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interview: Part 2, Jan Zehrfeld of Panzerballett

By Anthony Garone

Part 2 (of 4) where Jan continues to blow my mind.

Some Context

Below is Part 2 of our multi-part interview with Jan Zehrfeld of Panzerballett, the world’s best and only jazz-metal band. Make sure you read/watch Part 1 so you are prepared for Part 2!

Done with Part 2? Check out Part 3!

Don’t know who Panzerballett is? Check out our Discover post about them!

We conducted Part 2 on Thursday, November 12 at 1AM Arizona time, which is 9AM in Munich, Germany. I was really tired at first and we talked until almost 4AM my time. Believe it or not, there are two more parts to this interview beyond this!

Also, Jan’s camera could only record ~40 minutes at a time, so Part 2 ends abruptly.

Interview Audio (Podcast)

(NOTE: hitting the “play” button requires a hefty download of the entire audio file!).

Or, download an mp3 .

Interview video

This second attempt at a videoconference interview went much better, though I still had a couple issues. Parts 3 and 4 will be slightly better.

Interview transcript

Anthony: Hi, this is Anthony from MakeWeirdMusic.com and we are here for part 2 of our conversation with Jan Zehrfeld. Hello, Jan!

Jan: Hello, Anthony!

A: So, in the first part, we ran out of disk space while you were talking about Tribal Tech  and who helped you discover some of this complex music. I thought you could finish your answer there and complete the cliffhanger you left us with.

J: Ha! Yes, of course. It was about Tribal Tech and Scott Henderson , who then became one of my heroes of guitar and as a musician. I was talking about that it was a punch to the face and also to the brain. Later on, when I checked out some of his instruction videos and I’d seen some more concerts, I thought he was one of the coolest guys on the planet and one of the coolest musicians. He does exactly those two things: He combines these two worlds. He’s a very, very good jazz musician and also has a rock attitude. This is what always impressed me very much.

Last year I went to a Tribal Tech concert and, again, he proved it by playing a version of There Will Never Be Another You  with a total punk attitude. It was something that no jazz musician ever could pull off. In the interviews with Scott, he used to say that he sometimes had the urge to tell some jazz-head telling him, “You play rock music! You’re not a real musician. You don’t play jazz.” And he has the urge to say, “First, I’ll kick your ass on Giant Steps and then I’ll give you a Strat with a Marshall stack and you show me what you can do with it!” So, yeah, it impressed me because he could kick many musicians’ balls. That was Scott Henderson.

And then there was Meshuggah . A drummer back then showed me Meshuggah. He played me the Chaosphere  album. On the first play, I totally didn’t get it. I just thought, “Well, that’s a good sound and very aggressive.” I mean, I listened to metal a lot, he was a drummer and he told me, “The rhythmic stuff is so checked out. You’re into complex rhythms, so check it out.” In the first place, I didn’t get it. I just thought, “Wow, okay that’s amazing. It sounds kinda new.” But I didn’t get what exactly made it so different from all the other metal bands I’d heard until I sat down and transcribed something and got behind their rhythmic principle.

It was good material for my thesis, which I wrote a couple years later. So, it was a drummer friend of mine who played me this. I’m very grateful for that. I would have discovered it later someday, but still, maybe it would have been a couple years later and maybe I would be somewhere else. Who knows? Maybe I would have played some other music like smooth jazz.

Then I studied in Graz in Austria and there was this saxophone teacher and I told him, “Well, I like this jazz sound. It’s great. But, I’m also a rock guitar player. Can you recommend something?” He said, “Yes, my son! You should listen to Screaming Headless Torsos .” That was very good advice! Some of the best advice! I bought their album and fell in love with their sound as well because they have a version of Blue in Green  from Miles Davis [and Bill Evans]. It’s a reggae version of it with punk mixed into it and also jazz improvisation, which was also a starting point for me.

Another fellow student showed me Planet X  because I was also trying to rehearse fusion with heavy stuff in my very first compositions. He told me, “Well, if you’re into that stuff, you should listen to Planet X.” I checked it out and also was impressed. Tony MacAlpine  was one of the first… It was the same time as Steve Vai also used the 7-string.

I also listened to Steve Vai, but Steve Vai was a secondary influence because it was so much about virtuosity of the guitar, which is so amazing, but I was not aiming for that. I was aiming toward putting together these jazz and metal worlds. Planet X was doing that as well because they had these really heavy 7-string guitars with fusion harmonies going. Nobody else did it that way. I didn’t know of anything else. This was a big influence.

And Allan Holdsworth ! My God! I went to a rock guitar clinic from Vinnie Moore  and Vinnie was talking about him. Vinnie Moore is a very versatile musician and he had a rock class and there were many rock students who didn’t know anything about jazz. Sometimes when he played some very interesting stuff, showed some legato stuff, he told us, “Do you guys know Allan Holdsworth is one of the best musicians on the planet and one of the best jazz guitarists?” This was the starting point where I thought, “Yeah, the legato stuff I like. Vinnie Moore, I think he might be right.”

I checked out Allan Holdsworth. I went to the store and got the album None too Soon  where Allan only plays jazz standards, which is actually something like from the point of view now, knowing his other albums, now I know this is something special for him to do jazz standards. It was probably the best starting point you could get because I was learning jazz standards. Also, I saw there was this rhythm section, Gary Willis  and Scott Kinsey , who were Tribal Tech guys. So I thought, “Well, I have to buy this album. Allan Holdsworth, I have to check that out. Vinnie Moore said so.” I checked it out. It was also like an offenbahrung… It was an epiphany, a revelation!

