Sven Wunder :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Earlier this year as the pandemic began to consume the global consciousness, an artist by the name of Sven Wunder seemingly appeared out of nowhere and generated a considerable amount of buzz with two vinyl-only releases announced in quick succession. Looking like some obscure music library record from the ‘70s, the two albums contained a mixture of sounds that seemed to be rooted in no particular place and everywhere all at once.

Described in its press materials as “the first stop on Sven Wunder’s musical journey,” the first album Eastern Flowers was a curious mix of jazz fusion breakbeats with Eastern stylings, arriving somewhere between ‘70s Anatolian rock and Ananda Shankar—with a sprinkling of Dick Dalee-sque guitar—all wrapped around the theme of Eastern Mediterranean flora. With Wabi Sabi Sven set his sights on Japan—or rather a 19th century European view of the country as embodied in the art movement known as Japonism—this time incorporating traditional minyo melodies to his signature jazz fusion sound to evoke the ancient aesthetic philosophy from which the album takes its title.

These all sounded great. But of course we were left wondering: who is Sven Wunder? Purportedly he’s from Sweden, considering both albums mention receiving financial support from the Swedish Arts Council. Why is the album title in Turkish? What’s his connection to Japan? Is it all a clever marketing scheme to get into the minds of record diggers?

Following Sven’s Lagniappe Session from July — with his interpretations of traditional Japanese songs — we had the opportunity to interview the enigmatic musician himself. Sven, speaking via Zoom from his waterfront summer home in Sweden, was joined by his collaborator John Henriksson, calling in from Italy. With thousands of miles of separation between us, our socially distanced conversation gave an opportunity for Sven and John, who together run Piano Piano Records on which the two albums were released, to discuss the thoughts and ideas behind the beguiling project, including working under a pseudonym, the unexpected success of the albums, how Sweden funds music projects, how their musical journey became a learning experience, and the endlessly complicated debate over cultural appropriation. | y kitazawa

Aquarium Drunkard: I want to ask you first of all, who is Sven Wunder? When you look up the name, this scientist comes up.

Sven Wunder: It’s like an alias, or another name. The name has no relation to the scientist Sven Wunder. We discovered an email from January 2009 where I used the name for the first time, so it’s a name that’s been with me for a while. In those days, I was really into the funny Muzak names. I found that name a couple of years later and I thought about it—that’s a pretty good name. I think a regular name fits this music much better. It comes a bit from all the aliases that you use in library music, where they could change the ID all the time so people wouldn’t get tired of the artists. 

John Henriksson: And the possibility to renew yourself once in a while depending on the project.

Sven Wunder: Exactly.

John Henriksson: It comes from around 10 years ago, when I received this email with you making a draft song, which had a similar style to now, saying this is the trial for Sven Wunder or something like that. And then a few years ago we picked it up again with Doğu Çiçekleri—Eastern Flowers.

AD: Instead of using a band name, you prefer to use an alias and keep it anonymous?

Sven Wunder: I didn’t think it would have fit with a band name. A band name would be strange, I think. I’m not really into bands. I don’t buy any records with bands. I’m more into artists with regular names. But if I’d known how obsessed people are with the name, then I would go for a band name now. It would be much easier. Get rid of this discussion!

AD: The official description for Eastern Flowers says that it’s “the first stop on Sven Wunder’s musical journey.” Did you have that concept in mind, like “I want to create a series of albums based around styles from around the world”?

Sven Wunder: Actually, it could be like that because when I started to make that record I was really inspired. I had mainly done movie work for a long period, a very controlled environment where you work on commission, a lot of people put their fingers in the music and saying it should be like this. When I did this record I had more time to make new songs, and then I just had more and more [songs]. When I finished the Doğu Çiçekleri record I was really satisfied with it, and I didn’t care how it would be received.

I knew that I wanted to make a record like this, because this is the type of music I like to listen to myself. At the time when the mixing and mastering of the first record was done, half of the next record was already written. So I was like working on skis, like crossfading between records, so to speak.

