S.E.M. (Sven Erik Magnus) Hilti Johansson’s appearance at Electronic Summer 2015, Sweden’s premier festival of electronic music, provided many with an introduction to his project, Hiltipop. A one-man show, Hiltipop turned heads with warm poptronica infused with classic styles: from the Kraftwerk-influenced sequences of “The Pattern” to the dreamtronica of “In Loneliness,” Johansson’s solo turn was impressive.
Johansson has been on the Swedish synth scene for many years, as a member of numerous bands, including the well-regarded Alison (together with Karin Bolin Derne) and the legendary TopGun. His last album was in the guise of Anton Weber, a duo with Martin Sohlberg, which closed the circle on work they started back in the 1980s. The Love (Electric Fantastic Sound), Anton Weber’s sole CD release, included tracks that were three decades old and some that were bang up-to-date but maintained the 80s vibe. From the opening lines of “The Everyday Life that Hurts the Most,” which comes across in places like Throbbing Gristle’s “United” reinterpreted by A-Ha, the album is a set of knowingly subversive and subverted pop songs.
Hiltipop, by contrast, offers material that feels more direct and steps further outside of traditional pop structures with the dancefloor in mind. We took a break from listening to “The Firewall” on Soundcloud to ask Johansson to bring us up to date on his projects.
How did your journey in electronic music start?
I was thirteen. In late 1979, there was a record sale, back in my old hometown of Skara, and I bought The Beatles’ Blue Album 1967-70, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Kraftwerk’s Trans Europa Express, Belgian edition. I was taken by the beauty of “Europe Endless”; but, other than that, I didn’t really get it. I thought it was weird. I just fell in love with The Wall. So, electronically, Kraftwerk didn’t do it to me until 1981; and, by then, I had already discovered Ultravox through the Vienna album. That was the turning point for me. It’s still one my all-time favourite albums. It opened up all the doors to the British independent and electronic scene in the beginning of the 1980s: The Human League, The Normal, Visage, Simple Minds, Fad Gadget, New Order, OMD and so on. I think I bought every record that Mute and Factory and all the independent labels released in the early 80s, no matter what. As long as there was a synthesizer used, it was good enough for me. Then, in 1983, I finally bought a Korg MS20 and the rest in history – for me, that is.
You have been linked to several electronic bands – Anton Weber, Uziel 33, TopGun and Alison. What was the impetus for the creation of each?
Let’s not forget 101 – my Depeche Mode tribute band. It was a superb collaboration with Alexander Hofman [S.P.O.C.K] and Johan Billing [S.P.O.C.K, Diskodiktator]. We’ve been around since the official release of Playing the Angel, and although we haven’t played since March 2013, we’re still active, if our services are ever needed. The idea was to make Depeche Mode sound like Vince was still a member of the band. We did okay in the beginning, but also ended up with a whole lot of Speak and Spell-covers, haha! But there is no better way to learn about electronic music than to try to cover early Vince Clarke stuff.
Anton Weber was my first electronic band. We celebrated thirty years this May by releasing a new album titled The Love. In the beginning, it was just a way to attract girls and skip school, and we succeeded well in doing both. I borrowed a Yamaha DX7, a Roland Juno-106, my brother’s Boss DR55 and a Tascam Porta Studio from one of the the music teachers from school and started doing basic 4-channel instrumental recordings, and since then I’ve been hooked. The first tape-release which was made in a professional Swedish ”dansbandsstudio” in 1985 has a bit of cult following, but I really think it sucks! We had a Casio CZ-5000 and a Roland Jupiter-6, and used the latter for ONE arpeggio-sound. Although some of the songs are pretty good as basic compositions, the production is like a daft, characterless, ultrasoft synthpopsicle dipped in a pool of Vaseline.
Uziel 33 started out with my ex-wife back in 1998 and marks the birth of two of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, “Darling Demon Humanoid” and “Stupid”, and some decent ones, “Zero” and “Underground.” But, after that, I slowly ran of good musical ideas – for the time being.
TopGun came out as an electroclash-project late 2001 with the song “Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik.” Me and my former sister-in-law got totally drunk, had a blast of a good time just pretending to be FischerSpooner for one evening, and that initial behavior kind of set the tone for anything that ever happened with TopGun – way too much party, way too little rehearsing. It was always drama, drama, drama, so no thanks – never again. I don’t think I ever could remember one song, singing it live, until I did the three revival gigs back in 2013. But we did some nice show supporting Trans X in Malmö in April 2005, Nitzer Ebb back in June 2009 in Gothenburg and finishing off with our finest moment – or mine, since I was the only member left – as supporting act to S.P.O.C.K in May 2013 in Malmö.
Looking back on TopGun is bittersweet. It was such a waste of time and talent with band members who were only in it for the party and never did anything creative or helpful. The SAMA show [Tobbe Lander’s Swedish Alternative Music Awards] in 2005 really sums it all up: after the show, the others went partying and celebrating somewhere backstage; they just disappeared, as I had to clear the stage from synths, computers and cables; and that was the last I saw of them that evening. But I’m not bitter. I’m still doing what I think is the most fun thing in the world and they’re not.
Alison was originally Karin Bolin Derne’s idea. She got a gig supporting Sista Mannen på Jorden, back in 2005, making up a story that she had a Yazoo cover-band. So, she called me and six weeks later we were a complete success! It was so much fun! It still is, even though we mix things up with our own songs – they really fit well together, as anyone who gives Duality a listen probably recognizes. But now, I don’t know where we’re heading. The second album has been over a year in the making but we’re getting nowhere at the moment. Some of the songs on Anton Weber’s The Love were originally intended for Alison, as was one of the new Hiltipop songs. In the end, they didn’t fit the Alison formula, and I’m more then alright with that: I think Hiltipop is by far my best work yet. It will be getting even better.
With Hiltipop, I am finally satisfied with what I’m doing. I can stand up for every word, every sound, every beat – everything. It’s me, personified in electronic music. It all started out just as an idea to make a song that me and my youngest son Alfred could dance sideways to, like “Jungle Love” with Morris Day and the Time in Purple Rain. Simple as that!
You got a great reaction from the crowd at Electronic Summer 2015, but you rarely perform live. Is it something that you enjoy? Can we expect more?
If it was up to me, I would perform live every other weekend, wherever and whenever someone would book me. But that’s not the case, obviously.
I will never do another TopGun gig, that’s for sure. I’ve just cancelled the next Anton Weber gig, mainly because I want to focus on Hiltipop. 101 is still active, but we eagerly await the release of the next DM-album. As for Alison, I can’t even speculate how long it will take us to return. So, for the time being – and for quite some time I presume – it’s all Hiltipop, at least until I finished recording the album, which I hopefully will do during this Fall. Maybe then there’s someone, somewhere eager to book me and an audience wanting to see me play live – or, more correctly, sing live – again. I just love it, even though it’s nerve-wracking. And I say sing emphatically, because I won’t bring a synthesizer onstage until I can afford a row of Marshall-stacks to plug them into, just like Atari Teenage Riot. It’s the most amazing thing – delicate electronics and big guitar amps! Not that ATR is delicate in any way.
Which is your go-to synthesizer and why?
The Korg MS50, mainly for connection issues. It talks to and with everything I need to get my recording system working. I sync Reason and all the analogue gear via CV/gate and trigger, triggering everything from the SQ10s and the arpeggiator on the Juno-60 – or the other way around, from the Roland TR8 via the Volcabeats, thru the MS50 to the SQ10s and into Reason. I can even sync the whole set-up from my iPhone if I want to. I think it took me about six months to make it happen, but it works.
Soundwise, it totally depends on what I want to do in that given moment: for a hard-hitting sequence, the SQ10-MS20 combo; for dark pad-sounds, the Roland Juno-60 through the EHX Memory Man Delay; for PWM-synthbasses, the MS10; for the fattest analogue sounds ever, the Roland SH09; for auto-triggered early Front 242-bass sounds (which happens quite a lot, I can assure you) the Moog Rogue; for drum sounds and loops, I’ve sampled a lot of Nord Modular and ARP Axxe-sounds. For instant inspiration, I mainly use the iPad and the iSEM-app, the PPG Wavemapper and the iPolysix.
I’ve bought a lot of ”new” synthesizers during the last three-four years: the Dave Smith Mopho keyboard, the Arturia MicroBrute and MiniBrute, the Arturia Minilabs, the Korg Volca series, the Teenage Engineering OP-synths, the Minikorgs, the Monotribe, and so on. At the end of the day, all that they do is collect dust.
There is a trend for synthesizer manufacturers to package new keyboards as if they are new versions of vintage keyboards. Have you tried any out? Do you have any opinions about them?
Due to my Korg addiction, I’ve tried all the new stuff they’ve released – the new MS-20, the ARP Odyssey and the iPad-versions of their old stuff – and I have to say i like the iPolysix the most. So, I’m just hoping for a hardware version of that one! In my ears, the new MS-20 sure initially ”sounds” like the old ones, but there’s something missing. There’s something gritty, something electronically alive inside the old ones, that’s just not there in the new, and that makes all the difference. I will probably end up buying one anyhow, just because they are quite good value for money nowadays. The ARP, I don’t understand – why attach a mini-keyboard to such a musical instrument? I can’t see Billy Currie switch back to an Odyssey as long as it has minikeys. Which is sad, because his Novation just doesn’t sound like his old ARP – stating the obvious.
I’m really looking forward to Roland’s forthcoming “boutique” range of synths, outlining three contemporary versions of the company’s classic Jupiter 8, Juno 106 and JX-3P models. Although I would have preferred a modern approach on the JP-4, I’ll probably go for the JP8 and the JX-3P.
Which are the Swedish electronic artists we should be keeping an eye on, in your opinion?
Swedish electronic artists? Apart from myself, It’s a short list. I adore Karin Park – she’s just absolutely amazing in every way! I really like Renate and i think Iamamiwhoami have some good tunes. The Exorcist is quite fun live. And I love Tove Lo – she’s so gorgeous (but lets keep that a secret for now)!
I mainly listen to definitely non-Swedish indiepop/rock like Big Deal, The Raveonettes, Metric, Chvrches, and so on. When I’m feeling nostalgic, which happens more or less every day, I always go back to the early Simple Minds from 1979-84, the early Human League from 1978-84 – okay, Hysteria is not a good album, but Betrayed is a fabulous song! – and Ultravox from 1980-84 (and Brilliant, which was a Brilliant comeback in my opinion…). And Fad Gadget. I hardly listen to Kraftwerk anymore. I don’t think I need to. They’re always with me somehow.
When it comes to modern electronic acts, it’s mostly dance music: Gesaffelstein, Helena Hauff, The Haxan Cloak, Gus Gus, Anthony Rother, and so on. And Phèdre – probably the coolest and weirdest band ever.
Who wrote the better songs for Yazoo – Alison or Vince?
Vince, as he did with Depeche Mode – most of the songs from Speak and Spell still sound more modern than modern electronic music anno 2015. The man is a frigging genius. I covered most of my favorite Yazoo songs, but “Don’t Go,” “Too Pieces” and “In My Room” stand out as the best in my opinion, and I still have a soft spot for “Happy People.” But then, again, I rank “Good Times” as one of the best songs ever and one of the best vocal performances ever to be recorded. Alison delivers so much raw emotion in that song that I get goosebumps all over, even down my legs.