The guitarguitar Interview: Shining's Jørgen Munkeby
The guitarguitar Interview: Shining's Jørgen Munkeby
Published on 30 November 2018
Norwegian Jazz-metallers Shining are an exciting mix of high energy riffs, dynamics, explosive rhythms and musical pyrotechnics. They have a sound that juxtaposes elements of Extreme Metal, Classic Rock, Avant-Garde Jazz, Industrial and Prog. It's quite a mix! Shining have released 8 albums since 2001, each getting progressively more bold and adventurous. 2010's Blackjazz threw down the gauntlet to any band who considered themselves to be ambitious! It's an exhilarating, challenging, satisfying listen indeed.
With the release of their latest record, Animal, Shining have introduced a fresh, more accessible angle to their trademark onslaught. More melodic than ever, this new record sees Shining exploring fresh paths but still bringing a ton of wild, heavy expression with them!
At the centre of all of this is Jørgen Munkeby. As chief songwriter, lead vocalist, guitarist and saxophonist, Jørgen's is the vision that the band follow. An intensely driven, motivated person, Jørgen is also easy company and very charming. We recently caught up with him as Shining continue to tour in support of Animal in order to find out more about how he treats his guitars, how he mixes his records and what makes him tick.
Jørgen, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me! First of all, I noticed on Instagram recently that you’ve accidentally destroyed your cherished Black SG! In the middle of a gig! Heartbreaking! What happened? And what did you end up replacing it with?
Yeah, the neck broke right off during one of the last shows of our set in Marseille, France. It was my favourite guitar, an Edwards SG which is a Japanese copy of the Gibson SG that I think is made in the LTD factories. But it has happened before, during a show in the Netherlands two years ago. I had a guitar tech put the neck back on the body, but it seems like that area is a fragile one on that particular guitar, so I doubt I will be bringing it on tour again.
It happened on the last note of our song The Madness And The Damage Done, which I wanted to be extra strong and aggressive on this show. The last few days I’d had a painful rib from a stage diving thing in Paris a few days before, and it made the last shows a bit controlled from my side, so I felt the need to finally get some physicality back in the concert. I raised my guitar before the last rubato note to get all the band to hit the ending note hard together, but when I brought it down it was a bit hard so obviously the force between my right and left arm was too much for the guitar to handle so I just snapped the neck right off the body. It’s a shitty feeling, and I immediately start thinking about how to fix it and where I can get another guitar all the while I’m still trying to figure out how to play the rest of the show. I retuned my other guitar and finished the set, and got another guitar in Milan the day after.
You are the main composer for Shining. Shining’s music is complex, rhythmic and at times deliriously chaotic (in a fantastic way). Do you ‘map’ the songs out in advance of writing or does it just flow?
When writing the music for the last few albums I usually start out with a general idea of what the song or the album should sound like, or what direction it should take. Then I just start writing. I can start with melodies or drum parts or synth sounds or just a feeling, and then just take it from there. I used to write music on paper first, especially back in my old jazz days, but now I just record stuff as I come up with the ideas. It takes a lot of writing and a lot of throwing out parts before a demo is finished. But when it’s finished it’s usually very similar to how the final song will be, except that the final song sounds much better and has a more organic and human vibe with more energy.
How does the writing process work for you? Do you begin on a guitar? Or maybe a laptop?
I can start with anything really, and on the new album, I actually have a song that I intentionally wanted to write outside of the computer first. It’s the song called Hole In The Sky, and I wrote the melody and lyrics first, then the chorus chords, and then the verse chords and the bridge. After that, I made about ten different demos of the song with completely different vibe and tempo and style, and decided to wait until all the other songs were written before we figured out which sound and style that song should have, based upon what the album as a whole needed.
But that’s the exception. Usually, I start with the music and the band instruments and then go to lyrics at more the midway point of the writing process.
You are an incredible saxophonist on top of the other instruments you play: what is your go-to instrument for just jamming around?
Thanks! I’m glad to hear you like my sax stuff! I’m much better at playing sax than any other instrument I play, so for jamming with other people, it’s usually easier to reach for the sax.
You started out as a Jazz player and were educated at the Norwegian State Academy of Music. Would you recommend formal training as a path to individuality and creativity?
Yeah, I’ve studied jazz music and also classical and contemporary composition. It’s been good for me as a musician because it has allowed me to be very flexible and live off of being a musician all my life. I would never have been able to do that if I wasn’t that flexible and knowledgeable. But at the same time, I’m not sure it’s the best approach to music for everyone. If you think about the most popular artists nowadays, and probably also earlier, most of them were not trained in school. And not being trained in school might make it easier for you to focus on how the music actually sounds instead of how it’s built, which is really how most listeners enjoy music too. I don’t miss theoretic knowledge with Dave Grohl or Eminem or Kanye West or James Hetfield. And sometimes I actually ask myself if many of my insanely theoretic years were a waste of time and actually a hindrance in making good music. But I’ll never know the answer to that question!
