The Danish, New York based, Mikkel Hess graduated from the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in 2002. He is best known for his leading role in the band Hess Is More, but has contributed to a lot of different music project over the years. At the moment he is a busy guy as he is currently playing the drums in the jazz trio Spacelab, with his brother Nikolaj Hess and Anders Christensen, as well as writing and producing music for different films and shows and playing the drums with Henrik Vibskov in the drum duo, Trommefredag.
I met up with him for a coffee and a steak at Christianshavn to talk about his different projects and his thoughts on his approach to creating music.
O: Can you describe the music you’re making right now, and the motivation behind it in a few words?
Mikkel: First off, I play with Spacelab. That’s an acoustic jazz trio that I've played with for 25 years now. With Spacelab, a lot comes down to the fact that we’ve played together for so long. The interaction and communication between us, and the chemistry we have, because we have known each other for such a long time is great. Then I’m doing Hess Is More, my sort of “party band”, where I write most of the music myself. I consider Hess Is More to be a bit like my integration place, where several of the things that I'm interested in, could possibly appear together on a track or on an album.
Although I look upon myself as the Minister of Integration in Hess Is More, I bounce ideas off the other band members to get their point of view, their energy and their opinion on the sound. In that way, the "space" that we work in, has the opportunity to be much bigger than what I myself could have imagined. It's just important that it gets integrated, in something I think is relevant.
O: Is there a common denominator for your different projects?
M: A common denominator that could very well sum up my interests, and some of what I’m doing, is integration.
O: Is Hess Is More where you play the most?
M:You could say, that it’s a relatively spacious size, which allows the music to be a bit more playful. It’s also a bit in the title, the pun about minimalism or not. The third thing is more Mikkel Hess as a person, where I am part of different collaborations. That could be music to a film. Then it’s simply: ‘Mikkel Hess who wrote the music for this film.’ Then it could be other collaborations with Rasmus Bille Bahncke, who I share a studio with in New York, or Henrik Vibskov, where it’s me making music together with these guys as a duo. For example, I’m going to Washington soon, to help out Henrik with one of his projects. In that case I’m just supposed to help out with his ideas and the music.
How do you feel about having to answer to other people when working?
M: I like that. I like to have some directions as long as there is a certain freedom within that space. Then hopefully, I can create something that they want. By doing work like that, I very often end up doing something, I can actually use for either Hess Is More or Spacelab. How is the process for the way you approach music in Hess Is More and Spacelab different from each other? Musically, there is a big difference in the energy of the music. In Spacelab there’s many long sessions with a lot of solos and improvisations, which can lead the music in many different directions. Whereas in Hess is More there are certain agreements in the band and only some solos. There it’s about how each track evolves with the elements available. The improvisation is more determined by the arrangement not having a fixed agenda every time. So it's kind of a different place that the improvisation develops from. Another major difference is that, in Hess Is More, it’s me who is the "director". It’s an open project and it’s collaboration, but no one is in any doubt that it’s me who has final word, me who control the direction of the music and the people involved. In Spacelab it’s much more a democratic.
O: Is it harder "only" having 1/3 of a say or is it more inspiring?
M: I am happy to have both. They are both very relevant, and I like that they’re as separated as they are. One is quite defined, the other is more of an open collective. If I want something done in a certain way In Hess Is More, we do it that way. I don’t have to ask permission. Ultimately, one is a democracy and the other is a ministry of integration. However, it’s an open forum, where I, as the leader, am very interested in how the others feel and what they think of the music that we’re making.
O: It seems as if with all the things you have going on, you never really take a break from making music?
M: Is going for a cigarette a break…? My projects tend to overlap each other. After getting older, I appreciate my work being a little more separated. So when working with Spacelab, I don’t pay that much attention to Hess Is More as I used to.
Or when making music for a film, it’s nice being able to focus mainly on that project. Of course you keep other projects going at the same time. But by keeping it slightly separated, my experience of each project gets much better.
O: So you don’t take breaks from working?
M: No, not really. For me, it’s more exciting making music, than not making music. So I can’t really see the point in taking a break from it. Of course I have hobbies beside work, like tennis and reading. But for me being on "vacation" is boring. I'm just waiting to get home, so I can get back to work.
O: Do you consider New York home?
M: Hm, yes... Or maybe I just consider home, where there’s music to be played. When playing a concert in Copenhagen, then that becomes my home. The country or city doesn’t really matter to me.
O: What elements are most essential for you when making a new track?
M: It usually takes its first steps with piano of some sort. With some different chords, that fits together in one way or another. Like when you start with a blank piece of paper. You’re not quite sure what you are about to make. Often I start out very slow, just with two or three notes Then it’s just to let your fingers do walking, so to speak. Then you record it, and along the way, you start building more and more elements up around it, to finally end up with something you can maybe use for a new track.
O: How does your creative process begin? Do you decide, that: 'now I want to make music?' Or does it occur to you out of the blue?
