“That’s the thing I love about playing live; it’s such a rush because you’re doing things where you’re at the edge of your seat, but if you pull it off, it feels amazing. There’s so much adrenaline going through you.” -Torsten Jensen
Torsten Jensen is a musician, pianist and composer based in Bristol. Torsten is best known for his work with piano trio Hexcut, and as the keyboardist of Bristolian jazz fusion outfit Prudent Primate. Torsten’s playing style combines an eclectic mix of influences from jazz, to math rock, to drum and bass. Torsten spoke to PRXLUDES about his musical origins and influences, his writing process, his experiences playing shows at Ronnie Scott’s and ArcTanGent Festival, and his upcoming solo material.
Hey Torsten! Tell me a bit about how you started getting involved with music; how did you current projects evolve?
Going right back to the beginning… I started playing piano when I was 8. There was an upright piano in my parents’ house, and I tried to just mess around with it a bit. My parents saw me trying that, so they bought me lessons, and I just enjoyed it, really. I found it quite fulfilling, in a way. When I was a teenager, I was in different bands with my friends; I was in an alt-rock band which was a bit experimental, and also in a blues covers band, which was very fun. The lead singer-guitarist was this really jovial, outgoing guy who got us these really nice gigs around Bath, where I grew up; because a lot of it was just off-the-cuff, it was very [much] a twelve-bar thing, we’d just improvise and take solos when we thought it was appropriate. That gave me a taste for being on stage, and live improv, that kind of thing; that gave me that real drive to perform live, and get [into] bands.
At Uni of Liverpool, where I was for four years, I kinda tried to start a post-rock project as well which didn’t get too far, but it was a really interesting learning experience. I got into a funk function band called Too Funk To Drunktion as well, which was really fun; it was very well-rehearsed and very tight, but we took a lot of creative license with the songs.
That sounds like a blast. Was that mainly a covers thing, or did you do originals as well?
Yeah, mostly [covers], but we did a couple originals as well. We won a battle of the bands, which was great. -laughs- We weren’t allowed to enter the battle of the bands with just covers, so we wrote a couple of originals, one of which we got recorded, it’s out on Bandcamp, somewhere… But yeah, I love being in that kind of tight, cohesive unit, where there was no kind of ego; just playing with really confident musicians was so satisfying.
So then I came to Bristol, and I absolutely loved the scene, and I was just so focused on trying to get into projects. It took two years of playing, going to jam nights and stuff; I started doing that in the second year I was there, really trying to meet the local musicians [and] start things up. I found a lot of people who were into the same weird music that I was, this massive community of people who were into jazz, as well as math rock, electronic music, all these different things, and so that eventually landed me in two bands: Prudent Primate and Hexcut. They started around the same time. It was just finding the right people at the right time, who were willing to experiment and try mixing and matching different genres and styles together in crazy ways.
How prevalent is the collaborative aspect with your bands? Do you prefer writing most of your lines yourself, or do you guys gather in a practice room to write?
It’s very much mixed. So that’s where Hexcut and Prudent Primate deviate slightly; with Hexcut, I come up with the melodic lines and initial ideas [myself], but then take that into the practice room and play around with it, see how the other guys fit into it.
Of course, I have an idea of what the other guys should play, and I can kind of instruct them, but it’s very much like, I will let them see what works, [and] we’ll see what happens when we’re playing around with this idea. So you gotta have something to start you off, [and] with Hexcut, I’ll present an idea — a riff, or chords, or whatever — to the group, and we’ll mess around with it in a practice room and jam it out for a bit, and they’ll chuck in their own suggestions. And then I’ll go and take those ideas, and put them into an actual song, or have a vague idea for a structure, and bring it back to the practice room… and rinse and repeat until we’ve got something. It may involve the making of demos, or MIDI stuff that I create in Ableton at home; it’s moving more in that direction now, anyway.
I mean, you can’t really meet in person right now… -laughs-
Yeah, for sure. Even without the current circumstances, it was very much moving in that direction anyway, because you can do so much just through composing. You can test out ideas by yourself, and you haven’t got the limited time you’re together to figure these things out. And again, I’m not creating a rigid structure — the basslines and drum lines that I come up with are way more basic than the other guys can do — it’s very much a template to see if things work broadly. [I’m] definitely not trying to write anybody else’s parts, but [it’s] more like a broad idea of what [I] think the piece needs. In my opinion, that’s the best way of doing it; have a vision with a track, and can think about how the pieces fit in my head, and then the other guys usually knock it out the park and come up with stuff that’s way better! -laughs-
How does that fit into what you’re doing with Prudent Primate?
[With] Prudent Primate, [it’s] more collaborative. So there’s five of us, and we’re all equally involved in the songwriting process, there is definitely no one band “leader”; there’s so much chucking around [of] ideas, we’re all mostly writing our own parts for everything. Prudent is this massive melting pot of different ideas; similar to Hexcut, there’s this throwing around [of] suggestions, if it works, then we’ll sit with it, if it doesn’t, no hard feelings. It’s really good to be part of. It’s something that we’ve gotten better at over time, figuring out what our sound is and how we incorporate each other into our own parts, into what everyone else is doing. There’s no ego to it whatsoever, everyone does what they need to do to make it sound good.
Tell me a bit about the Bristol scene, where Hexcut and Prudent Primate originated. How did you find your experiences in that musical community?
Bristol is known for its artists, its music, almost its counterculture, in a way. You have all of these amazingly talented, and very forward-thinking, very creative people who congregate in this city. You get everything from jazz to punk to drum and bass, all mixing together.
The way I met my bandmates was through jam nights, one in particular [called] the Leftbank Funk Jam — the venue [Leftbank] is sadly no more — [which] was an amazing jam night, amazingly well-populated. You had this bar absolutely full with people dancing to music that was made up by musicians — not anybody they know — just musicians coming together and messing around, really. So many people from the Bristol jazz scenes and associated genres [would] come and play this jam night; you had the veterans who’d been around for a while, and you’d have a lot of really good new musicians as well. I dragged my keyboard along to that for a year and I met Rick [Entwistle], who’s the drummer for Hexcut, through that. I ended up depping for his former band at [this] festival, and we realised we had a lot of overlap in our music taste, especially in EDM as well as heavy alternative rock. From there, we ended up starting to jam together, and we soon got in a bassist, and it all kind of kicked off from there.
With Prudent, it came from that same jam night, when I tried to start a band with a bunch of musicians who were just horribly disjointed, just didn’t gel together at all! -laughs- We had a guitarist who wanted to play metal, a funk drummer and a jazz bassist… Thankfully, the bassist, Francesco [Moreno], was like “okay, I’m not sure I can commit to this, but I’ve just started up this other band, do you wanna join in with that?” And so I ditched the original one, and said yes. -laughs- And then that all kinda kicked off from there. Bristol’s just amazing for that, the [whole] scene, the other bands, are so supportive and all really good mates with each other. I think it’s started to get national attention now; bands from the scene are getting plays on Radio 6 and things, so people are starting to take notice.
That’s really cool to hear. I’ve it’s quite hard in the UK to find scenes that are so cohesive and together, especially with funding being cut and venues closing.
Yeah, I think they do definitely still exist in places like Leeds, Brighton… these creative [scenes] bring so many people into the cities, and of course, that drives up the property prices and pushes the artsy types more to the fringes. -laughs- There’s still quite a lot of areas in Bristol that aren’t that expensive, relatively speaking. I’m not saying that [we’re] all just “starving artists”, as it were… -laughs- you have a lot of impassioned people with day jobs as well, who are definitely still on a professional level.
Tell me a bit about your compositional process. What went through your head when you were writing your most recent Hexcut EP?
It [Phases] all kind of came together in their final forms over a long time. There was a lot of playing around, having one idea for quite a long time and then ditching in and replacing it with something else. ‘Phases’ [the track] came about because I’d just acquired a synth, and I really wanted to write something very much based around that instead of just relying on the piano, and move in that slightly more electronic-inspired direction. I was listening to quite a bit of half-time drum and bass at that point, I really liked the skittery rhythms and stuff. So I tried to write something based around that, [and] it evolved into something very different.
It’s interesting you mention drum and bass. Do you see the rhythmic element as an important part of a Hexcut piece?
I guess a lot of the stuff with Hexcut starts out with, “I want to write something with this kind of beat in mind”. It could be a house-y beat, or a drum and bass thing, it could be a garage thing… if I’ve got a piano idea that fits into that kind of mould, I’ll say “okay, what if I put a four to the floor on that”? -laughs- In this case [with ‘Phases’], it was this half-time drum and bass feel I was going for, and then I wanted to throw my own influences into the pot; a band that hugely influenced me is GoGo Penguin, as well, so I was like “what if we take their style and go heavier”? I also really like a band called Three Trapped Tigers, and a lot of [my] synth sounds are hugely inspired by what they do.
‘Phases’ started as this MIDI demo, where I took [that] beat, and tried a few different melodies and a few different basslines over that, and that came out of it. The middle section used to be completely different, and way more chill, but I [decided] I wanted to make it more crunchy, more dancey. I finished on this really gradual build where things get more frantic towards the end — I tend to write a lot of songs like that! You can’t beat a good build. -laughs-
There’s nothing wrong with a good build. -laughs-
Yeah, like post-rock… I’ve heard people call it “crescendo-core”. -laughs-
What’s one of your most memorable concerts or projects you’ve taken part in?
Okay, I’m gonna cheat and say two, because they [both] happened last year, and I can’t choose between them, really.
So I’ll start with the first one, which was a three-night stint [with Prudent Primate] at Ronnie Scott’s supporting Billy Cobham, which was by far the highest calibre gigs I’ve ever done. Billy Cobham is this absolute jazz fusion legend, he played with Miles Davis, played [in the] Mahavishnu Orchestra… he was the jazz fusion drummer, and still is, really; one of his tunes was sampled by Massive Attack, actually. So we had these three nights at this venue — we’d existed for, maybe, two years at that point — and thankfully, it all went down really well, and people enjoyed it. They were taking a massive chance on us; we were not even London natives — [as] we were based in Bristol — and they brought us in to support this massive legend. I guess we fit in with this jazz fusion thing a bit; we got a lot of [positive] feedback from it, and Billy was such a nice guy as well, so down to earth! He was really funny as well, we got this amazing picture of him pulling this ridiculous face with us all around him, grinning like idiots.
That sounds absolutely incredible.
Incidentally, on that weekend — the gigs [were] Thursday, Friday, Saturday — on Saturday afternoon, I actually played a gig with Hexcut in London, at Portals Festival! So that was a particular weekend. -laughs- The whole thing — sleeping on [my] drummer’s floor, as he lives in London, so I wasn’t sleeping all that well — it all felt so surreal, it was all good fun, but it felt a bit like a dream.
It must have been a crazy weekend, both doing some of the biggest gigs you’ve done so far and doing Portals at the same time…
Yeah, I think we did wonders for ourselves there, and I’m so glad it went down so well.
So, onto the second one, which was ArcTanGent with Hexcut, which happened in August … ArcTanGent was a festival that I’ve been to every single year. I went to the first one back in 2013, and I didn’t realise we’d get to play it so soon! It had always been a dream [for me], I really wanted to put something together to play it, and I thought maybe I could try to push that over time, but we got asked within a year and a bit of us forming the band, I guess because we impressed the right people within Bristol.
Coming onto the stage at that moment and just playing… It was the biggest crowd we’d played in front of as well, it was a few hundred people, [and] people that had actually listened to us and checked out our music [beforehand], because that’s the ArcTanGent crowd. That was just mad, people [were] clapping along when we didn’t get them to… with any gig, it feels like a bit of rollercoaster ride when you’re playing music that’s sort of near the edge of your ability, even though you’ve practiced it, because you’re so concentrated, it’s so exhilirating. That’s the thing I love about playing live; it’s such a rush because you’re doing things where you’re at the edge of your seat, but if you pull it off, it feels amazing. There’s so much adrenaline going through you.
Also, being able to enjoy the festival as an artist as well, and having so many people come up to me over the course of the festival and say how much they enjoyed the music, making a lot of new friends… it was a good time.
I remember you did a solo set at ArcTanGent as well?
Yeah. Writing and improvising on the piano is something that I’ve been doing for a very long time — not so much on the live side of things, but just by myself, I would just sit down at the piano and play. I find it really relaxing, I can just not think about it too hard; it’s not practice, really, it’s just playing. I’ve been doing that for ages, just kind of developing my own kind of playing [style]. A lot of the live solo stuff I do is based off of that, the ideas for the tunes came from just sitting down at a piano and not thinking too hard about playing… and then I’m like “okay, that’s a nice riff, I should use that” and then I do start thinking about it! -laughs-
I find it’s like when you start thinking about it, the idea becomes harder to develop. Do you ever run into that?
Sometimes… So I find with any band, or any project, there’s three stages, it’s like a three-act story to songwriting. The first stage is where you come up with the idea, and everything sounds kind of great, because you’ve got this new idea where you’re like “oh, this could actually be a song!” and you start playing it around loads, you’re chucking ideas at it and getting really excited because everything’s fresh, you know? And then the ‘Act Two’ is where things start up dry up a bit, and that excitement starts to fade, and you have to think really carefully about how it fits, [how to] turn it into a proper song. So the original idea [that] sounded amazing the first couple of times now sounds maybe slightly more stale, you kind of forget why it was so exciting in the first place.
But if you stick with it, if you keep that passion and [work] at it until something sticks, then you enter the third act, which is where it all starts to come together and you’ve got something [you’re] proud of. So in the second stage, you’re figuring out a structure for it, you have this original idea or maybe a couple different ideas and you’re trying to work out the specifics of how you’re combining them, and how they should all fit together. Once you’ve got that structure down, and you’re thinking “hey, this does actually work, this is something that can be performed live”, and that last thing is tightening up all the screws and stuff. That [goes] for my solo work, with Hexcut, [and] with Prudent; any project will go through those exact three stages. Over time I’ve learned to become less despondent with the second stage, or be able to manage the doubt that sets in in that second act, as it were. I almost kind of think of it like the original Star Wars trilogy; you’ve got A New Hope, where it ends on a high, then The Empire Strikes Back, where things are looking down, but then there’s that bit of hope… -laughs-
So each stage can last varying amounts of time. That was the case with the tune Phases [too], where it almost didn’t become a song, because I [didn’t] see how the ideas in it fit coherently. I was gonna scrap the whole thing for a bit [and] put it to the side and concentrate on other ideas, but by taking out one part and putting another one in, it fit a lot better, and I was excited about [it] again, so I could see it through to completion and I was happy with the result.
Torsten’s work can be found at: