Alongside fellow Swedish producer and DJ Abdulla Rashim, Varg runs the dark techno label Northern Electronics. Based in Stockholm, Northern Electronics taps into the colder, more menacing elements of contemporary European techno music, often working in tandem with Copenhagen-based label Posh Isolation and co-creating Body Sculptures, a Scandinavian noise supergroup made up of Varg, Posh Isolation’s Loke Rahbek, Swedish composer Erik Enocksson, industrial artists Puce Mary and Ossian Ohlsson of Vit Fan. Since launching in 2013 with Varg’s acid-tinged album Misantropen, Northern Electronics has become a guiding force – often drawing the listener in under the guise of techno, and then challenging them with a heady and melancholic mix of industrial, noise, ambience and sound design.
In this excerpt from his Fireside Chat with Emma Robertson on Red Bull Radio, Varg recalls the happily accidental success of Misantropen and explains why, despite the label’s techno credentials, there’s really no love lost on the genre from him.
I make music under a million side projects on the label I co-run with Abdulla Rashim AKA Anthony Linell, called Northern Electronics. The label was founded in 2013 by Abdulla Rashim and it was meant to be his record label. I think he had a pretty clear idea of what he wanted to do, to make a label for friends, but more focused on dance music. That’s what his world was at that point. Then I came in and I kind of fucked it up.
The label’s first release [was the] first album I ever made, Misantropen. When I made the record, It was supposed to be a demo EP. I had an insane struggle trying to [finish] anything and I didn’t manage to send in the tracks on time. It was six months delayed. I was like, “OK, this is not going to happen.” I met Abdulla at a club and he asked me, “What’s up? Where’s the tracks?” I was like, “I don’t have anything.” Then he forced me to come over with my computer. I showed him my folders and he listened through pieces, then he cut out sections, like small segments of different jams, and that became the album. The record was very naïve and very rough. [Mastering engineer] Neel did a fantastic job making it sound even, because the recording was so shitty. I’m still very proud of that record, and it’s nice to put the first tracks you made out in public. People love them because now you only see progress. Everything is a new step up. At that point, I didn’t even know what MIDI was. I didn’t know to make my machines sync together. I still kind of don’t, but I’m learning every day.
I think Anthony was a bit scared when we put it out. He was like, “This is maybe too ambient.” It was a bit of a worry, [but its success] was a happy accident. It was a lucky shot that it became such a well-received record and that it also kind of shaped something that we are doing now. Everything I do sounds a bit like Misantropen, even if it’s like R&B music I’m making.
Anthony is an old friend of mine – I’ve known him for ten years. I started to know him through painting graffiti together many, many years ago, before any of us made music. He started this small residency at a really shitty dive bar called Cobra in Stockholm. He played techno music with a controller and I hung out with him. I thought the music was shit, but it was nice seeing him.
At that point, I didn’t know where the techno scene was. I don’t know where the techno scene is today. I know about the future, for sure, but I don’t know about the past. To be honest, I’m not so interested in techno music and I’ve never been. Anthony knows that, and that’s why it’s a good dynamic with the label, because he knows all this stuff. I’m just a big dirty mess that comes in and steps on the fine rug. He keeps it in shape. If I would do this without him, without him putting it in a square and shutting me down sometimes, it would be chaos.
To be honest, I’m not so interested in techno music and I’ve never been.
I made dubstep music, or something like drone dubstep music, around 2008 maybe. He thought the sounds I made were really good but the music was shit. We tried to collab at one point in the studio and it didn’t really work out. He just had a laptop and a really, really big MIDI keyboard and I had no idea what the fuck we were doing. We made a really bad track. I started to come in more and more, I bought a 808 and then 909. He was like, “OK, this is going to be good. Make a demo for me, please.” Now, we’re here and doing this together.
Anthony is putting out or making so much cool stuff now. He’s a rhythmical genius. He’s a loop genius. He is insanely good at making music and he’s just getting better and better all the time. I think he is coming in to some really freaky stuff which is highly impressive, like super hi-fi tribal loop music. I think it’s insanely cool.
Northern Electronics is definitely a family project. Abdulla Rashim, Anthony, is 100% family, and we only work with friends and we only keep it local. We don’t look for new talent, we don’t look for demos – we release what we hear from our friends. We don’t want to do remixes from big names just to sell records or sign someone that we love. The person furthest away that we ever released is Neel from Voices From the Lake, but he’s also family. We don’t care so much about what kind of music it is or what kind of genre or aesthetic it is. It’s a pretty clear path sound-wise, but I think it’s only because we are like-minded people.
I don’t feel like I’m doing something extreme like fucking people over onstage, but I can go onstage at a techno club and play a piano loop for 15 minutes and not feel bad about it. It’s the greatest thing in the world. I can do whatever I want. Sometimes I will play Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton interviews on my phone and have a drum machine in the background. I’ve done this several times on tours. If you don’t want to book me again, fine, don’t do it. Until then, whatever. I got one hour to do whatever the fuck I want and I will do whatever the fuck I want. I think I’m the most burned-out person, moral-wise. I care a lot about the music – I just think that I might be the only one doing this kind of weird thing in the gang.
The most important shows for me are playing for people that just want to listen. At a club, people don’t really want to listen.
We had our Northern Electronics showcase at Berlin Atonal some years ago and I played with my fake band. At that point it was a fake band called Body Sculptures. I made it up for the festival. I was supposed to play a solo show, but I wanted to book all the people I thought deserved to play the festival. So I took Vit Fana, Erik Enocksson, Puce Mary and Loke Rahbek to play with me and we became a band after that. But that’s another story. It was fun. We played a pretty wide variety of stuff and I invited Damien Dubrovnik to play my show. I broke my arm beating up a piece of metal sheet that I had hanging from the walls. It was an insane show. It was very nice. I think people were actually impressed by that showcase and liked the variety of sounds that could come out of this. It was a milestone in some way, performance-wise, of what you expect, what you will get. It was a very important night.
