The Transformational Power of Ambient: A Talk with Carbon Based Lifeforms

12/07/2017 11:35 am ET
Johan De Paepe

Why do we listen to music in a world turned upside-down? Hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, genocide, threat of nuclear annihilation, racism, insane world leaders — all served up in an unrelenting 24-hour news stream. We are currently experiencing what Joni Mitchell sang of so eloquently in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” her adaptation of Yeats’ The Second Coming — “The best lack conviction / Given some time to think / And the worst are full of passion / Without mercy.” We are living on a planet on the edge of extinction due to corporate greed and governments indifferent to their people’s suffering. To get lost in music could be seen as frivolous, given all the abominations taking place around us.

Yet, the experience of listening to music can be amazingly transformative. Scientific studies have shown that listening to certain music can reduce both mental and physiological stress in times of trauma. The incredible ability it has to calm our fears and elevate the spirit can provide refuge (at least temporarily) from the madness. One sublime musical passage can completely alter even the most dismal of days. This is the power ingrained in the ambient work of Daniel Segerstad and Johannes Hedberg of Carbon Based Lifeforms (CBL).

Having met at age 15, Daniel and Johannes are now pushing middle age, yet have managed to maintain the innocent vitality of youth and a rare optimism that comes across clearly in many of their tracks. The darkness may lie beneath, but as they show, it is no match for the light. They have been creating their distinct interstellar ambient sound since 1996, when the duo began making music under the name “Notch.”

Johannes Hedberg
Carbon Based Lifeforms
Johannes Hedberg

Not Just for the Chillout Crowd

I met with Daniel and Johannes at the Psy-Fi Festival in Leeuwarden, Netherlands. The annual psy-trance music festival draws upwards of 15,000 people for 5 days of celebrating all things psychedelic, with an emphasis on the dream of a united humanity and the preservation of our fragile ecosphere.

This was their third time playing Psy-Fi, and each year their audience has grown substantially larger and more enthusiastic. It was almost impossible to find a square inch of space near the stage where they were playing. Leaving the stage after their set, they could barely walk 10 steps without being stopped by an admiring fan. One young guy dressed in a dragon outfit stopped them to say “I’ve been listening to you guys since I was 12; half my life!”

When CBL first played live venues, it was mainly for chillout crowds. People would wander in and out during their set — some getting high, others relaxing or sleeping. Then, when they played Ozora in Hungary in 2009, they were surprised to find their audience had suddenly morphed into a more energized group of people. They likened it to a rock concert, with people screaming in excitement — “it was a bizarre experience,” Johannes said.

It’s not too difficult to locate CBL. They can usually be found sharing a beer with fellow ambient artist Magnus Birgersson, better known as Solar Fields, who also plays the electronic music festivals. The three, all based in Göteborg, Sweden, have been friends for years, and have collaborated on a number of albums under the name T.S.R.

Daniel Segerstad
Carbon Based Lifeforms
Daniel Segerstad

More Than Music for Nature Films

Although ambient sometimes incorporates the more “otherworldly” aspects of New Age music, CBL has no hint of New Age’s tendency toward the insipid and soporific. CBL’s tracks, while frequently inspiring the spiritual, are actually revitalizing to the mind and stimulate creative thinking. Their albums manage to be calming, without putting you to sleep.

When asked to describe what their music is like for those who have never heard it, Johannes said it’s like “music for nature films.” It may have started out that way, but their sound has significantly evolved since their debut album, The Path, in 1998. It combines nature sounds (birds, rain, wind, rivers, forests) and recorded voice, as if we are listening in on an interstellar radio transmission. It reflects their early experiments learning what a synthesizer can do, bringing to mind 1980s sci-fi films. Concerned with our vanishing ecosystem from their inception, the album’s liner notes ask: “Are we going to save this planet or are we going to search for a new solar system to colonize?”

Although still raw and unformed, in The Path we can hear the roots of the sound CBL would develop years later to express a sublime combination of nature and technology. But even then, CBL had more of a beat than your typical ambient track. The Path’s “Station Blue” has many elements of that CBL signature sound, the echoes of which appear in Hydroponic Garden’s “MOS 6581” (2003).

Listening to a few CBL tracks with a glass of wine is more effective than opioids for calming the nerves. One of the finest examples of this is “RCA+” on the soundtrack they composed for the post-apocalyptic film Refuge. After a stressful day, play this track and immediately feel your body begin to relax and mental clarity to return. Or imagine taking a walk in a birch wood while listening to “Betula Pendula” (Latin for silver birch) from World of Sleepers, a track consisting essentially of four repeating notes that is an irresistible invitation to quiet meditation.

