* All Photos by Carsten Aniksdal
Espen T. Hangård’s greying beard; the indented lines that cross his forehead; and his voice, spoken with the measured gravitas that only life-experience can bring, suggests he might be a veteran of his craft, but he’s not. Even though he’s been working in music for the best part of his life, he only made his debut as an electronic music artist in 2018. Releasing two LP’s in quick succession in Primær and Elementær, accompanied by a string of live performances around Norway, Espen went from relative obscurity to the darling of the DIY electronic music scene over the course of the last year. His, razor-sharp productions, which lie somewhere between the electronic pop formations of Kraftwerk and the Braindance excursions of Aphex Twin, was an instant hit across the Electro community. Espen’s distinctive approach, which offered a perspective on Electro in contrast to the ubiquitous DJ’s point of view, relayed an innocent charm that counterpointed the perfunctory elements which have been dominating electronic club music since Drexciya.
“When I started I wasn’t trying to release anything,” explains Espen when get the chance to sit down for an Interview, “I just wanted to make the stuff I wanted to make.” I had heard and wrote about both Primær and Elementær when they were released and something about Espen’s sound had immediately intrigued me. There was no pre-emptive focus on the dance floor and the song structures followed very similar to structures usually found in pop/rock music. When I heard him play live for the first time, I had found an electronic music artist bucking the DJ-cum-producer trend with a sincere nod to the past, and something completely unique to what anybody else is doing at the moment in Electro. Espen immediately stood out amongst the crowd, as he completely avoided those entrenched tropes, in some part emboldened by his unique musical history.
Espen was “born in the seventies and grew up in the eighties” in Tonsberg and his first contact with music was through Heavy Metal and bands like Kiss and Iron Maiden and not Hip Hop as the usual DJ rhetoric would predict. At the same time however, he was also “exposed to the electronic pop music” of the nineteen eighties with chart topping singles by Madonna, New order and Depeche Mode, informing his early musical tastes. While most teenagers of the eighties were engaged with some peer pursuit and music was segregated either as the “dirty, unkempt” crowd of a Heavy Metal inclination or the “feminine” synth pop of the new romantics, Espen chose a very different route and absorbed everything he could when it comes to music. “I never thought that I had to distance myself from anything I liked before,” explains Espen, “I was always just listening to anything.”
By the age of 14 he had picked up the guitar and enamoured by the “new and exciting” sound of Thrash- and Death Metal he started his first band, Noplacetohide, followed by side projects like Altaar and KILLL. Noplacetohide had an impressive sixteen year run as a prominent fixture in the Norwegian Rock- and Metal scene, and they released two albums during the height of popularity for Norwegian metal. Throughout it all however Espen never lost touch with those early electronic influences .
Groups like Nitzer Ebb and Depeche Mode marked that crossover point between Espen’s Metal- and electronic indulgences. Espen attests; “the aggression of Nitzer Ebb probably has more of an appeal for people who are into rock music.” It was bands like Nitzer Ebb, Depeche mode “and the “Mute kind of stuff” that first drew Espen to the possibilities of drum machines and synthesisers. “The first big show I saw was Depeche Mode and Nitzer ebb in 1988,” recalls Espen. “Nitzer Ebb was a radical thing and they were just playing a backing track and a metal percussion thing, it was very stripped down and minimalist.” By the mid nineties, Espen’s musical interests had extended to the Warp family, with “Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Autechre” piqueing his interests, “but it took many many years after that before I started making my own electronic music,” he admits.
By the late nineties, however he had bought a soundcard and managed to get his hands on cracked copy of Cubase, merely as a “sketching tool for writing music” for his many bands. “I didn’t really get into it that much,” recounts Espen and it took another ten years after that before the “ball started rolling with making electronic music at home.” Outboard synthesizers and drum machines followed and it all culminated in an intense recording period between 2009 and 2012.
