With Todd Terje’s It’s Album Time one of 2014’s biggest crossover records, and the likes of Prins Thomas and Lindstrom international stars, Norwegian dance music should be at an all-time high. However, everything’s not always as it seems. FACT’s Chal Ravens flew to Oslo’s Øya Festival to investigate, speaking to Terje, Thomas, DJ Strangefruit and key figures from Norway’s new wave of electronic artists.
It’s two in the morning in Oslo’s Dattera til Hagen club, a three-storey venue that spills onto an open courtyard where a crowd of unfeasibly wholesome-looking Norwegians chain-smoke like it’s the 20th century. Upstairs, they’re dancing to sets from rising Detroit DJ Jay Daniel and, on the floor above, local talent Andre Bratten, who came out of nowhere last year to release his debut album, Be A Man You Ant, on Full Pupp – making him one of the youngest torchbearers of the disco scene that emerged in tandem with Prins Thomas’s label a decade ago.
Everyone in the club, it appears, is either drunk or steaming drunk. This is notable because the pair of gin and tonics I’ve just bought cost a fraction under 200 kroner (around £20). Getting pissed in this country requires a little organisation and a lot of cash; conveniently, Norwegians tend to have both of these in spades. I’ve come to the club near the waterfront from Tøyenparken in the north-east of the city, where Todd Terje has just headlined the final night of Øya Festival, cementing his place as one of the country’s biggest musical exports with a full live show that included giant-sized cocktail glasses, a troupe of illuminated dancers and a bonus appearance from a smoking jacketed Bryan Ferry. But if it seems obvious to us that the brains behind ‘Inspector Norse’ should top the bill of the city’s major pop festival, locals tell me that recognition in his home country has been hard won. Norway has been slow to recognise its dance floor proficiency – the chief of national radio famously refused to playlist ‘Inspector Norse’, dismissing it as “beach bar music” – and Terje, like his fellow Scandinavian disco troopers Prins Thomas and Lindstrøm, remains a much bigger deal abroad than at home.
But for a city of around 600,000 people, Oslo attracts more than its fair share of quality bookings from around the world. For Øya’s nocturnal offshoot, for instance, each of the city’s compact club venues has laid on a properly diverse array of international DJs (Robert Hood, Levon Vincent, Floating Points, Shlohmo) alongside the cream of its homegrown talent, from Lindstrøm and Cashmere Cat to the lesser known likes of Bratten, Øyvind Morken and Drippin. For a country where the clubs shut at 3am (or earlier outside of the capital) and rave as we know it never happened, it’s not bad going. But how did this diminutive northerly city spawn a generation of producers with a knack for euphoric grooves, eclectic mixes and painstakingly crafted edits – and is nu-disco still the only thing on the outrageously priced menu?
Every scene has its own apocryphal origin story, an oft-told yarn that acquires its own unbudgeable logic in the retelling. Even when the lead characters insist afterwards that they were merely stumbling forwards without a plan or a prayer, it’s both tempting and convenient to claim a single event as the nucleus of everything to come.
So this story – the one that ends with the space disco explosion of the noughties, Prins Thomas’ starry-eyed eclecticism, Lindstrøm’s epic synth voyages and Todd Terje’s masterful edits – starts in the small town of Hamar, 60 miles north of Oslo, in 1984, when 13-year-old Pål Nyhus gets his first pair of turntables and invites his younger friend Thomas Moen Hermansen round to try them out. “He started to DJ in my living room,” says Nyhus of the young Prins Thomas when I meet him, 30 years later, in an Oslo cafe. “Maybe I saw myself in him, because I started to buy records when I was 10 too. He was the little nerdy guy.”
“When I started DJing there wasn’t much happening at all – it was the first wave of breakdance, boogie, all these things. I was playing in the youth club,” remembers Thomas, speaking to me backstage after his afternoon set at Øya Festival. “I started buying some of the first house records and found a place for them to fit in what I was doing, but in 1989 I gave up DJing. I had toughed it out for four years, and all my friends were like, hip hop’s not cool anymore.” Instead he picked up the bass guitar and spent the rest of his teens playing in punk bands. “I saved all my records but I didn’t DJ again until, like, 1993. A friend of mine started one of the first house clubs in Norway and asked me if I wanted to play there on weekdays and warm up for whoever was coming to town. So I was serving beers and playing acid house, Miles Davis and [Norwegian prog-rock band] Motorpsycho.”
Those casual warm-up sessions proved to be the basis of the crate-digging, anything-goes DJ style that made his name. “We were playing for normal people, not a specialised club crowd. My mother and her friends would be asking for Rolling Stones, somebody else would be asking for salsa, so you play both and they’re all happy, and you find a way to make it work.”
