Name: Johan Berthling
Nationality: Swedish
Occupation: Bassist, multi-instrumentalist, improviser
Current release: Johan Berthling teams up with Oren Ambarchi, and Andreas Werliin on Ghosted, out now via Drag City.

Over the course of his career, Johan Berthling has worked with a wide range of musicians, including Mats Gustafsson, Mette Rasmussen, Jim O’Rourke, Alexander Zethson, and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten.

[Read our Oren Ambarchi interview]
[Read our Mats Gustafsson interview]
[Read our Mette Rasmussen interview]
[Read our Jim O’Rourke interview]
[Read our Alexander Zethson interview]
[Read our Ingebrigt Håker Flaten interview]

If these thoughts by Johan Berthling piqued your interest, visit his official website.  

When did you first start getting interested in musical improvisation?  

I've always been interested in making my own music I think and that leads to a lot of improvisation and trying out.

Listening to records when I was very young affected me a lot, we often gathered together and played LPs for each others, taping them etc. Might sound odd today! This was a very important way into the music and listening, something happens when you listen together.

Hearing my relatives play instruments also made deep impressions and I remember deciding on trying the musician´s path quite young.

Which artists, approaches, albums or performances involving prominent use of improvisation captured your imagination in the beginning?

I have strong memories of standing in front of the LP player with headphones on, listening to vinyl when I was just a few years old. A couple of LPs with Swedish music stand out - Peps Persson - ”Hög standard” and Georg Wadenius - ”Goda goda”. The previous by a Swedish legendary artist who made his own brand of reggae. Fantastic album with a sound unlike many albums at that time. Especially the bass, drum and keyboard sounds affected me a lot.

”Goda goda” is a children´s record but in many ways not. The music is not customized for children and grooves like hell. Wadenius came to prominence as a member of Blood, Sweat and Tears and working with Swedish artist Pugh as well as many others. Totally ripping guitarist and bassist!

Focusing on improvisation can be an incisive transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?

I´ve more or less always been drawn to stuff that lies outside the mainstream. I don´t know why, but not being or doing the same as everyone else has sure been a motivation.

For me improvising is a tool, not the end. I want all bands and projects I´m involved in to find their own language and voice, whether it is improvised or not doesn't really matter. I like it to be clear what we do together, so it's vital to shave away unnecessary stuff so the bare bones of the music get more visible.

One could certainly say I´m a bit conceptual in that sense and I don´t mind.

How would you describe the shift of moving towards an improvisation based practise, both as a listener and a creator?

The prospect of making your own music has always been more tempting than doing that of others. So when I had the chance to choose my direction at school I went for jazz studies.

After 2 years at conservatory I dropped out mainly because I got offered work as a bass player but also because I was slightly disappointed with the teaching. Although I have to admit that teaching about the non-technical side of music is like teaching about something disappearing in the air, like smoke. Very hard. The few times I´ve done it have been exhausting.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to improvisation? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage?

No improvisation is free for me, it´s all about your material and knowledge of your instrument. Putting your sound and ideas in interesting combinations and then trying to compose in real time.
I work in two groups that work a lot with repetition; Fire!, Fire! Orchestra, and Time is a Mountain. For me repetition is a key foundation in much of the music I love, whether it´s ethnic, rock or electronic. Played repetition will never be exactly the same which makes it interesting enough to listen to for extended time I think.

In Fire! (with Mats Gustafsson and Andreas Werliin) repeated riffs have been there from the start and we build most of our music on that. It´s a common ground for the three of us and something that can be used to play against. Conceptual you might call it, I won´t disagree.    

Some groups I´m active in work more with sheets of sound - the trio Arashi, with Japanese sax player and vocalist Akira Sakata and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, for example, which I would file under free jazz with frenetic saxophone as well as very active bass and drums although much of what we do can´t be classified as being typical free jazz. It´s more of a flow of ideas flying by at breakneck speed, and the communication has, after years of working together, come to a point were it´s almost subliminal.

