Joel Alter, one half of celebrated electronic duo Jonsson & Alter, is a man who has something to say about electronic music. Growing up in between Göteborg’s old-school rave parties and acid jazz grooves, he connected strongly with the early drum’n’bass scene, later became an obsessive collector of disco records. His first disco-styled demo got released by a very enthusiastic DJ Hell, while his second demo a couple of years later by a very enthusiastic Richie Hawtin. Check out Joel’s new deep house release soon out on Bass Culture.
ROOF.FM: It struck me that you did a megamix and a release for Gigolo Records. How did the Hell connection come about?
Joel Alter: That was before I moved to Berlin four years ago. Around 2003 I wrote music all the time, I had collaborations all over Sweden with different people. But I didn’t release anything. I kind of forgot to do it! Until I realized if I wanna do this, I have to reach out. So in 2004 I finally made a demo, which I sent out to ten labels. I was really scared of getting negative feedback. I felt that a lot of my future was depending on this. If this isn’t working out, will I actually go on with it? Anyway, I got just one answer and that was from DJ Hell who was very much into the tracks. It took him a week, and he signed my first EP.
So, you were actually discovered by DJ Hell?
Yeah, you could say so (laughs). It was cool. I was really into old disco at the time, I went record hunting all the time. So I made two disco tracks. My approach to making music was very scientific. How can I evoke the same feeling of these old records I love so much? So I went with the MPC and mastered the tracks on a tape recorder. Hell loved the tracks. And I went to Berlin to play my first gigs outside of Sweden.
How was the Gigolo experience?
For one thing, Gigolo sent me to play somewhere in Spain and I got paid a 1000 euros, which was an astonishing amount of money. Then it took me two years to release my second EP, but during that time I realized that my first EP was just a lucky shot, I wasn’t really supposed to be there. Hell wanted me to do a disco album, and he really insisted on this, but I said, sorry I’m not up for it (laughs).
What did you do next?
I moved to Stockholm for a year in 2008 and I built a new studio, I spent some time to study acoustic treatment and how you build a studio. I started working with computers then, not only hardware, and I made my second demo, and the only one who answered me was Richie Hawtin. It was insane! (laughs). I remember waking up after a birthday party with a devastating hungover and I couldn’t believe it. And the next week this mix for RA got released and two of my tracks were in there, and I realized, wow, he really likes my stuff. But this was also kind of strange.
I got just one answer and that was from DJ Hell who was very much into the tracks. It took him a week, and he signed my first EP.
Strange because you didn’t feel home at Minus either?
Yeah, I didn’t feel I belonged there, while the tracks really fit the Minus template. Richie liked the experimental, but still dancey take of the productions. And then people thought, ok, now Joel is going to take off, with Minus being at the height of success. What I meant is, that it’s strange because of the way people perceive you. How they want you to be.
You can’t be pigeon-holed.
No, it’s impossible. Though since I moved to Berlin, I’m more focussed. I think I’ve gotten better, it’s more mature. But I’m never the type who would do the same all over. I get easily bored.
You moved to Berlin for the usual reasons?
Of course, it was a decision based on my career. I wanted be close to a real scene. In Göteborg I was part of a very small scene. You have to throw your own party to be heard. If you wanna survive, you have to play bars and stuff. And then you end up being an alcoholic by the age of 40 (laughs). I’m 37 now and I’ve never really lived outside Sweden. To have the confidence to move my life somewhere and build a new social network, that was quite something for me.
How was it growing up to club music in Sweden?
When I started going out in 1991, there was a big rave scene in Göteborg. But there was also this acid jazz scene. I was totally into both, soul and rare groove and the ravey stuff. I loved dancing, I used to dance all the time. And while listening to this black music radio program called Soul Corner, this guy Mats Nileskär played “Time Stretch” by Roni Size, a really minimalistic drum’n’bass track: I was like: What the fuck is this?
Drum’n’bass became your thing?
