by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2013 Anil Prasad.
Nik Bärtsch channels optimism and positivity when contemplating the complexities of life as a musician. He puts solutions before problems and dialog above dissent. To those ends, he's spearheaded an ecosystem of likeminded artists with a long-term commitment to music that evolves organically.
The Swiss pianist and composer’s output offers considerable evidence of the success of his philosophies. He’s released 10 albums to date, including four with his group Ronin on the ECM label: Stoa, Holon, Llyrìa, and its most recent recording Live, all of which showcase his highly-architected “ritual groove” approach. It combines principles of jazz, minimalism, funk, and rock, yet is practically a genre unto itself. The music focuses on interlocking rhythmic development, in which band members shift in and out as soloists and melodic leads, while the rest weave together tightly-knit, percussive structures that propel the pieces forward.
Bärtsch works within several varied contexts. Ronin, his main ensemble, includes bassist Thomy Jordi, drummer Kaspar Rast, and saxophonist/bass clarinetist Sha. An extended version of the group, Ronin Rhythm Clan, featuring a horn section, also performs on occasion. In addition, Bärtsch works with Mobile, an entirely acoustic unit which plays concerts up to 36 hours in length, accompanied by immersive environmental lighting and design elements. Bärtsch also composes and performs classical-oriented works for orchestra, piano, bass clarinet, and percussion. Solo work is another mode he explores, via one-man prepared piano and percussion shows.
All of Bärtsch’s vehicles are informed by a steadfast non-conformist perspective that involves taking charge of all aspects of his career. He runs his own label, Ronin Rhythm Records, which has released several adventurous, groove-oriented instrumental works from the likes of SONAR, Sha and Ingrid Lukas. He also runs Exil, a club in Zurich established as a self-perpetuating organism for creating performance opportunities for his projects and other forward-looking acts.
Bärtsch’s aesthetic is informed by an interest in Japanese martial arts. He’s an avid practitioner of Aikido, a practice steeped in the idea that trust, commitment and humility serve as the underpinnings for distinctive individual life paths. Aikido typically translates into “the way of unifying life energy,” which as this conversation reveals, accurately captures Bärtsch’s overall sense of responsibility as a writer and bandleader.
The new live album reflects the closing of an important chapter in the band’s life. Describe what it signifies.
We’re in a new phase. For the first time, a member quit, with the departure of percussionist Andi Pupato in 2012. It became challenging to play precisely and dynamically with five members. Socially, the band had been very stable for over 11 years. Things did change a lot with Andi’s departure, though. When Andi was in the group, we had five musicians, two technicians and a sound engineer on tour. It was a big group in terms of social interaction, organization and administration, as well as for me as a composer, to precisely write for such a working band. Last summer, things came to an end in terms of the possibility and capacity to keep the band socially flexible. The live album represents the point at which we said “This reflects a heritage. This is how the quintet version of the band was operating at a very high level during its last years.” Now, we are in a new phase and it’s very, very inspiring and fresh. We refreshed the relationship between me and our drummer Kaspar Rast. We’ve played for 30 years. Drums have always been the backbone of the band. I’ve refined our interaction a lot in terms of how I work with his subtle drumming. When Andi was still with us, he was modest enough to take himself off the back end sometimes and play a lot on the shakers. Shakers have always been a special aesthetic feature of Ronin’s music. I love the sound of shakers, different shakers, and different levels of shakers. On the other hand, when you have a lot of shakers, a lot of overtones cannot happen, such as high-hat interactions and ghost noting on the snare drum.
