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interview: Part 3, Jan Zehrfeld of Panzerballett

By Anthony Garone

Part 3 (of 4) deep into the wrecking ball method.

Some Context

Below is Part 3 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 and Part 2!

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

We conducted Part 3 on Thursday, November 12 at 2AM Arizona time, which is 10AM in Munich, Germany.

Also, Jan’s camera could only record ~40 minutes at a time, so his footage from Part 3 ends abruptly. Thankfully, I figured out how to record from my iPad and captured his audio straight from the Google Hangout.

Interview Audio (Podcast)

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

Or, download an mp3 .

Interview video

This third attempt at a videoconference interview went much better is the best so far. Hopefully, Part 4 is even better!

Interview transcript

Anthony: Do you ever get invited to play at jazz festivals or at heavy metal festivals? And when you play at these festivals, do you ever offend the sensibilities of the audience where the jazz audience is expecting pure jazz or the heavy metal audience is expecting pure metal? How do they respond to you playing what you play?

Jan: That’s a good question. We’ve played mainly at jazz festivals and not at metal festivals. Almost not at all. The only metal festival we’ve played at is Euroblast, which is a technical metal festival, because there is this djent community…

A: Like Meshuggah  and Fredrik Thordendal ?

J: Yeah, the kings of djent are Meshuggah, but there are tons of bands that created this new metal genre. Well, it’s not that new anymore, but it’s at least the newest metal genre. They see us being in this scene, but we’re not really a djent band.

Some of the stuff we do is related to djent music, maybe. That’s the reason we played at Euroblast . Actually, the name of the song Euroblast is called that because it was supposed to be the trailer music for the Euroblast festival, but they didn’t take it.

A: Oh, I was wondering about that.

J: Yes. I didn’t want the work to be in vain. I thought it was a cool song, so I wanted to keep it and perform it. Okay, blind alley.

A: Dead end. I don’t think anyone says “blind alley.” They say “dead end.” Or, “I digress” or “I’ve gone down the rabbit hole.” I’ve never heard “blind alley.”

J: All the other metal festivals have not even invited us because they think we have a saxophone and that means that we play jazz. They don’t like jazz. So they don’t book us because they hate jazz. Because we have a saxophone, we must play jazz! And they also hate saxophone. It’s shitty because doodle-doo-doo-doodle-doodle-doo sound like “jazz,” but I don’t like that “jazz.” So, we cannot be good.

There were many great jazz festivals where we played. This was exciting. We opened for Chick Corea , Bill Frisell , and Kenny Garrett  in big opera houses and big stages. It was an honor to do that. It was fun because of the audience. They were not expecting anything like this. It was not our audience. It was the Chick Corea audience.

For them, it was of course a punch in the ears and their eardrums went bleeding. 1/3 left the hall, like Manowar  says, “Wimps and posers leave the hall.” They just didn’t expect anything half as loud as that and they left because I think they’re too faint at heart for that.

Another 1/3 just suffered and stayed and thought, “Well, that’s really ugly music. That’s just noise. Random free jazz noise.” No, “free jazz” is what the metal guys say. If anybody says Panzerballett is like “metal and free jazz,” that’s the biggest bullshit I’ve ever heard. “Free jazz!” It has absolutely nothing to do with free jazz! Nothing is free! There are some improvisational parts, but free jazz? Oh my God! Makes me angry! Free jazz…

This is like an angry dead end again. Where was I? Oh, the jazz audience! They don’t say it’s “free jazz,” they just say it’s “random noise” and it’s “total noise” and “annoying.” That’s the other third of the audience.

The third third is the good 1/3 which stays and digs it. They like it. This is very polarizing. This effect is always at most in festivals where it is not our audience and it’s a mainstream audience. Except the mainstream mainstream audience we have, if a tenth of the people even considers staying there, then it’s already great. For the mainstream mainstream, it makes no sense to play for them. But, a jazz audience, let’s say it’s a third that’s digging it.

