Note: I caught up with the band backstage, after a morning workshop, while they were still milling about in a collective post performance stupor (an occupational hazard precipitated by road weary touring). Having just played an early morning workshop, (after yet another late night jam at the after hours party) and still groggy with sleep deprivation and hunger, they nevertheless kindly consented to this brief interview. And showing a strong team sense, troopers that they are, all members were present. The band includes: Rasmus Zeeberg (guitar, mandolin); Steffan Sorensen (double-bass, fiddle); Christopher Davis Maack (fiddle); Andreas Tophoj Rasmussen (fiddle, vocals); and Sine Lauritsen (vocals).
MacEachern: Let's begin at the beginning: how did you meet and start playing as a band?
Christopher: Well, Steffan and I have been playing together for, oh, I guess it must be fifteen years now. And then Steffan met Rasmus, in 1994, and then we started playing together.
Rasmus: Yeah, Steffan and I were going to the same music school -a pre-school for the music academy- and that's where we started playing together.
MacEachern: So you've had some formal music education and training?
Steffan: Yeah, we've all had music training. And when we were at the academy, we started playing as a trio; (gesturing toward Rasmus and Christopher) and playing for different kinds of markets.
Christopher: Yeah, that's about ten years ago now; we're getting old, you see! (Laughs.)
MacEachern: And when did you decide to record your first CD together?
Rasmus: Well, we were together some years -about six years- before we were ready to make a CD; and then we recorded it in a couple of days (chuckles). That was about four years ago.
MacEachern: Well, rushed though it was, the CD is sparkling with instrumental brilliance. And proof of that is the attention it generated on release; didn't it win some awards?
Rasmus: Yes; and Harald Haugaard helped us with that recording, so we were in good hands.
MacEachern: Yes, he's a wizard on the violin, a very inspired player; and no doubt a very positive influence. Okay, so after the trio CD, your group expanded; who joined next?
Sine: So then I joined them on a tour to Serbia in 2001. They had a war there, and we went just to help with cultural... in aid of peace, you see?
MacEachern: Yes; someone once said: "Music has charms to soothe a savage breast." So, as ambassadors of music you were bringing the language of peace?
Sine: Something like that.
MacEachern: Okay. (Turning to Andreas.) And how did you come to join this band?
Andreas: Well, I knew these guys from earlier on, taking courses together, and so on. Denmark, it's a small country -a small music community- so we all knew each other from before. You know? But in 2002 Christopher went to Ireland -to Donegal- to learn some of the fiddle styles there. And when he came back they decided to go with two fiddles. So then they had this other guy, doubling the fiddle parts; but he started getting busier with other stuff -playing classical music- and that's when I started. I became the stand-in; so they could keep the two fiddle sound. But then, that first year I joined them -2003- we only played two gigs that whole year! (Laughs.)
Rasmus: Yeah. (Chuckles.) But after that summer, we kind of decided that everything went so well with Andreas that we wanted to keep him.
Steffan: Yeah, but then we had to make new posters, you know; because we had to decide if we were going to use the old photos for cheap, or, pay to get new ones made with Andreas in it; (laughs) the guy that actually played the jobs! So, it was time to make a little change; and that's when we came together, as we are now, five of us.
MacEachern: So when I first saw you, two years ago, you were just beginning as the band we see now?
Christopher: No, actually, Andreas was still a stand-in then; but not officially in the band, yet. We were still auditioning him (laughs).
Rasmus: Yeah; well, we were pretty close by then; but after that we pretty much became this line-up.
Andreas: Yeah; I didn't become "official" until we had the photos taken. (Laughs.) And after we had the photos, the new posters said something like: 'This is the new fiddler'. So after that I was in the band officially.
MacEachern: Okay. Now, you're just finishing your Canadian tour; so where did you start?
Rasmus: In, a, Canso, Nova Scotia; at the 'Stan Fest', the Stan Rogers Festival. Yeah, that was great. And from there we went to New Brunswick, Saint Andrew's; and from there we went to Manitoba, to the Winnipeg Festival. And then we went to Alberta where we played at the Edmonton Festival.
MacEachern: Are you playing only the festival circuit; or are there any concerts as well?
Rasmus: A, festivals during the weekends, and a, concerts during the week days.
MacEachern: Now, the other night, at your Rogue Folk Club concert, you mentioned that you're planning to record a new CD sometime in the Fall; tell me about that.
Andreas: Well, we've been talking about it for some time now...
MacEachern: If I may add, you've been talking 'too long' (laughs). It's been two years since your last CD 'Tusind Tanker' -two years too long- so you're way overdue!
Andreas: (Laughs.) Yeah, well, we finally decided we've got to do something about it. You see, we've been writing all this time -we've all made some new material; stuff that could go on a CD- but, a, we need a little bit more.
Rasmus: Yeah, we weren't ready before; but it's about the right time to make a record now, you see, because we've been playing together long enough now that we all trust each other. Like, we're really tight, and we have some great new songs, collaborations and things; so, it's about time to record now.
MacEachern: Well, as a fan, and a listener, I have to say this: get on with it already! (Laughs.) The old CD's have had such heavy rotation that they're nearly worn out; so, before they melt or something, (chuckles) hurry up with that new one!
Zar: (Laughs.) Yeah, we will, for sure.
MacEachern: Good; I'll hold you to that promise! Now, my next question runs a little deeper; pertains to the source of your musical inspiration... but here's an image to set it up. While you were playing your last set, I was watching some birds -swallows- flitting through the air, cavorting in the morning sunshine, over the heads of your audience. And it seemed to me, watching them swoop and dart there, that they were the perfect sort of icon -symbol- for your sound; because they seem to move with a spirit of joy. Your sound seems to have wings as well; it takes flight and carries the listener upward into that airy realm of sparkling light and pure joy. Yeah; and for me, it feels inspiring. So now, here's my question; I want to ask you about that source, the source of your musical joy? Anyone want to handle that 'heavy' question? (Chuckles.)
Sine: I have to say, that when I first met these guys, that is exactly what I fell for; it was their, you know, the amount of fun they have just playing together. See they've known each other for so many years, and it's like they almost have their own language sometimes (chuckles). And that is why we found each other. And I think it's really important, that joy, and that we bring that with us onto the stage -to share it- because that's why we first wanted to play together. It's our reason for making music; to have fun together, and to share that.
MacEachern: Well, your message is not lost; when I first saw you perform, I distinctly recall the strange feeling that came over me -my lips were sore; from smiling too much! (Laughs.) True! From the first tune onward I just kept smiling; it felt like an altered state of consciousness -like drugs- only this was pure... a pure joy. And then I realized, this charm you radiate through your playing is something special; the Muse is with you; and she smiles, in radiance, over you.
Sine: We have a lot of fun together; and it does feel special. We're not like other, well I don't know how to explain that... it's just...
MacEachern: Well, whatever it is, it's fabulously refreshing. Today everybody plays with what they call "Attitude"; but you people play with joy. And it's a real delight to see you all play with such heartfelt spirit that transcends ego and becomes, somehow, healing.
Sine: It's just so natural for us to bring that into the music; to communicate, you see, on that level. You know, this music we play, this is old Danish stuff, it's a kind of music that was played when people came together -for things like weddings, births, and so on. So this music, these old tunes, it comes out of these very social traditions when people are happiest. So it's very social music; and it wants to be fun.
Rasmus: Yeah, like, we tried to be true, you know, to the reasons why we started playing; our tradition was all about fun, having fun together. But sometimes, you know, when you try to make a living, it's not always fun; no (chuckles). But we always try to bring it into the music anyway; so it's always fun to play together.
Steffan: Yeah, we just love to play; you know. We might be playing for, oh, six or eight or even ten hours, and then after that, we might go and play a jam or something. We just love playing, that's all; any time, anywhere (laughs).
Sine: And in between all the 'sad' Danish songs that I like, (chuckles) that's when these guys really go for it! And sometimes it gets dangerous; (laughs) but we play other songs too -which keeps us on our toes- and we jam a lot.
MacEachern: Okay, so your source music is predominantly Danish traditional material; which you arrange with a modern feel. But don't you play some originals as well?
Steffan: Yeah, there's a few; and we have some new ones.
