Sorbye, Lief (Tempest) (July 2002)

The Journeyman Finds Balance: An Interview With Tempest's Lief Sorbye

[This interview with Tempest's Lief Sorbye was originally published by in December 2001 -ed]

Tempest (photo: Richard Cash)Celtic rock, progressive folk rock, call it what you will, but the fact of the matter is that Tempest is out there and playing it like there's no tomorrow. The California-based band, centered on fearless Norwegian leader Lief Sorbye, has been delivering its own blend of energetic rock music and folk leanings for well over a decade now, with its latest offering being Balance. And with a constantly changing lineup, a healthy number of side projects, an impressive number of yearly live gigs, and a mind-boggling rate of releases, Tempest may have very well earned its crown as the maximum exponent of progressive folk rock of the last decade. Of course, the story behind it all couldn't be without its surprises or tricky corners, so read on to learn what Sorbye's take on the last thirteen - scratch that - thirty years is!

Marcelo Silveyra: Way back before Tempest, you dedicated yourself to busking (playing on the streets, impromptu gigs, etc. for money) around both Europe and the United States, but after some time of doing that you decided to settle down and acquire a more organized style of living from playing music. Why did you stop busking and join a stable band instead? Why this need for more organization?

Balance (2001)Lief Sorbye: Well, it all started in my teens really. When I first saw the Beatles on TV, I was like "Wow, that's a fucking good job." [laughs] I had bands in Norway back even to when I was nineteen, and the last band I had actually combined traditional Norwegian folk music with rock n' roll. So I had that experience, and was in many bands, and I played youth clubs or whatever. It was my urge to travel that left it all behind, and I figured I could support myself as a busker; mainly traveling around, playing on the streets and informal shows in cafes that happened to have a bar, picking up the odd gig as I was going along, traveling. So the busking was a way for me to support myself, travel to the countries I was interested in seeing, meeting people, covering the right songs, and learning traditional music from the places I was staying. I set up my own school of life, it was what I did to get my education, and when I decided I wanted a more organized scenario it was basically because I figured ... see, my passion has always been two things: traveling and playing music. So I feel privileged that I can say that I have a job that combines both, you know? And back in the late seventies, after I'd been traveling around the United States and leaving Europe, I happened to join up with a band that offered me a permanent slot in California. And that's when I decided, "well, maybe it's time to settle in with a band," because we still had the opportunity to keep touring in Europe as well as in the United States. The reason was really because I got the right opportunity. I found what I was looking for at that point in time, which was a band that I'd be interested in traveling with and playing the music I wanted to do, but taking it to a level where I could also have a permanent home base. And it so happened that that home base became Northern California, and that's where I still am today ... and this dates back to 1979, actually!

MS: You mentioned that you once had a band that combined folk music with rock before. Was that Evil Delight?

LS: Yeah, that was the first one, and then it became a band called Gammal Rull, which was really based on traditional Norwegian music and was more of a folky band; more like Steeleye Span playing Norwegian Music.

MS: And, out of curiosity, did any music from Evil Delight ever make it into Tempest?

LS: I don't think so ... you know what? This goes back to like the early and mid-seventies. And I'm trying to think ... you know ... some of the musical ideas probably did! When I start thinking about it, I have no recordings of that band. I know there are some recordings that exist back in Europe, but I don't have anything. For some reason they did not become available to me ... I bet you I could trace some of the roots back to that! I bet you there was some music back there that actually did, in one way or the other, translate itself into Tempest some twenty-odd years later. I bet there would be something there! That would actually give me an incentive to trace down some of the early recordings. There are some radio sessions and various things existing back home. If I could just get hold of the right people I bet you I could find some of that stuff. It would definitely be interesting for me, and my own archive...

Bootleg (1991)MS: Back in the early days of Tempest, the band used to put on a really goofy live show. You had Mark Showalter as a bassist, and he used to do crazy "Celtic" dances and everything. And nowadays the band doesn't take itself too seriously either on the shows, it does a great job of entertaining the audience, but it's not as crazy as it was in the early days. Is it ever going to get as crazy as it was back then?

