Last year, Oslo-reared Stian Balducci, AKA +plattform, released his debut LP Twelve. This February, he won the Spellesmannsprisen (Norwegian Grammy) for it. Now, he is completing an M.A. degree at the conservatory in Kristiansand, a small city on the southern coast of Norway. We stopped to talk over a cup of coffee, about the role of humour in music, his new EP and how Derrick May stopped him from pursuing a career as a dj.
Given your remarkably short thank-you speech, it didn’t seem like you were expecting to win the Spellemannsprisen.
I wasn’t. I thought it was a “filler-nomination”. There have to be four nominees in each category, so I thought they nominated me to fill up the one for electronic music. And there was some superstitiousness involved too. I didn’t dare to think that I actually would win, nor write a thank-you speech. Because then I would just become very disappointed.
Early curfews and overall strict nightlife politics aren’t making it easy for the techno scene in Norway. Do you think you winning this prize with a techno record illustrates a growing recognition of this genre within the Norwegian music scene?
The question is: Do similar records win these kinds of awards in other countries too? I actually don’t know, but I’m curious. Also, I think I’ve started making very kind music.
I agree. The album is quite low-key compared to some of your older productions.
It’s minimalistic. When I hear a track – be it my own or someone else’s productions – and it makes me think, “here, this or that additional element would have fitted”, then I regard it as very good music. Pieces of music that are “missing something” are the ones getting stuck in my mind. So I try not to have it too crammed. But there are quite a few friendly melodies. Actually, my friends have become more fans of my music now compared to when I started making music. Back then it was too far out for them. But over the years perhaps we have approached each other, and met somewhere in the middle.
I noticed that there aren’t so many breaks in the tracks, which takes away some of the tension, makes it more calm.
That’s connected to both ethical and aesthetical choices I make as an artist. I try having something to say, and not doing what somebody else is already doing. There is no point in doing the same thing as someone else but worse.
I disagree that it takes away tension though, almost the opposite. Lots of music, in all genres really, rest on romantic and age old ideas of form. I think playing up to those expectations makes it boring and, ironically, flatter. For me the perfect shape is more like a box – as opposed to how music is often imagined as a wavy landscape. I try to make structures that can last over time. I also like to startle the listener a bit, for example with elements out of character and fills in odd places that come in and take you by surprise when you think you are safe. My recent EP Torne is a continuation of that idea. This crazy woman standing there, screaming.
I read that you used vocals on that EP as a comment on the state of the genre these days.
There are two sides to it. One is me sitting in my studio thinking about it from a musical point of view. The other one is picturing being in the setting where the record is played.
Imagine being in a club, dancing for many hours to a lot of very similar music. In techno a lot of the same elements are repeated over and over again. Synths, 909-drums, and then there has been this sixteenth-note and retro stuff the last few years, which I don’t agree with. It’s tasteless – or at least not very smart – to reproduce an aesthetic ideal that has already existed. This is as true for techno as it is for all other genres. We are going forwards anyway, so why keep on doing these things? You can of course, and should, take small bits from the past. It’s about having a decent dialogue, knowing what fits today. But you can’t just go all retro.
So the comment is that the vocals break up the evening a bit and give the listener the feeling of suddenly being very close to the music, the human voice is inarguably intimate. And it is an exploration of what is possible beyond the synth as a leading element.
The EP slightly reminded me of the Hildr-project you did with singer Karoline Dahl Gullberg in 2015. Did some of the inspiration come from there, or was that a totally different approach?
There wasn’t a clear connection to the Hildr-record when I made Torne. But what happened here was that a fellow student of mine at the conservatory here in Kristiansand asked me if we should do something together. She is a classical singer, and I thought she could try to sing something similar to the riff on Tailer, the title track of the EP I released in 2015. That turned out to be very difficult. You get so tired of it. It doesn’t work. It’s far too much up in your face. So it became a question of arrangement. How can I use it without using it up?
One thing is the sound. Normally I work with sampling, not so much with synth production. It’s a mixture, sample-based synthesis. So I process the sounds a lot. And processing vocals is one of the most difficult things to do, since you can easily hear what it is. So sound-wise it didn’t work having a continuous vocal riff. It became too intense. But I hope the final result works in the genre. And it opens up a dialogue with things happening more often in the world of house music. A little more playfulness.
