Growing up with one parent being completely consumed by the music of Brian Eno in 1970s, it wasn’t long before ambient music started to become a major part of my own life. While the so-called Berlin School and bands as Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and Steve Roach were my music role models in my ambient childhood years, the direction that got stuck started in 1990s, and especially bands as The Future Sound of London and Boards of Canada.
All that type of music that was designed to maintain a subliminal, atmospheric presence while evading the foreground still takes complete control over my music listening in those periods I need to work long hours writing texts that require mind control; because nothing is as soothing as those uncannily sustained chords and clusters, and melodic phrases that shy away from turning into melodies.
The end of the 1990s involved new opportunities to find music online, and as university student I started to spend quite much time on one of the biggest social platforms at the time, mp3.com. Just like it sounds, it was at the peak of the mp3-era, but before Napster when mp3’s became every person’s daily commodity across the world. Above all, it was a platform for early web geeks who shared their music to equals.
At mp3.com I came across an ambient three-piece calling themselves Notch who shared the mind-altering album “The Path”, an album filled with contemplative atmospheric offshoots. A few years later I learned that one of the members left the band and the two remaining lads restarted as Carbon Based Lifeforms – and that they reside in my childhood hometown Gothenburg.
While temporarily living in exile in Gothenburg waiting for covid-19 to disappear and Hamburg to welcome me back, I met up with Johannes and Daniel of CBL close the Palm House in the Garden Society Park to chat about their early years as mp3.com pioneers, their geeky fans, their equally geeky production process and their amazing experiences at live shows. And Johannes also explains why he “hates” Tycho.
The Breakthrough Years
Personally, it’s interesting to meet you since you are one of the FastTracker bands, part of the online generation in the 1990s that hanged out at social platforms as mp3.com, but under the moniker Notch. That’s where I found you the first time because I spent lots of time at mp3.com during my university studies.
Many people hanging out on mp3.com in the nineties even consider you as pioneers in the ambient scene. How does it feel to be a pioneering band?
Johannes: That’s just weird (laugh)! Everything we’ve done has been influenced by other stuff, other bands, it wasn’t something new, at least not at the beginning. But maybe we interpreted our influences different than other bands did it, and the end result turned out to be something unique.
Daniel: You also have to consider that signing with Ultimae Records – one of the major trance/ambient labels in the scene with a very good reputation – boosted interest in us, and quite soon after we signed with them we started to play all these trance festivals in a period when it was still kind of new to put up ambient acts on stage at the time. They didn’t have chillout stages that long before we started doing gigs, and after a while someone came up with the name “psybient”, and that’s basically what we do, that’s what you find if you Google CBL.
But for us it was nothing new. We had listened to ambient music for a very long time, on our role models like The Future Sound of London, Boards of Canada and Solar Quest.
Johannes: Solar Quest sparked our interest in ambient music and much of what we did at the beginning is just rip-off’s, very often like “How can I do that as well?”, and then you tried to copy it because you wanted to learn.
If you consider how it works out today in the crowd of bands that exist, it’s all about finding a way to reach out through the buzz of bands, just like standing out of the crowd. But you were quite good at it back in the nineties before social media as we know it even existed. Maybe that’s a reason people remember you as well?
Johannes: Mp3.com was some sort of social platform at the time, not as it works out today but good enough at the time.
Daniel: Let’s say that being web geeks comes with some benefits. We tried many different social platforms at the same time as LastFM just to get our music out there. I remember that LastFM even paid out royalties from airplays on the radio they once had, and we earned a bit on it because we were scrobbled [played] quite much.
Johannes: We actually believe that someone at LastFM liked us really much. When LastFM swapped WinAmp [media player] to whatever it was that replaced it, our scrobbles just spiked and the stats went through the roof and gave us lots of royalty pay-out (laugh). Someone boosted us.
But today, on the back of the modern social media landscape, you don’t need to work that hard to reach out because you already have a loyal fan base?
Johannes: If we post something on social platforms today it’s just for fun, nothing we plan. We’re mostly active when it’s time to release a record.
Daniel: But wait a bit! I do all the posting, I’m our social media manager (laugh).
We are active on Facebook and Instagram because they’re the biggest, but the outreach is horrible today making it boring to put much effort into it, and we’re not as active as we used to be a couple of years ago. Everything is about boosting yourself, but you won’t reach out anyway.
Fortunately we have lots of followers on Spotify. We’ve passed a point where we’ve reached out to a critical mass of fans and just continue to grow.
It’s one thing to get attention online by sharing music in kind of a web geek manner during Internet’s childhood, but it must have been quite different when you started to get inquiries about shows, to play major festivals and ending up at O.Z.O.R.A for example?
Daniel: It wasn’t new to us when it all started. Well, I had done it several times, Johannes stayed at home because he didn’t like to fly – a fear of flying.
Johannes: Yeah, I didn’t fly for years, not until 2009, and Daniel had to do the hard work during the rough first years for us (laugh), like playing a festival in the Swiss Alps in front of no one (laugh). But the first gig was pretty crowded, wasn’t it like that [turns to Daniel]? In 2004?
Daniel: What!? No it wasn’t!
Johannes: You called me right after the show and I could hear people screaming in the background.
Daniel: Ok, you’re right about that but it depends on that you mean with “a lot of people”. Sure, it was pretty cool for being the first gig ever and I had something like 100 or 150 on the floor that was actually listening to what happened on stage, and I was applauded when it was over – super cool.
But O.Z.O.R.A in the big tent right before they built a dome at the festival ground was a super awesome experience. There was a thunderstorm rolling in over the festival area during my set, and everyone just ran for shelter. There were people in there listening to CBL and all those who just wanted to escape the rain, and while lightning struck the grounds around the tent the tension in the crowd just built up and people screamed. I don’t know if they were afraid of the storm or if it was because I did something awesome on stage but I experienced it as “Wow, this is it, this is big for us” (laugh).
When we released “Interloper” things started to change kind of quick and we obviously gained a lot of attention after that record. That’s when we grew big. If you can say that bands are defined by one record they made, “Interloper” is CBL’s album defining moment.
Johannes: But also our debut album ”Hydroponic Garden” [debut album, 2003], don’t ever forget about it. For some of our hardcore fans, that’s the album they stick to (laugh).
Music Production: Still Chasing the Same Monsters
When I studied to become an audio engineer in my late teens I remember that I for the first time was struck by the thought “Wow, I’m not the only gear addict in the world”. Many of my colleagues, including myself, suffered from brief periods of what is called GAS, or Gear Acquisition Syndrome, and I’m quite sure that every musician has suffered from this affliction at some point in their career.
It was super important to have “the real deal” and not any standard VST plugins, or softsynths, because no software would ever beat the hardware sound – which is utter nonsense of course. It was also about being authentic because authenticity is obviously connected to original gear.
For CBL this may be valid to some point, because why should you use a softsynth version of the Minimoog when you have the hardware?
By now you’ve done this for more than two decades, since the late 1990s, and over the course of 20 to 25 years your approach to music must have changed quite much.
Daniel: For sure! We’ve decided that 1998 is the year it all started, that’s when we did “The Path” and one year later we started to hang out a lot at mp3.com.
Johannes: The first version of ”Central Plains”, that’s the birth of CBL.
Daniel: Our approach has changed but sound-wise it not that different from ”Hydroponic Garden”.
Johannes: But I think we chase the same kind of monsters and want to make it perfect, but I want to believe that we’ve grown wiser out of experiences and create more complex soundscapes today. However, much of how we did it at the beginning is still with us; how you organize sounds, the structure, is very similar today. What actually changed is the technology which has made a few things easier, but our secret formula on how we write music is similar.
After watching the behind the scenes footage of the “Derelicts” recordings I get the impression that you’re kind of picky with the overall soundscape. You don’t work with presets, you actually create the sounds yourself. A friend of mine who is that type of person that says “you have to be anal about sounds to write authentic music”. How do you experience yourself in that context?
Johannes: That’s us, that’s how we are (laugh)!
Daniel: Especially on ”Derelicts”. Johannes is our sound freak, I’m the preset dude but I love to tweak the presets pretty much.
On “Derelicts” we did songs with softsynths [software synthesizer/VST plug-ins] and when a song was done we swapped all the sounds for hardware synths.
Johannes: It’s way more fun with hardware because they have character which soft synths not always have.
Daniel: From an audio geek’s point of view it feels much better to use a real Minimoog than having the VST Minimoog [plugin software] all over the production, even if you can’t always hear the difference. It’s not like “Wow, you’re using a real Minimoog on that song, that’s so cool!” (laugh).
Johannes: Hey, I need to say a few things about that. The real Minimoog has character and it’s super obvious if you have used the real deal or not! When you use the softsynth you have to add a layer of bass to get that real punchy feeling from the subs, but on “Derelicts” it was like “Do you want to add bass?”, “It’s not possible to get more bass”. That’s how great the hardware is.
It’s not unusual that ambient bands end up doing soundtracks and you did your only soundtrack so far a few years back, to Refuge. Is that an avenue you will explore more in the future?
Johannes: Yes! Or we would love to but we haven’t found anyone who wants to pay us for it yet (laughs).
Daniel: We’ve had a stroke of bad luck, a lot of swings and misses.
Johannes: Most inquiries are from amateurs, just like with Refuge, but we were intrigued by the whole concept when they presented it for us and just thought “This could actually be something good”.
We did a soundtrack to SteamWorld, some sort of strategy video game. But if we continue to do soundtracks we want to find those projects where we can use our music, not write something that’s not us. And get paid for it (laugh).
Daniel: We got an offer from a Polish gaming company to do music to one of their games but it was a horror game and our music doesn’t really fit in the horror context, we do science fiction music (laugh).
Johannes: A lot first-person shooter stuff and that’s not really us. But they told us they have a science fiction game in the pipe.
Daniel: If we’re doing another soundtrack it has to be like “You will get CBL’s sound, not something specially written for the game. Otherwise, find someone else”. And just like Johannes say, just science fiction. Imagine our music on a comedy. That would be so out of place (laugh).
The Geeks and the Hippies
Not only the genre in itself is diverse in terms of its sound considering the many directions bands come from, but the fans are also equally diverse and range from those self-taught – or well-educated – coders in front of their computers at home where they feel most comfy, to the modern hippie wave of fans that hang out at major festivals such as O.Z.O.R.A, Shankra or S.U.N., where they’re totally immersed in the ambient soundscapes surrounding them at the festival ground.
Johannes and Daniel, with one foot in each camp, even point out that these different group of fans join their shows in completely different settings and rarely meet. And they also reveal why CBL managed to hold together for more than two decades – and why they kindly let Swedish schlager artist Carola get her own music space during Christmas.
The fans in the scene are also quite diverse when you consider who listen to your music and who come out for the shows. There was a study a few years ago on music listening and what type of music different categories of people listen to. In that study, the type of people listening to ambient/electronica/downtempo music was dominated by men between 30 and 45 working as coders or programmers, or with a particular interest in that area. Is that how you experience your fans as well?
Johannes: (laugh) That’s something we may have observed as well. Our Spotify stats categorize people in age groups, gender and many other things, and our fans are men between 25 and 45 years old.
There’s other fun stuff you can get from the stats as well. People listen a lot to us between Mondays and Fridays but not at weekends. At Christmas we always have an all-time low. Apparently, Christmas music works better than CBL (laugh), but a few weeks later it’s back to normal again and when the summer starts it’s back to zero.
Daniel: We are the antipode to Carola [Swedish schlager artist; think Helene Fischer in Germany] (laugh).
Johannes: And let her get the Christmas window (laugh).
We knew a long time ago already that many of our fans are coders.
Daniel: It has much to do with us being inspired by science fiction and that we use technical symbols and formulas, and that type of people like it quite much just like any group of fans have their preferences.
But it’s a completely different type of people than those you meet at festivals or shows. People at O.Z.O.R.A, for instance, are rooted in the rave scene or part of some sort of modern hippie culture.
Daniel: Most definitely, they’re all hippies.
But we’ve been booked more often for club shows the recent years and in that setting our coder fans turn up. It’s not the type of people going to festivals, they want to hang out at clubs and drink beer in their C64 t-shirts (laugh) while listening to music. For us it’s great that there’s a CBL space for those fans as well.
Johannes: I love hippies and the people at O.Z.O.R.A but it’s just great to see other people getting a chance to come to our shows as well, people who usually don’t come out for shows.
It’s not only Carbon Based Lifeforms that have been successful, you’re bitpop/synthpop project Thermostatic had a good run for a few years, at least in Sweden. And you are involved in Sync24, DigiDroid and a few other projects as well. What makes you return to CBL all the time?
Daniel: CBL is what binds us together, just the two of us. In the other projects we’ve had more band members or it’s just one of us. We were three in Notch but our third member left and we put it to an end, Thermostatic was super fun but mostly a reason to get wasted on stage, and as CBL we’ve never had a fall-out (laugh). That’s the reason we get back to CBL (laugh). And it’s very successful.
I’m sure that if nothing would have happened for a few years at the beginning for CBL, we would probably do something else today, maybe house music or techno. But I love ambient music, it has something special.
Johannes: Yeah, and when you do it live the audience are just so into it. To see all these people being consumed by ambient soundscapes is just amazing! You get motivated to continue doing it then.
Daniel: Especially in Russia. The Russian audience is unrivalled, they’re always super absorbed by the music and happy, and have the same approach to our music as the fans of some major rock band; it’s just that kind of roar from the crowd (laugh). That beats it all, even O.Z.O.R.A.
But how is it with fans from your other projects like Thermostatic? Some people usually follow you whatever you do.
Johannes: In general it’s a massive wall between those bands because the genres are very different, but maybe, if you like a lot of electronic music, some fans may listen to all of what we do or have done.
Ambient/psybient may not be what people spend most of their record budget at, but I’m quite sure many would love to have it as “background” music, just like it started for me when I needed music to have while working. If you would guide people into ambient music and the whole scene, how would it look like?
Johannes: That’s a difficult one because it depends on where you come from, music-wise. If you usually listen to rock music you’ll probably find Hammock’s stuff awesome.
Daniel: I usually say it’s like slowing down Röyksopp, some of their stuff reminds me about the ambient scene.
Johannes: 16 Horsepower also did some weird stuff and have lots of ambient on their records. If you like pop music M83 would work out.
Daniel: Or Tycho who’s crossing the line to ambient music at times.
Johannes: But I ”hate” him! He looks great, writes awesome music, he is an amazing photographer and a super creative videographer. I’m sure he smells good as well (laugh). You’re just allowed to pick one thing to be good at and one thing only! But everything he does is top-notch. Can’t he at least act like an asshole (laugh).
Daniel: And of course Brian Eno, that’s where it started if you ask me. Moby does some really great ambient stuff as well.
Johannes: That’s what’s cool with the genre, it’s something in between all genres and much music cross into ambient.
Daniel: Exactly, it’s fun to do because of all these different influences and can’t be pinned down to just be part of the psytrance scene. Psytrance is super boring, it always follows a very strict structure on how to work with songs and sounds. It may be great to walk around at a festival site and feel the rhythm for a while, but try to sleep at the campsite later when you hear delayed echoes of music from three different stages. We tried to sleep in a caravan at O.Z.O.R.A once and will never do it again (laugh).
Johannes: That was nothing but terror – just a horrible experience (laugh).
Carbon Based Lifeforms pages