In to the woods with Bjørn Torske

There’s an omnipresent force that’s been pulsing through Norwegian electronica since the nineties. It’s a passive force with very few obvious signs pointing in its direction, but it is there nonetheless. It’s in everything from the latest André Bratten record to the next Ploink release, and although I’ve been struggling to put a finger on what exactly it is about Norwegian electronica that ties it altogether, there’s a man that’s been at the centre of it for best part of twenty years that might be able to help. That man is Bjørn Torske, and he’s had a fair stake in this omnipresent force since the late nineties as both a DJ and a producer.

Bjørn Torske’s presence can be felt through everything today in Norway and even a new act like De Fantastiske To mark his influence on their work today. He’s had a significant hand in shaping Norwegian electronic music as one of the catalysts of the scene. Four albums and a host of EPs / singles have made a severe impression in the history of Norwegian electronic music, both on the dance floor and off it, but Torske remains a unique entity throughout it all, bringing a timelessness to his music to the point where Nedi Myra still sounds as fresh as the day it first came out on Tellé records almost twenty years ago. Like the artist’s physiognomy his music is without any indication of age and an integral part of this is the vast references he falls on both in the booth and outside of it, which has been inspired in large part by the community and DJs like Pål Strangefruit.

These influences and this eclecticism goes someway in explaining the thread that runs through all of Norwegian electronic music, but for a more information we have to go straight to the source. It’s with that we got in touch with Bjørn Torske via email before he arrives at Jæger on Friday for Bypåske med Skranglejazz. We sent a few questions to get a little closer to the origins of the artist and the scene and we uncover a few hidden Easter eggs in the process.

I’ve read somewhere that you’re a fan of The Residents. “Duck Stab” is one of my favourite albums and “The Commercial Album” is one of the greatest concepts ever brought to live in music in my opinion. What is it about the band that you like?

You mention Duck Stab and as far as I remember “Laughing Song” was the first Residents track I remember hearing that I instantly liked. Previously I had only heard their dance version of “Kaw-Liga”, which is okay but a bit too commercial in my view – I mean we’re talking about The Residents. Next I came across a mint copy of “Eskimo”, and the ball started rolling. As for your last question – what is there not to like about The Residents? I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who stood on middle ground regarding them. Either they love them or loathe them. Anyway, for me their visual concept was perhaps the first thing I noticed, and then I’ve been diving into their sounds through the years. My favourite album is “The Big Bubble”. I saw them live some years back, which was a nice experience – maybe a bit too nice, in my honest opinion. The Residents after Snakefinger is like AC/DC after Bon Scott.

You’re also a big fan of field recordings I understand. How have these influences shaped your own music?

Field recordings have kind of always had a place in my idea of music and sound production. I mean it is a very easy trick to use when you want people on the floor to get into a certain mood. Everything from chirping birds or crickets through to thunder, sirens or a party crowd. I am also quite drawn to the sounds of trains, both in itself and as an accessory in a DJ setting. I remember my dad brought home a record with recorded steam locomotives when I was a kid. Not a “sound effects” record of sorts, but a record for people who enjoy listening to steam trains. It’s really high fidelity recordings, long tracks of just “puff-puff-puff”. It’s called “Steam in all directions” and was released on Argo. I still have it.

Tromsø must have been an interesting place for these influences to take shape around your music. Looking back on it, how did your environment play a role in your music and can you see its effects today on your contemporaries from that time?

Basically, as far as I’m concerned, the ultimate motive for getting into music during my youth in Tromsø was to escape the senseless boredom of that town. I had a good childhood there, lots of snow and room to play, but getting older I realised there was nothing to do but try to create some entertainment for oneself. So, with the conveniences of a vacant radio studio at night, there was a good foundation for experimenting, both with mixing and production. The main influences came via imported music that was hard, or even impossible, to find in Norway (maybe with the exception of Oslo). We were a little gang of friends who would travel to London and pick up what we could of acid/techno/house, which then was brought back and played relentlessly on the radio to the utter dismay of about 99.9% of the listeners.

There’s a sense of community that played a role too, I believe and artists like Pål Strangefruit had a tremendous impact on the scene then, especially as a DJ. How did you all influence each other to eventually create what became this remarkable “scene”?

For me, with the exception of the guys I knew from Tromsø, the encounters with other likeminded people came after I moved to Bergen in 1992. Here things were already starting to happen outside of people’s bedrooms, in a way that there was, albeit small, an actual scene where people would go out and dance. In comparison, Tromsø was still a place where dancing kind of meant asking the ladies for a little turn on the floor. A bit exaggerated yes, but the contrast was obvious. So there were other people with similar tastes, which of course meant exchanging ideas. I met Strangefruit around this time I believe it was when he worked in a record shop in Oslo called “Music Maestro”. He would play me a great variety of underground disco and boogie sounds from late 1970s / early 1980s, which were considered the blueprint for house.

It made sense, especially hearing the early works of people like Francois Kevorkian and Walter Gibbons. Pål had been buying these records since he was 13 I think, when he lived in Hamar. And then he had this younger friend who was at that time considered his pupil in a way, who would go on calling himself Prins Thomas. Back in Bergen we were busy flying over a lot of the DJs from the UK, among them Basement Jaxx, Harvey, Tim “Love” Lee, Idjut Boys, Simon Lee etc. – all very influential to the creative music scene both in Oslo and Bergen at that time. They used to play the Friday here in Bergen and the Saturday in Oslo or vice versa. Olle was doing his nights at Skansen while Jazid had their parties going every week. At some point you’d have Idjuts, Goldie and perhaps Derrick May in different spots in Oslo during the same weekend. Getting to hear these people in a domestic setting was very important for the scene as a whole, as well as quite consolidating for the creative drive of the local artists and DJs.