One of our goals was to have the previous quintet sound like a trio, and now as a quartet, this is more possible. Together with Sha, our reeds player, we now have the ability to enable listeners to hear more overtones and we can create better tension between sound fields and deep groove parts. The direction is very inspiring, but it was complex to get there because of the social elements that came into play when a long-time member like Andi left. But musically, it has opened up a direction I have always wanted to go in as a composer. Now, I have more space for the melodic and harmonic parts to be heard. We have more space for the bass clarinet and piano. In particular, the bass clarinet always had a lot of percussive elements. We are actually a band of four percussionists. We had some difficult times during the transition, but the band as an organism is relieved. Suddenly, we have a new, very fresh perspective. Sometimes, the stage is a jungle and the players and performers are the animals. You can’t solve a band’s problems with a psychologist. People can cooperate well, but they can also fight. Now, we have a new hierarchy and organization. Things are flowing again, and it’s very fun to play. The social energy is taking the music in another direction, so the live album shows a certain phase that is now closed.
Describe your philosophy as a bandleader.
I think we have a competency hierarchy. I also need to have a natural authority to lead the band. I cannot force anybody to do something and I don’t want to force them to do anything. I want to convince them instead. We have a high agreement structure which has developed a lot after every tour. We sit together and talk about what worked and what didn’t. We have a monthly meeting as well in which we talk about what we have to change, who needs what and suggestions for the future. I serve several functions as a bandleader. I’m not concerned about being the nicest, the best or someone who needs a lot of love. I see it as a job and a function. Everyone in the band has several functions. We’re all looking for agreements among ourselves that work.
I compose all the music and organize everything, together with management and the rest of the team. I organize the money. I founded the club. I also lead the band in terms of design and working with photographers. But we always discuss these decisions and my intention is to determine what is okay for the others. It’s a constant process that’s never done and of course, we have conflicts sometimes. I try to keep things interesting and challenging on a musical level. Others have several functions as well. For example, I don’t have a driver’s license. I can’t drive. So, when we organize tours, we have agreements about how far we’ll travel, what vehicles we need and whether or not we need a tour manager.
Our agreement structure extends to determining at which point one of us can decide for himself how to proceed with something. It’s democratic, but in a democracy, not everybody has the same functions. Certain people have more power to act or more respect from the others to decide. In the long run, it’s these leadership capacities that help the band stay together. It’s very important that I try not to abuse my power. When you’re in a leadership position, you do have a certain degree of power, and there are others that have less. Power can also seduce people to make decisions that don’t take into account other people’s concerns. I try to avoid that situation and ensure people in the organization have the opportunity to state their opinions.
Take me through the evolution of your rhythmic concept.
My affinity for rhythm was established very early when I was a little child. I liked to drum on things everywhere. I would even play on ashtrays. Certain grooves inspired me to move, even then. In my hometown of Zurich, there isn’t a specific groove tradition like you’d find in New Orleans. So, I don’t remember being inspired by a certain style, but rather by pieces of music that worked within groove and beat balances inside a beat culture. When I say “beat culture,” I don’t mean pulsation music like new minimal classical music that works with patterns. That was also an inspiration, but I was attracted to music from all kinds of styles. I didn’t like ballads much. I liked the rhythm-based pieces. Later, I discovered that ballads also worked with rhythms, with more empathy and a calmer flow.
When I was eight years old, I wanted to play drums. My mother was looking for a teacher, because in the school I was attending, they offered things like flute and violin. It was very elementary and not very inspiring to me. I also had a disagreement with the teacher who would always put me out of the class. The teacher told my mother that it made no sense for me to be there because I was disturbing the class and also because I was not very musical in relation to what was offered there. [laughs] My mother asked the teacher if she could talk to me in a way that would be more interesting to me, but the teacher said “No, it makes no sense.” I wanted to play drums and drums weren’t allowed. The teacher said it was not an instrument for a small kid. My mother said “Yes it is. It is an instrument for him, because he wants to play them.” So, she looked for a private teacher and found this very good one named Sal Celi, who was an American living in Switzerland. I learned to drum from him. He played with me a lot. I have an autograph from him on a record he played on which reads “For Nik, a very talented musician.” During that period, I had no idea what being a musician exactly meant. My mother always supported me. I didn’t come from a family of musicians, although my grandfather was a music lover and always said “Music is Heaven on Earth.” He would play flute in an amateur marching band in Zurich, but I didn’t really have a role model as a musician.
