Bjørn Riis has gifted the world (and particularly, nit-picking guitarists) with a detailed catalog of David Gilmour's gear through gilmourish.com - but has been creating, writing, and producing some of the finest rock music to emanate from Norway for a number of years. His solo work and his work with Airbag are ripe for a robust global presence.
Ed Lopez-Reyes: Bjørn, thanks for making the time to chat: I know you have new music coming out and you’re always in the middle of a million things; I want to go back to the very beginning and then talk about Airbag, Gilmourish, and your solo work. Were you born and raised in Norway, Bjørn?
Bjørn Riis: I was born and raised in Norway – and I'm 43 now, so I grew up in the eighties, very much influenced by the eighties.
ELR: In addition to modern Pink Floyd and David Gilmour, I’ve read you were influenced by bands like Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin: you can hear elements of these influences in the albums you’ve recorded with Airbag as well as in your solo work. But as far as guitar players go, who do you feel influenced you most?
BR: In the early eighties, when I first started getting into music, I had a close neighbor who introduced me to KISS, which I think was the first band I really got into. They’re still a huge influence. I consider myself a die-hard KISS fan. They’ve been an influence, not as much musically but more in terms of what they stand for. They’ve always been positive and have always tried to have a positive influence on people. That message has come through to me in some way. But in terms of guitarists, Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath was my first real guitar hero. In more recent years, obviously, David Gilmour, Steven Wilson… there's a wide range of guitarists. I'm a huge fan of Billy Gibbons’… Zakk Wylde.
ELR: When you look at a band like KISS, that went through some incredible guitar players, from Ace Frehley to Bruce Kulick and up to Tommy Thayer, do you sometimes feel the band always had great musicians but wasn’t always the best vehicle for them to articulate that musicianship?
BR: In some ways, I guess. I mean, they had Mark St. John and obviously Bruce Kulick in the eighties… Kulick was a huge influence on me in the 80s and he's sort of my KISS guitarist. I think Ace Frehley fit into the band better than the rest did, in some ways. In some cases they're referred to as 'not great musicians', but I think KISS is much more than that. Obviously, it's the show: they're entertainers, they're presenting a bigger thing than just the music, which is kind of the same thing you get with Pink Floyd. They're not hugely technical but they have a certain something about their music that reaches a lot of people - and you've got the show, you’ve got the mysticism around the band and their image – which is sort of quiet, the opposite of KISS in terms of how they project themselves. But it's the same thing. With Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath it's much, much more about the music, the musicianship, while Pink Floyd and KISS are much more about how they present themselves and how they presented their music as well.
ELR: When you started Airbag, had you evolved musically to a point where you knew you weren’t going for a KISS type of rock act – that type of spectacle – but for something more earnest?
BR: I guess if I'd started a band in the late eighties it would be much more into heavy rock. When we started Airbag in the late 90s, we were much more into Pink Floyd and the progressive side of music. So it's about timeline as well. But I don't think we ever sat down and discussed what Airbag was supposed to be. It came naturally to us when we picked up the guitars and drums. We were in our late teens and early twenties at just about the time that Pink Floyd was so huge for us, around ‘94. I think both me and Asle, the vocalist, had just seen Pink Floyd on The Division Bell tour, which had a huge impact on us. So yeah, that makes sense. That whole ’94 to ’95 era was special for us.
ELR: Now that you've been playing for so long, how do synthesize all these influences? For example, Bruce Kulick was playing something that sounded very different from what David Gilmour was doing in Pink Floyd at the time; but they're both influences of yours. Do you feel that, sound-wise, you synthesize those two different sounds as well as other influences like Tony Iommi? Where do you bridge the gap between the guitar sound in a band like KISS or Black Sabbath and a band like Pink Floyd? Is Pink Floyd more melodic or is Gilmour’s guitar work actually more similar to the work of these other guitar players in some fundamental way – more than it would seem on the surface?
