By Dalton Spangler
On the first floor of a busy street corner in downtown Oslo, only blocks away from the royal palace, lies a well-hidden cafe. It’s walls are covered with graffiti and black paint. Anarchist and Antifa imagery is stamped inside and out. A hand-painted sheet hangs over the cafe windows expressing support for French activists in La Zad being evicted from a squat by their government, which is using tanks.
All are welcome here (except neo-nazis) but all may not appreciate what’s there.
Inside the Blitz Cafe, an alternative music festival commemorates the 10-year anniversary of acclaimed music label, Fysisk Format. During the festival, teens headbanged to the sound of death metal, 20-somethings moshed to hardcore bands, and those old enough to have survived a neo-Nazi bombing of the cafe in the ‘90s sat, enjoyed cheap beer and reminisced about their heyday, protesting police brutality and racism.
More than 350 people attended each day of the two-day festival. The sheer range of ages is a testament to the community built here by a trifecta of venue, record store, and record label. For more than 35 years, The Blitz has served as a legendary venue comparable to California punk’s 924 Gilman. The Norwegian Concert Organizers organization (Norske Konsertarrangører), the countries largest concert organizers union, was founded there in 1982. Oslo sub-genres like punk, ska and hardcore all call the Blitz home, as well.
Before streaming music was a thing, fans could only purchase the music they heard at The Blitz from the Tiger record store. And about ten years ago the folks at Tiger started the music label, Fysisk Format.
Tiger sells vinyl, CDs, tapes and more, and was a favorite of music-lovers because it specialized in ska, punk, and hardcore during the ’90s. It’s one of the few remaining record stores of that era despite waning popularity for hardcore genres and the dominance of chain record stores in the area.
Jørn Haagestad is one of many customers who has been loyal to Tiger for years. “I discovered this shop when I was 15 and I was looking for some punk CDs. Now I’ve been spending all my money here ever since.” In 2005 he was searching for ska-punk band Goldfinger’s latest release – “Disconnection Notice.” Every store he tried had never even heard of the band until he came to Tiger. Haagestad was shocked when the guy behind the counter not only knew the band but asked enthusiastically “When did they put out a new record?” and wanted to hear the album for himself. Now Haagestad is the guy behind the counter and has been for the past four years. He also manages Fysisk Format’s distribution and many online shops for bands such as Datarock and Bergen’s Edda.
Kristian Kallevik founded Fysisk Format in 2008. He said the label arose “more or less as a reaction to the chaos that was going on around that time.” He started his career at Tiger in 2003, what Kallevik calls “the golden age of CDs.” Kallevik said bands frequently approached him to sell their demos on CD, even as people began streaming and pirating music.
“There were lots of newspaper articles and statements from Norwegian major labels and their representatives who were probably told to say things like ‘the CD’s dead, the physical format is over,’” he said.
“Napster, illegal downloading, Spotify was starting up,” he said. ” Everybody was like, ‘Okay, who are these Spotify guys?’ I remember one of the arguments for their service was ‘We don’t pay much but at least it’s better than illegal downloading.’ So the level then was quite low.”
His experience at Tiger, combined with the knowledge that the punk music he was listening to hadn’t been digitized, was enough to convince Kallevik he wasn’t ready to abandon vinyl and CDs.
“Coming from a record store and being a music enthusiast, we felt the physical format needed to be given a little extra love and extra plays,” he said.
Fysisk is the Norwegian word for physical and in 2008, Fysisk Format was born.
The label’s move to sell physical copies not only helped the record store but also helped keep local bands afloat as fans of physical formats and shows remained a viable source of income.
At the same time Kallevik was starting the label, he met a woman named Ingrid, who shared his fascination with records, CDs and live music.
Ingrid shopped at Tiger, where Kallevik worked, and they often encountered one another at gigs. Ingrid says they met while she was buying a Cult of Luna CD. Kristian knew the band and suggested she take a look at the new album from another hardcore band, ISIS.
One wedding and two daughters later, they still share the same passion for music. Ingrid manages the label’s manufacturing, sets up deals with printing companies and designs merch for the bands.
Kristian manages the music festival at the Blitz. They both run around the café ensuring the bands are taken care of and visit with longtime friends, including two fans of Fysisk Format band Haust — Trish Brontë and Sebastian Rusten.
Because he knew the bass and guitar players from high school, Rusten had been of fan of Haust and their members before they even came up with a name for the band.
“One thing I find really lovely about Haust,” Brontë said, “is that they have the sound, they have the music, but they also have the lyrics. Frontman Vebjørn works really hard to create meaning (in) what he says without forcing it. It’s like poetry, basically.”
