The Gonkyburg artists

Gothenburg is Sweden’s second largest city, situated on the West Coast of Sweden. Musically, Gothenburg is a diverse city, producing artists and labels that focus on everything from Experimental Noise to Black Metal. A group of young artists made Gothenburg one of the most exciting musical cities in the world during the early 2000s.They fused electronic music with Jazz and recorded under names such as Quant, Jol, Swell Session, Plej, Hird, Ernesto, Cloud and Nils Krogh. Gonkyburg was a close scene, built on strong friendships. The artists worked together, remixed each other and assisted technically on each others records. The world seems to have forgotten, but I didn’t. Here is their story.

The scene had a name, Gonkyburg, and the music that the artists made got lumped together under the term Nu Jazz. But that is not the whole story. These artists were making a broad range of music. Stylistically, some of what was being created was Nu Jazz, but lots of it wasn’t. Many of the artists involved were not particularly comfortable with the term Nu Jazz and some wholeheartedly rejected it. Some of the best tracks made during this era fall outside of the definition of Nu Jazz. What was important here was a musical openness. These artists can be grouped together, but only based on their desire to experiment and mix different ideas and influences together. The music they made was being played in clubs, on radio shows and being written about in the press as part of a scene where Nu Jazz and Broken Beat did play a role. This was part of a global scene, where an ‘eclectic’ approach to music flourished. DJs like Gilles Peterson and Mr. Scruff were hugely influential and the music seemed to traverse genres and boundaries. These were clubs and shows where it was possible to play Deep House records alongside Soul, Disco with Jazz, Drum & Bass with Reggae and Techno with Trip Hop. Artists like Moodymann and Theo Parrish were important, as were Bugz In The Attic, Jazzanova and a whole host of others.   

Arguably, artists such as Hird, Andreas Saag, Jonatan Bäckelie and Nils Krogh made music that could be described as Nu Jazz during this period, but they also made records outside of this stylistic boundary. To only focus on what could be termed Nu Jazz would be missing the point. Quant and Jol made music that was closer to Trip Hop, Drum & Bass and Jazz-Funk than Nu Jazz. Plej’s first album was glitchy and housey, even if it had trumpets and some Jazz influences. Cloud’s sound was similarly electronic and perhaps is best described as House was with a small ‘h’. The biggest ‘hit’ that any of these artists produced was actually a pop record, The Similou’s All This Love. The important local record labels for the scene were Dot and Hollow Recordings. Once the outside world started taking notice, imprints such as Stockholm’s Dealers of Nordic Music (DNM) and London’s Exceptional Records released a lot of music from Gothenburg based artists. DNM played a key role in marketing the scene and pushed it in a specific direction, as a result of their groundbreaking Nordic Lounge compilation series.  

The Nu Jazz of Gothenburg combined traditional Jazz instrumentation with Broken Beats and deft sample usage. Many of the artists came from a traditional music background, which coloured the records that they made. Some tracks were covers of jazz standards, but most were original productions. Singers such as Yukimi Nagano and Elsa Hedberg played a pivotal role on many records during this period. Even the music that could be called Nu Jazz paid lip service to various other musical forms. The artists themselves were inspired by genres such as D&B, Eurodance, Rave, Soul, Jazz Funk, Techno and Trance, as well as Nordic Jazz. According to Andreas Saag, “The music had melancholic vibes and I think that is what we subconsciously brought into Nu Jazz. I think that is why the Gonkyburg sound was interesting and didn’t sound like anything else.”

With its focus on live instrumentation, the Gothenburg or Gonkyburg Nu Jazz sound was generally more musical than that of the more celebrated West London scene. Centred on the CoOp club night and Goya Distribution, producers such as Bugz In The Attic, Dego and IG Culture created a rawer form of Broken Beat with strong basslines and tough beats. The Gonkyburg sound was perhaps closer to the likes of German production crews such as Jazzanova and Inverse Cinematics (featuring a young Danilo Plessow of MCDE fame) and labels like Compost, than that of London. The Gothenburg sound was slightly less reverential than that of Japanese acts like Kyoto Jazz Massie and Sleepwalker, who were also active during this period.

The Gothenburg artists weren’t working in isolation from the rest of their country, or indeed Scandinavia. In Stockholm, there were artists like Beatfanatic, Stockholm Cyclo, Freddie Crugar and labels such as Raw Fusion releasing Jazz influenced electronic music. Uppsala’s Koop made headlines with 2001’s Waltz For Koop on German label Compost, which featured vocals from Gothenburg’s Yukimi Nagano, among others. This album provided a modern take on Jazz that was still steeped in tradition and influenced the likes of Hird.        

As an outsider looking in, the Gonkyburg scene seemed to end at the time when Broken Beat and Nu Jazz fell out of fashion globally. This was against a backdrop of a huge decline in the physical sales of music, which hit record shops, distributors, labels and artists hard. Of course the music itself didn’t ‘die’, but the focus of the press and other interested parties shifted elsewhere. The influence of Jazz and fractured rhythms on electronic music has never gone away. As far as Gonkyburg was concerned, the scene was certainly over by 2008, but arguably things started to change as early as 2005. However, appearances can be deceiving and many of the artists have remained active to this day under different aliases. A number of them have taken a more behind the scenes role, operating as producers and engineers. Their music can be heard soundtracking films, TV and games. Forward thinking Jazz seems to have had a revival of late, although the focus seems to be more on London than Gothenburg.

Much of the music from the Gonkyburg period has aged well. The reason that much of it still sounds good is probably a result of fantastic melodies, strong instrumentation and memorable songs. Little information about the Gonkyburg period has survived online, except for a few short features in the archives of Swedish newspapers and ghost MySpace pages. I decided that it was time to tell the story of Gonkyburg, with participation of many of the artists.

Beach life in front of Gothenburg harbour

Gothenburg was a fertile place for music according to the artists within the scene. Joel Eriksson aka Jol believes that the city gave them opportunities to make music. As he recalls, “To begin with, to have possibilities to live in a musical environment, this is not possible in all locations of the world.” The city had specialist music high schools, which many artists within and outside of Gonkyburg attended. Arvid Niklasson from Plej recalls that local government were very supportive when he was in punk bands, before starting Plej. Arvid even feels “There are some really big and good bands from Gothenburg. You were almost encouraged to start a band.” Perhaps the Gothenburg climate and even the temperament of the people helped people focus on making music. As Arvid notes, “Architecturally, it’s a grey city.  It’s got a harbour. It gets good in the summer, but the rest of the time, the other 9 months, it’s better to stay home. And you know how Swedes are; they only socialize at certain times of the week. The rest, you stick to yourself.”  