LS: I don't think so. Part of it is that when Tempest first started, the music was a lot simpler and more basic, and as the band's been getting better and new blood's been coming in with a higher level of musicianship, it's got to the point where we're so arrangement-intensive that a lot of the music is really too intricate to be too goofy. If there's so much music to be played right, and you're going to play the music right, it's hard to be too goofy ... that's because it's difficult to combine both! [laughs] But our shows are always gonna have a lot of energy and a lot of surprises as far as what comes out of the stage; and it really depends on the players at the time. For a while we had a fiddle player, actually one of the biggest goofballs ever, a guy called Michael Mullen. He would do a lot of acrobatics on stage, but of course the music suffered a little bit, because if you play electric violin and you run around and off stage, the intonation is going to suffer a little bit, because it's really hard to be an acrobat and play the instrument correctly. Especially with something like the fiddle, where it's not a fixed pitch instrument, so that it goes out of tone pretty easily.

Serreted Edge (1992)At this point in time, the current people in the band are still putting on a really wild show, but I don't think it's as loose as it used to be. I think the early Tempest with Mark Showalter, etc., wasn't just goofy, but it was very very loose, and I would say kind of sloppy. Now it takes more of an effort to put in to play right, and our music is so sharp it keeps you on your toes. It's because there's been a concentration; it's not a jam band as such. There are a lot of notes to be played right, and they have to come in the right order, and if you're busy standing on top of your head you might miss that!

Surfing To MeccaMS: I was reading an interview in which you mentioned that during the recording of the Surfing To Mecca album there was a lot of experimentation and branching out, but also that the band lost a bit of focus in the process. When does one realize this kind of thing? Does one realize it while one's actually recording the album, or does one release it and a couple of weeks later realize "Geez ... maybe we should have done a couple of things differently?"

LS: I usually realize it after we've been touring under the record a little bit. I think what happened with that particular era, like '94, is that it was a time when we were evolving into sort of a world music band, as opposed to Celtic European kind of stuff, because we were trying to ... people were writing in Middle Eastern modes, and we were experimenting with other instruments, and had sounds that were too crazy coming out, which wasn't necessarily part of our musical policy or our musical platform. And it was all in good fun, and I think the band still does it today, to a certain extent.

I think it lost focus because, stylistically, that record, and the tour behind that record, was really pointing in so many different directions that it became too much of a variety show. It was a point when everybody wanted to write, but everybody wrote something that was completely different stylistically. So we would have one guy, the bass player at the time, who would write sort of goofy country and western-sounding songs; the fiddle player would be into English Morris dance music; and the guitar player would write stuff that would come maybe from a Middle Eastern player; and I would have been in the middle of it with the Celtic and Norwegian stuff trying to hold down the fort. But it seems like it has music that is schizophrenic, because the experimentation maybe went a little bit too far, so that it divided up the styles too much.

But having said that, I think it's always been healthy that the band has always been experimenting and always continues to do so ... within our musical policy there are enough avenues to explore without losing focus. At that point in time I think it was a lineup that had such a diverse musical interest, and everybody wanted that represented, so it kind of lost it because of this. I think I realized it when it was going on, but I was open to it. I think after a year of doing it I wasn't as open to it anymore, because I thought that it had backfired a little bit, people were going like "What kind of music are you guys really playing?" That was at the time when we signed with Magna Carta, in like '95, and they said the same thing: "Look, you gotta focus back in on Celtic and rock and bring back your focus, because the Surfing To Mecca album wouldn't be music we would be interested in releasing," and I said "Look, I totally agree with you." So I think that's the point when I really acknowledged it; that it was too diverse. At the time we recorded it, I knew it as well, but I was into it and open to it, and wanted to see where it would take us...

Tempest has been together for thirteen years and we've recorded nine records, which means we didn't start to record until a couple of years into the band's history. It means that we release an album a year almost, so if you look at a record ... the records are really just a recording of what we were doing at that point in time. I think it's a healthy thing; I think that's something that I miss in a lot of bands today. They take too long between records, and with major labels today, two years between releases is normal. If you look back, in the sixties and seventies, you had bands releasing a couple of records a year. And in some ways that's healthier, because it shows the progression of the music and it's more of an honest picture of what the musicians are up to at any given point in time. And you can trace the progression of the band in a whole different way; you can see the evolution. That's what I do with Tempest, I can still see the evolution, and I personally feel that the band has always gotten better, and the recordings will show that. And we will of course continue to evolve, but I think the focus is more intact these days.