AD: Were you surprised by the success of Eastern Flowers and Wabi Sabi?

Sven Wunder: Very surprised. We were talking about making less than 300 records in the beginning. We were like, maybe we could do 150 or something like that. I’d I was very surprised. Very, very surprised.

AD: Why do you think the records generated such a buzz around them?

Sven Wunder: I don’t know, there could be various reasons. I think that people enjoy when everything isn’t written on the nose. There’s so much information about everything in these days. Sometimes it’s a relief to let a piece stand on its own, without a behind the scenes documentary, footage or a full declaration of how things has been made in detail. One part of perception that I like is when it’s being influenced by imagination. We do not always have to turn on the light during the set and let everything be revealed. Not that it is a secret. We already know that there are people behind the stages doing the special effects, how it’s been done can ruin the experience. Not sure if that generated what you refer to as a buzz, but it could be one part of it.

AD: The first pressing of the first album had the title in Turkish, and on the Bandcamp page it says Sven Wunder’s location is Turkey. Were you intentionally trying to create a kind of mystery, like you don’t know where he’s actually from?

Sven Wunder: No, not at all. Maybe John has something to do with that. But I’m more interested in Western artists’ impressions of Eastern type of music. I like that mixture very much. I was never like, I’m a Turkish guy or something like that. It was not intentional at all.

John Henriksson: We haven’t put so much work into digital sales. It’s Light In The Attic’s digital team who put up our Bandcamp, and made up the location. It’s not possible to change your location once you set it up. I asked them to change that, but now it’s Turkey.

AD: Both records mention that they were funded in part by the Swedish Arts Council. How does that program work?

Sven Wunder: Maybe it’s pretty unique for Sweden, I don’t know. But you can apply when you have the demo done and the songs written. You can send it in to the Arts Council and say, I want to release this, I would like to record strings, or I would like to to press vinyl or something, and then you can get funding for that. They helped us very much. Otherwise it would have been really hard to do. Especially Wabi Sabi, which was much more expensive because it has a string section. It wouldn’t have been possible without them, I think.

John Henriksson: Absolutely. It’s tax-funded, the culture money that you can apply for, so they have different fields, like for dance, for performance, for traveling, for music groups. They also have one for making records, and that’s the one we’ve been applying for. With this application they financed 50% of the production, which made it possible for us to make a record with full strings, with great musicians, to go all in with the costs. Even if we printed 300 copies, [without the grant] it would have been completely economically impossible to do that. This is quite unique for Sweden, that we have this money that’s rather easy to access. It’s extremely valuable for the music scene in Sweden.

AD: What is the criteria for choosing who gets the funding? With Sven Wunder, did you have to explain your intentions for making the albums? Do you know why your project was chosen?

Sven Wunder: I don’t know. Sweden is pretty small country and most of the people who work in this jury are from Stockholm. And Stockholm is very small, and I live in Stockholm as well. So when I’ve applied for this in the past there’s been a problem with people in the jury who are into the same thing as yourself. It’s a problem because they can’t vote for you, because then it’s like a corruption thing.

John Henriksson: They have criterias, absolutely, because it’s state money. So everything has to be officially declared. We declare all our expenses afterwards. They have criterias for quality and potential. There’s supposed to be variety too. So it’s not only the things with very great potential, but also people with eventual potential who have a possibility to grow.

AD: The Swedish Arts Council mentions that one of the goals with their grants is “to promote Swedish music abroad.” Is there anything particularly Swedish about Sven Wunder’s music?

Sven Wunder: The Swedish Arts Council is involved in realising a national cultural policy by developing, informing and contributing to culture. In other words, culture as something dynamic, challenging and an independent force based on freedom of speech and the opportunity for everyone to participate in the cultural life, which characterises the development of society. Their goal is not to promote particular Swedish music abroad, but making it possible for music from Sweden to reach abroad. What is particularly Swedish?

AD: Eastern Flowers gives a stylistic nod to Turkish rock, and Wabi Sabi references traditional Japanese themes. Why did you decide to explore those particular styles?

