Two decades of sonic experiments: Johan G Winther interviewed

Gothenburg based Johan G Winther is no slacker. A multi-instrumentalist by trade and a sonic experimentalist by nature, he has released ‘zillions’ of records in band formations as Scraps of Tape, Blessings and Barrens and under different solo monikers as Mnoki, Tsukimono and, his latest solo endeavor, Johan G Winther.

With inspiration from the experimental electronic scene like the French GRM school and sonic visionary and ex-Sonic Youth guitarist Jim O’Rourke, Winther started to release drone/ambient music as Mnoki and Tsukimono while playing noisy post-rock in Scraps of  Tape. As his electronic soundscape evolved into acoustic instrumentation, Tsukimono morphed into Johan G Winther and lo-fi post-rock excursions with several cassette albums released during the 2010s.

In 2021, after 20 years of music releases, Winther’s bands Blessings and Barrens, and his solo project, are signed to renowned German label Pelagic Records, and in March Winther re-released his 2012 album The Rupturing Sowle on vinyl. And with three projects on Pelagic comes wider attention from the music community.

Messed!Up met up with Winther a few weeks ago to find out about how he celebrates twenty years in the scene, working with several projects at the same time and finally getting the attention he deserves.

Twenty years of record releases

You have released music for twenty years this year, starting with Tsukimono’s first CDr in 2002. How does it feel to have released music for two decades?
(laugh) That’s a very long time, especially if you consider that I started to play in bands a long time before 2002. Scraps of Tape celebrated 20 years as a band last year but we’re not the sentimental kind of people and didn’t do much at all. We’re kind of spread out over Sweden; our drummer lives in Stockholm, I live here in Gothenburg and the rest at different locations in Skåne. And we almost forgot about it. Someone in the band realized “Guys, we celebrate our twentieth anniversary this year. What do we do? Release a box or something? Isn’t it what bands do?”, but it all ended up in ”Can’t we just meet up for rehearsals?” (laugh). That’s how we celebrate things.

I remember being at the Emmaboda Festival in 2004 and watched one of your first Scraps of Tape shows.
Oh, that was an amazing show for us! Emotionally, it meant a lot to me at the time. We were just a tiny post-rock band from Sweden that no one had ever heard of or even listened to. At least that’s what we thought.

Scraps of Tape and its band members are rooted in the punk/hardcore DIY scene and at the beginning we booked pretty much everything on our own and played a lot of squats around Germany, like Rote Flora in Hamburg, or did underground shows in old factories without PA’s but it was fine for us because we didn’t have any vocals on the songs back then (laugh). That was a really great time in life.

You released music both solo and as a band member and it’s quite a range of genres you’re covering.
Maybe it is but they all have something in common, it could be themes or some guiding principles that glue the music together, but I understand that it’s not that obvious for everyone (laugh). But it’s not a super wide range of music, like working with trance and metal at the same time, I always work in a narrow field of music and with types of music that are closely related. There are post-rock and drone elements in Blessings as well but it’s not that obvious if you haven’t been involved in the creative process.

Scraps of Tape was part of the first wave of Swedish post-rock bands at the beginning of the 2000s but I’ve read that you don’t consider Scraps to be a strict post-rock band.
When Scraps started, our music was built on lots of influences from Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and everyone in the band loved Sonic Youth, you can hear it in our early recordings. I was also much inspired by early Joan of Arc records.

But when we released Grand Letdown we introduced vocals on some songs for the first time and it wasn’t always that the audience liked it. The post-rock audience can be a bit conservative about vocals and it happened a lot of times that people said “Why do you sing? It’s not post-rock anymore” (laugh), but we never really considered us to be a post-rock band, especially not after the third album when we left much of that type of music behind.

When we toured China in 2018 they promoted us as a post-rock band and some people who came out to see us weren’t happy about the vocals. It happened that our man in the merch got a rough scolding, “This isn’t post-rock, they sing!” (laugh)

But I like early Mogwai albums like Rock Action and Come On Die Young quite much and some of the best songs on those albums have vocals, so for me vocals is a natural element of the music. But I don’t want the vocals to steal the attention, it should be an element in the music, like a layer of sound.

