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coverpic flag Norway - Full Moon 113 - 12/15/05

White Lord Jesus
Talk of the devil - a conversation with the Lord

Last full moon we reviewed the debut CD of White Lord Jesus (WLJ). Despite the debut, the band and its two members are veterans. The band started in 1983 and kept going for two years. They only released one self-financed cassette, Amen, contributed to a few cassette compilations and played a handful of short gigs. Why bother 20 years later? Well, of course it's the music. Also, the band was an important part of the cassette movement in Norway, that was a vital outlet for independent music and reached its peak during the years WLJ originally existed.

Enter Arvid Skancke-Knutsen (alias Tristan Christ) and Thomas Robsahm (used to call himself Thomas the Doubter as his musical alter ego in the 1980s; now it's Tognazzi, his Italian family name). On stage Arvid was - and still is - the front man, dedicated and theatrical vocalist, not without irony, whereas Thomas is at the back, cool and quiet behind shades, in control of the instruments. Off stage it's the opposite. Arvid is soft spoken, reflective and calm, whereas Thomas is louder, more talkative and gets a new idea to talk about before he's finished the first. The contrasts between the two are also an important aspect of WLJ's music. We have to do with two quite different personalities who have to speak for themselves rather than for the band as such. In a setting at a cafe in downtown Oslo one dark November evening, let's stick to their real names.

New beginnings
Thomas and Arvid met at the Quart Festival in Kristiansand last year and talked about a re-release of Amen on CD. By then Thomas had received a keyboard from his girlfriend as a gift when he turned 40. But why a comeback after 20 years?

T: I've been thinking about converting the old tapes to digital recording medium for several years. Finally I went to the attic and found the original tapes. We recorded Amen on a 4-track tape machine, a sort of simple home studio in those days. It was much easier to feed them into a digital recording device than expected. Afterwards we could do anything, even substitute the rhythm box on "Mary's Room" that I've been annoyed about for 20 years!
The original idea was to release Amen straight as it was on CD. After the digital conversion we found it was easier to handle than expected. Then we thought about bonus tracks at the end of the album, then eventually about changing the running order. We found that some of the bonus songs like "Beautiful Diseases" and "Mystery Walk" were great and deserved to be integrated with the album songs. In the end the CD was titled White Lord Jesus instead of Amen and includes most of what we recorded in the 80s and one new song.

A: I think the idea behind the CD release was an urge to self-assertion rather than nostalgia. We had a series about Norwegian rock on national TV last winter that ignored the cassette movement completely. If it hadn't been for Ballade (a Norwegian musical news stand where Arvid purely incidentally happens to be the editor) and a few other critical voices, no experimental music - not even Holy Toy - would've been included. This autumn Jan Eggum (well-known Norwegian singer songwriter) published a Norwegian pop and rock encyclopaedia, which is thorough, but without anything about the cassette artists. Only artists released on vinyl or CD are mentioned. One reason why Thomas and I are doing what we're doing right now is a sort of: 'Hey, you're missing something. We're also part of this history!'

T: The only trouble with the digitalisation process was that the original tapes were on only four tracks, which meant there were more than one instrument on each track. Fortunately the vocals were recorded on one separate track. Because it was originally a cassette recording or because the tracks were converted from another 4-track cassette recorder, the speed of the tape was not the same all the way. The songs at the end of the tape were almost half a tone higher. They had to be pitched down. We got a lot of help from Trond Bjerknæs in his studio with manipulation of the tapes and new recordings, re-programming of drums, new instruments, new vocals for two songs etc. By now I have all the recordings on my own computer, a sort of digital home studio. I recorded the backing tracks of the new songs at home, while the vocals, instruments by guests and the mixing was done in Trond's studio. Compared to the 1980s, it's really a fantastic technological leap forwards. By now it was very easy to produce "Song For A Dark Girl", "Beautiful Diseases" and "Mary's Room" the way we wanted them 20 years ago. But I would never forgive any of the punk pioneers if they did the same and manipulated any of their original recordings later...

A: We'll please the purists and put the original Amen songs on our home page for free downloading with tape hiss, warts and all...