MacEachern: But is it considered acceptable, in Denmark, to add something new to the old tradition?
Rasmus: Yeah, it is. But it's like, there's so many great tunes in the tradition; so, it's hard to write a new one that's better than the old ones we already have. There's such a wealth; you know?
MacEachern: Yes; I guess there's no shortage of great tunes in the ancient treasure chest of traditional music, after a thousand years or so of tune-smithing. (Chuckles.)
Rasmus: Oh yeah; that's true. Like, every fiddler should have his own, his own personal songs, as well as carrying all the old tunes in his head. That's how the tradition grows; and survives between the generations.
MacEachern: On stage you spoke about borrowing tunes from the old fiddle players. Do you feel, sometimes, like you're carrying a torch, or passing a baton, from the previous folk music generations to the present?
Christopher: Well yeah; definitely, because our tradition -in Denmark- is very strong. And the old traditional music, with the dance, is really important for us; so, we really have that in mind, like, when were out there playing. We always think back to the old players; out of respect, you know? The tradition, it's not as alive as we'd like it to be -there aren't so many bands playing it- but the material is very strong; and we choose that as our source... it works for us. No?
MacEachern: Okay. But when you play to an audience in Canada, who may not be aware of the dance tradition behind your music, are you still playing for the dancers, or are you performing for a listening crowd?
Christopher: Both, really. We trust the listener to feel the music in a way that moves them; whether the movement is in their feet, or in the hearts, matters not. You see?
Rasmus: Yeah, I mean, in the really good arrangements, it should work both ways; you could dance to it, but you should also be able to sit down and just enjoy the tune, or the way the instruments work together, or whatever happens in the performance.
MacEachern: Tell me about that -the "performance" aspect- and how each of you plays a role in this band; what specific strengths do each of you bring to the Zar "team"?
Sine: I think we're very natural about all that; in fact, we've never spoken about this kind of thing, we just do it all naturally. We're all about free speech; anyone can say anything they want, about anything, anytime. (Laughs.)
Andreas: Is it my turn yet? (Laughs.) Yeah, you know, we adjust ad lib; and try to compliment each other in whatever's happening in the moment. Like today, for example, I tried to say something -make a funny- and I opened my mouth, but "baaaahhhhh" (chuckles) nothing came out right.
Christopher: That's why we keep him on a short leash! (Laughs.)
Andreas: Yeah. (Chuckles.) But, I couldn't get it out there; so I just decided to shut up, because, you can feel when you're just having one of these days, where you can't get it out there. And people look at you funny; (chuckles) so I just decided to shut up and let Sine and Christopher do the talking.
Sine: We all do that; it doesn't matter. But that's what's exciting about going to a Zar concert; it'll always be different, anything can happen. (Laughs.)
Christopher: Yeah, it's never the same.
MacEachern: So you all value spontaneity then?
Rasmus: Definitely. The music we play comes from a tradition -it's written down- but the way we play is our own thing; and we like the freedom to be in the moment.
Andreas: Yeah. But then, sometimes, we keep a standard thing that we can say in case you need something, like when we're introducing a tune and your brain isn't working so well that morning -like today! (Laughs.) But mostly, we just try to keep it sort of, a...
Sine: To be very honest.
Andreas: Yeah, just be honest, and spontaneous; sort of... so it's not always the same.
Sine: His humour depends on the women; the prettier they are, the funnier he gets. (Laughs.)
Chistopher: So then we tighten up his leash some more. (Laughs.)
MacEachern: Well, your banter -the way you all interact- is a lovely addition to the music; it helps put a personality into the mix. When you interact like that it amplifies the spirit in your music; and enhances it.
Andreas: Yeah, people seem to want to know you better, after you've played some music.
MacEachern: Is that something peculiar you've noticed about Canadian audiences?
Sine: Canada's a very open kind of audience; more free, that's for sure. And they really get into the music.
Andreas: Yeah. And they dance a lot more over here; they're very open, and into it. They're more loose; if you can say that.
