AXEL BOMAN: WEIRD AND WONDERFUL
Swedish DJ/producer Axel Boman's name crops up on all the best festival and club line-ups, DJ set lists and label discographies. His imaginative, freaky tunes have graced labels like Permanent Vacation, Pampa and Hypercolour, but it's his own label and musical headquarters Studio Barnhus, run alongside Kornel Kovacs and Petter Nordkvist, that he's most famed for. Fresh, unpredictable, with a sense of humour so often lacking in the dance scene, Axel's distinctive, leftfield, but dancefloor friendly sound is winning over new fans by the day...
Axel Boman is “trying out a new look”. He’s wearing an all black turtle-neck jumper and floppy black cricket cap, but he’s not sure it’s working for him just yet. We’re on a Skype video call, but before DJ Mag questions his fashion choices, we have to halt conversation and ask about the hugely distracting picture that is stuck to the wall just over his right shoulder.
“Ah!” Laughs the 36-year-old Swede, swinging round in his chair. “This guy is wanking and drinking beer, naked in the DJ booth.” Given that Boman is rarely mentioned without people making reference to his sense of humour and humility, you might be surprised to learn it isn’t him in the picture. “I wish I had that carefree attitude to life,” he sighs. “That’s why we printed it out, because it’s an inspiring picture. That guy is like five levels above the fun we have!”
Discussion turns to Boman’s reputation as a funster, both musically and in person. It’s fair to say he is a charming and charismatic chap who laughs and smiles, moves about dramatically as he talks and doesn’t take himself too seriously, at least on the surface. Spend an hour or so in his company, though, and he is just as able to talk about the legitimacy of music reviews, discuss art theory or explain the Swedish economy as he is to joke about his label’s lowest-selling record.
At this point, Axel takes DJ Mag on a tour of the Studio Barnhus bunker. It is here, in this underground retreat in Stockholm, that along with confreres Kornél Kovács and Petter Nordkvist he makes all his music, schemes for the label and generally gets creative. The walls are brick lined and painted white.
There is a “Mexican flavoured corner” and the new toilet floor they recently had fitted following a leak is luscious, luminous pink. There are arched rooms, walls of records, paper chains strung across the ceiling, laptops, swathes of hardware and lots of personal belongings. We come across Kornél, who is doing admin for the label, as he often tends to do.
DJ Mag asks if he has unearthed any more Swedish footwork producers in the wake of their last release, ‘Don’t Believe’ by Henry Roddick.
“That was one of the few times we got sent a demo we actually released,” he says, before adding in fits of giggles, “and it’s also the worst selling record on the label.”
Many people, at this stage, would defend a release and say something along the lines of ‘“we put it out, so we stand by it”. But not these guys. “If it doesn’t sell extremely well, it must be rubbish. That’s how music works,” says Kornél, before Axel chimes in, “when we see him now, we spit on him. He’s had to move to London!”
For all the japes, there is, of course, a seriousness to this operation, and Axel admits they recently got a label manager onboard to help them with things like this. You sense, though, that there will always remain a tongue-in-cheek undertone to everything they do.
Before now, there have been trancehall 10”s, just-the-right-side-of-cheesy pop edits and plenty of house curveballs from artists old and new including Wesley Matsell, Jesper Dahlback, HNNY and Baba Stiltz. It is Axel’s music, though, that remains the most prominent on the label.
He first broke through back in 2010 with the non-linear, woozy deep house charm of his ‘Holy Love’ EP on DJ Koze’s Pampa label. At the time he told DJ Mag he thought the track “was shit” (the world clearly disagrees, as it has just been repressed yet again), but something about it won over DJ Koze when the pair were drinking together after a gig in Stockholm, where Axel was on warm-up.
“I had loads of vodka and smoked some weed. I thought I could handle it,” he remembers. “But I couldn’t, and I puked out of the window.” Despite that, the pair remain friends. Axel talks glowingly of his mentor and how “I owe them my life, my strange life,” then reveals he has a new EP coming on the label that has been in the works for half a decade.
Since that breakthrough, the svelte, six-foot-something Boman has continued to offer up weird-and-wonderful beats, Afro shufflers and seductively whimsical and minimal soundscapes on labels like Hypercolour, Glass Table and Permanent Vacation.
