Tuesday, 04 October 2005 18:00
One of the main reasons I was drawn to Scandinavian music a few years back is because I was hearing different sounds. I was hearing artists that seemed to come from a different cultural aesthetic, and had something fresh to say. And while I’ve heard so much music now from Scandinavia that I can see specific formulas at work even there, I’m still amazed at the percentage of great stuff.
It bothers me when too much music starts to sound the same. When groups that are hyped to death in all the major music magazines sound—at least to my ears—like many other groups I’ve heard. The popular formulas are so well-established that it’s far too easy for Band X to put their modest talent to work sounding a helluva lot like Band Y, while tweaking the formula just enough to get the kids’—and most of the critics’—attention. It’s not to say that the popular bands aren’t talented—in most cases, they ARE, in one way or another. But are they really creating any kind of worthwhile art, or pushing the parameters of what musical communication can be? Nah, not so much. One of the main reasons I was drawn to Scandinavian music a few years back is because I was hearing different sounds. I was hearing artists that seemed to come from a different cultural aesthetic, and had something fresh to say. And while I’ve heard so much music now from Scandinavia that I can see specific formulas at work even there, I’m still amazed at the percentage of great stuff. And a little digging can produce fine examples of the sort of weird, culturally provocative stuff that listeners like me can’t get enough of. I want to spend a good part of this month’s column talking about some of that “stuff,” and why we should always treasure the weird and exotic, even if it doesn’t necessarily make for the easiest listen sometimes.
Let’s begin in the wilds of Finland, where there’s a tradition of making primal, earthbound music that’s as far as you can get from the pop charts. It would be short-sighted to call what is happening in Finland merely a “scene.” Musicians have been gathering in various incarnations in cities like Tampere, Helsinki and Turku (and the surrounding countryside) for years to play a style often categorized as “psych-folk,” although no label can truly convey the bewildering, sometimes alien variety of sounds the (mostly) young Finns are making. Only recently has the U.S. press caught on. Names like Es, Islaja, Kemialliset Ystavat and Kuupuu are not going to mean much to most readers, and truthfully, the recordings made by these artists aren’t easy to find. So let’s make it easy by talking about a couple of CDs that have actually been released on prominent American record labels. Avarus is a large Finnish collective whose members evidently come and go freely, and most of them also play in other outfits. The small San Francisco-based. label Tumult did fans of the weird a favor by collecting a number of previous limited-run CD-Rs and 7-inch slabs of vinyl by Avarus and issuing them as a two-disc set called Ruskea Timantti. Wow, if you have a hankerin’ to get your freak on, start here. The press release for this compilation is one of the more bold and descriptive that I’ve read lately: “Imagine a land of forests and fjords, a land of dark skies and windswept landscapes. Then imagine the sort of music this land would evoke. Droning hypnotic clattery free folk, dark and propulsive, mesmeric Krautrock, rhythmic pagan musicial rituals, all detuned guitars and hand drums, chanting and wild free percussion, and everything in between.” The release goes on to talk about the collective’s “mesmerising avant noise/folk, unfurling lengthy meandering, almost funereal jams, desolate and mournful, but dreamy and pastoral, machinelike and hypnotic at the same time…” Any writer has a challenge on their hands trying to convey the experience of this music to the casually curious reader. The fact is, we Americans don’t have much of a context for this sort of thing. It’s weird as hell. Right now, I’m listening to a 16-minute piece called “Maximum Highway Lifestyle,” and I’m really spooked. There’s an anchoring sort of pulse reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive,” there’s someone making Indian-like whoops and hollers, there’s a kind of flute in the background, and another thing that sounds like a child’s bicycle horn. And what they’re doing to the various stringed instruments, I can’t imagine. Are they bowing them? Strumming them? Scratching them gently with their fingernails? Caressing them with other stringed instruments? No clue. But I’m fairly certain that hippies used to get stoned and make love to stuff like this in the late ‘60s, although I suspect that the frenzied weirdness of this music has far more to do with cultural factors than any sort of indulgence with narcotics. But what do I know? What I can say is how life-affirming it is to encounter music without a shred of concern for audiences or monetary factors, music that is totally about the musicians completely surrendering to the moment and the deep, all-encompassing communal groove. Yes, it’s self-indulgent—that’s its purpose! It’s about the free, uninhibited expression of primitive musical ecstasy. It’s a trip both backward and forward in time, and a total rejection of convention. It’s scary and funny, reassuring and disturbing, joyful and sad. It makes its own rules, and gosh is it exciting to hear music that does that!
