Thanks to blazing covers of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Art Star”, PJ Harvey’s “To Bring You My Love”, and the White Stripes’ “Aluminum”, the Thing has won an international reputation as that crazy Scandinavian free-jazz trio that covers rough-edged rock songs—kind of like a more out-there Bad Plus. As drummer Paal Nilssen-Love points out, however, that’s not all that he, bassist Ingebrigt Hí¥ker Flaten, and saxophonist Mats Gustafsson can do.
“People forget that we started off doing Don Cherry tunes,” he reports from his home in Oslo, pointing out that the trio took its name from one of the late trumpet innovator’s compositions. “And then there was one time when Mats said, ”˜Hey, let’s try and do some garage pieces,’ ’cause he was into garage rock. We did that for a while, and so that became the label, in a way: ”˜Okay, the Thing is a jazz group playing garage-rock pieces—ripping them apart, or trying to play them as they are supposed to be played.’ But now, in our live performances we’re completely free. If there has to be a tune played then we’ll do it, but it’s much more open now.
“Some people actually come out and they’re a bit disappointed because they want to hear ”˜Art Star’ or they want to hear this and that,” he adds. “But it’s good for us just to move on. If the band’s going to be getting gigs because of the expectations from the audiences, then I think it’s time to do something else. I’d like the audience’s expectation to be that they come and hear something that they haven’t heard from the band—or at all.”
That was the Thing’s mandate when it went into the studio to record its 11th full-length, Bag It!, which includes a bonus disc containing an unedited 35-minute free improvisation. Also on the playlist are Duke Ellington’s “The Mystery Song”, a traditional tune from Hungary, and Japanese rock band 54 Nude Honeys’ “Drop the Gun”, so the group is also paying tribute to its earlier creative strategies.
What’s new, though, is that Bag It! marks the first time the Thing has fully exploited the possibilities of the studio. Its previous efforts might have been recorded on multitrack gear, but they were always essentially performance documents. This time around, the trio decided to concentrate more on the mixing process, thanks in part to the presence of sound engineer, guitarist, and alternative-rock guru Steve Albini.
“We always try to make it sound like it is when we’re on-stage, but he was like, ”˜Why do you want to do it that way in the studio?’ ” Nilssen-Love says. “And, of course, he was right.”
Recording with the man who mixed such stellar postpunk releases as Nirvana’s In Utero and the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa wasn’t an entirely natural choice. “He claims that he hates jazz,” Nilssen-Love says, laughing. “There are some interviews where he really has a go at jazz saxophone players and free jazz.” But the drummer notes that all four musicians found common cause in their shared fondness for the kind of sound that’s like “a musical punch in the face”.
“If people can experience it as intensely as we do, then we’ve achieved something,” he says of the Thing’s unfettered approach. “And it doesn’t matter if the reaction is positive or negative, as long as people experience something different—and something exhilarating.”
The Thing plays the Ironworks next Friday (May 1).