BR: Perhaps. But I also think that inspiration is much more than just learning a specific riff or a guitar tone. Like I said, KISS has been much more of an influence when it comes to attitude and a belief in yourself. Since you referred to Bruce Kulick, he was the guitarist in KISS when I grew up and he was a positive guy, he played great guitar and he seemed like a guy that took guitar playing seriously, but I don't think he was an inspiration as a guitarist, specifically, if you know what I mean, whereas Gilmour has been much more of an inspiration tone-wise and in my playing. But as a person or as an idol, if you will, I'm much more into guys like Ace Frehley and Bruce Kulick. I don't know David Gilmour and have no knowledge of him as a person. But growing up with KISS and reading so much about them, they've been much more of an inspiration as persons, as musicians, and as entertainers.
ELR: I think Billy Gibbons projects a very American sound – same with Eddie Van Halen: it’s all rooted in the blues but there’s a twang there that is very American. Yet ZZ Top and Van Halen have had a strong following in Europe. Having grown up in Norway, influenced by David Gilmour and progressive European guitarists, did you feel someone like Gibbons influenced your playing style as strongly or was it also more of an influence on your personal approach when it came to guitar players with a heavier American sound?
BR: When I listen back to some of our albums, I can hear a lot of Billy Gibbons in my playing. I'm not a huge blues fan, but I'm a big fan of David Gilmour, Billy Gibbons, Paul Kossoff… the guys that grew up inspired by blues guitarists themselves. I think Billy Gibbons is much more British in his playing than American – or at least there's a bit of that British tone in him, much like Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Paul Kossoff. Those late sixties, early seventies guitarists. So I don't think there's that huge a difference between those guys and Billy Gibbons. As I grew older I started to listen to a lot of the older bands that came before Pink Floyd and KISS, especially stuff from the late sixties, British bands and some American bands as well, Leslie West from Mountain, for example; those have also been an influence.
ELR: Are there influences you draw from Norway itself?
BR: Not really. I don't think so. I haven't listened to a lot of Norwegian bands. If anything has been an inspiration it’s been the black metal movement of the nineties, which experienced what is sort of what's happening to Norwegian prog nowadays. Over the past 10 years or so there have been a lot of progressive bands from Norway that have started doing very well in Europe, both in terms of touring and record sales. Our label, Charisma Records, has grown to be a substantial part of the progressive music scene in Europe. I think a lot of what's happening now with Norwegian prog is sort of what happened with Norwegian black metal in the nineties.
ELR: How did Airbag come together and do the other band members have similar influences?
BR: Yeah, we met in the mid-nineties and I guess what motivated us to start a band was that particular Pink Floyd show in 1994, I think it was in August or something, in Oslo, and I think we all had to take a one-week break from school after that experience! [laughs]. So we just sat at home, listening to Pink Floyd. We had a huge HiFi system that we hooked up and we played Echoes all day long. It was a very magical time. I think even before we got our first guitars and drums we already had our homemade light show, with lasers and smoke bombs! [laughs] So we all met through that love for Pink Floyd, but I had more of that hard rock background – and still do. Asle, the vocalist, has more of an electronic British background, early nineties stuff. Henrik, who is a more recent member, playing drums with us now, he came from a similar background to mine, but was more into the punk scene. He and I have always been sort of the rock alibi, whereas Asle has been more into the electronic stuff. The two other guys that left the band recently had more of a pop-oriented background. All of these elements came through in our music and sort of created Airbag’s sound, if you will.
ELR: So would you say your band’s sound has evolved through this rotation?
BR: Yes, it has. Our first albums were much more Pink Floyd, Marillion, and Porcupine Tree inspired, because we were so much into those bands at that time. With the two latest albums we’ve evolved into something darker, something more electronic, something more rock oriented. But I guess it's also us learning our trade. We didn't play much music before we started, so we learned to play together and learned to produce and make our way in the studio. So I guess that's part of the evolving sound as well.
ELR: Did you guys always work on original material? The band goes back to 1994, you had your first demo in 2000, you did a series of three EPS and then you released full albums. Did you guys always work on original material or did you have a period where you did a lot of cover music? How much of that was playing live too?
BR: We actually started out as a Pink Floyd tribute. For about five or six years we toured around Scandinavia. Replicating seventies era Pink Floyd, in particular. We formed the band and then learned to play together and this created the basis for what later became Airbag. In the late nineties – around ‘98, ‘99, we started to write our own material, played a few shows, and made our first promotional EP.
ELR: Did you consider covering 80s and 90s Pink Floyd when you were still playing as a tribute band?