Oh boy, the infamous 22-minute track “A-V-P” has just started. This was singled out as the highlight of the set by two reviews I read. The liner notes say it was recorded live in Pori on April 27, 2003, and only released previously as a run of 100 CD-Rs. There’s a steady, insistent drone—the kind of collective drone that would require numerous players really concentrating to maintain. A drummer or two eventually enter the fray. And a sort of rumbling bass. The drone intensifies, growing more and more other-worldly, other-time-ly. Sheesh! Spaced-out, ambient freak-folk. Bliss-bound primeval psychedelia. Raga-gaga. You could call this any number of things, but you sure can’t call it ordinary. Avarus are way, way out there, folks. To Jan Anderzen (a core member who runs the Finnish vinyl label Vauva, among his myriad pursuits), Roope Eronen, Lars Mattila and the four other Planet Avarus members credited on the sleeve, I can only say, uh, WOW, man. I don’t want to analyze what you do, or even ask you how you do it. I just want to THANK you for doing it. I’ve talked about the “Otherness Measure” in this column for several months now, and I’ve never given a recording an OM rating of “5,” which is reserved for the strangest of the strange. But this clearly earns it. So here goes my rating for Ruskea timantii, an unforgettable two-CD set from the Finnish psych-folk wilderland: OR: 7.5. OM: 5. There, I’ve given a “5” out for the first time! But just remember, adventurous listeners: this is NOT background or party music (um, okay, there might be certain kinds of parties where this would work just fine, but never mind…). It’s music for traveling far, far away from your safe 4/4 pop rock and verse-chorus-verse-filled world. It’s music to just blow your mind right out of its confining skull. You may not be up to that sort of thing all the time, but when you are, Avarus are there for you. More info: www.tumult.net
You could follow up listening to Avarus by putting on Kuutarha (Locust), the debut album by Finnish female singer Lau Nau (a shortened version of her actual name Laura Naukkarinen), and it would be an easy transition. For one thing, Nau occasionally performs with Avarus and is a member of Killa, Kemialliset Ystavat and several other Finnish outfits.The disc begins with a similar kind of droning weirdness, although far less “difficult.” But then things settle down, and Nau begins to cast a much softer spell. Nau sings in Finnish, so if that sort of thing is a dealbreaker for you, so be it. But she has a very pretty, gentle voice, and the emotional impact of her songs is easily felt. “Plakkikanteletar” (sorry about these long song titles, but out of respect for the beauty of these other cultures, I’m not gonna be a lazy ‘merikkin and refuse to refer to them by the actual titles) is played on an acoustic string instrument other than a guitar; it could be a five-string kantele. The sleeve has very little information, unfortunately. But Nau and her supporting cast play a wide variety of instruments including mandolin, jouhikko (a fiddle played on one’s knees), banjo, flute, acoustic bass, willow whistle, chimes and many more. The basic two-note melody of this first main song is haunting, conveying an odd sort of lullabye quality. “Tulkaa” is more intricate—and more exotic, with the drones, plunks and jingles behind Nau serving as the backdrop for an eerie, rambling bleat. Weird, but undeniably compelling. “Puuportti Nautaportilta” finds Nau harmonizing with herself, the mix of childlike sounds around her perfectly in synch with the deceptively simple aesthetic at work (just cause we can’t understand something at first doesn’t make it complex). “Hunnun” has an intangible spiritual quality—it’s mostly just Nau’s voice and simple electric guitar, with the results quite moving. Nau is clearly coming forth with sentiments from her heart and soul, and it’s interesting to think about what her subject might be. But enjoying the music doesn’t require this knowledge. The very eerie, evocative “Kuljen Halki Kuutarhan” requires only attentive ears to appreciate its beauty. There are tablas generating a hypnotic drone on this piece, adorned by high-pitched whistles, very simple picking and Nau’s