Every year, the dedicated team of music lovers at Inkonst, an arts venue in Malmö, Sweden, put together Intonal Festival, a celebration of experimental music and art. FACT’s John Twells returns to Sweden to talk to the organizers and artists and find out what’s keeping the Malmö scene alive in the face of funding cuts and social change.
It’s easy to get cocky when you travel frequently. A quick shot across the Atlantic for a festival? No problem, I’ll sleep on the plane and will be firing on all cylinders when I land. This year, returning to Sweden’s Intonal Festival for a second time, my energy levels were severely misjudged. Powerful anti-anxiety medication wasn’t quite enough to inspire the restful sleep I’d hoped for and within half an hour of arriving in Malmö, I was struggling to stay awake as I wandered to St. Johannes Church in the center of the city. I had intended to talk to Swedish composer Erik Enocksson and American artist Kali Malone about their exclusive live collaboration, but my mind was moving about as quickly a Sunn o))) record. Thankfully, something about the venue – a large, imposing structure filled with stained glass and a gorgeous pipe organ – brought me to my senses; before long, I was listening, learning and almost alert.
It was the scope of Enocksson and Malone’s project that was so startling. I’m familiar with both musicians’ solo output, but wasn’t sure exactly how they would be working together. They explained that the performance was a collaboration with two choirs – one 60-person choir and one 20-person choir – a small chamber ensemble, and two organs. In total, they had 84 musicians to work with; it was supposed to be 85, but the viola da gamba player was unwell and had to cancel.
If you think this sounds like a lot to manage, you’d be right. I thought I was tired – Enocksson and Malone look positively exhausted. “It’s a lot of administration, a lot of color coding,” laughs Malone, nervously. “At first it was just a show. Then we decided to do it together,” adds Enocksson before Malone cuts in. “And then we got a choir, and then we got another choir and then a chamber ensemble and a second organist and a second organ. It kind of grew out of hand, somehow, but the Intonal people don’t seem to mind.”
Neither artist has ever attempted anything quite this ambitious before, but with Intonal’s backing, the duo were offered the opportunity to do something rare and remarkable. Add to this the fact that the show was completely free to attend, and you have a neat reminder of what can be done with access to the resources required to put a project of this scale together. Intonal receives funding from the Swedish government to help pay for these experiments, something that sits at odds with the system in the USA, where I live most of the year. Sweden’s level of support is, in fact, what drew American Kali Malone to the country in the first place.
“I had a really different experience with music here than in the States because I grew up in the underground, mostly punk and noise music, and I’m from Denver,” she explains. “I was familiar with making things in a community and putting on shows from a young age, and coming here I realized there was a lot of support for doing this. You didn’t really have to kick and scream the same amount because you had institutions and state funding.”
Malone first visited Sweden as a 16-year-old; she met experimental composer Ellen Arkbro at a house show and the two stayed in touch. A year later, she returned to Stockholm and Arkbro introduced her to Elektronmusikstudion (EMS) where they recorded together. At the same time, she was introduced to Fylkingen, a legendary artist-run venue and association for experimental music and art that was founded way back in 1933. She decided to stay permanently.
“My experience of [experimental music] in the States was this really subversive, hidden thing in warehouses. It was so different from what would be playing at a venue or concert hall. In Sweden it’s very much mixed. You have underground spots to go to, underground clubs, and the same musicians playing there can be playing in a church, here.” She laughs and pauses. “The sheer support and ability to do this was really attractive to me.”
Intonal isn’t Sweden’s only experimental electronic music festival. As we talk, Enocksson and Malone reminisce about Norberg festival, a long-running event that takes place at an abandoned mine in the woods, deep in the Swedish countryside. “It’s fucking amazing, it’s like-” says Enocksson, trailing off, almost lost for words. “I’ve had some of my best adult musical experiences in the big mine. The last time I was just weeping. In a concert environment, that’s a big thing for me.”
