Inevitable as the similarities between music scenes are, it’s the differences between them that make life interesting and in Scandinavia, that difference is skweee.
But what is skweee and why did it emerge in the northern most parts of Europe? As I delved into the Scandinavian electronic music scene this Spring, the answers to these questions prove to be rather slippery. At first glance Skweee fuses elements of hip-hop, dubstep, chip-tune, electro, funk and probably a lot more to create something which, although found in small pockets around the world, is predominantly a pan-scandinavian aesthetic.’Scandinavian music’ doesn’t really cut it as a definition though. So to get the root of the ‘why skweee?’ and ‘why Scandinavia?’ question, I travelled to the small town of Hamar, about 100km north of Norway to meet Kristian Møller Johansen (also known as Melkeveien), one of a triumvirate of bossmen at critically acclaimed skweee label, Dødpop.
Dødpop released their first 7” record in January 2009 and have since established themselves as an influential and reputable label for all things skweee related. Last month they released an eponymous LP by cornerstone skweee artist, Daniel Savio and it’s worth looking at for this article’s purposes as it is, in my amateur opinion, about as
skweee-centric an affair as things get.
Made in Savio’s native Stockholm, the album was mastered in Finland and released by the Norway based Dødpop, so that’s the pan-scandinavian box firmly ticked. “That album is really hand crafted, only analogue synthesizers. It’s really a piece of work. I think it’s pure analogue. I’ll have to check with Daniel on that, but I think it is. He’s a synth wizard.” Johansen says with pan-scandinavian pride, “on the back (cover) he’s mentioned every piece of equipment he’s used. It’s a pretty long list!”.
The LP meshes funk with the dark cries of machine circuitry mid anxiety attack in the court of the Crimson King. Like many skweee releases, the album stays well clear of the mainstream and predominantly contains the sensible whack of hip hop influence throughout.
Kristian, along with co-label owners Robert L. Jomisko, and Bård Harazi Farbu, had been making hip hop influenced music for years but it was not until 2007/08 when “We noticed the skweee scene and we were like, ‘well here’s sort of somewhere we can put ourselves’, because they’re doing the same as us and they have a name for the type of music…other than just hiphop or whatever.”
Right, so far: Skweee is a synth-heavy, Scandinavian take on hip-hop.
But what was it that lead these producers, living in a similar geo-political region to come to the same musical conclusion at the same time, which took them in an artistic direction much different from producers elsewhere? “Its strange isn’t it? Its probably because we have the same type of influences we have when it comes to music I guess. I know some of the other guy’s musical background’s and I know that we all have in common that we listened to lot of hip hop. Most of us anyway. But I think all of us are just genuinely fanatical about music”.
But then we have another problem: not all skweee is hip hop influenced. Some of the genres biggest commercial successes fit more snuggly into the dubstep category and both genres have had a symbiotic relationship in the past five years. In many ways, skweee’s proudest successes have been through the powerful influence it has yielded over the UK bass music scene, audible through artists like Slugabed, Joker, Hudson Mohawke and Rustie, who’s Glass Swords album last year picked up no small number of awards including the Guardian’s inaugural ‘album of the year’ award.
And what about the club scene? Kristian tells me that live shows are quite a big part of skweee culture. Performances normally consist of MPC workouts, drum machines, synthesizers and laptops. But again, set-ups and styles vary from artist to artist, “It’s a pretty wide genre so the gigs vary a lot. Everything from almost chip tune music to more almost prog stuff. It depends on the artist. I guess you know who you’re going to see play. It’s like going to a rock n roll gig, you don’t go to see rock n roll, you go to see a band.”
So far we’ve narrowed skweee down to having tendencies towards hip hop influenced productions, often made on analogue hardware and unique live performances based around more hardware and live sets.
But what about our Scandinavian premise? While originally the sound did emerge from a production style common to Scando countries, todays skweee landscape takes in the US, Spain and Russia to name a few. Despite the global spread, the scene remains relatively small and the main players make an effort to maintain a family-like atmosphere. Later this summer for example, Dødpop release an EP by Dublin based artist Gretta Gunn and they’ve made efforts to make her feel at home in the skweee community: “We had her over to play in Trondheim, where we had a release party for the Mother North (a side project of Kristian’s) EP. She and her band mate (Cignol) were over. They stayed for maybe 3 days afterwards and hung out and we went to parties and stuff”.
Vinyl culture seems to be alive and well in the skweee scene and the Dødpop crew try to release on the format as much as possible: “You don’t make a lot of money on vinyl, but i think its an issue thats important… It’s just a stamp of quality, if you are releasing albums and Eps on vinyl. And theres always people who ask, ‘Is this going to be on vinyl?’”
There seems to be a community based, do-it-yourself attitude at labels like Dødpop. New and old technologies are combined in bedrooms and studios around the world and lend a raw edginess of the end product. Taken in this context along, with the skweee-ers side-stepping of pigeonholes in terms of structure or rules, and the skweee genre begins to look like a bastard re-imagining of the early punk aesthetic. Perhaps this is the key to understanding the refusal of this music itself to be nailed down to any particular form; that this is itself a throwback to the anarchistic freedom of punk expression.
As my time with Kristian goes on, and the beers start going down easier and easier, I try and press him on the matter a little harder to nail down what it is that makes skweee, well, skweee. He gives it one more try: “It’s live electronic dance music. It’s old analogue synthesisers and drum machines. It doesn’t have to be that either because that’s lots of other things too. It’s a difficult thing to define. It’s a mystery that has yet to be solved. Ask me what Skweee is and I will ask you what is it not? Hahaha”
Well played my friend.
To find out more about skweee, check out these labels: