Playing Tight and Thinking Freely: Interpreting Dungen


By Zack Adcock

It’s downright rare to find a band gaining steam in the U.S. whose songs are not performed in English. Ry Cooder’s unearthing of the Buena Vista Social Club is one example. Seu Jorge, whose music you might have heard in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and City of God (in which he was the lead actor as well), is gradually becoming another. But Sweden’s Dungen (pronounced Doon-yen) is somewhat different from these other examples, one reason being its expressive rock ‘n’ roll sound that pulls from British and American facets alike. In Dungen, we don’t get a specifically Swedish sound, like BVSC’s Cuban jazz grooves or Jorge’s Latin guitar style. Led by principle songwriter and brainchild Gustav Ejstes, Dungen was seemingly pulled from out of the blue at some point over the last year, garnering rave reviews for 2004’s Ta Det Lugnt (pron. Tah Day Loon) from every pair of ears it touched. The record, originally released by Sweden’s Subliminal Sounds label, recently received an August 2 domestic issue with an extra disc of B-sides and bonus tracks.

Describing the Dungen sound is difficult. From one end, you can talk up the psych craze of the record, its seemingly freeform acrobatics that plunge from a tight composition into mesmerizing instrumental expanse. Bands like Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, Traffic, and Television come to mind. And then there’s the aforementioned tightness, the song structures almost straightforward and, at the end of the day, so accessible as to pretty much explain why this craze is happening. Ejstes comes from all over the musical map, though; his tastes range from the various rock acts we might expect to jazz and hip-hop, and it’s perhaps in this correlation that Dungen’s music is best explained—that any music with free spirits is perhaps the largest inspiration of them all.

“All music that feels real and honest I have always liked,” Ejstes says. “New music that is experimental or has never been done before. I have a few hip-hop favorites, acts and producers, like DJ Premiere and Pete Rock. And I have some fiddlers from Sweden that I really love, and of course Mr. Hendrix. I love a lot of music that is honest—honestly played and created.”

On record, Dungen’s songs are largely performed, produced, mixed, and composed by Ejstes, with the irrefutable help of lead guitarist Reine Fiske. “Some things I will keep doing myself and I’ll have a band on some tracks,” Ejstes explains. “I create, but some things I can’t play myself—I need people to play it for me.” Of note is Ejstes’s mastery of not only song structure, most of which is led by his guitar or keyboard skeletons, but of the violin and flute as well, as displayed perhaps most prominently on “Du E För Fin För Mig”, the fourth track on Ta Det Lugnt, wherein the instruments are used in both classical and psyched-out manners. Having grown up in the Swedish countryside the son of an accomplished fiddler, Ejstes was introduced to music at a young age (he’s only 24 now), though of course it was to a music that is only a piece of what he would come to know.

Since, he has obsessively dissected popular rock ‘n’ roll of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and hearing Dungen’s records, it’s clear that Ejstes’s love for this expressive period of rock music is more than surface-oriented—he breathes music, lives music. In the end, Ejstes’s sound incorporates not only the traditional elements of rock ‘n’ roll, but also the rabid precision of hip-hop’s production and the traditional rural Swedish he was raised on.

When speaking of Ta Det Lugnt, Ejstes describes an intended tightening of sound, which does not mean much until you’ve heard earlier Dungen records in their expansive method—Dungen 1999-2001, re-released by Subliminal Sounds in correlation with the great response to Ta Det Lugnt, compiles Ejstes’s first record with some other tracks of the era. The CD is made up of only three tracks covering 45 minutes, each track with four to six movements that display Ejstes’s range perhaps better even than Ta Det Lugnt, if only for its less focused product. These compositions exist in a world where swirling psychedelia becomes calypso in the blink of an eye, a truly progressive Bitches Brew of rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, traditional and world folk, and atmospheric meandering.

With Ta Det Lugnt, Ejstes’s tautened sound is intended as an homage to early “power trio” heavy metal bands. “With a lot of songs on Ta Det Lugnt I was inspired by early heavy metal,” Ejstes says. “And the way the three-piece group is all it takes to do good rock music—the electric guitar, the electric bass, and the drum kit. That’s the main idea behind many of the songs on Ta De Lugnt, and I’ve tried to make it minimalistic as an idea. But I try to add as much as is necessary to each arrangement.”

The well-worn power-trio template, however, is not necessarily indicative of Dungen’s product, but simply the idea behind it, before it was fleshed out. “I think I have it all in my head how it should sound,” Ejstes admits. “But of course, with all the improvisation, it becomes what it becomes.”

Listening, you feel this stripped aspect at the base of the songs, buth Ta Det Lugnt is sure to be far from most definitions of a “minimalist” record. Ejstes is getting at the strength of focus, saying that three people can make music as strong as any group, large or small, can. The Jimi Hendrix Experience bands made up only of lead guitar, bass and drums set an example for Dungen as much as any early metal bands do.

Seeing that all of Dungen’s songs are performed in Swedish, Ejstes seems confident that what speaks to listeners is not necessarily what is being said but how, in reference to most audiences outside of Sweden being unable to understand what was being sung. This is, he said, something we tend to lose sight of when wrapped up in “understanding” lyrics.

“Of course, the lyrics I use in my songs mean something to me,” he says. “But the sound of it should be the whole thing. I’m not a Bob Dylan. In music, the whole thing is the drums, the guitars, the bass; the vocals are just another instrument that adds harmony and a vibe to it all. Of course the lyrics are important to me but they’re not that important that everyone must understand what I sing about.”

“It’s always great when people appreciate what you’re doing,” Ejstes continues. “I’m pretty amazed over all this of course, because I’m doing it in a language which I suppose no one understands. Of course it’s great getting appreciated as a musician, though.”

Having read several translations of the phrase “ta det lugnt”, Ejstes cleared it up by explaining it as yet another expression of his free thinking.

“That sentence—‘ta det lugnt’—came from a friend of mine who said she had an idea about pop music and pop culture today,” he explains. “Especially in Sweden, all the music journalists are so scared and have a hang-up on what’s right now: what’s the right thing to do right now, what’s the right music to play right now, how we should be dressed and everything. And she just said, ‘Fuck it all and just take it easy,’ but in Swedish—‘ta det lugnt’. Just listen to music! If you love music, love it. Just fuck it—it’s our religion but there’s nothing wrong with having a good time.”

Preceding Ta Det Lugnt‘s American release, Dungen embarked on a brief U.S. tour—the band’s first stateside tour, officially, although they played a few free shows last October. (A more extensive tour will follow in the fall.) Being that Ejstes is not only the band’s composer but also its principle player on record, touring would seem to be problematic, but Ejstes explained that it’s “no problem to tour”.

“The guitarist, Reine, is playing most of the guitars on the album and the drummer is also playing at least two tracks on the album, and this bass player has the same view of music as I do,” Ejstes explains. “So the band’s like my extended arms. I sing and do the rhythm guitar and play some keyboards and flutes, too, and they do the rest. Right now I’m really focused. We’re going on tour and we’re going to play these songs and this music. It still feels fresh for me and the band. We will perform this album for you.

“I think audiences are going to be real satisfied,” he continues. “Like I said, the basic idea is the three piece band but I use the flutes and the keyboards too. It’s a journey, like the album is. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, but the thing is that it’s guitar music.”

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