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Escape Velocity

Heart & Soul Of Stockholm: An Interview With I Break Horses
John Freeman , November 29th, 2011 06:27

John Freeman heads for Sweden's capital city to eat, drink and be merry with Maria Lindén and Fredrik Balck, purveyors of sumptuous shoegaze-tinged electronica

Stockholm is a beautiful place. Spanning several islands, a combination of opulent architecture, grand waterways and impossibly good-looking townsfolk create a winning first impression. It's the sort of city where one can dine in a 300-year-old restaurant frequented by the Nobel Prize committee - the cloudberry soup dessert is perfection.

I'm meeting up with I Break Horses, two Stockholm natives. When they arrive in the lobby of my hotel singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Maria Lindén and drummer Fredrik Balck are immediately warm, open and welcoming. They also appear to be utterly without any sense of just how good their debut album Hearts actually is. When I compliment Maria on the waves of heady, shoegaze-leaning electronica that make up their sound, she seems to be fighting back tears. Her reaction is genuine – Maria has put both heart and soul into her music.

In fact, Hearts seems to have garnered almost universal acclaim. “I'm thrilled with the response,” she tells me as our taxi heads south from the city centre to the island suburb of Södermalm and our venue for dinner and drinks. “I'm the type of person who always thinks they can do things better and that I should have changed stuff. It took me a long time to finish the music and I was not finished when the album was mixed.”

As we speed past the Old Town, Maria describes Södermalm as a more “bohemian” part of Stockholm. The restaurant she's chosen is a cosy, chilled-out room full of beautiful Swedes and a short, grey Englishman. The cuisine is 'world' and there is no English menu. We order drinks – a prosecco aperitif for Maria and I, and a Carlsberg Hof for Fredrik. He claims to not drink much and I presume Hof is low in alcohol. Later I find out it's normal strength, and I'd previously been drinking what amounts to Special Brew.

Talk turns quickly to music. Hearts is largely the work of Maria, who composed the music and played all the instruments except Fredrik's drums. Intriguingly, she sings his lyrics and the chemistry seems to work perfectly. Fredrik understands his role in the band exquisitely, “The thing is, when it comes to major parts of the album, I feel like I am a part of the audience,” he admits early in our interview. “Maria is the ears; she is making all the different structures.”

And the structures that make up Hearts are beautiful. Lindén uses keyboards and reverb with spectacular effect, fleshing out a set of songs that are very focused on texture and exquisitely executed. “Hearts was a new thing to me, as before I had been writing music on just an acoustic guitar,” Maria explains. “With this album I started with noises and built the song around a specific sound atmosphere that I created with my synthesizers. That's why it turned into more of a soundscape record because I got so fascinated by sounds; I loved these noises and the reverb.”

The pair met four years ago when Maria, needing to find a drummer, presented some demos to Fredrik. “I played Fredrik my demos and instantly he said 'Yes, I will drum',” she says. The demos contained no real lyrics, “I sang some weird words that nobody would understand and did some humming! I'm not much of a talker, so lyrics do not come naturally to me at all. I compose the music but then when it comes to words, I don't know how to put them in the right way.”

Fredrik could offer the words. He had studied poetry at a prestigious Swedish school and immediately envisaged a way in which some of his work could be used as lyrics. “I actually tried to be a poet. I went to this writing school, but nobody understood what I did,” he confesses with some amusement. “But, I have taken parts of the essence of what my poetry was supposed to mean to me. It fits with Maria's music.”

If the duo does seem like a perfect match, there is one problem with I Break Horses - they don't seem to eat much. Although I'm famished, I let them order for me and we agree just to have a starter. But, they assure me that the meze platter is huge and as filling as a main course. When it arrives it is a delicious selection of Swedish, Mexican and Spanish tidbits, but it's rather on the small size. Fredrik and Maria are “full” and I am left to check out the dessert menu.

Stomach rumbling, I probe further about the I Break Horses sound. Maria struggles to describe the catalyst for Hearts, “It was not that I had a specific sound in mind,” she admits. “When I write the music, I have to just feel it. On this record, every song had to have this huge sound wall – I don't know why, it just turned out that way.” She is a multi-instrumentalist; a skill set honed from a combination of her upbringing and Sweden's laudable policy to 'mandate' that each child learns at least two musical instruments. “I grew up with classical music and I was forced to play classical music,” she says. “I liked it as well, of course.”

The influences that helped her create I Break Horses' sonic palette came later. “The turning point for me was when I heard a Swedish artist called Stina Nordenstam. She had a very, very personal and private expression. Her music was introverted and totally new to me and I just felt immediately connected. She has made a huge impact on my writing. Then it was My Bloody Valentine after that; they were my next 'moment'.” Later, off tape, Maria talks lovingly about her parent's constant support for her music and reminisces about trying to play 'Wonderwall' on her first guitar when the Oasis track comes on in the restaurant.

Fredrik's path was a little more conventional for an 'alternative' musician. He describes his childhood as almost “silent” and found teenage solace in artists like “DAF, Skinny Puppy and Front 242; all those crazy-sounding bands that weren't played on the radio. I felt the energy from those bands.”

What becomes startlingly obvious during the evening is that I Break Horses seem painfully shy and would prefer to focus on their music. Whenever we attempt to do the interview and with my digital recorder switched on, Maria and Fredrik tense up a little. They seem desperately keen to find the right words, with Maria in particular apologising for her (quite excellent command of) English. “It is really important to me that the music just speaks for itself,” Maria tells me when I ask her about their strategy of not featuring themselves in videos or even press shots to any great degree. “I know it sounds like a cliché but on this album, I consider myself as an instrument more than an artist. I just wanted the focus to be on the music and not the people behind it.”

Fredrik has a more pragmatic reason for not wanting to thrust himself into the spotlight, “I can only speak for myself, but I want my privacy intact,” he says. “I am not the kind of guy who tweets about what he had for breakfast.” Maria is in agreement about social networking. “Twitter stresses me very much,” she says, “because I cannot really be myself and I really want to be myself in all those situations.”

We progress onto a round of mojitos and talk turns to the future. At the time of our interview, I Break Horses haven't yet played a live show, although a tour is booked for the end of the year, and I'm eager to know why they haven't schlepped round the clubs and bars of Sweden. “It is a technical thing. Since I play all the instruments except the drums I could never do that live,” Maria explains. “If it were me on one instrument and Fredrik on the drums, we would miss out on so much of the album and it would be a disaster. So, we need to rehearse with a band and find a way to make it work live. I am a bit of a control freak and it has been hard for me to find musicians that I can say 'play it like this' to.”

I turn to Fredrik, “Is she a control freak?”

“Yes, she is. Definitely,” he says, rather meekly.

“I am,” Maria admits, although it would appear she is a very gentle tyrant. “It would freak me out if I had a musician who wanted to do his own thing and to improvise.” Their first rehearsal was earlier in the day, and the second is penciled in for ten o'clock tomorrow morning - in just a few hours time. We order more drinks, and I suspect the pair will be feeling a little ropey for the second band practice.

Maria does seem really excited about the prospect of meeting people at the shows. I choose my words carefully as Maria tells me that she doesn't think the concept of 'fan' exists, “These people are soul mates and I want to give them something more,” she says. “I am really looking forward to people coming to that specific place to hear the music that I have been working on for such a long time.”

I Break Horses are also beginning to work on new material, and Maria is hopeful it won't be three years before their next album (“For the debut album, I was nervous. I was scared of going with my first intuition.”) As for musical direction, she offers only a tantalising glimpse, “It is difficult to talk about, because I am the sort of person who could change it completely,” she tells me while digging into a miniscule chocolate torte. “Right now, it is not the huge wall of sound; it is a bit more stripped down. It will be the same lo-fi sound, but I have focused on getting one sound to be interesting and not ten different instruments at the same time.”

At two in the morning, the patient, smiling restaurant staff finally usher us outside. We walk towards a taxi rank, tipsy after our cocktails, linked-in-arms. Maria hails me a cab, talks to the driver so he is not confused by my attempts to pronounce 'Kungsgatan', and after hugs, kisses and more welling of tears, I leave I Break Horses and am whisked back into my real life.

Hearts is out now via Bella Union. I Break Horses play three tour dates in the UK this week and next - see below.

3rd – Soup Kitchen, Manchester
4th – Brudenell Social Club
5th – Cargo, London