Anti Festival: Varg and Nordic Flora at Berlin Atonal

  • Interview
  • Mariana Berezovska
  • Photography
  • George Nebieridze

What makes a painter, a rapper, a pianist, a dream-pop singer, and electronic producers feel so comfortable sharing the same stage in the spectacular and haunting space of Berlin’s former power plant? On the eve of the performance, the six of them come together with Mariana Berezovska to discuss the meaning of ‘experimental’ and the creative exchange within their group.

Mariana: What were you considering when you were offered to program a day at Berlin Atonal? What artists did you want to showcase in the space offered to you for a few hours?

Varg: To be honest, I did not even think, it came crystal clear to me. It also happens when I am making music, I don’t think that much. I didn’t want to do my solo show. I wanted to present my new project with Melina called FLORA. Chloe and I collaborated on my last album [Nordic Flora Series Pt. 3: Gore-Tex City]. She is a good friend and I really love what she is doing. So I thought it would be fun to introduce her to the electronic scene of white men with a modular synthesizer. Oliver is a great musician and a really good friend, he never played live before and only played twice outside of Sweden. So it was a great opportunity for Oliver to come over, because I was wondering how he hasn’t even been booked to this festival before. And what Zak does [Ecco2k] is also something that should be represented more in this scene. I just wanted to spread these dynamics and give people something they need in life even though they might not realize this.

This is my second curation of Atonal, I also did it in 2015. Back then we created a band called Body Sculptures out of mistake. I got booked for a one-hour slot on the main stage and I got too much budget, much more than I’m used to getting paid for shows. And I thought “What I could do with this money? Ah, can I maybe spend it on flights to have people come out?” I made a tape loop and sent it to five musicians and asked them to perform a ten-minute piece to this loop based around my one sound. I didn’t want to go on stage and stayed in the audience, watching other people play the show under my name. It ended up being Body Sculptures, which is the band with Puce Mary [Frederikke Hoffmeier], Loke Rahbek, Erik Enocksson and Ossian Ohlsson. We kind of fucked up the whole anti-festival thing. But now it’s finally happening. We finally have a full lineup. Different people doing their own festival. We’re taking over the space, it’s like squatting.

I feel like this festival needs something more empowering than me being the kind of musician that I am. I would be too well fitted for this and it would be one hour of good music (I know I make good music and I’m not looking down on myself), but I would fit too much into this frame. It would be boring, even I would be bored. I know I’m a good musician and I could make something that would be ‘nice,’ but it would also just be what it is. No tension. No friction. It would be flat. The whole night would blow over. People would be like “Did you see Varg?” “Yeah, he was good.” Period.

Experimental music today is super non-experimental

Melina: You wanted to extend what’s expected at the festival and make it more experimental. The room given to artists at the beginning was a free space and then it got smaller without anyone noticing it. With this showcase you are trying to push it out because when some kind of music becomes too established, you cannot call it experimental anymore.

Chloe: This is the exact opposite of ‘experimental.’ It is the same with art. In the art world, you are always asked if something is conceptual enough and when something is figurative and has a portrait or a body, you might be told that it is not conceptual enough. But then once you are all adhering to the same exact conceptual or abstract form, the whole purpose gets completely lost: to make something different, to produce something that was not expected. It’s interesting that it is the exact same frustration that you have in music.

Melina: I think it is about people getting really comfortable when they become a group. This is what genres become: people get really comfortable in it and this ‘excludes’ a lot instead of it being including, exciting, and innovative. It stops, and somebody needs to take action for it to develop.

Varg: Everything has to move on all the time. Experimental music used to be about shows like Coil and Throbbing Gristle where they would come up on stage beating shit out of each other, putting sticks up your ass. It was experimental and boundary-pushing. We live in the time of social media where people are putting sticks up your ass on their cameras all the time and putting this on the Internet. Experimental music today is super non-experimental: “I made this patch on my modular synth that goes ‘beep’ and then it goes ‘boop.’ And I don’t know how it goes that way but first it goes ‘beep’ and then it goes ‘boop.’ Wow, that’s so experimental!” No, it’s boring.

chloe wise, kraftwerk, 2017 © borshch

oli xl, ohm, 2017 © borshch

Melina: It also makes people be not courageous in their art because they think too much of how it will be received.