“I was not thinking this was going to be released initially,” says Espen. “I was just trying to emulate the music that I thought was cool, and learning the craft.” He quickly found he had an affinity for the machines and “after a few years” Espen had amassed a “pile of tracks” that he thought “were good enough to release.” It conspired around a dialogue with the label Galleberg Forelag and by 2018 the first batch of tracks came out as Primær, which was almost immediately succeeded by Elementær.
“The first tracks on these albums were from 2009,” says Espen, “three months from when I started making this kind of music.” After recording those first pieces in that three year period, Espen “made the decision to finish all the tracks no matter how hopeless they were” to the point that if he “were to play them to a friend,” he could play it “without any hesitation”. Working quickly through all the tracks he eventually had enough for two LPs and decided to split the tracks up into two distinctive records. “I could have arranged the tracks so that the two albums would have sounded very similar,” explains Espen, “but I chose to put the slightly more linear tracks on the first one, and the more elaborate, melodic tracks on the second one.” Espen believes it gave each record a “different temper” from the other, but close enough to relay a very unique sound across the two records that sets Espen’s music apart from the contemporary electronic music landscape.
How did he have to change his approach in music going from guitars and vocals to synthesisers and drum machines? “You have to think completely differently about music and how you produce it,” he explains. At the time, Espen had felt that his guitar playing had “hit a dead end” and turning to synthesisers, drum machines and grooveboxes felt “very liberating.” Espen had found new inspiration in old machines and their “old backwards interfaces.” He utilises these machines and archaic interfaces in a way that harks back to the likes of groups like Nitzer Ebb and Depeche Mode, where song structure and melodic themes impart a more accessible listening experience in his music, something which becomes apparent when you experience Espen T. Hangård in the live setting. At a recent show at Kafé Hærverk I was taken aback by Espen’s live set. In a scene dominated by the DJ-producer characters, where live sets often feature the same sinuous thread that spans a DJ set, Espen’s performance stood out. Built around the very same song structures on the records, he would play each piece as its own song, often stopping the drum machine, loading up a new project and setting forth from there like a band would through their setlist.
“I’m used to performing in bands so I’m used to music being live,” says Espen. “Also from the audience’s perspective doing a laptop set is perfectly cool, and playing records is perfectly cool, but to me I get something more out of it if the music is to a certain degree created in the moment.” The way he plays live is a “nerdy thing” for Espen and it’s probably something that has migrated to electronic music from his “rock orientation.” He’s not very “good with repetition” and is constantly in need of ”something to happen, to have a break and have something else come in.” This is what sets Espen’s live performance, and by association his music, apart from the rest of the artists working in his field. It is something that also carries through on his artwork for his first two LP’s where the usual retro computer graphics and robot themes, are supplanted for something that flows more organically across the collages made by Canadian artist Tag Andersson. It’s “very abstract,” feels Espen, “but they have a very clear feeling to them” and he still feels that eighties reference resonates through Andersson’s post-modernist design elements underpinning the work.
It’s unclear whether the aesthetic will follow through in Espen’s future works, and in musical terms he feels that he is “done with that period now.” He’s moved on to recording sessions from 2016, and while he hints that his vocal might be making more of a contribution, there is “nothing concrete” that has formulated yet from these recording sessions. There are also pieces dating back to 2013 as well as “one or two metal projects that I want to realise.” He’s main group Altaar are still together even through they’ve been on hiatus for a while and whenever he can, Espen will be trying to work on music in one form or other. He’s recently contributed a “shouty” remix of a new Blitzkrieg Baby release destined for Aufnahme + Wiedergabe, but beyond that there is nothing primed for release.
He has however just released two full LP’s in very close succession and if that’s an indication of the kind of creative enterprise of the artist there is surely going to be more from him, very soon. As an electronic music artist he might be what the press would call an emerging artist, which is funny considering he’s already had a full career as a musician and artist, but in electronic music he’s certainly found a new voice, one that looks set to emerge, as a singular contribution to a choir of voices in this field.