"I go where my curiosity leads me."
- Johan Levin
Dear readers: It’s an honor to share with you this long-awaited interview with Johan Levin, a brilliant and influential Swedish artist whose work I've followed avidly for nearly two decades. In the following interview, Johan and I discuss:
the influence of his surroundings on his music
his studies and intellectual interests
the complementary nature of his day job and his creative pursuits
his tastes in art and reading material
thoughts on the struggles of established labels in the modern music distribution landscape
his studio habits when composing
thoughts on Old Norse religion and culture
plans for his blog
thoughts on aesthetics
valuable personality traits in collaborators and friends
opportunities for listeners to improve things for musicians
what it's like to be a well-known performer in underground music
news on his projects, including the just-announced new album Departed
…and more for you to enjoy.
Widely hailed as a classic artist whose music defined the glory days of the legendary Cold Meat Industry label, Johan Levin's work merits a badge of honor in dark ambient and industrial music many times over. Levin's revered project Desiderii Marginis (the name is Latin, meaning "the edge of dreams" or "the edge of desire") captures a rarefied and delicate balance of complexity and moody mystique that has captivated listeners in underground music since its inception in 1993.
Levin's discography includes five albums as Desiderii Marginis on CMI: Songs Over Ruins (1997), Deadbeat (2001), Strife (2004), That Which Is Tragic and Timeless (2005), and Seven Sorrows (2007). His other releases include The Ever Green Tree (Kaosthetik Konspiration, 2005), a split release entitled Lost Signals From Unknown Horizons (Beast of Prey, 2004), and two compilation albums: Years Lend a Golden Charm (Eternal Pride, 2009) and Thaw (Zoharum, 2014).
Desiderii Marginis releases on the eminent Cyclic Law label include Procession (2012), Hypnosis (2014), and Vita Arkivet (2018). Also freshly unveiled as a full-track teaser for his upcoming album Departed is "The Silence of a Thousand Years," a deliciously opulent and masterful piece to whet the appetite and stir anticipation.
An enduring talent and recognized master of his craft, Levin inspires legions with his darkly intricate compositions. With judicious mixes of percussion, bells, chimes, and orchestral elements, he coaxes atmospheres of refined elegance out of even the most turbulent backdrops of harrowing, jet-black, distorted industrial grit. Expertly merging the salubrious and the sepulchral, bridging the solemn and the sanguine, Desiderii Marginis sends sonic tremors coursing through the tectonic plates of the dark ambient genre.
Levin's personal style as a performing artist also conveys an alluring stately grace. One gets a sense that he might adorn the covers of fashion magazines as tastefully and impeccably as he impresses audiences with his timeless music and video backdrops.
As I sink into the auditory depths of my longtime Desiderii Marginis favorites such as the forlorn "Come Ruin and Rapture" and the haunting "The Monkey God," I feel a satisfying sense of respite from the mandate of false positivity and pasted-on smiles that predominates in the cultural milieu of my upbringing. "Ephemeral" comforts me like an invisible velvet cloak, wrapping itself around my shoulders and hinting of beauty to be revealed even in the least likely settings. "Deadbeat I," with its melancholic drones and dramatic transitions, was the first track that ever inspired me to choreograph a lamentation dance piece to dark ambient music. As I wrote in a recent interview, I credit Deadbeat as one of the pivotal masterpiece albums that converted me into a dark ambient aficionado for life, stirring a thirst for more that remains unquenched even after two decades.
Among the things I appreciate about the opportunity to interview Levin in depth is his curious mind and unrelenting drive to ask "why." I get the impression that if he were teaching a philosophy class (or any class, for that matter), he'd be an exacting instructor. You know how some instructors insist you bring your "A-game" to anything and everything you do in class? Not in an oppressive or unforgiving way, mind you, but in a way that truly brings out your best. You know you're capable of more, let’s say, but maybe you're not so inclined to push yourself to new heights until you get a glimpse of what's possible if you consistently refuse to settle for less. For me, his work often functions as the musical equivalent of an urge to straighten my hat, correct that slouching posture, and carry myself and my own creative career like I mean business.
I suspect Levin assembles all his compositions with this kind of loving rigor, demanding only the finest from himself. With the bar set this high, I can easily imagine him ruthlessly scrapping sections of his carefully sculpted work - pieces that might even be perfectly acceptable to other artists - until only the most beauteous, polished gems remain. No doubt his listeners certainly appreciate the results of his quest to push his own musical boundaries, never resting on his laurels.
Nonetheless, Levin is far more approachable and affable than those aloof, slightly stuffy professors of my early college years. Asked how to correctly pronounce Desiderii Marginis, for example, Levin insists that "there isn’t really a correct way to pronounce it; people say it differently depending on what language they speak, and to me it is not relevant as long as we can make ourselves understood."
