Paal Nilssen-Love is in Perpetual Motion


The prolific Paal Nilssen-Love runs his own label, PNL Records.

(Photo: Petra Cvelbar)

A few years ago, the Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love—a former member of groups like Atomic, The Thing and the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet—purchased an apartment in Lisbon, Portugal. After returning from a tour in Japan with reedist Ken Vandermark this past December, he spent nearly a week there, the longest stretch he’d slept there since acquiring the home. Nilssen-Love’s schedule usually includes more than 200 days gigging around the globe each year. And since 2007, he’s run PNL Records, his own label, releasing more than 40 titles by projects and ad hoc pairings he plays in, including EthioBraz, a collaborative album between his muscular big band, called Large Unit, the Ethiopian ensemble Fendika and a couple of musicians from Brazil. “It’s a lot of work, but in the long run, it’s absolutely worth it,” he said nonchalantly during a recent phone interview from Japan.

Thanks to the internet, he said the label could operate from anywhere, which is good because he’s rarely home. “Traveling with him on a regular basis, it’s clear that he is always working,” said Vandermark, one of his most frequent collaborators over the past two decades. “The only time he ever takes a break is directly after the concerts. From when he wakes up until then, he’s on the phone or computer, and often he gets back to work when we return to where we’re staying at night. From a physical standpoint, I don’t know how he does it. No one works harder than Paal, day after day, year in and out.”

Nilssen-Love lives and breathes music, whether that means pouring every ounce of his energy into performances that leave him drenched in sweat or collecting records of all stripes and styles of music. “There are so many recordings being put out today, so you’ve got to be conscious about every factor involved in releasing a CD,” he said. From the beginning of PNL, he partnered with Norwegian sound artist Lasse Marhaug, whose striking graphic-design work has given each title a distinctive look and the entire catalog a unifying aesthetic. Marhaug also mixes and masters many of the releases, each gorgeously packaged in thick and glossy gatefold sleeves harking back to the glory days of the LP.

Still, for Nilssen-Love the music comes first, and it was a desire to take control of his output that primarily motivated him to start PNL. “I realized it would be much easier if I ran a label myself, because if any mistakes happen, if it’s late or delayed, then it’s my own fault and I know what is going on,” he said. “I realized there were more tapes of my music that I wanted released, so if this stuff was all going to come out. I had to do it myself.”

Over the years, the label has released numerous titles from many of the drummer’s working bands, whether the rangy free-jazz of the Frode Gjerstad Trio, the jagged, brassy Large Unit, or his early post-bop collective The Quintet—featured in a recent archival box set. But the bulk of the titles document his extensive improv work with the likes of Vandermark, Joe McPhee, Akira Sakata and Arto Lindsay, among others.

Like all labels today, PNL has been affected by streaming and illegal downloads. “A couple of years ago I found out about some guy in Russia who had uploaded quite a few of the CDs that could be downloaded for free,” he said. “A contact in Russia got in touch with him, and the guy told him that I could fuck myself because I’m making enough money on touring and CD sales!”

Still, the drummer remains unbowed in his commitment to physical documentation of his work. “In the very beginning, I didn’t have any proper distribution, but I was thinking, of course, I have the best distribution because I’ll have these CDs on every single gig,” he said. “If I’m doing 170 gigs and they’re always there, then that’s pretty good distribution.” With eight titles under his belt in 2019, Nilssen-Love already has big plans for 2020 with new albums by the Gjerstad trio and Lean Left (a quartet with the drummer, Vandermark, and The Ex guitarists Andy Moor and Terrie Hessels), as well as a new solo album produced by Marhaug. “I want to use the studio in a completely different way—let’s call it moving microphones and moving drums.” DB

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