock-influenced cosmic imagery and mythology is something that seems to appeal to you, especially bands creating their own myths. Is that something you decided to borrow wholeheartedly?
Pål: That's very much my thing, because I tend to come up with conceptual titles for our stuff. Usually things just pop into my head somehow. I believe that comes from the Orb. I used to really love the Orb when they came out in the early '90s, and some of our music has been compared to the Orb, which is obvious. The Orb were influenced by Pink Floyd, so maybe we're just building on something from the early '90s that somehow went away.
Knut: I also think that there's some kind of theatrical element to what we do. Maybe a track could be a movie or something. Perhaps one day in future they will all come together and be used in the same musical. The other thing about prog rock, if you take away all the guitar solos, the sound space is the thing that's progressive.
It's interesting that you mention the Orb, because their music always had an element of humour, which is something that can be seen in the Mungolian Jetset material. Is including this humour in your music important to you?
Pål: Yes, it's an important part, but it's not like we write comedy records. It's just our natural flavour. One of the things I used to really love about The Orb and the KLF when they came with Chill Out was the kind of stoner, slacker humour to their music. They would borrow sketches from old radio shows. It was not humour that you laughed out loud at, but it was quite free and a wonderful way of using funny stuff without making comedy. I spent the whole early '90s listening to Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld and Chill Out. These are really key records, and I guess they have sneaked into the Mungolian approach. They are strong influences, yes.
It's perhaps that idea of not taking yourself particularly seriously that you've borrowed…
Pål: Yes. We take ourselves seriously as musicians, but we don't take each other as serious as other people would do. There are some producers and musicians who take themselves too seriously, but of course you should always take what you do musically seriously. Maybe it's Sirius, like the planet, rather than serious. That's a very Mungolian way of saying it actually.
Left to right: Knut Sævik, Pål Nyhus and Jan Bang.
"Initially I wanted to make the lyrics about boring, over-serious Swedish guys, but now the lyric is about a stalker."
It seems that this is a Norwegian trait, because people like Todd Terje, Prins Thomas and Ost & Kjex also share in that serious-but-not-so-serious approach. Do you think it is a particularly Norwegian way of looking at the world musically?
Pål: It is because we are all taking care of each other. A lot of people talk about that. There is certainly a lot of friendship within the scene, but that's because it is only ten people. Obviously we would be fools if we weren't hanging together.
Do the remixes that you do tend to go down better with your fellow Norwegian artists than, say, some of the other European and international artists? We know of at least one remix of a non-Norwegian act that was rejected because the band didn't like it…
Pål: There was one at least, which was actually probably our most commercial remix. They found it too goofy actually. We are going to call the track "Goofy" and it will be on our next album, with new lyrics and new vocals. Initially I wanted to make the lyrics about boring, over-serious Swedish guys, but now the lyric is about a stalker, so I'm not sure what's going to happen with it.
Do you enjoy writing lyrics?
Pål: No, not really. I actually find it quite difficult, but I have a consultant—a very special guy in Ireland who is very important to Mungolian Jetset because he always contributes bonkers, made-up liner notes and things like that. I actually have a hard time writing lyrics, but the next single—"The Moon Jocks & Prog Rocks"—has some very bonkers lyrics on it. That should hopefully be out in October.
Are we right in thinking then that you're working on a new album? What can we expect from that?
Pål: It will be shorter! We are trying to perfect the four-minute pop song. We're trying, but maybe it will turn out to be 25 minutes or something. Obviously there's a lot of money to be made from pop songs if you get them on the radio.
"We're trying to bring more people
on stage...a horn section, a full choir.
Definitely grandiose—it has to be."
With the new album, will there be more of your eccentric live shows?
Pål: We are developing it now.
Knut: We really want to get away from two guys with computers and costumes. We're trying to bring more people on stage. We have a drummer, a bassist and sometimes a percussionist. We would like a horn section and a full choir. Definitely grandiose—it has to be. Maybe we would do a string section on top of it. It's the way we want to go with it. Hopefully when the new album is ready there will be more shows, if people like us.
Pål: That's why we are hoping to make this radio record, to take us to the next level. But we will not just become commercial. We want to include at least two or three pop-orientated songs on the next album. And when I say pop, I don't mean all this modern crap. I mean with a structure of a verse, chorus, verse. A kind of a Mungolian interpretation of what pop music should be. But we need to work on it.
Perhaps you could follow the KLF's Manual – How to Have a Number One the Easy Way…
Knut: I read the first page, and when it said throw all your instruments away I put it down. I don't think I could do that.
Pål: Pop music in the '80s was a lot more interesting than pop music now. I'm not saying that to sound like an old fart, which I probably will anyway, but pop music used to be really eccentric, especially in the early '80s. If we are to write pop songs it will be more influenced by that kind of thinking, rather than Lady Gaga or that kind of music, which uses all the same sounds.
I mean, if Michael Jackson had released "Thriller" now, it would be seen as a left field record. "Billie Jean" and "Wanna Be Starting Something" have more in common with what they would refer to as leftfield club records these days. More and more, the floor-fillers in my DJ sets are old Arthur Russell records. They seem to be appreciated more and more by younger people, but they think it's new stuff because it sounds so fresh. They don't sound dated at all, just accessible and exciting and different. Those elements are what makes music interesting.
Published / Thursday, 06 August 2009
Photo credits / Header - Nicki Twang
Mungolian unadorned - Pål Laukli
Pål Nyhus solo - Alf Børjesson & Kjell Nordstrøm
Knut Sævik solo - Alf Børjesson & Kjell Nordstrøm
Mungolian live - Per Christian Frankplads
Purple sky Mungolian - Rune Bendiksen