Controlled Chaos – An interview with Golden Retriever

Shall we start by trying to define noise? Brage Tørmænen approaches the question, leaning forward after taking a sip of his beer. “The complete absence of any kind of prediction. In physics, when something is noisy, there’s no way of telling what’s going to happen next.” It’s a definition he’s adopted from the world of science and Morten Minothi Kristiansen waits a moment, with Brage’s sentence still lingering in the air before adding: “It’s a nice thing to strive for but I think it is impossible. The way I found out about noise for the first time was through a wall of white noise, a really loud sound. So for me, that’s what I first think of.” Morten (Guitar / electronics) and Brage (drums) are the two parts of Norwegian noise duo Golden Retriever. They just got back from a US tour where they showcased their newest album Total Crack Attack and Morten is still suffering from a jet lag, attempting to overcome its effects with a cappuccino at a local Oslo café. “I was very inspired by the states and its audiences”, he says as his face disappears behind the oversized cup. Morten and Brage have been part of Norway’s established noise scene for some time, both as Golden Retriever and a variety of other projects, and it comes as quite a surprise when they tell me it’s the first time this particular group has left European shores to perform. The pair of trained Jazz musicians met at a local festival, and when Morten proposed they join forces for a new project, Tørmænen was hesitant at first. “I remember that I was a little bit tentative. I asked if we should do some rehearsals and Morten just said no no no. We just play the gig. Lets not rehearse. Lets just melt people’s faces off.” Together Brage and Morten adopted the name Golden Retriever and set out on a completely improvised performance routine in the live context.

How does Golden retriever interpret noise?
Morten: “Some people call it harsh noise. And some people have called our music, happy noise.“
Brage: Really! Who? (Laughs.)
M: “Kjetil Hanssen.”
B: “Probably because I look so happy when I play. (laughs) My approach to it is black metal. To me black metal has always been very noisy music, because it’s all about a huge solid wall of screaming guitars, blast beats and growling. Unusual stuff but it’s just so massive. That’s what I like to do, not as a black metal drummer, but with that type of playing, really fast, really loud, and energetic all the time.”
M: “When we just started playing together I realised that turning the amps up to 11 was the right way. Before then, I never played super loud or hard. It’s very chaotic and full force.”

The chaotic manner in which these artists express themselves is immediately apparent in the opening bars of Total Crack Attack, their debut LP. Screeching guitars and distorting signals, which sound as if the apocalypse is raining down on you, are driven home by powerful erratic drums that refuse to be dominated by the lead instruments’ rhythmical dictations. They are two unstoppably stubborn forces colliding vigorously with complete disregard to the innocent onlooker’s safety. It’s incredibly mesmerizing and engaging, drowning all your attention in the cacophony that erupts from the various parts, all vying for your attention. Golden Retriever accomplishes it all within the moment, a process that is quite at home on stage, but very rarely consummated in the studio successfully. I pull my chair forward as a roaring conversation behind me takes on a new level, while Brage and Morten ease back into the oppositesofa.

Why record an album?
M: “Good Question. A very simple and stupid answer is that I wanted a record.”
B: “For one thing, it’s good to have some sort of documentation in the form of a physical product that says; we did this, this is something we made. It’s much more tangible.”
M: “We’ve recorded almost everything we’ve played, all the concerts everything. I’ve become obsessed with just documenting everything. I don’t know why, perhaps it’s just a phase. “

The band booked some time in a recording studio around the corner from where we’re sitting and those recordings came out “kind of shit “ according to Brage. At the behest of Morten they abandoned the expensive studio and opted to record the whole album in their rehearsal space armed with little more than a Zoom HD recorder and a few microphones. The album was the result of one of the few takes they recorded, with some minor edits.

Why did this particular take stand out amongst the others for you?
M: “The energy felt good on these recordings and there’s a good flow to the composition. It goes from this manic thing to this pleasant song. Our first session was much more melodic a vast difference from our live shows. When we met each other we wanted to play hard music and our concerts were really hard and then when we got into the studio it was quite soft.”
B: There is another type of awareness in the studio, especially if you are paying for the studio. You are very conscious about making it work, because you are limited in time and money. When we did it in the rehearsal space we were free to spend as much time as we wanted. Try as many takes as we needed.”
M: “This band works best live. Our next album should be a live album.”

