Published Jan 22, 2010Since his first single was released in 2003, Norway's Hans-Peter Lindstrøm has redefined the disco template for an entire generation of producers. He's the leading ambassador for what's often referred to as the Scandinavian space disco sound, a spatial, somewhat synthy update on the disco template that incorporates its region's rich history of psychedelic and prog rock foundations. The past 12 months have been busy for Lindstrøm. Apart from releasing his second full-length collaboration with Prins Thomas, II (Eskimo Recordings), he has produced a 40-minute disco version of "The Little Drummer Boy," an unlikely remix for Japanese spazz collective Boredoms, a well-received DJ mix for Fact magazine that includes the likes of Abba, Hall & Oates, and Led Zeppelin, as well as two EP's for the Smalltown Supersound imprint. To kick off 2010, Lindstrøm has reconnected with occasional vocal collaborator Christabelle for the album, Real Life Is No Cool, his most accessible outing to date. Exclaim! reached Hans-Peter Lindstrøm at his Oslo home for an extensive conversation that pulled in aspects of his career ambitions, his personal and professional insecurities, his work habits, and his continuous ability to carve out a distinctive place for himself in the fast-moving underworld of contemporary dance music.
You've been quite productive: an album a year for the last three years, plus singles. Does it feel that busy from your end?
The Christabelle album is something we've been working on for many years. I am productive, and I work on a lot of stuff all the time, but I guess it looks different from the outside than what I'm feeling myself. I don't feel I'm working that much, but I'm trying to work 9 to 4 every day, doing something every day, or at least trying.
You don't play out as often as other producers do, so I suppose you have more time in the studio.
I really like working in the studio, recording music and writing music. I really enjoy travelling and playing as well, but it is second to work in the studio. That leaves me more time I guess. In the beginning, when I started putting out music, I said yes to everything obviously, and it was also about getting the money I was offered. I think that, after the requests amounted to more than I really wanted, especially because I have a family as well, I began to say no a lot more often. I got two kids, and I don't want to leave my girlfriend alone with them for half of the year. I can't see myself touring for a month. It's just not my style. I get crazy if I can't actually work on music and write music, so touring is not my thing.
With all your success over the years, at what point did your balance of personal life and artist begin to feel natural?
I think it took quite a while. For the longest time, I was working quite hard because it felt like if I slowed down, someone else would jump up and grab my spot [laughs]. But maybe the last few years I've begun thinking, well now I've been making music for almost ten years, maybe this will be how my life is going to be from now on. You know how it is when you're working for yourself, and if you don't work, you don't get any money. You have to build up a foundation. It's probably just the last two years I've been feeling that this is getting a little but stable now. Of course, everything can happen, but it feels much safer now. If I make something that fails to attract people who listen to my music or the critics or whoever, then suddenly you're on your way down. I'm really trying as hard as I can to make something that's important for the type of people who listen to my music.
How do you know when you get to there, that level of something that's "important," that is?
First of all, I have a personal quality control. I make a lot of stuff that isn't good enough or relevant enough, which I just trash. I often just get the feeling, while working on a track, if this is something that's relevant for now and for me. I'm always trying to make something that sounds a step ahead of all other producers. I'm not trying to copy anyone, but trying to make my own rules in a way. There are many chances that I'll fail because people don't get it, but I believe it's important to challenge people. I'm not saying that everything I've made has been interesting. I do end up with times where after a week a track will sound interesting, but after a month I'll lose interest, and then half a year later it's just boring and there's no need to release it. I like to have a time span as well, to put it away and then come back and listen to it, without rushing anything.
So your hard drive is full of tracks just waiting around?
Yeah, that's how I've been working for the past year. I have a lot of material that's getting there. There's something there that's interesting, but it's not finished. I have to just let it rest for some time, and then listen to it again.
It's interesting that you talk about making your music challenging, because with your albums and tracks, I find that I always have to listen to each one a few times before I get on board and have it grow on me. I have to accept it as something different.
The thing is, if you make the same album every year, I'm pretty sure that a lot of people will get bored. If you don't surprise people again and again, they will lose interest. If I made "I Feel Space" every year, it wouldn't feel interesting. Not for me and not for anybody else.
That was your first really big single. It must have been hard to overcome. Did you find that it came with a lot of pressure to do it all over again?
Yeah, I did. And I think I even tried to fulfil that expectation and try to please people. I realized that this isn't the way to go. It's really hard to top something that is considered great, but I figured the best way for me was to do something completely different. I know that people have been saying that this guy who made "I Feel Space" is making a lot of crap music since, and they are saying that they are starting to lose belief in me. Some people have probably lost interest, but hopefully I picked up some new fans along the way.
This new album, Real Life Is No Cool, has been a long time coming. Some of these songs, like "Music (In My Mind)," go back a number of years.
We did the first single ["Music (In My Mind)"] in 2003, and I was really happy with that song. But I didn't really feel like doing a whole album. And then we did another single - "Let It Happen" on Late Night Tales. At that point there were a few unfinished songs on my hard drive. We discussed doing an album from that material. Christabelle really wanted to do it. I think I was just saving it for something in the future, because I've been too busy working with [Prins] Thomas and my solo stuff. But after a certain point, I just thought that I'd really want to do this. After releasing the Where You Go I Go Too album two years ago, I thought that it would be nice to do something different, to go from 30-minute tracks to pop music. Next time it's hopefully going to be something different again.
So did you two meet for a session to put this album together, or did you just pass some tapes back and forth?
