Innerviews, music without borders

Jonas Hellborg
Iconoclastic Expressions
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2004 Anil Prasad.

Jonas Hellborg

Jonas Hellborg’s music is as unique as his personal philosophies. The Swedish bass virtuoso and composer refuses to be bound by rules of convention. He even rejects typical notions of creativity and improvisation. Instead, he sees himself as one who simply reflects the earthly forces and realities that surround him. The many innovative musical journeys he’s embarked on serve as a testament to that outlook.

Hellborg first hit the jazz scene in the early '80s. He quickly made a name for himself with his inventive bass playing that incorporates chordal, percussive and melodic approaches. After releasing a couple of solo albums, he was recruited to take part in Mahavishnu, an updated version of John McLaughlin’s pioneering '70s fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra. During Mahavishnu’s existence from 1983 to 1988, Hellborg also worked with McLaughlin in a variety of duo and trio formats featuring percussionists Billy Cobham and Trilok Gurtu.

In the early '90s, Hellborg collaborated with Bill Laswell on several recordings, including The Word, a solo effort featuring drummer Tony Williams and a string quartet. The pair also worked together on Material’s boundary-breaking Hallucination Engine, Ginger Baker’s thunderous Middle Passage, and two experimental funk releases by Deadline titled Dissident and Down by Law.

But it’s Hellborg’s recordings for his own Bardo and Day Eight labels that best showcase his talents. The labels represent the bulk of his solo output and find him immersed in a multitude of acoustic and electric environments. Solo bass releases, duo efforts with frame drummer Glen Velez, and trios featuring the likes of drummers Michael Shrieve and Apt. Q-258, and guitarists Buckethead and Shawn Lane, are just a few of the labels’ highlights. Lane, who died in 2003 at age 40 of lung disease, served as one of Hellborg’s longest-standing collaborators and was a highly influential player and composer in his own right.

Since the late '90s, one of Hellborg’s key interests has been exploring a unique hybrid of jazz and South Indian classical music. Most of that work featured Lane, who shared Hellborg’s desire to investigate Eastern sounds. Their first Indian music-influenced disc, 1999’s Zenhouse, was a beautiful, largely serene effort that offered their personal take on the raga form.

Hellborg’s next project, 2000’s Good People in Times of Evil, represented a significant leap forward in his approach to Indian music. Along with Lane, the record featured celebrated Indian percussion master V. Selvaganesh, the son of Vikku Vinayakram, an original member of Shakti. The album’s exhilarating musical dialogues were stunning. It also laid the groundwork for the equally impressive follow-up Icon, released in 2003. For that project, Hellborg also invited Selvaganesh’s brothers, vocalist V. Umamahesh and percussionist V. Umashankar, to take part. The quintet showcased an even more seamless integration between Western and Indian influences. With its dazzling group interplay, moments of spontaneous drama, and graceful, ethereal passages, Icon represents the best of what’s possible within Indian fusion. Hellborg has continued integrating Indian music into his work since Icon, including his 2005 Kali’s Son and 2007 Art Metal releases.

Jonas Hellborg

How did the line-up for Icon come together?

When we initially toured as a trio with Selvaganesh and Shawn, Selvaganesh realized that a second percussionist would really enhance the line-up. I asked Selvaganesh if his brother Umashankar would be interested and he said “That’s a good idea. We can do that.” At that point, we were going to perform with the two brothers. Just before we played our first gig, Selvaganesh’s dad Vikku Vinayakram called me up to tell me he has another son named Umamahesh who’s a great up-and coming singer. He said “Why don’t you try to play with him as well? I will even pay for the plane ticket from India so he can perform with you.” [laughs] I said “No problem, I’ll take care of the plane ticket and we’ll try him out.” Umamahesh brought the Indian melodic element to the group and opened up a lot of things for Shawn and I. Shawn in particular got most of his knowledge of Indian music directly from recordings. To actually have people in his presence that could explain all of the intricacies, ornamentation and elements of the raag was a real learning experience for both of us. Umamahesh also had to deal with Western aspects of music within the raag. We were putting Indian melodies and Western chords together. We ended up finding a deeper integration between what we were all doing.

Why did you name the record Icon?

We use icons in pretty much every school of life, including religion and philosophy, to substitute our own identities. We use them to tide us over during difficult times, to organize our knowledge and to deal with the good and bad elements of life. The reason I put a picture of Jesus on the cover is because that’s a very interesting icon. In a way, that icon exists in so many cultures of the world. It exists in Christian culture, but it’s also the face of Che Guevara, the holy man in India and the Zen Buddhist monk in Japan. It’s a universal symbol. The idea of icons is also captured in the album’s song titles. “Mirror” refers to the idea that when we look at an icon, what we’re really doing is looking in the mirror to see ourselves. “Vehicle” relates to icons serving as a vehicle for wherever we’re going. We transport ourselves spiritually in this icon in order to reach something. Finally, there is “Escape.” We also use icons to escape from this existence when we pass on.

