“They told us beforehand that it wasn’t going to be anything like you’ve seen on TV. But when we did it, it was actually pretty much exactly the same as in the movies! It was Jailhouse Rock: four or five levels of prisoners going up, and we were on the floor downstairs, with bars everywhere between them and us. And every prisoner had a guard, so if there were 100 prisoners there were 200 people!”
Janove Ottesen, vocalist, guitarist and oil barrel pummeller for Norway’s KAIZERS ORCHESTRA, is talking about the time they played a Norwegian prison. The six piece were about to launch their own Kaizers Vodka – as you do if you’re one of the country’s biggest bands – and one of the band, a former employee of the prison, had persuaded authorities to allow inmates to make wooden presentation boxes for their shot glasses in return for an exclusive live performance.
“It was really hard to plan any communication with the prisoners through the bars,” Ottesen continues. “If I threw something out there, I didn’t know if I was going to get any response. And they were all serious, just standing there, watching. But it worked out eventually.” Because this is KAIZERS ORCHESTRA, a band that have proven that – however unusual the circumstances, and however unexpected their next step may be – there’s almost nothing that can stop them from winning people over, and certainly not mere prison bars. “We have our show and our energy, and they liked it, and by the end they were singing,” Ottesen concludes. “And then, near the end, someone shouted, ‘Don’t stop. Come back next year!’ So I said, ‘If you’re available, we can come back every other Friday!’ And he shouted, ‘Bring the crowbars with you next time, and we’ll provide the people!’”
It’s an unlikely situation, but then KAIZERS ORCHESTRA specialise in the implausible, and in making the implausible work. In the decade or so since they started, they’ve shown that refusing to follow a well-trodden path can be not only creatively fulfilling, but also commercially lucrative. Few people would have predicted that a band whose lyrics were sung in the band’s local dialect, and whose musical ingredients include pump organ, stand up bass and oil barrels, Balkan folk, Nordic rock and what some have dubbed “Tin Pan Alley pop”, could ever make it past their first album, let alone command a reputation as one of the most exciting acts, both live and on record, in the world. KAIZERS ORCHESTRA have made being different the very centre of their existence, and, in so doing, have created a universe that is not only entirely their own but also appealing to tens of thousands of people across their homeland and Europe.
Formed at the turn of the century by Ottesen and Geir Zahl, childhood friends from Bryne (near Stavanger, on the south west tip of Norway), KAIZERS ORCHESTRA emerged from the ashes of a folk-pop band called gnom (which in turn had arisen from their previous band, Blod, Snått & Juling). gnom’s first and only album was commercially unsuccessful, but they’d stumbled on a formula for an entirely fresh musical stew. Joined by Terje Winterstø Røthing (guitar), Rune Solheim (drums), Helge Risa (organ) and Jon Sjøen (bass), and taking their name from a lyric in a gnom song called ‘Bastard’, they refined the concept and emerged with their debut EP in 2000, winning a deal with the small independent BroilerFarm Records soon afterwards. No one could have predicted what would follow: the release of their first album, Ompa Til Du Dør, became the biggest selling debut album of all time in their homeland and was even praised by Tom Waits. The years spent learning their trade in different line-ups, experimenting with arrangements and styles, had paid off: KAIZERS ORCHESTRA had arrived, fully formed, and their bizarre but fiercely exciting mix of Eastern European, Gypsy, alternative rock and punk influences proved irresistible.
There was more to it than that, however: KAIZERS ORCHESTRA had invented their own world. Though they didn’t know it then, Ompa Til Du Dør was to become part of a trilogy: Evig Pint (2003) and 2005’s Maestro (with new bassist, Øyvind Storesund) unveiled further scenes of intrigue and drama set in a timeless, Mafia-like demi-monde focussed around a small cast of characters. Fans found themselves drawn into this unique environment with its exciting, innovative musical soundtrack. “The combination of the music that we make,” Ottesen says, “and the stories that we’ve sung, and my language and dialect: that had never happened before. People were doing pop, but suddenly we came up with this. We were doing something different. That’s where we like to be. And that’s what we’re still doing.”
He’s right, and that singular approach is further illustrated by the fact that those three albums have birthed a stage play, Sonny, that opened in Norway in 2011 then went to Denmark in 2012 . “We’re friends with Tore Renberg,” Ottesen explains, “who’s one of the authors in Norway who’s had most success the last ten years, writing books and movies and theatre pieces. I’d worked with him before so it was natural to ask him, and he’s been a diehard Kaizers fan from day one. So he knew all these songs and lyrics and our universe. He understood it. And he’s a great writer.”
