“I read this interview with Avicii the other day in the Guardian,” Axel Boman tells DJ Mag. “And the Guardian interviewer was like, 'Avicii's experiment with country music has paid off and he's raking in millions. But is he having fun, is he enjoying himself?' That's really important. Is he passionate about what he does? I don't know. Not everybody can be the Johnny Depp of acting, having credibility and making shit-loads of money, or be the Prince or David Bowie of music. What is certain is that neither Swedish House Mafia nor Avicii will go down in history as the Prince of anything. It's just not going to happen. Maybe they're the Rod Stewart?”
Swedish DJ/producer/label owner/unique thinker Axel Boman is talking about what he thinks of the success of his fellow Swedes. Whether it's a good thing for the dance scene there. He may share a birthplace with those megastars but that's where the comparisons end. Not for him the pursuit of pop notoriety. Instead Axel's tuned into a sublime frequency, channeling outlandish and hugely imaginative sounds into a singular kind of house music that could only be him.
Born and raised in Stockholm, he discovered rave music through his older brother and never looked back.
Refining his tastes over the years it's a decidedly peculiar but bewitching kind of hubbub he creates today. First came the 'Jungle Jesus' EP in 2008 but it was with the 'Holy Love' EP for DJ Koze's respected Pampa stamp that Axel really made his mark. It contained 'Purple Drank', a cut caned to high heaven by all the more on-it jocks. For good reason. Coasting on a clamping, skull snapping groove, its gloopy, opiated syrupy synths sunk into brainpans and brought about the kind of sonic intoxication that's rare and impossible to bottle. 'Holy Love' itself, meanwhile, is a heart-flutteringly lush house thing that negates the need for anything stronger, still with the frazzled squelch of weirdness so essential to his music.
Since then he's unfurled a veritable parade of lushness on great labels like Ourvision, Glass Table, Play It Down, Hypercolour and his own Studio Barnhus label that he runs alongside Kornél Kovács and Petter Nordkvist. 'Look What You've Done To Me' from the 'Black Magic Boman' EP is transcendent, galactic, hypnotic, deceptively simple, the same spacey groove rolling and rolling, twilight in a perfect world that you never want to end.
Despite his many singles, he's been reticent to release a long-player. But 'Family Vacation', just out on Studio Barnhus, has been worth the wait. It's the full ball of wax, the whole kit 'n' kaboodle. For Axel, the most difficult thing was whittling it down to a cohesive set of tracks from the tons he'd amassed over the last few years.
“It took some time but I had a lot of help from the other Studio Barnhus guys. Petter helped me to finish some of the tracks and helped me to choose which tracks to use for the album. I was too close to it.
“I needed to have some closure with this computer and this hard drive and all these gadgets that I've been working on so long, so they kind of helped me to reach that point. Now I'm ready to throw that out the window and start all over with the guitar.”
Quite whether Axel's serious on this last point is a matter of interpretation. His sense of humour, talking to him at least, is of the dry kind. But that element of humour, or fun, pervades 'Family Vacation'. From its wild patchwork of sampladelia and submerged funk, to the irresistible conga line steel drums of party starter 'Bottoms Up' to the bizarre Turkish synth curlicues that dervish outward from the thumping slow-mo disco of 'No Sweden', it's a befuddling, surprising, hugely enjoyable listen. Possessed of a similar trickster's sense of anarchy to The Orb, it's no big surprise that one of Axel's first great musical loves is that act, one he still cites today.
“The Orb's 'Little Fluffy Clouds' is super essential to me still,” Axel enthuses. “The Orb have a sense of humour to what they do, it seems a bit cheeky too. It was always a bit mysterious, the intentions, the results, and the world that they were creating.”
Like The Orb though, Axel's music is at heart passionate and emotional. While his music exudes fun and a lightness of touch, it shouldn't be mistaken for something without depth. There's positively oceans in 'Family Vacation'.
“I totally enjoy super serious music as well,” he reasons. “Growing up listening to Underground Resistance, there wasn't a lot of humour... maybe there was? Some of the tracks were super happy with saxophone solos! But they were released by these guys wearing masks talking about a political movement. I wouldn't want a world where everybody was just laughing on tracks. I totally see that I also have a humorous idea, but I don't want it to seem that I'm not serious, because I'm totally devoted.”
At the base of Axel's rich roux of samples and heart-string tugging grooves is a love of sound and its ability to manipulate emotions and imaginations, and to be manipulated itself. Dub reggae is a key feature of his musical make-up, a flavour which permeates 'Family Vacation', especially on tracks like 'Kings & Emperors' and 'Animal Lovers'. Infamous crackpot studio wizard Lee 'Scratch' Perry is one of Boman's biggest inspirations, principally for his ability to extract mad psychedelic ideas from limited resources.
“I read somewhere that Lee Perry had only four channels, he had a four-channel mixer at the Black Ark, but then he had a fifth channel which was his connection to Jah, his spiritual channel. He made so much with so little, creating this world of music with only simple things and I like that thought, that you don't really need that much. It's much more about ideas and concepts.”
Listen to the deeply dubbed-out house of 'Animal Lovers', like Scientist hitching an airboat ride with Maurizio through a psychotropic swamp, and you'll be confronted by a profoundly eerie interlude midway through the track of a creaky fairground organ, a graveyard waltz that cannot but form images in the mind. It's these little touches that few else would dare or even think to insert in their tracks that make Axel Boman a true original. It's not surprising that with a Master's degree in fine art he sees his tunes in a visual sense. A canvas on which to express ideas that zing vividly in the visual receptors as well as the sonic ones.
“I'm very inspired by visual stuff,” Axel agrees. “I see music, like records and EPs and even tracks as worlds. I like to imagine a story behind it. For me it's quite important, the visual aspect of a record.” Axel is another artist in the growing group of producers for whom house music doesn't always mean functional club fodder. Like Maximillion Dunbar, Mr Beatnick and Hieroglyphic Being, his beats can work on dancefloors, and often do, but have an intricacy that means they're designed to be returned to and enjoyed in headphones. As Axel points out, that's more of a geographical factor than anything - producing tracks for the club but listening to them at home out of necessity.
“I grew up listening to music that wasn't being played anywhere in Sweden. There weren't places for it, I was too young to go to places that might play it, there wasn't really a forum for it. The club was always in my mind more than in real life when I was growing up. It's only recently that Sweden or Stockholm's had a vivid club culture. And clubs booking DJs regularly. A lot of people in Scandinavia grow up with the club in their minds and maybe that's why a lot of stuff from here sounds a bit naïve.
“I was always imagining Norway having this amazing club culture with people like Prins Thomas, Lindstrøm, Todd Terje, and you go to Oslo and it's just shit, like where do all these people play?” Axel boggles. “They're from Bergen, these places up north where there's nothing. Of course there's going to be these weird esoteric disco tracks when they don't have club culture in their bones, like UK people grow up with.”
Sweden today is a very different place for dance music than when Axel was growing up. Away from the stadium dance superstars the country has a thriving underground house scene. Axel cites Malmo's Geography Records and dub techno team Skudge as particularly exciting. And of course there's Studio Barnhus, which has new releases ready to drop.
“We're going to release a few records from this young genius in Stockholm called Baba Stiltz. We did one release from him, that was more of a weird tape recording thing, and now he has two releases lined up which is more dance music in a traditional way.”
As for Axel himself, with 'Family Vacation' already out he's taking a holiday from releases under his own name, while prepping some new material with disco pop project Man Tear. “I was away for a week in the Swedish countryside recording music for another project I have called Man Tear. We did a release on DFA, so now we want to record an album. Will it be for DFA? Let's say maybe. It's like disco, dub, pop. Much weirder, if Larry Levan, Drake and Bruce Springsteen started making music. The tracks are a bit shorter, and aim for a different audience. There's an amazing video for the release we did for DFA. It's still machines. Sometimes people say, we have a side project, and it's more like shitty trip-hop from the late '90s. But Man Tear is really proper songs.”
No doubt we're in for a weirdly wonderful treat.