A crow in the garden: The story of Gundelach’s Baltus

On good friday 2018 there’s a lamb grilling in Jæger’s backyard in the annual Skranglejazz ritual. The air temperature is at dismal -2 degree celsius, but the smell is intoxicating and a crowd drifts out on the fragrant fog of the roasting meat where they huddle around the last vestige of heat, the grill. It’s still early, but a few eager heads spasmodically break in and out of some footwork to the music being played by the Skrangle DJ Gustav Julius Viken. This easter tradition at Jæger never fails and this year there’s something quite surreal to the setting. PLO Man is in the mix talking to Magnus International. Finnebassen dons a pair of tongs, flipping over a huge chunk of lamb where Skrangle Jazz DJ Celius is hovering around a salad. There’s a kind of uncanny last supper setting to the entire scene as if it was visualised through the work of Bendik Kaltenborn.

Kai Gundelach is here too just to add to the dreamlike atmosphere, playing some songs alongside Gustav. He looks relaxed and at home in the booth. His debut album “Baltus” has just hit the shelves and he’s playing under his Dunderlach pseudonym for his friends at Skranglejazz. Later Finnebassen will be closing out the event in our courtyard, but for now the Norwegian DJ‘s priority is the lamb and he’s as focussed as he is at the decks. Between complementing Finnebassen on the lamb and another helping, I ask if he’s heard the new Gundelach album. “Yes” he says with a smile, specifically admiring it for its “consistency” between the tracks.

The album has enjoyed a reserved release, with little fanfare on a new independent label called U OK?. It follows Kai’s debut self-titled EP some two years on and although they certainly share an artistic trait, there is something unique about the album, that wasn’t necessarily there on the EP, and I’m eager to find out what that is. I manage to sequester Kai in Jaeger’s office for a few minutes while he’s taking a breather from playing and we get talking.

I was just talking to Finnebassen about your album and he said the album sounded very cohesive. Is that what you were trying to get across?

Yes, I really wanted it to be an album, and not just a collection of songs. I wanted to make a record from start to end through a journey, because nowadays most records are little more than mixtapes or a collection of songs. The album format is not relevant anymore.

Were the tracks made around the same time as the tracks on the EP?

Not all of them. Some songs were from last year, and some were newer versions of the old songs.

And it was recorded as an album, during one session?

I didn’t record everything, because I used some vocal stems from earlier. In some cases I added lyrics to some of the songs and then I had to combine the older stems with the newer stems. It was really hard to get the same tone through my voice.

So it was a bit like a collage. You can’t really pick that up from listening to the album.

Yeah. We’ve been playing “Control” live for a year or two, but I ended up using even older stems, from the first time “Control” surfaced around 2011/12. I used an old pad from that old recording that was muted originally, and a lot of the songs are like that,  a mixture of old and new. It was like going back to your old studio and finding stuff you’ve forgotten about. It was a big puzzle, but it came together quite fast.


Although there’s is no particular theme to the record, these songs, like the self-titled  EP before it were all written through a period of personal desolation for Kai and although he is reluctant to call it the theme of the record, depression certainly plays its part in the way these songs sound. Around 2011/2012 Kai felt “super depressed” and it was during this period he would set the tone of the Gundelach sound. Although he is not depressed anymore, that part of his personal life made an indelible mark on his artistic voice and he feels it’s always essential to bring that across, especially when making something as personal as an album. Finding it “hard to make songs that are supposed to feel like that when you are not feeling that way” for the album, Kai would “use older songs to get that feeling across”. The result was “Baltus”, a record in name and mood that captures that feeling of anguish and sullenness, but with a silver lining streaking across the surface.

There’s a melancholic demeanour to the entire record that seeps in through Kai’s voice and touches everything from his guitar to the synthesisers. It borders on sadness, but never morose, with a kind of hopeful optimism underpinning the execution of the songs. The instruments float and skip across the arrangements in a pseudo pop-art eighties optimism, while Kai’s voice anchors the songs to a personal, emotive depth. There’s a sadness to the tracks on “Baltus”, but you’re not always made aware of the source of the sorrow through Kai’s lyrics.

Is depression or the feeling of it something that you try to bring across in your lyrics too, because for me they tend to lie on the edge of the abstract?

Yes, and there are some lyrics that aren’t that abstract either. In “Control” for instance where I sing; “you don’t know what it feels like to be alone”.  I hated the lyrics that I wrote them. I didn’t listen to them for another year, and when I did, they felt more real. And that’s what I wanted from the album; that it’s supposed to feel real, and not like I constructed something that isn’t me.

How does the title relate to that?

Where I grew up in Slependen, we had this crow living outside in a tree in our garden for seven years, which my father, or mother named “Baltus”. I wasn’t thinking that much about “Baltus” when I made the record until I figured the theme (of the record) was depression. I have this thing for crows, because they have been a symbol for death and darkness, and in modern times they’ve become a symbol of depression and melancholy.

Is part of the purpose of writing songs about your own experiences about confronting the societal stigmas of depression?

I’m not dealing with it so much anymore, and in our society, I feel that nowadays everybody talks more about depression. And that’s a good thing, but it has also become some kind of sales trick. Like: you don’t have a record before you have some kind of anxiety about your own person on it. I don’t feel like I did it to show this side of my personality; I did it because I had (harboured) these songs for such a long time, and I knew that if I was going to make an album, I was going to include those songs. And If I’m supposed to sing about my life, I have to include these songs because that used to be a part of my life.

Gundelach’s self-titled last EP might have been more contemporaneous with this period of songwriting for the artist, but it feels more distant to the mood the artist relays on “Baltus”. Although Kai was struggling with the same emotional turmoil he is on the album, the lyrics to the EP offer “vaguer” cues and the general upbeat arrangements very rarely allow that sense of melancholy to creep into the songs compared to “Baltus”. Kai puts this slight disparity between the EP and the album down to a lack of confidence in his writing that has since dissipated. With none of the insecurities of a first release, he was more easily able to go back and revisit earlier lyrics and vocal lines after he had gotten some distance from them.  

After working with Joel Ford (Ford & Lopatin/Tigercity) on the first EP, Kai brought the album home and while long-time collaborator Pål Ulvik Rokseth still made his mark on the record from some earlier demo recording re-purposed, a new host of collaborators joined Kai for the album. “It all happened pretty randomly” says Kai of these collaborations, most significantly Knut Sævik (Mungolian Jetset) facilitating in the producer- and engineer’s chair. Kai had worked with Sævik before when he “wanted to record a better vocal sound” for his early demos and returned to the Norwegian multi-instrumentalist, producer and engineer when the album beckoned. Before the recording of the album Sævik had gone through his own personal turmoil and “Baltus” would be his first project after a long hiatus. Kai believes “it was good for (Sævik) to work again” and it might have even helped solidify the theme of the record.

“It just felt natural” says Kai. Øyvind Mathiesen came in later as a “sort of executive producer” and Norwegian songwriter and vocalist Ary was the last piece of the puzzle that breathed life into “Baltus”. Kai and Ary had been making demos for a while together and they’d “always had a really good chemistry when writing music together.“ On the latest single to the album “Past the Building” there’s a harmony not only in register, but also feeling that makes for a sinuous thread between the two vocalists. Ary’s voice acts like a counterweight to the solemnity of Kai’s tenor on the single, while the addition of her vocal on “Games” offers a playful sanguine surprise from the rest of the album.

Games is the more upbeat track on the album, with more of a dance floor appeal. Do I detect that it comes from perhaps a more happier place than the other tracks on the album?

Yes I wrote that with Ary in the studio, and we laid the groundwork for it in a half a day. All those synth tracks come from my Juno 60, and it’s pretty minimal. 

There’s an element of fun to that track, that to me seems to relate to the your working relationship.

Yes, and it’s not new to me, because I’ve done it before. But doing it with the same person several times is a different way of writing music for me.

Did any of the collaborations affect the way you worked?

I think my music definitely evolved. That’s how it is when you work with people. When I write lyrics for instance, I would usually use a couple of days to write three lines, but when I have Ary in the studio with me, I can get an immediate response to those lines, and the process goes a lot quicker.

And I suppose it gives you more confidence when writing music?

Yes I think so.

I noticed on the sleeve notes that you’re playing a lot more of the synths. Was the purpose to step away from the more traditional band construct that you and Pål had on the EP?

Yes, because earlier I had Pål playing synths, and he still does when he can, but he’s super busy as a film-photographer. He didn’t have time to be in the studio, but he’s still on the record from some old takes.

When working with different people and working with co-producers, I’ve always brought a demo that’s 80% finished. This time I just wanted to produce it myself, and I only had Knut helping me as a technician. I really enjoyed that, especially now that it’s out, I have to stand for what I’ve done, because I did it myself.

We’ve come to know you as a live artist over the past couple of years. Has performing the songs off the EP live affected the way the album come together inasmuch as you have the live context in mind when recording the songs?

Yes, and even more so now than the last EP. It is more live friendly I guess and only because I needed to play it live. Earlier I would have a lot of tracks in my projects, but on the album I wanted fewer instruments. It gets more concentrated.

Releasing the record on his management’s label, U OK? Kai was able to retain that all-important creative control on the album, leaving a personal impression on the record that would have been impossible otherwise. With LA indie label, Terrible Records distributing and campaigning for the record stateside “Baltus” is carrying the Gundelach sound on the tip of its wing towards new American audiences. The LP is enjoying more plays in the US than anywhere else at the moment, and Kai couldn’t be happier with this newfound relationship with Terrible Records, a label, he’s had his eye on for some time. “They’re a stamp of approval” for the Norwegian artist, who join people like Blood Orange and Solange on the roster and he hopes to go over there soon to “really make an impact”.  

Kai shifts in the bulky faux-leather chair in the office, his sentences fleeting from one idea to the next while he talks. I forget to check the time, and realise I’ve taken up a fair chunk of his time already. Apologetically,  I release Kai back into the party where he heads purposefully into the DJ booth. He cues Andre Bratten’s “Aegis” and the extended version with its soaring intro takes us into a melodic 4-4 mix from Gundelach. He tells me while he hasn’t been making music since the album was finished in November last year, he has been working on some percussive stuff that might make it out as its own Techno project, “a darker, clubby kind of thing”.

Finnebassen’s lamb has been reduced to a couple of bare bones, and as the tables and chairs clear a bigger path to the dance floor, Gundelach music sets an invigorating pulse that carries us through the evening ahead. Kai seems content, both outwardly and in the music he selects and while he no longer struggles with depression, he doesn’t believe it will change the nature of his songs going forward after “Baltus”. “I don’t like happy-sounding music. What appeals to me is an emotional depth in the music. Even though I’m happy; I’m in a relationship, I have two cats, and my life is kind of nice, I’m still an emotional dude, and I’ll always find something to write about.“