Two years ago, Gustav Estjes was ready to quit rock music.
The 28-year-old multi-instrumentalist mastermind behind Swedish psych-folk rockers Dungen had just put the finishing touches on Tio Bitar, the group's fourth release since forming in Stockholm in 1999, and the second for which Estjes wrote all the songs, played most of the instruments, and recorded, mixed, and mastered the music all himself.
"After Tio Bitar, I was exhausted," Estjes recalls. "I left Stockholm and went to my house out in the country. I didn't want to do any Dungen music: no touring, no playing ... nothing."
Estjes decamped to his familial home in Alstermo, a small village in southern Sweden of less than 900 residents where his mother and grandmother grew up. The town has been a respite for Estjes whenever the rigors of touring or grind of city life became too much. "I'm very lucky to be able to live in Stockholm but also be able to go there," he says. "I need both, the city and the country life."
While Estjes spent most days painting houses for work, his nights were soon filled with music again after his grandmother gave him her old, upright piano. "I used to play it a lot as a kid at her house," he says. "She took really good care of it and tuned it every year, so it sounds really good. I brought it to my house and started playing it, and all of a sudden, I had enough material for another Dungen record."
Reconnecting with his grandmother's piano stirred something in Estjes. Rather than write and record a song in a single day, as was his practice for past Dungen albums, Estjes wanted to spend more time writing and arranging the songs. It was a lesson he took from Jonny Soling, his longtime teacher and one of Sweden's most accomplished fiddlers.
"He's been playing traditional Swedish folk music for like 30 or 40 years and has a repertoire of about 25 tunes," Estjes says. "He's obsessed with making the songs alive and new, so he makes small changes to them all the time. I wanted to do that with my music and really work on the tune of the song."
The 10 tracks that comprise Dungen's new album, 4, borrow equally from jazz ("Det Tar Tid"), acid-rock ("Sätt Att Se"), pop ("Mälerås Finest") and even some funkier grooves ("Ingenting Är Sig Likt," "Fredag"). Though the two-part instrumental madness of "Samtidigt 1" and "Samtidigt 2" will have fans of the band's long improvisational jams flipping their lids, 4 reveals a more focused effort from Estjes that is due in part to a change in his recording process. For the first time since the band's 2001 self-titled debut, Estjes asked his bandmates — drummer Johan Holmegard, bassist Mattias Gustavsson, and guitarist Reine Fiske — to join him in the studio, which resulted in a tighter, full-band record, compared to the sprawling visions of 2007's Tio Bitar and 2004's marvelous Ta Det Lugnt.
"I'm still a control freak," Estjes says with a deprecating laugh. "I still set everything up before we start recording, but the only difference now is that I have the guys play on it instead of playing all the instruments myself. Reine is the best guitarist in the world, in my opinion. He has this very delicate tone that is his own style, and Johan is like an extension of my drumming dreams. They're very much a part of this music now, too."