Kenneth Bager interview - the original chillout space cadet
Wednesday, April 7, 2021
Many people will be familiar with the Danish lifestyle of Hygge, where you embrace comfort and find pleasure in the simple things in life. Even though that ideal is tied to the winter months, Copenhagen resident Kenneth Bager epitomizes all of those wonderful things all year round as an artist and label owner. His career spans back to the mid 1980s and it’s clear his enthusiasm for making music and DJing has not waned in that time. His Music For Dreams label has launched careers, built a reputation for beautiful and timeless music that transcends his native Denmark, whilst more recently he has expanded his repertoire with the Music For Clubs imprint. We were very lucky to speak to Kenneth, who is in the midst of various projects and artist releases, and chat about his illustrious and at times anarchic career as well as hear about his future plans as a producer and label boss.
It’s been quite a long journey for you going back to the 1980s - what has been the best lesson in that time and what are you doing now that you wished you’d known earlier?
I am more experienced now and work 90% faster in the studio, so if I had known some of the skills I have now, that would maybe have really increased my musical output throughout the years.
That laid back, Balearic sound is noticeable with early recordings such as ‘Let’s Dream Together’ (which now goes for three figure sums on Discogs) under the guise of The New Age Orchestra. At the time, what were your influences?
My old band Dr. Baker had just finished the single ‘KAOS’, sampled by FSOL, David Morales, Frankie Bones, Louie Vega and we wanted to make the opposite of the ravey sound of Dr. Baker so we went into the studio and wanted to explore this new sound called ‘Paradise’. A sound at the time heavily influenced by the electronic classic ‘E2 E4’ by the German composer Manuel Göttsching. ‘Sueno Latino’ by Sueno Latino was the biggest record in this genre. It was a great jam in the studio. Lasse Illinton Mosegaard and me composed the track together and Lasse played most of the music live direct to tape to give it a live flavor - he is an exceptional musician. The two blonde sisters Camilla and Charlotte did a sensual vocal take including the moans, our friend Jack Rothe played the magnificent clarinet part and I arranged the 9 minute piece. The Red Light Records Crew and Young Marco picked up a copy in around 2013 and started supporting the original single-sided promo from1989, which we pressed 50 copies of. Turn the clock to 2019 I manage to find the original master 2 inch tape and get the stems and in 2021 the full release of the original plus four more versions becomes a suite - lasting for almost 40 minutes.
This very much sounds like an early blueprint for Music for Dreams?
It certainly is! However the blueprint started much earlier when I was five-years-old - I fell in love with a beautiful cinematic piece of Music called ‘Lara’s Theme’ from the soundtrack of the movie 'Dr Zhivago’, from my mother and fathers record collection. I have always loved emotional records. Records that could make you sad or feel you were in love - flying high on a sky of emotions. Tracks like ‘Dreamflow’ by Paulinho Da Costa, ‘Fanny Be Tender’ by The Bee Gees, ‘The Dance Of Life’ by Narada Michael Walden, any Marvin Gaye 70’s albums were compositions I could listen to over and over again during my teenage years.
The New Age Orchestra track came out on your Coma record label, which released and licensed some of the big commercial hits of the time, including The Shamen, KLF, F.P.I Project and your own Dr Baker project. Prior to that point, what was happening within the Danish music scene, did it feel like you were leading some kind of musical revolution?
There were very few tracks and artists that broke out of Denmark and gained international recognition, Laid Back (White Horse & Sunshine Reggae) & Back to Back's Perfect Girl ( released on Vendetta Records) were the exception to the rules. I was lucky that I was the first Danish DJ to be involved in the first ever Danish 12 inch Remix in 1983 - Tv2 - Pop Musikerens vise, and during the 80’s remixed almost all the Danish major artists for the dance floor.
It must have been very exciting championing the vibrant, new scene, especially with your own Dr. Baker material which received notable success.
The debut single ‘Kaos’ was a big pan European club record and a top 5 record in the Danish sales charts, it went on to sell 108.000 vinyl copies. The singles ‘Kaos’ and ‘Reality’ took off in Ibiza, and we went on Spanish television several times and played live at Amnesia, Ku and Space. Inspired by the punk roots of the two blonde sisters (Dr Baker band Members Camilla and Charlotte Wisøfeldt), we did crazy things on stage. I once smashed a Television on the stage at KU and threw it in the Swimming Pool. At one concert we were throwing dead fish and crabs into the audience during the strobe lights so they did not know what hit them. Another time we were throwing breakfast stuff into people's faces, oats, flour, etc. We have also performed in a ‘lifers' prison called Vridsløselille in Denmark - a very special experience. I was interviewed on National Television at prime time in the news while I was eating worms. During a video recording, I was lying under a living elephant foot, I was seriously scared but somehow the two sisters always managed to talk me into doing weird things. The Debut album of Dr. Baker ‘Global Kaos’ featured guest appearances of Off (Electrica Salsa) Sven Väth, Dr. Alban, and Ricky Lyte the rapper of The KLF.
Performing in a prison must have been quite an experience?
Dr Baker’s live set was always very theatrical and we opened the set with the track ‘Inan’ which means Believe (in English). The track is all about believing in yourself - such as, ‘save yourself’ (if you have become an alcoholic or drug addict). Normally I would go on stage and pretend to be drinking Vodka directly from the bottle and get drunk. However the twist here was that the two sisters in the band had decided that it should be real vodka instead of the usual water. So when you face an audience of inmates, who you know are in prison for life for crimes such as murder and other nasty things, It left me thinking 'how do we get them on our side’ to make it a great show that they will enjoy. Therefore I decided to jump off the stage and walked in the direction of the biggest inmate, the one with a mohawk who was possibly the leader in the prison. I went and stood in front of this guy full of tattoos dressed in a waistcoat with the techno sounds of "Inan" blasting out of the speakers. He was surrounded by his gang.
I stopped just a metre from him, and started drinking the vodka - I looked him into the eyes and spit all the vodka out in his face! He reacts as you’d expect him to and he looks like he wants to kill me and punch the living daylights out of me. Luckily for me his disciples jump on his arm and keep him down so he doesn't hit me. The crowd went nuts and started to laugh and clap and after that the party was on and the concert was a success.
Pete Tong once referred to you as “Denmark's original space cadet" that’s quite some accolade and fits with the titles of your first two long players under your name. How would you describe yourself?
I am an easy going person. I love life, my family, making music, my label and the artists. I am grateful that I can open my eyes every day and enjoy the day. I am happy to have seen so many different musical styles enter the danish and international scene and being mentioned as the one that introduced the Scandinavians to House music in 1987.
Dance music to a large extent is quite faceless and often lacks personality, you are an exception to that rule, with striking visuals and a playful persona on show. Has that been a conscious decision throughout your career, or are we just really seeing the real Kenneth Bager?
I just love colourful people and I guess you could say I am one myself.
Music For Dreams has just celebrated twenty years as a leading record label and imprint. How has the label evolved and changed in that time?
I do think we have evolved a lot since the beginning in 2001. Music For Dreams goes from strength to strength. My dream was to make a label that was a combination of the labels of: ECM, Real World and Blue Note but with my own Scandinavian twist. I do think we have succeeded - you could almost say we have become synonymous with timeless Balearic music - like Defected is with House music. We started out with Bliss as the first release and released a lot of music categorised as ‘Lounge' but if you listen back today - Bliss and a lot of the other acts from that time do not sound like ‘ Lounge' - they sound like timeless albums. We just happened to release them when there was a boom in the ‘Lounge’ genre'. Our aim is to stay true to our roots and keep doing what we have done from day one, release timeless quality music. You might not like everything on the label but it will always be of high quality. Today Music For Dreams has an outstanding roster; Be Svendsen, Jacob Gurevitsch, Islandman, Troels Hammer, Rheinzand, The Swan and The Lake, RKDIA, Hess Is More, Copenema to name a few with many of them also being amazing live acts. We have started our own radio station Music For Dreams Radio, with superb DJs and guest mixes running 24/7. In 2019 we started a new label ‘Music For Clubs’ - based on the demos we got in that wouldn't fit for Music For Dreams but has a more dancefloor orientated vibe. We have been lucky that the single ‘Drums of Steel’ took off and established the Music For Clubs imprint
The label is very strikingly visual, how important is the imagery that goes along with a label with the beautiful and catchy name of Music For Dreams?
