Renowned around the world as the chameleon-like figurehead of the free form bass music movement, the name Liquid Stranger conjures up visions of genre-blurring beats and basslines, music that pulls from downtempo and left-field as much as it does from the cutting edge of dubstep, halftime, and bass music as a whole. Able to move between genres with a confidence that seems to only increase his aura of invincibility, Liquid Stranger is a consummate storyteller and journey creator first and foremost, while music is the medium through which he communicates to his ever-growing fanbase around the globe.
Likewise, his Wakaan imprint has become home to a motley crew of artists channeling the same vibes that seems to unleash a creative spirit that revels in the no-holds-barred approach to artistic production. As the influence of the Wakaan family grows and the music from both signed artists and the label head himself continue to drop jaws with each and every release, we thought it was an appropriate time to sit down with the ever-prolific Liquid Stranger to not only reflect on his journey thus far but to get a sense of where he sees himself and the freeform bass music moving in the future.
Born and raised in Varberg, a rural town in southern Sweden, the pre-Liquid Stranger boy known as Martin Stääf not only remembers the tranquil vibe and picturesque views of the Alps that surrounded his childhood home, but also remembers a steady output of music from the likes of the Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix and Fleetwood Mac pulsing out of his dad’s stereo system. With his future incarnation as a world-renowned artist still light-years away, Martin not only remembers his dad’s ever-growing record collection as a centerpiece of his childhood but his mother’s Steinway piano.
“My parents tell me that I was crawling to the piano to bang on the keys before I could walk,” he says. “But it wasn’t until I was six years old and I heard Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’ that I had a breakthrough moment and discovered an alternative, fascinating approach to music.”
Realizing that he could essentially become a “one-man band” that performed every instrument himself, the arrival of his first synthesizer when he was only eight years old would launch Martin on the path that would come to dominate his life.
Taking inspiration from his father whose own job at IBM allowed him to bring home computers, Martin soon began digging deeper into the circuitry that would drive his later productions: “I was particularly fond of the sounds of the SID chip used in the Commodore 64. It sparked a lifelong passion for sound design. I desired to understand the processes and different components of synthesis.”
Reading every book he could find on the subject soon led to a series of experiments that he undertook with his father on a wide range of electrical and mechanical projects. When Martin was nine, his father helped him build a large radio antenna that “was huge and enveloped my entire room, floor to ceiling. It was a mess but now I could tune in to pirate radio stations across Northern Europe.”
My parents tell me that I was crawling to the piano to bang on the keys before I could walk, but it wasn’t until I was six years old and I heard Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’ that I had a breakthrough moment and discovered an alternative, fascinating approach to music.
Soon the sounds of acid house would be transmitting across the airwaves into Martin’s room and “along with soundtracks from video games, and the TV show ‘Yo! MTV Raps’,” the foundation for Liquid Stranger’s eclectic soundscapes were formed.
“I started going to rave parties when I was 13,” Martin continues, when asked about the transition from his bedroom days into the wider world of electronic music. “I loved the unity and respect I felt in that community and it wasn’t long before I began not only playing live with my analogue synths and drum machines at said parties but also promoting my own events. Everything was very small and do-it-yourself. During the early ‘90s, electronic dance music wasn’t widely considered a legit art form, and not accepted into mainstream society. It was upsetting to many parents that their young teenagers were dancing all night to atonal bleeps and bloops. Tension between ravers and law enforcement increased with the introduction of the rave bill. Playing ‘repetitive electronic music’ at venues or radio became pretty much outlawed. That’s why we went underground.”
Flash-forward to the present and it’s not hard to see how the community that has formed around Liquid Stranger and his Wakaan imprint have come to embody those early experiences: “I wanted to create a strong global community for free form music, and help producers create a sustainable infrastructure for their art. In addition to putting out records, we curate shows, and this year we’re throwing our own festival. We also have access to a vast network of industry professionals, and can help facilitate bookings, management, branding, merchandise, artwork, etc.”
In the same way his music refuses to conform to the rigid confines of genre, so too does the label represent so much more than “just” another dubstep or bass music imprint. Hinting at the meaning behind his own name, the “liquid” and “fluid” nature of the output from both the imprint and Martin himself represent the highest realization of a vision that sees “music as a way to express emotion” while also serving “as a catalyst for others who listen.”