voice used as little more than an ambient texture. The track leads into some darker repetitive clanging, bonging and bowing sonics that will remind you, in case you’d forgotten, that you’re listening to an artist that is NOT from around these parts. Lau Nau is only 20 years old, but she’s clearly absorbed a variety of musical traditions already, and she’s an integral member of the new Finnish musical community. Kuutarha is getting a fair amount of attention internationally, and it’s easily available, which makes it easier, therefore, to justify writing about it. Exotic, spooky and lulling all at the same time, this debut by Nau is likely just the first step in what’s sure to be a fascinating career. OR: 8. OM: 5. More info: www.locustmusic.com
But don’t they have any plain ol’ rock & roll over there in Finland? you’re asking. Well hey, let’s talk about Echo is Your Love, then. Based in Helsinki, the EIYL website describes their sound as “Out of tune guitars, ghosty vocals whispered by a girl from the corner of a dark room, dreamy melodies raped with looped noises and guitars that don’t know should they explode or crawl behind the girl’s back?” Yeah, what they said. Paper Cut Eye is the latest from this four-man, one-woman band (The singer is Nea and the rest are Mikko, Ilai, Riku, Nea and Vellu—no last names on website or sleeve), clearly weaned on both punk fury and Sonic Youth/Television-like dual-guitar pyrotechnics, with a healthy dose of strangle-jangle. Let’s dig right in and talk about the 8-minute song “Tuua,” which is a certified classic. This amazing track features vigorous SY-like surges of angular guitar rock over which Nea’s anguished but centered vocals yelp out the lyrics uncertainly. Then a beautiful thing happens: every so often, the music suddenly drops back in the mix and Nea sings this mesmerizing little thing, I guess it’s “Tuua,” at a high pitch, followed by her whispering that same word. The guitars pause as if to reflect on this odd utterance for a moment, then the song kicks back into high gear for the next verse. It’s very eccentric and very memorable, transforming an already uber-cool song into a classic one. Oh, and the drumming is awesome, too. “I Don’t Go to My Friend’s Parties” has so much raw passion it sounds like it’s gonna careen out of control, but it doesn’t. “Pleasures Unknown” (which may or may not be a subtle tip of the hat to Joy Division) has some fun lyrics that show the Sonic Youth influence is an apt one: “I think of Thurston and I think of Kim/And I know I gotta quit this shit/Sing along to the pleasures unknown/Never reach the holy alone/I wanna burn/Everything I’ve known/I wanna burn/Everything I have wanted.” Guitars, vocals and percussion work in tandem to create another throbbingly alive chunk of jagged modern rock. The apparent band soundtrack is a short instrumental, then “Lightning Conductor” proceeds to do just that, bringing searing bolts of electrifying sound down upon the listener, although Nea’s vocals are actually a bit more restrained here. It has to be said that she sustains an admirable level of emotional intensity throughout this disc, even if you get the sense you’ve heard her style of singing somewhere before. “Haste Nowhere” is another classic, with mesmerising bass and perfect percussion creating an ominous undercurrent, disciplined guitars playing gloriously twitchy chords while Nea delivers one of her most controlled yet raw vocals. The seven-minute plus tune gains in power as it goes along; taken together with “Tuua,” it easily makes the case for Echo Is Your Love as one of Finland’s most potent guitar-based bands. The atmospheric final minute or two is awesome. And it continues: the relatively straightforward speed-rock of “Shadow of Stockholm” and another long guitar & vocal epic in “Adult Situation No Kisses.” I love this band’s sense of dynamics, the way they pause here and there for dramatic impact. And the production is dead-on as well. No element removed from the others here is all that original, and Nea’s voice is probably an acquired taste, but somehow when it’s all put together, Echo is Your Love kicks serious ass. If you’re needing a darker, edgier Sonic Youth kinda band with an anguished young girl at the center, listen to Paper Cut Eye and let these Finns cut you to the quick. That Scandi intensity is all over this thing, man. OR: 8. OM: 2.5. www.ifsociety.com/echo
Well, now that we’ve spent a little time in Finland, let’s head to the next peninsula over and check in with a strange, alluring quartet from Norway called Schtimm. They’re based in Trondheim, but the members all come from “a little Twin Peakish village situated in the northern part of Norway” called Saltdal. Where Echo is Your Love only listed their first names on their CD, Schtimm prefer to only use their first initials. The band consists of female vocalist B, male vocalist/guitarist Æ, drummer P and what I assume to be the bass player, K. It’s not clear from their website, so forgive me if I goofed on this. So many things about Schtimm are curious, and most assuredly different. Three of them are siblings, but we don’t know which ones. Onstage and in their photos, the band only wear red and black. Even in a country where brilliant musicians are usually the subject of international attention, Schtimm have a very low profile. None of their four CDs have been released in the U.S. There seem to be very few interviews with them. And the discs themselves are shrouded in mystery, both in how they were recorded, the way they look and sound, and what the intent behind them is, if any. I feel quite fortunate to have reached Æ via email, and to have received such courteous answers from him to my questions. All he requested was that I honor the name thing, which is certainly no problem. I’m a fan of this band, and I regard them as a key part of the puzzle that is the Norwegian music industry.
Before hearing from two members of the band, let’s take a look at their music. Schtimm are one of several bands in Scandinavia that equally divide the vocals between male and female. Sometimes Æ and B sing together, but generally they alternate leads. Stylistically, the music does seem to have a bit of Twin Peaks to it; there’s a sense of something unsettling going on at almost all times. Keyboards are a prominent element, as well as guitars that favor minor chords or an evocative sequence of repeated notes. The band sounds spooked most of the time, like they know something you don’t and are reluctant to fully tell you the truth. When I first heard their debut, The Alcoholovefi Collection, I truly felt like I’d suddenly entered a haunted house, and was being serenaded by the spirits of the place. It was that eerie, probably down to the sometimes hushed vocals, for which I’ve been unable to think of any immediate comparisons. Æ has a voice that makes it impossible to assign an age to; sometimes he sounds an old man—othertimes, a younger one. But he doles out weariness and revved-up emotion in equal measure. The music, too, seems to have some intangible ingredient to it that is not just about music. The ambience on this record is incredible. The co-production by “Ham” is stunning. It’s most assuredly a nighttime album, and a lonely one, too. “Cat” and “Partytime” make a stylishly provocative one-two opening punch, with the former’s low organ sound contributing to the “haunted house” effect. There’s a peculiar sound on “Love-Fi”—like shells or some other trinkets being rubbed in someone’s hands—that lasts the duration of the track. It makes you take notice, but you don’t know what the heck to think. On “This Me, This Ease,” the combination of B’s clear, emotive vocal and a bass that sounds just slightly out of tune gets under your skin; you can’t shake it after you’ve heard it. “Big Time” is another B powerhouse tune, where she nods in the direction of the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, although she’s clearly more earthbound than ol’ Liz. The spookout centerpiece of this record, though, is B’s “S.A.M.M. Needed.” With its haunting guitar, slightly disembodied vocal (see Jessica Bailiff for the nearest U.S. corollary) and background metallic clanking sound, this track is truly gripping. For better or worse, Schtimm set the bar extremely high for themselves on this record; some Norwegian reviewers even considered it “one of the most important records ever made in Norway.” My rating: OR: 8. OM: 3.5. CSC.