Chloe: Isn’t that being completely mainstream at some point? It is with every cultural realm that something is considered avant-garde until it becomes cooperative and gets a set of rules and definitions. When it becomes accepted as art and other people start making something similar, you need to find something new. I think it’s interesting that if I do something with music in art it will be more surprising and shocking and it will enhance my art. It is the same thing with you [Varg], you are bringing in a visual artist to a musical setting, and that becomes surprising. So what we are doing here is an exact same thing, but in your world or my world in this way. Not that they are mutually exclusive. Maybe if you painted you would be an amazing painter because you wouldn’t know the set of preconditioned rules that I have already come to terms with from school. You should all paint! It is interesting that my personal method, and seemingly yours as well, is about returning to this mainstream, to the things that sound nice or look pretty. Sometimes returning to the mainstream becomes experimental.

Varg: Me and Melina are playing songs that are built around a hit song structure.

Melina: What is nice about the show we are putting out is that we never thought about what it would be, or what it would sound like, or whether it will be experimental. Whatever. We never thought about how it would be received, because it is just an expression.

the capital where people sit on the high horse and judge what experimental music is

Mariana: But do you think that Atonal is a good place to present your new project FLORA? Or the place does not really matter to you and you could do it anywhere?

Varg: I think it is right for us because Kraftwerk is a beautiful space, first of all. And we are all beautiful souls, we make beautiful music. I just want to hear all of my friends perform in that room at Atonal. It is also cool to come to Berlin for some reason because this is the capital where people sit on the high horse and judge about what experimental music is. We haven’t been sitting around thinking how to make it experimental or how to make it weird. I haven’t thought for a second about the lineup. For example, I asked Zak [Ecco2K] as a friend if he wanted to perform because I really like his music and because I want to see him here and to have him at the festival. I respect him as an artist. The same goes for everybody here in the showcase. This is the curation that never happened. It is a flow of friends who will make good three hours that will stick out of the normal program.

Ecco: This is the type of show that I’ve been wanting to play for a really long time. It just hasn’t really happened. I guess a lot of people wouldn’t really put me in that kind of context, but for us it makes total sense. At the same time I really don’t feel like I belong here. It’s not because I feel like I shouldn’t be here, but it’s still would never happen if it wasn’t for Varg. Usually I get booked for a traditional rap show but I have a lot of music that wouldn’t fit into that setting. But the setting that would be more fitting for that type of music wouldn’t really consider me.

I don’t fit in socially with other techno artists because we often don’t share visions, and they wouldn’t come in a Monet garden T-shirt and a matching hat.

ecco2k, kraftwerk, 2017 © borshch

Mariana: So how did both of you [Ecco2k and Varg] discover each other and start working together?

Varg: Me and Ecco have known each other for a couple of years from different fields like painting graffiti. We’re friends. I always respected Ecco’s ambition with music. Well, I’m kind of a bastard child of the techno scene, and I am seen as I belong, people book me to play the shows all the time. I don’t fit in socially with other techno artists because we often don’t share visions, and they wouldn’t come in a Monet garden T-shirt and a matching hat. We don’t get along on many levels, it’s a different scene and in this regard I can see a connection with Ecco and what he said about this festival not being the setting for a normal rap show, where he’d normally get booked.

Ecco: And also, I’m not even a professional musician. I’ve only done music for three years.

Varg: Same here! We have only one professional musician in the show [Matti Bye].

Ecco: It’s also just really fun to be able to play a big thing like this, since I’m primarily a visual artist and I do music as well. It’s just more fun to be able to do something different, presentation-wise. Because every single show that I’ve ever played has been exactly the same and it’s way more exciting to be able to do something in a new context. The look and the setup of the show are totally different.

Varg: Also people don’t expect you to come and rap, you can do whatever you want.

Ecco: I don’t think anybody here knows who I am.

Varg: I actually got several emails of people saying things like “yo, you booked Ecco2K for Atonal?! Sick! I’m coming!”

AnnaMelina and Varg, kraftwerk, 2017 © borshch

Ecco: It doesn’t make sense at all. It was like when I got onto the list of Sweden’s top 50 dressed men, and it was just me and these thirty-five-year-old guys with blazers and t-shirts underneath. I kind of feel like this is a similar thing because what the fuck am I doing here with all of these people?