Sven Wunder: The only criteria for me is that I want to make music that I want to listen to myself. Or music that I’d buy myself on records. For example, the Turkish music, I’ve been playing a lot of music in that field for many years, and thought I really would like to do something with this. So it was very natural. But then maybe it’s a bit strange for us to go okay, now we’ll do a Japanese record. But one thing is that I felt like it’s a bit hard to find Japanese music in this scene, at least for me, because I don’t know the scene that well. I felt like I want to hear a song with the koto and the flute interpreted in this way, with a little bit more heavy beat and…I felt like that is the type of song I want to listen to myself. That’s the first rule when I do something. Then we talked about this Wabi Sabi concept, which worked like an umbrella or like a bow for the whole project in a very natural way. And then I could use that idea to write more songs and to make a whole concept album.

AD: How did you first become aware of these musical styles, like Turkish rock? Where did you first hear it?

Sven Wunder: The guy that plays bass in the band [Love Örsan] is part Turkish. We’ve been friends since we were kids and he, maybe 20 years ago, gave me Altın Mikrofon. It’s like a collection of ‘60s talent show bands. That’s where Erkin Koray was discovered, for example. People from Moğollar and stuff like that. So I got compact discs from this friend and I listened to them—I still listen to them—very much. That was the first time I started listening to that. It’s such a goldmine of music, especially during this time period, around the late 60s, early 70s.

AD: He plays on the record?

Sven Wunder: On both records, yes.

AD: Who are the other musicians on the albums?

Sven Wunder: They’re mainly old friends of mine, like jazz musicians and folk musicians from around this region in Stockholm. Very close friends.

AD: I hear some traditional instruments on both of these albums. Do the musicians normally play those instruments? Or did they have to learn them for these projects?

Sven Wunder: The saz player is a new friend. It’s a guy I searched down for that record because I felt that to be able to play that type of music you need to really have the skills. He’s from Kurdistan who lives in Sweden since about five or six years ago. Ali Shaker is his name. Brilliant musician. On the other album, I really wanted to use the koto. But then I found out that I could buy the guzheng, the Chinese harp, much cheaper. So we bought that instead. And then I really fell in love with that instrument. It’s a little bit softer than the koto, which is a bit harder and there’s less resonance in the strings than the guzheng. It’s a bit softer so maybe it’s easier to play it from scratch, to play the guzheng instead of the koto. I don’t really know. I have a friend who plays a gezheng now. He learned [how to play] during the process.

AD: Did you instruct the musicians to play certain scales to evoke those styles referenced on the albums? Like in Wabi Sabi there are solos and melodies that sound distinctively Japanese.

Sven Wunder: Yeah, I’m a little bit uncertain of the name [ed. Hirajōshi scale], but it’s like a pentatonic scale. Which, as soon as you play it, it sounds very Japanese. And Ethiopian. Ethiopian and Japanese music use this exact same scale. When I started to experiment with that scale it was really an eye opener to write more songs in that style. It’s a beautiful scale.

AD: Where did you first hear Japanese music, traditional Japanese in particular?

Sven Wunder: First? I don’t know…I have a guy in a record shop in Stockholm who is married to a Japanese woman. I bought a lot of 7 inches from him like 10 years ago or something. And then I started to research more from that. I bought a lot of Jun Mayuzumi, the girl who did a song called “Black Room,” from him. I think that’s maybe the first time I started buying Japanese records. But after that, it’s been more like researching towards the fusion between folk and more rock or jazz. Like jazz rock records, for example, like Hozan Yamamoto. I’m really into that. I really like it a lot.

AD: How did you come up with all the song titles on Wabi Sabi?

Sven Wunder: We did it together, me and John. The concept, with the titles and the covers and everything, is a huge part of the record. John did everything with that, and it really helped to finish the whole thing up in the end.

