The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Escape Velocity

Wildbirds & Peacedrums Interviewed: Keeping The Beat
Frances Morgan , May 7th, 2009 04:29

Frances Morgan talks to Andreas Werliin and Mariam Wallentin about new album The Snake

The name evokes hypnotic whimsy; ethereal flutes and tropical forest rhythms called up by avian spirits and ghost shamans. Yet the sound made by Swedish duo Andreas Werliin and Mariam Wallentin is foot-stampingly, heat-beatingly, exhilaratingly and committedly human – and refreshingly so, in a music landscape full of hazy, layered indie-tropicalia.

It is not that Wildbirds and Peacedrums don't make psychedelic music: Wallentin's freeform vocals curl and pop like woodsmoke and sparks around her husband's shape-shifting drums, embroidered with pitter-patters of tuned percussion and the odd autoharp drone. It is not that their new album, The Snake, out now on The Leaf Label, isn't full of mystery, contrast and dreamy theatre. What it isn't, though, is vague. Sonically and emotionally, Wildbirds and Peacedrums make music that's right up close, in-your-face with everyday wonder.

I didn't realise myself, until I saw them play live. Debut album Heartcore was a pretty but vaporous collection of rhythmic folk-blues with touches of electronica, but it was an afternoon show at a Norwegian jazz festival – a set which, in retrospect, showcased many of The Snake's best tracks – that brought home Werliin and Wallentin's skills as improvisers and songwriters and the fierceness of their intent. Wallentin moaned and hollered with her whole small, wiry self, the way jazz singers aren't ashamed to, and attacked a floor tom during 'Today/Tomorrow' like she was in a Boredoms drum ensemble, stack heels thunking on the stage, while Werliin's loose but detailed percussion seemed to form melodies of its own in its responsiveness to every song. When he took the mic for one shy vocal of his own, one could sense the musical and personal balancing act between the couple – the exchanges of trust and fear and revelation that keep all relationships alive. Paradoxically, this attractive, talented, trained couple with their clever songs seemed suddenly more unmasked and transporting than a million delay-pedalled Animal Collective-fan primitivists.

Wildbirds' exploitation of their minimal set-up is one of their most bracing qualities, yet the band's next London appearance, as part of art collective NOMAD's Ritual For Elephant & Castle on June 5th, will involve numerous percussionists. "Just think about it," Mariam enthuses. "A big space, drums beating up the energy, arranging it with a lot of dynamics and space... it's just such an exciting thing to try out." Yet however euphoric the rhythmic pile-up gets, you somehow feel that all ears will still be drawn to the eye of the storm, to the core where two minds meet, and where the real work is done.

Can you tell me a bit about the new album, and how it developed?

Mariam: "Some of the songs on The Snake were already written and played live before going into the studio, others were more like fragments, lyrics and melodies with a strong idea of where to go next. We recorded it in December last year. We tried to have as many live takes as possible to have the energy going, and then added on the necessary things as the last step."

Andreas: "We always work on new music when we tour and things pop up and we collect them, in a way. The big difference between the first and second albums was the recording process, which was much more concentrated on this one. We recorded everything in six days. A lot of songs weren't done when we entered the studio, but we brought a playground of sounds and different instruments with us – we were trying out new stuff and instruments that we hadn't used before."

What instruments were those?

Mariam: "The instruments I'm mostly in control of are the steel drum, the santor, the gu zueng and the zither. The zither has been there from the start, I love the rough way you can use it with both hitting and stroking the strings. The santor is a Persian instrument that I borrowed from my uncle. It has a string that you hit with tiny clubs that make a very delicate and soft airy sound, as in, for example 'So Soft So Pink'. I bought the gu zueng in China. It's also a string instrument but with thick strings that you can bend and make more bluesy sounds with. You can hear it best on the song 'Who Ho Ho Ho'.

"With all those string instruments, I also wanted something to hit harder on, so I borrowed my aunt's steel drum, and fell in love with it – I love the sound and material and shape – and two months ago I got my own one. There's just one guy in Sweden who can tune it, though, so I hope it will cope with all our travels!"

What music were you listening to while you were recording The Snake, and how did it inspire your own work?

Andreas: "We listened to Earth, who also have this pure and simple way of playing their music, but it's very strong at the same time, very few notes and slow, slow tempos. I think that's a very inspiring way to play. That was one inspiration. Nina Simone has always been present in our music: the way she performs and writes about big subjects with this tender touch."

Mariam: "A couple of weeks before recording we listened to Korean classical drumming, My Bloody Valentine and Arvo Pärt's choir pieces, but I think in the end we enjoyed the silence more for the preparation."

Did a lot of the songs develop from improvisation? What does improvisation mean for you, and how is your background in it relevant to writing more structured songs in Wildbirds & Peacedrums?

Mariam: "For us there are always improvised parts when creating a song. In the end we feel like we do 'normal' songs, but with a bit more space in them, and because of the space we can go off from the melodies a bit, improvising around the themes live. Putting emotions in the music is improvising because you almost never feel the same things on stage... I've always loved improvising, using my voice freely. It's about being in control but at the same time losing it."

Going back to the beginnings of the band, did you ever want to add more people around the core of drums and vocals?

Andreas: "We did the opposite, because we started off in bigger bands, and then it became fewer and fewer people. We were a trio before, with a bass, drums and voice, but in the end it turned out to be just the two of us. It was easier than most other ways to create music, with no boundaries or no expectation of what it's supposed to sound like. It's the easiest way to create the music we like."

Is playing in such a minimal set-up ever frightening?

Mariam: "Sometimes it can be a bit scary, if I'm having a bad day or feel sensitive. But it has always felt so natural playing with Andreas this way. Music is pointless if you don't take risks with it, challenging normal life."

You both come formal musical backgrounds, and met while studying at the Gothenburg Academy of Music and Drama. What was the most important thing you gained from studying music in that way?

Mariam: "Getting control over my voice. Learning that that my voice is like a little animal that lives in my body and that I need to take care of the house as well as the pet. Learning how to breathe."

Andreas: "The time, that's the thing: you have a lot of time to think and practice and to work. That's a great investment for the future. But still, when you graduate you have to be strong and not fall into the shadows of history... The funny thing is that all the authorities and teachers that we decided to go against, those were the ones who like [our] music the most. It's interesting that when you finally find your way to play music and you think it's a protest, that's the music that works the best."

Mariam, what inspires your lyrics? Do you discuss the lyrics with Andreas or are they personal to you?

Mariam: "I'm inspired by movement, attraction, destiny and faith, all the things I feel. Remembering my childhood, all the sadness that can fill a body and how to make it come out, trying to transform it to comfort. Andreas and I sometimes discuss lyrics that we feel differently about, so we aim towards the same core in the song, but there is no need to explain your lyrics to another person: people should feel them as they feel them."

What's been your most memorable live performance to date?

Andreas: "We played at this small festival outside of Berlin, by a lake. We hadn't done a festival before, and it just ended up in a big mayhem with the audience. They pulled the power after a while. A lot of people came up on stage and I don't know how long we played, but it was a strong moment."

Mariam: "That was great! It was in the middle of the night at an outdoor festival, and we played the last slot. People were happy and dancing, and it just became natural to let everybody join in at the end, drumming and singing and having a big party together."

I guess in a way you'll be recreating that atmosphere in your performance at the Ritual gig at the Coronet. What's the plan?

Mariam: "We will play a great powerful set of some of our drums and vocal songs, and arrange the piece for that special setting, expand it and make our normal sound much bigger. We'll invite around fifteen drummers/percussionists."

Do you have an interest in ritual music?

Mariam: "Absolutely. But for me all music and concerts can be seen as rituals, defending the space that isn't ordinary life."