Comes with a Smile # interviews
issues | the songs | interviews | reviews | images | web exclusives | top 10 | history | search

cwas#16 / cwas#11 / cwas#10 / cwas#9 / cwas#8 / cwas#7
cwas#6 / cwas#5 / cwas#4 / cwas#3 / all interviews / search

Jet Johnson
an interview with Caroline Nesbø by Matt Dornan / pictures by Paul Heartfield

Jet Johnson by Paul HeartfieldUntil now Jet Johnson has been a band in a state of flux, mainstays Caroline Nesbø and Gavin Baker the only constants in a metamorphic line-up that has, at one time or another, employed each of Baker's Billy Mahonie cohorts - Kev Penney, Hywell Dinsdale and Howard Monk - but, of late, appears to have settled into a more stable formation with bassist Ian Scanlon (Econoline) and drummer Kevin Smith (Reynolds) providing the rhythmic backbone upon which Nesbø's self-defined brand of 'peculiar post-pop' bobs and weaves.

Across assorted compilations, a seven inch and a couple of EPs a suitably schizophrenic gestation has been captured on tape, exhibiting evidence of Caroline's past flirtations with post-punk and shoegaze anchored by the constantly imaginative guitar prowess of beau Baker.

"I started in a post-punk band, just bass, guitar and drums," Caroline tells me before a rapturously received afternoon set at Notting Hill's renowned Arts Club. "We played instrumentals, sort of Bauhaus... I was only sixteen then. I sometimes think it was the best band I've been in, actually."

Aborted attempts to add vocalists ("we hired male singers and fired them") soon led Caroline and friend Guri Hummelsung (both also currently active in the band Lupee Velez) to pastures new, in the form of Peachfuzz, whose one official release, 'Girl in the Grass', appeared on a Fierce Panda EP ('Cry Me A Liver'). The band also inspired the move to England from her native Norway.

"We wanted to get a record deal," she admits. "We played [band showcase] 'In the City' and we had a press agent and all that, but I don't think we were thinking practically." Among her new, ambitious, bandmates was Erlend ?ye, now of Kings of Convenience. "Erlend never mentions Peachfuzz, except when he called us a 'dodgy indie band' in Comes with a Smile! He tried to make me prostitute myself to Mogwai when they played in Bergen!" she laughs, remembering a dubious tactic the admirably entrepreneurial Erlend once suggested. "He thought if I snogged one of the Mogwai guys they'd like our band and then we'd become famous!"

Such naiveté was short-lived as the harsh realities of the British music scene were revealed. "I came here with just a suitcase and dreams that were rapidly spat on and destroyed," says Caroline. "To come here and play a gig and have no-one give a shit about you, it's unheard of. In Norway people are really nice and you have a rider even if you're an unsigned band, and you get a decent fee. The funny thing is," she continues, "the people who didn't move here are the ones who've made it."

Indeed recent years have seen a significant upswing in Norway's profile as a burgeoning musical nation, Bergen in particular providing a wealth of local talent. "I always knew there was good music in Norway," acknowledges Caroline. "I think it's good that people are becoming more blasé about it there because it used to be such a big deal if a Norwegian band was even mentioned in the English press. Peachfuzz milked our English connections to such a great extent that we had a double page spread in a Saturday supplement just because we had a gig at the Bull & Gate! [legendary North London 'first step' venue] Can you imagine it? First on at the Bull & Gate! We couldn't really get any gigs outside of Bergen before we went to England. But afterwards, everything was fine. I like that humility."

It's a trait she exhibits herself when contemplating the success of her compatriots from afar. "I don't know, I guess I'm supposed to be jealous," she muses. "In a way I've always known that Erlend was going to get to a different level because he works so hard. He's like some weird Buddhist monk, he's so focused on the one task! He's a mixture of childlike and extremely cynical. But I'm very glad that he's made it."

Continuing what she calls "an extended holiday" her blossoming romance with Gavin kept Caroline on British soil and prompted this latest musical venture. "I think the first Jet Johnson songs are me trying to get rid of the pop sensibilities," she suggests. "But now I feel like I'm getting back to the pop side of it, being more expressive, not just 'clever'. To me Jet Johnson, until now, has been [perceived as] a Billy Mahonie side project. It's a lot more vocal now. Maybe because I'm happy to write [lyrics] again, but I think it adds another dimension to the music."

Despite acknowledging her own musical shortcomings ("I'm not an amazing guitarist, I don't know any chords!"), Caroline is enjoying her role as bandleader in Jet Johnson. "When you come from a pop band background musicianship isn't always that good. It's so weird to play with people who so know what they're doing. Listening to Captain Beefheart records always makes me feel inspired," she confesses. "He was a crap musician but didn't let such a minor detail stop him from telling fantastic musicians that what they had been playing for years was 'wrong' and then go on to tell them to play what had been transcribed from his one-fingered piano-playing note for note. And insisting they leave the bum notes and weird time signatures in and say they weren't accidental! It came out sounding fantastic because he had that intuitive approach to making music."
Despite a harmoniously collaborative approach to arranging the songs, and some inevitable brainstorming with Baker ("we live together so it's only natural"), the songwriting duties remain firmly in her hands. "They are my ideas and it's 'my' band," she asserts. "And I will have final word if I don't think the feel is right. In a way I am pushing my limits fronting a band - but I see that as a good thing. I like to try and do things I hate because they scare me until I love them. I think I'm getting there with Jet."

CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002