That’s interesting, because I wouldn’t consider, say, the track Perfume as very playful.
Do you think it’s serious?
Well, quite dramatic.
Yes, and a bit perverse. The words in the sample are from a quite crazy early 20th-century book. It’s intense, but also playful. In the sense of the pitched up vocals, that sound very strict and atonal, strange and exaggerated. But at the same time there is some humour in it somehow. Even though I don’t really like humour in music. But I need to distance myself a bit from it, because I can’t mean it 100%. It’s a bit too over the top.
There is another thing about Perfume I wonder about. You included a version of it in the live set you did for us at Monument two years ago. Does this reveal something about how you work?
I think the first version of Perfume is from 2014. So it takes some time. I played with it, sent it to a friend, but the idea wasn’t ripe yet. At that time it had a totally different accompaniment and beats. It wasn’t as precise. It was like I didn’t have the knowledge to complete the idea. It’s in moments like these that it is really nice to have a computer, where you can just store things. After a while I go back, look what I have, and use these unfinished projects as starting points for new records. Some things are made on the spot, but that’s rare. It can take up to 60 alternative versions of one track until the final version. That can take quite some time. So you got the right impression. I store projects, and take them up again at a later point.
What about the album? Had these tracks also been lying on your hard disk for a while?
Some of it was quite new, some of it were ideas that had been “lying around”. Nylon for example is one of the oldest ones, whereas Ombre was made in one take. Wrak and Morne were also made fast. Khartoum has been with me for a long time. So it’s a mixture. But it feels right that it happens like that. The biggest hinder is the beginning, to start with nothing. This applies to everything. Imagine going to the grocery store asking yourself what you should make for dinner. If you already have something in the fridge, you only need to come up with something to complete a dish and you already have a decent meal. So if I sit down in my studio an evening, making some sketches, I can go back to a project and just take a little bit from it, stretch it, play with it, build new beats in an organic way.
It’s not really a listening album. Did you decide at one point that you wanted to make a club oriented album, or did it just evolve like this?
It wasn’t imagined as an album initially. The people at PLOINK had given me a deadline in December 2016 to send in material if I wanted to release something on their label during 2017. So I sat down in the studio for about a month, finished a lot of projects, and sent off twelve tracks. That would be enough material for them to put together an EP, we just had to agree on which tracks could fit together on a format like that, I thought. But then they said that they wanted to release it as an album on three vinyls. Now, in retrospect, it makes sense, but in the beginning it wasn’t in my thoughts.
If I had known that I’d make an album before I made the album, I think I would have chosen a different format. Maybe it also destroys the romantic myth of the artist, whose vision comes from the inside, and imagines the finished product. But I think it illustrates in a nice way that things always are created together by several people.
A few years back there was a phase where many techno artists put out albums. Artists that normally do pure, 12-inch club cuts. There was a lot of ambient stuff and flowing intros, and I just didn’t feel that it was good enough. It seemed like everyone wanted to do an album because it was cool and artsy. But then, in 2014, Developer came with his In Pure Form release, which was four vinyls and over twenty tracks. Just something totally insane. All of them are functional tracks, and it made so much sense having that all in one package.
Are there other techno albums you think have worked?
Dettman’s first album is extremely good. That is more or less also only functional tracks. Developer, Dettmann – and Tolkachev. I can’t mention one particular release, but just generally as a producer he is crazy good. It’s kind of these three who are the heroes in that regard.
Khartoum, Kerala, Kiruna – you sometimes use names of places as track titles. Is there a story behind it?
In a way there is something behind it. The titles have to fit aesthetically with the tracks. In Kerala for example there is this phenomena of red-coloured rain, called blood rain, which I felt was that synth. Some acidic, strange thing. The track Kiruna feels like it is very cold, snowy and wide. But I haven’t been any of the places. They all start with a K, maybe that means something?
Maybe? Kristiansand also begins with a K.
I can’t make a track called Kristiansand.
Do you think you will stay there when you are done studying?
