As Mysterious As They Wanna Be: An Interview with Dungen
Dungen founder Gustav Ejstes talks about his band's international success, scoring a classic silent film, and the creative mystery.
Since Dungen's formation in 1999, the group's founder (and, sometimes, sole participant) Gustav Ejstes has witnessed his music rise and fall in popularity, at times to his amusement and sometimes to his grave disappointment. However, speaking from his home just outside Stockholm, one senses the composer and multi-instrumentalist is comfortable with the rise-and-fall nature of the industry.
Häxan, the 2016 offering from his band, was reissued in expanded form in 2017 and the collective performed in various U.S. cities in support of the effort. Audiences were able to see the group play the material from the recording alongside screenings of Lotte Reiniger's 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
Dungen's relationship with North America reaches back more than a decade and though it's not hard to imagine audiences on the continent embracing the Swedish outfit's blend of progressive rock, psychedelia and film music, there is an anomalous quality to it all. "Something really unpredictable happened in the summer of 2004," he says. The group had just released its third LP, Ta det lugnt. Though it received a tepid reception in the Dungen's homeland, within a few months, there was news from afar that Dungen was creating something of a sensation. "My manager at the time called me and said, 'There's something really, really weird going on. New York is on fire, and there's some kind of hype around Dungen right now.'"
Some of that interest, he says, came down to interest from the U.S. press but, he adds, there were other, harder to quantify factors, as well. "What did people want to hear? What had they had enough of? I think it was really down to timing."
The album's success resulted in an exhaustive touring schedule and pressure to follow the album with something equally powerful. Ejstes played nearly all the instruments on the next album, Tio Bitar (2007) and was deeply involved in the recording and production. There were more live performances planned, but he had become exhausted by the time the final mixing was done. "I had to press the 'stop' button," he says. That decision didn't just stop his workflow; it also had a negative impact on Dungen's momentum. "When I look back now, I can see that maybe it was a mistake."
Whatever the problems surrounding Tio Bitar's arrival, it remains a remarkably strong showing from the group and one of the brightest lights in the Dungen output. Then and now, it seems like a record that had been recorded at an earlier time, perhaps in the fertile and experimental period of the late 1960s. That said, there was something organic about the music: It wasn't trying to recapture a different time it just recalled it. "It makes me happy when people hear it as pure," Ejstes says. "It's not strictly retro, but it has elements of that writing and production from the past. But I'm very aware of all the elements involved when I'm making the music."
That era in Dungen's history remains unique for a number of reasons, not least of which because it was almost the end of the band. "I finished Tio Bitar in late 2006/early 2007, and I wanted nothing to do with music," recalls Ejstes. He moved back to the small village where he had lived for most of his youth and took a job as a carpenter. He rebuffed calls from his manager and offered terse refusals to the idea of making new music.
Still, the creative impulse remained. Within a short time Ejstes was writing again and, ten songs later, returned to the studio to complete 2008's equally sharp 4.
Ejstes retreat from music, however temporary, would become part of a pattern. "Through my whole career, I come to these times where I say, 'I don't want to do this anymore.' Then, I suddenly have a bunch of songs and want to do it again," he offers.
The critical success outside of Sweden has been tempered by a rocky relationship with the press at home. From the start writers and fans alike were divided on what to make of Dungen. "It's the biggest cliché, but you can't be a prophet in your hometown," says Ejstes. "People in Sweden don't really like '60s and '70s prog and psych music. It's a tradition not to touch it. But I've been doing this in my own world. I'm not a follower of trends."
That independent spirit proved a guiding force for Skit i allt (2010) and Allas Sak (2015) and, ultimately, Häxan. The group was invited by the Swedish Film Institute to compose a score for the aforementioned The Adventures of Prince Achmed as part of a recent tradition in which musicians are asked to provide new scores for silent movies. The initial offer came in 2013 just as Ejstes youngest daughter was born. "I was not really available to do the score at the time," he says, "but I thought it was an amazing project."
Bassist Mattias Gustavsson and guitarist Reine Fiske suggested that they would be willing to pick a film and contribute music if Ejstes wasn't able to just then. "The story is that this has been my project from the beginning and my songs and I've been kind of a control freak at times," he says. "But Dungen has grown into a four-piece band because we've been touring so much." That sense of partnership allowed him to relinquish some of the control and set in motion the score's composition.
Fiske and Gustavsson began composing the music with Fiske becoming especially enamored of the Mellotron. "They came over to my apartment and showed me the movie and played some parts along to it," recalls Ejstes. Convinced that the music would work in the context of the band, he gave his blessing to move forward. "It was both scary and nice. I have been a control freak. I have always felt that my music and songwriting has been very intimate and private. I would meet other musicians and festival and clubs who would say, 'Hey we should write some songs together.' But that never happened because I didn't dare."
A lessening of the reigns also brought him into the ranks of Amason, a highly collaborative quintet that won a Swedish Grammy (Grammis) for its 2015 debut album, Sky City. "That started in 2012, and it's helped me get away from that control freak thing," he says. "You shouldn't be so precious about your ideas. You have to throw your ideas in the pot and be prepared for them to come out different than what you planned. I wouldn't say it's better or worse. It's just a different way of working."
Although Dungen has traditionally focused on tightly structured songs, the outfit's live performances allow room for improvisation. "That tradition, from the late '60s, of doing songs that go on for 20 minutes, we've always been into that," says Ejstes. "So, people talked about how we had some kind of cinematic vibe to our performances. I think that that helped us catch the mood of this amazing movie."
The music as heard on the proper Häxan album and the live takes from the expanded edition provide listeners with a sense of where Dungen is at the moment. The group's enigmatic qualities remain firmly intact, perhaps even more firmly embedded. Adding to that sense of mystique is the group's insistence on singing in its native tongue rather than English. It is a simple matter but one at the core of the band's appeal.
"This is the way I express myself and the music has always been very intimate," Ejstes says. "I want it to be as honest as it can be. I listen to a lot of music where I don't understand the lyrics, sometimes in Portuguese or even English lyrics can sometimes be tricky. I don't mind that and Dungen is heard all over the world, so I think other people don't mind."
It is also in keeping with founding member Ejstes longstanding tradition of not explaining his art. "I'm a record nerd. I collect them, and I know people who are even more serious about it than I am," he says, "all the reissues of classic stuff, all the records that didn't sell that now should be explored. You get these thick boxes and booklets about the band and how they met and what their favorite colors were. Sometimes I think, 'Why don't you just put out a record with just the song titles?' Maybe what year it was recorded. That could be interesting. But it's really up to the listener to get their own story about it. When I've met musicians I was inspired by I've said, 'Thank you so much for the music that means so much to me.' But then it stops. I don't want to follow them home and find out who they really are. That could destroy it for me."