Pyramid Songs: Efterklang bring their elegant new LP to The Usher Hall
Five hundred miles from the North Pole, in the upper reaches of the Svalbard archipelago, lies a ghost town. For almost seventy years, miners lived and worked in the Pyramiden settlement, hauling coal for Mother Russia; now, Pyramiden is abandoned, home only to polar bears, gulls and the occasional off-beat tour expedition. Its human population upped sticks years ago, but their detritus has yet to decay, seemingly locked in time by the frozen climate. But while low temperatures have slowed the rate at which tundra reclaims the land, they haven’t halted its encroachment entirely, with window frames now nests for seabirds and grass protruding through wooden slats and concrete. In a forgotten auditorium, the world’s northernmost grand piano warps and gathers dust.
“Even before Magic Chairs came out we were already talking about how we would like to make the next album,” says bassist Rasmus Stolberg, speaking from Heathrow’s departure lounge. “We had this idea of connecting it to some kind of location. For example, we talked a lot about recording everything in a forest – drums, vocals, but also samples of the forest itself. So we were throwing around ideas, and suddenly we get this email full of photos of this place up in the Arctic and we were just mesmerised. The guy emailing us was suggesting it as somewhere to make a music video, but we were already thinking this is way too good for just a music video.”
The email came in summer 2010; the following year, Efterklang journeyed north, imaginations sparked. Beyond the initial email, how much research did the band do beforehand? “We decided to read up on it, but there’s not much written about it actually. We also got some general books about how to travel somewhere like Spitsbergen [Svalbard’s largest island] because… well, it’s not like going to Paris,” Rasmus laughs. “We had to go into this shop in Copenhagen with a totally long list of equipment – new shoes, new jackets, that kind of stuff. We’re not really wildlife-types so that was interesting for us too. But musically, the whole idea was to come totally unprepared: the first day of the album is the day that we set foot in that ghost town. We wanted all three of us to have the same beginning and reference points, because sometimes when you start making an album, each member can have a different starting point, or just a different idea of what kind of album we’ll be making. We were curious to see what would happen if we all started in the same place, on the same day, by going on this expedition and adventure together. And that worked out really amazing for us."
The trio – Rasmus, Caspar Clausen and Mads Brauer; drummer Thomas Husmar left shortly before – spent nine days exploring the deserted town, making over 1000 field recordings. "When we came back it was all about those sounds. Well, first it was about sounds, and then it was about testing what the recordings could be turned into.” Rusted metal containers, empty vodka bottles and other forsaken relics (including the aforementioned grand piano) were processed into a glorious array of unfamiliar and elemental instrumentation, and Piramida gradually took shape. “If I was sitting next to you I could tell you a lot about every sound in every song,” says Rasmus, evidently still enthused by the results of their alchemy. “When I listen to the album now, and start to process certain sounds, I just get this inner image of the three of us discovering or recording the origin of that specific sound. It’s a lovely feeling – a feeling of connection, I guess, to the music we’ve made.”
Elements of this song-writing method were first seen in Vincent Moon’s 2010 film An Island. On that occasion, the destination was literally closer to home, with the band performing amidst nature on Als, the island on which Mads, Caspar and Rasmus were raised. “An Island was a big inspiration for us,” Rasmus confirms. “There’s a scene where we go sort of sound-hunting and gradually a beat arrives – it’s more of an abstract experimental kind of thing, but it inspired us to use that same technique for an album.”
A trailer for Piramida, posted online in June, showed the band engaged in a similar act of sound-hunting, with footfalls and birdsong gradually matched to the harmonic swells of Dreams Today. We ask whether there’s any more footage from Spitsbergen to come. “You mean like a sequel to An Island?” Rasmus hesitantly replies. There’s an intake of breath. “You’re close… I’m not going to say anything else. But you’re on to something!” Whatever the band’s plans are on that front, they don’t involve returning to Svalbard. Where An Island was a genial, warm affair, with family, friends and others from the community taking part, Spitsbergen was both isolated and isolating. “When I left that place I didn’t feel like ever coming back,” says Rasmus. “It’s not a place made for humans. It’s a beautiful spot, but being up there, it sort of felt like this place is not really for man, and it sort of made me sad. It’s in spots like that, where nature is so dramatic and we as humans have to try so hard to make a living, it just becomes so clear that we’re like this parasite, using up the world’s energy and… well anyway, that’s the sort of thoughts I had while being up there.”
