What do you do when you have a concert planned with New Order but the promoters think your name makes you sound like a progressive rock act? You change it.
For Cosmic Overdose, it was no problem. The Swedish experimentalists had dates supporting New Order in Gothenburg and Oslo, and the name belonged to a different era.
Thus, 1981 became year zero for one of the country’s most influential acts since ABBA.
Twice a Man weren’t ABBA. Like their fellow Swedes, they were also children of the 1960s, raised in a time of experimentation and generational conflict, but their music never ventured too close to mainstream chart pop. Cosmic Overdose had absorbed the energy of punk and Twice a Man discarded its membrane. What emerged was a force that was hard to bottle: at times new wave, sometimes theatrical, and often with a nod to the dance-floor.
It was a path closer to that followed by the industrial music pioneers than the writers of ”Waterloo”. Cabaret Voltaire might have started with tape and feedback experiments, but they knew a good groove when they wrote one. Throbbing Gristle could shake fillings from the teeth of their audience with sub-bass, but they could as happily score films or make what they called Tesco disco. Twice a Man never struggled to make accessible music, but neither did they sell their souls to MTV.
Throughout the 1980s, Twice a Man released a string of records and tapes that became hugely influential for a generation of electronic musicians. Their first album, 1982’s Music for Girls, introduced an electronic sound that was tasteful and refined. The Sound of a Goat in a Room and From a Northern Shore followed – and became instant classics. Their most recent album, Presence, topped our list of favourite albums in 2015. There is no sign of the band slowing down, even if their output has slowed from the three-albums-a-year pace they set in 1986.
We met Twice a Man in their natural habitat: a Gothenburg pub filled with ironically-named craft beers and the sounds of artists comparing notes. Dan Söderqvist, the band’s vocalist, grew his beard long before the local hipsters, and he cuts a distinctive figure in his Matrix-style duster. Next to him, Karl Gasleben, their visual effects specialist and instrumentalist, nurses something softer, accompanied by dark wave’s latest goddess, Anna Öberg. Their third member, Jocke Söderqvist, was not present, but his return to the band was one of their big changes in recent years.
We started by asking Söderqvist how he got into music.
My biggest influence to start making music was The Beatles. When I saw them on live television, as a ten year old, it was 1963. That was really something. From then on, I wanted to make music. After that, the development of music in the 60s was so fast. I really found my place when Pink Floyd came about – the psychedelic type of music.
My influences also included a lot of these minimalistic guys – La Monte Young, Terry Reilly, Steve Reich. This kind of electronic music.
Where I grew up, in working class suburbs, my parents were interested in normal music, so my musical training comes from normal things happening on the radio – from The Beatles, The Stones and The Who. In 1967, I heard The Mothers of Invention. At that time, there was a society that made modern music – contemporary, modern classical music. They played things like Cage – you could hear things like that live.
Within a short time, he was playing in Älgarnas Trädgård [EN: The Garden of the Elks], a progressive and experimental band that built a solid reputation. Meanwhile, Gasleben was playing in another local band, Anna Själv Tredje [EN: Anna Self Third]. Söderqvist reflects:
We met in high school. We were 15 or 16 and got to know each other. We had the same taste in music and became friends. We made some experimental music that was quite good in 1972. By 1977, we were playing together in Cosmic Overdose.
At that time, there was no internet. The music press was mainly local or national, leaving music fans to find each other through networks expanded through shows and tape-sharing.
Television rarely showed interest outside of the commercial mainstream. How did Cosmic Overdose and Twice a Man find their audience?
With the sub-cultures that thrive. When Twice a Man started, or at the beginning of the 80s, we understood that we have a small audience who like what we do in Sweden, but these people are in Germany and Holland, too. We started to make international things. So there are sub-cultures everwhere.
It was a time of home taping and reputations built by word of mouth (or sharing of tape). Was it ever commercially viable?