Did those ideas play a part during the music-making process or did you apply them after the fact?

They were a part of me when I made the record. Shawn and I were also talking about these things at the time as well. These discussions didn’t create a set of directions for the record though. It’s not like we made music according to the thoughts behind the titles. However, if you look at life at a certain point in time and the music as being part of what we were at that time—in the same way that intellectual life and spiritual life manifested themselves in the moment—then one could say that it was part of the process.

How does spirituality inform your music?

I don’t think spirituality is separate from life. It’s something that is very hard to consider while it’s happening. Life is a mish-mash of experiences. I don’t even know what spirituality is to be honest. It’s a word that can be applied to so many things that aren’t the same. Life is something that happens to you. You don’t make life. To me, music is the same way. If you try to influence music too much, it dies. It needs to be part of the natural flow of everything else you do. There is something else beyond you making the music. I am not making anything. I am just the channel or reflector for the music. If I tried to actually see myself as a creative being who was thinking specifically about making music in the moment, then it wouldn’t come out very well. But if you stop being conscious of what you’re doing and stop trying to make music and rather let all the forces in the room influence you, then things will happen. Everybody who is in a situation when music is happening influences it, be it the audience, technicians, engineers, and even the people who originally built the room you’re playing in. It’s not just about the musician or the composer.
So it’s better not to force things and just yield to the moment and let things happen.

In Indian music, spirituality is fundamental to its very nature. Do those underpinnings affect your approach to working within that realm?

Those underpinnings simply cannot mean the same thing to me as they do to Selvaganesh and his brothers. When we play together, we are not playing the same music as when they play with their dad’s groups and when they are really tied into their religious beliefs. When they play with me, they do not play through that spirituality. They superimpose their musical language onto what I’m saying musically and we find a common ground on which we can co-exist. Westerners are not necessarily bound by the confines of very old religions anymore. We have so much other information that makes us understand the nature of reality—things like modern science, physics, medicine, biology, and astronomy. There’s so much that we know which helps explain how and why we exist. So, we don’t have to subscribe to myths of how a certain god created this bit and that bit. It’s about so much more now. I’m not a judge of if that’s good or bad, but when we know all of these things, we can’t be totally in tune with that old sort of spirituality.

I am now able to say that I am definitely not religious anymore. A long time ago, I actually dabbled with spiritual ideas and tried to figure things out, but at this point in my life, I am 100 percent sure that God is dead. He doesn’t exist. You can’t defend the idea of a conscious entity you can equate with the name God after you know everything that has been discovered over the last 100 years. It makes no sense anymore. God is often a name you use when you don’t understand something, yet you have to explain a phenomenon. You say “Alright, God made this.” But now we’re starting to know everything about everything. There’s very little we don’t know about the existence of life, matter and the forces of energy. So now the mystery is on a whole other level. It no longer deals with the creator or redeemer.

Jonas Hellborg

How do you account for the existence of creativity within this framework?

I don’t believe in creativity. I don’t believe we create anything at all. We are merely discoverers and we reuse ideas. Nobody has ever created anything. Everything is just a recycling of something else. We can see things, discover them, frame them, and show them to other people and say “This is how I look at this.” But in reality, music is the same 12 notes everybody has used for the longest of times. There are a certain number of combinations for those notes that we can use within a certain time space and that’s it—that’s music. The bottom line is we don’t create, we copy. We all do. This is a very interesting idea when we begin to consider intellectual property and copyright. I don’t believe in intellectual property at all. I think it’s an absurd idea. I don’t think people really put enough thought into intellectual property and why it exists. It certainly doesn’t exist for the benefit of people who make music or write books. It exists for the benefit of people who want to take advantage of those people. Originally, copyright was for music and literary publishers, because they can buy a copyright and make money on it. But for some reason, people believe that it exists to defend the rights of people who make pieces of art. Personally, I believe all great books should be published for free on the Internet. I think everyone should be able to read everything. That would be really good for the whole world. The same should apply to music. It should just be available.

How would you make a living if you gave away all your music?