Brontë is an American who earned a Master’s degree in German from the University of Washington. “I’ve been here (Norway) for eight years. I came here for the language and I stayed because I loved the country. Then I met the guy a couple years after that.”
Among the fans in the crowd was Rolf Utne, a gray-haired man who has been a fan of Oslo’s underground for decades. “I know all these bands. This is the kinda stuff I grew up listening to. Metal and punk. Why stop listening?” he said.
At the other end of the age spectrum were three metal-head fans: Johannes-Thor Sandal (16), Simen Harstad (14), and Adalsteinn Sandal (13). Despite their youth all three are musicians. Johannes-Thor and Simen have been in a metal band of their own since 2014. The band is named Golden Core and they play a mix of stoner and sludge metal with a Norwegian twist. Their major influences are Mastodon, Killing Joke, and Black Sabbath.
“We’re the only ones that do this,” said Johannes-Thor. “Every other kid listens to pop and mainstream music so we are with the underground. We mostly play at places that have 18 or 20+ age restrictions.”
The boys have performed internationally, playing shows in Denmark and Iceland. They are an active part of Oslo’s underground – either supporting other musicians at gigs such as Fysisk Fest or playing one of the 30 shows they did in Oslo during 2017.
What brings together such a broad range of age groups and backgrounds to a crusty cafe in downtown Oslo? Fysisk Format has earned a reputation as a label that actually cares about the music, according to many of the bands who performed that night. In fact, all the proceeds from the festival went directly to The Blitz and the bands.
Attan, the latest band to sign with the label, leveled the house with their brutal screaming from both the frontman Remi Semshaug Langseth and bassist Fritz-Ragnvald Rimala Pettersen. Langseth’s higher register provides a scream typical of black metal artists, while Pettersen’s deeper, gurgly register is more closely related to death metal artists. Their voices combine to give the band a truly terrifying range of demonic sounds reflecting their chaotic brand of metal.
According to Langseth, Attan would sign only with Fysisk Format, as the label offers international connections and provides their artists with creative freedom, even if their sound isn’t marketable to mainstream audiences.
“We wanted [a label] closer to home and within Norway. They’re in a league of their own for what we do,” said Pettersen,”For us, it was really a no-brainer as for what label to look for if we wanted to take things home.”
“They’ve been releasing off-the-charts music for ten years and are still going, so it kinda speaks volumes for what they do and how well they do it,” he said.
The band, Sibiir is made up of aging hardcore punks who had never played metal until they started the band. Their unique blend of hardcore and metal has earned them critical acclaim in publications across Norway, the UK, and the U.S. They’ve also done two international tours with famed Norweigan metal band, Kvelertak.
Drummer Eivind Kjølstad said, “I think every single one of us, in our ’20s, always hoped that Fysisk Format would pick up one of our bands. The only thing I can compare it to is like if you’re a band from Seattle and Sub Pop asks you. You just say ‘Ya, of course,’” he said.
Even Kvelertak asked Fysisk Format if they’d release a 7-inch vinyl for them before they blew up in 2010.
Hardcore punk band, The Good The Bad and The Zugly, claim to be the bastard children of the 90s punk scene in Oslo. Their fans have almost as much fun as the band does on stage as evidenced by the constant flow of crowd surfers and mosh pits incited by their frontman, Ivar Nicolaisen.
They too are enthusiastic about their label. “It’s fire and soul. It’s do-it-yourself,” says drummer Mange Vannebo. “Almost every release is successful and they (Fysisk Format) don’t sign bands they don’t like just to sell records or get bigger.”
Kristian now aims to maintain the label and it’s reputation so he can enjoy the changes the next ten years has in store for him. He said, “It feels like we’ve been in a period in life when you put in extra energy for kids and to start up a business but I don’t think I’ve got it in me to keep starting new things.”
The festival came to a close with the first band ever signed under the Fysisk Format label. Haust, celebrating the tenth anniversary of its debut record “Ride the Relapse,” performed the entire album from front to back to wrap up the festival. The band recently split, leaving only two of the original members, but all four original members came to the festival for a mini-reunion. It was their first performance since their last release, “Bodies,” in 2015. Lead singer Vebjørn Guttormsgaard Møllberg said, “It’s quite weird to play with that band and that record.”
He continued “It’s been a really long time and it feels like it, but that’s also nice to do a one-off show.” Haust, despite their split, was willing to set aside their conflicting ambitions and perform this one last show both for the label and the shared past of their community.
When the lights came up, all that was left from the crowds were empty beer cans and bar sludge. Kristian and Ingrid began tearing down the merch table as the band loaded out their equipment. Leaving that night felt like leaving a decade – reflective and cautiously optimistic.