As Mysterious As They Wanna Be: An Interview with Dungen

Photo: Frank Aschberg

Dungen founder Gustav Ejstes talks about his band's international success, scoring a classic silent film, and the creative mystery.



Label: Mexican Summer
US Release Date: 2016-11-25
UK Release Date: 2016-11-25

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."

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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