That’s the practical problem. I don’t know how that would work, but in principle, I think all music should be free. In principle, I also think everyone should have food to eat. If you contribute to the world, you should also have the benefit of that world. If you look at things closely, you soon realize that the people who have contributed the most to music are not the people who have benefited materially the most from it. So, the system is flawed and bad. Bach didn’t make any money and he’s the most-played composer in the history of the world. The same holds true for Mozart. He was poor as dirt. Charlie Parker didn’t make much money either. But other people have made tons of money on them because of intellectual property. Record publishers are still taking Charlie Parker’s legacy and making millions on it, but he didn’t get anything. So, where’s the defense of intellectual property there?

Compare the nature of improvisation in Indian classical music to that of jazz.

I have also decided that I do not believe in the term “improvisation” anymore. [laughs] I don’t believe in it because it is such an overused word. Basically, we do not know what improvisation means anymore. Improvisation is usually very predictable. With a bebop player, if you throw him a chart of chords, you’ll pretty much know what to expect in terms of the sonic colors that are going to come out of his instrument. There are rules for what is right or wrong that he will follow. This also holds true for Indian music. It’s just a different set of rules.

I believe much more in the idea of reflecting the stuff that has happened to you over a certain period of time than I do in improvisation. You are sort of forced by the nature of your life to play a certain way. On some kind of deep level, you do invent certain combinations of predefined musical constructions, but it’s also tied to who you are and who you’ve played with. Certain people are going to make you play in different ways and thus influence you. It’s just another way of relating to certain agreed-upon structures and rules of interaction. It’s sort of like a football game in a sense. With football, you don’t really improvise, rather, you are forced by the other players on the field to run in a certain direction or kick the ball a certain way. Actions are generated by the combined effort of forces that are both conscious and unconscious.

Improvisation is also something wrapped up in the perception of the listener. Somebody who knows jazz may talk about the purist forms of genres like bebop. They might be interested in how you tunnel through chord changes and find new melodic twists and turns, but that might be the extent of improvisation they are willing to accept. Indian classical music lovers will admire the new development in the raag forms or the complexity of rhythmical composition and calculations. They’ll say “Wow, he managed to do this and that in that period of time.” So for them, improvisation actually becomes very close to problem solving and mathematics in a sense. For me, in both realms, things are really interesting when we don’t try to intellectually solve anything and it becomes like throwing a ball forward towards a target. If you think about it too hard, in terms of how you move your arm, there won’t be any way to hit it. Ultimately, it’s about having vision, intuition and an innate sense of how to move forward.

Describe the origins of your interest in Indian music.

It goes back to my teenage years of being a hippie. In the late '60s and early '70s, everyone was into Indian music such as The Beatles, Ravi Shankar and Mahavishnu Orchestra. When I started playing seriously, I was into John McLaughlin. Then I started playing with him and meeting all these great Indian people. So it’s been an ongoing thing for me during my whole career. The first thing that’s obvious for a Westerner is the rhythmic complexity of the music. That was my initial attraction and fascination— the method, teaching, composing, and understanding of rhythms. What also really struck me was the melodic aspect of the music, as well as the fine details, ornamentation and variations.

I understand you consider yourself a tourist when it comes to Indian music.

Yes. I think that when you come from somewhere, you have a background through which you learn most of your basic knowledge at a very early age. That’s who you are culturally. It’s very hard to move away from that and become something different. So whenever I approach anything, I understand it with my Western European mind and values. That’s the only language I can use to grasp things. Even though I may know more about Indian rhythms and music than the average person, I can still never be Selvaganesh. I can never learn the music at that level—even if I studied another 50 years. It’s because music is everything. It’s a reflection of who you are. Real music comes out of the ground. It’s not something that can be defined in regular terms. It’s about pitch, dynamics, harmony and it’s in everything, from your body posture to the food you eat to the smells in your backyard. Music is life in its totality. The true definition of a genius is somebody who is most like himself. If you’re being dead honest about everything and behave, act and sound like yourself, then you are saying something. It’s different if you say “Oh, I want to be Indian.” You have to be born into it and live it. So I can go to India, have an interest and enjoy the culture. All of that will reflect in my music, but to jump from that to even thinking about calling what I do “Indian music” is a huge step and one I don’t believe in.

Jonas Hellborg

In addition to India, you’ve traveled to China, Syria and Turkey to collaborate with musicians. What motivates you to stretch your boundaries so far?

