From Sweden with Love – We catch up with Sonic Union

Erik Pettersson is DJ, Producer, Label Owner and Businessman from Sweden. Better known as Sonic Union, he has, along with his occasional production partner Bastards of Funk (Daniel Sandberg) been championing an underground house sound for the better part of 17 years. As a DJ, his incendiary sets have excited crowds across the Globe with shows everywhere from Japan and India to North America and all over Europe. He has residencies in his native Sweden and Canada and regularly headlines clubs and festivals. With well over 130 releases to his name, Erik is somewhat prolific as a producer too. His label – Lowbit was set up in 2006 with the help of Daniel with the goal of releasing quality music from established stars and up and coming talent as well.  And with 141 releases so far, the label continues to grow stronger and stronger. Erik has been a staunch supporter of our site since day one, but has such a hectic life that its taken a year and many Skype calls/emails for him to find the time to give us an exclusive interview…

Hi Erik, Finally we have the time to chat! Hows things? Whats your day been like?

Hi guys, thanks for having me on the site and a big congrats on the 1 year birthday and expansion to Decoded Magazine! Day has been hectic as always, no rest for the wicked as they say!

So with this interview, I wanted to give people a snapshot of the life you lead. Can you tell us about those early days. We understand that in Swedish schools everybody is encouraged to learn an instrument and that you have always been obsessed with technology. How were those school years for you and did they provide you with the necessary tools to become an artist in the music business?

When I grew up they offered music education in school which I think is fantastic, there have been many many talents from Sweden that have found their passion and talent that way and gone on to be big stars today. I think most of these stars might never have known that they were good at music or perhaps not find the passion for it was it not for these classes. Just like Ron Burgundy I play the Jazz flute! I’ve always had a passion for technology and computers from early days growing up with Commodore 64, Amiga etc and was very active in the Demo scene back in the day. I still am very much in love with technology and my day job is senior audio programmer for a large video game company.

What was it like growing up in Gothenberg? Did the city have much of an underground scene?

For a few years when I was 15-18 there was a very good rave scene in Gothenburg. The city of Gothenburg even supported the whole thing for a while by dedicating a building to the youth society and allowed them to have raves there. Unfortunately the initiative got canceled and a casino took over instead. Forest raves were also quite common in those days ranging from basic parties to more organised events. Gothenburg also had quite a few producers and DJs around especially the psy-trance scene was huge then and lots of big famous psy-trance producers and DJs came from Gothenburg.

Can you tell us about your time living outside of Sweden. What was it like starting from scratch in these new countries? 

It’s been really interesting to live abroad for such a long time (10 years) and it’s always hard to move half way across the world but having the music it helped make friends, get gigs and feel at home. It’s a tough challenge to do, leave everything behind and everyone you know and pack your bags and move to another country. The first move I did was to Vancouver, Canada and when I moved I hadn’t even been to Vancouver so it was a huge step into the unknown but something Im really glad I did. After Vancouver I moved to Los Angeles and same thing there, working my way to gigs and networking over the years. I still have great friends from my time there. After spending 3 years in Los Angeles I moved back to Europe and London, UK and spent around 3 years there as well. I had a great time there and managed to play at Ministry of Sound, host a Lowbit room at Bedrock’s annual London party 2 years in a row as well as throw some Lowbit events.

You’ve returned to Sweden now, so what are the differences between the cities and what made you settle on Malmo? 

What has had me move around so much has been my work in video game development, but I’ve always chosen places where there is a healthy dance music scene so that I could continue to cultivate my music as well as my programming. I ended up in Malmo again for work and am now working for Ubisoft and their next flagship project Tom Clancy: The Division. Every city is so different I almost need an entire interview just to go through that!

Can you tell us about some of the tourist attractions of the city. Where’s good to eat, sleep and rave?

