Interview With Jonathan and Claes From DNKL

DNKL members Claes Strängberg and Jonatan Josefsson chat with Northern Transmissions about making music, their EP came out last week on Sugarcane Recordings

DNKL is three musicians from Gothenburg, André Laos, Claes Strängberg and Jonatan Josefsson, who started DNKL in mid-2013 and the band has become one of Sweden’s most anticipated exports. The Guardian praised DNKL’s music and described it as having a “crackling electronic surface.” Yet the music flows, buoyed on the hypnotic rhythms and drums that are the depths under the crisp edge of the synths. Over it all, the warm yet precise honey tones of the vocals whisper ideas in your ear. Then the realization strikes that you’re lost in the midnight fog and have no intention of finding your way out. Pressing repeat, it might seem as though you were meant to be there all along. The new EP, Wolfhour, just came out, and Northern Transmissions was able to speak to DNKL about their music. Alice Severin talked to Claes and Jonatan about darkness and light, the Swedish psyche, and the creative process.

Northern Transmissions: Hello! How are you doing? I’ve just got to say right up front, I’ve listened to the EP, and it’s wonderful.

Claes Strängberg – Oh, that’s nice to hear.

Jonathan Josefsson: Thank you. I’m glad to hear it. We haven’t released the EP yet, so we are still pretty nervous about what people will think of it.

NT: But you’ve been playing quite a few big festivals this summer. How has that been?

JJ: Yes, we played the Roskilde festival in Denmark, and a big one in our home town, Gothenburg – the Way Out West festival, there was a Boiler Room session. So it was quite nice, I guess.

CS: And there was the Nordic by Nature showcase at Berlin Music Week. So there’s been quite a few good shows. Without releasing anything. (laughs) So yeah, we’re grateful. It’s been very, very nice. Me and Jonatan and André played for many years in different bands and projects. It’s mostly just been really, really fun to do this on a bigger stage. To start off at this point has been amazing.

NT: I read somewhere that you like to play instruments on stage as well as having the electronic music, computers, going on. Is that true, and what do you play?

JJ: We talked a lot about it and we were kind of tired of artists just using a laptop, and then some vocals. It’s so boring. (laughs) It’s good sounds, but it’s really boring to watch. And since me, and Claes and André can play a lot of instruments, then we have to try and use them. I guess.

CS: Yes, it’s not only boring to watch, it’s really boring to play. (laughs) Just standing with like a laptop, or a sequencer of some kind, and vocals – I mean. We are grateful to have the experience of playing different instruments live for many years, so for us it’s really natural to do as much as possible live, so that in every song, in every section, everyone is busy doing something on a real instrument.

NT: The sounds on your songs seem like there is a lot of thought put into the tone of things, and how it all mixes together. Do you think you try and choose different types of sound? What is important to you when you are putting together a song?

JJ: Oh, that’s a tricky question, because it is so different from song to song. And I mean, I think for all of the songs on the EP, maybe except for Hunt, it’s a pretty massive sound. Wolfhour, Battles, and Warm Dark Nights, they are pretty massive. There are maybe not that many layers on all the tracks, but it’s a huge balance in the mix that we need to consider. And I think that for many of the newer songs that we are working on right now, maybe it’s more airy, for some of the tracks. So it really depends, from track to track. It’s like balancing on a thin thread.

NT: And after being so close to it for months, how do you decide when it is finished, that you’re happy with it?

CS and JJ: (laughing) That’s a big issue.

JJ: I don’t know if any of our songs that we release are finished. You always want to change something, but…

CS: You come to a point where you think that you have to say stop, because otherwise you’re just going to grow tired of it, or…

JJ: And add more and more layers, and then it sounds like crap.

NT: Then you lose the initial feeling.

JJ and CS: Yeah, exactly.

CS: And it’s been quite a challenge, the first year, to progress in the songwriting, and to get to know how we work, the three of us, in the studio. And to prevent damage to the project through overworking it? So we are actually currently exploring different ways and different routines to bring the best out of a project, where all three of us can be part of it. Because it’s not as easy as it seems. I mean, sometimes it’s easy, but you can fall into the trap of overworking and put on too many layers and never be happy with anything, so that’s actually a pretty good challenge for us.

NT: I wanted to ask about the drums on the first song – Wolfhour. The drum sound is so up front – it’s huge.

JJ: Yeah, we worked really hard with the kick drums on that song. That’s like the main thing.

