By Paul Freeman
Their rousing sound has made Tempest a musical favorite not only in their Bay Area base, but across the country. Festival favorites, they’ve played in Denmark, Norway and England.
The band is now in its 23rd year. Oakland-based, Norwegian-born vocalist/mandolinist Lief Sorbye said, chuckling, “Time’s fun when you have flies,”
Tempest’s founder is joined by fellow original members Michael Mullen on fiddle and Adolfo Lazo on drums, as well as guitarist James Crocker and bassist Damien Gonzalez.
“I started the band to fuse rock and folk music and basically to explore not only Celtic roots, but also my own Scandinavian roots,” Sorbye said. “And play this in a rock band setting. If folk musicians had electric instruments hundreds of years ago, they would have used them. To this day, that’s still our musical policy, because there’s so much you can do with it. We’re still exploring.
“With having new members and fresh viewpoints over the years, we’ve looked at that music from different angles and I feel there’s still, after 15 records, a lot we can do with it. We’ve got a lot more music in us, a lot more miles on the road still to be had.”
Sorbye is drawn to folk music’s storytelling and high spirits. “Also, there’s a lot of avenues of different time signatures and key changes, which applies well to a progressive rock format. The progressive rock elements you find in our music is rooted in traditional folk. A lot of it is dance music of Western Europe, British Isles, Ireland, Scotland, Scandanavia. The dance music and the footwork is intricate. That’s the basis for a lot of the instrumental passages we use in our music. And, to the untrained ear, it sounds very progressive. That’s how we ended up getting signed to a prog rock label [Warner-distributed Magna Carta], back in ‘95, because we sometimes emphasize the more challenging parts of the folk elements.
“One thing that the band has gotten used to over the years,, is paying attention to musical detail. In the beginning, it was a little more surface. Now, paying more attention to detail, even the simplest song has a lot of depth to it, a lot of layers. And when you play it in a modern context and you have electric guitars, bass and drums, you can emphasize things that you wouldn’t necessarily pay attention to when you hear a traditional acoustic version of the stuff. We’re what you could call an arrangement-intensive band. We work a lot of on creating soundscape in our arrangements, which is a lot of fun to do.”
Tempest’s latest release is titled “Another Dawn.” This one, in many ways, is a very folksy album. Even though it rocks with the best of them, the basis of the music is very traditional in flavor. I’ve gotten to the point where I play strictly acoustic mandolins in the studio now. And I tried to go for a really organic sound in the studio. And that is a great contrast to the guitar work. And the new record has some fabulous guitar work in it. I feel that musically, it’s our strongest album and I’m proud of that. After so many records, you want to make a new statement and take it to a new level somehow. We want each of our albums to have its own identity.
“This album has as very upfliting feel to it, very positive. It isn’t overproduced, but it has a lush feel This one really speaks to me. I’m not saying that we’ve painted our masterpiece, but we’re on our way.”
Their record company suggested doing a cover of The Grass Roots ‘60s hit “Let’s Live For Today.” “We gave it our own signature style arrangement, added a Celtic riff, made it our own and people love it. So it goes to show that record copmpanies sometimes actually do have good ideas, Sorbye said, laughing.
An ancient Norwegian folk tune contributes to the unique Tempest flavor on the record. Sorbye some very personal songs for this album.
“We worked on this material in late 2008 and 2009. Events that are happening around you find their way onto the record. So a lot it was during the election of Obama, where there was strong shift in the whole collective consciousness of the country. That found its way into a song like ‘Verses of Grace.’ There were a lot of positive changes and positive attitudes happening.”
He wrote “Great Depature” for his father, who had just died. “I never feel that one is limited to one lifetime, so I wanted to put that across. It dawned on me that our culture is really big on grief. It’s big on celebrating birth, but has a weird relationship to death, compared to other cultures. To me, death is part of the natural cycle of life. And it is a new beginning.”
Sorbye began busking at age 14. “I learned quite early that, if you play music, you get attention from girls and you get free drinks. So why have a regular job?”
In 1978, , he came to U.S., eventually settling in the Bay Area. Impresed by their Incredible String Band covers, Sorbye joined the Celtic band Golden Bough, then moved on to form Tempest.
“The Bay Area’s a great place for this kind of music, because the band itself is sort of a melting pot of cultures. And that’s what the Bay Area is all about. It’s one of those gold rush towns. Nobody’s really from here, but people come here.”
At 52, Sorbye retains all of his enthusiasm for performing. “The two things I love the most in this life are music and traveling and I found a job that combines them both. It’s been a great adventure. And the adventure continues.”
Tempest, like a force of nature, has made its impact felt. “When you work with any alternative music, going against the mainstream, that’s a challenge. So we’ve had to prove ourselves. But we found our own place in the world and earned our own success. And that has maybe made us stronger than bands that are result of fad or fashion. Trends come and go, but when you work with music that has 200 years of roots, it’s not a flash in the pan. As long as your heart and soul are into it and you work hard, there’s always going to be room for what you do.
“Our goal is to get our music out to as many people as we can and to lift their spirits. If people walk away from our shows feeling good, feeling more positive, being energized, and enjoying life, then we’ve succeeded in what we set out to do. We’re doilng something valuable. It’s all about achieving happiness. And you can achieve that through playing muisic or listening to it
“For us, the interaction between the people on stage and the audience, that’s where the magic is created. And that’s our purpose. That’s why we’re here. Maybe we’re not changing the world, but we’re injecting something positive into it. And I think that’s really needed. This world would be a sorry place without music. As long as people appreciate our music, we’ll be doing it with all the gusto and energy we can muster up.”