Below is the Part 1 of a multi-part interview with Jan Zehrfeld of Panzerballett, the world’s best and only jazz-metal band.
Due to the time difference between Arizona and Germany, we conducted this interview early in the morning for Jan and in the middle of the night for myself. I was probably more tired than he was, but it’s hard to tell.
Also, Jan’s camera could only record ~40 minutes at a time, so our interview ended abruptly. I also hadn’t figured out how to record our conversation correctly, so I’m missing the audio and video from my end. And it was so hot in the Arizona summer that I had to run the air conditioner so my computer wouldn’t melt. This made the quality of my audio suck eggs.
Good thing this is just a personal hobby project or I’d feel like I really failed!
Interview Audio (Podcast)
(NOTE: hitting the “play” button requires a hefty download of the entire audio file!).
Or, download an mp3 .
This is the first videoconference interview I’ve done with the site. There are some issues that I’m figuring out. This was a great learning experience for me, which probably makes it a less enjoyable viewing and listening experience. Anyone who complains will be justified, but will also be called a “freeloader.”
Anthony: Hi, this is Anthony from MakeWeirdMusic.com and I am here with Jan Zehrfeld of Panzerballett. Jan, could you introduce yourself? The purpose of the site is to introduce people (particularly musicians) to new music and to expand their horizons. So, go ahead and tell us what you do and how you got into it.
Jan: Hello! I’m Jan Zehrfeld from Munich, Germany. I started a band called Panzerballett, or “Panzer Ballet” as Americans say it, back in 2004 and this is kind of extreme music. It mixes and blends together styles which are basically far away from each other, like there is a lot of heavy metal in there as well as jazz. So, you could call it “jazz metal” or “metal jazz” or whatever, also mixed with some other styles like funk and maybe some grooving styles, but I think mainly it’s about extremeness and complexity and about complex rhythms.
I’m a big fan of extremely sophisticated music. Back in 2004, I was just finishing my studies as a jazz guitar player. My influences were, at that time, or my heroes were Scott Henderson ’s Tribal Tech , Planet X with Virgil Donati and Tony MacAlpine , as well as Meshuggah and Mats/Morgan , which are friends of Meshuggah, also from Sweden. They do kind of similar rhythmic stuff like Meshuggah, but not that heavy. It’s more funky or Zappa-esque, maybe.
Well, I’m not a big fan of Frank Zappa, actually, but I dig his music a lot. I mean, I respect it a lot and I can see there are many people drawing parallels between the music I compose and Frank Zappa’s music, which I totally agree to because the basic statement of the music is kind of the same. Panzerballett’s music came many years after and the musical statements are related. I think there is a lot of music that were my main influences that were influenced by Frank Zappa’s music. So, there are big parallels.
But I don’t actually listen a lot to Frank Zappa because it’s not my cup of tea. He has lots of criticism about politics happening back then in America, which I don’t know and I’m not inside the whole thing so I don’t understand it that well.
And there is a lot of lyrics and I don’t do lyrics at all. I cannot write lyrics, actually. Everything that I’ve tried is nothing that I’d like people to hear. I don’t think it’s anything that I consider as “worth spreading.” I think only about the music itself, not about lyrics. I would say, now that I got kind of into a dead end, or blind alley… I was about to explain the music of Panzerballett…
A: So tell me about when you finished your studies in 2004, how did Panzerballett come about?
J: I had this vision of what I wanted to do and, having written a thesis about Meshuggah and Meshuggah’s music and development, I got deep into the stuff and transcribed and played and covered some of Meshuggah’s stuff in my final exam… I started composing my own songs during my jazz guitar studies and I thought, “Well, I want to actually form a band that’s playing only my own compositions.” That’s when I started looking for musicians because the band that I had back then for my final exam–it was fun playing with them, but they didn’t have time for a steady band. So, I had to actually look for musicians who had enough time to form a band and to really rehearse a lot and get into things.
Then I found three guys, Max Bucher, Flo Schmidt, and Gregor Bürger. I knew all of them from the local scene as jazz musicians and Gregor had his own funk big band, which is still happening. It’s called Ear Force . I played in his big band. The first thing was I was looking for was a keyboard player, but I couldn’t find any. There weren’t that many keyboard players who were much into jazz music or, on the other hand, the jazz pianists playing keyboards with sounds usually didn’t do that. So, there were maybe two or three guys and they were already professionals that didn’t want to or have enough time.
I was racking my brain how to solve this problem. Then there was, in a different context, a rehearsal with a band that was rehearsing just for fun and they were already good musicians who didn’t want to join Panzerballett, but they invited me to come into the rehearsal room and they said, “Well, bring your own songs. We can jam on them.” These were a drummer, bass player, and a saxophone player. I thought, “Well, I could compose something for this session without it being a band, but I want to do something cool.” So, I started composing something for guitar, saxophone, drums, and bass.
These were actually the first songs that later I used for Panzerballett. Because it turned out that it’s actually working with heavy guitar and saxophone, these were fusion compositions and it was a lot of fun trying out things with this lineup and this instrumentation. I didn’t think that the saxophone could be something that could play a role like a keyboard, but on the other hand, I found out I could play some of the role the keyboard would, so I found a way for this lineup and instrumentation.
That was kind of the starting point for writing my own compositions and then I found those compositions in Munich for having this steady band and then we met once a week and rehearsed for half a year and it turned out that it worked and we played our first gig. I think it was half a year later. We formed in January and the first gig was around June or something in a small club. It turned out it was fun and it worked. We decided, “Well, let’s make a record.” I wrote some more songs.
At first, it takes a lot of work until you have enough material for a concert and then a CD. In the concert, there were some songs that were not in 100% in the Panzerballett concept because we played some standards and some blues stuff as well. It wasn’t the thing that I actually wanted to do with Panzerballett. In the end, maybe a couple months later, we had enough material and we went into the studio in March 2005. This was the debut.
During the recording of this album, we were a quartet. I found that in the studio, songs were missing a guitar or something. Sometimes the saxophone was standing there a little bit “alone” and I thought, “I could actually do overdubs.” In every song, I found some parts that I could double some guitars or some saxophones and play comping and guitar solos. After we recorded this debut, I thought, “It would be great if we could do this live as well.” So I asked a friend, a second guitar player, who played all these parts live. It was Andreas Dombert.
This was the beginning of 2006 when we started to play live as a quintet. From that time on, it’s stayed as a quintet.
It turned out that in this Panzerballett sound, you have two main parts: one is the wrecking ball heavy metal part which is the riff part which is bass and rhythm guitar (what I basically do) and then there’s the melody part, which is the saxophone and to support this, the lead guitar doubles the saxophone, which is a nice blend. You can arrange a second voice, which sounds very nice, and the melody part gets stronger and gets equal to the riff part.
And of course the drums play a very big role. Or it’s the counterpart? We have two main parts: the drums and the rest of the band because the drums hold it all together. All the polyrhythmic stuff that happens in the composition has to be underlined in the drums. Both parts, which are rhythmically working against each other are brought together in the drums. It has to happen in the drummer’s brain.
It took some time to realize or to implement and assemble. Sebastian came to the band since our first drummer, Max, came from more of a jazzy funky groovy world and not so much from a metal world. He was not a metal head at all. Sometimes I felt the music needed something like a metal impact from the drummer. He played great, but at some time, when I met Sebastian, I immediately knew that this is the guy that I needed for the music.
A: A perfect fit.
J: A perfect fit! Right! And then we had some other lineup changes, but basically from the time on that Sebastian joined the band, it was sounding already a lot like it sounds now. The first record with Sebastian was Starke Stucke and then there was this record label, ACT , which was from–actually it’s Siggi Loch who founded this label and he used to be the head of Warner at one time, then he founded his own label. This is a very important jazz label. He came to one of our release shows from the debut and he signed us after that after that. He told me, “If we want to work together you have to cover music as well.”
