Ville Herrala – Going solo

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If you have been paying attention to the Finnish jazz scene in the last 15 years, Ville Herrala is a name you simply cannot have missed. From the improvisational anarchy of PLOP to a multitude of groups led by the likes of Jukka Perko, Teemu Viinikainen, Arttu Takalo, Jukka Eskola and Verneri Pohjola, Herrala’s inventive and versatile playing, coupled with a rigorous work ethic and a very pleasant and down-to-earth personality, has earned the bassist a reputation as one the scene’s most sought after hired guns.

Now at 40, he is getting ready to release the first album under his own name – a solo bass record that will come out on We Jazz Records early 2020. I sat down with Ville to discuss the album, as well as his relationship to his instrument, growing as a musician and a person and making discoveries at the record store.

Ami Vuorinen: Why a solo album now? Symptoms of a midlife crisis?

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Ville Herrala: This is actually a question I haven’t really thought about yet. I’m sure there’s a point in time where I decided that ok, I want to make this record. And my friends and colleagues have been telling me for years that I should release something of my own. So it’s been there in the back of my head for a while. But to answer your question of why now, I wouldn’t call it a midlife crisis. It’s quite the opposite actually, since I’m now at a place in my career where releasing an album under my name feels natural and comfortable. If it were a source of stress and anxiety for me, I’d probably just keep doing my sideman gigs and be happy with that. I don’t feel any pressure to have something substantial to say for example composition-wise, but hey, I’m putting it out there. Just a very positive thing.

AV: Do you feel your choice of instrument has something to do with releasing your first album at 40? If you were a saxophonist or a trumpet player, you’d probably done this long ago?

VH: Yeah, I think so. And from the start my attitude towards playing bass was never that I wanted to do something on my own. I never had the urge to be front and center and always felt that the bass is first and foremost a functional instrument, and what it does back there in the shadows is what’s interesting. And I think that’s probably why the bass intrigues me so as a solo instrument, like proper solo without accompaniment. Because for me, it’s rarely the most convincing or impressive solo instrument in a group context. When it’s being played within its limitations it can be amazing. Like Charlie Haden does. Or Paul Chambers, who was in a sense a virtuoso, but still played the bass respecting its boundaries. When you take what is essentially a slow and difficult instrument like bass, or say trombone, and start doing virtuosic fireworks kind of stuff, it’s a no from me. And that’s kinda how I ended up with this concept of mine. It has to do with how I see the instrument in a group context having this functional and supportive role, but when you isolate it and make it a thing on its own, you can do anything with it. To me, these two roles and contexts are separate.

AV: You can really hear on the album how a lot of the music seems to be born directly out of the physical attributes of the double bass. Actually it came as a bit of a surprise to me how experimental you went with it. It’s avant-garde yet far from serious, which on the other hand is something that doesn’t surprise me. I’ve always found a certain amount of humour in your playing. Or maybe playfulness is a better word?

VH: Yeah, playfulness. Humour is a good word also. I’m not sure if it was Thelonious Monk himself, or maybe someone else describing Monk’s music as being “as serious as life”. I think it’s a wonderful way to put it, ‘cause life encompasses everything. And if your art is very serious and humourless, it doesn’t really reflect life. On the other hand if you overdo it and go into humour music territory that can be horrible in its own right. But yeah, there definitely is some humour on the album, and I’m really happy if it comes out like that. That it’s not humour music per se, but it’s also not super serious and highbrow.

I wanted this album to be approachable. I think that even when the music is pretty abstract, it shouldn’t be that just for the sake of being abstract. If you take some of the concepts I have on the album, like playing a tune with chopsticks, I present the idea and then condense it into a really compact form. And it became obvious to me very early on after I started working on this material with Mamba [Assefa, producer and recording engineer], that I shouldn’t drag out these ideas. So all the tracks on the album ended up clocking somewhere between 30 seconds and three minutes.

AV: That’s a nice pop-song length.

VH: Well that’s what I’ve been saying, that in a sense this is a pop record for me. I have consciously tried to to present abstract ideas in an easy-to-digest way, so even I myself could be able to understand what I’m doing. I’ve strived to make it easy to listen to from start to finish, even though it’s pretty abstract.

