Interview: Contrarian

I became familiar with Gøran Karlsvik's work through his band This Sect and their stunning LP, Shake the Curse, back in 2014. We've stayed in touch since that time, over the course of which I've learned that Mr. Karlsvik is—as you'll learn below—one busy individual, to put it mildly. Amongst his many other musical endeavors is a "solo" outing by the name of Contrarian, under which more than 20 tracks totalling nearly two hours of beat-laden experimental ambient synth-pop electronics were released over the course of 2018/2019.

All of this output was recently compiled as a handy digital set—Hit Singles 2018-19—which includes a massive 30-page PDF of artwork and lyrics. Stream the entire collection below (or name your price download through Bandcamp), followed by an interview with Gøran to gain more information as to what comes next...

I'm losing count of how many bands you're in now—five? Six? More!? I'll make this a two-parter. First, what was the inspiration for kicking off these exploratory sounds with Contrarian? And then, what keeps you motivated to be so prolific with Contrarian amidst all of your other musical endeavors—not to mention life beyond music!?

Here's a quick breakdown of the bands I'm in:

  1. This Sect, my long-running crew of post-punk weirdos. New album, Everything We Know Into a Black Hole, coming first-half of 2020.
  2. Damokles, the latest band, with some very interesting Norwegian "punk rock lifers." Debut single, "It's Closing Time"—mixed by Nick Terry—out very soon. Album circa autumn 2020. Angry and bleak emo.
  3. Endtimers, with my Stockholm-based buddy, Fredrik Ihler. Album circa mid-2020. Also very emo, but more on the confessional side, with indie and post-rock leanings.
  4. ZRFX (pronounced "Zero Fucks"), a somewhat conceptual electro-punk thing with two childhood friends.
  5. There's also Post Love, "the band that never was," a short-lived but fun summer project with friends from the Oslo underground. We never really had the time to finish the mixes for about an album's worth of songs. Kind of post-hardcore-sounding. Hoping to get it done soon-ish.
  6. Sometimes doing guest appearances or small collabs, such as backing vocals on the Singing Swords' debut single, "Y2K." Also did some vocals plus electronics for This Sect producer Gunnar Kjellsby's band, Mary by Force.

I guess the combination of so much fun stuff to work on is part of why I'm so "prolific"! I'm a creative guy, I like to keep busy. When not doing music, I work with booking/promo (a.k.a. Resident Nerd) at an awesome arcade bar/venue, Tilt. Check it out! I co-direct/write/edit/score the comedy show Zap with my old buddy, Kenneth Olaf Hjellum. I write lyrics for my bands, or I'm working on new book projects. I do visual work, graphic design, video visuals, photography, illustration—sometimes for the venue, or for bands. I direct the occasional music video for bands or labels I'm friendly with.

I guess I'm somewhat multimedial—I'm comfortable with swapping mediums, or mixing them. Constant movement keeps me curious, there's always some new technique/direction/gadget/idea/dilemma to study. That "movement" is what led me into exploring electronic music, I guess. Throughout the years, simply by being in bands, I had acquired a certain... volume of various gizmos: effect pedals, kaossilators, synthesizers, drum machines, strange microphones, etc. Might as well have fun with it. Then it was just a matter of getting to know how all this gear works together, and then record and mix everything D.I.Y. by myself, usually in the rehearsal space, or at home.

When piecing a track together, what's your criteria for vocals vs. no vocals?

As I've always mainly been the vocalist in bands/projects, I felt I had to explore something completely different, for my own sake—I get these ear buzzes quite often, music or segments that simply won't transfer well to a vocal format. There's also the appeal of doing something completely alone. Me, myself, and I. Captain of this ship. I get to make music whenever I want to. Figuring out sounds without necessarily using words and a voice, or a band. Basically, with Contrarian, I want to keep exploring and have fun with the process. Maybe the next release will be completely different, with tons of layered vocals [laughs]. 

You've really treated Hit Singles 2018-19 like a "real" release as far as including a rather massive PDF booklet packed with artwork, lyrics, etc. This leaves me wondering—and not for the first time—whether or not any tangible physical releases might be on the horizon?

