“We don’t see any point in repeating ourselves." The story of Motorpsycho's The Tower

(Image credit: Geir Morgen)

Even by their own standards, Motorpsycho’s new album is big. The Tower flexes its muscles across two discs, taking in everything from hellfire stoner rock to bucolic folk prog. At times it threatens to collapse under its own sheer weight, only to shift its balance in other, wholly unexpected directions. “I don’t know how many albums we’ve done now, but we’re pretty fed up with the normal verse-chorus-verse way of doing things,” explains singer/bassist Bent Sæther, who also doubles on guitar and keyboards. “So this time around we started building on various themes and riffs and it all got quite humongous in the end. We’ve basically bitten off as much as we could.”

Motorpsycho rarely do anything by halves. Since forming in the Norwegian city of Trondheim nearly 30 years ago, the band have released over two dozen albums. Some of them, like 1994’s Timothy’s Monster or 2006’s Black Hole/Blank Canvas, are voyaging epics. Others are slightly more succinct. But no two Motorpsycho records are ever quite the same, their anything’s-game approach as liable to find the common ground between jazz and psychedelia as it is metal and prog. Or, in the case of 1994’s The Tussler – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, raw-boned country music.

“We don’t see any point in repeating ourselves,” states Sæther, who co-founded the band with singer/guitarist Hans Magnus Ryan in 1989. “You’re bound to run into the same territory you’ve been to before, but early on we realised that the worst thing you can do is compete with yourself. It’s only going to be second-rate if you do that. All our favourite bands are the ones that have taken their initial form and tried to expand on it. I’m a big Deadhead and The Grateful Dead are the best example of that, in that the songs are just excuses. It’s like there’s a key and a tempo, then here we go. That kind of looseness is really inspiring. We try to write songs that force you to be totally focused on the here and now.”


(Image credit: Ruyne Grammofon)

Despite all this creative wanderlust, Motorpsycho do operate under a set of guidelines, however movable. Sæther puts this down to their beginnings in the Trondheim squat scene, where a bunch of hardcore noise bands formed just as grunge was taking hold. 

“We were trying to fuse Sonic Youth mayhem with Hawkwind mayhem,” he recalls, “but with maybe a prog song or two in there, and some Led Zeppelin. If you look at everything roughly, that’s more or less what we’ve been doing ever since, though maybe wider and further out.”

The arrival of The Tower coincides with both a new chapter in Motorpsycho’s life and our troubled new political climate. Sæther and Ryan recorded the album in California earlier this year with executive producer Dave Raphael. The music, especially on disc one, is often dense and foreboding – Bartok Of The Universe, A Song For Everyone, the title track – while the lyrics speak of dark deeds and strange times.

As Sæther points out, the album’s themes were shaped by the seismic shift in American politics as Donald Trump took office. 

“Musically, we started way before current events and all that stuff,” he says. “It was all instrumental until I began writing the lyrics around the time of the US election. That was the direct result of a lot of paranoia – it was the thing most forward in my mind at that point. Nothing else felt as important. 

“When it came time to record with Dave Raphael, who’s American, it kind of put it all into perspective. It’s all about decency, I think. That’s what the lyrics are addressing. Do whatever you need to do, but c’mon, be decent. Be human.”

The louder moments on The Tower were recorded with Raphael at White Buffalo studios in Los Angeles, but Sæther and Ryan felt they needed a change of scenery to capture the less punishing, more pastoral tones that dominate disc two. They duly headed east to a recording space in Joshua Tree, nestled a couple of hours away in the Mojave Desert. 

“Downtown LA doesn’t really lend itself to acoustic guitars and hippie vibes, so we decided to add the other venue too,” Sæther says. “Motorpsycho could’ve concentrated on the other stuff and made a proper heavy rock album, but we needed the acoustics in there to add a different texture and make it more hippified. We wanted it to represent the whole band and what we’re about, so we needed that kind of concept too.”

Aside from the hitherto largely unexplored political agenda, the other fresh aspect of The Tower is the inclusion of Motorpsycho’s new drummer. In May 2016, just after a European tour promoting their previous effort, Here Be Monsters, Kenneth Kapstad quit the band. Kapstad had been in place for nearly 10 years and was an integral part of the Motorpsycho set-up. 

Sæther and Ryan pressed on with a live score to accompany a Norwegian theatre piece, Begynnelser, which translates as ‘beginnings’, before finally bringing in Swedish drummer Tomas Järmyr at Christmas. A graduate of the Trondheim Jazz Conservatory, he’s best known for his tenure with Italian avant-noise trio Zu. 

Järmyr proved a more than capable replacement for Kapstad. In fact, suggests Sæther, the drummer has brought a unique dynamic to Motorpsycho: “He has a different style than Kenneth, he’s not all over the place all the time. It’s a clearer approach, a little more disciplined. It made the songs and riffs come more into focus. The drums on the record are perfect for what we were after.”

The Tower is just the latest in a series of landmarks in Motorpsycho’s recording career. The first of these came in 1993, in the form of the mammoth Demon Box. The album coincided with the arrival of fourth member Helge Sten (aka Deathprod), who brought his avant-garde influences to bear on the band’s hardcore psych rock. 

The upshot was a renewed sense of daring and ambition, Motorpsycho crafting an experimental masterpiece. Among Deathprod’s listed credits on Demon Box are “various machines making lotsa noise”. 

The album earned them a Norwegian Grammy nomination and fostered Motorpsycho’s reputation as one of Scandinavia’s most essential bands. 

“It was the last record that we were contracted for,” Sæther explains, referring to Oslo label Voices Of Wonder. “We thought that this was the last call, so we decided to just put it all in there, everything that we’d ever wanted to try out. And somehow it worked. It has a lot of identity – it’s our ‘fun’ album. You can still feel the aggressiveness and lack of respect and sheer energy of the thing when you listen to Demon Box today. It was the album that opened the floodgates, because that was our first success as well.”

Motorpsycho lived up to their billing throughout the 90s. True to the spirit in which they were founded – they were named after Russ Meyer’s cult biker flick from 1965, “because we wanted to do something like ‘motor’, meaning energy, and ‘psycho’, meaning psychedelia”, explains Sæther – the band roared through the decade without touching the brakes. Timothy’s Monster, Blissard, Angels And Daemons At Play and Trust Us all hurtled on in the wake of Demon Box.


(Image credit: Geir Morgen)

Yet there was also a playful element to Motorpsycho that took them way off the beaten track. As if to wrong-foot anyone who thought they might be able to bundle them into a tidy category, along came the band’s homage to classic longhair country, The Tussler…. Credited to Motorpsycho & Friends, the album was a radical departure from anything they’d attempted before. 

“I think it was a mixture of two things,” Sæther says of its genesis. “First of all, our drummer [Håkon Gebhardt] bought a banjo on tour and played it all the time. We discovered country music and fell in love with stuff like The Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram Parsons. Also, because Demon Box had been the heaviest, darkest, cartoon-y metal-type thing, we wanted at all costs to avoid repeating that. So we threw a spanner in the works and made it all the more confusing for everybody by making The Tussler…. It really worked. We got away with it, which opened us up to being anything we wanted to be.”

Another key moment in the band’s trajectory came about at the turn of the millennium. Let Them Eat Cake dispensed with the droning guitars and blasted textures of their previous work (The Tussler… aside) and instead presented a postmodern take on American psych pop. Cue echoes of Barrett-era Floyd and The Beach Boys, alongside brass, strings and bursts of jazz. 

The effect may have been startling for fans, but Motorpsycho were intent on clearing the ground for another fresh start. “Trust Us [1998] was the max of the kind of heavy, churning stuff we’d been doing,” says Sæther. “All of a sudden we felt like writing songs instead, working on the vocals and arrangements. And that made for a different kind of songwriting. It was the start of a new era for us.”

Various members of the band looked to forge different ways of composing, resulting in a couple of albums that incorporated electronica and improvised jams. In the meantime, the Americana boom brought another country rock affair in 2004 with Motorpsycho Presents The International Tussler Society. It wasn’t until 2006’s Black Hole/Blank Canvas that Ryan and Sæther returned to the pummelling rockisms of their earliest days. 

That album found them newly enervated, attacking the songs with real gusto. It’s also as good a place as any to flag up their prog credentials. Dip into Motorpsycho’s back catalogue at random and chances are you’ll discern the journeying spirit of the bands who took rock into the outer dimensions in the late 60s and early 70s. 

“Prog has always been a definite influence,” affirms Sæther. “King Crimson, Van der Graaf Generator and Magma are the big three for me. And I hope it shows. But there are bucketloads of others as well, chiefly a 35-year love affair with Black Sabbath.”

This same pioneering ethos feeds directly into The Tower. Sæther admits he thought the album might be too unwieldy when he first listened back to it in its entirety, but realised “there wasn’t really any way to make it smaller without taking away stuff that was necessary to make it whole”. He’s also acutely aware that Motorpsycho’s fiercely loyal fan base, who have stuck with them through every career turn, have certain expectations. 

“We have a very different relationship to our fans than most bands,” he says. “When you think you’re being commercial and writing songs in that vein, our core audience doesn’t really like that. They like it when we’re doing new stuff and trying to push our boundaries. For us, commercial is being difficult. So I guess, in that context, an album like The Tower is really commercial for us. It’s kind of ass-backwards, as they say in the States. As a songwriter, I think the most important thing to remember is not to censor yourself. And if it doesn’t work in a certain context, just put it away for a different day.”

Despite their prolific work rate and extensive back catalogue, Motorpsycho show no signs of puttering out yet. Rather, Sæther insists that their best days remain ahead of them. 

“We’ve made a few good records,” he says modestly, “but we still have to make that brilliant one, that classic one. There are so many songs and structures that we haven’t even written yet. And when you improvise as much as we do, it never gets stale. 

“There’s no showbiz bullshit with Motorpsycho – it’s all about the music and trying to find that spot where some kind of transcendence happens. We have a high percentage of ‘what the fuck just happened?’ moments in the studio and on stage. I don’t think we’ll ever tire of that. There’s nothing in life I’d rather do. So why stop now?” 

This article originally appeared in issue 81 of Prog Magazine.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.