As Paal Nilssen-Love's Large Unit carves its debut tour across America and Canada during June, the aptly named Norwegian ensemble might resemble a musical militia.
The band will travel in three vans, a dozen members spread evenly between them and collectively loaded with a veritable arsenal of musical gear—amplifiers and horns, drum sets and basses, laptops and guitars.
It would be an impressive operation for most any act, but it's especially so for one that formed in 2013 and aggressively improvises around the open-ended compositions of drummer Nilssen-Love. That is, this music isn't going to make the band much money, let alone enough to pay for an international trek.
Thanks to grants from a constellation of Norwegian councils and arts funds, however, Nilssen-Love will lead his big, bold band through 14 concerts in about two weeks. It's a daunting run, but when it comes to his music, Nilssen-Love, 40, is used to audacious plans. One of Europe's most commanding and in-demand free jazz drummers, he's quickly amassed an enormous catalog of recordings that have put him near the top tier of his profession. Days before flying to America with his band in tow, he spoke about what seems to be his infinite supply of musical enthusiasm.
You have to feel that you're pushing yourself, that you're pushing the others onstage, that you're pushing the music. There has to be a certain amount of sweat. If the music's happening, I could say that it could go on and on, but sometimes there's no reason for that. If the music is burning, you have to go with it. There have been times when I've felt that the blood circulation in my fingers or hands has stopped, but you can't stop playing because of that, because you're exhausted. If you're playing with people that are pushing you, you're pushing them, the music's pushing you, you can't just stop playing and say, "I am tired now." The force of the music is so strong, you gain energy from it. That's one of the main joys I get out of music.
You can't get silence if you haven't got loud—and the other way, too. Within this Large Unit, one has to take advantage of using silence. You have 12 guys onstage, and that can be quite a racket, quite loud. But a musician in a 12-piece band or even in a trio does more by being silent than actually playing. Knowing when to stop comes from experience. If you haven't got anything to say, don't say anything. The worst is when you have a musician who thinks he has to make sound all the bloody time if he's on stage. A year ago, in a workshop situation, we'd been doing all these exercises, and I said, "Let's just play and see what happens." The thing went on for half an hour, and I was so pissed off. They didn't dare to stop playing. They thought, "OK, this is free, improvised music. We can play all the bloody time. We can do anything. It can go anywhere." Of course it can go anywhere, but you have to listen all the time. That's the key.
If you want to go out and explore the world, you have to interact—socially, musically, whatever. But today, people are stuck, sitting at home with their stupid iPhones and games and whatnot. You can't say that you're interacting with a game or a person on the other side of the planet because you're playing a TV game. That's especially important when people are becoming more selfish and solitary and greedy. Improvising is communication, interaction. You learn about yourself, about the other person, about the situation. It demands that you are 100 percent aware of the situation. There's so much to learn through improvising. That's why I want to try and play with more people, so many musicians I want to try out things with.
Failure? There is no such thing. At least you have something to learn from, but what is a failure? That is up to the person who does what he thinks is a failure, but why? Because you didn't do it right? It's a part of life experience. You have to fail.
All the guys in the Large Unit are so psyched up to go over to North America and tour for 16 days. A lot of things will happen—good, and some bad probably. I like touring. You strain yourself. You work hard. There's a lot of traveling involved. But in the end, you're so privileged as a musician because you're allowed and able to do what you want through touring. That's when you really get under the surface of the people you're traveling with, yourself and the music. And touring means you're seeing new places and meeting new people. I'm not one that goes to bed right away, so the social aspect of touring is absolutely fantastic to me. There are musicians that like to stay at home and do one-off gigs in their hometown, but touring is part of being a musician. It can be really tough sometimes, but, in the end, you chose to do it. It's your own mistake for becoming a musician.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Massive attack."