Retro-futurism boxed in an analogue soundworld: Niels Gordon interviewed

Inspired as much by the analogue sounds of old synthesizers as the soundworlds of prolific and successful electronic music composers like Jean-Michel Jarre and (older) Kraftwerk, Niklas Karlsson, aka Niels Gordon, thrust himself onto the electronic music scene about ten years ago. After an epiphany at a Jeans Team gig in Gothenburg, a band reputed for playing electronic music live, he decided to do something on his own.

On the countryside a few miles north of Gothenburg he built up his own studio and filled it up with old analogue gear and vintage organs and embarked on an adventure to explore the sound and electronic textures of the analogue music world. But he never had a plan to release music under his own moniker. For Gordon, “hanging out” with his synthesizers is a way to relax and if something ever get recorded it happens in the spur of the moment.

Just like the psychedelic improvisations of rock groups like the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd, Gordon’s live performances unfolds organically with lengthy improvisations that drift into many different musical territories, and it doesn’t need to sound like on record.

A few weeks ago Messed!Up drove off to the countryside and met up with Gordon, and chat about music improvisation and being involved in heaps of other projects.

Not a laptop musician

It was quite a ride to get this far out on the countryside. I guess the peace and tranquillity of nature is a good backdrop to work with music.
For sure, but it’s not just about living in a calm and quiet setting, it’s cheap as well (laugh). It happens at times that I think about moving back to Gothenburg, but I can’t afford the space I need in the city. I probably won’t have any space at home for my gear and would have to rent a studio somewhere, and then it would be very expensive to live an urban life again.

Here, I can walk across the backyard and play whenever I want to. Just imagine how convenient it is when you suddenly get an hour off to spend in the studio and you just cross the lawn, and it’s all set up to start. If I would live in Gothenburg I would probably have to take the tram or the bus to a studio, and would lose lots of time just to get there.

Urban life is good in many aspects but not if you have lots of music gear and want to have a cheap studio around the corner. It would limit my creativity too much if I would move back again.

When I started to build the studio I had a really tough and stressful time at work, and hanging out in the studio right after work was super relaxing. I get my best sleep after spending an hour in the studio just before bedtime because I get so relaxed from listening to analogue sounds [sounding like a filtered synth sound]. That’s how I disconnect from the real world after work (laugh).

I guess it’s some sort of a soundworld you got caught up in as a child, like when I listened to Oxygene [by Jean-Michel Jarre] the first time. My friend’s dad had a copy of the album and we listened to it all the time at an age when you had yet to define what music you really liked. That album is still special to me. It’s something very relaxing about listening to it.

When I peeked into you studio it struck me that most instruments are older analogue synthesizers or vintage organs. You don’t work with sequencers or computer based software at all?
Oh yes, I do have a sequencer but I don’t work with laptop based sequencers. When I play live I use a BeatStep Pro – it’s a controller – but it doesn’t control everything. I use the BeatStep and foot pedals to transpose music just to be more flexible when I play live.

I don’t have anything against using sequencers at all, on the contrary. Without one I would be lost on stage (laugh). It’s too few with only me on stage (laugh). But working with laptop based software to control music isn’t what I do; I’ve never controlled anything through midi. When I use sequencers or controllers I work with step sequencers, like the SH-101 sequencer, or a Doepfer analogue sequencer.

I use the laptop to record music which is by far much easier than using a reel-to-reel recorder, it’s just so much easier to edit everything. I have enough troubles to work with the old organs and can’t waste more time to make the recording process work out as well, I wouldn’t get anything done (laugh).

I remember an interview with Edgar Froese, the founder of Tangerine Dream, in which he claimed that working with music is a craft even when you write music on electronic instruments and have more options to control it. Is that how you work with music as well, to see it as a craft and not something to be harnessed by computers?
Already from the start I promised myself to not use computers because I didn’t want to spend time in front a screen. I work as a software developer and already spend too much time in front of a screen and I didn’t want it to feel like I did the same in the studio. I have tried to use a laptop and a midi keyboard but I didn’t have fun while doing it.

My first album, Ornacht, I recorded on an iPad, and I didn’t even have an audio interface, just ran it through the mixer or the output on the synthesizer. But it wasn’t supposed to have become an album, it was me coming up with an idea and I just happened to record it (laugh).

After your first recording you tend to raise the bar a bit and get ambitions, and I wanted to improve to the next record and got myself a two channel audio interface and recorded Central European Tyme on the iPad. But I didn’t mix it, just recorded it straight onto the iPad and wasn’t super happy about the end result (laugh). In the end I bought a real audio interface just to make it possible to do professional recordings. But that’s also how I use the computer – to record the songs, not to control the sounds.

Analogue synthesizer collectors have shaped their own scene, almost like some sort of a cult, and many point out that they want to go back to the roots of electronic music. Is it a response to the growing laptop culture in modern music and its aspiration to control every element of music where you don’t need to be a skilled musician, just learn to master the technology?
I’m quite sure it is. I usually say that I hang out with my synthesizers (laugh) not play on them. I just love the feeling of twisting the filters while I’m playing, and the idea that a song should sound the same every time you play it is not really interesting.  My ambition is to have fun, I don’t really have to write and release songs, it just happens organically.

I had some sort of an epiphany when Jeans Team played at Pustervik in Gothenburg 2007; that’s when I decided to do something on my own. They showed me that electronic music can be played live. I’ve been to many gigs with bands doing a laptop show and it’s quite boring; I just couldn’t find any electronic band that did real live shows anymore. Then Jeans Team put on this amazing performance with a set of half-broken instruments, like having an old Yamaha synthesizer with broken keys and a taped handle on it, and it was all played live. The songs also sounded very different from the album versions, and all that triggered something in me.

And that’s what’s important to you as well, that music should be created on stage and songs don’t need to sound like on record?
For sure! Quite much of what I do becomes improvised, that’s how I want my music to be. A four minute song on record can be between three and seven minutes long live depending on the situation. Sometimes I can’t even control how long it will be. If I set the trigger wrong by mistake the song may be two minutes longer because I’m trying to sort out what went wrong while I’m performing (laugh). Other times I may not like how a certain part of a song sounds like and play it a bit shorter than usual. I just like to decide how it unfolds while I’m on stage.

At my first live show I was super nervous because of all possible mistakes that could happen, but I soon learned that it happens all the time. But, I’ve also learned that I can’t do it wrong, it’s just alternative ways songs can be played. If something goes wrong it only means it will sound different, and that can’t be bad, can it (laugh).

“Niels Gordon rehearses when he wants to”

Although Niels Gordon is Karlsson’s main persona, he is involved in heaps of projects leaving very little time for Gordon himself at the moment. Göteborgselektronikerna is about to release a new album and he recently engaged in a project with Sagor & Swing’s Eric Malmberg called Autokomp, and during the fall he is composing music to videos for a book project (!) orchestrated by author Markus Torgeby. The question is when Niels Gordon has time off to spend on his own in the studio. On the other hand, Gordon never plans anything, if it happens it happens.

Land was released last year and I also know you’re involved in quite many other projects as well, like Göteborgelektronikerna, but is it anything new in the works as Niels Gordon at the moment?
I haven’t come up with anything new at all the last year, but I’ve spent lots of time in the studio. We’re about to release a new album with Göteborgselektronikerna, although it won’t happen next week because it’s too many things left to do that have very little to do with the music, like getting the records from the pressing plant. But hopefully somewhere at the beginning of 2022.

Göteborgselektronikerna is a more planned project than Niels Gordon and we meet up once a week for rehearsals; Niels Gordon rehearse when he wants to (laugh).

I also have a project called Autokomp with Eric Malmberg of Sagor & Swing. He was here for a few days and we worked on rhythm boxes, some vintage organs and synthesizers, and at the moment he’s mixing the record. Our ambition is to have it out just at the beginning of next year but releasing a single already during the autumn.

I have a few projects to work on and they all take lots of time. Consequently, Niels Gordon is the opposite, it’s a project where I can relax and don’t need to rush things. I never feel any pressure to release music and don’t want to feel pressured because I don’t want my own project to follow a plan. It’s good enough to have fun and enjoy the moments I can spend on my own in the studio.

But is it also an argument for not collaborating as Niels Gordon because you want it to be your project and collaborations will happen in other projects?
Most definitely. Niels Gordon has been an ongoing project for quite a while by now, way before I joined Göteborgselektronikerna. I wasn’t really a member of the band until quite recently, just a live musician. At first we met because we share a similar interest in music and that we love to work with old analogue synthesizers, especially playing electronic music live and show people that electronic music doesn’t need to be backing tracks on stage. Again, it’s not necessary to make it sound like on record.

To me, your music belongs to the Berlin School scene, especially the Tangerine Dream 70s era of bands like Jean-Michel Jarre and Steve Roach, and most bands and artists in the scene end up in the film industry and write film scores. Is it an ambition you have as well?
(laugh) I have a project in the works, but not a film score, it’s music for a book. The author Markus Torgeby is about to release a new book and he wants to do short videos to enhance emotional aspects of the book, and I will write music to those videos.

I was also collaborating with a poet about a year ago. He read poems while I was playing live, but it was quite a challenge because I don’t know much about poetry and it didn’t really pan out as I wanted it to. But working with the videos is quite different, at least I got a good feeling about the project after our meetings. It will all be filmed during the autumn and released next year.

Which probably means you’ll have a new record out next year?
Let’s see about that, Niels Gordon doesn’t work with plans (laugh), but it’s an ambition to release the music on record as well, at least an EP.

There’s not really any money in it, Torgeby doesn’t earn anything either but he will come out for a series of lectures next year and I’ve told him that I would be happy to join him and play live while he’s doing his lectures, that’s some sort of a reward as well. I would love to have the freedom on stage and work with themes related to the lectures, that’s super interesting to me.

If Niels Gordon is some sort of a free jazz project where music happens organically on stage and where you don’t work with deadlines, does it also mean that a record just happens in the spur of a moment?
Most definitely. The latest album Land is an exception. When I recorded it I was unusually focused on writing new music. I got in touch with Lamour Records, and we talked about releasing Central European Tyme on vinyl but no one really wanted to do it, I thought it would be more exciting to record a new album and then I needed to write new music because I just had three or four songs at the time. Other than that I don’t plan my releases.

Live you always end up on the synth scene, but is it really where you belong?
(laugh) That’s right, it’s kind of far off what my scene is about. My kind of music isn’t rooted in the 80s synth scene at all, it’s connected to early progressive and psychedelic rock and kraut music. But I’ve squeezed myself into the synth scene because I don’t know what scene I would belong to otherwise. My role models, especially Jean-Michel Jarre, are also popular among people in the synth scene and I guess that’s the reason I fit in there as well, at least in Sweden.

Jarre has always been something I return to. Oxygene and Equinoxe are masterpieces and I remember that when he released Zoolook in the 1984, a friend and I decided to become fans of the synth scene. I don’t know how many times I’ve rediscovered Jarre but I know I will never stop to listen to his music. He may not be the most commercially viable artist although he has sold quite many records, but he’s my biggest hero after Kraftwerk.

But live; it may not be much of a show to watch one man stuck behind his synthesizers being occupied with his gear, but I imagine that people who come out for my shows have a particular interest in the technology and old synthesizers, not only the music. My shows are more about to surprise people, to not know what will happen a minute later. And there’s always the chance that it all ends up in complete chaos (laugh).

In Germany, the home turf for the Berlin School, you would probably have another type of audience.
Probably, but people in the synth scene appreciate this type of music as well because we have common references.

On the other hand, there’s a Gothenburg band called Khadavra that play psychedelic and progressive music, and if you ask me we would be a perfect match for a live show. I have much in common with bands like them. Many classic bands in my scene have a psychedelic background. Tangerine Dream were much inspired by Pink Floyd at the beginning, and early Kraftwerk have melodies and harmonies similar to the psychedelic scene but electronically composed, at least until they released Computer World and they became more interesting for other scenes.

To wrap it up; when will we see you play in Germany? You were about to play in a record store in Berlin and then the pandemic stopped it, but maybe you plan to do it when we’re back to normal again?
It would be fun but at the moment I don’t have any plans at all, but I hope the offer still stands. I was in touch with my contact in Berlin last year, but they didn’t know when it would be possible to do it. But it was different last year when Germany was in lockdown and under a covid curfew. This record store, POP, was closed for months and it wasn’t easy to get in touch with them. But it’s in the works to catch up with them soon again, and after a few more gigs on home turf to work up a resume I’ll be ready to take on Berlin again.

I’m prepared and have everything ready for taking off in my tiny Renault. It doesn’t need to be expensive to book me, I’ll do it for a room and food (laugh).

Photo: ©Krichan Wihlborg
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About J.N.

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.