Morgan Ågren Email Interview

[This is the article that led me to make Morgan Ågren’s Conundrum: A Percussive Misadventure.]

You can talk about technique and precision all day, but Morgan is above and beyond all of that — and he didn’t skip it, he ascended through it. But he never got stuck in the tools, never forgot his own artistic vision. Drums are now just a toy for him, and he makes them do whatever he wants. He’s an artist first, a musician second, and a drummer third. The way it should be.

He played on a couple of my records, and I hadn’t talked to him in years. In fact, I’ve never met him in person, because he lives in Sweden. So I decided to do this email interview. Some of the questions were submitted by my Facebook friends. His answers were edited only very slightly for grammar and punctuation — but I tried to preserve his authentic style of typing in English, which is not his first language.

Conducted through email. Enjoy!

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Q: What is the current state of things?

A: Chopping wood here! Got tons of trees delivered to my house. Chainsaw and then axe, the old way! Other than that… did a record and a gig with Bill Laswell last year. CD will be out in a few months under the name BLIXT. Just did a gig with Trey Gunn too (of King Crimson). We recorded a CD also, with Henry Kaiser on guitar. This will also be released sometime later this year I hope!

Q: How are you and Mats doing?

A: We have been re-issuing some CDs. Touring a bit. And will make a new CD soon. No live gigs now. We have a break sort of, for live events anyways. 

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: My new project BATTERIE DELUXE! That is the project that has been in my mind on and off for more then 10 years. This is what I will start next. I also record more and more for other people. Did a CD for Phil Elter (French bassist). Also a CD with KINGS OF BELGIUM, that will be pretty cool. A new recording with KAIPA will be done in a few months, as well as with PEELGREEMS (French “pop-project”.) That’s about it. And yes, I scored #1 in Modern Drummers last readers poll. That was funny! 

Q: How did you develop your poly-rhythmic style? From what I understand you kinda kicked off Meshuggah’s rhythmic bent… (Submitted by Matthew Superego Hill)

A: I don’t think much when I play, what is polyrhythmic or not. I just hear things in my mind that I want to play. Jazz drummer Elvin Jones had his way of playing what you can call polyrhythmic, even though in a much more free way. Vinnie Colaiuta plays some nice things on Zappa’s “Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar” that was really musically fitting, and probably polyrhythmic. As for Meshuggah, their music I found 20 years later, and they are great, but the word polyrhythmic is something else, I think.Technically speaking, they often play 5/8 7/8 type of signatures on top of 4/4 beats. 

Q: I’ve heard Morgan saying that he prefers playing music rather than playing drums, so I wonder. When I can read on their Cd’s that half the M/M stuff is written by Morgan, how much time does he spend playing ‘tonal’ instruments? (Submitted by Yavar Askari)

A: It is odd maybe, but I never play drums if there is not a recording, rehearsal or a concert. All my time goes to composing, mixing and emailing about dates gigs, etc. When I compose I mainly use keyboards. Besides that, I spend a lot of time working on sounds, plug-ins and microphones and stuff like that. But from when I was 5 years old and until I was 20, I played drums almost every day. 

Q: What does your practice routine look like? (Submitted by Jordan Willocks)

A: As said above, I played many hours between age 5-20, but now I never practice drums. It is not what I need, really. I want to create magical music, not speed or technique on the drums. It is a bit odd even for myself when I think about it, but I can say that since I was 20 years old until now (being 43 now) – the total amount of hours just practicing plain drums during these 23 years is less then 20 hours. But, I did spend time recording, touring, etc., so I played a lot still.

Q: How did you develop your snare technique? Particularly your rolls, they’re inhuman. (Submitted by Clay Dickenson)

A: Haha, I think the touch and feel makes it all. You might enjoy a guy playing slower then the guy playing faster cause of the way it sounds. The feel is the thing. There is drummers that can play much faster then me anyways.

Q: When can we see Mats / Morgan in California? (Submitted by Mike Stone)
A: I might do some clinics in LA later this year or next. Drumchannel and maybe PIT, stuff like that. And I wanted to see if we could do a gig with Trey Gunn and Henry Kaiser then also, while being there, if our CD will be done. Baked Potato maybe, good idea?

Q: What music, art, literature, films, etc, etc are you into these days, Morgan? (Submitted by Daniel Dahlqvist)

A: For music, recently, I found some very nice details on Radiohead’s last album. Jaga Jazzist has a few things on their last CD that I like too. At home I never listen to music that takes too much space. There is too much noise and activity in the house already with kids and family, so there I put on Chet Baker or something just to add a nice atmosphere. I would never put on a CD with my own music or something alike at home, haha… In my car, I can put on anything. Literature… sorry, can hardly read… Well, I can, but I read too little. I wish I did more, but music eats up most of my free time. Films, yes, me and my wife watch a lot. The last one that I really remember was “Lemming” with Charlotte Gainsbourg. Quite special movie, great! 

Q: Dweezil Zappa said “if Morgan lived in the US, he would be huge.” What do you feel is the advantage to staying located in Sweden as opposed to being a working musician in the US? (Submitted by Douglas Showalter)

A: If I would be looking for session gigs and tours with popular acts, then the US would be much better than Sweden. But when doing my own music with my own projects, I can live anywhere. My family is here, and Sweden is a pretty safe and cool place… in some ways, anyway. So I never felt I needed to move. If Frank wouldn’t have passed away at the time, and if he would be up for it, to play with me and Mats, which he actually was, then we would have moved to the US of course. But in fact, Zappa also told me personally, after he quit touring, that he thought it would be better for me to stay in Sweden and come to the US for worthwhile projects only. But Frank did not like the US that much either! Although I can add that today, in my mind at least, I WOULD probably say yes to Lady Gaga or a gig like that. There is popular stuff that is not too bad either. But again, I won’t leave my family with my 8-year-old son and be on the road for months.

Q: What about the Scandinavian area and musicians inspires you the most? (Submitted by Douglas Showalter)

A: There is a lot of good musicians here, yes, but not very many exciting bands maybe. My brother Jimmy is doing fantastic stuff I must say. Check out his latest CD called “Various Phobias.” Check out Simon Steensland too. Katzen Kapell have done nice things, and Meshuggah, of course. There might be a few more…

Q: Who are your drumming influences? (Submitted by Dominick Poisson)

A: Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Narada, Bozzio (70-80 period) Gary Husband, Shannon Jackson, Christian Vander, etc. But I also like Bernard Purdie, Bonham, Bruford. Even drummers very different from the guys above, like Jeff Porcaro, he did things that I think were great.

Q: Who are your composition influences? (Submitted by Dominick Poisson)

A: Oh.. lot’s, I can enjoy everything from Tom Waits to AC/DC to Captain Beefheart and Magma, to Radiohead, to Stravinsky.

Q: How do you feel about drummers stealing other drummer’s concepts and selling them as their own? (Submitted by Rafael Collado)

A: Well you can steal some but then make your own version of it. Everyone does that. AND you can steal from your self, which isn’t that bad, haha!

Q: Do you know of some young drummer(s) right now who could push the envelope further than the Donati-Minnemann-Royster-Lang-Djordjevic-Kilson-Ägren superdrummers’ bunch? (Submitted by Dominick Poisson)

A: I think that if you take a ride on Youtube you get a picture. But I must say that, even if there was a guy playing twice as fast and twice as long and strong as all the guys on this list, it won’t necessarily mean anything to me. Even if they would also twirl their sticks with their dick (haha). What gets everyone’s attention can also be other features. Speed and technique has a bit of a dead end there, too. There will always be a faster guy coming next. I personally prefer new styles and new personalities more than just another even faster guy. Nothing bad in playing fast though. I think I am known to play quite fast myself sometimes. But I can get totally restless watching these performances on Youtube. It is great and funny to see, and Youtube is a totally fantastic source of information. But I like when someone is aiming for a new and own unique thing. That lasts longer also.

Q: Your left and right hand sound very matched and even, is this balance between your hands something that has come naturally, or is it the result of a certain practice/method? (Submitted by Georgio Mediacurtain)

A: It is funny, cause I write with my left hand, but don’t play drums left handed. The only thing I can do with the left hand is to write, besides playing drums. But if I throw something, play tennis etc, it is always my right hand. If I would throw something with my left hand, it goes any direction, it’s like that. And I can’t really change and play hi-hat with my left, and snare with my right, and get it to sound even close to the other way. I did not practice this either. I learned how to play by imitating the drummers that I like. When I was ten years old, I got totally into Buddy Rich. So I tried to play like him for some years, and that gave me a good basic technique without realizing it. That “balance” comes from there I think.