A: You said last time that you use music to “channel aggression.” You talk about punching in the face and bleeding ears and stuff like that. Do you get any sense of joy when you see people leaving or when you know that they’re “suffering” (in your own words)? Is that part of your intent? Do you get anything out of knowing that you’re going out to “punch them in the face” when people don’t like to get punched in the face?

J: Yes! I love the win/lose situation. No, I would not really say that. There are mixed feelings about that because of course I want many people to come to the concert and like it. What musician would not like to have an audience? On the other hand, when looking into the faces of this audience, it has some kind of “genugtuung”–satisfaction!

There is some kind of satisfaction because people are–I don’t know why, but I have the urge to make a statement to people sitting there and listening. Many of those people who are attending these jazz festivals just go there not because they dig the music but because…

A: They go with an expectation of hearing nice jazz or something close to it?

J: No, maybe because it’s respectable to attend a jazz concert and they have to stay. There are so many other people who say, “This is good,” they don’t find it “good” because it is good, but because other people say it is good. There are many of that kind. I have that feeling at least.

I don’t know if it’s true, but I think I can see it by looking into people’s faces. “Ah yeah. Interesting, yes! Ah, mm-hmm. How much time is left? When is the concert finished? But it is so amazing! Jazz music!” When talking to some of those people–I don’t know. I have the feeling that many of them don’t know where the quality comes from.

Is it just because this music is at this event and it wouldn’t be respectable to not attend the event? Those people–if you show them something that has a similar quality of music–I don’t want to compare myself to all those greats because they’re jazz greats…

I just want to say that if you have music with the same kind of content or density and you just present it to them with a different sound that they’re not used to, or they’re used to other genres of music, they don’t like it. It scares them off. That proves that they’re not actually–well, maybe they’re not so much into the content, but it just has to sound nice and they think it’s nice. If you play the same thing with a not-so-nice sound, then it scares them off.

A: You started our first part of the interview saying, “I consider Panzerballett to be extreme music. It’s music about extremeness and complexity.” When you’re blending two very separate genres, I would imagine that you knew there would be a cost to doing those things. Like a risk in doing that.

J: Yes.

A: And you pursued it anyway because you said, “I wouldn’t know what to do otherwise. I have no other choices.”

J: At no point in time did I consider it as taking any risk. There is no risk in doing what you just do. You don’t have to take any risk. The only risk you take is if you don’t do anything else, basically. All of us, we do something else as well, like investing a lot of time–“risk” is the wrong word because it’s doing it and hoping that more and more people recognize it and dig it. But, taking a “risk” is not what I’ve ever felt. Does that make sense?

A: Yeah. I think it does.

J: It is taking a risk but it doesn’t feel like it.

A: Yeah. You’re being true to yourself. You only know who you are. When you’re expressing yourself creatively, what’s the risk? You’re not writing music to please others. You’re writing it to please yourself.

J: Yeah. Very selfish view, of course. Very selfish. Extremeness is also in the selfishness of course.

A: That’s what makes it great, though. You’re never going to cater–there is no “extreme” audience. There is no sort of group that’s just waiting for extreme complex blending of heavy metal and jazz. You are blazing a trail and you’re finding an audience that probably never knew that that music could exist. That’s why we’re talking. Your music is so innovative and creative.

J: Thank you!

A: I’d like to know about your creative process. Could you describe how you start with a song, whether it starts with a complex idea or if you kind of manufacture that complexity over time as you investigate where you might want to go with the idea? Or does it just start out with, “I hear Some Skunk Funk based on quintuplets in my head and I need to write this out?” How does an idea start for you and how does it become complex?

J: Well, yeah. That’s a good question. There are two basic approaches: one is doing original [music] and the other is doing cover [music]. When doing the original, it’s something that I’ve always done, even back in the times when I played in a metal band and I made up some metal riffs–it’s a similar creative process.

The material gets more complex and your ears get used to more and more complex stuff. Basically, you have an idea in the shower or whatever or walking on the street–I cannot force something. It depends on my mood. Sometimes there is a creative window that opens and, “Oh, there is an idea!” Usually I record it.

