Molnbär av John is the moniker of John Henriksson from Sweden who just released his debut full-length album ‘The End’ on the excellent flau label. Sounds from another era, melodies and textures from the cloudy horizon, organic and romantic experimental compositions, easy listening jazzy undertones. It’s a special release that’s worth diving into. We were really eager to dig into John’s mystical world, so in our interview you can follow his path from growing up in Northern Sweden through enjoying life in Paris to ending up in Stockholm. We spoke about early influences, creative friends, vintage dandy clothes, his own label Tona Serenad, the problematic Stockholm music scene and we’ve also got an exclusive Varg (Northern Electronics / Posh Isolation) remix to share with you.
It’s always interesting when someone’s story starts like “it began in the middle of the 90s, in a young boys room, slightly south of the arctic circle”. How was growing up in Northern Sweden that time and how did the first sounds snuck into this young boy’s room?
It was magical, of course somehow disconnected from the rest of the world. The entire universe was my neighbourhood, but I guess that’s what most people feel about their childhood, then of course very characterised by the conditions with lots of nature; deep forests, long winters and bright summers. I remember being in the kitchen with my mother listening to the radio, but also The Beatles and other more progressive Swedish rock from my parents. Later on, when MTV came a completely new world opened up for me and my friends – And I guess everyone else during those years! The first record I bought was Snoop Doggy Dogg ‘Doggystyle’, it opened up a completely different world along with YO! MTV Raps etc. Me and my friends embraced the entire hip-hop culture at a very early age.
According to my personal experience, coming from an isolated place where perhaps not too many people understand your fascination with music makes you somehow more focused, creative and more open to all things undiscovered.
Yes, you are right! I’ve always been into drawing and painting, that’s was my main thing till I discovered hip-hop and then those things went along quite well, especially with the fascination for graffiti and tags, record sleeves and logos for clothing brands and artists related to the hip-hop world in the mid 90s. The music interest created polarisations among other friends, you know who were down or not. My friends were listening to hip-hop, hardcore music and punk and many were skaters. The other grouping of people at school were jockeys listening to heavy metal and that somehow separated many friends in my class in school for example. Then there were of course teachers and adults and other kids in our age who didn’t understand our fascination for this culture at all that we somehow imported directly from the media.
What and who was your biggest inspiration back then?
I think my biggest inspiration was the Wu-Tang Clan, when I discovered Method Man’s ‘Bring The Pain’ video on YO! MTV Raps from the album ‘Tical’ in 1995, I was completely blown away. The rawness was probably the thing that fascinated me the most. Then I discovered the ‘Enter The Wu-Tang’ album from a friend’s older brother. The first song I heard from that album was ‘C.R.E.A.M’. One thing led to another, we discovered other similar artists, mainly from the New York scene as Mobb Deep and with time it led me to artists such as Company Flow, MF Doom and lots of independent hip-hop that was somehow a new chapter that opened up a completely new way of thinking. ”Independent as fuck”. I started to buy lots of cassette tapes and vinyl directly from Swedish underground artists and shops. Since I was too young to get a VISA or PayPal, I had to make a lot of orders via the phone and pay cash via the post office. That’s how I got Company Flow ‘Funcrusher Plus’ and MF Doom ‘Operation Doomsday’ on vinyl when they came out. I ordered them from a shop in Copenhagen without really knowing what it was. Therefore, me and my friends started to mess around with software as Fast Tracker II when we got our first computer at home. Me and a friend got a pair of Technics 1210 as well that we shared in his garage and we were rapping and scratching. I’ve never been good with words, so I took interest in the DJ-part with sampling and scratching instead. That was in ‘98 and not much has changed since then.
How did you choose your moniker Molnbär av John? ‘Molnbär’ literally means ‘cloudberry’, which looks like a pale version of blackberry or raspberry but only to be found in the Northern Hemisphere.
My grandmother is from Finland and she always gives me frozen cloudberries and since I was a little child, it has been my favourite berry over all. I love it. It’s delicious. They are also very beautiful. In Swedish Cloudberry is Hjortron, but if you translate it directly from English it’s Molnbär. Moln = cloud. Bär = berry. So I thought that my songs can represent small pink berry-shaped clouds, that you find in the deepest swamps in the far north of the world, where me and my family comes from.
It’s such a cliché (for a reason, of course) when someone’s hailing from the darkest corners of Scandinavia, that sort of automatically justifies making dark music. But these ‘small pink berry-shaped clouds’ are indeed a perfect description for your music: fresh, playful, easy and dynamic. How come the cruel darkness did not influence you in this sense?