Today you play in several bands but also have a solo project on the side, and you’ve had several solo projects like Mnoki and Tsukimono before the Johan G Winther project. What makes your projects different from each other?
For me the solo projects are the same project! (laugh), but maybe it’s not obvious for anyone else. I know that they sound a bit different.

It all started when I learned to know people at a tiny label called Fukk God Lets Create, an early mp3-label, and they released lots of drone/ambient and silent noise music. Thomas Ekelund of Trepaneringsritualen and Jonas Ekelund of Æther ran the label, and when I learned to know them a bit more I found out that they release their own music under loads of different monikers. It was just common practice.

Andreas Tilliander’s Mokira project – really awesome clip hop music – was a major inspiration in the beginning. I bought my first laptop from him, we’re from the same city. Through Thomas and Andreas I also met Axel Willner, the man behind The Field, and he released my first Tsukimono CDr at his label Garmonbozia.

Tsukimono drew on influences from Sonic Youth and Thurston Moore’s solo projects mixed with a lot of post-rock, and I just looped the music and let it evolve in different loops in the songs.

Does it mean that your solo projects are different stages in the evolution of one solo project?
Exactly. Until I released the Time Canvas album as Tsukimono in 2007 everything I did was laptop-based and laptop-processed music, very much inspired by music on Mego Records [Austrian experimental electronic label] and bands like Fennesz, just lots of clicks and cuts.

Before I started writing Time Canvas I listened a lot on Phil Niblock who sampled acoustic instruments and built these massive fat drone pieces, and I did the same. I could sample a certain instrument and combine it with the sound of a ventilation fan (laugh). But I love that way to build music, not processing it, just building layers of sounds and let different layers’ frequencies shape the sound of the song. After this period I went in a more acoustic direction.

The last years I’ve been working a lot with modular systems and built my own modular synthesizer. I just love ‘musique concrete’ [experimental music using recorded sounds as raw material] and the GRM school of music from France. Jim O’Rourke from the experimental and improv scene is one of my role models and music heroes. I did a lot of music like that and it all culminated a cassette on the label Do You Dream Of Noise?

But I also had lots of stuff left and did a thing on Bandcamp where I released the best of the rest over a series of releases during a year and after that I haven’t worked that much with modular synthesizers at all. I changed to old analogue synthesizers, and Barrens came out of that.

But isn’t it a problem at times to decide what music ends up in which project? You have you’re solo project plus Barrens, Blessings and Scraps of Tape at the same time and it’s not a huge difference music-wise.
Yeah, I can see your point but being in a band is about exchanging ideas, to work with people you get something back from. For instance, we didn’t really know where Blessings would end up at all, we just knew that we wanted to play a noisy type of music because the drummer and I had another band called The Eight Arms Around You, a hardcore band, but nothing really happened and it just faded away when some band members started families. The rest of us started Blessings and brought in new band members and in the exchange of ideas between us Blessings’ music was born.

It’s just an amazing band to play with and we have this thing that ‘anything goes’. There’s no rule or limit to what we can do. The next record may just be accordion and glockenspiel or someone who’s yodeling (laugh).

But it’s not any different with Barrens. Marco who plays the drums in Barrens toured with Scraps of Tape in China and when we didn’t have anything to do we just chat about everything and nothing, and the idea came up that “Wouldn’t it be fun to do stuff as a trio?”. Scraps of Tape is built on five members and we all have our ideas on how it should sound, that’s what makes Scraps such a great band, but I thought it would be fun to try out a trio once to see what would come out of it. But we never had a plan for Barrens’ music. We just said “Let’s meet up when we’re back home again”.

To return to your question; it happens automatically. I have used typical Scraps of Tapes riffs in Blessings as well. But mostly I feel it in the process, “This works out better in Barrens”. The point is that I’m just one tiny part of the bands and can present the same idea in all bands but it will sound like Barrens or Blessings or Scraps in the end when the rest of the band have added their ideas.

Three projects on Pelagic Records

Winther recently re-released his 2012 album The Rupturing Sowle, and just like his bands Barrens and Blessings it all happens on Pelagic Records. Releasing records on Pelagic with three different projects also draws a lot more attention and after twenty years of hard work in the underground scenes, it’s time to reap the benefits of being supported by a bigger label in the scene.

And there may another Winther album on the way – Pelagic, you’ve got mail!

At the end of March you re-released The Rupturing Sowle, but it’s not a new album, you released it as a cassette album already in 2013.
Exactly, but it was recorded already in 2012 during a period when I was working a lot with acoustic instruments.

It was recorded in my cabin out in the woods close to where my wife’s parents live. I became a dad for the first time in 2010 and like most people starting families I was going through a huge change, every parent does, and needed to process all that, and I always process things by writing music. Being in that cabin all on your own is perfect for it (laugh).

Like most parents I was quite worried about what of me I would pass on to my children and I had this discussion with my wife on dualism and that everything you fight for has two sides, like good and bad, I guess because I wanted my children to get my good sides (laugh). But a friend of mine claims that it’s non-dualism that shapes our lives, and I had that in the back of my head that whole summer when I started to work on The Rupturing Sowle.

I also had a recurring dream where I was alone in a boat on the sea and I couldn’t differ the sea from the sky and was lost. I couldn’t drink saltwater and had to drink my own blood to not die from thirst, but it also made me die from the inside and I lost my soul – weird, isn’t it (laugh). It was like fever delusions. But I built a concept for the record on it and while processing it all I realized that it had to do with me becoming a parent and being worried about what would transpire down to my child from me. All those reflections ended up in The Rupturing Sowle.

But what made you re-release it nine years later, and just that album?
I’m just super happy about the album. As I said, I love artists like Jim O’Rourke and he releases music continuously and it doesn’t always need to be the best record, but there’s a development you can hear in the music. You don’t need to like all the albums, it’s how the music evolves that’s important. Many of my solo albums are like that as well, but The Rupturing Sowle is a lot different.

I rarely look back or listen to my records because when they’re done I’ve processed what I needed to process, but it was different with this album and I thought “If I can choose one solo album to re-release it would be this one”. It deserved more than just being released on a cassette. But I never thought I would find anyone to release it. I didn’t think Pelagic Records would do it because they have enough to do and it’s a bit off from what they usually release, but I asked Robin [Staps, label owner] “You don’t know anyone who may want to release this type of music?”, and he just got back to me, “It sounds great, let’s release it on Pelagic” (laugh).

Does it mean that you will continue releasing more solo albums on Pelagic as well?
Maybe, but it’s also too much to hope for when they already release music with Blessings and Barrens, my solo project may be too much of me for the label (laugh). I’ve actually sent them a new solo record that I recorded at the same time as The Rupturing Sowle but never released, maybe they’ll be interested in it as well.

I’m really happy and grateful to have reached the position where I have three projects on a label like Pelagic. You know, I don’t do this for money, very few do, but getting bigger attention is just an awesome reward for all the work you’ve put in over the years. I would be lying if I told you that it doesn’t matter if I don’t get anything in return; it’s great to get attention (laugh).

Getting letters from people who like my music or get that awesome support slot for a really big band is enough for me, that’s what drives me to continue doing this for another twenty years.

But you rarely play live with your solo project?
No, not any longer. Many songs are too old and I don’t remember how to play all of them anymore because quite much is improvised. I told Pelagic that directly and they’re fine with it.

I used to play quite much live and rarely decided on a setlist until the day before the show, just because I think it’s fun to improvise quite much. When I opened up for Lightning Bolt at Röda Sten [venue in Gothenburg] many years ago I decided a day ahead to do a set with only a violin that I was running through a pedalboard, a great noise/drone setup (laugh).

If you have three projects at Pelagic Records, a Berlin-based label, you’ll probably play in Germany quite much in the future?
(laugh) Let’s hope for it! I’ve been in Hamburg many times and played at Rote Flora, Astra Stube and Fundbureau to mention a few venues, but there are still many venues to play.

Photographer: ©Richard Bloom
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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.