Whenever I walk into Filter Musikk of late Depeche Mode is playing over a pair of monitors out the back of the store. The store is lively on this particular occasion even though it’s close to closing time, and I find Roland Lifjell milling about between the floor and the back room where 1000s of records line the wall and synthesisers, drum machines and turntables at various stages of repair are scattered across surfaces.
Dave Gahan’s voice evokes some drug-induced 80’s memory between Martin Gore’s steely guitar work and Andy Fletcher’s industrial percussive rhythms in the background, while Roland scurries around the store in pursuit of something for a new customer. YouTube has defaulted into playing Depeche Mode of late he tells me when he gets a moment. “There could be worse defaults,” I reply through a live version of “Enjoy the Silence.” I’m not surprised that it’s a very specific era of Depeche Mode that Roland Lifjell enjoys, the post-Vince Clarke years, when they were conjuring a darker aspects of synth-pop music.
At one of the listening stations, Joakim “Jokke” Dahl Houmb is going through some records he picked from the newly arrived pile, and waves a hello in my direction nodding along to something that I have no doubt is some blistering Techno track, a wispy noise escaping between the headphones. There’s still time to pursue some new and old records before Roland shuts the door, not that he ever would ever kick a customer out. I find DJ Sports’ latest offering on Help recordings and a Richard Pryor record that would make an excellent sample for a House track.
Jokke pays for his records, but there are still customers dotting the store with records under their arms. “Close the door” says Jokke “we don’t want you to get anymore customers” his tone conveying the mirth in the remark.
Can you remember the first record you ever bought here?
Jokke: I bought too many here. It’s gotta be some years ago, but I can’t remember exactly.
Jokke and Roland’s history goes way back to when Jokke was an emerging DJ in Oslo at a time when Techno was getting its fourth, maybe fifth wind, back around the turn of this decade. After getting into DJing through the accessible digital systems like Serato he had found a passion for the vinyl format after visiting Spacehall in Berlin. When he returned home to Oslo, its counterpart in Oslo Filter Musikk became a regular haunt for the burgeoning DJ.
It conspired around the time when he and Ole-Espen “O/E” Kristiansen just started out as promoters in Oslo with their clandestine after-hours DIY Techno events called VOID. With almost no places available in Oslo to hear or play that music at the time, Jokke and Ole-Espen set out on their own, to bring the emerging sounds of Berlin Oslo and had almost instantly garnered a severe and intense following.
By that time Jokke and Roland had already become fast friends. As the elder statesman of the Oslo DJ circuit and Techno, Roland saw in Jokke a new generation of DJs and tastemakers that corresponded with what he had been doing through Filter Musikk and as a DJ in the preceding years. It was always going to be a mere formality that Roland would play a VOID party.
Roland: I remember playing at the VOID party.
The first one?
J: No the third one.
R: I attended the first one at least, the one with Lucy at Hausmania. It was very loud. Jokke & Ole-Espen were focusing on some artists that I missed out on; they were very on-point with what was going on. I remember I had to shape up and prove myself, because these guys knew what was going on.
The VOID parties had made a significant impact on the scene, bringing over artists like Lucy, Jonas Kopp and Northern Structures in their brief, but fundamental existence on the Norwegian scene. In their wake they inspired and revitalised a dormant Techno scene that took the VOID model and applied it to their own concepts, often with lesser results.
It led to a saturation of after-hours events that brought the wrong kind of attention, leaving Jokke and Ole-Espen no choice but to abandon VOID’s nocturnal pursuits for more legitimate events like their Musikkfest Oslo stage, and with Ole-Espen and Jokke pursuing their own concepts on the side.
But VOID’s impact is undeniable today. At Musikkfest Oslo in 2019 two new Techno stages had cropped up on the lineup appearing alongside VOID, who had been the first bonafide Techno event to engage with the Oslo music event for the masses. All three stages were busy this year and I dare say none of that would’ve been possible if Jokke and Ole-Espen hadn’t set the precedent for this new era of Techno in Oslo through VOID.
I heard a couple of younger DJs talking about VOID and referring to Jokke and Ole as one of the “old boys”. Do you feel like an old boy?
J: I’m comfortable with being one of the old boys.
What does that make you, Roland?
R: Ja. (Laughs)
Roland Lifjell has been a significant figure in Oslo since the birth of Techno. A DJ first and foremost, he cut his teeth in the burgeoning Trance and Techno scene cropping up in Oslo’s surrounding forest area in the nineties. Appearing at a time when there was a lot more fluidity to electronic music genres, and the distinction between Detroit Techno and German Trance was hazy and opaque and your merit as a DJ was weighed by your record collection, Roland Lifjell came to the fore not merely for his skills as a DJ for his expansive knowledge of his music.
Encouraged by his love of physical DJ format, he spent his professional career working in record distribution and sales before opening his own shop at the turn of the 2000’s while securing his place in Oslo DJ community as one of the stalwart monoliths of the scene.
His skills took him all over the world, playing places like Tresor all the while claiming his stake as one of the legends of the Norwegian Techno scene. Through Filter Musikk he’s also been an unwavering facilitator, not just supplying the DJ community with records, but encouraging the next generation of DJs to come through. His love for sad synthesiser music still remains at the core of everything he does as a DJ and record store owner, and he’s been unwavering that pursuit ever since. As if to punctuate my thoughts, Depeche Mode gives way to Cure’s Lullaby in the background and Jokke comes back into the conversation when a thought suddenly strikes him.
J: I think the first record I bought here must have been a House record.
R: I think you bought some Kompakt stuff.
R: O, ok so only mention the credible stuff? (laughs)
Yeah, Roland would know all your darkest secrets.
J: Yeah he’s a nice guy so he bought most of the Tech-House records back. There are still some left so I’ll have to make some chip bowls out of those.
R: I think you gave me a Kompakt record, because you had an extra copy and I was touched. Unfortunately it wasn’t a record I really liked, but I couldn’t sell it because it was a nice gift.
R: I think it’s a nice gesture. I’m a businessman so I’m always selling records, so it’s difficult for me to give a record away. The concept of giving someone a record is not something I come across that often so that felt even more special.
J: I bought too many records in a short period of time, so I bought the same records two or three times, so those records were always on their own shelf, giveaway records.
You gave me a record once.
J: I give everybody records. I gave you Alien Rain, the black one, but you didn’t get the sticker.
Roland dashes out from behind the counter, to let a customer back into the store. She’s picking up some music equipment she had bought earlier. Jokke’s attention turns to some the DJ sports record. That’s a really great record he opines. It might not be the type of record that you’d expect in a Jokke DJ set, but the energy and uncompromising tempo is something that finds some synergy with the kind of thing Jokke might play at peak time.
He and Roland might have been stuck with the Techno badge, but the pair are nothing if not flexible to the extent that they interpret the genre. When Roland last played the Filter Musikk night at Jaeger, there were moments when the set reached out to some transcendental heights, touching the celestial spheres of the melodic spectrum, while monstrous 4-4 percussive arrangements churned on along subterranean trajectories.
There’s a fluidity between the functionalism of modern Techno and the more etheric nature of the genre’s roots, that Jokke often counterpoints with bold, brooding droning Techno. When Roland and Jokke get together the pair found ineffable common ground between Jokke’s intrepid selections and Roland’s controlled sonic aesthetic.
What made you realise that you had a similar taste in music, what were the records that cemented your fascination with this thing we call Techno?
R: I’m one of the few DJs that played serious Techno, even during the early nineties when we were playing Trance. At the same party back then you could play a Basic Channel record, or you could play a Trance record, then you could put on something from Jeff Mills, and then put on a Superstition record from Germany. And if you fit it together it made sense.
