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Panzerballett is one of my favorite bands in the world and I was lucky enough to meet up with the band’s creative genius, Jan Zehrfeld, at his home in Munich, Germany while traveling with my family. I’d met him in person once before at the Baked Potato in Los Angeles in 2013, but we didn’t really connect until I emailed him and asked him to do an interview in 2015.
Jan has written some incredibly complex compositions built entirely on quintuplets and septuplets . We thought it’d be fun to talk in-depth about what he’s done in these songs and how they work. Enjoy!
AG: This is Anthony with MakeWeirdMusic.com and I have with me–it’s a real honor to be with you–Jan Zehrfeld from Panzerballett. Jan, thank you so much for joining me and having me in your home.
JZ: Of course. Good to have you here.
AG: Thank you very much. So today, what do you want to talk about?
JZ: I want to talk about quintuplets and septuplets and how I started experimenting with songs, or parts, that are based just on quintuplet feeling and septuplet feeling.
AG: What are some of the songs from your catalog that use quintuplets and septuplets in an interesting and novel way?
JZ: Well, the first one is Some Skunk Funk. The idea is the first song that is just quintuplet-based. Another one is Mahna Mahna–
AG: The Muppets song?
JZ: Yeah, the Muppets song. And then there is an original composition called Euroblast. I didn’t know in the beginning how to start it all, so the good start was just modifying something you already know into somethig different. Like Some Skunk Funk, modifying it in a way that it can fit into a quintuplet grid.
AG: For people who don’t have a music theory background or don’t do much beyond a triplet, what are quintuplets and septuplets and how are you using them?
JZ: The quintuplet is basically a division of the beat into five even parts. It might be the beat in half notes and one half note can be divided into five eighth notes quintuplets notes or four quarter notes can be divided into five “notes.” Or, for instance, the way I used it was dividing one quarter note, which means four 16ths and instead of four 16ths, use five 16th quintuplets. Can you say it like that?
AG: Yeah, you’re putting five notes in the space where there’s normally four notes. In standard music notation, you don’t have to use any “signage.”
JZ: You can divide the beat into three 8th note triplets, or into four 16ths, or into five quintuplet 16ths.
AG: And a septuplet is seven instead of five.
JZ: Yeah, which is even harder. This already means that the more notes you have, the slower the tempo needs to be to perceive them so it doesn’t get muddy with notes. If you have septuplets and a fast tempo, you don’t notice a difference between septuplets and 32nd notes or sextuplets. And the fast tempo is just “brrrrrrrrrrrrrr.” For seven, it must be slower. And for quintuplets, it’s similar, but it might be faster because it’s only five notes. The thing is that for quintuplets, I didn’t have any other music to listen to that has only quintuplets and you usually learn music by hearing it and getting influenced. I didn’t have something like this, so I had to build my own stuff and it was hard.
AG: Most people use quintuplets as a rhythmic device for melodies or very small phrases. If it’s used at all in a song, it’s typically used in a short span of time and used to articulate a phrase. But you’re using quintuplets and septuplets as a division of time.
AG: And then you’re laying time signatures on top of those divisions, right?
AG: Okay, so how does that work?
JZ: Well, for instance it might be a good idea to choose one time signature. For guitar, you might choose 4/4 or 3/4, but 3/4… I started with 3/4. Why? Because I wanted something that had 4x4 16ths, which is 16 notes, but I changed it into one bar of 3/4 with quintuplets, which is 15, which means I have to take out one note in some place. So, it resulted in a 3/4 bar.
AG: 3/4 using quintuplets, right?
JZ: Yeah. Like 1, 2, 3–DA ga di ga da, DA ga di ga da, DA ga di ga da. For guitar, it’s hard and tricky because usually in funk guitar, if you have 16 notes in a 4/4 bar, it’s [plays a funk rhythm part on guitar]. So, if you have 3/4, it’s [plays a funk rhythm part with the accented 1 beat on up and then down strokes].
AG: And so much of what we do musically is in two because we walk in 2, our hand goes up and down, so you really have to keep track of where you are.
JZ: Yeah, because you have five and it changes if you have a constant down/up movement. It changes whether it’s changing to an upstroke on the downbeat in the first measure and then an upstroke in the second measure. And that’s the tricky thing about it.
AG: How did you apply this to Some Skunk Funk?
JZ: I started with the melody. You have this [plays the melody] and I started to add just two notes [plays the melody with two new notes] in every phrase. It’s like talking a sen-sentence. So you have the same kind of phrases, but more notes in every phrase to get five out of it.
AG: How do you maintain the integrity if you’re adding notes?
JZ: I don’t maintain it. I just make something that I can still sell as the melody.
AG: So it’s close enough?
JZ: Close enough for jazz. Yeah.
AG: How do you count your version of Some Skunk Funk? Are you counting in quintuplets or are you counting in the downbeats?
