Name: Alex Zethson
Occupations: Producer, composer, pianist
Current release: Alex Zethson's latest release with his Ensemble, Some Of Them Were Never Unprepared, is available via Relative Pitch Records.
Recommendations: I think that people should experience Bruce LaBruce's movie Raspberry Reich and Thomas Bernhard’s six autobiographical books (including Wittgenstein’s Nephew).
If you enjoyed this interview with Alex Zethson and would like to know more about his work and music, visit him on his (not very up to date) Soundcloud account, or on his bio page of his label thanatosis.
Over the course of his career, he has performed with, among others, Johan Berthling, Per Johansson, and Mats Gustafsson.
[Read our Mats Gustaffson interview]
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I was into banging the guitar, drums and shouting and doing various guttural sounds very early on, making up (often pretty absurd) tunes in the moment. Many times the shout-singing was simply a way to handle the boring car rides from my hometown Karlstad to Malmö, where my grandfather lived.
The music that was around in my house was the commercial radio stations like Radio City and Mix Megapol and various Absolute music and Mr Music CD compilations. I’m born 1988 so it was 90s pop music from the Global North. I remembered the years when I just liked everything I heard, every song had something unique in it, I thought! But most often it also had something that annoyed me.
I started playing piano when I was around 3 years old and got my first teacher Conny when I was 6, after my dad had realized I didn’t follow the scores that was in front of me. With this teacher I played mainly classical music and I found it all very mysterious — What the hell is this? — and was attracted by it. None of my friends played any instruments, only sports. So I had no one to really share things with, which made music a both interesting but also quite isolating thing.
Even though I mostly remember us playing Bach, Conny also did mixtapes to me which apart from the classical pieces also included pianists like Bill Evans. Furthermore, and this was something I found out much later when I studied with Kristine Scholz, we also worked with Mats Persson’s congenial piano book Tigertango, which features semi-open compositions that the piano student have to be creative with and interpret/finalise.
After a couple of years, my teacher Conny also hooked me up to a MIDI-keyboard and Cubase with all its sounds – such a revelation – and it was probably in that context I made my first so called production!
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Exactly what originality is, if/when it exists at all, I can’t really tell. But I believe that emulating others is crucial in most if not all learning processes. There’s no idea to pretend you’re the first one doing something, but I try to embrace certain peculiarities or mistakes in my practise and expression, and make something out of them. Sometimes it turns out being something at least myself I haven’t heard before and that’s fun.
Due to my focus on sports and other stupid things for many years, it was basically in high school that I started practising a lot. Then it was all about scales and technical exercises, imitating others, learning songs in all keys, exercising my fingers. I was shocked (and in awe) when I, during the same period, heard my musician friends in Stockholm talking about their music: they were already then writing their own music and had artistic ambitions. Myself, I just wanted to sound as close as possible to my piano heroes.
I can’t tell if there’s something in my playing or compositions that is distinguishable as a so called “own voice”, or a red thread. But I guess that for me, artistic development is a lot about building up a trust in that I should be doing what I found is needed to be done at certain points. To follow the core ideas of a music that I want to be heard that I want to send out into the world.
At a master’s program I did 2015-2017, someone was talking about what they called cultural timing, and for me to create things with this in mind (i.e, what would — “cultural timing wise” — be the right music to produce and release at this moment) is a complete impossibility, it would feel bizarre and very untrue and against something I obviously hold profound, my own timing (however intertwined it is with everything ”around” me).
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I guess a certain restlessness, or a tendency of wanting to move on from one idea to another too quickly is a common challenge for me. But I’m getting better at having a respect for what comes out intuitively, and then to treat this material with care even though I don’t enjoy it at all times. I try to make the best I can with it, and then let some time pass and then in the end if I don’t like it, I can at least say a proper goodbye.
I like how the process of composing music lets me work with certain materials for extended time periods. And it’s a pleasant feeling, refreshing, to throw things in the trash bin.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I’ve never had a studio, never had a grand piano, have always practiced and worked from home on various upright pianos. Most often they’ve been of quite shitty quality, but I always learn to enjoy the characters, especially for the most shitty-sounding ones. Though, currently there’s a very loud John Pettersson-piano from the 50s in my apartment with a very rich sound.
I’m constantly thinking of having a permanent working place/studio with synths set up and recording gear plugged in. I’m sure that would change how and what music I composed. But at the moment it’s not possible and I always have this feeling that I should be able to move to the other side of the world tomorrow if needed, so it’s always a conflict there.
I’m playing more and more keyboards and synths, and that process started mainly because colleagues asked me to make certain sounds. And I love creating sounds on the synths. But it’s still the piano which I consider my main instrument, that’s where I feel at home, though seldom at peace.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I love rehearsing music that’s made in collective processes. And to discuss in depth what we’re doing, what we want to do and why. It’s a shame that this happens too rarely: my experience is that there’s seldom time for it in the ensemble contexts I’m active in currently. People live in different cities etcetera.
Mostly I cannot stand daytime jam sessions, and besides, there’s always too many other things I want/need to work on, other things I want to prioritise, like practising piano or writing music. Maybe jamming in a way that’s more of a 'simultaneous co-practising' would be more attractive to me, doing exercises together. But it’s always this socializing part which I usually don’t like to combine with making music.
One of my most beautiful collaboration was with my friend since we were 12 years old or so; we met at the Kulturskola every week to play in an ensemble and before and after we just played like maniacs, without uttering a word for like 6 months or so … it was beautiful. Also I love working in the same room as my partner who’s a writer; even though I can’t understand how anyone could write with me practicing in the same room.
Though, building music communities in various ways is of course extremely important and I enjoy tremendously to organize concerts with people that I think would enjoy playing together, and usually ends up doing just that …