There is something quite special about the sound of a Big Band. Even those words say it. Big. Band. That’s a vast array of musical talents that should be able to do just about anything, yet the concept of a Big Band is forever tied down by the ghosts of Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington and all those long gone jazz and swing bands from the past. Unless of course you take a flamethrower to that and reinvent the big band in your own image for the 21st Century, which is exactly what Monika Roscher’s eighteen strong Big Band have done. "Avant-Pop-Math-Jazz-Experimental Prog" is how they accurately describe themselves, and on their latest album, the epic Witchy Activities and the Maple Death, they step it up a few gears and have created something genuinely astounding.
OL: First, I asked Monika to describe how a big band works. Eighteen musicians feels like a lot of personalities to have to control…
Monika: “It's the worst to organise a big band, because we are spread out and you always have to call everybody and write emails and stuff, but once you have organised everything, and you meet and play the concert, it makes a lot of sense. They are such amazing musicians, and for me, it's such a pleasure to work with them and they play my music, which is so cool”
OL: It must be quite difficult to organise them and make them all behave. Are you very strict?
Monika: “Not really, because we are all friends. Playing in a big band is not a very lucrative job, you know, so you have to be on fire and love the music. Everybody is a part of it and it's easy. So I'm not strict or bossy!”
OL: I must admit that I had a very cliched idea of what a big band was, you know, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, or even people like Robbie Williams. But the Monika Roscher Big Band is very different. It's very modern sounding and it doesn't sound anything like that at all really.
Monika: “Actually, Big Band is just a name. It is a lot more experimental than that and I just love the colouring that is in it. I have the flute and the trumpets and also live electronics, and I play the guitar in a rock way. I love to challenge my drummer to try different patterns, not in a swing way, but more in a drum and bass way or whatever, you know, so I'm totally open for everything. I love the open playing field I have with eighteen musicians, because in a rock band with four musicians, you are a little bit limited but with a big band, you have every possibility open to you. It's usually a lot better than I imagined in my head how it would be. There are no borders and I love that.”
OL: Do you think people perceive you in a certain way because you are a big band?
Monika: “I don't really think about how people react to us. We play jazz festivals but also play rock festivals, like the Fusion Festival, an electronic music festival in Berlin. I like to be between chairs, that's how we say it in German, like one foot between the chair, and no chair. I never think about how the audience should react to us, I'm just totally focused on that we play cool, and we have the energy that we need for the day.”
OL: You also have a light suit, which I think you've worn for a couple of performances?
Monika: “Yes, I wanted to go into the music to be a part of it, to kind of dissolve in to the music and become like a starry night. It started out in a trashy way, you know, putting some LEDs on a black suit, then my live electronic player Hannes said, you know, I can build you this suit and it's gonna be really cool and we will make it an instrument that you can also play. It has sensors and I can play it like a Theremin, so it's really cool. I can move my arms during a solo and play the suit.”
OL: Plus you can be your own light show! Let’s talk about the new album now ‘Witchy Activities and The Maple Death’. There's elements of a sword and sorcery tradition which we've seen a lot in heavy metal music, and also goth music as well. Do you feel that there's a link to that musical history within what you're doing with the new album?
Monika: I always try to invent myself a bit further. I just want to embrace what's coming. I like metal music as well and I'm open to every kind of music, but I never start with a concept. That creeps in later. In the beginning I'm open to what is around me. For this album, I was collecting mushrooms in the forest and we found a Witch Bonnet. That's the name in Germany. I was like, wow, this is a Witch Bonnet. You know, I had never heard of it before. This just helped me to start something. I went back home and played the first saxophone part on my piano and it sounded like witches laughing! Then I start collecting everything I could about the witches, the women that had all this wisdom and knowledge and I just went down this rabbit hole for months and checked out everything about witches. They were helping people and were curing people when there was no other medication apart from leeches and bleeding. So I think it has nothing to do with evil, I think they were really cool and it's fun to play around with all the magic and stuff. You know, it's all in there.
There's also a little tiny piece in the album from when we went to Istanbul in 2016 to play a concert. When we were there, there was a Putsch. I'm not quite sure how you say that in English [a Coup], and there was a huge military thing going on. It was such a crazy aura everywhere and it was really kind of scary. So I also put that in the song because it's such a mystical atmosphere.”
OL: Once the album is out, and hopefully it will do well and generate more interest in what you're doing, there's always an expectation that you will then do something even better next time. You've always got that kind of pressure. Have you got any thoughts on where you want to take the band? Do you want to make it bigger or smaller? Or do you want to do different things with it?
Monika: “I'm probably going to see what's coming around, because at one time, I tried to make the band a bit smaller, but it didn't work. For me, the fun part is to have the full power of the band. Bands are so much smaller now. There's a singer and live electronics and that's it, and I understand the concept behind that, but it's so much more fun if you have a huge band, and you have all your friends in it, and you're on tour and hanging out, so I wouldn't want to make it any smaller.”
Monica's big band LP Witchy Activities and the Maple Death is released on Vinyl, CD, and Download on the 5th May on Zenna Records/Membran
Alan Rider is a Norfolk based writer and electronic musician from Coventry, who splits his time between excavating his own musical past and feeding his growing band of hedgehogs, usually ending up combining the two. Alan also performs in Dark Electronic act Senestra and manages the indie label Adventures in Reality.
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