MacEachern: Sure, you can say that. In fact, you can say anything you like; just to prove that us Canucks really is "loose"! (Laughs.) But tell me, how do other performers rate? When you're touring, and meeting other performers on the festival circuit, how do they compare? Are they as open and spontaneous? And are they as willing to create interactive opportunities with an audience?
Sine: Well, to be honest, it's rare; I have to say it's rare. You know, I've never met any other guys -apart from these- that have such an energetic vibe for what they do. These guys really live for music; they eat it and breathe it, drink it and sleep with it, really! (Laughs.) It's true. I've seen them; they can play continuously, for a week at a time, with no sleep -just a beer- and they just keep playing. I mean, really, I've never seen anyone play as much as these guys do. They play a show then go back to the hotel and stay up all night jamming. They'll play for you anywhere. And when we're done talking here, they'll go over there and start playing some more. It's very natural for them; something they were just born with, or whatever, I don't know. They just breathe music. So, even if there wasn't a stage, or an audience, these guys would still be making music together; and I'm just glad I can sing with them.
MacEachern: The enthusiasm you speak of was very much in evidence yesterday, over at stage five, when the power went down in the middle of your set. Any other band would've been thrown by that kind of challenge; they simply would've shrugged and waved goodbye. But you guys stayed the course; you just closed ranks and kept chugging along, playing the tunes. It was a rare and memorable moment to see such exuberance in the face of overwhelming odds.
Sine: That's right; that's just what they're like, all the time. Nothing phases them; the music always comes through, no matter what. That's very true.
MacEachern: Well, I found it very heartening; it was like being on the Titanic, when it was sinking... and "the band played on". (Band laughs.) No, really! To watch you keep playing, in spite of the power failure, spoke volumes to me about your musical integrity. And it charmed me to see you go 'primitive' so easily; pure organic music driven by pure primal spirit. It was an ethereal sort of moment; suddenly beautiful, but -like a breath- just as suddenly gone. Evaporated... as is the musical note that, once played, decays into the air and disappears. Very 'Haiku'. (Chuckles.)
Sine: Actually, I'll tell you a story... when we flew over here, to Canada, we got stranded in Montreal; because the flight couldn't take off, or whatever. So, all the passengers were taken to a hotel; that the company paid for. But when we got there, with all these people, suddenly there was this huge line-up, in the middle of the night; and it took four hours for them to process us -just standing there in this line- waiting. It was a nightmare. So after a while, I went to sleep on a couch; and I left these guys in the line, waiting. Well, sometime later, I woke up and I heard this music; it was these guys! (Laughs.) They were playing, just playing for anyone that was still in the queue. And I thought: ' that's just beautiful.'
MacEachern: What a lovely story... 'Zar serenades stranded travellers'; that's so sweet.
Rasmus: Yeah, you see, it really lightened the mood there; people started smiling, instead of being upset. And We just played a nice slow waltz, you see; and everyone started smiling, and then everything was different. Everybody was happy then; it was wonderful.
Sine: Yeah, it really changed everything; for them and for us too. That's why we play.
MacEachern: There's the proof! As I said: "Music has charms to soothe a savage breast!"
Christopher: Well, the charms are limited; (chuckles) because, pretty soon the hotel receptionist came along, and she told us that, that music doesn't really work here... in a hotel lobby... in the middle of the night! (Laughs.) She said that it was against the rules; of the Holiday Inn regulations.
Andreas: Yeah, they didn't like the idea because it was kind of extreme. (Laughs.)
Rasmus: Well, it was like, three in the morning I think; so... (Laughs.)
Andreas: But you know, when you're out there, you don't just play for yourself; you're also out there to entertain people. And that's just what we had in mind when the power went down yesterday; we knew that the audience came to hear something, and to be entertained, so that made us keep playing. And even if the power goes out, it doesn't matter 'cause music lives on -as it always has- even without it. It sort of, it just...
Sine: But you do play for your self, too, sometimes; otherwise, you wouldn't...
Andreas: Yeah, yeah; of course. But when you're on stage, and people are paying to see you, you need to get passed yourself. Because, you know, music is about people. Well, it's fifty percent music and the other fifty percent is all about entertaining; how you keep people interested in what you're offering to them. Sometimes you don't have to say that much; sometimes attitude is enough. But it's all about giving people what they came for; maybe just a feeling, that's all. Or give them something else -pyrotechnics- but give them something that moves them.