There's also a mental leap from converting the old tapes and get other musicians to add new instruments to actually record yourselves after a decade or two.

T: I recorded the backing tracks for the new "Winter Song" and rearranged the old song "Back In Mary's Room" with a more normal verse-chorus structure than it used to have, originally. When we recorded the vocals for those two songs in Trond's studio it was very easy. "Winter Song" was recorded in three takes and that was it. Back in business! The biggest surprise is that people doesn't seem to notice which songs are new and which are old. With Arvid's vocals it's WLJ no matter!

T: Only three of the songs recorded in the 80s didn't make it to the CD. There are some mysteries concerning our very first recording, an Alan Vega-alike song called "Pleasure Avalanche". Only synthesizer and vocals. We didn't have equipment to copy the recording at the time, so we recorded it twice... But what happened to the two tapes?

A: Lydia Lunch sent me the lyrics for the song a few months after I had met her. It's never been published. [Another mystery: Nick Cave wrote a song with the same title for his band The Birthday Party in 1982 or 83, shortly before going solo/Bad Seed. Maybe he and Lydia, who were collaborating quite intimately for a few weeks, decided to write lyrics with the same title separately?] I still think it's great:

To be in dreams
Is better than not
And where to me
Is there to be
Other than in dreams?

So deeply dream,
And you'll have me.

Beginnings
coverpic Arvid grew up in Risør on the south-eastern coast of Norway and was in a band called Dynamo Forte (the name was originally Paralgin Forte, but Arvid changed it without consulting the other band members when he was going to post their first contribution for a cassette compilation). Thomas spent some years as a teenager in Arendal about 50 kilometres further to the southwest. He was vocalist in a couple of punk bands, then started to play a Farfisa organ and a couple of cheaps synths in addition to vocals in a local new wave "super group" Brød & Sirkus (Bread & Circus, you know) and assorted keyboards in the short lived pop-trio Head-Set Junta. Thomas was amazed first time he heard Dynamo Forte at a gig in Arendal and later co-produced Dynamo's debut album for his cassette label Neronastri. White Lord Jesus was formed after Arvid and Thomas moved to Oslo in the early autumn 1983.

A: I felt very isolated growing up in Risør. On the surface it's a small idyllic white painted town, with one of the highest suicide rates in the country at the time I grew up. I went to study in Oslo as an excuse to get away. The studies didn't last long, though.

Thomas moved to work in front of and later behind the cameras in different film-productions. His parents were well-known film actors in Norway and Italy, and Thomas himself is a well established and award-winning film producer and director by now.

T: We hardly knew each other when we started; it was a belief that the two of us in combination might be interesting, better than the bands we'd played with earlier. We were more ambitious than the others.

You thought out some original band names...

T: The first alternative was Incest, meaning sex between siblings at that time, and not really alluding to pedophilia. Arvid suggested a band poster with a picture of Haakon, the crown prince, and his sister, princess Märtha Louise. I talked about the idea to Wam and Wennerød (the notorious Norwegian anarchist film directors and producers whom Thomas worked with in the 1970s and 80s). I expected them to find it amusing. Instead they gasped and thought it was the most gruesome they'd ever heard...

A: The second was Swingin' Like Niggers taken from the lyrics of the song "Showtime!", where the follow-up line is essential: 'This party is swinging like niggers from trees, The fires you've lighted is making me freeze'. There's a double understanding here. It's the same as the slightly less provocative name White Lord Jesus, when the black person in "Song For A Dark Girl" asks the White Lord Jesus, what's the use of prayer, after his lover has been lynched by a white mob. It's a very moving and anti-racist statement.

T: Strange really, that someone feels bad about that name.

A: I don't think so. All three words are very emotionally charged. White - the white man's injustice; the other words are pretty obvious. I think they still provoke. I was a bit reluctant by now to sing 'this party's swinging like niggers from trees' in combination with our band name. On the other hand I felt I had no right to censor myself at the age of 20.

The lyrics...

A: I came from a small town where I felt lost. I had to show the people there, but instead of the southern part of Norway I used the southern states of the USA in the lyrics as an allegory.

