How Nor­way found its groove

In the re­mote frozen land­scapes of Nor­way, a group of teenagers forged a disco sound that would change their coun­try, writes James McNair

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - James McNair writes for Mojo mag­a­zine and The In­de­pen­dent.

In North­ern Disco Lights, a stylish new doc­u­men­tary about the “cos­mic disco” sound that grew out of Tromsø, Nor­way, one of the world’s most northerly cities, Per Martin­sen, also known as DJ/pro­ducer Men­tal Over­drive, gives a flavour of grow­ing up in splen­did iso­la­tion.

“We would sit up here [in the mountains] and mon­i­tor what the hu­mans were up to in other parts of the world,” he says.

Chat­ting to The Na­tional from his Tromsø stu­dio, Martin­sen elu­ci­dates. “Yes, that was in the mid-to-late 1980s. Every record we lis­tened to was im­ported by mail or­der and ra­dio, and Bri­tish mu­sic mag­a­zines like NME and

Melody Maker were our only real source of out­side in­for­ma­tion. Even to­day, Tromsø doesn’t have a train line.”

Bjørn Torske – the DJ/pro­ducer whom the film de­scribes as “the enig­matic ge­nius of Nor­we­gian dance mu­sic” – also grew up in Tromsø, and he, too, ac­knowl­edges the city’s ef­fect on the creative psy­che.

“You’ve got your Aurora Bo­re­alis and you’ve got the snow and the star­lit night”, he says from his cur­rent base in Ber­gen. “That can cre­ate a sharp image even if it’s dark, and na­ture is right on top of you.

“The other thing is, that, be­cause of the lack of light, peo­ple get prob­lems with their sleep­ing pat­terns, or at least I did. When you’re a kid and you go to school it’s pitch black. And when you go home at three o’clock it’s pitch black. You get a little bit of day­light for your lunch break but you can’t see the sun be­cause it’s below the hori­zon.” Three years in the mak­ing,

North­ern Disco Lights was the con­cept of de­but film­mak­ers Ben Davis and Pete Jenk­in­son. These two English­men are also the pro­pri­etors of Paper Record­ings, a record la­bel which has long had close ties with Nor­way.

With its spec­tac­u­lar, drone-shot footage of Nor­way’s phys­i­cal ge­og­ra­phy, its in­ci­sive artist pro­files and its use of an­i­ma­tion and rare archive footage, the film shows how a coun­try in which skate­board­ing was il­le­gal un­til the end of the ’80s be­came an in­flu­en­tial pop-cul­tural force, thanks to three dis­tinct and se­quen­tial “waves” of dance mu­sic. These came from Tromsø, Ber­gen and Oslo.

“We felt it was a largely un­told story about an un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated strand of mu­sic,” says Davis. “But the ker­nel of the idea was: how did this white coun­try at the edge of Europe come to de­velop such a strong affin­ity with disco, which is at root a black mu­sic form from New York?

“For me, per­son­ally, there’s also this psychedelic as­pect and an un­der­cur­rent of ec­cen­tric­ity to Nor­we­gian dance mu­sic that I’ve al­ways found ap­peal­ing. Nor­we­gians can seem quiet on the sur­face but un­der­neath they’re all bonkers. They’re also a mod­est lot, though, so I sup­pose it took an out­sider to do this.”

The film maps the DIY cul­ture that led Martin­sen and Torske to join forces to build stro­bo­scopes and stage decor for Tromsø’s first ever rave, and the emer­gence of Nor­way’s first in­dige­nous dance mu­sic la­bel, Tellé Records, in 1997 (it was funded by a toga party/rave in­spired by the movie An­i­mal House, af­ter the main Tromsø scene play­ers re­lo­cated to Ber­gen).

As well as shin­ing a spotlight on artists such as Men­tal Over­drive, Torske and later Nor­we­gian dance mu­sic no­ta­bles such as Prins Thomas and Todd Terje,

North­ern Disco Lights also at­tempts to de­fine what Nor­way’s cos­mic disco mu­sic – a genre also known as “Scan­dolearic”, “space disco”, or best of all, “one-legged disco” – ac­tu­ally is.

Bright synths, off-kil­ter basslines and lib­eral use of echo and tape-de­lay ef­fects all play a part, but just as im­por­tant, per­haps, is a cer­tain child­like play­ful­ness. This is man­i­fest in the way the mu­sic is made and the way tracks have tra­di­tion­ally been ti­tled.

The per­cus­sion-based floor-filler that is Torske’s Jeg Vil Vaere

Søp­pel­mann (I Want to be a Garbage­man), is a case in point. “This old drunk guy was pes­ter­ing me and a friend in the pub,” Torske re­calls. “He said, ‘You’re DJs? You put mu­sic out? You know, to get suc­cess you need to dress up as garbage­men.’ That’s where that ti­tle came from.”

One of the most in­spi­ra­tional cre­atives pro­filed in North­ern

Disco Lights is Tore An­dreas Krok­nes, also known as Erot, the pi­o­neer­ing DJ/pro­ducer who died at the age of 23 in 2001 due to a heart con­di­tion he had had since birth. The film’s archive footage of Krok­nes at home with in­fant sib­lings re­veals a sweet-na­tured, in­stantly like­able fig­ure.

It was in the late 1990s that Krok­nes met An­nie, pro­ducer/ singer Anne Lilia Berge Strand, at Pop Till You Drop, a club night in Ber­gen. The pair be­came ro­man­ti­cally in­volved and fa­mously col­lab­o­rated on 1999’s

The Great­est Hit, which sam­pled Madonna’s 1982 de­but sin­gle, Ev­ery­body. Erot’s Song For

An­nie, mean­while – “it sounded like magic; like a new start for mu­sic,” says mu­si­cian/writer Gaute Drevdal in the film – was a self-ex­plana­tory love let­ter to his muse. Mov­ing new in­ter­views with An­nie and mem­bers of Krok­nes’s fam­ily lend North­ern

Disco Lights an emo­tional heft not com­monly found in dance mu­sic doc­u­men­taries.

“I think Tore was the first pro­ducer to point to­wards a new sound that was gen­uinely Nor­we­gian,” says Martin­sen, fur­ther un­der­lin­ing Krok­nes’s im­por­tance. “And it was rooted in disco, not these colder, techno and EDM [electronic dance mu­sic] el­e­ments. Tore knew what he wanted. All the time. He was never in doubt about what he was cre­at­ing.”

What made this all the more re­mark­able was that the unique groove of Krok­nes’s won­der­fully or­ganic-sound­ing mu­sic was the painstak­ing prod­uct of what Torske calls “pre­his­toric equip­ment”, namely a Com­modore Amiga com­puter and an early mu­sic soft­ware pro­gramme called FastTracker.

“If he was still around and us­ing mod­ern mu­sic soft­ware, who knows what he’d be able to do,” says Torske. “I’m also quite sure that Tore knew how thin a thread his life was dan­gling from. He’d been hav­ing surgery since birth and that gave him this pin­point fo­cus on his mu­sic and get­ting it out. He didn’t drink or in­dulge in any­thing and he wasn’t scared to talk to you about his ill­ness, which he did in a very technical way.”

North­ern Disco Lights does a won­der­ful job of por­tray­ing Nor­we­gian dance mu­sic cul­ture up un­til the mid-to-late noughties, and as Martin­sen is quick to point out, plenty of pre­tenders to the throne have emerged in the interim. “I re­ally like Cash­mere Cat [29-year-old Mag­nus Au­gust Høiberg] who has done a cou­ple of pro­duc­tions with Kanye West”, he says, “and there’s also this great kid from Ber­gen called Ni­ilas. Be­tween them they’re cre­at­ing a to­tally new vein of Nor­we­gian sound – it’s great to see that con­tinue.”

North­ern Disco Lights: The Rise and Rise of Nor­we­gian Dance Mu­sic is on gen­eral re­lease on April 29.

Above, DJ and ‘enig­matic ge­nius’ Bjørn Torske in North­ern Disco Lights. The scene in Nor­way had a DIY men­tal­ity – which can be seen from the fly­ers pic­tured here.

North­ern Disco Lights: The Rise and Rise of Nor­we­gian Dance Mu­sic Ben Davis (di­rec­tor), April 29

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