SONAR
A Flaw Of Nature
(Ronin Rhythm Records)

 

Instrumental art-rock continues to evolve on the European continent. Although the late 1970s and early 1980s, 20th century heyday of Eurock instrumental rock pioneers Pohjola, Rypdal, Oldfield may now be things that have happened in the past, rising, younger bands continue to espouse and expose the new power of 21st century instrumental rock. From Switzerland comes Sonar and their brilliant, critically acclaimed mid 2012 CD release entitled A Flaw Of Nature. Also, released in late 2012 is the follow up Sonar CD ep entitled Skeleton Groove. Central to Sonar is American born, Swiss based guitarist Stephan Thelen (tritone guitar), joined here by his quartet members, Bernhard Wagner (tritone guitar), Christian Kuntner (tritone bass guitar) and Manuel Pasquinelli (drums). The Sonar sound is ECM influenced, although with a solid rock edge. Although avant gard in scope, the overall instrumental rock fusion sound is enhanced by an excellent studio sound which lends it kind of the depth of Pekka Pohjola’s early 1990s sound combined with Thelen's most prevalent influence, King Crimson founder Robert Fripp, with whom Thelen studied guitar. Commenting on the Fripp / Crimson influence Thelen adds, 'The band that really opened up my musical horizon however was King Crimson, especially the 1972 – 1974 version of that band. Their guitarist, Robert Fripp, was without doubt my most influential guitarist. In fact, I had to work quite hard to find my own musical voice, because Robert’s influence was so strong that I often ended up sounding like a Fripp clone.' Key to the Sonar instrumental rock composite—on both the 2012 CD release of A Flaw Of Nature, and the late 2012 CD ep release of Skeleton Groove—are the loud, resounding drums and searing intertwining electric guitars that incorporate echoes from jazz, rock and even European neoclassical music. In sync with the adventurous sound spectrum, the A Flaw Of Nature CD packaging—including a booklet with detailed analysis of the music—is first rate as well, making both of these Sonar CD titles a fine choice for jazz-rock fusion fans. www.sonar-band.ch

mwe3.com presents an interview with
Stephan Thelen of SONAR


mwe3: Can you give a capsule history of Sonar and what were some of the key events leading up to the CD release of Sonar’s album A Flaw Of Nature as well as Skeleton Groove, the newly released late 2012 CD EP?

Stephan Thelen: The basic idea behind Sonar was to create a band that not just played good music, but music that was new and different from anything else that is going on. Bernhard, the other guitarist in Sonar, and I had been talking for a long time about forming a band together, but I felt that we had to have a very strong and clear concept of what we would be trying to achieve before we even started.

Then, at the end of 2010, it all started to fall into place. I had been experimenting with a new guitar tuning where the guitar is tuned to tritones (C F# C F# C F#) and the natural harmonics of this tuning sounded wonderfully mysterious. It seemed to be a bold idea to form a band that only uses this tuning, but Bernhard liked the idea and Sonar was born. To find new ideas, it is paradoxically sometimes better to reduce your options and that is precisely what we did: we decided to abandon all our effects and loop machines, to plug our guitars straight into a small amp, not to play any solos and to use tritone harmonics whenever possible. We also knew that the bright guitar harmonics needed a deep and strong bass and that we really wanted to stretch out using complex and simultaneous rhythms in different, usually odd, time signatures.

As soon as the concept became clear, I sat down and, in a very short time period of about two weeks, composed the pieces that now are on A Flaw of Nature. The album was itself recorded “live in the studio” in just two days in August 2011.

The four songs on Skeleton Groove emerged in late 2011 and early 2012 and were recorded in just one afternoon in June 2012. We felt that these tracks belonged together and should be released, so we decided to put them on an EP.


mwe3: Where did you grow up and what music motivated you to play guitar and how about your early childhood musical heroes and other big influences from art, movies, etc. Who are your most influential guitarists?