There are some fantastic restaurants in Malmo, and having Copenhagen just 35 minutes away is great. Some of the favourite places to eat so far iare Atmosfar, Bastard, SMAK and Saiko (operated by the winner of World Sushi Cup 2013!). You also have places like Noma (worlds best restaurant) and Bror & Bror in Copenhagen which are off the chart (food and price wise). Tourist wise, we haven’t really had a chance to check Malmo and surrounding area out properly yet. Malmö has some recurring parties mostly focused on techno but also some deep house. “Illegal” (closed party where you have to be a member) clubs are also pretty popular and have quite a bit of techno going. Close proximity to Copenhagen also helps with great clubs like Culture Box and the Distortion festival.

You’ve been DJing for a long time, some 17 years. How did you start out and when was your eureka moment (when you mixed 2 records successfully)? 

Way way back I used to make music with two friends. One of them was a DJ and asked if I was interested in learning, I thought yes of course and got hooked immediately! I can’t remember how long it took me to do it properly as I could only practice when I was at my friends place which was quite far away for me then (2 hour bus ride). When I finally could afford to buy two Technics 1200s; when I finished university, I was beyond happy and used to practise on them everyday! I still have them and will never get rid of them.

Tell us about these early days getting gigs. Did they come easily or did you have to really work at them? 

Gigs have never really come easy for me. I’ve always had to work hard to get where I am today. My period in Vancouver was great for me as a DJ as my residency gig there for 2.5 years had me playing 7-8 hour sets every month which really helped hone my DJ skills. Back then it was very different compared to how it is today. It felt like it was more skill based rather than who can network the best. I had been friends with the Shiloh guys for a while before moving to Vancouver and they told one of the resident DJs there Tyler Johnson about me and he invited me to play the first week I moved there and the club owner loved my set and offered me a residency on the spot.

What are you using at gigs now? Still CDJs or are you Digital?

I am Traktor based with a setup of a X1, Z1, F1 and I’ve just added a Midi Fighter Twister which I look forward to incorporate into the sets for some more live action feel. With Traktor I know the setup intimately and won’t have any surprises when playing. Having played in clubs where the CDJs don’t work properly or the mixer is bust (one mixer gave me electric shocks every time I touched the EQ on one channel!). I do shows on CDJs here and there depending on the club setup or if it is simply not possible logistically to use a laptop.

So it wasn’t a difficult choice to go fully digital then! Haha, how has digital DJing benefitted you creatively in the club situation? 

Everyone has their own way of playing music and there is no right or wrong way. Use whatever way you feel most comfortable with. For me the producer side in me also wants to play along with my DJ side that’s why I’ve gone digital with Traktor and remix decks. I also do a lot of radio mixes and it helps doing everything in one place.

How do you feel about some of your countrymen using pre recorded sets because they claim they have to sync the music with a pyrotechnic show? Has that damaged the name of all Swedish DJs?

The big DJs like that put on a show, not a gig in my opinion. I think if they really had to be synced up with pyrotechnics you could find another way of doing it rather then doing a pre-recorded set. For me I’ve never really understood the reason to use a pre-recorded sets, I want to feel the excitement of playing music, changing up the next track a few minutes before the current track that is playing is ending because you had an idea of what could really set off the crowd even more that way right there in the moment…

So, d’you think the commercial success of artists like Axwell and Steve Angello changed the landscape of the Swedish dance scene? 

Well there are sold out shows in big arenas that Bruce Springsteen and similar artists play in for guys like Avicii, SHM etc and large scale festival have come back. Its all however very commercial, but I hope that the Swedish people will eventually move on to the underground music.

On to production. From your biography, I guess the music bug bit early for you… Whats been some of the highlights of your career to date? 

I have been making music since I was around 14 or so in some way or another. Just recently I had my track with Dale Middleton on Hernan Cattaneo’s Sudbeat which was a big thing for me. I’ve also witnessed Hernan and Nick Warren close down Ministry of Sound with one of my tracks which was an amazing feeling!

