Interview with pg.lost’s Gustav Almberg
In the run-up to the release of their split 12” with China’s Wang Wen (罔聞), the guitarist for the Swedish experimental instrumentalists takes us through the band’s experiences in China, the state of Sweden’s DIY scene, why vinyl is their preferred medium of choice and what their Chinese fans can expect in the future.
pg.lost is a band from Norrköping, Sweden that call themselves experimental instrumentalists, a label that is much more adapted to their lush, refined sound than the oft-used post-rock identifier.
The foursome excels in the creation of sweeping compositions that tug at the heartstrings, crashing movements that intoxicate the listener and ferry them through churning waters of aching emotion stamped with forceful, triumphant and occasionally-violent melodies that are leavened by the occasional soothing valley.
Veterans of two China tours and a handful of releases, the forward-looking quartet is taking the next logical step in the push for better Sino-Swedish relations on Mon, Dec 31 with the release of a split 12” with Chinese post-rock outfit Wang Wen (罔聞), a collaborative effort between Genjing Records, Weary Bird Records, Chengdu-based promotional agency New Noise and the bands themselves.
Here, guitarist Gustav Almberg takes us through the band’s experiences in China, the state of Sweden’s DIY scene, the appeal of working with vinyl and what their Chinese fans can expect in the future.
Genjing Records: Thanks for joining us! How would you describe pg.lost to a casual music fan? How about to a serious listener?
Gustav Almberg: We would probably describe our music the same way to both of them—just the basic facts to avoid giving a preconceived feeling: it’s instrumental, dynamic music with mostly guitars, bass and drums. We’d rather play the music for them and then let them describe it to us.
Genjing: How was the recent European tour with Wang Wen? How did the crowds and media react to—gasp—a Chinese post-rock band?
Gustav: Besides playing with them in Norrköping, we also saw Wang Wen in packed venues in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Here in Sweden, most people don’t know anything about the Chinese music scene, so for both the media and the crowd, the fact that they were from China was very interesting.
I was talking to a lot of people at the gig in Stockholm while selling merch and most of them had never heard of Wang Wen and they were very happily surprised at how good they were. And I can tell you: I’ve always been a big fan of MONO, who were good that evening, but Wang Wen were better. I think we sold about 15 vinyls and all but three CDs at that first gig. It was great!
Genjing: Why does Norrköping have the nickname “Peking”?
Gustav: In the early 1900s, some students here started calling Norrköping “Peking”, which is how you say Beijing in Swedish, after attending a lecture with the famous explorer Sven Hedin. Sven was talking about his travels in Asia and told the students that the names Beijing and Nanjing meant the north capital and the south capital, similar to Norrköping and the neighboring town Söderköping (North-köping” and South-köping). And as the students spread across the country after their graduation, they took the nickname with them. Nowadays it’s mostly used to refer to Norrköping’s football club.
Genjing: Does Norrköping’s environment influence your sound?
Gustav: It’s nothing we think about that much, but the music we make is really the sum of what’s going on around us and what kind of feeling we have at the moment. I guess it would be weird if some of what sets us apart from other bands’ sounds couldn’t be traced to the environment here, which has its ups and downs: It can be very bleak and sometimes it can be extremely beautiful. You could say that it’s dynamic and we’d like to think that our music is too.
Genjing: Take us through the composition process for songs like, say, the “Desperdicio” tracks on the new record. Does the band start off with certain emotions that you’d like to convey, or is it more of an organic process?
Gustav: We never sit down and discuss which emotions we would like to convey—that would really impede our creative process. The way we make music is that we just do and try not to think that much; we pick bits and pieces until we have a whole. You always get a special feeling from the end result, anyway, and we think that it’s good that you have your own. It makes it a lot more interesting.
The process of making “Desperdicio I & II” was no different. We started at some end or in the middle and built around that. Two songs became one suite because we found them to fit better together than separately. We feel that most records are better when you listen to them as a whole, anyway.
That’s one of the reasons why we like vinyl—because you can’t just jump and skip parts as you like. It makes you a more active listener and you will, most of the time, appreciate the record even more than you would have if you had skipped through the “boring” parts. They all play a role.
Genjing: Does the two-song suite have a unifying theme?
Gustav: Not really. Musically, it would maybe be that it has a really grinding feel to it that comes back throughout the piece. It’s something that just happens. I guess we’re plagued with similar feelings of discontent or whatever it stands for—we’ve never really discussed it. After playing together for this many years and hanging out as much as we do, we’re usually in sync in many aspects of our lives and that comes through in our music.
Genjing: How do you see those two songs in relation to Wang Wen’s contributions?
Gustav: They complement each other very nicely. Our songs have those grinding parts with maybe a more aggressive, angry feeling to it and Wang Wen’s more hopeful melodies but with parts of anguish in between. Still with a little piece of humor from both sides also, I think. It’s all a part of the dynamics of the record. Of course, this is always in the eye of the beholder—as it should be.
Genjing: Why release on vinyl? What does vinyl mean to you?