Allan Holdsworth for me still–it was ‘98 and this is 2015, so it was 17 years ago–I still do not feel that I have come closer to him. I’ve checked him out a lot, but I don’t feel really significantly closer to Allan’s playing and to his planet because Allan is from a totally different planet. I still remember this album, None too Soon, had a big impact. It was so sophisticated and it was an outlook of how far it could get playing this distorted sound, which I of course like. He has a violin-like approach and these Coltrane  lines. It was also very, very important and amazing. I still listen to Allan Holdsworth’s music more than any other artist, actually. You can say it’s music with a lot of content and playing improvisation with a lot of content.

A: You must have been happy to hear Allan and Virgil Donati  get together.

J: Oh my God! Yes! Virgil Donati! I forgot about him. Virgil was part of the Planet X revelation, of course. Yes! Yes! That was great! We had one tour three years ago when the whole band had an off day and this was close to the city where we played and there was Virgil with Allan on tour. The whole band went and watched Virgil and Allan. It was amazing, indeed.

A: You’ve talked a lot about the rock side of your influences–more of rock than jazz. Did you listen to traditional jazz or any straight-up jazz musicians growing up? Or during these formative times? Like John Coltrane or anyone like that?

J: I did, but not to that extent, I have to admit. I studied jazz music and we were obliged to as good students. I wanted to be a good student. We were obliged to listen to a lot of jazz and there was traditional/mainstream/bebop jazz. I was never really in love with it. Many jazz musicians will say, “I knew that! I knew you were never really in love with it!” I dug it and I appreciated it and I could use all the improvisations from Wes Montgomery  and many more. Not only jazz guitar players like Pat Martino  and Charlie Christian , and the saxophone guys…

One of the first solos I transcribed was a trumpet solo by Clifford Brown , actually. Also, interestingly, was Ulf Wakenius  who later on was a guest on one of our albums. I met his son when I used to live in LA. It was about half a year and in that period I met Ulf’s son, Eric. This was kind of nice because Ulf was one of the first jazz guitarists that I got to listen to and transcribe.

It was always more of an obligation to check jazz out and never–der Funke ist to me übergesprungen richtig–

A: “The lightbulb never went off” or something like that?

J: Yes yes! Something like that. Because it was missing this essential part of music that I wanted to do myself: the aggressive part. The distorted, aggressive, heavy part. It was always missing. So, it was good for the intellectual side. It was appealing, but it was still missing the raw power from metal. There was always something missing. I really practiced this stuff. I practiced it for three years and almost never played rock or any distorted thing in that time.

It was a little bit frustrating because something was missing all the time and I didn’t even realize it until later, at one point, when there was the exam in the first half of the whole study. It wasn’t the final final, but the first final. I always wanted to be the best and they gave me some medium grade. This was depressing, but there was a good reason. I didn’t deserve anything better because it didn’t sound very convincing, probably because I saw it as an obligation to play traditional jazz. They didn’t want me to play anything else. This was just a part of my studies.

It wasn’t in the final exam, but in one of the concerts before, when I tried out some stuff–and this was some of the first Panzerballett stuff–and I realized this was what I wanted to do but this was not what they wanted to hear in the exam. They wanted to hear dip dee doodle-ee dip dee doo dee doo doe dyah doop. It’s nice. I dig it. But there has to be more or something different to it as well. That’s why I always have to incorporate THIS [sign of the horns ] here into the music.

A: You’ve mentioned several times that jazz was missing the wrecking ball, but have you ever felt that heavy metal was missing the jazz element of more melodic…

J: Of course! Of course! If you only have the raw power, it’s nice but that’s why I think there are parallels between the virtuosic metal and classical music because you have to be able to be technically extremely good to perform both like Yngwie Malmsteen  has the same “anspruch”–all my German friends know what I want to say. It’s the same “anspruch” like Paganini  has.

A: Virtuosity? Discipline?

J: Yes, maybe. Yngwie Malmsteen blended virtuosity into heavy metal. Eddie Van Halen , and all the guys we can be grateful to for putting really high class virtuosity into metal and making it a style that is really for the technical proficient musician. It has become important to practice a lot–8 hours a day–because of Yngwie and Eddie and this is a great thing! It has this competitiveness.

A: They’ve raised the standard. They’ve raised the bar.

J: Yes. But, also, the same thing that I was missing in heavy metal, I’m still missing the openness and the improvisational part. I was studying at MI  just for a few weeks and there was a live performance workshop where I played some Pantera  stuff. I played the whole thing and then I improvised a solo. During the piece, everything was great. “Yeah! Yeah!” And then during the improvised solo, “What the fuck are you doing?! It’s not the original solo! It’s something different!

This was something that I never understood. Why does it have to be the same solo? It’s the MIDI-file attitude; it has to be performed the same and the same all the time, every evening when you perform this music it will be awesome, but still I need some freshness. It has to stay fresh and jazz makes it fresh all the time. Jazz improvisation makes it different every time. It’s like building something from 0 to 100. This is something that only jazz has–this improvisation and dynamic development inside of a piece. Not only jazz has it, but probably the improvisation can make it…

[End of interview.]

End of Part 2

This is where Jan’s camera ran out of disk space. Move on to Part 3!

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Check our previous post: Jan Zehrfeld Interview, Part 1

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