I make my way from the church to Malmö Rowing Club for the first night’s performances and reflect on Malone’s story. Coming from Europe originally, I was drawn to the USA precisely because the underground existed without state funding and without the same level of awkward oversight. The basement noise scene that Malone mentions is a community I felt kinship with as a touring artist, and it influenced my decision to relocate. But as the sun sets over the city and a crowd of local fans cluster on a rooftop near the water to watch Joana’s Hair, a local three-piece who make music on 12 thrift store keyboards arranged in a circle, I’m reminded what a difference resources can make to local communities of artists. In the decade I’ve lived in the USA, it’s become more and more difficult for local scenes to support themselves. The old network of lofts, warehouses and basements has been broken up and replaced with luxury apartments, expensive work-share spaces and branded 1990s-themed cosplay experiences. The landscape is more difficult to navigate than ever, especially for anyone without the cheat codes of race, class or gender.
Intonal collaborates with Svenska Kyrkan, the Church of Sweden, every year to provide a free concert at St. Johannes Church on the last Thursday of April. Before Kali Malone and Erik Enocksson’s performance, German sound artist Limpe Fuchs begins the night with a breathtaking display that finds her interacting with imposing homemade metal instruments and rolling a metal ball through the church. It’s unexpected and unique and impresses a multi-generational audience of locals.
With the space around the altar seemingly packed with performers, the building falls silent before Malone and Enocksson introduce their glacial tones. And while there are difficulties – both artists look haunted by the time it was over – the show is an example of something that could only happen with funding. It is ambitious because it is dangerous; the possibility of failure is high when there are so many moving parts. But the end result is transcendent, it feels like a gift to hear these two musicians expand their relatively intimate solo sounds into something so densely layered and widescreen.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday the events center around Inkonst, a multi-room arts venue that sits at the heart of Malmö’s underground scene. It was founded in 1998, and since 2006 has been stationed in an old chocolate factory with three discreet stages. The team behind Inkonst is the same team behind Intonal, and the festival acts as an international reminder that Inkonst promotes this kind of music and art all year round.
“Inkonst is the most important space in Malmö, without competition,” says Mika Hallbäck, aka Rivet. Hallbäck grew up in Malmö and like me, got his start in music rather early. His story is eerily familiar. “I was the outcast, obviously. But the other kids, I wouldn’t say they were into music. My mum used to do jazz dance, modern dance, so she had all these Kraftwerk, Jarre, Depeche Mode, so that’s where I went from basically.”
Hallbäck is dismissive of the Malmö of his youth. He started DJing as a teenager and taught himself to produce electronic music by tinkering with ReBirth and Cubase. He found a local crew putting on illegal parties and while it was exciting for a time, the music wasn’t to his taste. “There was a club scene but in the mid-90s we had the Rave Commission, a whole division of the police out to stop the rave scene. So they closed all the clubs that played techno; that’s why everyone started throwing raves in warehouses and forests, those places were my first gigs when I was 15.”
When he turned 16, Hallbäck scored a residency at a local gay club. “I wasn’t allowed in the club because it’s 18+, so I had to arrive before they opened and stay in the booth which was locked and stay until it closed. The first two years were really good for me because people wanted to see me play because I was a kid playing. And then I started doing techno and more industrial stuff. Maybe that was when I was 19. So I got into that and became an outcast in the techno scene too, because nobody liked that stuff. So I spent a long time disconnected from Malmö.”
In 2001, Hallbäck started Emergence Records with Benny Liberg, aka Archae. He was friendly with Birmingham warehouse techno deity Surgeon (“I guess I was one of his biggest fans”) who managed to help get Hallbäck a distribution deal with the now-defunct Birmingham-based distro Integrale. In 2006, he started the Pohjola sublabel, and in 2016, he kicked off his most recent imprint: Kess Kill. In the last few years, the label has achieved notoriety with releases from Vanligt Folk, Stanislav Tolkachev, Celldöd and others.
Now, Hallbäck has made his peace with Malmö. When he returned to the city in 2010 after a spell living in Spain, it had changed, or he had. And he credits Inkonst for helping shift the city’s focus. “Inkonst already brings the avant-garde new music, so Intonal isn’t unique in that way. Inkonst do Intonal, but it’s more like a climax of their activity. Because Inkonst is always doing forward-thinking bookings.”
