Interview with Gustaf Grefberg
Now when every true fan got (of course?) Gustaf's album Xain - Born in the Stars, it's time to get to know the man behind that outstanding album. Some of us know Gustaf Grefberg's long history with music as LizardKing, and some know only his contribution to Hypersound. Gustaf was very keen to be interviewed and it shows in his answers. So after reading this interview, you definetly know a lot more about Gustaf!
Discography and Biography: Gustaf Grefberg Xain
Hi Gustaf, it is nice to have the chance to get to know you better through this interview. There have already been a couple of interviews with you regarding the music that you have made for the computergame industry, so this interview will instead focus on the music that you have made for the demoscene and for the record company Hypersound. I think that we start this interview with a presentation of you.
Can you tell us about yourself? Have you been working with something else than making music for the computergame company StarBreeze?
Oh most definitely. One thing is of course the music I compose for Hypersound. Every time you ask the question about who I am it tends to be something new and different every time. I have a tendency to change a lot! Aside to Starbreeze and Hypersound, I also have several personal projects ongoing, they have been on ice, but I just picked them up again. One of them is a very special music project that will express my full passion in music. I also spend a lot of time with mantras, including different forms of mantras in music, like Kirtan. It comes naturally, since I am also a yoga teacher along with my passion for music.
Did you know, that you can fully experience music internally, hear every nuance of it, without any external stimuli? It is quite a ride. And a great place for composition.
Music is such a great passion, and such a great expression! I've lived with this passion and expression ever since I was a little child.
Do you have any hobbies besides the music?
To me, it is more a matter of way of life than hobbies. Music is passion, experiencing who and what I really am is a passion as well. I breathe and live everything that I express. Music, meditation, singing, computer games! I love playing computer games also.
Tell us about your musical career. When did you start with music? Did your parents encourage you to start playing music? When did you start playing the keyboard? What instruments do you play?
I was 4 years old and got a chance to try the piano. I found it surprisingly easy to learn how to play music, almost as I'd done it before. It kept coming and going in bursts throughout my life and only truly stayed when I got my Amiga 500 computer. When I loaded the first tracker program, I was in love! Eight years or so after that, I started getting involved in computer game music. My parents are both die-hard musicians. My father is a jazz-fan and plays in a big band. My mother, played the guitar and had a most heavenly singing voice.
I play the keyboard, piano, organ etc, which I have learned completely by heart, no lessons. Also I take violin personal violin classes from my yoga teacher. I look forward immensely to be able to express the violin. It is such a passionate instrument.
What kind of music do you listen to? Do you have any special favorite artist?
Wow. That tends to change often and quickly. But there are certain genres and artists that have had a tendency to stick! I love instrumental music that is deep and rich in harmonies, like Vangelis. I also love movie soundtracks, like John Williams and Hans Zimmer. There is definitely still a side in me that absolutely love syntheseizer dance music, like the good old Koto and Laserdance. That's the kind of music that gave me a real spurt of inspiration in computer music. I also love to devotional mantra music, like Krishna Das or Wah!. The feeling of those mantras resonating inside is truly beautiful, and that without need for any intellectual understanding of what is being sung.
What do you think is the most important factor in a good song? Is it the melodies and harmonies, or is it the rhythm?
It is a balance between all three. Of course, sometimes one of them has to be emphasized. A good, clear theme, can often carry itself well without harmony or rhythm, while something that needs to get your pulse moving might not necessarily be as dependant on melody or harmony. To me, harmony is very important however, because it connects with the heart. It is felt inside, throbbing and pulsing. It's what carries the song. The rhythm moves it, and the melody expresses it.
It is more than four years since your website was updated last time. Will you update the website now when your new album 'Born in the stars' has been released? I'm sure that your fans like to know more about you and your music.
I am planning on making a completely new website. Stay tuned =D
We haven't seen you on the synthdance-discussion boards on the web. Your music is mentioned on those forums from time to time. Have you read the discussion on those forums?