CS: And the kick drum is in harmony with the different chords in the song – it’s tuned. So it’s a really nice flow.

JJ: I think it’s really different kick drums, and all of them are working together – it’s hard work but it’s worth it now, because it sounds amazing.

NT: It sounds incredible. I think in some ways it almost sums up your sound at the moment, you have drums, you have electronica, but you have the melodic, but it all fits so well together.

JJ: Yeah, nice. We tried to have that mixture like blend everything in, and work with the drums. I’m a drummer so I have been inspired by different beats. We like rhythmic stuff, even if it’s with a synthesizer. We really like to work with arppegiators, and stuff that moves. And that’s a big part of DNKL I guess.

NT: There is a line in the song Battles – “We start to remember who we were when we were young who we turned out to be”. It has such intensity and little bit of regret, maybe, at the same time. How did you come up with it and what do you think it means to you?

CS: The whole song is actually about realizing, or seeing through all of this individualistic, like career – endeavor – progress – that everyone is, especially in our generation maybe, a part of. Like this whole constant struggle to progress, of going to the next step. Do you get what I mean? It’s tough to describe it in English. But the whole song is about like seeing all. It’s about realizing who we really are, throughout these struggles, about who we wanted to be and who we finally became in the end, and all of the price that we have to pay for all of these trips, basically. And realizing this, and that basically coming to the fact that we need something bigger, something more than ourselves to put our hopes in, and to rely on. And that is what the song is about so, I think that specific line that you mentioned, it’s pretty much describing all of this in a perspective when you look back at what you’ve done. So maybe not just lyrics about us as a band. It’s more of a description of the situation of a whole generation, a civilization, probably.

NT: I can see that – people being pushed into a certain path and losing themselves. And that struggle to be authentic and to find what is really important.

CS: Yeah, exactly. And we spent years and years chasing the next step, and sacrificing a lot to go to the next career move, or whatever. And then, twenty or thirty years later, when either you have everything, or you don’t, and you’re bitter because you didn’t have anything, there comes a point where you just realize that most of your life just disappeared into something and then you have a like a crisis of existence. (laughs) I don’t know. We spend too much time and energy thinking about progress and forgetting what life is really about on the way.

NT: I tend to agree – especially living in New York. I think most people here have forgotten everything.

CS: I would like to keep the meaning of this song and these lyrics as a pretty personal way of speaking of peoples’ lives, and not generalize along history and politics and stuff. But I can tell at the same time, that Sweden has done a – like the generation before us had a completely different way of thinking, like another mentality when it comes to what am I going to do with my life, etc. People were thinking more of doing something together, or doing something important, and then I think kids from the 1980s and on are much more individualistic, much more don’t care about anyone else but themselves, about their own career, and their own self-fulfillment. It’s a pretty big crack in the whole Swedish mentality between these generations, which is interesting. And I kept that in mind, writing these lyrics.

NT: That’s surprising to hear, because Sweden has, and certainly compared to America, such a reputation for caring about society as opposed to the individual.

CS and JJ: Yes.

CS: I mean, it still is in comparison to America, I would say, in many, many ways. But something is actually changing, and I wouldn’t say it’s because we’ve had a right-wing government for eight years. That doesn’t matter at all, basically. What really matters is that people just stopped caring about other things that are not important to them and themselves or their career. And that is actually creating…that is the main reason that things are actually changing here. I wouldn’t say it’s all for the good.

NT: I was reading about Sweden and there’s something called the Allemansrätten – the Right of Public Access. (It allows the public to roam freely, even on private land, to camp overnight and to pick mushrooms and berries.) And I thought that was so fascinating, that everyone has the right to enjoy the land, but of course it brings responsibilities with it, and I was going to ask you if you thought that made a difference to people and how they view the world, art, everything.

CS: I’m really proud of having that – I mean, those laws didn’t come out of nowhere. I mean, it’s human rights in real life – it’s not just on a piece of paper. (laughs) It’s actually a reality that the air and the woods and the lakes and everything – it doesn’t belong to you because maybe your family owns this land – it belongs to everyone and everyone has the right to use it in a responsible way. I think that perspective on life and what life is, when it comes to culture, that it’s something that should be like the human right to explore and recreate themselves. But that’s just like sounds like pretty words on a paper, unless you can make it real in policy. Otherwise poor kids grow up and they can never even consider being part of a play, or playing an instrument, or starting painting because they have to take care of their financial situation and they can only dream. Then it becomes something like culture is something that only belongs to those who are rich enough. And I think as a society where we take care of each other, I want to be a part of a system where it shouldn’t matter if your mom and dad are cleaners, or carpenters, or CEOs, if you’re born into a world where you have the same chance of exploring yourself and all of those kind of things, then I think that is freedom for real, and not just this pretty picture on the wall.

