June 2008

Jonas Hellborg: Take the Reins

One can imagine Jonas Hellborg as a child refusing to stay within the lines of his coloring book. His all-embracing approach creates music that redefines boundaries and challenges expectations, yet manages to avoid the self-importance that often accompanies artistic vision.

Art Metal (Bardo) is a fresh take on the Indian/jazz-rock amalgam Hellborg forged during his association with John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu in the ’80s, blending the talents of longtime collaborators V. Selvaganesh on kanjeera (a small tambourine), Mattias IA Eklundh on guitar, Anders Johansson on drums and Jens Johansson on keyboards.

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Courtesy of Warwick

Jonas Hellborg

The disc has many surprises—rollercoaster rhythmic modulations, heavy-metal guitar juxtaposed with the centuries-old kanjeera, melodicism that careens between Bollywood soundtrack and ’70s fusion—but Hellborg sees no separation. “In India, fusion stands for the merging of Indian and Western sounds, while in the West, it represents an era when jazz fused with rock music. I guess I am born fusion since I could never accept playing only one style of music,” says Hellborg. “But then, who or what separated them from the beginning? If you believe there are many different types of music, then yes, I like to fuse them. If there is only music, there is nothing to fuse.” Eklundh’s guitar style seems perfectly suited to Hellborg’s alchemical methods; at one moment he engages in grinding, full-metal-jacket shred, the next he’s soaring over the fray with sustained lines that evoke a mating of L. Shankar’s violin with Adrian Belew’s guitar. “Eklundh and I are very similar in that we both came from a hard-rock background and branched into more complex music,” Hellborg notes. “With a shared curiosity and passion for learning, we journey together into various fields of musical expression, be it ‘Rag Shree’ [one of the oldest, most challenging ragas] or Beethoven’s ‘Triple Concerto.’”

While the kanjeera appears to be a simple instrument, in the hands of Selvaganesh, it produces a surprisingly large palette. “He is one of the leading Indian classical musicians playing today,” says Hellborg. “He has transformed the sound and identity of his instrument—he makes that thing sound like a huge drum kit—and all the actual playing is done with one hand.”

It is somehow fitting that the oldest instrument in the band is responsible for creating an almost techno vibe; the constant bell-like jangle of the kanjeera brings to mind the warp-speed jungle-groove of drum-and-bass music. Hellborg’s ferocious slap-bass playing is also closely aligned with the rhythmic pulse of Selvaganesh; the pair often performs as a duo, and much of Art Metal’s infrastructure is a result of their 10-year collaboration. “We worked out the basic rhythmic structures, then Eklundh and I bounced ideas back and forth. When we had the skeleton constructed, Jens and Anders helped put meat and skin on.”

Hellborg’s work with the Johansson brothers goes back to the early ’90s, when the pair was fresh off a stint with Swedish metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen. Their prototypical metal/jazz laid the groundwork for the group’s predominant sound—heavy, yet agile. But dealing with such complexity requires far more musical depth than the average head-banger can muster. “There is a no-nonsense approach to complex music I have explored with both Jens and Anders,” says Hellborg. “We are good friends, and we are always in touch and exchange ideas and knowledge. Whatever you throw at them is never a problem.”

While many artists focus their attention to their work and creative output, Hellborg has spent as much time and effort developing his tools. As far back as 1981, the Swedish bassist was playing an instrument of his own design: “I see gear as a series of bottlenecks,” states Hellborg. “The wider you can make them, the more of your proficiency as a musician can flow into the world. My design work always addresses shortcomings that I experience when trying to create music.”

Rather than the solidbody instrument most electric bassists play, Hellborg plays an acoustic bass guitar. Not to be confused with the oversized flat-top models seen on MTV Unplugged, his signature instrument (manufactured by Warwick) owes more to the fat “jazz-box” style instruments guitarists play. Hellborg wrings a complex tone from his instrument: woody and rounded, with a clarity and articulation that perfectly conveys his masterful touch and accomplished technique.

While designing his own instrument and operating his own record label (Bardo and Day Eight Records are both Hellborg-run) might classify him as the ultimate control freak, his Zen-like attitude toward music serves as a balance. “It is not really about me being the creator—the ideas are out there already. Every melody and chord has been played by somebody else before. We just reflect the light in our own personal mirrors.”

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