AV: The short and concise tunes definitely support that. There’s a constant sense of movement.

One thing that always seems to come up when reading or talking about you is this hardest working man in the business reputation. You and maybe fellow bassist Antti Lötjönen seem to be the ones who are often described in terms of how many bands or projects you play in. It’s probably an easy thing to point out when looking at musicians like yourself who do a lot of sideman work, but it’s not saying a lot about the actual substance, the music you play?

VH: Well for me the reputation stems from the fact that for a long time I made my living playing mostly jazz. Recently this has actually changed quite a lot, and I have other regular gigs, like singer Maria Ylipää’s band, that are very important employment-wise. So actually right now there aren’t that many active jazz groups that I’m a part of. But these things come and go, so this is not a conscious effort to run down my jazz career. But for example I remember writing a CV for some grant application years ago and just listing all these albums that came out that year. All high profile Finnish jazz albums with like six different bands. If I were to make a list like that now, it would look very different indeed, not quite as convincing from a jazz perspective. But I’m not worried about that. It’s just a different phase that I’m in right now. And what comes to being employed, and this might sound sort of banal, but for me it’s about being able to sustain a certain standard of living, you know, to be able pay the mortgage and so on. But from a creative standpoint, being fully employed in that sense might not be the healthiest thing.

AV: That’s something I meant to ask you about. When you spend a big chunk of your time playing in other people’s bands and projects, how does that affect your own personal art? Is that a challenging setting to develop your own artistic output?

VH: Well I can only speak for myself, but I think for someone who really has something to say, you know as a composer, that might be a problem. ‘Cause when you come home after a gig you’re just too tired to think about anything. But I’ve never been terribly interested in composing, at least in a band setting. I spent three months at the Cité des arts in Paris just by myself with nothing but time, and I think I produced maybe two or three sheets of music that ended up in Plop’s [a long standing trio with saxophonist Mikko Innanen and drummer Joonas Riippa] repertoire. Most of the time there I spent on everything else but music. And I feel that was a very important period in my artistic life. But then you have someone like

Jussi Lehtonen who went there and wrote like a tune a day. He was there for a month and was as productive as you can be, composing probably a few albums worth of music in that time.

But that just goes to show that even if I allow myself the time and opportunity, there isn’t much that’s coming out. Three months is a long time and if you have it in you, you’ll know. So in that sense I guess you could say that if there was something that wanted to come out, being a hired gun and spending every other night serving someone else’s musical vision probably would have a negative effect to a degree.

AV: Some musicians might feel anxious about all this, but you seem to be very much at ease with it.

VH: Maybe it has to do with turning 40. Actually it probably does. It used to be a problem for me at some point. I remember wondering if there was any sense in continuing in this line of work when I had so little interest in advancing my own artistic career. Also I am incredibly hard on myself, and I’m sure that’s also part of why I’ve done so well. If there’s a job to be done, it needs to be done really well. For example I was just subbing for Antti Lötjönen on a Ricky-Tick Big Band gig, and the amount of work and focus that goes into a job like that is crazy. New arrangements, in-ear-monitoring, a big noisy crowd. And when it’s done, I do want them to say “that went well, thank you Ville”. It’s this professional pride that’s really strong in me. And the flipside to that is that it used to take a lot of the joy out of playing.

But this has changed after my son’s birth as playing the bass has had to take a back seat in my life. And it feels really good. There’s a balance that wasn’t there before. I still want to do a great job everytime I get out there and play, but I see past that now, because I know it’s not the most important thing in life. And this has made a huge difference, it’s brought back the joy in playing music. The drive to work like crazy is no longer there.

AV: Your priorities have shifted?

VH: They have. When I’m super busy with work, it often feels like I ought to be somewhere else. This is all part of a bigger structural change in my life and work, a change for the better, I feel.

AV: One thing I wanted to talk to you about is your relationship to music as a listener. Musicians aren’t always necessarily the biggest “music fans”, but you have that side to you also. You’ve even hosted the Jazz kiinnostaa radio show on Radio Helsinki with Matti Nives and Teppo Mäkynen. You’re a vinyl guy?