He has even produced in collaboration with nuclear physicists as Radioactive Orchestra. That project, which created musical algorithms based on scientists’ models of how radiation is emitted from various isotopes, was probably his weirdest yet.
More recently he has collaborated with label-mate and Border Community regular Petter as Man Tear for DFA, as well as with Spain’s John Talabot as Talaboman. Of course, the end of 2013 also saw him release his triumphant debut album, 'Family Vacation', which was released with the help of a cultural arts grant from the government.
All of this means there is rarely a weekend where he isn't playing at least two gigs somewhere in the world.
“There’s times when I wish it was the year 1998 and I could choose whether I wanted to be a DJ or a producer,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like I just wanna make music and keep the research going, because it’s really difficult to keep doing proper work, build on what you do and move forward if you are always abruptly stopped by going away.
It would be wonderful if I was that well paid that I could choose, but in my situation I’m right in-between getting booked at the big festivals but also playing the small clubs. Playing at Robert Johnson you don't get paid much, but of course you want to play there, it’s wonderful for the soul to do this.”
After five or so years of the full-time DJ life, Axel says he now has enough self control not to go to every single after-party, and enjoyed taking stock of things after the release of 'Family Vacation'.
“It was so much of a thing for me, it was nice to think after it. I wasn’t so sure I liked myself. It’s a hard transition to become this guy that you see on weird flyers, and you think you don't really like that guy that much.
At the same time, you have to have a sense of humour and some self distance. It’s weird to have a sense that people think they know who you are. All of a sudden you go from this small bubble in Sweden. Suddenly people have ideas about you. And you get misplaced also, because you get booked at weird parties that you don't really belong in, but you have to do your thing.”
His thing, in the DJ booth, is often an esoteric marriage between “weird, beautiful, hopeful sadness” and “ecstatic-ness and endless bliss”, that fuses classic records next to those you have never heard before. Boman happily admits there are braver DJs out there with “bigger balls, who don't give a shit and just play folk when everyone wants a kick-drum”.
He, though, is a natural entertainer, so his style has the audience’s enjoyment in mind, rather than any grander, pseudo academic goal. “Some people like to provoke, but I’m more of a guy that wants people to feel good, and maybe also surprised.
I am happy to experiment with more records now, where before I tried to have a style. But my aim is still to play records people didn't expect and to find the natural connection between them, between disco and techno.”
Our chat with Axel is delayed a few times before it happens. He excuses himself once by sending us a DJ Koze quote that comes in response to him being asked his favourite day of the week.
“Wednesday, because the depression from the weekend disappears, and the fear of the next weekend is not there yet.” DJ Mag now asks him to explain and the answer hangs around leaving home, lack of sleep, a fear of flying and his long-time girlfriend, with whom he wants to have a baby within the next 12 months.
“I’m good at being home,” he says with regards to their relationship. “You have to be good at focussing when you are home and making her part of your life so she doesn't feel excluded when I go away. For the nice trips I bring her along, and then it works so it’s nice. Actually, all my chef friends are away more than I am, they work really shitty hours, so at least I have all week to adapt to her schedule and do stuff when she is free.”
He continues, getting ever deeper, explaining that he’s realised you can gain so much more from life if you accept the weirdest circumstances. “If you complain about the hotel, the taxi, blah blah blah, that affects how things play out.
So many times I think I’ve proven to myself that if you stay cool and say “yeah, this is fine, this works” then everything else will be fine too.
It’s bad to be too negative about situations, but I do get upset when people don't get the decks right. I fly all round the world, 36 hours to Australia where they have golf carts, perfect drinks token systems and everything is thought about, but the decks are not set up right. It could be so easy but yeah, that’s frustrating.”
Boman is the middle brother of three. He grew up in Stockholm and had a “nice, normal upbringing”. Being the middle child has probably made him who he is today — someone who likes the spotlight.
“My older brother was crazy, the rebel, took the blame for stuff and still is the wild guy. Then, a year-and-a-half after me came my younger brother, and they [his parents] were busy looking after him, so I think that caused my need for attention.” School was neither here nor there for Axel; he reckons he got medium grades just for showing up and didn't have any favourite subjects.
