OK Computer?

Why Swedish act Dungen's psychedelic rock is like the Terminator

Scheduling an interview with hip-as-shit rockers on the rise is always an arduous, energy-sucking affair. How is a struggling San Fran freelance hack supposed to hone his chops and become the next Danny Sugarman or, hell, the next Gary James when he's devoting more time to coordinating an interview than actually writing his damn story? (By the way, James is my teenage hero — a real, old-school rock critic and flea-market habitué residing in Syracuse, N.Y., who, in the late '80s, played an integral role in investigating the “Elvis is alive, and he frequently dines at a Wendy's in Kalamazoo, Mich.” conspiracy.)

Let's take, for example, this hot, kinda-new psychedelic pop-rock group Dungen. Not only do these guys live in Sweden (about nine time zones away), but the last time they visited America they spent the majority of their time in New York City entertaining cocaine-kiddies-turned-pot-hippies at the Vice magazine 10th Anniversary Party. This trans-Atlantic appearance also served as a promotional junket preparing “indie-hipster, USA” for Kemado Records' domestic release of Dungen's third record, the critically acclaimed indie-psych epic Ta Det Lugnt (translation: “Grab the Calm”), which to date has been available only as an elusive import via the Swedish imprint Subliminal Sounds.

To quote my best bud from Brooklyn when I told him I was writing an article on these trippy Swedes (who sing exclusively in their native tongue), “So, what the fuck is up with this Dungen band? Everybody around here is up their ass these days.” Thus, the issue at hand may be phrased as such: Do I also shoot straight up that proverbial Dungen-ass and struggle to secure a phone interview with indie darling Gustav Ejstes, the prime artistic force behind what he calls “my Dungen-music”? My answer is, “Fuck no.” I don't earn enough green to afford an international phone call, and I don't have time to sit around and wait for him to call me. I have a cat to feed; I work two jobs a day. Anyway, wasn't free e-mail invented specifically for this type of long-distance, little-time-to-spare eventuality?

After thoughtfully considering the above-mentioned ins, outs, and what-have-yous, I realized that the disembodied, voiceless nature of an e-mail interview with Ejstes would better serve my story anyway, because its primary journalistic punch is my (very cyberpunk) angle that this Ejstes character is not a real, blood 'n' guts human being residing somewhere in gorgeous Scandinavia but a highly evolved computer (just like Deep Blue) designed to program the ultimate, most hook-packed, psychedelic pop-rock ever created.

Of course I'm just messing around, but I do believe the influence of digital sampling, electronic music, and computer technology is so fucking profound on the human evolutionary scale that all three have helped to create a kind of next-generation pop-rocker biocomputer. (I intentionally misappropriated the word “biocomputer” from the great Dr. John C. Lilly.) What I'm talking about is the emergence of a modern composer-musician who actually thinks and operates more like a sampler and computer than his pre-digital age musicmaking ancestry. I'm talking about a souped-up transhuman e-rocker who can consume more information, who can process information more rapidly, who can recombine information on smaller “subatomic” levels, and who can then spit out info-as-pop-music in more densely packed permutations than any musician has ever done before. And the 25-year-old Ejstes is so one of these newfangled biocomputing gizmos.

Please don't let all this cyberbabble lead you to believe that Ta Det Lugnt consists of futuristic, Kraftwerkian electro-pop. (I mean, didn't Vice tell you? Electro is passé.) On the contrary (and this is the cool part), Dungen is a rock band employing traditional rock instrumentation, and Ejstes' sweeping, symphonic compositions are miniature sonic-encyclopedias, each one containing a dizzying range of influences from the late '60s, including psych-pop, jazz fusion, acid rock, funk, Brazilian tropicalia, prog-rock, analog electronics, and wispy folk-rock. As Ejstes explained (revealing his knowledge of psychedelic-era obscurity in the process), “I love Os Mutantes. One of my faves from the '60s is Jessie Harper from New Zealand.”

On the other hand, I also believe Ejstes' statement, “I am making music in the 21st century. I'm no archeologist or neo-hippie,” because Ta Det Lugnt doesn't feel like anachronistic retro-rock, even though Dungen is, indeed, composed of dudes jamming, cranking out music more than reminiscent of sounds from '68 to '70. But, knowing the fact that this disc was man-made using guitar, bass, and drums takes a back seat to my irrevocable feeling that this is music constructed on the microscopic level from millions upon millions of split-second samples of the all-time-greatest '60s psych-pop moments (with a sizable portion of them lifted from the Pretty Things' 1970 release, Parachute. And if you haven't yet checked this record out, you should; it's as perfect as the Beatles' Revolver and Something Else by the Kinks).

Ta Det Lugnt is a product of Ejstes' hyper-'60s aesthetic, and the only records I can think of (interestingly enough) that match the breadth of styles combined in a single tune and the assiduous attention to minutiae exhibited on this record are those mid- to late-'90s turntablist albums such as DJ Shadow's sprawling, ultra-complex Entroducing … , wherein you feel the possibility of hearing the entire history of music unfold in just under an hour because each second is tightly packed with thousands of years' worth of sound. Consequently, I wasn't at all surprised to find out via Dungen's online biography that “During his teens, Gustav entered the world of hip-hop and samplings. He botanized around in the record jungle and on his expeditions got to hear many incredible Swedish 1960s-'70s recordings that he had never heard before.

“This opened up a brand new world. Suddenly it was clear that he, instead of taking a detour through sampling, should play all the instruments he heard and prove that he could make it himself. Gustav simply returned to the old servants guitar, drums, bass and keyboards.”

Up to this point, I've been maniacally expounding my theory that Ejstes is a pop-rocker biocomputer, and yammering about the ultramodern methods I imagine he employed to create Ta Det Lugnt. But, since Dungen makes classic pop music, I really owe you straight-up answers to such fundamental questions as: Is this music beautiful? And, do I find it enjoyable to listen to? Well, I do dig the more overtly far-out tracks like “Du E För Fin För Mig,” which seamlessly mutates from an intentionally maudlin Baroque-pop ditty to candy-colored Hendrix six-string freakout in just less than nine minutes. I also praise the title track for a similar feat; in eight minutes roughly five of my favorite '60s records are condensed into one epic fucker. I get to hear (for a fifth of the cost) some Britpop, a little stoned space-rock, a smidgen of boogie-rock, an odd musique concrète interlude, and a spicy Latino psych-groove replete with a smoothly reverberating sexy-sax solo. (Santana III smokes; I shit you not.) It's as if the musical oeuvre of the entire hippie movement is now a buffet table laid out for Ejstes to effortlessly forage. But, lurking just behind this sonic abundance and just underneath Dungen's soaring-higher-than-Icarus, multilayered harmonies and just inside Ejstes' penchant for crafting infinite litanies of utterly hummable hooks is a real modern sickness, which I can only explain via the following metaphor.

While recently grocery shopping at Safeway, my wife and I spotted this insane-looking photograph of Goldie Hawn at the magazine racks. Not only has Goldie apparently hired a bevy of plastic surgeons in an attempt to forever remain the fly '60s chick she so totally was back in the Laugh-In days, but the magazine also utilized every cutting-edge, digital airbrush technique available to further turn poor Goldie into some garish, unapproachable creature, which didn't resemble vintage Hawn in any way whatsoever. Now, without sounding overly dramatic, Ejstes has a tendency to turn the '60s rock he loves so dearly into something comparable to the modern-day Franken-Goldie on the cover of that magazine. He so single-mindedly desires to re-create and intensify the ineffable beauty of classic '60s music that what he winds up producing is a cold, piercing, mutant caricature of said beauty. Plus, he's a rather vain artist to boot; significant stretches of Ta Det Lugnt play out as nothing more than gratuitous displays of Ejstes' cyberhuman ability to condense an entire era's worth of music into a three-minute pop tune. Call it psych-pop pornography.

What Ejstes often fails to capture and what so many musicians in this emerging age of transhuman technology fail to capture when they're busy masterfully schooling us on the history of music via the three-minute ditty is this: the warm glow of humanity. That's what music and art, especially from the '60s, are all about, regardless of how either is created. It's not about pummeling listeners' minds with hypercomposed, Beatles-esque hooks; that's just gross. And, if this young whiz-kid, hip-as-shit pop-rocker from Sweden can understand that, then maybe, just maybe, a real fucking masterpiece will someday be released with the curious name Dungen appearing across its cover.

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