POPTOPIA – Asbjørn in conversation with Bendik Giske: “If you don’t make an effort demonising other people the opposition is a wonderful fuel to move ahead – for me anyway.”
Last Saturday marked the final interview of Asbjørn’s POPTOPIA series. The Danish singer has interviewed the Norwegian saxophonist and artist Bendik Giske, whose expressive use of physicality, vulnerability and endurance have already won him much critical acclaim. The interview concludes Asbjørn’s collaboration with KALTBLUT, which included interviews with artists in the likes of Charlotte OC, Jason Kwan and GIRLI. You can watch Asbjørn’s interview with Bendik here or read the q&a below.
Asbjørn: Hey Bendik, so nice to see you. It looks incredible where you are. You’re in Portugal, right?
Bendik: I am. I just decided that the poolside would be a good place for this interview.
Asbjørn: No doubt about it! I am so jealous right now, I’m sitting in Copenhagen, it’s raining, and it’s sad. So, tell us what you are up to in Portugal.
Bendik: I just played a festival called Jardins Efémeros, which translates to ephemeral gardens, yesterday. I had my sunset moment with the fog machines. It was amazing. There’s something very special about performing these days, when not so many people will come out, even though it’s sold out and they all have to sit in their designated spaces. It just feels so precious for everyone… Well, that’s what I imagined anyway, the energy was just electric.
Asbjørn: Do you feel overwhelmed by it?
Bendik: I don’t know if overwhelmed is the right word, I’m here for it, I’m ready.
Asbjørn: I’ve been doing this series for a couple of weeks. I’ve done it three times before and I’ve made this small tradition of trying to embarrass my guests as much as possible within the first five minutes. I’m gonna do an introduction of you as a hostage.
Bendik: Oh, amazing, I’ll put on sunglasses.
Asbjørn: Perfect. Here we go. So, refusing to be held back by genre, gender norms, or lung capacity. Your captivating performances make George Michael’s careless whisper sound like a child’s play. You mesmerise your audience in circular breaths and sexy outfits and redefine the very idea of a trained musician, and you just might inspire a whole new generation of Berliners to stop smoking and start playing the saxophone. You are today’s guest: Bendik Giske.
Bendik: Thank you so much! I was just going to return the favour, I’ll have a speech for you one day.
Asbjørn: Yeah, I can’t wait. I mean, I’m just to give a little bit of background, you’re the only guest I’ve had on POPTOPIA that I know a little bit, because you were one of the very first people that I met when I moved to Berlin in 2014. And we’ve kind of followed each other throughout the years. And now, you have started releasing one beautiful song after the other and touring like a crazy man. And it’s been such a fantastic thing seeing you grow since 2014. I’m fascinated with everything that’s going on. The reason I invited you today is, I think you’re doing something quite special, and I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about everything and whether it’s something you actually think about, or whether it’s just something you do.
I’m gonna do a small read, just to guide us in the right direction. This is my POPTOPIA statement.
So, pop culture is a complex space, it has the power to make you feel seen and accepted, to encourage and develop individuality and freedom. It also can do the opposite, to uphold norms and stereotypes. In my career and life, I’ve juggled between the two, and in this series, I want to explore how people from in and outside of the music industry experience this space that is pop culture – a free or restrictive space when finding and shaping your identity.
Bendik: Is that a question?
Asbjørn: Well, I mean, it could be, do you have any initial thoughts?
Bendik: I just thought about what you said we’ve known each other for, what, six or seven years now, seeing one another pushing this way, pushing that way, trying to widen the space a little bit. That’s just my initial thought. I’m happy to be in this conversation with you because I do think we both have a surface of contact, but also quite different experiences.
Asbjørn: Indeed, I think so too. I want to do a small warm-up with you. I want you to close your eyes. I want you to just listen to my voice. I want you to disappear into space, where there’s no gravity, where you’re just floating and it’s calm. You’re just gonna say a couple of words of what comes to you because I’m gonna tell you five words now and just after each one you tell me what you experience in this space.
Bendik: Oh, that’s complex.
Asbjørn: Social media.
Asbjørn: Okay, you can open your eyes. So, Bendik, I’m going to ask you some questions now and let’s just see where it goes. To me, you present something very unusual, it’s an art experience. It’s something I’ve never seen before. But still, you managed to package it like you’re a pop star. Is that something you think about?
Bendik: I don’t think about it in those terms so much, but I did at some point realise that if there’s a stage in the spotlight you have to use it right. That’s what I started doing, inspired by other pop stars who were also instrumental, like Miles Davis for instance. He’s such a pop star, such a style icon – visually and musically – and just has gone through so many different areas in one person, it’s completely fascinating. I feel people have been doing this for a long time. I just thought if the infrastructure was there, I’m not gonna be lazy about it, I’m gonna work with what I have.
Asbjørn: So, you say that Miles Davis had a huge impact on you. Was he one of your earliest influences?
