Northern Disco Lights
Going only by stereotypes, you’d find it hard to predict any kind of alignment between disco and Norway. Disco is, after all, the happiest, most outrageous of all music, that rose up out of soul music and into East Coast gay clubs in the 1970s. Norway on the other hand is cold and dark, synonymous with short winter days and a lot of snow. But in the early 90s, a group of teenagers from Norway took on disco, techno and ambient sounds, and their impact went on to change dance music forever.
Roughly twenty years later, Norwegian techno producer Todd Terje released Inspector Norse. Confirming Norwegian disco’s irrepressible influence, that continues to rattle speakers in clubs around the world.
It is exactly this story that Ben Davis of Paper Recordings has set out to chart in his first film, Northern Disco Lights: The Rise and Rise of Norwegian Dance Music. It’s a story of pirate radio stations, parties, building synthesisers, making music and carving a little niche in dance music for a group of mates from Norway. In light of the film’s online release, Davis here reflects on charting an uncharted legacy.
Alex Green: In the trailer to Northern Disco Lights, Per Martinsen says, “Growing up here was perfect because we could just sit up here and monitor what the humans were up to in other parts of the world.” Could you tell us a bit about Tromsø and how you think the geography of the city – specifically being freezing, pitch black for four months a year and miles from everything – influenced the music that was coming out of it.
Ben Davis: It is considered the northern-most city in the world and feels a long way from everywhere, existing in its own eco-system. When Per said that he was referring to a time before the internet so it was quite cut off culturally and geographically with things taking a long time to reach there. But the scenery is absolutely stunning and I think that epic-ness of it informs the music, especially when you listen to somebody like Biosphere. His music feels glacial, sparse and you can get a sense of the isolation. And the thinking goes that there is not much to do when it is dark for 24 hours so you lock down in the studio with no distractions.
Alex: What was the music scene like in Tromsø before disco hit? Who were the key players in the early days of it?
Ben: Tromsø has never been a disco town but techno and ambient has always been its staple. Biosphere and Mental Overdrive are the people who started the ball rolling and if you wanted to get down to splitting hairs, Per lent Biosphere his first synth. They got record deals and opened the doors for Bjørn Torske and Rune Lindbaek followed by Doc L Junior and Röyksopp. But most of them had moved away to Olso and Bergen by the time the more disco-influenced sound took hold.
Alex: I understand Erot, who sadly passed away in 2001, plays an important part in the documentary. Could you talk a bit about his influence on the scene and how his illness impacted those around him?
Ben: He is the chap who converted the disco sound into something that had the potential to really cross over. The Greatest Hit, which he produced for Annie, is a case in point and put Norway on the map for club music. He was the poster boy of the whole movement and the first person to tour Japan. If you listen to his records now they still sound absolutely amazing and the gear that it was made on was very rudimentary by today’s standards. I think you can draw a direct line from him to Todd Terje and it feels to me like he has shown what Erot could have gone on to achieve. When he died the Bergen scene lost its focus but the seeds that he had helped sow had laid the foundations of what was to follow.
Alex: When making the film, did you get a sense that they knew they were on to something from the beginning? I’m interested in what it feels like when you realise a movement is being formed and how that changes your attitude to everything which isn’t music.
Ben: I think they had no idea what was coming together and that is what makes it so refreshing. Even today I think there’s very little deliberation on what kind of music is made by Norwegian producers. For example if you listen to Bjørn Torske, Prins Thomas or Lindström’s catalogue there’s an enormous amount of variety there but it is all held together that is very Norwegian but difficult to put your finger on.
But I think in quite an organic way it helped Norway get a sense of confidence and its place in the world. Before oil was found in the 60s it was the poor man of Europe and a very rural economy with very little going on. But now Oslo is one of Europe’s best cities and the country is looked to as a cultural hotspot that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Dance music has played a big part in that.
“Now Oslo is one of Europe’s best cities and the country is looked to as a cultural hotspot that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Dance music has played a big part in that.”
Cover art for ‘The Greatest Hit’ by Annie. Courtesy Per Rockheim archive.
Alex: What is your musical history and why start making films now?
Ben: I have been co-running Paper Recordings with Pete Jenkinson, DJing and producing for nearly 25 years and we have been looking for a new challenge for while. We kind of fell in to making this and it’s been a massive learning curve but a hugely enjoyable one. As I spend a lot of time on my own in the studio (as Flash Atkins) it’s been hugely great working in a team.
Alex: What about the story drew you into making it?
Ben: Paper has a long history of putting Norwegian music out starting with Those Norwegians in the mid-90s that was one of the first records to have that left field psychedelic sound. On a personal level I have always been fascinated by it and the music. The thing that really started me on the film was wondering why a country of Vikings on the Northern edge of Europe had such a strong connection to disco which started in the black, gay clubs of New York.
Alex: I imagine it’s daunting choosing the music for a music documentary. What did you go for and what was the thought process behind it?
Ben: I spent a lot of time on Spotify listening to a huge amount of Norwegian dance music and really tried to educate myself. There were certain tracks that had to feature such as Novelty Waves, Jeg Vil Vaere Soppelmann, I Feel Space and Inspector Norse but other than that I had a list of about 150 tracks that had to fit the right time period and feel of the visuals. Mental Overdrive also did the soundtrack and did a fantastic job.
Alex: In terms of the making of the film, what were the biggest challenges you faced?
Ben: I think our lack of experience probably made things a bit more difficult and we had a major wobble at the start of the edit process. We wanted to tell the story in an enjoyable way and trying to make it more than just a music documentary. Once we realised that you can’t include everything we got a good rhythm up and Otto the editor did a fantastic job, but we had a few moments!
The other major obstacle was finding the money to make it as we had no track record to use to approach people. We were very fortunate to be able to apply to various Norwegian funding agencies as it was a co-production with Tromsø’s 7 Minus but it means you spend a lot of time filling in application forms and not knowing how you’re going to pay for the next stage.
Alex: The most well known name to come out of the scene is probably Todd Terje. What else should people be listening to? What are your favourite cosmic disco tracks?
Ben: For me Bjørn Torske is the real hero of Norwegian dance music. He is an amazing DJ and production-wise he has been carving out his own niche. His music runs from twelve minute deep house journeys to balearic to dub and hands in the air disco. But he’s not necessarily the best known so I’d be really happy if he got some more props. I love so much music from there and today’s favourites include Bjørn’s Møljekalas, Prins Thomas’ III and Symfonisk Utviklingshemming. All of Erot’s back catalogue still sounds fresh and unique and I think Doc L Junior is a really underrated producer. We have got De Fantastiske To and Rave-enka on Paper who are young guns guns places.
‘Northern Disco Lights’ is now available to watch on iTunes and Google Play – head to the website for more information. The film is in selected cinemas now, and shows 8.30pm this Wednesday, 17th May at Hackney Picturehouse.