‘Jazz Talks’ with Michael Arbenz of Vein

Vein“It’s more like being a company than being a musician”

Vein know the business of music. Having met their drummer, Florian Arbenz and pianist, Michael (his twin brother) one thing is clear to me, they have a quiet but effective strategy for being a working band. Stay focused on the goal, don’t be afraid of the dirty work and take risks. Along with double bass player, Thomas Lähns, they also work hard. “Today as a musician you can’t say, ‘I just want to have my fee and that’s it,’ explains Michael, “you have to invest some money sometimes and if you do it right you get it back. It’s more like being a company than being a musician just practising and dreaming – that would be very nice!”

Cover_VEIN_Jazz_TalksVein are building their career, brick by brick. Jazz Talks is Vein’s ninth album and features legendary American saxophonist, Dave Liebman. His career includes stints with Miles Davis and Chick Corea – a tangible link to the heritage of jazz of which Vein are clearly so passionate when you hear ‘Walking With a Start’ or ‘Black Tortoise’. Live, Michael ripples with influences from Stravinsky to Bill Evans, but Vein are so steeped in the jazz tradition that they are able to weave in their own voices. Not an overnight achievement. “I think it’s more honest to find something personal and stay with it,” says Michael when we discuss their music style.

Hooking up with celebrated artists has been useful, it nurtures their skills and can connect them to foreign audiences. However, it takes some guts (and talent) to achieve. Greg Osby of the infamous M-Base Collective was the first Michael approached when he was just 23 years old. “It was back in the old days – there was a fax number on the back of one of his CDs and I faxed him and he was very open to play with young musicians, he still is.”

“The good thing was that it was normal to be a musician”

Vein not only make these approaches (a collaboration with a UK saxophonist is next in the pipeline) they also do all the administration and manage themselves. If you check their tour dates below you’ll see what they achieve. Also when you have someone like Liebman in the band, the hotels and travel need to be well organised. Did having parents involved in music (they are both musicians and teachers) help them to understand the business? “The good thing was that it was normal to be a musician,” he says, as musicians can face opposition from their own family, “but it’s more like we’re not afraid to do the dirty work, to call people, it’s a lot of work that’s not nice to do.”

Their curiosity for the piano their father played had them starting music as early as 4 or 5 years old. “The music education was very present but my parents didn’t push us, so it was very natural to get into it.” They also both learnt drums and Michael recalls that making music together was a form of playtime for the brothers, “And after, in our teenage years, it became more serious and it was great to have someone who was the same age and had the same interests.”

“I think we were attracted by the very positive mood of it”

They began listening to their parent’s jazz records and heard Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum and Fats Waller. “I think we were attracted by the very positive mood of it, also it’s kind of virtuoso, and rhythmical with the drums…but I think when we were kids we weren’t analysing it…Louis Armstrong: it’s almost like a celebration or something and we were attracted by that.”

For me, there is almost a telepathy between Michael and Florian onstage but Thomas is an equal member of the crew. “Vein is a collective and this is an important philosophy of the trio…We try to develop to find more possibilities and more freedom on how to play together on an equal level.” The band are always looking for how they can break the traditional roles of a piano trio and be truly multi-dimensional. When I ask what he wants to work on he replies, “Everything…I don’t like to relax and think, ‘Oh now I can do what I want,’ this is dangerous for music. I like to go on and improve everything: to compose better, play better and have more to say – that’s the most difficult”.

Vein will be one of the four Swiss acts that Swiss Vibes is presenting at Montreux Jazz Festival (Château de Chillon) ont the 10th of July. Be there!

