The Swedish trio e.s.t., one of the most influential bands of the last decade, recently released their last album, Leucocyte, a series of informal jam session-based free improvised tunes. Tragedy struck three months before its release with the death of pianist Esbjörn Svensson in a diving accident. Drummer Magnus Öström was kind enough to speak on the phone to Arturo Mora about Esbjörn’s passing, the new CD and what’s to come: past, present and future.
ARTURO MORA: First of all, my deepest condolencies regarding Esbjörn’s passing.
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: Thank you very much, thanks.
ARTURO MORA: Four months have passed since Esbjörn passed away. You were close friends since your early childhoods. How are you bearing his lose?
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: It’s been really hard actually, what can I say? It’s been four months but still it’s a very short time. It will take a long time to kind of get back on track. It’s tough.
ARTURO MORA: We all know what kind of musican Esbjörn was, but how was he like as a person?
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: He was a very dedicated person when it comes to most things, I think. Everything he was interested in he committed himself to it, like in music. He worked a lot, he was very focused in what he was doing, and also a very curious guy.
ARTURO MORA: Leucocyte, the new album by e.s.t., is a freely improvised album. How much of the record was pre-written and how much was fully improvised?
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: There’s nothing written, everything is fully improvised. There’re no pre-structures or compositions that we build on. From the first to the last note it’s totally improvised.
ARTURO MORA: What was the process like? Did anyone start with an idea, was it always Esbjörn? Did you have a little talk before starting a tune or anything?
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: No, we didn’t talk at all actually. Maybe I could start a groove or Dan [Berglund] a bass line or Esbjörn a chord and then we took from there. It was very very open and totally free actually.
ARTURO MORA: Although there’s a lot of room for improvisation it looks like keeping the beat was really important in this context.
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: Yes, it is, yes.
ARTURO MORA: Is it a coincidence that the whole record is in 4/4?
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: I don’t know, it just came out this way. It’s a hard question to tell [laughs], I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about that actually. Maybe the beat comes out naturally like that, or something, I don’t know why it is like that. I don’t have any real answer to that.
When you compose things you can figure out how to change things around and then maybe it’s easier to go with different grooves and different beats, maybe in 7, or 5, but…
ARTURO MORA: What are you thinking about when you’re playing in this context?
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: I don’t actually think much at all, things don’t come really from the brain, they come from somewhere else. It’s hard to tell where it comes from, but you don’t really think, you just start out and listen. You listen to yourself, of course, but you also listen to the musicians around you, it’s the only way you do it. When you improvise like this it’s good if your brain is not there actually [laughs].
ARTURO MORA: How did you come up with the idea of the snare drum solo at the end of “Premonition – Earth”?
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: [laughs] You mean like the machine gun thing? [laughs]
ARTURO MORA: Yeah, that rockish thing.
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: I don’t know. Of course there’s a reminiscence of the Jimi Hendrix song [entitled “Machine Gun”], I think it’s [drummer] Buddy Miles who plays on this song, I don’t know [he does]. My brother listened a lot to Jimi Hendrix, he still does, he’s three years older than me, so I got that music very early in my life. When we played it back and I heard it I noticed I somehow picked it up from there. When I played I didn’t think at all, but, you know, whatever you play it comes from somewhere.
ARTURO MORA: I guess you came up with the song titles, as usual.
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: Yes, I came up with them, yes.
ARTURO MORA: The tune named “Jazz” swing, is there anything ironic in that title?
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: I don’t know, it’s easy to feel that this is ironic, but it’s more like kind of bring that word back to value, because you know people think so much what jazz is, so why not just put that word? People ask: “do you play jazz, or are you a pop band, or whatever, what do you play?”, and that brings back the value of the word for ourselves, and of course you can see it a little bit of ironic, but what can you say?
If you read the titles like a poem you can see how it connects: “Jazz still ajar” [tracks 4, 5, and 6 are “Jazz”, “Still”, and “Ajar”], because that was my first thought on this record, to read the titles like a poem. My titles are usually much longer, but now I wanted just one word on every song, so that was the connection, you can read it like “jazz still ajar”: the door of jazz is still open for us.
