Jonas Munk is what I’d call a renaissance man. Munk moves among many musical circles; either through his label El Paraiso Records(which he co-runs with Causa Sui band mate Jakob Skott), his ambient/new age label Azure Vista Records, as well as through the countless projects he’s been involved in as collaborator, producer, or sonic wizard over the last 20 years. His tastes run the gamut from psych, stoner rock, jazz, fusion, ambient, Krautrock, new age, and everything in-between. He rolls all of those influences and inspirations into his own work, which comes out wholly unique and forward-thinking. He’s become one of the premier producers and engineers working today, churning out pristine and sonically rich records at his Odense, Denmark recording studio.
The guy pretty much does it all.
Munk keeps moving and working, never stopping for fear of becoming stagnant(or maybe not fear, just the drive to create.) His work ethic shows in the records he produces for other artists, as well as for his own work. Most recently Munk made an improvisational record with the Norwegian prog/fusion trio Kanaan called Odense Sessions. And just a couple weeks ago Jonas dropped his most recent solo album, the excellent and meditative Minimum Resistance.
I recently had the chance to talk with Jonas about Minimum Resistance, Odense Sessions, his approach to the work, and his love for ambient music. We also get into what El Paraiso Records and Azure Vista Records have in store for the rest of 2020.
J. Hubner: So tell me how did Minimum Resistance come together? How long was the writing/recording process?
Jonas Munk: I worked on the album over a 15 month period, from the summer of 2018 to the fall of 2019. Some of the initial tracks were actually suggested as sketches for the third Billow Observatory album (released in February 2019), but as time passed I realized I quite liked those sketches the way they were, and decided they didn’t actually need any additional instrumentation, even though they were extremely sparse.
J. Hubner: Sparseness feels like a central piece of the record.
Jonas Munk: So that became the theme of the album: doing as little as possible, creating the simplest, easiest music I could. That’s one of the aspects of the album title as well: it’s about reducing aspiration and control to an absolute minimum. Trying to break it down to the bare essentials. The reward for this approach is clarity, as well as an extremely natural, unhindered flow. I don’t think this approach would have been as fruitful for me five or ten years ago – but it felt right with this one.
J. Hubner: There is something quite zen about the phrase “minimum resistance”. Something quite spiritual. Like some surfer mantra.
Jonas Munk: The other aspect of the album title is more existential, in a zen-kinda way: it’s about seeking to accept things the way they are. In the period I was working on Minimum Resistance I was doing quite a lot of reading on Japanese aesthetics and zen philosophy – and according to the zen-buddhist theme running through all that literature, there’s really very few things in life we have any kind of control over. On a larger scale everything is transitory -everything is in a state of impermanence, either going away from, or approaching, nothingness.
J. Hubner: That’s a heavy trip to take.
Jonas Munk: Realizing and accepting those (somewhat undesireable) circumstances can produce a kind of heightened awareness – an intensified appreciation of everything. That’s the kind of aesthetic atmosphere I was tapping into when creating this album. Music like this is such an abstract entity, and people can really get very different things from it depending on the listenership and the situation. But for me, this album certainly doesn’t reflect beauty in a traditional sense. Neither sadness. There’s more of an interplay going on.
J. Hubner: So getting away from the existential aspect and more the nuts and bolts, is what we’re hearing on the record mostly heavily-effected guitars?
Jonas Munk: Yeah, there’s synthesizers on a couple of tracks, but it’s mainly a guitar album.
J. Hubner: What’s your process in giving the guitars such an ethereal sound?
Jonas Munk: There’s really nothing too esoteric going on, in regards to effects or the production. I like to remove the attack from the guitar, either playing through a pedal that does that, or by using sampling software or simply by editing in Cubase. That gives it that swell-like quality. There’s usually a bit of pitch-shifting involved as well. Sometimes I record each note of the chords separately to more of a synthetic sound, and make things bigger in the soundscape. Very similar to the stuff I do when working on Billow Observatory material.
J. Hubner: Who or what were some sonic touchstones you were pulling inspiration from?
Jonas Munk: The second, instrumental disc of David Sylvian’s 1986 double album, Gone To Earth, was one of my earliest ambient discoveries more than 20 years ago. It has had an influence on my music ever since, but probably more on this album than on any other. The beautiful thing about that album is that, while it’s certainly in ambient/new age territory, all the tracks are rather short – most are under five minutes –which calls for a different kind of listening than static 20 minute ambient pieces does. I was kinda after the same thing on this album. There are certainly a couple of tracks on Minimum Resistance that feel like Gone To Earth homages.