When he was allowed to make his own choices about life for the first time aged 15, he opted for a path that he thought would require the least amount of work — a three-year chef course.
“I thought it would be less studying but I realised I really enjoyed it and had a talent for it. I really liked working with my hands and being on my feet.
I was always good with creative stuff, drawing and stuff like this. Cooking came easy to me and it was fun. But in the end, being a chef is a fucking monotonous job where you work 12 hours a day,” he says before adding, with a cooing voice and filling arms, “it’s not always Jamie Oliver 'Ooh, lovely, ooh smell that, ooh, wow', it’s chopping onions and peeling potatoes. But I really enjoyed the camaraderie of the kitchen.”
After that he went to Barcelona for the year 2000, returned home and applied for, then got into, art school in Gothenburg, where he got a Masters in Fine Art. At the same time he began making music and DJing in earnest after first learning to scratch with hip-hop aged 13.
Already au fait with acid house after his older brother, who spent time in the UK, brought it into the teenage Axel’s life, it came easy to him. Then one day, when a friend was selling his Yamaha A3000 sampler and Yamaha RMX1 Groove Box, Axel snapped them up. “That’s all you need: one you sample with, one you trigger, and so I started making beats, but it took me ages to figure out.”
Likely an important factor in all this are Axel’s parents. His father is a sonographer for theatres and stages, and his mother is an actress. “They are happy I’m not in jail, and that I pay my rent. But I think my mum will always be disappointed that I’m not an actor.” Of course, he is an actor of sorts, only one who performs on a slightly different kind of stage.
Right now he is focused on a new sub label, Barn-Barn, that is an outlet for more visceral, instant hitting tracks that are pumping and fun. “It doesn't have to be so explanatory, I don't want to work with titles, maybe just weird artwork and stuff.
I want to play with formats and fidelity.” As mentioned, he is also working more and more with Hivern Discs man John Talabot as Talaboman. The pair have recently made music in Talabot’s “amazing, incredible” studio in Barcelona.
“He has a Kraut, slower, retro-but-futuristic sound and I am more about finding quirky samples and making things that shouldn't match, match. I like to juggle, he likes to build. We both love melodies and euphoric-ness.
“I’m definitely much faster throwing the arrangement up and he is really good at detail.
We confuse each other and end up with something neither of us would ever have done. He could easily spend hours tweaking and EQing the bassline, I just don't care. Soon as it’s done I'm just ready to move on so I leave him to do that and I do something else.
It works really well and I’m learning about frequencies and stuff from him, so the last track we did already sounds mastered, it sounds so good.”
Axel is also very keen on the idea of doing another album, which he may well start after summer. “They are super good for getting gigs!” he exclaims laughing, but half serious, and in the process touches on an important point: despite the fact he does very few interviews, even fewer mixes and releases comparatively infrequently, he remains in-demand and has been flavour of the month for years.
That’s no easy feat in the blow-them-up, knock-them-down times in which we live. But the reason he remains on top is his personality — genuine, kind, warm and honest, Axel is as unique as the music he makes, as anyone who follows his irreverent social media feeds will know.
Rather than boring bull like ‘Thank you New York’ or ‘Stuck in an airport fml’, he will Instagram a picture of himself in gold clown shoes or a santa outfit. “I avoid political statements on social media,” he muses. “It’s a slippery slope. Once you starting using those platforms too seriously, I think it’s going to end up a mess. I just like to have fun with it.” And we wouldn't expect anything less.
MEET THE CREW
As well as Axel, Studio Barnhus comprises Petter Nordkvist and Kornél Kovacs, and here we meet the pair...
“My name is Petter, I am a Libra and I just had my first haircut in four years.”
How did you guys all first meet and when did you start working together?
“Axel and I met at a Richie Hawtin concert in Stockholm in the mid-'00s. My first contact with Kornél was around the same time, he tried to book me for his club. It never happened. We bonded a few months later, though, at legendary gay palace Spartacus in Aix-en-Provence, where I held a residency. We all moved into the studio in 2009.”
What role does each of you play in the team?
“I suppose I am the introvert one. I like to hang out back, in the shadows. We complement each other very well.”
Sonically, what makes you, you, do you think?