Bendik: He has such a large presence on me. I studied jazz for seven years. I went into jazz as a kind of vessel for knowledge, analysis and that being a way to kind of propel creation and performance forward. Miles Davis is one of those people who’s kind of created directions, multiple directions and I say that deliberately. I think it wasn’t lost on me that he would use pretty spectacular outfits, create a stage show, be a very specific persona about it. His visual style changed a lot, sort of his musical style but it didn’t seem haphazard, it didn’t seem sloppy at any moment. So yes, absolutely a big influence. If I am to point out one person that has been my guiding start it probably wouldn’t be Miles Davis. But, as I said he’s just such a large presence in music history, in my opinion.
I think questioning what it means at one point to study a cultural music expression like jazz, but just kind of deriving the ideas from it and making it my own.
Asbjørn: Who would it be then, if it was the most influential kind of ideal you had.
Bendik: I painted myself into a corner there, didn’t I. I thought as I was saying that I better have a good answer for that. I’m not sure I do. But I know there’s a Norwegian saxophone player, too I think around the 90s. His name is Jan Garbarek. He was a happening figure in the 70s and 80s and then around the early 90s, he started going in a very melodic direction, raising the question: is it jazz?
Anyway, I absorbed that conversation a lot. I think questioning what it means at one point to study a cultural music expression like jazz, but just kind of deriving the ideas from it and making it my own. He did that. He did it on the saxophone which was kind of handed to me as a kid, so I’ve just always played the saxophone almost. So, yeah Jan Garbarek; check him out, he’s a fantastic character.
Asbjørn: And when you say character, that’s also as an identity icon for you. What did he do that wasn’t about the music, what kind of character was he, did he inspire something personal in you?
Bendik: Well that’s a good question. There’s a YouTube video of him getting sort of a reward, like the Norwegian Grammys, they call it, of course not the Grammys at all but the Norwegian equivalent. And since he’s releasing music abroad the interviewer says, you’ve never qualified for this price, so we made up a price for you. What does it feel like never getting this price and he just goes I’m getting it now? That’s kind of his attitude. He seems like he doesn’t care about any of the other stuff, he just makes the music and plays it, which I think is a wonderful privilege. It must feel amazing to be that way. I’ve never felt that way. I’ve always felt that I have to represent what I’m doing.
Asbjørn: Do you feel like you fit into the jazz community?
Bendik: I certainly felt the warm embrace of the jazz community but, I think there’s a lot of creative fuel in opposition, and I did feel some opposition. I did feel some of the obvious trajectories that lead to some sort of idea of success because you have those ideas of success when younger, like if I only get to do that thing or that thing I will be successful. I felt that some of those avenues were maybe not as available to me as they were to others, but I don’t know, maybe they were, I just didn’t do it.
I think the music that I’m putting out, I want there to be an inherent openness in there. I want it to be about personal experiences, it’s not even an exploration. So I want there to be an inherent openness, I want it to be some sort of discovery and not a message that is imposed on you.
Asbjørn: I think there’s an interesting thing about you. When I close my eyes and listen to your music it’s a completely open environment where I can put anything I want into it. I can just go out, play with my fantasy, I can go to space, I can travel inside myself and dig into these feelings. It’s kind of unpolitical. There’s no decided identity. And I mean, it’s kind of detached from reality for me. But then when I open my eyes and I see you in your high heels and your kind of Kit Kat Club sexy outfit, it’s so much identity and there’s so much politics in it. It’s very, very real, and I’m thinking like that balance, that juxtaposition in your art must repel some and attract others. Do you know what I mean?
Bendik: Well, first of all, I’m glad you experienced that way. I think the music that I’m putting out, I want there to be an inherent openness in there. I want it to be about personal experiences, it’s not even an exploration. So I want there to be an inherent openness, I want it to be some sort of discovery and not a message that is imposed on you. Touching on that it’s what I’ve experienced in club culture, where it’s my impression or where the music just goes non-stop for hours, someone takes care of the music, someone creates that experience but you have the agency for yourself, to decide how you want to engage with it, if you want to engage with it, and dance or if you want to disengage with it or if you want to be in it. There are just so many ways and you get to choose your crew a little bit and also choose your experience as you go along. But then this juxtaposition with me, maybe that’s just me, experiencing that same openness.
Asbjørn: You said discover like you’re taking the audience out discovering. Do you know where you want to go? Is there something specific you’re searching for?
If you don’t make an effort demonising other people and then the opposition is a wonderful fuel to move ahead – for me anyway.
Bendik: Music is a really, really amazing space because it can be so profound, right? I find myself kind of being able to address large big picture stuff through music and sound experience that I find very tricky to put into words in the same way. But I want to feel community somehow. That’s kind of at the core. I want to be a part of a conversation. I want to be a part of a communal experience. And I want that experience to be accessible. But talking about political spaces, I think that a political space that holds an opinion is very important, but it’s also very important that that space has the capacity to invite in, so that there can be a conversation, potentially with friction. To create the space for anything to happen. That’s what I’m stretching towards.
