An interview with
Mats/Morgan (1999)

By Beppe Colli
Nov. 24, 2005

It was in a picture taken from Zappa's Universe that I saw for the first time two young Swedish musicians whose names were Morgan Ågren (a drummer and keyboard player) and Mats Öberg (a keyboard and harmonica player, also a singer). In the latter part of the '90s the duo released some very good albums of music that was played at a very high level, not at all difficult, in a way even original. Of course, spotting influences was not difficult: Zappa, then the Beatles, the Beach Boys, some jazz, fusion, classical music, Swedish folk music, Univers Zero, something that to me sounded a bit like Mike Keneally, hard rock... The largely instrumental Radio Da Da (1998) and the collage-like The Teenage Tapes (1998) presented their full trip, while Trends And Other Diseases (1996) was very good; the double The Music Or The Money... (1997) was their masterpiece, and it's still the best introduction for newcomers.

Since I knew absolutely nothing about them, I thought about doing an interview. Thanks to their manager, Per Wikström, the following interview took place, via e-mail, on the day after their 1 May concert in Stockolm. The interview appeared in Italian language in the issue #13 - June 1999 - of the Italian magazine Blow Up. It appears here in its original English text for the first time ever.

Since I imagine most Italian readers will see your names now for the first time (the main exception, of course, being those familiar with the Zappa's Universe CD), would you please talk a bit about yourselves - how you started being interested in music, playing - and about your musical partnership, which I understand has been going on for quite a long time?

Morgan: Me and Mats met in 1981! I got a call from somebody who said - "can you back up this ten year old blind keyboard player and vocalist named Mats who doesn't have a drummer?". Sure! I packed my drums into daddy's car and went to the place where we were supposed to play. There was this guy Mats, 10 years old, looking like 5 or something! (I was 14.) Since we were meeting AT the gig, we were restricted to playing covers of course, so we had 20 minutes to get ready and decide what to play... so Mats asked me - "Have you heard Frank Zappa?". I said, well I guess I can do Bobby Brown without rehearsing, so now we had one song, and needed at least two more. Mats asked if I had heard Stevie Wonder... "Yeah, I think I can do Master Blaster" I said, and Mats immediately nodded yes. It seemed to me like it didn't matter to this 10 year old WHICH song by Stevie OR Zappa I suggested, he would just say yeah or something... Now we needed only one more so Mats says, do you know anything by the Beatles? and I said - "Sure. What about Help?" So now we were ready. When we started to play I was chocked by watching and listening to this ten year old guy playing Zappa, Stevie and Beatles amazingly well, even WITH all the lyrics down to perfection. WOW! It was amazing to say the least. After the gig my Dad looked almost like he had been crying, he was apparently also amazed! After this gig we became musical mega-partners. You know it was not easy to find people close to your age having any interest to play or even listening to music like Zappa, how many 10 years old were listening to that kind of music, let alone have the ability to play stuff like that!

Listening to your albums I thought that, besides being works of substance when it comes to composition and playing, they offer a lot of variety, which I think is quite unusual these days. I mean, in the late 60s/early 70s what you noticed was the lack of variety, but nowadays groups usually have a "rigid" style and stick to that; and so it's my impression that younger listeners get a bit puzzled if a track is not in the same style as the one that came before. (The only "new" name I've listened to that has a somewhat similar approach to yours being Mike Keneally.) Does it make any sense?

Morgan: Yeah, but I don't feel that variety is necessarily always good. It only depends how it is done, and who does it. I would be happy to find a CD by let's say John Cage performing his version of big band music or something, but if a group like AC/DC for example, would suddenly change their classic sound and attitude to death metal or something after all these years doing their thing, that would be only horrible, you know what I mean? Me and Mats have different styles of composing, and when mixed up on a record it may appear as very varied. The truth is this is how we sound. We don't tell ourselves that we should adhere to a particular sound or style, we have a more sporadic and spontaneous approach.

