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interview: Part 4, Jan Zehrfeld of Panzerballett

By Anthony Garone

The final part of our epic multi-part interview.

Some Context

Below is Part 4 (the final part) 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, Part 2, and Part 3!

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

We conducted Part 4 on Thursday, November 12 at 3AM Arizona time, which is 11AM in Munich, Germany.

Interview Audio (Podcast)

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

Or, download an mp3 .

Interview video

Interview transcript

Jan: It’s always, yeah, grass is greener on the other side. It’s always that I am wanting the other thing that I do not have right now. When I’m in a metal concert, I’m listening to a metal band and I’m missing the improvisation. At a jazz concert, sometimes I’m missing the wrecking ball.

Being in the metal community, being the one who’s actually into jazz, or being among jazz guys always wanting to be the metal guy, always wanting to be the different guy, to do something different, to be different from the others… It’s a desire that comes from myself and that’s the same contrast that I need. You automatically get it at the same time when performing songs that incorporate both elements.

That’s kind of the fulfillment of this desire. You get something of both worlds in one thing and you don’t crave for the other element anymore because you’re already not far away from it. You’re just performing both. Does that make sense?

Anthony: Yeah, it does. That leads me to two questions: Is a song a small enough context to provide that fulfillment? And secondly, when the song is so complex that it takes so much effort to learn how to improvise over it, doesn’t that take away from the joy of improvisation because you have to work so hard to even get to the point where you can improvise on it?

J: That’s the hard work of being able to enjoy it: to practice it an extent that you get freedom. That’s the actual work on improvisation. It’s always to be free, to get options from where you are. To get these options, you need to work out ways to finding these options. That’s the mastering of improvisation. That was one part of your question and the other…

A: Is within a song a small enough thing? You said, “When I’m in a group, I’m always looking somewhere else.” Does a song provide enough for you to be present in the moment and to be content with the improvisational piece when you’re improvising and to be content with the through-composed parts when you’re playing those?

J: Yes it is because the song is designed in a way to fulfill that desire automatically. Some songs that don’t have improvisation, like Mahna Mahna, which doesn’t have improvisation. The song is quite short, but if it was 8 minutes long and it wouldn’t have improvisation, then I would miss something. Since it’s 2 minutes, that’s okay for a non-improvisational part.

When it’s a whole song without improvisation, something is definitely missing. So, most of the songs have a well-balanced ratio–what means “well-balanced?” Well, enough balance for fulfilling the desired ratio of improvisation versus composition.

A: Once you write these songs, you compose them… I’m guessing you write charts out for people. The band, I assume, has enough freedom to do what they want and what you’re writing is like recommendations in some areas and very specific in other areas. How does the band treat receiving a chart from you?

As far as I understand, you don’t all live in the same place, so you probably have to practice to a certain extent on your own and when you come together, it’s a different form of practice, as you mentioned in part 1.

J: When I compose, I write out the parts and I do a pre-production of every song. Regarding the saxophone and the bass and the first guitar (melody guitar), there are not many modifications that musicians do to it except some phrasing, or maybe for the guitar, Joe adds some expression or articulation or bendings or some special techniques to make it nice-sounding. Joe is a very, very good guitar player. Particularly, this is one of his specialities: to take a melody from a MIDI file and make it sound really nice on guitar.

Then there’s the drums. Because I’m not a drummer, I can just offer Sebastian something. Parts of them he takes them as they are, but most of it he rearranges and makes his own drum arrangements. This is totally insane stuff. I would never get the idea to write like it. Much of it is drum-specific stuff that I just don’t know. Extremely specific things and techniques that he practices and ideas that he gets. He gets many, many ideas, and I let him do whatever he wants. His drum parts are way more complex than what I write.

In the end, every musician has to spend time learning his part, which is kind of hard already. But then there is a second part of it, like putting it together in the band. If you’re able to play along with the computer in pre-production, that doesn’t mean you can play it together with everyone having his own interpretation. Because the structure is so sophisticated, everyone is making little… playing a little ahead of time, or some notes are a little too long or too fast or too slow… just a really little bit, but this little bit is enough to make the whole construction not sound well and make the parts not fit together well enough.

Not even putting together the single elements and rehearsing as a collective band is an important part. We don’t have much time to do this because two of us live in Austria and three of us live in Munich. It takes at least… Either we rehearse in Salzburg, which is almost a 2-hour drive, and then we have to set up, which takes time as well. And Joe comes from Linz. When he comes to Munich, he has to drive 3 hours just one way.

It’s a lot of time on the day we rehearse before we play the first note. So, the time we have is precious. We have to be very effective. Everyone has to really be able to play his part perfectly so we can do this process of putting together. It’s like having a complex sculpture and you have all the single parts and you have to then meet and everyone has his part and you have to put them together. You have to make some tiny adjustments. You notice that somebody plays one note a little too long or the phrasing is a little different.

Little mistakes lead to collective errors in the band. Little mistakes are often already enough to make it not happen as it should be in the collective. So, we rehearse, it takes us maybe one or two rehearsals for one song. When there are new principles, like the quintuplet thing, then it takes us longer. I think I already talked about that in part 1.

A: Do you have more that you want to get out of the band? Or is it doing just what you are hoping for compositionally, in terms of performance…? Are there areas where you’re seeing a lot of opportunity for growth? Or it’s just great for what it is and you’ll continue to evolve and you’re excited about that?

J: Yeah, it’s the latter. It took so much time to find something and rehearse it and bring it on stage and now it’s kind of a working machine. So, I know I can just go on being creative into this direction and I know there will be new, awesome stuff happening at some time.

It’s kind of found its own long-term groove of how to create and arrange this music, rehearse, bring it on stage… Experimenting inside of these parameters with this instrumentation, I think there is still a lot to exploit. This is where I’m aiming: becoming more and more awesome and more and more sophisticated and complex.

A: I guess I can only think of one more question and it’s 3:40 in the morning. But that’s okay. And the question just left me. Give me one second. Oh! Yes! So, how would you characterize or articulate what this music has done for you in your life? How have you grown personally through making weird music?

J: Personally, I would say just doing this thing is the most satisfying experience for me as a musician. It has been by far the most satisfying because it’s nice to be a side-man playing music from other other composers, other bands, or doing stuff in other bands, cover bands… The diversity makes it exciting.

But, still everything is not half as satisfying as doing your own thing and knowing that there is no end to it so you can always go on and on and on and finding new stuff. That’s how I assign the importance or priority in doing this Panzerballett stuff. It’s my first priority of what I want to go on with and what I put my efforts into emotionally. As a musician, it makes me my source of inspiration of what I do.

When I wake up and start practicing, I know I want to. It used to be like that. When I didn’t have it, it used to be a random thing I liked, different stuff. What I practiced wasn’t as focused as what it is now. Now I want to be really… I got the Erkenntnis… What is that in German? The awareness or knowledge that you cannot be able to do everything. A country or recording guitarist or classical guitarist. There are so many great aspects of playing guitar, but the time is limited and you have to focus on something.

I think by making weird music, I’ve found something that’s really myself and that’s what I can do good. That’s my cup of tea. That’s what I can do best. That’s what I have to. I know I have to really specialize in order to get a chance to be recognized by the world. Otherwise, I don’t have a chance because there are so many good musicians. You have to find a way to do your own thing and then putting 100% into it and then you have a chance to be recognized.

I think I’ve found the thing that I can do best so now I know what to focus on way better. I know, “Well, maybe I should check out more of this technique or that technique” and it’d be great to be a nice flamenco player. Why not? But, when just starting to do it, I recognize, “No!”” It would take so much longer and it would distract from what I can do best, which is this weird thing. I need to focus on the weird stuff.

Personally, I’ve recognized in myself: focus on what you can do and not what you can’t do and can do not that well and what’s “nice,” but maybe not nice enough. Focus on something you really do well. That’s what I think and that’s what I’m going to do. It makes the choice so easy when getting up! “What should I do now?” I focus on just getting better in what I already do, which happens and gives me satisfaction. I’m getting better and I want to get even better. I won’t become a big shredder, probably, but in my own style, I will become better and this makes it exciting.

A: That’s great. Well, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate you spending all this time with me and exploring these themes. It’s really wonderful. So, thank you very much.

J: You’re extremely welcome.

A: All right, Jan. I appreciate it and, I don’t know, we’ll talk again I guess.

J: I’m wishing you a good night. My day starts now and I’m going to have some breakfast.

A: All right. Have a good one.

J: You too!

The end!

After four magnificent interview “parts,” this interview can be considered complete.

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