As The Field, Axel Willner is responsible for a watershed moment in indie-electronic crossover. With his 2007 debut From Here We Go Sublime, Willner infused minimal techno structures with a luscious melodicism, internalizing the intimate sound design of Wolfgang Voigt's seminal Gas project and giving Voigt's Kompakt label a bona fide hit in the process. Following that initial success Willner released Yesterday and Today, an LP that continued to place layer upon layer of malleable loops in a kind of ecstatic stasis. Willner then tackled themes of "memory and repetition" for his aptly-titled third album Looping State of Mind before slowing the tempos but continuing the same train of thought as Loops of Your Heart in 2012, releasing And Never Ending Nights.
For his fourth LP as The Field, Willner returns to Kompakt and the romanticism of his early peak. Cupid's Head avoids monotony despite the pointillist repetition, with six sprawling tracks that clock in at just under an hour. The signature use of microsamples remains, but here they pivot and dive and burst with elemental unease in a way rarely heard in Willner’s older output, while still managing to achieve a compact euphoria. Blurring the lines between melancholy and ecstasy, Cupid's Head is both beautiful wallpaper and totally engrossing.
Hailing from Stockholm, Willner's conversational energy rarely matches the kaleidoscopic intensity of his music, yet he maintains a soft-spoken devotion to the psychedelic power of a simple loop. Before the official release of Cupid's Head, Willner spoke in his Berlin home studio about his writer’s block, his engagement with contemporary electronic music and how he’s still searching for the perfect loop.
You had formed a band during the production of Looping State of Mind. Was Cupid's Head composed entirely solo?
The band had actually been formed just after Yesterday and Today, but that was only for playing live. For Looping State of Mind, there were just so many people coming and going during the sessions. We had been recording in this old-school studio outside of Stockholm and the atmosphere was very loose. Looping State of Mind was the first album where I intentionally made sketches that left out key parts. I knew that we would be recording with a full band, so the tracks were made with later additions in mind.
How did the process differ for Cupid's Head?
It was a real struggle to start making this album. I had awful writer's block. When the ideas did come, they appeared pretty much fully-formed, and it just didn't seem necessary to flesh the tracks out with a band. I had also wanted to make more of an electronic album that didn't include traditional drums or guitar or bass. Making the album was a pretty fast process. I usually work fast, but this only took a month or two.
Why did you have writer's block?
If I don't have an emotional connection to the track I want to sample or the sample itself, it doesn't really work.
We'd toured quite a bit, and being on the road sucks my creativity. I'm not the kind of person who can make music sitting in the van or waiting at the airport. Focusing on touring completely drained me, and after a while I didn't even enjoy listening to music at all. Music was empty for me, and it was impossible to go to the studio and do anything. I tried a couple of times and it was crap. This had happened before, and I fought against it by doing new work under another moniker. That was always the escape, but this time I was confronted with a deadline and so I had no choice but to work it out.
For you, what's the difference between crappy music and good music?
It's totally emotional. Music has to have a lot of feelings. If I try to make music and I don't hear any feeling in it, it'll be shit. I listen to music with that in mind. If it lacks emotion, it's not fun. Melancholy, romance, anger, it could be anything.
You said this album was an attempt to make something more electronic. Generally speaking, how effective do you think electronic music can be in transmitting these kinds of emotional themes?
There's so much electronic music that exists for a single purpose. When I go to clubs, I usually don't feel it. If you're not in the mood to "use" the music in that setting, it's not so fun. That's nothing I seek out, which means I don't experience the purpose it was created for. I mostly create my music for myself, but also for numerous purposes, where you can take the music into different contexts. I'm happy that it works in different ways, but all the stuff you hear at clubs has nothing for me. When I'm there I don't really feel anything. I don't care how it's produced or what gear anyone used. It just doesn't reach me. If you don't go out and use electronic music solely for dancing [though], it can still be fucking great.
Have you ever heard The Field in a club context and were surprised at how well or poorly it worked?
I've never really heard The Field played out! Last time I went to Berghain it was early in the morning, and everything was a bit more calm. I remember thinking that was the moment when it could have really worked: early morning Berghain.
Do you ever get the urge to do more traditional DJing?
No, absolutely not. I could never be responsible for moving a dance floor. I don't use music in that way, so it just wouldn't work. I would put on bullshit in between good tracks and people would just stop and leave.
So considering your engagement with electronic music, what made you want to make this album more "electronic" than Looping State of Mind?
It had a lot to do with the first track I made, "No. No…" It felt so complete, in a way, despite using very few pieces of gear. The simplicity paved the path for the rest of the album, because I'd really had no fucking idea what to do before then.
Isn't it freeing to have no idea what to do, because you can then do anything?
It can become freeing, but if you can't figure out what to do with the freedom it stays hard. It would have been good to have the band just to bring in other ideas and see what happens together in the studio. Instead it took longer to start, but I was very pleased with the final outcome.
Were you listening to any specific music that inspired this album?
I actually rediscovered Fela Kuti, and that's really what I've been listening to at the moment. Maybe people will hear African rhythms.
Do you find you prefer sampling older or contemporary music?
It can be whatever. I absolutely can't talk about the specific samples, but what I've realized is that if I don't have an emotional connection to the track I want to sample or the sample itself, it doesn't really work. It's like I'm reworking that specific track to fit my own worldview and emotional memory.
It all just happens too fast in a pop song.
I found a quote of yours that says, "Loops play tricks on the mind most of the time, and that's something I want to achieve." I've seen you espouse this theory in multiple interviews. Can you expand on it? Describe a specific instance you might have had with that kind of mystical confusion of listening to a loop.
It really is true! If you sit and listen to a sound for a long time you don't need anything else to transpose it or change it, you just alter the experience slightly with your mind. I have a 7-inch by SND that's only locked grooves, so you can put it on and leave it looping. After a while sitting and listening, I would start to imagine grooves and the entire thing sounds differently if you just let your mind wander. There aren't necessarily things happening in my music all the time, and it's always interesting to hear how people experience it in a totally different way from me. I created it, but they can hear something totally different. Maybe it's just out of boredom that the brain can make a loop exciting.
There's the John Cage quote saying that if something's boring for two minutes, do it for four. If it's boring for four, do it for eight – and so on. What do you think are the emotional benefits of long compositions?
It all just happens too fast in a pop song. I just really like music that unfolds slowly, and can afford to emphasize tiny bits coming in or changing at a slow pace. Maybe it reflects my personality sometimes.
Would you characterize your creativity as a reaction to your emotional state?
It's a mix. I can't just go and sit down and make music. I have to be inspired, emotionally or otherwise. It's therapeutic to sit and make music, but if you can’t do that it won't really work.
I found that almost every critic focuses on the loops in your music. How do you respond to a critical perception becoming a codified narrative for your music? What are the misconceptions people have about your music, or things that you wish listeners would notice more?
Mostly what I like about my music are the harmonies. They're of course indebted to the samples and loops, but I choose those with the final harmony in mind. People seem to write about that as well, though. It's not all too bad, because my music really is all about the loop. I'm still on the prowl for the perfect loop, the loop that just sits perfectly.