This is my cave: An Interview with DJ Spacebear

“This is my cave,” says Lars Håvard Moen (DJ Spacebear, Howard Feel Mack) in thin-lipped grin. He looks at home in front of his control panel, where a Roland 909 drum machine sits prominently displayed, and easily accessible at his right hand. It’s adorned with all kinds of “Roland” stickers in case there was any uncertainty about the machine’s provenance. The machine is hardly a display piece with cables coming out of every port and a dull sheen muting the 80’s “office-equipment” glow of the original machine. Like everything else in the studio it’s a workhorse, and as the centrepiece in the studio it’s at the heart of his workflow.

“You have to come see the studio,” suggested Lars when I proposed we do a follow up interview from the last one for Jaeger Oslo. There’s a certain individuality with the way everything is laid out, which other people visiting the studio to work with the Norwegian producer and DJ often find cumbersome, but for Lars, he wouldn’t have it any other way. He can spend an entire day getting lost in his cave, with his hands on these controls.

“If I come in on a Sunday, I’ll be here very early in the morning and only go home very late,” and while lately he’s been spending more time with his girlfriend, the studio still lives beyond any notion the temporal whenever he enters the doorway. “The clock,“ he says pointing to a spot on the wall, “has stopped a long time ago,” but it wouldn’t matter, because all concept of time disappears into a heady mixture of rhythm and sound that he coaxes from his array of drum machines and synthesisers.

The latest creation to come from this space is a record called “Vintage Acid Files Pt.1” with Lars donning the DJ Spacebear pseudonym for the occasion and resurrecting his dormant, Retrace Records imprint; the timeless sounds of the lysergic dance music ushering the beginning of a new series for the label that Lars hopes to see encompass four issues eventually. 303 machines dance across two tracks like whirling dervishes in two very different approaches to the genre. From the transcendental highs of the A-side, the record floats down to the subterranean bunker of the rhythm section where Spacebear conjures some primordial motifs from pliable machines.

While the title of the 12” might suggest this records arrives out of antiquity, resurfacing on some old hard drives that had been rescued from ruin, the record is actually an assemblage of old and new music, with the trance-like hedonism of the A-side, surprisingly marking the younger of the two. “Some of the tracks are new,” says Lars “but it sounds like vintage acid,” which is what he says consolidates the theme of the new series. “That’s the whole idea behind this release,” he insists. What encouraged him to look to the vintage acid sounds rather than the newer styles?I think I’ve always wanted to release acid, and Retrace is all about looking back. I follow the concept of the label.”

Retrace is an exclusive vehicle for Lars’ music as DJ Spacebear and “is very much about a lo-fi Techno sound” he’s nurtured across three previous releases. Similarly to the “vintage acid files” the ideology of the label is about picking its way through Lars’ back catalogue for distinct releases, based on the fundamental ideas of club-focussed machine music. At the centre of his music is a prevalent attitude that hasn’t changed much since the earliest sounds of Chicago, where the 909 and 303 sit side by side in stark arrangements that haven’t aged, lending a kind of timeless quality to the entire Retrace catalogue from the first release.

“I don’t try and make lo-fi Techno,” explains Lars, but between the machines and his workflow, which has changed little since the nineties, the music Lars makes as DJ Spacebear has touchstones in something ancient and archetypal rather than trend, and that’s why a record like  Retrace 01 still sounds contemporary even while in 2008, when it was first released, “the tracks were already old.”

After a flurry of activity in 2008 that saw Lars release three records in one year, Retrace went into hibernation and took another decade for the label to resurface with “Vintage Acid  Files Pt.1,” but why did it take so long? “Lately I’ve been DJing a lot again with vinyl,” answers Lars. In 2008, the format experienced something like a last breath with labels like Retrace coming to the fore briefly before being completely overwhelmed by the digital format. Recently Lars has experienced a new resurgence for the plastic discs as he noticed “a lot of DJs appreciate DJing with vinyl records” again. With some encouragement from the community and his girlfriend, Lars resurrected the label, in what he describes as “surfing on a dream” for any elder statesman of electronic music.

