“You Don’t Have to Know the Words, You Can Feel It”: An Interview With Gustav Ejstes of Dungen


It’s been over a decade now since the Swedish psychedelic rock band Dungen first made an impression on American shores. That album, Ta Det Lugnt, attracted a wide-ranging group of devotees on this side of the Atlantic–no small measure, given that the group’s lyrics were (and remain) in Swedish. At the time of its release, Brandon Stosuy reviewed it for Pitchfork and called it “an exceedingly triumphant psych-pop oddity.”

While it was their first album to receive wide attention in the States, it was their third album overall; in the ensuing years, they’ve stayed busy, albeit focusing more on side projects in recent years. The group’s new album, Allas Sak, is a sprawling, lushly melodic album that retains the psychedelic textures of their earlier work but adds an alluring sense of home into the mix. I spoke with the group’s founder, Gustav Ejstes, over the phone last fall about the process of making their new album and the changes they’ve seen both at home and touring the United States.

It’s been five years since your last record. Was recording the current record any different than you’ve approached previous ones, or was it a similar process?

No, it’s definitely a new way of creating a record. This time we were using a producer called Mattias Glavå, and he pretty much put this project on the rein. He told us “You are such a great band, let’s record an album as a band.” And he put all our instruments in the studio and we did live takes. That is so much different from the earlier records where I used to sit in my living room with a laptop finishing it myself and mixing it myself, producing it myself. But this time, we really worked as a band. That’s the main difference from this recording.

How did you go about sort of selecting him as a producer?

As a matter of fact, he we worked with him on the second Dungen album. Which was the major label album, which we all have problems with, but since then we all—we are really really good friends with him and we have done several projects with him. So it was quite natural, and he’s he’s definitely like a member of the band. In this five year break, there’s been so many other useful projects for all of us in the band. I have been doing other types of music and the other guys have been involved in other bands. He just told us, hey, Gustav, do you have any new songs? Could you just make one more Dungen record, and then I would record it in my studio? As the great live band that you are. So, that’s the story. He’s like a member of the band.

As you said, you’ve all been active in other projects. Has that affected your own songwriting and the way that you play together?

Ah, no. It’s still my songs, it’s my lyrics and my melodies. Pretty much my arrangements. And I have been writing these songs, through the last five years. But, one thing with Mattias is, in his studio, everything is recorded live. There couldn’t be any overdubs. You’re supposed to play everything live. And in the best world you should, like, do the vocal lines in the studio. That, that happened with like, one song I know, I guess but otherwise it’s pretty hard: “Come on! Guys, do your fucking job. Play your instruments! Don’t come to my studio if the songs aren’t finished. That kind of process has to be done before you go into the studio.”

We’re friends but he’s really harsh. He’s really really, pretty strict on the idea that musicians should be able to come to the studio and record for a couple of days, and then you have an album. After this we’re good friends and we could take his harsh attitude where, we found it. It’s very, very nice to have that kind of pressure.

How did you go about working out the arrangements?

I’m not that much of a control freak anymore but I’m still quite territorial around my work. Around my songs. So it’s been me and Mattias, the producer, we have been sitting down and working it out. We produced it together, but it’s so much his, his great studio and of course he has a very keen ear but, I mean, from the earlier albums it’s been pretty much just me working it out. So this is totally something new for me as well.

There are plenty of woodwinds on the new album. Are those instruments that members of the band played, or did you have to bring in some guest musicians for certain things?

That’s overdubbed stuff. The saxophone stuff was Swedish saxophone player, Jonas Kullhammar, who has been a friend of ours for all these years. He’s not going to be able to go on tour with us but he’s such a big part of the album as well, and he’s been a huge fan of our music. It was amazing to have him playing all this, woodwind, saxophone stuff, but the flute stuff is, I mean it’s me—all the keyboard stuff and the vocal stuff, it’s me. It’s me.

In an interview from about ten years ago, you mentioned that you’ve been studying Swedish folk music. Is that something you’ve kept up until recent years? Has that had any effect on your own songwriting?

For sure. I mean, I can hear anything in my songs that is like, you can compare to Swedish traditional folk music but it’s still something I return to all the time. I have my everyday I work–like on Monday, first I wake up, eat breakfast, then I play piano, I try to write songs and play songs I like from the piano. Then I move over to practice scratching, turntables, then after that I go on to play fiddle, Swedish traditional folk music. And after that I have lunch and then I move back to the piano then go over to the turntables and then I go over to the fiddle. That’s my everyday. That’s what I do.

I’m sure that the violin, the fiddling, is affecting my songwriting but I can’t hear it myself, but obviously, maybe some other could hear it, I don’t know.

When you were first starting to play in the US, your band was fairly new to American audiences but you had already been playing in Sweden for a few years. How does it feel now to be looking back at having this fairly substantial body of work, where you have several albums, you’ve been playing music together now for over a decade?

I don’t know how to reply—I’m so totally humbled for the fact that we’re able to come back to the US or any other country. Here in Sweden we haven’t made an album in five years, so we have this steady group of people who are listening to our music. It feels like we have some kind of small corner in the music world slash business that we are pretty alone. But at the same time there’s so much great music, so many good artists out there so I’m so flattered. You never know. I’m prepared, this is the last time. You’re calling me now is like wow, I don’t know, it’s like I can’t believe it.

