Motorpsycho has its origins way back in the mid-1980s, when teenage Norwegian metal heads Hans Magnus ’Snah’ Ryan and Bent Sæther met. Agreeing that Rainbow Rising was the finest album ever recorded by anyone (a statement often thereafter and still to this day often amended and adjusted), the two later attended the same high school and played together in their first bands in the central Norwegian town of Steinkjer.
After graduation their ways parted, but less than two years later, in 1989, they again met – this time in Trondheim, where Bent attended university and worked as a DJ at the local college radio station. Having started a band for fun with Kjell Runar ‘Killerkjell’ Jensen and a couple of other DJ friends from work, ‘Aural Blow-job’ were in need of a new guitar player when a chance meeting on the bus rejoined the two. Later that fall, a record hunting trip to London provided the fledging power trio with a new name, and Motorpsycho was born.
Recording their first demo tape in January 1990, and playing their debut gig supporting TRBNGR at UFFA in Trondheim in April, the young band gigged as much as possible around Norway in the following months. They recorded what became their debut album Lobotomizer in Oslo in December 1990, signed with Oslo-based indie label Voices Of Wonder in May 1991, released the album in September, changed drummers and brought in Håkon Gebhardt to replace Killerkjell in October, and played their first foreign gigs in Denmark in December(!).
The new recruit was a friend of Snah’s from their year at Gauldal folk high school. A Tromsø-born multi-talent, Gebhardt was exactly what was needed at exactly the right time, and a new musical chemistry soon blossomed. Recording their sophomore effort, the Soothe mini-album, in the local Brygga Studio in Trondheim in January 1992, and following the mini album with two 7” singles later in the year to increasingly better acclaim, the band’s fortunes were on the rise when they in September added a fourth member, noise enthusiast and art school student Helge ‘Deathprod’ Sten. With his arrival, an avant-garde influence crept into the bands hitherto pretty straight-up post-hardcore psychedelic guitar rock, and when the quartet came out of Brygga Studio in December 1992 with double-LP Demon Box under their belt, a new standard was set.
Arguably still one of their finest efforts, and certainly the album on which their reputation was made, Demon Box was perceived as a radical shift in focus for the band, but in reality Deathprod’s arrival had basically removed the young band’s blinders and opened up their horizons to all the music they were interested in: no longer were there rights or wrongs and all forms of musical expression was from now on valid if done right: musical diversity was redefined as an asset and was from now on to be indulged. A huge success locally, Motorpsycho was the happening band in Norway when a third European tour that fall in support of the Mountain E.P. presented the band to enthusiastic European audiences.
After finishing the recordings that in the fall of 1994 were released as behemoth triple album Timothy’s Monster early in the year, a burned-out Deathprod threw in the towel and retired from touring. He was retained as a co-conspiracist and producer for the next decade, but live his role was supplanted by a variety of members in the following years. The first addition was Brygga Studio owner/engineer Lars Lien who reported for keyboard duties for two tours in support of the Another ugly EP in 1994 before handing the hot seat over to light engineer-turned keyboardist-turned guitarist Morten Fagervik the following year.
Timothy’s Monster was a logical extension of the free-for-all musical universe Motorpsycho established on the Demon Box, and in many ways surpassed its predecessor both artistically and commercially. It was released on EMI records domestically, and on the newly established Stickman Records outside of Norway, marking the start of a long and fruitful relationship that continues to this day.
The album was a success: the acclaim was wider and the audiences bigger, so when the innocent c&w-flirt/side project Soundtrack from The Tussler was sprung on an unexpected public mere months later, confusion reigned supreme for a week or two. This was the first incarnation of the less serious, playful side of Motorpsycho shown to the public. The grunge era had been anything but light and playful, and the climate of the day dictated that artists preferably behaved surly and as if they had heroin habits, so when Motorpsycho and a few friends released c&w versions of their own songs in an homage to Gram Parsons, Jerry Garcia, Doug Dillard and other first generation longhair-country purveyors, quite a few minds were blown. What was this?
