JM#181 – Center of the Universe (live)

At the Center of the universe is man. He is a curious man. He plays a clarinet, and conjures obscure alien sonic aesthetics from noisy machines. He channels a diverse collage of musical languages through his work, always underpinned by a catchy beat. When he is not making beats he is proliferating others’ music with artists that orbit him and his label, Metronomicon. He is a musical maelstrøm at the Center of the universe, and he is our first guest back for the Jaeger mix after a long hiatus for the series.

Jørgen Sissyfus Skjulstad is the man at the Center of the universe. The musical project has been a fixture in Oslo and Norway with records and live performances transmitting the artist’s singular voice across formats and contexts. Perfectly at home in a DJ booth, as well as a stage, Center of the Universe’s music moves effortlessly between worlds, often bringing disparate musical planets together in the process. 

Between non-western scales and pop-culture musical references, a post-modern spirit moves through his records, his videos and his live show. It was indeed a live-show he insisted upon when he asked him to revive the Jaeger mix series, encouraging the series to capture everything on camera and in audio for this occasion. Carting some synthesisers, drum machines, light-bulbs and a traffic sign into the sauna, Center of the Universe captivated with an esoteric live show, one which we’re happy to play back  both in the audio and visual format today. 

I must admit; you play one helluva traffic sign! You could probably get the same effect from something smaller and less cumbersome, so why use an actual traffic sign? 

I got it from my sister who was joking about mounting it outside where we live since my kids were so noisy. But even before this I’ve been joking about question- and exclamation marks so I ended up using it for gigs. Last year it culminated with the release of the Interabangerz EP (An interrobang being a combination of the two), a shaped picture disc with a ! on one side and a ? on the other one. 

There’s a sense of showmanship there which to me suggests a lot of care and attention goes into it. What are your considerations that go into the live show, and how does it develop throughout?

I want my live sets to be something else than DJ-ing, I want it to be more free and even If I play songs with a lot of loops I want improvisation and humour in there to make it more exciting also for me. Mixing and tweaking live makes it guaranteed it won’t be the same twice, actually I wish I go even further in that direction. 

Is it something that you think about at the start of creating a song?

Not necessarily, I either have a very clear idea of what I want to make or I just mess around, often with some theoretical aspect like a rhythm, a scale or some sound I want to try out. So it’s quite some work formatting the tracks for playing out afterwards. 

You’ve got sounds triggering lights and obviously the traffic sign, so there’s this visual component to it all. Why is this important to you?

For some time it’s been close to a default that electronic acts have a video backdrop (often combined with backtracks) I did that once for a stream showing the videoes of the Unknown album, but most of the time I really want out of that, I want either a VJ mixing video live or something like three lightbulbs (as in the Jaeger mix) that leaves a lot of space to the imagination. 

When it comes to sound, your productions and the live show, folds in a lot of exotic elements, whether its sounds or melodic patterns. What informs these sounds for you?

I used to be in a band playing oriental and balkan music when I was young, and I’ve been DJ-ing folk music hybrids for a long time. So the exotic scales like arabic maqam sneaks in since I like the sound of it. Lately I also started producing Norwegian folk music in a duo with Kenneth Lien so here comes a whole new set of rhythms and scales I didn’t know too much of before.  

Another thing that stands out for me, is how you bridge this gap between these alien-like chip sounds, and the more organic elements in your music. Where do you find a happy balance between these two elements, and when you are creating these harsh digital/synthesised elements, how are they informed by the acoustic elements in your music? 

I come from a Amiga demoscene / chiptune background but I also played in bands and like the sound of acoustic instruments. I really like doing weird things with especially FM-synths; making completely unrealistic sounds like the bassoon changing into a synth in the track Bassoon is now in this mix. It’s quite obvious that it’s not “real“, but it bridges the gap between the digital and the acoustic. It also highlights the absurdity of synths trying to mimic other instruments. 

Where do you usually start in the creative process between these two things?

I often start with some very conceptual idea as with the track Acid Rebetiko in this mix which is exactly that; frontcolliding acid house with greek rebetiko melodies. Sometimes, like with the NFT track and some upcoming ones I even begin with making the video, and the inspiration for the track comes out of the research. 

