The Field, aka Axel Willner, is standing by himself, beer in hand, a placid expression on his face. The Pitchfork Music Festival is a sort of underground little brother to Perry Farrell’s mammoth Lollapalooza, and right now Willner is watching a set by Junior Boys. With the exception of Jamie Lidell and the Junior Boys (and the JBs have even roped in a drummer for the occasion), Willner is the sole electronic act on the three-day bill. The rest of the lineup is resolutely indie: Sonic Youth, Slint, The New Pornographers, etc.
Why this obscure Swedish producer was chosen as the fest’s token electronic act is simple: Willner's debut LP ‘From Here to Sublime’ has hit it big with indie and electronic audiences alike. The album has received rapturous reviews across the board, not least on the Pitchfork website itself (In fact it's the best-rated album this year on the decidedly non-dance website Metacritic, no mean feat for a club act). Meanwhile this festival date is only one of ten or so gigs on a grand pan-American Field tour, which aside from the usual pitstops, is also calling in on less-frequented cities such as Portland and Cleveland. "There’s really no rhyme or reason to it, just sort of criss-crossing the country," shrugs Willner. Given the state of the techno circuit in America these days, it's an opportunity most underground European club acts would kill for.
But listen to The Field's music, and it's obvious it has such crossover potential. The four on the floor repetition is there, but there are also processed tones and pop melodies that are closer in spirit to the shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine than anything in dance music. In short, it's hooky enough to transcend the oonce-oonce barrier with rock audiences. Which is why when Willner polishes off another beer and plugs in his laptop at Pitchfork, a large swathe of the crowd unfold their arms and genuinely kick up some dust.
Willner took time out for a quick chat before he hit the stage. If he’s especially nervous about the gig, he's not letting on. Either that or the complimentary beer has done its job.
Is this your first US tour?
Yes it is.
How has it gone so far?
I’ve only played once, but it was really, really nice. A good response in Seattle – overwhelming in a way. I didn’t expect that reaction at all.
Today's crowd is quite rock-oriented. Have played as The Field for rock audiences before?
Yeah. It usually seems to turn out good but… it’s so hard to know. There’s really nothing I can do, just stand there. It’s hard in a way.
People would expect more of a performance I guess.
Yeah. It demands quite a lot for the artist to be performing live. I’ve been to so many shows where the performer is just standing there with a laptop, and I can’t say that I’m really all that different. For me, why look at techno? You should just listen to techno. When you’re on stage, people automatically look at you – it’s hard. Although I think it’s really boring to see a rock band getting sweaty – yeah, that’s boring as well, it’s been done so many times.
How do people generally react to your sets?
Well, the hardest place to play is in Stockholm. I don’t know why. Sometimes it works out really good, sometimes it doesn’t work.
Yes. Perhaps it has to do with electroclash, which got really big in a way worldwide, and opened a lot of new ears to techno music. I think it’s a bit more mixed up now – people can listen to rock and techno.
Do you have a rock past?
Yeah, in punk rock, actually. I just recently stopped playing guitar in a metallic rock/pop group with vocals.
What’s on your turntable these days? Do you have time to listen to much music?
Of course. That’s the biggest passion of them all. I’m listening to a lot of old music in a way, a lot of ambient, Gas in particular.
You’ve had a couple of songs on the 'Pop Ambient' compilations. Do you think you’ll be composing more in that style as well?
I hope so. I’ve always really tried to make ambient music but I haven’t really succeeded.
You've said you haven’t had time to make any new music recently.
Yeah. But I'm getting a lot of remix offers and requests. I just recently made one of 'Maps'. There are a lot of requests, though, from some good names.
How interested are you in keeping The Field sounding like the music on 'From Here We Go Sublime'? Was that just where you were at musically at the time?
Yeah, it is my characteristic sound. All of the twelves were in that style, perhaps a little less pop-influenced and bit harder. The procedure I use to make tracks has stayed the same so the result is similar as well.
How do you feel about people giving away your music?
I don’t know, really. It’s good in a promotional way, with all the blogs and the file-sharing. I’m downloading as well sometimes. I hope that people think how I think, that if it’s really good, I’ll go buy it. ‘Cuz I’m a sucker for vinyl. To own or have files on a computer, it ain’t good enough. I want to have it.
Who else are you interested in seeing tonight?
The Sea & Cake would be my first choice. They just played in Stockholm, but I missed them.
What’s coming up from The Field after your tour?
Perhaps a new tour down in Mexico and South America. I don’t have much time to make music because I’m playing and I have a daytime job as well.
What is your daytime job?
In Sweden, all of the alcohol is government controlled, so I work for that kind of shop. I’m like a clerk, but at the same time I’m giving advice. People come in and say, ‘I’m going to eat this and that, what should I drink?’ It’s good, I’m getting sommelier education in a way, and it’s my passion: the drinks and the music.
What do you think of the local Chicago beer?
[Axel takes a sip of his Goose Island 312]
Not bad at all. Definitely my kind of beer. I was told that Seattle had a lot of good micro-breweries, so I had some really nice beers there. So I guess this is kind of like a combined music-and-micro-brewery tour.
"This is what we had all come to see: the ecstatic pillows of sound, the referential samples, the pulsing kick..."