The Pursuit of Ecstasy: Lukas Kranzelbinder & Shake Stew

Photo of Shake Stew (c) Severin Koller
Shake Stew (c) Severin Koller

Lukas Kranzelbinder wasn’t planning on releasing an album with Shake Stew this year, but some things are just meant to be. Lila, the band’s sixth LP, was released on October 13th – and what an album it is, combining the band’s familiar earthy grooves and melodic flights with a new serenity (and the studio magic of star producer Marco Kleebauer). A kinder, gentler Shake Stew? Philip Yaeger sat down with Lukas Kranzelbinder recently for a talk about recording the album, emotional catharsis, and Jim Jarmusch…

Lila is almost a short double album; the two halves are pretty different from one another. What connects them?

Lukas Kranzelbinder: We recorded everything in Vienna’s Westbahnstudio, and we just felt like all of the pieces deserved to be released. To me, there’s no great difference between recording and playing live, as long as the sound isn’t completely different. On this album, “live” [the tracks “Heat“, “Shasta Fey“ und “Breathe“] just means that it appears on the record exactly the way we played it.

“We just surf”

What’s the working process like in the band – how much comes from you, how much from the other musicians?

Lukas Kranzelbinder: I actually write all the music – the track “Breathe” is the first exception we’ve ever had; the melody is by [saxophonist] Johannes Schleiermacher. I usually have an idea of what I want for the drums, and I work it out together with [drummers] Niki Dolp and Herbert Pirker. On “Not Water But Rest” and “Lila”, everything is written, but there are also pieces like “Shasta Fey” and “Breathe” that are totally open: there’s a groove and a very specific atmosphere – and then we just surf it.

Video: Shake Stew feat. Precious Nnebedum – “Not Water But Rest”

Marco Kleebauer’s signature is clearly audible on the first half of the album. How did the two of you end up working together?

“Whole Worlds open up”

Lukas Kranzelbinder: I’ve been aware of his work [with Bilderbuch, Oehl, My Ugly Clementine…] for quite a while, and it really resonated with me. Listening to the way he records drums, I thought: that’s exactly the direction I want to go with Shake Stew. So I wrote him, we met, and then I asked if he wanted to collaborate on “Not Water But Rest” – I wanted a more produced beat, with more effects. It was fascinating to collaborate with him because his working process is so fundamentally different from mine. With us, the usual sequence is: write a piece, rehearse it, go into the studio and record it. With him, from the moment you record it, everything is possible. Herbert and Niki re-recorded the drums for that track in his studio, and then he went to work – he starts tinkering and adjusting things on the computer and whole worlds open up, and then all of a sudden it has that vibe you’ve been looking for. When he was finished, I thought to myself, that sounds so good, it needs vocals.

While we’re on the subject: how do you know Precious Nnebedum?

Lukas Kranzelbinder: I actually met her in Saalfelden, at a jam session with spoken word artists. Then she performed twice at the Liederabend [an annual benefit concert organized by Kranzelbinder], and I asked her if she wanted to do something on the song. I just gave her a couple of ideas for the text – like a scene from [Jim Jarmusch’s cult film] Only Lovers Left Alive, where the two main characters are driving through the wasted cityscape of Detroit at night. Tilda Swinton says: “This place will rise again…there’s water here. When the cities in the South are burning, this place will bloom.” And then Precious wrote the text overnight, recorded it, and I thought, my God.

One could call you an Austrian exponent of a certain ecstatic tendency in jazz – in the tradition of Mingus, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp…

Lukas Kranzelbinder [laughs] Well, ecstasy is certainly what I’m going for.

Photo of Shake Stew (c) Sasha Osaka
Shake Stew in 2018 (c) Sasha Osaka

“A profound desire to be overwhelmed”

What set you on that path – was it specific albums you heard?

Lukas Kranzelbinder: I’ve always had a profound desire to be physically or emotionally overwhelmed. That’s also the reason why I’m such a huge film fan. When I was younger I always picked out music with an epic buildup for my bike ride to school – everything for Prodigy to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for The Rock – so regardless of how tired I was, I’d always arrive to class totally energized. Later, at 14 or 15, I went to see the Zawinul Syndicate live a number of times in succession because I noticed that the way they played really spoke to me – both the music itself and that driven, all-or-nothing attitude.

It really started, though, when I started hearing musical styles out of different regions in Africa, particularly Gnawa music from Morocco – I got really deeply into that. That music is all about ecstasy. But I have to admit, I’m also very receptive to spirituality, especially when it’s connected with this trancelike music. I notice, too, that the search for catharsis is getting more concrete for me, year for year. But it’s really difficult to achieve that in the music – it has a lot to do with the group dynamic, trust, and loyalty.

It only works if the group has been together long enough…

Lukas Kranzelbinder: …and if they’re open to it.

But on your first record it was actually already there.

Lukas Kranzelbinder: Musically it was already there, but it’s gotten much deeper. We’ve had a lot of honest conversations and there’s a lot of trust in the group. That gives people the security to really be able to let themselves go.

“It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done with the Band”

With Lila, it seems like Shake Stew’s sound is mellowing with time. Is that on purpose?

Lukas Kranzelbinder: This album is definitely gentler – that’s why it’s my favorite thing that I’ve ever done with the band. I’ve rarely been so successful in communicating an emotion as with this album. We worked a lot on playing energetically without losing a certain softness, a certain lightness. It’s difficult; it requires a lot of reflection…that’s why I like the version of “Heat” on this album so much: it’s full of energy, but it’s never forced; it just flows.

Video: Shake Stew – “Lila”

Shake Stew mostly plays in Europe, but you’ve also played concerts in countries like Tunisia and Turkey. Do you notice a difference in the way audiences react to your music?

Lukas Kranzelbinder: Definitely. The best example was Morocco in 2018; the roof just about came off the place…here, or in Canada, the reaction is really positive because of the background in jazz that people have. But in places like Morocco or Turkey, the response is huge – I think they recognize certain elements that are present in our music, but they’re experiencing them in a completely different context.

That trancelike quality.

Lukas Kranzelbinder: And the melodic element, too – both “Shake The Dust” and “Not Water But Rest” are based on the Ethiopian tezeta scale. Or when I play guembri, it has a very strong connection to Morocco. I’d actually like to play festivals in Africa a lot more often with the band, but it’s logistically rarely possible. At the moment, we tour almost exclusively in Europe…but that’s okay, too.

Translated from the German original by Philip Yaeger