Liquid Stranger: Finding Balance, Success, and Inspiration
Freeform electronic producer and DJ, Liquid Stranger has a work ethic like a dynamo generator. Once he finds something that sparks his interest, the dynamo starts moving. The act of learning keeps the dynamo running faster and faster until it's channeling enough knowledge to power his next project, and his latest project is his new LP, BALANCE.
But the dynamo has been running long before the release of BALANCE last month. When Liquid Stranger, real name Martin Stääf, was only six years old back in his hometown, the small fishing hamlet of Varberg, Sweden, the spark to start the musical dynamo was already there.
"I don't remember a time when I wasn't fascinated by music," Stääf says, speaking to Festival Insider over the phone from his home in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. "I understood early how much it has the ability to change someone's mood. It felt like a good way to communicate emotions."
By the age of six, Stääf was studying piano, and the following year in 1985, he was experimenting with his first synthesizer. Being born and raised in such a small, safe town in Scandinavia (a region of the world known for its placability), he was fascinated by music that represented a departure from that serene lifestyle. "Alien, crazy-weird sounds," as he describes them.
Stääf would eventually come to call this style "freeform electronic music," which is what he continues to produce today as Liquid Stranger.
"I can make sounds, number one, that people haven't heard before. Two I can actually be in charge of all the instruments and conduct this whole experience," Stääf says. "I can control this whole process through these machines. That blew my mind."
The dynamo was fully in motion now. Stääf started collecting different synthesizers, drum machines, and other hardware. His father is a computer engineer, and they would work together on the technical side as Stääf continued studying piano, playing in orchestras and bands, and learning the fundamentals of music like theory.
But as that dynamo was generating electric aural creativity, Stääf pursued far more than music. That approach to knowledge has seen him develop himself physically, academically, and spiritually at the same level (though Stääf always discusses his various skillsets with a sense of humility).
At the age of six, he also began studying another art form that would be very influential in his approach to life: martial arts.
Similar to his early affinity for "Alien, crazy-weird sounds," Stääf was intrigued by martial arts in part due to the peaceful nature of his homeland. So much so that his parents were tentative about letting him learn to fight.
"My dad definitely didn't want me to start training. My parents are very pacifist," Stääf says with a laugh. "Me wanting to learn how to fight didn't sit right. So I had to start with Judo."
Despite his parents' initial apprehension, Stääf maintains his study of martial arts to this day, learning a wide variety of styles, including Judo, Shorinji Ryu Jujutsu, Kenpo Karate, Gōjū-ryū Karate, Muay Thai, Qi Gong Tai Chi, Native American martial arts like Tomahawk fighting, and Krav Maga (which he clearly delineates is a combat system and not a martial art).
Overall, Stääf recognizes that the ability to fight isn't the most valuable skill in everyday life. Still, with so much experience in the discipline, he has seen far more benefits than the overt combat skills that come with so much time and practice. He's even seen it contribute to his music.
"[Martial arts] is a lot about exposing yourself to extreme levels of personal introspection and discomfort. See through your own bullshit," Stääf says. "Also in [martial arts] there is a rhythm. There are patterns. Learning pattern recognition, that's what music is."
The study of martial arts is what eventually took Stääf to America, where he lives today. Currently based in Oklahoma, he lived in Arizona while attending Glendale Community College and Arizona State University, studying psychology.
Like with music and martial arts, psychology started the dynamo, and once it got started, Stääf had to start learning:
"When I moved to America I was a student and I had to do a certain amount of college hours. I signed up for a degree in kinesiology because it was linked to the martial arts. Then I took a class in psychology and loved it. Then I got obsessed with it, and eventually I had two degrees and I graduated with a 4.0."
Stääf doesn't practice psychology in any professional manner at this point. Like martial arts, it is another branch of knowledge that serves his holistic growth and, by extension, his music.
"[Psychology] was one of those helpful things where you can take something and apply it right back to yourself. I could understand myself a lot better and also understand people a lot better," Stääf says. "Music is fueled by life experiences because ultimately music, like any other artform, is an emotional language."
The drive to understand and share that emotional language keeps the dynamo running at full capacity (sometimes running over capacity when Stääf will catch himself working on music for 15 hours straight), but now through his brand WAKAAN, he can use his knowledge to be of service to others.
WAKAAN serves as a record imprint, merch label, music festival, and artist collective, and Stääf makes it a point to ensure everyone involved is equal and feels supported.
Through his many years of studies, Stääf has developed the physical, mental, academic, and artistic aspects of his life. He actively channels his experience into supporting the people he works with at WAKAAN.
"[WAKAAN] started with an idea of wanting to help," Stääf says. "It's way more fun to share the journey with people."
Stääf is now sharing his journey with everyone involved in WAKAAN. Throughout the portions of the interview wherein he discusses his achievements, Stääf ensures he's speaking from a place of humility, but upon mentioning his team at WAKAAN, his voice becomes animated with excitement.
From the Marketing Director, Chloe Suit, to the artists who sign music to the label arm, like ascending bass music producer Sully, he believes in the people with whom he surrounds himself and wants to see them win.
"It's cool when you're part of something bigger than yourself. I'm a fan of [Sully]. I picked him so if he succeeds I also succeed. If he wins, I fucking win," Stääf says. "Being able to attract some really awesome people then in turn keeps perpetuating that same energy. So I can hardly take credit. It's really a collective thing."
As humble as Stääf is, his music and the dynamo-style work ethic played a massive role in making WAKAAN what it is, and one of the label's latest releases is his new album, BALANCE.
Coming about in Summer of 2021, when the pandemic was still brutalizing the world, Stääf was writing and producing BALANCE at a time when many artists were having difficulty creating.
Events were slowly opening up, but income was still unstable, and the idea of taking a tour was perilous as shows could disappear at a moment's notice if the wrong person tested positive.
But even through this challenging time, the dynamo kept Stääf at work and experiencing that contrast of livelihood would go on to serve as a primary theme for the album.
"With this album I was more worried about how it would be received than maybe ever before because it was more in a vacuum of not actually being out and playing a lot of the material," says Stääf. "The album balanced the introspective lonely experience of writing a body of work and then being out in front of an audience, really seeing the effect that that body of work can have."
While Stääf certainly had his own experience during the pandemic, experiences fuel his music no matter what form they may take in his perception. That's why he says he never gets writer's block. As long as the dynamo is running and learning something new, he will have something to express through music.
It's experiences like learning martial arts and psychology that keep the dynamo running, and at this point, it will be running on high for years to come.