Between the lines with Pål Strangefruit

There’s a name spoken in revered tones amongst Oslo’s clubbing community. It’s a name etched into clubland’s history books, and yet it is as contemporary as it is timeless. It’s a name synonymous with names like Øyvind Morken, Prins Thomas and Olle Abstract, but it’s also a reference of influence. That name is Pål Nyhus, but it’s also Strangefruit and sometimes it even goes by Mungolian Jetset. It’s a name that I’ve heard countless times at Jæger, but it’s only a name and what’s in a name? No, I want to get to know the man, the producer, the artist, the DJ behind that name, and with Strangefruit cropping up in Jæger’s calendar a fair few times over recent weeks, I made it my business to find out more. After a short email exchange, we meet for a coffee one rainy Saturday afternoon in Grunnerløkka.

I find a quiet corner in a sparsely occupied café, a momentary ray of sunshine breaking through the grey skies streaking in through the window to illuminate it like some ecclesiastic platform for a dramatic encounter in film. There’s some jazz/muzak interpretation of “Bridge over troubled water” playing over the whimsical PA and for a moment I consider where this spirited interpretation would fall into in Brian Eno’s idea of background music, but before I come to my conclusion, Pål walks through the door. He’s wearing a red bowling shirt, and his unmistakeably deep-set eyes that stare intensely at you from some hidden depth is instantly recognisable under a thick tussled mop of blond hair. It’s the face I recognise from countless appearances in Jæger’s various DJ booths and when he greets me the voice, which I’ve only heard through the telephone receiver, suggests a humility that belies the magnitude of his presence in the booth and in this quiet café space. He’s due to play that night at Jæger and I immediately ask about the records he’s recently purchased and which will make it into his set that night. “I always buy new records before a gig. I play more House at Jæger than I would in other places. In the House movement I think there’s a lot of boring formulaic stuff, which works but it doesn’t have any personality.” Pål likes a to float between genres preferring a fluidity to the music he plays, rather than being dependent on a specific style or genre. As a DJ he likes to work in the “crossover between ethnic music, abstract music and funk music” and he mentions names like Dekmantel, Call Super and Multi Culti as artists and labels he is currently digging. “The stuff that I’m talking about looks back, but also looks to the future, but I think it also has a lot to do with the producer’s creativity.”

Looking back is part of the reason I wanted to meet up with Pål and there’s one question I’ve been specifically looking to ask the DJ. Why is it that whenever I speak to a DJ of some import his name is almost always certain to crop up as an influence? “ I don’t know, it’s probably because I’ve been here for a while “, he remarks with a modest flatness in his voice. His response, like his general demeanour, possibly suggests something of his humble origins growing up in rural Norway, a town called Hamar a few hours north of Oslo. His history runs perpendicularly to that of “Prins” Thomas Moen Hermansen, the younger Thomas learning his craft alongside an older Pål, whose basement provided the scene and whose confirmation money provided the funding for a couple of decks and a mixer when both DJs advanced on their chosen career path. Pål would spend his summers working in the fields to save enough money to make journey into Oslo to buy new records. “When we had the September holidays, it was always for potato picking, so we called it potato holidays – that’s how rural it was.“ Subscribing to magazines like Melody Maker and NME, he became aware of an American sound and something about the sound of places like Paradise Garage and DJs like Larry Levan just stuck with a young impressionable Pål. “When I heard some of the electronic music from New York, it felt like a spaceship. Growing up in farmland, you had to use fantasy to associate with the music. The music didn’t fit into my environment, I had to create my own space to make it fit in.” Although Italo had began to make its mark in the region thanks to a Swedish label called Beat Box, this alien music from the US was the reserve of only a few “like-minded kids” in the region, which included Pål. But Pål also stood out amongst the crowd favouring a more eclectic taste, that meant he could adapt to any style and hone his craft given any environment, even his Hamar. “My most valued Boogie records I bought in my hometown for next to nothing because no one else bought it”, he quips. From US House and Disco to the Italo records from Sweden and the Boogie records he picked up in his hometown, a picture starts to form, a picture of an eclectic musical personality, but what sets Pål apart from your average run-of-the-mill collector, is not just a broad taste, but also a trait he shares with Prins Thomas, a tendency to look for the music between the borders of disparate musical styles. “And that’s something Øyvind has, which I guess is about like-spirited DJs.”

Alongside Thomas, Pål taught himself to DJ calling on these eclectic influences and eventually made the move to Oslo in the early nineties. “To me you had Oslo before and after the nineties, and I obviously can’t talk much about the club scene in the eighties in Oslo, because I wasn’t really a part of it. When I came in, it was mainly split between two rave organisers. You had Hansa and Lars, they were doing these big rave events in the east side, and then you had The Tribe, which were more like a west- end thing – more melodic smoother and funky. All that stuff was bigger and harder at that time. In ‘92 and ‘93 Ole Abstract and I were part of Excess to the Rave Zone, and they were like northern people. I remember Ole and I were always more fond of the American House and Techno sound, a deeper sound.” Pål’s love for music regardless of his, would eventually go from playing records to making records and in the mid nineties he released his first remix alongside Torbjørn Brundtland and it put into perspective Pål’s role in future creative endeavours. “I was never really a technical minded person. I’m an old school producer who has ideas and theories about making music, but I’ve always been dependent on working with technically skilled people.” He learnt to play with other musicians during a period spent behind the decks in a Jazz band and met his creative spirit in the form of Knut Sævik through Oslo’s club environment around the same time. Pål and Knut formed an artistic union in the late nineties after Knut performed on the formers radio show as part of John Storm N Da the Kid. “There was something that I liked which had these enormous dimensions to it in the way it was layered, which triggered some of the same ideas I had for music.” Knut’s playing spoke to Pål’s own eccentricities when it comes to music and Mungolian Jetset became the physical manifestation of Pål’s yearning for the music that bridges disparate musical borders with the edition of Knut’s own conspiring ideas. “What I like about Knut is that he’s totally open minded. 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.” They bonded over a shared love of Shpongle’s single, Divine Moments of Truth, which “is a keystone for the Mongolian sound”, according to Pål.

I notice while listening back to recorded conversation that Pål starts humming the tune playing in the background. The Muzak covers of folksy songs have shifted into the hemisphere of light Jazz, only just enough that it must have recalled something buried deep in the DJ’s subconscious. It’s evident that Pål has a musical ear and even though it might not manifest as something technical, it’s something he’s been able to direct through the turntables as both a functional medium, in creating entertainment for a dancing audience, and as an artistic medium, in creating new music. It might have started with a record collection, but has morphed into a creative personality, that goes far beyond mixing two records together. He has gained an intrinsic knowledge of music, which any Oslo native with even the slightest inkling of music has come to know, and in some cases, drawn on as an influence.

As Pål continues to reminisce about his early career and Oslo during the nineties, I notice the rain has reached a new level of ferocity – you have to admire how Norway ever hardly does anything in half measures. As I’m always I’m looking for titbits of club music in Norway’s history, to create a rounded perspective of the scene and it’s history, I hang onto every word Pål speaks. But it doesn’t take long before a giant elephant enters the room and we find there’s no way around. As a veteran DJ with the experience of playing abroad to audiences in places like Panorama bar, his opinion on the current situation with Blå is something that immediately crops up when we start talking about club culture in the city. By this point Pål’s girlfriend, Inger Lise Hølto has joined us with a toy poodle, which’s whimpering under Pål’s chair from the cold wetness of his curly fur. Both Inger and Pål give a sly chuckle when I ask Pål on his opinion of the situation and he says: “What do I think?… I think it’s very clear that the politicians and the police are a very long away from where we are.“ It has by now appeared to me that authorities have an agenda when it comes to clubbing in the city and Pål concurs. “Yes. In a way the police people are FRP people. I’m not saying every cop is a racist, but it seems like the mindset is a lot more conservative. Oslo is a growing city. To my understanding it’s one of the fastest growing cities in Europe right now, which means Oslo is way more continental than ten years ago. It means we have more people with different desires and I think the way the police are working now is in the opposite direction.” Inger and Pål suggests that creates a catch-22-situation whereby “it seems like if you have to call the police enough times, they just close it down, which means you don’t want to call the police.“ Pål thinks positively of the fact that people are reacting to it, but at the same time it seems the effects of a state trying to control a lifetime’s worth of drinking habits has had an adverse effect on the entire club scene here. “There’s a certain amount of time you have when you DJ to three o’clock. Sadly a lot of people come at 12AM or 1AM. If Norwegian club culture were people coming out at eight in the evening it would be fine. But it doesn’t work like that. Norwegians don’t come out early and a lot of Norwegians have to get drunk to start dancing.” Pål still believes it’s better than the nineties however, when it “was more about playing as loud as you can” than the focus on sound quality there is today. As a DJ that’s toured abroad, I wonder if the appeal of the touring DJ ever calls to him, and again that humility in his personality shines through. “Maybe my time is still to come, or maybe I’ll just be there as the underdog.”

There’s clearly no sense of him being the underdog when he’s in the booth however and later that evening, I get yet another taste of what a true professional selector sounds like. He’s jumping between House, Disco and Techno with a natural ease that only comes from knowing your music intrinsically. The crowd float on and off the dance floor through waves of people, Pål eclectic tastes speaking to various personalities at different times. A group of very young girls have particularly taken a shine to the early part of his set, where Pål’s mixes the latest electronic sounds with some organic pieces. Even though Pål is a self-professed crowd pleaser, there’s a definite thread that runs through the music he’s picked for the night, something that has been there at the previous residencies he’s played over the course of these last two/three weeks and will undoubtedly be there again the next time he plays at Jæger for a different night with a whole different crowd to cater for. “Even though I’ve been playing different nights, there’s obviously a similar thing that comes through every time I play. I am aware that a crowd on a Saturday might be a different crowd to the Wednesday.” What remains when you transcend the genres and styles, is Pål’s desire to “push as much as possible” within the confines of a night. “I play a lot of gigs where I don’t play House, because when it comes to electronic music it’s only really Jæger and Villa you can play it in Oslo, and when it comes to other places, you have to play more organic. I love a lot of organic music. When you are generally into music you are always looking for a place to play all kinds. For instance, I’ve really been looking for a place where I can play ambient music for 5 hours.“ Pål and I start on the subject of ambient music, and I mention Lucy’s Self Mythology, an album Pål “just discovered a week ago” and “which is really like a tribal album”, but it brings us full circle in our conversation. That album, like Pål’s DJ sets and music as one half of Mongolian Jetset, embodies the DJ’s desire to look for the music that comes to life between parameters. It’s in this grey area between everything that Pål exists and exactly that reason when you hear the name Strangefruit there’s no way it could be mistaken for any other name. We wind down our conversation talking of the night ahead, but Pål needs to go to a birthday party soon and although there’s still much more I’d like to ask him, I have to let him and Inger get on their way. But I’m content with the idea that this will not be our last meeting, and when we meet again, there will be a whole lot more to reminisce about and discuss. Until next time Pål Strangefruit Nyhus.