After a lineup change that saw them losing one drummer and gaining another, the band prepared their second recording, with the user-unfriendly name of Schtim Plays Mrakoslav Vragosh. It was a “covers album” that wasn’t real covers, and in fact, they’d completely invented the Russian composer of the title. This was definitely a band answering only to their own mysterious muse. Strong songs on this sophomore effort include “Somewheregone” (which could serve as the general conceptual location of this band!)—a pleasing male-female vocal duet; the atypically peppy “Suncotic Drive”; the somber cello & violin-laden “Flowers”; “The Hardcore Waving of Happyflags” (weird electronics and murky vocals); and the organ-driven, vaguely jazzy “Twain Anthem, Red,” on which B continues building the case for herself as a truly gifted vocalist with a soothing timbre. This disc may or may not have been a slight disappointment to those blown away by the debut; I’ve no way of knowing the response at the time since I don’t read Norwegian. But personally, I would only say some of the stylistic novelty might have worn off, and there are one or two too many sluggish songs. But it’s still a rewarding listen by an extremely interesting band. OR: 7. OM: 2.5. In summer of 2002, the band released the EP Sun/Sun, which contained three new tunes along with several from the previous full-length. “Tzwingelin” and “Huttopohl Sko” contained two of Æ’s most intimate, emotive vocal performances—both are fairly sparse tunes, production-wise. Just last year, finally, they released their latest full-length, called simply featuring…Visually, it’s a striking CD, with a bright red star set amidst tropical-looking green foliage. “Do you want my story?/You can have them if you want to/My unfinished circles/You can have them if you want to/No good conclusions to be drawn yet…” sings B on opener “Shtories” with seeming sincerity, with that last line being the most accurate thing to say about Schtimm even now. Horns add a beguiling texture on this track. B performs the dramatic “Untitled” as though it’s a musical theatre number; she seems to be acting something out and gesturing while singing. The confidence she displays here is some distance from the spooky solemnness of the debut record. The following “…And Balloons for the Children,” though, is one of the most melancholy and affecting tunes the band has ever recorded; I can imagine someone, somewhere shedding tears over this one for any number of reasons. Every other song has some vocals by the two principles; they’ve by this point developed an unmistakeable sonic chemistry and stylistic uniqueness. “Mraklands” is ominous, rumbling and almost operatic; it’s clearly a Scandinavian composition, down to every detail of the dense production. “Idiotsong” became the nearest thing Schtimm had to a hit; they even made a video for it. It’s a rockin’ little tune, for sure, with a big, muscular arrangement and precisely balanced male-female vocals. One of their most accessible tunes, for sure, although not representative of the spooky side of their oeuvre at all. “About Home” and the striking “The Sixth Wheel” with its acoustic guitar strumming and shimmering Nordic-style mix are better examples of the band’s original way of performing and presenting their songs. featuring…is a pretty solid recording, the band’s best since their debut, for sure. The vocals are stirring and exceptionally well-recorded; production values remain as high as ever. OR: 8. OM: 2.5. Listening to Schtimm does require patience; they’re not a feel-good sort of band. And they’re too eccentric to work well as background music. But there’s uncommon depth and creative allure to Schtimm’s work, and they certainly deserve to reach a wider audience. One hopes they’re not too esoteric for that to occur. I emailed some questions to the band and they were quite eloquent in many of their responses, which certainly shed light on their m.o.
Q: When Schtimm first formed, was there any particular “aesthetic” or direction in mind? Any particular things you set out to accomplish?