I’ve been making the effort because I wanted to know. I’ve heard things that were mysterious to me—things I didn’t understand. These sounds affected me and made me feel something. So I wanted to find out what those things were. I wanted to go to those places and see what made people make music in these ways. I also wanted to learn about the social environments these musics spring out of. It goes back to the time when I was a kid and felt a need to learn and incorporate different musics into what I was doing. It was part of my colonial instinct. [laughs] I wanted to create my own British Museum and steal their stuff so I could have it to look at in my apartment. But I’ve passed a milestone where that sort of thing is no longer important anymore. It’s similar to being a fetishist about books. Whenever I used to read a book, I’d put it on a shelf and be very happy that I had the book as evidence that I had read it—even if it was just for me. But now, if I read a good book, I’d rather just give it to someone else who would benefit from reading it. Or if it’s a bad book, I’d rather just throw it away. I don’t want to impose anymore on other people’s cultures, legacies or anything else. Today, I feel when I want to play with people from all over the world, it’s more about wanting to work with people who intrigue me purely from a musical perspective. I no longer care if someone is Indian or Chinese anymore. I only care about whether or not their music moves me and inspires me to want to work with them.

One of your career’s great collaborations was with Shawn Lane. Reflect on your time together.

Shawn and I had so many common references. He was probably the first and only musician who was into all of the different musics I listened to, including Indian, classical, jazz, and rock. He had a wide scope of interest. If I would bring some type of music up, he’d know what it was. He could quote Bartók, Stravinsky or Chinese folk music in his playing without it being strange or contrived in any way. That sort of appetite for life and music is really rare and wonderful. He was a source of so much inspiration. He knew a lot of stuff I didn’t know and turned me on to things I hadn’t found myself. We’re talking about music, art, literature, science, geography, and food—you name it. It made working with Shawn really interesting all of the time.

I think it’s a great treasure that Shawn was here for the 40 years he had and that we got to do as much as we did together. His clock was ticking. He had medical problems that would not let him live much longer than he did. It was not really a possibility for anything else to happen, so that’s how it went down. I’d rather look at Shawn’s life from the positive side and just be really grateful for the opportunities that arose through our time together, including our collaborations and the great people we got to play with. Despite his sickness, we were able to do all of that stuff. He could always pull himself together enough to do all those records and tours we did. I’ve never had a collaboration that produced so much music before. His passing is a tragedy in so many ways. It’s terrible that somebody has to perish so young. But he lived an intense, full life and did a lot in the short time he had. His personal experience of the world and the results he achieved, including his level of playing, were truly great.

Let’s discuss the decision to start your own label back in the early '80s. At the time, there was no blueprint to make that happen. What spurred you to go that route?

It was the result of a coincidence. I was trying to get a record deal. I had made my first recording and sent it to a Swedish jazz label and they responded by saying “We really like your stuff and would like to put it out, but we can’t afford to because there are huge costs in producing LPs and we don’t know if we’re going to make our money back. So we propose that you manufacture the LPs and sell them to us. We’ll sell them for you and it will be under our label. It will look as if you’ve released it on our label and you’ll get the financial benefits.” So I did that and it worked and I chose to continue under my own label names after that.

There have been many advantages to doing this, but there are also disadvantages. It creates too many distractions from what one should really be doing, which is making music. But on the other hand, perhaps you wouldn’t have had the chance to make that music at all if you had to convince someone else to pay for it and put it out. I also have to admit that sometimes it is better if someone gives you a little advice on whether or not you should do something. But I’ve made my own mistakes and learned from them. Self-releasing your own music in this day and age has got to the point where it’s liberating for people who make music. Anyone can make a CD now. The negative aspect is we’re now drowning in music. It’s really hard to distinguish between all the stuff that’s coming out these days. It’s difficult to have the same impact as during the days before there was no recorded music. In those times, you could only hear music live and it was a really valuable experience. That doesn’t tend to be the case for most people anymore.

Describe how you’ve evolved as a bassist since the beginning of your career.

There are so many different people within you that can respond to that. One might say “There’s been a great development” and another might say “I’m doing exactly the same thing as when I first started.” I’ve developed a lot on the technical level and can do things more cleanly and neatly with more finesse and structure than before, but basically, the same identity is there. The same characteristics manifest themselves. On the other hand, I’ve lived an intense life and it’s been wonderful. I’ve learned a lot about music over the years and played with many great people. All of that rubs off on you. You automatically evolve through these experiences. It’s like when you visit a new city for the first time. You walk around for awhile and all of a sudden you know how it works and where all the squares, streets and shops are. Music works in the same way. If you’ve been around the city of music for a long time, you learn how to get around. You could also make the analogy with language and arrive at a different conclusion. As you get older, you build up your vocabulary and speak with many other people. You find new ways of turning phrases that are kind of slick and impressive. But do you have more to say or not? That’s the question each of us has to answer.

Jonas Hellborg