John Henriksson: We were very interested in arts and aesthetics and this kind of stuff. We’ve also been getting help from some Japanese friends with a little bit of research to make sure we make it fit, without stepping on any toes and doing it as respectful as possible. But indeed, it’s fantastic to learn. As well, like learning new music and the scales that we’ve been talking about, to learning about these extremely fantastic terms. Like when the sun is being filtered by the trees and hitting the ground. That there’s a word for that [komorebi] gives me the chills.

AD: Is there a reason why you left some of the song titles in English?

John Henriksson: It’s an aesthetic reason as well, but I think it’s just nice to mix it up and not to go all in. We also like the aesthetics of some European interpretations of Asian music as well.

Sven Wunder: Yeah, exactly. Some things you really want people to understand what they mean. And it’s a bit hard, with maybe a ten word sentence, to put in Japanese if you want people to understand. Some Japanese words we didn’t want to change because they were so beautiful, just how they sound and how they look. So, in the end, it was a very nice mixture. Just the more poetic, longer titles are in English so you can understand them more easily.

John Henriksson: It’s difficult to pronounce some of these, but hanami of course is beautiful. komorebi is fantastic, and very, very poetic. It’s really, really fascinating to learn this stuff. And, as well, it’s fun because it’s part of the process between me and you, how we’ll do research together and have a conversation.

Sven Wunder: It was fun because I had a huge interest in bonsai trees and stuff like that, like one and a half years ago when I worked on the record. Then John told me about the wabi sabi concept, which includes the bonsai, pretty much as I understand it, as well. Which was perfect because it would have been a bit strange to put bonsai as a title for the whole project, would have felt a little bit too obvious. So it was really nice to find the whole concept of wabi sabi to wrap all around the whole project.

AD: So making the album was a learning process for both of you guys.

Sven Wunder: Yeah, very much. Everything is a research project, a process I would say.

AD: The the two traditional songs you did for the Lagniappe Sessions, “Toryanse” and “Sakura,” how did you decide to do those songs?

Sven Wunder: It was maybe three months ago or something, I was listening through some folk collection. There’s a lot of that online these days—collections of choirs singing folk songs from different regions—and I usually listen through those because you can find fragments of melodies and stuff, which could be interesting to use. And then I went through and I found “Toryanse.” And I thought, immediately when I heard it, I really want to make a version of this. And then “Sakura” is such a beautiful melody. It’s like the best thing ever written. It’s so awesome. So simple and super catchy, and super beautiful. It has everything I would say. So that was a good complement, to make a version of that as well.

AD: On “Toryanse,” is that a children’s choir singing the melody? Is that a sample, or are those actual kids singing?

Sven Wunder: No, no, it’s our own. We have a Japanese friend who has kids. So they sing in the choir. I’m very satisfied with that. I liked it very much.

AD: Were you aware of the versions of “Sakura” by other non-Japanese artists, like Odetta? Lloyd Miller also did a version.

Sven Wunder: Yeah. Not the Lloyd Miller, actually. I missed that one. But the Odetta version is beautiful. Classic.

AD: The official description for Wabi Sabi references Japonism, which some critics argue was essentially cultural appropriation, before that term was even in use. How would you respond to critics who may see the Sven Wunder project as an exercise in cultural appropriation?

Sven Wunder: Of course, that’s a difficult question. I don’t really have a good answer. I’ve always liked Western musicians interpreting foreign Eastern music, and I also like Japanese people interpreting Western music. So I am interested in when you try to do interpretations of another place. Mainly the records I buy are of music trying to do this. But of course I can understand that maybe some people think it’s exoticism or something like that. But I like music like this. That’s the only thing I can say.

AD: To be honest, when I first heard about the second album Wabi Sabi, it felt a little weird to me that it was all Japanese-themed. But then listening to it, I can see where it’s coming from.

Sven Wunder: I tried to make it in my own way, like with our type of instruments. We use the recorder instead of the shakuhachi flute. I don’t know—it’s a hard question.

AD: Yeah, I mean, it’s a hard concept to talk about.

