Gorilla Mask – In depth interview with sax player and leader Peter Van Huffel - 2020

Interview by Geert Ryssen

Peter has Belgian Roots (through his father who was born in Sint-Niklaas, Belgium) and is married to singer Sophie Tassiginon who is also Belgian. They live in Berlin where they are an active part of the jazz and avantgarde music scene. Peter has played many times in Belgium already and loves to do that whenever the opportiunity arises.

Congratulations with the new Gorilla Mask album. First of all a question about the name of the band. In the past you have also used ‘Peter van Huffel’s Gorilla Mask’, since ‘Iron Lungs’ it’s briefly ‘Gorilla Mask’. What made you decide to make this change?

Peter: 'When I first formed the group, and through the first few years of it’s existence, I felt it was important to present the band as my own project. I had been leading groups for a number of years already under my own name, and wanted to make sure to present this new musical direction that I was taking as the bandleader, something that is quite common in the jazz world overall. As I developed the concept, composed all of the material, and organised all details for the band from the very start, I felt it necessary to present the band in this way. After a number of years of playing together however, I felt that my role as leader of the group was well established and therefore adding “Peter Van Huffel’s” to the name started to feel a bit redundant, and simply too long. I decided that simplifying to “Gorilla Mask” presented a stronger image and statement, and also presented the band less as a “jazz group” with a specific frontman, and more simply as a musical ensemble.'

To me the shortening of the name is reflected in the music in a way that with every album, it is more clear that all three musicians have an equal role in the band and are equally prominent in the sound balance of the band. Do you agree?

'I think that we each had a relatively equal role in this music from the beginning, although it is definitely true that the collaborative and collective effort in the music has increased, and that both Rudi and Roland have begun to add much more of their own musical personalities to the project in the last few years. Although I still assume the leader role and compose of all of the music for the group, we invest a lot of time into rehearsing together and building the compositions as a group, even often altering forms or concepts from what I brought into rehearsal originally. Rudi and Roland’s input is of utmost importance to the overall sound of this project, and this music would never sound the same with any other combination of people. When it comes to the music making, we truly function as a collective.'

Last time I saw the band live I noticed an evolution in the use of effects and electronics. This is less prominent on the new album. The new pieces you played were also more stretched. Perhaps you had already recorded the pieces then and this was already an evolution of the pieces?

'Actually the album was recorded shortly after you last saw us in concert, and I make use of the effect pedals on all but two tracks of the new album. But in a live performance we take more time to stretch out the pieces and I likely spend more time getting into various sound textures involving the effects in live performances than I did in the studio. My goal with the album was to present it with the effects as an enhancement of the band’s sound without overwhelming the music. For me, Gorilla Mask is still at it’s core a sax-bass-drums trio and I didn’t want to lose that identity with the new record. This is also where pieces such as “Avalanche” and “The Nihilist” come into play on the record, as they bring back a bit of the “free-jazz” from which the band originally developed. I am also a fan of short to-the-point records and see the process of producing an album as a very different thing to a live performance. To me, a strong album should be concise, intriguing, and leave the listener wanting more, which is what I sincerely hope we accomplished with the new album.'

How would you put the new album against the previous ones, sound wise, composition wise, production wise, thematically?

'I am overall extremely happy with the new album, and intentionally involved some of the same people who had worked on our previous records as I have been very pleased with the results of each one of them. Christian Heck has now recorded and mixed three of our four albums - all but “Bite My Blues” which was recorded live on tour in Canada in 2013. Christian is a fantastic engineer from Cologne who I have also engaged for other recording projects, and I feel he manages to get an authentic mixture of the acoustic jazz and heavy rock sound that the band is aiming for. James Plotkin from the US mastered this album as well as “Iron Lung” and I have been thrilled with his work on our music as he knows how to give it the extra boost which I am looking for in these productions. I like the sound of all of our albums to a large extent, although “HOWL!” has a very different sound largely because of the acoustic bass and the youth of the band at that point, and “Bite My Blues” is very gritty as it was recorded live in two different small clubs in Toronto. For me our two best sounding albums from an audio perspective are “Iron Lung” and our latest, “Brain Drain”. I find it hard to compare the two however. I find the effects on “Brain Drain” largely change the sound of the album and how the band comes across, and the studios in which we recorded each of these albums were also very different in acoustics. I see “Brain Drain” as the present evolution of the group’s sound, and I am thrilled with the blend of instruments and effects on the album as a whole.'

