The songs are strong, the playing impeccable, but what strikes many listeners when they first hear Dungen is the sound. It always comes up when fans discuss the band. Leader Gustav Estjes creates records that seem both vintage and current — meticulously labored over, yet still sonically homespun sounding. Over the past 10 years, Sweden's ambassadors of AcidPopRockProgFolk have consistently delivered one brilliant album after another. In 2010, they released a new full- length album (Skit I Allt), extensively toured the world and recorded a single with Jack White III and Vance Powell ("Oga Nasa Mum") for a Third Man Records release.
What was your earliest recording experience?
Just my brother and me. We lived in the country, nothing to do, and we happened to have two cassette decks. We "discovered" that you could plug one deck into the other while recording something else. We had instruments at home, but he also had DJ stuff, so we were making techno and hip-hop mix tapes. Then I plugged my keyboard in and played over some of the beats. I bought a Fostex 4-track after that, around 1998. I loved the sound of it! It was dirty. There were punk rock bands in my town and they did serious stuff like go into a studio to put down their tracks. They would spend all of this money and it would sound like crap anyway. Too bright, too nice! I thought the dirtiness of a 4-track would have sounded better.
Did you feel it was essential for you to then learn more about recording so you could make records that sounded correct to you, unlike those punk bands?
I wanted to learn how to get that great, old drum sound, so I went to school for a year. In Sweden we have these folkskola ["people's schools"]. They are free and you can study something for a year. I chose to attend a music school, and I played piano in an ensemble; but my main instrument was the mixing board. By mid-year all I was doing was hanging out in the studio. There was a great old tape machine in the attic, but they had just put in a new Mackie board and Pro Tools so that's what we learned on. I asked if I could learn how to use the tape machine, but I was told it wasn't used in "The Business" anymore. A lot of the songs that ended up on our 500-copy, self- titled LP were recorded that year.
Did Dungen start out as a solo project or did you plan on having others involved when needed?
From the beginning it was a solo project, because there weren't people around who knew how to play my songs the way I wanted. I had friends who played, but I wanted the songs to sound a certain way.
When and why did you decide to get others involved?
I had friends who I'd 4-tracked with from the beginning. Three of us worked on each other's songs and we called all of it "Dungen." When it comes to my songs I've always been a control freak. [laughs] So, while I played on their songs, when it came time to record mine, I played all of the parts most of the time.
Do you still play music with any of those people?
Reine [Fiske, Dungen's guitarist] has been with the project for almost 10 years. He's also part of the live formula. Over the years there have been many people involved, mostly in the studio. I would play most of the parts myself, but I would have people come in to do a guitar part, or something. I use acoustic [guitar] a lot, but the lead guitar has never really been part of my palette.
What about sitar? Did you play that on those early tracks?
Oh no, that's an instrument I don't play! I had someone else do that.
Have you started to let your bandmates in, now that you've been working with the same people for many years now?
A little, but I still have that insane control need. For Skit I Allt I had more help in the studio. I had an engineer available, which helped because I could do proper ground takes [bed tracks] with me on piano, Reine on bass and Johan [Holmegard, also part of the live band] on drums. I would take that into the studio to do overdubs, and then Reine would come in and add some guitar. One track on the new album started with just a chopped up drum take and grew from there. I took sections from a 10-minute recording of Johan just trying stuff out. I cut, pasted and edited; "Soda" came out of that.
Did you feel restrained when you were signed to [Virgin Sweden imprint] Dolores?
Not restrained. We did a 500 print release then hooked up with the Virgin people, who were really nice. They wanted to "take it far" and make it the "next big thing!" I was young so I thought, "Yeah, let's put a band together!" When we did that one [Stadsvandringar] we recorded everything at the same time and had a producer [Matthias Glavå], who is still a very good friend of mine. He's one of the best producers in Sweden and highly regarded. He had pressure from above, so we had discussions about, "Maybe you should do it like this or like this." Small stuff, but [it happened] all the time. It's okay, because I know their job is to sell records and it turned out to be a good album, but it wasn't what I felt like I was supposed to do.
So you made Ta Det Lungt.
Yes! That was my attempt to make "one more record" to show everyone what I was trying to do. I got a digital Fostex recorder that was purple. I bought it from a friend for cheap because I had no money. I did Ta Det Lungt on that one.
You did that record on a Fostex personal studio? It sounds great!
Yeah! It had some great presets in it that I used. A compressor setting called "'60's mix" or something like that. It sounded pretty amazing. Then I brought it into a proper studio to mix it.
Do you credit the vintage sound of that record to what you did when you were recording or to how it was mixed?
Oh... that's a hard one. I rented some good preamps, like two [Telefunken] V72s. I borrowed two [Sennheiser] 421s. So that all went into the Fostex and probably had a big affect on how things sounded.
The legend is that Ta Det Lungt was recorded in a barn in the Swedish countryside.
My mom has a farm, and she lent me a house on it. We could make noise 24 hours a day.
Where did you mix it?
At Konst & Ramar studio in Stockholm. We also mixed Tio Bitar and 4 there. We used a different studio for Skit I Allt.
Why the change?
Well, I was planning on working with Matthias Glavå again, this time having him engineer. I know how to do what I want to do, but, unfortunately, I'm not always patient. He has this amazing studio and nothing is broken. [laughs] We were watching these videos of Serge Gainsbourg recording and, in the studio, there was the engineer, the producer, the arranger, a string section and a choir! So I had this idea that I'd like to put money into something like that. I could concentrate on producing and he could put the mics up the right way.
He didn't end up doing it though. What happened?
He was busy when we needed him, so I ended up doing it myself again. Then it was mastered by Håkan Åkesson [at Cutting Room Studios].
Dungen records have a particular sound. Most people consider it to be "vintage," but it can also be described as very "real" sounding. Most notable are the drums. How do you mic them?
One [Shure] SM57 between the snare and the kick, with the membrane here. [Indicates capsule above bass drum hoop, 90 degrees to the side of snare's shell, aimed at the floor tom.] I know it sounds like nothing special, but it gets the perfect blend between the kick and the snare. The earliest recordings I did just used that one mic and people thought it sounded great! It grew from there. I added one mic [Sennheiser 421] in front of the kit. Not in the kick, rather in front of it, but pointed right at it. Then one more over the drummer's shoulder, "looking" at the kit. On the new record I thought I should try a more dry sound, so I close mic'd the kit with 421s. I never use more than four mics though. Of course none of this matters without great playing!
The bass is pretty rich too; how do you do that?
I line [D.I.] the bass, but sometimes I also put a 421 on it.
You use the 421 a lot!
At first I only had two of them and a Neumann U67. I like the Neumann on vocals and it does a great job on piano.
You just use the one mic on piano? There seems to be a lot of compression on the piano.
On the subject, the drums tend to breathe a lot. It's really noticeable on [Tio Bitar's] "Gör Det Nu."
Yes, but I don't use any one compressor in particular — I use what's available. We've recorded and mixed in "vintage paradise" environments, like on the new record, and we've gotten by with much less. Usually I can get the sound I want by adjusting the settings and just listening. I know what I'm listening for. I remember when I bought my first compressor to use with my 4-track, it was such a thing. "Now it sounds for real! Wow!" It had a little guide with it that said, "If you want 'punchy,' set the attack like this and the release like this." I still do it that way!
Unlike most rock bands, you also have to know how to get a good flute sound.
I use the Neumann, and I take good care not to blow into the membrane.
I notice your tambourines always sound great too.
I stand back at least a meter from a 421. It's always so much [louder] than you think with those things! I'm always like, "Shit," and I back up from the mic some more.
Do you mix the records?
Yes. I learned the basics at recording school. How people mix is so individual. We discuss this so much in the band. I never let anyone in when I mix. The reason I haven't done many [collaborative] projects, or produced other records, is because the songwriter has an idea, but it has to be the best for the song. You have to avoid getting in the situation where a five-piece band is in the room and the bass player is saying...
"Turn up the bass!"
Yeah! [laughs] I can't deal with that. If the verse calls for something in particular — what I had in mind — I want to try to get that the way I imagined it when I wrote the song.
Do you embrace the idea of "unlimited" tracks?
I have no problem with cutting and pasting. When I do that it's convenient to have a lot of tracks to work with. By the time I get to mixing there are never more than 20 tracks. Wait... hmm... that's a lot!
I don't think so! On the songs it sounds like the listener has dropped in on an improvised performance. Is that what it actually is?
On the new record there is a song called "Högdalstoppen." We did that one live to tape. For the first time, I was just a performer. I could just play! The amazing Magnus Josefsson recorded it on this big 24-track machine at Fashionpolice Studios in Stockholm. I love the way it sounds. The idea was, "Let's start playing and see where this one goes." We were having beers and all chilled out, but as soon as the record button was pressed it was like [makes nervous face], "Uhhhhhhh."
It's good to be reminded of what "red light fever" is like!
It just doesn't exist with the computer. Press a button, undo, fix and so on. We were getting stressed out; we realized, "Oh shit. We have to play it right."
Does that tension improve the performance?
Well, it's good and bad; it was a real experience to feel the knife at the throat.
Are you now interested in working with tape again?
Sure, but I'm mainly interested in production and the final sound. I don't think it's a bad thing to use a computer, if the end result is good. I'm more concerned with [the environment] that different situations create. I also think it's about the instruments and the preamps when it comes to the final sound. Can I tell a difference when something's recorded to tape? Sure! Using tape would depend heavily on me having help though, which is limiting in it's own way.
On this tour you had a chance to record in Nashville with Jack White III for a single on his label, Third Man. How did that come about?
Jack contacted us. It was very flattering to be asked and I'm glad we got the chance to work with him.
So you actually let someone else help with production decisions for once? Was Jack there for the whole session, working on it?
Yes. I found it exciting to get his input. We only had a short time in the studio, so there was really no time to try a lot of ideas. That was nice because we had to be spontaneous and basically do it live. We recorded two songs. One is a few years old and has been performed live at a few shows, but has never released.
Did you all enjoy the experience? What was your favorite part?
I'm such a control freak normally, but this time I decided to just let go and prepare for anything to happen. Under the circumstances, and considering the short amount of time we were there, things turned out very good. Jack and his staff are really the sweetest guys to work with.
I have to ask, why is the new album called [Skit I Allt] Fuck it All?
It's not quite as it sounds. It doesn't mean "give up." In Sweden, we use it to mean something more like, "Forget your boundaries and hang-ups. Go for it!"
Is that related to your mindset when you were recording the record? Trying new things? You did close mic the drums, after all! [laughter]
Well, I was fed up with our ringing drums! It's hard for me to have perspective on this one but, of course, "going for it" will hopefully make the records better and better.