Yeah, I started deejaying and throwing my own drum’n’bass parties. Together with a friend we started importing records. But around 1997, drum’n’bass was no longer moving forward, everybody just tried to be tougher and harder. Drum’n’bass comes from the ghetto and it has a lot of ghetto attitude, and I felt this to be limiting as an artist. Whereas techno was much more free to express yourself instead of just being badass, this hiphop thing. So I felt it’s more fun with techno (laughs). Drum’n’bass hit the wall, it’s still the same. That’s also the reason why I never got into dubstep, because they used all the same sounds. And the dubstep I like, it’s actually dub techno. Why, I guess I want to be funky.
How did the collaboration with Henrik Jonsson start, the Jonsson & Alter collaboration?
I know him from Göteborg, we went to the same partys, we had the same friends, we would talk, have a beer. When I moved to Berlin in Neukölln, he lived across the street, and one day he came over to check out my hardware, you have to know that Henrikis a real sound nerd, so we started playing around. We just made one track, and that track was pretty good. Even though we never released it. But we knew: This feels good, so we made a track each time we met.
These sessions take place in your studio?
Yeah, usually we do it here in my studio, and sometimes he brings stuff, like today he brought a little analogue delay, and we went from there. It’s about having fun, not thinking much.
What’s the advantage of working as a duo?
We have this veto rule, if I don’t really like something, then we take it away. Earlier today, for example, I realized I’ve heard this chord a thousand times before. It’s much easier when you work like this to eliminate the overweight. That’s probably the best thing of working together.
You got a lot of critical success in 2011, with your album on Kontra Musik? Has it changed your career?
Artistically, I’ve been growing. Henrik is really, really talented, we are quite different, but we share the same ideas and goals about originality. But on a commercial level, I didn’t see anything. We have a really nice liveset, but unfortunately we don’t play live very often. (laughs) So getting a lot of publicity doesn’t mean you actually get the bookings.
That’s kind of strange.
Isn’t it? It’s something we have been discussing this a lot. Some people cannot make head or tails about us: are we part of the club scene or do we belong to the experimental scene? Now we have a global recession, maybe clubs are a bit afraid to book us. On the other hand there’s the experimental scene with festivals and such, but then we’re too clubby for those. (laughs). But we are working on a second album right now, so let’s see.
When will it be released?
Probably out after the summer. It will come out on Kontra Musik.
Do you feel in any way indebted to the Swedish techno and house heritage, Jesper Dahlbäck, Svek, Alexi Delano or Adam Beyer?
I never felt I was part of that scene. I come from drum’n’bass and funk, so the techno and house scene passed me by in the nineties. I know the sound since I danced to it, of course, but since I didn’t buy anything, I wasn’t aware of it.
That’s probably why your techno or house productions sound different.
It’s funny, because some people say my stuff sounds like American productions, and then they ask me about this and that Detroit techno influence, but I usually have no clue. You must know that I’ve heard the name Moodymann for the first time about three years ago. The thing is probably that we have sampled the same records. That’s where the funk originates.
There’s not only the funk, but also the melancholic northern part.
Yes, that’s definitely the northern influence. Henrik and I also conscioulsy connect our music to Swedish folklore music, that melancholia. We’re hugely inspired by being out in the nature, all alone.
You have a cabin, a hytta, where you spend time regularly?
Yes, we have one from my grandfather, and I try to go there as often as I can. I almost go home in Sweden during summer and stay there the whole summer. It’s really important to me.
What are you up to right now?
I mostly DJ. Now, since it’s winter time, it’s studio time. I’m also working on a solo album right now. And there’s my bass culture release, which I’m really looking forward too. It’s housey and I’m really looking forward to it’s release in February. My album on the other hand will be a bit more technoish.
Do you still go dancing, like you used too?
Not so much really. Back in the days, I didn’t even drink. Now I drink more and dance less (laughs). But I still dance. And sometimes I even break-dance! When I’m a bit drunk.