There’s an indescribable magic in Axel Boman’s music that sets it apart from other house tracks. Doused in playfulness and bubbling with life, his most famous tunes like “Not So Much” and “Hello” never fail to light up smiles on even the gloomiest of days. His new albums, LUZ and Quest for fire, straddle the line between sunshine and darkness, weaving between light-heartedness and pensive introspection. In the run up to release day, I sat down with Axel to discuss the new records, parenthood, his Stockholm-based label Studio Barnhus, and true weirdness.
“Today, I don’t know who I’m making music for… I guess I’m making songs for elephants in drag these days… Having a sense of humour is an edge that I’ve always admired in other people, as long as you don’t hide too much behind irony and things like this. I like honest, freaky shit. I like honest freaks. Spare me your irony! Give me your honest absurdity!”
It’s been nearly 10 years since the release of your debut album. How are you feeling as the release date approaches for your upcoming LPs?
I feel both a bit of anxiety and nervousness… but I’m also strangely excited like I’ve never been before, and I think that’s because I’ve worked so hard on this, more than I’ve ever worked on anything. I feel I’ve left very few stones unturned… the process has been so thorough and so fun and interesting. I feel both anxiety, excitement, pride, and a little bit of shame.
Why the shame?
I don’t know… There’s something about art history and demanding attention and all that stuff, which kind of rubs me the wrong way. I think most artists can relate to this, you know like, ‘Do I deserve to be doing this?’ The general life questioning.
Maybe that’s a very Swedish way of thinking as well. There’s a Swedish expression called ‘Jantelagen’, which basically is like: ‘You shouldn’t think that you are anything… you’re nothing.’ So, everybody grows up with this strange mentality that success shouldn’t come with pride and should come with a certain degree of low-keyness, so maybe I’ve inherited some of that Swedishness. But I’m very happy to be where I am!
Why have you chosen to release two albums at the same time?
I just wanted to do something out of the books: something strange, unpredictable, and hard to read. I wanted to experiment with the format, because I can, and because I owe no one anything! I think [Studio Barnhus] have managed to come this far on not being related to any corporations or any big labels… So now, we have this platform, and I just want to fuck around! I just want to have fun, and do something strange and weird.
Two years ago, my graphic designer, Robin, was simultaneously working on art stuff whilst I was working on music, so we started working together. We were just working and working ferociously, and just trusting a process, not thinking and not stopping.
I brought in a third member of the group, a writer and an artist called Erik Lavesson. We were like, ‘We need you to help us define what we’re doing, or where we’re going… help us to reel this in and give us a direction!’ So he started showing us movies… art, and pictures… and that’s how it became two things. We didn’t really know where we were going, and this is where we ended up.
You’ve described the records as “separate but corresponding works, communicating through music, design and words.” What would you say separates and connects the two albums musically?
Listening to one of the albums and seeing that the other one’s available on Spotify… that’s intriguing for me. I also think that they have a good cop, bad cop relationship. I don’t want to give away who’s the good cop and the bad cop, but Luzis the name of my daughter, and the album is dropping on her birthday: April 15th. One of the albums is darker and one is lighter… the darker one is for sure not my daughter’s name.
When we agreed on Quest for Fire and Luz as names for the albums, I think they also correspond in that way… one feeding the other. I think you can definitely hear that the albums are made in the same period; similar instruments and techniques have been used in almost all of the songs, so I think that’s also how they communicate.
Erik Lavesson, who managed words and art direction across the albums, said, “If you want to go deeper, you have these extra layers to delve into: album art, text, archive material. They feed back into the music and open up new perspectives, while the music opens up ways to enter the other material as well.”
Could you talk to me a bit more about this? In what sense does this album art, text, and archive material open new perspectives and enhance the experience of listening to these albums? How did you choose this album art, text, and archive material?
Erik showed us this movie, ‘Quest for Fire’, from 1981 by Jean-Jacques Annaud. The movie is so wonderfully absurd and funny. It takes place in the Stone Age… Anthony Burgess, who wrote ‘A Clockwork Orange’, invented a language for the movie. They used circus elephants that they flew to Iceland and dressed up as mammoths.
In this movie, they’ve discovered fire and how to preserve it, but they don’t know how to make it. So, they’re walking around and desperately trying to control this little flame, and it’s so hard to keep it alive. There’s something so banal and amazing about this… [It can be seen as an] analogy for how you deal with that creative spark, or that moment on the dancefloor, or that moment when music sets you off – and then it’s gone!
The text that Erik wrote is a fictional diary from the filming of that movie. So that opens up a lot of layers in the project, and then the music becomes a lot deeper.
You studied Fine Art at university, and mentioned that you were doing a lot of art stuff during your course. Do you still paint, draw, and create sculptures these days?
My outlet for that is through Studio Barnhus and the A&R work that I do for them: combining this artist with that music… a lot of times I refer to Studio Barnhus as a ‘gallery’. I’m definitely missing doing actual physical stuff, but I try to make [my studio space] very funky and fun. Half of this space is a studio, the other half is a huge table where you can work… screen print stuff, glue stuff.
