Some of this beef has less to do with techno overall than with specific people in techno. Haters loom large in Rönnberg’s mind. Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone young, irreverent and evidently successful, he gets a lot of shit from his peers. And he’s not above giving it back to them.
“Big producers, people that want to do stuff, are scared to do it, because they think it won’t fit with their moniker, or with techno,” he said. “Being whatever you want to be, doing whatever you do—for me it works. I don’t care about anyone else. I think it’s cute that people are stuck in a frame. If you’re one of those people that’s, like, afraid, that must suck, I feel so bad for you. We’re in this crazy world where nothing makes sense, and you’re so small-minded that you’re like, ‘I can’t do this with this moniker, in this genre.’ It’s cute. In a pathetic way.”
In his uneasy relationship with techno, Rönnberg plays a role familiar to him since childhood: the flamboyant misfit, shaking up what he sees as an impossibly boring scene, making friends and enemies along the way. He grew up in Ursviken, a small town outside the city of Skellefteå, whose name he says roughly translates to “betrayed to the core.”
“We had a pizzeria, a small barber about to shut down, a supermarket that sucks, doesn’t have anything. And that’s it. Two small schools where the students are always in constant fights with each other. A really fucked up policeman who was harassing us all the time. He tear-gassed us at the local gas station. Chased us in a helicopter while we were on our mopeds.”
Rönnberg described himself as a strange young man, “a fat kid” fond of wearing mascara and feather boas. He collected records from a young age and fantasized about having a studio in his basement. He tried his hand at scratching, mixing black metal records with hip-hop battle tools. “You know, ‘Aw, fresh, yeah!,’ classic beat shit,” he said. “I was beat-juggling J-Dilla’s ‘Fuck The Police‘ at a school party, standing onstage in a feather boa.”
He tried breakdancing, but was “too chubby.” Soon he’d fall in love with another pillar of hip-hop culture. When he was about ten, his mother started commuting to Stockholm, and would take him along for the 12-hour train ride from Skellefteå. He’d stare out the window and watch the graffiti appear as they got closer to Stockholm.
“When you came to Stockholm it was everywhere,” he said. “Didn’t exist in my hometown. It was something new, I liked the outsider mentality of it. Even as a child, I could feel that. Who goes out in the middle of the night and writes their name on a train? That’s cool, I wanna be like that.”
It was through graffiti that Rönnberg met Anthony Linell, the techno artist with whom he’d later found Northern Electronics. Rönnberg saw Linell posting on a website called Fotolog and admired his misanthropic style. “He was so mad all the time,” he said. “He left these comments like [deep voice]: ‘You suck. I went over this piece last night.’ He was really an asshole. I liked it, I kinda vibed with it. We met up in Stockholm, painted some walls, and since then we’re friends.”
When Rönnberg was 18, a series of events led him to flee Skellefteå. His friend and roommate was killed by her partner. Around the same time, he was busted for an incident that he wouldn’t completely explain and fined €30,000. From then on, he said, he was dogged by Skellefteå’s police, who felt he’d gotten off light, having dodged jail time thanks to being a minor at the time of his crimes.
“They were tapping my phone, following me around for almost one year,” he said. “So I moved to Stockholm. Kept painting, kept doing my thing.”
Two years later, Rönnberg was painting in the subway with his friend Frederik. They were caught off guard when the train they were painting left earlier than expected. Rönnberg rode between the cars and boarded the train at the next station. Frederik didn’t turn up.
“He fell down surfing between the cars and got run over,” Rönnberg said. “But this time the police were really nice. I was 19 years old. They had access to psychiatry papers and I had a pretty hefty list of in-and-out of psych ward, different pills, different treatments. So they probably were like, ‘We’re not gonna push this guy over the edge.'”
Rönnberg resolved to try and shape up. Making music started to seem more appealing. He went to see Linell play a rave in Stockholm. When he got home, his mother asked how he liked it. He said, “I can do better.” The next day he found himself obsessed with the idea of making music. “That childhood dream had disappeared for so many years,” he said. “I never thought about it. Then it was like, ‘Fuck yeah, I’m gonna try this.'”
Rönnberg bought a Roland MC 505 and got started. But trouble found him again. One night, he said, he was on his way home from a show. A group of guys followed him into the subway and robbed him. One held a knife to his stomach, one went through his backpack, one stood lookout. When they were done they threw him on the train tracks. Rönnberg broke his foot and was stuck in bed for three months.