Very few DJs in Oslo had that same sense; a lot of DJs that play deep House today, they’re not really into electronic music. For me there were two different worlds, you had the Oslo House DJs, who were just commercial club House DJs and I feel that I’ve been quite alone in this very serious stuff.
Why do you think that is?
R: I think in Oslo it’s a bit dark, you don’t get stimulated, and that’s why people move to Berlin, because that’s where you have the environment and the people around you.
That’s the point of my story; when Jokke came along and the VOID parties started happening they brought that Berlin vibe here.
J: We gave him that new spark.
R: I was inspired; it showed that seriousness to it.
Surely, now that Techno is experiencing a lot of hype at the moment, you can’t still feel alone?
J: The term has been misused of late. A lot of people convoluted Techno with a lot of other genres. Yes, Techno is very popular now, but at least 50% of people saying they’re doing Techno music, they got it wrong. Either it’s minimal, or Tech-House with more aggressive bass lines, but it doesn’t have that Techno vibe. Yeah, Techno is at its peak in popularity, but for the people that are really into Techno, it just gets annoying. I’d rather quit Techno.
That happened in the early 2000’s, when everybody abandoned Techno.
J: It’s always going to happen. Popularity ruins the music, and every genre goes in waves… I’m still waiting for Trance to make its comeback.
R: I was playing at the Monument festival this weekend, and for me it felt like the old kind of psy-Trance community thing. It was an outdoor festival with good sound and kind of spacey trancy music. You couldn’t really play a Jeff Mills record there, and people were dancing like they were floating through the music, so there wasn’t any point to playing any percussive Techno.
J: The moral of the story is don’t put on a Jeff Mills record if you see people with dreads.
Roland’s shy chuckle fills the air, like I’ve heard it do so many times before. People like Jokke go in for the records, but they always stay for the conversation. It’s what makes Filter Musikk such a gem and one the last of its kind in a world that’s dominated by a virtual culture online. You can walk into Filter and at any given time there will be a conversation waiting for you, very much like this one that I walked into on this day.
Yes, those conversations usually revolve around music, but music’s cultural influence reaches far and wide and touches on everything from politics to humour. Most record stores today are some kind of front for some brand. Places like Hardwax, Rush Hour and Phonica have become businesses with DJ booking agencies, promo agents and distribution attached, losing touch with that intimate social hub that the record store used to be. Filter Musikk is one of the last physical bastions of record culture that still indulge these crucial elements, and it’s only right that it should have its own night in Oslo to commemorate and proliferate that spirit.
Tell me a bit about how the Filter Musikk nights came to be and how are you, Jokke involved in it?
J: I was hanging out here most of my free time, and I was working at Jaeger building stuff, and also playing there for a couple of years. I thought it was weird that he hadn’t been playing there at all. I thought to myself, here’s this kind of guru guy who I go and see all the time and buy records from, why is he not playing any places.
He’s been an inspiration to me. He knows what Techno I’m into and what kind of records I like. So I just had to ask Ola; why can’t Roland play at Jaeger more? In the beginning I was just trying to get Roland to play at Jaeger. I thought there was enough room for us both to do our separate Techno nights, and then Ola asked if Roland would be more interested on fronting Filter for a night. That sounded like a good idea… Filter is my “fritidsklubb” — the place I go when I have time off.
Ola asked if we could do it together, so it’s not entirely my idea.
Are you happy with the nights so far?
J: It’s a fucking record shop and it’s the best one in Oslo, it’s been here for years, it should be fronted and Roland should be playing as a resident at Oslo’s best club. That’s a no-brainer.
Yeah, everywhere else in the world record shops used to have their own club nights, why shouldn’t it happen here.
R: Of course, now nobody needs vinyl anymore and there is a danger that people can overlook the key centre for music, so it’s good to be part of it. Jaeger is the right place.
J: We’re not going to let go of this regardless of how few people come to listen to us play, because we’re not doing this for fame or anything. We’re still going to be doing it, even if we’re just doing it in our own bedrooms.