It’s Interview Time: 29 Minutes With Todd Terje
It’s taken 10 years, but Todd Terje has finally delivered his long-promised debut album, It’s Album Time. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that he’s short on time as Matt Anniss finds out… “We have to be quick. I have another two days of interviews after this one.” Terje Olsen is a man in demand. With his hyped debut album ready to drop, the well-loved Norwegian currently finds himself juggling a variety of must-complete tasks. There are seemingly endless press interviews to complete, tweaks to his live show to finish, and time to spend looking after his one-year-old baby. It’s no wonder he sounds a little frazzled when Juno Plus calls. “I’m 32 and a half now, and 33 soon-ish,” he says. “Hurrah – I’m nearly an old man! I’m not so young and hopeful any more. I’m getting jaded a bit, I think.” Its some 10 years since Terje (pronounced “Terry-eh”) made his first tentative steps into the world of music production, making guest appearances on tracks by fellow Oslo producers Prins Thomas and Hans-Peter Lindstrom. Back then, he was a relatively shy and retiring, clean-living 22 year-old physics student and part-time DJ who dreamt of making a living out of music. When he did finally get round to producing original music of his own, things didn’t exactly go to plan. Having made the brilliant, Italo-disco inspired “Eurodans” – now widely considered something of a nu-disco classic – he quickly found himself neck deep in “music industry bullshit”. “I didn’t really know how to do the record industry part of things at all,” he says. “I got burned by Soul Jazz Records with “Eurodans”. I was negotiating contracts with them, and it was like some contract from 20 years ago or something – a total rip-off. All the numbers were totally upside down. While we were still discussing it, they had already pressed it up and were selling it in stores. I was lucky enough to have access to an eager young lawyer, provided free of charge from the Norwegian musician’s union. He managed to stop any more records being pressed and killed all further communication. This experience really put me off. From that point on I knew I wanted to have more control over my career.” “Eurodans” did of course surface 12 months later on Prins Thomas’s Full Pupp imprint, but for quite a few years after that original productions from Terje were few and far between. In fact, from 2005 to 2010 he released just two original singles – and one of those was a jazz remake of “Eurodans” for his excellent Remaster of the Universe collection of remixes and alternative versions. Instead, Terje fell back into making deliciously dubbed-out re-edits under a variety of pseudonyms (Tangoterje, Wade Nichols), providing sneaky, scene-defining reworks of everyone from Michael Jackson, Chic and The Turtles, to Thin Lizzy, Canned Heat and, perhaps most memorably, Paul Simon (the brilliant, still superb “Diamonds Dub”). Throw in a steady stream of remixes in his trademark ‘Scandolearic’ production style, and soon he was one of the most in-demand DJs in the fast-rising nu-disco scene.I first interviewed Terje during this period of his career, quizzing him along with Prins Thomas and Hans-Peter Lindstrom in the backroom of an Oslo bar on the vivid, Balearic, dubbed-out and occasionally psychedelic sounds emerging from the city for an IDJ Magazine (RIP) cover feature. When I asked Terje then why he hadn’t made more original tracks, he flippantly replied, “Because I am lazy”. Seven years on, I ask Terje whether he stands by this assessment of his formative years? “It was a lack of confidence that held me back,” he responds honestly. “You can apply that to lots of areas of my life, I think. It might not be that different now. I mean, as a DJ I’ve often felt like I’ve not been in the right place. In hindsight I’m not always sure that I did what I’m best at.” He pauses, choosing his words carefully. “Maybe I was a bit lazy in terms of the production when I started out, but I think maybe I also took DJing a bit too seriously. I wanted to have stuff that I could play all the time that was uniquely me, so I spent more time on the disco edits, which of course took time away from making original tracks. I don’t know why I didn’t have the confidence to put out new tracks. I didn’t realise that I could pull it off. Now I know I can.” The watershed moment for Terje, in production terms at least, was arguably 2012’s It’s The Arps EP, the first release on his own label, Olsen. Primarily based around sounds generated by an Arp synthesizer, it included the now ubiquitous “Inspector Norse” – arguably the definitive nu-disco record of the last five years. With its cheery Balearic swagger, Wally Badarou-ish synth work and addictively joyous melodies, it still sounds sublime two years on. It has also become something of a dancefloor anthem, with punters regularly singing along to the