"It’s always fun to write odysseys. You go on this little musical adventure.” How Motorpsycho made Still Life With Eggplant

(Image credit: Press)

When Norwegian proggers Motorpsycho released their sixteenth album Still Life With Eggplant in 2013 Prog journeyed over to Norway to find out all about their latest offering...

The Oslo Opera House is a breathtaking sight, rising up out of the icy Oslofjord like a glacial palace. Since opening in 2007, the building has become home to the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, and it was here, in November 2012, that Norway’s long-running psychedelic rock act Motorpsycho performed their prog odyssey The Death Defying Unicorn in its entirety. It was the monumental culmination of 23 years of musical exploration, but playing such grandiose music in such a grandiose setting begs the question, where do you go next? Around the corner is the simple answer. We drive past the beautiful Opera House and pull up outside the much more humble offices of Rune Grammofon, where vocalist and bass player Bent Sæther and guitarist Hans Magnus ‘Snah’ Ryan are sat amid emptied coffee cups and an enviable record collection from their label’s rich history in progressive achievement – from Food to Shining – and of course, the new album from our intrepid rock veterans; a stripped-back, raw reaction to the universe created on Unicorn…

Explaining the journey that led to their fifteenth full-length album Still Life With Eggplant, Sæther says: “It has a slightly different history than most of our other records, since this is more or less a mish-mash of songs that we haven’t quite figured out over the past 10 years.” 


(Image credit: Rune Grammofon)

Formed in 1989 as a college rock band in their hometown of Trondheim, Motorpsycho have never ceased to warp and push the boundaries of their musical output, releasing an album every year, experimenting with prog, post punk, West Coast pop, jazz and even country. The over-arching theme of these sonic shamans is that there is no theme, and fans of the band are always left on tenterhooks, awaiting their next musical move. Last year, the duo, with drummer Kenneth Kapstad, who joined in 2007, offered their most progressive album to date with the concept double album The Death Defying Unicorn, collabrating with and written by keyboardist Ståle Storløkken of free jazz group Supersilent and Elephant 9.  

A year on and the odysseys have been pared down to a rock-solid foundation that traverses jazz, cosmic rock, boogie, blues and even a Love cover. “The oldest song is 10 years old and the newest is four months old,” says Sæther of the new album. “Some are really old ideas that we haven’t cracked before. You just chip away and all of a sudden you find it; sometimes it goes very fast and sometimes it doesn’t. We didn’t know if there was an album in all this music, so we decided that we needed someone else to give us some perspective.”

That person was young Swedish guitarist Reine Fisk, who has performed with noted prog acts Landberk, Morte Macabre, Paatos, Elephant9 and Dungen. A fan of Motorpsycho since his teens, he was the perfect choice to help guide the old guard through their archive of unused opuses. But while Sæther and Ryan are excitedly explaining how this new angle reinvented the band once more, Fisk himself is more modest and almost embarrassed about the positive effect he has had on his idols.

“I got a mail from the band asking if I would be a pair of extra ears. I’ve been listening a lot to Motorpsycho over the years, so that was a special thing, but I didn’t realise that I was supposed to play. That was a shock, I don’t think I have the chops.”

The two elder statesmen disagree entirely. “What he gave the music was continuity that we couldn’t find ourselves,” Sæther urges. “You play differently when you play for an audience and when he played with us we played differently as well, so it was just very spur of the moment. It worked a lot better than we hoped.”

“I’m terrible at selling myself,” Fisk laughs, shyly. “I just do what I do, ’cos I have to. That’s why I like this band, because they are one of the biggest bands in Norway, but they were always doing their own thing. They were making double LPs with long tracks back when you weren’t supposed to.”

Sæther and Ryan agree that, in a way, Fisk acted as a vessel to help them empty their heads of the orphaned songs that had been rattling around for years. The reason the duo are so prolific is that there is a constant need to create, and this in turn has made Motorpsycho one of the world’s most mischievous acts. If they feel like writing pop, they write pop. If tomorrow they feel like writing a 40-minute space opera then that’s what album number 16 will be. As they explain this, Rune Kristoffersen, the owner of their label, is overheard laughing. He knows he’s signed one of the most uncontrollable bands and he welcomes their artistic vision.

“After being in that Death Defying… thing, this was fresh air and it was such a relief not having to bother with the lyrical trend of that universe,” Sæther says, of putting their last project firmly behind them and moving onto their next adventure. “It was really refreshing not to have a red thread to tie together; just going in with the songs and seeing if they work.” 

But after such a progressive landmark album, do they not feel that writing to a more traditional rock format is a step backwards? “No, not at all,” he booms. “The other way around, in fact. However, it was fun to go in and purposefully write something that we can present as a concept. You always end up finding some kind of deeper meaning that ties all the music together, but Death Defying… was consciously trying to do that from the start. It’s always fun to write odysseys. It makes sense because you start off somewhere and then you travel, you go on this little musical adventure.”

“It’s been an ambition for so many years,” Ryan adds. “I remember we talked about Heavy Metal Fruit [2010] being a space opera, but this was the perfect opportunity to work properly on a concept album.”

So, after the concept, could Still Life…, with its shorter, disconnected songs, be The Silmarillion to Death Defying’s Lord Of The Rings? Sæther laughs: “Some songs were written at the same time, so it probably has some kind of aesthetic continuation, but I don’t hear that at all.”


(Image credit: Press)

Recorded live at Brygga Studio in Trondheim, Still Life With Eggplant, as with all Motorpsycho albums, sticks to the one formula the band will never discard – that music is something that should be set free, and not an artform that should be over-analysed. You will not find the core duo at the heart of the band labouring over a song structure for years, like some of their contemporaries. Their album-a-year policy has allowed them to build, create and release at a prolific pace that is rarely seen in modern music.

“There is no perfect version of any song,” Sæther notes. “There’s just today’s version of the song and that’s as good as it’s going to get, right now. We might get a better one some other time, but on tape it is representative of the core values of the song. We’re not as uptight anymore. We’ve been through the grinder a few times and we’ve learned what we can and can’t control and what we need to worry about. That’s what we like about jazz music and that’s what we like about gigs, too; you can see the people interacting, and if you can hear that on a record, it’s all good.”

But don’t mistake Motorpsycho for a sloppy, careless band. Each album, Still Life… in particular, is a crafted piece of sonic art, boosted by years of experience, the invitation of youthful collaborators and an overwhelming love for music… all music. And, most of all, a gleeful desire to break all the rules.

“There’s something taboo about the boogie – you’re not meant to play the boogie,” says Sæther, with a glint in his eye, after we listen to the new album’s opening number Hell, Part 1-3. “It will never be hip, so obviously we had to do it. There’s something really appealing about all these taboos, the boogie or the concept album. It’s a giggle to go there and see if you can get anything sensible out of it. And if someone tells you you’re not supposed to do something then you have to do it. We have always been in a good position to do all this experimentation and that’s also what’s expected of us, because your average psychonaut [Motorpsycho’s fans] doesn’t like it when we’re too mainstream. They are easily bored by our pop songs and they like it when we challenge them. We’re more commercial to our core audience when we’re uncommercial. It’s a bit backwards but it really makes us strive to be something else than what we were last year. It’s always forcing us to go further.

“We’re pretty prolific but this is an end unto itself, it’s all about the music for us,” he concludes. “For us, heaven is being in the process of making, or finishing, something new. You also have to get rid of all this music somehow, you have to empty your head of all these things and the album is the perfect format for that since it’s all one big stream of music.”