What is it that makes an artist fit a label? Is it their sound? Their sense of shared perspective? In the case of The Field and Kompakt it’s all of that and something more intangible too, an unexplained but real connection that transcends all the more obvious signposts. For Kompakt, their reputation as purveyors of laudable minimal techno and microhouse had already been cemented in 2005, seven years into the Cologne-based label’s existence – not least owing to the releases created by their founders, techno producers Michael Mayer and Jurgen Paape and, of course, Wolfgang Voigt. Finding Axel Willner, more commonly known as The Field, was different though; the Swedish artist certainly matched the label’s mould, rekindling something of Voigt’s late 90s project Gas by marrying heavily reverberating 4/4 techno rhythms – the sort that evoke the lost thud of a distant club – with the vast expanse and translucent territories of ambient music. Yet listening even as far back as ‘Things Keep Falling Down’ – The Field’s debut EP on Kompakt – it was clear there was something more, a veiled restlessness bubbling under the loops and layers, as though Willner had set himself boundaries but then tired and sought to break them; it’s this subtle tension in all his albums that heightens them from their otherwise dreamlike state.
But first, let’s go back to the beginning, to Stockholm in Sweden where Willner grew up; for to understand The Field you need to understand that everything he’s experienced from an early age and up through to the present has influenced him in his music and will continue to do so. Those same childhood and teen memories that he imprinted on his very early demos – attempted on desktop computers when the internet was but a microcosm of what it is today – through early incarnation Speed Wax has informed everything he’s done since.
His beginnings saw an early love of pop, like a generation of Swedes his first musical memory was “probably Abba.” That’s stayed in his repertoire, from the samples on LP From Here We Go To Sublime’s ‘A Paw In My Face’ to a glossy cover of 1980 hit ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime’ on Yesterday & Today. Other formative experiences in music were more conflicting though. On the one hand Axel professes a teenage love of punk, citing The Misfits in particular, on the other though – as he reached late adolescence – he found himself under the strict restrictions and discipline of a music school. Perhaps unsurprisingly it wasn’t for him. “I was in this school that had people nationwide who’d applied because of the quality of their music courses, so I had all these top of the line musicians round me – but I found it dull!” Laughs Axel. “But,” he rations, “it all felt really forced, there were all these students and it seemed like they were all in a niche so it was hard to break out of it.”
Thankfully Stockholm as a city provided far more musical nutrition and fuelled Willner’s move towards electronic music. It coincided with the beginnings of a small club scene in the Swedish capital that started building up during the late 90s; “they were fun days,” he recalls, “I was in a duo called Speed Wax and the places we played were all really into Techno and Warp Records; it was cool, people helped each other out, the vibes were good; it started out just doing nights to 20 people and then it just grew and grew.”
The Field as an entity sprung up around 2003, the back catalogue of Gas at this point having a strong influence on Axel, and he took to Buzz – a software program he still uses to make music today – to construct his first forays into ambient techno, a move away from the guitar-based drone that encapsulated Speed Wax.
He was picked up by Kompakt just a year later in 2004, a demo that stood out amongst pile, though at the time he wasn’t “really aware of any buzz.” Yet in his first release for them – the aforementioned ‘Things Keep Falling Down’ in February 2005 – there already lurked potential within its two tracks. Both ‘Love vs. Distance’ and ‘Thoughts vs. Action’ soared beyond the 10 minute mark; the latter a crackling jump-and-stop minimal effort, to listen to it now is to listen to The Field stripped away of the scale he has since brought to his work. It was ‘Love vs. Distance’ that provided the template for what would follow; based on a stoic motorik and a perpetually rotating hook, it provided an early demonstration of how the Swede could take just four bars of sound and deftly deconstruct, alter and rebuild them to create a constantly changing canvas.
That, alongside follow up 2006 EP ‘Sun & Ice,’ made it clear that his match with the label made perfect sense. Kompakt’s other releases around this time included ambient house legends The Orb’s first release on the imprint, as well as the mellowed out soft-focus bliss of German producer Superpitcher’s ‘Today’ mix featuring other Kompakt members DJ Koze and Triola among others. In ‘Sun & Ice’ The Field imbued a sense of wandering expanse, yet where his contemporaries were happy to submerge themselves in ambient fog, he cut through with more pronounced percussion and purpose, tracks like ‘Over The Ice’ skipping along like skimmed stones over water.