Christoffer Berg believes that context is everything, “When you study human behaviour, one conclusion is repeatedly found. Context influences human behaviour 100 times more than character.  Whatever musical achievements, it is impossible to take it out of context.” Crucially, context was kind to the Gothenburg artists. All of the artists started making music from a young age. By the time they were teenagers, many of them had made music that was good enough to be released. Luckily for them, there was local infrastructure to help them release music and support the development of Gonkyburg as a scene. Local record labels Dot and Hollow released music by Quant, Jol, Andreas Saag and Jonatan Bäckelie. Many artists cite the Blenda record shop as being supportive of their productions. There was the Nefertiti club for DJ gigs and live shows. Christoffer Berg started putting on shows at Nefertiti aged 19, after graduating from distributing flyers in his teens. The tagline was ‘House is Jazz’. This gave the artists a local space to showcase their music and also bring in international guest DJs, which helped to raise the profile of the scene. However, the most important element of the scene was friendship. The artists were friends before they had any musical success and the supporting atmosphere allowed the scene to develop. Friendships were at the crux of what made Gonkyburg successful and the breakup of these friendships perhaps led to its downfall.

How did it all start? Music school played an important role. Many of the key architects of the Gonkyburg scene attended the same music high school (gymnasieskola in Swedish) and became friends around this time. Andreas Saag, Jonatan Bäckelie, Joel Eriksson, Christoffer Berg and Yukimi Nagano all attended Hvitfeldtska gymnasiet. Andreas and Jonatan were in the same year, Joel was in the year above them and Christoffer Berg was in the year below them. One of the main voices of Gonkyburg, Yukimi Nagano, was in the year below Chris. Andreas Saag recalls the first time he heard her sing in person, “I had heard her voice because Chris had recorded her on a Drum & Bass song that he had made. I was picturing someone much older than us, as she had this deep jazz voice. He brought along this 15 year old girl (to band practise) who had a Japanese father and wasn’t very tall, so I didn’t make the connection. Then she opened her mouth and I realized that she was the singer. This was a huge “what the fuck?” moment. Not just in the context of the Gonkyburg scene, but one of those times in your life when you can’t believe what you are seeing or hearing.” The friendships and musical collaborations that would shape Gonkyburg started at Hvitfeldtska gymnasiet.

Music school gave the Gothenburg producers the chance to develop and tune their craft. One of the reasons that so many of the ‘Gonkyburg’ records are still memorable today is because they are built on high quality musicianship. There are strong melodies and proper songs. Much of the instrumentation on these records was played by the artists themselves. At Hvitfeldtska gymnasiet, the artists could make full use the facilities and instruments available. Christoffer Berg aka Hird made the rough sketch of his most iconic track, Keep You Hird, at school. Friendships flourished. Andreas, Chris and Jonatan played together in bands alongside other school friends. In an interview for the Basic Soul website in 2007, Yukimi Nagano talked of her collaborations with Christoffer Berg and Andreas Saag. She recalled, “Christoffer and Andreas were good friends of mine and since we had music in common we would help each other out. Chris used to live a few blocks away from me in middle school, so I used to go to his house in his attic and sing on his songs. It was our way of spending time.” Outside of Gonkyburg, Nagano met most of her Little Dragon compatriots at Hvitfeldtska gymnasiet and the nucleus of the band started there, too.      

Whilst at music school, the artists found inspiration from those close by. Andreas Saag remembers that he and Jonatan Bäckelie were hugely inspired by Quant and Jol. Andreas says “Me and Jonatan were listening to Dot records, Swedish radio and Warp Records. We said that if we could ever have a release on Warp or Dot, our lives would be complete. We realized that one of the guys in the year above us at music high school recorded on Dot under the name of Jol. We (myself and Jonatan) visited him in the studio he shared with Quant. Then we realized that we were only one step away from Jol and Quant, who we worshiped. That was a big moment.”

Arguably, Gonkyburg started with Quant and Jol. Their sound was a laidback mix of Jazz and Funk influenced electronic music. It was not a million miles away from the Trip Hop being made elsewhere in Europe at the time, but it still had enough character to make it stand out as something different. Jonas Lars Quant was the first Gonkyburg artist. Like his peers, Quant started making music at an early age. He borrowed his Dad’s synth and started making music aged 10. Quant’s first couple of singles, Breaking and Entering and the self-titled Quant EP were released in 1997 via the Gothenburg based Dot imprint. These EPs featured Drum ‘n’ Bass tracks, but more importantly they also featured midtempo spacey Jazz influenced grooves. The Jazz influenced tracks were the beginning of the Gonkyburg seed, even though they pre date the emergence of the other artists and the overt jazziness that came later on. Quant himself doesn’t feel he was particularly influenced by Jazz, citing Grandmaster’s Flash’s The Message, Vangelis and Detroit Techno as being important to his early work.

By releasing Quant’s early music, Dot helped to start Gonkyburg. Getting signed to a record label and releasing music on vinyl and CD was crucial in the age before streaming, downloads and the digital commodification of the music industry. Artists could do it themselves through DIY releases, but this was tough, as fellow Gothenburg act Plej would find out. Therefore, Dot is integral to the Gonkyburg story. Even though the label is more associated with Techno, IDM and even Drum & Bass, they gave Quant’s music a home. Dot was founded by Anders Bersten in 1997. He was joined by Stefan Bede and the duo released all manner of electronic gems and oddities. The label initially ran between 1997 and 2000, as a sub-label of MNW, before resurfacing as a label and online distributor in 2004. Dot was open minded and took an interest in local talent such as Quant, as well as more established artists at the time such as Metamatics.