Well, aside from a bit of r’n’r in public, it was one of the first steps taken on the road to turning the public’s perception of Motorpsycho around. From being perceived as ‘a group that plays hard rock’, to being accepted as ‘a musical collective that plays whatever music they feel like, but with a certain thumb-print and a definite identity’ – i.e. a band defined not by genres or form, but by content and a certain je ne sais quoi – took a bit of doing: This concept was new in Norwegian music and hard to understand for quite a few people, but it had at least as many positive ramifications for the band as negative over the following two decades. In short, although it scared off as many punters as it gained, it was a vital turning point and a prerequisite for the band’s longevity and continued existence.
This genre-flirt helped the band shift focus for their next release Blissard: Maybe it’s more interesting and more of a challenge to make a shorter, focused album than to make another all-indulgent triple thingy?’ Producer Deathprod certainly thought so, and with the two-guitar line-up of Gebhardt/Ryan/Sæther/Fagervik the band decamped for Atlantis Studio in Stockholm, Sweden, to record their next album. This new mindset needed a new method, and the band found themselves so far out of their comfort zone that the recordings at first were perceived as too flawed to merit release. This was a first, and presented a steep learning curve for the still young band, but the ensuing panic – rerecording and remixing – at least ‘fixed’ the album in their ears, and Blissard was finally released in early 1996, eventually going on to win the Norwegian Grammy-equivalent Spellemannsprisen for best rock record. In 2012 it was also the subject of a book by noted Norwegian novelist Johan Harstad, making it a canonized work of a different order altogether.
But back then the chemistry was off, and the band took steps to remedy the situation. The second guitar was deemed redundant and the self-inflicted limitations in scope were felt to be limitations in ambition as well, so they both had to go. For the next sessions, this time in Athletic Sound studio in Halden, all bets were therefore off as the revitalized power trio returned to trusting their instincts over their intellects. The result was Angels and Daemons at Play, a sprawling experimental work that to some felt incohesive and unfocused, but was embraced with open arms by the great unwashed. After the uphill struggle to land Blissard, the free flow of ideas under this new regime seemed to release something extra in the band, and such was the relief felt by the boys that they actually recorded backing tracks for seven of the album’s fifteen songs in one five-hour spurt! Even so, the stylistic variety on display confused some listeners, and perversely – to further compound the ambivalence quite a few people felt about the album’s lack of a distinct direction in this period – it was decided that their first album for Sony Norway should be released as three companion pieces – as singles/EPs – over three consecutive weeks, before a boxed version, a shortened single CD version and a double LP – each with different track lists – was released properly in early 1997. In spite of all this confusion over formats, the album did well, and Motorpsycho again received a Spellemannspris for their efforts.
Over the last couple of years leading up to 1998’s Double album Trust us, Bent had taken to playing more and more guitar on stage, letting Snah handle bass duties by playing Moog Taurus pedals. This approach opened up a different angle on song arrangements, and to a more modal feel in much of the new material. The songs became longer and had less chords, and the monolithic, epic feel this gave much of the music from the period is still held in high regard amongst Psychonauts. Trust Us is for many the high point of Motorpsycho’s 90s output. The album was again recorded in Halden, and managed to be both an artistic and a commercial success, despite its saxophone wig-outs courtesy of Trygve Seim, and its seemingly anti radio-friendly music.
The regular 6-8 weeks the band spent on the road both domestically and in Europe each year in this period, made them a pretty exciting live act. This was documented in 1999’s first installation of the (still ongoing) ‘Roadwork’ series of live recordings released by the band, Heavy metal iz a poze, hardt rock iz a leifschteil, that contained recordings from their 1998 European tour. As a document it represented the band in this period well, and wisely focused on the ever more important improvisational side of the band. It was – in short – a challenging listen for the uninitiated!
As the millennium approached, the band felt the one-chord, droney sound of their last two releases was done to death, and when they reconvened after a summer holiday that saw the birth of drummer Gebhardt’s first solo album ( ‘…plays with himself’), the general consensus was to try to shift the focus from the recent overindulgence in soundscapes back to the art of songwriting. The recording sessions (again in Halden) yielded almost twenty new songs, half of which were hard avantrock songs and half of which were properly orchestrated psych pop nuggets. the decision to split the material over two different releases gave the hard rocking mini-album Barracuda an almost cartoonish hard rock feel that a few fans had problems taking seriously (and who knows if they were supposed to or not?), but the main album itself, Let them Eat Cake, presented a seismic shift in musical focus that has reverberated through the Motorpsychodelic universe ever since: a tip of the hat to the top dogs of the sixties pop renaissance, this was as close to ‘sunshine pop’ as Motorpsycho ever got, and by adding a dash of southern rock into the mix, the result was fresh but still recognizably motorpsychodelic.
The recordings involved string quartets and horn sections, ‘teenage pop symphonies to god’ galore, mellophone chorales and singing saws, and displayed a pop flair never previously showcased in the band’s history. The album won yet another Spellemannspris and topped the charts, and is still regarded a stone classic in the Motorpsycho canon.
To execute all these string section arrangements and keyboard driven songs, the band turned to an old friend from Trondheim, Baard Slagsvold. With a background from the music conservatory and Norwegian late-80s pop phenomenon ’Tre Små Kinesere’, Baard brought a pop sensibility to the band that was fresh. He was also more of a jazz guy than a rocker, and his preferences helped shift the bands’s musical focus yet again, helping them sing three-part harmonies and playing both jazzy piano solos as well as the string arrangements on the Mellotron live.
Although most fans found this new, improved Motorpsycho interesting and exciting, some also had issues with this ‘popified’ version of the band. The constant touring and the massive exposure the band experienced in this era saw them at their commercial peak, but even if nothing was expressed by anyone involved at the time, in retrospect one can see the cracks beginning to appear: The writing sessions for what was to become the Phanerothyme (2001) and It’s a Love Cult (2002) albums were fragmented affairs, with each of the three main members of the band writing and demoing his own material. Little attention was paid to the performance side of the new songs, and almost no rehearsals previous to the recording sessions resulted in two albums of almost over-composed and nearly un-performable music. To the composers these albums were artistic successes (and listened to out of context today they feel razor sharp in their pop perfection), but to the audiences at the time, Motorpsycho probably felt like they were a bit too insular and willful in their affairs and as the new millennium dawned, both the band and their audience felt like the wave the band had ridden for ten years had crested and the world had moved on.
After the fall tour of 2002, which was documented on the Roadwork lll: the four norsemen of the apocalypse segment of the Haircuts DVD (2008) and on the In the Fishtank (2003) album recorded in Holland with the horn section from Jaga Jazzist that summer, Motorpsycho was for all intents and purposes over. …But for one thing: the old c&w giggle Soundtrack from The Tussler had gained an almost legendary status in the intervening years, and had become so rare that it was being bootlegged and reached indecent prices on the secondhand market. To remedy this, the album was remastered and expanded and rereleased in 2003 to massive acclaim, and as a fun idea, the original band was reunited for a few gigs. This was such a success that a further probe into the dark heart of c&w was deemed appropriate, and that winter the recording sessions for the album that became Motorpsycho introduces the International Tussler Society (2004) began. This process was documented on the album’s accompanying DVD, and even lead to the band undertaking a European tour. Billing themselves The International Tussler Society, the band averaged three-hour shows and left both themselves as well as the continental Psychonauts that were in on the fun sweaty, tired and ever so slightly dazed. The album was a surprise hit as well, and received praise from well outside of the expected quarters.
This fertile and fun period ended in the fall of 2004 with half the band doing session work and the other half contemplating their future. There was uncertainty in the air, the burnout was still zapping energy everywhere, and when the call went out that the time had come to fire up the old Motorpsycho engine again, Gebhardt passed. After 14 years of guerrilla warfare he’d had enough, and wanted to try his hand at other things. The split was as weird as these things are, but the involved parties remain friends to this day and there are no bad feelings.
So, then… what do you do when you find yourself without a drummer, and the wolves are at the door? Well, you buy a drum kit, rehearse like mad for three months and then go and do it all yourself in yet another studio! Black Hole/Blank Canvas was recorded in The Void studio in Eindhoven, Holland in the summer of 2005, and was co-produced by the band and their long-serving sound engineer Pieter ‘Pidah’ Kloos. The album was played and sung by Snah and Bent in its entirety (except for the drums on one song), and was a return to the rockier material that is their natural state and common musical ‘ground zero’. It was the album that would decide if there was any life left in the old warhorse and if carrying on under the same name made any sense, or if the jig was up and it was all over.