MS: You just mentioned Magna Carta and the evolution of Tempest. Tempest is basically more than anything a live band, and what came across as interesting was the way The Gravel Walk was recorded, especially after Turn Of The Wheel , where there was considerable production, a guest appearance from Keith Emerson, and basically other elements that made it more of a studio album. The Gravel Walk was more of a live thing. Did it feel more comfortable to record that way?

Turn Of The WheelLS: At the time it did, because we had just finished our spring tour that year - we're talking probably '96 or '97. Turn Of The Wheel took longer, and it was a lot more studio production with a lot more instruments from Robert [Berry], and now I really like that album because it's different, but I like the charm of it a lot. It was more open to experimentation and the arrangements came together in the studio, as opposed to The Gravel Walk, on which what we ended up doing was arranging the stuff, taking it on the road, playing it in front of an audience, gigging it really tight, and going right off the road, into the studio, and recording it all in two weeks with a minimum amount of overdubs. And even if it was a studio record, a lot of the tracks were recorded live on this album; in other words, the whole band would play live and then we would take it from there and maybe change a little bit and do a few overdubs, but it was more based on "Let's do what we did on stage, but do it in the studio." So it was a lot of fun, and it was a lot easier to make, and it was in a way more of a fun deal than Turn Of The Wheel was.

The Gravel WalkToday, when I listen back to it - I don't really listen to Tempest records at all; I just happen to hear it on the radio, or someone will play it in a club, or something - When I listen back to it, I like Turn Of The Wheel, because it was a fun time, and the time we spent recording it I enjoyed. I think that in many ways The Gravel Walk is a more honest record in the sense that "Hey, this is the real deal." There were no studio musicians and there were live arrangements, not studio arrangements...but having said that, we took a lot of ideas from the arrangements of Turn Of The Wheel and transposed that into material we did for The Gravel Walk. But I like both those records; I like both ways of working. I've done records that were purely studio things and it's been good, and I've done records ... most records have been done based on what we do live. If I gotta choose, I like the live approach better, because it's closer to home, and with the fact that we're a live band, I think recording stuff that we do on stage feels better in the long run and sounds more natural. There's a certain chemistry you get when you're musicians playing together, instead of overdubbing on top of each other. [laughs] I like both, but I just think I prefer the more honest approach. What we normally do, and what I like to do, and what makes the most sense always is to record ... I mean, we will write or arrange the stuff first, and then play it live as a test and see if the audience likes it, and the song will have an evolution on stage: it will get tighter, we will fix up the arrangement if we want to ... it has a certain early life span where it goes through changes in front of an audience. And when it gets to the point where it feels good and it feels right, and if the musicians are playing it in a way that feels good, then that's the time to record a piece of music, 'cause that's when it really sounds best. So ideally, that's how we like to do it; we like to say "Ten new songs, put them into our repertoire with existing favorites, take it on the road, play it in front of an audience, come back, and then record it." And Balance had a lot of that going on, but it also had a few things that we arranged in the studio as well. We kind of mixed the approaches of Turn Of The Wheel and The Gravel Walk...

MS: Now, regarding yourself as a musician in general, as opposed to a part of Tempest ... all the while that Tempest has been in existence, you've also had an acoustic folk thing going on at all times, which included Tipsyhouse, your solo album Across The Borders, and then Caliban...

LS: Yeah, and also prior to that, I did a traditional Norwegian folk record as well, and went out as a solo artist playing Norwegian folk music. I've done that as well ... I've done a number of things, yeah.

MS: ...and why didn't you just try to go back with Golden Bough [Sorbye's acoustic folk band before Tempest] and try to record something with that band again?

LS: I have done that a couple of times. I left Golden Bough at the end of 1987, and since then we've done reunion concerts - when we did the 20th anniversary I went out there and did a whole string of dates with them, and I've been guesting on the albums. Also, some of the early Golden Bough albums that I was on - I think I was on about eight of them - have been reissued with bonus tracks, so we've gone in and recorded some extra tracks and stuff, so it actually has happened. Not a lot, but that has happened, yeah. It's been done. [laughs]

MS: Regarding the style of music that Tempest plays, perhaps a good label for your music would be progressive folk rock...