Æ: We have a very minimalistic approach to music. We don’t want to add something that doesn't belong there. We’re not a “let's play around in the studio and see what happens” kind of band and we certainly don’t jam out songs together. When the songs are written, they have a very defined idea to them before they are let into the rehearsal room. Having that said, the process is not at all as static as it might sound. It just means that all members understand the concept of a song, and can interpret it in her/his own way. I guess that process is just as much a question of having an empathic rather than technical approach of how to do music.
B: Something also happens to the music when we play live or go into the studio. We are very lucky to work with a very good man on studio recordings who knows us well, and who can hear things that we can’t. He’s like a 5th member of the band in the studio, and has always shared the producer role with us. As for the live situation, we also have an incredible man behind the mixing table, who knows us and how we want it to sound. When it comes to the aesthetic part, we use the same guy for coverart, posters, videos, merch and so on—he understands when he hear the music, and is an old friend of ours, so we don’t need to talk too much about how the visual side of the music should be. He’s the third 5th member of the band.
Q: Your first album, The Alcoholovefi Collection, is simply brilliant. Did you feel while making it that something special was happening? Or were you simply letting it emerge naturally, and waiting to see what kind of results you would achieve? It must have been flattering to see someone call it one of the most important Norwegian records ever.
B: Thank you for that. It’s always special to make a record, and to try to capture a certain mood and sound that we feel suit the songs and the main idea of them. As we’ve said, we have a clear idea behind every song, and how it should sound and feel, but of course we never know exactly how it will sound in the end.
Æ: I think it’s always a bit difficult to recollect exactly what was going down when a record is recorded. We entered the studio about a week after the band was formed, and we recorded the first four songs for TAC in a few days, so in one way we were very determined about what to do. But to make an album come “alive” and have that much spoken of “nerve” to it, is something that’s impossible to predict whether you succeed with or not.
B: One of the things we did was to do some of the songs “live”; playing at the same time in the studio, only changing details afterwards. This is something we’ve also done on a larger scale on the Plays-album and partly on featuring…
Æ: As for what has been said about the record, I’ve heard quite different things about it: That it’s a record to cry/fuck/dance/relax to, that it’s a cozy album, that it sounds like a mental breakdown, to mention a few. And that’s what is important about music: That it makes you feel something, that it doesn’t just pass by unnoticed. In that sense, all the interpretations I mentioned above are just as good and correct as the interpretations we in Schtimm might have.
Q: The vocals seem almost evenly divided between male and female, and it’s clearly a characteristic of your style. Was there any discussion about this? How do you decide who will sing which song?
B: I haven’t really thought about how we divide the singing, so I guess it comes somewhat naturally. It hasn’t been a topic of big discussion for us. We’re all very tuned in on what suits the material, and the one who makes a particular song often has an idea of who of us should sing it. That goes for which instruments to use, as well.
Æ: We all play more than one instrument, so we alternate a bit between different soundscapes.
Q: You titled your next record Schtimm plays Mrakoslav Vragosh Is there an actual composer by that name, or were you choosing a fictitious person for dramatic effect? Did you have any concerns at all that listeners might get confused by this or that it would make marketing the album more difficult?
Æ: I guess we have a little hang up on genres. Not as content, but as form. TAC was presented as a compilation album, something which is both true and not that true. Many compilation albums are just songs put together for commercial reasons. This was not the case with TAC: For us it certainly has a thematic and musical coherence to it.
B: One of the main aspects of Schtimm is that we (said best with the oldest clichè in the book) focus on the music. We don’t have pictures of ourselves in the cover art, we don’t use our full names and we don’t write who has written the different tracks; whether it’s us, Mrakolav Vragosh or anyone else isn’t important. It could just as well have been a Russian composer who made the music, instead of us—and what would have made the difference if it was? Nothing, as far as we’re concerned. As for the effect it would have on people and the press, we didn’t know if anyone would believe in it, but for us that wasn’t important at all.
Æ: What’s important is that we believe in it ourselves. If we didn’t, I guess nobody else would. We don’t aim to give people what they wan’t, but what they didn’t know they needed.