Well, released in March 2006, the album was a moderate success. But with the boost in confidence this gave them they recruited a couple of old friends (Øyvind Brandsegg on lumina, and Jacco Van Rooij on drums) to help them out, and once again took to the road. The somewhat ragged and under-rehearsed band that toured Europe in the spring of 2006 didn’t exactly set the world aflame, but the feedback was good enough to deem the experiment a success, and the decision to keep the band name felt justified. The problem though, was that it all kinda felt like a project but ‘needed’ to be a proper band.
Cue Kenneth Kapstad, the fastest drummer in the known Psychoverse.
When participating in a project with stand-in-psycho Øyvind Brandsegg in the summer of 2006, the two main psychos met the young whizz kid drummer extraordinaire Kenneth Kapstad for the first time. A common love for Ian Paice’s early work for Deep Purple (and a fierce run through Burn by that band), the question was popped, and the next phase of the Motorpsychodelic tale began.
A graduate from the Trondheim Jazz Conservatory, Kenneth is a schooled jazz drummer with a thing for Nicko McBrain. This pretty much sums up this human octopus, but only begins to describe the music the band has made since his induction into the ranks of Motorpsycho.
If the opening salvo of 2008’s Little Lucid Moments didn’t get your pulse racing, nothing will. Recorded with Helge Sten in Halden, the high octane rock machine of the early 90s was reborn, and with a new supercharged engine the album – lyrically a meditation on the wonder of fatherhood – felt like waxed crystal meth. The album featured a few slightly more ambitious song structures than previously attempted (the title cut was a ‘suite’, no less!), and was essentially a collection of four extended workouts over a theme. The album put Motorpsycho back on the map as a genuine musical force to be reckoned with, and also marks their first collaboration with Norwegian avant-garde/jazz label RuneGrammofon. After a decade with Sony records, the boys felt they needed a change of scenery and some new lifeblood pumped into the business end of things too, and opted for the small but well reputed Oslo based label. RuneGrammofon now shares the release rights and responsibility for handling Motorpsycho’s music with good ol’ Stickman records throughout the multiverses, and has aligned the band with a musically more adventurous breed of artists than their previous collaborators did.
A short US tour in the summer of 2008 ended up with the boys spending three days recording with Steve Albini in Chicago. These recordings were later worked on in Trondheim and released as the vinyl only Child of the future LP in 2009. This was perhaps a bit too premature to cash in on the big rebirth of vinyl as the public’s preferred medium, but serves as a great tribute to the pleasures of the 12” vinyl album, and was a great 20th anniversary present to themselves!
To this day, the two last EPs Motorpsycho recorded for VoW in the early 90ies are the only Motorpsycho releases that still have not been issued on vinyl.
As the new line-up found its footing, it became clear to the songwriters that they were a bit stuck in their ways and that an outside influence probably was needed to shake things up a bit. A few brainwaves and six months later, they found themselves in Propeller Studio in Oslo working with Kåre Chr Vestrheim, a man renowned as much for his eclectic taste as for his commercial savvy, and the man who more or less single-handedly designed the music heard on Norwegian radio over the last decade. Trusting his taste and judgement, the band left the song selection and production details to him and were content to let themselves be produced for the first time. And did it ever pay off! Heavy Metal Fruit released in 2010 was yet another big success that, as well as continuing the band’s increased fascination with long, convoluted song structures, showcased all the best sides of the band (or at least the producer’s favorite sides!) and cemented this last line up’s reputation as the premier Norwegian progressive rock band of the last 20 years.
The next chapter in this less than thorough sprint through the 25-year history of Motorpsycho was by many people perceived as a detour. The Death Defying Unicorn (2012) was the end product of a two-year process that involved the Molde international jazz festival, Trondheim jazz orchestra, Trondheimsolistene, master fiddler Ola Kvernberg, keyboard wiz Ståle Storløkken and the same production team that steered HMF to such sterling highs.
The rock opera (yup – a proper one! no bull!) started as a commissioned work for the Molde Int jazz festival. It was composed by the band and Ståle Storløkken in tandem, and involved a horn section from the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra and a string section from Trondheimsolistene.