MacEachern: Well said. And I like the notion that: "music lives on", as you put it. I've seen a lot of music over the years, and it seems to me that the true essence of folk music -its true heart- is its acoustic quality. It begins very organically, with the human voice; and the instruments, whatever they are -from bagpipes to fiddles- are all just extensions of that organic nature of the voice. And I think what gives traditional folk music such appeal, and makes it "live on" across the generations, is its inherent accessibility -the simplicity of "voice"- which keeps new ears identifying with, and returning to, the ancient source of their acoustic roots. True, or no?
Rasmus: It is acoustic, yeah; and it's very much a social activity -music is definitely a very social thing... people communicate, and interact, through music. It's not just one person's voice; it belongs to everybody, it's meant to be shared together.
MacEachern: I so agree! Sharing is everything. And your story, about serenading those tired travelers in a late night hotel lobby, sums up your musical philosophy perfectly. I know your hearts are all in the right place. So keep sharing with us, in spite of the troubles; because the world needs more of that kind of love.
Sine: That's very typical of these guys; they're like these ambassadors for good feelings, only their language is music.
Andreas: But, you know, one thing I've noticed about the differences between this country and ours, is the free spirit you have here. Like, when you ask people to get up and dance -say, over in Denmark- you won't get more than a couple; but here in Canada it's really good. Everywhere we go there's people out there dancing; just going for it. (Chuckles.)
Rasmus: Yeah, we like that a lot; the audience response is really really good over here.
MacEachern: Could it be yourselves, and your infectious energy, that makes a difference here?
Andreas: No. Because, in Denmark these days, there seems to be this, this kind of 'concert mentality'; where people don't react to you, they just sit there and listen. It's like they're sort of too embarrassed, or something, to let go and dance or anything. I do it too, sometimes; you worry about what other people might think of you... like, inside this little voice goes (strangled squeaky voice) "Oh no, am I looking silly now?" You see? But over here it seems to be different; people just get up and go for it. And they don't seem too concerned about what other people are doing or thinking; they just enjoy themselves. I like that. And we like to play for them.
Steffan: Yeah, we love to have dancers up for our music; because that's what it was meant for... and when people dance, they give us something back, you know?
MacEachern: Okay; that's our responsibility in the interaction. But we Canadians have a certain 'conservative' reputation too. And it seems to me that, no matter where you go in this world, we humans are alike in one fundamental way -we're creatures born of herds. We're very much driven by herd instincts; and we tend toward the safety of numbers. Take fashion trends for example; everyone wears the same style, to fit in, but only as long as others are doing it. Otherwise it's not safe. So fashion is the herd instinct, made manifest; it's one way that we express our need to belong. And whether it's the clothes we wear, or the words we speak, or the moves we make to the music we play, it's all driven by the same thing; the herd instinct shapes and contains our impulses and behaviours.
Anyway, my point here -and I am coming to one; let me assure you- (laughter) is this: cultural aspects aside, your band, is something special, from what I can see, because you seem to have escaped the usual herd instincts.
Christopher: Yeah, but we're five of us, you see; so we're already a "herd". (Laughs.) And when we go somewhere -like on a plane- we 'look' like a herd, sometimes.
Andreas: But we don't smell like one! Well, maybe only sometimes. (Laughter.)
MacEachern: Well, let me put it this way; in a sea of rapster cool posers with butt-kicking attitudes, it's extremely refreshing to hear Zar playing its own brand of joy.
Rasmus: Yeah, thank you; that's nice to hear.
MacEachern: I don't know how others might perceive your anachronistic efforts -this propensity for playing acoustic fiddle music in a world now consumed by 'techno-DJ-dub-rap'- but it turns my head! It feels fresh, and sufficiently different, that it grabs my attention. I sense courage there, which I admire; because you're not selling sex or image the way it's marketed here. You're just passionate about the music; and sharing those good feelings. And it's inspiring to see you blissfully enjoying your own thing. Just rejoicing in the music; and fashion be damned! (Laughter.)
