The Swedish producer talks Sam Cooke, Studio Barnhus and how his new album could be the soundtrack to a strange carnival in Northern Sweden.
To say that Red Bull Music Academy grad Axel Boman is irreverent might be understating things. The Swedish producer broke through in 2010 with the Holy Love EP on Pampa Records, a label Boman joined after he gave DJ Koze a demo at a post-show party before puking out of the hotel window. Boman has repeatedly expressed the desire to make a record composed entirely of ABBA samples – a promise partially fulfilled with “ABBA 002” on the Europa EP. He also has a tattoo bearing the name of his record label on his upper left ass cheek, although he doesn’t know the font. When asked about the tattoo’s legitimacy via Skype, Boman doesn’t hesitate: He stands up and drops his pants to give a better view.
Somehow Boman’s music lives up to the boundless energy of his personality. Released on Studio Barnhus, the Stockholm-based record label founded with fellow Swedish producers Kornél Kovács and Petter Nordkvist, Boman’s debut LP Family Vacation is a blend of instrumental hip hop, dub disco, and glassy funk, gently fed through traditional house progressions. The eclecticism on display is no surprise given Studio Barnhus’ varied discography, having released records ranging from HNNY’s melismatic cover of Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” to Abdulla Rashim’s “Kallocain,” a dub techno track created from samples of melodies derived from levels of gamma radiation in radioactive isotopes. Nonetheless, Boman says that “a lot of times my ambition is to a make a pure house track. I can’t say why I end up somewhere else... I am trying to make house music, but it always sounds like something else.”
“Sometimes people label us as being funny or prankish, but we’re totally serious: We love this music!”
This disconnect is nothing new to Boman, who despite his giddy personality and easy smile seems uncomfortable with the perception of Studio Barnhus as pranksters. “I think if we just release a proper house track people won’t take it as similarly serious as they would if someone like Delsin released a new techno track,” Boman claims, referencing the Dutch label and distributor. “If we do it, people are always looking for some twist, or a hidden prank. Sometimes people label us as being funny or prankish, but we’re totally serious: We love this music! We don’t devote that much time and effort towards elaborate jokes.”
What’s hidden on Family Vacation isn’t some inside joke, or a winking inversion of house tropes. Instead, the conceptual underpinning is taken from a short story written by Boman’s friend and collaborator Erik Lavesson. (Which only accompanies the record in its physical format.) Lavesson went to the Valand School of Fine Arts, where Boman also graduated in 2010 before his DJing career blew up. “Parts of the story take place the night before – and the night of – Sam Cooke’s murder,” Boman says. The legendary soul singer was shot outside the Hacienda Motel on December 11th, 1964, in a case that was eventually ruled a justifiable homicide but has been shrouded in the sort of conspiracy theories that accompany any early death of a canonical musician. “It’s a murder mystery, in a way,” Boman says of Family Vacation. Still, when asked if the album follows a precise narrative, Boman explains that “it does now, but it didn’t before. When I started changing the track titles it did a little bit. The story concerns the death of this old soul legend and I’m a white Swedish kid sampling old soul legends’ music, and giving my take on it.”
“All the tracks on Family Vacation are like ‘last track’ songs for DJs, an entire album’s worth.”
Part of the charm of Family Vacation is this tension between a reverence for classic forms and a refusal to raise them on a pedestal. Boman tends to sprinkle in microscopic vocal samples rather than attempting to draw nostalgia from familiarity, and the instrumental elements that recall old funk and soul are mellow enough to stay out of the way of the insistent percussive shuffle. Boman embraces the subdued effect, saying “All the tracks on Family Vacation are like ‘last track’ songs for DJs, an entire album’s worth.” He had initially described the album as “Jamaican space disco,” but amends it here, saying instead that it’s “music for a strange carnival in Northern Sweden.” Given the shouts of excitement that pop up through the album, that description isn’t far off; there’s a definite sense of jubilance that courses through Family Vacation, like a crowd of teenagers with faces smeared together by the bright lights of a state fair.
The gestation period for Family Vacation was surprisingly long, with many of the tracks taken from sketches dating back to 2010. Boman had difficulty returning to work on ideas that he thought were great when he still had limited musical knowledge, but explains that “there was an uncorrupted joy I think you can hear in Family Vacation, the same way you can hear in anyone’s old stuff. You can hear the joy for music before it gets complicated when you learn more.” Now that he’s releasing music on a regular basis, expectations and questions get in the way. “Sometimes I think about who I’m making music for,” Boman ponders. “Is there an audience in mind, or am I imagining that someone listening has similar ideas about music as myself? Is it only for my ego, and that’s the reason I make music? Am I the reason I want to complicate things? Or am I just trying to impress DJ Koze? They’re all true, in a way.”
Boman is past the point of struggling to impress, with a slate of releases that continue to make him an in-demand DJ. This summer, he put out “Outside Amore” on DFA, a piece of inspired ramshackle disco made in collaboration with Nordkvist and J. Jonason as Man Tear, a project Boman hopes to tour with a full live band. Despite the recognition that’s sure to come with the crossover-beckoning musicality of Family Vacation, Boman remains committed to a certain innocence of composition and production. Talking about the gear he used to compose Family Vacation, he fixates on the unpredictability of a particular portable synthesizer/sequencer that eventually formed the backbone of the album. “It’s a little bit beyond your control, but that’s good,” Boman asserts. “It’s a mistake machine, and mistakes are always the best thing about music.”