Gothenburg three-piece Vanligt Folk link the stories of Mika Hallbäck and Ulf Eriksson, one of the curators and founders of Intonal. Eriksson runs the Kontra-Musik imprint, which linked up with Hallbäck’s Kess Kill to release Vanligt Folk’s impressive Hambo full-length last year.
“Malmö’s a really cool city. It’s close to Copenhagen, it’s got more of a continental vibe. Gothenburg is much more working class, like Manchester. It’s like a complex, trying to match Stockholm,” explains David Sundquist. The band first played in Malmö in 2013, when Eriksson booked them to perform at Inkonst; Hallbäck has long been a fan and has seen them perform every time they’ve played in the city. Their music, a dada-inspired blend of disparate influences from post punk and synthwave to dancehall and disco, is daubed with Gothenburg’s notorious sense of humor. But the band wonder how visible this humor to anyone outside of Sweden who might not have seen their shows.
“The music has done an almost dialectical journey towards something different,” says Jonas Abrahamsson. “But when we play live it feels like we have always been hitting drums with shoes and walking around in the audience and spitting in their faces. It has always been slapstick.”
This is encouraged in Gothenburg, where there’s a long-established scene with surrealist noise co-existing with dub, techno and free jazz. “We have Joachim, iDEAL,” laughs Sundquist. He’s talking about Joachim Nordwall, boss of the iDEAL record label and festival, and a veteran artist who’s been involved in everything from psychedelic rock and power electronics to hardcore jungle and acid house. “Joachim used to book Nefertiti, an old jazz club, so he’s been doing this a long time. Putting weird electronic stuff with jazz.”
When Vanligt Folk perform, the Malmö crowd immediately engages. The trio have no shortage of local support for their antics: Andreas Carlsson charges through the crowd leaving a trail of destruction and it’s unlikely many of the band’s instruments survive the set. The humor provides a welcome antidote to some of the more serious, pensive presentations we’ve witnessed across the weekend and it highlights part of Swedish culture that is often shrouded.
“Sometimes it feels like the foundation of society is shaking so you put that responsibility on culture to change the world. That’s pretty annoying,” concludes Abrahamsson. “The concept or idea of culture and art is to destroy the structure of society, not to build it up.”
After Vanligt Folk, Rivet continues the expression of Swedish culture with a head-melting set of industrial body music that brings life in Inkonst’s largest room. At the back of the room, performers Antonio Branco & Riccardo T examine each other’s naked bodies, decorating them with foil and setting the mood for the rest of the night. The spectacle cuts the atmosphere masterfully, bringing Hallbäck’s biography into sharp focus.
The next day, I meet up with Frida Christensen, Intonal’s producer. She laughs as I ask her about the festival’s genesis over leftover snacks in the green room backstage. “Ulf came and said ‘we’re gonna do a festival!’ And everyone else was like, ‘okay’. We kinda did what we thought a festival was, because none of us had done it before.”
The team partnered with The Goethe Institute, The Polish Institute and the local arts center to bring in artists and funding from other places. Once the festival was in motion, Intonal co-started a network of Nordic festivals called Up Node, that joins together seven experimental and contemporary music events to share information and exchange artists. “It’s been really helpful, for me at least, to go to Insomnia in Norway for example, to meet their production manager and see her spreadsheets you know! You have the same struggles, and you can make good things together.”
Intonal is also part of ICAS (International Cities of Advanced Sound), a global network of 35 international non-profit organizations committed to music, art and the exchange of ideas. “It’s really cool how that network has started to expand, with Nyege Nyege,” Christensen tells me; the Ugandan festival was added to the network earlier this year. “It was cool for us to get MCZO & DUKE from Tanzania here, and that would never have happened if we were just working on our own. We’re from Malmö, and it’s a really small town if you compare. So we want to bring a bit of the outside world to Malmö, but we also want to share Malmö with everyone else.”
MCZO & DUKE are one of the highlights of the weekend. I wasn’t sure how their hyper-fast singeli experiments would go down in Sweden; when I saw the duo perform earlier this year at CTM Festival their energy confused a stiff crowd. But Malmö doesn’t take long to engage, locking into DUKE’s stuttering 200bpm rhythms and MCZO’s lightning-fast chatter.