Good stuff! Can you tell us about your collaboration with Dale Middleton?

It started as it usually does. I start a track which I can’t really figure out what to do with and get frustrated and move on to something new so I sent a couple of things to Dale to see if there was anything he liked as we had been talking for a while to do something together; and picked out the parts that now is ‘Leaving Home For Home’; named after the fact that when it got signed to Sudbeat I was just starting to organise my move back to Sweden from UK. I’ve now started another track with Dale which I hope will turn out just as good.

What about some of the disappointments? 

There are labels out there that don’t really respect your work and have simply not paid me any royalties or fees. But I guess with every experience you have you grow as a person.

Whats the studio like these days? I guess you’ve upgraded a lot of the hardware now! Whats your favourite piece of kit and which DAW do you prefer to use? 

Today the studio is completely in the box but getting quite keen on getting some hardware to work with again as its so much fun to twiddle knobs and experiment. That hands on feeling is great! The studio used to be full of hardware and I still have some in storage but with all my moves around the world its been hard to move it with me. I’ve been working the last 7 or so years with FLStudio but I also own Ableton Live and swap between them both depending on the mood I am in. I’ve also recently started playing around with the Bitwig demo and really dig what they have done with it. It feels like a cross between FLStudio, Live and Logic and can see myself making that my main DAW actually. Plug in wise, I am a huge fan of the U-HE plugins and own the DIVA, Zebra2, Zebra HZ plugins and use them in pretty much everything. Native Instruments Massive and Maschine are also a big part of the stuff I use on almost everything.

With your tracks do you have a set routine for how they are made? Drums or Melody first?

This is very dependent on the mood I am in. I always start with an empty track and take it from there. I think my strongest bit of the production part is my drum programming, I love doing that! I don’t have a set way of doing something, I try new things every time; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Is this a similar process with remixes? How do you decide which projects to take on? 

With remixes I try to start with one of the samples that really stick out or strike a chord with me and I start messing around with that until I get something new and interesting but still audible where it come from. Sometimes a remix comes on by itself but most times I do anything from 2-6 different versions of it until I am happy with it. I think the track has to have something that strikes a chord with as I said before, I’ve done remixes before which I haven’t really had a feel for which makes it very hard to do something creative with and I tend not to be too happy with the end result. I now am much more selective of what I take on to remix as time is limited and I want to be inspired.

You recently gave me some wonderful advice about slight volume changes to excite a long passage of music. Whats the one piece of advice that you received which has transformed your workflow?

Well thats some advice someone else gave me ( I can’t remember who now) which I took to heart and have applied to most tracks. I always liked Tim Penners advice of “go crazy, don’t stay in the box” kind of thing which is why my arrangements and tracks always are quite different and never stick to a template.

We love your bootleg with Rumor – Guy J vs Hybrid – Transitions I Know. More and more DJs seem to be tweaking tracks to make them bespoke to them. With apps like Shazam and Soundhound, train spotting has never been easier. Do you think making bootlegs or edits is the best way artists can stay ahead of the game?

Thanks man! I think its more of a remix really as its not quite a bootleg as it got mostly all original parts except the vocals from Hybrid and some extremely mangled samples from Guy J. For me the bootleg stuff hasn’t really been about staying ahead but to creatively do something fun with a vocal or part of a track that you just love. If it then becomes a success, then all the better. I think for an artist to stay ahead is not about doing edits or bootlegs, but to work on their sound and do what they like, not do what everyone else does.

Lowbit was set up with your friend and production partner Daniel (Bastards of Funk) in 2006. We understand you met each other a few years before at SunDance festival in Estonia where you were both booked to play. How did that relationship develop over the years to the point where you both felt comfortable setting up a label? 

Lowbit was set up with Daniel but in reality I did almost all the work with the label over the 5.5 years its been running. When we decided to start it we didn’t really understand how complicated and time consuming it can be to run a label. In beginning we did releases every 6-8 weeks or so but after a couple of years we got to 1 release a week but now have stepped that back to releases every 2 weeks. I think now I have a pretty fair understanding of running a label but I still learn stuff everyday and love doing it.