Not that Piramida is a concept album per se. “It was more an inspiration and a beginning than it is actually about that space,” says Rasmus early in our conversation; when we later ask if he considers Efterklang’s other albums products of their environment, he gently rebuffs the suggestion. “I don’t really feel that” he says. “I think the music is all part of our brains and our imagination, and the location just inspires [that]. It informs the music, but we just use it to fuel the feelings and dreams of music we already have inside.”
Stage two took place at the band’s studio in Berlin, where they went about transforming their myriad, abstract field recordings, first into “small sketches”, then into full songs. “When we came back we thought ‘let’s not have a deadline, let’s get really deep into experimenting with all this stuff and let an album come out of it slowly,” Rasmus recalls. “But then a month into this process, Sydney Opera House contacted us…” An open invitation to perform with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in one of the most iconic venues on the planet would surely turn anyone’s head, but for Efterklang, the offer had additional significance. “The architect [Jørn Utzon] is Danish, and we consider it, well, I think it might be one of the proudest moments in Danish history, or at least in modern history. We’re so proud of the Sydney Opera House in Denmark, so to get that offer was just mind-blowing.”
Balancing the two projects – writing and recording Piramida while also planning for a symphony show on the opposite side of the world – wasn’t easy. “Initially we thought ‘oh my gosh, no, we can’t do this’ because we’d just decided not to have a deadline, and we cannot play shows at the same time as making albums. It doesn’t work that way for us.”
The issue comes from the band’s varying live set up, in which the core members are supported by a flexible cast of additional musicians. “We’d told everyone in our live band, ‘this is it for now, we’re dissolving the whole thing, making a new album, and when we come out the other side we’ll decide then what kind of live band we want to have.’ To go about and play shows in the middle of making an album, we’d have to call up the old band members and play the old songs and suddenly you go right back into old habits. And that’s not good for changing your game; to move forward, you need to have an empty slate. So saying yes to the opera house was totally stupid.”
Their unlimited window for experimentation was suddenly shrunk to a matter of months, though the deadline only seemed to stoke their creativity: an enforced period of “really, really intense song-writing” furnishing 18 complete songs, ten of which appear on Piramida, with the rest earmarked for release later down the line. “I’m glad it worked out, but it was totally stupid to say yes. We’ve never worked so hard in our lives.”
As if to illustrate just how hectic their schedule has become, a distracted Rasmus suddenly notices that his flight is about to start boarding. It’s mid-September and Efterklang are on their way to Ireland, to start rehearsals for the first post-Sydney Piramida shows. This October, the tour visits the UK, with Andre de Ridder conducting the Northern Sinfonia at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. En route to his plane, Rasmus discusses the Piramida concerts further.
“They’re an extension of what we did in Sydney. We were extremely happy with how it turned out, and extremely relieved as well because it was so hard to finish it in time. When you do a show like that it’s a lot of work to orchestrate it – there’s visuals, there’s a whole orchestra who need notes to play, you need to collaborate with the conductor… there’re so many things, so playing that only once, well that just sucks!” he laughs. “But we’re so lucky now that we can do it 14 or 15 times this fall – that’s quite fortunate and unusual I guess, for a band in our position.” Don’t you ever wish it was logistically simpler? “Oh yeah, absolutely, I think that a lot,” Rasmus replies from the aircraft’s loading tunnel, moments away from yet another journey in support of the band’s vision. “And then once I go off-stage after a performance I’m so happy that I want to do it immediately again. So it’s a big pain in the ass, but it’s also a big payoff.”