Legendary dark ambient producer Helge Sten, aka Deathprod, is a crucial player in Norway’s revered experimental music scene. John Twells talks to the engineer and performer about working with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, music streaming and more.
Can you imagine what Burial’s debut album might have sounded like had he not grown up traipsing around the neon-lit estates of South London? Or what Black Sabbath could have knocked together if they’d not had the (mis) fortune of being born and raised amidst the industrial squalor of Birmingham?
I know first hand how important location is to music (I euthanized my own longest-running solo project when I waved goodbye to the needle-carpeted canal bridges of the Black Country), and Helge Sten, aka Deathprod, agrees with me.
“I probably wouldn’t make this kind of music if I was living in the Bahamas,” he states, tersely. “The actual environment and climate of being in Norway is at least a part of it, I would say. As with Biosphere, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s music coming from Norway.”
For many years now, Norway has allied itself with the darker side of the musical spectrum – it’s no surprise that Oslo served as a Petri dish for the proliferation of black metal in the 1980s – and even though Sten keeps a relatively low profile, he occupies an important place near the top of the pile. His series of influential ambient albums – from 1991’s self-released (and charmingly titled) cassette Deep Throat Puke Orgasms to 2004’s massively acclaimed ‘final’ opus Morals and Dogma rightly secured him a place among the great and good of experimental music. And whilst the project has been dormant for a decade now, his crucial work as a sound engineer (just flick through the Rune Grammofon catalogue for evidence) and as a founder member of avant-garde act Supersilent has seen his cache rise in the interim.
“I probably wouldn’t make this kind of music if I was living in the Bahamas.”
Sten’s latest outing finds him embarking on his most high-profile collaboration to date, with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. The two met at Bergen’s Punkt festival – Sten was performing with Supersilent, and Jones was due to perform an “unannounced solo piece.” Jones ended up joining the band for an impromptu live collaboration and a year later, the two returned to the festival as a duo – the Minibus Pimps were born.
It was Jones’ use of powerful – and almost prohibitively expensive – hybrid system Kyma that intrigued Sten initially. “I thought we should have a talk about this world of sounds, and we did,” he explains. “I didn’t actually work on Kyma when I met John in 2010, I actually acquired the system right after. Because I’d been looking into Kyma for years, and actually went to a demonstration in Norway in the mid-‘90s, but at the time, it was so expensive, and you couldn’t really use it as flexibly as you can today in terms of controllers and a more improvised setting. It was not quite there at the time. It was really nice to rediscover the system, by John playing.”
The meeting meant that Sten totally changed the way he’d been working, and he integrated Kyma into his studio placing it at the center of his process. In contrast to his earlier work, the Minibus Pimps EP Cloud To Ground was put together entirely within Kyma, but unusually wasn’t painstakingly pieced together in the studio. Instead it was recorded live, in front of an audience, something that was very purposeful, according to Sten.
“There’s a certain energy and a certain presence that you have on stage when you do a concert which might be hard to have in the studio. So when we started to listen to these recordings it became clear that we should try and put it together as an album.
“How we record it would be identical in the studio – technically. It’s very simple, just two outputs from each of us, and that’s it. So we could record an album in a hotel room. But the environment of our concert is really good and focused.”
“It’s like looking into a microscope – suddenly there’s a whole new world opened up.”
It’s an approach they’re sticking to for any forthcoming material, and Sten assures me that the duo are “looking into some concerts this year.” They are also planning some studio recordings and will keep recording the shows, but the one big speed bump is that Jones is “very busy writing his opera,” (based on August Strindberg’s ‘The Ghost Sonata’) which seems to be delaying progress somewhat.
Sten’s move into software and the Kyma system is somewhat at odds with his comparatively humble beginnings. In the past, his setup was made up of “a few guitar pedals, and tape echo machines, ring modulators and stuff like that,” and he would use these boxes as “noise sources” for sampling.
“You can even record tape hiss,” he tells me. “When you pitch it down four octaves you get this strange, beautiful world, which you wouldn’t see or hear in the original pitch. So, I’m interested in going into this gritty, noisy, sound material and going – for example there’s a lot of this pitch stuff going on in the Deathprod music. It’s like looking into a microscope – suddenly there’s a whole new world opened up.”
Unexpectedly, he’s been revisiting the Deathprod project in the last couple of years. He has performed 1994’s ‘proper’ debut album Treetop Drive in full a number of times now, and also re-convened with Biosphere to present the duo’s revered Nordheim Transformed. As the project is supposedly in a self-imposed hiatus, I wondered what had prompted Sten to revisit this 20-year-old material, and why he hadn’t attempted it sooner.
“There were a lot of requests about it, basically. The main problem was that I didn’t have all the technical equipment I needed to reconstruct the original electronic parts, because obviously all that stuff was made on samplers and stuff from 20 years ago. And I wasn’t really sure that I had backups of all the parts, like floppy disks and all the kind of sequencing parts and everything, but I decided to look into it, if it was possible to reconstruct it and it turned out it was, it just took a really, really long time.”
As our conversation moves into the murky world of outmoded Akai samplers, Sten lets slip that the current bluster of activity in the Deathprod camp isn’t confined just to live performances, and there might be new releases on the horizon.
“I’m not really that interested in backing up these dying corporations, I mean they’re making money but the musicians aren’t.”
He informs me that he’s been working on new music using the long-discontinued Akai X7000 12-bit sampler, and that it’s another project with Geir Jenssen, “a new Deathprod/Biosphere thing.” I ask if it could be the follow-up to Nordheim Transformed and while he replies with an encouraging “yeah,” he continues by back tracking a little, and saying he’s not certain whether the two will be turning the material into an album. “We’ll have to see,” is the final verdict.
Even if new Deathprod material never sees the light of day, it’s encouraging at least to know that Sten wants to see his classic albums on vinyl – it’s “under consideration for sure,” and he’s just looking at the overall costs involved. He mentions that both Treetop Drive and Morals and Dogma would have to be double disc (and therefore make the cost of production incredibly high), but that it’s “definitely under construction.”
Sten isn’t as positive about Spotify, or other streaming services. When I bring up the fact that it’s unusual that his records aren’t available in this manner, he assures me that it’s totally intentional.
“I don’t really care too much about it. There are several aspects – one thing is that the sound quality is really crappy. And the whole, I don’t really enjoy listening to these streaming services, it seems a bit distant to me. But I mean, it’s hard to say, but also there’s no money in it whatsoever. Take Treetop Drive – it’s like a complete piece of something, and it’s important to stay within a format and I quite enjoy physical products, basically.
“I’m not really that interested in backing up these dying corporations, I mean they’re making money but the musicians aren’t. I think also, the kind of audience that listens to my music is very much into buying physical products.”
As our brief chat draws to a close, I ask Sten if he’s able to reveal any future projects he has on the horizon, and he has some more surprising information. There are live shows planned with Supersilent, Minibus Pimps and as Deathprod, as well as a number of performances with his wife Susanna, but Sten casually adds “there will be a new Supersilent album this year.” That’s not idle chit chat or hopeful speculation either, as it’s “been finished for almost a year.”
“I would say it’s pretty avant-garde,” he replies conclusively. “Yes. I would say that.”