In my humble opinion the visual side is always important to any existing label.
You released the Stones & Steel EP back in March with the track ‘Late Night Symphony’ (Tribute to Andrew Weatherall) just shortly after his death in the previous month. It’s a fitting tribute to the great man, as a fellow maverick, his passing must have affected you to have released this?
Fact is I always had a massive respect for Andrew for his musical taste and his DJing style and sense of humour. He always supported the music I made, He played Dr. Baker’s ‘Kaos’ and my club record ‘Drums of Steel’ from 2019. We met many times during the years and my most funny and possible most embarrassing moment was in the early 90’s on a holiday in Ibiza - we were at this gig in Summon ( a place In San An Bay) Danny Rampling was DJing I was on crutches as I had an injury, and was pretty drunk. I see my dear friend Mr. Weatherall with a ton of drinks on his chest, due to my drunkenness I think my crutches are my arms and I try to reach him and somehow I smash the crutch straight into his nether region and he fell to his knees on the floor and lost all the drinks. Since that day he always remembered me for being the man that nearly castrated him! The track ‘Late Night Symphony’ was made a year before his sudden death at a writers camp, that is a one hour drive from Copenhagen. It was one late evening with the amazing musician Reinhard Vanbergen, a Belgian musician who can play 22 instruments, and when we finished it sounded like a typical Andrew Weatherall end of the night record, so it was a natural born tribute to man with an incredible musical taste.
You’re naturally quite busy as a producer, DJ and label owner with Music For Dreams. How has Lockdown impacted on the way you operate across these three areas?
I have definitely been more in the studio and visiting artists studio sessions during lockdown. A lot of new composed and produced music will soon surface. I have been working on a new collaboration called ‘Voice Of Art’ with a Copenhagen based DJ and musicians from the label. Another album is the forthcoming release by Hess Is More vs Kenneth Bager. 2021 will see the release of a club album from me, two dub albums plus several remixes. I have worked on three remixes for the German Duo Blank and Jones and created some nine minute DJ Harvey influenced disco stompers with fellow studio partners DJ Divo and OliO.
The label has been very productive, especially in the last few years with various compilations and artist albums. What can we expect for the rest of 2021 and going into next year?
There will be a new Rheinzand album (they won album of the year 2020 at Manchester's Piccadilly Records), there will be more compilation albums in our collector series - one containing Danish melancholic moods. New albums by Copenema, Langkilde, RKDIA, The New Age Orchestra, Dj Pippi & Willie Graff, Santino Surfers Album, Voice Of Art, Hess Is More, Be Svendsen, Jacob Gurevitsch, Islandman, new sunset Session compilation album, and a 20 years celebration album.
Are there any plans for any new productions from yourself, in particular a long form follow up to your Follow The Beat album in 2014.
Yes I am working on a new solo album - I have all ready made six demos - the album will feature the beautiful voice of Findlay Brown.
There is also the Music For Dreams radio station and podcasts with some of the legends of the chill out and Balaeric scenes playing on it. There’s over 1000 shows archived on Mixcloud alone - is there any one show or mix that has truly stood out for you?
It is too hard to say as there are some fantastic guest mixes on there each week, we try to get new ones in all the time, and I’m just really very happy and grateful to the DJ’s in delivering such great shows. I have been doing radio on local stations since 1982 and I have been national radio for four decades promoting new exciting and eclectic music and now I have my weekly Music For Dreams Radio show that is syndicated on various stations around the world: Dublab, Ibiza Sonica, Cafe Mambo Radio etc I recently did a special when chill out legend Jose Padilla left us and that was a tough one because of all the memories I have had going to Cafe Del Mar since the early 80’s.
The label has had various sub labels with Music For Clubs and The Serious Collector Series being recent additions. Are there plans for any new releases via these two imprints and do you have plans for any other side projects?
We release new stuff on Music For Clubs approximately every 14 days and the Serious Collector series will continue and we have already three releases lined up for in the near future... so the story continues.
As a DJ with a wealth of knowledge and experience, how do you discover new music these days?
Searching on the internet and people send so much great new music my way... it is an endless journey of discovery.
Kenneth Bager on Facebook
Music For Dreams
Music for Dreams on Bandcamp
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