JZ: In the downbeats. In the beginning, I have a 4/4 with quintuplets, which means 20 notes. The original has 16 notes. Somewhere I have to add 4 notes to it somewhere and not at the same time, but really hide it. That’s how it started. And then there is the “groove” thing. I found what fit better was the 3/4 bar instead of the 4/4.
AG: Why not?
JZ: I don’t know why. It just fit better and made more sense.
[Demonstration of the quintuplet groove]
JZ: That’s for the funk groove. Then you have the bass line and I found it with 3, 2, 2, 3, which is close to a triplet feel, but it’s not. [Plays triplet version and quintuplet version.] With triplets, the first note is 33% whereas two quintuplets is 40%. It’s a little percent difference of something that’s already quite fast. But with what you call “feeling,” you have to listen closely and play precisely.
AG: I have to say that when I first heard the song, I couldn’t figure it out and then I heard Sebastian’s drum parts, I clearly heard quintuplets and thought, “That sounds like quintuplets. But why would they make a whole song about quintuplets?” Not thinking about you and what you do, but just like, “No one does that, so it can’t be right.” But it was right and it did turn out after two or three months of listening, I concluded it must be quintuplets and then you confirmed it for me.
AG: How do you even approach this? You have a whole band living in this different time space for several minutes. How do you improvise over it? You solo over it.
AG: How do you even do that?
JZ: Soloing was already the next step. The first step took us about half a year to get through the head as a band without any improvising because we were not that far, but we wanted to play it. So the first shows we played the song, we played just the head of it. We said, “Hey, we’ve got something new.” You may not be that far, but your kids will love this, like in [Back to the Future ](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Back_to_the_Future]. And then we started adding the improvisational part, which is extra work, but fun work. Exhausting, but fun.
AG: Okay, so how does the septuplet stuff go?
JZ: Well, the septuplets was a year practicing to a click like this. [1 2 3 4 5 6 7] It’s like a fast 7/8 bar.
AG: You spent a year doing this?
JZ: I spent a year learning and improvising over this feeling and learning the riffs. Not with a straight click, but with this changing click. The difference between 4 and 3 is smaller as the tempo gets faster. And when I’m doing only 4 over this click, it’s shifting around all the time. [Plays a note every 4 beats over the 4+3 click.] And then stuff like this [improvises with pentatonic scale over the 4+3 click] doing groups of 4 and 3 notes over this whole thing. Well, stuff like this…
AG: How does this prepare you for a band context when the whole band is playing? They’re not going to be playing 4+3 over and over again. That’s not how music works.
JZ: No, no. I had to learn it again because the band was playing to a different click than this or the band didn’t practice to this click. The rest of the band practiced to a different click and this kind of threw me out again because I practiced it that long with this click. The band’s click was “DA goo goo goo goDA goo goo goo.” It’s counting 8th note septuplets. [Does a rhythmic difference between the clicks.] It’s a different feeling.
AG: It sounds very Indian, carnatic rhythm-inspired kind of thing. I know you had Trilok Gurtu on your album. Were you going through some sort of Indian rhythm study phase? Has that been an important part of your rhythmic foundation?
JZ: The Indian rhythm? No. Not at all. Not for me, but I should go there one day. Mattias Eklund told me I should go there to South India but I never had this as a primary influence. I just recognized it later. Probably my influences came from there, like Meshuggah. I guess they must be inspired by those kinds of rhythms. So I guess it was a secondary influence, not a primary influence.
Yeah, but this septuplet thing was really challenging. So, the first rhythm that was in Typewriter II was this one. [Plays a rhythm over the 4+3 click.] Again you have the first beat starting with a downstroke and then the second measure’s first beat starting with an upstroke.
AG: I think in my cover version of that song, I simplified it so I could just record it. It’s so complex. The more I’ve studied your music, the more I wonder, “How do you get a whole ensemble to play like that?” And I saw you live, which blew my mind.
JZ: Well, this part took us quite long to rehearse over and over in loops, really starting slowly. Collectively rehearsing this kind of groove I just played to a click and slowly building it up, rehearsing each part separately from each other and then putting it all together, we spent quite a lot of rehearsals… We don’t rehearse very much, but a big percentage of our rehearsal time was spent getting this right.
AG: Where do you go with this? Is this just an exercise per song? Or is there a whole other world that’s opened up to you guys?
JZ: Both. It’s the consequence of starting with quintuplets, then going to septuplets. I don’t know where it’s going to lead, but with septuplets, there is just one example that we did that’s maybe just an exercise. But on the other hand, I think it opened up now that we’ve already rehearsed it so much, the next time we work in septuplets, it won’t take that long, I guess. Having improvised and played these parts a lot now, I think I can build something on top of it, maybe more interesting or sophisticated. I don’t know yet. I will try to go this way, of course.
AG: That’s really, really cool. I guess we’ll just have to wait until the next Panzerballett album.
AG: Thanks a lot, Jan. This was extremely insightful. You’re a madman.
JZ: I know. I know. What a madman? Me?
JZ: No, I’m totally normal.