Haha! That's true, I guess! As a Jazz player, how did the ‘Metal’ creep into your sound?
Well, I actually started out listening to metal music when I was a kid, long before I listened to jazz. Even when I started playing the sax at age nine, I still only listened to metal music. So you could hear me jamming my alto sax in my room to Pantera’s Vulgar Display Of Power when it came out, although I don’t think I really figure out a way to combine the sax and metal music until about 20 years later.
So I think the right thing would be to say that metal crept back into my music sometime in 2005 after I had been a bit bored of only playing jazz music.
I see. That helps explain your band's unique sound. You’ve invented and defined your own musical genre, Blackjazz. For those who have not heard Shining, what is Blackjazz?
Blackjazz is the name of our album that came out in 2010, and it’s also a term that was coined to describe our music at that time. We continued to use that term and make similar music up until and including our 2015 album “International Blackjazz Society”, but stopped using the term for our new album “Animal”.
Our Blackjazz music is a unique mix of aggressive free-jazz and blackened metal with an industrial production and sound.
'Blackened Metal'! I like that! Shining have previously covered King Crimson, both live and on record. Do you see what you do as being a continuation of what they started?
Yes, I feel that Blackjazz was a modernization of what King Crimson was doing several years before us.
I first saw Shining on Youtube with that great live video of The One Inside, which you guys filmed in a desert. What, in your opinion, makes for a great Youtube video?
Well, if I knew exactly what made a Youtube video great, then I wouldn't have to worry so much every time I made a video! Haha! Because it’s really easy to spend shitloads of money on a video that nobody wants to see.
Anyway, I love that desert version of The One Inside! It was filmed on our way from a show in San Francisco to Los Angeles on a tour in 2013. We just set up our stuff in the desert and played through the song about seven times and chose the best take. That was really the whole idea, and at that time most of our songs were written in a way that suited these kinds of settings, as they were very compact and didn’t have a lot of fragile details that could risk getting lost.
The idea with these kinds of videos was to show a band that played heavy and complex music in hostile environments to heighten the sense of energy and friction. We also did the song “I Won’t Forget” in the streets in Norway, and we did “Last Day” on top of a 2000 feet deadly mountain cliff in Norway, which is probably the most well-known video we’ve made so far. All of these videos were filmed and played live on location.
Was it a conscious decision to sing in English rather than your native Norwegian?
Almost all the music I’ve listed to in my life has been instrumental or with English lyrics, so it made sense for me to write in English. Also, Norway is too small of a country to make a living off for most bands, so we needed to appeal to the whole world really to even have a chance.
Your newest record, Animal, is considerably more accessible and, dare I say it, commercial sounding than previous records. How did you arrive at the decision to tame down the madness?
I basically thought that after three studio albums and one live album and DVD, the Blackjazz genre had been fully established and mapped out and didn’t really need any more albums. I mean, I still love the Blackjazz style albums, and we also play many of these songs live on every show we do, but I felt that I had repeated myself a bit and wanted new musical challenges. I wanted to do something that felt dangerous and risky, and I wanted to force myself to learn new skills again, which has always been a big driving factor in all the music and all the changes I’ve done before.
So I decided to not worry about what the new music was going to be called, and just write the exact music I wanted to write at the moment. It took about two and a half years to finalize the Animal album, so it’s easier said than done, but that’s really the gist of it. With a whole lot of hard work and trial and error. But now that the album is done I couldn’t be more proud of it! Both of the songs and the record itself, and also of the courage and risk that goes with such a change!
Live, Shining are incredible. What is more important to you: live performance, recorded music or video?
I think both albums and live concerts are equally important. Videos are fun to make, but I don’t think they are as important.
Am I right in saying that you use digital modelling for your live guitar sounds? (If so, please expand on that a little! If not, just ignore haha)
Yup, I’ve started using Axe-FX for live shows. Almost all the guitars on the new record has also been reamped through the Axe-FX. But while writing I’ve been using (Native Instruments) Guitar Rig for the guitars and bass. It’s so easy to just record DI tracks and makes for a much quicker and more creative and flexible writing process, which at the end of the day is the most important thing. A good song trumps good guitar sounds any day! But with the Axe-FX, I get both!
What kind of strings and plectrums do you prefer?
I have two setups, one guitar that can be either standard E tuned or drop-D tuned. That’s usually been my Edwards SG (before it died!). I’ve been using D’Addario .11-.49 for that setup. The low string on this guitar is also tuned down to B on the songs Fisheye and on The Madness And The Damage Done, which is really a bit too low for a .49 string but works with a certain type of picking.
The other guitar is a drop-C tuned guitar, which is either CGCGBE or CGCGGC (from low to high). For this, I’m using a D’Addario set that goes from .11 to .52.
I’ve been using the Big Stubby 3mm pick for several years. I like that it’s hard and not floppy, although I know that it can sometimes dull the pick sound a bit. But I’m still using that pick, so it seems to be working!
What do you do with your plectrum when it’s time to blast out a saxophone solo?
I just put it in my left back pocket. New and unused picks go in my right back pocket.
Good system! Some of your music is extremely complicated: do you have to put in a lot of practice to keep on top of things?
Well, the newer music is less technically demanding from an instrumental point of view, which I think is great. I’ve seen throughout the years that the most complicated songs usually do not work that well live compared to the simpler songs. I think it’s because overly complicated stuff takes away from the focus on great performance and good interplay between the band members, along with taking away from the communication of emotion across to the audience. I’ve also learned that the songs with a great and natural song structure and arc almost play themselves in a live setting, and you don’t have to spend so much energy trying to make weak parts of the song sound better than they really are.
So I’ve learned from these experiences and tried to not make the new album too technically complicated, and focused a lot of trying to make songs that work well no matter what. For instance, we’ve always tried to play the songs on different instruments to see how they work in a different form, for example, only vocal and piano. If the song works well in that format too, then it’s a sign that the song has an internal structure that is strong and will help make it play well live.
But that being said, the vocals on the new album are much much harder than any vocals I’ve done before. So I’ve had to practice A LOT to be able to pull it off. First in the studio, and now in a live setting every night for more than an hour for 30 days straight. I’m still not where I want to be as a vocalist, but I’m making great progress, so I’m very happy about that!
You're doing well, Jørgen! Outside of music, what kind of things are you interested in? And do these interests find their way into your music?
I used to spend a lot of time doing ju-jitsu when I was younger but during the later years, I haven’t really had much time for a hobby, unfortunately. I hope that I get time to pick up martial arts again very soon, though, but first, this band needs to do a bit better so I can get some people to take over some of the administration tasks!
Still on the subject of vocals, you have a powerful voice and you perform plenty of ‘extreme’ vocals like screaming etc. What techniques do you use to both warm up and look after your voice?
I’ve tried a lot of different stuff, as I’ve had a lot of problems being able to combine both the cleaner melodic singing and the more screaming type of vocals. I’ve tried acupuncture, stretches, massages, warming up etc. But I discover more and more that for me it’s really just a matter of finetuning my technique and getting rid of a lot a lot of bad habits. My main focus the last year has been to separate all the muscles in my throat and mouth and tongue and make sure that only the necessary and correct muscles are working for the specific task needed. That way there are no muscles conflicting and pulling opposite ways, and there is less strain during the shows. It’s been one of the most important things I’ve discovered and has helped me a huge amount! I think I’ll just get better at it the next year too!
I can highly recommend two singing courses: Complete Vocal Technique, which is a book with included audio examples. The other one is an online course focusing on the separation of muscles which is called Sing With Freedom by Per Bristow.
(Photo: Gaël Hervé)
That sounds like some really useful information, thanks! You also work as a producer and mixing engineer: do you have any fool-proof tips for EQing and mixing? For example, how far left and right would you pan a double-tracked rhythm guitar part?
With mixing as with most art there are so many styles and different tastes, so it’s hard to define fool-proof rules that apply to everything. But a few rules that usually go for everything:
- Use high-pass for almost everything except bass and bass drum.
- Try to make separate spaces for each instrument, both in the vertical space (EQ frequencies) and the horizontal space (panning left and right).
- Mix into a bus compressor instead of slapping it on at the end
- Don’t worry about the hardware vs. software fight. Software has become amazing now, so just use whatever you want and focus on making good music.
When it comes to guitar panning, I usually pan the guitars fully out left and right for the biggest parts, usually the choruses. That makes the most space in the middle for vocals and snare and kick drum. On verses, I usually only use one guitar, and that might be panned more to the centre. If I use two guitars in the verses, I might keep them fully panned, but it might also take away from the impact of the chorus that way.
Again, some brilliant tips! Thanks for sharing those with us. You are a very busy, motivated and disciplined person: what advice do you have for other musicians seeking to achieve their goals?
Well, I might not be the best example since I haven’t achieved all my goals. But I have achieved some of my goals, and it’s only been because of hard and disciplined work. So that would be my advice: Stay disciplined, keep working hard, and keep motivated.
And finally, Jørgen: what is next for you and for Shining?
Lots of touring! First finalizing this headline tour, then another shorter headline tour in Europe in February, and hopefully a bigger support tour in the Spring. The Summer festivals, and then hopefully more touring in the Fall.
That sounds awesome. Cheers Jørgen, have a good one!
Have a good one, buddy!
Shining are currently on tour and are not to be missed! Check out their site here for up to date info. Learn more about Jørgen by visiting his own website here and his Instagram here.
We'd like to thank Jørgen for sharing so much with us. We'd also like to thank Simon Glacken for all of his help in setting up the interview.