When I was nine years old, I saw a guy playing piano. The irony of this story is that he was the son of the teacher who said it makes no sense for me to play in the class. He was playing some boogie-woogie stuff and I remember going home and telling my mother “I want to learn piano. I want to play this stuff, not the simple classical melodies like I had to learn as a kid.” I wanted to learn rhythmic music, which again, was not possible in school, because it was all about classical music there. So, again, my mother went looking for a private teacher. At this time, at the end of the ‘70s, it was not so common in Switzerland to find a teacher that played boogie-woogie, but she found one and he was very good. His name was Hanspeter Reimann and he taught me by listening and watching. I learned very fast. I already liked working with rhythmic balances and patterns.
My mother had a birthday wish at that time to have me play a piece by Bartók. I couldn’t read scores until I was 15, but the teacher taught me how to play it. He also taught me a lot of Chick Corea. He was from Berklee, and also showed me some of the first synthesizers at the beginning of the ‘80s. At that point, I had already met Kaspar. We met when I was 10 and he was nine. We were already trying out odd meters. Very early on, we played in an experimental band at the unofficial music school we were both attending. They were teaching children like us popular, modern music. There were no other players other than Kaspar and I, along with two other guys, who were able to work with this music. But when gigs happened, the other two were always sick or had a hand injury or something. So, they never came. We always played together with the teacher in a trio.
The Chick Corea stuff was influential and from there, I developed in a very organic way. In our first band, I wrote a beat that was in seven, so that element was already there. We were also inspired by fusion, funk and Brazilian music. Things developed very slowly and when I was 16, interestingly, I started to learn classical music. At age 20, I studied classical music at an academy called Musikhochschule und Konservatorium Zurich. Erna Ronca was an important teacher there, who inspired me and really taught me the basics of movement. I was interested in modern classical music and rhythmic concepts, as well as composers like Stravinsky and Morton Feldman. In my mid-20s, that combined with the influences of people like Steve Coleman and other stuff that was intelligent groove music. I also began to study philosophy and linguistics and had a phase of radicalism in terms of thinking about what I’m actually doing, which styles to play, and why I play what I play. I was always good at helping out in bands in which somebody couldn’t play something. I quickly understood concepts and could play in the style of someone else. But I was never good at developing a specific language at that point. So, I could copy people, but I felt this wasn’t leading anywhere.
I decided to stop everything and no longer work in bands that didn’t make sense anymore for me. I chose to develop my own concept. I had friends who were also very inspired by Steve Coleman’s music. The Tao of Mad Phat and The Hot Brass Club albums were very influential. I also saw them live. All of this was always in combination with classical music, and that is the unique connection. I also took courses in minimal music at the conservatory. I was inspired by the early works of people like Steve Reich who created a certain dramaturgy with minimalist patterns. Reich was far more intelligent in terms of modern music and formal thinking than the other minimalists in my opinion. He was actually an art composer, not a popular composer. Together, people like Reich, Feldman, Bartók, Stravinsky, Coleman, and the big influence of Japanese ritual music and aesthetics informed my direction. When I say Japanese rhythmic music, I’m talking about spiritual music, not just court music—Zen meditation music and rhythmic drumming music. These are Japanese influences that aren’t just fixed in one point of history.
You’ve said ritual is at the core of your music. Elaborate on that.
Exactly, yes. For me, ritual does not mean religion or minimalism. It’s a term that I have chosen because it is neutral, but it reflects certain energies and strategies related to musical styles I am interested in. I find ritualistic elements in Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” and Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.” I also find it in Steve Coleman’s music and in the meditative music of some world music traditions. It has to do with the time of repetition that creates a flow. I’m not talking about an esoteric trance, but a spiritual trance, in a way. This trance makes you awake, but in an intuitive, not intellectual way. Usually, saying “trance” and talking about psychedelic trends relates to drugs and losing control. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in meditative grooves that are about being more connected to all sorts of interactions with your surroundings, including people and animals.