Gustav: The CD is slowly and steadily dying. There is less and less room for it now when most people just listen to mp3s. Vinyl was still the household format when we were growing up even though the CD took over some years before we reached our teens. But also during the teenage years—when you’re really developing your identity with music and have just started playing instruments yourself—many bands that we listened to were openly promoting vinyl over the CD… I guess a lot because of nostalgia, but they also talked about the superiority in sound, with the CD format taking out a lot of the dirt and grit that was supposed to be there. Some of them also had songs on the vinyl release that weren’t on the CD versions, and as a die-hard fan, you had to have it all.
Short version: Vinyl sounds good, is better looking, cool, hip and sexy. The CD is just utterly boring in comparison.
Genjing: You mentioned in a past interview that the China connection was kicked off when Jef from New Noise got in touch and told you that you had fans in Asia. As a band from Norrköping, how did that make you feel?
Gustav: We knew that we maybe had a handful of fans in Asia. I mean, the only release we had out in Asia was our second album [In Never Out, 2009] and that was only in Japan. Just by coincidence, we got in contact with Jef from New Noise who told us he wanted to bring us to China. While we were definitely interested, we were also a bit cautious so that we wouldn’t be disappointed if it didn’t happen.
After a while, when we realized that it would probably going to happen, we got excited but we kept our expectations low and didn’t really expect any big turnout. It was more for the adventure, for gain or loss, but we got really blown away by the reception we got. Touring there became like one long adrenaline rush for us and we couldn’t wait ‘til we could get our next fix.
Genjing: You’ve toured Korea, China (including Taipei) and played a gig in Malaysia. What were some of the differences that you encountered in each of the three countries? Favorite aspects of each place? And how was the experience overall?
Gustav: Jef has done such good work: everything was run so smoothly both times that we went over. When we’re in tour mode, we try to have a relaxed view on most things and see whatever problems we encounter as nothing that would dampen our moods. The few ones we’ve had have been nothing we haven’t been able to fix.
When I think about it, it’s hard to pinpoint what differences there are between the countries. Of course there are differences, but it’s more of a general feeling that involves many aspects: how people look, what there is to eat, the infrastructure and stuff like that. I mean, China is such a huge country in itself so you get a different vibe from every city that you’re in.
We felt like we were treated real nice everywhere as opposed to some places in Europe where you feel sometimes that you don’t even know who the promoter is or who wanted you there in the first place because they are so used to having bands similar to us passing through every week.
In Asia, you always feel welcome. We could go on forever about all the nice things (laughs), but all in all, it’s a real pleasure travelling those countries and playing for everyone over there. We feel extremely privileged.
Genjing: We’re happy to have you! Shifting gears: What’s the state of the DIY scene in Sweden? Would you consider pg.lost to be a part of that community?
Gustav: It feels like the DIY scene—swapping tapes, arranging gigs, starting independent record labels and booking tours—has always been strong here in Sweden, especially within the hardcore/punk community and during the 1980s and 90s among the death and black metal people. Of course, the DIY philosophy is widely spread among the indie kids, too, and we feel very much a part of all of this. Maybe it was more so when we were younger, but it’s still in our blood. The record label we’ve been on from the start, Black Star Foundation, is a DIY label that is managed more or less by one guy. And of course, this split with Wang Wen is a DIY release.
Genjing: We’ve heard a lot about government-funded programs in Europe that support musicians. Can you take us through how that process works? Do you think that this has a healthy or detrimental aspect on the DIY music scene?
Gustav: While there is money that you can apply for from different funds and stuff like that, we’ve been too lazy figuring many of those things out. Growing up in Sweden, it’s very easy getting help learning an instrument in music schools or privately and it’s not that expensive. Most of the government-issued cultural money goes to bigger institutions like concert halls, theaters, orchestras and so on. But at the same time, some of it goes to places where indie/underground music thrives—like community youth centers, for example. I guess it’s just enough so that the DIY music scene still feels DIY.
Genjing: Do you see greater potential for Swedish-Chinese cooperation in the future?
Gustav: Jef saw the benefits for both Wang Wen and us in doing this split together. I guess we all did, but he was the one pointing it out. It feels like there is an untapped source that this project will hopefully open up for everyone. Maybe there have been many Swedish-Chinese cooperations before, but I haven’t heard of any—at least not any releases. So if this helps with that, it’s a great bonus.
The guys in Wang Wen have really become good friends; they make such great music and we would never do this with a band that we didn’t respect or one who played music that we didn’t like regardless of which doors it would open.
We really hope the trend of quality indie music being produced by Chinese bands keeps going up.
Genjing: It is! Anything else you’d like to say to our Chinese readers?
Gustav: We really really hope you like the record. Now get on that guitar, drums, trumpet, harmonica, synth or whatever instrument and give us some more great music from China! We need it! Music is the essence of life.
pg.lost’s self-titled 12” split with Wang Wen will be available for purchase on Mon, Dec 31 through our website,at XP and through other fine merchants. Wang Wen themselves will perform at the official release party in Dalian on New Year’s Eve. Keep your eyeballs on our Facebook, Weibo and Twitter pages for more info on this release and for other good stuff.