Etcetera: Prog from Denmark
Renald Mienert did an interview with Frank Carvalho.
Sorry, but I don’t know a lot of things about your band, so at first some „standard questions“!
Please tell us something about the history of the band, something about the members!
The band has a long history, and you may skip as you like. It was formed in Aarhus, Denmark. The original line-up from 1986-87 was:
Michael Munch-Hansen; vocal, keyboards,
Anders Kjaerulff; bass,
Johnnie McCoy; drums and percussives;
Frank Carvalho; guitars.
This was really the ‘Etcetera’ as it was in the beginning. This was essentially a high school band that turned into a kind of eccentric prog band. The school was a school of distinction. Three of us went to study at the university afterwards. Johnnie, as the only one of us pursued a carreer as a pro musician, and went to a beat music academy. Today Michael is a psychologist, Anders a chemist and I am a computer scientist. This just to give an impression of the sort of place the band was formed.
In those days Michael enjoyed making all sorts of silly theatrics live, while Johnnie and I pushed to move the band into more complex compositions. This was not easy as the band was extremely democratic, and Michael was more keen on simpler songs. We composed a LOT of music, some of which better stay hidden forever, but also stuff that has not yet been given a proper recording. After one very intense year the original band folded in a very tense atmosphere. In summer 87. Neither Johnnie or I got along too well with Michael in those days. But that has all changed for the better long ago. After this ‘Etcetera’ has become ‘the band that would never die’.’ - many different projects, always involving two or more original members of the original line-up.
Johnnie and I got together to record some of the original material during winter ‘87-’88, so this was ‘Etcetera Mk II’. Then Johnnie went to Copenhagen to study music.
While studying, Anders and I found drummer Jens Nyholm and made ‘Etcetera Mk III’ that existed from 1989-91. We wrote some new material, and another 45 minutes of original material was recorded. None of this material has ever been released formally - and I am not sure the quality would hold up too well anyway - but I DO sell small home production copies to anyone interested in the old ‘Etcetera’ material under the titles ‘Etcetera’ and ‘The Difficult Second’. A sort of ‘collectors club’ editions. And there is a little bit of interest. We have sold copies to both USA and Japan.
Due to our studies, and all of us getting married etc., the ‘Etcetera’ activities came to a halt in the years 91-93, and we even sold a lot of the old gear (how STUPID). I then moved to Copenhagen to work, but not until 1995-96 did I start to compose again. Now I could reestablish contact with Johnnie, but despite many attempts we never really managed to get a band together. However I made a lot of compositions, and this is really where the story of the ‘new Etcetera’ starts: I started to build up computer based composition and recording. By 1996 the new suites ‘Anagrams’ and ‘Gongtric’ were ready for recording, and Anders was called in to play the bass. These two songs became the core of our album ‘Fin de Siecle’.In ‘98 Michael actually overdubbed the vocals for ‘Anagrams’, so that song and the album is a ‘virtual reunion’ of ‘Etcetera’. From 1998 to 1999, the rest of ‘Fin de Siecle’ was recorded, and included one of Michaels songs, as well as his vocals, Anders playing bass on two songs, and the album was released in early 1999 on the ‘Record Heaven’ label.
We have been working day and night (night mostly) since then to produce our second release which we hope we will have ready later this spring.
We did play live in Gothenburg as the warm-up act for Flower Kings in November 1999, but this was with hired guns on the keyboard and bass slots. Anders has de facto quit music for an undetermined amount of time. Michael likewise, though he is ready to join us for more recordings and the occasional live performance. More about this in the following questions.
Are there earlier releases? What about the label, the success?
