Memoirs from Norway’s underground dance pioneers: Hans T. Zeiner-Henriksen #5

Travelling around Norway in the Spring is a fantastic experience. During my trip in 2013, we hooked up with the key movers and shakers involved in forming the country’s house and disco scenes. I was lucky enough to touch down in Oslo, Bergen and Tromsø, and many weird and beautiful places in the surrounding areas. I travelled with Ben Davis, who was directing the film we were working on, formed from interviews with the key people from the dance scene plus Paper Recording’s label artists such as Those Norwegians. We were also curious about the country, geography, and people and how they influenced each other’s creative passions. This film had a working title of ‘Northern Disco Lights – The Rise and Rise of Norwegian House Music’. During our visit, we spoke to as many of the DJs, producers, promoters and radio stations as we could and decided to publish these best bits that sum up the trip, the film and our findings.

Hans T. Zeiner-Henriksen is Associate Professor, Department of Musicology at University of Oslo

Hi Hans, how are Norwegians regarded by the rest of the world? I think we’re seen as a safe area of the world, calm and safe, a bit outside. Our economy is very good it’s an expensive country because of our oil resources so it’s an easy place to be.

Do you think the discovery of the oil changed how Norway thinks about itself? Well yes, it’s been a long time now since the oil, we started getting oil resources and during these years we have kind of grown from being similar to other European countries to have this strong economy. Especially in the last decade, we don’t have any economic problems.

Do you think it’s affected Norwegian creativity? Yes, if you grow up in a country in a situation where you feel that things are going to go well, you don’t really have to stress too much to survive; it’s then that you can move into more creative work.

Do you think Norwegian music has certain characteristics? That depends on what you label on each music because it comes in a lot of sizes and a lot of shapes. I think if you consider Norwegian music as Norwegian folk music then it will have different instruments, the Hardanger fiddle which is local to Norway. The music that you would play on that instrument has travelled from other countries and been influenced by other cultures. Classical music was important at the end of the 19th century and so it was important for building the Norwegian identity. We said goodbye to Denmark and then Sweden and became our own nation. It was important that we had not only the music but the literature, the theatre, all the things that became an important part of Norwegian-ness. At that time, it was considered that this music was Norwegian and that it has something that is specifically Norwegian about it. A lot of us, growing up in Norway would consider classical music as very Norwegian, maybe because we had already heard it played alongside landscape footage in films. We have also heard it with Norwegian fairy tales and those connections are very strong. When you refer to Norwegian Jazz or popular music it’s difficult because there are so many influences and today you can just switch on your device and get the whole world into your living room.

Why do you think Norwegians have such a strong connection to nature? We have a strong connection to nature, especially my generation. There’s an understanding that the nature of Norway is beautiful, and you should use it, go on Sunday walks, have your vacations in the mountains in your small cabin, go skiing, of course, all Norwegian’s go skiing! I’m not sure if it’s the same with the younger generation but it’s part of our society and important to our culture.

Do you think there’s a connection between nature, landscape and electronic musical sounds? I feel there’s a connection between the landscape and the music, we have album sleeves with photos of the landscape, so the connection is understood. You can kind of connect snow, cold ice with sounds that are similar. For example, if you have an echo, you can have a warm echo. If you add a lot of reverb to it, you create a sound that is a warm echo, but you can also have a cold echo, it’s less reverb and the sound will be brighter. So there might be elements already present in the music but sometimes you have to imagine these connections into the music because if you just listen to music without any kind of understanding, knowledge or photos it’s rare that you would hear these connections. You can see the connection in artwork, titles that will have some association with nature and the landscape. And of course, music is very much about movement and then you have movement or a drive forward. There’s rhythm and you feel there’s kind of a movement. You often set this movement in some sort of landscape.

FEEL THE FJORDS: Urban club culture and Arctic scenery in the music of the Norwegian duo Röyksopp.

FEEL THE FJORDS: Urban club culture and Arctic scenery in the music of the Norwegian duo Röyksopp.

Do you think there’s a Tromsø sound that has been formed by its landscape and geography? I think there are many other influences in Tromsø’s music as well as the natural ones. Tromsø is a coastal area so there’s not permanent ice there the whole time. It’s not like Solvær, an island near the North Pole, Tromsø is more Arctic than Oslo. You have sun, snow, ice and the ‘northern lights’ and a connection to natural experiences when you live in Tromsø; to what extent that has directly influenced these musicians it’s hard to say.

Why do you think Norwegian producers are so collaborative? In Norway, you’re don’t compete too much, and in the schools, it is not very competitive; we’re busy trying to make people work together and collaborate.

How important to Norwegian music is national identity? Identity is important for everybody everywhere. We are proud of our country, nature and landscapes. I think some of the electronic dance producers felt that they were on the outside. They didn’t live in Britain but were influenced by the music and urban sounds that they heard from there. It’s a kind of collaboration between these different identities. There is a very strong sense of wanting to be culturally cool or hip in the dance music community. It was very important to be one of the hipsters or VIPs jumping the queue and getting into all the cool places in Oslo’s club culture during the nineties. This is important when you talk about identity, it is false to be hip and cool. Norwegian nature and landscape are not really that cool to Norwegians. For example, when they are portrayed in a British magazine they would say ‘Feel the Fjords’ or the ‘ultimate chillout’ linking directly to the connection with nature in Norway. In this sense, artists may feel pressure to connect with the environment or even fight against it. Maybe you can see a sense of irony in many of the photos where they present themselves in the natural environment in an ironic way?

Norwegian music seems to have a sense of mischief and humour. Why do you think that is? Maybe some of the same reasons. Mischief can be used to show that you don’t think things are that important or I’m not struggling to make a success in somewhere, this is just something I do for the fun of it. This is just a part of it, but I think the ‘cleverness’ in making good dance music is much more important. The production of tracks with good grooves and melodies are more important elements in becoming a success.

What is it about Norway that is considered ‘exotic’ to the rest of the world? I don’t think it’s that exotic to grow up here. We are on the outskirts of central Europe. Of course, there are the clichés about living in Norway, the country life, the snow, the cold winters but now we have warm houses and it’s not that awful. Norway’s ‘exotic’ label is also created abroad when (music and culture) journalists write about Norway, it’s a way to start writing about Norwegian artists. As a journalist it’s difficult to write about music, for instance, how are you going to talk about the ‘sounds’ of the music? ‘ It’s easier to start with something specific and Norway has mountains, ice, snow, dark season and Tromsø being so far north, it has all of these.

How important do you think Röyksopp’s Melody AM was for global recognition of Norwegian dance music? We must go first back to the eighties and A-ha’s breakthrough with ‘Take On Me’ and ‘Hunting High and Low’ was also very important for Norwegian artists. It showed that it was possible for Norwegians to make it in the US, England and the rest of the world. After that, quite a few Norwegians artists were successful international in places like France, Japan, the Philippines and other exotic countries. For example, in the late nineties, Röyksopp and Kings of Convenience (Röyksopp in 2001) were successful in England and globally and this inspired Norwegian artists. It’s difficult living in remote locations but when artists are successful it presents an opportunity; recently we had Ylvis, ‘The Fox (What does the Fox Say?)’. It shows that there are new ways of distribution, online or YouTube to make your start. You don’t have to travel to England or contact with a British record label to be promoted, now if you have something good you can go for it on your own. ‘Melody AM’ was released at the right time and showed that dance music can be taken into a different place. For example, the track, ‘Poor Leno’, it’s very danceable, but it also has very strong melodic themes. ‘Eple’, uses sampling techniques in a cool way, taking a tiny piece of improvisation and making something fantastic out of it. The album was very creative and did fun (mischievous) things with samples and the music. It had great grooves and strong melodic themes and brilliant vocalists such as Anneli Drecker and Erlend Øye who sing on ‘Poor Leno’ and ‘Remind Me’.

From where has Norwegian music absorbed its wide range of influences? Growing up in Norway, we only had NRK Radio which did not play very much popular music apart from the Top 10. We had a strong economy and disposable income and we’d buy our own records. My local youth club held a disco every Thursday where I learned to dance to disco music, club music that came a few years later. We bought records and spent a lot of time at each other’s houses listening to what we considered good music. Everybody has their own [formative] listening experiences with music. This is enormous to the artist and producers, every different tune they have listened to during the years growing up; that creates identity. You can explore that identity to a much deeper level. I didn’t know very much Kraftwerk before I got into club music and then I really got interested also in them, exploring their early releases. In Norway, we had the record stores and we had friends who also had records!