I'd like to ask you about two (loosely speaking) "styles" of music and your opinion about them: the first is the approach that's sometimes referred to, here in Italy, as "English music", i.e. a melodic approach to songs, sung with "English voices" (think The Beatles as opposed to the Stones - or groups like Caravan, Hatfield & The North, etc.), and I seem to find a bit of that in songs like Coco or Spinning Around...

Morgan: I have never been a big Beatles fan, I know that Mats is very much into them. He has written CoCo and Spinning Around. Caravan? I don't know them. I would say that Bill Bruford, UK, King Crimson etc. are some names that have inspired me from the English.

... the other "style" being "progressive"; I'm aware this is a loaded word, since in the post-punk period it has been linked only with people like EL&P and their worst excesses, but I think that groups like King Crimson or National Health (to name but two) had an exploratory sense in composition and playing techniques that's undervalued these days. What I mean to say is that I'd call an album like Radio Da Da - or the melody in Griefen or Har Kommer Bodd - "progressive", but only in private, so as not to give the "wrong impression". Now, I know you headlined the Scandinavian Progressive Rock Festival last year (by the way: who was on drums with Present - Daniel Denis or David Kerman?). How do you see this topic?

Morgan: Present played without drums (!) which was not too amusing... In general, I would be very careful not being associated with the bands on this so called prog-fest. I don't know what music to call progressive or not these days, but if it includes bands like Arena or Dream Theater... I hate that... horrible music, it has nothing, my apologies. Difficult topic. Labelling music sometimes kills music.

About Sweden: Of course, people like Abba, Ace Of Base and the Cardigans are well-known. The first group from "up there" I got to know in the 70s was Trasavallan Presidentii (whose spelling I don't remember, and who I think were actually Finnish). Is there something in your music you consider as being "Swedish"? Or this is an approach to musical styles that doesn't make any sense to you? For instance, is the first theme to Baader Puff something you would call "Swedish"?

Mats: No, I have to say that we just do our stuff. There is nothing particularly Swedish about our music. However the theme to Baader Puff is somewhat inspired to the melodic sense of so called Swedish folk music.

Sweden again: Are you familiar with the music of people like J. Lachen, Ur Kaos, Samla Mammas Manna or Lars Hollmer, who are "a tiny bit known" in Italy?

Morgan: Only Samla. I have to say that I have been inspired by some Swedish groups while growing up, like Wasa Express and some Lars Hollmer stuff... (I have just finished a piece of music called Une Hollmer Waltz, dedicated to him!)

You played on an album featuring music by Captain Beefheart (my personal compliments to Morgan for his drumming and to Mats for his "marimba" solo on Tropical Hot Dog Night). Would you mind talking about this album?

Morgan: I received a call from Erik Palm who wanted me to put together a band performing covers for the opening of an exhibit with Don Van Vlit's paintings. I have had the opportunity to work together with my favourite vocalist Freddie Wadling for several years in the Fleshquartet. He is a huge Beefheart fan and has a similar style of singing. He was a natural choice, and so was my brother Jimmy, who is a phenomenal slide guitarist and of course a huge fan as well. Denny Walley we met back in '91 during the Zappa's Universe shows. He was a member of the Magic Band for a while. He's a very nice guy and a great guitarist, naturally one of my heroes. The band rehearsed for five days and we only performed three concerts. We are very pleased with the recording considering the short time of rehearsing. A few months ago I got in contact with Zoot Horn Rollo over the Net. I told him about the record and sent him a copy. Shortly thereafter I received a very encouraging e-mail from him saying "the covers were amazingly close and very well played". Very inspiring!

The same question for both of you: How do you regard "manual" playing as opposed to "sequenced"? For instance, with regards to drums: if I'm not mistaken, and there actually are drum machines on some of the Morgan Disc on The Music Or The Money, they don't have a "rigid, mechanical" feel. And with regards to keyboards: Mats, you play solos, which are usually short or non-existent in a lot of today's music (by the way: what was the synth on Hjortron Från Mars - what does the title mean? - and Baader Puff/Simon?).