Digital releases are usually pretty sparse regarding information and overall design, I'd like for them to be more than that. I wanted to include the artwork I did for the separate tracks, as well as give credit where credit is due, add lyrics to the few tracks that have vocals, etc. It always bugs me whenever I download a digital exclusive thing from Bandcamp—or stream something at Spotify—and there are no liner notes, no information, no credits, nothing. I already had most of the artwork finished, so it just seemed dumb to not include it as a larger "digital package." As far as physical releases go, I would absolutely love a vinyl thing, but that's expensive—this album is nearly two hours long, and everything is done very D.I.Y. by me alone, basically. Not ruling out something physical (or maybe metaphysical?), but then a label or someone with a money bag needs to come along, 4 realz. 

Contrarian at leisure. (Photo: Øystein Horgmo)

Contrarian recently performed live for the first time. How did that unfold, and do you foresee increased live outings in the future?

Yes, the first real live outing with a full setup of gadgets and gizmos, but I've done short improvised microsets here and there before. The gig was at the venue where This Sect and a few of my other projects practice, record, and keep our gear (MIR), so overall very practical and stress-free. I simply carried my stuff back and forth down a short hallway. I try to make it a "staple" of any gig I'm involved with to have some titillating live visuals to go with it, thus I had edited together a reel of weird and modified found footage that got projected onto the walls and stage. I turned off most of the scene lights at the venue and let my bad trip visuals do the "talking." Video visuals are important, especially when it comes to live electronic music. It can get tedious to see some dude twiddling knobs and pressing buttons for 45 minutes. 

There's sort of a core "niche" in terms of Contrarian's overall atmosphere, but there's also some range and diversity across that plane. Do you have any burgeoning ideas for new experiments or directions that you've yet to explore with the project's output thus far?

Lots and lots of ideas, and also lots of already recorded material that I just need to go through and edit/mix. My range of influences when doing Contrarian is very mood-based, but pretty specific on each track—to me, at least. Or maybe I just want to improvise, that happens a lot. Sometimes I want sci-fi-ish soundtrack-y vibes, for example—I keep going back to Alien and the overall feel at the Nostromo starfreighter... I've always been a huge movie buff, so part of my electronic "upbringing" comes from film scores. I guess "the future sounds old" would be a good Contrarian motto. Glitchy, deconstructed, worn out transmissions from a distant future...

A huge part of doing this is also to experiment and challenge myself, step outside of my comfort zone. Pure expression without necessarily having to use words. I have lots of already recorded tracks to go through, edit and mix. Some of it has an overlying theme—very melancholic and ambient—sometimes with trip-hop vibes. That'll probably get collected as an album. Other new tracks are all over the place, ranging from kraut-like synth-pop to glitchy vaporwave. I record on the fly, sometimes every day, so my brain is constantly working on music—whether it be Contrarian, or for my band projects. I guess I also want to convey a somewhat blissed-out vibe in some of the material, as I find it hugely rewarding to decipher these electronic products and the sounds they make. Playing around with toys. Makes me feel an almost childlike state of innocence and wonder. Getting lost in the creative process is pure magic.

Another important thing for me is to keep the sounds "pure," in a way—electronic music often gets too clinical, high-pitched, and harsh. I like warm analogue sounds. If something sounds too "clean," I can go out of my way to multi-track it, apply various echo effects, filter things through effect pedals or semi-broken amps. I need a certain lived-in, lo-fi quality. Haven't taken the dive into digital plug-ins yet, I probably have enough on my plate with "organic" electronic sounds, anyway.

Similarly, I'm curious if you have any other plans for potential collaborations, remixers, etc.? I keep going back to what you did with the vocal samples in "U Hide"—which I know wasn't a collaboration, but—I hear such massive potential there!

I'm very open to collabs and remixes, and would love to do more stuff like that. I have a collaborative project in the works with a noise/powerviolence/grindcore-inspired band that I'm friends with, Monochrome Nausea. That's going to sound quite different from the "regular" Contrarian output, to say the least. Got lots of talented bandmates and musician friends, and part of the Contrarian appeal to me is to be playful, thus it's highly probable that I'll do more splits, collabs, and remixes. 2020 is going to be sick!


Stream Hit Singles 2018-19 on Spotify, or download via Bandcamp. Find more from Contrarian through Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube.