A Californian Went to Denmark...and it Changed His Life
Jamaican dub meets Scandinavian minimalism in CHLLNGR's new album, Haven, but how did the nocturnal boy find warmth in those sometimes cold spaces? MTV Iggy writer Beverly Bryan joined him for a little record shopping to find out.
Deadly Dragon Sound is a microscopic cubbyhole of a record store in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Old dub and dancehall vinyl line the walls, all stored in white cardboard crates labeled “Riddim Box.” It smells pleasantly of herbal soap. Steve Borth, who records under the name CHLLNGR, stops in whenever he’s in New York and today seems comfortably home within its confines.
The Denmark-based electronic artist is in the city this week for a spate of shows — backing up Spoek Mathambo for a few dates, and also playing solo shows in support of his own recently released debut album Haven. His otherwise open face is obscured by a brambly beard, oversized glasses, and a lot of hair as he rifles through the boxes with zen-like attention. The headphones dangling from his neck add yet more clutter. Soon, he has collected a short stack of seven inches and plugs in to the turntable that Deadly Dragon makes available to customers.
Illuminated by the meager light filtering past the jungle of posters in the storefront window, he puts Millie’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is” on the platter for a spin. “She had a hit in the States when my mom was a kid,” Borth offers in his gentle Californian uptalk. It’s not pronounced, but a lot of his statements end like questions. He’s referring to 1964’s crossover hit “My Boy Lollipop,” first heard on an old Trojan Records compilation he thinks he picked up in England.
Originally from Sacramento, the 34 year-old musician started his career playing saxophone in Bay Area ska punk band Link 80 and in reggae-influenced band RX Bandits. His record habit dates from his time touring England with those bands. “In England [Jamaican music] is such a part of the culture. I think I gravitated to that because the people I met there introduced me to some tunes,” he muses. He especially gravitated to the laid back rhythms of dub and rocksteady. “I really like those two styles. I like mellow music.”
The moody imprint of dub is all over his work as CHLLNGR, albeit submerged and combined with UK garage. The latter influence is reflected in the shuffling beats, blips, and static, as well as the manipulation on the vocals, which are mainly Borth’s. Despite this, CHLLNGR is not dubstep. It has the same roots –dub, progressive electronic music, and soul — but recombined into something more like a haunted dub, with a generous scoop of waterlogged R&B.
It’s not dubstep’s twitchy, druggy darkness, nor is it dub reggae’s bubbling, murky cauldron. It’s not even quite like Burial, though Borth owns up to direct influence from the UK producer’s ominous body of work. The songs on Haven are more melodic and less sinister. The shadows are distinctly welcoming and the sub-bass hum is more warm than menacing. “Someone,” for example, with its billowing, ghostly vocals, is almost churchy — just in a midnight mass kind of way.
The producer is well aware of this sanctuary quality. “When I wrote the title track I chose the word ‘haven’ because I felt like the tune felt eerily comfortable.” That’s a pretty accurate assessment. On “Haven” unearthly distorted voices float in an amniotic stew of gentle poly-rhythms and fuzzy synth. It’s strange but peaceful.
According to him, Haven’s particular gloom was inspired by his first Scandinavian winter. “I’d say 75 percent of the album I wrote in Denmark during a freezing time. There was really no option to go out so I was totally focused. I would say the darker element of it probably came from being stuck inside,” Borth reflects.
If Haven’s shadows stem from a dark place it must have been the nurturing dark that allows mushrooms to grow and film to develop. Borth has found a haven of his own in Denmark. While on tour with his reggae band Satori, he met a Danish woman at a show in the autonomous commune Christiania. “A friend had kind of set us up, we didn’t know. We were both there and we started talking and we didn’t stop talking,” the he says.
Three years later, they are married, Borth is on track to become a permanent resident, and two weeks ago they welcomed a daughter. As his personal life changed, so did his musical direction. He’d been playing with Satori for several years and “I needed to figure out something that I could do on my own where I’m totally independent,” he recalls.
In early 2010 he started tinkering with an old reverb machine he bought on Ebay and, 18 months later, finished Haven.