Q: Frank Zappa said there was no difference between Art and Entertainment. Do you agree with him? What do you think about so much “Music” being judged by visuals and “showmanship?” Dancing, lights, crowd reaction. Personally, I consider Mats / Morgan to be Artists and a band like Dream Theater to be Entertainers. The biggest thing is that they seem so concerned with their fans and what people think, and their merchandising / brand / logo and selling hats, rather than just doing whatever they want. How do you feel about that issue? 

A: I see a difference between art and entertainment, sure, but I think they can be combined too. We all have to survive also. When I was a teenager I could almost look at musicians who played with popular artists as a disgrace. Thinking they where not true to music, selling out their souls :-) And most of all, I was wondering why these musicians didn’t even seem to care about what kind of music they played. But now, some 20 years later I realize that one has to make a living, too. And when having a family, all changes even more. I mean if my son Alvin is really wanting to get the latest Harry Potter Lego, for about $100, I want to be able to buy it for him of course. When it comes to things like that, I will do things that I would normally not do. Easy. But I still struggle sometimes, to make a steady good living. It is not very easy doing this. So I teach some. And I record for people, etc. It is often about being able to afford spending time making the music you really love, even if that music is not what gives you income.But I use to say this; I am very rich when it comes to experiences. And that is worth a lot also!

Q: Anything else you want to say to the world?

A: Go for your own thing. Find out who you are, and explore that musically! And yes, buy my albums so that I can continue doing music :-)

Visit Morgan: http://www.morganagren.com

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Thoughts On Thor

I live for watching super hero movies. I love the aesthetics of the otherworldly, fantastic, heroic. I don’t care about normal people, so I don’t want to watch them in movies. I like to imagine there’s somewhere better than this place, and that we can someday get there.

During Thor, I felt something I rarely feel. It might have been joy. Not an easy thing to accomplish, because I don’t “enjoy” much of anything in life. I get called negative a lot. It’s because I’m on a constant search for That Which is Meaningful. I believe in growth and change and progress. Entertainment — consumer relief that keeps us docile so we’ll keep working and buying things and making CEOs rich — is the opposite. I don’t have much tolerance for a system that shuns our critical thinking skills. (Because if we really peel away all the superfluities and find The Truth, will there be anything left? I like to think there is.)

You might have noticed by now… the imaginary entity known as Hollywood collectively generates a lot of bad movies. You could call them “cheaply-made” but they’re not cheap. The standards are so low, it’s like the people who made them are Professional Amateurs.

Against all odds, with so many creative and unemployed filmmakers available (I’ve met them), Hollywood spends zillions of dollars a year on duct-taping together trite, meaningless, low-class nonsense that panders to the worst within us. Poorly written, poorly acted, poorly directed, poorly edited, breaking every single rule taught in Good Moviemaking 101.

It’s because they (The Shadow Industry) assume we’re really, really stupid.

So what do they do? They hire filmmakers who are equally as stupid. That way, the stupid audiences will be attracted to and identify with their stupid storytelling. Because that’s the way the stupid audience would make the stupid movie, too. It requires a form of stupidity that is so deep and primal that it can’t be faked by an intelligent person.

‎”All propaganda has to be popular and has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach.” -Hitler

When movie studios churn out potboilers like Fast Five, they’re after the cash. Period. 125 Million in, 250 Million out. Who wouldn’t want to double their money? It’s Banking disguised as Art.

Thor was different. In a way.

At the core, the movie was heroic. Thor was a direct, no-bullshit character, fighting for the cause of good, trying his best to do the right thing. There were plenty of scenes where Thor triumphs by his own virtues. All of the Gods of Asgard, aside from Loki, were like Thor. Heimdall? My favorite character in the movie. No sense of humor. Loyal to the death. Awesome.

And here come the Earthlings: silly, flawed, stupid. Small-minded. Something the audience can identify with!

Darcy Lewis (played by Kat Dennings) was the “whoa, dude, this guy is totally freaking me out” comic relief. The sarcastic teenager sidekick that’s required in every movie these days. Because it wouldn’t be acceptable to see Thor’s story told through Thor’s own eyes, would it? It would be too lofty. He had to be “brought down to Earth” with slapstick and “Doh!” moments. His adventure had to be told by the average, non-intellectual human on Earth that doesn’t take life seriously, has no clue how big the universe really is, a character written in for cutesy-ass trailer moments.

The original Clash of the Titans didn’t need that shit, and neither did Thor.

Have you ever noticed that non-human races (Vulcans, Goblins, Hutts) are written as being somehow inferior to humans? They always lack some element, whether it’s technology, hygiene, emotion. To create an alien, just think of a human and remove something. The subtext is, “they haven’t figured it out like we have.” Humans are always just right, aren’t they? The perfect balance. The entire universe should emulate us. (Sounds like every religion, doesn’t it?)

The subtext of “Thor gives up on his life as a deity and makes breakfast with a dish towel over his shoulder” is no exception. That he was able to somehow become greater by not being great anymore was the moral of Act 2. “Aw, even a God realizes that Humans are the superior race.”

You ask: “Oh, come on, Carl. It’s just a movie. Why take it so seriously?”

Because that’s the cop-out that results in the low standards we have today. There’s very little high art in our culture to “worship.” It’s all just escape: to cure anxiety and boredom. Consume, consume, consume. Alcohol, TV, sports, comedy. Fun, fun, fun. Irony, sarcasm, parody. Constant, constant joking. About everything.

Try to be direct for a day and see where it gets you. See if it makes people uncomfortable. Surprise! Better run back to the humor. Make sure everyone feels safe.

There was a solid foundation in Thor that I can’t deny: the hero that is an authentic hero — devoted to nothing else. He wasn’t an alcoholic, a playboy, a loser who bumbled his way into defeating the bad guy. He was honest, strong, brave, healthy, and he didn’t even use slang!

Why has our culture devolved to such a degree that we can’t respect Thor for what he is, without all the wise-cracks? Why do we have to juxtapose him with modern (temporary) culture for him to be relevant? I imagine the movie studio telling the writers: “do another joke pass. Okay, now do another one. It’s still too heroic and classic.”

Look at the other “hero” movies being made these days. Lazy fuck-ups, wimps, losers.

Out of all this, I’m happy with one thing: Thor was such a mighty and invincible character, he even survived our culture’s fear of sincerity.

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PODCAST EPISODE 009: D.W. Brown (Acting Teacher, Author of “You Can Act!”)

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Acting Teacher, D.W. Brown, talks about the difference between cravings and desires, the defense mechanism known as Dissociation we are taught as children (and why it makes us bad actors), and why artists must play by different rules than everyone else.

He is the author of You Can Act!, a Complete Guide For Actors. (And believe me, it is.)

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From his website:

D.W. Brown is the co-owner and head instructor at the Joanne Baron/D.W. Brown Studio. He began his acting career early at the age of 15 in his hometown theater company in Tucson, Arizona Starring in “Desire Under The Elms”. He later came to Los Angeles where he starred in films such as “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” his own series, “Jo’s Cousin,” and performed numerous leading roles in film and on television.

Still continuing to act in the theater, D.W. Brown turned his attention to the art of writing and directing. Working with The Ensemble Studio Theater, he developed plays for production, directing his own works as well as those of others. It was one of these plays, “Fleas,” that The Los Angeles Times raved: “…trumpets Brown’s ear for dialogue…” He directed, “Porno Stars At Home,” that won awards for both leading ladies. He has written and directed short films; including: “One Clean Move,” starring Harry Hamlin and Gary Busey, honored at The Taos Film Festival and purchased by The Sundance Channel, and “The Need For Flowers” that received a “Best Actor” nomination at The Method Fest Film Festival last year. He has co-produced and co-written the feature films: “Allie & Me,” “Brooklyn Babylon,” and “Perfume” (a Sundance Festival selection).

D.W. discovered a profound appreciation of the Mesiner Method after exstensive training and subsequently he became an instructor. He has trained actors, writers, and directors for the past twenty years at The Joanne Baron/DW Brown Studio. He has conducted seminars with actors such as Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Anthony Hopkins, Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Benicio Del Toro and Martin Sheen and directors such as Sam Raimi, Tom Shadyac, and Martha Coolidge. Several of the aforementioned he has coached.

He has directed over seven hundred scenes, coached our greatest stars on numerous major films and provided the first instruction for many who are now professional actors. DW has just finished writing a comprehensive book on acting: “You Can Act”.

He has just completed principal photography on the feature film ‘On the Inside’ that he wrote and directed. The film stars Nick Stahl and Olivia Wilde.

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