The importance of being earnest: Todd Terje
The habitual clubber and the dance dilettante seek the same thing: the obliteration of the working-week-self and the attendant search for a collective identity that exists in subterranean rooms; liminal spaces fuelled by the desire for temporary transcendence as much as they are by drugs or alcohol. But even in the moments when we fixate on the potentiality of becoming someone else, we desire the known, the familiar, the reassuring.
Thus the DJ’s task is mediated by his audience; we expect certain things from certain DJs, and this sense of almost arbitrary expectation is tinged with guilt. It isn’t that we don’t want to hear the unexpected. It isn’t that we can’t accept change, or difference, or feeling challenged. It’s just that we’re philistines; we can engage in the endlessly ongoing discourse surrounding clubbing all we want, but when we’ve stepped away from the keyboard and checked our coat in, felt that first blast of bass-propelled-air and bought that first double and mixer, we want what we know and we want what we know we like.
Occasionally a record comes along that seems to skip from set to set, club to club, a record that hotfoots away from the hegemony of genre and cements itself as a permanent resident of club culture history. If you’ve swayed down steps into any warehouse, loft space, car park, pub back- room or club in the last two years you’ll doubtless have an emotional investment in a side of vinyl that’s part of the collective consciousness. You could have been in Tokyo or Torino, fabric or Faces, at a mid-afternoon barbecue or in a basement at 5am. You remember friendship circles forming on dancefloors, you can see hands reaching towards the endless nothing, normally non-dancing companions cajoled into an approximation of bodily movement. You remember paradoxically taut yet whimsically elastic snaps and tweaks, you remember luminescent, bobbing, almost physical arpeggios bundling around the room. You remember joy, ecstasy and abandonment. You remember Inspector Norse by Todd Terje.
Terje Olsen, the Norwegian producer, edit-maker and DJ (well, no longer a DJ, but we’ll get to that shortly) has a seemingly effortless ability to make people smile. When we caught up with him just before the release of his long-awaited debut LP It’s Album Time, Terje was as easy an interview subject as you could hope to meet; witty, open, unfailingly polite. Happily, he’s successfully translated this easy-breeziness into a record that suffuses the spangly-Scando-disco he’s primarily known for with snatches of library music, effectively chunky house piano and what appears to be the ghost of Bryan Ferry.
As the notion of ‘fun’ becomes more and more marginalised in the world of dance music – potentially a byproduct of the fear that emerges when ‘normal people’ access sites that were previously thought of as subcultural zones of positive exclusion – Terje’s seriousness about fun, his refusal to step into the dreaded worlds of schlock and parody, along with his impeccable sense of melody, make It’s Album Time as refreshing as a gin and Fanta Limon on a Balearic rooftop in early August. Terje is just as happy that you listen to it, “in the car, in the park, with the newspaper and a coffee, or when you’re swimming. Maybe even in a lift – anywhere you go; it’s album time!”
Let’s briefly take a seat on our sunlounger on that terrace in San Antonio and think about Balearic. The 00s saw the likes of Prins Thomas, Hans-Peter Lindstrøm, Rune Lin2dbaek, Studio and a host of other Scandinavians slip into the slow- moving seas off the coast of Spain and dive headfirst into the glimmer and shimmer of Balearic-infused cosmic disco. As the surge of space-surfing, percussive workouts produced by blokes in Bergen softens and the tide rolls out, what we’ve always known – that Todd Terje’s grasp of disco-dynamics is a thing of wonder– becomes even more apparent. You only have to listen to his still-stunning remixes of Balearic Incarnation by Dolle Jolle, or Lindstrøm’s Another Station, to note how far ahead of the competition he was and is.
“I have to say, I’m pretty self-centred when it comes to doing remixes”, he claims. “Not that I’ve ever tried to rip anyone off, but if I like it, that’s good enough for me.” Statements of this kind (‘we made this record for ourselves, if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus!’) normally smack of pre- emptive defensiveness, but one suspects Terje truly is content with his own sense of self-satisfaction. That his productions simultaneously put food on his table, his beloved gear in his studio and turn droves of stomping clubbers into swathes of ecstatically swaying dancers is, for him, one of life’s happy coincidences.
Our catch-up came a few days after Terje had played with Bicep and Maurice Fulton at the intimately-cavernous confines of Bethnal Green’s Oval Space, the UK debut of a new guise which also heads to Victoria Park for Field Day this June. Rather than donning the Sennheisers and manning the Pioneers, Terje played a live set showcasing the new record. This, he tells us, “is what to expect in the future. DJing isn’t a priority at the moment. Men only do it to make women wet anyway…” As sad as that is for anyone who enjoys hearing him lay down primetime, peaktime, goodtime house, disco, boogie – and occasionally Close to You by The Carpenters – we, as an audience, play a passive role in some ways, and as such have to submit to his decision. Luckily, the majority of It’s Album Time, aside from the slow’n’sad Ferry-featuring cover of Robert Palmer’s Johnny and Mary, is joyfully danceable. If we’re delighted to let loose to an .mp3 of Inspector Norse for the hundredth time, why not enjoy the experience of watching its composer do it for you in the flesh?