I have yet to see/hear Golden Retriever live, a context I have only experienced from one of those documented live shows on YouTube. Our meeting was supposed to take place before an appearance on the very same day, but the headlining act’s lack of transportation from Denmark, meant the gig was cancelled. It speaks volumes of the DIY approach the noise scene in Oslo, and in fact further abroad, adopts. Brage shares an anecdote from their recent trip to the states: “The first three shows we did were basement shows, which are quite common, people just host shows in their basements. The first show was even in the basement of some guy’s parent’s, who were upstairs during the whole gig. (Laughs) People just show up for the fact that you’ve travelled so far. What the fuck are they doing in some guy’s parents’ basement.” That sense of community is why noise music is continually flourishing in the margins and the reason that Total Crack Attack exists. The album was quite the communal affair with the rehearsal space in which the album was recorded very much in the epicentre of the noise environment in Oslo, And with mixing credits going to fellow noise conspirator and local noise music legend, Lasse Marhaug, it is very much a family affair.

This sense of community is the last thing you’d expect from music that is born out of self-indulgent practises, for lack of a better phrase.
B: I think it comes with the territory. A lot of the noise community is made up of ex-punks, ex-electronic music guys, a lot of them are anarchistic in their approach to art and life in general.”
M: “It depends from where you look. Noise is so many different things just like Jazz is so many different things. It doesn’t even have to be loud. It has to do with identity and what social place you end up in. Music, especially experimental music, is very political. I’m not a political person, neither do I have a political agenda, but I am aware of the political connotations of this music.”

…Morten’s words drift out of focus and in the silence noisy silence of the café it takes a while for him to return to the thought…

M: “What’s the definition of self-indulgent, is it a negative word?”
B: “It doesn’t have to be.”
M: “It’s a pretty negative word actually.”
B: “It can have personal connotations. I mean that you put your own persona in to it. What you do has a focus of your self.”
M: “There must be a different word.”

…I offer ‘expressionist’ instead, but the conversation has gone off course. Where were we? Community…

M: “I think this self-indulgent thing is about community at the end of the day. I love community! Having good people around is what makes me flourish.It has to do with everyone. It’s the fact that someone is doing this. People don’t have to like it. I think for people to know there is someone out there doing something outrageous is very healthy. It’s important for the balance of things. We are also a counterbalance to commercial powers that are doing really stupid things. Like really obvious, really bad music that gets way too much attention, and it’s marginalising the good stuff.”
B: “You say you are not political (to Morten), but just by playing this music you are taking a political standpoint. You’re defining yourself as the other. You’re not conforming to any kind of idea of normal society. You place yourself outside the accepted norm, and you do that consciously.”

Golden Retriever’s personal politics inevitably seep in to their music in this abstracted form of expression as they project their ideas outward in their distinctive noisy voice, very rarely paying attention to each other on a conscious level. It’s noise as defined by Geroge William Clarkson Kaye: ‘Sound out of place.’ Not out of place in its physical dimensions. It’s the sound of two artists practising their art autonomously from each other as a single entity. The formation of the group means that Morten and Brage can work independently of each other within the improvised performance, Brage interpreting his idea of black metal in rhythm, while Morten turns to his early influences in Jazz and, surprisingly enough, folk music. “When I got into music I quite quickly went to the library and listened to all the folk records. That’s what I love the most and then I got into Jazz later.” For Brage the physicality of the music also has other connotations. “I guess it’s just become an outlet in a way. It’s a really therapeutic project, where you pour all your anger, anguish or whatever into it, making it as brutal as possible so you can get everything out. There’s something about doing that that makes for interesting musical experiences, like happenings.” Morten too, is known to take his physicality out on the equipment at hand, “weightlifting” some of the house amps during a performance. It’s something Brage says they’ve been “chewed out” about more than once by a nervous sound engineer. It’s not just about the individual in Golden Retriever’s sonic explorations, as we’ve heard from the group who thrive on the sense of community. It’s the dedicated group of people around noise music that make it the tour de force that it is and it’s been alive and well in Norway for some time, even if some people won’t really admit it according to Morten: “ The interesting thing about noise people is that that they refuse to be pinned down as part of the noise community.“ It is also part of the reason the band found it inspiring to tour the USA recently, the audience and that fervour that Morten talked about earlier, making a lasting impression in the band.

