Disappearing into a tasty cake with Snasen

Robin ‘Snasen’ Rengard sits in front of his modular synthesiser, the jumble of colourful wires still patched from the last session, holding the key perhaps to his next composition. The instrument takes centre stage in his gear-heavy Oslo studio, but it’s the bass guitar sitting right next to it, the only stringed instrument that isn’t hanging on a wall that catches my eye. The worn patina of the wood could probably tell a million stories about Robin’s days as a bassist for the hardcore punk band Amulet, and it is the source of my first question for the Norwegian artist. The instrument is obviously still important to the musician, taking pride in his studio, never out of arms reach, and I wonder why he left the band, the scene and even its music behind to start a new career as an electronic music artist back in 2005. “I was just tired of playing in bands, the group dynamic thing just didn’t work for me anymore. I was tired of travelling around. I just wanted to find a little place of my own and play around with computers.”  Computers were the vital ingredient for re-igniting a childhood affection for the music of popular eighties TV shows like Airwolf and the “music on commodore and Amiga” for Robin. “I just drifted to that kind of music when I was a kid and it stuck with me through punk and hip-hop”. Around 2006 he adopted the moniker Snasen and released his first record, 4.7 Million Dead, an obscure beat tape that very few people have actually heard. I struggled to find that release before our interview takes place and when I question Robin about it he breaks out in a hearty laugh. “That’s good, it sounds like shit! It was available on iTunes for a year and I think maybe one person bought it.” Still smiling he can’t completely reject it and often features one or two tracks from his debut in his live sets, admitting that it’s ‘got its moments’. With 4.7 Million dead resigned to the category of a lost relic, it was during the next EP, Failing Upward in which a distinctive Snasen sound was established for Robin. “I really think I found my sound on that EP.” The EP started its life as an album, but the long player format was soon abandoned when Robin “dismissed a few songs” for a more “compact package”. Failing Upwards relied on captivating sound ambiences in the electronic music sphere, but its major appeal lay within its song structures and I’m drawn again to the bass guitar at Robin’s back. Robin carried his experiences from bands through to his electronic music productions, where he would build the songs as if he were composing them in a band, with the bass always the first to be laid down. “I’ll start with a bass-line and some drums and build off that. Often with electronic artists, they’ll have a theme running through the whole song and just build on it. I guess I try to make it flow in a way. I’m not really interested in the dance music thing.”  This approach resonated with many and Failing Upwards received much critical acclaim for its beatific musical arrangements that either sway in the gusts of lethargic synthesisers and loitering bass swells, or bounce along through staccato sequential synthesisers like an old video game. The reception only strengthened Robin’s reserve in his Snasen project and the soundscapes the moniker entertains. “When I got the feedback and I read what people were saying about it, I understood that this is right.”  A second EP, Grok followed and refined Snasen’s sound further, while work on a debut LP commenced before a harrowing life event put everything on hold and Robin found himself turning away from his music.

Robin’s dry sense of humour, which is often found in his music through titles like ‘Playing the piano drunk like a percussion instrument until my fingers begin to bleed a bit’, keeps cropping up through our interview, and he maintains a light approach to the conversation with an intermittent guffaw or internalised chuckle. But when we turn to the subject of his latest album, Forsvinningen and what happened while it was still in its infantile stages, the Interview takes a sober turn. “My wife was pregnant with my daughter in 2012. A couple of days before she was supposed to deliver we didn’t find any life. We ended up losing her. I had the album ready, but after that, everything just changed for me. I just went away in to this hiatus and I didn’t want to do anything anymore.”  That event compounded the effects of starting the record for Robin as he was dealing with “becoming a dad and all those issues with growing up and getting old and having responsibility, stupid teenage angst stuff.”  Robin’s age is ambiguous with his greying hair telling a different story form his youthful countenance and its difficult to discern if the teenage angst wasn’t perhaps unfounded in this situation. I venture to ascertain Robin’s age based on his love of eighties TV shows and commodore games, but my thoughts are quickly disrupted when he continues his monologue… The hiatus continued for some time after, with Robin eventually revisiting the material in the hope of making sense of everything and the result was that Forsvinningen, which translates into ‘the disappearance’ from Norwegian, took a very dramatic turn. “I tried to find that feeling that I had, that really confusing thing that almost falls apart all the time, to try and put it into the songs.” Robin called on close friends like Ellen Sofie Mosebekk and ex-amulet band mate Torgny to help him finish the album. “The song ‘Time A’, its the lyrics from all the pretty horses which Ellen sang at the funeral.”  It’s a very personal investment in something that will be made so very public and as we discuss these very private affairs, I can’t help but wonder if it’s necessary to share this information with Snasen’s audience. “Maybe I shouldn’t have.” Robin turns silent for a lengthy period and it’s evident that he is still grappling with the idea of album or the loss of his child, but I wait out the pause till he eventually carries on. “You know just mentioning it at all, is so heavy, so depressive that I didn’t know if it was ok. Why should I share something so personal? I just wanted to make a good album, something you could get lost in, but I didn’t see anyway around it. I wanted to be honest about it and I think it explains why it sounds kind of nervous and confusing.“ After discussing it with his wife, he decided it was the only way he could ever release Forsvinningen.

