INTERVIEW: Sven Faller of Trio Elf (Germany)

Sven Faller. Photo credit: Oh Weh/ Wikimedia

The German band Trio Elf are Gerwin Eisenhauer (drums), Walter Lang (piano), and Sven Faller (double bass), plus sound engineer Mario Sutel. Alison Bentley met Sven Faller at Jazzahead 2014. In their conversation he talked about:

- what it means to be a democratic piano trio

- their sound engineer’s ‘real time sonic manipulation’

- their live recording for the Enja label at Amsterdam’s Bimhuis

- their coming UK-based collaboration with Scottish guitarist Graeme Stephen.

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Alison Bentley: Why did you decide to do a live recording? [Amsterdam]

Sven Faller: The band has existed for 11 years now, which is funny because ‘elf’ means eleven in German. Last year Enja, our record company, said, ‘You have to celebrate 10 years,’ and we’d made three studio albums plus the remix vinyl record- so, a lot of studio work. In the course of playing together all the tunes have evolved into totally different animals. Just through improvising together onstage, the repertoire keeps changing, evolving. If somebody comes to the gigs and likes a particular tune, and would like to get the CD that it’s on- well, it is on a record but it sounds very different now. So we said, we have to document what we do. We had planned to record the whole tour and then look at the greatest hits. But actually we ended up only recording this one concert, and it was just like the perfect day. It was one of our best shows.

AB: I’m interested in the idea of the sound engineer being the fourth member of the band. You call what he does: ‘real time sonic manipulation’ Do you know in advance what he’s going to do?

SF: No!

AB: So you find you’re improvising with yourself, or a looped recording of yourself?

SF:Yeah, at times, that’s what’s happening. If you think of a jazz ensemble, you have composed material, but you don’t know exactly what the other guys are going to do. It’s the same way of thinking- you have the framework of jazz, of a tune, but then there’s all this freedom and it applies to him [Sound Engineer Mario Sutel] just as much as to any player in the trio. So he might change the sound, especially with the drums. He might suddenly put a strange sound on the bass drum, and of course that changes the way the drums are being played. He does what you mentioned- looping. Walter the piano player might play something all of a sudden that comes back to him, and he plays off that. It’s not like Mario fires sampled stuff, or pre-prepared things- it’s all from the flow of the concert.

AB: So you and Walter write most of the music?

SF: Yeah, Walter writes a lot. But the sound of the group is really a trio effort. You have the compositions. I actually gave the drummer the credit for writing Arearea with me – and sometimes I feel he should have credit on all the tracks because a lot of the stuff comes into the rehearsal. ‘Let’s play this, I wrote something today, let’s try it.’ And everybody contributes. I write something and bring it to the band- granted, it sounds totally different to what I envisioned and that’s a great thing. It’s not like the Gerwin Eisenhauer Trio, the Walter Lang Trio, or the Sven Faller Trio- it’s Trio ELF- thee guys and it’s totally democratic.

The drums especially are a big part. And also when there’s a piano solo going on, I always feel I don’t have to play a bass solo afterwards, because I already did while he’s playing- you always come together. And that’s the way he feels too. Whenever he has a break in his solo I play something- he plays off that immediately.

AB: Do you find that you and Walter write quite differently? I wondered if Walter’s music was quite Romantic.


SF: Oh, yeah- that keeps changing also. These differences that you noticed, are even more in the background of the musicians, and I think that’s part of what makes the trio interesting. Hammer Baby Hammer was a very Romantic piece and Gerwin said, ‘I like the melody but I’m gonna put dum-chi-dum-chi underneath.’ And Walter said, ‘Really, you think it works?’ ‘Yeah, it works,’ and it’s one of the best tunes on the record. It’s always this kind of friction that makes the music interesting.

AB: What is your musical background? Who are your heroes?

SF: I have always been extremely eclectic. As a teenager I played in rock bands. With my friends I started listening to jazz- Charlie Parker, John Coltrane. But the idea of putting everything that interests you into one group, no matter where it comes from, has always been there for me. I went to New York, and I studied jazz with Buster Williams and Reggie Workman, in the tradition. But at the same time I was playing in a heavy metal group, or a lot of Latin bands. So I always like to incorporate everything. And then when I met these guys I found they have the same openness.

AB: Who chooses the covers?

SF: We choose that stuff very carefully. Someone would bring in a tune and say, ‘Guys listen to this, this is really perfect for the group.’ Gerwin brought the song by Blink 182. [Down] We take a song- you know the original and then you make it your own- and bring out something that you hear that’s not in the recorded version. The idea of playing with electronic music- now it’s done a lot, but ten years ago when we started it was the premise of the band. Gerwin listens to all this drum ‘n’ bass. On our first record we did two Aphex Twin covers.

AB: That’s a really interesting thing about your band- the electronic drum styles. I saw your drummer has written a book on these styles.

SF: That’s really what makes it so interesting. He’s totally into beats. He knows everything, he knows all the artists, every groove- dubstep or whatever. Walter, the piano player, doesn’t know anything of that- he doesn’t listen to it at all!

AB: So you come together and make this new creation?

SF: Yeah. And Walter listens to jazz or classical things and he loves Brazilian music. A lot of the stuff [Walter] listens to, Gerwin the drummer would say, ‘Oh, it’s boring.’ But in the end you have this coming together.

AB: Do you think that there are particular German rock bands, apart from Kraftwerk obviously, who’ve influenced you? I get the feeling that German jazz bands sound a little bit different.

SF: It’s a very interesting point. I’ve thought about it quite a bit, because we tend to think we’re just jazz musicians, not German at all, and that there’s no such thing as German jazz. We all went to New York to study jazz. After a while there were a lot of concerts abroad where people said, ‘Oh yeah, I like this way of playing- your German way!’ You come to think that there is something, although very individualistic- I’m still exploring this idea. Because when I talk to my American friends, we listen to the same stuff- they listened to Kraftwerk just as much as I did. It may be a way of thinking.

In the 80s there was a reaction to German radio being just American or British music. There was a new wave of bands singing in German. Not too well crafted, more wild and simple and crazy- you remember Trio, that band? I think that has influenced us more than we might think, ‘cause I hear it in our music too, sometimes- this way of chopping it into something simple, very basic, unemotional, neutral. That’s something that needs to be analysed, because with Germany you think of Bach and Beethoven, and that’s international, that’s not really German- that’s classical music and everybody studies it.

Alison Bentley: What’s your next project?

Sven Faller: We just started rehearsing for a new record and we’re thinking about writing music. It’s very difficult after something like this- a lot of touring. Now we’re starting again, finding new influences. We had a break of about three or four months where we didn’t meet. We all have our other projects. I did stuff with Stefanie [Boltz, vocalist in Le Bang Bang, a duo with Faller.]

There’s not so many guitar players that I could easily have envisioned fitting in with Trio Elf, but Graeme Stephen did! He’s from Aberdeen but he lives in Edinburgh. We’ve been invited to the Aberdeen Jazz Festival twice because Regensburg, where we’re based in Germany, is twinned with Aberdeen. Then we invited him to play with us at the Regensburg jazz festival. We’re planning a tour of Scotland and England with him.

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