Typically, there took no half measures: all the music for the show was especially recorded by the band right at the last minute, “because we wanted to see how it looked as late as possible and get the right feeling for every scene. We spent from 10am until 4pm at the theatre watching the actors and directors at work, and discussed with them what would fit. And then we went to the studio where we worked for eight more hours. We did this every day for three weeks, so it was pretty hard. But we knew two years before that those three weeks were coming, so we were prepared.”
This, of course, is the way that KAIZERS ORCHESTRA have always worked: in a determined, clear-headed and ambitious fashion. They lay out their plans and then they realise them. Most acts struggle to maintain their vision and their goal, but here that’s not been the case: this band knows what they want, they know how to get it, and it’s something they learned early on. “We had to try different kinds of musical styles, different combinations of instruments, and test them out in different cities,” Ottesen says of their beginnings. “What happens when you play songs live, and are you in contact with yourself and know for sure what you really want? Do you want to make pop hits for radio, or make full albums, or just be a live band? There are many different ways to make it in this industry. And we managed to say at one point, we want to make a different kind of music that you haven’t heard before, and the way to do that is to put together a different combination of instruments that the next band doesn’t have. We want to have a lot of beats and riffs to our music instead of crappy songwriting on a piano or acoustic guitar, and it should be really catchy with immediate rhythms and hooks. And who has that? East European pop music has a lot of immediate melodies and chord progressions, and the oompah and waltz and tango rhythms are really universal in a way. You can play these kinds of rhythms and melodies for people in the Amazon and they’ll like it! They’ve never heard it before, but they respond to it: it’s a universal language. And all of this we managed to think, and make, and then put together. That was the point, to make it different and to perform live as best as possible and as much as possible.”
They’ve applied this level of discipline to everything they’ve done throughout their career, and it also helps
explain the break between their first trilogy and the album that followed three years later, 2008’s Maskineri. “When we finish an album and a tour, then it’s over,” Ottesen states clearly. “We don’t go straight into the studio or straight on tour again, or do just a small tour, or just one or two shows. When we play, we play all the time, and when it’s over, we don’t play anything. It’s time off. It’s very, very important.” In actual fact, this is when they often undertake projects beyond the KAIZERS ORCHESTRA universe, but any time they work together, they do so with a commitment and productivity that is enviable. Though they took their time making Maskineri, they swiftly followed it with a live album, 250 Prosent, while Våre Demoner, a compilation of tracks that hadn’t made previous albums, came hot on its heels in spring 2009. (They’d also preceded all three with an impressive live DVD, Viva La Vega, in 2006.) But their next step was audacious, even by their standards: the band announced the release of a new trilogy, the story of Kenneth, Beatrice, and their daughter, so beautiful they named her twice. Violeta Violeta Volumes I, II and III represent a musical change of sorts, with a heavy emphasis on arrangements as well as a revised sound, the result of recording in a new studio, albeit with much the same team. “But we’re older, and I hope we’re better,” Ottesen laughs, “and I think we’re really creative at the moment. That’s why we have three albums instead of one!” Volume III is the end of the trilogy released in Europe in the start of 2013. All songs on this album is recorded with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra and Kaizers Orchestra. The album is with arrangements by the popular Norwegian composer Erlend Skomsvoll.
Released separately over two years, Violeta Violeta Volumes I-III have a different feel to the first trilogy, “inspired by movies and directors like Tim Burton. ” There’s a fantastical element to the tale, Beatrice able to communicate through her dreams with a daughter kidnapped by Kenneth, an act that left Beatrice so distraught that, over seven years, she filled seven buckets with her tears. It’s an epic drama, fuelled by potent imagery and lyrics once again notable for their multiple layers of meaning, but it’s also intimate: “Our experience with all of the writing we’ve done is that it’s all about people, and relationships between people. We find that you get the strongest stories if you write about that in an alternative, interesting, super-realistic way”. And, whether you understand Norwegian, let alone their unusual dialect, there are huge amounts here to enjoy. Because if KAIZERS ORCHESTRA know one thing, it’s how to communicate. Their fans are, like Tore Renberg, diehard, passionate believers in the power of the band’s music, and part of the reason for that is the musicians’ dedication. “The people in the band work for the band,” Ottesen says “And one only needs to see them in concert to recognise their determination to ensure that no one leave less than elated. “I’m not saying that we make the best music in the world,” Ottesen chuckles, “but it’s definitely different, and we have a fantastic live show that I believe we can put in the planet’s Top Ten. And at no point are we trying to fit into the popular music scene, because it has nothing to do with KAIZERS ORCHESTRA.”
Ah, but somehow it does. Because KAIZERS ORCHESTRA – through sheer gritty resolve and endless, inspired creativity – can consider themselves a massively popular, hugely successful band across Continental Europe and Scandinavia. And Violeta Violeta Volumes I-III are the perfect way to celebrate their ten years of existence.