An Interview with Stefan Bisland-Ferner of Garmarna

Garmarna | Discography | Discogs

These days, it’s hard to find a true original. That being said, if you look hard enough, originality is still out there to be had. When you find it, you know it. When it comes to Garmarna, they are a true original. Shamelessly and proudly blending just about every genre under the sun to make up a sound that is truly their own. The music of Garmarna is wonderful stew of all the things that make musical exploration fun and enjoyable. As record collectors, or “professional appreciators” of music, you may ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” or, “What does it all mean?” Well, in Garmarna we’ve found our answer. What this journey of life and music all amounts to is the need and the want to experience the sights and sounds that life has to offer. Garmarna has found a way to do just that through their music, their lyrics, their albums and through their blatant originality. They are uniquely themselves and to great success at that. This interview with Stefan Brisland-Ferner was a true treat. I am very thankful in having the chance to “sit down” with him and even more thankful to have had the opportunity to hear and experience the music of Garmarna. If you’re interested in learning more about Garmarna, you can head here. Garmarna also has a new album out. It’s called Förbundet and you can grab it here. With all that being said, I hope you enjoy this interview and getting to know Stefan as much as I did.

Stefan, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us! Tell us about your back story. How did you start playing music? What was your musical gateway so to speak?

My pleasure! I was raised in a musical family so that helped. My father was an active figure in the fiddler’s scene in the area of Sweden I’m from and the interest in Folk music was strong throughout the branches of my family.

I started practicing Classical violin at age 9. I started singing in a choir at 15 and I was in an orchestra. At the same time, I was completely transformed by the discovery of David Bowie, Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk.

So, my early love affair with music was obviously a radical mix of different styles. I was diving deep into Classical and Folk, but in my private life, I was a devoted Electronic music lover, but also Heavy Rock and Industrial pretty much at the same time. Bowie, Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, Kate Bush, Einsturzende Neubauten, DAF, Foetus, Stravinsky, Bartok and Swedish Folk music was percolating in my system from age 11.

Garmarna originated from Sweden. How did the band form? How did the members all come together? What’s the music scene like there?

Garmarna started as a trio, a true hobby project while in school. We actually celebrate our 30th anniversary this year! We formed after seeing a performance of “Hamlet” where very old Scandinavian dance and music styles were being used. The experience shook us completely and we decided to try and do something similar. Our first rehearsal was the next day. We didn’t exactly meet our goals that day, but something important happened and the rest is history. Why the three of us decided to go together I can’t remember; we were friends from school but my memories how we all met has faded. My memories are all from after the fact…but that day, a lifelong friendship was grounded.

The music scene in Sweden has changed a lot during our time. But we have an extremely varied music scene that is very focused on the international arena. We have a strong base in the communal music school. It’s been instrumental in educating young people in music from an early age. I think the Swedish music scene speaks for itself by now but in the “beginning” there was ABBA, doing what no one thought possible at the time: be Swedish and have an international mainstream career in music. Later, the Swedish influence has grown stronger and stronger. From Garmarna and Fever Ray via Robyn, to Roxette and Max Martin. The music scene is huge and diverse! I think there is a friendly vibe in the music community and also a work ethic that is extreme. That and the creators are friendly and generous with each other.

My understanding is you were initially influenced by old time Swedish music. Can you tell us more about your influences and how your unique sound came to be?

I think the easy answer to this is that we started Garmarna out of interest for the old time Swedish music, but as we evolved and we started to have a chance expressing ourselves with the band, all our influences came into the picture. We wanted to tell good stories and we realized traditional arrangements wouldn’t do. Our melodies are short and repetitive. No choruses or bridges. Instrumentation, arrangements and production techniques were needed to take the center stage rather than classic song structure. So in experimenting with this, the electronics found its place together with the Metal, Stoner Rock, Dance Beats, Industrial, Ambient and Classical. After diving into the mix, some personal touches started to become recognized and we now have a set of “tools” we can use. Garmarna-tools. You can’t mimic that!

Garmarna 10 Songs 2019 by Garmarna — Kickstarter

To my ears, Garmarna runs the gamut of so many genres. I hear traditional Folk, Folk Rock, and even some medieval and Trip-Hop influences. Was it a conscious decision to eschew formal genres, or did that come naturally? 

It came naturally. Because we found our way of storytelling musically, we soon found our own way of doing things. We always had a pretty good balance and we got confident in our style. It wasn’t conscious per se, but we soon realized our situation and how free we were. Taking a lot of the production in our own hands has been instrumental in this development as well. When you have a good idea, make sure to pull it through!

Garmarna is certainly hard to pin down genre wise, but people will always still try to put bands into boxes. What are your thoughts on the idea of genres in general?

