ProgressoR / Uzbekistan Progressive Rock Pages

Interviews of Prog

Karsten Vogel
Karsten Vogel

VM: Thank you, Karsten, for taking the time for doing this interview. Do you remember what drove your initial interest in music?

KV: Born in 1943, I grew up in a middleclass family. We had a piano and my mother sang with us a little. My father was more into science and related things, and that's why I had my first recording done at the age of 6! Singing for one minute with a clear sweet voice and absolutely in tune. I had two brothers: one 7, and the other 4 years older than me. When they became teenagers they brought modern jazz into the house. Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck, names like those. So I began listening to Charlie Parker and Stan Getz before I became a teenager. My brother Henrik, who was 4 years older, soon became friends with some of our local musicians, and they practiced in our home. A few years later I became part of the music scene there, and Henrik and I played together for the next 10 years.

VM: When did you learn to play your primary instrument, saxophone? And keyboards?

KV: I bought my first saxophone just after turning 14. For the next two years I regularly had lessons, but the most significant things I learned from the musicians I played with. And also you have to know about the piano to learn about music. In fact I never learned the piano, and I still wish I could manage the instrument much better. Well, I'm not a keyboard player, but I use the keyboards both as a composing instrument and as part of the sound in the different bands that I work with.

VM: Do you play any other instruments apart from these?

KV: Lately I've bought a bass clarinet. Strange fingering! Incredible sound!

VM: How and when did you find that you possess a talent for composition?

KV: With my brother I had a jazz group playing avant-garde jazz. That was around 1960. I found that we need compositions, which would fit our style. So I had to write them. And as things developed, I could hear music in my head, which I could not hear when played in real life, so I had to compose music - which means: I had to find out how the music in my head would become real sounds and living music, and not only visions. So in a way composing for me is also trying to explain what I feel about music, how it should be and how it should sound.

VM: Did you play in any other bands before Burnin' Red Ivanhoe (BRI hereinafter, with your permission)?

KV: As I mentioned, together with my brother I co-led some smaller jazz units and also played with other jazz musicians. But I was never a sideman in more popular groups or regularly working bands.

VM: What were the circumstances in which the first major Danish progressive outfit, BRI, was born?

KV: I was involved in the Danish avant-garde jazz scene, listening to the likes of Albert Ayler, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. But I also was fascinated by the progressive rock scene, especially by names like The Who, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan. I found that it might be possible to make a connection between these two stylistic tendencies. For me they did the same thing in a way: created enormous energy! I was possessed by the idea of playing wild and frenetic music - and still have the audience to play it for! So BRI began in fact as a repertoire, compositions and songs written by me, in which I tried to lay down my ideas of that kind of music. But the jazz musicians that I knew had no desire to play such things, so I had to work with my friends and with friends of my friends. Some of them were not very good musicians, so from the beginning of 1966 and until 1970 the line up in the band was constantly changing. It was very disappointing and not easy at all.

VM: Please share your memories about the early years of the band.

KV: These years were incredible. Not only for the good - but mostly for the good! The music scene was not only a music scene. It has since been called a revolution. Of course it was not that, but so many things changed in those years, and the music was in the center of them. So you could play the most bizarre music - and still you had people loving you. Being a band at that time was more than just being a musician. It was music, music, music, 18 hours a day. But it was also hard to realize the idea of music, which was two good hours with your audience as well as improvised and free, wild music in the spirit of avant-garde. Although the money was bad! Since one of the ideas of the time was not to let money have any influence upon you, it was kind of illegal to earn money by playing music, and the entrance fee to our concerts was often extremely low. After seven years of real hard work I still was as poor as a church mouse. But we had success, and that was great. In the beginning we played mostly in Copenhagen, but after a few years we also traveled all over Denmark. In cars all's in real bad shape. And soon we also toured in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and after being part of The Berliner Jazz Tage we became well-known in Germany and in the UK, as well. We played around 150 gigs a year - and we also had to do recordings and press interviews. The rest of the time was spent travelling. Especially in the beginning leading the band was difficult, since I had my ideas and so it could sometimes be difficult to have my musicians do what I hoped for. From 1970 we had the final line up, and things became easier in this matter.

VM: What event took place in the band in 1972, as a result of which you left it and formed another outfit, Secret Oyster?

KV: After these tough years we were a little tired. And also I felt that the audience wanted another side of BRI than I was going for. As it always has been, the people again wanted a singer with words and a band: a singer and lyrics saying exactly what you yourself think. I was more and more engaged in the instrumental parts of the repertoire. You can hear the difference between "6 elefantskovcikadeviser" and "W.W.W.". Today most people still love the former, but only few know of the other. And it was the second one I felt the most for. And also in the band, especially Kim Menzer was thinking, that he could write music for the band as well. But for me his music was without that special BRI feeling, which was so important to me. So in the middle of a rehearsal I announced that we had to break up.

