It was back in December 2019 when I first saw Kungens Män, and saw them for two nights in a row (see here for my reflections on those) in Todmorden and Manchester… and now I have just repeated the experience with two further consecutive gigs in Chelmsford and Dalston, London. To say that a significant amount of water has flown under the bridge between these two events is something of an understatement, with the added difficulties of COVID-19 and Brexit adding to the challenges for bands to come to play in the UK at the moment.
This, perhaps, was on my mind the night before I travelled down to London when I slept fitfully… dreaming that I was on stage singing Saxon’s ‘747 (Strangers in the Night)’ and waking up with some anxiety as I forgot the lyrics half way though… was I worried that something would happen to ‘Scandinavian 101’?… who knows. Anyway it was with some relief that I saw that the band had cleared the Border and were headed to Chelmsford for the first of their two night tour.
Arriving in Chelmsford and finding the excellent Hot Box venue (a skateboarding shop under the railway arches during the day) I was happy to see one member of the band outside already, as we started talking the Kungens Män came out one by one as if gradually introducing themselves… many hugs and greetings were exchanged and, already at this early stage, I was getting the expectation that this was going to be a special night. The venue itself was very friendly and welcoming, and seemed to have everything a band could need to play a great set…
As more people arrived, including a few I had only previously met online, there was a real feeling of camaraderie developing with many attending their first gig since the lockdowns (it was only the band’s second gig since then too)… and while this feels like a lot of context setting I think that it is quite important for what came next.
For myself this was my sixth gig back since the beginning of August, and I had been just getting back into the swing of things again… the massive absence of live music starting to fade into the memory to some extent. On this evening, however, I realised that actually it hadn’t… so when the band started up I was not altogether prepared for what was to come…
About ten minutes into the set though… it hit me like a train… as Kungens Män got into their groove so did I, and so did those around me… like some sort of collective rapture we seemed to be transported into a shared space in which we just let ourselves go and went for it… and the band fed and responded to this accordingly (perhaps I am reflecting on this in this manner because of the recent interview I did with William Sol on improvised music and mindfulness but this really did feel like one of those moments where we were all in some sort of trance and whirling like dervishes) and there were times when I no longer felt in control of my body as it moved seamlessly to the music.
There seems to be quite a lot of talk in some circles these days about what is and is not psych[edelic] music… but surely by this very experience we are witnessing a band who is taking us somewhere else and enabling us to enjoy these heightened experiences which we would not otherwise have… so, cutting through all the genre clinging… silo-creating bullshit, I think those who were there can say that in that moment… and in that place… Kungens Män were a psychedelic band!
As the gig progressed this seemed to get more intense, from my perspective anyway, and it felt like the band dug deeper and deeper… it felt like there was something of a collective letting go too… I felt very emotional as I could feel the scales of frustration and experience of the last eighteen months fall away… it was like so much drained away as mine, and others’ dancing seemed to get more and more fervent.
There’s a club night at the Shacklewell Arms in London called ‘Dance Yrself Clean’ (probably named after the LCD Soundsystem song)… and that briefly came to mind as I danced… that this whole experience felt so cathartic… so releasing… the chance to experience live music in such a way again… no lockdown… no being stuck at home and limited to our immediate surroundings… no home schooling… no trying to find a corner of my reduced world that I could call my own… not via Zoom but in a real physical shared space with likeminded people. Somehow finding reality in the non-rational. And the more I realised this the more intense it seemed to get… like a drug flowing through my veins I wanted more… I wanted the next peak experience… I found myself shouting ‘come on’ (and swearing copiously between tracks because that’s all I could say)… I didn’t want it to stop…
After what seemed no time at all, but was actually well over an hour, the band played a final slow track which seemed to ease us back into the room… after which I felt the need to hug every member of the band, an unusual display of emotion for me… but one that was reflective of the experience that I had just had… and I did not seem to be the only one. The rest of the evening went in a bit of a blur, but I somehow felt emotionally and mentally lighter… the experience having somehow exorcised the weirdness of the pandemic, and put me in the sort of space that can for me only be achieved through live music… it was actually and symbolically a return to one of my happy places… but a happy place that I have probably only encountered a handful of times to that extent.