LS: I think so, because I think that ... it's unfortunate, but the nature of the music business, especially in America, is very corporate, and in order to sell a product you have to label it so that people will have an easy time buying it. It's not as bad in Europe and in Britain, it as it is in the US, though. And you always struggle to find the right labels, and it would be a healthier world, I think, if you didn't have to label everything. But if you have to do that, I feel that that's as good of a label as anything, because I feel that what Tempest does with folk music is extremely progressive. And taking the fact that we have rock n' roll as our platform in the band, we ARE a progressive rock band; but we are a progressive folk rock band. And you're absolutely right, that's the truth, we're not a progressive band in the sense of classic rock bands like Genesis or ELP, but what we do is progressive in the true sense of the word, as opposed to the pigeonhole of the seventies stuff. 'Cause a lot of people think of progressive rock as your typical seventies evolution of bands, but I think progressive in the true sense of the word is that you got to pound a new way and a new direction with what you're doing, and make it grow. And in that sense, Tempest is a very progressive band, but not in that classic rock sense.

MS: of the advantages that I thought possible about that label is mainly the folk part. After checking out some of the festivals that Tempest has participated in, there were some with enormous crowds; audiences that would hardly be found in, say, progressive rock festivals. This folk appeal has been rather good for Tempest in the marketing sense, hasn't it?

Sunken Treasures (1993)LS: I think so, because ... my thing is, I started Tempest with the idea of playing the music that was close to my heart. It's never been a compromise between playing the kind of music that gets the biggest crowds and playing the music that we love. It's always been music first and marketing second. But I do believe, after what I have seen in these thirteen years with Tempest, is that our style of music is becoming more and more accepted, and the folk music community has opened up those doors. And yeah, some of our biggest shows have been in bigger folk festivals, Celtic festivals, and also rock festivals...we're the kind of band that will do anything from a Harley Davidson biker festival where we would play with Little Feat and Los Lobos or whatever, to playing a folk festival with The Band, Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, etc. And I think that the folk music audience is accepting us, which is because we have such strong traditional roots. If we didn't have the roots we wouldn't be accepted by that crowd, but the fact that we have the folk roots ... it's a good audience. We always have one foot in the rock audience and one foot in the folk audience, and we will play the same music to both audiences. And ideally, I think we should just have one big audience; there shouldn't be such barriers between crowds. And I feel that the main strength of the band is that we appeal to more than one audience and more than one age group. Sometimes we'll have three generations of one family coming to our show, and that's a good thing. It gets people together and it unites people. If they go away and their spirits are lifted, I feel I've done a good job...

MS: Now, something regarding folk music in general. During recent years, there has been a stream of world music albums coming out that are supposed to actually be Celtic music or folk music, but which really are more like new age with hints of Celtic tradition in them; music that's intended as background music really. And when one regards the origins of folk music, it was music that was really lively and in constant evolution, not something that people just played as background music. What do you think about this, when there are bands like Tempest bringing new elements into folk music, and on the other side people who aren't purists but are just using folk as background music?

LS: That kind of music is very boring to me, you know? I think the height of new age is gone now. There was this time - it started in the late eighties and happened for most of the nineties, but especially the early nineties - it was a lot of music that I call "soundtrack for your life." It was very dull; it was very much packed and ready music that you don't get involved in; music that is just behind you. And I think that kind of music can have a soothing effect, but it makes you very passive. It doesn't make your ricky tickle boom boom, it doesn't make your blood boil. And it gets very washed out, watered out. I don't particularly enjoy it myself; I think it's the kind of music that works well in a bookstore for atmosphere, and there's a place for that. There's certainly good and bad music in every genre, but I don't think when it comes to traditional and folk-oriented music that "new agey" world music is necessarily representing folk music, because folk music is always alive ... folk music paints a picture of the world it's in. And a lot of new age is really just fantasy, which is kind of dull, and I think that music that's dull has its place in the world, but it doesn't excite me. I get that same reaction with disco. I don't like disco much but I can see that people need disco to dance maybe, so maybe they need new age music to sell books. [laughs] I look at it more as a sort of consumer product than actually something with a real heart in it...

MS: Looking at the lineup on Balance and at the entire history of Tempest, drummer Adolfo Lazo has been there since, well, not exactly since the beginning, because he wasn't exactly a founding drummer if I'm correct...

LS: Well, he was the first drummer on stage with us. He's done every show ever with us. Now we've done probably about at least 1500 or 1600 gigs with Tempest ... maybe even more. And he's only missed one show ever, and that's when he had an accident and he shot a nailgun through his hand. He was in the emergency room and we had to do the show without a drummer, but except for that, Adolfo's been there since day one. Yeah, he's been there since the first show and that's what counts, so it's been him and I since day one. guys must have built up quite a relationship after all that time.

LS: Yeah, we've been very loyal to each other throughout the past thirteen years...

MS: Another thing regarding Balance is that it pushed some more borders, like you already mentioned. There was the folk stuff, and there was that Phil Ochs cover, but there was also, for example, "Dance Of The Sand Witches" from Todd Evans, which reflects his heavy metal side. I'm guessing that Tempest is a result of everyone who's in the band at the moment you record...

LS: Exactly. That's the idea, because Tempest has always been a band that's open to the input from the musicians that are currently in the band, and also because of the fact that we always had an open rotating door of musicians. The lineup of Tempest has always changed over the years, and if I look up a lot of the bands that I listen to that are still around, they do the same thing. I think it's one way to keep a band going, because you're always going to be bigger than the sum of your members. You create your own place in the world. You have a certain style that you keep evolving, and because of that it's healthy to have people coming and going if it's right. And it makes it easier for people; people can come to the band and, for example, if John Land [Ed.note: one of the band's previous bassists] wants to stay for two years... "Look, I know you're looking for a bass player, I would like to play with you for two years, will that work? Because after two years I'm gonna move and get married" or whatever ... so we say "Ok, that's fine, you don't have to commit your life to being in the band, but you need to be in the band when it's right for you to be in the band." I've always liked playing with different musicians over the years. Sometimes it's hard to find the right people, and that's the only thing that I don't like about it, but I like new faces because they bring new inspiration. And Todd wrote two pieces forBalance, and they both show his metal influence. We made it work as a band, and a lot of people like it; they're very popular tunes and they work really well live; we're open to that. And that shows that we're still experimenting, but maybe not as intensely as we did on the Surfing To Mecca period.

MS: You've just had a change of fiddle players. Sue Draheim came in during August, September, or around that time. What do you think she will bring into the band?

LS: She joined in June [2001] actually! Sue is the third fiddle player in the band, and she's by far the most experienced player in our style of music, because she came from a folk rock background in the height of the era. She played with the first incarnation of the Albion Band in Britain, she toured for years with the John Renbourn Group, and she has recorded with people like John Martyn and Richard Thompson ... she has a lot of experience in the music. And she has the traditional style down more than anybody who's ever been in the band ... actually, she's the fourth fiddle player, now that I think of it! I think what she would bring into it ... what she is currently bringing into it is a lot of expertise in the traditional aspect of music, and it's very important that we don't lose that, because it's always going to be a balance between folk and rock, and if one takes over you lose the other; and it's always important for me that we have that balance. That's why we named this record Balance, we were always struggling to have the right balance between the two, and on Balance we show everything from the real folkier acoustic traditional side to a much heavier rock side. So it goes further out to extremes, but keeping the balance!

MS: One of the characteristics of folk music is that people can still listen to songs that were made two hundred years ago, even if the name of the person that created them has been lost. Do you expect people to be taking from and changing Tempest arrangements and songs two hundred years from now?

LS: I hope so, 'cause there's no future without the past and there's no ... past without the future! [laughs] If we can put a mark on the future, I think that'll be great. If one of my songs is considered a folk song two hundred years from now, I would be very happy about it. Wherever I am at that point in time, I'll have a smile on my face.

Lief Sorbye - Springdans (1987)
Bootleg (1991)
Serrated Edge (1992)
Sunken Treasures (1993)
Surfing to Mecca (1994)
Lief Sorbye - Across The Borders (1994)
Turn of the Wheel (1996)
Various - To Cry You A Song - A Tribute To Jethro Tull (1996) (contrib. one track)
The Gravel Walk (1997)
Caliban - Caliban (1998)
10th Anniversary (1998)
1999 Live at the Philadelphia Folk Festival (1999) (only available through Tempest)
Balance (2001)
Shapeshifter (2003)
15th Anniversary Collection (2004)
The Double Cross (2006)
Lief's Birthday Bash (2007)
Prime Cuts (CD/DVD) (2008)
Another Dawn (2010) The 25th Anniversary Concert (ltd. ed. avail. from band) (2014)
The Tracks We Leave (2015)

Live At Karfluki Fest 2006 (DVD) (2006)

Added: July 28th 2002
Interviewer: Marcelo Silveyra

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