Siobhán Kane interviews Mariam Wallentin and Andreas Werliin of Sweden’s Wildbirds & Peacedrums.
Wildbirds & Peacedrums‘ work is like a long revelatory, musical sigh. Mariam Wallentin and Andreas Werliin announced themselves with Heartcore (2007) and from that point onwards have been exploring the contorted heart, the labyrinthine map of the personal world that is constantly being rewritten. Their work always resonates, their authenticity radiating, not simply because they are husband and wife, although this unification brings a neat template to bear on their work, as their records are about unity, and disunity, the elevation and disintegration of the concept and the practice. Sometimes Mariam sings in her gloriously glacial way about the crucial role that solitariness can play in existence on ‘The Way Things Go’, but in the next breath is admitting that we are always reacting to something or someone, for example ‘The Battle in Water’, ‘I am in the wilderness/ You turned out my light/ This time I will make things right’.
One of their greatest gifts is making everything sound so accessible and simple, yet they actually create the most complex pop music; sometimes tender, sometimes cruel, always contemplative. Their second record The Snake (2008) further evidences the darkness, but their clarity of purpose -the exploration of the heart is a rich and beautiful trap that we willingly get caught up in. They move from percussive dream pop to a kind of skeletal folk, with Mariam’s vocal leading the way, but as she sings on ‘My Heart‘ she would be ‘lost’ without Werliin’s ‘rhythm’.
They were awarded Swedish Jazz Act of the year in 2007 which came as a surprise to them, but in many ways it makes sense, as they create the most interesting pop music with an improvisational impulse, and crash through the limitations they set themselves (such as sparse instrumentation). Last year’s Rivers record was an amalgamation of two EP’s Retina and Iris, with Retina recorded in a church in Reykjavik with a twelve piece chamber choir that appeared on Björk’s Medúlla. The result is one of astonishing beauty, and reconciles different aspects of the band; austere and restive on Retina, radiant and warm on Iris. Perhaps that is part of their own beauty, their magnificent chemistry, the conflicts that reconcile beautifully on record to produce dreamy, intelligent, beguiling and demanding music – Siobhán Kane talks to Mariam Wallentin and Andreas Werliin.
You both met at college – previous to studying musical improvisation had you been making music for quite some time before that? A: Both of us had always played music. I started banging on Mum’s cans in the kitchen and got my first homemade hippie drum kit when I was six. It was the same for Mariam, singing had always been there.
Did you sense that there was a creative kinship at college, that somehow it was like the missing piece of the puzzle? A: Before we started to play as a duo we talked and listened to music for over a year. We felt frustration over the situation at the music scene in Gothenburg and were ready for a change. When we by accident played as a duo for the first time there was no doubt that we hit something that at least I had never been even close to in other bands. So yes, the missing piece of the puzzle.
What was the course like? It sounds very interesting, but was it frustrating as well? It sounded like a paradoxical course, though there seems to be a real appreciation for improvisation in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. A: Yes it was frustrating but also very giving. You were basically locked in a rehearsal space for three years trying to figure out what the heck you wanted to do with your life. The improvisation part is just a cover for musicians that can’t stick to a form, like us.
How far do you think that you have been influenced by more traditional aspects of Swedish music? A: The simplicity and raw wooden sound of Swedish folk music is truly something special. Even though we’ve never played any ourselves we’ve been to parties and danced to this music. During the summers there’s plenty of open festivals in the woods where people gather and play traditional folk music and drink lots of Brennevin. It’s a nice tradition.
In some ways, you have been surrounded by unusual instruments in terms of Swedish musical history, as so many interesting instruments like the zither have been used in old Swedish folk songs. A: The zither is a pretty young instrument compared to the violin and key harp that are more used in Swedish folk music. The zither was actually an instrument for the house, easy to play and good sounding from the start, just the kind of instrument that we like.
So many of your musical processes and techniques seem deceptively simple, but they produce such interesting, eerie sounds – does it take you a long time to create a record? Your second record came out a year after Heartcore, do you hide away and just work constantly at it, or is it more piecemeal? A: The records are more like documents for where we are musically then the perfect version of a song. The recording process is equally intuitive as when we write the music. It’s always good to record and listen to yourself, it’s like an ending and a start for something new.
Heartcore had a lightness to it, whereas The Snake was much darker, was it in some way a companion piece, the flipside to the light? That you were exploring the more painful aspects of the same themes? A: After the release of Heartcore we toured a lot so it was on the stage that we found this more explosive and darker sound. I guess it was born out of the feeling of not being heard from the stage. When it was time to record The Snake we had this energy left in us and naturally it stuck on the tape.
I am always intrigued by your lyrics, and the imagery you use – nature and the natural landscape seems hugely important to you, for example on a song like ‘Island’, which is just beautiful – how important is nature to you, and do you get to reflect on it a lot where you live? A: Sweden is a big country with little amount of people in it. So there is a lot of space. Space and trees. And this has been important for us, maybe not directly but it’s definitely there somehow.
Following on from that, your lyrics are really so special, you seem to have a real love of language, and relish the impact they can have – who are some of your favourite writers? M: I love words and how they taste in your mouth. Right now I’m reading Sum by David Eagleman, Walking Over The Water by Pia Tafdrup and just ended Per Anders Fogelstrom´s wonderful series City – a five-book novel series about people living in old Stockholm. I must say I always swallow everything by Murakami and Oates, and when I was growing up I loved reading Maya Angelou, Per Hagman and Emile Zola, oh, and The Lover by Marguerite Duras. Right now I love listening to Joanna Newsom, her way of using words is really inspiring, and both me and Andreas love radio and all kinds of podcasts when people talk.
Your music is full of many diverse influences, though the records are very much pop, yet you won the Swedish Jazz Act a few years ago, were you surprised? How do you feel being viewed in part as a ‘jazz act’? A:The award was a total surprise. We accepted it more like to show that jazz doesn’t have to be in a certain way. This has always been our motto, to never be stuck and never to be put in a box.
Mariam – your voice is just so magical and simply transports, I keep listening to ‘Peeling off the Layers’, and wondering if perhaps I discovered this song in my wardrobe when I was trying to get to Narnia. How did that song come to you? Do you remember clearly about how it evolved? It is so simple, yet completely powerfully romantic. M: Thank you, I am so happy to hear that. I remember the melody coming to me while just normally walking on the street. The form of it is like a modern blues song. I was just trying to capture that feeling of a leak of light in a very dark sky. Or when you have your eyes closed but still sometimes see short flashes of light. I’m into writing haikus from time to time, to find a flow with words and to learn how to express myself with few words in a clear and simple way, and here I think I captured a little bit of that.
You have moved from Gothenburg to Stockholm, how has that move gone? What precipitated it? It must be nice to have a change, and to go on that adventure together. A: We simply had to move somewhere, Stockholm was a safe and social choice. A lot of friends live here and all other projects that we run are based here as well. Gothenburg still have the best Fettislagbullarna – cream buns, though!
Your live show is constantly evolving, sometimes you have incorporated a choir, and many other aspects – the live aspect is obviously so important to you, do you view it as very much a communal experience? A:The live show is always more different then the record. There is a lot of flesh and energy in a venue that always is missing in a record, for us anyway. Some bands can really capture it on record, I hope we one day can.
The EP’s Retina and Iris ended up forming your third record Rivers, but again it almost seems like a split thing – like a concept, can you explain a little about the thinking around it? A: After our shows we did with the drum circle we really wanted to do something with a lot of voices, to maximize the vocals, but not in a ‘Wildbirds’ way which maybe would be to use a gospel choir, we wanted to do something in contrast to our sound. Also we didn’t want to do “the third record”, so we hooked with the fantastic Hildur Gudnasdottir and started the process of writing and arranging, and the EP Retina was born. Iris was made as a contrast to Retina – more spare and more light.
How are things progressing for this year? What are your plans? A: We’re having a great tour together with Konono no1, Deerhoof, Juana Molina and Skeletons coming up this summer. Everyone together on stage, it’s going to be madness. Love and madness. M: And we will record our best record to date, it will be big and beautiful.