Quant LP

In 2000, Dot released Quant’s Quantastical Quantasm album. This long player was groovy and had an understated jazziness to it that typified the early Gonkyburg sound. The same year, Dot put out Joel Eriksson aka Jol’s Noodles In The Microwave and Think Tin singles. Jol was the second architect of the Gonkyburg sound. Jol’s layered productions had a similar groovy feel to that of Quant. Quant remixed Jol’s debut single and they became friends and studio buddies. Unfortunately, there would be no more music for either artist on Dot, as the label soon closed. Joel Eriksson remembers being impressed by the ideas of Anders Bersten, who ran Dot. He recalls, “He is an amazing guy. He came up with names for the tracks. He has endless imagination. We were not only a record label; we were knights at the round table. It was like a role playing game. It was exciting and fun because I was so young and I was sucked into it.”

Quant and Jol found studio space together in a former butter factory at Redbergsplatsen, which they rented from Jol’s brother. The place became Gonkyburg Studios. I asked Jol and Quant how they came up with the Gonkyburg name. Jol remembers, “I think it was Jonas that came up with the name Gonkyburg. It sort of reflects the passion we had for Gothenburg. I think we loved Gothenburg more than we realized.” As Quant remembers “We were in Joel’s room. We said the music was something about feeling good. And we were making funky music. We live in Gothenburg. The name was a little bounce with him, too.” So, the word Gonkyburg came from combining the words good and funky, but also referencing Gothenburg at the same time. Jol remembers that he and Quant were close during this period at Gonkyburg studios. Alongside making records, they both started to make music for commercial projects. Jol says, “I personally started to work with music for companies, TV commercials and games. It justified that I had a place to make music. I think Jonas Quant had the same situation. We sort of struggled beside each other a lot. We were really close friends and we still are friends.”

The scene now had a name and a studio complex where the artists could work on music together. The studios became a focal point, as Jonatan Bäckelie recalls, “There were quite a few different producers that had their studios in the same building. Andreas Saag, Jonas Quant, Joel ‘Jol’ Eriksson, The Similou. Also the Plej guys, they used to hang around there a lot, as well. So that was a hub of interesting people. I could be working with Andreas on something and then Jonas would come in and ask me to check out a track with him and do some vocals afterwards. Everyone was sharing production tips and boosting each other.  That was really good.” This underscores the supportive nature of the scene.

Andreas Saag

Andreas Saag moved into Gonkyburg Studios in 2000. As there was no real room for him, Saag remembers that he took a space that was essentially a closet. Despite the air conditioning vent being above him, he was now working in the same building as his local heroes Quant and Jol. Andreas Saag’s debut 12” as Swell Session appeared around the same time he moved into the studios. It was the debut release of the Hollow Recordings imprint. It featured A Swell Session on the A Side and the beautiful Yukimi Nagano assisted Music In Her Eyes on the B side. With this release, Saag made his mark on the Gonkyburg sound. He provided something a little more upbeat and dancefloor minded than Quant and Jol. As Swell Session, Saag’s sound was characterised by fractured beats and jazz addled grooves. Vocals on this project were provided by an array of singers. After working with Yukimi Nagano on his first couple of releases, he established a musical partnership with Jonatan Bäckelie aka Ernesto, and Elsa Hedberg. In parallel to this project, Andreas Saag took up the name Stateless for slightly less fractured outings on Jimpster’s Freerange imprint.

Despite only releasing 5 records, Hollow Recordings was important for the further development of the Gonkyburg sound. This was a label for uptempo broken Jazz influenced productions. Hollow Recordings was run by Stefan Bede of Dot from central Gothenburg, but crucially it was distributed from West London by Goya. This meant that the global Broken Beat scene took notice of the label. Underscoring the sharing and caring nature of Gothenburg, the other artists on the label would be Andreas’ pal from music school, Jonatan Bäckelie, and his new studio mate, Jonas Quant. Quant’s Funkster EP was a riotous mix of broken jazz space grooves that featured the mighty Groove Protocol track. It is a shame that Hollow Recordings did not continue, as many saw this label as an important local outlet for the Gonkyburg sound. A press article from the time suggest that another record on the label would have been the debut single of Gothenburg singer and Gonkyburg collaborator, Mimi Terris. Unfortunately, Soul of Man never seems to have been released.

Let Me Decide record cover

The pivotal record on Hollow Recordings was Swell Session vs Ernesto’s Let Me Decide, which came out in 2002.This record was inspired by the Broken Beat sounds that Andreas and Jonatan had heard on a trip to West London’s CoOp club night. As Saag recalls, “We stayed with Alan Brown and he took us to clubs like CoOp. Then we decided to go back to Sweden to make Broken Beat. Alan was so upset. He said it often happens that young musicians have their own style and then hear something that they like and try to copy it and it never works out. I said don’t worry as we will put our own spin on it. Then we did it (they made the record Let Me Decide), released it and then came back to London and it was played at the CoOp alongside our other favourite tunes.” The beauty of Let Me Decide is the way that it fuses West London with Gothenburg. It has that Nordic cool alongside fractured beats and vocals to rival Bugz, 4Hero and the rest at their peak. Saag and Bäckelie have claimed that this was the first Broken Beat record made in Scandinavia. It doesn’t really matter whether it was the first or not, as the track is stunning. Let Me Decide showed how Saag and Jonatan could reference jazz without getting lost in meandering melodies. The record move the Gonkyburg sound in a decidedly upbeat and dancefloor ready direction.  

Jonatan Bäckelie’s Ernesto CD release was the sole long player on Hollowing Recordings. It was broadly speaking a Nu Jazz album, but with a strong Soul influence. The LP featured the aforementioned Let Me Decide and the wonderful Here My, which both had vinyl outings on Hollow. Long-time friend and early music associate Andreas Saag had a hand in a number of the tracks and there were appearances by Quant and Jol’s Gonkyburg Philharmonic Orchestra. Listening today, the album still impresses. After it was released, Hollow Recordings seemed to disappear in a period when many record shops, distributors and record labels closed.

Ernesto album cover

Jonatan Bäckelie was the man about town of the Gonkyburg era. He sang on records by Plej, Andreas Saag, Quant and others, as well as making his own music and working with producers based all over the world. Jonatan recalls, “A few of my friends got signed to record labels, so there was this ready made place for me to step in. The truth is that I didn’t have a longstanding relationship with Jazz prior to that. That was at the age of around 17. Then I started on my professional journey three or four years later.” Jonatan had grown up on Soul, Gospel and music in the Church. According to Andreas Saag, the pair bonded over a shared interest in Eurodance and Jonatan once wrote in a biography that that rave culture changed his life in fifth grade. When prodded for key influences during his music making career, Jonatan mentioned Chet Baker, D’Angelo and Lewis Taylor.

