Alienating Music – Interviewing Roland Lifjell

“I feel like what’s happening in the Techno scene is opening up for what I want to do. What I hear in Techno is that there is some purpose in the music again.” Roland Lifjell is in a good place right now, and there is a confident intent from the artist to make a serious return to music in all its forms. Like most of you, I got to know Roland through his shop, Filter Musikk. I look forward to his weekly emails of new records arriving in the store, and even more so when I don’t recognise any titles. It gives an incentive to get my ass down there and find something new and exciting, or dig through the shop’s diverse back-catalogue to find an old favourite I’d forgotten about. I take the opportunity before our interview to do exactly that while Roland shares an anecdote or two with the last of the customers for the day.

I find a These Hidden Hands Remix by Atom TM too good to resist, and Mount Sims’ Hate Fuck, brings back fond memories of my first adventures in club land. As I pay for my purchases, Roland and I fall into a familiar form, sharing our critical points of view on music today, and yet again I find Roland’s invaluable knowledge giving me a new perspective I can’t even begin to comprehend as his years of experience as a DJ, producer and record store proprietor reconcile. We dive into the subject of edits. “If you look at House music, they steal stuff all the time and they don’t even care, that’s the regular thing.”

Roland needs the artistic intent in the music to make it work for him, and even though we focus on House and Disco for a moment we are quickly drawn to the genre that’s closest to Roland’s heart, Techno. “Good Techno… you can’t fake it.” His words are inspired by a recent Tresor release that was pulled for plagiarism. Cofucio’s Golden Rule was removed from shelves by the label a few months ago since it was noted that, for the most part of the release, the producer merely added elements over two obscure Techno records, and this particularly strikes a nerve with Roland. “The worst is that the stuff over the top wasn’t even that bad. So, he could have just removed the original stuff and said he was merely inspired by those tracks. He didn’t bother going that far. It’s then that I sense that he wants to be on a cool label; he wants the fame without earning it. I think the reaction that he got ­– pulling the record and people condemning it – was right. You have to come with something to the table.”

Originality is important to Roland, and at the height of his career in the latter part of the nineties this was one element that was notably absent in Techno. “I felt for many years there was a dead end. I didn’t like where the music was going.“ Roland became disenfranchised by an oversaturated market and “inflation of a lot music styles”, conspiring to take the novelty out of the genre. It came during a time when he was still releasing music while playing for audiences that would number in the thousands. “I was lucky enough to be part of that big wave of Techno, where you could play as a relatively unknown artist for 1000 people or more. That was pretty unique.”

It wasn’t to last however, like every big wave, it crashed into the shore in an incredible white wash during a banking crisis and a new nail in the coffin for vinyl. “A lot of the labels I had contact with went bankrupt and I had a lot of deals that didn’t go through. There was a lot of disappointment, a lot of work for nothing.” It came around the same time Roland invested all his time into the shop, which absconded with the freedom to express himself as an artist and forged a solitary path ahead for the person behind the music. “I was overworked for some years. I probably wouldn’t do it again.” It’s only now, when the market is at a new peak and Roland is finding new inspiration in the Techno being released, that he has discovered renewed appreciation for the music that’s closest to his heart. “It seems like people acknowledge what’s coming out now and they pay more attention to artists.”

It’s in light of these circumstances that Roland has found “some purpose in the music again.” In labels like Stroboscopic Artefacts, Prologue, Ostgut Ton, and artists like Luke Slater, Reeko, Donato Dozzy, Roland is finding inspiration again as a DJ, and it’s coming through in immersive sets that can span 4 hours. “What I like the best is when I can surprise myself. I don’t plan anything. I just do mixes that fit and are kind of interesting. What I like about DJing, is when it goes to that next level I didn’t plan.“ He packs his record bags at the last minute with the intent to discover new unfamiliar material for the first time, trying to get back some of that feeling when a new genre or artistic sound exploded onto the scene. “I miss that first experience, that thing it felt like when electronic music was completely new.”

That experience came in the eighties for Roland with artists like Ultravox, making  lonely synthesiser music that Roland found easy to relate to. The influence of his uncle and his dad – who ran a local radio station in Oslo – affected Roland from a young age and he found an affinity with what he calls alienating music. “I liked that lonely feel in the music, especially the instrumental stuff. It’s rock and synthesisers, but they sing a lot of stuff where you don’t get the lyrics. You don’t really understand what they are singing about when they do, so you get alienated in the lyrics.” Though albums like David Bowie’s Low, Roland made his way into music through a set of decks at a young age, his youth club in Nesodden giving the adolescent Roland his first experience as a performer. But like everything Roland takes on it wasn’t the perfect situation he’d imagined for himself, just yet. “I did some private party stuff. I was playing like hip-hop and rave and all that stuff, but at some private party I saw some guys who could mix. I got angry with myself that I couldn’t mix, so I just had to practise more to learn.”

Today his sets transcend technique and the focus has turned very much into taking the listener on a journey, even if it exist for selfish reasons. “In the Techno I like I look for some meaning in the song through the instrumentals. They need to tell something unique with that alienating effect.” Roland’s intention is to deliver this narrative through his sets to the younger audiences who share his tastes, in the hope of recreating something of his first experience for them. I suggest it sounds like he might be trying to live vicariously through the younger generation and he breaks out in the coy, introverted smile I’ve seen before and says: “Sounds pretty sad.” But that’s the best Roland can hope for in what he perceives is a “leftover culture.” He has certainly found inspiration in Techno again through the new music making an appearance, but at times it can feel quite frustrating for Roland to play for a small audience on the back of his experience and knowledge from the early part of his career. “I was part of something that felt much bigger and felt more important.”

Roland will often venture into this hyper-critical personality during previous conversations I’ve had with him, but its not in the sense of some nostalgic cretin trying to relive his past, it comes from a sincere experience of two different eras in electronic music. Yes, everybody is effectively listening to electronic music, but for the most part it’s all been done before, a cyclical culture that, thanks to the Internet and accessibility, makes the new discovery all that much harder to exist, and that initial wave of Techno where thousands of people will fill a hanger just for the music is a very distant memory. For Roland this means that he often finds it hard to see the significance in what he does today. “I have to be careful, because sometimes I can just be bored of everything. It just feels meaningless. ‘O, another record by that guy I love, but he’s doing the exact same thing, o no… O no!’ (Laughs) I realise I can’t be too strict and judge everything too much. When you get too professional about things it’s  just not new and fresh anymore. Just like people that do a lot of drugs over and over again, I want that first experience. I want that back but I realise I can’t have it. Now it’s so defined and categorised.“

There is a duality to everything that is Roland Lifjell and the more I speak to the man, the more complex the identity reveals itself to be. The shop might have strained his patience for some part of his life, but at the same time it suited the lone wolf part of his personality, the man who finds solace in the comforts of working alone and the music it inspires. He might be have been brought up on the lonely synthesiser music of the eighties, but can find a personable pleasure in many other genres, even if they are considered somewhat easy by Roland himself. “I can even listen to some of that Dutch Trance stuff. I think even Eric Prydz can be interesting.”

Roland is a multifaceted character and through every critical notion he might share about the current musical landscape, he always finds an element that suits his personal tastes. He might miss some of that initial experience with electronic music he finds the current landscape most fertile for exploring his own artistic voice further. “There’s no compromise again.” Inspired by his formative years, he is making music today that broods on the darker side with that alienating intention at the heart of it. “I have also found new energy in working on a techno project with an old friend Kristian Sinkerud that we are fine tuning these days.” It features a unique signature that Roland says wasn’t there during the early part of his career. Today he feels his music can be completely inflexible, and it’s an attitude that comes through his DJ sets, where he is once again inspired by the newfound purpose in Techno. “I have a view of what I want to do, but it has to be refreshing.”

I don’t quite ever get to the bottom of what this view might be during this interview, or as I piece together past conversations with the artist, but I sense that I’m closer at an answer than I’ve ever been before, and although this interview might now be over, much more was left unsaid. “Is that it, you don’t want anymore”; Roland says as I switch off the tape recorder. I have enough for this chapter, but it’s left us very much on the edge of a cliff, keeping us on tenterhooks while we venture into the next instalment of Roland Lifjell’s career.

Words: Mischa Mathys