Upon the release of their fourth album, “Piramida”, we spoke with Casper Clausen, vocalist for the Danish trio Efterklang, to find out about the ins and outs of the recording of an ambitious album that came about in a unique way.
About 650 kilometres to the north of continental Europe, almost to the North Pole, there is an island called Spitsbergen, an abandoned settlement that was used until January of 1998 as a mining facility for about 1,000 Russians. The Danish trio Efterklang travelled there last summer to collect sounds to take into the studio to create their new album, “Piramida”, which 4AD put out on 24th September. It’s an ambitious project, as is usual for the band, but unlike what you might think, the result is neither epic nor complex, it’s a new piece of excellently-made orchestral pop with a slightly experimental vocation.
The place, where they managed to give a musical soul to such unusual objects as enormous petrol tanks, screens, glass bottles, and even the northernmost grand piano, fascinated us so much that we wanted to talk to the band and get them to tell us more about how they felt in such a desolate, isolated spot and what the recording process was like. Of course, we also took advantage of the opportunity to ask them about other projects, such as their recent concert at the Sydney Opera House, where “Piramida” had its worldwide premiere and the documentary they produced with Vincent Moon, “An Island”. Taking advantage of the fact that he was on holiday in Spain, where besides visiting Barcelona he also went to Andalusia and Benicàssim (not for the festival), we met with Casper Clausen, the group’s vocalist, in a hotel in the city centre to have a cup of coffee and a long chat about music and nostalgia.
The press release says you discovered Spitsbergen when you saw some photographs of it. But how did they come to you?
There was this Swedish film director who wrote us an e-mail two years ago asking if he could do a music video of one of the “ Magic Chairs” songs from this place he had discovered and he attached these photos. At that time it didn’t really make sense to do a music video because it’s quite complicated to get up there; it would cost a lot to do such a thing. But this place kept ringing in our minds.
I was stunned when I read the press release and discovered this place. I imagine a lot of people may be excited by such a haunting place. Any plans for a film documentary?
Actually, there are. We had a documentarist with us; he was with us for the whole trip with the camera, filming us. As we speak, we are kind of preparing this film. It’s kind of the first documentary film we have produced in a sense of real documentary. The last film we did, “An Island”, with Vincent Moon, was more like an experiment, a true art project. This is going to be a little bit different. It’s about this town and about us discovering it. It’s very exciting. We are adjusting it at the moment and we hope we can get it out somewhere by the end of this year.
What did you see there, and how did you feel? What did you do there other than collecting sounds?
It’s a special place to be, especially for city kids like us. You are in pure nature and that place is completely stunning. It’s so amazing to watch. And then you have this small town in the middle of it that was left by some people thirteen years ago. I think what we did most of the time was wonder why you would want to build this city up here. It doesn’t really make any sense, because everything is extremely rough. I think the best way to explain it is that there are no kids born in Spitsbergen, you have to go to Norway, and you can’t be buried there, so you can’t die there either, because if you put a corpse in the ground the permafrost would basically push the corpse up. So it’s really a very human-unfriendly place to be, but at the same time extremely fascinating. We spent a lot of time walking around, obviously collecting sounds, but also just being like kids exploring ghost houses. At the same time, we reflected a lot on life.
Which of the elements that you found in Spitsbergen would you say surprised you the most that you could give them a musical soul?
For the opening song, “ Hollow Mountain”, we found a tank full of water that we used for the first sounds in the song. It had spikes on it, and when you hit it with a stick, it had a magical sound. It had at the same time a percussion sound, but because it was filled with water, it also had a watery sound. That one was completely out of the blue. We couldn’t really plan too much what to do. We just had to use our ears. Another big thing was this huge old gasoline tank eight metres high. Those are some of the ones I remember the most. There’re billions of sounds that we’ve been using, some of them are just sounds and others have a memory attached to it. The most fascinating thing about this was working with your memory of the place. It was quite a nice process to do.
Seeing that you had so many sounds collected there, did you spend more time in the studio than with other albums?
We spent quite a lot, but “Parades” is the one we spent the most on, almost a year and a half. This time it was a big studio album, so we spent nine days up there and nine months in the studio working with the material.
Would you say working at the studio was as stimulating as the journey itself?
Well, when you are in a boat with big jackets, on the sea and on your way to a ghost town far up north, of course it’s exciting in a different way than sitting in front of the computer and playing instruments. But I think the process was interesting in different kinds of ways. So going up there for us was a completely new way of starting an album; we never did that before. We never had an album where we could look back and say ‘ok, here is no music and here is where we start’. The recording process was different because, again, we used memory to go back and find the sources of the sounds.
Once we were in Berlin and we were recording, we got to work with all these incredible musicians that we never worked with before. Earl Harvin… I’m a big fan of My Brightest Diamond and I was blown away when I found out he was living a few blocks away from our studio, so we asked him if he wanted to play. He’s an extraordinary drummer. Nils Frahm, a really good piano player, and Peter Broderick, who has been around for awhile. So this process was more sort of social, in a way, and we used our friends to listen to the material. But it comes from a really isolated place that has made its way out into the open. That goes for a lot of things. Lyrically, the words on the record don’t exactly have to do with the place, but it’s sort of a development from this ghost town, this abandoned city that is lying there. At the same time I was going through a break-up in a relationship, and it kind of made sense in a weird way because this city kind of established a monument, a reference to a broken relationship. A city that is there, but there are no people in there. But you can go there. It had some references and similarities with what I was going through. That was exactly what we were hoping, that this thing would be more than just a town, and more like a development in the memory, if that makes any sense! [laughs]
"It’s important that when we deliver the music to the people, we want it to be accessible because we want people to listen to it, to be able to make up their minds about it"
I think it’s interesting that you say it’s a social album, because it comes from an isolated place. How did you transmit the feelings and emotions you felt in Spitsbergen to Nils Frahm or Earl Harvin?
With all of them, we invited them to the studio and played them sounds of the island, showed them some pictures of up there and talked to them and explained what we were doing there. And I think that was enough for them to be involved, because when you are working with these incredible musicians, you see that they have this great comfort in what they are playing and in many ways, what we were asking them to do was sometimes to collaborate and others to just do what we told them to do and do it well. So I think the collaboration was more on musical ground. When we were at the studio recording, we were looking at the material as if it had nothing to do with Spitsbergen, as if it was just music. We always had the idea that we didn’t necessarily want for you to have the description before you listen to the music. Rather listen to the music, like the music, see the description and then it makes sense in some way because it has a story behind it. We did this a lot with the musicians, trying to play them the songs and seeing if they were working without information. But at the same time we explained it to them, of course.
You tend to use multiple layers in your sound. And the voice seems to be heard up front, clearer than before. Why did you decide to go for that?
This time, as I was saying before, there was a little bit more content in the vocals. There were more words, more senses, more meaning in an abstract way. In many ways it made sense to establish kind of a focus in the music that was around the vocal. And I was playing a lot with trying to sing most of it myself, because I really wanted it to sound solemn and alone, like the place itself, it’s the feeling you have there, you feel alone as a human being. This all made sense with our experience in the city, trying to keep it sparse, not too many instruments and keep the vocal as guidance.
There’s this typical question of choosing which three records you would take with you to a desert island. Seeing Spitsbergen as a desert island, if you were to return, what would you pick?
Let’s see… for Spitsbergen. Good question… [thinks]. Something like Alva Noto would fit the setting quite well, Alva Noto and Sakamoto. That kind of stuff. But I can’t really tell you exactly a specific record.
How do you manage to find a balance between the idea of accessibility in music and pushing boundaries, always trying to work in something new?
Uhhh, that’s… To us, as I said to you, it’s important that when we deliver the music to the people, we want it to be accessible because we want people to listen to it, to be able to make up their minds about it. We like pop music, but at the same time we have figured out our way around doing things. Usually when we do things, it’s not necessarily classic song-writing. For us, we use experiments to create the songs. If we just sat down every day at the piano and tried to make songs, we would get quite bored. What we like to do is kind of create these games. “Piramida” is a good example. ‘Let’s go far away, take some microphones and start an album’. When I look back, it sounds a little silly to me: ‘Why don’t you just go to a studio and record some music?’ It says a lot about how we work; we need to challenge ourselves to create music. That has been like that for a long time. And I think, and hope, that’s why the music sometimes comes out a little different than other music. We still strive for the same thing; we still want to do music that is accessible and friendly.
Music is slowly but surely entering the museum world. For once, you’re going to promote this album at the Metropolitan. How do you envision music being included in a regular way in museums middle-term or long-term?
Museums are an interesting room. We have never played there before. I don’t know how it will fit and how it will work. I think the museum room is sometimes hard to fill with music. But it’s nice to have the opportunity to put on a show like this. To me it’s quite extraordinary because there aren’t many places that do stuff like that. You have the Guggenheim here, where you do concerts once in a while. It’s also good because the rooms are filled with inputs. But I’ll have to talk to you next time and tell you how it went! [laughs]
How did you meet Budgie and what motivated you to work together, given you come from quite different musical worlds?
We didn’t really know about Budgie. We knew Siouxsie and the Banshees, but we had never really been into it. It was a weird domino effect. We asked Earl Harvin if we could do this orchestra concert in Sydney where we were world premiering the album, but Earl was busy playing with Tindersticks, then he turned us on to another guy, the Iggy Pop drummer, who also lives in Berlin. We talked to him and he was very keen. Suddenly he got ill, but he knew a guy that could step in, and that was Budgie. He came in from the sides; we didn’t even know he was living in Berlin. Then we had three weeks with him, getting to know him, basically. He is such an amazing human being, a really incredible musician and person. It was really interesting collaborating with him because we would have never thought of asking Budgie to play with Efterklang. Before we met him, it would not necessarily have been the option. But it came out of the blue and brought in something completely new to the sound, a mood in the music that we never really had before. It’s been wonderful.
On and on in your career you’ve played live with more and more musicians. Do you see yourself playing only as a trio, even if that means reducing some of the orchestration?
