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El Perro del Mar by Joseph Kadow

The haunting of El Perro del Mar

26 February 2024, 09:30
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Joseph Kadow

Additional Photography by Hedvig Jenning

With Big Anonymous, her seventh album as El Perro del Mar, Swedish artist Sarah Assbring examines the melancholy that has dogged her since childhood. She talks to Alan Pedder about embracing life in the face of overwhelming loss.

Since her early childhood, growing up in Gothenburg, Sarah Assbring has had a sense of being cursed.

It’s a feeling not uncommon among Gen X creatives of Sweden’s second city, immortalised in the Broder Daniel song “Shoreline” as a town that “kills you when you’re young,” but in Assbring’s case the metaphor was uncomfortably close to the bone.

At times she could poke fun at it – the second album by one of her early bands, Sadovaja, archly referenced the Swedish invention of vit melankoli, or white depression. At other times, it nearly destroyed her. At 24, she developed a severe eating disorder, spiralled into a desperate fragility, and almost lost her faith in music altogether. It was on a beach in Spain, alone with a kind, stray dog, that she rekindled it again, and El Perro del Mar (“the dog of the sea”) was born. That was more than 20 years ago now, but Assbring’s ghosts didn’t go quietly. Rather, they accumulated and, in time, began to speak.

We meet the day after a fresh snowfall, in the restaurant of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm. It’s been over a decade since we last spoke, when she was blonde and very pregnant, but Assbring is instantly recognisable as she heads over and shakes my hand. Her hair is dark and cropped short these days, peeking out from under a pillbox hat the colour of cocoa, and she wears an oversized checked coat that could have come straight from the Balenciaga runway. She speaks softly and calmly. Carefully, too, but less reservedly than I remember.


I’m not just imagining it, she later confirms. The emotional earthquake of motherhood has changed her. Where once she would struggle to stay present in the moment, drifting into the melancholy that had shadowed her for life, becoming a mother pushed all that aside. “It changed the second that my son arrived,” she says, taking a sip of her coffee. “I felt this overwhelming, absolute joy and an absolute ability to be present in a way I’d never felt before. It’s the strongest feeling I’ve ever felt, and it just keeps going.”

Big Anonymous isn’t about that feeling, but it’s not not about it either. Written 5 years ago and completed during the early days of the pandemic, the seventh El Perro del Mar album is, at first listen, a dark and twisted thing. Staggeringly ominous at times, complete with unnerving visuals and pitched-down spoken word straight out of nightmares, it’s a gothic cathedral of sound that seems to exist in a suspended realm far removed from the fabric of pop – at least, far from anything Assbring has ever made before.

“It’s a trip to the underworld that had to be taken to come back with greater knowledge,” she offers by way of a synopsis. Then she smiles. “I don’t want to say that Big Anonymous offers a totally bleak view on life and death. I think it’s about being open and ready for what life is going to give you. Yes, it’s going to give you horror, sadness and grief, but it’s also going to bring you happiness, joy and surprises.”

01 091 Hedvig Jenning

Thematically, there’s a clear line of sight between Big Anonymous and Assbring’s second El Perro del Mar album, From the Valley to the Stars (2008), and it’s not accidental. Assbring’s ambition for From the Valley to the Stars was “to make a kind of transcendental album that was a jubilation over life and also over death” as told “more or less” through the eyes of her grandfather, who had recently passed away.

“The story is quite bizarre,” she says, glancing out of the window. “He was a really wonderful, amazing person who lived to be 90 years old and then decided he was done. Not in a sad way at all, because he’d had this happy life, and he was super clear in his mind and still strong in his body. He just felt like it was natural for him to go, and I was so intrigued by that feeling and by the way he could have come to that conclusion.”

It's not an album that anyone could have predicted to follow the dewy, bummed-out pop of El Perro del Mar’s self-titled debut (“I think a lot of people I worked with were kind of disappointed in me,” she says wryly), but Assbring remains proud of it, especially now. At the time it was all a bit too much to process, for one specifically horrible reason. “A week before that album was released, my brother died very, very suddenly,” she says, tightening her grip on her coffee mug. “I found myself in situations like being here with you and decided that I could not talk about him because it made no sense at all.”


Despite her shock and grief, Assbring somehow managed to tour behind the album, all the while not saying a word about her brother. “I had this idea that I was doing this kind of life embracing thing, but it felt like I was living a lie, somehow, in myself,” she says, shaking her head. “That guilt is something I’ve been carrying around all this time and something I had to deal with in the process of making Big Anonymous. I’ve been through other losses in life, but my brother is a part of the album. He’s been haunting me since then.”

On the tenth anniversary of her brother’s death, Assbring released the Swedish language single “Broder” in his memory. On one hand it was a commissioned musical interpretation of a Swedish novel of the same name, about the loss of a brother. On the other, it was her own painful truth, lamenting the loss of her childhood best friend and their shared story (“What is my truth? If you are not here?” goes one line of the song, “What are my memories? They cannot be kept apart”).

Had she not been asked, Assbring isn’t sure that she would have been able to write the song, and the same could be said for Big Anonymous in truth. A few months after “Broder” was released, she received a commission from Swedish theatre institution Dramaten, offering the chance to work with choreographer Hlín Hjálmarsdóttir and two dancers from the Royal Swedish Ballet. She says she immediately knew that the work would be a continuation of her reflections on mortality, and that it had to be both ambitious and theatrical, something that would draw her into the darkness that she’d never dared to face head on.

"Often it’s when I go to the very extremes of melancholy, that’s where I can find my positivity."


“The opportunity just happened to come at the perfect time for me,” she says. “I’d felt haunted for a long time, and I was finally ready to jump in to working with that, both in an artistic way and in a personal way. I think all the possibilities of taking that world on stage and working with choreography really opened up new places in me and made it possible to dive into those questions.”

With her son having started school, Assbring was able to devote herself to the all-consuming work of creating the stage performance at the same time as starting to think about how it would all come together as an album. “I was thankful to be able to sort of disconnect from my own mind for a while,” she says of the process. “That’s a blessing for someone like me. Obviously the story is mine and it’s extremely personal, but I definitely found a place of anonymity in the whole project because everyone involved gave parts of themselves to it. Everyone had their own relationship to the ideas – to loss and to grief – and that gave me the confidence to write it and not feel alone. I think it would have been too scary a place to go to if it wasn’t such a social project.”

As well as her collaborators in the Royal Swedish Ballet, Assbring brought in her core team of Jacob Haage (her partner and main musical foil), musician–producer Petter Granberg, and soul sister stylist Nicole Walker to flesh out her ideas. Working organically within a rehearsal space over a 6-month period, they created a ten-song cycle based on Assbring’s original plan for a performance in three acts, including a hair-raisingly apparitional cover of The Drifters' “Please Stay” that dissolves into a sticky, droney goo.


Assbring has a thing for horror, it seems. Reference points for the Dramaten performance included the work of Franco-Austrian choreographer Gisèle Vienne, whose horror-adjacent work she describes as “art without boundaries,” and by “an extreme attachment” to filmmaker Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary retelling of cult sci-fi novel Under the Skin, not least its astonishing score by Mica Levi.

“Under the Skin has this aspect of wanting to stare into the absolute abyss and I really wanted to go there too,” she says. “I wanted to almost hit people with grief and death, because I feel like there’s a real lack of conversation about that in Sweden. I wanted to bring people with me to the underworld, to help them understand what that is and what that entails, and then kind of shock them back to life again in a way that makes them thankful for the time they have left.”

Ultimately, that reaction is what Assbring says she wanted to achieve for herself (“a thankfulness for being alive”), and if some people might have found parts of the performance too abstract and the message escaped them, well, there were others, moved to tears, who really understood. “I didn’t even realise that was the ending I was writing towards,” she says. “I’ve always been such a pessimist in nature, but often it’s when I go to the very extremes of melancholy, that’s where I can find my positivity.”

Having crawled through the muck of despair that swirls behind death’s door, Assbring finally lands on the enlightenment she’s been seeking on spiritual-industrial dirge “Wipe Me Off This Earth” (“This earth has a bond with death / What seems like disorder is divine order / Like music, like music”), coalescing into the ecstatic release of album closer “Kiss of Death”, with its agitated strings and washes of celestial synths. “I’m not living like it is a threat, the kiss of death,” she sings as if reborn. No more the haunted or the haunter. Just a girl, standing in front of a ghost, no longer asking it to forgive her.

“It sounds like a sort of simple ending,” she says quietly. “But it was surprising even to me how the ending of the story became about embracing being alive in the face of loss. Though that is, in itself, a difficult thing sometimes. I try to remind myself of that every day, especially when the mornings are so dark and bleak. To not let it pass as just another boring day, but maybe as a good day, or at least the possibility of a good day. It’s something that I need to work on.”

Assbring had planned to record the songs as soon as possible after the run of shows at Dramaten, but the pandemic forced a different hand. Leaving Stockholm, she moved her family to the medieval city of Visby on Gotland, Sweden’s largest island, where Haage’s father lives, though they didn’t stay for long. “I learned a lot of things about myself that I had no idea about,” she says with a cryptic smile. “Living on an island is a special thing, and I was surprised how it kind of scared me, actually. I was afraid of being cut off from the rest of the world. I also came to understand that I’m not super fond of the ocean being in my view all of the time. It felt too existential.”


When the recording finally did take place, it was in an old torpedo factory in Stockholm with Haage, Granberg, a trio of strings players, and pianist Shida Shahabi guesting on the eerie, almost hymnal “Cold Dark Pond”, with two songs later beefed up by Vessel, aka “dream collaborator” Seb Gainsborough, who helped her bring the climax of “One More Time” and “Kiss of Death” to what she describes as “the ultimate pain threshold” – the shock back to life, in a very physical way.

Breaking with El Perro del Mar tradition, vocals were recorded unfussily, in no more than two or three takes, and instruments were recorded in different rooms under the creative direction of sound engineer Daniel Rejmer. “We wanted to take the extroverted stage sound of the performance and make it very intimate and personal,” she says, explaining how she would sing so quietly that it almost felt like a whisper. “I’m super surprised that it actually worked, and I don’t think it could have without us having played it on stage before. It was magical how it all developed and kind of made sense in its chronology somehow.”

When it came to putting the visuals together, Assbring wanted to dig further into her personal relationship to the story of Big Anonymous, and to amplify the horror aspect in a way that would bring it into sharper relief than had been possible on stage. “I would have loved to recreate the Dramaten performance on video, because it was amazing in every sense of the word, but there are many practical reasons why we didn’t,” she says. “Plus, I love to try new things, and I was intrigued by the idea of making a film that could further explore what, for me, the story was about.”

El Perro del Mar by Hedvig Jenning

Working closely with Walker and German filmmaker Joseph Kadow, Assbring created three distinct characters all representing different aspects of her dread – the shuffling hunchback of the album cover, who seems to be several canonical monsters all rolled into one, an androgyne in boxy funeral suits whose face we never see, and a broken-down dancer soaked in blood carrying her losses as a violent facial scar. Assbring plays each one, haunting suburban Glasgow and the Scottish countryside with ambiguous menace.

“In hindsight, I realised that I did my usual thing of diving into something without really thinking about the effect that it would have on me afterwards,” she says, explaining how the process of constructing the characters became a therapy of sorts. “They’ve been with me for a long time, coming into my dreams, but once I brought them to life it’s like I became free of them, in a way. I think of them now like models in a window. Not as scary, not as stressful, and they’re not as present anymore.”

For Assbring, letting go of the idea of being cursed was almost as scary as the curse itself. But in moving past her guilt and learning to accept her grief as a benign forever-ache that enriches her life rather than stunts it, she’s a woman transformed. Big Anonymous may have taken 5 years to fully realise, and Assbring has made a record under her own name since, but the depth and integrity of the process keeps it feeling fresh.

“It’s almost surreal that it’s finally out,” she says happily as we finish up. “Of course I have no power over it, and the music is its own entity, but there’s something intangible and special about it to me. It lives in a world of its own, a sort of limbo place, as if untouched by time. I’m really incredibly grateful.”

Big Anonymous is out now via City Slang. The Big Anonymous tour kicks off on 6 March.

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