The music...

coverpic A: When a local radio station recently interviewed Thomas, the journalist asked what our music were compared to back then, and answered Nick Cave and The Birthday Party. The interviewer couldn't believe it. Nick Cave was too big a name. He is now, but it was true back in 1984. We had the energy and I had the hate and insecurity and it influenced our music. I'm still proud of it... WLJ wasn't about elitism; it was about isolation and smashing your head against the wall. It had to do with symbols to express a kind of weltschmertz, in that turbulent way that you do when you're 20 years old. It was about small chances to be heard. We tried to express something like the world isn't as easy-going as your parents, the authorities or the media want you to believe. We were a Gnostic band, meaning there's something behind what you seem to see. There's a Gnostic version of the Genesis of the Bible, when God created heaven and earth, water and air, all plants, trees and creatures. Afterwards there fell a shadow over him. So not all was that well...

T: Earlier bands I played with, I was after the catchy melodic tunes. With WLJ I tried to match Arvid. Still, I wasn't able to let go of all the catchy stuff. Today it sounds too good-natured, if you know what I mean. Back then it was a bit weird, though some were surprised we didn't sound weirder. If we'd been more cynical about it, we ought to have made the 2005-production rougher.

The image...

T: It's cool to be labelled goth pioneers now, though the term hardly existed in the mid 80s. We were also called satanists while Greven (the Count, the notorious Norwegian black metal church burner and murderer) was still in kindergarten.

A: In hindsight, we obviously were an early Scandinavian take on the classical electronic duo, such as Suicide, Soft Cell and DAF.

T: We were a bit ironic about our presence in the 80s, though it wasn't many who noticed. I used to wear a golden shirt on stage. The first time we played live some aggressive guy in the audience yelled "nazi-rock" at us after two songs... At 40, of course we have to be ironic about it. We're not the angry young men anymore.

The cassettes...

T: We made it to the LP list in the leading Norwegian music paper (Nye Takter) in the autumn 1984. The readers sent in lists of their most frequently played albums. One week the list included LPs by U2, Bruce Springsteen, Little Steven, Can Can (well-known Norwegian band), Tom Verlaine, David Sylvian, R.E.M., Simple Minds and - a cassette by White Lord Jesus... It was a kind of idealism among those hooked on the independent, more or less homemade cassette movement. Let's put cassette albums on the LP list! Two weeks later the paper made a special cassette list in addition to the single and LP lists. The cassettes were really hot for a little while and Amen stayed at no. 1 of the cassette list for the rest of the year. We got reviews in all the music papers and were taken seriously.

A: The music of the cassette movement covered most musical genres. In retrospect I think the more experimental stuff worked best. E-Man with Per Martinsen (Mental Overdrive) and Geir Jensen (Bel Canto and Biosphere), Famlende Forsøk, Autentisk Film, A Place To Pray, Ex Lex... It was a pretty amazing scene.

Dissolution
T: After we had released Amen we sent the cassette to some record companies in Norway and abroad, but didn't get a lot of response. We planned to record a single, "Song For A Dark Girl" with a string quartet and all, but we had reached a point where we needed some support. In retrospect we didn't need to split up, we could just have kept a low profile for a while.
When I started, with punk, we didn't need to know how to play, three chords were enough, you know. By 1985 I had reached a point where I felt I needed to gain more skills. I borrowed money from my father to buy an electric piano and seriously thought about taking piano lessons. Well, I didn't buy the piano and instead quit music.

T: Every time I was going to work on a film production we had to stop playing for quite some time. Arvid had a girlfriend in Switzerland and went away to visit her for a couple of months at a time. Also, I was expecting my first child and sold my beloved Korg Polysix synth and other gear to buy a pram etc. ...

A: At the time we broke up we were too underground to be written about in the tabloids. There were a limited amount of places to play. In two years we only played live 15 times and we really worked hard to secure those gigs. If we would go on we had to reach another level with help from others. We were young and impatient. I regretted it afterwards. Maybe that's the reason it didn't go too well with the musical projects I was involved in later. I never got any further than with WLJ. The contrast between my intellectual interests and literary references and Thomas' clear simple melodic tunes. What I achieved with later bands was just a pale copy of that.

