Magnus Öström: ‘It’s stupid to be a drummer and have your own band’
After his friend and EST bandmate Esbjörn Svensson died in 2008, Öström stopped playing music. Three solo albums later, he is getting used to being a frontman
Magnus Öström: “We were the guerrillas of jazz.” Photograph: Emil Nils Nylander
Esbjörn Svensson Trio
When talking to Magnus Öström, it’s hard to know when to raise the subject of Esbjörn Svensson, his friend and partner in the groundbreaking Esbjörn Svensson Trio (EST). Svensson’s death in 2008 robbed European jazz of one of its standard bearers and ended the meteoric rise of a group that was redefining jazz on both sides of the Atlantic. For Öström, it forced a radical re-evaluation of his life and music.
I needn’t have worried. The affable drummer refers to his friend within the first few minutes. It would, he agrees, be hard not to. The two first met when they were three or four years old and the Öströms moved in across the road from the Svenssons, so even an innocuous question about his earliest musical experiences recalls memories of his lost friend.
Öström grew up in Skultuna, a small town less than 100km from Stockholm, where his father worked as a painter and decorator, and his mother worked in a paint shop. As a result there were plenty of empty paint cans lying around, and to an eight-year-old boy, beating them with sticks seemed the obvious thing to do. A few months later he started a band with the kid from across the street.
“We started out with this tin-can band, playing concerts in my parents basement,” says Öström. “We couldn’t play but we just somehow got it together with thrashing guitars, kazoos and singing. Then, when I got my first drum kit, I carried it over to Esbjörn’s house, because they had a piano.”
Öström is quick to credit his friend with the drive and determination that propelled the group. “Esbjörn was a very positive energy, and a very strong force. If you put up a goal, he really wanted to reach it. We had training camps, like in football – three days rehearsing, like a band camp – so it was very serious from the beginning.”
Rumour has it Öström was nearly replaced as drummer before EST was even born. “That’s true,” he laughs. “One day I didn’t want to rehearse because I wanted to stay at home and play with my Scalextric, so I was sacked. We were just 11, maybe 12. Fortunately, they couldn’t find a better drummer so I got the gig back. But that was a big part of it, that we were so committed. From the beginning there was a strong energy to make it happen.”
The sound that began in Öström’s basement would go on to change the face of contemporary jazz. By 2000, when the group released their fifth album, Good Morning Susie Soho, Svensson, Öström and bassist Dan Berglund were performing around the world, even making the difficult breakthrough of bringing European jazz to American audiences. In 2006 they became the first European group to feature on the cover of American jazz bible Downbeat.
At the heart of the band’s success was an attitude more akin to rock’n’roll. An EST show was a spectacle, with light shows, smoke machines and theatrics, not to mention the band’s uncanny ability to whip their audience into a frenzy with thrilling musical climaxes. Also more rock’n’roll than jazz was the fact that the trio stuck together and didn’t play the band-hopping game of most jazz musicians.
“That was something we were thinking from the beginning,” says Öström. “Also, when it came to reaching out to people, we were not just sitting in a jazz club, hoping people will come. We needed to go where people are, because we thought they might like this music but they will never set foot in a jazz club, so we played every kind of place. It’s a little bit of a cliche, but it felt like the comment of the guy in The Commitments, you know? We were the guerrillas of jazz, and that’s how we spread the word of the music.”
The trio’s influence spread, and their innovative approach to jazz has become the standard for young bands on both sides of the Atlantic. Groups such as Snarky Puppy, Phronesis and Polar Bear owe something to their pioneering spirit.
They were about to embark on another US tour when Öström’s phone rang one night in June 2008. It was Svensson’s sister, telling him the pianist had been found lying unconscious on the seabed during a diving expedition in Stockholm, and attempts to revive him had failed.
“What can I say?” he says, after a long pause. “Everything went blank.”
Losing a childhood friend so young – Svensson was 44 – is hard for anyone. But for Öström, it also spelled the end of the project to which he had devoted his life.
“I stopped playing,” he says. “For maybe six months, I couldn’t touch the drums. I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was so strange, because it was super-dark, but in a way, the paper was also white, there was nothing written on it, so my whole life was changed. In a way, everything was open, but a lot of doors were closed, so it was a very strange feeling.”
It was three years before Öström emerged with a new band. His first solo record, the Grammy-nominated Thread of Life, featured a guest appearance by guitarist Pat Metheny on Ballad for E, dedicated to his lost friend. That was followed in 2013 by the well-received Searching for Jupiter, and now, as he prepares to release his third album, Parachute, he says he is slowly getting used to being the frontman.
“It’s my own fault, because I want to have a little bit of control over what is happening. It takes a lot of energy. Also, it’s super-stupid to be a drummer and have your own band,” he adds, laughing, “because you always have to be there two hours earlier than the other guys to set up, and afterwards, you’re staying behind, signing CDs, and then you have to take down all your gear.”
The Bray Jazz Festival runs April 29th to May 1st. brayjazz.com
BRAY JAZZ FESTIVAL FIVE SHOWS TO CATCH
- Magnus Öström (Friday, 8pm, Mermaid Arts Centre): Östróm’s band features some of Sweden’s top players, including the brilliant, Metheny-influenced guitarist Andreas Hourdakis.
- Ronan Guilfoyle – A Shy Going Boy (Saturday, 4pm, The Well): Ireland’s leading jazz composer and bassist has composed a suite in honour of his grandfather, a 1916 veteran and one of Michael Collins’ most trusted lieutenants during the War of Independence.
- Dobet Gnahoré (Saturday, 8pm, Mermaid): Grammy-winning singer from the Ivory Coast who draws together many strands of African music, including Congolese rumba, South African choral harmonies and Ghanaian highlife.
- Kenny Werner Trio (Sunday, 8pm, Mermaid): One of the greats of contemporary American piano: an influential writer and thinker and an incendiary performer with the sort of technique that sends jaws to the floor.
- Umbra (Sunday, 8pm, Harbour Stage): Guitarist Chris Guilfoyle’s exhilarating five-piece is one of the most innovative groups in the domestic scene, including in its ranks mercurial South African saxophonist Chris Engel and rising drummer Matt Jacobson.