We understand you had a scare recently with a fake Lowbit profile on Beatport. What happened? 

Yes, that was quite the shock for me when I discovered this. I’ve heard of people stealing tracks and releasing as their own but never a whole label! The artist that had set up this fake Lowbit did so because he wanted to be on Beatport and on Lowbit and didn’t think his music was good enough to be released by us that he decided to go this way. Fortunately it got resolved pretty quickly. It was also great to see the music community react so hard on this and really rally behind us put their foot down that this is not acceptable.

And you started a group to combat this kinda thing happening again… 

Haha yeah, I did start a “Label Support Group” where label managers can share their experience with something like this, maybe warn others about people that don’t play fair and how we managed to resolve this issue.

The label is growing from strength to strength. I noticed recently half of Hernan Cattaneos radio was all Lowbit records! Now he plays about 9 records a show, so that must’ve been a brilliant day for you guys. How important is A lister support to selling units of a single? 

Thank you! Yes that was quite the magic moment in Lowbit history and I think thats never happened before on Hernans show? Of course its fantastic to see that the music I select to be released on Lowbit is appreciated by others and DJs like Hernan Cattaneo & Nick Warren who both have been big and constant supporters of Lowbit. To be honest I don’t think it affect sales too much, of course it helps but I think it helps more over a long term. People might start to follow an artist or a label from a radio show like that.

For all those producers out there, whats the best way to approach a label like yours? Straight in with the sound cloud links or build a relationship first?

Paul Hazendonk wrote a good article about this for TIP a while back, and I kind of want to iterate that. Be friendly, be courteous, do your research before hand (does the label release this kind of music etc). Don’t just send a link and say “listen my demo” or “new track unsigned”… You wouldn’t believe how many emails and messages I get like that. Most of the time those just get ignored. Instead strike up a conversation, get to know the people behind the label, ask them if its ok to send a demo over. When that happens I 100% listen to the demo, and if its not quite for us I always give some feedback or even recommend another label where the track could fit (and even make introductions). The final thing is – have patience; don’t expect or even demand to hear back within a day or so, give us some time to check it out properly.

Thanks so much Erik; a really enlightening chat. How does rest of the year look for you? 

Thanks for having me guys! We are getting close to our 150th release now and we have brought back our “Through the door” compilation project which focuses on new young up and coming artists and volume 4 will be out in a few weeks. On a personal note, having just released the collaboration with Dale on Sudbeat I’ve got a remix for BiG AL on Lonya’s label Asymmetric coming out on the 14th of July. After that I got my remix of Oscar Vazquez ‘My Way’ on Lowbit on the 21st of July. I’ve also got a new track with my good friend Khen on Tribal Pulse which is coming on vinyl later this year with a fantastic Pole Folder remix. I’ve also got collaborations with Dale, DNYO and Chicola in the works.

01// Guy J vs Hybrid – I Know Transitions (Rumor & Sonic Union Remix) [Artist]
02// Tvardovsky – Colours (Stas Drive Remix) [Lowbit]
03// Progress Inn – Corrupt (Original Mix) [Lowbit]
04// Michael & Levan and Stiven Rivic – Unicorn (Subandrio Remix) [Lowbit]
05// Oscar Vazquez – My Way (Rich Curtis Remix) [Lowbit]
06// Paul Hazendonk & Noraj Cue – Inner Monologues (Tim Penner Remix) [Lowbit]
07// Kasall & Cristian R – Whales (Original Mix) [Lowbit]
08// Qoob – Silencio (Napalm & d-Phrag Remix) [Lowbit]
09// Qoob – Extinct Language (Lonya Remix) [Lowbit]
10// DaR & DoR – Off Course (Original Mix) [Lowbit]