Jaga Jazzist Explain Their Ever-Changing Direction on 'Starfire'

Jaga Jazzist Explain Their Ever-Changing Direction on 'Starfire'
Photo: Anthony P. Huus
Norwegian experimental jazz troupe Jaga Jazzist have created genre-bending music for over 20 years, a remarkable feat considering three siblings count among their founding members. Their 2001 album, A Livingroom Hush, was voted best jazz album by BBC listeners, establishing them as one of the leaders of the nu jazz movement. Flying Lotus has been a fan of theirs for the past decade, using his BBC Radio 1 residency to premiere the title track from their fifth studio album, Starfire, out now on Ninja Tune. It's a challenge for any band to keep their creativity fresh after all that time together, but the eight-piece ensemble have built this into their modus operandi.
"What we try to do with Jaga as a principal starting point, every time we make an album, is to try to do the opposite of what we did the last time," head composer and multi-instrumentalist Lars Horntveth tells Exclaim! "The last two albums we did, One-Armed Bandit and Live with Britten Sinfonia, both of them are written-out scores, maybe 90 percent is written down. It's quite difficult stuff to play, and we needed to rehearse for months and months and months to make the music work, and find out how we could do almost everything live in the studio. I was tired of making an album where you do a lot of overdubs and stuff like that, at the time, so I wanted to make an album where we actually could play all the songs in the studio, and that's it. Then things change and you get tired of that, so this time, I wanted to make an album that was much more electronic and synthetic."
A couple years after the release of their Spellemann Award-winning 2010 album, One-Armed Bandit, Lars moved to Los Angeles in search of isolation, somewhere he could concentrate on making music and where next to take the band. He ended up finding inspiration in a rather unexpected place: his car.
"I enjoyed driving a lot in this city," he muses. "I really enjoyed listening to music in the car, especially by myself. At some point, I started listening to Jon Hopkins and Todd Terje a lot. You don't feel like you're waiting for something; it's just a long build-up on most of their songs. Being able to drive around and enjoy that kind of house build-up music, that's a huge inspiration for me. I've tried to approach that in our music as well… I try to listen to a bunch of music before I start writing. Then, when I'm in the process of actually writing, it becomes more and more important for me to hide those references. After a while, I don't think about it anymore, and make music that kind of develops itself. That's a part of making music for Jaga, to try to hide the references. That's hopefully what makes it sound special."
Having been a band for so long, they have done all manner of tricks and arrangements, making it harder to continue doing and feeling something new. Hence, they always learn to play new instruments on each album. The increased emphasis on synthesis for Starfire has made their live show even crazier. Where they had 35 instruments before, they now have several more synths onstage to complement their typically two-hour plus long performances. Their music is all about the music, wherever that leads. Even the song titles come secondary.
"The reason a song is called 'Starfire' is I wrote it on a guitar that was called Starfire. But then, after a while, it took in all these spacey elements, made it more psychedelic, and then suddenly that made sense to have a song called 'Starfire.' 'Big City Music' is really a working title. Big City Music is a modular synth store in Los Angeles. I bought this little synth from them, and then the whole song is a build-up on different arpeggios and elements from that synth, so it's just that I bought that synth the same day I started writing the song.
"What's cool about it is I've been doing a lot of interviews lately, and journalists seem to get pictures in their heads from these titles, which is kind of the purpose. It doesn't have to make the same sense for everyone. 'Shinkansen' is a bullet train in Japan, and if you see that song as this long travel, then it gets very different than if I called that song 'Fuck You.' Also, not many people that catch that 'Oban' is just a Scottish whiskey, but it sounds like something more African. When I start writing music, I don't have any idea what it's going to end up with. The title is a starting point. Sometimes, it actually makes sense in a way. 'Big City Music' has these shimmering, ambient sounds. It's noisy, but I think about some of the parts more like Eno's Music For Airports, that kind of ambience, with a noisy surrounding. For some people, that makes sense, and that's cool."