How is homegrown dance music regarded by the establishment now? The national broadcaster NRK or cultural politics did not support dance music back then. They play it but they generally supported Norwegian classical music composers, folk music and jazz and acoustic singer-songwriters that sang in Norwegian. While people that made pop music, sang in English or worked in the dance music scene was not supported but they did have tracks broadcast on radio. There was lesser national interest around the success of Röyksopp or Todd Terje, compared to classical music, jazz and other events that are considered culturally important for Norway.

How do you think Norwegian music has evolved from the 70s? A-ha were important, their synth-pop music was produced by programming synthesisers, but we must go into the late eighties, early nineties before something really exciting happens and it came from Tromsø. It started with Bel Canto who were Geir Jenssen, Anneli Drecker, and Nils Johansen. Geir Jenssen went on to become Biosphere.  There were a lot of artists and electronic music producers coming from Tromsø such as Rune Lindbæk and Bjørn Torske. It started the style of dance music that is famous today. When Röyksopp released ‘Melody AM’ it opened it up for other artists, then came Hans-Peter Lindstrøm, Prins Thomas and Olle Abstract and now Todd Terje.

How influential do you think Bjørn Torske has been? Bjørn Torske has been influential when it comes to using Norwegian track and album titles. His name, Bjørn Torske, Torske means cod (the fish). So, he’s given himself an artist name which Norwegian people think is fun. I think he encouraged the use of Norwegian words in this way, for instance, why would Röyksopp call a song Eple? It’s the traditional Norwegian name for a fruit. There’s probably a link to the Bob James album (with an Apple on the cover), from the sample used in the track? The band name Röyksopp is based on a Norwegian word with a Swedish spelling.  It’s means mushroom. The ones that blow smoke if you step on them.  It’s small, white. I think it’s called a puff mushroom in the UK. There might also be an association with magic mushrooms as a drug. You step on it and something amazing comes out!

Röyksopp and Todd Terje seem to have the most success internationally. Do you see similarities in their music? It’s easy to state the differences. Todd Terje is much more instrumental and seldom uses vocals. While Röyksopp use more vocalists. Similarly, they both use strong melodic themes paired with good grooves and beats that you can follow with your body and dance.

Why do you think Norwegian electronic music has a strong affinity with disco? We grew up dancing to disco music, and maybe coincidentally, but somewhere along the line people started to explore this connection. House music has a connection to disco music, such as with the fun, the irony and outrageous clothing of disco, which also connects to being mischievous.

Can you hear Norway’s influence being reflected by international artists and producers? I hope that our influence has been great melodies and grooves that evolve.

DJs seem to be very open-minded here, why do you think that is? Because we are outsiders? If you’re in the centre of cultural activity you’re more worried about what’s right or what’s wrong. We can explore different landscapes with nobody telling us how to do it.

Tell us about Röyksopp’s ‘Poor Leno’ video? It’s very traditional Norwegian at the beginning when they fly over landscapes that are very mountainous and head towards the sea surrounded by Arctic coastal landscapes, few houses, lots of skiing. Then you have this person, Poor Leno, but it’s not a person, it’s a strange creature with hipness and cool. Leno longs to go back to the mountains and it can, of course, be understood as a link to traditional Norway.  It’s not clichéd, and it’s cool to still have connections to Norway and it’s the environment. Musically, there’s one specific part that builds up, almost like going up the mountainside. Then suddenly it’s like you have come to the top of the mountain and see the amazing view; there are definite metaphorical associations between the music and nature in the video.

Do you think Röyksopp have a strong sense of melancholia? There is an element of melancholia but if it’s specific to a Nordic sound I’m not sure. They do use minor chords which are also used in deep house productions which they might have been influenced by.

These excerpts were recorded and transcribed with some parts of the interview being used in the final print of the Northern Disco Lights feature documentary film.

© Paper Vision Ltd (Pete Jenkinson/Ben Davis)

Recorded on a Zoom H2.

Transcribed by Fingertips, Louie Callegari and Tongue Tied.