Derelicts

Their first full-length album since 2011’s Twentythree, and picking up in style from where the previous year’s Interloper left off, their new release, Derelicts, is perhaps their most fully developed album yet.

Much of its sound is due to their purchase of old “derelict” equipment in an attempt to move away from relying on software, and instead using the hardware the old synthesizers used to provide.

“It meshes with our theme from the beginning,” Johannes said, referring to their desire to merge nature and technology. “We tried to make it more psychedelic and more melodic. I ended up buying a lot of synthesizers and a lot of end-of-life stuff from the 90s, like the last digital synthesizers.”

The feel of the album has a lot to do with the hardware they used. Daniel said, “It’s much more hardware-based” than their previous few albums. “We tried to have more of a hardware analog sound this time to really see where it takes us. It’s very easy to use software with synthesizers because it just there and it works.” He added, “We scratched a lot of songs this time, and we don’t usually do that. We worked harder on fewer tracks and scratched the ones we really didn’t like.”

“We actually exchanged a lot of sounds using analog synthesizers. We wrote the song [with software] then recorded it with hardware synthesizers to make it more analog. I don’t know if you can tell the difference, but we can.”

I told them I had heard they sampled some unusual items for this album. They both laughed.

Daniel said, “Yeah, an escalator…”

“Daniel owns a house now, so he has all sorts of interesting things,” Johannes interjected.

“You’ve got an escalator in your house?” I asked.

“No, not really,” Daniel said, laughing. “It turns out the escalator was in three-quarter, waltz time. We have two waltz-based tracks, so it fit in well with those. The dishwasher from my uncle’s summer house also had a good beat, so we used that one too.”

“Also, the baby’s teething toy,” noted Johannes.

The album’s strong opening track, “Accede,” begins gently with a soft arpeggio. We feel we are at the beginning of a fascinating journey. As the track picks up energy and intensifies, we begin to get more excited about the places we will be visiting and the things we will see. Finally, we are dropped gently at our destination.

The track began as an experiment on a Roland JD-800 they had just bought, which is responsible for the main acoustic themes and the feel of the album. The video of the track, directed by Mikael Lindahl, elegantly conveys the message that we are all living beings hurtling together through infinite space on this beautiful blue marble.

Slavomir Latko

The Genesis of CBL

CBL’s attraction to ambient had its roots in their childhood in Sweden. One of the only two TV channels available at that time played the music of artists like Jean-Michel Jarre and Vangelis before the children’s shows started early each morning. Both agreed that this was likely their first introduction to the electronic music sound.

They had met when Johannes was transferred into Daniel’s middle school class; surprisingly, they were not instant friends. Daniel had at first rejected Johannes as being a “geek.” Through a mutual friend, however, with whom they both enjoyed role playing games, the two soon began to get to know each other better. After a few months, they found they shared an interest in music, movies, comics — almost everything — and became close friends. They began writing music together about a year after they met.

Soon after beginning their musical collaboration, they discovered the work of obscure British ambient artist, Solar Quest. “My sister went to a record fair in Gothenburg and picked albums at random that looked nice, with a pretty sleeve” Johannes said. “One of those was Orgship.” This album was a significant departure from what Daniel and Johannes were then producing. “At the time,” Johannes said, “we were into doing dance music and acid techno stuff.” They studied the album with near scientific precision, trying to achieve similar effects.

“We had a lot of influences from Vangelis, Jean-Michel Jarre, and people like that; but that seemed for us out of reach. When we found that album [Orgship], we felt we could do this with a basic techno setup.”

Chilling backstage at the B-Wave Festival in Belgium
Johan De Paepe
Chilling backstage at the B-Wave Festival in Belgium

Renaissance Masters in Sound

Daniel and Johannes are daring in their compositions, incorporating their affinity for techno with rich ambient soundscapes. The complex layering of sounds and beats is reminiscent of Renaissance painters, who achieved remarkable visual brilliance through applying multiple layers of glazed color, each element imparting its subtle influence to the finished masterpiece.

Like contemplating the great work of a Renaissance master, the work of CBL has the ability invoke deep emotion in the listener. Observing the wide variety of their audience at festivals, ranging in age from young millennials to the grey-haired, some are in an apparent state of bliss, their faces glistening with tears, others simply move in complete synthesis with the sound, in a state of pulsing human unity.

In a society feeling increasingly fragmented, CBL encourages us to return to a more holistic way of living, incorporating nature and technology in a symbiotic relationship. Johannes says, “When you interpret nature through technology you get a feedback loop.” Each influences and changes the other.

Daniel notes, “It's our definition of our sound, and it sort of works like a beacon when we are in a creative process. We explore new sounds and emotions but always check if we are still in the CBL universe, where technology and nature work seamlessly together. I think you can find the different aspects in our tracks, as some tracks are very organic and colorful and others are dark and mechanical—most are something in between.”

How the Magic is Made

When conceiving new tracks, Johannes and Daniel start out working in their separate studios and bring anything good they create to their Tuesday night beer-infused collaborations. If both of them like it, they build on the track together.

“We have different approaches,” Johannes said. “Daniel is more into the beat and I like basic sounds — melodies or how the sound works. It’s good that we do that together because if I just did my thing alone it would fall flat.” He added, laughing, “And if [Daniel] did his thing, it would be on the main stage or something…So I think it’s a good symbiosis.” Johannes is masterful at obsessing about the details, which is useful in some aspects, but in which they can sometimes get bogged down. Daniel’s strength is seeing the big picture and moving the work forward again.

They find the studio a low-stress retreat that they can rely on as a refuge from the chaotic world. In it, Daniel says, “we create our own universe and only work when we feel like it. If we for some reason aren’t in the mood we go to the pub and sort it out.”

The technology they began with has advanced considerably since they began experimenting with Fasttracker on an Amiga in 1996. Although the technology has improved, a lot of the sounds produced with older technology are still essential today and form a significant part of the CBL sound.

Johannes said “A lot of the focus on music technology is trying to emulate old stuff more accurately. I have a deep fascination with the last generation of ‘90s synthesizers because they were really starting to explore the limits of synthesis. That was really a big inspiration for me.” He added, “New technology has brought a lot of granular synthesis and a lot of really high-tech mathematics to sound generation. When it’s done right, it’s brilliant. But most of the time it’s quite cold.”

Performing in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2010.
Pavel Zmey
Performing in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2010.

The Changing Face of Music Promotion

CBL signed with Ultimae Records in 2002, a label that has been home to many well-regarded ambient and trance artists. They released four full-length albums while with Ultimae: Hydroponic Garden, World of Sleepers, Interloper and Twentythree, as well as a single-track space ambient drone album, VLA. However, although still friendly with the label, they recently ended their contract with Ultimae.

The face of music promotion has changed significantly in the last 20 years. Artists used to be at the mercy of their label if they wanted to promote their music to listeners. But with music-aggregating services like Record Union, TuneCore and CDbaby, artists don’t need labels like they used to, except for the production of CDs and vinyl.

So Daniel and Johannes have decided to promote their albums themselves under their own label, Leftfield Records. And given their huge following on both Facebook and Twitter, it would seem to be a strategy that works.

CBL’s new album, Derelicts, had already sold out its limited edition vinyl even before it was released. No doubt, some people buy the physical copies for the gorgeous cover art alone, designed by graphic artist/photographer and fellow musician, Matto Fredriksson. Blood Music is distributing the album on CD and vinyl, Johannes said, “but our focus is totally digital.”

Johannes agreed with my observation that people rarely listen to music in physical form these days; CDs are used more as coasters now in the era of digital downloads. “I know of nobody who owns a CD player,” I noted. Unless you’re a high-end audiophile, not many people own turntables any more either (though they recently seem to be enjoying a comeback, along with everything else retro).

“Exactly,” Johannes said. “No one does. Just collectors.” Online promotion and distribution is the only approach that makes sense. “It’s the next logical step. It’s the easiest way to distribute music.”

Carbon Based Lifeforms

What About the Forests?

CBL’s most well-known track may be “Photosynthesis,” from their album World of Sleepers. Inspired by the 1972 film, Silent Running, the track, like the film, is about the importance of maintaining our vital connection with nature in an increasingly technological world. In fact, they recreated the lines “What about the forests?” and “Nope” from the film using text to speech software. In a wonderful example of “what goes around comes around,” Solar Quest did a remix of “Photosynthesis” 20 years after having inspired CBL to begin their journey into ambient.

In 2007, Daniel branched off with his solo project, Sync24, where he develops some of the tracks that do not resonate with Johannes. As the development of his personal, late-night inspirations, he has released three full-length albums of downtempo and acid ambient tracks that did not seem to quite fit into the CBL universe.

As to what they would like to do more of in the future, Daniel responded “I think I want to work less and spend more time in the studio. I would love to do an uptempo set with a sea of people, just to see what it feels like. And I will.”

Matto Fredriksson

Combining Life and Art

Working together for over 20 years does not seem to have had a negative effect on either their friendship or their music, as has so frequently occurred with other long-term collaborators. I asked Daniel how their working relationship has changed over the past 20 years.

“As with life itself, it has grown more serious, more professional. Twenty years ago we had no worries and stayed up late at night playing around, not really knowing what would come out. Today, we have work, wives, children, 4 albums and tons of eager fans, which really puts a pressure on us. The good thing is that we still enjoy each other’s company as much now as back then, and we can almost communicate telepathically.”

Amazingly, both still have day jobs, Johannes managing web systems at an exhibition company and Daniel working as an app developer. The time between albums is longer than that of many other artists, precisely because they are not pressured to produce music in order to pay their bills; they are free to produce what they want, when they want, which results in consistently high-quality albums.

Holding down a full-time job, along with having a partner and raising a family, has gotten in the way of many an artist. Yet both have somehow managed to find ways of integrating their creative and practical lives.

Johannes says “I have a partner who is a DJ, so she knows what I’m doing. [Daniel and I] don’t put that much time into it. Tuesdays are our production night when we meet up, and otherwise it’s just whenever.” Daniel said “The best decision I ever made was to cut back on my daytime job and spend one day a week in the studio. This way I can actually get something done. Since I started a family it was impossible to work evenings and nights as before.”

What does Daniel like to do when not making music? “Spend time with my kids and really play with them on their level, to be part of their imagination. It's tough but important to reopen that part of yourself, being a grownup. I also enjoy the quiet life on the sofa in front of the TV. It’s tough right now with a newborn, but I try to get out once in a while to have a beer or three with friends.” Although these things are important to him, he notes, “I don’t think it influences my work; it certainly centers me and frees up creative space in my brain.”

When asked if they enjoyed performing live, both were enthusiastic. Johannes said “Yeah. It’s like a drug. When there’s a good audience it’s a different thing” than making music in the studio. “I was not prepared to like it, but when you have the connection it’s wonderful. It also takes your humility away a bit — like we can do anything. You get really high from good connections.”

Their love of connection with listeners is obvious during their performances, when they virtually become one with the audience. Daniel said “I absolutely love it! I love the connection between me and the audience through my music, and that I can almost control the energy between us by pushing the right buttons. And the way we setup our live set we can be very dynamic and follow, or control the energy. Sometimes I need to control myself because in my head I become a superstar and want to crowd surf.” Given how their crowds are evolving, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine. Still, performing live is not always a thrill. Daniel said “Once in a while there is a gig when there is no connection and those times are very boring, like it doesn't matter if we’re there or not.”

Carbon Based Lifeforms

Hope and Beer, Not Fear

Anyone who knows CBL is aware that their love of beer is nearly as strong as their love of creating music. Their favorite beer? After much forethought, Johannes said “I just switched tastes. Now, I’d say it’s Brooklyn Lager. I like easy beers.” And Daniel? “A very cold Carlsberg after a really hot day. Or a London Pride in a proper pub.”

When asked about the current dark events affecting the world, they say they remain hopeful. Daniel says what’s happening is “heartbreaking of course,” adding, “but I believe in the Light Side of the Force.”

In their way, CBL is doing their part in bringing more light to the world. Johannes says “I think that’s kind of what we’re aiming at with ‘technology meets nature.’ It’s a way to invoke emotional responses in ourselves when we do it. We’re not qualified musicians in that way. We kind of try out stuff a lot and I think basically we’re lucky because when we find something that works for us it seems to work for other people. Also, an important part of the process is finding what the machines can do and try to find their voice.”

The darkness and cynicism prevalent in so much of today’s creative expression is an understandable reflection of our collective misery. But instead of diving headlong into the abyss, would it not be better to seek transcendence? The music of CBL extends a lifeline deep into our psyche that helps pull us out of the darkness toward a more hopeful future in which nature and technology unite in a harmonious synthesis.

Music alone may not save the world, but it can be one more tool in the arsenal for transformational change. Good ambient music can help expand our collective consciousness so we are better able to find effective solutions to the problems plaguing us and the planet.

Perhaps music could save the world. Music and beer.

Carbon Based Lifeforms can be found at:

Bandcamp (lossless dl)

And on Facebook and Twitter

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