Thomas Strønen is undoubtedly one of the most talented drummers of his generation. A member of Food, Humcrush, Meadow, Monsters & Puppets and many more, his very diverse, yet highly recognisable style puts him is at the heart of these projects. With new albums from Monsters & Puppets, Humcrush and The Living Room, Thomas takes some time off his incredibly busy schedule to talk about how he started playing drums and his long-standing collaboration with Iain Ballamy as Food.
Thomas, how did you come to play music, and what made you choose the drums?
“At the age of five, visiting Kiel in Germany, I discovered a tin drum in a shop window and cried my eyes out to get it. That day I threw out my teddy bear and replaced it with that drum. I had it with me almost everywhere and played it till it fell to pieces. I don’t know why I chose drums, or even music. My grandfather, whom I never met, was an accordion player and violinist, and my much older brother was a DJ. I’ve always been playing and in my grade book from my first year at school (and the following ones) it said “Thomas keeps disturbing the other pupils by drumming on his desk all the time”.”
You’ve been performing and recording with Iain Ballamy in Food for over ten years now, first as a quartet with Mats Eilertsen and Arve Henriksen, then as a duo. How did you meet Iain and how did the project start?
“Iain and I meet through friends; (hold on!) Iain’s sister in law knew a friend of mine’s girlfriend… While visiting my friend he decided to call Iain so we could meet. At the time, I was studying music and was of course happy to get to meet a well-known and experienced musician like him. I knew him from Django Bates’s band [ed: Loose Tubes] and Earthworks.”
“Iain played me some records and I played him a demo cassette! He actually loved it and suggested we start a band together. I thought he was just being polite until I met him by accident at some festival a year later. When he wondered why I hadn’t stayed in contact, I decided to do something about it. It felt natural to ask Mats, as we where playing a lot together. I’d just done a project with Arve and he was also interested in continuing the relationship. One phone call later, we had two festival gigs at the Molde Jazz Festival, ending up with a live recording. We continued with this constellation for six years and did four records together as a quartet. At some stage everyone got extremely busy and instead of saying no to lots of nice opportunities, we decided to work as a duo, inviting various suitable guests for our performances.”
How did you make the transition from quartet to duo when Mats and Arve left? Was it a natural process for you two to continue working together?
“After Arve left the band to concentrate more on his solo career, we tried out a few different settings without being satisfied. To find why we liked playing together again, Iain and I went into the studio for almost a week in London. That resulted in us taking the music in a totally different direction and it got released as “Molecular Gastronomy”. It took quite a few concerts and long hours at various rehearsal spaces to come to what represents Food today though. To make the break even clearer we approached Manfred Eicher at ECM with new recorded music, and released “Quiet Inlet” last year. We’re now at the final stage of finishing off another record for ECM. This time there will be with more guests, including an indian singer that will take you to another planet!”
“Food perform both as duo and with like-minded guests. Instead of tying the band up in one setting, depending on everybody’s availability and running the danger of get stuck musically, we invite musicians we think can contribute sounds and texture we think and hope can develop and complement our own.”
As you’ve just mentioned, you regularly work with additional musicians in Food, the most recent of which is Christian Fennesz, with whom you have played live recently and who featured on “Quiet Inlet”. How do these collaborations happen, and are you planning on working more extensively with Fennesz or Nils Petter Molvær, with whom you were due to tour Japan last June, before the tour had to be postponed following the earthquake that devastated part of the country?
“Last year, we played as a trio with Fennesz, as a quartet with Fennesz and Nils Petter, as a trio with Eivind Aarset, as a trio with Prakash Sontakke and as a quartet with Aarset and Sontakke. We will be touring Japan in April 2012 with Nils Petter and we will continue to collaborate with all the others as well. Like most collaborations, they happen by listening or playing with new musicians or trying out new constellations when we get solicited.”
This collaboration with Iain is one of your longest-running projects to date. How do you keep moving forward with it, especially with you living in Norway and Iain in the UK?
“I work with both Iain and John Taylor from the UK, with Torben Snekkestad and Søren Kjærgaard in Denmark and other musicians living in different places. We tour everywhere, so it doesn’t really matter where you live. We rehearse ahead of touring or meet up for a few days to work. With Food, we always set off two or three weeks in a year, just to rehearse for long hours. On top of that, we record all concerts we do and sit down and go through them. Some end up on records too!”
Is it easy for you to adapt to the various formations you work with, especially considering how different Food is from Humcrush, or Monsters & Puppets from your solo work? Do you fall back into the necessary mood instantly, or does it take you a while to find your feet again?
“I like the combinations I do. Rather than using my whole vocabulary in one (or each) band, I like to give myself different roles in the settings I play. I love working with electronics in Food and Humcrush and then I really appreciate only having acoustic sounds in Meadow.”
“I like a lot of different music and I don’t like to categorise the different styles I might be touching. I feel that it just sets limitations. I’m more concerned who I play with, rather than which segment they might belong to. I work with composition and improvisation, with texture and with melody, with beat and with ambience. Some call it jazz, others film music, whatever that is. What’s important to me is being able to be Thomas Strønen every time I play. That’s my freedom.”
With most of your work based on improvisation, was it always part of how you conceived playing music?
“Back to as early as I can remember, I had problems being told what to play. I always felt I had a better solution than my teacher at school or in the school band. I must have been a nightmare to work with. I started in a modern mini big band when I was thirteen and didn’t read music very well, so I was dependent on learning things by ear. Music was also quite difficult for me to play, with a heavy-rock background, and I had to have good ideas to manage to get through it.”
“Even as a composer, I think it’s important that sometimes musicians have ideas that might be stronger than what’s composed, so I’m always open for that. Having said that, I actually love playing good parts, like when Food played with the London Sinfonietta. I had to read the whole score and make my own drum part visual to keep up with the orchestra.”
You’ve got a very personal and recognisable style which extends far beyond conventional drumming. What or who has inspired you in your formative years and in your career since?
“As mentioned above, I’ve been influence by lots of different styles, genres and people. I got into improvised music in my early teens and was lucky to play with better and more experienced musicians at an early stage. I dug into the jazz history while studying music for six years, but also got into Japanese music (koto, vocals, drum music), classical music (from Bach to Shostakovich and Cage), electronic music (From Varèse to Nordheim and Squarepusher) and also singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.”
By Adriana Carcu, Germany-based Romanian journalist Adriana Carcu is executive editor of No Strings Attached E-News and writes for a number of media outlets, including allaboutjazz.com. This interview was originally featured in a longer version in allaboutjazz.com and has been reproduced with permission.
Read more on the Conexions concert series here.
Thomas Strønen, Drummer, Percussionist, composer