By Brad Knutson
This week marks the return of the annual music-industry schmooze fest in Austin, Texas known as South by Southwest. The event literally brings in anyone and everyone looking to get a break in the biz, so with so many nationally and locally touring acts convening on the Lone Star State this week, don’t be surprised if you see a few tumbleweeds blowing through our normally packed clubs and concert venues. However, in the weeks after, the festival often provides a great ripple effect locally, as it kicks off the spring touring season for American and foreign acts that don’t often see these parts as they quickly dart across the countryside to squeeze in some additional gigs prior to heading back home across the Atlantic.
This weekend, The Empty Bottle is a beneficiary of such a ripple effect in the form of the full-blown SXSW-style label showcase from Norwegian electronic specialists Smalltown Supersound, featuring Kim Hiorthøy, Bjorn Torske and Diskjokke. While obviously these Scandinavian artists aren’t able to play dates locally often, they’re far from strangers of the local scene. “I see Chicago as Smalltown Supersound`s second home,” says founder and label head Joakim Haugland. “Pete Toalson from the Bottle was the first to invite us to play in America, and since then Pete has become a personal friend of myself and many of my artists, and he in many ways has been my U.S. consultant.” The label’s local connections don’t just end at the corner of Western and Cortez—virtually all of Smalltown’s North American operations are now based out of Chicago. For publicity Haugland uses the locally based Pitch Perfect PR, booking is handled by the Windish Agency and record distribution is handled by Carrot Top. In addition, Haugland returns the local love and serves as the Norwegian distributor for local indie stalwarts Thrill Jockey, Drag City and Touch & Go Records.
“Touch & Go has been a huge influence on Smalltown Supersound,” notes Haugland. “I love the music that they have put out, and the way they do it, and the way they stay independent.” Drag City was also a huge influence for Haugland, all the way back to his teenage years when he first heard about the Chicago label in Norway via an article in Spin Magazine. “I kind of named my label the same way I felt Drag City had named theirs,” he admits. “I lived in a small town, and commented on that the same way that I thought Drag City was commenting their city. This was at least how I understood it back then. So the name was partly inspired by Drag City and the catalogue number STS was an homage to SST.”
He continues, “I know it’s nerdy, but being 16 years old in a small town in the south of Norway with a population of 4,000 people, it was extremely inspiring to witness what American labels like Dischord, Thrill Jockey, K Records, SST, Drag City, Sub Pop, Touch & Go et al were doing. They changed my life for sure.”
While borrowing heavily from American indie-rock aesthetics in terms of operations, musically Smalltown Supersound sounds miles away. Though recently spawning a jazz division (Smalltown Superjazz) and also being the home to trendy art rockers 120 Days, Smalltown Supersound’s bread and butter has always been cutting-edge northern European dance and electronic music. In particular, the label has been revered as the leaders of the nu-disco movement.
“It all started with Hans-Peter Lindstrom, who totally in his own world started what has become known as space disco/nu-disco,” Haughland says. “He wasn’t following any trends or anything, he just did what he felt like. Slowly the world was paying attention, and…influenced by Lindstrom’s success many of the good Oslo DJs such as Prins Thomas, Todd Terje, DJ Strangefruit (Mungolian Jet Set) and Diskjokke started to make music themselves. They knew what worked on the dance floors already, and suddenly they made music themselves that were setting dance floors on fire. I guess it’s the same thing that happened in Manchester in early eighties and in Seattle in the late eighties…musicians inspiring each other, and a scene is accidentally created.”
Kim Hiorthøy, Bjorn Torske and Diskjokke perform DJ sets at the Smalltown Supersound showcase at Empty Bottle, 1035 North Western, (773)276-3600, on March 15 at 11pm. $10.