The voice of Christabelle, most of the vocals are older than you probably think. I would say that half of the vocals are from before "Music (In My Mind)." They were recorded at Christabelle's house in 2000 or something like that. But everything was arranged in a cut-and-paste way, and my main concern was to make it sound like a whole again. It's interesting that people who listen to the album would think of it as being made at different times, but for me it's music from a long decade ago. It is like that [laughs)]. You can ask Christabelle. You can crosscheck with her.
We met in 2002 or 2003, and at least two or three songs were made. Christabelle told me that she has a few tracks at home, and I asked her if I could listen to them. So I've been listening the vocals from her tracks. I'd say probably one-third of the album is Christabelle's own songs. I've been just lifting the vocals and trying to make something interesting go on behind them. The thing is, with Christabelle, she made some really great stuff ten years ago, but her problem is that most of her songs were like one minute long. I think she really needed me to extend them.
Is this a project you're going to do live at all?
We're going to do a few select gigs. I think she is more up for it than me, but I've agreed to do a few. There's one that's going to be at the Oya Festival in Oslo. It's going to a small concert in Oslo in March. And then probably a few international festivals. Everything depends on the reception of the album, the demand. I think because I'm getting a little tired of performing with a laptop, recently I've been thinking it would be nice to do something with her for a change.
Don't you play live with Prins Thomas?
We've done it like two or three times maybe. Usually if we are on the same bill, I play my live set first and then he does his DJ set. I think I've been reluctant to do something live because in the beginning when I tried it, then reaction was pretty lame. It didn't feel right to me. But now it will be better, we can probably get some more people and make it feel like something that registers. Ten years ago I was playing in a festival in Norway, and there were like two people watching me. I think that feeling is still stuck in my head, and I've been kinda afraid of doing it.
So you don't like the crowds and pressure and expectation that come with leaving the studio and hitting the stage.
Well, when I do it alone, it's a little bit easier, because if I have a bad night there's no one to let down and I'm just like "whatever." I think if Christabelle and me had begun to play shows in 2003, we would probably have not done the album.
Do you think this collaboration with Christabelle is going to go beyond this album or the promotions involved? Or is this the end of it?
For me, it's a little bit open. I will probably do some more solo stuff now. I really like to work in this way, working with Thomas and then a solo album, working with somebody else and then working on my own again. I'm kind of a loner, I guess. I really like to work alone. The thing is, when I'm working with Thomas or Christabelle, we don't really work together. We record together, and then I do everything alone, and then Christabelle adds some stuff, and then I work alone again. That's the way Thomas and me work as well. I never feel 100 percent sure or safe when working with somebody else. At the same time, in the studio it feels much better to work alone. I think Thomas is like that as well, but maybe it's a weird way of working.
A few years ago there was a rumour that you were going to be producing the band 120 Days. Did anything ever come of that?
I actually worked with them for one track, and it was fun. I've never produced anybody like that, where someone just hires me to produce. To be honest, I didn't feel that comfortable with that either. I've had some offers from other bands, but after working with 120 Days I really felt that the demos they had sounded really fantastic, and then when I started working on it, it lost something along the way. So looking back, I really like the demos, but I don't really like the stuff I did. And that's what I told them as well, that they don't really need a producer, or you don't need me. I'm making your music worse instead of better. I think oftentimes the thing with bringing on the producer is something that the manager or the record label or the PR company come up with, to say we can mix this cool name with this cool band and have a double-pack. I think musically it isn't always a good thing. Some of my all-time heroes have played and produced everything themselves, and I feel I belong to that category, and I'm sure that a lot of music would sound better of more people did that. The thing is, nowadays, everything sounds the same. I guess with producers who follow a school of production or something, everything is sent into the same mill and it comes out sounding the same.
Well, what are your thoughts on the whole "space disco" template that began to do the rounds after the explosion of "I Feel Space"?
I guess it's been beneficial for me, because some people have said that I created that movement, but a lot of people need to put a tag on something, especially these days. The media wants to create some hype, and I guess maybe it was time for space disco. I never use that term myself. It's beyond my control.
How did you first come across this kind of music? When did you first decide to start producing this kind of sound?
What started it for me was listening to Daniel Wang in the early 2000's - 2001 maybe. I was getting really tired with deep house. Everybody was playing the same sound, the same deep house and jazzy house and whatever, and then I heard Daniel's stuff and it was so different. He was using chords and making melodies like traditional disco from the '70s, with the big orchestra sound and different layers with instruments. It sounded like another way of thinking.
I was at the Miami Winter Music Conference in 2002, and I was so disappointed because none of the music was saying anything to me. And then someone gave me a mixtape, the Sarcastic Disco from DJ Harvey. I was actually just lying by the pool and listening to that, thinking that this was something completely genuine and so different than all the other stuff. That kind of sound, which mixes between all kinds of genres, mixing it without respect for the speed in an intelligent way.
Lately I've been listening to a lot of '70s Todd Rundgren as well. When he was making the best albums, he was starting with a really nice singer-songwriter kind of song, and then he'd take it somewhere cabaret, and then somewhere really spaced out and weird. It feels so much more interesting to me, doing it like that.
Looking back, I think the fact that I've been involved with so many different musical styles is part of it. I've been playing classical piano, I've been in a country band, I've been in a heavy metal band, I've been a busker on the street, singing in a symphony choir, there have been so may different style and musical genres for me. I think the music I grew up with is in the back of my head when I'm writing music. I wasn't aware of that when I started, but I've become more aware of it along the way. Maybe that's the reason I've done things a little differently than what most people do in recent years. I don't believe in copying people's blueprints, and I'd rather create something that's my own. And if that is "space disco" to other people, I'm fine with it.