T: The first time I really regretted we broke up was when Seigmen topped the national charts in 1995. If that many people bought their album Metropolis, who knows, we'd maybe have developed into something in that direction. What we were doing in 1984/85 was commonly acceptable 10 years later.

coverpic Back to the present
T: I've been working with film for many years, but my interest in music has never disappeared. Some years ago I realized if I'd ever be stranded on that desert island, I'd definitely bring along ten CDs, not 10 DVDs. If I'd have to choose between being blind or deaf, I'd be blind. Music is much more spontaneous than film.

A: There's something simple but magical about music... It really doesn't matter if it's a full orchestral piece by Bela Bartók, or a three-chord blues song by Robert Johnson. The impact it can have on people is pretty astounding.

T: My girlfriend asked me why I stopped making music. I didn't have any proper answer. She bought a synth for my 40th anniversary and it was simply a thrill! I realized how important music was in my life. I was sure I'd never enter a stage again. Now I have and it was a lot of fun! Instead of regretting the last 20 years I have to say I have 20 years of thrills ahead of me, until I die or something... If we take a break for six months it's no trouble, it's the coolest hobby there is!

A: I think the original WLJ was an interesting band, in some aspects ahead of its time, in others immature. 20 years later we have at least one ingredient to make us an interesting band, the chemistry between us, it feels relevant and good like it was back then. We still have the spark! I guess every band that make a comeback after 20 years says the same, but no matter...

T: When we talked with Jens Petter Wiig (who released WLJ's CD on his Kong Tiki Records, ex-member of the punk bands Angor Wat and Israelvis and ex Progress Records) he suggested a short release-gig. I was completely dismissive. I hadn't played at all for nearly 20 years and couldn't remember anything, I thought, apart from the chords of "Back In Mary's Room" and "Song For A Dark Girl". Eventually it was kind of riding a bike, quite easy to get into again. It was enjoyable and then we started to put together more new songs. And it was also as easy as when we were 20 years old.

T: We had an unannounced comeback on stage at a party last summer. We performed four songs and had only rehearsed together for 30 minutes, at the sound-check. We had practiced a bit on our own in advance, not much, though. We started to rehearse more seriously afterwards, for the real reunion comeback. And quickly new songs popped up... I don't think it will be a problem to fill an album of ten new WLJ originals. The album will be finished as soon as we have 40 minutes of excellent songs. The only problem is time. WLJ is purely a hobby project in between other hectic doings.

A: The release party a few weeks ago was a different affair. We were among friends and there were no-one and nothing to be hostile against: Unfortunately Håkon Moslet wasn't present (in charge of the national youth radio in Norway, P3, who has commercialised and ruined the channel's musical profile)... I didn't know we still had that many friends. We broke the attendance record at Mono for a Monday night, which felt pretty good.

T: One bizarre matter: we do a comeback on stage after 20 years and the gig lasts longer than ever. Earlier we used to share the stage with other bands.

A: I'm very pleased with the reactions we've received concerning both the gig and the album from people who made it after we quit the scene; Per Martinsen (Mental Overdrive), Lise Myhre (creator of the cartoon series about the goth girl Nemi), Gothminister (Norway's premium goth industrial act at the moment), John Erik Kaada (Cloroform and collaborations with Mike Patton of Faith No More etc.), Unni Løvlid (highly respected performer of traditional Norwegian vocal music)... Maja Ratkje, who's an amazing noise artist, perfomer and composer of art music, played our record repeatedly, and loved the creepy 1980s feel... Also, we got a very nice reaction from the 22 year old girl who filmed us during the release party: 'You're 40 year olds who don't try to hide that fact.' The reviews have been pretty good as well, including the biggest tabloids. The only bad reactions so far was in a review in a student paper in Stavanger where they described us as a mixture of Marilyn Manson (who released his first record in 1994) and Pet Shop Boys (their first single arrived in 1985 just after WLJ split), and still concluded that our music should've remained forgotten in the 80s...

