A decade and a half into the 21st century, it’s rare to hear a wondrous slice of Californian-style Sixties Americana that sounds as fresh and vibrant as the original scene it’s influenced by. It’s even rarer that this brand of music would originate from Bergen on the west coast of Norway.
But then its principal creator is a rarity in himself, a legend in his own country for his contribution to Norway’s underground music scene – Hans Petter Gundersen, who at 61 years old, remains one of its perennial great creators and enthusiasts, as well as guitar maestros. His band vehicle The Last Hurrah!! is behind Mudflowers, fronted by the deliciously dreamy stylings of LA vocalist Maesa Pullman.
Yet the album is a truly collaborative effort. Maesa’s cousin Rosa sings two tracks, while recordings in both Bergen and LA with local musicians – Marty Rifkin (Bruce Springsteen, Dwight Yoakam) on pedal steel, John Thomas (Captain Beefheart) on organ and Mari Persen on violin and string arrangements – combine to give the album its own distinctive Transatlantic flavour. Gundersen’s illustrious past, absorbing music from his childhood onward and forming numerous alliances over the years, has moulded the album’s exquisite sound. It draws from Sixties pop as well as folk and country roots, with pedal steel guitar alongside strings, from heart-aching melancholia (such as ‘Okay’, lead single ‘The Weight Of The Moon’ and ‘Is It Me’) to more upbeat grooves (‘Tried To Lose You’), from pure Nashville country (‘Those Memories’) to ecstatic acid blues (‘You Soothe Me’). This is how west coast rock once sounded: warm, melancholic, authentic, groovy, sublimely crafted and beautifully played.
“I like to say about myself that I’m not retro, but vintage,” says the man who calls himself HP. “I realise now that my taste has never changed. Not that you think about taste when you are in a trance!”
Anyone who knows Bergen’s rich musical heritage – much richer, actually, than Norwegian capital Oslo – won’t be surprised to clock Mudflowers’ vintage beauty. The town, nestled amongst Norway’s bountiful fjords, saw many ships arrive bringing music alongside its cargo, just as Liverpool had experienced in the Sixties; HP also says Radio Luxembourg was a crucial source. Sixties Bergen produced its own Merseybeat and surf scenes, while HP’s friend Rune Walle introduced him to America. “First Dylan, then the Byrds, Gram Parsons, bluegrass, Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Ry Cooder,” HP recalls. “Bergen became an Americana city. That still lives today, and I’m still in the middle of it all.”
HP has formed bands before, such as early Nineties moodists Stain Monsters, while he once shared a blues outfit with the late Mick Ronson. He’s also collaborated with Katel Keineg, Sean O’Hagan (The High Llamas), jazz saxophonist Jon Irabagon and hip hop producer Tommy Tee, among others, and has produced over 50 albums, including the late American singer-songwriter Tim Rose’s last album and Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche, who HP mentored at the start of his now high-flying career. A spin online through Discogs or You Tube reveal other band formats, some formed simultaneously: Animal Farm, Evolution And Vik, The Edvard, Hans Petter & The Swingers. But HP also struck out on his own with two solo albums: the second was a traditional Nashville country exercise, “to make my old mother happy!”
HP’s seemingly exhaustive book of connections – “I see myself more like a jazz musician, collaborating with different artists,” he says – also includes Gambian Kora master Sanjally Jobarteh. Shows featuring the pair led to HP experimenting further with drones, soon followed by his discovery of the ‘secret’ guitar tuning that Stephen Stills used on CS&N’s 1968 classic ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’. The upshot of all this adventuring was the debut album under The Last Hurrah!! banner. “This time I would show the world my idea,” says HP, “from Bergen, about cosmic American music and mix that in with my partners from the art music scene here.”
Spiritual Non Believers was an extraordinary debut. Two shorter tracks – HP original ‘Melodi Grand Prix 63’ with bossa-nova and surf leanings, and a cover of “Mother Nature” by Norwegian cult band Oriental Sunshine – bookended the 30-minute ‘The Ballad Of Billy And Lilly’, a drone-guitar improvisation subsequently built on and layered to create a kaleidoscopic song-suite of his own. Vocals on all three tracks came from HP’s Bergen close friend Heidi Goodbye.
Voted album of the year in VG, Norway’s most popular newspaper,
Spiritual Non Believers also found believers outside the country. Cosmic Norwegian raga acid folk-rock mania!… an altogether beguiling and irresistibly trippy trip,” raved MOJO, while Fluxblog said, “At various points I hear echoes of Joanna Newsom, Wilco, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, the Fiery Furnaces and Animal Collective, but the overall effect is ultimately rather distinct in its style and charm.”
MOJO subsequently asked The Last Hurrah!! to record a version of ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ for the magazine’s Dark Side Of The Moon album tribute, which HP rearranged to feature heavenly pedal steel. The band subsequently took a new direction. The second Last Hurrah!! album The Beauty Of Fake was so named because of HP’s artful blending of ethnic influences, with eight songs woven together into another 30 minutes-plus voyage, from Arabia to India, from Chinese guzheng (zither) and Hawaiian guitar to Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. “A blissful 35-minute trip East in the company of an array of exotic instruments,” reckoned Uncut.
His collaboration with singer (and actress) Viktoria Winge as Evolution And Vik, fortuitously led to Mudflowers. Maesa Pullman, whose mother is half Norwegian, takes up the story: “my dad [actor Bill] was reuniting with [Norwegian stage director] Stein Winge. Myself and Stein’s daughter Viktoria both sing, so someone suggested we do something together. We started writing in a Motown girl-group Sixties vein, and Viktoria said she’d been working with this guy, HP, who loves that genre and could produce us. We wrote a song together and finished a demo after just one day. It was magical working with HP.”
In return, HP loved Maesa’s own recordings (the Whippoorwill EP). “It sounded so American, my dream American music, so working with Americans with the right American feeling, here was my chance.”
HP invited Maesa to sing at a show in Bergen and surprised her with the request to front the new Last Hurrah!! project. “I had such a good time,” she says, “I loved singing these great, cinematic, sculpted songs. I told HP, if you ever want to come to LA, I can set you up with shows. And he took me up on it!”
HP’s plan for a new Last Hurrah!! album was, “just a really good collection of songs. And then I got to go to LA. I’d only ever been there once before.” As well as playing impromptu shows, HP oversaw sessions at the vintage analogue studio owned by Maesa’s boyfriend, musician Jason Hiller. Between Bergen and LA, Mudflowers was born. The title, says Maesa, “is how HP sees the songs.”
“It’s a little deep,” HP responds. “I sometimes suffer from depression, so I make music that lifts me up. This is a collection of those kinds of songs.
Maesa sings eight of the ten tracks while Rosa fronts ‘You Ain’t Got Nothing’ and ‘Those Memories’. The latter’s lyrics were penned by HP while Leslie Ahern, who wrote the lyrics for The Beauty Of Fake, wrote the lyrics to ‘The Jig’, ‘The Weight Of The Moon’, ‘Fairweather Friend’ and ‘Tried To Lose You’ . One notable aspect of Last Hurrah!! songs is the juxtaposition of ominous and dark sentiments against beautiful melodies and easy-going grooves. The one exception on Mudflowers heads the other way; Maesa’s lyric for ‘You Soothe Me’ counteracts the track’s stormy nature. “That’s part of my passion,” says HP, “the psychedelic, early Hendrix side.”
It was during the trip to shoot a video for ‘The Weight Of The Moon’ in the Joshua Tree desert, one of America’s prime psychedelic landmarks, that HP bumped into up-and-coming actor Luzer Twersky (he has a lead role in the forthcoming drama Felix And Meira). HP invited Twersky to play drums in the video, and while hanging out together, HP discovered Twersky had only emerged from a strict Orthodox Jewish upbringing seven years ago. “He hadn’t heard of The Beatles until last year!” HP recalls. “He wanted to learn to sing in that Sixties pop tradition, which he loves, so I went for it and composed twelve songs and he came to Bergen to record. It came out so beautiful and strong. We’re going to play some shows too, as The Luzers!”
Through an American connection, a documentary has been made about HP and Twersky, and another is being made in Norway about HP himself that ITV was so taken by that they stepped in as producers after seeing a pilot episode. In the shorter term, there will be a live Last Hurrah!! show in June at the Bergen International Festival, with hopes for shows outside Norway. Knowing HP, the future could go many conceivable ways, especially as the Bergen show will feature the brilliant guzheng player Nora Yuyue Zheng. “My favourite composer is Kurt Weill, and I like Debussy and Miles Davis and soul just as much as Americana,” he says. “I just like to be free. But we are thinking of taking The Last Hurrah!! to even more extremes. It will exist as long as I do!”