Although the band sounds as adventurous as ever, my impression is that you are going in a more accessible direction, or is it just me that is more used to your style?

'I think we are incorporating more grooves and perhaps sticking to forms a bit more than we used to, at least within the context of the new album. So it is possible that this makes the music a bit more accessible and I do see more and more people being drawn into our live performances, although this is not something that I or we as a band have done intentionally. We are just evolving through years of playing together and the musical experiences we have shared. The music that emerges from the band at this point just feels right, and if that means that it is also more accessible to a greater number of music listeners, then this is fantastic. I think we have each developed tremendously as individual musicians since the inception of the band, and I have started to write more intricate melodies and more complex forms for many of the new compositions. There is definitely more concentration on precision and executing complex melodies and rhythms together in our current repertoire, especially in comparison to the music that appeared on “HOWL!” and “Bite My Blues”. I am not sure if complexity and intricacy make the band more accessible, but I have also been told recently that we are becoming “danceable” so I guess the current style is having a connection with people on different levels that we have before.'

I know you really ‘compose’ the pieces, although they sound like much improvised. In what form do you present your compositions to the band?

'Probably very surprisingly to most of our listeners, but these days I present the compositions very nicely written out with a music software program, with melody, bass line and form all very clearly detailed. Much of the music is however intended to be played very freely or interpretively, so although compositions are often written in a specific time signature or rhythm, we often have to rehearse a certain approach to playing the melodies which are much more conceptual than what is seen on paper. This is the case for pieces like “Hammerhead” and “Steam Roller” from “Iron Lung” or “Avalanche” from “Brain Drain”. But I find it important to present the pieces clearly to the band so that we can work with them easily in rehearsal and internalise them more quickly before performance, as we like to avoid using charts on stage.'

What inspired you most for writing new music? Places? Books? Other music? Situations? Conversations? Other musicians? ……

'My inspiration always comes from different sources, so there is nothing that is an absolutely consistent inspiration for me. Sometimes it is simply a question of a mood that leads me in a certain direction with composition. Sometimes there is a direct outside source such as a film, listening to another band or a classic album that I love, or simply a walk in nature which can inspire me. In Gorilla Mask the music definitely has a number of influences from both the Jazz and rock worlds, but often the music comes more from my idea of creating a certain sound. I often like to think in shapes or structural ideas when I compose for this band, for which I can once again give the composition “Avalanche” as an example. At other times it can be that I hear a bass line from another composer which inspires me to come up with something in a similar direction. For example, “Caught in a Helicopter Blade” on the new album somehow emerged after revisiting Miles’ “Live Evil” again after quite some time.'

Do you sometimes hear other music that gives you new ideas for use in Gorilla Mask and if so, can you give an example and how you translate the idea for use in Gorilla Mask?

'I definitely get inspiration from other music and other artists. I don’t necessarily search out influences or inspiration for new pieces, but sometimes when I listen to a recording or hear a band live there is an idea or a sound that just sticks with me, and gives me the inspiration to write something in a similar vibe or direction. I do however try to make a point of not taking material directly from other artists, something I feel is both artistically as well as morally important. Therefore I usually will not listen to a song again after it has inspired me to compose something myself. I work more from the memory of the song in my head, or simply the feel or atmosphere it presented to me. I think this helps me to find my own approach and my own sound for a new composition although the source of inspiration and even concept may have come from directly from another musical source, and I know that this can sometimes be detected by the listener as well.'

Your wife (Sophie Tassignon) is also a respected singer and musician in the Berlin scene. Her music is very different. Is there nevertheless a mutual inspiration?

'My wife and I take a tremendous amount of inspiration from each other, and have also worked together on a number of occasions. Although much of our music and the groups with which we play sound quite different, I do think there are quite some similarities in how we approach music. In the two projects we have co-led - “Hufflignon” and “House of Mirrors” - as well as my octet in which she sings, our musical ideas always seem to gel perfectly. We are both very supportive of one another and share a lot of ideas about our music, our compositions and the music business together. We also love to perform together whenever possible.'

I know that titles are very important for you to evocate a certain feeling, mood or meaning. Do they come easy? In what way are they related to the reality of your everyday life?

