Looking at Nordström and Wedren, they make an odd pair. For one, Nordström, who hides long blonde hair beneath a snapback, like a young, Swedish version of Garth from Wayne's World, is nearly ten years Wedren's junior. He's energetic, sometimes frantic, while Wedren remains cool and collected. And yet their music has a magnetic, cohesive quality that many solo producers would envy. In many ways, their formula is a classic one: mix thumping, no nonsense beats with disco samples. And yet their music feels and sounds remarkably fresh. As a result, Mr. Tophat & Art Alfie have risen from near obscurity to become one of the scene's most talked-about newcomers.
Both Nordström and Wedren grew up outside of Stockholm. Nordström is the son of two artists, and was raised in an apartment in Högdalen, a suburb of the capital. Built over two floors, their place housed his father's studio, from which loud music blared at all hours of the day. "He was a punk rocker when he was young," Nordström says. "And he had my brother and I at a young age. He played everything from punk to classical music, and a lot of jazz. As a result, I've always been into music without really knowing it."
His passion for electronic music came from elsewhere, taking root at age 13 as a form of futile rebellion against his open-minded, supportive parents. "The revolt was for myself. It wasn't really functional." Two golden era disco classics—Boney M's "Sunny" and Baccara's "Yes Sir, I Can Boogie"—ignited Nordström's passion for dance-floor sounds, sending him off in search of other musical styles. Viennese drum & bass group Ill.Skillz were early favourites, as was gabber. House and techno-wise, it was Deep Dish that struck the first chord.
A decade earlier in northern Sweden, Wedren was learning to love music in a very different way. Though always a fan, neither his parents nor siblings had any influence over his tastes, while his teenage years were mostly spent listening to Guns N Roses and other high-octane rock. Unlike Nordström, it wasn't until he turned 20 that Wedren was exposed to "good dance music." "Older friends brought me to some parties and I thought, 'This is not the music I've heard. This is not the music I know from the eurodance trend that came through in the '90s.' It was something different."
From there, Wedren became involved in the wider Stockholm scene, promoting a small but popular bar called Landet in 2005. Located above a restaurant and, crucially, walking distance from one of the city's major art schools, the 200-capacity space became synonymous with top quality Swedish pop music. Despite the odd DJ set (the bar hosted Dada Life's first gig), it was mostly bands that played from Wednesday through Saturday, including the now renowned Lykke Li. Though they only met later, Nordström was a frequent guest: "It was hard work because you had to get people to actually travel out from central Stockholm. When you got people there it was well worth it though because everyone was there for the same reason. People didn't just drop by. I think that really reflects in the atmosphere of the place when that's happening."
In the years leading up to his Landet days, Nordström was busy trying to carve out a career for himself. In a further bid to reject his artistic roots, he started a medical degree, only to quit after six months and take up carpentry. Suddenly finding himself with lots more time on his hands, he started hanging out with an old friend, Karl Eklund, dyed his hair blue, and hit the clubs. Not long after, he acquired his first set of Technics 1210s, a copy of Serato Scratch and taught himself how to DJ.
For Wedren, production came first. He spent months messing around on Fruity Loops trying to emulate Deep Dish's approach, but it was only when he started DJing that he began to understand the inner workings of dance floor sounds.
A couple of years later, the pair cross paths at Riche, one of Stockholm's oldest and most iconic nightspots. Talking techno and swapping production tips, the pair forged a close bond. Wedren eventually introduced Nordström to Logic, teaching him the basics over a couple of days. When Nordström left for art school in Lund, studying at university by day and taking music production classes by night, they kept in touch, regularly sending each other tracks. On Nordström's return to Stockholm, they met up and made music together for the first time. "Marlboro Light," the raw, rollicking house cut from their debut EP, KVK100, was born from these early sessions.
Considering how little time they'd spent in the studio at that point, the fluidity of "Marlboro Light" speaks to Wedren and Nordström's natural chemistry. "We wanted the same thing," shrugs Nordström. "I have actually never done a collaboration that has been that seamless. I vividly remember the first year we worked together it was—we didn't even speak to each other. I have never experienced a collaboration that has been like that before."
Their first outing as Mr. Tophat & Art Alfie landed on Junk Yard Connection, a vinyl-only label Nordström started in 2010. Dusty Ballroom, with its fusion of thick, pulsating grooves and uplifting samples, would mark the foundation of their captivating style.
In the months that followed, Nordström and Wedren worked tirelessly together. Compiling a list of their favourite labels ("I think we were aiming too high"), they sent out the tracks, but no one bit. Determined not to fall at the first hurdle, and confident that their music deserved a wider audience, they did what any pair of determined producers would do in their position, and started their own label. With a ton of music ready for release, the aim was to the hit the ground running, putting out an EP a month. KVK 100 hit the shelves in January 2013. Pure, powerful and funky, "SDIK BABY" and "Marlboro Lights" were house tracks unashamedly aimed at the jugular. Merging thumping kicks with basslines that could pull a horse, these were records that were built to last.
The follow-up, KVK200, shifted the focus to their other passion—sampling old disco records. "No Holdings" saw them strap Darryl Douglas's "Holding On" to a chunky set of drums and claps, displaying a more playful side to their repertoire. Made using largely analogue gear (the duo have access to several classic Roland machines in the studio they share with Abdulla Rashim) and samples lifted straight from vinyl, their music is raw and unfussy.
On KVK300, or more specifically "I Want To See (That You're In Love With Me)," Mr. Tophat & Art Alfie hit their peak. As layers of percussion duck and dive against a funky disco groove, the track teases you with the way it staggers and withholds the drops. It has a simple, timeless quality, the kind of record that stays in the bag for years. A firm favourite with Ricardo Villalobos all summer, and coming in at #28 in our 2013 tracks poll, it was one of the year's best dance floor tracks.
The slightly more tracky KVK 500 and 600 (400 never hit the shelves: the entire batch of vinyl was seized by French authorities for containing a "suspicious substance") kept the pace set by previous releases. The same was true of the first release on Karlovak Chrome, a sub-label dedicated to the darker, more demented side of their output, and KVKR100, which saw Ryan Elliott and GW turn out classy remixes of "SDIK BABY" and "Marlboro Light" respectively.
There's plenty more on the horizon, too, including KVK700, a second remix package, featuring Samo DJ and Loco Dice, and releases on D'Julz's Bass Culture Records and Geddes's NoFitState.
One thing that their prolificacy makes clear is how much Wedren and Nordström enjoy the process of making and releasing music. "The Karlovak records are really fun—we're often partying by ourselves in the studio when we're creating the ideas," says Nordström. "We'll often go to the Systembolaget in Sweden, which is the only place you can buy liquors and beers afterhours, and we'll settle down in the studio and start working. Pretty soon the ideas start to flow—what kind of hats you want and where to take it. I would say we force these decisions out of us, just so we have a starting idea."
As Nordström talks, Wedren listens intently, nodding his head. At regular intervals throughout the interview they take turns finishing each other's sentences. At one point, Nordström stops to recall his first impression of Wedren: "Oscar was one of the few bartenders that didn't judge me for my age or how I acted." Despite the age difference and contrasting musical upbringings, the pair share an unspoken understanding when it comes to music.