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In full confinement, we were able to interview Bjorn Riis, composer and guitarist of Airbag, by Skype.
PROGRACER - 05.06.2020 -
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As it's your first time in an interview on Music Waves, let's start with one of our traditional questions: what is the question you've been asked too often? 

(Laughs) How did you start the creation of this album compared to the others, I think.

... and we're not going to ask you that today! 

Thank you very much! (Laughs) 

It's a funny time in the world these days with containment, but I heard you just got back to work a few days ago... 

Yeah, the company I work for is slowly starting up again, schools are starting up again for the little ones and some shops are reopening. I hope that soon we can go out again to parks, museums and concerts, and it'll be good for us. 

How did you live this confinement? 

I'm lucky to live in a house with a garden, so it's okay. I taught my 8 year old daughter and finally it was nice to be able to spend time with my family, even if it's not really a holiday.  

These are difficult conditions for artists, but maybe conducive to writing? 

Yes and no, because we just finished the album. We're lucky that we don't need to write or play our music for a living. We all have a full-time job so we don't have any constraints on the production of material. But for a lot of artists it's much more problematic indeed. However, it's allowed me to work on new ideas which I hope will soon see the light of day on a future solo album. But as the album is finished, we are just doing some promotion and preparing for the release of the album in June. 

This promotion is not obvious under these conditions.

Fortunately it is now quite easy to exchange with all the technology at our disposal in this small world. We have social networks to keep in touch with our fans. It doesn't make much difference to us, actually. The only difference is that the contacts are online rather than face to face but that's the only difference in fact because our promotion plan is going the way we had more or less planned. 

However, what's happening today is pretty good for the planet... 

Yeah, that's the positive side of it. It's also interesting to see how all the countries are going to go back and how people are going to behave. Will we have learned anything from this? 

Will it disrupt your tour and festival plans this year? 

No, because we haven't planned a tour this summer yet. We are in contact with a lot of promoters. And we can wait until the end of the year or the beginning of 2021. The only thing that changes is that some shows have been postponed to the end of the year, and I think we'll see more clearly by this fall. But again, we don't have an emergency that we have to tour for a living, so it's nothing serious for us.  

Living from your music is not a goal for Airbag or for you personally? 

No, and it never has been. We started playing in college so we already had jobs when the first album came out. We can consider it more as a hobby than a job. I admire those who succeed. But it makes us freer to master this rhythm and do what we love without being dependent on it. I think it's a real chance to be able to live it that way and only be a rock star on weekends (Laughs). 

"Machines And Men" made us think of Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree for its electro sounds and its progressive rhythm. Is it a reference that you like ? 

Yes. We've always been fans of Steven Wilson, either solo or with Porcupine Tree. I'm a big fan of No-man (Editor's note: S. Wilson's solo project created in 1987) as far as I'm concerned. But I think our main source of inspiration for this album is the eighties. All three of us have forged our musical culture by listening to English bands from this period like New Order or the early days of Tears For Fears. When we started writing "A Day at The Beach", we were also influenced by the Stranger Things series whose soundtrack is signed by an English electronic music band, S U R V I V E. They did an incredible job on this series. But you know, we grew up listening to classic bands like Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath. They've always been an important influence for me, which is probably most evident in my solo work. What we tried to do on this album is to create a balance between these rock and electronic influences. 

I've already read that you're a big fan of Kiss, but it doesn't really show in your music. 

No, it doesn't! But I started listening to Kiss when I was about five years old so it's a heritage that's part of me. The thing I've learnt from them on a daily basis is that they've had this great positive attitude for 40 years now.  I also love their dynamic messages like "Believe in yourself", or "Do what you want". It's this positive philosophy that influences me even more than their music. 

Why did you choose "Machines And Men" in particular as a single when it's quite different from what you've produced so far? 

The song was originally called "Cold World". We played it live a couple of times last year and reworked it quite a bit. It talks about the futility and impermanence of our interests in this hyper-connected society. You can like something one moment and throw it away the next when you're no longer interested in it. This is the theme of this piece we wanted to bring it to the forefront. 

Is it a recurring concept on the album? 

Yes and no. It's not strictly speaking a concept album but, as on all our albums, there's a guideline that unites the songs. This one talks about the relationships between people, the "them and us" taken from the point of view of individuals (Editor's note. Us and them is an Anglo-Saxon concept which doesn't really have an equivalent in French). For example, 'Into The Unknown' is about a man who leaves his family, his culture, his country to migrate to another country and the song is about how he feels. 

Do you hope to capture a new audience with such a strong song? 

Not really. Of course it's always satisfying to reach new audiences, but the main aim was to show that we've really done something different on this album. The song has evolved quite a bit since the first times we played it live last year and we think it has achieved exactly what we were looking for, and to show it like that is a great way to show the evolution of the band since "Disconnected" which is now 5 years old. 

The album is a bit more rock, like 'Sunsets'. I've even heard some almost metal riffs. Is it an unconscious influence of your recent solo experience ? 

(Laughs) Yes, maybe it is. I've always tried to bring this kind of riffs to Airbag's albums without the other musicians being very supportive. But this time round it came more naturally. We also did a lot of rehearsals and arrangements with Kristian Hunltgren, Wobbler's bassist, who's been accompanying us on stage regularly for several years now. Kristian, Henrick (drums) and I have all three been heavily influenced by classic rock. We all came with this background and more rock ideas. Some of them ended up on the album.   