NT: I did want to ask you about the title Wolfhour because I thought it was such an evocative, interesting title. How did you come up with it, and did you choose it for a particular reason?

JJ: I think Claes has a great story about that name.

CS: Ok, alright. It’s got different meanings. First of all, why we chose it for the EP, simply because the lead track is called Wolfhour. And we thought it is also describing this whole nocturnal mood of the whole EP. Wolfhour – in Sweden we call it “vargtimmen” – it’s not only like the early hours after midnight, where you are in the depths of the night, it’s also got a deeper meaning. People used to use it to describe something bigger as well, when you think of a heavy moment, like a struggle, or something. Maybe we didn’t think about it that much, but then together with the song Wolfhour and its meaning, and the nocturnal feeling of all the other tracks, we thought it was pretty funny, because me and Jonaton, when we first started to visualize the band and the project, we had a playlist where we put in music of different artists and different bands, where we thought they had a really interesting atmosphere. And we called this playlist “vargtimmen” – wolfhour. And that was just basically the description of the sound that we felt – we didn’t think about it that much at all. And then it felt that for the first EP of this band – it felt like it wrapped it up pretty nicely. It was like a fun side story to it. But then of course it’s the lead track, and that song says something about itself that is pretty powerful, I think.

NT: Your music is darker, but in a good way, the good qualities of darkness – depth, power. Not depressing and heavy, but thoughtful.

CS: Yeah. I think there are two reasons why DNKL is a great name for this band. One, because it’s a nightmare to name stuff, to put it on a box, to put a brand to it. And DNKL, meaning just darkness, is as close to a blank, untitled name as possible. It leaves so much out. On the other hand, I think in darkness, where it’s misty, that is where a little source of light is the strongest. Within the darkness it becomes so much stronger…ah, I suck at English, how to describe this. When a room is dark, the light is strongest there. And there’s a thing about optimism to it, as well, not just seeing the dark side of it. Some people think maybe it’s depressing, but to us it is pretty natural. We’re three pretty happy guys, actually. But it is a natural way of creative expression. In a country where there are eight months of pitch darkness. (laughs) It affects all of your mood in a deeper way. Not ‘oh I feel sad’. It’s not about that. It goes deeper than that. So I think that is why people think Swedish music in general has this sentimental touch to it. To most Swedes, it’s not sentimental – it’s just a natural heritage of everything. It’s got different depths.

NT: That balance between darkness and light.

CS: Yeah. If you come to Sweden in January, and if you come in June, it’s like two different planets. You wouldn’t believe you were in the same place.

NT: Are you influenced by art and film at all? The video for Hunt was interesting – a bit film noir, a bit silent film inspired. Did you have input on that at all?

CS: Actually it was a short film, that a German director had in his portfolio. We fell in love with it and thought it would be so fitting for the music. So we contacted him and asked him – hey, here’s the song, and we’d really like to use your beautiful film. It was a short five minute film, with lots of strings and we asked him. And he was fine with it. So we made another cut with him, and then used it as a video. And we’re really grateful for it, because we feel it suits the song.

JJ: We basically didn’t change anything. It fits the song so well – it’s perfect. When we found the video, we were like we have to have this one – it’s perfect.

NT: It’s such a collection of images, and the twist to the story.

CS: And the other video, we let the director do their thing – more than we want to direct, we think it’s more interesting to let someone interpret the song and present their idea and story about it, rather than we are both musicians and film directors. Actually right now there is a young director from Sweden who is going to try to make a video for Wolfhour. But we don’t want much to do with it, like the story, and we just want him to let him have his way with it, and we could do some small edits in the end. But I think that’s it’s a much more fun way to work, combining creative ideas than just ah, let’s make a music video.

NT: And five albums that still inspire you, that you return to.

CS: That inspired DNKL, or us as people?

NT: That’s a good distinction – you could mix them up.

CS: The sound of DNKL was inspired by some artists, then us as songwriters were inspired by different things. I think I need to think about this. I’m just browsing through my library.

JJ: Cheating!

Claes and Jonaton chose:

Radiohead – Amnesiac


I Break Horses – Hearts

Holy Other – With U

Genius of Time

Alice Severin


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