Nyhus – soon to become known as DJ Strangefruit, later one half of Mungolian Jet Set – had also honed his craft in private to begin with. “I was a bedroom DJ for 10 years because there wasn’t really any kind of scene in Oslo until the ’90s,” he says. “When acid house happened, it never happened here, not at all. We missed all that.”
House and techno made tentative inroads in Norway in the early ’90s, with several DJ crews springing up and clubs attracting audiences of up to 1,000 at a time, despite the venues remaining illegal until 1995. Soon afterwards, the opening of Oslo’s legendary Jazid club alongside Skansen (both now defunct) and the long-running Blå gave DJs like Prins Thomas and Strangefruit a proper audience for their sets, which remained diverse and unpredictable in the face of other dance trends. By the late ’90s, Oslo’s club culture “was going crazy,” remembers Thomas. “Every tiny bar with a sound system had a deep house DJ. It was cool stuff, but at the same time, it was giving people the impression that house music was just muzak.”
A pivotal event in this origin story – the handing down of the commandments, you might say – was the arrival of DJ Strangefruit on national radio in 1997. For two hours every Saturday night, he was given free rein to impose his supremely catholic tastes on unsuspecting listeners, before his regular DJ partner Olle Abstract delivered the more heavy-duty dance floor business until midnight. “I started out playing more like a DJ mix, and then later on I started to play a lot of eclectic stuff, sometimes I didn’t care if it was a dance track or not – drum ‘n’ bass, techno, reggae, disco,” he says. Strangefruit and Abstract were “the kings in Norway”, reckons Thomas. “They would be like the Pete Tong or the Benji B of Norway. For my friends when they were too young to go out, that’s where they could listen to house and techno music on a Saturday night.”
The weekly pairing – along with their collaborative mix CD O’ What A Day, released in 2000 – proved hugely influential on a generation of aspiring DJs and producers, particularly those growing up outside of Norway’s larger towns. Among the impressionable young minds tuning in weekly was one ‘Todd’ Terje Olsen from Mjøndalen, a birthplace so inauspicious that Thomas and Strangefruit let out a chuckle when they mention it.
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“I never listened to Abstract, but I listened a lot to Strangefruit,” Terje tells me in the days after his headlining set at Øya. “He was probably the only one at the time who played really, really good music. I thought I was more into straight-up house, but he showed me how to mix, how to blend weird styles together and make them fit like a glove.” Exploring the same eclectic approach as Strangefruit, and inspired by the disco revivalism of fellow Norwegian Bjørn Torske (a key influence on the nascent Oslo sound despite being located in the rival town of Bergen, home to the likes of Röyksopp, Annie and Erot), Terje moved to the capital in 2000 to get the measure of the local scene.
Unfortunately, not much was happening. “Before then, there were maybe three nice clubs where you could go and listen to, maybe, Basement Jaxx before they were famous, stuff like that. But then something weird happened around the millennium – there were a couple of years where nothing happened in Oslo. Two of the really good clubs [Jazzid and Skansen] closed down at the same time. When I moved there in 2000 there was nothing – I mean, there were a few people who played, but you had to really search for it to find it. It was difficult to get bookings as well, and that was maybe the most important thing for me.”
Terje and his new acquaintances Prins Thomas and Hans-Peter Lindstrøm discovered that the lack of a dominant dance trend gave them some breathing room to indulge their eclecticism. “The absence of techno let us think more freely I suppose,” says Terje. “Around the early 2000s, most of the DJs in Oslo would play ‘eclectic’ music, although some of them just used it as a trendy word because that was a thing when broken beat happened. There were so many different styles of music being played, like funk, techno, rock – everything in one night .”
While international attention was focused on Bergen following the success of Röyksopp’s 2001 debut Melody AM, Oslo’s producers were left to “piece things together very naturally,” says Thomas. “I met Lindstrøm, he introduced me to Terje, I already knew people like Blackbelt Andersen, Magnus International, Kalle Sandaas – there was something bubbling under. Everybody worked on music but nobody was doing anything except in their bedroom. So I started my first label, Tambourine, putting out some of this stuff and realising how not to run a label – we did everything wrong,” he laughs. His second attempt, Full Pupp, got off to a more promising start with the release of Terje’s ‘Mjøndalen Diskoklubb’ (the title is self-explanatory) at the start of 2005.
