Isak Hansen is a producer, performer, and songwriter. The Danish artist is known in the punk, noise and rave scenes for his voice “made from barbed wire,” tattooed face and stylish looks and notorious uncompromising performances that often end up with Hansen smashing the microphone on his forehead and bleeding onstage.
Among all of his projects, Isak feels most connected to Iron Sight, his solo noise act. Yet most often he appears on stage in the club settings as the vocalist of The Empire Line, a collaborative project of Jonas Rönnberg aka Varg, Posh Isolation’s Christian Stadgaard, and Hansen himself, radiating a restless, bristling energy. Yet it appears that the harsh distortion of voice and instruments is a protective covering to the sensitive nature of the emotions his music translates – the trauma of a broken heart, obsession, mania and the destruction of memory. We catch up with the Isak after his performance as Iron Sight at the CTM festival in January 2019 to discuss the secret language of distorted sound. And it’s surely not for soft ears.
Mariana Berezovska: Punk is normally very connected to social resistance, but I also find hard core and harsh vocals emotionally purifying. It’s an act of purging. Do you also feel this way about your performances as Iron Sight and as a part of The Empire Line?
Isak Hansen: I would say so. I feel a great release after we play with the Empire Line and after I play myself, though The Empire Line is not personal in the same way at all because the Empire Line shows are more like the feeling of going to a punk show. Everyone has a party — they fight, get their aggression out, and feel unified in whatever it is they’re against. With Iron Sight it’s way more personal. There’s no resistance to the system, there’s nothing political about it in any way.
It’s only about personal feelings.
MB: Have you always made harsh noise-based music with distorted vocals?
IH: I’ve been playing since a young age and I’ve made a lot of different music — sometimes I also produce trap beats and R&B but that’s not something I’m really public about. It’s more when I’m stoned and I want to make something that’s not so personal.
MB: How come out of all kinds of music you think noise is the most personal one for you?
IH: For me, the music is not so concrete — it does not have to be played in a certain way and there are no rules to it. For me noise is very musical: I see it more as a way of telling a story instead of just making a piece of music. Mine is more like a soundtrack of a movie or a theater piece.
MB: Your album To You Who Broke My Heart is also a very personal story about a broken heart and trauma. Did you want to speak about these feelings openly and and these things you went through publicly?
IH: I don’t think it’s about making it public, because none of my releases have been made with lyrics in them. I just started putting them out and then all of a sudden someone asked me to make a record or a tape, so I did it.
For me, music is a really nice way to deal with personal topics. I think it’s this way for everyone, no matter if they make happy or sad music — it’s just a matter of how they want to deal with their feelings. This record was like ending a chapter in my life because when I made it I got it all out, said what I had to say, put it aside and now it’s over. I can start dealing with the next things that I want to express.
MB: The performative part of your stage show is very physical. Is it also something that makes you really relieved after a gig?
IH: I don’t know because for me a gig doesn’t take the half hour or 45 minutes that people see from the outside. For me it’s like an instant so I don’t know what I’ve been doing and I don’t know what has happened. As soon as I go onstage I don’t seen anything, I don’t know how I react, and I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s over so fast. So you can’t really have a release if you don’t know what will release, you know?
MB: How different is what you do with The Empire Line from your solo project?
IH: I mostly play with Empire Line because we get more shows a techno punk band, an act that can be booked for a club party. It’s harder to get bookings with a project that has no certain rhythm in it for people to dance to [Iron Sight] since it’s hard for most people to understand.
MB: And why do you think it’s hard for most people to understand? Because it’s too harsh?
IH: Most people have soft ears. It’s not everyone who’s cut out to listen to someone scream into a microphone for 45 minutes, you know? It’s not everybody who likes to feel that.
MB: Have you yourself always listened to harsh music?
IH: No, I never listened to noise really and I never listened to techno music either.My favorites I would say are Scott Walker and Swans. I listen a lot to trap music and R&B, and a lot to old school music. I also grew up with David Bowie.
MB: Ah, so the classics. I read this paper on understanding noise music about how noise got more accepted as a kind of music [The Aesthetics of Noise by Torben Sangild, 2002). The author compares noise to ‘abjects’ (a term coined by Julia Kristeva): “the rejections from the body like stool, sperm, spittle, snot, and nail clippings”. These are considered dirty and nasty. We reject those bodily things because we don’t identify with them. So the same goes for noise — it’s something that for many centuries was rejected and forced out of pure sound. Because music has to be very harmonical and very pleasant but actually noise is a part of sound. We accept noise in nature, for instance thunder or strong waves, and it’s the same kind of noise, but we don’t want it in music. It comes from this very aesthetic understanding of ‘nice music’, which is already in our DNA. Actually everything we hear around has a lot of noise in it and when musicians make noise they basically bring back what we’ve been rejecting. But I can imagine that as an artist you most probably don’t think about those things all the time.
IH: You could apply this to some noise musicians but not all, because a lot of noise music is just out there to frighten people and speak about serial killers. It’s all been boring and seen before. But there’s new noise artists such as Puce Mary and Damien Dubrovnik — you can feel these artists are showing people what they’ve been rejecting and showing them horrible feelings. Not only hate and anger — it’s more like they’re showing personal feelings which they themselves have probably been rejecting.
That’s also how it is for me so together with the feelings that you’ve been rejecting that need to come out — it all comes out in the sound of desperation. I think it goes together with having all these feelings you can’t get out and it builds up and becomes desperate. Then you create a sound around it and that sound is also a rejection, you know? Again you deal with it so you’re not really rejecting it — it’s like creating a paradox, I can’t really explain it.
MB: But I think it’s a very good explanation to be honest. I really like this emergence of this new era of noise musicians in electronics. Compared to it techno is kind of punk, the folk music, music of masses. It’s easy to comprehend and connect. And with noise your brain really has to make more effort to connect.
IH: I think it takes a lot of empathy for a listener to comprehend these new noise artists who are in touch with their feelings and know how to express them through distorted sound. It takes a lot of understanding, emotions, and ability to sympathize with the artist that you’re listening to. It really takes an understanding of noise music, but even more than that it takes more understanding of feelings, empathy and sympathy.
MB: Yes, it’s also about being not very straightforward, to disguise emotions in these harsh sounds. I guess the artist who made that had their reasons to distort and modify it and to put it out in this way — this is how I feel about noise.
IH: I can’t speak for other people, but for me it’s so much easier to deal with heartbreak or trauma in your life through a wall of sound or sounds that represent the mood or the feeling that you’re having. So it’s like you can wear this armor and then in this armor you can express your feelings — I don’t know if you could call it an amulet that makes you able to speak and gives you the power of being able to speak out from your heart.
MB: Armor is a very good word here, because it’s something very hefty that you create around yourself — it makes you look tough and then you can be vulnerable inside this armour – you can be very sensitive then.
IH: Yes, exactly.
MB: And what is the role of synthesizers and electronics in your music? Do you use synthesizers rather than guitars?
IH: No, actually I don’t own a synth. I don’t actually have any instruments, I only have a computer. Sometimes I borrow instruments or I do field recordings. Sometimes I sample small musical parts from animes or movies. I don’t really use instruments. Everything has already been used so it’s more accepted to use a computer or use samples.
MB: So you’re also looking to be a little more of a novelty with your sound? Do you want to surprise or confuse people so that they don’t know where the sound comes from?
IH: For me it’s just the easiest way. I don’t have any money, so I don’t buy instruments and on the computer you pay once and you download everything you need. Then it’s free.
MB: That’s very honest of you to say.
IH: For me it doesn’t make you a better musician just because you have money to buy your fucking synths and guitars and drums. Just because you practice it doesn’t mean that you have a great idea or that you’re at least capable of saying what your heart feels or what your mind wants to say. Very often you see a live show and you’re like “wow that was amazing, it made me feel this or that way.” But most musicians suck at that, especially if we are talking about a techno show. The only ones who feel anything at a techno show are people on shitloads of drugs.