Birthed in Bergen in the '90s, the quirky, elusively pinned down sound of Norwegian/Scandi/nu/cosmic disco — or whatever you call it — is a difficult to explain phenomenon explored within Paper Recordings' new crowd-funded film, Northern Lights Disco. Pioneered by the likes of Bjorn Torske, DJ Strangefruit and the late Erot and brought to international acclaim by Prins Thomas, Linstrøm and Todd Terje, we dig into Norway's icy, beardy version of disco...
Norway has an exotic nature that I've always found very appealing,” says Paper Recordings' Ben Davis, who has spent a fair chunk of his time up on the frozen edge of the Arctic Circle in the past decade or so, where both the nights and the days can last for months on end.
“I find it totally intriguing. It's a bit like Timbuktu; it sounds amazing, like amazing things will happen there. Your imagination fills in the blanks. When we first heard that music, it was just so fresh, and it came out on seven-inches and 10-inches, and we all thought, 'Shit, this is from Norway?! Wow, how come?'”
Norway's electronic music scene has held strong links with the UK's for a good 30 years now, enjoying an explosion of techno, acid house and ambient music at roughly the same time in the late '80s. And it's Davis' love of all things Nordic that has lead him to embark on committing it to film.
The label is behind Northern Disco Lights, a passionate feature-length documentary on what Norwegian electronic music has given the world, from Todd Terje, Lindstrøm and Prins Thomas, to Tellé Records, Annie, Röyksopp, Rune Lindbæk, Erland Øye and Erot. But despite searching for answers, how disco-inflected electronica came to become something of a hallmark for Norwegian music in more recent times still remains something of an enticingly elusive mystery.
“I wanted to find out why the music that I love that comes from Norway has its roots underpinned in black, gay disco. It's a real juxtaposition,” Davis adds.
“I don't really have a clear answer,” says Pål Nyhus (aka DJ Strangefruit) who, for want of a less clumsy comparison, is like Norway's answer to a combination of Pete Tong and DJ Harvey. He showed Prins Thomas how to DJ in his living room when he was 14, and Thomas just 10.
It was his hugely influential Saturday night radio show (and another immediately following his, helmed by the equally revered Ollie Abstract) on Norwegian national radio in the late '90s, which exposed a whole generation to the world of house music, techno, downtempo, disco — old and 'nu' — and everything imaginable in between.
We chat backstage at the extremely smart Ingensteds club in his hometown of Oslo, a place which boasts some of the classiest mid-century furniture you're likely to find in a nightclub setting. Lindstrøm is sitting next to us, limbering up to play a live set, and a trailer featuring some of the film's footage has just been screened out on the dancefloor, ahead of a crowd-funding push to put the finishing touches to the project, which its hoped will then go on to tour select film and music festivals. “We were so far away from New York, in many ways, especially back in the '80s.
Sweden was far more contemporary,” he continues. “But in Norway, in a cultural sense, it was almost communistic. So there was one show per week on national radio which played pop music. Modern music was barely covered at all. In Sweden they had 24-hour radio, and now you'd almost categorise it as being balearic in style. So there wasn't a disco scene here in the '70s. Not at all. Norway's always been a farmer's country. And farmers don't really like disco.
“If it's been an influence in Norwegian music, maybe it's because it didn't happen here at the time. It may be something like that. Actually, the typical Norwegian sound is darker, more gloomy. The jazz, and, of course, the metal music, and then the ambient music, like the early stuff from Biosphere, it kind of goes with the scenery, and disco doesn't go with the scenery at all.”
Nyhus' show was cancelled after about five years, amid significant protest, as the station took a turn towards the more commercial. But he had set something in motion, and emerging artists like Paper's own De Fantastiske To, Dortmund and Martin Wold would be listening intently.
“I would listen to Ollie Abstract and Strangefruit on the weekends,” says Marius Sommerfeldt, one half of De Fantastiske To, and who also has releases under his belt on Prins Thomas's much-admired Full Pupp imprint.
“The shows would always feature Norwegian guests, producers and DJs. Nils Noa too, he was the first Norwegian DJ to play the Essential Mix on Radio 1, back in 2003, which was before people like Prins Thomas and Todd Terje blew up too. For me that was a benchmark.
It meant 'OK, Norwegians can do it as well'. Then when I heard [Todd Terje's] 'Eurodans' for the first time, it was an anthem for me. It was fun, it was playful, and didn't take itself too seriously. We try to do that too. So no black and white profile pictures. This music should be fun.
There's been the 'space disco' thing around Norway going on for some time now, but there's a lot going on in good old house music too.” As well as releases on Paper, Sommerfeldt and his genial production partner Ravi Brunsvik are poised to reanimate the influential Norwegian house compilation series Prima Norsk, originally released in three volumes by the Beatservice label in early 2000s, and boasting tracks from the likes of Doc L Junior, Lindstrøm, Blackbelt Anderson and Trulz & Robin.
Indeed, Norwegian electronica is not all about disco. At the intimate Mir, a bar tucked away in Sofienberg, Oslo's formerly scuzzy, now trendy north eastern corner, Robin, of Trulz & Robin — also a Full Pupp alumni curates a semi-regular collaborative techno jam, using original and new analogue hardware connected by a serpent's nest of cabling, and all tethered to a vintage Roland 606.
The results are truly thrilling, like an ever-evolving jazz jam but with bleeps, buzzes, whirrs and a distant, cushioned kick. Then hidden across town, tucked behind what appears to be the main shopping drag is perhaps the city's jewel, Jaeger, a wood-beamed ale house upstairs, with an underground bunker in the basement fitted out with a sturdy Funktion One system, which, when DJ Mag visits, finds Hessle Audio's prodigious Ben UFO at the controls. Future guests include Detroit's Mike Huckaby, Jennifer Cardini and Erol Alkan, making for some diverse but blazingly cool programming.
But oddly, perhaps, it was not in the capital Oslo that the Norwegian techno and ambient scene emerged, but a two-hour flight north in Tromsø, Norway's arctic coastal outpost famed for its proximity to the aurora borealis and bathed in either perpetual twilight or midnight sun for whole swathes of the year.
It was thanks to key players including Biosphere mastermind Geir Jenssen, singer Anneli Drecker (who with Jenssen made up the dreampop band Bel Canto), Vidar Hanssen, who would launch the highly respected Beatservice Records, the brilliant and barmy Rune Lindbæk, Per Martinsen (aka Mental Overdrive) and Bjorn Torkse.
The scene would later spawn acts like Röyksopp, arguably the most commercially successful band to emerge from Norway's underground scene, and since 2010, Øivind Sjøvoll's Kohib project.
Torske was involved pretty much from year zero and has remained rather pivotal ever since, thanks first to his show on Brygga Radio in Tromsø, based in a fishing hut by the harbour, and then latterly his disco-indebted, slinky dancefloor workouts and peculiar, pastoral electronic productions.
Those first tracks, initially for labels like Stockholm's legendary Svek, soon came home to Mikal Telle's own Tellé label in Bergen, and in recent years, Joakim Haugland's venerable Oslo imprint Smalltown Supersound, home to the likes of Lindstrøm and prolific Norwegian nine-piece Jaga Jazzist, as well as a dizzying host of others.
It helped immeasurably that Torske's friend Martinsen had moved to London in the mid-'80s to work in a south London recording studio, and, while he was there, discovered Paul Oakenfold's seminal acid house club Spectrum. Torske says when Martinsen returned in 1988, he had with him a bag of records the likes of which they'd never heard before.
“The music I liked just wasn't available in Norway. We knew a bit about acid house, but the obscurity of these records was so alluring,” he says. “Stakker Humanoid, a variety of the releases on Trax and the early Deconstruction records. I particularly remember a Deconstruction compilation called 'North' (featuring tracks from T-Coy and A Guy Called Gerald). I still have it. Tromsø was a really boring place at that time, so we created [a scene] for ourselves.”
FROM LONDON TO BERGEN
Soon they were making regular record buying trips to London (and later to Amsterdam, Manchester and Copenhagen), where they'd return with usually more than 100 pieces of vinyl at a time.
“It was madness, we'd save up for the year, and have a good list of 'wants' from the pirate radio tapes we had, and rather than mail ordering, which before the internet was tedious, involving faxes and such things, [travelling to London] was just the best way to do it. It became a yearly ritual.”
Warehouse parties, instigated by Martinsen with a smoke machine and a home-made strobe light, inevitably followed. “Maybe 30 people would show up,” he laughs. “But it showed us the possibilities.”
Around 1995, Torkse met Mikal Telle through the Bergen party scene, by that stage his new home, and things started happening, Tellé opening a record shop — and later the label — which acted as something of a hub for the denizens of the city's musical leftfield.
It proved vital for a number of reasons, not least because the major label outposts had no interest at all in this new, homegrown music, Norway's Virgin Records branch famously passing on Röyksopp's massive debut album 'Melody A.M.', before it was picked up by the UK's Wall of Sound.
He admits that he finds the British fascination with the Norwegian electronic scene somewhat curious. Perhaps most notably when Davis and his director, the Tromsø-based filmmaker Terje Rafaelsen, persuaded him to lug his synths up on the cable car out of the city to play live on Storsteinen, the mountain which towers over the city. He needed mittens.
“When you go to Tromsø, you think of the early techno that came out of there, and it's from this glacial place, surrounded by snow and mountains,” says Davis. “Plus they're in darkness for a lot of the year, so they stay in and make music.
A bit like in Manchester, because it rains all the time. The music does seem to reflect the environment, but I'm not sure it's necessarily a product of the environment. More important though, is their sense of society and collaboration.
They all support each other, and there's no back-stabbing. You don't tend to get individuals burrowed away in their studios, they often work with each other. They're very influential to each other, particularly people like Pål and Bjorn and Erot.”
Erot, real name Tore Kroknes, sadly died in 2001, dealing a huge blow to both the scene in Bergen and the Norwegian electronic scene in general. He'd suffered a heart condition from birth, and it claimed his life at the age of just 23. His prodigious musicianship, however, made its mark, tracks like the shimmering dub disco of 'Song For Annie'.
It was made for his girlfriend, Anne Lilia Berge Strand, the singer with whom he made the blazing 'The Greatest Hit', sampling Madonna's debut single Everybody from 1982.
It was the track which helped launch Mikal Telle's hugely influential Tellé label, which in turn would provide a springboard for Röyksopp, who released their first single So Easy on Tellé in 1999. Davis interviews Kroknes' parents for the film, and Northern Disco Lights will be dedicated to his memory.
“It was perhaps the first time they'd talked to people outside the family and close friends about it, and there were tears. They were very much ready to open up. He's a big presence in the film. That was a real jumping in point for a lot of people, those early Tellé Records and the scene in Bergen. So that's where we decided to start the film,” says Davis.
Davis reckons it's always been something of a symbiotic relationship between the UK and Norway's electronic scenes, and not just from back when Per Martinsen was raving it up at Spectrum. The likes of underground house heroes the Idjut Boys, who also appear in the documentary, have been coming to play in Norway for decades, as did DJ Harvey back in the '90s.
“They were pioneers,” says Torkse. “They were paving the way for people like us.” Torske also name checks Tim Love Lee's Tummy Touch label and London producer Glenn Gunner's seminal Street Corner Symphony project as a kind of 'starting point' for Norwegian disco-indebted productions.
Following that pioneering time in the '90s, it was “Todd Terje, Prins Thomas and Lindstrøm who took that underground disco sound towards the mainstream”, reckons Davis. “They gave it a credibility but also a weirdness. It's accessible, but weird at the same time. It bought a wave of Norwegian music which spread across the world.
But for me it's Torske's work that sums up the Norwegian sound. I've given my mum, who listens to Demis Roussos and Chris De Burgh, a Bjorn Torske compilation and she loved it. Then my niece, who's a 20-year-old hipster, she loves it. I love it. That's a rare quality.” Since then, Todd Terje has lent his production skills to Roxy Music
legend Bryan Ferry, thanks to Ferry's son Isaac, who spotted the emerging 'space disco' vibes coming from Norway, and suggested his dad get on board. Moves like that have upped the ante, garnering worldwide exposure for Norway's crop of dazzlingly talented producers, not merely curiosity from the other side of the North Sea. “Disco was always a bad word, especially in Norway,” says Torkse. “We used to make fun of it. Not so much in a negative way. But we never dreamed of playing it.” Times have changed indeed.
The crowd-funding site is now live. Visit https://igg.me/at/northerndiscolights to help kickstart the launch of Northern Disco Lights
Words: Ben Arnold