I first heard about skweee music from Blake Stone-Banks, who dropped the obscure genre tag in an article he wrote for City Weekend last year about Beijing's underground electronic music scene. Later I got a more direct introduction to the sound when Blake and fellow skweee aficionado Einar Engström played a show I booked at XP; between the two of them they lugged about a metric ton of analog synthesizers, drum machines, mixers, and yards of cabling for an early live version of what would become their stage alter egos Fløøød and Vortglut.
Frans Carlqvist, aka Limonious (left) and Daniel Savio (right), the inventors of skweee
So, skweee... it's basically electronic music on a shoestring. Musical economy. Lean and unencumbered by any preoccupation with how it fits into a particular dancehall zeitgeist. The name, coined by Swedish producer Daniel Savio, refers to the concept of "squeezing" everything you can out of a given device, usually a vintage analog synth. Skweee started in Scandinavia, with people like Savio and Flogsta Danshall label founder Frans Carlqvist, aka Limonious, radically experimenting with the means of producing the club dub they'd been working on previously. The result is a unique sound that's evolved into an international movement with its tentacles just beginning to spread as far afield as our own home turf.
Blake and Einar have invited Limonious and Savio as ambassadors to China for what they're calling the Ping Pong Diplomaskweee tour. You can see all of them live tomorrow night at Dada. Here are the fathers of skweee with the first-hand account:
SmartBeijing: The skweee sound is heavily derived from vintage analog synthesizers and drum machines; you've described the word "skweee" as standing for "'squeezing' as much as possible from lo-fi instruments." What are your tools of choice? How does skweee push these devices to their limits in ways that previous music has not?
Frans Carlqvist: The name was originally coined by Daniel, who could only afford one Roland Alpha Juno I, and so only had one choice to compose the music. So he squeezed. Today we use a wider variety of equipment. I am currently squeezing a lot out of the vintage Pearl Syncussion SY-1 drum machine, which was made in 1979 by a drum kit company...
Daniel Savio: Yes. I use a lot more different gear than before, but my favorite at the moment might be the Leipzig by Analogue Solution. It can do everything…synths, drums, you name it. It’s got a unique, intense vibe. I used it a lot on my self-titled album [2Norwegian skweee label] Dødpop put out last year. But the difference between skweee and previous electronic music is that with skweee it doesn’t have to sound good. It has to sound how you want it to sound.
FC: You have to push the gear in a different direction. That's skweee.
SmBJ: I think this retro-future aspect is very interesting. "Electronic music" has been lazily classified as "future music" ever since Kraftwerk, but these days it has by and large migrated to the laptop. What elements about analog/vintage gear do you find so important and inspiring? In your mind, what are the major differences between "digital" and "analog" electronic music?
FC: More than anything it is about the creative process. You already spend so much time on the laptop everyday, so moving your hands elsewhere for a change is a healthy thing for creativity. Using physical hardware is also about limitations. With the laptop, you have an infinite number of plug-ins and can make any sound you want. Literally whatever you want. Which can actually be boring. It’s more interesting to push these simple old instruments to their limit, to make a whole track with just two synths.
DS: In Swedish we say it’s “funnier” to use analog gear. The Alpha Juno 1 was just a silly synth, not considered a really “good” synth. But still, you can make something out of it. Some gearsluts collect everything but never make anything. It’s not about what you have but what you do with what you have. I think Frans was like me: We both started out making music with just one synth each.
SmBJ: The skweee medium of choice is the 7" record. Presumably this touches on the same analog/digital divide. What about the vinyl medium appeals to you?
DS: Sounds better. So much better.
FC: For sure, the sound quality is phenomenal. But vinyl also makes the music last longer. It’s probably just an old-timer way of looking at things, but for me, it just feels more real. People who listen to vinyl seem much more serious about the music too.
SmBJ: You're among some of the best known electronic musicians coming out of Scandinavia. When did electronic music first take hold in Sweden and Finland? How did it evolve to the point of producing such a unique form as skweee? Does the geography have anything to do with it?
DS: Man these questions are super deep, too philosophical… Electronic music has been around Sweden since the '50s, starting with musique concrète. The history is long and too broad to summarize. Big movements like the synth music of the '80s and the rave scene in the '90s, with Cari Lekebusch and these cats, likely had a serious effect on where we are today. But this can’t be accurately defined.
FC: I wouldn’t say the geography has anything to do with it, although perhaps yeah, because as we are so far up north, we are in a kind of forgotten corner of the world. We have the freedom to do whatever we want. In London, for example, skweee could never take off, because there’s so much seminal work going on in terms of electronic music. You have this pressure to conform. Besides Scandinavia, you have guys in Hamilton, Canada, making dope skweee, or in Saragosa, Spain — in these places life is lived at a slower pace.
DS: You can’t be worrying about money and such. Life in the big city is a constraint. You must have time to be creative, to delve into the soul.
FC: In terms of culture, Sweden and Finland have long been keen on innovation, about discovering new things. Perhaps that’s one reason we might end up making niche music like skweee.
SmBJ: Some have made the case that skweee was a major influence on the dubstep sound, which is now absolutely dominating club soundscapes worldwide, for better or worse. What are your thoughts on this?
FC: It’s difficult to say or claim that skweee influenced dubstep, and to be honest it’s not something I think about. But definitely something changed about dubstep after skweee came about, I’m not sure what. For one, there was a skweee thread on dubstepforum.com, and people like Kode9 started emailing us asking for records and stuff. In terms of production of course you can go looking for skweee influences in other kinds of electronic music, and there are a lot of influences to be found, like in Slugabed — but in general the influences are hidden, and hard to find.
SmBJ: The skweee sound also includes non-electro influences like funk and R&B. What are your personal musical backgrounds? What bands or artists were most influential in making you want to start producing your own tracks?
FC: I have been releasing all sorts of music under many different aliases for over fifteen years, including my other skweee aliases Pavan, Uday, together with Daniel as Vakttornet, and as part of Wizards of Dos, etc. Previously I put out a lot of electronic dub under the name Pope, and Påve, when I was really into heavy echo, reverb, delay. I was also a member of the band Moder Jords Massiva. If I were forced to name three influences, I would say Doctor Rockit, [unintelligible], and Patrick Cowley.
DS: I’ve been producing for many years now as well, well before the Daniel Savio of today was born. In particular, I was part of the Swedish dub techno outfit Hundarna Från Söder, and also known as the superfly Kool DJ Dust…all sorts of goofy stuff. My three main influences…hmmm…I’ll go with my stock answer. James Brown and Wagner. And Kafka. Keepin' it real, ya know?
SmBJ: You're closely associated with Flogsta Danshall, the definitive skweee record label. Can you talk a bit about the label's history? How have you gone on to identify emerging skweee artists from around the world after spreading the gospel with your own music?
FC: I started the label Flora & Fauna in 1999, which releases a wide variety of music. But when we began making skweee, I realized it needed its own unique outlet, so I founded Flogsta Danshall. The name is based on this fantasy that we would throw parties for super drunk people in suburban Uppsala, at this ghetto student community called Flogsta. You know, because skweee is meant to be danced to when drunk.
DS: Beer and vodka.
FC: When I scout new music, I look for a unique skweee sound, something new. It has to be different from previous skweee. It’s hard to define, but when it has the magic, something will click in my head. “This guy is doing his thing.” Sometimes I feel it on the first listen, sometimes in takes me six months to realize it’s brilliant.
SmBJ: Speaking of which, you're being hosted in China by Fløøød and Vortglut, two American guys who have raised the skweee banner in Beijing. How did you get in contact with these guys? What are your pre-conceptions of the Chinese electronic music scene? What are you most looking forward to doing here?
FC: We really don’t have any pre-conceptions of the Chinese electronic music scene. It’s our first time here and the only people we know are Fløøød and Vortglut. At first we were surprised that skweee had made it into China, but if we put a track on Soundcloud, you can hear it in China immediately. As for coming to China, well, we’ve toured all sorts of places and know that the best is to not have any expectations.
DS: Yeah, I just want to eat some spicy food. Eat me some spicy food and take pictures of the chili peppers. Got to take lots of chili pictures. I also heard there’s a restaurant that serves all sorts of penis. I wonder what the texture is like. Must be like calamari I guess? Bring on the spicy penis!
Catch Limonious and Savio live on Friday, August 23 at Dada along with Fløøød, Vortglut, and Shackup.