In the words of his contemporary Per Martisen (Mental Overdrive), Bjørn Torske is “the most enthusiastic person I had ever met.” Hailing from a tight-knit community that grew up in the arctic circle, unified by their love and dedication to listening and broadcasting ‘weird’ drum machine-driven music, the sentiment also trickles into his productions. Earlier album releases Trøbbel (2001), Kokning (2010) and Nedi Myra (1998) in particular have forged a blueprint for the typically chaotic, experimental sound that came to define the term originally known as “skranglehouse.”
Energising, enigmatic and with the ability to take you to a totally different space, this pioneer of the archetypal Scandinavian ‘space disco’ sound has been active for twenty years and playing globally since the early ‘00s. It wasn’t until early July, however, that Torske released his first solo album in close to a decade. Taking a different turn from his ever-evolving yet chaotic sound, the latest release, Byen, encompasses a refined and polished groove. We caught up with Torske to discuss this, the past and the future.
So firstly, Byen is your first solo album in eight years, with Smalltown Supersound stating that it’s your “most considered album yet.” Consisting of fresh material recorded in 2017, do your ideas flow intuitively or do you have to take time out to focus when producing an album like this?
My ideas usually occur to me when I’m the least prepared, such as maybe just before I’m about to leave my house on some business or other – so that I’ll have to just quickly run to my computer and jot down just enough sketches to catch it before I forget it. However sometimes I get this riff stuck in my head for a long time, weeks or even months, that doesn’t seem to go away, so I’m kind of forced to make it into a track to get rid of it, so to speak. The choir part on “Gata” was like that, I think it pestered my brain for almost a year.
And yes, considering Smalltown Supersound’s comment, I can say that this is the first album where I truly managed to employ method properly and truly concentrate on the production from start to finish. I had been steadily working on different ideas through 2017, and at one point I just knew which ones were going to fit into an album, and also how to develop each of them into completeness. So I just took what I already had, and stayed true to the basic aesthetic of each idea.
Byen is sprawling, epic and impressively put together. Are there any themes or messages in your music?
Well, if there is any kind of theme, it is the “archetype” of “the city” – with all its movement and constant flow of people and traffic. And also the fact that there is an obvious connection between house music and urban areas. Big cities always had a pull on me, and electronic club music, specifically house, disco and techno, is for me a natural soundtrack to urban environments.
What’s your creative process when you enter the studio to write new music?
Usually it starts with a simple and rough idea, either it’s a chord riff, a bass line, or a drum beat. I create a little sketch of say 8 bars containing basic elements, then I let it sit for awhile before I continue working on it. And with my new album I have been focusing a lot on the use of method – like applying certain limitations on how I will proceed to finish the track. I often try to pretend that the melodies and riffs etcetera are really made by someone else, perhaps like I’m doing a remix rather than producing my own stuff. In a way it helps to distance oneself, and view a composition from the outside. It makes it easier to throw out unnecessary stuff.
You recorded all your material in your hometown and studio in Bergen, putting the album together whilst on tour in Japan. After an extended period without releasing any of your own music, what made you make the decision to go down the more cinematic, club-ready approach?
I guess after getting used to work in a quite loose manner on previous releases, with tracks often taking very long time to complete due to my somewhat chaotic approach to production, I wanted to see if I was able to take a little more rigid approach to the whole process. As for the more melodic approach, I felt it was time to try something that for me was different to what I usually make. Trying not to complicate things too much, I set limits on what types of sounds I would use, among other things.
The album name ‘Byen’ means city in Norwegian. Does it reference any city in particular here and why?
As mentioned above, it is more a homage to cities in general. Being a DJ I get to travel quite a bit around, and more often than not to a big city. So it could be anywhere, Osaka, Chicago, Berlin, Istanbul, or even smaller places like Tromsø or Swindon – although the latter ones maybe aren’t cities as such.
What impact does your home surroundings or recording locations have on your work?
I have the luxury of living in Bergen, and for those who have been there will know that it is beautifully surrounded by green hills and mountains, which are only a short walk away from the city centre. I don’t really listen to much music in my spare time, I prefer walking in nature listening to its subtlety, insects, birds, brooks. This gives me a peace of mind which helps a lot when organising sounds and recordings for my productions. The recording locations affect my music mostly by what equipment is available.
You grew up in Tromso, a city inside the arctic circle, where the polar nights and midnight sun are said to impact how people sleep and function. Do you feel like these daylight hours had an impact on your style, early work and the burgeoning scene that you and your friends created? If so, how?
The lasting darkness of the winter months definitely had an impact on creativity, mainly because I needed something to focus on besides the regular tasks like school etcetera. And it also messes up the biological clock, so I developed an affinity for staying up nights whether it was light or dark.
Your name Bjørn Torske translates to Bear, Cod. For what reason and when did you select this name?
I didn’t select these names. They are my given names. It is true that Bjørn means bear in the Scandinavian languages, but while Torske is similar to torsk, which is Norwegian for cod, my last name is actually a derivative of an early Norse word, thaskvin – which meant ‘a grassy plain by a pool in the river’. So yes, there is a farm in Sunndalen in Norway named Torske, from where my paternal ancestors used to live.
When you were first collecting records and creating music in Tromso, the local community radio station Brygga Radio, gave you and your friends complete free reign to play what you wanted. How did this creative freedom shape you as an artist?
Well, basically our freedom to play what we wanted was the main trigger to start experimenting with crude “remixes” and tape edits, which in turn led to the employment of drum machines and synthesisers. Additionally the DIY ethics of the burgeoning house scene left us with the impression that we, too, were able to create music.
How did it go down with the locals at the time?
The music we played on air got very little acceptance from the “normal” radio listeners, they wanted mainly chart toppers or guitar based “real” music, if you understand what I mean. People would call in during our shows and yell at us for not putting on Guns’n’Roses or Madonna. They didn’t appreciate the drum box driven sounds from Chicago and Detroit. However this changed over time, albeit slowly. We had a handful of trusty followers that would regularly tape our shows and eventually buy those records through mail order.
Would you say that spaces such as Primitive Records and the local radio station Brygga Radio helped to forge a base for these interactions amongst the isolation? Do you feel this sense of sharing, collaboration and community has shaped your style and energy of music?
The environment at Brygga Radio consisted of a diverse group of interests and people. There were shows for old people, disabled people, the radical left, punks, etc. There were only a few of us interested in proper dance music. Primitive Records was in Bergen, and had its heyday almost a decade later than my radio days in Tromsø. The environment in Bergen was very much different from Tromsø, it was more of a community, where several different styles of music were accepted. So yes, this sense of community was instrumental in my efforts to grasp a wider and eclectic approach to my own production and DJ work.
After moving to Bergen your focus shifted from more Detroit style house and techno to a more experimental playful nü disco sound. Can you recall any of the records influenced this transition?
Disco had always lingered in the background of house music, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that I really started to open my ears to it. This was mainly through DJ Strangefruit (later of Mungolian Jetset), who had collected stuff from West End, Prelude and Salsoul since his early teens. Also this period saw more and more inclusion of “real” instruments in house production. I think one of the most important records for me at the time was Street Corner Symphony’s self-titled 12″ released on Open in 1995, followed by output from Faze Action and Idjut Boys, among a host of others. And of course original tracks like Raphael Cameron’s ‘Boogies Gonna Get Ya’, Forrrce ‘Keep On Dancing’, Dinosaur L ‘Go Bang’… The list is long.
Would you say there’s much of a musical community remaining in Bergen today?
More than ever. It’s very diverse style wise, but the house sound here continues to foster new acolytes, the younger generations catching on.
Are there any radio stations, record shops, or clubs you would suggest were worth a visit or that are nurturing new ideas?
Sadly, there are no radio stations or record shops to speak of at the moment. There was a shop named Robot that catered for vinyl enthusiasts, but I guess the rise of internet commerce took the air out of it.
I keep reading that Tromso is Norway’s techno capital. What are your thoughts on this statement? What’s it like now?
I’d say it’s more like the birth place of Norway’s early techno and house scene. As far as I know there is not a very large scene there these days, they throw some good parties every now and then though.