The artists within the Gothenburg community felt that they had established some sort of scene quite quickly. Describing the scene at the time, Jonatan Bäckelie said “He (Jonatan) is a part of the Gothenburg Jazz Hipsters, a collective of various people that has got Jazz, Soul and electronic sounds at the top of their agenda.” Speaking to the artists about that ‘Gonkyburg’ period, most look back on it fondly. They were a group of friends in their early 20s, having fun and making music together. Most say that they were inspired by each other’s musical successes. Quant recalls “When I started I was kind of lonely to begin with. Then there was this whole movement of young kids making cool and interesting music. It was a really inspiring time. All of a sudden, I had a lot of friends doing the same things. That was really a cool thing to experience. We were inspiring each other. Doing clubs together. It was a romantic era.” Arvid also remembers that the artists inspired each other during that period. As he recalls, “One thing that was inspiring, with the people you’ve been talking to, like Christoffer (Berg), there was almost like this competitiveness. Well, not quite competitiveness. When someone made something really good, it gave you energy to push yourself as well.”

The artists helped and supported each other on records and in other ways. The Discogs pages of the artists involved show you just how much collaboration there was. They made records together, remixed each other and provided technical expertise by mastering and engineering each other’s records. Quant remixed Jol. Hird remixed Quant. Jol mastered Plej’s debut EP. Jonatan Bäckelie sang on Plej’s first album. Hird and Plej remixed each other. Jonatan Bäckelie’s first Ernesto album featured production work from Andreas Saag, Quant and Jol. Quant mastered Cloud’s first album and The Similou’s debut single. The list of shared credits is endless.

The main voices of Gonkyburg were also inextricably tied to the scene. As we have seen, Yukimi Nagano was a school friend of Andreas Saag and Christoffer Berg, with whom she collaborated on some of the most iconic songs of the era. Jonatan Bäckelie is another important voice of Gothenburg and he sees his friendship with the other artists as his entry point into the music scene. Another important vocalist of the scene and graduate of Hvitfeldtska gymnasiet was Elsa ‘Esmeralda’ Hedberg. She was Andreas Saag’s girlfriend during the Gonkyburg era and collaborated with him on many of his finest musical creations, such as his remix of Susumu Yokota’s King of Darkness. Hedberg formed the soul vocal trio B.L.E.S.S. (Blue Eyed Sisters of Soul) with fellow singers Mimi Terris and Vanessa Lifting. They were part of the Gonkyburg crew during the era and provided vocals on songs such as Change, which was produced by Jonas Quant and Andreas Saag as Gonkyburg Business. Underscoring the closeness of Gonkyburg, Mimi Terris was Jonatan Bäckelie’s girlfriend during this period.  

The Gonkyburg scene was beginning to attracting outside interest as early as 2002. This meant that DJs were playing the music, record labels wanted to release the tracks and the press started to write about the artists. DJ Alan Brown visited Gothenburg in January 2002 to DJ at Christoffer Berg’s event at Nefertiti and he came back raving about the scene. Brown said the following, “The greatest thing about this ‘nu community’ in Gothenburg is just that! A brand new community of young and very talented musicians and producers who help each other out in a similar vein to the crews in west London or Berlin.” The full hype of Gonkyburg was still a little way off at this point, but tastemakers like Alan Brown and Gilles Peterson were starting to take notice.

Plej Press Shot

Two of the acts who cemented the outside interest and also took the Gonkyburg sound in a different direction were Plej and Christoffer Berg aka Hird. Plej were the first Gonkyburg act signed to a UK label, London’s Exceptional Records. Plej was the musical project of two brothers, Arvid and Erik Niklasson, who came with a digitised sound that was influenced by House, Jazz and other styles. This was a new development for the Gonkyburg sound, as their sound was housier than that of their compatriots, despite still having a Jazz influenced groove. Plej even joined Quant, Jol and Andreas Saag at Gonkyburg studios for a time, although they also worked on music at home.

Speaking to Arvid, he admits that one of his main music influences was Punk, having previously played in Punk bands. As he says “I always liked the Punk attitude. To this day, there are only three bands that I buy everything. They are Propagandi, No FX and The Vandals. They are my go to bands. They are quite political, very political sometimes. They have a good way of seeing the world. Not that it comes through musically in Plej, but the attitude of Plej was like this. We didn’t want to be too safe. We just wanted to make whatever came out.” On a more electronic tip, the brothers were influenced by the beauty of Kraftwerk’s music. Arvid adds that Herbert and the Force Trax label were big for him, which explains the deep, techy and almost glitchy digital element to their sound.  

The Niklasson brothers wrote tracks alone, but worked closely together on the finished product. Their first record was PLEJ001, an extremely limited 12”, which was released in 2000. This was the first and only release on their Plej label. The record was mastered by Joel Eriksson. Plej pressed up 100 clear vinyl copies and attempted to shift the records themselves. They had a slow start, with local shop Blenda taking some time to sell their allocation of 10. However, Christoffer Berg took copies of the record with him to London when he went there to DJ and then things started happening. Vinyl Junkies in London sold their allocation almost immediately, which led to a buzz surrounding the record. The interest soon led to a record deal for Plej with the London based Exceptional Records. Looking back on it, Arvid thinks that they went into the deal a little naively. 

Plej gained greater recognition with the Electronic Music From The Swedish Left Coast album, which was released in 2003 on Exceptional Records. This album was mainly characterised by digitised grooves and vocal fragments, but also featured some real instruments. There were even Micro House elements at play, underscored by Akufen remixing the Blue single. Jonatan Bäckelie sung the lyrics about painting the walls Blue, which Arvid reveals was inspired by real events. As Arvid recalls, “The first draft of Blue was literally made in 10 minutes. I made it and then Jonatan came round to my house. I was painting my walls blue. I had lunch with my girlfriend at the time and Jonatan was singing in my studio room. I came back in and finished the song.”