You probably get asked this a lot, but how has it developed for you and can you see any resemblance in what’s happening in Norway now, compared to back then?

Well, yes. I guess it has been quite the same now for many ways. Young people are “joining the force” all the time, picking their influences in very much the same way we did – while having the main influence from one certain genre (i.e. house). They add their own twist to it and push it forward.

While we’re in the present, there’s a clip of you playing live on Tromsdalen for the Northern Disco Lights documentary. Can you tell us bit more about that experience and what the purpose of it was?

It was just happenstance for me. I was having two gigs in Tromsø, with a few days in between. Terje and Ben where already there to work on the film, and they got the idea of having me doing a “live show” in the snow atop the mountain. It was exceptionally cold. I think perhaps it works visually, but taking sensitive equipment like a laptop outside in such temperatures is not very smart.

Having lived in Norway for just over a year now, I know that getting out into nature is quite an important part of Norwegian culture. Do you ever feel inspired by nature and how do you think it comes through in your music?

I’ve always been inspired by nature. As you say, it is part and parcel of the Norwegian lifestyle. Of course, being mainly into dance music, the floor and the dancers are the first inspiration. But yes, outdoor vibes play a role too. Being in a quiet space in the woods or mountains is very cleansing. Not least when I spend a lot of time with sounds pouring into my ears for hours.

I discern you have quite a sense of humour from previous interviews and track titles. Something that is quite true of a lot of people making music in Norway. Do you think there is something to that?

Not taking oneself too seriously is a good prerequisite for all DJs or artists who want to make a party happen. Regarding track titles, that is the last thing I ever think of when I’m making music. I usually write things down when I get a nice sentence or word in my head, and then use it a title later on. I remember making up titles in the post office as I was packaging a master tape to send off to England.

That sense of fun definitely creeps into your music, but there’s also often a serious dance element to your tracks too. Between field recordings and The Residents, what has been driving force behind you and the dance floor?

It is always about trying to create something new. Try to give people the impression they are in unknown territory, so to speak. Nostalgia is not my thing, even though I play a lot of “old” sounds. I don’t want a club experience to be too familiar sound-wise. This varies, of course. So there is room both for field recordings and The Residents. Think of it as a science fiction novel or an expedition into Amazon, and the anticipation of what kind of strange plants or creatures you’ll encounter along the way. Then, to your great surprise, there is a party happening somewhere far off in the jungle.

This gives your music a timeless quality in my opinion even though each release has slight differences. Did you approach each release differently and what is the underlining factor (except you of course) that ties it altogether for you?

As I said above – the lust for exploration. Trying out different methods to create music is an important factor. As technical possibilities are exceptional today, I usually create my own (contrived) limitations to the creative process. In the beginning, it was all about squeezing as much juice as you could out of a limited source of equipment – One AKAI sampler with 2 seconds recording time; an analogue keyboard; a Commodore 64-based sequencer; and a 12-channel mixer that took in signals from the local airport control tower. Today, on the other hand, recording time is unlimited, and most obstacles toward a technically “perfect” sound are removed. Thus there is, in my opinion, quite a danger that a lot of music will end up sounding the same, whereas earlier, one was subject to individual creative ideas to overcome quite banal problems. Like for instance, one MIDI cable may only be one meter long – so either the computer or the keyboard will have to be placed in a very awkward position to be able to have all the things connected. Problems like that are rare these days, with everything already hot-wired inside a computer. The personality that might get included in solving technical or procedural problems is obliterated. Of course, people said this when electric guitars came on the market, too.

Let’s get to your set for Friday. There’s an obvious eclecticism in your music, which hints at everything from Afrobeat to reggae and 90’s Techno. Is this something that you carry through to your sets too?

It is primarily my DJ sets from which this eclecticism comes. I always state I’m first and foremost a DJ, then a producer. My explorations in the booth and on the dance floor will often be transferred to the studio. Not so much the other way around, although a good studio session might influence parts of my selection later on.

Which brings me to my next question. You haven’t released any new solo material in recent years, but you’ve been active as a DJ. How do you find a balance between these two elements of your musical personality today?

I’ve been doing a good share of remixes, which I find nice to do, but it prevents me from really getting going with my own music. For me, the studio process of composing/producing my own music is tedious and time consuming. I’m not a musician, and I’m reluctant to involve too much “outside” force. I will only ask someone to play something, if I can’t manage it myself first. So a lot goes into trying and failing. Music production is also a typical week-thing for me, as opposed to DJ-gigs, which are for the weekends. Getting older doesn’t help much when you’re off on a flight from somewhere on a Sunday night and you’re supposed to be mixing a track on Monday morning.

So what’s in store for the near future?

A good run of DJ gigs coming up this year. And quite a good deal of studio time as well. Whatever comes out of it, will be heard through Smalltown Supersound. There is already a 12″ in the pipeline; it’s been handed over to Joakim at Smalltown. He will be able to tell you when it’s out.

I better leave you there before we cut more into your creative time. Is there anything you’d like however before we see you on Friday?

Well, people should come early and join in on the meal before they start dancing!