Nobody expects mainstream popularity from a Swedish psychedelic rock band—even one as good as Dungen. But shrinkage? It’s simply not right. The last time they came through Seattle they played to a sold-out Neumos crowd that included Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, who told me before the show that Dungen (pronounced doonyen, it’s Swedish for “the Grove”) was his favorite band. Tomorrow they play Barboza, the basement venue below Neumos that holds half as many people. At least it’ll be intimate.
With each new release over the last 10 years, Dungen has deepened and expanded its compositional scope while staying true to its original, timeless aesthetic. Allas Sak, their just-released seventh album, is perhaps their most accessible yet. We talked to bandleader and mastermind Gustav Ejstes from his home in Gothenburg. Ejstes spoke with a heavy Scandinavian accent and the kind of easy elegance only good European schooling can provide.
City Arts: I listened to Allas Sak several times while driving around Mt. Rainier National Park and to me the music matched the landscape perfectly. It was all so beautiful and I felt so grateful for the music in that particular moment.
Gustav Ejstes: Thank you very much. Wow!
The songs are shorter than previous albums and perhaps more accessible to a broader audience. Was that a conscious choice on your part?
No. It’s hard to be objective in that way of looking at the composition of the record that way. But it was definitely not my purpose to make short songs. We have to talk from the beginning now about this producer, Mattias Glavå, who made this album. It’s the biggest difference from the earlier recordings where I used to record and produce and mix everything myself. Now we work with this guy and of course he added his point of view on the stuff. We pretty much did it together, but of course he was in the end the producer of the record.
Having that outside influence can help focus your creativity or channel it in new ways.
For sure. But at the same time I used to have this extreme control, need of control, so it was a pretty much new thing for me to let go of that. But it was not that hard. He’s a close friend of ours and I put all trust in him, definitely, working with this album. And it was actually his idea from the beginning to do another record. It’s been five years since the last record and I had been writing a lot of songs but he was the one who took the step to ask, “Let’s make another Dungen album and let’s do it in my studio and let me record you as the great band you are. You’re a four-piece band!” And that’s totally new from the earlier recordings.
That sounds invigorating.
Yeah—to be able to just perform while recording, just think about he song and the performance instead of being totally stressed out about the microphone in the right position… It used to take so much longer to mix the record. I remember one record, the album 4, I booked a studio, I got a deal with the guy who owned the studio and got every night shift for two months and that’s how that record turned out the way it did. I had basically as much time as possible to do whatever I wanted, but it took three days or more to mix one song. To be in his amazing studio with his skill this time, we recorded and mixed the record in two weeks. So that’s the main difference.
Sounds like a great collaboration.
Yeah for sure. We have prett ymuch the same idea of sounds. Mattias and me. I remember that recording was so much about not having any options. He put up the microphones and we recorded it. I remember he took all the channels, perhaps it was four or five mics on the drums, and he put it all down on one channel, a live mix of the drum kit, and recorded it on tape. He was like, “That’s the way that turned out.” If you wanted it to sound different it was too late. That was his way of working. I love that. Let’s do it! And you can’t press undo.
I have to ask about your lyrics, which are sung entirely in Swedish. You’ve said the songs are about mundane things in life—what kind of mundane things? Can you give me a specific example?
That’s the beautiful part that I’ve learned through these years: It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing I want to say specifically. It’s some kind of therapy going on. For those who understand every lyric, even they have their own stories of the songs. For me it’s very important about the lyrics. And most often I write the lyrics together with the songs. It happens simultaneously.
So there’s nothing specific you wanna say but the lyrics are really important? Those statements seem opposite to one another!
I guess so! But there’s so much music that, I mean… there’s a feeling in music which is a combination of the words and the tunes. But at the same time there’s a lot of music that I listen to where I make up my own stories of the lyrics where I don’t get the words. I don’t know Portuguese or Turkish; even English sometimes can be hard to understand for me. That’s the beautiful thing.
Sweden is leading the world in American pop-music production right now with Stargate and Dr. Luke and others. And then there’s Yung Lean, who’s an entirely new musical generation. Are you aware of that side of the music scene there?
Well, yes and no. I see myself as an open person but I don’t know. I’m pretty much doing my thing. But I’m a bad follower. [Laughs]. But of course I will see them as my colleagues and it’s a lot of great music coming up in Sweden, but I write songs and I’m still listening to pretty much the same records that I’m always listening to. But at the same time I see myself as open. [Pause] There’s some good Young Lean lean songs.
Dungen is a musicians’ band, by which I mean a lot of my musician friends love Dungen. And the last time you guys played Seattle I stood next to Robin Pecknold from Fleet Foxes and he was loving it. That respect from other musicians must be flattering.
Definitely. By the same time of course it’s nice to be able to touch other musicians with our music. But I mean all kinds of people. It’s so beautiful to be able to create something that people can connect with. Robin Pecknold, I’m a huge fan of his work so it’s totally flattering in all ways it could be flattering.
Have Dungen and Fleet Foxes ever played together?
We did actually, we did a few support shows with them for their tour. So we met and we’ve been making music together—playing the same shows and they were doing. I remember Skyler [Skjelset, Fleet Foxes guitarist] was playing guitar with us and I played flute on one song. It was great times.
Do you have a particular setting in mind for the music? A place that approximates the music? Like Mt. Rainier was for me.
No. I mean not by purpose. What I have started to really be humble for in life is that I have the opportunity to play live and do shows and let the music be alive. Allas Sak means “everyone’s thing” or “everyone’s sake.” As soon as the music is done or played it’s no longer our music, it’s for you, riding in your car listening to it, it’s your story, your music. The setting that I’m in when I write, the music doesn’t even matter because your story is the most important for you and for me.
Dungen plays Barboza Tuesday, Oct. 20. Buy tickets now; it’ll probably sell out.