“It depends on what tools I am working with. The last few years I have worked with more or less the same equipment. Quite a basic set-up with a couple of monosynths and some effect units. I mostly just enjoy the process of making music. I am probably the least ambitious member of Studio Barnhus.”
How would you describe the other two guys that make up Studio Barnhus?
“Social, talented, warm, funny, mischievous.“
Do you guys feel like you are the spearhead of the Swedish scene?
“There is a lot of interesting music coming out of Sweden these days. Aniara, Junkyard Connection/Karlovak, Geography and Skudge all started out around the same time we did, and I think all of us have influenced each other and other producers in some way.”
Obviously the label is known for a sense of humour…
“Humour is a good thing, no? We put our heart and soul into what we are doing, we are not joking around.”
Do you work on each others music together, give feedback?
“Yeah, all the time. We play stuff to each other and ask for advice. For example, Axel might feel that there is something missing on a track he is working on, then I'll play some synthesizer or Kornél will load up the microphone.”
Do you do anything else other than making music?
“I do the music bookings for a bar in Stockholm called Morfar Ginko.”
I understand you do, or used to, make music for commercials...
“We do, occasionally. It can be liberating to work within certain set parameters. Like, doing sound effects for a commercial, certain sounds have to sound a certain way. So you sort of know what type of sound you need to create and you do your best to do it. For me, it is completely different to making my own music.”
What are you currently working on/have you got coming up?
“I am finishing up my EP for Studio Barnhus, hopefully that will come out before summer. Also, Baba Stiltz and I have been working on tracks together.”
“I'm Kornél, 29-years-old, love music. My power animal is the giraffe. Share the groove, don't share the needle.”
What role does each of you play in the team — do you all have different things you bring to the partnership?
“We all have different skills and characteristics but they overlap and switch as well. It's a very organic thing, hard to describe. It used to be I was the Father, Axel the Son and Petter the Holy Spirit but these days nothing is set in stone.”
Sonically, what makes you, you?
“I recently realised all my solo material has featured the human voice in one way or another. Could it have something to do with my background in choir singing and children's operas? I think maybe you can hear the drum & bass influence in my work as well, that was my first major musical love affair. My aim is always to convey some sort of real or unreal emotion. If it sounds good in da club too then that's a huge bonus.”
Tell us about your bunker studio, what goes on down there and why is it a good space to create?
“Weird things happen down there. Lots of small animals have been running about recently. We have so many machines and instruments that keep on finding new ways of connecting with each other. Lots of bad Swedish coffee, the occasional after-party. Maybe it's a bit of a man cave, sad but true.”
How would you describe the other two guys that make up Studio Barnhus?
“My two best friends and the most inspiring colleagues I could imagine. Super intelligent, warm and fun. Axel is extrovert and Petter is introvert, and they're both really good looking fellas.”
Obviously the label is known for a sense of humour…
“The humour thing — it used to bug me a lot that some people (journalists especially) would view us as some kind of house pranksters. Humour is a great part of life and can be a great part of music too. Something can be lighthearted and devastatingly serious at the same time, that's the beauty of art.
We never wanted the humour thing to be our foremost characteristic. Take something like HNNY's Mariah Carey edit or Pedrodollar's 'Ner i Brunnen' for example — some nerds would view those as musical 'jokes', but I think they're two of the most beautiful and intelligent pieces of music I've ever heard.”
Do you do anything else other than making music?
“I manage bookings for East, a great bar in downtown Stockholm. I do some writing gigs on the side — as all great musicians, I have a failed music journalism career behind me...”
I understand you do, or used to, make music for commercials and make jingles?
“We still do commissioned work like that. It can be super fun and it can finance the more aimless messing around. You can try to separate the two things but some 'real' music will easily find its way into a TV commercial for example — or something you came up with for a radio jingle can be used in one of your own tunes. We just did all the music and sounds for an upcoming educational children's show on Swedish public service TV, that's pretty cool I think.”
What have you got coming up?
“Barnhus solo four-track EP in March, another four-track EP for Glasgow label Numbers before the summer. Few more remixes, edits and things popping up here and there over the next months. I wanna do an album next!”
Words: KRISTAN J CARYL