During their time, Roland Lifjell and Filter Musikk have had an enormous impact on Oslo. Combined, they’ve incorporated a record store, a DJ, and a music producer. Here, Mischa Mathys unpacks the story behind Filter Musikk – an Oslo institution, and the enduring appeal of the record store.
“I often feel like I’m letting the next generation of producers and DJs down” says Roland Lifjell, over the Filter counter in his usual innocuous baritone. A renowned DJ and producer in Oslo, Roland’s reputation precedes him. As the proprietor of Filter Musikk, an electronic music and equipment store in the heart of the Norwegian capital, Roland is a rare breed of artist and DJ. He is a severe perfectionist in the booth and the studio. His production work as part of Audibelle exemplifies point-perfect Techno in the Scandinavian sonic aesthetic.
Meanwhile, Roland reserves his DJ sets for the more committed enthusiast. They’re extended and grounded in practiced narrative of how a club night should unfold. Roland represents a generation of DJs from an old-guard – a faceless facilitator that puts the music before his persona. He extends that philosophy to his shop Filter: the last vestige of hope for a discerning electronic music fan in Norway.
While the internet dominates record sales, at Filter you can still find music outside of your comfort zone. Nowadays, blogs you read, social media and so on, perpetuate a continuous feedback loop of likes and dislikes. This fact makes record stores like Filter are more important than ever. You might go in with a predetermined idea of what you’re looking for. But paging through stacks of records, you could stumble across something you haven’t noticed before. By sheer feeling – whether it’s the artwork or placement on a shelf – you’ll find a new artist or label to obsess over.
Away from the incessant music media machine, a record store is where the music can speak on its own terms. It’s just you and the format. Filter harnesses this sentiment to its full potential. It’s a record store with no pretentious slant in its bones when it comes to genre, style or even identity. Its owner, Roland Lifjell, is the man responsible for this.
Roland Lifjell’s career in music began much like his peers’. An interest progressed, from trying to play the horn in the Corps, to playing records at his local youth club. He had always been something of a loner, and a taste for “forlorn synthesiser music” from the eighties had taken a root in his musical education. This set him apart somewhat from his peers, who focused on hip-hop. It was after a chance encounter with a synthesiser in a store that Roland resolved to learn to make music, but it would be a career in DJing that would bring Roland to Techno.
An anxious youngster with a determined head, Roland started DJing at an early age. He played private parties and at his local youth club, “driving the other guys insane” with a selection of records that would go from rap to rave. After a while, he was determined to perfect this new art. Even though he felt alone in his new passion with only a few friends sharing his interests, he would eventually perfect his technique. “Then, the focus was only on technique” says Roland over the Filter counter, “but now I have a view of what DJing is and it goes beyond technique.”
From Breakbeat to Techno
After having to cater to audiences at private parties, who had little to no musical interests, Roland envisioned something else for himself. This vision took him out of the function halls and into clubs and Oslo – changing direction from the Breakbeat stuff he had been playing and into the realms of 90’s Techno.
Through the endless possibilities of the nineties, Roland rose through the ranks of Oslo’s burgeoning electronic music scene. “I didn’t know the records” Roland says, with KLF’s Chill Out in the background, “and that was new and exciting”. It was a time of heavy experimentation and Norway was definitively on the map with the Tromsø contingent. Even Roland, a then relatively unknown DJ, could make an impact amongst them.
“I was lucky enough to be part of that big wave of Techno, where you could play as an relatively unknown artist for 1000 people or more. That was unique.”
It was before generic styles and genres had started gentrifying the electronic music landscape. Roland Lifjell found a niche in Oslo, as a diversified, focused DJ that could move beyond the sequestered genre in order to narrate the movement of the night. Moving from his lonesome youth to the great expanse of electronic club music, Roland established himself as a formidable figure on the underground music scene.
The Unlikely Start of Filter Musikk
While cultivating a reputation as a DJ, Roland would start working at various record stores and distribution channels in Oslo. Most significant of these was Music Maestro. According to many sources, this was the first shop in Oslo that exclusively dedicated itself to House and Techno. Music Maestro had direct channel to Intergroove Distribution as a subsidiary. In the nineties, they carried all the latest pieces making their mark on dancefloors all over Europe. At some point every DJ in Oslo of that generation had passed through its hallowed doors. Some of them had even taken on roles within the company. By the time Roland had joined the ranks at Music Maestro, the company had already begun on its downward spiral to its early demise. “I did good work at Music Maestro but by then it was too late” remembers Roland solemnly.