Q: How do you feel the band has evolved, musically, since your first record? Is there anything different in your approach now from those days?
Æ One thing that hasn’t changed is that we still have the minimalistic approach to things.
B: As we’ve said, it’s always important to see what the basic material brings, and that can take different directions in the musical landscape, ending up quite another place than another song. I mean, not that our songs are so extremely different from each other, but we have, for instance, some quite dirty and punching songs with distortion on several instruments and a more dirty atmosphere, while other songs are more whispering and with very few instruments and a simple sound. So to point out a certain direction is difficult for us. But of course we have evolved and gotten a step further all the way. The day we do things exactly the same as we have been doing for some time, I think it’s time to stop. And of course it is important to keep the core. Like balancing on the dirty edge of a knife, maybe. A dirty, slippery edge that still has some kind of innocent silver quality to it—some places sharp and cutting, and some places not. Songs are like people and clothes: If you want to look your best (or your worst, all depending), you put on the dress you feel is adequate for the purpose. We try to dress our songs in the right clothing before we gently send them off to school.
Q: Your latest album, featuring… is quite alluring in a very intangible way. It seems very influenced by nature. Is this true? What other influences shaped the sound of this record?
B: Much of the recording WAS actually done, well, out in nature. In a little cabin surrounded by nature, to be correct. We loaded the most important gear in a boat and drove it to a cabin by the sea, up in the beautiful north of Norway. Some of the things are actually recorded outdoors, but I don’t know if that is something which is possible to guess, just by listening to it. But we feel that we have gotten something good out of it. Another thing that’s brought a special aspect to the record is that we got some great musicians and friends to help us out.
Æ: Whether it’s more listenable and alluring—that’s a bit difficult for us to judge or analyze as insiders. One of the things we had in mind when we did this record was that we wanted to make it a bit “wider” album—to make the loud a little bit louder, the small and close even smaller and closer, and so on. And as B said, we wanted to include a few other people: People who usually do things that are quite far from Schtimm’s way, and who have their own musical personality. We feel that this album is very Schtimmish, and at the same time that these people have put their mark on it and expanded the concept a bit.
Q: You seem to have a fairly low profile. Articles about the Norwegian music scene almost never mention you, even though I think you’re one of the most talented bands there. Why do you suppose you aren’t more widely known? Do you hope to increase awareness of your music, or do you like being underground?
Æ: We are probably hanging out with the wrong people. We have never been part of a certain scene, or been doing music for social reasons. The whole question about underground vs. mainstream is rather complex. I guess it’s a matter of mentality: If your intention is to sell a lot of records, even if it’s to a limited cult of the “right” people, before you actually record the album, that is quite commercial. At the same time, you can have a commercial success without caring a minute about factors other than the music..
B: Also Norway is a difficult country to be a middle-sized band in. It’s not so big, and there are only about five million who live here. To survive and make money on music, you have to be among a handful of the biggest, or into jazz (those guys get a lot of support money from the government, maybe we should go more in that direction).
Æ: Luck and coincidence are also factors. As for us, we concentrate on the music, and if someone gets something out of it—if it’s one person or one million people, we have succeeded.
Q: Would you like to make it in the U.S.? Is this something you’re working towards, or is it more like “If it happens, it happens, but we cannot control it”? What level of success do you hope the band can achieve?
B: Yes, we’d certainly enjoy it if our music became well-known in America and the rest of the world, as well. If it happened because of musical reasons and not marketing-budget-reasons. But I guess that’s not a very realistic prospect for a band such as Schtimm. It would have been great to get out our records there, but so far the jungle of American labels has been quite an abstraction to us, so we don’t know who to call.
Æ: So the only way something like that could happen to us, is that you who read this, do the following: 1. Check out the music and videos on www.schtimm.com. 2. If you like what we are up to, spread the word...and sooner or later, if we’re lucky, an A&R guy at some good label will find out we are signable, and then we’ve got the whole Cinderella story going....