During this period, Plej themselves remixed Hird’s Keep You Hird in a stomping jazzy House style. Arvid remembers being particularly proud of the remix for Hird. He says “I really like the Keep You Hird remix. I had the studio at home at the time. I’d just moved it back and Christoffer asked me if I wanted to do it. Making music is hard or it’s hard for me and I didn’t want to commit. I had my Rhodes up and I was listening to Yukimi’s vocals and accidentally, as it happens, did a couple of nice chords and that became the thing. I was proud of some of the chords I added. We cut the vocals to be a little bit more sombre.”

Keep You Hird cover

And so we come to Hird. Christoffer Berg was close friends with Andreas Saag and Jonatan Bäckelie, and all three remarked on their friendship when I interviewed them. Christoffer Berg remixed Plej and mixed their second album, but seems not to have worked as extensively with Gonkyburg pals as some of his compatriots. Unlike the other producers, Christoffer Berg had a studio at home and so he did not make music at Redbergsplatsen aka Gonkyburg studios. A supremely talented multi-instrumentalist, Hird created some of the most captivating music of this period. Deep, jazzy, melodious and still with a dancefloor sensibility, Berg’s compositions have stood the test of time. Like all good artists, his sound displayed a myriad of influences, but at the same time it was uniquely his own. As far as the Gonkyburg sound was concerned, Hird’s sound was somewhere between the fuzzy grooves of Plej and Andreas Saag’s broken uptempo Jazz. With a love of club music, Berg further developed the dancefloor Jazz element of the Gonkyburg sound.

The music that Christoffer Berg recorded as Hird was released by Stockholm’s Dealers of Nordic Music (DNM) imprint. This label played an important role in pushing the Gothenburg sound worldwide. The Keep You Hird single was released in January of 2003 and the I Love You My Friends EP later that year. Keep You Hird is one of the best tracks of the whole Gonkyburg era. The mix of playful keys, jazz loops and dancefloor inclined percussion made it a distinctive record on and off the dancefloor. In the original press release for the record, Chris said “The idea came when I heard modal electric jazz songs that were around 120 bpm and thought – these would work great in a club, if they only had a 4/4 beat”. When speaking to Chris about this more recently, he noted that he had made the original elements of this track when he was around 15. He says “It was a loop but it wasn’t really a song. I had no context for that type of song. I told myself that no one would be interested, but after hearing (Röyksopp’s) Eple, it sounded a little bit similar to what I’m doing and there’s a huge interest in this type of thing. So maybe I’m not too far off.”

Christoffer Berg’s early influences included Goldie’s Timeless, Seba’s Planetary Funk Alert, Koop and old jazz records. It was perhaps Timeless that had the biggest impact. As Chris says, “Hearing Goldie’s Timeless for the first time was a mind-blowing experience. I was 12 years old. It was like I had a parallel imaginary friend that went to clubs in London, whilst I was at school being bored. I was desperate to go to rave parties and Blue Note in London; it was all I wanted to do.”

Many of Christoffer Berg’s best tracks were compiled on his Moving On album, which was released in 2004 by Dealers of Nordic Music. His chosen vocalist on this project was none other than music school friend Yukimi Nagano. Nagano supplied vocals on choice tracks such as Keep You Kimi (a vocal reinterpretation of his debut hit, Keep You Hird)and I Love You My Hope (a vocal reworking of I Love You My Friends). Berg himself was responsible for the vocals on the magnificent Getting Closer. Emotive and touching, these songs were a breath of fresh air at the time and they still are today. Sadly, there would be no more Hird music in this vein and no more collaboration with Nagano. In 2004, Yukimi Nagano told Goteborgs-Posten that although she enjoyed working with the “Gonkyburggänget”, she felt that Christoffer Berg and Andreas Saag used her voice almost like an instrument for their productions. She also revealed that musically she wished to move in a different direction.  Tellingly, after working with Christoffer and Andreas, she would appear on one Similou production before branching out in a different direction with Little Dragon.

Hird I Love You

Dealers of Nordic Music signed Christoffer Berg aka Hird as an artist in 2002 and by the end of the Gonkyburg era, this record label had left an indelible mark on the Gothenburg scene. They were responsible for bringing Gonkyburg to a wider audience with their Nordic Lounge compilation series. DNM was a marketing company as well as a record label, so they took the music to places that it would never have gone otherwise. Hans Iwarsson, who joined DNM in 2005, tells the story of how the label developed, “DNM was founded around 2002 and somehow developed at the same as the traditional record industry fell apart. This meant we already, from the beginning, had to think in new ways in terms of how we packaged, presented and promoted the music. I think an important path for us was putting the music in a context that also included culture, art, fashion, travel, food, design etc. Our brand Nordic Lounge is a perfect example of this – the music compilation series made the core of a concept that also included everything from club nights to a magazine, travel guides and a pop-up cafe in Tokyo. While the many traditional record labels went to the Midem music conference, we instead went to fashion fair Bread & Butter in Berlin or a design event in Tokyo to promote DNM.” Over time, the record label was superseded by the associated marketing venture, Heartbeats International.

DNM released Nordic Lounge – An Introduction To Contemporary Nordic Music in January 2003 and it was a statement of intent. It said look at all the cool new music coming out of Scandinavia. There was a large Gothenburg contingent on this compilation, with tracks from Hird, Plej, Swell Session with Yukimi Nagano and Eerik from Plej solo. This meant that 5 out of the 12 tracks were from Gothenburg, with the rest coming from producers based everywhere from Oslo to Helsinki. This compilation showed listeners how much good music was coming out of Gonkyburg.

DNM quickly followed this up with Volume 2 of the Nordic Lounge series in September of the same year. Again, there was a strong Gothenburg contingent, with Plej (twice), Ernesto, Stateless, Cloud, Gonky Business (Andreas Saag and Quant), Similou and Hird all contributing. Here, eight out of the twelve tracks were by Gothenburg based acts. This was more of a Gonkyburg than a Scandinavian compilation. The third volume appeared in 2005, with seven out of eleven tracks and remixes from Gothenburg based artists. 2006’s Nordic Lounge Weekend (Your Guide To Contemporary Stockholm) had five out of twelve tracks from Gothenburg artists. All in all, Nordic Lounge was a Gothenburg centred series and it can be argued that despite being based in Stockholm, DNM was a Gothenburg centred label. Most of the non compilation releases on DNM came from Gothenburg based acts, such as Hird, The Similou, Jol, Ïony and later Tennishero, a project from Alexander Berg and Jens Andersson. Even EmBee’s single on the label included a contribution from celebrated Gothenburg singer-songwriter José González. 

