Monday, July 16, 2012

An Interview With Erlend Viken

Back in March I had the pleasure of interviewing Norwegian fiddler Erlend Viken of Earlybird Stringband for our "Norway to Nashville" feature in Viking's July issue. While a student at Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, Viken began playing American folk music with classmates, and the Earlybird Stringband was born. Since 2005, the group has released two albums, both of which have been nominated for the spellemannsprisen (Norway's grammy equivalent). While Viken is quoted in our July article, there was a lot more to that conversation that didn't find its way into the story. Here are Viken's thoughts on bluegrass, old-time, Norwegian folk music influences and more.

Viking: Did the Earlybird Stringband meet in music school?
Erlend Viken: Yeah, in music academy…. Me and Olav Christer [Rossebø], he plays mandolin in the band, we studied folk music at the academy, and the others studied jazz. So we talked about just coming together and starting a bluegrass band because the vocalist Hanz Martin [Austestad], he bought a banjo, and Christian [Skaugen], he’s actually a drummer, he bought a dobro. We wanted to start a band to have fun, not a serious thing. So we did.

V: You’ve listened to American folk for a long time. What were your early influences?
EV: Before I started playing bluegrass, I had played some old-time for some years. I heard this recording with Bruce Molsky. So that was the first time I was interested in old-time music.

V: How prevalent is American old-time music in Norway? 
EV: Bluegrass has wide appeal. I guess old-time is also pretty popular. There’s quite a lot of bluegrass bands in Norway. Maybe some because of “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”

V: Was there a surge in popularity after that movie?
EV: Yeah. And of course “Deliverance.”

V: Did you and your group learn mainly by listening to recordings?
EV: Yeah, we did. We studied old recordings and how they played together, how they used the instruments. And what functions the different instruments had. We figured out how to play with all these instruments together and make it sound good. So we played all these old songs, and then we started making our own, and composing our own songs.

V: Is there anything Norwegian you bring to the sound? 
EV: Yeah. I’ve got comments that people think that it’s cool that our band, because we are also Norwegian folk musicians, several of us, they say they hear the Norwegian folk music also in our band.

V: What do you think they hear?
EV: It’s small details here and there. When I play, you can hear a certain trill in a certain way that they maybe don’t do here. And small details, for example in our fiddle playing—that is very Norwegian.

V: Have you had the opportunity to play here in the bluegrass tradition or old-time tradition?
EV: Yeah, I’ve had some jam sessions with some old-time musicians. But I haven’t played it in concerts.

V: Do people ever wonder why you play American music?
EV: I guess I have gotten questions, but not often because American culture is very deep in Europe, maybe especially in Norway. … I know friends who play many different styles, and so I think with my generation it’s usual to learn different types of music from different countries.

V: Are there challenges to playing bluegrass or playing a tradition you didn’t grow up with?
EV: Yes, you know Norwegian folk music—I grew up with it. I have that under my skin. But bluegrass, it’s a lot of different challenges. Like improvising, that was very new to me.

V: And that’s a big part of the tradition, isn’t it?
EV: Yeah, you don’t have to improvise, but it’s a big part of the bluegrass style. And of course, they use some other trills and some other styles, more improvisation. That is something I still work with and I don’t feel like I have the bluegrass style under my skin like I have the Norwegian style.

V: Did you know the music before you came to the states?
EV: I knew the music before I came here the first time, yeah.

V: Do you feel like having studied the music changed your impression or your feeling about the states? 
EV: Yeah, I think so yeah. I feel like I know the culture better. … When I’ve worked close with some music, for me then the country feels closer.

Amy Boxrud is editor of Viking magazine. She lives with her family in Northfield, Minn., where she’s a member of Nordmarka 1-585. 

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