In 1843, Søren Kierkegaard published Repetition, an essay on experimental psychology that argued for the importance of recurrent actions and events. The essay opens with the Danish philosopher stating that “repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions”, but that, unlike recollection, which is symbolised by an ill-fitting garment from your youth, repetition is reality itself. Repetition is an imperishable garment: not too tight, nor too loose; serious and life-affirming. He who masters repetition, suggests Kierkegaard, is not only courageous and “matured in seriousness”, but also en route to pure happiness.
Neutral, the Swedish noise duo composed of Sofie Herner and Dan Johansson, occupy the no man’s land between Kierkegaard’s existentialist polarities of repetition and recollection. Their work employs a reel-to-reel tape machine as the principal recording medium. The sonic characteristics of tape, for better or worse, are closely associated with notions of nostalgia, longing and domesticity. The sounds that Neutral commits to this tape, however, are layered and repetitive, sometimes looping until the tape disintegrates. They pull the listener into a constructive psychological space that avoids navel-gazing, but doesn’t dispense with existentialism altogether.
This idea is most evident on Neutral’s eponymous second LP, which has themes of repetition and return running throughout. Released in 2016 by Omlott, the Gothenburg-based free jazz and improvised music label, Neutral contrasts repetitive bursts of guitar noise, organ and industrial rhythms – what Johansson refers to as “deep listening difficult music“ – with esoteric field recordings and Herner’s hushed confessional vocals.
Taking into consideration the staunchy Sterling Morrison-like guitar weaving its way through Andas, the album’s first track, you could be forgiven for thinking that Neutral were attempting to resurrect the heady days of late-’60s psychedelia.
“It’s interesting that you hear it that way,” Herner tells me over Skype. “When I record more song-like stuff, sometimes it sounds like something I like. It just happens that way, but it’s not intentional.” Neutral’s influences are a combination of no wave, post-punk, Harry Pussy-style noise rock and Swedish electroacoustic music by composers such as Rune Lindblad, but elements of Kluster, Harmonia and Throbbing Gristle can also be said to exist in the mix.
Herner and Johansson met in Gothenburg in 2007. Together with a mutual friend, Matthias Andersson, they formed Källarbarnen, before releasing an untitled cassette on the Gothenburg Blood Cult label two years later. The thirty minute composition is duplicated on both sides of the tape, an early experiment in which the repetition of form mirrors the repetitive nature of the music. Although Källarbarnen produced only one release as a trio, the band’s members would continue to collaborate on various projects, including Enhet För Fri Musik, Heinz Hopf, Leda and Sewer Election.
In 2008, Johansson and Andersson founded Utmarken: a hybrid venue, rehearsal space and record shop housed in a former car repair garage. Utmarken served as the bedrock in which ideas for Neutral took root, being Herner and Johansson’s main hangout, but it wasn’t until late 2013 that the band made its first recordings. The result was the Neutral’s debut, Grå Våg Gamlestaden, a noise music ode to an area of Gothenburg where both Herner and Johansson lived at the time.
“When we record, we can do anything,” says Herner. “We have a very instinctive way of working. We don’t discuss concepts in too much depth. I have very clear conceptual ideas for all of our recordings, but since I don’t explain my ideas to Dan, he will work with the sounds and voice from his perspective. It’s a good way of making sure that we use what is good, instead of stuff that fits the concept, but doesn’t sound very good.”
Unlike traditional bands, Neutral do not use drums (save for a single track, A-B-C, which appears on their untitled 7” single, released by I Dischi Del Barone in 2017), rehearse or record their material in the same room. Even prior to Herner’s relocation to Malmö, in the autumn of 2014, the duo recorded independently. Ideas would be sketched out onto reel-to-reel tape, or audio cassette, added to, looped and amended before being mixed down digitally. “I only have basic computer skills, when it comes to music,” admits Johansson during our interview. “And we’ve been working with the analogue format for so long. [Tape] catches the atmosphere of the aesthetics that we aim for. We are not really interested in going into a studio.”
The sense of intimacy that seems essential to Herner and Johansson’s working relationship is apparent on all of Neutral’s recordings, but really comes to the foreground on their latest 12”, När. Released by Omlott last October, songs on this 8-track mini album, were crafted in Herner and Johansson’s home studios, in between one-off shows in the US, Belgium and a micro tour with Lydia Lunch.
Neutral prepared foundation recordings before taking the songs on the road. “We used to bring a reel-to-reel to our gigs, but we stopped out of convenience.” says Johansson. “The foundation [recordings] are put on another device that doesn’t weigh a ton.” Neutral then developed the compositions by layering improvised guitar feedback over the recordings, a technique that allows for deviation, but keeps the music firmly grounded.
Herner and Johansson have also collaborated in the guise of their respective solo projects, Leda and Sewer Election, most notably for the Maar LP. Commissioned by the Belgian B.A.A.D.M. label, and released in 2015, the record attempts to soundtrack a still photograph with two twenty-minute compositions. The image, which also adorns the record sleeve, shows a writhing dog fossilised in Vesuvian ash. The dog’s eternal pose, and apparent discomfort in the face of the inevitable, brings to mind the ouroboros: an ancient symbol depicting a serpent eating its own tail. By way of its repetitive nature, Neutral’s music echoes this emblem of destruction and creation. It also suggests that, unlike the brittle and unfortunate canine, Neutral’s reality is solid and imperishable.
Neutral’s När is released by Omlott.
Originally published by The Wire, March 2018