How do you make the difference when you compose between what can go to Airbag or what is for your solo project? Do you put yourself in "Airbag" mode or in "Bjorn" mode to compose ? 

No, it's much more about guitar feeling, and everything that comes is very natural. I know right away if a song is more for Airbag or for my solo project. For example, when I wrote the theme for "Machines and Men" I knew immediately that it was made for Airbag and we started working from there. It all comes quite naturally. 

Does Asle take part in writing the lyrics? 

I mainly write the lyrics, but Asle, as a singer, contributes by modifying a few lines, adapting certain phrases because his sensitivity allows him to improve the whole. But the writing at the beginning is mainly my job.  

Do you have his voice in mind when you write for him? 

Not really, on the demos, some lines seem to be made for him and others for me.  He brings a lot to the band for all these arrangements, including the guitars. We talk a lot about the vocal lines, the guitar parts and we found a good balance in working that way. I give my opinion on the electronic parts, Henrick on some guitar lines. It's a very inspiring process for us. 

You chose to separate the title track into two distinct parts that have the same rhythmic line. Why this choice when you have accustomed your fans to long progressive pieces? 

The album consists of four main pieces. The eponymous title track is a kind of double interlude between these parts. Moreover, it is very important for the story, especially the lyrics of the first part. It's a different way of doing it which seemed important to us to break with some usual stereotypes. 

The slow rhythm of 'Part 1' has a trip-hop side to it, like a very haunting Massive Attack. Is it another one of those nineties inspiration you were talking about earlier? 

Yes it is. Asle, who works a good part of the electronic arrangements, is a big fan of Massive Attack, hence the reference.  

'Into The Unknown' ends on a bland out. That's quite rare for you and not very popular with progressive rock fans. Why this choice? 

Actually, it was quite deliberate. When writing an album, we always have the vinyl format in mind. The title is supposed to finish the A-side, so it seemed natural to fade out the aerial solo before 'Sunset' starts on a completely different rhythm. It's certainly anti-prog, but quite deliberate (Laughs). But this final has a beneficial effect on the narrative aspect of the album and its rhythm. Without pretension, we find this kind of artifice on "Dark Side of The Moon", where the A side ends in a fade out with 'The Great Gig in the Sky', and the B side starts in a hurry with 'Money'. I really like this contrast. 

This solo is beautiful, like the one on 'A Day at The Beach part 2'. It's full of feeling and Gilmourian technique with that plaintive echo, those double bends. Is it the ultimate reference for you? 

Yes, or at least one of them. I've always been a big fan of David Gilmour and Pink Floyd, and he was obviously a great inspiration. But there are others like Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top or Zakk Wylde in a very different style. I also have a weakness for older English musicians like Paul Kossoff (Free), Leslie West (Mountain) or Tommy Iommy. 

Airbag has always been compared to Pink Floyd for the progressive arrangements and your guitar playing.  What do you answer to those who always compare you to this band?

I say thank you! (Laughs) Yes, if you are compared to the two biggest bands in rock history, it's a huge compliment. Honestly, I've never heard it in a negative sense.  

The artwork of the album is a beautiful photographic composition. Did you work with the same artist who dresses your solo albums? 

No, it's Asle, our singer, who is also a graphic designer and who takes care of all the visuals for our albums. This photo is an opportunity, one day walking on one of Oslo's beaches, one of those moments where the light and the atmosphere gives you a wonderful atmosphere. We had two hours, no more than that, to take the picture. 

The artwork is similar to the one on Pink Floyd's "A Momentary Lapse of reason". Is it a deliberate tribute or a coincidence? 

No, at least not to this particular cover. However, the iconic and graphic universe of Pink Floyd has always been a source of admiration and influence for us. So it doesn't surprise me that people can make the connection, it shows that our DNA is just as we imagine it to be. 

What is your best memory as an artist? 

Ah... I have a lot of good memories. So, if I can have two of them... I've always loved working in the studio when we are working on new songs and that little moment with the guys, where you look at yourself and you think you have found something really good, it's a huge feeling.  But also, talking with fans who tell me how much they have been touched by our music and how it has helped them through difficult times in their lives, it's always very special to hear things like that. There's this Australian fan who once told me that he had to stop his car crying because a track on one of my albums made him feel like it was written for his wife who had died a few weeks before. But we also have fans in Iran, Syria or in countries where they don't have the opportunity to listen to Western music, or no music at all. When they tell you that they used an illegal internet to download your music, I don't know how to answer that. 

And on the contrary, the worst memory? 

(Laughs) ... I don't see ... There were obviously some disputes with promoters or some problems in concert, but nothing we could overcome... Yes, there was. During our first participation in Cruise To The Edge, our luggage was lost between Oslo and Miami. We had only two days before the departure of the cruise during which we tried to recover our instruments and stuff. Some of it finally arrived a few hours before departure but several things were lost or damaged, and when I opened the case of my guitar, I realized that it had been broken in two. That's really the worst thing. 

We started with the question you've been asked too often, what is the one you would like to be asked? 

I could probably talk about Kiss for hours (Laughs)! I don't know, but what I can say is that we're very proud of this album and we can't wait to share it with the fans, to have their opinion on it and to play it in front of them.  

Do you plan to play in France? 

I hope so. We haven't had the opportunity to come to France yet but we've been contacted by several promoters, so yes, I really hope so. 

Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions and see you soon for a special interview on Kiss then. 

(Laughs) Thanks to you, anytime (Laughs)!

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