Usually I don’t have time at that time to go on with it, so I have to record it on my phone, like a little passage. Then when there is some time to dig into it or sink my teeth into composing, then I get back to my phone and have my ideas and try to combine them.

Sometimes I’m inspired, sometimes not. There are not many days in a year that I have this time to do this. Sometimes it takes me a day or something to collect all the ideas or to go on from one idea to finish a song. Sometimes it takes me a couple of days and it’s not even finished and I have to come back to it later. Sometimes it takes even more than a year or even more.

One of the songs on the last album Breaking Brain , there is a song called Smoochy Borg Funk that the basic idea was something I wanted to use for Tank Goodness , which was over 3 years ago. Then one part was missing and I didn’t know what other part would finish the song. It was missing an idea. So I came back to it years later and then I finished it.

Or, the the mustafari song, Mustafari Likes Di Carnival from Tank Goodness also, was quite a long process. When the song was finished, still the intro was not there. The intro I wrote one year later, or half a year later, when I had lots of time.

Usually every idea that comes and fits to some other idea, every idea is making the pool bigger–the pool that you can draw from. It may not be random stuff, it has to fit together. I try to keep all the ideas in one pool and not make it random, but just throw something into the pool and there aren’t too many elements in the pool.

As soon as I see something fits together, I say, “Well, that’s good for my pool.” This pool that I have when I do a cover, the cover already gives me ideas in the pool to draw from.

Some Skunk Funk was already a finished structure and I just rearranged it. I tried to find a way to make the same melody inside of this quintuplet grid. This was kind of just editing something. It’s hard to start from scratch with an original song. You need this moment of inspiration that I keep on the phone because the moment of inspiration, you never can tell when it comes. So, then there is this later moment of assembling the inspired moments together.

This assembling is inspiring in and of itself. From there, it takes only one or two days to finish a whole composition, but the whole process, I cannot even say or generalize how long it takes to write one song. There are many factors. You need inspiration, you need the right parts, you need luck.

Also, what I use for composing is the computer. This is probably the most important tool. I was speaking of the pool of ideas and I’m using the computer to treat those ideas or to make all these rhythmic experiments possible. The computer is extremely helpful because all the polyrhythmic stuff and all these structures of chains of riffs or whatever, I put them together.

Putting them together on paper would take ten times longer. I don’t hear it in my head. The computer plays it to me. I can just put them together in the computer and the computer plays it to me and I can hear it. I would not hear it just having the sheet because first I would have to practice it and then I would hear it and then maybe I would say, “No, that’s completely bullshit. I have to try something else.” The computer helps me to instantly hear it and to edit it. So, this is very important to me. Creating this polyrhythmic stuff…

A: Do your ideas start with melodies or riffs or polyrhythm technical ideas? Where are you starting from?

J: Yeah, starting is basically a bass and guitar riff. Something like this is the starting point for rhythmic experiments. In Mahna Mahna, we do 5 against 7. This was from a time where I was experimenting with septuplets and thinking, “What happens if I group the septuplets in 5?” Then I didn’t feel it at that time, so I had to make my computer play it.

Also, the whole thing has to have a harmonic context. On top of the rhythmic structure, you have a harmonic structure. This is like a third layer. The harmonics and the changes have their own rhythms. Usually the changes go bar by bar. Sometimes–I cannot generalize it, but it’s often like that.

The harmonic context is a third rhythmic layer also. I wouldn’t be able to hear that in my head. I can just hear what the computer plays to me and just edit. In the same way that I pick up the guitar and find a nice voicing or something, I’m experimenting with several melodic minor and harmonic minor voicings, exploiting the fretboard.

This is what I do when I practice. Sometimes I come across a cool voicing. It’s the same thing like coming across a nice riff. When I find something that appeals to my ear, I take it out and drop it into one of the pools I use for the songs.

A: It sounds like the computer opened up new compositional possibilities.

J: Exactly.

A: Were you composing before you had the computer and was your music anything like what it is now?

J: Yes. It couldn’t be what it is now without the computer because the computer makes the whole process so much faster. I would get so exhausted or distracted on the way to doing the math of the basic ideas. I would get distracted on the way and I would find other ideas when writing something down.

When the creative window is open, I usually get distracted by my own ideas. The computer doesn’t distract me. The computer is not distracted. If I have a 23:16 idea, I just put it together times 5. Writing that down would take too long. When writing it down, I’d get a different idea along the way. When the computer does it, it’s just, “Okay, 5 times 23.” When the computer plays it for me, I think, “Oh, that sounds nice, but I have to make some adjustments to make it sound more musical.”

I don’t want it to sound mathematical or constructed. It has to sound musical to me. I also want it to be a construction of doom and be something that really has a high level of sophistication. This high level of unusual sophistication–the thing is “unusual” comes from using the computer because sometimes you can put together ideas you wouldn’t get if you did it another way. This inspires me often.

Sometimes I make a mistake and I do some copy and paste stuff and I paste it in the “wrong” place of the grid. The computer will play it to me 1/16 note later and this displaced riff sometimes sounds nicer than it did when it wasn’t displaced. This opens a new window for other things. It’s a mixture of human and computer artwork. It’s a computer-aided composition or creativity.

A: I think that’s wonderful. Were you exploring with polyrhythms before the computer to a lower degree of complexity?

[Here, Jan’s camera ran out of storage, but I kept rolling with audio from my iPad.]

J: Yes. Yes. No. Actually, no. I was experimenting with metric modulation  because at that time I didn’t know have a sequencer and it was a bigger deal to make tempo changes. This was an obstacle because it was a big deal to make a tempo change on the computer. This was a kind of distraction in the creative process. It was killing creativity. So, I had to find a different way.

This is something where I could not use a computer (metric modulation). Metric modulation was some of the very first rhythmic sophistication tools I used before the computer. Some other stuff like interlocking of grooves, like Zehrfunk was interesting because you have one riff and you disperse it on two different instruments.

This is one of the things that I do: dispersion of 16th notes. You have something rhythmic and you give one part to one guitar and the other part to the other guitar and you have a stereo effect. Every part sounds nice and grooving, but they’re completely displaced and add together as something beautiful. It’s beautiful for itself also.

This is one of the things that the computer is great for. You just select some single notes and do a cut and paste as a separate part, then listen to it and say, “okay, that’s grooving, that sounds great.” Or, “No, this note I have to give to the other instrument and instead of that, I’ll use the third note from the other instrument for the first instrument.”

So, trying out new things and instantly listening to them and deciding whether they’re good or not. Experimenting with them and getting faster and faster, finding ways to compose. I got better over the years in what I could do with all the options to make it sound different, what measures I have to take to make a riff that the computer plays me, but does not yet sound great… What can I do to make it sound great? I get more and more of these options over the years and I know what to do to make it sound better.

A: It’s very interesting. The contrast between your talking about the freshness of improvisation, the ability to (in the moment) be musical, but on the other hand some of your music is so technical and detailed and absolutely precisely constructed… it’s very interesting how you blended those two things. They’re another set of opposites. I know jazz is kind of like that, but you’re going to a different level. You’re going to such a level of complexity that no one can just pick up a chart and go, “Oh yeah, let’s sight-read this track.”

J: Exactly.

A: How do you feel about that contrast where it’s probably 2AM and you’re moving 23:16, moving certain notes from one instrument to another, doing a cool trade-off thing. But you still want this freshness. Can you talk a little about that?

J: Yes, the contrast has to be there because the construction is so intricate. The more I need this other improvisational part of the music, the more complex construction I need, the more I have to practice it, the more time I have to spend learning it–the more I crave the compositional part. And also the contrast. Inside myself, I think the grass is greener on the other side. I’m always wanting the other thing. [Jan’s timer starts beeping.] Oh, shit. Now we have another minute left.

A: So now we need a part 4?

J: Yes. Now it’s getting very interesting.

[End of interview.]

End of Part 3

Just one more part left! Check out Part 4 of this interview…

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