The brainchild of Norwegian composer/percussionist/keyboardist Lars Pedersen, When has produced a far-ranging body of work dating back to the early '80s, running the gamut from dense, dissonant orchestral music to sample-based collages to Beach Boys-inspired psychedelic pop. Given this range of sounds and styles, When's music is remarkable for its avoidance of the distanced, post-modern pastiche approach favored by numerous other avant-garde collagists, instead demonstrating a darker, more morbid stance evidenced throughout his catalog by such titles as Death in the Blue Lake, Black White & Grey, and The Black Death.
When got its start in 1983, at which time Pedersen was also working as a member of the experimental/industrial trio Holy Toy, an outfit he continued to work with throughout the '80s. When's first album, several years in the making, was 1987's Drowning but Learning and originally released on Pedersen's own tiny Witchwood label. This was followed in 1988 by Death in the Blue Lake, whose title track was an extended classical-type suite, rendered via a virtual orchestra (i.e., through the use of sampled brass, percussion, etc.) and inspired by author Andre Bjerke's suspense/thriller novel of the same name. For his next album, Black White & Grey (1990), Pedersen teamed up with onetime Henry Cow member Chris Cutler, who contributed lyrics to the album in addition to releasing it on his RéR Megacorp label. (Cutler also contributed lyrics to When's 1994 release, Prefab Wreckage.)
When's next three albums all came out on the Norwegian imprint Tatra Records. The first of these, Svartedauen (The Black Death) (1992), was an album-length suite inspired by the Norway Black Plague and fittingly represents some of When's darkest, most unsettling work on record. That was followed by Prefab Wreckage (1994), which found When creeping toward a more song-oriented direction. The third and final When recording issued by Tatra was Gynt (1997), inspired by classical composer Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite. (Tatra also re-released the When debut Drowning But Learning during Pedersen's years with the label.)
The next chapter in When's career began in 1998 with the then-recently formed Jester Records imprint, which is run by Kyrstoffer Rygg, a fan of Pedersen's work for many years and the frontman for the well-known post-black metal bands Ulver and Arcturus. (In fact, a remix by When appears on the 1999 Arcturus album Disguised Masters.) When's first album for Jester, Psychedelic Wunderbaum (1999), was one of the label's earliest releases, and it saw Pedersen reunited with longtime collaborator Bjørn Sorknes (also a former member of Holy Toy). Jester followed this up with the career-spanning double-disc compilation WriterCakeBox: The Unblessed World of When, 1983-1998, which gathered together highlights from all of When's releases up to (but not including) Psychedelic Wunderbaum, along with rare compilation-only tracks and a half-hour's worth of unreleased material from Pedersen's vaults. After a slight delay in the production process, the third When release for Jester, The Lobster Boys, came out in 2001. This album represented the most pop-oriented material in the When catalog, relatively speaking, and continued helping Pedersen gain exposure to new audiences, due in large part to Jester's relatively wide reach outside of the Norwegian market.