Interview: Q&A with Stefan Leisering, Jazzanova – They Are Still Here (July 2018)

Paraphrasing the title of one of their brand new songs; they are still here! Jazzanova, one of the most influential bands in the alternative jazz and electronica scenes, have just come back after a six-year hiatus with The Pool, their third studio album, and are currently touring it all over the world (including a show in London on Friday 27th July at the Islington Assembly Hall).

Throughout its 23-year history, the Berlin-based ensemble has brought new meanings to contemporary music, always looking forward to blending together the band members’ vocations. When you listen to Jazzanova, you can easily tell their brilliant musicianship apart, but also the well-rounded production and ability to synthesise distant sounds and welcome new influences. Their secret has to be searched out in their multifaceted careers. Next to being musicians, they are indeed composers, producers, DJs, record label owners and A&Rs, sound engineers…Or, it’d be better to say that, if it’s a profession related to music, they have probably held or are holding it.

A few days ago, we tried to make things a bit more intelligible and reached Stefan Leisering, one of the founding members of the project, to get a glimpse of Jazzanova’s journey.

Jazzanova trajectory has been pretty mercurial. Despite forming back in 1995 and releasing an uncountable number of singles, EPs and remixes, The Pool is your third full-length album. Can you explain the reasons why your albums are so “rare”?

The Pool is our third studio album, but if you look at all the remixes, EPs and single tracks we’ve released, it’s more like we released music for eight albums or more. In between our albums, we are doing lots of other things…and since our last album, we have also been touring live a lot. Also, still doing remixes every now and then. There was a lot that held us from finishing the album.

It’s important everyone has his field to specialise in and be the guy in responsibility for. This includes creative and non-creative parts of the work.

The Pool just came out after a six-year hiatus. Since you’ve always been pretty busy musicians, producers and DJs, I guess you haven’t spent the last years sitting on your hands. So…what have you done in this period?

We are running labels, with all the work and decisions and taking risks included. Axel Reinemer is running a professional recording studio, JRS (Jazzanova Recording Studio), having something like a second job there, recording, mixing, engineering and/or producing other artists, like Jason Derulo, Sundara Karma, Riuji Sakamoto, Apparat, Lorde, Malika Ayane and others.

Claas Brieler, Jürgen von Knoblauch and Alex Barck are DJing around the world. And since 2009, we’ve played hundreds of shows with our live band.

Also, the album itself took one to two years of working and coordinating with all the vocalists.

I’ve read quite a few times now that you and many music journalists consider The Pool as your most complete and solid album. Why is that? And what were you looking for while writing it?

Basically, since the first days, we followed our collective tastes. While in the first remix era from 1996 to 2000, we preferred to concentrate on rhythm, drums, percussion and less on harmonies, song-writing etc. During our next “episode” In Between, we moved our style more to R’n’B, soul, hip-hop-influenced sample craziness. The following years, 2003 to 2009, we made a lot of remixes still, but used more and more real instruments and sampled less, peaking in the Belle Et Fou soundtrack and our third album Of All The Things (2008), where we did lots of orchestral arrangements and more song-oriented arrangements.

With the live band also, some changes and impulses came into our music in the 2010s.

For the new album, we also got a lot of inspiration by using more electronic ways of producing (including sampling). The inspiration from the past, but also a lot of our experience of the last 10 years, found its way into our new album.

Also, Axel’s experience from his studio work apart from Jazzanova was an important influence.

Listening to The Pool, one can possibly say that it’s also your darkest album or at least the deepest one. How do you feel about it and what has changed in your sound?

If you listen to our remix for Koop‘s “Absolute Space” (1997) or to our remix for Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela” (2010), but also to “Little Bird” (from our second album) and many other tracks or remixes by us, you will see that dark songs always have been part of our world. Also, in DJ sets or on our radio shows.

For The Pool, it’s quite balanced between darker songs and even party songs. In the end, we discussed lyrics more than ever with our collaborators. It’s important for us that the songs are deep and have a touching moment.

As it happened with your previous works, there are plenty of interesting collaborations on The Pool. How did you choose/get in touch with your guests, and how did these collaborations shape the work?

Some of the artists we collaborated with we know from Axel’s work in the studio, like KPTN, Rachel Sermanni or David Lemaitre. Others we know through long friendships, like Jamie Cullum, Ben Westbeech or Paul Randolph. And then there are a few we made a connection with during our album work because we heard their music and liked to have them on our album.

Getting them all together was a long process that started three years ago. It took a lot of time to get all the contributions together, as our singers live on four continents.

Similarly…What were you listening to while writing and recording The Pool? Is there any musician/band who influenced the creative process?

Sure, we’re listening to so much music, from pre-war blues, jazz, and gospel to new pop and R’n’B music; from traditional folk music of all continents and field recordings to house and techno. There are so many inspirations, it’s hard to name a single one. But definitely, the personal tastes of us five are getting more open, and this changes and develops our music too.

Despite the fact you’ve played all over the world and spent periods abroad, Berlin is still Jazzanova’s domicile. What’s your relationship with the city and how does the Berlin music scene affect your sound?

Well, stylistically, we always went a kind of global way, being connected with London, Tokyo, Philadelphia or New York. Berlin is now more open towards jazz and soul than it was in the 90s. For us, it’s great having a lot of international musicians in our city.

Is there any Berlin or German-based musician/band you’d like to suggest for us to listen to?

Let’s just name two artists with whom we worked on our album: KPTN is the lead singer, producer, songwriter of his project Champyons; and David Lemaitre, who will soon be releasing his next album. Both worth a check!

It’s always tricky to shelve your music in a style or even a genre, but I still think that jazz, in its more contemporary and urban meanings, can work. How do you feel about the craze going on in the new alternative jazz scene?

When you’re through with chart music, you start to search for less-known artists and music you’ve never heard before. People check digital afro music, weirdo pop etc. I did it in the late 80s, when I discovered the gold-chain rap, and people are still doing it today. One day, on that lifelong search, you will pass jazz with all its facets, from trad to bebop to fusion to smooth jazz.

I understand the craze because it’s also about good music. Whenever it’s a movement and not just single artists, it always helps the thing going, as it’s easier to market.

The new jazz movement can only be good for the jazz scene. It raises attention and draws a lot of new and old jazz fans. And besides, there are some really good artists among them.

It’s been more than a while now that, next to playing in a globally renowned ensemble, you’ve also been running a label. What can you tell us about the experience, and is that influencing/changing the way you work as a band?

We try to keep studio work and label work apart from each other. Axel and Stefan are specialised in studio, composing, producing, but they’re not actively running the Sonar Kollektiv label.

We always ask the same canonical question to wrap up our interviews, so we can’t spare you… If you had to introduce Jazzanova to someone who has never listened to your music (if there’s still someone around), what would you say in a few words?

Rhythm, samples, hip-hop roots, soul and jazz influences, songs in an unusual arrangement.