Chloe: People were messaging me saying “Hi, there’s someone with the same name as you performing at Berlin Atonal.” I’m like “Oh no, that’s me actually.” I’m a painter, it makes no sense. Now I feel comforted that it’s not just me who’s not a musician.

Ecco: It reminds me of applying for jobs because you need experience to get a job, but without a job, you can’t get experience, which doesn’t make any sense.

Chloe: Until someone like this comes along! [Points to Varg]

Varg: Yeah! Until someone like this fucker comes along and takes over the market, gains trust from the techno society, and takes the money.

Chloe: And throws all the hotel keys at his friends like “get on over here!” It’s like you’re unlocking doors for people.

Varg: Well that’s the thing; it’s for people that shouldn’t need help unlocking doors.

Ecco: It makes sense to all of us, but it wouldn’t necessarily make sense to other people.

Chloe: Well, it goes back to what you said; you’re [Varg] giving people something that they didn’t know they needed. Which is actually really beautiful and true.

it’s just Yung Lean rapping about killing his landlord

You’re basically getting Berghain, which is the most ‘taking itself seriously’ place that I can think of and you’re hacking that system, by showing how mundane and arbitrary the whole system is.

Varg: Yes, because I think that’s the way it is, nobody in this showcase actually needs the keys to these hotel rooms. They own the fucking hotel room. It’s just what people like in the festival, not the festival bookers. I’m not complaining about Laurens [von Oswald] or Harry [Glass], they’re both really nice, they gave me the time and space to curate this kind of thing. It goes for everything. It’s the music, the crowd, the scene, everything. On my last record I had a couple of controversial tracks. Well, I don’t even think it was controversial. For example, the tracks with Chloe, which is collections of DMs I had been saying with Chloe where I’ve been drunk with her in Montreal, writing down that texts and Chloe reading it over my music. Or the collaboration track with Jonathan [Red Line II (127 Sätra C)] with Yung Lean. I met a well-known techno DJ this weekend, who told me that he played the Yung Lean track two times in his Berghain set, which means that they would never, ever, ever play Yung Lean or whatever contemporary rap music track in Berghain. This Italian stiff brutalist-architecture-loving techno DJ, he would never put on an auto-tune rap track. Except for when I come with this disguise, where someone has painted me as a ‘techno artist’ and then it’s fine because I gave it the stamp of approval, I said “this is techno music”. But it’s not, it’s just Yung Lean rapping about killing his landlord. The only difference is that I made some tribal percussion to it on my iPad and called it techno and now all these Italian DJs are like “oh yeah I’m gonna play this at Berghain,” and it’s cool.

Chloe wise and varg, kraftwerk, 2017 © borshch

Mariana: Oli, what about you? Do you feel like you’re in the right place here?

Oli: I guess so. I kind of feel like with my music it is the same as it always was with my race when I was a kid, that I didn’t fit in with the white people or the black people. I’m somewhere in-between. All the techno guys wouldn’t book me and would just see me as this experimental guy.

Mariana: Are you also preparing something special for Atonal?

Oli: Yes, definitely. I’ve never played live before. I’ve built this glove that controls music. When it comes to a live performance I often find electronic music kind of boring because people always have these tracks and for a live show they just basically recreate the tracks on stage. And I think, well, I’ve already heard the tracks a bunch of times, so why do I want to see a guy just recreating that and looking super focused? It’s always gonna be a shadier version of the recorded track because you have the human error.

The Flora system that will grow and will die

Mariana: We have talked a lot about being experimental and pushing the boundaries with Nordic Flora. But, actually, what does this series mean to you, what is Nordic Flora?

Varg: Nordic Flora is just is my mindset about music and arts and whatever I’ve been working on. The only thing with the flora is that it is based on a system. The Flora system that will grow and will die. Fast. And there will be a lot of them. A lot of people have been asking me about this. Even Loke Rahbek of Croatian Amor, who has been in the Nordic Flora from the start, questions me on the lineup for this showcase. He was like “How the hell is this Nordic Flora?” Melina, Chloe and Matti Bye have been on the Nordic Flora program, but Oli XL, Ecco2k, Sky H1 and Swan Meat are people that are not on the records.