I help designers with whatever they need. So, I’ve become more of a visionary, and less of a practical guy… but then again, why shouldn’t I paint? Fuck it. I should be doing more sculptures.
You’ve said in the past that you’re a strong believer in not looking back on life, and choose instead to focus on always moving forward. Do your past releases ever influence what you’re currently working on? Or do you start each project with a completely fresh outlook?
I think that’s unavoidable. It’s like you’re building a wall based on experience, brick by brick. One time when I was in art school, they made us visit this place where they do brain research. The people working there told us, ‘Usually we do experiments, but we don’t know what the results will be. We just register what we discover. It might have no significance at all, but it might have significance in 10 years.’ Maybe it’s a similar situation with music.
But don’t dwell too much on the past, whether it be on your own mistakes in life artistically, or not. Don’t wait for shit!
They have this magazine in Sweden… [that features] ‘The Musician of the Month’, and most of the time they’re classical musicians! It’s always the same questionnaire… and when composers are asked, ‘What are you listening to?’, they all give the same answer: ‘Oh, I don’t listen to anything! I don’t have time.’
It’s like… fuck! They don’t have time to stop – they have to keep filling those sheets with notes! You can’t be hindered by other music, and I can totally relate to that. That’s why I find it so difficult to be on the road and then be in the studio, because being on the road requires me to listen to music constantly and collect music and have that mind on, but being in the studio I have to start where I left off… and it can take some time to shift… I feel like those are two related but different disciplines of creativity.
How many unfinished tracks would you say that you have on your computer?
I have so much unfinished stuff, but I also use that! I think that’s a great way to work. A lot of times, if I didn’t finish a song, but one of the synth things is good, then I can just render that and put it in a folder called ‘random samplings’. Let [unfinished tracks] be like building blocks!
The other thing is that I’ve become way better at recording everything that I do; whether it’s some work I’m doing on the 303 or a pattern on the Nord Drum, it’s bound to be good for something.
I don’t finish nearly as many tracks as I start. But I think the difficult part is not finishing tracks, but contextualisingthem. Just one track by itself is the hardest, because it’s like, ‘Ok, this might be a good tune, but should I release it as a single? What should it look like? What should it be called? How do I want to release it? In what context would I want to hear this? Who am I making this track for?’ All these questions are good to think about.
The most difficult thing is working without having a little bit of an idea about where you want to end up. Say you decide that you want to do an EP: 4 tracks. Just get it out as a vinyl thing. OK: so there needs an A1; the A2 could be a little bit more experimental; the B1; and then the B2 could be completely out there. And then all of a sudden, you have a bit of an idea, and some motivation, for where this whole thing could end up. I think that’s good. And also, start playing with titles early on!
Tracks always have flaws, and they’re never ready. Sometimes you end up mistakenly finishing something! That rare, rare occasion where you’re like, ‘Fuck! I think this is ready!’ But most of the time I guess you just learn to live with the music and art that you make. But sometimes, you stumble across something good.
You’ve also said that you see yourself working on more experimental stuff in the future. Is that still an ambition of yours?
[With the new albums], I wasn’t out there doing weird sound experiments; I was trying to craft accessible music, in a way. But it’s been very experimental in the way that I’ve tried to communicate it… ‘accessible music communicated in an experimental way’. Maybe the next project will be the opposite: to make super experimental music in a conventional way.
I definitely still have that ambition. Three years ago, I got this big mixing desk. It’s helped me to experiment and to expand my horizons totally. I can do everything at once, I don’t have to be on the computer as much. It requires completely different decisions from you. And also, I bought a piano! Real instruments are experimental for me, and super conventional for the rest of the music world…
“Purple Drank” – I wrote that specifically for Panorama Bar. I was obsessed with Panorama Bar 10-12 years ago. I would go there all the time, meet some friends in Berlin, and go have benders. It’s just this magical, magical place for me. I remember that druggy, chuggy style of music… that was what it sounded like when I was there.
And now, today, I don’t know who I’m making music for… I guess I’m making songs for elephants in drag these days.
As we move into festival season, do you have a favourite festival to play at?
That’s hard to say, because both big and small festivals have something. Mega festivals have that big daytime madness, different stages… that’s one thing that’s so exciting to be around. At the same time, small places, like Love International, are way more boutique and nice and dreamy. So I don’t know, but I’m looking forward and also terrified: [this year], I’m playing Paradise City in Belgium live… It’s the first time I’ve played a live set since I was in art school.
What is it that inspired you to do a live show?
It’s been in my head for years and years, like how would I do it? What would I play? How would I use the skills and ideas and knowledge that I’ve gathered through travelling and DJing? Then I started playing with it a little bit, getting some stuff set up, and then I realised that this was so fun! It’s like DJing a bit. I also realised that I have a lot of stems from old tracks and new tracks and unreleased tracks, and that they’re so fun to play around with! To have this creativity at your fingertips.