“Terje was 17 years young, eager. He was always a nerd, but he’s a good one. He was doing great stuff, but everything he was making was not good enough for him,” says Thomas. Strangefruit agrees: “Terje is super talented – he can also be almost academical, sometimes on the borderline of a kind of craziness.”
Boosted by the support of François K and Dan Tyler from Idjut Boys, who helped Thomas secure a decent distribution deal, Full Pupp began to poke its head above the parapet, releasing a string of chrome-plated, retro-futurist grooves from the likes of Diskjokke and Randaberg Ego Ensemble, while Thomas and Terje flew the flag abroad with their signature eclectic DJ sets. Soon came the release of Lindstrøm’s scene-defining ‘I Feel Space’ on his own label Feedelity, followed by his eventual arrival on Norway’s definitive experimental imprint Smalltown Supersound. By 2006, an international audience had cottoned on to this Norwegian space disco malarkey.
With no homegrown music industry to pull the strings, the city’s producers had the space to gestate slowly and practise their craft away from the spotlight. “There was no pressure,” adds Thomas. Meanwhile, the local club scene received a shot in the arm with nights like Shari Vari, run by Terje with his hometown pal Dølle Jølle, and the growth of Sunkissed at Blå, which launched in 2000 with a typically mixed-bag music policy, as DJ and promoter Ola Smith-Simonsen recalls. “For the first three years we’d be mixing Carl Craig records with The Clash. Back in 2000, you couldn’t really run a club night playing one type of music, and I think this eclecticism has become really important [to Oslo’s scene].”
After four nights on the trot, I have to admit I’m still slightly baffled by the city’s club culture, particularly after having to fend off a pair of drunken creeps during Robert Hood’s set, something I rarely have to deal with in London clubs (admittedly, most of my nights out take place at the thoroughly asexual Corsica Studios). But an odd atmosphere springs up in a town where everything shuts at 3am. You’re constantly clock-watching, trying to cram everything – drinks, fags, dancing, chatting, loo breaks, a bit more dancing – into just a couple of hours. Looking at the logistics of it, you can see why these eclectic, disco-rooted sets have dominated – no one’s got the time to lose themselves in a session of deep, dark techno with only the odd hi-hat for company. “Here, it’s about giving the best of the best for the shortest amount of time,” says Bratten, the DJ from Dattera til Hagen earlier. “And the alcohol laws here are unfortunately shooting themselves in the foot, because people are trying to drink as much as possible in this time – even the DJs are drinking as much as they can, because it’s free!”
And partly for that reason, drugs like MDMA and ketamine are virtually non-existent here. Cocaine is prevalent, as it is wherever bozos and money collide, and a staggering number of these outwardly wholesome Scandis are puffing Marlboros, but really it’s booze that’s the order of the day – dance floors are rowdy, drinks are spilled, and taxis are bitterly fought over at the end of the night. After a year of visiting clubs around Europe, Bratten is convinced his home country takes the wrong approach. “Curfews are stupid. In Berlin people are coming and leaving constantly, everything is easy and calm, taxi queues are short. But when 600 sexually frustrated males meet in a taxi line, a fight is very easy to find. Especially with liquor and cocaine.”
The early closing time is a misguided attempt to reduce alcohol consumption, says Smith-Simonsen. “The reason why people are so drunk is that they adapt to the framework, so you have to push everything into those two hours when you’re in the club. People drink a lot before they go to the club, because it’s quite expensive, but when you get old enough to actually afford it, you’re so tied up in this tradition that you keep going to pre-parties,” he explains. “I think it’s important to remember that the Labour Party here was actually started through the Christian teetotal movement as a response to tough times and lay-offs. So the teetotal movement is equally strong within the Labour Party, and as a party that’s in and out of power as much as the Labour Party is in the UK, or more, that has an effect,” he says. Venues can be slapped with a week-long ban if inspectors discover two violations – that is, two people they deem too drunk – as happened at Dattera til Hagen a while ago. “The licensing here has been completely off the hook, they’re running around like little detectives trying to find people who are a little bit over the limit,” he sighs.
For those who want to carry on until morning, a handful of after-parties and illegal set-ups do exist, though few people I meet seemed to know about them. Bratten, however, is currently involved in setting up an after-hours offering at an artists’ community in the city called White Light Studios. “I wanted to help them have a proper techno venue here because I play techno when I DJ, and when I do, I see that people like getting something rougher and harder – but you can’t close techno parties at three in the morning! So we have to figure out how we’re going to do this. It’s on the drawing board.”
