Sounds Swedish

What a long, strange trip it’s been for Chico electronica composer Holger Honda

<i>GHOST OF THE ELEPHANT</i> IN THE MACHINE<br>Holger Honda (Hjalmar Hake) plugs in to his studio, where he recently finished recording a CD of his well-traveled brand of electronica.

Holger Honda (Hjalmar Hake) plugs in to his studio, where he recently finished recording a CD of his well-traveled brand of electronica.

Photo By Tom Angel

It’s not every day that you meet an electronica musician from Sweden in Chico, and certainly Holger Honda is as surprised as anyone that he’s ended up living here.

The tall and thickly accented Scandinavian enjoys his adopted hometown, however. “Chico has lots [of] nice, good and interesting characters,” he says.

Honda lives with his wife, Wendy Oshima, and his 7-year-old stepdaughter Armani in a rented cottage on an organic farm near the edge of town. Honda works days fixing jukeboxes and arcade games, but when his work and family obligations give him a free moment, he huddles in front of his samplers, sequencers and synthesizers like a mad scientist, creating electronic music.

Honda presses a few buttons, turns a couple of dials, and a bass-heavy, layered melodic sequence fills the room. The robotic progression sounds heavily influenced by progressive Kraut-rock pioneers Kraftwerk and Can. Flipping a slide pot, Honda drops the music into a dub-like progression and then starts improvising over it.

“I sketch out an idea for a song, and then I make several recordings of it straight down to two-track, and I end up with a CD with 10 or 15 mixes of the same song,” he explains. “Afterwards, I take the best sequences and put them together like a movie or video director.”

Honda has independently released his first solo CD, Ghost of the Elephant, and plans to have a Web site up and running soon where his music will be available on MP3. He has no problem with people listening to his music for free. “Being an artist, I’m supposed to support [the music industry] and be in the same boat, but I really like underground culture, and if someone wants to download my music off a computer, I’m perfectly fine with that, but that might change when I get famous,” he says, laughing.

Ghost of the Elephant.

One gets the impression that he fully intends to become famous. It was only a few years ago, after all, that he was in one of Sweden’s most popular cult bands, Rotted Beak.

Honda, who is known to friends and family as Hjalmar Hake, hails from Göteborg, an ancient yet modern maritime city on Sweden’s west coast that is home to the Volvo auto company. Born to celebrated Swedish sculptor Claes Hake and renowned actress Med Reventberg, he grew in a busy home surrounded by bohemian artists and members of the Scandinavian cultural underground.

“I suppose being around creative people, and with my dad is doing art and my mom is doing theater, there wasn’t much left to do for me,” he says, explaining his artistic leanings.

While Honda was growing up, his parents were still struggling artists. They achieved success only after their son became an adult. Claes’s large outdoor sculptures have been compared to those of the late Henry Moore for their grace and magnitude, and Med is now considered one of the great women of Sweden theater.

Honda, who can often be found in his studio as early as 5 a.m., good-naturedly blames his parents for his relentless creative work routine. “Even though my father never made any money when I was young,” he explains, “he always went to his studio and worked. They have always been very dedicated to what they were doing. I have some of that in me, but not as much as they do.”

Honda’s interest in electronic music came about in a roundabout fashion. As a youth he joined the Fältbiologerna (roughly translated, the Young Field Biologists), a Swedish version of the Boy Scouts. The strange plant and animal life living on shores and in the tide flats of Sweden’s rugged west coast fascinated him, and that strange and colorful underworld has inspired his music. “What attracted me were the psychedelic aspects of it,” explains Honda. “I am fascinated by the unknown and strange. My music is like atmospheric and rhythmic Legos.”

When hip-hop came to Sweden in the early 1980s—Honda was still a child—he became obsessed with seminal rapper Grand Master Flash. But when he became a teenager, he took a left turn and got into The Kinks and the Animals, only to discover the prog-rock of King Crimson, Can and Gong. When house music arrived, Honda was ready.

“Once that I got to hearing electronic music and realizing what a kick it could be, I quickly decided that I wanted to be involved,” he explains. He started on turntables and evolved into a full-blown electronica musician.

Art by Holger Honda from the CD booklet of Ghost of the Elephant.

In short time he joined Rotted Beak. Formed in the early ‘80s, the four-member band played festivals, art openings and a few raves, rarely performing at regular dance music venues. “Four great minds are much better than one,” says Honda, “even though you have to compromise a lot.”

By the early ‘90s, Rotten Beak had grown weary of the growing rave scene in Sweden. “The rave scene in Sweden, just as here, is very close-minded,” says Honda of his frustration with the commercialization of the rave culture. “People have been listening to techno or house music for 15 years or more, and they are [now] in their 40s. That brings a more mature kind of approach to the whole thing. It doesn’t have to be glow sticks or pacifiers or all that crap that the plastic pushers are trying to get the rave kids to adapt.”

The band started its own live club in Göteborg, De Delay, which Honda also managed. After a few years, Honda tired of the nightlife and needed a change. He quit the band and the club and journeyed to New Zealand, a place where his father went every year to fly-fish. Whatever Honda was trying to achieve in New Zealand was forgotten when he met Oshima, the reason he ended up in Chico.

“I decided to be with this woman instead of whatever I thought that I was going [to New Zealand] for,” he says. “We had interesting and wonderful adventures.”

Like most vacation relationships, things turned a little sour at the end, and they split up, keeping in touch by mail after Oshima went back to her hometown, Seattle. She promptly relocated to San Francisco and they eventually lost contact.

In the meantime, Honda had returned to Sweden and gotten a job. After a couple of years, his parents gave him a ticket to New Zealand for a vacation. Honda, knowing that Oshima’s last known whereabouts were in San Francisco, arranged a three-week layover there on his way to New Zealand.

Using old-fashioned detective work, Honda went to Oshima’s old addresses and knocked on a lot of doors. He eventually found out that Oshima had given birth to a child, her relationship with the father had gone south, and she was currently a single mother attending college in Chico.

He immediately hopped a bus to Chico, looked up Oshima in the phone book and ended up spending 10 days with her and Armani. This time they kept up their correspondence, and after several round-trip flights from Göteborg to Chico, they married in 1999 just a few hundred yards from their home.

Thin as Gandhi, Honda stands in his rented studio surrounded by battery of computer-like machines with names like MPC 2000, E-MU and Dave Smith. A MIDI Production Center, dual-channel processor and the customary box of cords and wires complete the configuration.

He rolls a cigarette and speaks about the recent release of his solo CD and two upcoming shows, on Sept. 14 at the Riff Raff and Sept. 30 at Moxie’s. As much as he enjoys creating music by himself, he’s accustomed to being a member of a band, and he hopes to meet up with some like-minded musicians after he starts playing out.

“I would like to play with a slide guitarist or a harmonica player. Even a bass player would be good," Honda says, smiling. Given his history of following his dreams and his creative muse, and the number of superb musicians in Chico, we can expect to see him playing in such a group fairly soon.