Such is life for Ost & Kjex, the Norwegian duo composed of Tore Gjedrem and Petter Haavik. I call up Oslo expecting the conversation to be a laugh riot. Food puns. One liners. Jokes. Instead, I get two 30-something musicians who take their craft pretty seriously, thank you very much. "We put so much work and effort into what we do. With the food thing and the live show, it's been a little bit about the spectacle. But it's a lot more focused [now] on the music, and a little bit less about the show."
It wasn't always this way. Gjedrem and Haavik met while skateboarding around Oslo, and started Beyond Dawn, a metal band. They were doing time in a genre where joking is best kept to a minimum. Song titles from their group's 1995 album: "When Beauty Dies," "The Penance," "Teardance." (Actually, that last one...) Listen to 1999's dour In Reverie and their next album, 2003's Frysh and something weird happens along the way. Light comes in. So do synthesizers. "We made this album that was quite gloomy, somewhere between goth and death metal," says the duo. "People liked that, but as soon as we did that, we moved onto something else. We had a dream when we were very young to release on this label, Peaceville. It was the coolest metal label. But by the time we got there, we weren't a metal act anymore."
"Then you broke your leg, and couldn't skate."
"That's how I learned bass."
Beyond Dawn had become something altogether different. So had Gjedrem and Haavik. They had done as much as anyone in the quartet to move in the direction of electronic music, spurred on by formative club experiences in the UK. As Ost told Mixmag earlier this year, "[In the mid-'90s] Kjex was studying in Liverpool and we went to one of Surgeon's nights and did Mitsubishis together. That was our first club experience." Metal and Birmingham techno aren't all that far apart. It's not that hard to see the connection between Brummie band Napalm Death and Surgeon's legendary sets at the House of God party could find a similar audience. Both are uncompromising, loud and physical. But Ost & Kjex didn't really take any of those things from the experience. It's the Mitsubishis that seem to be the most important part of that story: When the mind is opened to possibility, the sky suddenly becomes the limit.
It's a philosophy that has seen them fit neatly into the scene of Norwegian electronic music producers in Oslo. Listen closely to the work of Prins Thomas, Bjorn Torske and, most of all, Mungolian Jet Set, and you'll hear the same sort of open-minded approach to music-making, where creativity is privileged and the worst sin of all is sounding like anybody else. Unlike their Norwegian compatriots, however, Ost & Kjex have never been really associated with the cosmic or the Balearic. Cheese and biscuits are much more functional, and somehow much weirder at the same time.
It couldn't have hurt that the duo's first EP as Ost & Kjex, Eaten Back to Life contained an ecstatic remix from Maurice Fulton on the A-side. The remix pricked the ears of Crosstown Rebels label manager Matthew Styles who recently called it "Balearic pop heaven, a song to fall in love with." Intrigued by the source material, the label commissioned an EP, and the results were just as fascinating. "How Not to Be a Biscuit" has the same sort of minimal trance grandeur of "Eve by Day" or James Holden's remix of "The Sky Is Pink." "Cottage Cheese in Cantonese" found a way to successfully mix traditional Far Eastern instrumentation with plink-plonk tech house.
Quirky, yes. But despite Fulton's sunny remix, it's hardly the stuff of beards. Even within the scene renowned for its adventurous sounds, Ost & Kjex stand apart, ready to fit their experiments inside a framework in which jocks like Jamie Jones and Tama Sumo can fit them into their sets without having to miss a beat. "We were surprised that anyone would be interested in an album from us. Not necessarily Diynamic," says the duo when asked about their newest effort, Cajun Lunch. But, honestly, they shouldn't be.
Each and every track on the record falls into a steady groove. There are no downtempo excursions, extended ambient workouts or breakbeat sidelights. Cajun Lunch is bouncy pop house shot through with what the duo call "Delta blues and Bayou basslines." It's led by the track that stole the show on Sumo's Panorama Bar 02 mix CD last year, "Continental Lover," but there's plenty more to love. "Seraphine" and "Yellow Man," in particular, stand out. Both are right around 125 BPM, but sound worlds apart; the former is a self-affirming chest-beating anthem, the latter a melancholy love song. "Let's Set the Time" is Stimming Meets Rockers Uptown feat. Antony.
Beyond Dawn, Pity Love; Ost & Kjex, Kjexterminate; Ost & Kjex, Eaten Back To Life
Aside from the tennis balls, the clocks and assorted sample sources that went into providing the raw material for Cajun Lunch, what makes the album sound so distinctive is the vocals of Ost & Kjex. The all-upper-register-all-the-time a deal-breaker for some. The gospel choir that they often work with is, admittedly, a little much. Then again, it ensures that the group sound pretty much unlike anything else in electronic music today.
It's one of the few guiding principles that Ost & Kjex touch on throughout our talk. It also filters down to their live show. Often bringing along a gospel choir, the duo have earned a reputation as one of the most engaging house live acts around: "We do it when we can, bring all the people. It's expensive, though. We'll be bringing five girls to Exit in Serbia. In Norway later this year, we'll have ten."
They don't want things to be easy. "We're not perfect musicians. It takes us a while to figure out how to play things." That's one reason why it took so long to put together Cajun Lunch, an album they worked on beginning in 2007. The other is life. Ost & Kjex welcomed newborns to the world during the recording process. With another baby on the way for Ost, though, the duo hope to have another full-length done as soon as possible. For now, it's all about the work. No joke.