T: When I was about 20 years old I felt very happy and content. When I told Arvid he thought I was either lying or fuckin' clever at self-deception. I have gained some more life experience since then and don't feel as happy any more, whereas Arvid is probably more content and balanced by now. Also I was very politically correct in the old days (antiracism, animal aid, vegetarianism etc.). Arvid felt it didn't quite fit the band; it was too obvious. By now I guess we've evened out in that manner, too. Though we're still not a political band. There'll probably not be any more lyrical phrases like 'Swinging like niggers...'.

A: Or maybe we ought to, to show the beast still has teeth.

T: I've written a song for my solo-album called "Nelson Mandela Is Free". It will never fit with WLJ... The lyrics are personal, not political.

T: Arvid thought of dedicating "Winter Song" to our girlfriends at the release party because it was a new WLJ song. He didn't think about the lyrics: 'There's nothing anymore. ... I touch your precious body and I've never felt so poor'. Well, we had to dedicate some other song...

A: The lyrics of "Winter Song" was written in 1985, maybe they were about the breaking up of WLJ. The last nail in the coffin (or the cross)...

T: Nowadays it's loops and lots of sounds and instruments to choose. It's a challenge to keep the music simple. Most of our good songs only had two or three chords. Even simpler than punk, really. We ought to keep it that way. It shouldn't be a problem, though. I'm not a skilled musician and will never be, we have to keep it simple. You might loose some creative powers if you're too clever to play your instrument. I cannot sit down by the piano and play anything but our own tunes. I thought that was my only possible approach when I played in punk bands. By 1985 I thought I needed more skills to develop any further. Now I'm back to the old punk ethos.

The future
T: We've written two new songs with new lyrics and are on the trail again! Three new songs are singled out for a forthcoming new album so far and we have a possible fourth candidate. A new album will probably not be finished until 2007. We'll have several guest musicians on the next album, too, like Amen. There are lots of people we want to include. Maybe even a string ensemble, or why not a symphony orchestra?

A: I bought an album the other day by The Seeds, from 1967 called Future, their too quick response to Sgt. Pepper. It's a concept album with fantastic songs. If we go for an easy solution we can record the entire Future.

T: "Sebastian" by Steve Harley's Cockney Rebel is another favourite we ought to record our own version of.

A: People usually link us to Nick Cave, Virgin Prunes and DAF and those hip underground artists of the early 1980s. That's perfectly fine, but in truth we were probably just as inspired by older artists: Steve Harley, Bowie and Alice Cooper.

T: The next WLJ events will be a gig in Oslo in January and one in Arendal in February. Also, Trygve Mathiesen and I plan to release a 'Best of the Norwegian cassette movement' as a double CD next year. Trygve was the director of another cassette company, Likvidér (meaning Liquidate...), in the 1980s and leader of Ym-stammen (The Ym-tribe, another well-known cassette band that kept going and made it onto vinyl and CD in the late 80s and 90s). Trygve wants to bring the Tribe back to life, too, and suggests a new Yin-Yang tour with us like the one we had in 1984.

A: Over my dead body!
I used to be known for being arrogant in interviews in the old heydays. I'd like to finish in that manner. It's nice to be back and be well received. But it kind of makes me wonder what's happened in between...

At the very end let's include one of the arrogant Tristan Christ's newly written lyrics that hopefully will be featured on the next WLJ album. Melody by Gold Shirt Tognazzi.

ENIGMA
The Enigma of The Sphinx
It speaks of age and of loss
And in the very scheme of things
How fitting that's of us

The good ship Mary, named Celeste
Held its enigma too
And in it's ghost-like loneliness
A mirror still holds you

So is then, so must it be:
Of mirrors, and of ships
And if the desert mirrors me
There's the ocean of your lips.

Copyright © 2005 JP e-mail address

Copyright © photos: Agnete Brun, Åshild Kolås (the long ones) & Ann Iren Ødeby

You may also want to check out our White Lord Jesus articles/reviews: ...Into That Good Night, White Lord Jesus.

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