Mezzoforte and SmoothJazz Europe
Mezzoforte - March 27th 2009, Bergheim (D)

We spoke to Eythor Gunnarsson (keyboards) and Johann Asmundsson (bass) from Mezzoforte on March 27th 2009, just after their concert at the Erftcoast Festival. After a short introduction about the mission and goal of SmoothJazz Europe we started the interview.

Short videoclip of performance

SJEU: After 32 years you still perform, make new cd's, and still sound like Mezzoforte. Where does your inspiration come from?
Eythor: We started back in the days experimenting as we were inspired by USA bands like EW&F, heavy fusion bands like Weather Report, Return to Forever, Spyro Gyra and on the lighter side George Duke and Steely Dan. It was good music in those times. We were unusual for teenagers in that time; most listened to rock music and punk, we listened to American Jazz Funk.
SJEU: How old were you when you started?
Eythor: We were 15, 16 years old when we started the band; the common interest in this kind of music brought us together. Iceland is big but there are not many people. We all lived in Reykjavik. Fridrik (Karlsson, guitar) and Johann were on the same school; Gulli (Briem, drums) and I were also on the same school. We all went to the music shop regularly.
Johann: Yes, excited to look for new records shipped from USA. And then we met at someone's place at home and listened to Lee Ritenour, Earl Klugh etc.

SJEU: Is there someone specific who is your personal favourite musician?
Eythor: There is a long line of influences, the obvious names of the three giants in my department: Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, George Duke; and Jeff Lorber also. You listen to them, you sometimes copy some and it all comes together creating your own style.
Johann: For me Marcus Miller, Anthony Jackson, my all-time favourite and Stanley Clarke. And they still make great music; it's a difficult thing for them to give up. But you make your own sound; something happens when we play together and it sounds a certain way, and with other people it sounds different.

SJEU: Mezzoforte still has the same sound. The melodies are fine and strong and recognizable. You evolve but the sound and compositions stay the same.
Eythor: It happens when you try to be yourself. But with new keyboards and computers I try to find some sounds the same as the old ones.
Johann: And we all do compositions.
SJEU: How do you compose for Mezzoforte?
Eythor: For me it's not that easy, sometimes it happens just as once, sometimes you have to work on it, sometimes melody and chords come together. But Fridrik can do 10 songs a day.
SJEU: Johann, how do you write songs as a bass player?
Johann: It's not so easy, just play around; Fridrik helps as a melody player with the composition, so we do it all together. When a song is almost ready others help it finish.
Eythor: And we suggest some arrangements to the compositions.
SJEU: Are arrangements written down?
Eythor: We had never written down anything; actually when we started to play I didn't read music and Johann didn't either; musical education and theoretically knowledge came after; we worked our way backwards! We were always rehearsing these songs everyday so we could try to put some details in them so we gradually built the songs up.
SJEU: But nowadays other people are playing with you.
Eythor: Yes, but now we are writing things down because we read music now.
SJEU: Did you have any musical education?
Eythor: Not me, Johann did.
Johann: I recently decided to go through Reykjavik Musicians Union School, being 47 years old.

SJEU: How is it to work with the new members these last years?
Johann: Things changed when Fridrik moved to England; he lives there and has its own company and hasn't been able to work with us as much as we liked. After stopped for a while we tried to move on without him and tried to find another guitar player. After some guys we found Bruno Mueller and he was perfect for us. We asked Bruno to send him our records, but he didn't need them; he had them already!
Eythor: We both met Bruno and Sebastian Studnitzky at the same time and I asked Sebastian also to join us. It's good to have another keyboard player, especially for the old songs, which were recorded with a lot of keyboard overdub. And that's difficult to play live. Sebastian takes a lot of weight off my shoulders with keyboards. And he brings a new dimension because he is a great trumpet soloist; we never had a trumpet soloist before.
SJEU: And what about Oskar (Gudjonsson, sax)?
Johann: He first played with us in 1996, he was 22 years old then and played on the record Monkey Fields (1997). That was short before Fridrik decided to move, so we stayed low for a while. Oskar joined us again in 2002. Oskar plays all kinds of music and is a very creative artist. Actually it's nice to say that with this combination of Bruno, Oskar and Sebastian we are happy and having fun.
SJEU: Joo Kraus played with you tonight and it was very exciting to hear him playing the original trumpet solo from Garden Party, was that planned?
Eythor: No, he has done it before and he likes that solo a lot, knowing it from the time he was young.

SJEU: Do you think that, being very successful again, there is some revival of Jazzrock and Jazzfunk going on?
Eythor: I don't know if there is a revival. Things tend to go round in circles; the 70s were very popular like the Austin Powers movies, and now the 80s are hip. Even my young friends are growing mullets! We had those! Maybe some 80s elements are coming back. But jazz music has always found a way to go into the main stream pop music.
Johann: This kind of music will never go away; everybody wants to label music but the old fusion still works very much because all these different styles come together. But people tend to associate fusion with crazy music of the 70s. But for me it is that this kind of music always tries to make you feel good, always on the positive side, promoting joy and that's what the great thing is about this music.
Eythor: When we analyze our music there is always a strong groove, even if we play a ballad. And there is always a sing-able melody and it's written in some sort of a pop song format; simple melodies. And we pay a lot of attention to details and harmonies.

SJEU: Did you have had any tours in the USA?
Eythor: No, never! They have enough musicians over there and we never had the promotion and the record company. You definitely need a label; in Europe as well but we were very lucky to go from "zero" directly to the top over here. We were a bunch of kids from Iceland, never been abroad and suddenly thrown into the deep end and touring the big venues, almost as pop stars! We were 20 years old and in the pop charts everywhere!
Johann: When we released Garden Party we send it to A&M records and Herb Alpert, one of the owners, decided to release it himself. He recorded his own version. The story is that he heard our 12inch record, which was played at 45rpm in Europe, but he played it at 33rpm. He liked it like that and recorded a slow version; and it was on the charts in USA!
Eythor: But to break into the USA market, you have to work your way up from the ground. But we were already at a high level in Europe so our management at that time didn't think it was worth to go back to the ground. Nobody was prepared to do the work for it and build the foundations from the bottom.
SJEU: But wouldn't it be nice play there?
Eythor: Of course it would be nice!
Johann: But when you think about it, being a band outside the USA playing this music which is very popular in the USA! The USA is a market of its own, very close.
SJEU: We live in The Netherlands. Do you perform often there?
Johann: We can't get any gigs in Holland and we have no idea. The only one recently was The Hague Jazz in 2007.

SJEU: After all these years you still play your great hits, maybe with some changes in the arrangements. Are the songs important to you?
Eythor: Well, we have these obligations to play certain songs live, we have to play Garden Party when we perform. But you can play with a frown on your face or go through the emotion and try to make the song sound good. But all our hitsongs are important to us, like the medley we do at the end of our concert. That's a good way to deliver the songs to the people who want to hear them, without having to play the whole songs.

all pictures by Marijn Eland