Being aware of history is a key part for me, I feel strongly that I´m part of a lineage but it´s very important not getting stuck there and thinking too much about it. If you do, I feel you´re doomed to repeat the past.

Let´s say I´m always sceptical towards musicians declaring they don´t listen to records.

What was your own learning curve / creative development like when it comes to improvisation - what were challenges and breakthroughs?

A breakthrough for me was realizing I could get out of the jazz idiom and start improvising much more freely right at the moment when I met the three members of Swedish improvising trio Gush - Mats Gustafsson, Sten Sandell and Raymond Strid around -97. l got thrown in the heat almost immediately and got many opportunities to play with great musicians. This is of course the best way to learn - by doing and listening. Keeping your ground at the same time as listening closely and react to what other´s are doing but more in a subliminal way.

The environment around the free improvised music scene in Stockholm at that time was very inviting and soon I was playing with all the three above and others in different contexts and that made me grow a lot as a musician.

Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?  

I bought my double bass, a German one from the late 1800s almost 30 years ago. So it´s followed me around a lot and I feel more or less as one with it.

Wood is a living material so sometimes the set up changes and the bass takes some time to ”start up”. The bass in itself has a particular sound but also the gut strings made of sheep gut I use since some years now affect the sound a lot too and makes it very dynamic. An old idea is that the string is the most important and the instrument is just the carrier. I´m not completely sure about that, but I think it gets forgotten a lot and if you just use generic strings you should be aware of other possibilities.

Going into electric instruments - contrary to some believes, amps, instruments etc. have a strong influence on the performance. At least for me. It can be hard to describe to someone who isn't part of this world, and is  sometimes hard to exactly pinpoint, but for me it´s all about finding a sound that´s ”three-dimensional” for lack of better words. Some amps sound very flat and aren´t appealing to the ear, nor do they work well in combination with other instruments.

Instruments and amps for sure influence the performance, and sometimes in ways you couldn´t think of.     

Can you talk about a work, event or performance in your career that's particularly dear to you? 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?

Concerts are mostly a process to me. I like performing a lot but don´t see it as something finished. Recordings are different, especially those that don´t just document a performance.

Two that stick out (at the moment) are the duo album with Oren Ambarchi ”Tongue Tied” as well as Tape´s ”Luminarium”. The first stemmed from an idea of making an album where we played all instruments, two sidelong tracks that felt like going through a landscape with different events happening as you travelled along. Quite a lot of time was spent editing it all together and some parts of it touched vaguely on favorite albums for me – such as as Talk Talk´s ”Laughing Stock” for example.

Tape´s Luminarium (a group where I mostly play guitar) was the first record done in our newly built studio in 2006 and was created in a flurry of experimentation and creativity. We tried a lot of different new ideas. In many ways we didn´t know what we did and that made it sound fresh. For me it stands out among our records because the music isn´t ready yet and still trying to find its way.   

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your collaborations? Do you feel as though you are able to express yourself more fully in solo mode or, conversely, through the interaction with other musicians? Are you “gaining” or “sacrificing” something in a collaboration?

For me music has aways been a collaborative experience. We make the music together in a room whether it´s a record or a live performance. Of course (I´m a bass player) I´ve done a lot of work where I play the role of a small cog in a big machinery and have been pleased with that in many
cases, backing singers, theatre plays etc. Doing music also as a craft has been something I´ve done a lot and it also lies deep within me, but it´s also been important that I`m there for my own sake, not just filling the bass position.

In the last ten years or so, I´ve been really lucky to be able to focus almost entirely on my own groups and groups where I feel I have a possibility to affect the music a lot. It´s really a great feeling.  

Up until last year I hadn´t really dived into making a solo - solo record. Finally I have my first one, ”Björnhorn, out now in May 2022 thanks to Swedish label Thanatosis and producer Alex Zethson.

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?

Music that doesn´t take the space into account, where you instead try to do the same stuff every night, for sure is not that interesting to me. I´ve certainly gotten better at adjusting my ears, sound and playing to a venue.