Is that related to your perspective that your music is about capturing the essence of inhabiting urban spaces?
Yes. There are musicians that have a certain spiritual background that come to their music with an idealistic perspective of reflecting beauty and kindness, without elements of the bad world of modernism and consumerism. I don’t think things are as simple as this. We’re always interacting with several energies in our lives. When you live in a town, you’re able to be where art is happening, right now—as opposed to someone who goes off to an island and paints. Performance, to me, is always an interaction between people and players. We all create performances together and we need to be somewhere where people are interested in that. Usually, these are urban spaces. People are magnetically attracted to doing something together in order to have an exchange and think about modern energies and concepts. When you’re in an urban space, you can focus on the possibilities of how we can come together as a community and develop our ideas further within a modern consciousness. There is a lot of ritualistic energy there and you can create even more through performance. There’s an interesting paradox in finding your focus in urban interactions more than when you go into a monastery and just focus on a spiritual path.
What I’m describing is a ritualistic pulse that includes your being as an energy that is interacting with all of your surroundings. It’s about developing a paradoxical consciousness for yourself and your actions. By that, I mean you’re always self-reflecting. You know you’re an individual energy, but you also know at the same time that you’re never alone, because we are always together. The paradox that is always posed, as it relates to the pulse of music, is that we typically only have the word “spiritual” to describe someone who trains or develops a consciousness for hand craft that is pursued every day. It’s how we talk about serving a certain energy that is important for us. But eating also gives us energy. And some species are even nourished by music. I don’t mean all of this in an esoteric sense. I mean it in a very practical sense. For instance, I’m reading a lot of books about ape research, specifically by Frans De Waal. He has written a lot about the empathy of animals. If you think about it, we’re actually all apes, in a way. His idea is that cooperation, empathy and justice are actually things that have existed for a few million years through evolution, not just since the French Revolution. So, these things are very strong and have to do with our intuitive connections.
Even in these times today, one of the most interesting pulses that stays with us as musicians is one you can’t get digitally. It’s analog. It’s about our body and physical consciousness. It’s about the connection between our mind and body, and training it for performance is a very special thing. You can’t perform through training. You’ll lose the connection and intuition if you do so. But you do have to train. Richard Sennett has written books about hand craft. His idea is that in modern times, despite the fact that we have digital media, work with computers and processes, we haven’t become robots. We are still evolving. It was a major development for us to just walk in a straight line as humans and even that is not finished yet. I don’t have a romantic idea of being a human in these digital times. What is important are questions such as “How do we want to train our bodies for this world?” and “How can you be constantly in contact with your physical awareness and musicianship today?”
Joe Zawinul told me he feels the ultimate goal of a jazz artist is to tell stories. Is there an element of storytelling in your music?
That’s an interesting question, because in jazz, you hear a lot of talk about storytelling. So often, what the soloist is doing is compared to storytelling. I’ve always wondered where this comes from. There are two aspects to consider here. First, the comparison of language with music as structural systems or coherent systems. The other thing is the idea that somebody has something to tell when he or she plays an instrument. In other words, they are saying something specific, instead of just anything. Sometimes, when you hear someone play, you might say “That was something” or “That didn’t touch me.”
When Stravinsky composed music, he said “I’m not creating emotions when I compose. I’m creating meanings about music.” He also said his only comment about a piece of music was to write another piece of music. He didn’t feel he could talk about music. Music creates its own world. What that means for me is that musical pieces have a certain coherence when they have a good dramaturgy. Their meaning and interactions within different structures have to be created by the musicians. Although the score may be clear, the musicians must understand the language as it relates to them.