ARTURO MORA: When you played live you used to link songs with free improvisational parts. Did the jam session idea come from that?
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: In the beginning it was Esbjörn playing some piano in between songs to connect somehow and then we opened up more and more and it was Dan and me playing things in between, after that it was all together and more and more. This record was like playing this in-between thing to show that part of us. A lot of people when they think of e.s.t. they think about strong compositions and strong melodies, all that stuff, but we improvised a lot, and we thought: “maybe we should try to put this on a record to show that side of us.” So during concerts it was just like we did in the studio: somebody starts something, or it comes from something, from somewhere, and it just goes on and goes over to another composition. In a way that’s a jam in front of an audience, but there were no pre-jams that we took parts from. It was totally free.
ARTURO MORA: Was any material added to the CD after the recording, in the mixing process?
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: No, what you hear is what happened during those two days, there’s nothing added, no songs, no improvised parts, no overdubs, nothing. You hear it like it was.
ARTURO MORA: Now that the band is over, which is your vision of e.s.t. in retrospect?
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: Well, it’s really hard to… The thing that I will remember about the band is that we reached the very valuable point that we found our own sound, our own personal group sound, and that’s a very big thing. Not everyone has the possibility and the time to do that, because people have to struggle and play in different bands to survive. We were fortunate to have the time to work together as a group for so long, for such a long time.
I don’t know, it’s very hard. I’m still in it in some ways. I haven’t listened to the music that much after what happened, but when I hear a song I can hear it from outside, more as a listener, and as I said, I can really hear that this is e.s.t., and sounds like nothing else actually. That’s what I’m very happy about.
ARTURO MORA: Are you especially happy with a determined time within the band’s career, a record, a performance?
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: Wow, we did so many fantastic things together, so many great concerts… More or less every concert was great in some way, because there was a strong thing with the trio that every concert was important, and when we were onstage we were all there, very focused and very concentrated. There was a really important thing for us, that we didn’t go up onstage and thought: “we should take it easy today, because tomorrow we have a very important gig.” That never worked for us, we gave 100% every concert.
What can you say? Of course it’s always very special to play at a new venue in a new country. During the years there were of course different steps taken, and those steps were very important. The first gig in Stockholm in 1992 or 1993 was as important as the last gig in Moscow. One of the good things in the trio is that we were still three guys trying to make music [laughs], like we were still in the basement we were when we were kids, still looking forward, still curious. It was a great thing that we could be there.
ARTURO MORA: Are you aware of how e.s.t. has influenced other bands?
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: Not really, a lot of people have told me enough that they’ve heard trios or they’ve heard other bands that may have listened to us. I have heard it from people in different countries, and also people saying: “you really influenced my band”, but I just can’t really say I’ve heard a band first hand that I can hear they have listened to us. Specially after what happened we got comments and condolences from all over the world, and then I realized how huge it was, because when you’re in the middle of it and travelling from concert to concert, of course you hear good comments from the audience, you know that people like what you’re doing, but after what happened you can really see the impact it had on people. I’m totally stunned, it’s totally amazing. It had a meaning somehow, that we could reach people and maybe make their lives more better or whatever, but if it helped them during their lives it kind of had a meaning, even though what’s happened now. And hopefully people will continue to listen to that music.
ARTURO MORA: A hard question I have to make: what now for you and Dan?
MAGNUS ÖSTRÖM: Now it has been four months. When you’re in such a state after such an event time flies, for me it feels like a month or something. It’s really hard to feel. I’m really trying to adjust to my new life, and it’s the same for Dan. We have done this for fifteen years with the trio, we have travelled the world for ten years in a very intense touring. I just try to figure out how to live our new lives. It’s also hard for us to say musically where to go, it will take a long time to find a meaning. “Why?”, that’s the hardest question. Because you’ve reached as far as you can go with the band, you can say: “we have not really anything more to prove”, or something like that. It’s really hard to find this “what should I do and why should I do it”, because we did it, we did such a great thing with the trio. We’ll see, we’ll see what happens.
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