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Mikkel Hess is something of a musical wunderkind. The Danish-born, New York-based 38-year-old is a composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist all in one, whose talents have been featured within a wide range of spaces, not least of which as his band, Hessismore, a riotous mix of electronica and jazz that jumped into the international scene in 2003 with their first LP, The Soundtrack. Over ten years later, Hessismore is still going strong, with their recently released album, Myheadisaballroom.
For their 2014 tour, ISAORA created some basketball-inspired jerseys for the musical ensemble to sport--a marriage of performance, if you will. Playing for hours on stage, after all, is its own form of athleticism. In this interview, we pull Hess out of the studio and off of the stage to talk about how he ended up living in Manhattan, his first musical memory, and how the ISAORA collaboration went from a seemingly impossible idea to full-on reality.
ISAORA: How did your upbringing influence your music?
Mikkel Hess: I was born in Denmark in a smaller city called Velle. As far as how that might have influenced my music I think of two things: 1) Spending time in nature as a kid seems to encourage “spacing out” in your own world; 2) Growing up in a smaller city, you get to prolong the illusion that people will actually care about what you have to say. There are not hundreds of other kids playing music much more skillfully than yourself, so the bubble lasts longer.
ISA: What was the first thing that got you into music?
MH: The fact that my two older brothers are both musicians is a huge influence. I basically wanted to follow their lead, and they were already playing pretty well by the time I could crawl. They picked some parts from my parents, who are terrific amateur musicians—I also remember both my mum and dad being very patient with me in the music department. Also, I was fortunate to have some very good friends early on who were also into music so we could form a band. We started playing little gigs with our jazz trio when I was 12 years old. My first actual clear memory in life is banging the cookie jars in the kitchen. I still remember exactly what they looked like and the sound of the wooden spoons smacking them.
ISA: Okay, let's talk about Hessismore. How'd that start?
MH: Hessismore started out as my first little solo project about ten years ago. I had just gotten my hands on a laptop, and was setting out to be a cool producer of electronic music. That obviously never happened; I would always end up playing the banjo or something like that, and could never seem to figure out how to create music within the genres. Also, when it came to performing the music live I very quickly got bored of playing alone, so the Hessismore department started growing.
I was joined first by my brother Nikolaj and our old friend Jenno. We played a ton of concerts together. Then I moved to New York, started meeting new musicians and joined forces with fellow Dane Rasmus Bille Bahncke in the studio department. Now it has gotten completely out of hand, and for the new record we were eight people in the studio, just like we do it on stage. I don’t know what it is, but it just seems absolutely necessary to have it be like that. Everyone brings something essential to the sound.
ISA: What was that process of recording like?
MH: We wanted to make a record capturing the energy and sound of the full seven-piece live ensemble. Previous Hessismore records were crafted by fewer hands. The last one, Creation Keeps the Devil Away, was mostly Rasmus Bille Bahncke and myself locking ourselves up at the studio for months. When we started playing the music from Creation live with the full band new elements were added and the songs would take on a life of their own, beyond the original ideas. This time we wanted to move that process of fertilization up and have the full group contribute before recording.
Fortunately, we were invited to work as artists-in-residence at the legendary Clocktower Gallery, so we were able to try a new process in that setting. I would go to the Clocktower every day and then the rest of the group would join me for workshops in the weekends. So, I could dork out on my own and then regularly try sketches out with the full group, have everyone contribute in order to trim and form things organically. I guess I still technically wrote the new repertoire, but to me it feels and sounds more like the music just came out the walls of the Clocktower Gallery and we all helped capture it and make it into a record.
ISA: What are your strongest musical influences?
MH: I am a sucker for African music. And I am a sucker for Johan Sebastian Bach. And so far anything that is loud and has “four on the floor” works for me, too.
ISA: If you had to describe Hessismore in a few words, what would they be?
MH: Ministryofintegration / Ministry of Integration
ISA: When did you make the move to NYC?
MH: I came to New York in 2008 with two good friends. I am still not sure why. It seems like “moving to New York” had been on our to-do list for awhile, and we decided to give it a shot. The original plan was to stay for three months, but then I guess one thing lead to another…
When I think about it, New York probably became a dream place for me early on because I was so excited about jazz music and all the legendary places and people in that world. By the time I finally got here, my interests had shifted to include many other forms of music as well, but in my teen years it was New York as “The City of Jazz” that resonated.
ISA: Where’s home for you in the city?
MH: I live in the Lower East Side. Before that, I lived in Brooklyn and thought I would never move to Manhattan, but now I’m very happy about being close to the studio and it is just convenient in many ways. I go to the same four to five places all the time, and walk the same little route again and again. So, in a way, I have recreated something similar to how I grew up in a small community—just packed in between a bunch of other great things I miss out on. Somehow I find it very luxurious to miss out on things everyday. There’s no way I’m going to see all the great art or hear all the great music that happens. But at least it is there—maybe just in some tiny part it is accessible in the collective consciousness.
ISA: Moving away from music. Let's talk about your ISAORA jersey collaboration for a minute.
MH: First a bit of background story: As part of my American Culture Assimilation Program, I have started following the NBA. Rasmus took me to a game at Barclays Center and I was sold. So, again, capturing and combining the surrounding elements, we started tinkering with the combination of team uniforms and fine orchestral attire. The classic basketball jersey is basically not all that different from the vest in a three-piece suit.
We were already collaborating with ISAORA in a couple of ways, so it seemed natural to bounce these ideas off Ricky and Marc. It was one of those rare experiences where you walk in the door thinking that your loose idea is impossible and useless, and 30 minutes later you walk out the door wondering how it went from “This is stupid” to “This sounds like fun, we know exactly how to develop your little sketch into something way better and by the way we would love to help and support you guys.” So, it really came together family-style, combining forces of ISAORA, Hessismore and last but not least our dear friends at NR2154 who do all the artwork for the band.
ISA: What's next for Hessismore?
MH: At some point I guess we’ll think about planning something fancy, but right now all I can think of is playing the new repertoire LIVE with the group for people want to listen and dance.