I’m talking a lot about my band here. In the beginning, we spoke a certain language and then it developed into dialects. When you’re really a band, you also talk neighborhood slang. Certain ironies develop which mean something to us. They’re like jokes and sometimes they give certain hints that show how a piece has to develop. Sometimes, the audience understands the slang and sometimes not.
The elementary thing is that somebody has something to say on an instrument and that when he or she plays, you’re listening to the development and the dramaturgy, and it can have a direct, emotional impact. The sensuality of a musical statement can be significant when you know he or she has to perform it. You can sense that it’s authentic. You can feel that there is life in the background. It’s difficult to exactly describe, but it’s probably an emotional clarity. Look at Bob Marley. It’s clear he made music a lot of people in the world understood. It had enough in common with everyone that they could project something of themselves into the music. “Get Up, Stand Up” can be used for a lot of situations, whether it’s freeing yourself from a dictator or your boss at work. But the music meant something very unique for the community it came out of. It has a clear message that is authentic when you hear it. It has individual phrasing as a song. You could never fake that song. It’s impossible. You can copy something, imitate something and speak a language on a high level, but it doesn’t mean that you can create a poem with that language and a unique, individual statement as a person or a band. You have to work on this together, like Ronin has done every Monday for eight years. We’re always developing everything, always. We work on it every day.
Joe Zawinul did a lot with groove and pattern concepts in music that have nothing to do with long solo-based storytelling. He was about developing motifs in terms of telling a story to a child. His music is very influential on me. He worked with African and other world music concepts. He didn’t have to have one theme. He combined motifs and then grooved with them. He once said that in Weather Report “We are never soloing and always soloing.” I liked those words very much. It’s a different way of saying things. The way I say it is that we’re interested in creating a seductive dramaturgy that moves you in a very sensual way as a whole being.
I’m very much interested in strategies that avoid classical ways of developing music in terms of “You have harmony and you have a melody that you will always follow with your ear.” You can avoid a lot of this by playing a solo in a certain way or in a certain register, so that when you hear it, your ear thinks of the whole band as a rhythm section. You can change the functions so the rhythms and pattern work function as the melody.
What is the biggest challenge you face in your creative process?
When I write a piece, the biggest challenge is to have as little material as possible, but enough material so that it is not just an experiment or a formal exercise. The strategy is for the piece to have as little meaning as possible, not in terms of what you can interpret as a listener, but in terms of motifs. Morton Feldman once quoted the French writer Stendhal who said “Be clear at all costs,” so your message can be understood. I want my work to be seductive and physical enough so that it’s like something you eat because you want to eat it. In other words, the listener listens because he or she wants to. I don’t want it to just be intellectually nourishing and attractive only because it’s beautiful in its form. When a piece is finished, I want it to have a coherence, so the material speaks for itself.
When we play live, it becomes about something else. Live, many things can happen, and a piece is something we can work with and create tension through, by moving through a triangle of composition, interpretation and improvisation. This means not only do individuals work with the material with an individual voice, but we also all create ghost notes. We have a certain way of listening that brings ghost notes into a piece. Soloists develop like animals that hide in their surroundings. When it moves, you see it, and when you don’t see it, you see the whole environment instead. We try not to have such clear borders between interpretation and improvisation. Sometimes, the listener won’t know what is actually agreed upon—what is composed and what is improvised, or who has a free voice, who is playing a pattern, which pattern is invented in the moment, and which is in the composition.
I think every musical strategy has its strengths and weaknesses. I try to combine the strategy of Western art history in which it’s forbidden to repeat yourself with the Japanese aesthetic tradition in which you repeat things until they develop. I don’t repeat strategies, but I vary them. I was never inspired by the idea that you have to completely redefine yourself every season. I call what we engage in “spiral development,” in that you always come back to the roots.