“Being open and honest with one’s emotional flow is key to staying authentic as an artist,” he continues. “In the end, I don’t care so much how I’m perceived. The music I make is more a reflection of how I am feeling. Sometimes it’s primal music to rage to and other times chill and experimental. I don’t want to be limited in what I create.”
It’s a vision the artists who call Wakaan home seem to embrace as well. Reading through the artists who have released on the label is akin to compiling a list of your dream festival lineup in and of itself. From Champagne Drip to LUCZID to LSDREAM, TYNAN, Peekaboo, G-REX, Esseks, Minnesota… the list goes on and on. When asked to imagine the back catalogue of the imprint unfolding over the course of a full-moon festival under the stars, Martin is quick to point out that there is indeed a Wakaan festival in the works later this year but muses that “sonically, it would be an intense, vibrant journey across an epic musical landscape. [At Wakaan] we place a big focus on inclusiveness – the feeling that we, all the fans and artists, are connected and bonded by our mutual love of art and music.”
It’s an ethos that has synergistically created a fanbase that is not only loyal but willing to follow Liquid Stranger and his Wakaan cohorts into some very “weird and wonderful” places musically and otherwise. Take the 30-track Infinity LP that Liquid Stranger has just released. Listening to Martin talk about the project very quickly reveals that he is proud of it not only as a personal artistic achievement but as a kind of community project that serves to showcase a wide range of collaborators and friends. In the same breath that he speaks of collaborations with well-known artists like Chee, Clozee, and Dion Timmer, Martin will be waxing nostalgic about moments where Warrior Queen’s son stepping up to the mic on “Hydroplane” or well-known photographer Tessa Paisan becoming the announcer on “Sinewave Safari.”
“I wanted to include my personal friends as collaborators, whether musically trained or not,” Martin says when reflecting on the freeform process behind the project. “I wrote scripts and lyrics, and then homies who visited my house were invited into the studio to sing, rap, act, and play instruments. The best results happen in a relaxed and unpretentious space, so we really just kept it casual and fun. Overall, a very spontaneous process that added a lot of warmth, and humor to the record. It provided a new sense of depth, and further inspired me to keep building on the thematic elements.”
Further inspiration came from the challenge of trying to incorporate a wide variety of instruments, acoustic and electronic, into the song-writing process as well: “There is always the challenge of translating one’s passions and emotions into music. An acoustic instrument is subject to a variety of environmental factors that interact with the sound to make it dynamic and layered while the raw sound from an oscillator lack that variance, and appear shallow and harsh. Therefore, the process to make a synth sound interesting is about finding creative ways to destroy the sound. Sonic anomalies and errors shunned by conventional music (such as distortion, clicks, hum, phasing, pops, and crackles) are my weapons. I do everything in my power to cause a glitch in the sonic matrix. My goal is to make the songs sound organic, as if they are being played by an (alien) band—each instrument fueled by a distinct personality and temper.”
In addition to Martin’s usual arsenal of electronic equipment, savvy listeners should listen for an assortment of acoustic instruments including the piano, accordion, melodica, harmonica, didgeridoo, spirit catcher, dòngxiāo, music boxes, tambourine, egg, shaker, djembe, conga, tabla, and water drum. “I built a few drums [for the project] as well,” Martin says. “For example, a five-gallon water jug partially filled with water sounds quite similar to a tabla. Also special shout out to the kazoo aka ‘the poor man’s saxophone.’ It can be heard all throughout the album.”
There is always the challenge of translating one’s passions and emotions into music.
While the project may sound intimidating to some, especially to new-school producers just getting their feet wet, Martin is quick to offer a glimpse into the role he plays as mentor and label head when he transitions into advice for anyone caught in a creative doldrums: “As mentioned earlier, I view music as an emotional language. Maintaining and sustaining a rich creative expression stems from exposure to strong life experiences. In other words, one needs to engage with life, stay active, explore, and allow the feelings to flow freely: travel the world, learn a language, try a new sport, delve into books and movies. When stuck in an unproductive pattern, creativity will stagnate. That’s a signal that it is overdue to fuel up on inspiration.”
Our advice for those seeking to get their creative juices flowing is to dive headfirst into the 30-track creative behemoth from Liquid Stranger known as Infinity and be prepared to come out the other end transformed and inspired.