Interview with Jan Zehrfeld of Panzerballett

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As complicated as possible – as comprehensible as necessary.

Panzerballett sound as if a jazz combo would cover Meshuggah. Or like Meshuggah would play jazz standards. Simply, as if Panzers would do a ballet dance. The only difference is that the stage or orchestra pit will stand it without devastated. What's going to happen to the ears or synapses of ingenuous listeners is written on another page. The title of the new album, Breaking Brain, surely is a consistent tip of the sustainable consequence of consuming the band's music. The album has been released via the Gentle Art of Music label. Reason enough for a chat with mastermind Jan Zehrfeld.

Nils Macher of our German partners powermetal.de reports.

This article was written in a series of interviews that DPRP.net did together with powermetal.de during the Generation Prog Festival 2015.

Nils Macher

promo photo with the five musicians of PanzerballettPanzerballett, promo photo

Please be so kind and introduce the Panzerballett to our readers. How gets a jazz musician introduced to metal and vice versa?

Jan: Like so many teenagers, I've found the love for electric guitar at the age of 16. Metal has had a boom and bands like Metallica, AC/DC and Guns 'n' Roses had their high time. Since then – until today – I always wanted to make loud, hard music. I've always needed that.

Shortly afterwards I explored the fields of jazz and found out that is has many facets that are quite interesting for me. The impact was heavy enough to even get me to study jazz. After many years of playing metal and jazz, but divided from each other, came the point for me to create my own thing. Music that comes only from me and music that would combine all aspects of what I always wanted to do.

Up to this point I have always been missing something in both genres, I never wanted to play just the one thing. Panzerballett would therefore be a panacea, in which I can combine everything together. But it wasn't easy to find other musicians, because the majority is just happy with their genre as is. Let alone the two extremes of metal and jazz! You must be absolutely open-minded with a very high musicianship to get that done. In the end it worked out and Panzerballett now exists for 12 years. It still makes fun and it's getting better. Everything grows and flourishes.

I find the contrasty combination of metal and jazz quite thrilling. On one hand the "academic" jazz scene with their music police and the metal with its rebellion movement on the other. How do you experience the acceptance of both worlds?

Jan: When we play at jazz festivals, we usually don't play in front of "our own" audience. There the audience comes for the jazz, and then it polarizes of course. That happens everywhere where we're not playing for our own audience. One part gives up easy and leaves the hall, the other part bears it till the end just to make nasty remarks afterwards. And then there is the small fraction that is hooked and becomes a fan. These then come to our own concerts and create a terrific atmosphere. I like it, of course, when people find offense in Panzerballett. After all I make this music to offend, to provoke. Both the metalheads and the jazz-men. Whereas one can say jazzers tend to be more open-minded. Sometimes we're just simply too loud for them. That doesn't happen in the metal scene, that's a territory we usually don't reach. Except Euroblast we don't have such festivals on our bill.

promo photo with the five members of Panzerballett on a background of concretePanzerballett, promo photo

So it is a compliment to say that you manage to provoke. In my opinion the metal scene achieves this way too rarely. Especially in a surrounding that has always stood against the trends, the metallers have become quite conservative.

Jan: Yes, thank you. The people can only beat their heads on it, when the music has striking elements that are unknown. Our offense is the contrast of instrumentation and loudness, that is perceived as a cacophony.

At some bands, the level of traceability is rather small, but Panzerballet exceeds it drastically. A non-musician has no chance to follow it, has he?

Jan: Yes, absolutely. But the traceability is also part of the statement. It shouldn't be traceable in the first part, it should derail. Because of that our music will always remain as a niche. I always try to set the traceability on the edge, the listener must first develop the musical ear for it, it must be rendered as a wholesale. But when that happens, the binding will be even better. One can enjoy it because he has worked for it. For that reason, Panzerballett is sentenced to the mainstream-death and will always remain in a niche.

promo photo with the five members of Panzerballett on a background of concretePanzerballett, promo photo

Breaking Brain has a special form of traceability: the sheets for the song Typewriter II. Is it just a cool gadget or did you actually intend that amateur musicians would try to play along?

Jan: As well, would I say. It underlines the nerd factor which is an inevitable part of us. In contrast to the thousands of buttons you see in the spaceship film set, the notes all have a function. They are 1:1, exactly as we have recorded the tune. On the other side it is of course a blink of the eye. Other bands print the lyrics in the booklet – what we don't have. So we decided to give the notes instead. Primarily for the professional audience, but also for everybody else who wants to understand my composition.

Of all compositions of Breaking Brain, the most outstanding one is Shunyai. It is challenging even for trained ears, and it took me some time to bust this nut. What is it behind this track?

Jan: The background is: the style of the composition is based on my main influences, one is Meshuggah. Meshuggah again have been influenced by Indian rhythms. They are pioneers in this territory and that is probably the main reason for their success. I overtook this concept and over two corners I've found Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu, an artist well known in the jazz scene. “Shunyai” is an arrangement of his track and he can be heard as a guest soloist. On one hand doing this Indian scat-singing, known as Konnakol, but also as a percussionist. We've invited him to the studio for one day, a real great honor for me!

promo photo with the five members of PanzerballettPanzerballett, promo photo

In the song Euroblast it's easy to determine the reference to the festival, and Typewriter II displays a different approach of the original piece from Leroy Anderson. But how did you get into Manah Manah? The charming light of the craziness?

Jan: It isn't meant to be taken serious. Sure, we took that piece because everybody knows it and can laugh about it. It's becoming even funnier to me when some serious musical complexity is added, but the goofiness is kept along. As in keeping it in tension in between serious virtuosity with the blink of an eye. That's how it is in this track. This notion has always been in Panzerballett and Manah Manah drives it to the top.

Have you ever had the feeling that the concept or the line-up loses its charm?

Jan: Could well be that other instruments would open up for other possibilities, but our line-up has proven. Finding new instrumentalists would be very tough for me. It's all thinkable, but I don't see any practical opportunity to try it out for once. It's all for the musical fruition, the composing and publicly playing of these tracks. As long as I can do it with the actual line-up, I see no sense in changing it.