Music Maestro’s demise left a gaping hole in Oslo’s musical landscape. Intergroove Distribution had nowhere left to send their house and techno records. So, they gave a box of records to Roland Lifjell and said “Here, see what you can sell”. There were no other shops offering this at the time. So Roland set-up a shop at a musical equipment store named Filter, peddling his wares out of boxes in a corner of the premises. “Record sales were good,” Roland said. This allowed him to buy stock in Filter and eventually take over the whole company. “I took over the shop and then it was bye bye freedom.”
The Right Philosophy
By the early 2000s, Roland could sense that the winds of change in the air. “For some reason the whole buying culture got a kick.” When high-quality digital files started cropping up, the situation expounded. But Roland was steadfast in his resolve. Roland and Filter earned a reputation. This wasn’t always necessarily positive. “A lot of heads thought: “that’s Roland – he only sells Techno and Trance’”. But that wasn’t the case. When they would eventually make the pilgrimage to Filter, they’d find a much more diverse identity.
Although his personal tastes are cemented in Techno, Roland explained, “it’s always been my goal to not let my tastes reflect in the store too much”. That often meant even getting records in that he despised. “I bought in Hard House records even though I didn’t like the philosophy of that genre”, Roland says with detectable amount of disdain, Like any good record store owner, Roland would cater for people’s needs, but he would always make sure that the majority of records he stocked was the “stuff that had the right philosophy.” There’s an “openness” in running a record store for Roland that transcends “those hype details” and his only desire is to “give people the right stuff even if that’s not what they know they want… yet.”
“People will rather buy a weird ambient record than a functional house record”
New favourite labels, like Falling Ethics and Shipwrec , I discovered at Filter over the last few years. Roland is an expert hand at finding those records and placing them in the right context. In an age of hyper-consumerism in music, digital files are played out and instantly forgotten. The price and the extent that you go through in finding new music, and new-old music in a record store relates to a much more personal investment in each and every purchase. From the independent label that prints out 300 copies in the hope of selling them to just cover the cost, to the consumer that pays 150Kr for a couple of tracks on vinyl is more of a culture than it is a commodity item.
Roland realises that the “record shop might be a little old fashioned, and doesn’t fit in with consumer habits anymore”. But now more than ever he is seeing his persistence pay off, as people gather around Filter’s doors for the sole sake of the music. “Vinyl import has never been as good in Oslo as it is now”, suggests Roland. “It’s easier for me to support vinyl sales now that I think people healthy interest in the music, and it’s not just for DJ use”. An odd and a very surprising statement from a practising DJ perhaps. “People will rather buy a weird ambient record than a functional House record”. For Roland, that means the years he felt cheap for buying more House than Techno, are now behind him. A happy equilibrium has been restored where he can focus on records and labels with the “right philosophy”.
A large portion of these records, although never exclusively, has been Techno, Roland making sure that his mark is noticeably ingrained in the store, albeit subconsciously. Although we’ve seen Roland in the context of a DJ set play everything from Disco to Trance, Techno is the genre we in Oslo mostly associate with the name Roland Lifjell. Out of all those genres and styles that would go through the store, from House to Hard House, Techno has been the constant, the genre Roland has, and will always “believe in” and although it seems to be under constant threat from the authorities in Norway of late Roland is persistent in his love for the genre, and feels an obligation to take up the battle cry for its defense.
Cultural War Over Techno in Norway
As the Norwegian police “are intensifying their cultural war on Techno”, the time is ripe to pull together a community. Roland is determined to do this, for the next generation. “I have been DJing all my grown up life”.
“In some way I am less serious about music than a Jazz musician that receives funding from the government”. “So, it’s funny that the same government frowns upon the music that chose me”.
Apart from selling records, Roland has started building a studio in one of the backrooms of Filter, in the hope of building a community, a safe haven and intellectual grotto for the music obsessive. ”It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. We’re a little gang of people around here and I think it’s time to raise level and take things seriously. I hear a lot of potential in Norwegian musicians. There are a lot of artists that can get somewhere, but they need the development to get there”. That’s where Roland hopes he can make even more of an impact through Filter and the new studio.
Ever since 2006, when he tried to push back against dwindling record sales, Roland’s determination has been to keep this music and culture alive. “I feel a responsibility to keep vinyl going”, explains Roland. When most record stores closed their doors, Filter remained. Today, record sales are growing again and many new shops have jumped on the band wagon. However, Filter remains as Oslo’s most idiosyncratic and perfect example of what a record store should be.
Roland will be playing a 4-hour set this Friday at Jæger, so for everyone interested please check the event
Also, keep updated by following filter on facebook or visit the store at this address: Skippergata 33, 0154 Oslo