'I do find titles important, somehow especially for Gorilla Mask as I want to portray a certain atmosphere with the band, and to potentially offer a visual image along with the sometimes quite abstract composition. I approach Gorilla Mask very differently however from when I write in a more modern jazz style, because I try to write music that has an almost theatrical or explosive sound to it. Therefore, when I title the pieces, I try to seek out titles which portray the powerful sound of the group and the music, while at the same time being somehow extreme and also humorous. Mostly the titles to Gorilla Mask pieces come easily to me, and I have quite a lot of fun naming these songs. I tend to choose titles which are not necessarily meant to be taken so seriously but simply present a visual accompaniment to the songs. I’ve been doing this since the beginning with song titles like “Angry Monster” and “Fucked” on our first album, and somehow I have not yet run out of ideas for titles. A couple of my favourites on the new album are “Caught in a Helicopter Blade” and “Forgive me, Mother” - both of which somehow came very quickly and I never hesitated for a minute to change them.'

For the album title you choose ‘Brain Drain’. You could also have chosen ‘Rampage’ or ‘Avalanche’ or ‘Barracuda’, … why Brain Drain and what does it mean to you?

'Somehow I felt that Brain Drain would offer the best possibility for interesting imagery on the album cover. Knowing that we were releasing again with Clean Feed who works strictly with one of my favourite graphic artists, Travassos, I knew that he would come up with something amazing for this release. Avalanche and Barracuda somehow seemed too obvious for me, and also didn’t represent a strong enough album title to me. Rampage was definitely a consideration at first, but it seemed too dark and extreme for the album title, presenting too much of a negative imagery. To me, “Brain Drain” offers a strong yet abstract visual image which could be explained as the emptying of the mind by the over saturation of it’s surroundings and influences, an image I find very representative of the modern human world in which we are living. I didn’t necessarily name the album as a political metaphor or statement, but I am very conscious and disturbed by much of what is going on in our world these days regarding politics, the ignorance around the climate crisis, and the overall manipulation of mass populations in a number of disturbing ways. I see that the concept of Brain Drain is something that is literally taking place in full force across the globe, so I feel that this title has a prominent place in today’s world.' 

You have incorporated elements of punk and metal in your music. What are these elements?

'I have never specifically tried to incorporate punk or metal into the music, but from the beginning I wanted to create an improvising group that played with a certain energy found more in rock music than in the jazz world. My early compositions were simply intended to hint at rock music, but as the band has developed over the years many other influences have broken into our sound, largely from the variety of influences all three of us have in our backgrounds. Switching to electric bass back in 2013 was definitely a defining factor in the band’s sound, and I have always appreciated very hard hitting music so I guess what is interpreted as “metal” in our music comes largely from the intense full-on approach we like to perform with. I love to play the saxophone screaming loud, with a sound which could be compared to that of a metal singer I suppose, and I think the saxophone is tremendously conducive to this. The punk element has a lot to do with the roughness and unhinged interplay that we approach the music with. Although the new music is much more intricate and defined than our older songs, we still and always have tried to play with top energy and to push our own limits in every performance. We would rather rip the composition up on stage and burst into uncontrollable sound scapes, than to settle into the familiar. For me this is a huge aspect of what punk music offered the world, and what I appreciate most about it. I find music most exciting when it is rough and dirty, as can be heard on one of my favourite punk albums, “Fun House” by The Stooges.'

Gorilla Mask is your priority band. After four albums the line-up has not changed, what does keep the three of you together over a 10 year period?

'The trio just works, and after 10 years of developing together we have learned a lot about each other and how to make music collectively. We have done a number of shows in Berlin for which we have invited special guests to perform with us, even expanding to a sextet and a septet on a couple of occasions, and all of these situations were a blast and definitely brought new ideas into the group. But I feel that a long standing band is a special thing, and the music is always the best and strongest in trio. We will continue to do shows with guests from time to time, and possibly this will even happen on tour at some point, but I believe that we will continue to grow and develop our sound more successfully by maintaining the trio format, and it’s the setting in which I enjoy the music most as well.' 

I‘ve got a feeling that with Brain Drain, the band could really break through on a big scale. It’s all there and well balanced: the compositions, the sound, the grooves, the right mix, the ballsy power, … You really need to have a rock-like promotion/booking organization to put you on the festivals that matter. Do you see things happening?

'I would be very happy to see this album move the band in a new and bigger direction, but of course I have no way of knowing if this will happen. We have had a lot of great opportunities over the years and played at some fantastic venues and festivals, however mostly within the jazz scene. The music industry is quite over saturated these days, and this makes it very hard for a band to stay in the limelight and to break through to any large extent, and for new bands to emerge successfully. I think that our music is quite specific, not necessarily fitting into the traditional jazz norm nor the typical rock world, and that can make it difficult to promote. I would be thrilled however to have increased and improved opportunities with this group and also to break into the rock scene to a larger extent. I don’t plan to stop promoting the band or organising concerts, so all I can say is I hope the right people are listening, and that we are always up for a new experience and a new opportunity.'

Just like ‘Iron Lung’, you released the album on vinyl. How important is that for you?

'Personally I love vinyl, and I am very happy that it’s made such a huge return to the market. CDs are also a fantastic form for listening to music, but with the streaming age that we are currently in people are paying less and less attention to music as a product, and also taking less time to truly listen to an album. cd's are simply being downloaded into file formats and then stored away in shelves. For me a vinyl is an entire listening process. The sides are short and you have to flip the album halfway through. You have to be delicate and careful when handling the album which I think brings on a whole other level of musical enjoyment. The LP also becomes a work of visual art as the album cover becomes a great canvas on which to present the cover design, an aspect that adds greatly to the whole experience for me. This is largely why I chose to do the gatefold cover for this record as I find it makes the album into a very special product, both visually and sonically. I also truly love to high fi sound quality of vinyl. No matter how fantastic a cd or a high quality digital file can sound, it is practically impossible to emulate the unique sound of a good quality lp.'

You have also lots of other musical things and projects going. One of them is the octet. Is this still going on with the intention of making recordings?

'The octet is a very inspiring project and has given me the chance to explore some very different approaches to composition and music creation. It is however unfortunately very hard to generate work with such a large group currently and therefore we are not getting many opportunities to develop the ensemble further at the moment. I hope that I will be able to find a label to support a recording with this project over the next couple of years or at least to find some cultural funding to push the project further, and I would love to continue composing new material for this group as soon as I can find the opportunity to do so. For the moment the group is on a bit of a pause while I focus on the new Gorilla Mask album and some other projects, but I hope to be able to take it further before too long.' 

In rock music it is very important for a band to have some ‘signature’ pieces (this is professor Gene Simmons of KISS speaking – haha). What would be a typical Gorilla Mask ‘signature piece’ on Brain Drain? (I know what I would say …)

'Rampage and Hoser would be my first two picks for signature pieces on this album. Perhaps also “Caught in a Helicopter Blade”, specifically because of the headbanger-like bass line ... I think each of our albums has somehow had a signature piece of sorts, like “Iron Lung” or “Before I Die” from our last record, or “Z” and “Chained” from our earlier recordings.'

Congratulations again on the artwork. The vinyl gatefold is fantastic!

'Thank you, I am also very pleased with it! I was very excited to release it as a gatefold cover and with a 180g lp, and I think Travassos did a fantastic job with the artwork! I am also very pleased with the use of René Griffin’s photos on the inside layout, which were taken at our last concert in Berlin before the recording session.'

Can you tell something about Christian Heck and why you prefer to work with him?

'I came across Christian in 2009 when I recorded “Like the Rusted Key” with my former quartet. This was shortly after I moved to Germany and I wanted to record in the famous Loft Studio in Cologne, where he is the house engineer. I had however already heard about his reputation from some fellow musicians and was extremely thrilled with his work during my first experience, so much so that he has now recorded the majority of my albums since I relocated to Germany from New York in 2008. Christian has a fantastic ear for details, and aside from getting a fantastic sound he is often able to offer good constructive advice on the music and and on specific takes within the studio, assuming a sort of co-producer role at times. He has become my favourite engineer to work with and I always feel confident that he will get the sound I am looking for regardless of the music or band setting. I also love the way he records the saxophone, he has a fantastic sense of the overtone structure of the instrument and for blending it well within the sound of the group.'

'Brain Drain' is released on Clean Feed Records on digital, cd and vinyl with fold-open cover. - Review on 'Reviews' page.