When we perform, we often play a lot of old pieces, but we change them constantly. They are like beings that are growing and evolving. This was perhaps the biggest challenge at the end of the quintet. We arrived at a certain point in which the variation possibilities were very limited because we became so precise in our approach and it no longer worked. Now, with the quartet, we have so many possibilities to dynamically vary and change things and let ourselves be surprised and inspired. Remaining surprised and inspired are big challenges as well. Maintaining high energy while also staying relaxed and flexible, while enjoying what you’re doing are other challenges. In general, it’s a major thing in life to find your balance between being serious, relaxed and having fun.
You’ve called yourself a “servant of the music.” Is that what all of this distills down to?
It means that I’ve learned we are not influenced by the stream of music. Rather, it is the stream of music that influences us. It’s a gift that we can play music and that everyone has his or her specific talent. Each of us is also responsible to work on what we do. We train. It’s not just about having fun. It’s a responsibility to make the most of the capacities and gifts you have. We have a real responsibility for music as a universal, spiritual energy. It gives me so much. I’ve learned that it’s a very right and fair energy. When you invest a lot of training in it and devote yourself to quality, then usually this comes back to you. When I say “music as an energy is fair,” I don’t mean this in an esoteric sense. I mean it in a hand craft sense. That’s what I mean as being a servant to the music. Music is an energy. I don’t know what it is. It’s a mystery. It’s also the biggest gift for me as a conscious being.
What was it like for you to shift from the universe of self-produced, self-released recordings over to working with ECM and Manfred Eicher, beginning in 2006?
My grandfather, before he died, said “What I have from life is not a lot of money, but my experiences.” He meant that life is about learning. I want to learn from people who have a lot of experience with music and the music business. There are many things you cannot learn in school. You must learn them from the masters. That was the main point when I had the chance to speak to Manfred Eicher. I knew this man has a lot of experience. He knows a lot about sound, resonances and how things can and could happen in music. He’s very dedicated to what he does. When we started to work with him, it was important for us that this new experience challenged us on a new level. We went in very prepared when we arrived at the studio, but I didn’t know what would happen. It could have gone in any direction, but we wanted to try it out and risk something to see what would happen to us as a band. Manfred is a strong personality, but it’s only when you take risks that you learn something. I was interested in having feedback about my compositions, our playing and way of working. I also wanted to see what would happen to this band as we got more international. Could we develop further? How does it prove us as a community? How does that validate this music? Does this music have something to say to people around the world? I was convinced it did.
When we went into the studio with Manfred, it was a very inspiring experience, particularly as a pianist. I learned so much about piano sounds and piano playing from him. I didn’t hear some things previously. When I was with him in the studio, he helped me understand some combinations of overtones and provided insight into the development of piano notes. He explained what happens to a note itself as you’re playing it.
Manfred is also an expert in creating albums that have a certain dramaturgy. When he’d listen to the tracks, he’d often immediately and intuitively find the weaknesses of a track. He’d comment on where it hangs or where something should change. In “Modul 35,” there was a little bell in the composition that goes through the whole piece. Manfred said “It distracts from what else is happening when the band is playing a bit more freely.” So, we did a second take in which the bell is out of the main complex and goes into the roads of the piece and is a bit more hidden. This changed a lot and made the piece a lot more natural. He had a lot of feedback like that.
Some people fear strong opinions and Manfred has strong ones, sometimes. I liked that. I also felt free to provide my opinions. I never felt he wanted to change something fundamental for us as a band. We were very clear about what we presented in terms of the pieces and the whole aesthetic. The partnership with ECM is really brilliant and the people there have good instincts and have made our music known. They have a great network and a high consciousness in terms of the relationship between music, literature, aesthetics, and visual arts. For instance, I’m interested in how the cover and booklet look, and I was invited to be part of the development of both. It’s how I like to work. ECM respects people who are seriously interested in music.
Describe the journey that led to establishing your Zurich club Exil.