The collaborations within this program have been about people I love, people I get inspired by and people that I want to work with. I don’t get inspired by a stone architecture only. I get inspired by a lot of things and other musicians, especially from other genres. This programming for Atonal is a part of the Nordic Flora series. Ecco is on my next record and Oli as well, but I never collaborated with SKY H1, for example, and I probably won’t either with Swan Meat, but they’re still in the Nordic Flora series because it’s just the mindset, it’s not a physical product. Me and Melina have a whole relationship. I was a big fan of Melina’s music, she was the only one on the Nordic Flora record that I didn’t know personally, while everybody else was a friend already. One of the biggest relationships in my life grew out of that collaboration. I gained a really good friend and a big collaboration through a new musical project, FLORA, which is a duo between the two of us.

I have Alessandro Cortini from Nine Inch Nails featured on a track with Drew McDowall from Coil and they don’t know each other. They didn’t even know they were on the same track, because I gave one of them the instrumental and asked to record one part and then I gave the instrumental to the other and said to record the other part, then I mashed them together. I just sent them a Facebook message saying “Haha congratulations, you made a collaboration!” Nordic Flora has been like this. It’s a very loose term, I can’t describe it but it’s something that makes me very happy because I get to see all these beautiful people and I get to work with all of them.

Melina: It’s an open-minded project and I think that everybody feels that. When Jonas sent me the music, it made me do something totally different, I stepped out. I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t felt that energy. Our relationship grew out of it. I was the only person Jonas wasn’t good friends with, actually we had never even met before. I completely found myself while working together and he did too. Since then we have created the artist FLORA together and soon will start releasing. Probably not two people you would think would collaborate and work together but for us it makes total sense. He is my best friend and I am very happy I got the be a part of the Nordic Flora series. I mean, when else would I have been a part of something so experimental? I’m just a simple pop girl.

Ecco [to Varg]: Yes, the track we did together was so challenging for me. It took us around nine months to finish it. You sent me eight different tracks and just told me to choose one or choose several. Just to do whatever I wanted with them.

Varg: Tor Melina I sent stuff that wasn’t even tracks, it was just files. Oli didn’t even get tracks. I just sent him sounds that were not even done by me. I gave him sounds by Jesse Osborne from last year in Montreal and asked him to do whatever.

Chloe: With me it was the opposite; I sent you voice notes, while I was doing Pilates and sit-ups, reading from my own phone, my own texts to you.

Varg: Chloe sent me three recordings the other day. It was so good. I played it on Sunday at Herrensauna; I played your voice for forty-five minutes. It was a two-hour long set and I had a loop. It was insane, processing it live. It took me fifteen minutes to finish this track, and it’s going to be on my next album.

Mariana: And Matti, is it your first time at Atonal, right? And how do you find this whole collaboration?

Matti: I agree, it’s wonderful. This is exactly what I love to do, mixing new meetings and new friends, making music together. Then new things start happening. I don’t know what will happen exactly, so it’s really exciting.

Varg: I’ve always been a fan of Matti and his music. I listened a lot to his record Bethanien [2013], which is a super nice, mainly piano based record. We started talking about collaborations. I sent files to Matti and Matti recorded some piano, electronics and processing stuff on top of it, and sent it back to me. I passed those recording onto a free jazz drummer Christian Augustin and he put free jazz drums on it. Then I went to my friend Henrik Söderström who is a tape noise musician and I had him manipulate tapes. I just sat in the studio, drinking beers and he didn’t even hear the tracks. I was like “Do your thing with the tape manipulation and I’m gonna just sit here and get drunk.” So, we sat, had wine and beers and it was really nice. Recorded, came home, cut his tapes to pieces, put it into my Walkman and did tape loops. When the record was released it was me featuring Matti Bye, Christian Augustin and Henrik Söderström all on the same track. And none of them has heard what the other had been doing. So it’s like deaf collaborations. It’s like a folding.

I’m just happy to have all these people here. People that I trust, and really want to see represented more in the scene. The voices that should be heard. Someone wrote that I’m a techno artist, and then people started to get down with that, and this means that I get to take these places. Give me the place and I will break it down into pieces and give it to the people who deserve it. All the scenes have narrow chances and now we can split this chance between the people who I think are better musicians than me and actually deserve to do this shit.

read the full conversation with Nordic Flora in borshch 2