Unless you are enlightened about the circumstances around the album, it’s not something that would be immediately obvious to the listener. Even though there is a palpable melancholy to the album, there’s also a sense of hope in the way the songs develop. Many of the tracks started out life as modular synth jams, with some having been the leftovers from the Drone soundtrack Robin had worked on during the course of the album. “For a couple of years now I have been using the modular a lot. I’ve been building this thing and it has really changed the way I work. I often try and end up somewhere, but usually take detours and that’s the starting point of a song.” It’s hard to ignore the significance of the circumstances around the album here, especially since the work on a modular system is incredibly tactile and the addition of those imperative vocals bring a very concerted human appeal to the music. The methods Robin employed, and the people that surrounded him at the time, suggest that Robin possibly achieved some level of personal therapy while pouring himself in to the music. “Maybe there’s something therapeutic about it”, Robin considers, but then suggests it was perhaps the people, more than the music, that helped him through this episode of personal reflection. “Around the period everything happened, it helped to talk about it with family. I’ve been really separated from them for a long time. I haven’t really had this closeness to them. Before this happened I didn’t really understand what family means and the role they fill in my life.” While the people in his life helped him considerably, he struggled somewhat with the music and never thought it truly complete. “It felt terrible when it was mastered and sent off to the printers. I was so tired and I thought it sounds like shit.”  But it appears removing himself from the work for a while and hearing it in a different context offered some sort of closure for the producer. A new test pressing of the record lies in the corner and Robin says listening to it “feels good”. Hearing Ink Blot in the context of the Internet and considering what people wrote about it, Robin felt more at ease with his work. “I was like oh ok, this actually sounds good. You just have to get some distance from it.” He mentions that there are still two unresolved issues he has with the album, and I pry him for a clue as to what they are, but he won’t reveal them. “That’s the problem with making electronic music. You get really obsessive with small details. You have to listen to everything yourself, like the rhythms and the sonic signature and the way the songs are put together. It’s really easy to get really obsessive.”  Robin again points out the modular synthesiser behind him as he’s done consistently throughout our interview, explaining the way he plants the first seeds of a track through the machine. “So it’s a chaotic way of working. I come up with a song fairly fast. But I use a lot of time swapping sounds around in an effort to bake it into a tasty cake. (Laughs) That’s a long process.” 

The results of this long process on Forsvinningen are particularly impressive. The sombre arrangements and progressive forms of the compositions just exude an epic atmosphere and the album offers a magnificent sonic landscape for the listener to disappear into. It recalls other electronic albums like Andy Stott’s Luxury Problems or Alex Smoke’s work as Wraeltic. Albums that manage to set a particular mood in an electronic dialect, smothering the listener in the beautiful alien tones of a synthesiser in an attractive album narrative. It’s difficult to get caught up in the circumstances of the album, since the music is so poignant as an independently abstract art form and I have to echo Robin’s words when he suggests that people “might find something more there” even if they remain ignorant of the albums conception.

Robin Rengard eases back into his producers’ chair and our conversation quickly shifts through Oslo’s esoteric music scene and the important role Sell Out records plays on getting Snasen’s music out there. “I love working with Andre! I think it’s really cool that someone wants to give me that chance.” Robin’s English fails him at times, and he blames his newborn daughter for his lack of sleep with a huge grin on his face that doesn’t convey any real grievance about the situation. “We have a beautiful daughter and she’s awesome. Now there’s a new set of problems.” It appears that Robin’s teenage angst turned out to be warranted. “Everything is true. All my concerns have manifested themselves. Now I have a daughter to take care of.”  Robin expels a hearty laugh again that suggests he wouldn’t have it any other way. I make my way out into the cold spring air of the city, leaving him in this blissfully happy-tired state and I imagine he’ll get back to his work immediately, disappearing into his next tasty cake.