We thought that it was enough in the 80s to make records to have some kind of living, but for the past 25 years we have not sold enough to make any profit. There still exist these kinds of channels, but the young audience would rather listen to streamed music. It will die – you cannot carry on professionally, if you do not get anything for it.
There is a danger with social media and streaming platforms that algorithms or ”influencers” decide what everyone sees. Söderqvist is sensitive to this risk:
I think we are quite brainwashed – especially young people. They get all their information through the screen, and they do not know what there is out there. It is a very big problem, of course; but, if you are interested in art or to be a human being, you need culture. You need to have things from the artist.
It is difficult, if you are young and your parents are not interested, to find your ways – to find this interesting stuff. You have to know how to do that.
Not so many people are interested in what we do. Or cultural things at all. Music has a social dimension, of course. That’s why we go to concerts somethings – we know that our friends are there. You meet them and it’s nice. You have a context. Apart from that, there are some people – not so many – who are interested in art, performance and music. Nowadays it has become commercial.
Gasleben quickly jumps in:
We are not commercial.
No, but it is these kind of people who are our audience, I am sure. And they will find their way to find the things that they like. It is very easy now. If you like a band, you have a link and you can very easily follow up. If you aren’t totally blank, it is possible. We have a terrible education system, and it is not a value that is respected in the Western capitalist world.
Twice a Man didn’t fit neatly into a package that could be marketed. Their interests were not confined to music, and their avant-garde work expanded into multimedia and computer graphics as rabidly as the technology allowed. Söderqvist reflects:
I think the club program we have, you can move to it. We tried it twenty-five years ago, when the acid house scene came up at the end of the 1980s. I thought it was a nice concept they had. We were into that thing: not to be at the centre but to be a part of it.
We made songs – three albums – in this concept. The best is Fungus & Sponge. It has to do with this kind of interaction, and the theme and the concept is about what virtual reality will be. It was totally new.
As Wired magazine started to report on the explosion of the public internet, Twice a Man explored the technology that was moving from universities into living rooms. They created an interactive CD-ROM in 1995, joining artists like Peter Gabriel and Laurie Anderson in the use of new media.
Computers and the internet were new in the early 90s, so we tried to make an installation with computer graphics, but we stopped playing live for a while due to personal things. I don’t know if I want to do that kind of stuff again.
The Shamen was something I looked into. From the American side, it was more Wired. Brian Eno always said what would happen. As always, we were alone in Scandinavia to do this. There was quite a good rave scene in Gothenburg. Mixmaster Morris was associated with The Shamen – he was here and we had a meeting in 89, 90 or something like that. We did it not like you could expect – more like a performance.
Sometimes, they were too far ahead of their time. Söderqvist recalls:
We did a lot of multimedia in the 1980s. Do you know Driftwood? We made the soundtrack and the singing, but everything else was on tape.
Gasleben looks whistful:
We were touring with eight trees on stage.
It is about environmental things. No one understood what we did. We only did it in Sweden. You should look into it.
Gasleben looks reflective:
I met someone who said, I went to your Driftwood concert and understood nothing. But thirty years later, I understand it.
In some ways, it was commercial suicide. It was at this time that we started to make soundtracks and music for theatre. So we learned to do things in a different way.
Gasleben comes back:
There was a lot of performance on stage. You were playing – I was doing more performance.
Twice a Man are currently working on a studio version of “Cocoon,” which is expected to end up as an hour-long suite. The sound has evolved since the Presence album – they describe it as “psybient.”
There aren’t many bands that have evolved as much and stayed together for so long. As the time comes to finish our beers and take some photographs, we ask Söderqvist how they have managed to do it:
We know each other so well. We have the same roots. We get along. We also have periods when we don’t meet so much. Since 25 years back, with the computer, it is possible to work alone, so we do stuff and come together.
We are afraid to repeat ourselves. We have a third member, which is important. We are like vampires – we take some blood from them.