I love playing in a setting that is not a dancefloor, but I don’t like playing for a seated audience. That’s the fucking problem. I don’t like playing for a seated audience because then it’s so nice and gentle and you can’t feel anything. As soon as the audience sits down, they’re dead in my eyes, so fuck that. But I also sometimes don’t like playing for a dancefloor either. The most important shows for me are playing for people that just want to listen. At a club, people don’t really want to listen. People want that excitement and that kick and that feeling when the beat drops. Like EDM music, basically, but in a more cruel way than EDM music is. Like, “fill the gaps of my ecstasy high.”
Anthony came to my apartment and wanted to record some music with me. We used mainly my 808 and his Acidlab Miami, which is like a clone of the 808. We only had two drum machines, and a bunch of distortion pedals and other effects. We just jammed away. I didn’t know how to use a computer, so when I did a jam it was just the tracks that you got, what you heard from the speakers. You couldn’t alter it, you couldn’t do anything with it. He took those tracks that we recorded and went home, started to cut up all the tracks, filter it, mix it, do stuff to it. He sent me back tracks that I’d never heard before. He was like, “Yeah, this is you and me from yesterday.” I was like, “Are you fucking serious? This sounds insanely good. I have no idea how you made this sound good. It sounded shit yesterday.”
We started the Ulwhednar project and we made an LP, and then we made a tape called Withatten. That was timestretched files of shit we had been recording from iPhones and iPad applications. It was basically like loose cables, unplugged jack cables and stuff like this. It was very strange.
Ulwhednar is not even a real project. It just happens. The fun part of this project is that we never really sit down and do it. We make an album in maybe one or two or three days. Sometimes after a slow day in the studio, I’ll be there to pick up some records or whatever. I come to the studio, we sit down, we have a cinnamon bun, drink a bunch of coffee, talk shit. We press a couple of buttons, he records it and then that’s like two tracks out of that lazy half hour in the studio.
It says on the tape it was recorded in 2006 or whatever. It’s complete bullshit. But it’s a good tape. I actually heard it for the first time ever one year ago. Because the files were so long when Anthony sent them to me, I never listened back to it. I was like, “I’m not gonna listen to a thirty minute long track. Fuck that.”
Withatten 1892 was released on tape because tape is a good platform for listening to music. Vinyl is as well, of course, but you can only fit a fairly quiet 20 minutes on one side of vinyl and then you have to flip it. On a tape you can fit much longer pieces of music. This tape was very long. When you listen back to music on tape you can’t really fast-forward. If you have a 30 minute drone piece, me with my ADHD would definitely fast forward on vinyl. Like, “skip, skip, skip, skip, skip!” To give it a fair listening experience, it was nice to have it on a tape.
Modern Silver by me and Anthony, the new Ulwhednar LP, has been around for two years or something. It’s just been laying around in the studio. As I said, we don’t really focus on a project, we just put it out when we feel that it’s time for it. Now it came out, I’m super happy about it. It is a pretty strange concept of a record. It’s like a mirrored release... like the whole A side is built up and ends in the same way as the B side. Both of the sides are kind of mirrored to each other. It’s a good record, but it almost sounds like a compilation in a way.
Working with Anthony on this one was actually super fun, because I just bought a new synth and Anthony fucking hates when I buy new synths because he thinks it’s such a waste of money and time. And I agree with him. I bought my first Orgon Energiser, which is now my most favorite piece of equipment. I brought it to the studio. I was like, “You have to try this, this is so great.” He was like, “Yeah, whatever, fuck you, it’s just another synth. Blah, blah, blah.” Then I turned it on for him and he was like, “OK, this is really cool.” We made all of the album in one day.
I’ve been depressed since I was twelve years old, so my music will sound like I’m depressed.
The dynamic between us has changed since the first record, because we’ve become much closer friends. Anthony lived with me for a while. We just grew closer. Also, we grew as artists, like separate ways. So now collaborating is so much more fun, because we have more tools for expressing ourselves. I know a bit about Ableton now, so I can actually sit by the computer and do stuff. We’re working on new stuff now, but as I said, never a priority, so maybe it’s like five years away. We never know.
Studie I Närhet, Längtan Och Besvikelse was a very strange album to record. It was me and SARS who made it. Her and Vit Fana were rehearsing for a show; it didn’t really work out so well. They rehearsed for two weeks but they were too good friends, so they just ended up drinking beers instead and not rehearsing for their show. Sophia Sars asked me three days or something before the show, like, “We have to fucking do something really fast. You’re good at doing stuff fast. Let’s do it.” And we did. We just made it in our apartment. We lived together at this time and we made the track in one of the rooms. In three days we made this whole album. They were completely messed-up days. Then we performed it and the performance was so bad. But I think the record is super good. All the lyrics are in Swedish and it’s about how bad of a boyfriend I am.
The Scandinavian sound is often poppy and melodic, but also very sad. Melodic, melancholic. I think Född Död is definitely both a bit poppy and definitely very sad. It’s a very depressing record. I’ve been depressed since I was twelve years old, so my music will sound like I’m depressed. I can’t do anything about it: I tried to take medicines, I tried to talk to people, it doesn’t work. I’m pretty happy at times, but my music will probably always sound depressed. This is kind of a way of transmitting your very honest feelings. I’m not feeling great all the time.
It’s very special to me. It’s probably the record I invested most of my feelings in, ever. That one and the Star Lions album that I did on Posh Isolation are the ones that I’ve been most crushed by making, mentally.