He’s happy to acknowledge the awkward fit of the full length dance record. Many artists have succumbed to a self-loathing incorporation of rockist values and end up making attempted totemic statements that purport to that dreaded value: seriousness. “There’s the temptation, for a lot of producers I think, to be seen as grown up, to be seen as serious in order to be taken seriously. They want to make their symphony. What they want to make is what we’ll call ‘good’ music.” Is that a subtle indication that he sees this record as ‘just’ a bit of fun? “No. I’m incredibly proud of it. I just didn’t feel the need for an orchestra. Or poetry. Or pretension.”
Suffice to say, It’s Album Time doesn’t come embroiled in any overarching narrative; there’s no portentous voiceovers, no hastily contrived concept to cover the cracks of the deadweight. But neither does it contain 12 doof-doof-doof disco tracks thrown together for the purpose of filling an hour. A sense of slight perversion hangs over it. The Les-Baxter-does-MDMA-isms of Preben Goes to Acapulco and Leisure Suit Preben steer wonderfully close to the naffest of genres: easy listening. Worried we may have dropped the ball, fearful of inducing images of a cardiganed Val Doonican crooning on an eternal Sunday evening in the 70s, we ask how he feels about the connection. “It’s fine. I would, however, to defend it, make the point that easy listening doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘easy’ sounding. It suits a particular vibe, describes a nonmusical phenomena.” He warms to the idea, recommends that readers intrigued by his lugubrious, late-summer pastel pieces listen to 70s library musician Brian Bennett’s Voyage (A Journey into Discoid Funk) to get into his headspace. “It’s a big influence on me, this record with such a cinematic feel, as moody as it is funky.” We duly took him up on his recommendation. And it’s great.
Resurrecting, reworking, and remodelling the past seems as pivotal in the Todd Terje narrative as contemplating the potentiality of the future. Under a number of names – Tangoterje, Chuck Norris, Wade Nichols – he spent much of the 00s cementing himself as heavyweight champion of the edit, a worthy successor to the likes of Tom Moulton and Black Cock. Terje himself refers to the editing process as “real left hand work”, noting that his edits “are usually done for fun and usually never intended for release.” The ones that we were lucky enough to consume – his rollocking rejig of Stevie Wonder’s superlative Superstition, his sangria-slowed take on On the Beach by Chris Rea, his sumptuous resurrection of America’s charmingly cheesy Horse with No Name – are prime slices of elongated pleasure, teasing tools of repetition and release. But Terje does have a warning: don’t trust every record that purports to include a Todd Terje edit tucked away on the B-side. “There’s, sadly, a lot of stuff out there with my name attached to it that I had nothing to do with, so be careful.” Ever optimistic, he’s sanguine about the whole affair, “Even if it’s not me, it’s still a way of keeping my name in stores.”
So what do the strings of edits, the glorious parade of remixes, the scene-altering 12”s (Snooze 4 Love! Eurodans! Spiral!), the DJ sets and the debut album add up to? How do you sum up a man as likely to collaborate with Robbie Williams (“We didn’t get to hang out sadly, he just called me to ask if he could sample Eurodans”) as he is Prins Thomas? Where does an established artist – an artist that gets your mum tapping her toes in the Mondeo just as much as he gets you pumping fists in Dalston – like him go from here? Is It’s Album Time a culmination or a beginning? “I’d like to think about producing for other people in the future. I like challenge. Take Inspector Norse for example. I know how the record will work when I play it in a club, I’ve got a solid idea of the reaction it’ll get. But when I play it in my live sets now I’ve got a chance to make it new, to challenge myself and the audience. I like that.” We like it too.
Todd Terje on that Bryan Ferry collaboration…
Who contacted who initially?
Isaac, Bryan Ferry’s son, has been DJing for a while, and as he’s played a lot of those disco edits, it was natural to ask me to do a remix of Alphaville from his last solo album. Then came the Love Is The Drug remix, Don’t Stop The Dance remix and finally I was invited to their studio after a DJ gig in London.
Were you the Palmer fan or was it Bryan?
I didn’t actually know that many Robert Palmer songs, I only knew some of the weirder ones that worked in a DJ setting, The Silver Gun, for example. I didn’t really know the hits, not even Addicted To Love. Bryan had already decided to cover both Johnny And Mary and Addicted To Love when I came to the studio. Sometimes it’s good to not have a background like that; if I knew the songs from MTV or something, I might have done them differently, but because it was pretty much the first time I heard the songs I got a fresh start.
Is there any chance of working together again in the future?
We’re looking at covering Addicted To Love too now, as both of us have some time before the festival season kicks in. He’s a fun musician to work with, so I’d be happy to do some more work with him.
It’s Album Time is out now via Olsen Records.