Join me for a closer conversation with this adept and enigmatic artist as we visit a few of the intriguing places curiosity leads us.
Photo by Azuel
Danica Swanson: Greetings, Johan. It's a pleasure to finally have this opportunity to speak with you in depth after following your work for almost two decades! You are from Linköping in the Swedish province of Östergötland. I wonder if you could share a bit about your background and your everyday life in Linköping, especially in relation to your music. How do your surroundings influence your work?
Johan Levin: I was born and raised here in Östergötland, and I've spent almost my entire life here save a few years I recently spent in London. It's a flat, open landscape marked by agriculture since prehistory and with wide views of the horizon. Perhaps that is significant in regard to my appreciation for space, not only in art but also in life. The shifting of the seasons is quite noticeable here, meaning that during summer it can be +30 degrees Celsius and the sun barely sets, and during winter it can be -30 degrees and the sun barely makes it up over the horizon for several months. These stark contrasts between light and darkness, warmth and cold, flowering abundance and barren snow probably have some effect on the way people are here as well.
I live on the very outskirts of Linköping, more or less in the countryside, and I really appreciate the tranquility and the fact that I'm not bothered by anyone, nor am I bothering anyone should I stay up all night and make music for example. In London I found the constant noise of the city and its inhabitants to be extremely invasive and a complete death-blow to my creativity, something that changed the moment I moved back home. It actually made me wonder whether I would ever be able to make my own music anywhere else but here.
Photo by Azuel
Danica: In previous interviews you've mentioned your interests in history, architecture, and archaeology. I know you've worked in museums in Östergötland and done fieldwork in archaeology, and you speak several languages. I'm curious about your educational background. Could you give a general overview of your studies and intellectual interests, formal and informal?
Johan: Well, I did three years of cultural studies at Linköping university which included art history, philosophy, literature, and a major in history. Later I studied two years of archaeology at Gothenburg university, plus a few odd courses on top of that. I have a really wide and diverse set of interests, at least in my own opinion, but I guess most of them are somehow related to culture in its old meaning 'cultivation of the mind'.
I go where my curiosity leads me. What I do, I do with the perhaps unstated intent to somehow better myself, to better understand myself and the world around me. I want to make informed choices and I want to understand why I sometimes do the exact opposite; I want to know why I find joke A funny and not joke B; I don't want to be judgmental and I want to understand why I sometimes am. I guess I'm a bit obsessed by learning new things to keep myself from stagnating.
Danica: Most musicians in underground music have "day jobs" - is this the case for you as well? If so, does your day job complement or tie in with your music in some way? Are you content with the time you're able to spend making music?
Johan: One could say that my day job as an archaeologist is almost the exact opposite of what I do when I create music, but I enjoy both immensely - probably for the fact that they complement each other so well. Archaeology is objective, a team effort, hard physical work outdoors, scientific and closely regulated. Composing, for me, is subjective, a solitary intellectual process, deeply emotional and without a single rule that I'm not allowed to break should I want to.
It goes without saying that if you have a day job you have less time for making music than if you hadn't had one. Fortunately I tend to be more focused and more efficient the more I have on my plate, so time hasn't really been a problem when it comes to making music. On the other hand work-related matters can affect what's on your mind and your preoccupations, especially if you have an interesting job with curious leads to pursue.
Danica: Your liner notes for Procession include a fascinating quote: "Sometimes a man can meet his destiny on the road he took to avoid it." Your song title "And Never the Twain Shall Meet" seems to be a reference to Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Ballad of East and West." Could you say a bit about your tastes in art and reading material, and name a few artists and writers whose work you especially appreciate?
Johan: Most of what I read nowadays is actually nonfiction, and much of it is work-related in one way or another. My favorite art forms are film, painting, music, design and photography. If I should name a few writers and poets I find inspirational that would include William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Albert Camus, Hermann Hesse, Tomas Tranströmer, Charles Bukowski, Alan Moore, C.G. Jung, Thomas Ligotti and Franz Kafka.
Painters: Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Zdzislaw Beksinski, Aubrey Beardsley, William Blake, Hilma af Klint, Gustav Klimt, Giorgio de Chirico.
Directors: Andrei Tarkovsky, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Ken Russell, David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Andrzej Zulawski, John Carpenter, Akira Kurosawa, Derek Jarman, Carl Dreyer, Béla Tarr, Sergei Parajanov, Shuji Terayama, Jean Cocteau, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Ingmar Bergman, Park Chan-Wook.
I'm aware this list is suggestive of a bit of cultural snobbishness on my part, but I honestly can't abide commercial lightweight entertainment or so-called popular culture. I find commercial TV almost provokingly stupid, with a strangely infantile approach, completely without substance and utterly degrading for both producers and consumers. Even documentary channels have been reduced to showing grown men in cargo-pants blowing things up or driving trucks around. It is so meaningless I can hardly wrap my head around it. Anyway, almost anything that falls outside of this wide furrow I can appreciate for what it is. Anything with more than one dimension to it, and anything thought-provoking that offers a bit of intellectual challenge.