Well, the first ‘official’ release is ‘Fin de Siecle’ on Record Heaven label from 1999, but we have made at least 3 or 4 demo recordings in the past that sort of feels like ‘album recordings’. These are only available on request. ‘Fin de Siecle’ was more of a critical success than a sales success. We got some rave reviews. I have to quote ‘Progression’ magazine that started their review with ‘Woah! Here’s a good one!’. This made us pretty proud. Sales were far from spectacular, but decent, considering the budget on which it was released and promoted. Also, due to the limited amount of copies pressed, it was not easy to hand out too many promotional copies. Hopefully the new album will generate enough interest in the band to push the sales of ‘Fin de Siecle’ a bit further.
What about the influence of other artists to you?
Now this is something where I have a lot to say. ‘Etcetera’ music moves very clearly within the territory nicknamed ‘prog’. Some people (and we all know Robert Fripps point of view) hates this label. But not me. I think I know most bands that played in this genre since the late 60’ies, and they are all part of my influences. You name them, I know them. If you listen to our music and you will probably be confused by continuous morphing between different prog styles. That is all very deliberate in a way. It’s a bit ‘now we sound like ELP…well in fact, no we don’t anyway. Ha!’ I am not ashamed of finding inspiration in the older bands at all. And since I have heard so much prog it would be ridiculous to deny the influences anyway! I think it’s exactly the same as when rock musicians find inspiration in blues music or the Beatles. The real challenge is to be able to seemlessly blend the styles in a natural and consistent way, that still appears to be a whole, instead of a series of unrelated fragments or references, and of course especially to find a new unchartered area. This is the real hard part.
I think that there are some compositional things one always does that you don’t even think about, and those are the trademarks that define you personal writing style. Just, I don’t know exactly which such trademarks I have, if any at all.
I also has a broad knowledge af so many other musical genres, and they also get into the songs. I am not influenced so much by any of the newer bands such as Flower Kings, Spocks Beard, Echolyn etc. , because I can hear which bands they are influenced by. That is not to say I don’t like them, but they are obviously not sources of inspiration like, say, ELP, Pink Floyd, Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf, Tull and so on. There are exceptions. I really get off on Ozric Tentacles. They seem to have found a way of combining ‘You’-age Gong with modern technology/sound and far-out electronic noodling, combining into something fresh and new. They are really excellent. I also like the 90’ies wave of dogmatic prog from Sweden, where any instrument newer than 1972 is not used - like Anglagard, Landberk, Anekdoten. Unfortunately the latter of these bands are too derivative of King Crimson in my opinion.
Are you in touch with other prog bands?
A bit, that’s all. We do exchange e-mails with ‘QOPH’ once in a while, and american ‘ADVENT’ and I have many, many musician contacts all over the world. We have had contacts with other swedish and german prog bands too, hoping to be able to do some gig-swapping. But there are not many prog bands in Denmark to keep in touch with.
What about the prog scene in your home country?
Yes, this is a very sad issue. Prog is a genre that lives an underground life, completely gone from the media hype. But in Denmark things are even worse. We don’t have ANYTHING happening in the genre here. It’s a historic thing. Prog never caught on here, was later overshadowed totally by jazz-rock-fusion, and now it is totally and utterly forgotten. This means that it is impossible to get band members that know anything about it, it is impossible to get a gig, impossible to get an understanding audience, and it is simply uphill all the way. Luckily, Sweden is just across the pond, so it is possible to attend obscure concerts over there, but here there’s a really suppressive unidirectional attitude in the music business as well as the amateur circles. ‘Either you play the same music as everybody else, or you shut up’. As a direct consequence of this, the only way ‘Etcetera’ can go on being a band is to stay in stand-by mode. If you can’t get a gig, you can’t get anybody to rehearse difficult 13/16 pieces and long 12 minute compositions for hours for free. So ‘Etcetera’ is Johnnie and I working for free - because we get great satisfaction from the cerebral technical stuff - and then use hired guns to fill the open slots if a gig turns up.
Is there a mastermind inside of the band or are you more a „democratic“ band?
The original ‘Etcetera’ was incredibly democratic. You would not believe the sort of compromises we reached sometimes. ‘Etcetera MKIII’ was still a true band. Since I wrote 90% of the music, I guess I had the last word in many decisions, but that was definitely also Anders and Jens’ band, and it was very democratic. In the ‘Etcetera MKII’ it was Johnnie and I, and we worked like we do now. That is, I write the material, and more or less sketches out the music as demos. We then get together to construct the drum/bass engine. In this phase of the process there’s total democracy. Johnnie is a brilliant musician, and for the rhythm section we work things out together using tapes and experimentation to get the best rhythm track designed. We think very alike when it comes to the role of the drums and bass in a band, so this is usually the best and most creative part of the whole process. Recording overdubs is another issue. This is really governed by the fact that the equipment is in my basement, and I am playing most of the overdubs anyway, so I overdub on my own when it suits me, but Johnnie sits in for the overdubs as well when he has the time. When Johnnie joins in, the production is cooperative, otherwise it is a lone effort. For the new album we have also had some people invited in to play little bits here and there, and that has added a lot of nice timbres. Soon Michael will come in to record vocal tracks too on the longest song of the upcoming album.
How does the songwriting work in the band?
As I mentioned, now I do most of the writing. In the old days Michael was extremely productive. He wrote so much material. The problem was that Johnnie and I only liked about half of it, and hated the other half. I also wrote a lot of stuff back then, so we never ran out of material. And stuff was made up on the spot too. Back then the arrangement were alsways done at the rehearsals. From all the stuff Michael wrote, some (in my opinion) real singer/songwriter classics were written on the piano. One of his songs ended up on ‘Fin de Siecle’. It’s called ‘Vuggevise’. The vocal take doesn’t really do justice to neither his song or his voice - it was recorded under pressure at 4 in the morning! - but the song is in fact pretty good! There’s still a number of his songs that I will definitely try to arrange and record some day. Anders could write great(!) compositions, but he almost never did. He didn’t like to do it so much. The only one of his pieces that ever made it to tape was something he did out of sheer peer pressure, called ‘Suite no. 1 for 4 piece rock group’. It is a great piece that can be found on the home production ‘The Difficult Second’, with hints of Cantebury and Genesis. Johnnie never wrote anything. He is much more of an arranger.
These days I do the writing, because ‘Etcetera’ is in fact Johnnie and me, and Johnnie does not write his own songs. I’ve been writing music since I was maybe 10 years old. I usually have a long time where bits and pieces float around on cassette tapes, until they slowly start to get into their natural context. It’s not easy to describe, because I have many goals I try to fulfill at the same time when I write music. One goal is to keep the number of different themes in the song to a minimum, and then use (and abuse) the selected themes to pop up all over the place in the song in different disguises. There’s this new song on the new album called ‘Kentish Suite’. It ticks in at over 8 minutes and it appears to be changing style and theme all the time. But it really doesn’t. The song is based entirely on 3 themes that are repeated endlessly. I am really proud of that song. But my main goal in writing is to write something better than the best I’ve written so far. That is my personal songwriting challenge.
How are the reactions of the people in your neighborhood to your music?
Reactions depend very much on who you ask. Most people react as if the music does make some impression on them. I am particularly fond that musicians always react impressed. But it would be nice if the music also had some immediate appeal, and not just a cerebral, like a nice song that earns its merits from just being a nice song, and not a cunningly complex arrangement. That is the quality of Michaels songs. He can pen very good songs with no frills. I am more scientific in a way. My wife is my toughest critic. If she doesn’t like it, she tells me so! If she says she likes it, I can safely assume it is good.
Tell me something about the lyrics!
