Travelling through the absolute recesses of the musical cosmos, the Norwegian music duo, Mungolian Jet Set have charted a course through a wormhole of contemporary music. Pål “Strangefruit” Nyhus and Knut Sævik are a pair of intrepid intergalactic explorers of sound, whose combined musical heritage has made them one of the most unique musical entities operating in the vast sphere of electronic music today.
Ever since a serendipitous meeting in 2002, Pål and Knut have been making music as Mungolian Jet Set with a distinctive flair for the exotic, the psychedelic and dub in their music. Over three LPs, a handful of EPs and on the few occasions that they’ve acquiesced to a remix, Mungolian Jet Set’s music flits between Cosmic Disco, Krautrock, and Prog Rock existing like a musical black hole between these genres, slowly consuming them in the musical unknown beyond the event horizon that is Mungolian Jet Set.
Before Mungolian Jet Set Pål and Knut were two established fixtures on Norway’s music scene, arriving in the same scene in Oslo from two different points. Pål originally from Hamar, just a horse and cart ride away into rural Norway north of Oslo, came to music through DJing, and lists Prins Thomas as one of his protegés. A key touchstone for almost every music- or record enthusiast in Norway, Pål had become a prominent selector in Oslo and by the early 2000’s he had a regular show on national radio station P3, where he would meet Knut.
Knut, a multi-instrumentalist and producer from Ørsto on the west coast of Norway had made his first impressions in the world of Hip Hop as one third of Side Brok with Skatebård, and had already staked his claim as a producer working with avant garde acts like Gork. Knut was appearing on Pål’s Strangefruit radio show with his latest musical incarnation, the downtempo exotica of John Storm N Da Kid, “which triggered some of the same ideas I had for music,” remembers Pål in an interview with this blog.
“There was something that I liked which had these enormous dimensions to it in the way it was layered.” The pair had initially got to know each other through Oslo’s clubbing community, but arriving at the scene from “opposing branches” they were usually “battling and competing against each other” for the same small stake. “Then we decided to become one,” Pål told Magnetic Mag, “join together and make something better. Now we just pretend that we’re friends.”
Joking aside, it was exactly Pål and Knut’s clashing of musical tastes that informed the bedrock of Mungolian Jet Set’s sound. Where their musical dialect converged, or probably more likely veered from the other, they created a vortex of sound, that simply consumed everything in its path in heady arrangements that took on lysergic shapes on the dance floor and beyond it.
“What I like about Knut is that he’s totally open minded,” Pål told us. “His background is kind of a weird mixture. He’s heavily into Russian Classical music, but at the same time he has kind of an open ear for pop music.” It’s Knut’s open ear that does much of the musical direction of the group where he’s “always building a big sound,” according to a Resident Advisor interview. “Personally I’m very interested in orchestral and large ensemble music,” says Knut, but the big arrangements and grandiose compositions in the music of Mungolian Jet Set is just one small part in the final execution that ties it all together.
At the heart of their appeal lies a diversity and dynamism that stems from their eclectic background. Before Mungolian Jet Set, Pål had made an indefinable mark as a DJ in Oslo, and with a radio show and gigs all around Norway, Europe and even Asia, all that could be accomplished in that realm had been, and he began exploring new challenges from a pair of turntables. He started DJing in the context of a Jazz band, playing records alongside live musicians like Bugge Wesseltoft, opening Pål “up to another way of thinking about the way you can use turntables in a band context.” What he realised then he told RA is “very important to the way we approach sound in what we’re doing with the Mungolian Jet Set.”
Dubby progressions swirl and eddy around laconic rhythm sections, drifting off untethered into parallel dimensions. Textures floating through an ether of extemporised expression, create exotic atmospheres, informed by esoteric sounds sampled and co-opted from Pål and Knut’s extensive musical library.
“We usually move around in the genres of fantasy, munglore or discopop with a slab of mungishness” Knut said in a jocular effort to define his music to a journalist at earmilk. Pål is a bit more pragmatic about the approach however: “I have always been fond of the club sound that was quite apparent in the ‘90s,” explained Pål in a Factmag article as he attempted to whittle down the sonic influences of the band. “Labels and artists like Garth, Grayhound, Dubtribe, the Wicked parties and the Californian underground vibe were hugely influential to me as a DJ. I like the way it fused the psychedelic hippy vibe with the dub-enhanced disco sound. Some of the Bergen stuff that came out in the same era, especially early Røyksopp and the works of Erot and Bjørn Torske, were kind of similar but a tad more ‘innocent’ and ‘inexperienced’. Maybe it reflects in our pieces as well.”
The fact is that there is no way in defining their sound other than a fusion of ideas on their perpetual journey of sonic discovery through an intergalactic music multiverse. While their first LP, “Beauty Came to Us in Stone” was lingering on the fringes of Jazz, their 2011 masterpiece, “Schlungs“ sounded more like the cosmic sounds of Norwegian Disco passing through the darkened void of Neu!’s cement mixer.
“Some people don’t get our music the first time around,” Pål told Magnetic Mag. With so many different elements informing their work, there’s much to decipher in the music of Mungolian Jet Set, and for an audience that perhaps is more attuned to definitive categorisation, every new bar, phrase or track is a new challenge to unravel. “Take someone who’s really into something, say techno or electro,” says Pål. “If you put a third kind of track in between those two kinds of tracks, somebody’s going to say that doesn’t make sense. People need to label things. We are against that kind of thinking.”
“We try to do something different for each track,” adds Knut, but “it’s not always an easy process,” when you trying to force all these diverse influences and cues into each track. This is the source from which Mungolian Jet Set’s psychedelic sound arrives, piecing together elements that naturally clash into some abstract 3-D assemblage that refuses to maintain any familiar form. Songs like “The Ghost of Cauldron M / I Cannot live in Sin” or It Ain’t Necessarily evil” seems to be expounding on the next idea before the current idea is fully formed.
“In a sense we’re very much maximalists instead of minimalists” explains Pål in RA. “It doesn’t mean that every track has to be full on, but our music has a story telling quality to it.” There’s a sense of theatre to the Mungolian Jet Set sound, something Pål suggests is Monty Python-esque and might have some ground in Pål’s approach to the music who Knut says is “always thinking characters—like if a band played this, what would they look like and what would their names be.“
Imagery like this is something that has been with Pål ever since he started DJing and it’s a story he often recounts in interviews. Hearing the sounds of the Paradise Garage in New York in rural Norway for the first time, Pål compared it to a spaceship landing in the middle of farmland, but with no possible way of knowing what a city like New York sounded like, Pål has always relied on his imagination when it comes to music. “I think a lot of Norwegian dance songs originally were kinds of musical fantasies about New York, Africa or whatever,” Pål told Factmag. Taking these imaginary sojourns across the globe accentuates that sense of theatre in the Mungolian Jet Set sound, with Pål and Knut ensuring that these references are boldly orchestrated in their music.
“Everything is prominent in our music,” explained Pål in earmilk. They emphasise these exotic hues through instrumentation, but also samples, with Knut usually at the helm of the arrangement and the final composition of each track. They try and play as much as possible between them, but also rely heavily on sampled sounds, but “the sampled sounds are more a part of an orchestration process which comes in later” according to Knut.
“The way we work together, when it comes to the typical sound, everything is done by Knut,” elucidated Pål in RA. “He knows the studio in and out. My input is maybe more the free thinking. I think like a DJ.” Knut will be at hand on the Mungolian Jet Set sound “from the arranging and composing side” and will let Pål improvise freely until he hears something specific to which he’ll tell Pål; “that’s it—stop.”
Between Pål’s free spirited composition and Knut’s controlled arrangements, they’ve found a sound that can migrate across musical borders, often for whole LPs, but retain the elusive, schizophrenic charm of the Mungolian Jet Set sound, a sound that lives beyond time and space. It’s a sound that’s in infinite motion on that perpetual voyage of sonic discovery.
They’re only regret according to Knut is that “sometimes I think we don’t experiment enough.” A bold claim from one of the last few avant garde artists working in popular music. They haven’t made any new music since 2016’s “A City so Convenient,” which saw them travel to new destinations through their music yet again. There are whispers that they’re back in the studio circulating in Oslo DJ rumor mill, so a new EP or even an LP might be on the cards in the not too distant future..
There’s nobody that could ever sound like Mungolian Jet Set, they are a force onto their own and their music has a tendency to challenge any musical trends, and lets hope Pål’s words ring true when he told Magnetic Mag: “Our aim musically is to stay around for a while. We hope to be doing this when we’re in our 70s. I mean… The Rolling Stones are still playing.”