by Ken Micallef
And his work in a group context can be equally spellbinding. But, he insists, “it’s not being in control of the music—it’s letting the music control you.”
Imagine an organic synthesis of Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and Milford Graves poured through a thoughtful post-hardcore player, and you have Norway’s Paal Nilssen-Love. A busy musician who divides his performances between solo concerts and support roles, Nilssen-Love brings the muscle of Mastodon’s Brann Dailor and the hardcore throttle of Shellac’s Todd Trainer to free-jazz environments. And he does so with as much sweat as possible. Allying passion and beautiful jazz-based improvisation with supple skills, Nilssen-Love is one of the most innovative drummers to come out of Europe in the last forty years.
Nilssen-Love is more than a musician; he’s a creative tornado who has recorded more than fifty albums (including a dozen solo drumming releases), founded Oslo’s All Ears and Blow Out! improvisation festivals, runs the PNL Records label, and is an inveterate vinyl collector. At his core, Nilssen-Love stokes a free-jazz flame that inspires thousands of musicians within this popular but stubbornly underground style.
After studying at Norway’s University of Science and Technology in his early twenties, in 1996 Nilssen-Love moved to Oslo, and his career hit warp speed. Since then, in addition to the many solo discs, he’s performed and/or recorded with Chris Potter, Mats Gustafsson, Atomic, Frode Gjerstad Trio, and Sten Sandell Trio, overseen duo projects with Ken Vandermark, John Butcher, organist Nils Henrik Asheim, and noise sculptor Marhaug, and regularly performed with saxophone anarchist Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet.
For a quick exposure to Nilssen-Love’s work, check out how he smacks the free-jazz hardcore assault of the Thing (Boot!), brings Brötzmann to heel (Woodcuts), maneuvers the “pools of sweat, slabs of meat” of the eleven-piece collective Large Unit (Erta Ale), and keeps his drums close to home on his solo discs Miró, 27 Years Later, and News From the Junk Yard. His ever-shifting sound sources, primal tension-and-release allusions, polymetric concepts, dramatic use of dynamics, surprising hand techniques, and dark sound palette create a flowing, turbulent vision from which neither eyes nor ears can turn away.
MD: Watching your videos, your hands look welded to the sticks. And you sometimes use a small range of motion. It’s like the opposite of the Moeller technique. Are you using more fingers than wrists?
Paal: My dad played drums, and I’m still playing his 1960s George Hayman kit. He used traditional grip. School band stressed matched grip. But in marching band you needed traditional grip for the tilted snare drum, though I didn’t use it. When giving lessons I focus on each finger. I also suggest playing single-stroke rolls in the air, not on a drum, and using every finger individually.
MD: You draw a level of subtlety and detail from your left hand that I associate with traditional grip.
Paal: When I was growing up, the drumkit was always there, and I was always playing. If you’re going to play the drums, use it as a musical instrument—play and have some fun with it. I’ve never woodshedded and become depressed because I couldn’t play some rudiment. But when I have a couple hours I’ll work on stamina and strength, and loud and fast, and fast and quiet. And being sure my shirt is drenched while doing it.
MD: You grew up around your parents’ jazz club.
Paal: Yes, Art Blakey played my parents’ club when I was eight years old. He encouraged me to play his drums on stage, which I didn’t dare to, but he did give me his drumsticks. Blakey came to our house afterwards and we stayed up half the night. He signed one of his LPs for me. That made a great impact on me. Blakey was extremely kind. When he came back a few years later he said, “Where’s my boy?” I did play his kit the second time he came.
MD: What other drummers who played the club impacted your future drumming?
Paal: John Stevens, Tony Oxley, Steve McCall, and Billy Higgins all came through.
MD: You sit high, and you seem to play into the head.
Paal: I go through phases. For instance, my floor tom is almost on the ground now. I don’t know why. I’m playing double-stroke rolls between the bass drum and floor tom more now. That may be an influence from metal music. And my right-side ride cymbal is really high. I used to have them really low as the throne was going higher. I developed back problems from that. The higher throne helped protect my back.
MD: Does the higher throne influence your sound?
Paal: If you sit low or high, it changes the way you play. When you sit low with the drums all around, you play more laid back in a way. I also play differently depending on where the drums are placed.
MD: In your extended solos, you play more drums than cymbals.
Paal: I’m not always conscious of what I’m doing. But I’m using the cymbals more now than in the past. Maybe I’m more aware of the various overtones that exist in the different rooms I’m playing. For twenty years I traveled with my own kit. Now I find it fascinating dealing with different drumkits.
MD: Do the different sound sources of your kit dictate the direction of a given solo?
Paal: For sure. Let’s say I do a gig with Ken Vandermark, who I’ve worked with a lot. There the drums have more of a rock sound. But all these different drumkits and different rooms affect the music I play and the way I play. It all becomes part of the improvising.
MD: You’re improvising off the room as well as the music?
Paal: For sure. You’re improvising off the day you had and whether you went to an art exhibit or whatnot. That happens more now than twenty years ago, when I played the same set all the time. If I use a bigger bass drum than normally, then I’m hearing that against my ride cymbal. I always use my own cymbals.
MD: Do you carry percussion and cymbals on tour?
