A Passage From India

Tushar chats with Von Hertzen Brother Mikko about the influence living in India has had on him and his music.

‘Gestalt shift’ is a term of art in philosophy that entered the periphery of the mainstream when it was used by Thomas Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It refers to a change in an interpretation of an experience, a way of experiencing the same stimulus noticeably differently from before.

I recently had a gestalt shift after talking to Von Hertzen Brothers frontman Mikko von Hertzen. Sitting with Mikko on a step on a back road in Camden before VHB’s show at the Underworld last month, I finally got the chance to delve deeper into his connection with India. It was a connection of which I knew nothing until years after I discovered the band. I had certainly never looked for any Indian influence in the band’s music. But the second Mikko mentioned where to look, fittingly, the scales fell from my eyes. Let Thy Will be Done was no longer just a proggy rock song with a riff in 78- it was a rock song based on a talam (the rhythmic structure that forms the basis of a piece of Indian classical music) and a raga (the harmonic context in which a piece is performed). It was the quintessential gestalt shift. And now I could see rhythmic and harmonic ideas all over the early albums which betrayed Mikko’s imbibition of Indian music. I leave it to Mikko to explain.

‘I’d always had an inclination towards spirituality. I had adopted some meditation practices, which I did on my own for three years. But I soon realised that in order to evolve, I needed a master. It was only after meeting Amma [spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi] in Sweden that it really clicked. I decided at that moment to go to India after I graduated. I went there, and I really felt like it was home.’

‘I came back home after that and toured with two other bands, playing drums. That went on for four years. I felt it was time for a change and I went back.’ (After staying for the maximum period allowed by the visa, six months, Mikko was able to get leave to stay in the country for longer, and ended up moving to Kerala, where he spent the next seven years.)

‘It was during that time that I learned about Indian music. Obviously I couldn’t hide my musical background there. I thought my whole career as a rock musician was over, but then I started learning about ragas and talams and these different aspects of Indian music. I got good at playing the harmonium. I naturally combined them with my way of playing music. That’s what led to the first [VHB] album.’

He continued, ‘The Indian influence is the strongest on the second album, Approach, with the talams and the five-beats and the seven-beats. Even the riffs were based on ragas. I had lots of Indian musicians introducing me to styles of music from the North and the South, some of which I liked (and some of which I didn’t). I need to have a spiritual connection with the music. That’s what draws me to artists like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Pandit Jasraj, Bhimsen Joshi.’

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Image credit: Getty)

The previous evening saw the band perform at the Prog awards in London. VHB won the Anthem award at the 2014 Prog awards, an acknowledgement of their place in the contemporary prog movement. But their brand of prog is noticeably different from much else in the genre. How, I wondered, did Mikko fit himself into the prog crowd? ‘With prog, just like with Indian music, I don’t really resonate with complicated and technical stuff. It’s all in the head. It has to go to the heart. I sometimes feel like Indian fusion has too much of that technical aspect. I have friends with fusion bands, and I try really hard to like the music, but I just can’t get the hang of it. It seems to be just about difficult talams and ragas. It’s too mathematical, somehow. That’s why I look for that spiritual aspect.’

As our chat drew to a close, the piling-up of references to spirituality brought to mind the other great spiritually charged progger of our time, Neal Morse. But VHB’s music is noticeably different in intent and tone from Morse’s screamingly overt Christian message. ‘I’m not much of a preacher. I don’t like to talk to people about my faith. I have my thing and I’m not trying to sell it to anybody. The music I make is just an expression of the love and compassion I feel. This is something I learned from Indian musicians. You have to try to put your ego aside and be fully present. And give the music the main role.’