J. Hubner: What is it about this hazy ambient music that you connect to? I feel a thru line between this album and your work with Jason Kolb in Billow Observatory.
Jonas Munk: This might sound strange, but among all the things that ambient music is to me, it’s also an act of rebellion: everything in society is loud, accelerating, going faster and faster. Everything is increasingly productive and competitive. And for me ambient music represents the exact opposite – it’s an ode to slowness, and an appreciation for a way of being that resonates with your surroundings (humans, nature, things, other animals) instead of dominating them towards your own ends. Also, by it’s very nature ambient is poorly suited for showing off. It’s often super simple, doesn’t take much skill to create (in the traditional sense), there’s no money in doing it, and – unlike new age music – it has vagueness and melancholia deeply ingrained in its fabric. It refuses any kind of didactism. The neo-liberal mindset, and its obsession with instrumentality and effectivism, would feel totally lost in this world.
And you’re right, Minimum Resistance definitely branches off the same tree as my work with Jason Kolb, and I don’t think it would have sounded like it does if it wasn’t for our collaboration throughout the past 14 years.
J. Hubner: Tell me about your work with Kanaan and the Odense Sessions record that just came out. How did that collaboration come together?
Jonas Munk: Well, they had a gig here in Odense and asked me if we do could a session in my studio the night before the show. At that point and I hadn’t done something like that in a very long time, so it seemed like an exciting idea, since they’re all excellent musicians.
J. Hubner: Did you guys have something in mind when you hit record, or was it just a see where things go kind of session?
Jonas Munk: They had a couple of ideas we rehearsed a bit. Not fully formed tracks – just a few riffs and parts. But some of it was completely improvised as well. The opening track, “Seemingly Changeless Stars”, was actually the first thing we played that night – we just set up, adjusted the levels and started jamming. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but to me it does have that pristine ”first take” splendor to it.
J. Hubner: It does have that raw, first take vibe.
Back to ambient music for a minute, do you feel there’s still new plateaus to hit? What else would you like to try out in that area of sonic bliss?
Jonas Munk: It’s weird, it still feels like I’ve only explored a fraction of what there is to explore, although I’ve been doing this kind of music for close to 20 years by now. But the same goes for all the music I’m involved in: there are pretty basic things that have just become apparent to me in very recent years. One aspect, for example, is how you approach music making, and set things up in a way that’ll make interesting results come more easily. I’ve had some revelations in that regard recently. The other aspect is more technical, like, for example it takes a very long time to get a somewhat clear grasp of the frequency spectrum. I’ve learned so much in the past 7-8 years, but I’m still not there.
J. Hubner: So it’s more about just honing in on a texture, as opposed to re-creating the texture altogether.
Jonas Munk: Generally, I’m probably more into ”refining” and carefully exploring certain sonic areas, rather than changing things around drastically. I’m not the type of musician that’s gonna shock everybody with something that sounds sensationally new and provocative. I’m looking for something different.
J. Hubner: So what else can we look forward to this year in regards to Azure Vista Records?
Jonas Munk: My third colab with Ulrich Schnauss is being wrapped up these days and it’s likely to come out late summer, or so. There’s another Azure Vista release brewing at the moment that might see the light of day in fall. I’m not gonna reveal anything yet, though.
J. Hubner: With Minimum Resistance released and out in the wild, what’s next for Jonas Munk?
Jonas Munk: It looks like 2020 will be quite a busy year! On El Paraiso there’ll be a wild impro record I recorded with Brian Ellis (and several other San Diego musicians) in his studio in Escondido a few years ago. That one should go to the pressing plant pretty soon. I’ve also been doing lots of work with Jason Kolb in the past year, so it’s pretty safe to say we’ll have some kind of Billow Observatory release out this year as well.
Both Minimum Resistance and Odense Sessions are out now. You can get them over at El Paraiso Records or thru Forced Exposure in the U.S.
One thought on “The Sound of Zen : Jonas Munk Talks ‘Minimum Resistance’ and His Quiet Act of Rebellion”
Excellent interview. And not one mention of Manual! JM is one of the most prolific and consistent artists in ambient music – everything is invariably extremely good.
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