"Why should it mean a bad thing?" he questions cryptically in a softly spoken Scandinavian accent, spotting my raised eyebrow. In moments, the snow melts downwards, naturally erasing the insignia. "You see what happens in the end?" he asks. With a smug grin and a shrug of the shoulders, Isgren heads back inside, his brief performance art piece finished. It's a curious kind of statement, and I'm left wondering whether he knew the snow would react as it did, or if he just got lucky.
A similar kind of curiosity hovers around Frak, the electronic trio of which the outspoken Isgren is a founding member. They have a 26-year legacy and a back catalogue that is frankly intimidating, but it's only in the last two years that they've started to make waves outside Scandinavia. With appearances on Sex Tags Mania, Kontra Musik and Digitalis placing them in the wilder realms of house and techno, scattered live videos of men in foil masks, coupled with a lack of media exposure, have created a mysterious aura around the group.
Jan Svensson and Johan Sturesson make up the rest of Frak. They have a less confrontational manner than Isgren, though each is still distinct in his characteristics. Svensson has been the driving force in the project over the years, while Sturesson and Isgren have come and gone intermittently. Börft is the record label they started in 1987, when they decided to embark on a synthesiser and drum machine-led project.
"You know, every young human wants to build their own band when they are 12 or 13," Svensson points out, reflecting on the formation of Frak when they were barely teenagers, as we talk before their debut UK performance, for Meandyou. His older sister and Isgren's were best friends, so they introduced their little brothers to each other, while also exposing them to the sounds of early industrial music.
"People that were a bit older than us, we were really curious about what they were listening to," explains Sturesson. "We did not want to hear what was in the top charts. Through their sisters and older friends we could hear music more challenging to the ears!"
"…And that's where you start to explore!" Isgren interjects, pointing to their discovery of the dark, pulsing sounds of Severed Heads and SPK from Australia, or Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire from the UK. "The thing that really infected me was Slitz," explains Svensson. "I read a lot of bands' small ads in the back of there." Slitz was a men's magazine, popular in Sweden in the '80s, that used to also serve as a message board where isolated electronic music producers could sell their work to readers, nestled amongst adverts for saucy hotlines and the like.
Inspired by those bands, Svensson, Isgren and Sturesson capitalised on the availability and affordability of equipment and started putting together a studio. "In Sweden MIDI was still the big thing," Sturesson recalls. "Everybody wanted a Yamaha DX7, and they threw out the Korg MS-20s and stuff like that. It wasn't so hard to buy."
While the band were still in their early teens, the first Frak cassettes were manufactured and sold as far afield as they could reach—or in other words, to their friends at school. Their hometown, Karlskrona, on the south coast of Sweden, was a small enclave that didn't have much exposure to the wild frontier of electronic music, at least not in 1987. "They were all more into Jon Bon Jovi," Svensson says diplomatically of the peers they were presenting their music to.
"They were all rednecks and hated us," Isgren continues in typically curt fashion. "After our first gig, we were chased by a local mob that wanted to beat us up. We were running and getting away in our parents car!"
"That happened many, many times," says Sturesson. "In the very beginning, we had started a band and everybody wanted to listen to it, but we were not what people expected, ever, and that was quite hard. It could be a close friend telling you, 'I don't like this!' There was a struggle in your mind, I guess. 'Is it right? Are we crazy?'"
Having finished their set for Meandyou, all three are busily stashing their equipment back into suitcases and holdalls. With the signature foil masks removed as soon as they'd finished, it seemed appropriate to ask what the thinking is behind the stage outfits. "It all started with the early days," Isgren says, "when we had to protect our identities. We did it for the first gig, and we've done it ever since!"
"We are not a live band!" Sturesson booms through the microphone, "But we are alive!" With a timing that befits the years the trio have spent playing together, a forthright drum machine kicks in and the set begins in earnest. Throughout the performance, all three remain in a state of animation, adeptly engaging the audience and each other. At moments, Svensson can be seen pulling his phone out of his pocket and miming a conversation; at others he is thrusting the mic into the crowd to let someone else add to the set's vocodered textures.
Before the set, Sturesson pointed to what was grabbing his attention in the early days. "Bands back then, the image was very important. It would have to be more than one guy standing behind a synthesiser and doing nothing. I could watch another band who could have been much, much worse, but if they were living it out on stage, that was something for me: the performance."
It's a perspective that rings true with Frak, which makes it surprising to hear Svensson say, "It has to be told that we're not a live band."
"No, definitely not," agrees Sturesson instantly.
"We are a studio band," Svensson continues. "People should know that we're not Detroit techno enthusiasts doing their thing very good and very advanced. We're not like that. We're just showing our new tracks."
There is certainly a unity to Frak, both in their performance and their perspective on their art, despite Isgren's best efforts to appear contrary. This makes sense after so many years working together and hanging out, but their creative vision hasn't always been harmonious: both Isgren and Sturesson have left the group at points. While their friendships have remained steadfast since day one, commitment to the group has waned at times.
"I decided to leave once because I did not understand or like the dance music scene," says Sturesson. "I was more influenced by the bands that we started on listening to. When Jan and us found out that we just have to program the drum machine a little bit different and suddenly there was house music coming out of it, at that point I didn't get it."
Svensson embraced the harder-edged techno and rave that was emerging in the early '90s, creating some quite terrifying nosebleed tracks in the process. Hard Friends and Alice in Acidland carry respect in the hard techno scene, but they represent a time of questionable experimentation for Svensson that saw Frak fragment, even if Sturesson and Isgren were still contributing here and there.
"It was scary," Sturesson remembers of the rave scene. "In Sweden there was lots of propaganda against it. It was dangerous, but it all came from [the UK], inspired by the scene that was going on here," he says, pointing at the ground.
A few years on from creating tear-out, 170 BPM epics, Frak had moved into a comparatively slower and altogether groovier kind of techno, packed full of punchy drums and plenty of swing. Records such as Hooii! and Bitter Drop have a similar spirit to labels like Djax-Up-Beats, full of the raw, alien sound of acid house but jacked up to a dangerously funky rhythm.
Frak first dealt with what could back then be called a major independent dance label when Saskia Slegers, otherwise known as Miss Djax, approached Svensson about doing some tracks for her label, which led to him appearing as Uttoz on a split 12-inch with Rapid Eye. "This record on Djax Up Beats which I released was not something we wanted to do," explains Svensson. "I wasn't that inspired by the Chicago music that she wanted us to be. She was asking us, 'Ah how come you sound so Chicago?!' and I was asking myself, 'How is it Chicago?!'"
There is certainly an insular quality to the way Frak have operated for most of their career. Releasing the vast majority of their music themselves and venturing very little outside of Sweden, their music has reacted to outside forces but still comes off as defiantly single-minded. "The tracks for that record were music meant for a specific scene," Sturesson says of the Djax release, "and as I understand it, Jan wasn't totally happy with the result of that."
After this dalliance with a bigger audience and more established labels, by the late '90s Frak were ready for a break. Svensson and Sturesson appeared as Villa Åbo and Kord respectively, with Börft putting out a few choice releases from other artists, but there was a sense of fatigue after an already sizable term of service within marginal electronic music. "I was disappointed about distributors, I was disappointed about how the new music was turning out," Svensson explains in relation to this lull in Frak's productivity. "In 2002 I moved to France and I tried to make music on a computer," he continues. "In the end, I didn't like how computers worked with me. I was so addicted to my studio."
It wasn't until 2003 that activity for both band and label picked up again. There was the addition of two new sub-labels, UFO Mongo and Djuring Phonogram, to provide a specific place for the more experimental side of the Frak members and other, predominantly Swedish, electronic artists. This gave Börft space to focus on dance tracks.
Having evolved and matured in this loose but driven manner, it seems that in the end, defiantly sticking to your guns can pay off, and in the past two years awareness of Frak has vastly increased. An appearance on a Workshop split release didn't hurt, nor did the Börft! EP on Sex Tags Mania, but the most lauded of the recent Frak releases has been the trilogy of 12-inches on fellow Swedish stable Kontra-Musik.
"We went to this electronic music festival called Norberg and heard a Frak track in the background," Svensson recalls on the events that led up to the releases.
"We were just going to bed in our tent and said 'Oh my god it's Frak!'" Sturesson cuts in excitedly.
"So we went to watch this guy and listened to what he mixed after the Frak track," Svensson says, describing their first encounter with Ulf Eriksson, who runs Kontra, "and then I just sent him an email saying, 'Thank you for a good night,' and then he asks us, 'Do you still do music?'"
It's fair to say that Frak's analogue approach is no longer so isolated in the current electronic music climate, which no doubt helped them find an audience who are in tune with what they're doing. I try to explain that this approach to house and techno is popular at present, and they're surprised. "Is it?" Svensson asks incredulously.
"I have no fucking clue either!" Isgren concurs. I mention the labels that have raised Frak's profile as proof that there is a demand for the music they make, and Isgren is quick to counter: "And that's why you're here!" It is a curious position they occupy, seemingly aligned with the current wave of leftfield house and techno—and certainly compatible with it—yet they evolved so separately from it. Having moved through their growing pains, Frak now sound like a balanced outfit, comfortable in their odd vein of electronic dance music and revelling in weirdness without consciously trying to sound different.
"It's a big strength to be able to strip everything down and do the simple tracks that we do right now," Sturesson says. "It's a strength to be able to do that after so many years exploring in every direction."
It's unlikely that increased exposure would change the way Frak operate, which is a reassuring prospect when you consider how many artists have buckled under the lure of success in the past. "We're three different people, we do three different things," Isgren concludes, sensing the chance to end the interview on a dramatic note, "but we are Frak together, and that is true whether you like it or not."