16. April VEIN feat. Greg Osby, De Singer, Antwerpen/BE
17. April VEIN feat. Greg Osby, Jazz Celebrations Gorzow/PL
19. April VEIN feat. Greg Osby, Künstlerwerkstatt Pfaffenhofen/DE
20. April VEIN feat. Greg Osby, Jazzkongress Freiburg/DE
21. April St. Ives Jazzclub/UK
22. April Grimsby Jazz/UK
23. April Newcastle/UK
24. April Capstone Theatre. Liverpool/UK
2. Mai Jazzkeller Frankfurt/DE
8. Mai Jazzfestival Schaffhausen/CH
26. Mai VEIN feat. Dave Liebman, Band on the Wall/UK
27. Mai VEIN feat. Dave Liebman, Porgy and Bess, Wien/A
28. Mai VEIN feat. Dave Liebman, Vortex London/UK
29. Mai VEIN feat. Dave Liebman, Jazzlines Birmingham/UK
30. Mai VEIN feat. Dave Liebman, Porgy en Bess, Zeeland/NL
31. Mai EIN feat. Dave Liebman, Platformtheater Groningen/NL
27. Juni Glasgow Jazz Festival/SCO
10. July Montreux Jazz Festival, Château de Chillon

How Do I Look? Image in the Digital Era

Forget Twitter’s 140 character limit and just post a photo, or 15 second video – and you’ve got the new digital craze, Instagram (16 million active users per day). It’s responsible for the widespread ‘selfie’ (taking a picture of yourself and posting it) and along with Facebook, YouTube and camera/video devices within our smartphones, tablets and consoles has blown the importance of our own image into a monstrous size. This is impacting society and culture, and that includes jazz.

“You can take a stand and decide what emphasis you will apply to your image”  Elina Duni

Elina1(1)There is resounding evidence that Dr Catherine Hakim was bang on the money when she wrote a book asserting that those who use beauty, physical fitness, charm and sexiness will find success (Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital) and it’s especially true in the music industry. “I am so sad about what I see today, what are the role models for young girls? Mostly women stars who don’t represent the feminist way of thinking, but represent the sexual object,” says vocalist Elina Duni when I ask her about women’s image in music, “but you can take a stand and decide what emphasis you will apply to your image, if any, or what it says about you.”

Duni instinctively realized the importance of engaging visuals from the start of her career, but it was when she found a kindred spirit in the Albanian photographer Blerta Kambo that she could realize her ideas. “Some things can be sensual or sublime without being cheap or sexual,” comments Duni, “she represents me very well.” Trombonist Samuel Blaser didn’t have the same issues to face but admitted he’d changed his thoughts on his image, “Now I’ve hired a fashion consultant. We went shopping for a day together. I spent way too much money, but I think it’s important to present yourself well.

“In some parts of Europe music is more connected to hipness than to good music”  Florian Arbenz

In my own career I witnessed how having a strong visual identity helps people remember you (I had dreadlocks for many years), but as pianist Rusconi notes, it has to be genuine, “If it comes from you and who you are as a band then great, but there’s no need to force it.” Some people have a natural visual intelligence, such as Tobias Preisig. He plays violin and in a subtle way, plays upon the look of a free and fiery but very modern gypsy. He forges a clear identity, very useful tobias1when establishing a ‘brand’. If any artists out there are flinching as I use the word ‘brand’, consider the creative accomplishments of Björk, one of the most magical musicians of my generation whilst being one of the strongest brands. Brands enable people to get who you are and, if it’s strong or unique, remember it. You may not say Eric Vloeimans’ indulgence in colourful clothes and ‘funky’ shoes launched his career, but you could see how his image, along with his playing has set him apart.

Florian Arbenz of Vein commented that not everywhere was infected by “fashion”, “In some parts of Europe music is more connected to hipness than to good music. In Eastern parts [of Europe] you are still judged very hard when you play and I like that.” He found that his band’s classical training and passion for vintage jazz, not their choice of clothes, had given Vein a strong profile in those regions.

