Monika Roscher Bigband – I Like It If I Can Surprise Myself
And now for something completely different. German guitarist, singer, writer and arranger MONIKA ROSCHER leads her own Big Band (of course it’s called MONIKA ROSCHER BIGBAND) and does some incredibly unique music on her first album “Failure in Wonderland”, which is out on the famous german jazzlabel enja. It’s some kind of modern Big Band Jazz – think of how Carla Bley and Charles Mingus mixed jazz with rocking Gospel, R&B, folkloristic tunes and Avant-Garde free form jazz – and it’s experimental indie pop, mixed with electronic beats, a lush singing voice and incredibly furious guitar solos. Read the interview with Monika and listen to the whole album down below. Don’t miss the guitar solos – their rare, but don’t leave this page without bleeding ears!
On your record there is a wild mixture of jazz, indie pop, rock and many other elements. How would you describe your music yourself?
I really don’t know what kind of music this is. The first time we played live I talked about it to my brother, who is my bass player – we put a long list of phrases together to describe the music – and at the end we said we leave that categorization to the people who know more about it. But at the time of our first concert we wrote “brute and tender avantgarde jazz / indie rock” or something like that – the contrast between the brutal and tender side of the music fits it quite well. But it is quite difficult!
In the beginning when people asked me what kind of sound I was playing with my Big Band I had to keep telling them “it’s not swing!” People kept thinking it’s a Swing-Big Band. “Experimentally” is the better term.
And how did you come up with this mix? I was immediately thinking of the Carla Bley Big Band and Charles Mingus in terms of the modern Big Band Jazz that’s part of your music mixture – are these musicians who have influenced you on the jazzy side of your music?
You’re absolutely right on that matter, apparently… but I’ve started composing without really knowing Carla Bley and Charles Mingus. I knew the names, but had not yet heard their music. When I played “Failure in Wonderland” and “Die Parade” – my first pieces – to my teacher he said the same as you: “You have to listen to Carla Bley!” I liked it immediately when I heard it the first time. Perhaps we are kind of similar characters. I don’t know her at all, but maybe I would like her. I immediately had the feeling to have a good access to her music.
How do you compose your music – do you start with a song and arrange it then for the Big Band? I often hear a more linear structure of the songs – there a lot of different parts with different moods in one song.
At the very beginning I usually feel a kind of urge that something has to get out of me. It’s rare that I sit down and say, “now I write a song”! I feel more driven a bit, which sometimes almost makes me feel uncomfortable. It often starts with a little melody, only a small little thing. And then it’s kind of liberating when I finally get the feeling “so this is the melody that had to get out”! And from there on the melody slowly starts unfolding… Sometimes it is a vocal part that I start with, sometimes an instrumental melody. I keep feeling the melody and I hear the instruments, “these are trombones, here I can imagine flutes playing”… I hear the individual instruments and finally it works out all together. Difficult to describe.
To me this rather linear structure often sounds like a soundtrack or a story – do you have images or stories in your mind to your songs that lead to the different, often contradiciting parts of a composition?
Yes, all the time while I write the music images emerge in my head. For example, in “Irrlicht” I had the same images in my head the whole time and it evolved into a little story.
It’s a song about a will-o’-the-wisp, sometimes from the perspective of the wisp, represented by the little piano melody. I imagined this wisp has a lot of fun to lead wanderers astray in the woods, fly around, light here and there, play hide and seek, almost like a fun game. But on the side of the lost wanderer it’s a game on life and death
Lyrically, the song refers to the wisp of modern information world, the internet. At first you know where you are on the internet, knowing the way, then you surf around aimlessly, following the next “light” and suddenly you forget where you really wanted to go. You might get lost, and quite possibly you loose yourself. And when it turns totally wrong you awake after a few years thinking “what I’ve done in the past years? Didn’t I want to feel alive and experience real things, meet people and really get to know them instead of looking at their words and pictures?”
And just in the middle section of my song, just before the drum’n'bass / distorted trumpet solo, there is this scene of liberation where the pure voice breaks in, filled with the urge to break free. I have nothing against progress, but I just hope that we do not loose what makes us human beings. We are no machines or machine operators but complex, emotionally human beings! Hungry for new experiences, and we can’t afford to deaden our feelings. This kind of little stories often come up later, rarely while writing. At the end I can see what kind of a story the music tells me.
I feel bored quite quickly if a part is too long in the song. I like abrupt changes, I like it if you get surprised – if I can surprise myself or am suprised when I hear music. I try to be aware of that – I think it is more exciting for the listener!
Yes, I think that’s very apparent in your music, there are some parts where you suddenly break in with a guitar solo…
Exactly, on “Future 3″ it’s so crass… but somehow that just happened. I kind of thought “it’s too quiet, we need a different energy here, let’s go full throttle!!” And after a bit of trying it worked out.
So that is kind of rock energy?
Yes, I’d say.
So there are moments in your music where jazz is not enough for you and you have to draw elements from pop and rock music, or vice versa? What differences do you see between these two styles, why do you need bring them both together?
On the one hand I like simple, beautiful melodies a lot. I listen to all kinds of music -pop, rock, jazz… But I know that I get bored easily – if I just hear pop after a while I think “now I need something totally different” – like John Zorn and Mars Volta for example. I like Mars Volta a lot because they are catchy and on the other hand TOTALLY CRAZY. I like the attitude. And John Zorn is avant-garde jazz with a lot of rock energy, I like this energy a lot. So I think my own musical mixture works out very well… but there is no real concept behind it.
Yes, I can imagine that you can not really plan this- that happens during the process of creating the music?
Yes, I can only watch what happens and at the end I say, “ha, so this is how the song sounds now, all right!”
Another difference to pop and jazz: you are also singing on a few songs. You’re not a jazz singer, it’s more indiepop singing. You don’t care about perfect singing, right? Perfectionism is not so important?
No, not at all. For example I am not at all into soul singing where the singers really can SING. It is cool, but I guess it wouldn’t fit with my music. I can only do what I can. This of course is actually a stylistic question. I sing this way because I think I can do it only this way and it fits. But of course I’m not a jazz singer. Actually I do sing jazz standards sometimes, but in my own style.
You have composed and arranged the music, you are the singer, band leader and guitarist – what role do you see yourself in primarily?
The biggest challenge is to be also the “organizer”! At the moment this is the hardest part, it’s incredible. Now I know why some have asked me “why are you doing a Big Band, it is really hard to manage!” I realize now just what that means – I have to call 18 people or check 18 mails, organize subs and so on. So at the moment I feel more as a manager…
But in terms of music, let me describe the process: I sit at home and work out the music. I notate it and send it to all musicians, see what feedback I get, whether it fits and is playable. And then the music has to be rehearsed – in the first rehearsals I don’t play or sing myself at all, so that the band understands where to go. Then I take it all back home, think to myself “oh god I have to rewrite everything” … and at the end I maybe say “OK, and in THIS party I play guitar!”
There is no big focus on your vocals and your guitar on the album – you don’t see yourself as the front woman, the lead guitarist and vocalist?
No, when you have 18 people playing your music and you play guitar solos and sing in every song…
Others get away with that!
Well I don’t know – especially in this band there are so many gifted musicians who play so damn well! They are great soloists, it always knocks me out what they make out of my music. I definitely want that to come off also. I have some new ideas for a drum and a trombone solo – there doesn’t need to be another guitar solo in every song. I’m happy about the fact that the band can be alive with my music. I don’t need 20 guitar solos and sing all the time…
But you’re right, I’m thinking more about the composition, and sometimes the guitar fits, sometimes not. Probably composition for me is actually the most important part.
Are you coming from big band jazz – standard jazz musician’s career is like studying music and learning in a jazz Big Band? Do you play in other bands?
No. Of course I have played in the University Big Band sometimes but that was more the Count Basie stuff – simple guitar strumming. In Big Band jazz the guitar is rarely important. Of course there are also modern big band pieces with distorted guitars e.g. by Maria Schneider.
I often play with my brother as a duo and sometimes I play alone as a singer / songwriter with german lyrics. Something fascinates me about this small simple lineup. It’s the exact opposite of the big band – you have to come to the point and say what you want only with your voice and one guitar, that’s very exciting. And I still have a band called “Gordon Gunpowder” with friends from the past – we rehearse or rather jam everytime we meet again once in a while. It is always great with the boys, because we have a similar musical vision, which is more funky and electronic. I write quite a lot of music, and also want to write more, because it simply is fun.
Will we see you on tour? Or are there plans to play your music with a smaller ensemble?
Yeah, well, I plan touring for about two months now… my idea was – cool, now we have the album out so we’re going on tour! We played a lot in Bavaria, in Munich and Nuremberg I was like “now we go and see Berlin!” Everyone in the band was excited about it, but you call the clubs and get offers making you dizzy…
You do the booking by yourself?
Exactly, I do everything. Financially, touring with a Big Band is hardly manageable. I want to make sure that we somehow get to zero at the end financially – if I pay a bit extra, it’s also ok. I hope we play some festivals next year… I realize how really difficult it is for a big band, it’s also difficult to find a booking agency that wants to book a Big Band! I realize more and more what people mean when they say “you really saddled yourself with this Big Band”!
But you have no plans to play your album with a smaller band?
I have thought about it already but somehow we have to try this first. Until now all my musicians are still with the band, even if we don’t earn anything with the music. I hope for a few bookings and sponsors. If at some point I want to do a smaller band – you never know, maybe, but on the other I think: it’s really really cool to experience a live big band, it’s really fun! So only the financial problem remains – you can’t do that forever, I guess. It works only when you’re young and really want to do it!
Please name us a few of your favorite bands or musicians that have inspired you!
Mars Volta: The Bedlam in Goliath
What I like changes constantly… But I love Mars Volta a lot! I went to a concert that blew me away completely!
I just listen to the New York underground punk band Zs. It’s Punk in a different, funny way.
Jeff Beck: Blast from the East
Technically I like Jeff Becks playing. On “Blast form the East,” he plays very modern.
I also like John Zorn a lot. At the moment, I also hear a lot of Hermeto Pascoal, but also classical music: Shostakovich, Gustav Mahler.
THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!
Listen to the whole album “Failure in Wonderland” by the MONIKA ROSCHER BIGBAND down here:
Photos: Daniel Delang, Juan Martin Koch