The initial version performed at the festival in the summer of 2010 was an instrumental jog through most of the various musical moments that two years later made up the bulk of the album version, but it wasn’t until the writers realized the music needed some kind of narrative to make sense in an album format that the lyrics were conceived and written. Telling the story of a shanghai’d boy pressed to serve as crew on a voyage to find ‘The Hollow Lands’ and his physical and psychological journey to eventually find himself destined to be dinner in an open boat in the middle of an empty ocean, this nautical/mythical odyssey set in the 19th century somehow actually made the music make sense (or was it the other way around?). It is a serious work that is seriously demanding to listen to, but the reward is staggering if one likes anything Motorpsychodelic. The band and Ståle even toured the piece around Europe in the spring of 2012, and while it remains the biggest, most time-consuming, most challenging and most expensive piece of music the band has ever made, everyone involved felt it was all well and truly justified when the stage performance sold out two full houses at the Norwegian national opera house in the fall of 2012. No detour, it is probably the strongest distillation of the motorpsychodelic spirit recorded so far.
All action brings reaction, and having finally laid the unicorn to rest the band felt like getting back to basics. They booked two weeks in their old haunt Brygga Studio, snagged Swedish guitar legend Reine Fiske as a co-producer/ second guitar player, and in October 2012 recorded basic tracks for twenty new ‘normal’ songs, five of which made the deadline for the spring 2013 release of Still Life with Eggplant. This is the first Motorpsycho album ever to feature two equally talented guitar players, and this obviously dominates the sound and feel of the record. It is a guitar album through and through, and even if it’s pretty out there in moments here and there, it is a fairly ‘normal’ album by Motorpsycho standards. This, and the, er… shall we say ‘prosaic’ title?, seems to have lead some pundits to write it off as an ‘in-betweenie’ or a less than full-on release. They couldn’t be more wrong. While the fact is that most folks buy the pitch and swallow the bait you lure them in with without batting an eye, it’s a pity that you sometimes have to tell people how to feel. In this instance, the less than pretentious title probably threw a few people off the scent, but the notion that the lack of a libretto and unicorns makes any piece of music less ambitious, interesting or worthy is patently absurd in the Psychoverse.
Whatever confusion the title may have brought, the fact is that the interplay and good vibes created by Reine’s participation on the spring 2013 tour of Europe inspired further study into ‘the sacred art of weaving’ as one Olympian calls it, and a second session was recorded in the same studio in the late summer of 2013. These two sessions yielded the collection of songs found on the studio album Behind the Sun. While the title neither evokes unicorns nor eggplants, the music is of a clear lineage and in many ways builds on both these tangents of motorpsychodelia. The ‘Hell’ sequence started with parts 1-3 on Still Life with Eggplant is continued and wrapped up here, with the four remaining parts making it one of the longest pieces Motorpsycho have ever written. At the same time, The Magic & the Wonder and Cloudwalker, for example, continues the shorter song focus initiated on Still Life with Eggplant, making Behind the Sun a well-balanced and coherent work that solidified Motopsycho’s standing and gained the band new fans.
2014 was a busy year, and Motorpsycho actually managed to finish two more projects in addition to the Behind the Sun tour that spring.
Firstly, they turned into a record company and self-released a crowdfunded book/box of 7” singles that was hand-packed and shipped in installments to about one thousand investors. The first package went out in summer and the last one in November. The music on these 7” singles were the remaining fragments from the big Brygga studio motherlode, songs that fit neither on Still Life with Eggplant nor on Behind the Sun and that didn’t feel like a proper standalone album. This limited edition book/box of course went under the radar of most Psychonauts, but everyone that got their hand on a copy felt it was worth the investment. The Motorpnakotic Fragments was meant for the initiated and exists in a special zone of its own.
The second big project conducted during the first half of 2014 was a commissioned work. Written on demand by the St. Olaf Festival in Trondheim, En konsert for folk flest was again co-written by Ståle Storløkken, but didn’t really involve unicorns. It was rather a meditation on ‘people’ – politically, culturally, semantically – and was played only once in the summer of 2014. It was recorded and filmed, and in the spring of 2015, an LP/CD/DVD/book was released to wide acclaim. Musically well off to the proggier side of Motorpsychodelia, and lyrically one of a kind in the Motorpsycho canon, it is an exciting addition to the band’s ever expanding discography that even features the author Johan Harstad’s brilliant ‘Manifest for folk flest’ in both Norwegian and translated into English. Talk about a multi-format behemoth!