Image in music isn’t just about personal appearance

Bebop and modernist jazz was helped by the daring graphics of Reid Miles at Blue Note in the 50s and 60s, whilst Manfred Eicher’s audio vision for ECM was perfectly interpreted by designers Barbara Wojirsch in the ’70s and Dieter Rehm who nurtured the photographic style of windswept trees and monochrome landscapes. On the other hand you could argue that GRP Records sold a lot of albums despite some of the ugliest record sleeves ever (though they were operating in the ‘style-free’ era of the 1980s). As digital downloads and streams find their feet there’s less attention paid to album covers, but a few of the Swiss artists I interviewed confirmed their audiences were still buying CDs. In the wider picture of music, however, the music video, once the marketing tool of pop alone, has taken on increasing weight. Use of YouTube as a device for discovering music is mostly responsible.

“We did it like a piece of art”, Samuel Blaser

samuel1(1)Samuel Blaser has found himself experimenting more with visuals such as photos and videos and, like Duni, recognizes their importance as publicity. They also have both relished these added dimensions to their creativity. Blaser met Polish video maker, Ewa Kozanecka in New York and asked her to shoot something for a shorter version of Pieces of Old Sky. “I don’t know if it was totally useful because we did it like a piece of art.” From a listener’s point of view that video held the music more firmly in my memory. And that’s where videos and photos can really assist musicians – by etching their sound into the consciousness of the public. Rusconi are a band that have also naturally partnered with video to explore ways to extend their expression.

“The video thing opened up our music to a totally different crowd” Stefan Rusconi

They have forged a successful pairing with the film collective,  Zweihund, producing engaging and professional work for comparably small budgets. Stefan Rusconi told me, “The video thing opened up our music to a totally different crowd. What we’re interested in as an audience is people that are interested in different fields of culture. Doing the video got people interested that would never have come to a Rusconi jazz gig,” and it enabled them to crossover to contemporary music festivals outside of the ‘jazz’ genre.

“You need good clothes…” Marc Perrenoud

This has proved useful as a piano trio, because as Marc Perrenoud, the leader of another piano trio, noted, “You have to find something different form other trios, find another visual identity.” Some of the artists I interviewed were also filming their gigs, tours and recording sessions as ‘documentaries’ in order to extend their ‘visual presence’. The digital world is forcing the hands of musicians, “You have to be very connected on the web, you have to have very good presentation and have very good pictures [and] you need good clothes,” noted Marc Perrenoud.

A few months ago I went to a jazz festival. One of the bands I came away very firmly etched in my mind were Snarky Puppy – they had great stage presence (helped by the fact there were so many of them) but also their fans were wearing well-branded T-shirts, with a print of a dog’s head wearing headphones. Jazz musicians may not feel the pressure to look like George Clooney, yet, but the world is changing rapidly and visual intelligence or ‘erotic capital’ if you like, won’t be diminishing their influence in the near future.

“Tweet Me!” Jazz in the Digital Age

Swiss Vibes 2013_01_Mix 4As far as I see it, social media is a form of Internet dating, just without the romance (though not always). It’s relationships, connecting, communicating, dare I say, flirting, and showing off your best photos. There’s also a lot of hype about what it can do for a career.

Example: kid playing guitar uploads to YouTube, sets up Facebook page to consolidate following, finds a manager via Twitter, releases EP, tweets to major UK shop about singing on their next Christmas advert – gets job, the track goes to no.1 in UK charts, she gets lots of press. This is the true story of Gabrielle Aplin who literally created her own career in a few years using digital media and it shouts at us, “Digital and social media matter!”

“It’s the most neglected field in jazz music”  Stefan Rusconi

Rusconi_2But what are the implications of this explosion of media for the new generations of jazz musicians? Out of the eight musicians I spoke to they had all breathed the same air, tainted by these hyped success stories of social media, but only three were already forcing themselves to fully utilize the Internet. Stefan Rusconi observed, “I understand our music is about being a master of playing for real, you invest a lot of time in your instrument, you’re a craftsman and it’s sometimes hard to accept the digital side, but I think it’s the most neglected field in jazz music.”