The club has a lot to do with us as a band. These are challenging times. Instead of complaining about these times, I thought I should do something about them. Everyone has to create their own opportunities to present their music these days. The goal with the club isn’t to say “There is something cool here.” Rather, the goal is to answer questions like “Is it cool?” “Is there resonance?” “Are younger people interested?” “Who is coming?” “How long can we do this?” “Does it have relevance for the community?” “Which community?” “How big is the community?” and “Do people come to Zurich to listen to us or is it just for local people?”
Things started after I read a newspaper article about a guy in New York who held an open house at his home, once a month, for 40 years. People just knew this guy was having an open house and liked that they could go over there and experience a sense of community. I liked this sort of reliability. So, between 2001 and 2004, I decided to make the first Monday of every month an open house in my home too. From noon to midnight, everyone could come over. It’s an offer. Sometimes only a few people came, sometimes a lot came. Some stayed a few minutes, others stayed a few hours. It was an interesting social experiment that explored how you can offer something that people need in these times.
Next, I felt we had to create something for Ronin. We play together a lot, but we didn’t want to always be organizing rehearsals or go for three-month periods in which we didn’t meet, which isn’t good for the music. We wanted things to develop, and we needed more commitment, as well as a home base. So, an underground club opened, where we jammed as young players. The club’s boss asked me if I wanted to help and I said “Okay.” I respected him very much, because he was important for the Zurich jazz scene. His name was Beat Kennel and the venue was the Bazillus Club. Next, I said “I want to rent Mondays,” which we did from November 2004 through August 2009. I found supporters to help make that happen. We had a five-year run doing this non-commercial Monday concert series. Every Monday, I held a workshop from 2pm-4pm and then had a concert in the evening. The money from the workshops was invested in the evening concerts, which provided a little fee to the musicians.
I saw an enormous change in the band as a working unit. The idea of a working band is so hard to realize. I read that Herbie Hancock, when he had the Sextant band, that everybody told him he was nuts. He was told “It’s too much to handle. You cannot play with this band.” He invested all his royalties from “Watermelon Man” to keep it together. So, I was inspired by that in terms of the fact that the really big names have to sacrifice as well. They can’t just play the music they like all the time. So, I tried to do it and it was hard sometimes, but something was happening. More and more people came. We did the Bazillus nights for five years, but after three years, I realized the club wasn’t evolving as we developed the quality of our music. We got more well-known through ECM and I felt we had to change something.
Every Monday, we had to restart our aesthetic at that club. We had to invest a lot to change the club to make it proper-looking and to help the club with a lot of details that were so important to create a weekly workflow. It wasn’t working on the level I wanted. So, together with a friend of mine, Christoph Kellenberger, who is an architect, we decided we should create a club of our own. Suddenly, an opportunity came up because his company was transforming an old factory and we thought it could work as a club. It was a big financial risk, but we said “Let’s find partners.” Alone, it was too heavy a commitment. We found people who had experience in running clubs, in food and beverage administration, and financing—people who were interested in our concept. Most people said it was impossible, too expensive and that we should forget it, but we did find three other people that joined us, including Mici Vollenweider, a promoter and club owner; Dominik Müller, a club owner and organizer; and Tosho Yakatokuo, a drummer and cook. We built it in four months and captured the aesthetic we were looking for. It’s a club for musicians and music lovers. We called it Exil and switched our Monday series over to the new club in the summer of 2009.
It’s brilliant. Now, we have our own light show. We have a good P.A. system. The club is all black. It has a beautiful bar. We can work on our terms and not depend on organizers who say “Maybe you can play two or three times a year in your hometown.” We’ve created something ourselves. It’s a model of how you can create relevance and work constantly. We are still learning how this can develop further. We want to show people that this can work and that anybody can do it. I’m not a hero. I’m just a normal person who wanted to create this with all of my friends. I wanted to show that this can happen outside of London, Paris, Berlin, or New York. It’s happening here, right now, in Zurich. It’s our neighborhood.