VM: Many progressive reviewers regard Secret Oyster as Denmark's first supergroup...

KV: Well - in the sense of taking the cream from different bands and mixing it together in one group you might call it this way.

VM: The press kit of the CD reissue of Secret Oyster's third LP, "Vidunderlige Kaelling", says The Laser's Edge Records will reissue the band's first six albums, while I was always certain there are only four albums in Secret Oyster's discography. What is the actual state of affairs?

KV: SO did four albums. But also we recorded about 30 minutes for another ballet by Flemming Flindt (who did the ballet "Vidunderlige kŠlling"). The music was never used or released. With some bonus stuff it will be another SO album. Also there are some live recordings done by fans that asked us for permission to do so. I've been listening to more than 20 hours of material and I hope that will give us 60 minutes of wild and ecstatic music for a CD release on The Laser's Edge.

VM: "Vidunderlige Kaelling" is probably the most unusual album by Secret Oyster, which, I believe, can be explained by the fact that it was initially supposed to be music for a ballet. Please shed more light upon the prehistory of the album and tell me about the process of composing and recording it.

KV: Still in the early 70th music was important in the social life in itself. So after SO became getting an international success we were contacted by Flemming Flindt and asked if we would like to write and play music to a kind of ballet-cabaret based on the erotic universe of the poems by Jens August Schade. Both Schade and Flindt were important figures for us, so we agreed, with pleasure. As it turned out to be, the ballet as a whole was not that, which we exactly wanted to have, but there are fine moments and the beautiful performance by Vivi Flindt. It was a great success, though mostly because of the naked dancers of both sexes. The music was taped and played back on the stage, so we were earning the money every night without being present. We loved that!

VM: How did it happen that you and your Secret Oyster associates have at one point found themselves being responsible for two groups simultaneously - Secret Oyster and BRI, releasing albums under two different monikers in 1974 and 1975? What pushed you to reanimate your first band or, rather, to put the name of BRI on the Progressive Rock map again?

KV: As I said: money was bad in those days. And though SO had an increasing booking schedule, it helped on the finance playing some BRI gigs. And then for me, it was a challenge having Kenneth Knudsen and Claus Bohling to play that repertoire. It was never the BRI lineup playing SO gigs.

VM: What would you tell our readers about the other three BRI albums, which were released at the time of the diarchy? Are they musically much different from those you did under the moniker of Secret Oyster?

KV: "W.W.W." sure points forward to the music of SO. The one with folk singer Povl Dissing as a lead singer sure is looking backwards. "Right on" with Kenneth Knudsen instead of Kim Menzer again had elements of both sides: long improvised sequences over a tight groove and hopefully beautiful songs, one of my own favorites, the pre-punk opus August Suicidal, included. It was dedicated to the memory of our drummer, who died young as a consequence of his bad habit.

VM: Nevertheless, the existence of BRI came to an end two years later, when you decided to concentrate exclusively on Secret Oyster. What were the reasons for you reaching such a decision?

KV: SO became a success. After the release of the second album "Sea Son" we played over 100 concerts a year. And again it went on like: music, music, music - and now with even more travelling, even more work writing music, arranging and recording. And to be honest - I had more pleasure out of the music in SO at that time, than from that I played with BRI in the mid 70s.

VM: Why did Secret Oyster disband a few years later, too? I suppose the reason was the sharp decline of interest to Progressive Rock in the second half of the '70s and, that said, all the subsequent events, wasn't it?

KV: The playing in SO was at a very high musical standard. Claus Bohling was constantly driving the music to near-ecstasy; Kenneth Knudsen expanded my musical horizons all the time (I hope I did something similar for them) and also we had these fine moments of contemplation in between. But it was not easy to be a member of that band! In the liner notes to the CD of "Sea Son" I tried to express it this way: "We demanded more from ourselves and also from people around us. It could cause difficult situations". Touring with the band became something like being in a travelling madhouse, and of course that situation had to stop. We were close to becoming a primary act for CBS in the USA, but were turned down at the last minute. After which it was hard to go on, with all the optimism that is needed for playing music that is 'not exactly what people usually ask for'. And I guess you are right: the times were not good for 'difficult' music, especially in Denmark. In the late 70s in Denmark all that counted was mouthing correct political phrases and writing lyrics from the light, all-accepting hippie universe. Well, some teen appeal also worked.

VM: Can you name the most commercially successful album by Secret Oyster and BRI, either? How many copies of each have been sold?

KV: We never got regular accountings from our record sales. Often we were not even informed about releases in other countries. So I don't know what the sales were like. But I guess "Sea Son" was the most successful SO album, with something between 10.000 and 20.000 copies sold. Our debut album by BRI - it's a double album - has been re-issued several times, but was never released outside Denmark because of the Danish lyrics. But my guess again is something like 10/20.000 copies of the LP have been sold. The same figures count for the self-titled second BRI album and the one with folksinger Povl Dissing.