Well, I would lie if I said that the darkness wasn’t there. It is, I think it’s there in the music also somehow. Also art has always been a way for me to create my own parallel universe, an own world where I can escape all this cruel darkness that does exist. I’m also very sensitive as a person, I try to stay around people with positive energy, also I like to listen to music that gives me that kind of energy, same with art and movies.
You eventually ended up in the Swedish capital, Stockholm. What sort of new possibilities did this move open up for you music-wise?
I was doing music up in the north without any ambitions at all to show it someone or to do anything special with it. I was making experimental music and very into art in my early twenties and studied to become an art teacher at the University of Umeå when I met Joel Danell who just started his band Musette. We came along very well immediately. We were both vegans, almost straight edge, living very bohemian and cheap, just recording music in our bedrooms on cassette tapes and messing around. He suggested to me that I should come to Stockholm so from one day to another, I took the train from Umeå to Stockholm with my essential belongings and moved in with him in a suburb of Stockholm. I started to work as a kindergarten teacher. We listened to artists like Directorsound, Anne Laplantine, Momus etc. I was very into Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Tenniscoats and that scene, also a lot of easy listening and jazz. It was during the days of MySpace, so we started to use it and eventually started to connect with other people around the world doing the similar thing. That was definitely an opening for new possibilities music-wise. Also to start to create an identity with your music and build up some mystics with images etc. I started to make pictures for me and Joel with a 50s inspired look to build a bit on the mystic and we started to talk about creating a label by ourselves, as a platform to release our own music.
Oh, yes! Wanted to ask you about the fancy outfits… this 50s inspired look is quite unusual as well, but it fits you so naturally, one would almost think that’s how you look like every day! How did you end up with this style?
I think that I always had a fascination for that time period, maybe not when I was a youngster with a hoodie and yellow timbs, but later on. I always liked uniforms, also to dress up. I like to buy and wear nice suits and do it a lot, but since most of my money goes to records these days, I am not updating my wardrobe as frequent as I maybe wish. There is a shop here in Stockholm with beautiful vintage dandy clothes called A. Marchesan that I like a lot. My favourite shop for clothes in the world is Casablanca in Paris, the lady that works there is lovely. I bought a nice 40s three-piece suit last time I was there.
You’ve even started your own label Tona Serenad in 2009, where you also released your first EP as Molnbär av John. What was the idea behind launching your own platform?
To start the label was first Joel’s idea. He said he had a friend called Gustav who makes beautiful music and plays clarinet. We had a meeting in my little apartment and talked about possibilities. Since Gustav was more interested of doing everything the proper way, it took some time. We started in 2007 and we had to learn everything from scratch of how things work, to record and release music and so on. The idea was to create a platform for our music and friends we like. We met many friends via MySpace and had lots of friends around us that we were inspired by and wanted to work with. The first album we made was Musette’s first album called ‘Datum’ and was released in 2008 on CD only. We recorded it in my and Joel’s living room in a suburb of Stockholm called Blackeberg. I was working on my first EP at the same time called ‘I Wish I Could Draw Her Nose’ and we already started to get some friends from the Paris scene via MySpace. That’s how we got in touch with Anne Laplantine and released an EP with her at the same time called ‘Spring Won’t Find Us’.
You’ve also lived in Paris for some time. We can almost taste the French nostalgia in the warm jazzy sounds on the record, so it must have been quite an inspirational period for you. Could you tell us about the time you’ve spent there?
We went to Paris to do some concerts via people we met on MySpace and got real good friends with them. We got introduced to many people in that little world of experimental music and I got to know really good people who are definitely friends for life. I moved to Paris in summer 2010 with the idea of staying there for the rest of my life, but it lasted till the summer of 2013. Those were very influential years for me. I got to know great people and had the chance to collaborate with bands as Dorian Pimpernel for the label and also I met Momus in Paris for the first time who I made the album ‘Thunderclown’ where most of the material from ‘The End’ is taken from by the way.
Sounds like MySpace was The Place for you back in the days. Where do you reach out for new possibilities these days?
Good question, I feel since MySpace died there has been many different platforms around, nothing with focus on music and art like MySpace and actually works. Facebook is just confusing, Soundcloud was ok till they kicked out all the DJs and mixtapes. I use Instagram a lot for trading and buying records, same with Discogs and physical record shops. Besides that there isn’t a place like that – at least that I’m aware of. Also, I am not listening so much to contemporary music these days, as with my choice of suits I’ve got stuck a bit in the past. I’ve been very into 50s music for some years, but now I’ve moved on to more 60s and 70s music. Of course a lot of 50s jazz.