I also wanted to help young players and show them that they can do things on their own terms. I wanted them to know that they didn’t have to invite an American to guest with their band in order for it to become relevant. You have to believe in yourself as a musician. And when you work on your music and decide that it’s really important, there is a way for you to create interaction with an audience in your own way.
Since we opened the club, I’ve learned so much about different perspectives. Typically, when you’re a musician, you have a different outlook from a label boss, organizer or club owner. Now, I know a lot about those perspectives, including promotion, financing and negotiation. Now, I don’t judge people until I understand what it’s like to be in their shoes. You can’t go to a university to learn these things. You have to experience the challenges first-hand. We’ve lost money on certain evenings in which nobody came. So, we had to strategize about what we change next time. I’m not trying to reinvent the music business, but I am trying to learn it myself, by working with masters like Manfred Eicher and other experienced people. There are a lot of people who experience failure and feel it’s the fault of others that something didn’t work, but the truth is, it’s always your own fault—always. If you have that perspective, you can change something. You can’t just place the blame on somebody else. I must confess though, that I have taken a lot of risks that have brought me to the borders of my health and my limits in terms of my capacity to deal with everything I have to learn. Sometimes, it feels like the learning is just fighting against too many fronts, but I feel I must do it. I’ve had to adjust my own capacities along the way, too.
Having said all of that, creating the club was one of the best things I ever did as a musician. Even when I’ve lost money, I’ve felt that it was in support of music that was brilliant. It was beneficial for the musicians, the people that came to the show, the press, and for us as organizers. It’s about creating something together that’s meaningful for everyone involved.
How well are your recordings selling in these challenging times?
We are quite okay. Ronin has sold more than 50,000 records, mainly through ECM. So, I’ve got nothing to complain about. Times and mediums change of course, but the music and energy do not. You always have to find a balance in terms of how you record and perform music, and consider the relationship between those. ECM has a good philosophy on where they present their music, including the Internet. You can download the music legally through many channels. Of course, I think getting music for free makes no sense. Creating music is a big process. It’s exactly the same as when you’re selling food or a watch. People are not getting those things for free. So, just because you have the possibility of copying something, does not mean you should get it for free. This is an idiotic way of thinking. The big Internet companies are the ones making lots of money. In Europe, we even have political parties called “pirate parties” who are really just guys who are programmers for these big Internet companies. So, they actually earn money creating programs that are not free, yet they want the music for free. They are stupid, if you ask me. They are not coherent. They have no sense of community or philosophy of how quality art is developed.
What does all of this say about society when so many people don’t understand that?
It has always been the case that there are a lot of people who want things for free. But there are also people who understand that you need to pay for things. I know a lot of young people who have a positive philosophy and a community spirit when it comes to the arts.
They’re in the minority, though.
Yes, but all of us, musicians and even music journalists like yourself, have always been in the minority. My music and your writing are not for the majority.
Agreed, but we seem to be in a downward spiral, with the majority no longer caring about the fact that they dramatically and negatively impact artists’ livelihoods by stealing music.
We as adults have a responsibility to teach children what all of this means. I think it comes down to how we talk about the value of music and how we educate people. As Janet Jackson said on her Rhythm Nation album, “We are in a race between education and catastrophe.” Today, you can go to a workshop with your kids in which they learn how to record pop tracks in a studio environment. We could also show them how much a sound engineer costs, how much the room costs to rent, and how you press a CD or album. They can learn how many hours and months it took to make the music that you can in turn download in seconds. You can then compare that to buying a meal that costs $30, including the effort that went into it, and the fact that the next morning you have to eat again. They should understand that with a record or song, you can have it for years. Twenty years later it can remind you of your youth. A song can be very valuable and give you a lot of energy. So, we need to teach people with enthusiasm and as role models how valuable music is as an energy. They need to understand what goes into a single track that costs a dollar or an album that costs $10 on iTunes. You get something for the duration of your life. It costs nothing when you look at it that way. An album could cost $100 and would still be cheap if you think of it in those terms.