I gravitate towards a no, but I would like to stay affiliated. I do some teaching, both for kids and at the university, and I think I can contribute with something here. During class we often end up in good discussions about what it means making electronic music. It is still so new that there aren’t any standards for it. In Norway electronic music has been in a close dialogue with jazz ever since the 1990s. Like Nils Petter Molvær’s Khmer album, which is a house type of thing. Olle Abstract and DJ Strangefruit played with all these jazz guys, and there came some quite reasonable things out of these collaborations. Using laptops and other electronic equipment as instruments in settings like these is what we should go after.
Are there others in Kristiansand making techno like you?
How is it working in an environment like that, without many impulses from outside and where you have to make things happen yourself?
That’s one of the biggest reasons why one gets enough of living here: It’s small, and there are not many things happening. But musically I’ve always been isolated. I was never part of a dj milieu, and I don’t really dj either. So my music stands more on the side of that community, a bunch of dudes and now women, who play each other’s music, which can make it all stagnate a bit. It can be refreshing with something from outside.
I was at a talk in Oslo once, where Derrick May was one of the speakers. He is such a grumpy old man, only complaining. He said he thinks it’s an enormous problem that all producers are djing each other’s music, making everything more and more similar to each other. So you need someone who doesn’t dj to make music, to make any progress. At that time I wanted to become a dj, but was rather demotivated by him basically saying that everything sucked. But in a way he has a point.
Concerning community, here in Kristiansand we have been working on something called Punkt Klubb for a few years. Now it’s called /grå, and is linked up to my label Gråtone. It’s a rather large ensemble consisting of about 15 musicians including Bendik Baksaas, Even Sarucco and Simen Løvgren who do the electronic deeds together with me. We take the club culture and try to show it from a Norwegian perspective, rather than imitating how they do it in Rome or Berlin. First of all it’s a totally different tradition, and secondly the nightlife politics are totally different. There are many circumstances there, which contribute to the fact that being a dj in those cities makes so much more sense than in Norway. So /grå is an attempt to offer something that works, but with this Norwegian expertise in improvisation and playing together across instruments and genres. It’s four hours non-stop with visuals. The idea is to replace the dj. An important part of it are the instruments other than electronics, like guitar or percussion, since we do live-sampling as we go.
You started the +plattform project in 2012. Can you tell us a bit about that journey so far?
The first tracks are not so cool to look back on now, to be honest. But it started with me really wanting to release something. That was the first goal. Some electronic musicians are able to reproduce whatever sound. They can just sit down and say what something should sound like, and then make exactly that. For me it just becomes what it becomes. I have found my own techniques. My earlier stuff had far less melodic elements. It has kind of sneaked in over time, both because of changes in my taste, and because of more knowledge. My goal now is to get to play live more often.
And how did the whole project come into being in the first place?
My mother died just before I turned 18. And since I am half Italian, I decided to go to Rome to study philosophy. I just had to get away. I wasn’t able to cope with the loss as I should, so I ran away. I arrived in Italy and started studying. But soon I had to realize that reading Nietzsche in academic Italian doesn’t really work out for someone who only speaks everyday Italian like me. I didn’t understand anything, and it ended up with anxious and troubled me staying at home a lot. But I had taken with me some equipment for music production. I have been making music ever since I was quite young, but in a more playful sense. And then I had this flatmate. I think he was on his 7th year on a bachelor’s degree. He just stood and DJed the whole day. He took me to clubs like Goa and Brancaleone, and after a couple of visits there I decided that this is the kind of music I want to make. It was a little bit like a way out. I couldn’t go back to Norway without anything to do. So then I did it.
So you didn’t have any contact with that type of music before?
I didn’t know what techno was, living in Norway. I was very interested in music, always have been. But the first real encounter with the genre and culture was in Italy as a 19-year-old. So I was already grown up. I wasn’t clubbing when I was 16. I was at home parties somewhere in Oslo, yes. But that was something totally different.
I guess there wasn’t too much techno there.
No, but it’s more now. There is definitely more now compared to when I started. It seems like techno is becoming more and more accepted, especially in Norway.
Yes, people even win Spellemannsprisen with techno albums nowadays, I’ve heard.
Yes, it’s very strange.
Photos: Alf Solbakken and Simen Løvgren
Catch /grå in Oslo next month: Facebook event