The quote by the way is from Jean de La Fontaine, although I think it has been used in various films and texts over the years. The idea of fate is deeply rooted in Norse saga literature, as well as in Greek tragedies such as King Oedipus, and many stories begin with a prophecy. The essence is that what will happen, will happen – the choice you have is to decide how it happens and what your legacy will be. What I like about it is that it sort of favors long term policy over short-sighted, irrational decision-making.
Photo by Henrik Stolt
Danica: You performed at the Cold Meat Industry 30th Anniversary event in November 2017, and you're among the small group of veteran musicians whose work has been known through CMI since the early days of that label. What are your thoughts on the modern landscape of music distribution? Is there anything that surprises you about how the dark ambient genre has changed in that time?
Johan: First of all, I think it is problematic the way even established record labels are finding it hard to keep their business going these days. This is of course mainly because of the decrease in CD sales over the past 20 years and the surge of downloads and streaming services. Still, most labels have realized that they can hardly do one without the other, so there's twice as much to manage and keep track of. The more copies of a CD you press, the lower the cost per unit, and the bigger the profit once they are sold. When you do small runs, as is by necessity the rule today, the margin for the labels gets smaller as well, and the income from streaming services is too small to compensate for it.
Now, is the record labels' loss in income a problem for the average consumer, you may wonder? I think it is, because they function as funnels or focal points for artists and listeners alike. They are hubs where you may find like minded people, or people who understand your situation and your queries. Above all, the small independent labels are an absolutely essential cultural counterweight to the utterly boring, overly simplified stereotypes that the mainstream media giants want to shove down people's throats every day.
Danica: What are your studio habits like when you're composing? Some of your album texts mention that the music was recorded in "Solitude Studio." Is solitude an important component of your creative process?
Johan: Let me put it this way: anyone who has ever tried to communicate with me when I'm in the studio is painfully aware that the answer to that question is yes. When I'm working in the studio, I go into this bubble where time and the outside world do not exist. I can easily spend the better part of 24 hours there, for several days. I'm sure most musicians who work primarily in a studio environment can bear witness to this effect, as can their spouses.
In a way you could say that I began my solo work out of a desire to withdraw and immerse myself in something creative in this way, without distractions or obstructions.
Photo by Martin Stürtzer
Danica: In performance photos you've occasionally worn a Mjöllnir (Thor's Hammer) and runic jewelry. What are your thoughts on Old Norse religion and culture?
Johan: The hammer I wear is a replica of one found in Ödeshög here in Östergötland in 1876. It's not that far from where I live and it was the place where I participated in my first archaeological excavation, so I guess I found it appropriate to wear as a good luck charm, and as a reminder of both constancy and change. Traces of prehistory are quite evident around these parts, even for the untrained eye. You see them in place names, grave fields, runestones, hill forts, enclosures, etc. To me it is fascinating simply because it's what's on my doorstep, but I'm certain that I'd be just as interested in the history of my surroundings had I grown up elsewhere.
I know there's a bit of a hype around all things Norse right now, but I personally have no interest in trying to somehow express or artistically interpret the iron age. It is an interesting period to study, but I don't think it benefits from being romanticized. To me it is enough that it's humbling to stand in a place that your distant ancestors shaped with much effort, knowing that you, right now, are the direct result of that effort, and of all their lives in fact. It makes you feel that you shouldn't squander what others have created, and that you should have a modicum of respect for your place in time and space.
Danica: From 2011-2014 you maintained a public blog in which you shared some fascinating long-form thoughts on music making and the creative process, and invited readers to contribute their thoughts and questions. In reference to your 2014 album Hypnosis you wrote, for example: "I have asked people to send me their dreams…I believe one’s dreams (and nightmares) are some of the most personal aspects of oneself, and it’s a humbling and precious thing to be able to put music to them, albeit it’s just my take on it." I wonder if you have any plans to continue with public blogging or other writing projects? Does your creative process typically involve writing as well as musical composition?
Johan: I know that some musicians, like Simon Heath (Atrium Carceri) for example, write quite extensively with the intent to have a text to accompany the music as an integral part of the whole work. I don't work like that, because I like to maintain a certain degree of ambiguity in the music I make. However, I do make a lot of notes during the planning stage of an album regarding conceptual ideas, sound ideas, key-words, thoughts on track structures, visual ideas, titles, etc. I also find it interesting and rewarding to discuss the creative process and how to approach ideas musically, both in general terms and in relation to my own work specifically.
So to answer the first part of your question, yes – I'm definitely planning to be more active with the blogging.
Danica: Much of the beautifully refined art for your album sleeves is your own work, and your albums also feature elegant work by Viktor Kvant, whose art graces the covers for Strife and That Which Is Tragic and Timeless. How would you describe your preferred aesthetic?
Johan: I can appreciate a lot of very different aesthetics, from Bauhaus modernism and DIY xerox zines to collage and cut-up works. As an artist I think it is necessary to try to create your own aesthetic micro-cosmos, because what truly matters is the coherence of all the parts that make up the work, and the sooner you get a hold of that process the better.
Regardless of how you go about crafting your own aesthetic, it becomes much more powerful and has much greater impact if you make it unique or unexpected instead of subscribing to a style that is already formulated and proven. I think it's fine to work within the confines of a particular genre, but it should never be allowed to overshadow and blur the unique qualities of the artistic work itself. It should never be generic, for it will be invisible. I'd almost go so far as to say that an ugly record cover for example is better than a boring one.
Danica: Your project Chordiform is a duo with Son Jiyoung based on "cinematic, melancholic noir piano melodies paired with electronics and field recordings." You also work with Lars Tängmark for the project Lost in the Woods. What can you tell us about these projects? Is there more music from these projects in the works, or will you be focusing on Desiderii Marginis?
Johan: For the time being I'm very much preoccupied with my solo work, and will be for some time. Eventually the other projects may spring back to life again, but we have no immediate plans.
Photo by Miss Goodwrong
Danica: What qualities or personality traits do you value most highly in your creative collaborators and friends?
Johan: Definitely their sense of humor. This may seem odd, but most of my friends and fellow musicians in this genre have a brilliant sense of humor and are really funny to be around. I believe this goes hand-in-hand with the fact that most of them also have a much more serious side, one that is perhaps the primary creative drive and the one that is most evident in the work they do. I think these seemingly incompatible personality traits actually complement each other; one couldn't exist without the other.
An artist's 'darker side' if you wish is often something they don't like to discuss in detail, because it's the essence of what they try to mediate via their artistic work. To share this understanding that certain things can remain unexplained while still being able to enjoy each other's company and respect each other for the complex beings we are means a lot to me.
Live at Cold Meat Industry 30th Anniversary event, 5 November 2017. Video by Oppatria.
Danica: What are your thoughts on musicians' responsibilities to their audiences, and audiences' responsibilities to musicians in niche music communities like dark ambient? I didn't know much about the structural factors and misconceptions that affect musicians' earnings, for example, until I did extensive research. What could listeners do to improve things for musicians?
Johan: I don't think artists have responsibilities to their audiences. They create entirely on their own terms, and any responsibilities are primarily toward themselves. What they do have are opportunities: to interact, communicate, and facilitate ways for their potential audience to experience their work. The artists have a choice to reach out, and the audience will decide if they think it is enough. That said, I think most artists acknowledge the fact that it is very much in their own interest to make themselves available to their audience to some extent, and to engage in a meaningful dialogue with them.
Of course there are many ways in which the audience can improve things and show support for artists they appreciate. The most important one is to approach the work through artist-approved channels. Illegal downloading, streaming, intellectual property theft, and bootlegging only benefit those who don't deserve it.
Danica: What's one thing you wish more people understood about what it's like to be a well-known musician in an underground music community?
Johan: I think the longer you do something – the longer you are really committed to something – the more you expect not only from yourself, but also from others. The more confidence you gain in your own work, the more you seek it in the works of others.
For me it is no longer interesting to invest time and creative effort in some vague or non-existent idea or collaborative proposal for which my only return would be exposure at best. That's why I normally turn down offers to participate in compilations nowadays, for example. If there is no clearly defined and well curated idea or concept behind it, it's basically just another playlist. This is not a matter of me thinking that I can do without it. It's simply a matter of motivation, which I can't really afford to play loose with.
Danica: Your back catalogue has been out of print for many years. Fortunately it's now being reissued on CD and vinyl through Cyclic Law, and your listeners can also find the digital versions of your albums on Bandcamp. Your Soundcloud page also features a great new 13-minute track: "Sum Sine Regno." Is this a preview track from an upcoming album? What's next on the agenda for you, musically speaking?
Johan: Well, I have just finished the recordings for the next album 'Departed', which I am really satisfied with. I don’t know when it will be released since Cyclic Law has a tight and busy schedule, but I hope it won’t be too long. However, it hasn't been that long since my latest release, plus work is underway with the re-issues so I feel no rush at the moment.
I'm also working on a very interesting collaborative release along with three other well-known projects which will be made available sometime during 2019. Apart from that, I'm planning some live shows for this autumn, and I'm hoping to be able to showcase some of the new material.
Author Danica Swanson with Johan Levin in Stockholm, Sweden, 5 November 2017.
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