What did Golden Retriever take from that recent experience?
M: “I want to be more enthusiastic when I hear other people play. That’s a good feeling. It’s what makes people carry on. “
B: “Probably the biggest difference when we go to the States compared to a place like Norway and even Berlin is that we don’t know anybody there. In Norway and Berlin we usually know everybody and there’s only about handful of people ever at our concerts. It’s not necessarily more genuine, the feedback you get, but it definitely has a different feeling to it. It gives me an incentive to keep on doing this.”

A fairly young scene in comparison to Norway, the USA appears to be the new lifeblood in this fan-driven music, and in the idiom of noise with its emphasis on community it makes sense that Golden Retriever are finding incentives in these audiences today. As a band they flourish in the live context and there is an obvious interplay between them and the audience even if the audience consists of a mere handful of friends. It is something that would have been noticeably different during the recording process on the album, and since Golden Retriever has such a strong relationship with their audiences, I wonder if it offered them a different perspective on their music.

What have you taken from Total Crack Attack now that it is done?
M: “It’s like a photo of us at that point.“
B: “It’s a way to measure your progression as well.”
M: “Listening to it taught me a lot. Listening to the LP, with a bunch of people that I didn’t really know during this latest tour, I was quite self-conscious. I was like: ‘Ok! Up with the arms and lets get to work and move on.’ It’s a really good kick in the ass. “
B: “It’s been over a year since we actually recorded it. When you sit down and listen to it now, you think o shit that’s where we were, that was good, but now we really got to get somewhere else. And in the mean time you’ve progressed far beyond that record.”
M: “It’s like looking at a photo of your past. Like: ‘Did I have that hair style?’”

I am suddenly reminded of a Facebook post from Golden Retriever that read something like: “the first and last album from Golden Retriever.” Brage laughs while Morten suggest something must of been lost in translation, “that would be way to conceptual for us.” Total Crack attack is making regular appearances in my playlist as I type this out. I get completely distracted flicking through the transcription; calling to mind events during our interview; writing; and trying to do it all in a concise manner, but the music constantly pulls me in other directions. The harsh noise Golden Retriever peddles, bursts and sustains; pushes forward; stops dead in its tracks, fucks with the predictability of music and inherently your conscious flow. I’ve tried to play the music while out for a walk in Oslo’s cold sunshine, but get so distracted that I find myself standing still for the most part, staring at a tree or a person, before I realise it’s actually raining and that person I’ve been ogling is a statue. Wasn’t the sun just shining? Is that a guitar or a no-input-mixer feeding back on itself? Where did the drums go in that wall of white noise? Were they ever actually there? O there they are but cymbals are being played like a kick drum whitewashing the snare…

Suddenly, there’s calm. We’re about 13 minutes into the first side of the record, and I’m hesitant, anticipating the next burst of energy from my headphones because this moment of peace is surely just a ruse meant to distract before the next moment of chaos arrives. Very little happens though. Drums disappear into the distance with subtle touches of sparkling cymbals administered in a very controlled manner, the guitar plays around with a simple slow theme, hints of white noise and feedback loiter in the background. There’s a delicacy that creeps in to the music at this moment and it’s carried over to the opening parts of the second track on the flip side. Morten Minothi Kristiansen will be a dad soon and he is of the opinion that he finds a softer approach in some of the other projects he works in. “I am in a huge change in my life right now, with having a kid and moving to suburbia. My life is looking very different, and I’m sure this will come through in the project I choose to focus on.” It doesn’t appear to be something that will necessarily affect the harshness of Golden Retriever’s brand of noise with Morten and Brage’s sole purpose still wrapped up in the idea of harsh noise. Morten having more time in suburbia has however introduced more melody into his work as earlier influences from folk music come to the surface again. The guitarist also suggests their sound is becoming more refined as a result of the album and the recent tour. “I’m getting more fluent with the gear as I’m learning ways to control the no-input-mixer monster. It becomes more articulated. It’s been a learning curve for me. I’m starting to think more about making certain sounds.” The words drift off again as he sinks into another thought and takes one last sip from his cup. “There’s a bit more control over the chaotic moment.”