It captivates, as something wholly unique, while at the same time the melodies and sounds often reflect something familiar. Whether it’s an eighties sounding synth or an abstract earworm, your music seems to touch on some abstract memory in a collective consciousness. What informs your creative process and are you conscious of recycling or referencing familiar tropes?

Yes you can say 80’s but you can also maybe say 90’s or even 00’s. My music kind of cannibalizes on the past, yet I try not to be too retro, I’m more interested in trying to do new things with old materials. Making something entirely new is very difficult and not necessarily a goal. It’s also something coming out of using old synths like 80’s FM ones and old drummachines but I really don’t want It to be too nostalgic.

One thing that is unique to you is the clarinet. I don’t think I can think of any other electronic music artist that uses a clarinet. Is that the instrument that started it all for you?

No I used to play Amiga and electric bass, clarinet is something I picked up since I like the sound and it’s very portable. I play it quite rough on purpose, inspired by the Greek or Turkish way of playing. Reed instruments in electronic music have a bad reputation like saxophone in commercial house and EDM so it’s also about proving a point that it really doesn’t have to be cheesy.

What was your musical education and what other instruments do you play?

My musical education is theoretical only, I did a master in aesthetics about circuit bending and hacking of musical instruments. I started out as playing mostly string instruments like bass, guitar and saz, but especially for C.O.U. It’s not about technical playing, it’s about filling in spaces with the right sounds so I will use any instrument that I can get my hands on, and I really like grid instruments and sequencers since they force me out of playing “licks“.

At what point did you start to explore other kinds of music outside of western tonality and was there a piece of music or artist that encouraged this?

I got an LP from my grandmother by Angelo – Gipsy Songs when i was 16 or something, a brilliant record of bulgarian music, as said I also joined a band playing oriental music and did sound at kurdish weddings etc so I was quickly aware there were more sounds out there, a fascination for music from other parts of the world that continues until this day. There is also a link between this and producers like Aphex Twin, Autechre, the infamous Colundi genre and Aleksi Perälä using alternative scales that are easily missed. On some level they are approaching folk-music doing this, and I think it is a really good development that more producers are experimenting with tonalities since it brings diversity to the musical moods. 

You sing in English and your lyrical content is unique in its humour and quirky subjects. What is the catalyst for lyrical content in your songs?

Yes, but I could easily sing the same lyrics in Norwegian which might have been a smart career move here, but it originates in me mostly having myspace and soundcloud geeks as an audience, and I want them to understand the lyrics. There are also about 50% instrumentals which is weird, but I really like to step back and just play. 

With songs about MP3s and Track ID, there seems to be a musical theme to a lot of these with a playfulness behind them. What kind of mood or state-of-mind do you try to convey in these lyrics?

These songs are on a meta-level since they are songs ABOUT music. Many DJ’s think Track ID is very funny since it’s something people ask and sometimes they reply with the video when they don’t know what track they played. MP3 is based on a sample of the world’s first MP3 (Funky.mp3) and is a fun take on when MP3 was really cool. Moodwise these are about taking control of the digital world we live in, many takes on today are too dystopical, during and after the pandemic our lives were very mediated and I want to make music about the here and now but also with some humour in it.  

Do you usually have a theme or subject matter for these while the music is being created and how does one element influence the other?

It goes all ways, I used to have some sort of theme for an EP or album, like the MP3 mentioned is from an upcoming album of only abbreviations alongside NFT several more. 

Yes, you’ve released a few singles over the last year, and the EP came out in 2021. Is there anything else coming over the horizon from you?

Yes a lot, in addition to the mentioned one there is a 12” on the Disco Hamam label coming and an album of electronic Norwegian folk music.

You release everything via your Metronomicon label. It obviously affords you some freedom to release whatever you want whenever you want, but it also takes a lot of discipline to not just put everything out. So what’s key to a Center of the Universe track to make it on a record?

Generally I have too much material, but I only release what I’m really happy with and tracks also have to fit conceptually on releases. Metronomicon Audio is a collective, label and studio where we also record, mix and master for others. We also release many other artists than me and it’s maybe there the freedom to release whatever we want becomes most important.  

That’s all the questions I have, Jørgen. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Thanks so much for the interview! I am really happy that the Jaeger-mix is back, it documents the amazing clubmusic scene we have in a good way.