At the end of 2014, yet another commissioned performance took place, again with Ståle on board. This time the occasion was the 100th anniversary of the Norwegian Technical Museum, and the one-off show was played in the museum’s big hall in Oslo.
A bit played out and in need of some other input, Motorpsycho took most of 2015 off, but started work on the NTM music in late winter and continued all year. The original band played Demon box in its entirety at the Slottsfjell festival in Tøndsberg in summer, but much of the year was spent looking backwards.
October 2015 found Motorpsycho the focus of a retrospective exhibition at the Norwegian National Museum of Rock, Rockheim: “Supersonic Scientists”. In conjunction with this major look back at more than 25 years of Motorpsychodelia, time felt ripe for the first-ever Motorpsychodelic anthology, and the band themselves curated the double LP/CD Supersonic Scientists – a young person’s guide to Motorpsycho. Containing one song from every ‘normal’ studio album since 1993, it is in no way a comprehensive affair, but it is hopefully a nice primer for those who somehow have missed out. Concurrently, Falck Forlag released a book of essays – with the same title – on all things Motorpsychodelic, written by 15 or so psychonauts, journalists, musicians and other notables, each focusing on a song from the album. The Demon box band performed the album three days in a row the first week of the exhibition, and the band’s 25th anniversary was properly celebrated, albeit a year or so late…
Finished just days after the Supersonic exhibition opened, the next chapter in the ‘psychronicles’ was revealed. Based on the music written for the NTM concert, markedly slower and more epic than most of the material done with Reine, and – when Ståle, due to other commitments, had to bow out of the 2015 recording of the music – a trio album, “Here be Monsters” was recorded in fits and starts over the first 8 months of 2015. Slower than usual in the making, it turned into an album of introspective and thoughtful music looking as much at the monsters within as those out there in the universe. It was designed as night music, for those nights when you just can’t seem to get any shuteye, and leans rather towards the psych-side of motorpsychodelia. Released in February 2016 and toured in March and April it was a qualified success, but it was also to be the last album and tour by this line up of the band.
Kenneth Kapstad left the fold after the European spring tour, and the mothership again had to take some time to reassess its purpose and find itself. An amiable split, this nonetheless forced the remaining two to have a serious rethink and to find a new way forward.
Having already written 90 minutes of new music for the play ’Begynnelser’ (beginnings) in January, late summer and fall saw HM and B use this period of uncertainty in the best way possible: by working creatively together within a different framework while trying to make sense of this new state of affairs. ‘Begynnelser’ is a play – and will later be a novel – written by famed Norwegian novelist Carl Frode Tiller, staged and directed by the free theatre group De Utvalgte and performed at Trøndelag Teater in Trondheim over 6 weeks in September /October 2016, with an expanded MP playing live in the pit every evening. HM and B had much needed help from ‘utility Psychos’ Pål Brekkås or Tos Nieuwenhuizen in performing what in essence became a 190 minute marathon work for more than 40 shows, a first for the band and a really solid growth experience, taking the edge off the chaos inevitable in the loss of a band member.
This music, along with a filmed performance of the play, was released in a ltd ed 2×10” / CD / DVD format in June 2017, and stands as a proud document of the project.
By December 2016 however, a new recruit had entered the MP fold. Tomas Järmyr is a young graduate from the Trondheim Jazz Conservatory, and a Swedish 8 year resident of Trondheim. A member of many band constellations, most famous amongst which is probably Italian noise band Zu, Tomas brings new energy and a slightly different focus to the MP drum seat. Younger than the others, his influences are distinctly more modern but his style is versatile and his style already fits in well in the psychoverse.
This new blood has made its mark already: in March the new band ventured to California to record their new opus. Recorded both in White Buffalo studios in L.A. and at Rancho De La Luna in Joshua Tree, “The Tower” will be the first music released by this new look Motorpsycho. Lyrically primarily concerned with the political upheavals and global, seemingly violent and ‘wrong’ changes for the worse, musically it is a good old fashioned double album that certainly exhibits the versatility of this new band. It is undoubtedly a Motorpsycho album ‘in the tradition’, but in addition to proving that the band still can deliver in their usual distinctive way, it also shows off new possible musical directions the band might explore in the future. Time will show.
See you on the other side,
Updated on August 17th, 2017