I felt like, pedal to the metal now! Release these albums and just get out there! Whilst I’m in that creative mode, I should just savour that and see where I end up as much as I can. Maybe it’s also some way of growing older… I feel like I have it in me! I feel like I have things to say and shit to do!
You come across on social media as a very light-hearted and funny guy. Do you think that there are a lot of people in the music industry that take themselves too seriously?
I think that goes in waves a bit. I’ve seen degrees of absurdism come and go since I was a young raver in my teens. I’ve always been drawn to more absurd and creative things. I’m not saying that one thing is more creative than anything else. Having a sense of humour is an edge that I’ve always admired in other people, as long as you don’t hide too much behind irony and things like this. I like honest, freaky shit. I like honest freaks. Spare me your irony! Give me your honest absurdity!
Yeah, true weirdness! Give me true weirdness! When Studio Barnhus started we always got this question because that was when minimal techno was at its height (like 12-14 years ago). So we always heard, ‘You were a reaction to that!’ And I’m like, ‘No, I don’t think so…’ we weren’t upset with anything, we were just having fun with something else. But maybe subconsciously everything is a reaction to something else.
I’ve also noticed as I’m older, that I’ve always loved to be fringe… I don’t want to be in the middle of anything. I love to be on the side of stuff and kind of navigate through next to mainstream and next to other stuff, for good and for worse because, with commercial success, if you’re really good at making techno bangers you could be Adam Beyer and live in Ibiza and have an assistant or two… I’m driven a little bit by that fringe… that need to fringe.
Congratulations on your baby daughter, Luz! How do you manage to balance family life with your busy touring schedule? Is it ever challenging?
I’m not going to lie to you Luca, it’s been rough. It’s been hard! It’s not easy. The life puzzle has increased to a more difficult level… But I also heard someone say that when you complete tasks, it’s directly related to your wellbeing. So, let’s say in my day I have a thousand mini-tasks to do before I can even get to the studio, and as I’m completing them, I’ve noticed that I’m very happy! I used to feel more depressed, and have anxiety, and feel lost, and feel a sense of wondering what my purpose is. But since having a kid and a family, I’ve needed to have all of these micro-problems every day to solve, and I’m being way more appreciative of the time that I have in the studio, on the road, to myself, and also the time that I have with others.
It’s way more difficult now, but it’s also more important – everything’s more important. This project wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Luz. One of my drives to finish this project was the thought of how many times in the past I’ve gone to the studio and not felt inspired, and been like, ‘Ah, well, I’m just going to go and have a beer instead!’ I don’t have that luxury these days! I only have four hours! I don’t have time.
So, I needed to prove to myself that if I couldn’t finish it in the best circumstances, then I need to finish it now. I think my wife both loved and hated that in me… like, ‘Now, at the worst moment, you need to do the craziest project ever?’ But now that it’s been released, she’s super proud of this, and I’m proud, and I think that hopefully this means that we can benefit a little bit financially from what this generates. That too helped me to work on this. Like, what’s my job? What’s my purpose on earth? Ok, I can make music and I have this label… well do something then! Fucking go out and get that and see where you end up! Do it for Luz!
So don’t have kids Luca! Or do have kids! Make life complicated, make it super complicated, and then remember all those lazy days you used to have…
I wanted to ask you about your label, Studio Barnhus, which you run with Kornél Kovács and Petter Nordkvist. How did the three of you meet? Would you say that you influence each other musically, and if so, how?
We met around the same time that Studio Barnhus started. We were all in need of studios, and Kornél heard about this basement being free. We just jumped into it together. We sat in a row next to each other, the three of us in a room, and became best friends. It was just by chance! It was located here in Stockholm on Barnhusgatan, which is the street we’re on.
Back then I think we were really influencing each other. We would go to record stores together, we’d compare record collections… I remember back then I was super broke because I was out of art school, and Petter was still rich from Border Community fame days (he had already toured the world and been everywhere when we met; he was still a techno star). Kornel was referred to as ‘the prince of techno’ in Stockholm.
As we were growing, we were developing in different ways, but remained best friends. But these days we don’t go to record stores together that much anymore, and we don’t play together as much either. But we’re also more committed to this thing that we built more than ever before.
We’ve also always had this freedom in Studio Barnhus where you’re allowed to roam free. If someone wants to work, or doesn’t want to work, we can’t really hold anybody accountable for anything. I really like to go to the studio for example, and I really like to be here and I want to be here and be hands on, but Petter less so – he wants to do more of his own thing – and Kornél not right now, he’s spending a lot of time in Berlin. Sometimes it’s super nice, because it’s so free, but sometimes it’s frustrating too, because you want this to be a more well-oiled machine where you can count on everybody to step up… if somebody’s just had a child, for example.
I’m glad to see that the label’s still going. As a fan, you’re never sure if a label will remain active when the three people that run it are all very successful as independent artists.
I think we’re very committed to making sure that this continues. I want to see this grow! I want to grow old with this, I want to see where it ends up. It’s still a really fun gallery to have exhibitions in.