Paal: I always travel with a heavy case of snare drum, woodblocks, cymbals, gongs, and a bunch of sticks as well.
MD: Your drums have a dark tonality.
Paal: I played the Bison Company snare drum on most records after 2002. It’s deeper than a normal piccolo. The Bison drum has great flexibility. Sometimes I hit the snare drum, then slide the stick on the head from right to left, which alters the pitch. I haven’t had another drum where I could do that.
MD: You’re a very intense drummer. Are you generally slamming the drums?
Paal: If the music is extreme I will use a lot of force. In Lean Left with Ken Vandermark, that can get really loud.
MD: Is your drumming as influenced by jazz as by punk and metal?
Paal: The last couple of years I’ve been listening to a ton of Brazilian music. Before that I was into Ethiopian music. And there was a period when I was listening to metal. I didn’t try to copy those drummers, but after a while it affects your playing. All of a sudden the different elements of all these musics appeared in my drumming. I’m also fascinated by forró drumming and Bahia. I was in Brazil over Christmas playing with musicians and dancers; it would go on all night. I like to play with drummers who give workshops, from Ethiopia to Brazil. The average guy in Norway doesn’t know much about his own folk music or heritage. But in Brazil, Ethiopia, and Cuba it’s an entirely different matter.
Paal: As soon as I get a feeling of an idea, there’s something to build upon. Once I played solo drums for an hour. Fortunately I got into some kind of flow. I try to get energy happening. You hope you will be spontaneous enough, but at the same time you’re trying to sustain an idea and develop it. It’s not being in control of the music; it’s letting the music control you. And being conscious enough to send the music in different directions and develop it. You have to make sure you don’t trap yourself.
MD: How do you pace yourself?
Paal: I start off high-energy, but if I realize I don’t have the chops, I can’t slow down if the music is on fire. Even if it’s a solo I try to force myself through the pain and numbness in the fingers and thumbs.
MD: How do you play through numbness?
Paal: [laughs] Once I was playing with Peter Brötzmann in Stockholm. I had to play a solo and then a duet, and after a while I could only hold the sticks with my thumbs. I didn’t have any feeling in my fingers. But you can’t stop; you have to go for it. After a while the blood returned to the limbs and I was okay.
MD: What are the differences between the U.S. and European schools of creative improvisation?
Paal: There are different ways of playing between the two different cultures. Within Europe you have different countries with very different cultures. You have different ways of playing in Holland, Belgium, Germany, and England. You can still hear the differences between a Swedish saxophonist or drummer and an American player. From the ’60s you could hear the big differences between all the European players and their respective countries. The Germans were more aggressive, while the Dutch had more humor in their playing. In the ’60s, the English drummers Tony Oxley and Paul Lytton were the house drummers at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. At one point they wanted to explore and experiment, and they created their own music. In Norway there has always been a tradition of finding your own sound. In the whole of Europe every country has its own take on American jazz. Dexter Gordon had a great impact in Copenhagen, for example. Don Cherry affected the scene in Sweden quite a lot.
MD: What records impacted you when you were growing up?
Paal: Art Blakey records for sure, and records with Tony Oxley, Tony Williams Lifetime, Mahavishnu Orchestra. I also loved how Sunny Murray and Milford Graves reinvented how to play the drumset. You see these drum battle videos between Art Blakey, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and Sunny Murray; Blakey knocks the shit out of them. I also listened to Steve McCall and Phillip Wilson. Wilson played free music, but he came from a blues background with Paul Butterfield. He played with Peter Brötzmann and David Murray too.
MD: What is the value of silence in your improvisations?
Paal: You can’t get the effect of loudness if you don’t have quiet. The same thing with playing sparse versus playing very dense. Musicians think they have to play constantly on stage. But if you don’t have anything to say, don’t say it. You don’t have to make a sound just because you are on stage with an instrument. If you can wait and then hit, then you’ll feel some different kind of power.
MD: You had testicular cancer in the early 2000s. How did that change your life?
Paal: It changes your whole view of life, everything. I thought I had back pain. I thought I was burned out, that I was working too hard. I was off for half a year dealing with treatment, and then spent two months getting my chops back. The first time I played music together with people after that was very special.
You learn to appreciate the small things in life. It made me love being a musician even more. In the end you feel you’re on borrowed time. You realize you can’t waste any of the life you’ve been given.
Drums: 1960s Hayman set including a 10×12 tom, 14×14 and 16×16 floor toms, and a 14×20 bass drum; 5×13 Bison Drum Company snare
Cymbals: Paal will alternate between certain models depending on the volume of the band. His main cymbals include 13″ Zildjian Constantinople hi-hats, a 20″ Zildjian Constantinople Medium ride (used as a crash), a 1970s 22″ A Zildjian ride, a 22″ Paiste 602 Medium ride (blue label), a 22″ Zanki China Pang, a 1970s 18″ Paiste 602 Flat ride, and a 1960s 16″ K Zildjian crash.
Percussion: Korean gongs, salsa cowbell, Paiste Sound Disks, various woodblocks, Chinese drums, Styrofoam, metal objects from Ethiopia
Sticks: Vic Firth SD2 Bolero sticks, Jazz brushes, and T2 mallets; various sticks made of bamboo; Brazilian split-sticks; guiro sticks; and other items