track’s distinctive melodic refrain (a snapshot of this, recorded at a festival last year, appears at the end of It’s Album Time). Terje readily admits that he’s still surprised at how successful “Inspector Norse” has been. “I thought it was going to go well with the DJs, as I’d tried it out and it had a danceable beat, but I never thought I’d hear people singing along to the melodies, especially as it doesn’t have a traditional hook,” he muses. “It’s an instrumental track that kind of noodles along. But it really helped me as a DJ in terms of popularity. It was one of the first tracks I’d done with more musical content that was successful. Earlier I’d tried to make music that sounded exciting to me personally, but they were never that successful.” It’s typical of Terje that he describes “Inspector Norse”, his most successful moment, as “just standard nu-disco”. “The whole nu-disco thing, including “Inspector Norse”, it feels quite standard in terms of sound for me,” he says, matter-of-factly. “It sounds like normal, boring nu-disco track, sound wise. I mean I like it, but it’s not a big departure.” At this point, a light-hearted argument ensues. I offer the opinion that nu-disco has reversed into a musical cul-de-sac in recent years, and his productions – “Inspector Norse” and the similarly large “Strandbar”, in particular – buck this trend. They’re so much better than the bog standard, Ableton preset-laden sample-pack nu-disco currently doing the rounds – so much so, in fact, that it seems wrong to even class them as nu-disco at all. Terje disagrees. “No, it’s definitely nu-disco,” he asserts. “I always want to strive for better sounding, more interesting tracks. It’s a little disappointing that I’m falling back into this nu-disco thing. I wish I could push it further, but…” He can’t finish the sentence. Strangely for a man whose career trajectory has been one long, continuous upward curve, he still seems to lack a little self-belief. Everyone has doubts, of course – it’s surprising how many talented musicians and producers suffer from a lack of confidence in their own work – but he seems to suffer more than most. Given the quality of It’s Album Time, the album we’re speaking about, this is particularly surprising. You see, It’s Album Time is a great album. It’s very much a Terje record, full of bright synths, kaleidoscopic melodies and synthesized rhythms. It has great dancefloor moments – not just the aforementioned singles, but also the shimmering, Lindstrom-ish “Oh Joy”, skittish Balearic jazz-funk blast of “Alfonso Muskendunder” (featuring brilliant, high-tempo live jazz playing and memorable scat vocals) and bright-eyed ’80s synth-funk of “Delorean Dynamite” – but also some delightfully quirky downtempo moments (including a superb slo-mo, Roxy Music-goes-Scandolearic collaboration with Bryan Ferry, “John & Mary”).
“I prefer to have fun, play around and see what happy accidents occur, because that’s when I really let loose.”
Put simply, it’s an hour of unfussy, synthesiser-heavy joy. It seems, to these ears at least, to be an aural reflection of his general good mood in recent times, something undoubtedly linked to his experience of becoming a parent for the first time. “Maybe,” he quickly answers. “I guess so, though I don’t think it would have been different if I’d made it five years ago. I would have still wanted to make the same kind of album five years ago. I don’t know if I could have, though. Musically I could have – there’s nothing new about this musical output for me, it’s just having the confidence to make the kind of music I want to make. I didn’t feel like I had to follow any rules, which I would have done five years ago. I guess I feel like I can do it now… I’m allowed.” He can certainly “do it”. After a few false starts, Terje admits that he’s finally found a few methods of working that enable him to make the music he wants to make, relatively quickly using both hardware and software – something that wasn’t the case even two or three years ago. “With one or two exceptions, I always start with the groove,” he says. “In most cases I’ve visualised how everything would sound, without knowing exactly how it would sound – what feel I’m after basically. I go more for mood rather than hooks and melodies. Sometimes the equipment defines what you’re making, and sometimes not. It’s very fun to let the equipment define it for you, because you don’t try so hard. You just try out different things and then if that little gadget makes a fantastic bassline, you have something. But if you have to think and compose first, things go a little bit slower. Yet it can be a bit more controlled, so both methods have their qualities.” He pauses again, searching for a valid example. “I prefer to have fun, play around and see what happy accidents occur, because that’s when I really let loose,” he admits. “Like with “Inspector Norse”. I was just playing with a delay pedal and a Jupiter 4 synthesizer, plus a beat I thought sounded like Loui$’s “Pink Footpath”. You know that tune? I’ve always been into that kind of Balearic, moody disco. It’s always quite hard, even though it has this very Balearic mood. That’s what I was after, but of course “Inspector Norse” ended up being much more melodic than “Pink Footpath”. I always have ideas in my head, it’s just sometimes that I wish to imitate something, but it always turns out completely different. Hans-Peter Lindstrom works in very much the same way. He’s fascinated by Boney M drum sounds. He always ends up with something completely the opposite.” Seasoned Terje-watchers will hear It’s Album Time and quickly recognize many of his familiar influences; jazz-funk, ‘80s disco, Italo-disco, Balearica, lounge music and, of course, Wally Badarou. The 1980s jazz-funk synthesizer king is arguably Terje’s greatest single influence, as he’ll readily admit. “Oh yes, I’m definitely a fan,” he enthuses. “I’m not only a fan of Wally Badarou, but also his time – how music sounded exactly at his time in the early to mid 1980s. He had a huge influence on shaping how pop music sounded at the time, because he played synths on so many more tracks than most people realise. He wasn’t credited as a musician on all of them. So much of the ‘80s stuff I love he played on. He’s doing different stuff now, and I’m not so sure about it. I don’t love that stuff as much as the things he did when he had a limited amount of equipment. I prefer his older stuff. Maybe people will say that about me. I might lose some fans with this album, but hopefully I’ll gain many more.” Our time with Terje is ticking down, and there’s so much we’ve not touched on, most notably his transfer from globetrotting DJ to festival-friendly live performer. This summer, he’ll be popping up all over the place, showcasing his recently debuted live show at clubs and festivals across Europe and beyond. “I’m no stranger to playing live, but so far I’ve only done four shows as a solo artist and it feels quite different,” he reveals. “Even though I’ve been standing on a stage for 12 years performing as a DJ in front of thousands of people, it feels quite different to be really in charge of every little detail. If the music stops, it’s your fault. It’s quite stressful.” So what can we expect? A full-on Scandolearic disco band, complete with tight fitting jumpsuits and Viking beards, perhaps? “The live show now is just me,” Terje answers. “It’s very simple. It’s quite normal, the only difference gear wise between me and other DJ/producers playing live is that I bring keyboards and sometimes outboard. I need to define some limits when I play live, so I have some space to improvise, but sometimes that can be tricky as you want everything to sound really smashing good and if you insert places to improvise where it can go wrong, you’re detracting from the rest of the time you have available. I’m aware though that those minutes when I just jam are the most fun of the whole shows, so I’m hopefully going to focus more on creating music live. But we’ll see how it goes. I’ve only done a few shows, so we’ll see by the end of the summer.” Interestingly, Terje says that he has “lost a bit of interest” in DJing. He’s put the DJ career on hold for six months at least while he tours the live show, and from then on will only commit to doing DJ gigs on one weekend a month. “The DJing was getting a bit… much,” he says. “I don’t feel as excited about DJing any more. For now, I feel very, very comfortable with DJing, because I can do it less and the fees are slightly higher. People understand that I don’t want to be travelling every weekend now, as I became a father 12 months ago. That has changed me a little bit.”He may be a changed man, but he’s still the same old Terje – laid-back, quirky and beset with self-doubt. Before he has to rush off to do another interview, we briefly discuss how the album came together. In typical fashion, he claims to feel guilty at including some old material on the album. “Once my partner was pregnant I realised I couldn’t do a whole album of brand new tracks, so I based some of the tracks on old sketches and things I’d already done, like “Strandbar” and “Swing Star”,” he says. “I wasn’t originally going to include those, but I thought they sounded good on the record. I didn’t include “Spiral” and “Q”, because I think it’s boring when you buy a new project and it’s full of old tracks. Now it’s one-third old tracks, so I feel slightly ashamed, but I think they fit musically, so I hope people can forgive me.” And with that, he’s gone, off to field more questions from international publications. This is almost certainly how it’s going to be for Terje Olsen from now on. His days of underground obscurity and anonymity are over. Interview by Matt Anniss It’s Album Time is released next week. Portrait shots courtesy of Christian Belgaux