Comes with a Smile # interviews
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Ai Phoenix
an interview with Robert Jonnum by Matt Dornan

Seeing Ai Phoenix perform live somehow lifts the air of mystery that pervades their new album, The Driver Is Dead, like a body-bag being unzipped to expose not a tortured soul but a beatific glow. By having Mona Mork there before us, an undeniable presence not an undefinable entity, and seeing the increasingly frequent glances and smiles break out between the five members on stage they counteract any suspicion of a devilish ulterior motive for being here on our doorstep. "Ai Phoenix impart a sharp sense of melancholic dread and encroaching violence which keeps them nearly earthbound," reads our second review of this remarkable album, Greg Weeks' viewpoint going someway toward supporting my outlandish claims. Theirs is a mischievous blend, as founder member Robert Jonnum explains:
"Hopefully we may be serious about our music, and at the same time have fun making and playing it. It's the same paradox as some people seeing our music as depressing and pessimistic, although it obviously optimistic music."

Perhaps less obvious to your audience. Are your fans the intense bed-sit type or is there no typical Ai Phoenix fan?
"As the members of this band are completely different from each other, it would seem strange if our fans were of any special kind. From what I've heard single mothers, firemen and circus artists all like us. And usually they're the romantic kind, and we take romance seriously."

What memories do you have of your recent travels in the UK?
"We've had a really good experience playing [there]. The first was a warm up gig for Snowpony at the Garage. Nobody had ever heard about us, but the audience was really interested and paid attention - completely different from what I expected from London. Travelling has been a bit worse. On our last tour our car broke down, then we had a break in, and finally we got a flat tire - all this in two days. The performances were a good experience though."

Is it important for the band to receive recognition outside of Norway?
"Norway is a small outpost of this world, so we have no choice but to consider the possibility that our music might be interesting to some of you out there. There are not many places to play in Norway, so it's been great to play for enthusiastic audiences around Europe. And most of our inspirations come from abroad, so it's natural to relate to the world outside."

You record at home on an 8-track. How do you find the restrictions of this set-up affects the results?
"Actually only 7 of those tracks work. The limitations demand that we cut down to what is essential when we record. I think this fits our music perfectly, and it certainly helps us to quit in time."

Do you find yourselves working more creatively to push the facilities to their limit?
"We've always pushed our equipment. Most of [debut album] Film and Happy To Get Her [the recent mini-lp] were recorded on a 4-track cassette recorder."

How would the band work differently if you had a full studio at your disposal?
"Possibly, the situation with cheap and few instruments and recording equipment, has contributed to the way we think in terms of music. So I think working any other way is not really an option. Besides, we love the sound of old analogue equipment."

How much of the music is improvised?
"Much of the music is more or less written beforehand, but there are elements of improvisation. We never actually rehearse a song before recording it, and we don't really rehearse when we're not recording. We change around on the instruments while recording, and this also helps to bring more improvisation into our music, as most of us never actually learned to play anything. Beyond that, I don't think there is much jazz about us. We recorded for a film recently, and this forced us to work more intensely with just pieces and elements of music."

CWAS #8 - Summer 2001