“I started making music from there,” he said. “In that bed.” Two years later, he’d cofound Northern Electronics with Linell, and release his first cassette, Misantropen.
Since then, Rönnberg has struggled to balance his life as a musician with the traumas of his earlier life. He maintains a visceral hatred of police, and admits to paranoia about being followed or surveilled. He also suffers from conditions that predate those incidents, namely anxiety and depression.
“I’ve been on the suicide hotline a million times,” he said. “Calling emergency psychiatrists to talk to people. This year two of my friends killed themselves. Which has been destroying me. And it’s been like this my whole life: people dying, people disappearing. From drugs and suicide or whatever. I had a really bad time with that. Lately it’s been much worse. My old best friend, one of the last people from the old gang, hung himself in February. That was devastating. I cancelled a show in Mexico because I was completely fucked. Dude, I was crying in bed for like three weeks.”
Rönnberg finished his second beer and unwrapped the ice cream Snickers. “This is something that, with music, I’m able to take a vacation from,” he said. “Becoming an artist, walking away from my problems, going out to play a show, not needing to deal with it at this exact point.”
As Rönnberg toured more and more, Varg evolved from a vacation to something more like an alter-ego—a carefree, happy-go-lucky alternative to his real self. Speaking about this, Rönnberg identified two different people: Varg and Jonas. Varg is a playfully nihilistic bad boy pouring Moët on an 808. Jonas is, in his own words, a “bullied fucking fat guy from Northern Sweden.”
Though she paints Jonas in more affectionate terms, Melina more or less agrees with this assessment. “I think we all have that, we all have different characters in our persona,” she said. “We want to be this completed person that fits some place in the world, but we have these completely different parts of ourselves. Jonas is a lot like that, and the things he likes don’t really go well together. Everything that Varg is is in his personality. But he has a lot of other layers too.”
For instance, he’s sensitive. “He thinks a lot about other people and wants good for everyone,” she said. “He’d be mad at me for telling you this, but the second time we recorded together, he cried in front of me.”
“I’ve always been bullied,” Rönnberg said. “Varg is the character that doesn’t really take any shit from that. And it kinda helped me not take as much shit. Or not care about what people think. Doing your own thing. This has been fucking therapy for me. Doing this project. Becoming what I am. It’s crazy in that way.”
He finished his ice cream Snickers and lit a cigarette. “Jonas is out of the game at this point,” he said, exhaling. “He’s dead, at home in Stockholm somewhere. I don’t have time to deal with him anymore. Meaning myself. The true me.”
But is Varg not just a mask?
“Yeah,” he said, “a sick fucking mask. Like Slipknot. But in one person.”
The mask, of course, extends to social media, and especially Instagram. In his mind, his public image is another form of creative content, another performance.
“It’s art!” he said. “You have an audience there, really easy to reach, that is waiting for your shit to come out. You get this fucking space and so many attendees, which is your followers, and you can show them what you want to. And what I show them makes me sell records, and makes me book shows, and makes me a funny internet man. And it’s entertaining. Varg is entertainment.”
Except it’s not quite that simple. Lately, Rönnberg has been struck by the fact that, by presenting such a swaggering image, he leaves out an essential detail of his life and his character: struggle, especially with his own mental health. As he’s become more of a public figure, he’s felt more responsibility to show this side of himself—to “come clean,” as he put it.
“So, say my friend got stabbed. I got robbed. I lost a shit-ton of money. That happened, that happened. I’m fucking depressed. I’m eating anti-depressants. I’m crying for seven hours. What will you see? Me in a Snoopie hat at the Gucci store with some stupid fucking caption. But it isn’t all rosé Möet and Gucci stores. My life is fucking tough, and I know I’m not the only one who feels like this, struggling with depression, struggling with this shit. So I felt lately like it’s kind of an asshole move not to talk about that side of my life. Because I owe that to people.”
By then we were sitting in amber lamp light, amidst the buzzing of crickets—the sun had long since gone down. Rönnberg asked if I’d seen 8 Mile, the 2002 film with Eminem. “At the end, he does a verse where he disses himself? So then the other guy couldn’t diss him, and he choked? That’s kinda what I’m doing. Like, in life. Being up front so they can’t really take shots, so they choke instead of being able to say anything.”