We grew up in the 80’s and really shaped our music in the 90’s. That was a positive, optimistic time for us. New genres came and went, and the development in production styles exploded. We were very much a part of that and I will truly never change from that. We think a blending of good ideas will become something larger than the sum of its parts. Garmarna in particular is the sum of so many influences that it’s hard to even put a label on it. I personally hate the idea of genres but that is a personal view. I dislike the very idea of boxing ideas from each other. I understand it but I fight it, both in my personal life as well as professionally. Today, it’s so much worse than when we started. Playlist algorithms have boxed everything in a way that to me is a complete nightmare. Believe me, I love streaming. But I truly hate the genre boxing happening. We’re not Heilung. We’re not Omnia. We’re not Nine inch Nails, Kronos Quartet or Massive Attack either, nor Emmylou Harris, Robyn or Monster Magnet. We have something in our stew that points to all those influences though, and much much more. In 1999, a reviewer could mention David Bowie and Sneaker Pimps in an article about us. Today, we are completely boxed into Nordic. Sure, we fit into that genre. But we always worked on so many other levels, so it’s depressing to be boxed in like that.

In 2001, you released 
Hildegard von Bingen, which is an album based on compositions of 12th century German abbess Hildegard of Bingen, and the lyrics are entirely in Latin. I find that fascinating. What more can you tell us about this album? How did it come to be?

Oh yeah…that project really pushed us over the edge! It started simple but at the end, we weren’t really sure what to do next. We were on a roll back then, the classic story of a band just living it. We were presented with the idea of doing a series of concerts in churches in Sweden and we went to meetings and we discussed it and we were inspired to do something entirely different. We approached it the same way we approached anything else: find a flow, a riff, different musical motifs running with or against each other. Almost anything we’ve done has been based on the same basic idea: Find small cells of musical information that can work with other cells of musical information. The very same idea that forms music production software like Ableton Live or Logic Pro today! We immediately found material in Hildegard’s writing that allowed us to find our way naturally.

What set the project apart was Emma’s input. She worked on the material like nothing I’ve seen. She did some serious work. But I think coming from the learning by hearing tradition was key; this is how we’ve grown up learning music traditionally. Hear, learn, play, sing.

We weren’t originally planning to record the project. But we didn’t have much new material at the time and it seemed logical to make a record of something we had worked so hard on for a year. It was supposed to be low key but as soon as the project started the ambitions grew into the stratosphere!

To date, this is by far our most ambitious album. Somehow, we found the prospect of doing a Symphonic and purely Electronic album to be the most natural step possible for the Hildegard project. In hindsight it looks both odd and completely natural.

Thinking back to the beginning, how do you think you’ve progressed as a band from your first release, 
Garmarna all the way to your most recent release, Forbundet?

So much. And so little! I think what still makes us a really good band is that we aren’t that much different in the rehearsal space than we were in 1992. We play a little better. We have better equipment. But the biggest difference is probably the expansion of our thinking about the whole thing. We have an understanding of what we’ve done, but we don’t have too much of respect for it, if that makes sense? We are proud of our past but we aren’t in any way trying to live up to past glories. We are high on the world we create today. Rather, we have to fight fixed perceptions about what we’re about! That is the problem for any band that’s been around for more than 10…15…20…30 years.

What’s new for us is probably the power to actually understand ourselves and our role. And to relax in it. And to push it from there. Speaking of pushing, that is what we constantly did. The evolution from 1993 to 2001 is dramatic. When producing 6, our last album and our first in 15 years, we decided not being afraid of distancing ourselves from our audience. After all, that’s what we had always done in the past. If anything, that was our only constant. That was a very liberating realization. And by doing so, we cleared the table for the future. No one should be able to expect what we will do next!

With Förbundet, we are for the first time going all the way back. Collecting and connecting past knots with what we are right here and now. And we think we did it very well and we think we couldn’t have done it until now.

In 2018, the band initiated a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the album that was to become, Forbundet and my understanding is that the album is to be released in November of this year! What was that experience like?

Yes, we are releasing the album worldwide via Season of Mist on November 6th! The Kickstarter campaign came about as we didn’t get any understanding from labels about the power of doing a more Classic, Dark Folk album. We played around with the idea of releasing it ourselves. But first and most, we needed some budget and time to be able to actually start working on the goddamn thing!

We talked about crowdfunding and finally decided on Kickstarter because of the thrill of it all. For a while, it didn’t seem like we were going to hit our goal but it all kicked into speed at the end. That experience was intense. I’m not sure we will try anything like it again. We are very grateful for the support and the period was connecting us with fans in a way that will always mean a lot to us.

I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing you live, but I’ve seen video- you put on quite the live show! What is it that you enjoy about playing in the live setting?

Oh, the live shows! Well…absolute true communication. Losing it with other people. Pure energy. It’s an outside one’s body experience. I could use every cliché in history and they are true!