On the way back into London I declared it to be an ‘all time top five’ gig… whether it was or not doesn’t really matter… but I think that what I meant by that hyperbole was that rarely have a witnessed a set that so completely took me somewhere else than Kungens Män did on that evening…
I slept fitfully that night but felt remarkably fresh the following morning, and embarked on another activity that provides my with mental sustenance… I went for a walk… a long walk, around the canals of East London. Normally I listen to music or a podcast when I embark on such journeys… but on that day I was happy just to experience the sights and sounds of my surroundings and reflect on the night before… to let it process properly. It was the first time I had walked as far as 15km for quite a while and I thought that it might prove to be a mistake given that I had had COVID twice, and had definitely noticed age catching up with me in recent months… but I seemed to be back to my pre-lockdown sprightliness and so headed to the Victoria in Dalston feeling relatively good.
This was to be a different sort of gig with a bigger crowd. The band had also seemed to have had a chilled out day so the expectation on my behalf was not a repeat of the previous night (indeed I would hope that this wouldn’t be the case), however my experience of that evening did seem to make me more aware of what was going on… I appreciated how they used Tingsha bells at the beginning, almost as an invocation to enter the musical realm… to ready themselves and ready the crowd for what was to come…
So what did come was not a repeat, for me at least, of the heightened experience of the previous night, but something more chilled out and meditative… a series of improvisations which stretched the mind in different ways. I was able to see how they play off each other and how each part of the whole is kept in some collective check as different members of the band as (mainly Gustav and Mikael at the front) go off on flights of free playing/ vocals which would not work without the solid backdrop of the other four… there was a tripe guitar attack… free form saxophone… scatting… and it is this freedom to experiment that sets Kungens Män apart from most bands I have seen… every night is unique and every performance is a collective masterclass in trust and connection… a connection that is shared with the audience… it is incredible to just close your eyes and let it wash over you… to just be in the moment… quite spiritual, but in a different way than the night before… meditation rather than revelation.
So while I have written more about the Chelmsford gig, the Dalston one was just as good but perhaps in different and more subtle ways… two encounters that complement each other very nicely resulting in what, for me, was a sort of sonic retreat with the whole weekend falling together almost perfectly with the two gigs at the centre, but also in meeting old friends and making new ones… walking familiar and new paths on my walks (an idea that is in itself quite symbolic)… and having plenty of ‘me-time’ coupled with some intense experiences… and with the best outcomes of a retreat, it is one that I hope will sustain me for some time to come…
But like any retreat this did not just happen, and would not have happened without the band itself; and thanks to Hans, Peter, Gustav, Indy, Magnus and Mikael for taking so much time and effort to come over from Sweden at this difficult time… to the gig promotors Denholm Ellis (Hot Box Live Events, Chelmsford) and Terry Hale & Elios Assiter (Other Side Promotions, Dalston)… for everyone at the venues who were so friendly and helpful… and to everyone I met and got to chat to, especially members of the Psych Lovers Facebook Group which has been an absolute lifeline during the pandemic and continues to be one of the best things about the internet (a non-judgemental music group but also a bunch of friends (and thanks to Sean Gibbins and Victor Kovics for the ace photos, see below for more)… put all these people together and you feel like the world is not such a bad place because the openness, enthusiasm and generosity I encountered this weekend was as important as the music… but when put with the music is a powerful combination… thank you!
In the words of Vinnie Jones in the film ’Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’: ”It’s been emotional!”.
I saw Kungens Män on:
22/10/2021 at the Hot Box in Chelmsford
23/10/2021 at the Victoria in Dalston.
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Here’s some more pictures from the two gigs, with thanks to Sean Gibbins (the b&w ones) and Alison Sunshine: