Lief Sorbye: Keeping Tempest In Balance
by Duke Egbert
Author's note: This interview was done on May 3 of this year. DV readers, Tempest fans, and most of all Lief Sorbye (who was a gracious and informative interview) have my apologies for its lateness. I moved somewhere in there, and relocating a family of seven has its own challenges.
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DUKE EGBERT: Tell me about the recording of your new CD Balance. Did you do anything
new, anything different, any moments you remember as being really really cool?
LIEF SORBYE: Well, yeah. We recorded it at the tail end of last year and we had been
woodshedding material throughout 2000. 2000 was the year we went through a bit of personnel changes, so as we got the new lineup together, we postponed the recording until we felt that we got the lineup that was going to tour behind the record in 2001. So that was one of our prerequisites for going into the studio. Normally, we go into the studio when we have a handful of songs that we want to do. This time we also waited until we had the right players.
DE: So you had a selection of songs you could choose from.
LS: Yeah. And I think when we did go into the studio, it was with a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of fire. Because it felt, “Yeah, we got what we want, now it’s time to
Tempest, circa 2001. Photo courtesy of Magna Carta Records.
DE: You got to play a bit, from the sounds of it.
LS: Yeah, we get to see what the players are capable of, you know what I mean? We were able to push ourselves a little bit in the studio, and we decided to not go for note-perfect, but to go for feel and get passion into the performance that we captured on tape. And that makes a difference at the end of the day, because you can go in and do a studio record and try to do everything, multi-track everything, and get everything as perfect as you can, and you get a good-sounding album but some
of the life is taken out of it. ..we’ve done nine records, so we’re really aware of how not to fall into that trap of sounding stale.
DE: So passion is part of what really makes Balance work out.
LS: I think so too.
DE: You’ve been with Magna Carta since 1996. Do you think your relationship with them has been beneficial to the band? Do you think they’ve supported you?
LS: I think so, yeah. I mean, I’ve been in this business, recording and touring, for twenty years, and I’ve been with different bands and stuff, different labels... so I have a little bit of, you know, I can compare Magna Carta with other labels I’ve worked with. I never rely on a record label, an agent, a manager, to make my career for me, per se this is me speaking here, not the band, but I never relied on anybody doing it except myself. So my expectations are real, they’re down-to-earth, they’re not a pie in the sky situation. So I respect people who do what they say they’ll do, and Magna Carta always has. If they say they’re going to do something, they do it, and that’s how I like to work with people. Because of that, I feel our relationship with them has been very successful. I mean, just look at it; we’ve had four records since ’96.
DE: From my own experience, they certainly seem to support their records at a time when you can’t buy radio airplay for the styles of music they’re presenting.
LS: Exactly, and I think they’re pretty real too, you know, they don’t promise anything they can’t keep, and I’m the same way. I think most of what’s beneficial for us in the relationship has been the relationship with our producer, who of course Magna Carta assigned to us for Turn Of The Wheel, the first record back in... when we recorded it back in late ’95. That’s when we got introduced to Robert Berry.
We did spend quite a lot of time looking for the right producer when we did the first
Magna Carta album, and when we found Robert , it really clicked. Because of that, we continued the relationship throughout all four records, and each time we [took] that relationship between artist and producer to a new level. We’ve had experiences to build on.
DE: With traditional and traditional-style music, one of the things I’ve learned is that it’s really easy to over-produce it, and if you over-produce it you take the life right out of it.
LS: Exactly. And with Robert, we’ve been able to benefit greatly by building on past experience. Because he’s a cool guy, and he acts like a sixth member of the band when we are recording, we have that exterior viewpoint to bounce ideas off of. It’s somebody who isn’t with us on tour, isn’t with us on stage, but is with us in the studio, so we have that extra viewpoint that becomes really crucial.
You know, if the band gets really locked into our way of seeing it, we might miss other avenues of arrangement and ways to explore different things. But by the time we start rolling tape, we pretty much know what we want to do. He’s just there to help us realize that in the best possible way. So that’s been really good, and I think on this last record worked really well. [Balance]’s a little guitar-heavier than we’ve had in the past, which I think is actually cool, because it’s got a bit of edge to it.
DE: Talking about traditional music, a lot of your interviews talk about how it’s your first love, and indeed you’ve got an acoustic side project called Caliban that’s a little more traditional. What do you think’s important about traditional music that you want to keep it alive?
LS: I think that traditional music is music that is written in the past, where you don’t know who the writer is anymore tunes that survive themselves. They were good pieces of music or good stories, or they wouldn’t have survived. I think that part of why traditional music still works, why traditional music forms still work, is that it’s timeless and it still talks about the human condition. It’s the same today as it was 200 years ago, people are on this planet trying to get along, struggling to get along.
A folk song viewpoint sometimes can be good, because even if it’s not topical, it still fits into any topic. I think that’s one of the reason I’m attracted to traditional music forms. I think that in order for that viewpoint and that genre to survive, it’s got to evolve, and bands like us have to exist in order to make it evolve. It’s great to listen to it played in its pure form, but it tends to be more of a museum piece unless people are using it now.
It’s very user-friendly, though, and it’s got rock and roll energy in it already. All we do is interpret that on electric instruments. And for me, traditional music is such a big part of the culture and such an important part of the culture, that bands like us have our own place in the world, because I think it’s important to play this stuff. And when I say traditional music, it’s a wide spectrum, because sometimes it’s our own songs as well, they just have traditional roots.
DE: One of the things I noticed on Balance is that there are a lot of non-Celtic elements. When you think of traditional music, you think of Celtic, but songs like “Dance Of The Sand Witches”, that’s distinctly not Celtic. From my own experience, I had a CD that just blew me away, a hardanger fiddle [Ed note: Traditional Norwegian fiddle playing]player named Annbjorg Lien...
LS: Was that her latest record?
DE: Yeah, Baba Yaga.
LS: Yeah, that’s a wonderful record.
DE: Are you going to include more non-Celtic elements? Is that something you’ve got a goal for? You covered a Norwegian folk song on this album...
LS: Well, it’s always been since day one... we’ve recorded throughout the evolution of the band with different band members, and we’ve taken lots of ethnic side trips throughout the years. I think that all has to do with what players will bring in, and we’ve gotten to the point now where it’s basically, you know, European roots music. I’ve always liked Scandinavian music, and some of the stuff I write is more rooted in Scandinavian music than in Celtic music, but when it comes to musical barriers, there are very few barriers there, both geographically and artistically.
"...[H]e’s a cool guy, and he acts like a sixth member of the band when we are recording, we have that exterior viewpoint to bounce ideas off of."
- Leif Sorbye, on producer Robert Berry
DE: One of the things you discover in roots music is...well, for example, you put on a bluegrass CD and find out bluegrass is just Celtic music that’s been changed through the same process that you do on the music.
LS: Exactly. And I think what we’re ultimately talking about is world music for the millennium. I think as people learn, borrow, and steal from each other, and there’s new music emerging out of this where you find elements from, say, Arabic music merging with Celtic music. Bands like Afro-Celt Sound System... ultimately it brings on an understanding and a sort of universal world music. There’s lots and lots of Celtic roots in our music, but not only that. We always keep the doors open for those kind of influences. There have been records in the past, pre-Magna Carta, some of
them have pretty strong American influences.
DE: The cover of... oh, I can’t think of the name of the song, the cover of the Michael Longcor song that you guys did on Bootleg... the one about the Native American leader here in Indiana in fact...
LS: Oh, yeah, I remember! That was a long time ago. “When Tenskwatawa Sings”. I mean, obviously, that’s something we never performed [live], but I remember doing that. We explored a lot of stuff, we had Surfing To Mecca which had a lot of, you know, belly dance style tunes, and we’ve explored a lot of that. But I think the main thing is, I feel that I have a certain knowledge of Celtic and Scandinavian music by studying it and playing it over the years, but I don’t think we have knowledge of other styles.
But players that come in like Todd [Evans]’s “Sand Witches”, which has more of an arabesque feel to it I think that’s like his mind is open when he’s writing and whatever comes out comes out, and you don’t have to be an ethnomusicologist to do something like that. Because to me in many ways music is the language that speaks after the words stop. There’s communication there so you can let your inspiration flow freely, and you will open up on that level. You don’t have to analyze things; if you like playing it, good! That’s enough, a lot of times.
DE: It comes out of that having fun thing we talked about earlier.
LS: Exactly. You have to have that sense of fun and exploration in your music in order to make it kick and be alive and have spark to it. And I do think we were able to do that on this new record. I think Balance got a kick and spark to it. It’s not a stale record. People may like it or not like it, but it’s not a boring album, and I’m excited about that, because we have a few things to say on it. It’s not Tempest re-recording their old album, it’s Tempest doing something new. And I think the
world music influences in this lineup are gonna be more than in the past. I think our viewpoint of Celtic and non-Celtic isn’t that important, really, because there’s going to be a backbone of Irish, Scottish, British Isles material regardless. It’s part of our musical policy. But I think there’s going to be a lot of things as well that will sort of... as long as it sounds like Tempest. I feel we have our own little Tempest style, our own little place in the world, and things can fit into that. I think we just need to keep an open mind on that.
DE: So what traditional artists are you a fan of? Who do you listen to when you’re in the mood for some roots music?
LS: I listen to a lot of stuff. Before the interview, I was listening to Anoushka Shankar, Ravi Shankar’s daughter. That was what I had on my CD player. Prior to that, I listened to Jan Garbarek, who is a Norwegian sax player. As far as traditional music, I listen to so much I listen to most of the stuff that comes out that I find exciting. I was listening to Eliza Carthy earlier this week... I would listen to anything from folk-rock to field recordings.
Balance, the latest release from Tempest. Cover art courtesy of Magna Carta Records
DE: Switching to the other side of the balance - not to make a bad pun or anything - what do you listen to in terms of rock? What rock bands are a big influence on you?
LS: There’s not a whole lot of current rock bands that I listen to. A lot of the things that it comes down to for me, some of my childhood heroes that I grew up with, I still listen to. Bob Dylan, after all these years, and I still get something out of listening to Beatles records. One of the first bands I got into that used a large variety of ethnic instruments was the Incredible String Band, and I still listen to their stuff.
Actually, I went to Wales in January to see a few reunion shows. I still keep track of Fairport
Convention. These are people that I also work with these days, and talk to on a regular basis. I find that a lot of the sort of bands that open up my eyes and ears as a teenager that are still playing, I still listen to. I might miss a lot of the rock and roll fads that come and go, because it seems to me there’s a lack of I hate to use the word roots, but it seems a little superficial, the pop songs that just go in one ear and out the other. They don’t sink in, they’re here today and gone tomorrow.
I thought rock and roll was more exciting in the late sixties and early seventies than in the year 2000, but having said that there is a lot of good music. But I think the best music is coming out of the world music scene. Bands like Shooglenifty and Afro-Celt Sound System and those kind of bands that are exploring within modern music. I was never into techno, but there are people able to use electronic effects and instruments to a certain extent that it incorporates it into a new style of primal world music, and there’s enough traditional music roots with the structure of melody and harmony and rhythm to really make it work. There’s a lot of cool stuff on that level. There’s a lot of great band coming out of Edinburgh, young bands like Tartan Amoebas, bands that are basically crazy kids with so much traditional music experience but they’re really hip to modern pop music and they’re able to make those things go together.
Tempest, I think, we have a little bit more of a... I don’t know, it certainly is new music, but our rock and roll roots are a little bit more on a mature level than whatever twenty-year-olds are interested in today. You can’t really hear any Matchbox 20 in our music, I don’t think.
DE: I first discovered modern Celtic music when by accident I bought Ashley MacIsaac’s hi how are you today. And that was it, the hook was laid, and I know what you’re talking about in the ability to mix in that techno sound.
LS: I think it works. I think it works fine. I mean, Bill Lawswell did a take on Irish music from a techno producer’s viewpoint, and I liked it. I never thought I would. See, I don’t think there are any rules. I think you can do whatever you want to do musically, as long as it comes from the heart. As long as it’s played with passion, it’s good music, and that will shine through regardless of genre and niches. I think it’s all there to be used properly.
DE: OK, I’m gonna put you on the spot now, because you talked about some of your older influences, the late sixties and early seventies, and I will admit when I got Balance, the thing that really struck me was the fact that you covered a Phil Ochs tune.
LS: “Iron Lady”.
DE: Now to me, that was a little bit of a jump there. Did you cover that because you felt strongly about the issue, or that it was just a good song, or somewhere in-between? What was your motive for doing that?
LS: I’ll tell you what happened. It was pretty interesting. That was the last song to be added on the album, and we had a bunch of songs that we were toying around with last year on the road, and we had a group of songs we knew we were going to record, then we had other things we were playing with, right? That was the last one to come along, and see, the thing about it was that... when I was, my god, man, I was probably like twelve years old when I first listened to Phil Ochs. And it was because the cool guys who had long hair who were older than me that I looked up to, I saw them walking around with Phil Ochs records -- the same people that introduced me to Bob Dylan. So I had this experience as a kid when I was first learning to play guitar I owned a Phil Ochs songbook, and I learned everything in it. And then the years just went by, Phil Ochs he hanged himself and he was gone, and he never really made much impact in Europe where I grew up.
But this last year on the road I picked up his biography, and I was reading it as we were touring throughout the season last year. We ended up staying with some friends in Philadelphia that have a big house, and they host a lot of musicians, and they’re part of the Philadelphia Folk Song Society, who run the Philly Folk Festival, the people who started the Folk Alliance they’re very much old school. Anybody from Ani diFranco to Utah Phillips staying at their house.
Anyway, I was staying there while I was reading Phil Ochs’ biography, and it was kinda cool to read his biography, as we’d just played in Columbus, Ohio, where he went to school. So I figure I almost felt I’m tracing the guy’s life journey because we were traveling in the same areas he made a splash in, grew up, whatever. So staying with Bob and Diane in Philly, it turned out that Diane is best friends with Sonia Ochs, Phil’s sister, who’s now looking after his estate. She saw that I was reading his biography, we started talking about Phil Ochs a lot. And Bob, he tried to convince me to learn a Phil Ochs song that’s called “Tape From California”, and he says, “Tempest has got
to cover this song.” And Sonia Ochs would call and say, “If Tempest could play a Phil Ochs song, we’ll include them at our Carnegie Hall extravaganza.” Every year, they do a memorial concert for Phil Ochs with Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary and all these old-school folkies. They thought it would be interesting if somebody like Tempest would show up to bring perspective.
So they’re trying to teach me this song, which I never had any relationship with. It’s a nice enough little song, but it doesn’t really say anything. It’s one of those Phil Ochs after he stops being a protest singer songs. So when we got home from that tour, I went back and found that Phil Ochs songbook I had as a kid, and there was one song that I always really dug, and that was “Iron Lady”, because it dealt with electrocution and the electric chair, and by then we were getting closer to election time. So I read it through with the band, changed the melody a bit, came up with a sort of a rough arrangement, and said “Look, if you have a chance, let’s play with this as we’re touring.” And our last tour of the year before we went into the studio was in the Southwest, and we were playing in Austin [TX] the day before the election. People seemed to really respond to the song as being a topical song, and I thought “Well, this is great. This gets a reaction from people, and this is a song that communicates.”
The lyrics are based on an inmate’s poem about being executed in the chair and I thought it was a really powerful song. People reacted to it, they were thinking about Bush, they were thinking about the death penalty, they were thinking about the election, and we thought “Why don’t we include it on the record?”
DE: In some ways, it’s even more topical. I’m an hour from where they’re going to kill Timothy McVeigh so that’s what I was thinking of.
LS: Exactly. It rings true. It says something, it makes people think. So I liked it, and we decided that it was such a heavy song, let’s give it a real strong, almost a metal arrangement, to put it across on a different level, and that’s what we did. We took this folky thing and made it as rock and roll as we could, because it’s a dark song, and I think it should be delivered that way.
That’s what I like about Balance; there’s more than one emotion. All that music we do that’s very lively and very uplifting and pretty uptempo, and we’re not a big ballad band per se, but I like to be able to put some emotion into it. And because of that, that song works on the record, and there’s a place for it. It is heavy, and it has something to say. But I agree with you, it was a little bit of a stretch, but that’s fun to do.
DE: What are your plans for the future? How long are you going to be on tour? Are you planning your followup to Balance yet?
LS: This leg of the tour, we’re doing forty-some cities, and that will take us through most of the summer season with a lot of festival targets. And then...so what I’m looking at is the first leg taking us through Labor Day, and then in the fall we will hit different parts of the country, maybe the Northwest and Southwest as well. We want to try to visit everybody this year, all the different regions we would tour in, we want to visit one at a time. And then towards the end of the year we’ll start working on new material, and see if we can mature into a new album concept.
Usually, then, it’ll take a good year and a half before we’re ready to record again. I like eighteen
months between records so people will be interested in seeing something new. This year, we decided not to go overseas. We’ve been overseas every year as well, but this year we decided “Let’s work the markets the record is being largely available in” and then we’ll look at Europe next year. I’ve got a few things lined up next year in Europe that are confidential but pretty exciting things. We’ll look at that for 2002.
Another thing we’re doing this year of course, we’re playing Balance live, playing all the material live, but we can’t just do that. We also need to play old hits, stuff from the old records. So we’ve changed things around. We dug out stuff from Turn Of The Wheel we haven’t performed live for three, four years and we’re giving that a new perspective with the new players. Some of the old stuff is almost new again, you know, because it hasn’t been performed for so long. That’s another part of what we’re up to. We’re excited to go out and play, we have a common purpose, a new album, and that’s how I look at it. I take a year at a time, because it’s one of those things where things change all the time. We always look ahead towards the next album, but it’s still a little premature.