Christopher: But as you see, we're all wearing pants -nobody's naked, yet; (chuckles) so, we're not so unique.
MacEachern: But your humour is! Zar has a unique combination of humour and heart that creates a kind of halo of joy. And that's very different from the prevailing band norms, over here anyway, who seem overly indulged in these angst-ridden and tatty attitudes. Your band persona is not about menacing attitude; it's happy instead. And for my taste that's the preferred place to be. So, pardon my gushing, but I think you're kind of special. So there! (Laughs.) Still, judging by the expressions on your faces just now, you don't seem to believe me. (Laughter.)
Andreas: No, it's just, we just don't give it a thought; you know? We just play.
Rasmus: Yeah, and we just finished playing; so, we're all a little tired -too many gigs, and late nights, you see?
MacEachern: Yes. But let me clarify this idea... having just played a cross Canada tour, you've seen a lot of other bands out there; right? So, haven't you noticed how different your sound is -Zar's energy- from all those other bands you've shared the stages with?
Christopher: Well, we don't really think about music in terms of differences; I mean, sometimes we've played in discos, you see? So it doesn't really matter, to us, who's doing what or what music you call it; we just play because we love it. That's why we do this.
Sine: Yeah; and if it ever stops being like this, being so much fun to play together, well, we'll just stop. (Laughs.) And we'll retire.
Christopher: Yeah, we'll just stop.
MacEachern: Yeah; like ABBA... regardless of the big bucks you're making, now, (laughter) when the music starts to suck, just get out! Eh? (Laughs.)
Andreas: (Laughs.) We'll never quit! You know, last night after the festival, we went over to the party. And there was this huge sort of disco -loud; you know- going on inside there. But we went around and found this garden place, just outside in the dark, so we just took a corner and started playing. And it was nice, you know, because there were some people there, standing by, who never have that sort of relationship -close up like that- with folk music. You could see that they were caught by it there, and drawn into it; even though this big loud party -the DJ stuff- was going on inside. They just hung out, listening, you know; and that's cool. It's great fun to have that; to have those moments like that.
MacEachern: There's a mentor in your soul. But tell me about your jamming habit; (chuckles) have you been jamming a lot with other musicians while on tour? And have you discovered anything interesting about the Canadian music scene?
Andreas: Yeah, you know, there's not much jamming over here, compared to the Danish or European scene; that's a big difference we've noticed. But maybe it has something to do with what's popular in those places; like, over here, you seem to have loads of singer songwriters. But in Denmark, it's more like complete bands; and you have more instrumentalists over there... so they jam more when they meet.
Rasmus: Yeah, over there they have the fiddlers; so there's the fiddle tune traditions, like the Celtic stuff... that's played through many countries. Instrumental music works well, you see, across borders and language barriers.
Christopher: But then there's events, for instance, like the Turner Festival; where there's this big 'backstage' thing... during the night, typically like four in the morning, (chuckles) you will hear all these musicians, just banging away. You know? Like two hundred miles per hour! (Laughs.) And then you'll go in another room, backstage there, and you'll find these great names -just standing there- and they're singing together. Oh, it's amazing really.
Sine: Yeah, that's the only thing we're missing over here; that's the backstage jams.
MacEachern: Well, it used to happen spontaneously, back at the hotel where the performers stay. It just blossoms in the rooms, and hallways; you kind of make your own -as you did at the party last night, out in the garden. And for jammers like you it should be easy; like breathing, you just do it wherever you are, right? (Chuckles.)
Rasmus: Yeah. But, a, can we wrap it up now? I'm sorry, but, it's just that we're starving; you see? (Laughs.) We need some coffee, or something, to wake us up.
MacEachern: You're in luck; there's an express lane backstage -performers only- where they offer an intravenous drip for caffeine withdrawal symptoms! (Laughter.)
Christopher: Sounds good; that's for me! (Chuckles.)
MacEachern: Okay. Last question: any parting comments for your Canadian fans?
Steffan: Yeah, we want to come back! (Laughter.)
Rasmus: Yeah; that's so true. Canada's been great; we'd really love to come back.
MacEachern: Excellent. I'll do my bit. Thanks for talking with me today. Cheers!