He wanted 50% cover material. It was his concept. At first, I thought I wanted to only write my own stuff, but then I thought about it and tried to cover and my first cover was Pink Panther . I thought it was a bit fun and it turns out that it worked. I tried to translate Pink Panther into the same style that I composed the other songs. It worked out well and it was fun doing it because it’s another way of working because you already have a musical pool you can draw from.
This was more than just covering; it was a bigger invasion into the musical material. I call it “verkrassung,” or the “crassification” of it. That’s kind of my word for it. It’s really an invasion in taking out the elements and putting them together in a completely different way. This was the fun part about it. This is where I think the humor comes from. This is where people recognize some humorous stuff in the arrangements because they recognize what actually happens to the musical material when they know it and they know the original and how I treat the music. They can hear it and recognize it and that’s the fun part about Panzerballett.
J: After Pink Panther, I thought, “Let’s take some more songs that everybody knows from both the jazz world and the metal world.” So, I took Paranoid and made a jazz ballad out of it. I took Smoke on the Water and translated it. It all worked well and it was kind of the starting point that’s gone until now. The latest record, we have again Pink Panther. This is an arrangement of an arrangement. We have Mahna Mahna on this record. I’m sure you know it. Everybody knows it.
A: Yes. I did an arrangement of it myself.
J: Oh really?! I want to hear it! Through all the years, it’s always been my aim and my intention to do research and exploit the old boundaries of what’s possible and to go to the limit of what’s possible for the single player and for the whole band. If you can play your own part, it doesn’t mean the whole band can play it as well. It was really a lot of work for every single musician separately as well as for the whole band. It’s like building some complex sculpture and you first you have to build the single elements and then you have to put them together. It’s like twice the amount of work.
It takes a lot of time, especially when we started this quintuplet thing, it took a lot of work. The first quntuplet arrangement was Some Skunk Funk . The whole song is based on quintuplets and it took us half a year to get through the head of the song. And then we had to find a way of improvising on it, which took another half a year until we got through it. In the following years, we started to really play it more and more relaxed and now we actually, after writing some more quintuplet arrangements, we got used to it. In the first phases, it was really hard to “get” it. Now it’s starting from zero again because we started from septuplets.
A: When I first heard Some Skunk Funk, I thought, “Are they actually doing this all in quintuplets?” And then I thought, “No, that’s really stupid. Why would anyone do that?” I thought I was totally wrong. Then after about four months of really listening to it, I thought, “No, they really are subdividing quintuplets.” It just blows me away that you did something like that. It’s so detailed and complex.
J: Yes, when thinking about it, it blows me away too. This was the exciting thing about it: to do something that nobody else does. That way to divide the groove and divide the beat into 5 parts. I didn’t hear it before. Of course in Zappa’s music, you have lots of quintuplets, but not a whole song in quintuplets. Or you have some solo players playing some fast drums in quintuplets, but it’s a totally different effect to arrange something for a whole band based on this quintuplet quantization.
A: I thought I was interpreting it incorrectly because it was so far out of the norm that I must be misinterpreting what was being done. So when I said, “That would be stupid,” I was thinking for me, “Why would you think that’s what they did? That’s nonsensical.” But that’s what it was!
J: Totally! It is total nonsense to do it. And that’s the fun part about it.
A: So, you mentioned you’re really into complexity and you’re using these genres that don’t typically go together–jazz and metal. Can you talk about what got you into the complexity and why that is so attractive to you that you wanted to form a whole–not just a band about it, but a completely unique band that blends these interesting genres.
J: Well, probably because I cannot do anything else than that because anything else would not make sense to me. It’s a reflection of my own inner way of thinking. From the time that I played guitar or maybe one year after I took up playing guitar, I got into jazz music and I always liked to play jazz music. I decided to study jazz music as well, so this was something that had a big part of my musicianship. It played a very important role to have freedom of improvising and also there’s sophistication and the elaborateness of the music.
The complexity of jazz was always attractive, the harmonies, etc. On the other hand, the reason I play music is to channel aggression. The reason why I took up playing guitar when I was 16, it was the time of Guns n’ Roses , Metallica … The metal boom. The power that came from metal or heavy rock…
AC/DC was my first love of rock music. AC/DC had maybe the heaviest impact on my musical taste up to then. The first riffs I learned were AC/DC riffs. I still dig their music a lot. I was recently at a concert on their last tour. It was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen.
I always needed the wrecking ball in the music and this is something that was always missing in jazz: the loudness and the distortion. It never got aggressive enough for me. I wanted to blend this. Jazz musicians were kind of denying this or they were basically refusing to play distorted loud music. This element of wrecking ball in heavy metal… they never wanted to do this. So, that was the hard part of finding musicians who are actually willing to play this. A saxophone that wants to play in a band that is loud and playing metal riffs 50% of the time…
I’ve always wanted to bring these elements together. I wanted to be able to both do improvisation and play complex stuff and also being kind of the wrecking ball. The music has to have all these free elements. So, that’s what turned out of it. Meshuggah was a big impact because they blended metal with Indian rhythms. This polyrhythmic thing has as great a sophistication as jazz has in a harmonic context. Rhythmic maybe as well. But, Meshuggah, the rhythm is so much more important and is so much more sophisticated. This is something that I really grasped onto. Does that make sense?
A: Oh yeah. You could say, “I latched onto it,” or, “I grasped it…”
Who's been listening to the new Panzerballett album, "Breaking Brain?" I love it! What do you think? pic.twitter.com/8vDJXoL22G— Make Weird Music (@MakeWeirdMusic) November 11, 2015
J: So complexity from jazz harmony, complexity from Indian rhythms or polyrhythms… This always felt great for me to, on the one hand, punch the audience in the face by playing really energetic and loud music and, on the other hand, to make it sophisticated in a way that they actually don’t get it in the first place, or they have to first think about it.
You have two elements: this raw–like in a Quentin Tarantino movie–you have this raw power combined with those really sophisticated conversations. You have both elements and that’s also something for me. Humor comes from music, you have both of these elements.
Usually you get punched in the face at a metal concert and, of course, meanwhile there are tech metal bands that have lots of sophistication, but then there’s this really jazzy part about it with improvisation. The whole band gets down to almost zero and we start building a groove or we start playing improvisation from zero to 100. In each night you have a different solo, each night something new happens.
This element was always important to me, to keep it fresh for myself, to keep it fresh for the musicians, not only playing every night the same stuff like MIDI file playing every night. You really have something and you build something new. You have an element of the music that’s open. This seems appealing to me to have both of these elements. There aren’t that many bands that have both of these elements. For instance, in Tribal Tech it was like that, especially in the era where they played not so much jamming, like the last era where they do lots of jamming. That’s not appealing that much to me. But, in the era where the compositions were extremely elaborate and they also had this amazing improvisation and this was my favorite era of Tribal Tech as well.
A: Where did you come across these technical artists? How did you first discover them?
J: Tribal Tech was through a friend of mine. It was the same guy that I played my demo to later on and inspired me to name the band Panzerballett because he said, “It sounds like tanks that are kind of dancing ballet.” It was the same guy who took me–years before that–he was very into technical music, he’s a guitar player who got into Paul Gilbert and Steve Vai [NOTE: Check out our Steve Vai interview!] and all those guitar heroes very early, and he always showed me those guys and he was buying all these guitar magazines, which I did not do at the time, but he got me to this technical music. He also took me to a Tribal Tech concert in Munich. My first experience was not a CD or recording, but a live concert and it was a punch in the face, and to the brain as well. And it was so…