VM: The most obscured period of your musical activity is the '80s. What was your principal occupation (if it's no secret) during those 'dark' years? Did you do anything else as a musician or as a composer after the break-up of Secret Oyster and before you joined Taylor's Universe?

KV: I did a lot! I worked successfully together with one of the most popular Danish actors, the late great Frits Helmuth. In fact I did that until his death a little more than a year ago. I wrote music and was on stage with him - sometimes together with a trio, he was either reading or singing. In some years it could be up to 200 gigs! Also I worked with a jazz quartet, later becoming a duo with only piano. I wrote a lot of music for different situations and also for some short movies and one full-length picture. At the same time I worked - mostly as a DJ - at Danmarks Radio, the national broadcasting company. Sometimes even full time both as a musician and as a DJ.

VM: Robin Taylor gave me a detailed interview about Taylor's Universe and Taylor's Free Universe, in which your active participation in both of the projects was not forgotten. However, it would be interesting to know your personal view on the creation of these acts.

KV: Robin Taylor called to ask me if I would like to do some saxophone solo playing on "Experimental Health". Since one of my greatest pleasures is to work in the studio I said: yes, thank you. The music was both related to SO and at the same time more wild and peculiar - which I always find interesting. So after some recording sessions I found myself being more and more involved in the project. Sure the project is still Robin's, but I also have some ideas and my opinion on how to work with the group. So I suggested that he try and do even more free music - under the name of Taylor's Free Universe - and also get out to do some live concerts. Well, there is nearly no market for that music in Denmark. But I'm still sure it's somewhere out there.

VM: Which of them is more comfortable to you, considering your current understanding of progressive music?

KV: The next step together with Robin Taylor is trying to make a fusion of the totally free avant-garde side of his music, and also composed, more structured pieces. We have already recorded 30 minutes of wild sounds and energetic rhythm patterns. Since my composing was often done to realize the music I hear in my head - and consequently composing for me is related to creating structures - I think that some kind of structure, some kind of an idea of what it's all about is more satisfying than the totally unstructured universe, at least when you are on stage and there are people being there to listen to what you do. So perhaps the new direction, built on the old BRI idea of combining wild music and incredible sounds with a more tight rhythm section, will turn out to be my favorite of Taylor's projects.

VM: Have you ever considered recording a solo album?

KV: I have several! The first was with Kenneth Knudsen in 1975, and since then something like ten more! These days I'm working on two albums simultaneously, on one of them together with the incredible Indian violin master Dr. L. Subramaniam. As to another, I hope it will be my new working unit: Music related to SO since it is improvised and mostly instrumental, but also reminiscent of an updated version of BRI. It features guitar, bass and drums. Kenneth Knudsen is involved in the album, but since he doesn't want to play music live on stage anymore, he will only be "behind" us.

VM: Here is probably the most traditional question. Do you have any concrete plans concerning the future of your musical activity?

KV: As you can hear: Yes! I have also formed a quartet together with trumpet player Hugh Steinmetz. We are doing thing close to what we did together 40 years ago. But these days I'm playing nearly no live gigs, since the scene in Denmark is totally on the Popstar concept. So I hope that some listeners outside Denmark will want to hear my playing and ask me to come and bring my 'axe' with me.

VM: The Laser's Edge label has recently started reissuing the Secret Oyster albums on CD, to the pleasure of many connoisseurs of prog music. Can we expect the reformation of Secret Oyster (or BRI?), perhaps as a consequence of this event, which, in its turn, has certainly resulted from the raise of interest in the band's creation?

KV: BRI has in fact been playing concerts through the last decade. Not many, but something like 20 a year. But now for different reasons it has decreased to nearly no gigs at all. SO will not be playing live gigs since Kenneth Knudsen has declined to join the situation as I said before. I guess the rest of us could be together on stage but that would not be SO as such.

VM: Finally, what is your view on the current state of Progressive Rock? Does the genre have any chance to find a mainstream status again, or, will it still continue its semi-underground existence - what you think?

KV: Progressive music and Denmark never were a good combination. We had those ten years and I was lucky to be there, and even twice have success with music which was not mainstream at all. I don't think it will happen in my lifetime again. Progressive music is important for your mental health and brings so much fun and so many important experiences into your life. But most people believe amateurs singing out of pitch are more interesting. Consequently progressive music will continue as semi-underground. I have not yet reached the state that my colleague and good friend Kenneth Knudsen has, and say: "No one at all has interest in progressive music, especially in instrumental music". But over the years I can see that it is always something else that counts. I still hope to be a good composer, a well-respected bandleader and a saxophone player for 10 more years, with my own personal approach to improvised modern music. And also I know a better understanding of progressive music exists outside Denmark. Wish I were there!

VM: February 28, 2005

Related Links:

>Taylor's Universe With Karsten Vogel

ProgressoR / Uzbekistan Progressive Rock Pages