Musical adventures in a Norwegian ghost town. A line up change leading to a trail of “totally badass drummers”. Finding the sole tuned chord on the world’s most northerly grand piano. Each of these elements have been of paramount importance to the creation of Efterklang’s fourth masterful album, Piramida. Never a band to do things by anyone else’s standards, this record sees the band set out to unify time, place and sound, and to capture the spirit and essence of a town otherwise forgotten. We caught up with the band’s Rasmus Stolberg to find out more.
“Pyramiden is the official Norwegian name , and then the album title is the Russian word for pyramid, Piramida,” Rasmus explains of the eerie location that would inspire the Danish trio’s new record. An abandoned Russian coal mining settlement situated on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, Pyramiden is a quintessential ghost town. There’s an abandoned hospital, power plant and an empty swimming pool. A sports hall, complete with footballs unlikely to ever partake in a match again. Derelict buildings line the abandoned streets, the site of a once bustling mining community brought to a silent standstill would prove to be the location that provided Efterklang with their muse.
“We were introduced to because a Swedish film director emailed us photos from it suggesting we should do something out there,” explains Rasmus. “He was thinking of a music video or something, but we just connected with the place instantly and got really sure that we wanted to go there. We started reading about it, and quickly found out that the world’s most northerly grand piano still stands in this town, so we thought ‘wow! we have to go and play this piano!’, it was kind of boyish energy, or adventurous energy that led us there.”
“Before this, we thought about how on the next record, we wanted to try to connect with the location somehow. My brother has a forest, and one of the first ideas was to build a camp there and to sample the forest, and then to go back and record the drums and the vocals. So these were ideas we had. Then suddenly this place got introduced to us and it all clicked, and we thought we could go up there, we could bring our microphones and this could be the start of everything.”
The album’s sleeve is a stunning selection of photographs taken during the band’s time in the forgotten town, a fascinating mixture of industrial ruins and abandoned home comforts, in a settlement surrounded by snow capped mountains and the arctic ocean.
“The Russians have put a few people back now, but it’s still totally empty and dead,” Rasmus states. “It’s a fascinating place, you just have this feeling of life that was once there. You can picture how things were when it wasn’t dead, and there’s still furniture and pictures on the walls, so you can go around to people’s old houses… it’s a bit creepy as well. It’s on Spitsbergen whichis an incredible place, but it’s also an extremely dramatic place, nature’s very powerful and that’s one of the feelings you get when you’re there – that human beings really don’t belong there. It all feels kind of meaningless, all of this effort that’s gone into building settlements and this crazy place. And then of course, you have nature there which is incredibly beautiful, as well as this dumped stuff left by humans, so it’s a place full of contrasts.”
The band found an instant source of inspiration in Pyramiden, with it’s hostile natural surroundings and plentiful relics of recent generations providing a plethora of sounds for the band to use. The next task then, was to figure out how to capture the spirit of the location in a musical format.
“We had to go on this crazy three hour boat ride to get out there, and we had these waves of Arctic waters splashing us the whole time,” says Rasmus. “We finally got there, totally soaked and freezing, and Mads was sick for two days. So the first two days was me and Casper running around, investigating, making plans, looking for sounds. Then when we got Mads back, we picked locations. We’d record two or three different locations every day, one location would be the power plant, one would be the hospital, the swimming pool, but we’d also use, like, objects at the harbour, so we spent a lot of time on simple things too. That was all before we had the idea of collecting libraries from each location. So if we had twelve buildings, we could have twelve libraries. When we started writing the songs, we thought we could base each song on each of the libraries of sound. That was the initial idea, but it didn’t work out like that!”
“So we collected all these sounds – way too many sounds, because there were so many things up there – and we also played things on the spot, which we later used. Then back in Berlin was when the music writing began. Mads started picking out some of the sounds and working with them, and then Casper started adding piano and stuff like that on top.” Was there space for the world’s most northerly grand piano in the end? ”Yeah, it’s on the album. It doesn’t sound like a grand piano, but it’s there. We used it in different ways. There’s a song that didn’t make it onto the album – there was only one chord that was in tune, and we used that one chord for one song! But the grand piano was great, it was great to get there and actually play it, but it wasn’t a highlight, actually! It sounded awful! And it is just a piano after all. But I can now say I’ve played the world’s most northerly grand piano!”
“The idea was for all three of us to start at the same place, so this trip Spitsbergen was the beginning of the whole thing. It meant that all three of us had the same frame and the same ‘day one’ for this album. That was really helpful in the process of making it, making choices, deciding which route to go etc. We spent nine days up there, collecting sounds, getting inspired, and then we spent nine months in Berlin, working with the sounds, turning them into music, writing songs and then recording them.”
It’s certainly an interesting way to approach an album, and as we’ve come to know Efterklang as a band to do things on their own terms, it’s an approach that is perfectly fitting of their character. After almost ten years and the creation of four albums together, it would seems as though the band has worked out an ideal methodology for creating an Efterklang album.
“Yes, absolutely,” Rasmus agrees. “It’s not like we have this one guy in the band who writes a lot of songs on a guitar, and who has a rock writing style. Our stuff is more eclectic, we use any instrument and we use the studio a lot, sort of like electronic musicians do, and this gives you an insane amount of opportunities and options. It can be very confusing. Sometimes we have an idea of what we want to achieve, and sometimes it’s more specific. This time was great, because it meant we had a very specific frame for everything, but we had no idea what waited for us up there and what it would turn into. It was a controlled process, but it was full of surprises! Very unpredictable.”
Capturing a specific time, place, feel and sound in an album is no mean feat, but it’s certainly a beautiful idea. In a climate where so many focus on creating and collating a series of tracks that stand out individually, Efterklang’s focus remains fully on the experience of a record as a whole, of reflecting life in music and of guarding the album format as a way of presenting pieces of sonic art.
“That’s what we do, and there are a lot of other people in music that are more orientated towards songs, but the way we make music is about making albums,” Rasmus explains. “That’s how we get started, that’s what gives us the kick, what could be interesting for an album, a collection of sounds and songs etc. Of course, we know that we should probably focus more on getting a hit single, but I think has great importance.”
“I think if you’re into making hit singles or pop music, then maybe you don’t need to focus so much on an album, but I think if your drive is to express yourself differently, or to try to innovate yourself or create innovative music, I think it’s very nice to work on a grander scale than just songs. You can allow yourself to spend more time on it. I’d never go to Spitsbergen and do all this and make one song. That’d be a waste of time. So by making something bigger, an album, which ideally is not just a collection of songs but a string of songs which are connected somehow, we also allow ourselves to have bigger editions, bigger budgets to do crazier stuff. I definitely vote for albums, and that’s also how I listen to music.”
For many, a performance at the prestigious Sydney Opera House in May of this year was the first glimpse of what the band’s forthcoming album would hold. It was a project that took the trio to the other side of the world, to the height of their creative ambitions, and from the sound of it, to the brink of a sleep deprived breakdown.
“I’m so happy it happened and worked out, but it was probably one of the stupidest things ever, to say yes to performing an album in full, without having written the album first!” says Rasmus, laughing, as he explains how the project came to be. ”When we got back from Spitsbergen, we decided we didn’t want to have a deadline, we wanted to get really deep into experimenting with all the stuff we’d collected. Then a month into that, Sydney Opera House emailed us asking if we wanted to go down in May 2012 to do something with the orchestra. So, of course, that’s a really big opportunity! A dream email to receive. But we thought we’d have to say no, because we’d pictured ourselves being in the studio finishing the album, or working on it. So at first, it felt like bad timing.”
Bad timing it may have seemed at first glimpse, but this was not an opportunity that Efterklang were about to let slip by.
“At the beginning, we thought they wanted us to go and do some old stuff, which would have been totally ridiculous because we’d sort of dissolved the live band before making this album. We said to everyone that we’d make a new album, and we’d make a new band based on how the album turned out. So everything was up in the air, and we didn’t want to bring back the old team and do that in the middle of making something new, so then we got this idea of performing the new album. In the beginning, we pictured the three of us going there and working with the orchestra. And we suggested that, and they said ‘oh great, you can work from here!’ so everything was fine and dandy.”
“We sat down and had a talk about it in October to try to make a plan for how to do things. At this time, we were still experimenting, we hadn’t written any songs yet. So we thought, we have this concert in May, which means we have to start rehearsing for it in April, which means we have to get the songs to the arrangers in February, so we had to have all of the songs finished in January. And we also needed to know which songs we were putting on the album. So suddenly, instead of releasing an album in May, we had to finish it much before. But it worked out great because suddenly we had 18 songs, and we picked 11. It helped the creative process as well, having this enormous deadline. Because you can push an album release. It’s not something you really want to do, but you can do it. But you can’t really push a performance in an Opera house in front of 1500 people. So it really was a deadline you could understand.”
“We’d decided for the album, to not put too many layers on there,” he continues. “A lot of our previous albums have so many layers, and very dense soundscapes. This one is more airy and spacious, because when you have all of these sounds with so much resonance and information in them, you need to be able to hear them for it to make sense. If you put too may sound sources in a song, they all lose quality somehow. For this orchestra project, we thought that all our ambitions to put strings on everything, and brass on everything – we could put that in the concert version. The concert and the album versions are quite different. There’s a song in the concert version that we thought was going on the album but isn’t, so there’s a song on the album version that isn’t in the concert. So they are a bit different. We finished the project in May, which was quite a relief, then we had the most epic party ever!”
Following the departure of drummer Thomas Husmer back in February, another major task to tackle was that of finding a sticks-man to record the tracks. “Our drummer left before this album started,” Rasmus explains, “so suddenly we had this open field of opportunities for who should drum on the album. We wanted Earl Harvin, the drummer of Tindersticks – he’s played with a lot of amazing people, and he’s an amazing drummer – we saw him playing with My Brightest Diamond in Berlin, so we asked if he wanted to record with us. Only after that did we find out that he actually lives in Berlin, three minutes from our studio!”
“He did the drum recording for the album,” he continues, “and we wanted him to come to Sydney but he was too busy with Tindersticks. So he told us that he has a friend called Toby Dammit, he plays with Iggy Pop who’d like to do it. So then we thought ‘woah, Iggy Pop’s drummer!’ but then he got busy too, and said ‘I have this amazing friend called Budgie, the drummer from Siouxsie and the Banshees!’ This trail of totally badass, incredible drummers were suddenly put in touch with us! So we hooked up with Budgie, and he’s been amazing – he’s doing all of the orchestra shows with us.”
Since releasing their first record Tripper back in 2004, Efterklang have grown up to become a band that’s toured the world and played in some of the world’s most prestigious venues. A line up change, four albums and an acclaimed soundtrack later, and Rasmus reflects on what has marked the biggest change in the psyche of Efterklang since their beginnings in Copenhagen.
“The biggest difference is that we’re just as creative and curious, but we are not as scared anymore. When we made Tripper, we were just high on creating and experimenting and figuring out what we could do and couldn’t, but we were also super scared to not be unique or to make something that wasn’t original, and we don’t really have that anymore. We have experience now of knowing that whatever we create, it’ll always end up sounding like Efterklang. Having that feeling, and believing in that makes it possible to try a lot of things out without fear of losing yourself.”
Piramida will be released on 24 September via 4AD, and the band will be performing the following concerts:
Efterklang & Northern Sinfonia conducted by André de Ridder + Special Guest
23.10 – GATESHEAD, NEWCASTLE, UK – The Sage
24.10 – EDINBURGH, UK – Usher Hall
27.10 – COVENTRY, UK – Warwick Arts Centre
28.10 – BRIGHTON, UK – Dome
29.10 – MANCHESTER, UK – Bridgewater Hall
30.10 – LONDON, UK – Barbican
Efterklang & Sinfonia Rotterdam conducted by Matthew Coorey
07.11 – EINDHOVEN, NL – Catharinakerk
08.11 – BRUSSELS, BE – AB
Efterklang & their 7-piece Live Band
01.12 – BUDAPEST, HU – A38
02.12 – VIENNA, AT – Arena
03.12 – LEIPZIG, DE – Centraltheater
04.12 – HAMBURG, DE – Kampnagel
05.12 – BERLIN, DE – Volksbühne
11.12 – COLOGNE, DE – Gebäude 9
12.12 – STRASBOURG, FR – Laiterie
13.12 – PARIS, FR – Cafe De La Danse
14.12 – FRANKFURT, DE – Brotfabrik
15.12 – HANNOVER, DE – Glocksee