Comparatively experimental, Square One was a joint effort between yourself and Prins Thomas. How did that collaboration come about?
I was asked by Smalltown Supersound if I was interested in remixing Prins Thomas’ album Principe del Norte in its entirety. I said yes on the condition that Thomas and I would do this together in a studio, within a limited space of time. Three days in an Oslo studio were booked and I flew over from Bergen. During a dinner the night before our first session, Joakim from Smalltown suggested that since he now had the rare opportunity of having Thomas and me in the studio together, he would rather have us do something new entirely from scratch. We agreed to that, and thus this collaboration came about.
You are renowned as being the ‘pioneer’ and ‘godfather’ of the eccentric, cosmic, nüdisco skrangle house-infused sound that is identifiably Norwegian. What are your thoughts on the current commercial success that has stemmed from the scene you initiated, with the likes of Todd Terje, Lindstrom, Mungolian Jetset and Prins Thomas, and other that you inspired along the way?
First of all, I would say Prins Thomas and Strangefruit are as much pioneers of this sound as I am, if not even more. The difference is that I was already releasing music in the 1990s, while they got into production at a later point. They were pushing the disco sound heavily for a long time, in Oslo clubs like Jazid and Skansen, which were the main hangouts for house heads during the last half of the 1990s. Anyway, it appears to me that the international acclaim of these Norwegian artists has opened a lot of people’s ears to more leftfield disco sounds, and gained a musical recognition that wasn’t at all obvious from the start. Still it is pretty clear that the success by no means has overcome the creativity and ability to make new exciting music. I mean, the way success often makes an artist stagnate musically, trying to repeat themselves by sticking to a tried formula.
Having released music for nearly three decades, do you look back at your early work fondly?
Although not dwelling in the past very much, I still appreciate all my previous releases for what they are, however I rarely listen to my own music after it has been released. I see my whole production career as an ongoing learning project, and a way to continuously experiment with what I consider to be an ever growing palette of musical possibilities. Music history, to me at least, isn’t linear as in measuring the years, it is more like an outwardly expanding universe. Good music never goes out of date. It must have been nice to see Nedi Myra and Trøbbel re-released on Smalltown Supersound in 2015.
It seems to me they gained some attention on their initial releases, and it was a welcome treat to see them well received the second time around. Especially with Trøbbel, since the original vinyl pressing was very low in volume. We had it remastered at Dubplates & Mastering in Berlin, and it sounded almost like a new record now with a proper cut.
Would you ever produce anything in a similar vein to your Istimik and Krisp productions, or are your techno days behind you?
Ismistik as a project mirrored my early years when Chicago and Detroit were my biggest influences. Not meaning that I love these styles less now than back then, but I see music more as a whole rather than fragmented in different styles. I might make something which in the start sounds very much like techno, only to later develop it into something different. I find it kind of tedious to try and create something that I already went through. That being said, I haven’t killed of any of the monikers so there’s still a possibility for them to resurface at some point.
As for modern music, has anything caught your ear recently?
If you by “modern” mean any kind of music produced these days, then yes, there is a lot of interesting sounds coming out. I try to follow new stuff, but I can only consume so much that there is always a lot of possibly great stuff that passes me by at the present moment. There is a lot of stuff going on, a lot of artists fighting for attention. In my opinion, not all music is necessarily to be enjoyed strictly upon release. Much of the good music out there must be discovered when the time is ripe for the listener to get into it. Out of my contemporaries I really enjoy the music of people like Kuniyuki, Eddie C, Ichisan & Nakova, Velvet Season & The Hearts of Gold… This could be a long list if I remembered all the names in one go.
Last year you toured Japan, and this year you have played various clubs around Europe. What’s in next on the agenda?
I’m continuously travelling around Europe playing records, and there is a possible new round in Japan before the end of the year. Additionally I will do an exclusive one-off live performance of my new album here in Bergen on the 24th of August. Also working on a few remixes, and I aim at keep producing new material of my own as well…
Byen is out now on Smalltown Supersound – buy it here.