B: Since we don’t measure success in how many albums we sell or how much money we make, I’d say we have achieved our goals so far: To release the albums we have wanted to. So our next goal will always be to release an album we are satisfied with, or do concerts where we give all we’ve got. Maybe that’s our problem: we should have some more ambitious goals, like outselling Michael Jackson, and that everybody in the world will hear about us and love us. That way we would always have something to work against, or at least until we made it happen.
Q: If you had to summarize Schtimm for a listener who has never heard you before, what would you say?
Æ: Northnorwegiana mixed with Alcojazz and Dunkelpop.
B: Listen to it, and make up your own mind!
Q: Can you see any specific influences in your music? Or artists, either in your country or outside, that have affected you in some way?
Æ: When bands say that they are influenced by other artists, it’s very often another way of saying that they are trying to copy their idols, or to fit their music into a special format or genre to please a certain audience. It might sound a bit boasting, but we’re a band with no specific sources of inspiration. I think we are more influenced by things in our daily lives. I mean, if someone means that we sound like a million other bands, they are free to feel so, but from our side it’s not intended: Life is too short to walk in the footsteps of others.
B: And besides, we walk barefoot…
Schtimm’s four recordings are available through their website, where you can also download mp3s and videos. Fans of crystalline, melancholy Nordic rock should definitely give them a listen.
There’s many other weird recordings we could delve into, but I’ll close this month with a more normal one, the latest by finger-picking Swedish wunderkind Jose Gonzalez. He’s of Argentinean descent, but born and raised in the thriving music town of Gothenburg. Veneer (Hidden Agenda) is his latest release, and it’s a stunner. Imagine some bracing mixture of Nick Drake, Bert Jansch and Joao Gilberto, with a few dollops of Jose Feliciano and Elliot Smith, and you’ll have some idea of Gonzalez’s style. His repeated patterns of cleanly picked notes are incredibly hypnotic, and the smooth, soft voice floating above those notes conveys just enough emotion to keep you intrigued. There’s something universal about this music, something that gets you right in the heart, rendering the country of its origins sorta irrelevant. Gonzalez is gifted with a potent purity of expression, putting forth a sound conveying that its maker was lost in the moment while recording, enabling the listener to get similarly lost experiencing this sublime music. Personal favorite tunes include “Slow Moves” (one of the best tips of the hat to Drake I’ve ever heard—that’s a compliment), “Remain” (just gorgeous, luminous guitar chording), the sparse and moody “Deadweight on Velveteen,” and the evocative “Stay in the Shade” (again, the Nick Drake overtones are unavoidable, but I’m not complaining!). They’re nuts over this guy in Sweden, and it’s no mystery—Gonzalez is a first-class, absolutely dynamic talent. This record sounds great on a car stereo, on a living room stereo and on a little PC (I have heard it on all three). If you like acoustic music with drive, passion, dark romanticism and vocals that are just the right degree of emotive, Jose Gonzalez has a classic disc waiting for you. OR: 9. OM: 2.5.
The Search for Magga Stina, Month Two…
In last month’s column, I put out the word that I was trying to track down any information as to what happened to Iceland’s Magga Stina after the release of her superb 1998 album An Album. I’ve decided I’m going to say something about Magga at the end of every column until someone in her camp or some fan in Iceland gets in touch with me. It’s just inexplicable that such a remarkable talent would completely drop out of sight. Magga’s girlish vocals, combined with huge, often bizarre arrangements and fantastic production, made her disc one of my favorites from the Scandinavian region. I don’t want to believe this is the only record she’ll ever make. So let me say it again: Magga, where are you? I think you’re fabulous, and I want to hear from you! Get in touch if you’re out there anywhere; let’s chat!
Visit www.itsatrap.com for daily news about Scandinavian artists.
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