“I’ve been collecting vinyl all my life,” he says, as if I need reminding where I sit in a cosy nook of his studio surrounded by a more than a few thousand records. He takes pride in showing me how his records arranged from the 250 DJax Up Beats records (while wearing a Djax Up beats T-Shirt no-less) to more niche selection of DMC records lying in the corner.  On a recent trip to Brazil, he had stumbled upon a genre of records that infused the traditional sounds of the favelas with an eighties electro beat. We listen to an example, the 808 kick booming through a polyrhythmic cacophony. The west coast influence is strong preceding the bass-heavy focus of Hip Hop by some 5 years, while accenting some more unusual Latin influences.

“I like to buy records that have an experimental sound,” says Lars to the syncopated rhythm of the kick drum. “If I don’t really understand the record in a record shop and I sense it’s something interesting, then I buy it. Sometimes when you know too much, the mystique of the record gets lost.”

That’s the case too for a seminal record in Lars’ collection, the record that started Lars on the path of electronic music and production, and still plays a fundamental influence on “Vintage Acid Files Pt.1.” That record is Stakker Humanoid, by the Humanoid – Techno in its earliest form with elements of Acid and Electro deeply ingrained in that one track. “I would say that would be in my top ten records. But that’s a very strange track, because of the break-beat, the vocoder, the acid and the rave; everything is there that represented me in the 90s and it came out in the 80s.” Today Lars has 6 copies of that record in his collection in different formats. “It’s a very important record for me,” he emphasises and points to an empty spot on the wall, where he aims to eventually frame a copy of the record.

Although “Vintage Acid Files pt1” and Stakker Humanoid certainly share some common interests, there’s something in the former that appears more refined around the edges. Melodies lilt more sweetly and rhythms groove more sensually

on “Vintage Acid Files,” restraining some of the petulant provocation of the early nineties for a mature audience. And yet while there is something far more contemporary in the production, Lars’ focus on arrangement and melodic movement throughout these tracks are more attuned to the old Chicago masters than anything from modernity. It’s ingrained in the way he works, with the machines leading the way through the music. “I think the boys in Chicago, they had the musicians as heroes, but they couldn’t afford a real synthesiser. If they had a real synthesiser with a lot of possibilities, they would try and do something else, so it was actually the machine that dictated the way they did this,” he says with a nod to one of three clone 303’s occupying a space in his studio. 

“There are not a lot of possibilities on the 303, because of the way the machine works.  They didn’t have anything else so, that’s why the music sounds the way it does.” And that’s why DJ Spacebear sounds the way he does. With little more than an idea of an arrangement his head, he’ll call up some patterns from the 909 and 303 and jam in an improvisational way to achieve the rough construct of his initial idea, later to be refined in the computer. ”If you play on the fly, something unexpected can happen.”

Much like the mystique of a record, Lars enjoys the mystique of these unexpected moments, utilising the very same techniques of his predecessors with incredible results that continue to set him apart from other artists working in the same aesthetic. He’s no traditionalist however and doesn’t like to think of himself as a collector of rare and expensive synthesisers, but rather more like a tradesman with his tools, and while the touchstones are prevalent, like Acid or the 303, these are just a means to an end in an effort “just make what I make,” according to Lars.

He plays me one of his most recent tracks to prove his point. It’s a lush deep-house arrangement that instantly reminds me of Andres Gehm in one of his subdued moods. A disembodied sample ripped from a science fiction movie plays through the arrangement like an abstract, yet familiar narrative as complex textures drift through the track. Could this be a future release on Retrace, I wonder, but Lars’ focus remains on acid for the moment. “I’ll be releasing a few acid records, and then I’ll focus on other things after that.“

A parking meter draws our conversation to an abrupt end, and Lars escorts me out into the summer rain. His studio, located in an old airfield just outside the city limits seems out of place, a relic of some cultural community abandoned by the lure of the capitalist hub of a city. Remnants of the community remain, but there is very little sign of life. Like Lars this place operates on the fringes, and like Lars there it will remain a constant, operating outside of time; an ageless facilitator forged in tradition and steadfast in a individualistic pursuit.