Name: Torstein Lofthus
Current Release: As part of Red Kite, a quartet with Bernt A Moen, Trond Frønes, and Even Helte Hermansen, Torstein Lofthus has just released Apophenian Bliss available via Rarenoise.
He is also a member of experimental fusion group Elephant9, who published their latest full-length Arrival of the Elders in 2021 on Rune Grammofon.
[Read our Bernt A Moen interview]
[Read our Trond Frønes interview]
[Read our Even Helte Hermansen interview]
If you enjoyed this interview with Torstein Lofthus, visit him on Facebook.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I do not write any music nowadays, and I haven’t done it since I was a kid. But when I was between 12 and 16 I played a lot of guitar in addition to drumming, and then I wrote tunes. Mostly quasi-jazz kind of things. Absolutely nothing to brag about, but it occupied a lot of my time. More than drumming actually.
Then at around 16 it came to a point where I had to get serious about studying the guitar if I wanted to develop in the direction I wanted. As the same insight manifested itself in my drumming, I chose the drums and never looked back. Sometimes I wish I had continued with the writing though, but maybe one day …
My early musical influences: It started with some cassette-tapes of traditional jazz lying around the house. I guess I was around 4 or 5 years old when I started listening constantly to those. After a while my parents got tired and bought me a headset ... Then I discovered Kiss when I was about 7 I guess, and that was like magic. Rock´n`Roll superheroes! Then after a while I discovered Kiss` heroes, namely Led Zeppelin and other great acts from the late sixties and seventies. I bought a lot of records with Zeppelin, Deep purple, Jimi Hendrix etc … I loved (still do) 70´s hard rock.
Then at 13 I discovered jazz when I got some cassette tapes of Miles Davis, Return to Forever, Jan Garbarek/Keith Jarrett etc. From then on it was just jazz, and I regrettably sold all my hard rock records, both out of monetary necessity and elitism. At around 17 I finally succumbed to pop music, and the jazz-snobbery faded a bit. From around 21 or so it's all just a mix, so as a grownup I listen to everything and I have bought all my hard rock records back.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
My most important practice has been playing to records. Not strictly copying, but more so using them as a reference. Playing in the style of the drummer on the actual record. Mostly pop oriented music with a strong groove.
When I started studying I just wanted to play pop music and have a good time, but I noticed that everyone was talking about finding their own style. That bugged me a bit, because I didn’t want to search for my own style, I just wanted to play what I liked. I talked to my teacher at the time, Jarle Vespestad, and he told me an important thing: Do not search for your own style. Just listen and play what you like, and the style will come to you. I find that to be an absolute true statement. Anyway it worked for me, and got me out of the habit of thinking that I had to be so special.
I think my style has manifested itself through the years, though it is still developing.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
They are interwoven on a level that you can not separate them. My identity isn’t intellectually based, and creativity is a result of a state of flow most often attained in a playing situation with other people. But the groundwork for the creative flow is based on intellectual activity.
I think about playing and music very often. But in the playing situation I try to let it go.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The main creative challenge in the beginning is the fear of what others might think of your contribution. That can really kill the creative vibe. When you grow older you have less fear and more confidence in yourself. This comes from both musical experience and life experience.
And to be clear about this, the confidence does not come from a conviction of being a good musician, but being more confident in who you are as a person, and the insight that life is about more than music. I still suﬀer from the imposter syndrome, but not in a way that kills my creativity or my joy of playing music.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for diﬀerent tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
If we start from the beginning, I remember having a double cassette deck and a cheap toy microphone. I recorded a drum track with the microphone lying on a table next to the drum set. Then I played the drum track from deck A, and stuck the mike inside the resonant hole of my acoustic guitar, recording both tracks at deck B. Then I recorded some bass and synth from a toy synthesizer on top of that, moving back and forth between deck A and B. That was the start, and unnecessary to mention it sounded like shit.
I am sorry to say that this, at 11 years old, was my peak at home-studio recording and explorations in the jungle of studio-equipment. It has been a steep downhill slope ever after.
Drumset has been - and will always be - my main tool of expression.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
The two last ones. Researching and jamming, exploring new ideas as a band. And talking about ideas and music with other people. But the jamming is my number one trigger of creativity.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
It varies a bit if I am working or not.
If I am at home, in Oslo, I wake up at around 0600 or 0630. I take my kids to school, and if I am working in Oslo in a studio or rehearsal somewhere I go there. I try to finnish my engagements so I can have dinner with my family at ca 5.30 PM. Then I hang with my family until the oldest kid is in bed around 9 PM. After that I watch some TV or hang a bit in the basement, playing some drums or learning tunes for next days work if there is such.
If I am not working, I go to sleep after delivering’ my kids at school, then proceed to do some long awaited paperwork or daily chores.
If I am on tour my day consists of sleeping, reading, listening to music or podcasts, soundcheck, maybe some pad practice / warm up while watching YouTube, and then a concert.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
No special breaktrough. I remember some special concerts though, when we presented something unusual for the time being with an exceptional response from the audience.
Two such cases that comes to mind are the first concert when Shining went from being a Coltrane-influenced jazz band to an electrical prog-jazz unit. No one expected it, and the response was overwhelming.
Another one would be the first official concert with Elephant9 at NattJazz in Bergen 2006. Also an overwhelming experience both for the band and the audience it seemed.
[Read our interview with Ståle Storløkken of Elephant9]
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The ideal state of mind is the state of flow. You concentrate, but you are not. Noncentrate might be a good word. You’re just there being a vessel for some kind of muse.
What supports the state of flow is: Being in good shape playing-wise, having some concerts under your belt and not being in a process of practicing. Being in a process of practicing and exploring new territory on an intellectual level might make it difficult to forget these things in the playing situation. You have to be free from distractions like these, and just let the music flow trough you.
What distracts the state of flow is usually being too self aware. Bad instruments, sound and listening conditions doesn’t help either. Being too determined to deliver your best might also be an obstacle.
On the other hand some of the best concerts can take place after a rough travel day with no soundcheck etc ...
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Music can be healing both on a personal level and a macro level by bringing people from different cultures and environments together. People feel connected by something that is bigger than themselves.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I have no thoughts on that matter. I think most people have good intentions with their art.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between diﬀerent senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
If you are referring to synesthesia, I do not have any experience with that. But music can conjure up memories just like smells and tastes can.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I am only in it for the money…
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Difficult to answer in words, as the question implies.
To me, music is about wordless communication and conveying of emotions in a more effective way than words. I have a recent example from an evening when my 10 year old daughter played flute and I played guitar. We improvised together, and got into a state of flow where we connected on a level which made us both laugh with joy. This is the same experience I am looking for when I play with my peers, but of course it is stronger when it happens with your own child.
I felt we expressed love and respect for each other without words, which is also the case when a band connects internally or a band connects with an audience.