Interviews

Marc Strömberg (Swan Sex, Håll Det Äkta, Visual Artist, Hardcore and Soda)

Photo: Mårten Persson

In terms of underground music, the city of Umeå in northern Sweden has given us a wealth of quality hardcore, punk, and metal bands. Meshuggah, Refused, Abhinanda, and Cult of Luna all started their careers in the Swedish university town. One of the biggest contributors to the Umeå hardcore and punk scene has been Marc Strömberg. Through his work as the vocalist of Håll Det Äkta, and as a graphic design artist, Strömberg has flown the Swedish hardcore flag for years now.

These days, outside of his graphic design work, Strömberg is busy with Swan Sex, his synth-driven solo project that has been compared to the likes of Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze—albeit with hardcore soul. This month, Swedish Columbia Records will simultaneously release digital versions of Swan Sex's Rarmuri EP, a self-titled full-length compilation, and a cassette/digital release of the newest EP, Oro.

In addition to Swan Sex, Strömberg recently started a fun Instagram page called Hardcore and Soda that combines his love for music and sugary soft drinks from all over the world. I recently spent some time chatting with Strömberg about all of his past and current projects.

Tell me a bit about growing up in Sweden. Were you raised in Umeå?

Yes, I was raised in Umeå, which is up in the north of Sweden. It's a university city. It's the "bigger" city up there.

What hit you first, music or drawing?

Drawing hit me first. I was drawing monsters and superheroes since I was able to hold a pencil. But my very first memory in life involves music. I remember standing by the feet of my parents, fighting and splitting up at the front door of our apartment, and then me going into the living room and seeing the "Sowing the Seeds of Love" video by Tears for Fears on MTV. That song, and really the first three songs on that LP [The Seeds of Love], are still magical to me. But I was always drawing, like all kids do. Most kids stop when they get older, but I just kept drawing monsters and superheroes. I did my first song when I was 7.

Umeå has such a rich tradition of hardcore, punk, and metal bands. What was the local music scene like when you were first going out to shows?

I grew up during the Umeå hardcore heyday, so the shows were great. I saw Swedish bands like Refused, Abhinanda, Doughnuts, Separation, and Final Exit. American bands were also coming here to play, including Strife, Snapcase, Earth Crisis, Biohazard, Ink & Dagger, Shelter, and Battery. The bass player from Separation worked at my school when I was 12, and he would give us records and tell us about shows.

SEE ALSO: 10 Swedish '80s Metal Bands You Should be Discovering Right Now

I'm sure Refused were hugely important there at that time.

Umeå was spoiled with big bands coming here, even after Refused split up and the scene went into a new phase. Local bands like Demon System 13, Cult of Luna, Regulations, and Plastic Pride were around. Touring bands like Catharsis, Fugazi, Tragedy, Good Clean Fun, Seein' Red, The Locust, and Das Oath also came here around that time. But the big hype had calmed down by then.

Let's get into Håll Det Äkta. How did the band come to be, and what kind of style did you guys set out to capture in those early days?

Håll Det Äkta was started when Umeå hardcore was kind of waking up again. A bunch of bands were starting to play out again, and a lot of young people started going to shows again. My other band, Forever Young, was breaking up. I've always played every instrument, but this was the first time I was singing in a band. I think we gained a lot of attention because we played straight and heavy hardcore but with Swedish lyrics. Most bands singing in Swedish have been punk bands, but we were more classic hardcore.

What's been the highlight of your time in Håll Det Äkta?

It's been the best band I've ever had. We've played a lot, and been around for a pretty good amount of time in the hardcore spectra. A lot of people in Sweden seem to have been into us, and I've felt a real sense of purpose and pride because of what we've done with Håll Det Äkta. Most of the stuff I do creatively is just based around me, but Håll Det Äkta has been 100% a group effort.

What's the status of Håll Det Äkta? I could have sworn I read somewhere that your latest album, Soul Cracks the Gold, was to be your last?

Yes, we're pretty much split up now. People are growing up and getting new priorities. Jobs, families, you know. Personally, I really started having a hard time going out to play. I absolutely love doing shows, but all the downtime in between was making me crazy. I was not a fun guy to be around. We recorded this last album a year ago, and were going out on a European tour with IRON, but all of our plans fell apart, so we sat on the record until now. The record is a goodbye, really. I hope we get to do one final show. I would have loved to play these songs live again.

SEE ALSO: 2016 interview with Don Fury (Producer: Judge, Quicksand, Gorilla Biscuits, Underdog, Inside Out).

This is the part of the conversation when we shift gears and talk about your main musical project these days, Swan Sex. I guess the best way to start is to ask you how you first got into synth-driven music. Who were some of the artists that inspired the project?

I got into '70s progressive rock through my dad. Stuff like early Genesis, Camel, Focus, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Gentle Giant, and The Alan Parsons Project. Simultaneously, a local band called Kpist was around. I love them so much. They paired analog synths with live drumming (and vocals), and I was crazy about their first record, Voltage Controlled. I wanted to do that combination of the synth sound and the punk rawness. I didn't care for vocals. They got in the way of the melody. So, I started recording songs on analog 4-tracks and 8-tracks when I was 15, but didn't release it as Swan Sex until much later. Like I said earlier, I started recording music when I was 7, and I've spent so many hours alone in my dad's basement, recording hundreds and hundreds of songs. I've never had a problem being productive, whether with music or art.

There's a huge resurgence of synth music in the last few years, especially with the synthwave movement and artists like Kavinsky and Mitch Murder. How do you feel about that side of the scene?

The synthwave stuff became predictable very quickly, I think. If there's a carved out formula and style, a lot of people will just copy that and settle with it. It's fast food music, but some of the artists are amazing.

Who do you like in the current synth movement?

I really love the Phuture Doom record, and Carpenter Brut. They're so heavy, and I hear melodies and rhythms that are way above the others. I also still like The Prodigy.

SEE ALSO: Synthwave: 10 Artists Keeping the '80s Soundtrack Spirit Alive

An aspect of Swan Sex's sonic approach that I enjoy is the way you've incorporated live instrumentation into the material.

Yes, that's the whole concept of Swan Sex: synths and live drumming. Sometimes I program synths, but I try to play most of it by hand. Programmed stuff can sound dead and mechanical. I want the dirt and grit from hardcore punk in Swan Sex, and I've always wanted the songs to be playable live.

Tell me about the upcoming Swan Sex releases that Swedish Columbia will be issuing.

The label is re-releasing some of the first stuff I did, and also the next new recording. I'm really happy that someone can help me get this out to people. I'm better at just doing the music, not connecting with potential listeners. Swan Sex is my ultimate idea of a music project. Everything I love about music is in there, I don't need any other outlet. It's what I want most people to know about. I'm never going to stop doing stuff for Swan Sex, ever. I want everyone to know about it.

We touched on it a bit earlier, but I would love to learn more about your work as a graphic designer.

I was doing design and art since I was a kid. I did album covers for my bands and music projects, fanzines, plus posters for shows and clubs. I set into music and art really early, I never doubted what I wanted to do. I went to an arts high school, and then straight out of that I got into a graphic design school in Stockholm called Berghs School of Communication. After that, I worked at a couple of agencies, but I was really bad at sitting at a desk and taking orders. Now, I'm freelancing, since a lot of years back. I don't make much money at all, and I'm always struggling, but I get to do a lot more meaningful work. I still mostly do record covers, magazine illustration, posters, logos, shirts, murals, paintings, and fanzines. You can have a look at my art website and personal Instagram page.

Marc Strömberg surrounded by some of his artwork.

When I look through your design work, I see elements of tattoo art, graffiti, California gang hand styles, and Aztec culture. Who are some of the artists that have had a big impact on you?

My big heroes are Moebius, Dan Piraro, Gustave Dore, Jan Lööfand, and Marc Chagall. Those are all direct inspirations. I'm nowhere near those people. Although I illustrate a lot, I also do straight-up graphic design as well. They balance each other out really well for me.

SEE ALSO: 2014 interview with Artist Dan Seagrave (Suffocation, Morbid Angel, Xibalba).

You're behind the popular Hardcore and Soda Instagram page.

That was my way to both get into the wonderful world of soda, and also contribute to the hardcore scene. Besides playing in bands and doing art for that, I've also put out a bunch of zines over the years: Medicine, Hardcore ABC, The Friendly Leg, and This or That. I've never had any knowledge about soda. I couldn't taste the difference between light and regular sodas, like Coke and Pepsi. I just kind of stumbled into it, and I liked the idea of combining soda and records in funny ways (everything I publish is some play on words, lyrics, themes, colors, obscure info, etc). This whole micro-brewery trend and beer/wine snobbery is so boring. Some of that attitude has been hopping up with soda now as well, but I only really care about the funny, unhealthy, playful part of the soda industry. Hopefully later this year, I'm putting my own soda out.

Outside of music and art, what keeps you busy?

I have nothing else. I ran a lot for a couple of years, and that is my spiritual go-to, but I haven't been doing it so much this last year. All I think about and do is related to music and art. I have no family or employment. All I know is how to make stuff. I don't know much about how to live life, or how to function in society. Just how to take an abstract idea and make it into a song or a picture.

Some flash-style art from Marc Strömberg.

What is Umeå like today? Is it artist-friendly in terms of making a living there?

With the internet everywhere now, Umeå is very artist-friendly. I bounce between Umeå and Stockholm, and both are fine for me. But Umeå has a lot of talented people, considering its size (population: 120,000). Creative people grow on trees here, we're good enough to take on the world.

Photo: Andreas Nilsson

If you had to pick one, what would be your favorite Swedish hardcore/punk record and why?

Creatively speaking, Refused's The Shape of Punk to Come is still the best thing to ever come out. All these grumpy purists don't care for it, but it's bigger than punk. It includes everything that is great about music: punk, jazz, soul, electronic, classic, etc. It's still more futuristic than 99.9% of music today.

But in terms of just straight-up hardcore punk, my favorites are Eclipse's The Bona Fide EP, Forced Into's Profit Not People album, and Breach's Venom LP. I could live a pretty decent life on a lonely island with only Swedish hardcore records.

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Head to Bandcamp to listen to and download the Swan Sex discography.

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