The early ‘Etcetera’ had really crazy lyrics. I mean, my own lyrics were sort of silly stuff about the mental state of fictional people, as the 20 minutes piece ‘Dance of the Demons’. Ironically, the best lyrics I wrote was when I myself got into a sort of depressive state and wrote lyrics about it, as in ‘Trespasser’ or ‘Experience’. And Michael wrote about himself - and was really good at it. But his lyrics are often in Danish and use plays on words that cannot be translated. One really good punch line he wrote was about having your shrink help you forget your past, then
‘Hey shrink, won’t you be kind enough to help me to forget
the things that I haven’t experienced yet!’. Very Michael! He also wrote some really silly stories.
‘Fin de Siecle’ has different lyrics. Each song has it’s own idea. This is not a concept album as such. ‘Charles Unhealthy Pïctures’ is a reference to ‘Brideshead Revisited’, the book and TV-series of the 80’ies with Jeremy Irons. Charles returns from abroad with his allegedly ‘savage’ paintings, but a visit from an old friend really cuts through all the bullshit and tells him about his real worth. This is it in a song. ‘Infinite Chords’ is plainly a love song, maybe a bit on the sweet side. ‘Vuggevise’ means ‘Lullabye’, and it is a lullabye. ‘Anagrams’ is about how we all grow more and more independant from each other as we grow older. We can see each other and shout, but we do not really connect as we used to anymore. ‘Absolute’ has absolutely no meaning. It’s a sound collage. ‘Fin de Siecle’ is a comment on the information society, about how we’re all numbed by the amount of information we receive, to the point where it no longer reaches us. The climax is when a totally unbelievable news story hits the vocoded TV in mock prog tradition. The song is also a comment to life at the end of the 20th century - the ‘fin de siecle’. And….
What does the title of the record mean?
…this leads into the album title ‘Fin de Siecle’. ‘Fin de Siecle’ is the term used for the cultural climate at the end of the 19th century. Things felt like they had come to an end culturally. Fashion styles were recycled rather than invented, architectured used traits from the entire century in a mish-mash and so on. I think this was a funny comment to life in the end of the 20th century.
How did you come in touch with your current label?
‘Record Heaven’ was at the time involved in the only shop in Copenhagen selling new prog, so this shop was a hang-out for all us prog-heads, and that’s where I got in touch with them.
How would you like to develop in the future? Do you think about changing your style?
I think the future ‘Etcetera’ should concentrate on making better compositions. The prog genre is generous in the sense that everything is really allowed if you want to. We will not start churning out 3 minute pop-songs - at least not under the name ‘Etcetera’. ‘Etcetera’ is for challenging music. ‘Etcetera’ is over when we are unable to make more challenging music, which I hope is never. I have this devil inside me that pushes me all the time to try to outdo myself. I don’t think I will ever be able to stop making music like this, as long as I can think of new things to try that I haven’t tried before. It’s a personal thing more than a become-famous-thing fortunately. We do not make a living out of this (understatement of the year!), so we want it to be fun.
Since we are not living from this, we all live by doing something else, and this again takes up a lot of time. That’s why there’s quite some time between news from this band of merry men. Things happen at a very slow pace, but they happen! Like the new album. It has been on the way for almost 2 years now. But it will be finished soon, as in within the next three months I’m sure. And it would be nice also to have a number of gigs to get this music out in front of a live audience! I am currently into old analog synthesizers a lot, and I think I will be using them a lot more in the near future, but I would also like to work on some of Michaels songs too. Whether that will be ‘Etcetera’ or not I don’t know.
Is there a most important event in the history of the band?
That would be Ringe Festival 1986. We were all there and Jehtro Tull played one of only six concerts that year since Ian Anderson had a throat problem. This event had such a strong impact on us all that we decided to form ‘Etcetera’. I still have a great recording from that Tull date.
What about your success/feedback in different countries?
The feedback we have gotten for ‘Fin de Siecle’ has been very positive. It seems like most discs were sold overseas in the US, Japan, a bit in Europe, South America and some in Sweden! It is much worse here in Denmark. We may have sold as much as five (!) copies in our own country. We got a string of fine reviews in Prognetik, Progression, some spanish and german magazines, and also some on-line reviews that were good. This is of course all very encouraging. The criticism we got was justified, and was mostly related to the production. And this is where we have been trying to improve. We’ve spent some money to get a good bass/drum tracks, and we will spend some more time on the vocal tracks as well.