Playing live is very intense. Losing yourself in the music you’ve made, looking out and getting the feedback in the eyes of the audience. There is nothing else you can experience in this world that matches that intense emotion.

GARMARNA : biography, discography and more - Distrolution

It seems you as a band like to experiment a bit with different instrumentation and push the boundaries of what you can do musically. Can you tell us more about that?

That’s the freedom you get when you free yourself from the traditional band setup. I see our music in pictures, colors and different intense emotions. More than anything, we try to push ourselves quality wise: “Can we come across with this even stronger?”

Do you collect vinyl? Tapes? CD’s? Or are you all digital now? If so, what are some albums that mean the most to you? Where do you like to shop for music?

I started collecting vinyls at an early age. My first LP was David Bowie, Let’s Dance. That was the first record I bought with my own money at age 10. There is something about adding items, slowly building a collection. Unfortunately, I was hooked on Depeche Mode and David Bowie. A massive task to keep up with. I didn’t really have the money needed. I put everything into it and I was supported by my parents. I made a deal with them that I would not have any cash; everything should be put into LPs. So slowly but steady, my Bowie collection got complete. But there was also all the other music to get into! Aarrgghh! I do miss the intense collecting but I’m happy.

Later, I sold my vinyls around 2004, something I now deeply regret. I really don’t want to think about it. A terrible decision. But the good thing is I kept all my vinyls with Depeche Mode, David Bowie and Kraftwerk. I have a few favorites: Central Passage, a 1981 Kraftwerk bootleg, One Magical Moment, a rare Bowie bootleg from the Station to Station tour and the On USound Science Fiction Dancehall classic re-remix by Adrian Sherwood Maxi single of ‘Master and Servant’ with Depeche Mode.

Now, I am slowly building a collection again. I shop at local store Micke’s vinyl in the Hornstull area of Stockholm where I live. And I buy vinyls at concerts. Not too many this year as you probably could’ve guessed.

Is there anything about the music industry in general that you would like to see change? Anything that would benefit both the fans and the artists alike?

I remember in the early days of Myspace and all that, you could start a shop of your own and embed the player and a buying mechanism on your artist page. Don’t remember its name, I think it’s obsolete since ages. It seemed we where heading that direction for music. It felt optimistic! Today, Spotify and Apple Music are the new majors and playlist editors are the absolute power of the music industry. There is something profoundly, devilishly wrong with this. While I love streaming, I hate to see the whole economy tied up to the whims of one company. I don’t have a good solution but I would love to see the audience be aware of their important role, that they have a choice and that they could support their favorite artists in more active ways. Which of course a lot of people actively do. Bandcamp is such a strong platform for this! And we, the artists should be more active with the many options at our disposal. With our last album, we were working with BMG and we could have fought harder for our freedom to do special deals with independent outlets online such as Bandcamp etc. But we became lazy then, falling back to old comfy times waiting for Daddy BMG to work it all out. Now, with Season of Mist, there is a different kind of hunger involved on both parts!

Last question. Has today’s musical landscape changed for better or worse? Are there any bands out there that you think are carrying the torch? What advice do you have for young musicians trying to get their start?

Of course it has changed. When you’re in it, it’s hard to see the small changes happening every week. But in hindsight, it becomes clear. I think we’re in a pretty healthy place right now but I think something’s around the corner. We need to get to a point where artists truly are in the power of things. We already are doing all the work, from writing and producing our music and working it on social media that we are running. Never before have labels had so potentially little to do or been in such a strong position to blame the artist for failing. At the same time, we need them more than ever. No one in their right mind has the potential to cover all the areas an artist needs to cover today. From writing, to recording, to producing and mixing and even mastering. And be good looking, having the right ideas in marketing and being an entrepreneur. Then also be absolutely great on stage and be on all social media and be in contact with the whole world, all the time.

But I think new artists now have a completely different approach to the whole thing than someone like me, having lived through the old times of the music industry. I’m slower at adjusting even though I’ve been an avid supporter of all the changes. I’m not naturally fluent in running seven social medias while taking a coffee break from mixing and mastering. And a lot of young artist’s today really can handle that load.

My advice would be to break free from the tyranny of any expectation of “genres” and to pursue exactly whatever you just know is right. Find people to work with that are soulmates and just get it.

And never give up.

Playlist for Sunday, June 4th - Detour

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Published by Andrew Daly

Since he was a young child growing up on Long Island, NY, Andrew has always loved writing and collecting physical music. Present-day, Andrew is proud to share his love of music with the world through his writing, and the result is nothing short of beautiful: articles and interviews written by a music addict for fellow music addicts. Andrew lives on Long Island and works as a Horticultural Operations Manager by day and runs the Vinyl Writer Music website by night.

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