M: Sometimes I sit down thinking that:’now I want to create music’. Sometimes that turns out good, and sometimes not so good. I tend not to care so much about that. It may have been a good day, even though you haven’t come up with something fit for others to hear. Sometimes you have to dig through the shit, in order to get to the gold.
Other times it will just come to you. For example the track 'Go go go go'. It literally came to me as I was walking down the street one morning, on my way to the studio. I remember thinking, "Today is a bad day”. I overslept. I hadn’t meditated that morning. I didn’t think, that any good would come of that day. But because I had agreed with myself, that I had to go, I went. After walking to my studio, which is located 200 meters from my apartment, I had the whole song in my head. From there, I just had to go up and record the thing.
O: How big of a part does lyrics play, in the creation of a new track?
M: That’s different from time to time. It may be that at the time, I feel like the sound of a voice, and I have a song I want to sing. Other times it’s based on a feeling or certain mood. However, it’s very rare that the lyric comes first. Sometimes I’ve written some lyrics separately, which I then use on a track. But I don’t think I ever actually made a track based on the lyrics. Either it happens simultaneously, or it’s a piece of music that calls for some lyrics... Maybe I should give that a try though?
O: Does music speak louder than words to you?
M: Maybe in my case it does. Music is where I started. Text and lyrics has sort of come later on. Music is so infinite. Its a little more abstract than words is. But it could just be me who’s a little limited, language wise.
O: Digital or analog? Where do you feel most comfortable?
M: Overall, I don’t have any preference. I am well aware that some people are able to use the computer as a multi tool. They deserve great respect. I tend to use the computer for generating certain sounds or as a kind of recorder.
All though I must say, that there is something to a real musical instrument. To sit at a real piano, feeling the vibrations in the room, provides you with a unique feeling, compared to a keyboard. In both Spacelab and the last 5 years in Hess Is More, we’ve been 100 percent analog. There’s nothing that’s pre-tracked. We may use a computer to generate a sound, but its all hand played. I’m very pleased that we got rid of that element. I like it better, that we are constantly able to adjust to each other when playing.
O: Is genre conventions in music something you care about?
M: No, not really. Sometimes I try getting into it. I think my career would benefit from it, if I were able to actually express what kind of music I was doing. But for some reason, I’ve committed myself to this hopeless project, and almost make a virtue of not telling what kind of music I’m doing. But if I have to choose, I would describe it as music you can dance to. Not to be confused with dance music... Once I was asked what kind of music we were doing, and back then, I said: “If an art museum held a party, we would be the band that played at the after the party”.
O: Has it become a defiance that you will not define your music?
M: There’s nothing political about it. It’s only based on my own interest and my desire for the audience to have an exciting experience.
O: When not defining your music, is that a way, to remove some expectations and give yourself more freedom in your work?
M: It’s a relatively free feeling, that no one has any expectations, but I’m not very conscious about it. I have so many plans and ideas, that the order and time of the different things becomes a bit random.
O: Music: art or play?
M: As a self -proclaimed Minister of Integration, I’d better say both. But play is not a word I'm particularly interested in, when talking about music. Not because I think it's wrong to say that something can be playful, but it's not a word I would use for what I’m doing. I would, on the other hand, rather refer to it as being art.
O: Is there anything you as an artist are particularly proud of?
M: I’m proud and very happy with some of the concerts I've done. Those concerts, where you feel people complete surrender to the music, they really mean something. If it has to be something more specific, then the two concerts we did in Skuespilhuset, Copenhagen in 2011 was really cool. It seemed that after the concerts, there were many people who had experienced something different. If you somehow are able to touch someone through your music, I’m happy and proud.
O: Could you describe what great sound is to you?
M:... That’s a tough one.... Great sound is sound that compliments the situation.
For me there are two kinds of sounds. There’s the sound that’s supposed to get out trough your speakers or headphones. And then there’s the sound you get directly from the source. When you play audio out trough a stereo signal, there’s kind of limit to the amount of sound you can get. You can turn the volume up, but there cannot be more. When it’s not going out trough speakers, it becomes a bit more unlimited. Say you got a drummer, who plays something on his drum set, and then you got another drummer who plays something on his drum set, then you add sound on top of sound.
O: What can we expect from Mikkel Hess in the future?
M: I’ve got a lot of concerts with both Spacelab and Hess Is More coming up. Right now, I’m super excited playing live at different concerts. Then we’ve got this new remix, that just came out. It’s the Hess Is More track, Wheel of Fortune, remixed by Listening Center.
You should check that out. Then soon to come up, I’ve written and produced the music for a show in the Copenhagen Music Theatre (København Musikteater) called Aneaderne. That runs from the 8th of March to March 23. Fourthly I have another tribute collection coming up, similar to the one I’ve made for NYC located bands. (http://hessismore.com/tribute/) Only this time, it’s a tribute for British bands and artists. That’s all I can say. Then in the spring, there will be an album from Spacelab. And without jinxing anything, there may as well be a Hess Is More album coming... within seven years. Then I haven’t said too much.