BR: We felt we couldn't do that without the big production. As you know, there were two concert films from those tours, which people saw: especially when we started out, everyone had seen the Pulse. So we couldn't go out and tour with that sort of production. We just didn't have the means for it. So, for us, we were always much more into the older stuff and listening to bootlegs, and we spent a lot of time recreating things: certain radio performances and shows from Earl's Court and Madison Square Garden... So we specialized in that… and nowadays a lot of groups are doing that, but that was sort of our thing back then. We never played songs newer than The Wall.
ELR: What was the band's name back then and where does the name Airbag come from?
BR: It was Pink Floyd Experience, originally, when we did covers. Then, when we had just recorded our first promotional EP… we had the songs and an album cover, and we needed a name. I think it was a couple of years after Radiohead's OK Computer, which was Asle’s favorite album at the time. And he picked it up at a band meeting and said, how about ‘Airbag,’ which is the first track on that album.
ELR: You guys have opened for some pretty big bands: have you focused your touring on the Scandinavian region or have you also toured all of Europe and the United States?
BR: We’ve never been a touring band in the sense of being away for weeks or months. We’ve mostly done flying gigs over a weekend. Mostly in Europe; we've played Scandinavia, but we've mostly toured in Northern Europe. We’ve gone to the United States a couple of times as well, but it's - I’m sorry to say - a real hassle to come from Europe to play, with all the visa issues and so much paperwork. As much as we enjoy playing live, I think we're much more into writing music and spending our time in the studio producing. It's also a case of all of us having families and jobs...
ELR: Which in a lot of ways has become the standard anyway, because I know a lot of bands – even before COVID – were doing the weekend gigs and holding regular jobs the rest of the time. BR: You have to. We’re lucky we sell a nice amount of albums and we tour regularly, but it’s nice to have a job and a steady income and not worry about that. We can take our time writing and recording an album. We have a record company that's more of a distributor. They do a lot of promoting too, but we’re very much in charge of our music. Of course, now during COVID, we don't have to worry about having lost a tour or income from that. We released an album in June: we wanted to go out this summer and this fall, and in that sense it's a real shame, but we’re not depending on that income. Last week, here in Oslo, we had a union strike: the technicians, the light guys, the sound guys, and the production people – they don’t have an income due to COVID. So it’s a really complicated situation right now.
As I mentioned, we released our last album, A Day at the Beach, in June. We've done a couple of things in relation to that but we haven't been able to tour it. I'm working on a new solo album that's due next year. I just finished a song a couple of days ago, that I'm about to release as a single, so we stay active.
ELR: How does the sound on this album compare to past albums by Airbag?
BR: I think it's our heaviest album in the sense that it's much more focused on the guitars. It's a fairly stripped-down production but at the same time we have much more electronic stuff in it. What we managed to do this time was to sort of combine the rock elements with the electronic stuff, which we’ve tried to do before. But I think we managed to do it pretty well this time. I think the success of this album has been in going back to how we started making music: we wrote most of our songs together; I wrote the initial demos but we arranged the songs together and rehearsed as a band and worked everything out, produced everything together. I think the result reflects our return to that process.
ELR: Who writes the songs in the band?
BR: What's happening is I'm writing most of the songs and the initial demos at home. I spend a few weeks doing this and when I feel that I have enough material for an album I present the songs to the band: a loose concept around that. We then discuss different ideas. We throw away the things that we don't feel belong in the project and we select the stuff that we want to continue working with. We bring in other musicians and we start rehearsing the material. So the initial demos are mostly mine and then we arrange and produce together as a band.
ELR: You guys seem to be going against the grain of the music industry today: a lot of bands concentrate on singles but you guys are still focused on that album model. How are you guys fitting in that new world of music production, distribution, and marketing?
BR: Well, I think what you're referring to as a 'singles band' has always been there. If you look at The Beatles, they didn't sell a lot of albums, they sold singles. All the pop icons or stars, or whatever you want to call them today, sell singles. It's easier to sell a single today, not having to make an album, because you have streaming services. Whereas, a progressive band like ourselves, bands like us, we still sell a lot of albums to people who care about the full album.
And, obviously, we as a band want to make a full album, we don't make a single, a single is just something that you promote the album with. So we don't set out to make a single, we make a full album, which I think most progressive bands are doing; as I said, our audience is still buying music. They're buying vinyl. They collect music. So it's just natural for us. In this genre that we're in, our music, our record label is promoting our albums much in the same fashion that you've always promoted albums. I think that has a lot do with what kind of music you’re selling. For us, the joy of making music is to present the whole package. I think when we start to write for an album, we always have a sort of a concept in our head. You want to present a collection of songs with a theme, which goes hand in hand with the cover artwork – and when everything is finished, you present a whole package and whole experience.
ELR: What motivated you to put Gilmourish together and how long have you been working on this? It seems to be an intense project.
BR: I think it's about to turn 20 years old.
It started out about the time when we formed the Pink Floyd Experience, I was doing research on Gilmour’s gear and, of course this was in the early days of the internet, so there wasn't a lot of information available. There were some old magazines and stuff, but there was no eBay or anything of that sort. So, I did some research and I had some material and I made a very, very crude page in ‘94 or ‘95, I think, that looked horrible. But I put everything out there and this sort of grew from that. And, obviously, all the research... it isn't just me, it's from fans like me, from all over the world; they’ve contributed, and I've just collected everything. So, it's grown into something much bigger. And for me, what's in it for me is that I have contact with so many people from all around the world, many people read the site, The statistics suggest that it's tens of thousands of people every week. I believe it started out as a David Gilmour site, but now it's all kinds of guitarists. And I even have drummers, some bass players – and people that aren’t into Pink Floyd, or guitars, or music at all. They're just fascinated by the work and the community and the good spirit of it all.
ELR: How do you think Gilmour has evolved and what do you make of his 80s sound?
BR: I think one of the first Pink Floyd albums that I really enjoyed was Delicate Sound of Thunder, from 1988. That era has always been special to me, perhaps more so than the nineties. I think Gilmour’s ‘84 About Face tones are very much dated, very eighties. I think Delicate Sound of Thunder, when you listen to it now, you can tell it's sort of a transition period between the digital eighties and the more analog stuff; the return to analog that came full circle in the nineties. I enjoy his tones from that era tremendously, for what they are.
ELR: I'll ask you a question that I asked Guy Pratt at one of his comedy shows in London years ago. I feel Comfortably Numb, on the original mix of Delicate Sound of Thunder, has a very different sound, very different from any other version the band ever recorded live or in the studio. I feel The Later Years remix is, sonically, more in line with the original studio version. And I know it's sacrilege to a lot of Pink Floyd fans, but I really like that original 1988 version because it felt heavier, grungier, more opulent; I like the balance in the vocal harmonies. Do you find that difference as palpable as I do?
BR: I think a lot of it has to do with production. Delicate Sound of Thunder is – at least the original release – very much an eighties production with a very hard-sounding mix, very compressed, a lot of digital effects going on, which makes it sound harder and darker and heavier, I think. Pulse is a much more honest recording if you compare that to the bootlegs from that era. And it also has to do with the sort of effects that were used. He used his old amps on Pulse. On Delicate Sound of Thunder, he used Fender amps, which sound brighter and harder.
ELR: You've mentioned movie scores have had a big influence on you: who are some big influences in that space and do you see Airbag or yourself, as a solo artist, doing movie score work?
BR: If we ever get the chance to do that, that would be a wonderful opportunity. The inspiration has always been there. Perhaps more so in my solo work. I'm a huge fan of composers like Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer, John Barry, John Williams, There are a lot of great composers. What I like about film scores is the feeling these scores evoke. If you watched a movie and took away the music, it's not a real movie. The inspiration is more in the way I write my own music.
ELR: So where does Airbag go from here? You have a solo project coming out too; where does all this work go now? Will you guys be streaming shows?
To be honest, I have no idea. It’s hard to do streaming because you have no place to do it. We basically take it all just one week a week at a time, things are happening so fast. I'm working on my solo album and I can definitely see us starting to write for a new album sometime next year.
For more information on Airbag and their new album A Day at the Beach, visit airbagsound.com. For more information about Riis' solo work, please visit bjornriis.com. You can learn more about David Gilmour's gear through Riis' Gilmourish project at gilmourish.com.