Norwegian Disco: Disco Infernal
- Words: Raf Katigbak
Pick up any travel brochure on Norway and they all talk about one thing: fjords. For some reason, these glacially carved inlets of water have come to define the country and its people: cool, distant, romantic. The same can be said of their music. Over the last decade, northern Norwegian downtempo and ambient acts from Biosphere to Röyksopp have invaded lounges and living rooms with the kind of isolated arctic coolness that could only have emerged from Scandinavia.
But lately there's been a rumbling coming from Oslo. What started as a spark has grown to a slow burn that's set to melt the icecaps. The sound is an unbridled blend of Detroit futurism driven by the rhythms of Krautrock; it's the sound of prog rock psychedelia colliding with echo-chambered dub effects; it's touches of Chicago acid, hip-hop, and Euro disco kitsch; it's the imaginary result of Ron Hardy jamming with Pink Floyd at the Paradise Garage. It's called Norwegian disko and everyone from DFA's James Murphy to Doc Martin to Trevor Jackson has been jocking it.
While New Jersey's Metro Area were arguably the first to prove that disco could be more than just cheesy strings and horn stabs, Nordic producers like Lindstrøm, Prins Thomas, Rune Lindbaek, Kango's Stein Massiv, and Todd Terje are taking the genre deeper, dubbier, and further into the stratosphere on homegrown labels like Trailerpark, Beatservice, and Feedelity, as well as the UK's Bear Funk and the Brooklyn-based Modal Music.
With a list of credits that includes dome-blowing remixes for LCD Soundsystem, The Juan Maclean, and Chicken Lips, Hans-Peter Lindstrøm is probably the most name-checked disko artist out of Norway right now. A relative newcomer to the Norwegian dance music scene, this self-professed shy guy and studio recluse caught the disco bug at an early age. “I was 10 years old and my first cassette I found on the street,” remembers Lindstrøm. ”It was a Boney M album, the one with the naked women on the cover and it’s still one of my all-time favorites in terms of production.” But Lindstrøm wasn’t always so eager to share his disco passion. As a musically talented teen growing up on the rock ‘n’ roll dominated west coast of Norway, Lindstrøm had to keep his disco jones in check. “At the time I was playing keyboards in a heavy metal band,” he recalls, “and they really made fun of me for the disco thing.”
After trading in his keyboard for a guitar and moving from metal to Hank Williams-inspired country western, Lindstrøm followed his ear back to the sounds that moved him as a child, and relocated to Oslo. “Because of my background, I’m always trying to incorporate all the styles that I listen to all the time,” he explains. “I play all the instruments myself–bass, guitar, drums, keyboards–so the songs get very personal. These days I’m not using any samples at all; everybody’s using Reason and stuff and for me that’s just not very personal. What I love about the disco style is that it’s so versatile, it can be wonderfully avant-garde or really commercial.”
Listen to any of the Lindstrøm remixes on the Norwegian disko comp Prima Norsk 3 (Beatservice)–especially his collabs with fellow Norwegian Prins Thomas–and it’s clear that versatility is his mantra. For Lindstrøm and Thomas anything is fodder for inspiration, from mid-‘80s Italian film soundtracks to Led Zeppelin and Hot Butter. Since they joined forces in 2003, the pair has been busy running their Oslo-based Feedelity records while sharing a studio in one of the sketchiest smack-infested neighbourhoods in Oslo.
Dubbed “The Remiks King” by his peers, Prins Thomas is an avid record collector (half of his collection takes up much of his studio) who can trace his influence to the fertile early ‘80s disco nexus of Chicago and New York. “In the beginning, I was more into Larry Levan,” muses Thomas. “When I first heard Ron Hardy I thought it sounded too… brutal. Now I’m just the opposite. I’m more interested in Hardy. I think it’s important to take into consideration the limitations. I really believe that the most interesting music is made with limitations.”
For Thomas–who gigs regularly in Europe and has a monthly radio show on with Lindstrøm on Tokyo’s Shibyua FM–DJing and producing is all about taking chances. “David Mancuso came to a club in Norway and played [ethno-techno outfit] Deep Forest–which is one of the records I hate the most–and in the setting it sounded really, really good,” he recollects. “It was hilarious. I actually started to laugh–like, it actually made sense! More and more I’ve been learning that you get the most satisfaction when you just trust your instincts. In production, [that means] you actually have the balls to go in a new direction, finding that cheesy melody and sticking with it rather than worrying that people won’t like it. Or even doing a track at 140bpm that gets you excited–at least the ballsiest people will play it, or maybe you can get a crossover hit with people that play gabber.”
According to Thomas, there’s something distinctly Norwegian about this style of freeform musical experimentation. “We’re kind of independent here. It’s never been a big scene–or most importantly, nobody’s made much money with it–so nobody’s hanging carrots in front of your face,” he explains. “If you do it, it must be for the love.”
Not to say that it’s too tough surviving as an artist in Norway. Since the discovery of oil off the coast in the 1960s, Norway’s economic prosperity has resulted in a generous welfare and artist support system. Veteran house producer Rune Lindbaek–whose releases on Paper Recordings helped pave the way for the current crop of Norwegian disko talent–believes that to be another reason for the fresh sounds coming from his country. “For three years in a row Norway has been voted the best place to live in the world according to the U.N.’s human development index,” explains Lindbaek. “There isn’t the same money desperation here compared to somewhere like England and that affects the artists. Also, around here, the corporate money machine that sponsored clubs and parties has now taken on the rock scene; the noise around electronic music is disappearing, which is really a good thing. It’s these middle periods, like those years just after disco, that are interesting. Post-disco was a reaction that had to happen and that’s the way it should be.”
Kango's Stein Massiv
With the recent collapse of the larger commercial club scene in Norway, the local underground scene is surging, and so is the output of producers like Kango of Kango’s Stein Massiv. “Here even the good clubs are not really that good, but if the club scene in Oslo was really good, I wouldn’t produce so much,” explains the outspoken Kango. “If I moved to New York, I wouldn’t produce. I’d want to just go out and buy records.”
In fact, Kango–whose wild style productions wouldn’t sound out of place on a late ‘70s/early ‘80s Lower East Side dancefloor–recently did just that. “When I went to A1 in New York two years ago I bought 187 disco records and the guy at the shop said, ‘You Norwegians are really crazy about disco!’” But for Kango, doing what they do is the furthest thing from crazy. “We’re all friends here: me, Thomas and Lindstrøm, Rune. We’re all just having fun and we don’t care what people think. In a way, you can really hear that in the production. Because we’re not totally depending on the tracks the way that many people are, we can help each other out and experiment a lot more.”
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