Do you ever go back and listen to your own work? When you do listen to music, are you generally listening more to contemporary music, or to older music?

It’s such a cliche, but, I think that there’s a period in everyone’s life when you get like the main influences which you stick to your whole life, I mean, I think the teenage, the early twenties, when you learn about music—I grew up with Swedish folk music in my teenage, my punk period. And then I found out about Swedish traditional, the Swedish psych scene from the 60s and 70s, and that’s the mish-mash of my expression. And that’s what I return to all the time. I see myself as pretty much an open person. I like contemporary music and I’m not a great follower, but I mean if you play something for me I will definitely listen. But in my recollection there is psych stuff, there is old hip-hop, there is Swedish folk music. And that’s pretty much my personality.

Was there one single moment when you first experienced, say, the sort of older psychedelic music that made an impression on you?

I was born in 1979, and when I was eight years old I found out about my parents making collection and it was not so many records, but there’s a lot of Swedish folk music, but there were a few classic rock albums from my mom’s collections and they were Revolver and Are You Experienced? I remember when I heard “Third Stone From The Sun” by Jimi Hendrix and I went down to my dad and I shook him and told him “Hey dad, I’m scared!” And he was like, “What do you mean?” And he was like, Is he doing something? I was trying to explain the feeling that I when I heard that part when—that moment when I couldn’t define—it was psychedelic. I didn’t know that word, but now afterwards. I really remember that moment and that song which was scary, but at the same time, pretty sweet.

I definitely feel like the first music that made a huge impression on me was a similar thing. When I first started listening to punk I remember, on some level, being really scared, because I didn’t know where it was going. But I also knew I wanted to listen to more of it.

Yeah. That kind of feeling, definitely.

Do you find that your music is received differently as you tour around the globe or is it similar audiences regardless of the country?

Actually, the people who listen to our music it’s pretty much, it’s all ages, first. It’s old women and men and it’s young people as well but they, those people in Sweden who could relate to the lyrics. These people I don’t meet in the US of course, but at the same time there’s those people who, I can see, feel this beautiful thing about music which is not so much about the lyrics, it’s more like—if I go listen to a lot of Brazilian music in Portuguese I don’t get anything about the lyrics and I love it so much. And the versions of the songs which are sang in English, I don’t like.

So, it’s different but at the same time if you—I mean the words ‘psychedelic’ or whatever, or music that makes you feel something, that is such a global—human way of taking music into your body. That is something international or, what do you say, it’s I don’t know the word in English, but, human. You don’t have to know the words, you can feel it.

Do you run across any bands that now will say to you that you’ve been an influence on them?

That’s so hard for me to say, I’ve met Kevin Parker and Tame Impala a couple of times and they were influenced by Dungen; we’ve got something parallel going on. One of the beautiful things going on is the bass player in our band, Mattias, he’s arranging a psych fest in Sweden every summer and then there they have these old bands, from the 1960s, and they have these new bands, and they have bands from the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, and contemporary bands.

We all gather through this tradition of how you relate to music, how you listen to music, how you play music. I can’t define it myself, but if the listeners or the people who play themselves could relate to the same thing… I’m a huge fan of Here We Go Magic; they’re also an influence. I don’t know if they have ever heard my music, but I think with them in some sense we get something parallel going on. And I fell like I have something parallel going on with Madlib, the producer, which is a great, huge influence for me as well, and Aphex Twin. All the way back to the 60s. Even earlier, there’s jazz musicians who’ve got that kind of keen ear. It feels pretentious to try to talk about it that way. It’s the way, it’s some kind of way of playing and listening and feeling and relating to music. It’s much hard in English but I really want to talk what it is. It’s hard.

When did you have a sense of what the title of the new record was going to be? Was it before you started recording, or was it something that came to you after the record had finished?

I write all the songs myself, solo, and then I go to the band with it. This title, which means ‘Everyone’s Thing,’ or ‘Everyone’s Sake’–for me, when we play and especially when we play live, you feel that the audience is such a big part of the experience that we’re not performers. We play the music but hopefully we get the audience so much involved in the music so that we do the music together with the audience. There was a an artist friend of mine who told me that as soon as you have made a song, as soon as you’ve recorded and released it it’s no longer your own. It’s the listeners’ song.

When I meet regular people that I don’t know, that don’t make music themselves, when they come up to me and tell me, “I really love your music,” I just feel, it’s your music. That it’s everyone’s music who wants it. Those who want it, it’s theirs.

When you look back on this record were you satisfied with everything you set out to do with it?

I’m totally satisfied. It couldn’t be any different. I mean, of course there are many different ways, but we worked with Mattias, who we love; we worked with him and this was the way it turned out. This is what I do. I write songs I want to play and I know there are people I want to play for, make songs for. I will continue more albums. This is the way it turned out this time. I’m totally satisfied. I love it.

Do you have a preferred format when you’re listening to music, in terms of formats?

Not to be snobby–I love vinyl. I do. Everyone who likes this music, I would love to give a vinyl copy free. (laughter) I would love them to hear it on vinyl. That’s the way to express it. That’s the way to have it. (laughter) Or at least I can really get the difference. I really love vinyl.

Photo: Annika Aschberg

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