In 2004, DNM branched out with the Jazzflora (Scandinavian Aspects Of Jazz) series, which was far less Gothenburg orientated. The first compilation in this series appeared in January 2004 and featured only two tracks from Gothenburg acts. These were Hird’s I Love You My Friends and Elsa’s Andreas Saag produced Open The Door. A second and final volume appeared in 2005, with two tracks from Hird and one from a Nils Krogh helmed act. By 2006, the Blueprints compilation appeared on DNM, which was a mix of House, Downtempo and Jazz. Again, this had a strong Gothenburg contribution, with most of the artists hailing from the Swedish West Coast. As well compilations, DNM were able to harness the Gothenburg artists for marketing work. For example, Quant and Jol made music for a short CD promoting Wasa Bread, which featured spoken contributions from Swedish high jump athlete Kajsa Bergqvist.     

Nordic Lounge 2 Image

DNM’s legacy is the Nordic Lounge series, which brought the music of Gonkyburg to the world. Their strong branding put the music into a neat box labelled Lounge. Arguably, this is a pretty misleading term for the music, even though it conjures up images of Nordic cool. Some of the Gothenburg artists felt that DNM were trying to take hold of the Gonkyburg scene and shape it to their vision. According to Andreas Saag, “DNM tried to make the whole thing their own, to call it Nordic Lounge. A lot of us felt they were killing the whole thing because it was being packaged in a very commercialized way. At the same time, they were paying some of the artists’ really good money to be on the label. That was a conflict.”

DNM’s Nordic Lounge series undoubtedly helped to increase the hype surrounding the Gonkyburg scene. The rest of the world began to pay attention to Gonkyburg at a similar time. In August 2002, DJ Alan Brown wrote about the scene again. He said “As you know, Gothenburg is blowing up musically big time and I don’t have to go through a list of the main protagonists yet again. (Gilles) Peterson is playing Swell Session tracks week after week, (Peter) Kruder digging the Plej stuff, Co-op massive on the bus with Ernesto’s and nuff underground DJ’s knowing the score with the rest of the crews who reside there. Yeah, it’s beginning to happen!”

Record labels outside Sweden were beginning to take notice. The Gothenburg artists saw their music licensed to all type of compilations, from anonymous major label chillout style CDs to more credible fare. San Francisco’s Naked Music label licensed a number of Gonkyburg tracks for compilations and single releases. Austrian imprint Ecco.Chamber picked up Gonkyburg tracks for their Destination:Out series and Italian imprint Schema even licensed Hird material. Well respected German label Compost licensed Gonkyburg gems to their celebrated Future Sounds of Jazz series and invited Hird and Swell Session to be part of their Ennio Morricone remix album. There were Gonkyburg appearances on Scandinavia focused compilations like Nordic Exposure and Scando-Nøva. A number of the Gothenburg artists started to tour far and wide, with Japan a favourite destination. Production, remix work and licenses followed in Japan. The Gonkyburg hype fed into the excitement surrounding Scandinavian electronic music in general. The likes of Röyksopp and The Knife were huge.

According to the artists within Gonkyburg, the attention was enjoyable but it also had a detrimental effect. It took a toll on the friendships that had helped the scene to grow in the first place. Maybe the Gothenburg artists started to believe their own hype? When Andreas Saag looks back on that era, he thinks that egos got in the way of the fun. As he says “It was fantastic, but there were a lot of young egos wanting to make the most of it. All of a sudden, Yukimi didn’t want to sing with me anymore and wanted to do her own stuff and she did some stuff with Chris. I realized that I didn’t own her voice at all. And as a 20 year old, you will be hurt when somebody else gets the success that you think you deserve.” And to Saag, it stopped being fun, when everyone was focused on trying to be cool. As he recalls, “The whole point of the thing was that the greatest moments were when we did stuff together and we were having fun. We sort of lost that along the way. Everybody was trying to be cool.” Jol recalls that it wasn’t all fun and games in Gonkyburg. As he says, “You don’t have all good memories of an era. It seems like only the annoying stuff comes up in my mind when I revisit the music. It’s not like what a glorious, fun time we had together and it was so perfect. It’s more like that guy was annoying etc.”

Competitiveness between the Gothenburg artists may have also led to the breakdown of the friendships on which the scene was built. According to Christoffer Berg, “Gothenburg as a context, everyone appreciated what you did, but no one really judged you. For better or for worse. I wasn’t able to internalize a certain competitiveness that I have understood with hindsight was definitely there between us. But on the surface it was a very generous and helpful atmosphere.”  Christoffer Berg also remembers how changing friendships affected what was happening in Gothenburg. As he recalls, “Being part of the scene was predated by us being a bunch of friends. It sort of just happened without a conscious effort to make it happen. It kind of expanded. All of a sudden, we found our records in Blenda Records. Maybe that’s why it stopped. I don’t want to compare us to Massive Attack, but I want to point out the difference. When they started they said let’s make a crew, let’s make music, let’s make art, let’s do parties and if that’s your intention, then if you stop being friends, some of you can keep going. You can stop being friends and be in the same band. But when you’re friends and you just do things together, when you’re not really friends anymore you stop doing things.”

JOL LP Cover

There was a push back by some of the Gonkyburg artists against the term Nu Jazz and the scene surrounding it. They felt that it didn’t reflect them or their music. Arvid Niklasson of Plej wasn’t very happy having his outfit’s music categorized as Nu Jazz. As he recalls, “I still see us as not part of Nu Jazz, if I’m honest. Because the scene in Gothenburg had those jazz influences, we got attached to it.” Jol didn’t feel his music deserved this term, as it was more inspired by Funk. As he remembers, “When people started to talk about Nu Jazz, I actually disliked that term. It felt more like a ‘thing’ based on individual tracks. I wasn’t very fond of the Nu Jazz scene or the people very into it. Suddenly it became the category that you were making. I don’t recall that I ever did broken beat stuff. I was not aiming at the dancefloor at all. More like Funk listening stuff with a lot of colours in harmonies.” Jol believes Danish imprint April Records were caught up in the hype surrounding the scene when they signed him in 2003. As he recalls, “Suddenly I felt the electronic music of Scandinavia was more of a sales pitch. I didn’t connect with it really. Personally I felt excluded. I tried to make it clear with my music. It (my Jol album) was released on April Records from Denmark by Jan Schmidt. I think that he believed it was really cool Nu Jazz and then he was disappointed that it was something different.” Jol’s Moody Aow album featured some of his previous outings on Dot alongside other tracks. A highlight was the extremely groovy Cool Cat,which typified Jol’s sound. On the back cover, the album proclaimed “Amazing! It’s Gonky!”

