THE GREAT HARRY HILLMAN: Keep Yourself Busy!

Interview With DOMINIK MAHNIG

It’s not often that we feature free jazz but, then again, THE GREAT HARRY HILLMAN are not your typical free jazz outfit. To be fair, they actually prefer to be called a post jazz outfit. The definitely quartet thrives in a live environment, but their sound has more in common with soundtrack music or even experimental than it does with standard jazz. Their latest release – and their fourth to date – is called Live At Donau115, and it also happens to be their first official live recording. 

The seven songs featured on the record were recorded in Berlin, at a venue called Donau115, back in July of 2019. The songs which were cut to vinyl are a selection made from three consecutive shows. The sequencing on the record is impeccable, in that it feels not only coherent, but it manages to reach beautifully resolved dramatic tension points. To use a bit of a shortcut to describe the general stylistic direction: think of this as a very moody movie soundtrack. The fellas toy around with ambient, post rock, fusion and there are even a few one-off head nods towards americana, mainly courtesy of David Koch’s guitar playing. Outside of its inherent eclecticism and the ease in distributing tension and mood, the biggest achievement here is what the band calls their brand of telepathy ie. the ability to be able to read each other’s mind while playing and to be able to synchronise seamlessly. You can hear this! It appears that all of the songs on the record were pre-written, but were merely treated as departure points for free improvisation.


THE GREAT HARRY HILLMAN are scattered between Switzerland and Germany. They are best known for their 2017 record tilted Tilt, which was released on Cuneiform Records. The outfit consists of Nils Fischer (reeds), David Koch (guitar), Samuel Huwyler (bass) and Dominik Mahnig (drums). 
Here is a transcript of our short q&a with drummer Dominik Mahnig.

How have you been dealing with the lockdown? 

I just finished recording some solo music which combines drums and modular synths. I planned to do this before the lockdown, but since all my gigs were cancelled I could spread the session out over two weeks, which was really helpful. Doing music helped me to stay positive. Overall, we are lucky, here in Switzerland, that we can still go outside, same goes for Germany. The fact that it’s not a complete lockdown makes it easier to deal with. 

What do you think will be some of the effects of this unprecedented break?

As a band we will go on no matter what! I suppose the longer the break will last, the better it will feel to play together again. I hope that the musicians and the audience will savour the live experience more, having been deprived of it for so long.

Your new record was recorded live in Berlin, in front of an audience. This is the first time that you recorded like this. What made you decide to avoid the safe-space of a studio?

The idea was to record not only the music we had written, but to document how we improvise our way in and out of the written compositions. This type of playing is what keeps us awake and in the moment. It’s so cool to experience the four of us playing a tune in a totally different manner from how we had initially rehearsed it. This type of playing would be hard to achieve in a studio situation, but the studio has its own advantages, of course. 

How did you prepare for this? 

We prepared the same way we would have for any other live show. But, of course, it’s definitely a different thing when you know that every note that you’ll play can end up on your next record. Since we play a lot, and quite regularly, we don‘t have to rehearse excessively before any performance. It’s more important for us to spend time together and to relax and catch a vibe.

When you’re improvising – because most of this was improvised – does it make a difference to you whether the show is being recorded or not? I’m thinking about the self-consciousness and the added pressure of delivering something that you can eventually publish. 

I guess the fact that you are recording an album will always be at the back of your head, regardless of whether you’re playing live or in the studio, but at a venue it’s the audience that makes it easier for you to enjoy the show. 

This music really sounds like a soundtrack! And the comparison to early David Lynch is on point. Was this something that you were aiming for or is this soundtrack vibe something that coalesced on its own? 

We often hear people saying that, but it wasn’t our aim to produce cinematic music. We like to improvise, as a collective, and we don’t follow the traditional solo after solo type of approach. I guess it just turned out that way, this time around, and it might turn into something else in the future.

Are you a fan of Mr. Lynch’s work? 

Lynch is an amazing person and artist. I started to watch Twin Peaks a month after the recording session, and it totally got me! It’s such a masterpiece. The characters are so deep and interesting and there are so many stunning moments. It was really inspiring to watch it, and I wish I could watch it for the first time, again and again. 

Being that touring is off the table for the foreseeable future, what will you guys be up to in the coming weeks or months? 

My wife is gonna have our baby in June and that will be a hell of an adventure, I guess. Because of this we didn’t have any plans for the summer, but hopefully small gigs will be possible again in the autumn.

All the best to you and your wife, and a safe landing to your baby!

By FM

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