John Henriksson: It’s a hard concept, of course, since there is this Western, Eurocentric thing going on. Like some European paintings from the 19th century that are very inspired by Japanese art as well. [With Sven Wunder] there’s a little bit of creating a narrative, and also creating some kind of fiction around this, too, so it’s not written in stone and everything. It’s a little bit of flirting with things, without stepping on any toes, of course.

Sven Wunder: As I said in the beginning, I like music like that tries to interpret other countries, both East and West. That’s what I like with the Hozan Yamamoto stuff as well. It’s like they’re trying to do Western big band funk. If it were only Western big band funk, it wouldn’t be interesting. But when you get the twist from your heritage, then it’s much better or interesting. But of course, it’s always complicated with stuff like that.

AD: Right. Hearing you and John talk about the background of the record, how it was a learning experience, and the whole process of making these albums—you can’t really argue that it’s appropriation when it’s coming from that place. Initially hearing the album and seeing the description without any context, and seeing that the artist was this anonymous person doing these interpretations of other cultures—that to me felt a little weird. So I think knowing the context is really important.

Sven Wunder: I was very inspired by the way they interpreted that with the French Impressionists, when they were really inspired by Japan. To take a flavor from somewhere else and to to spice it up in your own way, to inspire your own art with it.

John Henriksson: Also it should be said that especially Japanese aesthetics, is in our everyday life. It has such a great big influence on modernism and all art and music, and modern music. It’s of such great big importance, for everything. But of course it’s not meant to step on any toes, or to steal a culture or something like that.

Sven Wunder: No, no.

John Henriksson: It’s somewhat flirting with the past of these kinds of traditions as well. Like with the Impressionists, how Monet did the Japanese garden in France.

AD: You could argue that without these mix of cultures, things will just be boring.

John Henriksson: Absolutely, for sure. That’s really interesting as well. Like with the travels with the Silk Road, whatever it was. There’s been great exchanges happening all the time, which is what we still do.

AD: Are you working on another Sven Wunder album?

Sven Wunder: Yeah, there’s a new one almost done.

AD: Does that take on a particular style? Does it travel to a different destination?

Sven Wunder: It’s not—we’re not going anywhere. It’s more about painting and the culture around painting I would say. The music is more orchestral, a bit softer. Like a last waltz or closing time feeling, a bit.

AD: Do you plan to continue making albums as Sven Wunder, with each album exploring a different theme?

Sven Wunder: No, but I think it’s a very good … I feel very free in this forum that we created, or the space that we created, to shape whatever type of record I want. And the ground rule for the whole concept is that I want to make music that I want to listen to myself. It sounds very easy but, now I’ve been doing music for my whole life, and it’s the first time I’ve realized that it’s as simple as that. You just do music that you want to listen to yourself. You get all the ingredients and decide and shape it the way you want to hear it. I don’t know why I didn’t understand that earlier. Much more easy.

AD: Going back to Lloyd Miller—who I was actually reminded of when I first heard the first Sven Wunder album…

Sven Wunder: Lovely. I take that as a great compliment. I really like him.

AD: Yeah, me too. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he has said, but he brought up an interesting point when he said that the modernization and westernization of traditional art results in cultural genocide. What do you think of that?

Sven Wunder: Okay, that sounds pretty rough.

John Henriksson: And it’s coming from a different time, too.

Sven Wunder: As I said before, for me, I think art and music become most interesting when cultures meet. Maybe I didn’t understand the quote correctly, but for me, I am always drawn to that. I think it makes both cultures more beautiful.

AD: It’s a curious idea coming from someone like Lloyd Miller, who’s a white guy from America, who’s done a lot of research on Persian music but who’s also put his own spin on that music. But it’s an interesting thing to think about.

John Henriksson: Absolutely

Sven Wunder: Yeah.

Listen below: An exclusive mixtape compiled for Aquarium Drunkard by Sven Wunder. It’s a musical journey across the globe, providing a rare glimpse into the eclectic influences that shape the pan-global sounds of Eastern Flowers and Wabi Sabi.

Aquarium Drunkard Presents: A Sven Wunder Mixtape (Volume One)

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