The issue of drugs, meanwhile, is “very sensitive”, says Smith-Simonsen. “The Norwegian national press can’t debate drugs in a sensible way. Talking about drugs in a club setting is difficult because there’s no finesse to it here, there’s no understanding. That obviously permeates in terms of what’s accepted. And what it does is it pushes all this stuff onto illegal scenes where you have no control at all.”
“But there’s also this thing of Norway being a society where there’s money to fix things. There’s not a lot of big issues, and you end up starting to micro-manage people’s lives, you know – cigarettes are bad for you, alcohol is bad for you, cycling without a helmet is bad for you, sitting on the back of lorries driving through fields is bad for you, all this stuff. Sometimes it becomes this feeling that it’s so dangerous to live that you can’t really do it, and that becomes a danger in a society like Norway where you end up debating these small things. The space in which to make your own faults and live a little, those spaces are getting smaller and smaller. There’s nothing good about drinking too much alcohol or taking drugs, but I actually think that it’s a good thing to get smashed some times in your life.”
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With the release of Terje’s first album and his homecoming headline show at Øya this week, along with Full Pupp’s 10th anniversary, it feels like Oslo’s space disco generation have closed a chapter. Norway’s national radio even playlisted ‘Delorean Dynamite’ this year – Terje’s beach bar music appears to have finally carved its own modest space in the mainstream. “I think it’s more that they have to notice us now because we’ve gotten bigger abroad,” he claims. “None of us are as big here as we are outside Norway – mostly we get booked to play in London or Amsterdam or Paris. I can’t remember the last time I played in Oslo.”
And, as Strangefruit points out, “Oslo and Norway are two entirely different things. If you went to a small town, people wouldn’t know who Terje is. What sells in Norway now is rubbish, and what’s actually commercial is really awful Norwegian dance music with intentionally stupid lyrics. Not like Ylvis, that was a clever thing, but this is like cheesy Schlager trance with Norwegian lyrics about skiing and getting drunk. It’s big with trashy people.”
Fortunately, there are more promising signs of life back in the clubs. The line-up at Dattera til Hagen this week has been programmed by LotLot, a monthly night set up six years ago by Jonas Wiik and Mattis With. “The reason we started LotLot is that Sunkissed at that time was very tech-house based, very Fabric,” With explains. “And I guess we started hearing sounds coming from the alternative scene in Berlin, the alternative scene in the UK, like with Mala, dub music… we’re definitely founded in a 4/4 principle, but it’s more leftfield, and not leftfield in disco, psychedelic way.” As well as booking DJs like Ben UFO, Omar-S, Actress and Four Tet, the night aims to support local talent by bringing in residents including Bratten, Øyvind Morken, Boska (who’s released on Sweden’s Studio Barnhus and Munich label Permanent Vacation), Snasen (whose hip-hop inspired, bass-heavy instrumentals have appeared on Oslo’s Sell Out! label) and, currently, Weideborg 2, who makes “incredible, weird, techno-meets-Cabaret Voltaire music,” says With.
Having released his debut album on Full Pupp last year, Bratten seems to bridge the gap between the original nu-disco troopers and the younger generation, and he also counts Terje, a fellow modular synth fanatic, as his studio buddy (“It’s nice to have someone you can discuss cable lengths with, stupid nerdy things,” says Terje).
“But I’m a bit on the side from the Scandi-disco thing,” says Bratten, whose debut release was his album on Full Pupp, the elegantly trippy Be A Man You Ant. “I’m a bit more Berlin, a bit more techno, and I don’t have funny track names and I don’t use major keys.” He’s since found himself in demand as a DJ – his first international gig was at Berlin’s Panorama Bar only last year, and since then the bookings haven’t stopped coming. “I really wanted to play but I had no idea I was going to play that much. I thought I had four years ahead of me with a gig every month, but it turned out a bit different,” he says. Having previously worked in theatres doing sound design, Bratten seems more aligned with Terje and Lindstrøm’s nerdy, workaholic crew than the self-proclaimed “slacker” contingent of Strangefruit and Thomas, and despite his Berlin affiliations, he seems proudly clean-living (though, like almost everyone around else, he chain-smokes throughout our conversation).
Not every new producer in Oslo is following in the slipstream of nu-disco, however. Scandinavia has had a long-running love affair with hip-hop too, and with the internet being the great melting pot of the millennial generation, younger musicians are just as likely to draw on the international sounds of dubstep, trap, grime and footwork. While the likes of Bratten consider themselves purists against this wave of acts (the trap scene is just “accountants with MIDI keyboards”, he protests) – this global blend is what animates the likes of playful pop remixer Cashmere Cat, one of Norway’s biggest breakout talents of recent years, and local crew Ball ‘Em Up, who host a monthly night at Blå.
