Swedish musician Axel Willner, alias The Field, is a hard one to pin down, even within an electronic music scene that moves at such a pace that genre titles are increasingly redundant. His tracks seem to evade pigeonholing, and you get a feeling that that’s exactly how he likes it. ‘What I’m hoping for,’ he tells me, ‘is that as a listener you can have it in any context and it would work. The Field is made for me and I’m not the clubbing type, really.’
He works within the resolute, starchy 4/4 that could on first listen be described as techno, but his keen ear for atmosphere produces something more akin to ambient. Rather than setting out to make a track for a club or for a headphone listen, Willner uses the rigidity of a beat-driven template as a jump-off point to cram in as many different moods and influences as possible.
Now living in Berlin, a new environment he finds ‘very influential’ and ‘ever evolving’, Willner still seems an anomaly when placed alongside those who conjure up 3am floorfillers. His first LP, 2007’s From Here We Go Sublime was a huge success – that rare example of a proper electronic album that doesn’t feel like a mishmash of disparately recorded tracks, or a nullifying variation on the same theme. Its recording bridges the gap between production and true songwriting. The whole album was recorded and mixed in one live take, and on ‘Sun & Ice’, one of the earliest singles from the album, you can even hear background distortion Willner didn’t edit out of the mix. It might be an attempt to bring the human back into the electronic, or maybe he forgot to turn his phone off.
Another particularly startling moment comes at the end of ‘A Paw in My Face’, a track that rides a blissful sampled guitar loop over a beat that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Robert Hood track. At the song’s climax, the melody stretches out and slows down to reveal itself to be from ‘Hello’ by Lionel Ritchie (who doesn’t often get played in Berghain). ‘It’s been the same things that always inspire me’, he confesses, ‘Everyday life and the things that happen, but also the music that is constantly around me. Like hearing ‘Hello’ can be very inspiring!’ This kind of honesty, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, is Willner wearing his musical memory on his sleeve and deploying it with a sense of homespun warmth, giving his audience the possibility of an emotional connection with his work that eludes the more po-faced of his electronic contemporaries.
Tracks like ‘Over the Ice’ have the kind of harmonic density in their loops that feel more like post-rock than another faceless button-presser, though with the kind of euphoric rush that constitutes the best in dance music. That said, it may have taken time to carve out an audience with his idiosyncratic style. ‘I think the borders are more or less gone by now but we had our fair share of sour faces. “What is a drum kit and bass and guitar doing in a club”, or “what are all these electronics doing in this venue?”
He seems amused by the responses he provokes, but you get the impression he relishes the challenge. His recent live shows for the release this year’s Looping State of Mind have all been performed with a full band. This is a return to his earliest musical experiences, ‘I’ve been in bands since I was a teen,’ he says, ‘so the translation into a band was just very natural for me.’ The new record is arguably less beat-driven than its predecessors, but through its use of live instrumentation, vocal loops and washes of sound, it creates an atmosphere all of its own: organic and electronic, energetic and languid, but always compelling, rich, and emotionally resonant.
High praise for someone who raised the money to record his first album working in the Swedish equivalent of an off-license. He was even willing to recommend the perfect drink to go with the new album, ‘I can recommend a red wine for the album as it is released in autumn, the Italian Nipozzano by Frescobaldi. A lot of taste for the little buck.’ No MDMA for this one. Much like the music itself, he’s going for something far more subtle and rich.