I think in this new album we are exploring the idea of condensing sounds. When we went to Spitsbergen, we wanted to come back and make some music where you could hear the sounds of this place. That means we had to cut down a lot of orchestral things. Still, when you listen to “Piramida”, there are orchestral parts, but as I see it—and, you know, this can change—what we were searching for is to condense our sound, to cut it down to fewer elements and try to find the core of the music.
I can hardly imagine a more ambitious musical project than playing in the Sydney Opera House with dozens of musicians, but earlier in your career you performed “Parades” with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra. So do you have any big plans ahead?
[Laughs] Maybe doing the music for the first human being on Mars, something like that. That would be bigger. No, I think you are right, for a musician, being in the Sydney Opera House was like an extraordinary experience. It’s a Dane, Jørn Utzon, who built that building, so we had heard about it and its architecture since we were small kids, so to just stand there… you can imagine how our parents feel about it! That’s the kind of achievement it is. We had a brilliant orchestra and it was an amazing experience, because it was the first time we played this material. There were quite a lot of things at the same time; it was like a dream, somehow. But I’m sure there is much more to come and surprising epic places to go and things to do with our music.
"Some bands see a potential of working with orchestras, and others find it completely annoying"
I don’t know for sure if you played the album with it completed or during the process of its completion.
It was very close to being done, but actually when we went to Sydney, we gave the music to the mixer, so there’s been this guy sitting and mixing the music while we were in Australia, and actually in the concert we were playing a slightly different playlist than the record because we had to change things up in the end when we came back. So it was in the process, but it was at the very end, or the music was there, but there were some tracklisting issues.
How did the performance influence the final sound of the album?
This whole album has been a weird journey. We started in Spitsbergen and we came back in September, and then I think in October we got the invitation from the Sydney Opera House. They asked us if we wanted to collaborate with them and gave us carte blanche to do whatever project we wanted. First of all, it didn’t really make sense because we told ourselves that we wanted to have time to prepare this album. But then we couldn’t really turn down playing there. So we asked them if we could do the new album there with orchestra. That means that in October we had two projects, the album and the album with the orchestra. We tried to combine them during the process and that was quite interesting, because we could kind of allow ourselves to do things with the orchestra that we would not do in the album. The idea was to keep the album quite sparse, and then with the orchestra make it big. Halfway through, like in January or February, we invited these classical arrangers to take the songs that we hadn’t really finished, but the song-writing was done, and we had to record a lot of things. We gave them these sketches and then they started going in this direction and we started completing the album. Then we met on the other side and they came back with the arrangements. That was quite cool because you got a completely different input. I think we managed to keep our heads cold and go with the album as we planned, and then they went with the arrangements. It feels like two different things.
"We are playing a lot with nostalgia, memory and the idea of looking back"
September is a big month for orchestral pop enthusiasts, with the release of both your album and Grizzly Bear’s. What do you think is so appealing in this genre and why are more and more new bands going for these sounds?
I think this generation of musicians that are here at the moment in 2012 have a lot of tools in their hands. We grew up making music being able to do pretty much everything. There are so many possibilities for making music and I think this whole idea of exploring it just makes it a time where people tend to do this kind of orchestral project where you invite lots of different instruments. Also there is friendliness from the classical world to invite in rock bands. You have the whole Canadian scene with Arcade Fire, Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Sigur Rós in the beginning of the millennium that kind of started using this idea of making epic sounds where you combine the rock and the classical. In that field, in this soil where we have grown up, there is an idea of no boundaries. You want that sound; you just go and do it. There’s nothing that holds you back. I think it would have been impossible for us to play at the Sydney Opera House twenty years ago, but today there are a lot of different festivals and producers around the world that are quite open to doing collaborations, because the classical worlds sees that it makes sense to collaborate with bands. Some bands see a potential of working with orchestras, and others find it completely annoying.
There is a lot of nostalgia, a lot of emotions flowing in your music, so I suppose that for you it might have been a powerful experience to go back to the island where you grew up to film “An Island”. Was that so?
It was a fantastic experience. It all went really fast when we were there. We had three days and we just went from one place to the other, and it was a walk down memory lane, but with a crazy French guy! [laughs] I think Vincent Moon is an amazing guy to work with. He’s taken even the most normal to a completely new level. He added many ideas to the table. We were going back in time to all these places, and that was, of course, a strong experience, and we had this force that pushed us to go further than we would go.
But we are playing a lot with nostalgia, memory and the idea of looking back. I like our music to be reflecting, I like it to be somewhere where people can reflect on things; that was the atmosphere we wanted to create. We are building a house that people can go into and reflect a little bit on something.
How did all the creative process go? Did Vincent Moon have all the power in the filming part, or was it a collective effort?
We talked to him about all these locations on the island. We were like tour guides. We said, ‘there’s this school we want to go to, this forest, go to our parents and have a barbecue with them…’ So we were arranging all this stuff and then we told Vincent Moon this was how it was going to work. Of course, we were ping ponging back and forth. And then he had this idea of how to film it. Especially what he is good at is capturing you in the moment, because what we were afraid of was that we didn’t really see ourselves in a movie. What he is good at is taking musicians to their edges, making them do stuff that they would never do.