Mats: To me playing is natural. I have never worked with sequencers myself to any great extent, but Morgan writes most of his music using a EMAX sampler/sequencer. Sometimes we end up using the programmed on the record because it adds a special sound to the piece in question. Morgan samples and programmes everything himself. In terms of soloing, improvisation has always been a major part of my making music. I use a wide selection of synths, but for those particular solo parts (Hjortron (wild berries) from Mars) I use a Roland JD 800 which is easy for me to work with. Also the Korg Trinity is my main axe.

I'd like to ask you about Frank Zappa. For several years you played in Zappsteetoot, a group which only played Zappa's music. Would you mind talking about this - and about your experience in doing Zappa's Universe? And about your opinion of Zappa's music - and of the man, since you got to know him?

Mats: Zappa has been a major part of my life since I was about 8 years old when somebody lent me a copy of Sheik Yerbouty. Within one year I had bought all 31 of the then available Zappa albums. I turned Morgan onto Zappa when we met in '81. Zappsteetoot was an 8 piece band which existed between 1984-'90 and we did a few tours and sporadic gigs. All material was close renditions of album or bootleg versions. One of the things we played was the entire side B of Roxy And Elsewhere. This experience allowed us to get extremely familiar with large portions of Zappa's repertoire, and later when we met Frank for the first time in '88, we gave him a cassette which included a then unreleased track called T'Mershi Duween which he invited us to play at his concert. Frank later invited us to be a part of Zappa's Universe which took place in New York in '91, and later also a concert at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, also in New York. We (Mike Keneally, Scott Thunes, Morgan and I) rehearsed for Zappa's Universe at Joe's Garage in L.A. for a week. Frank showed up at two of the rehearsals and actually picked up his guitar for a few solos! In New York we were met up by the orchestra, and all the guest performers such as Steve Vai, Dale Bozzio, Dweezil Zappa and etc. Both me and Morgan developed a pretty close friendship with Frank, and we would speak on the phone every now and then. He was a very natural and "real" person, and we could talk about almost everything, not just music. At one time while visiting with him in L.A. I got to play and record onto his Synclavier. He had recorded some basic tracks which he wanted me to improvise over. I still haven't heard the final result of that particular piece, which he said was named after me. Hopefully it well end up on a record sometime soon.

My last question concerns your future plans. First, you followed The Music Or The Money with two albums of material of a vintage period. Why? And: What's in store now? And: When you tour you do it as a duo or with a larger group?

Morgan: We just finished a tour of Sweden with our 5 piece live outfit which is almost the same band as on The Music Or The Money. We have recorded a lot of material live for a possible future live album. There are too few "double-Live" albums released these days (ha, ha, ha!!!). In terms of what you refer to as the vintage albums, Radio Da Da and The Teenage Tapes we released because since we have played together for so long and obviously have tons of material recorded over the years, we figured why not share it with our fans?! The albums contain some stuff that dates back to the very beginning, but also brand new stuff. I would really call them musical collages rather than retrospectives.

Would you mind saying something about your other projects outside the duo?

Mats: I also play a lot with saxophonist Jonas Knutsson in various projects. We also go back many years. One of the most fun and rewarding things in recent time is my work together with a youth big band who play my compositions. We cut a record last spring called Valling & Fotogen. I am very pleased with it. Also I do studio sessions either as a keyboardist or harmonica player on different records, mostly in Sweden. Morgan plays live, in the studio, teaches and does clinics for Pearl and Sabian all the time.

Oops! What are the names that - at the moment - you consider to be doing valuable work? And what's inside your CD player at the moment?

Mats: I buy many records. Recently I bought the new XTC record Apple Venus and the classic Beach Boys album Smile (available in a bootleg version), both of which I think are very good. Other names in recent years include Hermeto Pascoal, Jeff Buckley, Enteli, Katzen Kapell... a very mixed bag as you can tell. This has always been the case with me. Me and Morgan feed musical influences off each other. Morgan likes everything from Squarepusher via AC/DC to King Crimson.

© Beppe Colli 1999 - 2005 | Nov. 24, 2005