How do you see the Swedish music scene these days? Lots of artists tend to get much more attention abroad than actually back home…
Personally, I think at least Stockholm is suffering from some identical crisis at the moment musically and culturally. There are of course many great musicians and artists here, but because of the city and politics in the city, there aren’t many good concert places around, especially not for experimental music. There are some, but I feel that Stockholm is missing something. That is because of expensive housing, people who can’t stand having a bar with DJs or a live band in their neighborhood. The scene with electronic music is rather big, with techno and house. To be honest, that isn’t my cup of tea at all, I somehow have zero interest, even if many of my friends are in that scene, isn’t it for me – at all. Otherwise, Stockholm is suffering from a little brother or little sister syndrome to cities like New York and London. It’s all about burgers and techno.
We have some good record shops in Stockholm that I visit frequently. There is also an interesting scene for jazz, also Fylkingen is a fantastic place. The radio stuff that comes from Stockholm is so boring. I went to a concert last week at Debaser Strand (a medium big venue in central Stockholm). It was really depressing, the venue and the mood and especially the DJs playing there after the band.
My girlfriend is from Rome and been living in Stockholm for two years now and she really suffers from the lack of a scene here. I don’t blame her.
Maybe it’s time to move back to Paris… or somewhere else? 😉
We talk about it and in some ways I do miss Paris and life in Paris, especially my friends. Last time I was there, it was last November for the Paris Photo fair, when it was the shootings. It was really intense and that’s a feeling I had of Paris for a while and one of the reasons why I left, due the aggressive vibes in the city. My girlfriend wants us to move to Rome, I could consider it but I’m quite happy to live in Sweden even though I’m not super enthusiastic by the music scene at the moment.
You’ve released your first full-length debut ‘The End’ on the Japanese label flau. How come you did not release on Tona Serenad this time? Was it difficult to find another label who would take good care of it?
Oh, I never thought about it myself actually. It was Yas from Flau who contacted me and asked if I wanted to release an album with my previously released EPs and if I had some unreleased material as well. I had an idea for years to make an album called ‘The End’ so it was a great opportunity to do that and collect music, photos and ideas from those years and put them together as one album. I’m very happy how it finally turned out and I’m very grateful for all the fantastic work Yas and his designer has been doing. I think it looks really good and how it’s printed, with the extra parts etc. Flau is a really good record label, I knew about them since before of course.
I haven’t really thought about releasing an album with all the material like this until Flau asked me, that’s why I didn’t release it on Tona Serenad. It’s also something to work with your own music on your own label. It’s quite nice to give it in the hands of someone else who might believe in it. I had the idea of making a very small run of the record with silk screened sleeves for Tona Serenad, but at the moment we have many projects that already takes all of my time (and money).
What’s next for Molnbär av John? Any new material in the making or perhaps some performances?
I haven’t made any shows for some years now, just some DJ-sets and also been performing with Matti Bye a bit for his album ‘Bethanien’. Now we’re working on a follow up to that record and I’m working a bit more with samples, so we will try to work on ways to make it work as a live act. That album will be out early 2017 and is produced by Joel Danell (Musette). Really nice work! With Molnbär av John I haven’t had much time to even think about it until Yas asked if I wanted to make a record. I have lots of new samples for new material, I just need to find new ways to make it into something inspiring. I made a tape with new songs last week for JJ Funhouse in Belgium that made this split 7” with me and Milan W with the Kaikki Loppunu tracks. They asked for a song for a christmas compilation they are making so I recorded some stuff live with turntables and samplers directly on tape. I think it was really fun and quite exciting and I would like to continue like that, raw samples directly into tapes. I also like the way Varg worked with my material. Something like that could be a way to proceed as well.
We are premiering a remix of ‘Gibbous Groove’ by Varg (Northern Electronics / Posh Isolation). How did he get in the picture, what’s the story behind this remix?
Me and Jonas (Varg) grew up in the same town in north of Sweden and we grew up on the same bus line, number 208 from the harbour to the city. I’m a few years older than him, but we met up there and also more now, since we both live in Stockholm. He is a very busy man these days though, always seems to be on his way somewhere, also super productive and extremely talented. I said earlier that I don’t care much about techno or modern electronic music , even if it’s maybe considered to be techno, it’s damn good. It’s raw just as ‘Bring The Pain’ with Method Man. When Yas was talking about remixes for the album, I thought about him directly, since he is very fast and effective. His music is different from mine in a good way and we’re both from the deep forests in the north. In the remix he adds field recordings from the 208 bus where two people talk (with a strong northern accent) about mobile phones, technology and the end of humanity and how we humans eradicates our own breed. I’m very glad about the result.
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