Stephan Thelen: I grew up in Santa Rosa, California, where my father worked as a physicist. When I was 10, my family moved to Liechtenstein, a small country between Switzerland and Austria. After finishing school, I moved to Zürich, where I basically have been living ever since. My first musical influences were The Beatles and then later prog-rock bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes. The band that really opened up my musical horizon however was King Crimson, especially the 1972 – 1974 version of that band. Their guitarist, Robert Fripp, was without doubt my most influential guitarist. In fact, I had to work quite hard to find my own musical voice, because Robert’s influence was so strong that I often ended up sounding like a Fripp clone. Another important influence was the minimal composer Steve Reich. From him I learnt that the best compositions are often based on one single idea. As a musician, I appreciate music where I feel that the players have a reason for playing what they are playing – everything else can easily sound random. If you try to organically develop a piece of music from one single idea, there is a clarity and an urgency to what you play that I find much more satisfying than just playing what more or less randomly comes to mind.

mwe3: Can you remember your first guitar and what guitars, amps and other gear are you currently using?

Stephan Thelen: My first guitar was a black Fender Stratocaster, which my father gave me as a Christmas present when I was thirteen. Over the years, I have owned a lot of different guitars, effects and amps. For Sonar, I first used a Steinberger GMS2 with a new custom body and now use a Gibson Les Paul custom which I plug straight into a Fender Mustang III amp.

mwe3: How would you describe the chemistry between you and your Sonar bandmates? There seems to be a kind of musical ESP going on! How do you share the guitar sounds with Bernhard Wagner and what guitars is Bernhard using?

Stephan Thelen: The chemistry in the band has been very strong from day one. I knew Christian from other projects and Bernhard had played with Manuel, so we got together because of mutual respect and common interests. There were no auditions whatsoever and it we all immediately had the feeling that this band is going to be special.

In the beginning, we talked a lot about our first musical influences, those magic moments as a child or teenager when you discover the inexplicable power of music. In Sonar, that is exactly what we are trying to do with all the unusual harmonies and rhythms: to create music that lets you re-experience those first magical moments. In that context, it is interesting to know that for Sonar, Bernhard is using the very first guitar that he ever owned, a Telecaster copy that he has now modified with new pickups.


mwe3: The artwork and CD packaging of both the full length CD A Flaw Of Nature and the 2012 CDEP Skeleton Groove are both great. What kind of planning did you put into the CD packaging for A Flaw Of Nature and what role do you think that art plays in the rock world these days?

Stephan Thelen: I knew from the start that Mayo Bucher should do the cover of A Flaw of Nature. He is a successful Swiss artist who has done a lot of covers for ECM and we were practically neighbors in Zürich for a few years. He wanted to do something different than the work he did for ECM so he showed me his magic square paintings which were perfect for Sonar because of the connection with iconic meaning of integers. The Skeleton Groove cover was done by Max Franosch, a London based artist who has also done covers for the ECM label and who got in touch with us because he admired our music.

Of course, I think the packaging of a CD is very important, the artwork should reflect the music as accurately as possible. I have often listened to a CD because I liked the atmosphere suggested by the cover.


mwe3: What’s your take on the progressive and fusion music world these days? How do you try to take on the whole world as a self-produced band? You must have fans in just about every country! What are the plans for Sonar moving forward into 2013?

Stephan Thelen: There are some fantastic bands like Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin or, the now disbanded, Oceansize, but generally I find progressive and fusion music rather uninspired these days. The players are technically often brilliant, but I very rarely hear new ideas or a real group spirit.

Yes, I do get very kind e-mails from people all around the world, that’s probably the great advantage of the internet. Sonar plans for 2013 are gigs in Europe and the US, as well as the recording of our second full length CD. The material for that CD, which will probably be called Static Motion, is already written and I can confidently say that the CD is going to be a very strong statement. We also have filmed a great video for the piece Tromsø, which will soon be out on YouTube.




Thanks to Stephan Thelen @ www.StephanThelen.com and www.sonar-band.ch






 

 
   
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