Quant also had misgivings about what was happening at the time. He didn’t like the tastemaker driven nature of the scene. It took him four years to make the second Quant album, which appeared on the Austrian Ecco.Chamber label in 2004. As he recalls, “It was hard to make something Gilles Peterson would like. It felt like you were making music for one journalist sometimes. The scene was so small. It was about pleasing a few tastemakers that would make a difference (between the record being successful and not being successful). I found it a bit stressful. I didn’t really like to think like that.”

The Similou Image

The scene started to splinter and the Gonkyburg artists went off to do different things. Looking back, it seems that 2005 was the year that things began to change. There were far fewer releases from the Gonkyburg artists that year, even if the third volume of the Nordic Lounge series appeared with Gothenburg artists dominating. Musically, there was one final twist to the Gonkyburg tale in 2005 with The Similou truly arriving in that year as an Electro Pop act. As The Similou became stars, Gonkyburg began to lose its momentum.

The Similou was Jol and Erik Niklasson from Plej, who bonded over a mutual dislike for the term Nu Jazz. As Joel remembers, “We started to make some tracks together. Some of the track that we made could belong in the Scandinavian sound, but we both hated the word Nu Jazz. We joked about it and thought it was silly.” They initially chose the name Yukijobo, as their first material was with Yukimi Nagano. Jol advises that they made a four or five tracks in a jazz influenced style, but only three tracks seem to have surfaced. Two of these early songs made it to a 12” that was released in 2003 on DNM under a new name, Similou. The single was named Supernova Sky and the title track was a laidback jazzed groover that featured Yukimi Nagano on vocals. The flipside was Dreamwalk, a similarly memorable effort with dramatic string flourishes and vocals from Emelie Nilsson. Another track, the fabulous raw bass styled Orchid Queen found its way onto DNM’s Nordic Lounge – Contemporary Scandinavian Music Vol. 2 with Salome Kent guesting on singing duties.

What came next was something different. Joel and Erik took on the pseudonyms Dizzy Crane and Jesse Nectar, Erik took up singing responsibilities and The Similou’s music changed beyond recognition. They became an electronic Pop act and had a massive hit with the extremely catchy All This Love. DNM put it out in late 2004 as a CD single, the vinyl followed in 2005 and the record was subsequently licensed for release in Italy, Spain, Australia and the UK on labels such as Sony BMG. Commercial remixes from the likes of The Young Punx, The Drill and Love To Infinity helped to propel it even further. Arvid made a video for the track that saw the duo play All This Love on top of a cloud as a four piece band.

All This Love was perhaps the biggest hit of the Gonkyburg era. Joel remembers how it felt at the time, “Some part of us felt like this was a small kick in the butt to all the nu jazzers. We really made something bigger here. Some of them really liked it and understood, but others thought it wasn’t cool enough and we were selling out. But, it’s not a sell out, no matter what anyone thinks.” Other singles confirmed the duo’s love for Electro Pop sounds, as did the 2005 album, So Hot Right Now. There was no sign of the jazzy laidback vibe of either Supernova Sky or Dreamwalk. Instead, listeners were treated to eight tracks of Electro synth power and cinematic interludes. And that was seemingly it for The Similou.

According to Joel, they tried to make a second album, but it didn’t quite happen. He remembers “We struggled a little bit with what was expected from us and what we wanted to be. We didn’t have a clear vision of what we wanted. Everything got finished by chance. Sometimes Erik wasn’t so fond of being an artist and I tried to encourage him. Sometimes I wasn’t so fond of it, either. We tried to make more songs in same vein as All This Love, but it was so hard to reproduce it.  I felt a little bit lost. It was hard to balance professionalism with an experimental lust for music”. All This Love later received more publicity as an internet meme based on misheard lyrics. 

Cloud LP Cover

From just looking at records released in the Gonkyburg era, Cloud and Nils Krogh could also be considered part of the scene. DNM certainly considered them as part of what was happening in Gothenburg at the time, featuring them on the Nordic Lounge compilations and signing them to the label in different capacities. Cloud and Nils Krogh were too young to be part of the original crew, but they were linked by sibling ties and collaborated with other Gonkyburg members. Musically, they both brought something different to Gonkyburg. The first artist to emerge was Cloud. He is Christoffer Berg’s younger brother, but little was made of the connection at the time. Alexander Berg is now better known for making dark House and Techno as Dorisburg. His productions as Cloud were perhaps a little more ‘electronic’ sounding than his Gonkyburg contemporaries, but his floating melodies fit in well with the Jazz influenced music coming out of the city at the time. The music he made shared a certain kinship with the first Plej album and it makes sense that he also signed to Exceptional Records. In 2005, he released the Adventure album. Comprised of flowing vocal cuts with Joanna Wahlsten and searching instrumentals, it was a special LP. Singles from this album included Those Days, which married crunchy broken beats with digitised instrumentation, and the dreamy House tempo Winter Nights. There were Cloud releases on Exceptional up until 2010. Over time, Cloud’s sound got darker and housier, reaching a logical conclusion when he became Dorisburg.

The other artist was Nils Krogh. He brought the Gonkyburg sound full circle with stylish instrumentation and probing basslines that certainly put the ‘jazz’ back into Nu Jazz. Despite only releasing a couple of EPs and a Japanese only album for Village Again, Krogh made his mark. The two EPs he did for Dealers of Nordic Music, Disposition and Things We Do, marked out his singular style. They were released in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Things We Do was fittingly remixed by contemporary Jazz producer Nicola Conte, although ironically, Conte’s remix of Things We Do could almost be mistaken for Deep House. After the Gonkyburg era, Krogh took up the moniker Arkajo for muscular Techno and House, and joined Alexander Berg to form Genius Of Time.    