Intonal exists to celebrate Malmö, and this happens in two ways: bringing artists from outside of the city to expand the minds of the local audience, and to show off and elevate talent closer to home. But it hasn’t been easy to convince the government of the benefits of what they’re doing. This year, in the face of governmental change and drastic cuts to the arts budget, Intonal received only a fraction of the support they expected.
“There was an election and the budget was cut down for culture, especially in the region of Southern Sweden,” explains Christensen. “That really affected us but also lots of other people in this town, it’s horrible.” But the team didn’t let this rattle them. Instead they used to opportunity to work with their local resources. “The focus this year is more on local stuff but that’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, we wanted to build up the reputation of the festival enough so that we could put unknown artists and people would still come. So we made the best out of it.”
The festival works because Inkonst has built up a community over time and has weathered difficulties that would have brought down most projects. Between November 2013 and February 2016, Inkonst was unable to sell alcohol, crippling the venue’s ability to coax a young, local crowd out of their apartments. The venue had been in partnership with a restaurant and when that ended abruptly, found themselves in an awkward situation. Sweden is a drinking country with strict drug laws, so without booze, a venue promoting electronic music is sure to run into difficulties.
“Sweden in general is very alcohol focused but there’s a whole other level of drunkenness for concert venues,” says Johanna Knutsson. “At Inkonst it’s so different, people are listening and it’s not just the same music being played every weekend. I think they could serve low alcohol beer and that worked for the heads, but the club kids were nowhere to be found.”
Ulf Eriksson admits these were “dark days” for the venue, but it wasn’t all bad news. “Actually it changed us for the best,” he explains. “During this time we had the time to get into more experimental stuff, start our residency program and so on, instead of focusing on bad club nights to support an external party who took care of serving the alcohol. Now we have our own, so the money we make from the bar can go back into doing good bookings.”
DJ, producer and label boss Knutsson has watched Malmö’s scene grow both from within and from a distance. She used to run a club night with Eriksson at Inkonst, but left Malmö in 2008 for Berlin, desperate to expand her horizons. Now, she’s looking to return. “Ten years ago electronic music wasn’t big with the younger scene. Now it’s younger; it’s not just the lefty alternative people; it is but it’s not only that. It’s also people who just wanna go to a club; it’s not just chin-stroking any more.”
Berlin was important for Knutsson at first, and she admits the city has changed her outlook for the better, but the longer she’s been there, the closer she has felt to home. “I think it was really important, coming from this small city to Malmö, which isn’t huge but it was more than I was ever used to. Then moving to Berlin and realizing that Malmö might have been the perfect place. But it was important to have all of this weirdness, all of this queerness just being there and being acceptable. It’s so important. I didn’t even know that I was queer because I’d never had the possibility to explore it in Sweden, Berlin was mind-bending and it opened me up as a human. I didn’t sleep much, but it was the best time of my life.”
It’s almost poetic that the reason Knutsson is at Intonal this year is to perform a “Sleeping Concert” to close out the festival, in collaboration with fellow Swede and Kontra-Musik mainstay Sebastian Mullaert. I witnessed a similar performance last year from Andreas Tilliander, who performed live ambient music all night until breakfast the next morning. I’ll be honest and admit that this isn’t for me – my experiences sleeping in a room with strangers haven’t always been positive – but the local crowd arrives prepared. As I wait at Inkonst for the concert to start, a crowd of people with bedding, pillows, air mattresses and pajamas begins to amass. The local crowd impresses me here; these fans know each other well enough not only to dance together but to lie alongside each other dozing off listening to Johanna Knutsson and Sebatian Mullaert’s peaceful synth tones. Like Knutsson however, I don’t sleep much and wander out into the dark again once the audience has passed into dreamland.
“I think people are ready because they trust us, they just go and don’t overthink it,” says Frida Christensen. “I was just thinking about this seeing the Apartment House concert – six hours ago there were people in that room licking each other’s butts. We try to break borders, push boundaries of what experimental music can be. For me that’s a part of it, pushing boundaries together with the audience and who we put on stage.”