It all came together in 2007 on the phenomenal success of debut LP From Here We Go Sublime; its accolades are numerous – a 9.0 and a place inside the Top 200 records of the decade by Pitchfork, highly regarded by the NME and the BBC and receiving the best aggregate score on review compiler Metacritic to name a few – it came out at a time when electronic meant brash, obvious, loud. Electro was its most swollen. Drum n’ bass was well in the throes of eating itself. In comparison The Field came across like fading noises of the night, the beats still driving but the sun coming up, that transition between the club and journey home and down. It was never more evident than on ‘Good Things End,’ which at one thundered and also fawned, industrial rhythms overlapped with lost sounding vocal samples and blurring, faded-pale drones. For Willner the success of the album surprised him, “I was flattered! I didn’t think there’d be much interest; it’s a record that’s still important to me though. I’d had a lot of the tracks for it a while, there’s a lot of old memories on the album, a lot of good times connected to it.”
With the success of the album came the inevitable demands to tour, The Field taking to American shores – including the 2007 Pitchfork Music Festival – and in 2008’s summer calling in at the pick of Europe’s festivals including the UK’s ATP, Sonar in Spain and Norway’s Oya. Still solo at this point, Willner found the experience restricting, touring the globe armed with just a laptop. He was also lonely – playing with others was something he’d loved since his teenage punk obsession, being stripped of that was difficult; “it was the hardest thing, without other people it got weary and dull,” he comments, “I felt that I couldn’t take out the chance as much as I wanted to as if I had people I could play with or against.”
That meant that come May 2009’s follow up Yesterday & Today, the approach and perceptions about what Willner wanted The Field to be had changed and, by the time of its completion, he’d been joined by two live musicians, an old friend called Dan Enqvist on bass, and – after a couple of personnel alterations – Jesper Skarin on drums. “They’re good people who I can also trust as musicians,” Axel ruminates, “I don’t feel like I’m just by myself anymore; with them I find we play both with and towards each other, seeing how far we can push each other.”
It’s this belief in the communal nature of music that’s always imbued itself within The Field; there’s always a human heart beating among the electronics and samples. On Yesterday & Today that became more explicit as live instruments were worked in with Willner’s laptop experiments – never more so than with the cameo of John Stanier, drummer of respected American math-rockers Battles, on the title track. Linking back to a distant past again, pop was revisited with a cover of The Korgis ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime,’ and overall the album felt more pointed, with rhythms and synths gaining harder edges. Another critical success, it saw The Field back on the road, including a first ever UK headlining circuit in the Autumn of 2009, a US tour support with DFA label mainstays The Juan Maclean and festival slots at Bestival, Roskilde and Poland’s OFF Festival.It was around this time Axel also switched countries, a romantic interest resulting in him leaving Stockholm as a home for the first time since childhood, and moving to Berlin. One of the most famous clubbing cities in the world, for the artist its hedonism is something he shuns when not playing – “it’s like going to your office,” he says simply, adding credence to the notion that The Field’s work is music meant for a myriad of situations – not just late night basements and warehouses – but for fading afternoons, early morning sunrises a feeling of expanse that’s always existed.
So to 2011 and the release of third album Looping State Of Mind, a record that in many ways recalls his previous work but also pushes on in new directions. “It’s been evolving and it will keep on doing so,” says its creator, “people come and go, adding their things to it, you change as well and so will the sound.” A release that comes across as Axel’s most accomplished to date; it feels like a culmination of sorts in that it could be a compilation of both its protagonists work and, indeed, life to date. “All the old influences are still there,” he admits, “but we’ve made a real attempt to grow the sound;’ this involved the most prominent use of live instruments yet, bass jutting through opening track ‘Is This The Power’ and wandering piano keys slinking in and out of view of the albums landscape.
As ever though The Field transcend their mere components, Looping State Of Mind could almost be a manifesto for them. Certainly for Axel there is no beginning and end to the impact of what he sees and experiences in every day life, things will always come back around; the challenge for him is to adapt and alter them when they do in order to create something that understands and re-defines them in a new way each time. For Kompakt, meanwhile, it’s a record that plays on their long held principals of progression through emotion and recollection, married with an openness of mind. It’s the most definitive answer yet as to what makes they and The Field fit so well, providing as it does some of the best work the label’s ever released. Only through past experiences can one move forward; it’s something that, in 2011’s turbulent times, many could do with remembering.