No! I didn't realize there were synthdance-discussion boards. Might be a good idea to take a look at them.
Before we go through the questions regarding your new album that has recently been released by Hypersound, I think that we first take some questions regarding your time at the demoscene. The music that you made during the demoscene time is quite unique and a lot of people still talk about the Lizardking which was your artistname during that time. Why did you pick the name Lizardking, and what does it mean?
I looked at the backside of a C64 game called Dragon's Lair. There was a crook in that game called the Lizard King.. A lizard with a golden scepter and crown. It was so wonderfully weird. I was kinda frustrated later on to find out that Jim Morrison had for some reason used that title way before. So I have moved away from it to something new, out of respect for that.
What equipment did you use when you made the Lizardking material? As far as I know, you sampled some of your synths and used trackerprograms while you composed your songs. Why didn't you use midi sequencers to control your synths instead of using a tracker program? (ie. why did you focus on the demoscene instead of the ordinary musicmarket? By using a midi-sequencer and synths, you would have get better audio quality than a tracker program can give).
Because the music sequencers at the time were so bad at handling samples. I love samples, and I want immediate and quick control over them. With a midi sequencer I had to load sounds into banks in an external sampler, and it was just way too much hassle. I want to be able to put in a sample right into the program, play it at any pitch, volume and effect I want, instantly. In fact, sequencers still suffer from this problem. Not even in the latest versions of Cubase or Logic you can do this. You have to either time stretch, pitch shift, or process a sample in order to just make a simple pitch. It seems that the sequencer industry still haven't caught up to how incredibly convenient it is. I use Kontakt as a sampler right now, which is highly flexible, and at least internal. I used Fast Tracker up until a few years ago, when I could start using Vegas alongside with Logic/Cubase for sound management.
Your song "Compulsion to Obey" won a Assembly music competition in 1994. Have you ever thought of making a remix of it?
Yes! Started a few attempts, but it wasn't satisfactory. But I may take it up again.
Some of your songs on Hypersound's Synthesizer Dance albums are re-recordings of some of your old xm/mod-songs (for example Claustrophobia). Do you have any plans of re-recording some more of your old xm/mod-songs with the high quality equipment that you are using nowadays?
Definitely. Not sure which ones yet. Some are more suitable for this than others.
What kind of feedback do you mostly get from your fans nowadays? Is it from the Lizardking-material, the Hypersound-material or the computer game-material?
I'd say it's from all three of them!
Did you get much feedback of your Lizardking material back in the 80s/90s? When those songs were released, I assume that it was more difficult to distribute the music material than today. How were the songs distributed, was it only at computer parties or was it also on BBS?
The best way to distribute stuff back then was through demos, intros and music discs. I never let a single song go unreleased in a production from somewhere. It reached a much broader audience than just putting it up somewhere stand alone. It got free distribution through the demo or intro. Even if it was not any great demo or intro, it was still distribution.
Do you still have contact with the persons from the demoscene time? (ie. with people from Alcatraz, The Silents, Razor 1911, The Black Lotus and Triton Productions).
Yes I do. I even work with some of them. Vogue from Triton is the lead engine programmer and founder of Starbreeze. I have contact with quite a few of the musicians still, like Lynne, Scorpik, Skaven and others.
Many of the songs that you made under the name Lizardking belongs to the same genre as Laserdance & co. Do you remember when you heard Laserdance for the first time, and why did you like that kind of music? Are you still listening to the Laserdance/Koto/Proxyon albums from the 80s?
When I heard laserdance "Shotgun into the night" the first time, I was in extasy. I ordered so many of those albums.. Got a whole bunch of vinyls too! I don't listen to it as much nowadays however. It is more of a fond memory.
You were obviously inspired by Laserdance and Koto when you started making music. Were there any other artists that inspired you back then?
