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Insomnia at the Top of the World

I talked with the festival mentor of Tromsø's 13th annual Insomnia Festival.

Nasra Omar, Gaute Barlindhaug and Kolbjørn Lyslo were blessed with Northern Lights as a backdrop during a rare performance overlooking Tromsø. Photo by Yngve Olsen Sæbbe

In the early 90s, teenagers Gaute Barlindhaug, Kolbjørn Lyslo, Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland lived in Tromsø in Northern Norway. Becoming more and more vexed by being forced to play rock music at school, the homeboy quartet desperately wanted to do something else. Looking up to hometown electronica elderlies like Per Martinsen (Mental Overdrive, Frost), Geir Jenssen (Biosphere), Bjørn Torske, and Rune Lindbæk, they decided to form a group.


 But, living in a city oblivious to electronic music, way up at the dark edge of northern Europe - Tromsø's creative synth-and-drum-machine pioneers were forced to look outwards. And so they did, which would not only change their hometown, but also go on to have an impact on the world of electronic music as a whole.

 Norwegian techno started in Tromsø and had strong ties to the Motown scene. Together with Belgian legend Samy "DJ Morpheus" Birnbach, Per Martinsen had an underground hit single back in 1989 called "Hallucination Generation". It even made its way onto the US Billboard Top 10 Dance Chart.

  "I particularly remember moving to England in 87-88 and experiencing the Summer of Love and the rise of Acid House. That was huge. Detroit also had a big of impact on Tromsø, and my friend Geir Jenssen imported records directly from "Mad" Mike Banks and Underground Resistance in Detroit," Martinsen explained to me over the phone.

​It's pretty safe to say that the small city of Tromsø indeed wasn't only pulsating with their own sound, but at an early stage, was influencing European and American electronic music, too.

​Twenty years ahead - today - the four teenagers have grown and built up respectable careers: Barlindhaug in Aedena Cylce; Lyslo in Lunchbox and Doc L jr; and Berge and Brundtland in Röyksopp. Together with their local musical peers, they've managed to pave the way for what is now a thriving electronic music scene in the urban village of Tromsø.

​Along the way, Tromsø has become the home to Insomnia Festival, which has lightened up the city's cold, dark and endless winter nights for more than a decade. This year sees artists such as Prins Thomas (NO), Simian Mobile Disco (UK), Jaakko Eino Kalevi (FI), Forest Swords (UK), Helena Hauff (DE), and Hypnobeat (UK).


Ahead of the 13th annual festival that kicks off today, I met up with festival mentor, coordinator, member of the board, and one of the original four, Gaute Barlindhaug.

Musician Gaute Barlindhaug has been part of the Insomnia Festival since its birth in 2002. Photo by the author

VICE: Hi, Gaute. Tell me about Insomnia.
Gaute Barlindhaug: It started in 2002 as an arena for electronic music in Tromsø. Even though the creative music scene was well established, the audience was almost non-existent. We needed a way to make sure the music we created here, could be enjoyed here, too. And maybe inspire others to join our electronic cause.

Noble. So what's the concept?
At first it was just Norwegian house and techno acts. But later, we included other genres and foreign names as well. We don't want it to be a hardcore German techno club. The city is too small for that [70,000 citizens]. Insomnia is organic and changes from year to year. That provides us with a booking-freedom. Also, we are non-commercial and mostly based on volunteer work. That means we can't - and won't - afford the international crowd pleasers. We want to maintain our core credibility, but keep it varied and flexible. As an example, we booked Swedish Dungen last year.

An excellent booking. Is this tactic giving you a reputation outside of Tromsø?Yeah, we are now proudly part of the EU project European Cities of Advanced Sound (ECAS). A network of non-commercial core art and culture organisations around Europe. It also has an international branch with around 30 core festivals around the world.


Why should people travel to Insomnia?
It's a unique club experience on an arctic island trapped between white mountains. We have small intimate venues and a very positive and wildly energetic crowd. Insomnia happens once a year and that affects the energy in a huge way. In Berlin or Stockholm we would just be one of many, but in Tromsø, real clubbing is something rare. People are really, really psyched - and that alone is worth it.

You were a part of the early electronic music scene in Norway. What has changed over the years?
Things seem much easier and defined now. In the late 80s and early 90s everything was allowed. Nobody knew what was going to happen. Now the music seems more conservative and genre bound, I guess.

How is it seeing your childhood friends touring the world as Röyksopp? Any juicy stories?
It's great! [laughs] But our stories stay with us. Me, Kolbjørn, Svein and Torbjørn started playing together when we were around 13 years old. It was never the intention to start a group [Aedena Cycle], but we couldn't pay for the equipment if we didn't do it together. We gathered all our synths and a drum machines in one bedroom and made music. We had no laptops. Not even floppy discs! Bjørn Torske, Geir Jenssen and Per Martinsen were the first guys in Norway to make techno and house music, and we were the brats listening to their local radio show, taping everything. We were Tromsø's electronica weirdos back when we released "The Travellers' Dream" in 94, and I guess a lot has changed now. Anyway - these are all great memories, and we're still good friends. But now we mostly just play videogames and discuss music together.


@knutti ​ ​Insomnia Festival kicks off today, October 23, and runs until October 25 in Tromsø, Norway. For complete line-up and schedule, click here.

More stuff about northern Norway: 

The Music Festival at the Top of the World

Bad News: People are Taking Krokodil in Norway

Whale Meat is a Tough Sell in Norway