VH: Yeah, I had this vinyl awakening some time ago. To me, and I think to many others, it’s about the whole experience, not so much about sound quality or anything like that. When I have some time, it’s nice to put on a record. Even if I’m for example cooking and it’s playing in the background, it makes the experience of listening to music more tangible in a way. And I’ve always been of the type that when I run into something interesting, I start digging to find out everything about it. Maybe I haven’t gone quite as deep as Teppo, who is encyclopedic in his knowledge when it comes to jazz, but I sometimes do feel like I am this black hole of useless information. All that trivia just gets sucked in and can’t escape.

To me, listening feels like a special and pure part of the jazz experience. And to be able to keep it separate from the playing part is paramount. I remember coming across Billy Harper’s Capra Black recently. There’s at least one, or maybe two songs that we used to play in an ensemble class at the Sibelius Academy in the early 2000s, and at the time that experience really ruined that music for me. What was required was too much for a 20-year-old, you know having to play as “black” as on that record. Like Georgios [Kontrafouris, keyboard player] has said about that album: “You cannot get more black than that”. And there I am, a young bass player from Turku, Finland, straight out of the conservatory, trying to meet those impossible standards. But listening to that record now, I just thought wow. I could hear just the music and feel the amazing vibe it carries. And for a musician like me, to be able to just listen and appreciate the music without analyzing and paying attention to the mechanics of it, is a precious thing. Because sometimes that can get in the way of enjoying music purely from the listener’s standpoint.

AV: Have you found any interesting records lately?

VH: Actually yes. A few months ago I was visiting Digelius [arguably The Jazz Record Store in Helsinki] and Risto there pointed me to a few crates of recent arrivals. There was some interesting stuff there, but most of it was not of the must-have variety, and also my financial situation at the moment advised me to keep it cool. But then I came across this Barre Phillips album called For All It Is. A JAPO Records release from ‘72 or ‘73 featuring four bass players and a drummer. And it was recorded in 1971, which to me made it especially interesting. So much happened in the first half of the 70s, that had it been recorded in 1974 for example, I might have left it there. But 1971, I just had to find out what it was all about. And it turned out to be a really good record. Palle Danielsson, Barry Guy, Jean-François Jenny-Clark and Barre Phillips on double basses and this drummer Stu Martin, who died of a heroin overdose in 1980. He used to play with Maynard Ferguson and some psychedelic rock bands in the seventies. A very special character from what I’ve learned. Anyway, the music is at times pretty heavy with the four bassists churning away and at others it’s more delicate yet experimental with imitated birdsong and effects-like stuff. And I had no idea this record even existed. When I took it home, I was still prepared for a “for bass players only” type of experience, but it turned out to be so much more. A real find!

AV: The joy of discovery.

VH: Yeah, definitely. Two crates, one record that just had to go home with me. What a great feeling.

AV: To wrap this up, let’s look forward. Where would you like to be in say ten years, when we come knocking on your door for a Ville Herrala at 50 interview?

VH: Well I’ve found that for me the most important thing is to get to work with people who make the process meaningful. I’m not fixated on style or genre in that sense, that’s secondary. The best case scenario is when you have a group of people who you value as musicians and as human beings, working together on creative music and having fun while at it. That’s not always the case. Sometimes the music isn’t that creative or rewarding, but the people are and it’s so much fun. Sometimes it’s the other way round and the guys – also women sometimes but unfortunately still mostly guys – can be really challenging and there might be a lot of friction, but the music is just so great that it overrides those difficulties. But the older I get, the more find myself appreciating and striving for those situations where it’s meaningful and harmonious on every level. Where I can have that feeling that it’s ok to be who I am and play the way I play.

And this connects to the personal goal of being less self critical and more accepting when it comes to my own playing. The journey towards that has begun, but there’s still a way to go. And I do believe that being more at home with your own playing also makes it more meaningful for others. It’s not necessarily a huge difference, but I believe it does come across for the listeners also as a positive thing. And that’s what I’m working towards.