INTERVIEW: Axel Thesleff and his Set That Never Happened

We interviewed electronic musician Axel Thesleff, who was scheduled to make his debut at this year’s SXSW Festival with an audio-visual set before its eventual cancellation due to COVID-19.

The immersive set was then released on the artist’s YouTube channel.

Axel Thesleff had a huge spectacle prepared for his debut at this year’s SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas.

The Finnish electronic artist had spent six months developing an immersive audio-visual set for attendees to witness at the festival. He enlisted the help of visual artist Petri Ruikka to bring his vision to life, whose work and experience has the use of cinema, animation, and experimental art and design

The performance, which was filmed by a 12-person crew, was shot in the artist’s native Finland at the massive Helsinki Ice Hall, an indoor arena that can seat up up to 8,200 people.

However, as with many festivals and events this year, SXSW was cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Not to be outdone by the virus, the fully-immersive one-hour set, dubbed ‘Arena Live’, can be viewed on Axel’s YouTube channel.

Axel says of the project,

“While in quarantine in Helsinki we started brainstorming ideas of what to do, when an opportunity arose to collaborate with the event technology company Bright at the Ice Hall. They had built a stage for live-streaming events during the COVID era – that’s where the whole “Arena Live” idea came from. The next 3 months were spent polishing the visuals and hiring a lighting team to program the lights for the show. We had one day for rehearsals and one day for filming, things moved so fast!”

Axel Thesleff is no stranger to epic audio-visual experiences. His audiovisual EP, Two Worlds, was filmed in multiple countries and has gained over 350,000 views. His ‘Find My Way’ live performance, also filmed in an outdoor ice rink, features 20 figure skaters in an elegantly choreographed and synchronized dance routine as the artist switches back and forth between instruments on-the-fly.

That is perhaps what makes Axel’s performances so appealing – his diverse range of musicality, being adept at playing multiple instruments, and producing tracks that range from bass-heavy to more relaxed and deep.

The highly skilled musician began gaining a substantial following thanks to his 2014 single ‘Bad karma, which has been streamed over 60 million times on Spotify alone and has gained 43 million views for its music video on YouTube.

We caught up with Axel Thesleff to ask him about the live “set that never happened”.

AL365: Hello Axel, hope quarantine and lockdown has been treating you well?

Axel Thesleff: Hello, and thanks for having me! The lockdown/quarantine situation has been really good here in Finland, we eased restrictions at the beginning of June, although the virus is still around and can spread. But I’m working at my home studio most of the time anyway, so a lockdown doesn’t really affect me that much.

AL365: Tell us more about yourself. How and when did you decide to become a musician?

Axel: I started practicing the piano at 9 years old. I liked just spending time with the instrument, discovering, and rehearsing. It all started with a program called Guitar Pro, that allows you to input notes in there and it plays it back to you with horrible generic MIDI sounds. But I loved being able to compose songs with multiple instruments and be able to hear it right away. Later I started using the built-in sequencer of a Korg TR keyboard to make tunes with. At some point at around age 16, I started discovering the possibilities of a DAW. I started getting into electronic music and making it with Ableton Live.

AL365: Despite SXSW having been cancelled, congratulations on creating an incredibly immersive live set for fans to watch online. It’s very captivating with the pairing of sounds and visuals. How was the creative process like in choosing this as your first SXSW showcase?

Axel: Thanks! Having live visuals has always been a goal of mine with the live show. So after the US support tours last year with Beats Antique and CloZee I was ready to start building on that front. I teamed up with a talented visual artist Petri Ruikka in December 2019, and he started creating these colorful morphing shapes and patterns that could be then merged and mixed live and make them react to the sound of my playing to create new and even richer compositions. We were supposed to showcase it at SXSW but it got canceled as we all know. Back home we came up with the Arena Live plan and started prepping for it (we shot it in July). Since we had extra time on our hands we were able to polish and sequence the visuals further. We met a couple times a week to build the sequence and the triggers from my computer to his.

AL365: Why the Helsinki Ice Hall as your location for the set?

Axel: Because of COVID, the Ice Hall was shut and all events canceled, and an event tech company, Bright, had built a stage in there for live streaming events. So most of the required infrastructure was already there, we just went in there with our crew and did the show and filmed it. I then edited it with my manager Oliver Obolgogiani who also acted as the producer for the video.

AL365: The visuals play an integral part of the set. How do you envision the pairing of sounds and visuals?

Axel: Yeah, I think the visuals help to set the overall mood and the world of the show. They help you digest the music and get in the vibe. It’s important to me that the visuals and the music are in sync, not just time-wise, but aesthetically also, to enhance the experience. Lights also play a big role and they need to add to the visual themes.

AL365: What is your song creation process like? There seems to be a lot of layers in your compositions that help form a narrative?

Axel: I just try out many different ideas until I find something I’m drawn towards. I call them breakthroughs. A song creation process needs several breakthroughs that can be then built upon to have a full song. I try to lay down the structure of the song early on so I get the big picture of it when the ideas are still fresh. After that, it’s just a matter of filling up all the sections and making sure there’s an emotional narrative that goes forward.

AL365: What do you hope listeners can take from your music?

Axel: It depends on the song, some are meant for emotional reflections, others are made to make you move, etc. but I hope that listeners of my music can find a state of flow when they have it on.

AL365: Were there any difficulties during the creation of the set?

Axel: There are always technical difficulties, it’s just a fact of reality. 😄 Bugs in software, careless mistakes, device deficiencies, faulty cables, etc. You just have to learn to troubleshoot fast and remain calm at all times. Thankfully the internet is filled with good resources. Especially working on a big project like this that includes multiple computers, softwares, file formats, signals going back and forth, there’s a lot that can and will go wrong, we just do our best to minimise it as much as possible.

AL365: Watching your live sets, you are skillful with the use of multiple instruments. How do you manage to play and switch between instruments with ease?

Axel: Thanks. Well, all the sound changes are automatic so I don’t have to worry about pressing a button in the middle of playing, which frees a lot of mental capacity. I’ve also practiced each sound separately and I can improvise with them the way it makes sense with each particular sound. The keyboard is my main instrument, the drums, and the mallets I don’t really have as long a history with but I find at least the digital versions of those pretty easy to get a hang of, you just have to hit the right pad and have a sense of rhythm and hand coordination which is familiar to me from playing the keyboards. So I think it’s just a matter of practice and preparation and hoping everything goes well. 😄

AL365: What would you say is your favorite instrument to play?

Axel: All of them are different so I can’t really say. Playing the piano/keyboards is fun because I know it quite well, so I can just enjoy it. The drum pad is really fun but in a different way because it’s all about rhythm. I love playing it live, especially the kick, because It’s a straight connection from my mind, through my hand hitting the pad, into bursts of air pressure the audience can feel in their bodies, it’s a pretty dope connection when you think about it. The mallet instrument is the latest addition to the setup and I love practicing it, it’s like a combination of the keyboard and the drum pad, I can get the tactile feel of the strike while still being able to play melodies and harmonies with it. Playing an 808 is pretty fun with the mallets.

AL365: You seem to have a diverse range of influences. What are some of your favorite artists and major influences?

Axel: Yeah, I’ve been listening to a lot of different kinds of music over the years, so it’s hard to say one artist without saying a dozen more that are equally important, but I’ve listened to a lot of alternative and progressive rock, jazz, metal, classical, EDM, IDM to name a few genres. I’m always interested in what other people are creating on Soundcloud and other places. But I’m not really thinking about genres or other artists when I’m making music, I just get lost in the creative process and what comes out comes out.

AL365: What has been your favorite experience while touring?

Axel: So many memories from touring that it’s hard to say what’s the favourite experience. But overall getting to know a new culture and its people is really exciting.

AL365: What’s next for Axel Thesleff?

Axel: We are looking at the future and hoping we can continue playing shows again next year. Meanwhile, there’s new music coming out and more video content as well.

Follow Axel Thesleff on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.





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