Quite so. Especially Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre. They had the atmospheric aspects that the Synth Dance music couldn't satisfy for me.
You used to live in the same city as another well-known spacesynth artist, Anders Lundqvist. Did you two make any musical collaboration work?
Oh yes. We met the first time on a demo party in Sweden and connected immediately. We were both synth-dance fans, and exchanged songs, sounds, ideas and friendship. We even started a few songs together, but I am not sure if any of it was ever released.
Have you made any music in co-operation with some other musician during the years?
Definitely. For example the Mindlitter tape with Martin Wall (Mantronix) The Physiology and Fashion-8 albums with Joakim Falk (D-Luxe) The Merregnon Albums (With many big game composers)
Today you are composing music for the comutergame company StarBreeze, and the music that you have composed for Hypersound is only something that you are doing on your spare time. Would you like swap? (ie. making music for Hypersound as a full time job and making computergame music during your spare time)
No. Computergame music has a much broader spectrum of styles. Working only with syntheseizer dance music would feel a bit limited, even though I get a really big kick out of it.
Personally I haven't played any of Starbreeze's games, so I wonder if you have made some music for those games that reminds of the songs that you've made for Hypersound? If not, will there be some music in some of Starbreeze's games that reminds of your Hypersound-songs?
Hmm.. Not directly, since the music is more of a movie score in style. But if you listen to the soundtrack for Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, there are some quite catchy melodies in some of the action track that probably have its roots in music that is more like the hypersound sound.
During the last couple of years you have contributed with music for Hypersound's synthesizer dance albums. How did you get in contact with Humphrey Robertson for the first time?
Through Anders Lundquist. He told me he had gotten a contract with a label called Hypersound. At that time I hadn't worked with this kind of music for some time, but it sounded exciting, so I got in tough with Humphrey through Anders.
Your songs on Hypersound's synthesizer dance albums have a special touch, and eventhough they have the classical 16-beat bassline a'la Laserdance/Koto it feels like the songs are quite unique as they don't seem to be an attempt to copy the classical Laserdance sound. Another thing that is different with your tunes compared to the other artists on the synthesizer dance albums is that you haven't focused on the space theme as much as the other ones. Do you try to avoid making music that sounds too close to Laserdance/Koto/Proxyon?
Definitely. Laserdance/Koto/Proxyon is a wonderful source of inspiration and a classic piece of art. But what comes through my head, heart and hands is unique, and I wouldn't want it any other way.
On your new album 'Born in the Stars' you are using the name Xain. This was also a name you used in the late 80s/early 90s. Why did you use both the names Xain and Lizardking during the demoscene time? Did you feel that there was some difference in style (Xain vs Lizardking) ?
Nah! It was just a shift of handle early in the scene days when I didn't really know what I wanted. The full handle is actually all through "Xain Lk" Xain the Lizardking.
What made you resurrect this name and why didn't you use the name Lizardking which you are more well-known as? (you have also mentioned your artistname Lizardking on the back of the album cover, but you chose to use Xain for the album).
Because Lizardking is also associated with Jim Morrison and The Doors. Using it as an official artist name could lead to copyright problems.
What does Xain mean?
It's the name of a character in an arcade game from the 80s called Soldier of Light. I just liked the sound of it.
Recently there was an interview with you in the swedish musicmagazine Studio, in which you told us that you nowadays only work with software synths. Can you tell us what equipment you have used for your new solo-album? (ie. what synth did you use for making the distorted leads, powerful tom-drums, mighty choir in Space Diablo, bassline etc). Was the album made with your own equipment or was it made with the equipment that you use at your work?
At the time I worked with the Xain album I was running everything with Logic Audio and only one softsynth that you can license with it, the ES-2 It's the best software synth I've ever used. You can make it do anything. All the samples are used with Kontakt, and the mastering is later done with extra sound effects in Vegas. So it was used with the equipment I use at work.
The tom-drums are custom sounds I've made for game soundtracks, that have that punchy, heavy hollywood-esque sound for action tracks. It's a nice hybrid to put them into the synth dance genre. The choirs and orchestrated sounds, and guitars come from sound libraries I licensed, some for work, some for personal work, like Symphony of Voices, Hans Zimmer's Guitars and others. A lot of the sounds have been customized.
The last song on your new album, a clever remix of Claustrophobia, has some acoustic sounds. Did you use a real guitar or samples?
It's samples. It's exciting to hear you have a hard time telling the difference though!
How did you make the robot speeches for the original version of Space Diablo?
I put my voice through a formant shifter. It really messes with the harmonics.
During the last few years software instruments have become a major part of music production. Has this changed the way you work much?
Very. It especially makes it easier to run multiple projects, since you don't need to manage each external device for each song/project you make. It's all in the file/project you are currently working with. Very convenient.
Your new album 'Born in the Stars' is a very impressive masterpiece that definitely must be the most well-produced album in Hypersound's catalogue. Can you tell us about how this album was made ? (when did you start with this album and how long have you worked with the album? Have you gotten some feedback from your friends during the composing time?)
Thank you! And this album has come together after many years of work. The final songs themselves were done through only 2 months of time. But the songs like Claustrophobia and others are the result of a lot of hard work earlier in the years, so it is hard to tell really how much time that was invested in it.
My two biggest people for feedback are my wife, Kimberly, who loves all types of music. She is very critical and doesn't just tell me what I want to hear. She tells right out how she feels about it, and why. And I also run all the songs by Robert Aronsson, who is a synth dance fan. (Also a friend of Anders Lundquist)
The album cover has been made by Thomas Strütt, which is a graphic artist that Hypersound hires for making their album covers. Musicians like Anders Lundqvist and Macrocosm have used another graphic artist for their albums. Did you have any plans of using some of the graphic artists at StarBreeze to make the album cover?
I had plans on more specific requirements for the cover, but I had very little time at my hands right then, so I left it in the very capable hands at Hypersound.
You are known as an inventor of the Doskpop style. How would you describe this style and how did you come up with the term?
It was in fact a joke between me and Joakim (D-Luxe) We thought that the bass lines and drums of this punchy sound sounded very.. DOSK.. We were really tired and had had a lot of coffee. Then we suddenly realized it could actually stand for something. Disco Och Synth Kombinerad Pop. (Disco and synth combinated pop) The style has a lot in common with Laserdance/Koto, but it is more related to the Amiga sound of the demo scene. It is a little bit less disco/dance and focuses more on a theme. It also tends to have a little bit harder sound than the classical synth dance music.
Which one of your songs do you like most? Why that one?
Probably Claustrophobia. It can carry itself as a synth dance song, or played with an acoustic instrument like a guitar or piano. It's alive.
You have already made music for musicalbums, computergames, local TV, radio shows etc. Do you have any plans of focusing on music for movies?
Definitely. But it's a hard scene to get into. I have recently finished the soundtrack for a small local movie "En Dold Plats" and I am also collaborating with some friends who are working with the soundtrack for a zombie flick called "Die Zombiejäger"
Have you ever thought about making music with vocals?
Already have. Mostly wordless vocals. But have been thinking of bringing mantra chanting into electronic music some day.
What other musical plans do you have for the near future?
More music in every shape and form. More specifically I am working on a new project for Starbreeze, and I am already setting up plans for more synth dance music, and another album which I have not gotten down compltely what it is yet, nor worked on who will produce. Here is a taste of what is coming though:
Gustaf Grefberg - Memories of Atlantis.mp3
Before we end this interview, we wonder if there is something that you would like to say to your fans?
You have given me both energy and inspiration to be spurred on during those long waking nights of music work. Thanks! It fills me with joy to know that what I do is enjoyed in others.
Thanks you for giving us the opportunity to make this interview and good luck with your new album.
You are welcome. Thanks for letting me share.