What kind of compromises would you make to push your career?
Playing this music is a constant compromise between music and ‘the other life’. Life is very demanding, and that is why Anders and Michael are not currently so active musically. I push myself very hard to squeeze time out everywhere. ‘Prog’ is not compatible with career. Our careers are in other things, as we are practical people. But one compromise that should be taken is to get the time to do some gigs! This music should be out there for people to hear. There are some great songs from ‘Fin de Siecle’ that have never been played in public, even though I am sure they will be really great live songs. And now there’s a new album on the way with even more songs that scream for a live performance.
Can you tell me something of the process of creating the new record? Were there any problems or went everything well?
The new record has been on the way now since spring 1999. The first demos of bits and pieces were around already when ‘Fin de Siecle’ was released. ‘Fin de Siecle’ took 3 years to make, partly because of the learning curve for the new HD recording equipment, but also because Johnnie, Michael, Anders and I were not so together in that time. And you start to hate those songs after 3 years of repeating them. The new album has been a bit easier to make. Johnnie an I were together from the start, and we both have the necessary patience. I personlly suffer from lack of energy during the winter, which means there’s a timespan of several months every year where I find it very difficult to be creative. And then the long turnaround time is a bit of a problem. After a while your ears do not listen in the same way to the music anymore. I’ve found the best way to tackle this is to work in a rush where you record a lot of stuff fast. It becomes better and fresher that way, though sometimes not always perfect. Otherwise the recording of the next album have been going very nicely. I think it is safe to say that it will be our best album so far. Best production, best compositions.
Can you give me some liner notes to the songs of your upcoming record?
This album is conceptual. The working title is ‘History Album’. The songs are all inspired by real historic events where love and politics conflict.
‘The Ghost of Yang Guifei (part I)’ is the tale of the chinese emperors first mistress. They were deeply in love. But her influence annoyed people around them, especially that her hated cousin was made chancellor. During a rebellion they had to flee the capitol, but their own guard forced the emperor to witness the killing of his beloved Yang. A classic story in China I’ve heard. Four musical pieces to illustrate the story, from love affair to death.
‘The Lady from Castela’ is very similar. In medieval Portugal, the prince Pedro fell in love with Ines de Castro from a very influential family from Castela. However, the king, his father feared for their influence and had the prince married to another lady. However she died, and Pedro and Ines started to meet secretly. His father, the king, then ordered the death of Ines and she was murdered in her garden. Pedro then married her after her death. Another of historys classic tragedys. The song has the spanish guitar playing and a sparkling guitarra portuguesa 12-string.
‘The Song of Marsk Stig’. Denmark 1250, the marsk (cavallery general) Stig is framed for the murder of king Erik. Songs from those days either sing about his innocence or sing about the murder as an act of jealousy and revenge over a king who raped Stigs wife. Stig was outlawed, and died during the attack of his off-coast fortress. This is the song of Stig.
‘Kentish Suite’. An complicated instrumental piece, with a lot of nice timbres.
‘The Exit’ is another instrumental. Simpler and with a bluesy lead guitar.
‘Lament’ is a piece of mellotronic sadness. Time stands still.
‘Songs’. A simple song with a three-part vocal in a counterpoint arrangement. This is the ‘hit’ if you can call it that.
‘The Ghost of Yang Guifei (part II)’. If you listen to the wind you’ll hear the cry of Yang. As you may have guessed this is an album of a lot of moods. Acoustic guitars, electric guitars, flutey MiniMoogs, mellotron, organ, but also some harder electronic sounds. Analog synthesizers, arpeggiators, sound effects. I can’t wait to finish this album.