“it’s not up to me to decide if it’s important or not, it’s just a fact that it’s important” Andreas Schaerrer

Andreas SchaererCertainly they don’t share the same audience as Justin Bieber (over 42 million Twitter followers) but Herbie Hancock has doubled his followers in the last year to 54,000 and it’s doubtful the trend will reverse. Andreas Schaerer reflected the thoughts of others when he said, “I personally don’t enjoy Facebook…This concept of communication is a fake one to me, but I realize I’m living in a time when it’s not up to me to decide if it’s important or not, it’s just a fact that it’s important.” However, the issues around digital media aren’t only about personal taste, a key problem mentioned by all the musicians was, time.

“To create, you really have to shut down your Internet and phone”   Elina Duni

Elina Duni_PF1Creating and updating websites, Facebook pages, blogs and tweets take an enormous amount of time and more notably, headspace, because it’s ongoing, always on the ‘to do’ list. Smartphones have supported social media by making it easier to update ‘on the go’ but as Elina Duni noted, “It’s not just posting things, you have to be active, to answer, people have to feel you’re near to them.” It’s this consistency that can be at odds with a creative process such as composing that demands focused, uninterrupted time. Duni explained, “To create you really have to shut down your Internet and phone…but today you always have to be reachable…It’s not easy and sometimes it depresses me, but I try to find a way…I try to improve.”

Building a database of loyal fans…

Marc Perrenoud Trio_LD1There are other issues such as keeping your website alive and relevant and the cost of that. The pianist Marc Perrenoud realized, “I just made my new website last year, but I want to change it already.” These Swiss musicians accepted that their websites needed good translations into English for the international market (which they need to survive), but this point leads us on to one of the big positives of digital media: it makes musicians completely accessible. When researching these artists I watched all of them live, got their discography, biography and the geography of their forthcoming gigs without leaving my South London apartment.

The Internet has also helped them connect with other musicians and collaborators, and most importantly, in the case of Rusconi, their audience. This group took time to research these new forms of promotion and communication, watching e-marketing videos by Seth Godin amongst others. They decided to adopt the ‘download and donate what you want’ approach to their recent album, Revolution, as opposed to giving it a price tag. Not only did it help the band connect to a broad-based audience beyond the jazz market, “people that are interested in different fields of culture…people who are active, who want to be a part of society, who are aware of others and a vibrant thing…” but also it helped them win the Echo Jazz Award for Best Live Act (up against Wayne Shorter, no less). That’s a big win that would not have been possible without having built a database of loyal fans.

“it can be serious stuff that you post on your Facebook page which people would enjoy”  Florian Arbenz

FlorianSI’m going to skirt around the subject of digital downloads and e-commerce here as it’s a big and complicated field. However, as a marketing tool, digital media is up there as a new force. In some ways Rusconi are lucky in that their explorations of the digital world and the videos and imagery that need to accompany that fit naturally with their own tastes and interests. Drummer Florian Arbenz of Vein was one of the artists who openly admitted that he hated social media, but realized he’d been looking at it in the wrong way. “We didn’t want to write stupid stuff like, ‘I’m waking up in Paris, yeah guys,’ so we rarely wrote anything. But if you think business-wise, you can connect with your audience.” He was going to look again at digital media from a new persepective, “The music is still the priority but we could build some concept around that, it could be art, a series of films – it can be serious stuff that you post on your Facebook page which people would enjoy – and reflects us.”

Digital media can also consolidate an artist’s musical expression, make them appear stronger and bigger, as well as provide more aspects to their personality when they use other art forms. Imagery and Swiss jazz is something I’ll write about next time but for now, it’s worth considering that whatever your opinion of social media, understand that you can interact with it in whatever way you want. And in doing so, connect to like-minded people. In terms of time, money and energy, digital media can suck you dry, but what musician wants to risk missing out on its benefits? It’s not just about crossing borders and continents to make sure people turn up at your gigs, it’s also about developing your ‘voice’ and at what volume it’s heard.

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