Gonkyburg as a scene began to crumble in 2005 and by 2008 it was all over. The original crew went their separate ways and they dynamic of their relationships changed. Musically, they stopped releasing records that could be classed as being part of the original scene. What did they do next? Jonatan Bäckelie and Andreas Saag started to make other styles of music, whilst Hird, Quant and Jol took on roles away from the spotlight. Plej resurfaced for a second album, before disappearing from view.

Jonatan B LP

Jonatan Bäckelie remembers 2007 as the year that things changed for him. As he recalls, “I liked all the people, but in the end, I didn’t feel that it was exactly my music. I tried to depart from that musically and I think that departure started in 2007, when I started going on an internal journey to find a form of musical expression that didn’t have to be based on the context that I was in.” In 2016, Bäckelie release the Darkness On The Edge of Ecstasy album on Sonar Kollektiv. Musically, this album was a bold step. Darker and generally more uptempo than previous output, the production work still showed a connection to Bäckelie’s musical past. Bäckelie chose the Teologen moniker in 2018, which combined his interest in music and theology. In spring 2020, Bäckelie started a project via Patreon for fans to support his music directly. Away from the studio, Bäckelie has been busy with his multidisciplinary Subsecular Arts project, which began in 2016.

Andreas Saag has stayed active since the Gonkyburg days, even though he has retired the Swell Session and Stateless monikers. A visit to the closed CoOp in London made him realize that the Broken Beat era was over, but a week later he found new inspiration. As he recalls, “I was invited by the Freerange guys to an Innervisions label night at Plastic People. I saw Henrik Schwarz live, looping a Sax and putting an 808 Kick under it. There were lots of young people there and they were excited. The music had a straight beat, but there was a similar vibe and excitement to CoOp. I’ve always loved Deep House. As a jazzy artist, I thought what happens if I release Deep House on Freerange? At that moment I decided to do it.” After this, Saag started to release music under his birth name again. His first releases under his birth name had been three Techno records for Samuel L Sessions’ SLS, released between 2001 and 2003. By 2010, Saag’s Deep House was flowing for imprints such as Mad Mats and Tooli’s Stockholm based Local Talk label. Now based between Berlin and Scandinavia, Saag continues to craft his multifaceted sound to this day.

From Dark to Light cover
Image from RBTR.org

Hird was already exploring different musical territories when he released the final EP under this name on DNM in 2007. A two track release, From Dark To Light was an acid drenched Techno number and Rotating Perspective explored acid and strings from an almost beatless perspective. Christoffer admitted this record was inspired by time spent in Techno clubs in Berlin and his love of dancefloor music. As Chris says, “When those records were released, nothing happened. I felt like I had shot them out into space and they were sucked into a black hole. DNM wasn’t a Techno label. In my mind, From Dark To Light was homage to my memory of hearing Theo Parrish DJ for the first time. But if you listen to it, it sounds like an Electro record or whatever. It’s not Nu Jazz, right? I’m happy that I didn’t care.”

Since retiring the Hird moniker in 2007, Christoffer Berg has been busy. He has worked with artists such as The Knife, Fever Ray and Depeche Mode in various production and instrumentation capacities. In 2013, Berg adopted the Mountain Range name for Deep House and Techno productions and remixes.

Jonas Quant moved into the world of pop. His keyboard and programming skills has led him to produce an album for synth pop duo Hurts and to work with the likes of No Doubt and Kylie Minogue. On the surface, this may seem like a strange move, but producers need to eat. More importantly, Quant’s sound has always been accessible, melodic and positive. These three qualities are very important in the world of pop music. Quant admitted that the move into pop came when friends asked him to help out on Kylie Minogue tracks. Gonkyburg pal Joel Eriksson has become widely known for making music for computer games. He has made music for games such Battlefield 1942, and the title theme for this game is perhaps his biggest achievement in this area to date. Eriksson can also be found making music for video slots, TV, film and advertisements.

Plej Second LP cover

Plej resurfaced in 2007 with a single. This was the gorgeous trumpet driven Safe Place single, which contained a banging Dorisburg style Cloud remix. Plej’s second album was mainly created by Arvid in London. The Home Is Where Your Heart Was LP was released in 2008 on Exceptional and there were less ‘digital’ sounds. Songs on the album included the Quant assisted Disco cover of Rick James’ Give It To Me Baby and the almost drive-time pop of Unbearable. Keeping it local, the album was mixed by Christoffer Berg. Since 2008, very little has been heard musically of either Plej or the Niklasson brothers working solo. Arvid is now a director of the London based Analog Studio, which is an independent creative VFX and real time studio that has worked with the likes of Bjork and Gorillaz. Arvid composes music as part of his day job and in our interview, he revealed that he may restart Plej in the future. Erik Niklasson is based in Berlin and works as an editor. 

Gonkyburg is over. Nu Jazz fell out of fashion and Broken Beat receded into the shadows at the same time as the Gothenburg scene drew to a close. Today, Jazz seems to be getting fashionable again and there are many young artists pushing the music in new and exciting ways. In London, even Broken Beat legends like IG Culture and Buz in The Attic are back at it. As we’ve seen above, the Gonkyburg artists moved into other genres for now. However, there could be a Gonkyburg revival one day. Christoffer Berg has played me a new Hird track and both Plej and Jol revealed that they have made new music.

The artists I’ve spoken to look back on the Gonkyburg period with mostly fond memories. Many of them are still friends and talk positively about the successes that their peers have achieved in recent years. The scene may be over, but we still have all of the wonderful music that the artists made at the time. Most of it still sounds damn good, too. Although many of the original vinyl and CD releases are now out of print and there has been little in the way of reissues, much of the material is available in the second hand marketplace. Some of the Gonkyburg records can be picked up for next to nothing, whilst others are expensive. Thankfully, much of the music is now available on streaming and download platforms. It can therefore be enjoyed by old and new audiences. In light of this, I have put together a playlist of some of the most enduring tracks from this era. It captures the diversity of the music of the era and the energy of those tracks. From the grooving sounds of Quant and Jol to the broken thump of Andreas Saag’s Swell Sessions material, these sounds from Gothenburg still shine. This is vital music from Sweden’s West Coast and it deserves to be heard today and in the future.     

Check out the playlist on YouTube or Spotify.