Launched in 2013, Ball ‘Em Up is the brainchild of Marius Mevold, who produces as Slick Shoota, Erik Spanne, known as Drippin, and Emil Vaagland. “You can come to our night and you never know quite what to expect, but it’s the bass music landscape,” explains Mevold, listing rap, dancehall, juke, footwork, ballroom, and grime as a few of the styles in their melting pot. Loosely affiliated with Cashmere Cat, who played their launch night last February, the crew have forged links with New York’s Lit City Trax, who are about to release Drippin’s Silver Cloak EP, and UK radio DJs like B.Traits, Oneman and Scratcha DVA. They’re also acquainted with London’s new wave of grime-influenced producers, bringing DJs like Samename and Mr Mitch [Update: As pointed out here, Mr Mitch was actually booked by NXTNG] over to Norway, while Drippin has just contributed a remix to Sudanim’s new single ‘Pleasure Flood’.
“We want to represent what’s coming and not what’s been,” says Mevold, whose national hero isn’t Bjørn Torske or Prins Thomas, but veteran drum’n’bass DJ Teebee. “He’s a big hero for me. I think he ran off to the UK when he was 16 and just went for it as a DJ and producer, so I always looked up to him and what he’s done.”
Then there’s Annette Kvithyll, known as DJ Purple, who has roots in hip hop and bass but has been playing juke in her sets since she discovered the Chicago sound in 2010. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 160 bpm is a hard sell in a small city. “I actually have more regular gigs in Sweden than in Oslo, ‘cos people aren’t taking an interest. It isn’t that easy to play juke in a club because people can’t dance to it,” she says, explaining that the appetite for bass music hasn’t been established yet. “We have Ball ‘Em Up and Kids Love Bass, and there’s some other club concepts around that are pushing a newer wave. Norway has great producers, like Cashmere Cat, Slick Shoota and Finnebassen – but it’s disco and house which is still the strongest here.”
Back in Dattera til Hagen, we’re reaching peak time – or rather, closing time – as Bratten lays on an eclectic techno-leaning set. Every night during the festival, the city’s clubs have heaved with bookings from home and abroad as queues snake down the road, giving a picture of a scene in rude health. But even with so much fresh talent on display, it’s still rare for artists to break out of Oslo. DJ Purple reckons the city’s modest size makes it hard for producers and DJs to evolve, forcing them to move away if they want to make it big. “From my experience around Scandinavia, I think the DJs in Oslo are at a high level, there’s a lot of good DJs – but they’re slow with pushing new things,” she says.
LotLot promoter With, who is also involved with programming Øya and has worked on several projects making use of Norway’s generous government funding of the arts, has a harsher view of homegrown talent. “With people being so wealthy, they don’t really have to hustle,” he says. “Aspiring producers don’t really hustle like they do in other places – we have so much talent but so much laziness. Very few people utilise their talent, they’re just making one track a year.” Bratten agrees that DJs can struggle to have success outside of Norway, especially given their limited opportunities to play the longer sets that are typical elsewhere in Europe. “They don’t know how to build stuff. When you play Fabric for instance, you have to add the spaces where people can relax, but here it’s about giving the best of the best for the shortest amount of time.”
But Oslo should embrace its limitations as a small city, believes With. “You would think that all the scenes mesh together and we all talk to each other, but it’s these little enclaves of 20 people here and here, doing their own thing. So it’s been very important for me that we should define Oslo not as a metropolitan city, but should use to our advantage that it’s a small city and initiate these talks between scenes – like, there’s an incredible jazz scene here, and an amazing noise scene.”
The older generation seem more relaxed about the city’s ebb and flow, however. “It kind of reminds me of when it all died out,” says Thomas, remembering the clubbing implosion of the late ’90s. “You’re trying to bring something cool to people who don’t really give a shit about anything except finding the right [partner] and getting drunk.”
Smith-Simonsen meanwhile, who’s seen Oslo’s producers and DJs put themselves on the map in the 15 years since Blå opened, is sanguine about the future. “I feel it’s an organic process,” he says, pointing to the huge variety of music the club hosts, from cosmic disco and Detroit techno to Ball ‘Em Up bass.
“Maybe come back in three years and we’ll be playing ‘Rock The Casbah’ again,” he laughs.
Thanks to Øya Festival, Emily Cooper, Mattis With and Tony Wilson. All photos courtesy of Øya Festival.
Lead photo: Yngvild K. Rolland: Scream Until You Like It (2005), Øyafestivalen 2014, courtesy of the artist and photographer Pål Bellis