From a private, personal perspective, I don’t want to sound too sad about it, but at times it’s felt a little bit lonely to be wanting to express myself, what is authentic to me and to include sexuality into this conversation. I don’t buy the argument that straight sexuality is somehow neutral and everything else is deviant. We’re all expressing sexuality to some extent, one way or another, I don’t think that’s necessarily perverse, meaning that you’re trying to score or cruise. It’s just an expression of being and so I wanted to widen that space a little bit and give more space for conversation within.
Asbjørn: So it was a conscious choice to rebel against an ideal, is that what you’re saying?
Bendik: Yeah, for sure. There’s been a lot of rebellion. As I said, there’s so much good, good energy in opposition. If you don’t make an effort demonising other people and then the opposition is a wonderful fuel to move ahead – for me anyway.
Asbjørn: I know what you mean, there’s such a force behind wanting to change something. There’s a difference between fighting for and fighting against something. It seems like you’re at a point where you’re fighting for a lot of things. So that’s like a real sustained sustainable kind of fuel.
Bendik: I don’t see it that way. I think for the sake of this project, I never really imagined that anyone would care that I would play experimental tenor saxophone. So what happens, just to let you know a little secret before anyone knew what I was doing and I would say, it’s difficult to describe the genre, it’s sort of experimental tenor saxophone I studied jazz, we just see people’s eyes glaze over and they went like, You know what, that’s great, you do that. I wish you luck. But it’s not for me.
This space, this music project that we’re talking about now that lays the ground for our conversation right now, was never meant for the public for me. I think if I can earn a living, that’s great, but I was earning a living as a working musician. I was doing all sorts of productions, I would play this and that and everything as a solo for other people’s music, and I was fine, I was okay. But I realised it was important for me to also shape my project alongside that, so I knew that I had a strong core. When I went in when I diverted from my practice and got involved with other people’s practice. This is what this project is, and it’s just been like a crazy playground for me. It’s trying to create a space where I can do absolutely whatever I want, and that’s pretty much what I’m doing.
Asbjørn: It seems like you went through a liberation process with your instrument as well. And I’m wondering about that process of liberation, did that trigger something in your identity in your relationship to yourself, your masculinity, your femininity, your sexuality, your sensuality, is there some kind of connection between the two for you?
Bendik: It’s difficult to say that there is any sort of separation, really, for sure. Just figuring out the outer edges of that instrument, and figuring out what’s possible, what’s possible to do and what I can use it for. But the saxophone is fascinating because a lot of people have done some crazy stuff, but there’s still so much uncharted territory. I’m not sure if I’m touching on any sort of technical aspects that nobody’s done before. That’s not that interesting to me either. What’s interesting to me is to widen the space where I can operate right, and, and just this idea of. For me, it came to a point where I had to either shape myself with full force, or maybe choose to do something else, and I chose the first.
I chose those things and just felt ridiculous to let it go at some point if I didn’t have to, and I didn’t have to, so I kept it going, and I had to change it up for it to be interesting for me, I had to kind of fuck with it a little bit. I had to figure out the way to do simple, naive beauty stories told with just aspects of ugly and gritty and maybe even hostile at times, I just had to figure out what was there. I’ve done that for myself too for sure. Just trying to define for me what it’s all about.
There are way too many forces trying to convince us that somehow all this content is free and it’s not all free.
Asbjørn: This is wonderful. I love hearing you talk about that. Bendik, I think we’re pretty much getting close to the end. So, this is a pop format, and I know it’s hard for a jazz musician but you know. And I don’t know if this is at all possible for you. It’s a difficult question, but I would like you to kind of imagine yourself being in some kind of power position, where everybody answers to you. What would you change in pop culture in 2021?
Bendik: I just think this might be the obvious answer, but I think that people need to get paid. I would change that everybody gets equal pay. There are way too many forces trying to convince us that somehow all this content is free and it’s not all free. And I love superstars like anyone who kind of becomes the spare head of some things, all honour to those people that go there and do that work, but they did not do that in a vacuum. It’s a whole ecosystem that needs nourishment. And so I would just get to work immediately and create a living wage type of scenario for people in this ecosystem, so that we all can just thrive, and have fun with it and create because I do believe it’s important to work, especially pop culture.
Asbjørn: That’s such a great answer. I can’t wait to hear your music soon in space, seeing you sweat, sweating myself getting into some kind of trance.
Bendik: My album is coming at the end of August, some remixes are coming before that, to tickle the sweat.
Asbjørn: Yes, amazing, we can’t wait! Thanks a lot. This concludes the POPTOPIA series. Thanks to everybody who’s been watching!
Asbjørn’s cover photo by Johanna Hvidtved Bendik’s cover photo by Luis Alberto Rodriguez
Asbjørn will release the third single from his forthcoming album on 16 July. “Remember My Name” will be accompanied by the second video off his BOYOLOGY series. Watch the first video, “Young Dumb Crazy” below.