Rewind roughly three months and you’ll find this scribe in an old warehouse by Oslo’s riverside; stood next to the stage in anticipation of Lykke Li’s first performance at the city’s by:Larm festival. Before said artist appears however, it's the turn of a young married couple also from Sweden. Jaws are dropped, eyes are trained resolutely on the stage and the reception is rapturous. To quote (ahem), myself: “It’s hard to believe the majesty and racket emanating from the stage is the work of but two musicians, such is the impact they have.”
The couple in question: Mariam Wallentin and Andreas Werliin, otherwise known as Wildbirds & Peacedrums. In Heartcore (review) they’ve delivered a striking debut album – our DiScovery of last month, in fact – that offers its listeners a sound both primal and graceful; more-so – an amalgamation of influences collated into a daring, original whole that should by rights see the duo heralded in end-of-year lists and beyond.
On an unassuming Thursday evening I caught up with the pair at London’s Scala bar, where they sit first on a bill also featuring Born Ruffians and Caribou. Wonderfully – uniquely, it would seem – everything is running ahead of schedule, and as we sneak upstairs the band are more than happy to fill me in on their history, their confusion at being labelled an electronica outfit, and what, exactly, a ‘zither’ is…
So you met at Gothenburg’s Academy of Music and Drama, where you both studied. How was that?
Andreas Werliin: Well, the course had a lot of different things going on, but it didn’t support your own creativity as much as we wanted. So there was a lot of frustration – we talked a lot and had all these teachers to try and impress, but also all these friends we wanted to play with too. It was difficult!
Mariam Wallentin: I mean, university can be a really good thing – there’s a lot of knowledge there, and you learn from the tradition of the place, but when you feel like you’ve had everything you wanted… I just felt like I got stuck there. I think all musicians are in some way striving to get back to the core, you know – of yourself – which was there when you first started making music, in an impulse, or the excitement of something new… and I just lost that. And in one way, while you can never create anything entirely new ‘cause everything’s already been done, there are still ways to recapture that feeling. It’s hard to explain…
And so you formed the band around that time?
MW: Yeah… a year later or so.
AW: First we got together.
MW: …after hanging out and playing in different bands and settings…
I was curious as to what the first Wildbirds & Peacedrums show was like…
MW: I think – I think the first show was actually at the film festival…?
AW: Yeah, we started really small –
MW: We’re still small! We have a lot of friends in Gothenburg all playing music, so it’s normal to just play around and jam. And then after rehearsing with other bands we’d stay and play some more, and we found some freedom in that, ‘cause we knew each other so well and it felt really good. So then we had this friend arranging a film festival outside of Gothenburg and he was like, “Well, you can come and play there!” – as we’d mentioned to him that we’d been playing together. So we went there and played in a barn, Andreas forgot his drumsticks – it was really clichéd actually – we had to go out and make some! And I think starting out that way helped us realise that we can go on and make music without that much instrumentation. You know – sometimes stuff breaks and drumsticks fall apart, but we can survive that, and there’s no need to rely on electronics or anything like that…
That certainly shines through when you play live! I would say that your music, by its very nature I suppose, is difficult to classify. It’s a tricky question, but what would you say has shaped the band in terms of influences?
MW: We’ve been listening to so much lately, and we both listen to a lot of different stuff, different music, so maybe that shows…
AW: On one side, we listen to and love songs, you know? Like, just simple, good songs. It could be anything from –
MW: – Bonnie Prince Billy –
AW: – through to all sorts of good songwriters. Then on the other side, we listen to a lot of primal, dark, weird music, a lot of drone stuff… a lot of stuff from the Southern World label.
MW: Like Earth.
AW: Yeah, and Sunn O))). Simple, focused music – where it’s more about the direction they’re going in than anything else.
Would you – could you, even – classify your own music?
MW: (amidst laughter) No! I don’t think so… although we’ve been trying actually, ‘cause some people ask “is it electronica?” and we’re like “no! Not that!” But then when we try to think we can’t really come up with anything…
But that’s a good thing, perhaps…
MW: Yeah, in the long term I think. We really see this as a long-term thing, and don’t focus that much on our records right now. I mean, we do our records and do our shows, but we feel like… we’re musicians and we want to create – all the time.
I first saw you play in Blå, by the river in Oslo.
MW: Was a nervous gig, that one.
It didn’t show. For me, the live show really suits your approach.
AW: It all makes sense live, for sure. Especially when you travel to all these different places, sometimes you forget what you’re doing – but then you’re onstage and that’s it! And every set is different – we rely so much on each other.
MW: Yeah – it’s hard to play sometimes if you’re in a bad mood!
You throw so much into your performance it must be completely exhausting…
MW: We haven’t done so much touring yet, so I find I can really focus on each show. I think improvisation is also really important for us. I love to find a great record, a great album, but for me – while I enjoy the recording process, I can never be really satisfied that there is only one version of a song. When we play one of our songs, ‘The Window’, it’s different every time, and it disturbs me to think that the recorded version is definitive. It’s just a version, just a take.
Andreas, do you always play the drums without shoes?
AW: I can’t play with shoes, it’s too hard – I feel that I’m always too late –
MW: – ‘cause of that tiny bit of heel!
AW: I really think black metal drummers are amazing, how they have these massive boots on and play. I’ve tried but it’s so difficult for me!
And Mariam, you play a fairly unusual array of instruments – from all the percussive tools through to the stand-up sitar, glockenspiel and a zither? I don’t even know what that is.
MW: The zither is the sitar!
Ah! You don’t see them very often over here…
MW: I think in Sweden and Germany they used them a lot for older folk music. And on the next record I play more things too. Because I’ve always been a singer – I mean, I can play some piano and guitar and sometimes I write songs in that way, but I never felt I could use them as I want to. With the zither I feel like I’ve found an instrument that just sounds beautiful and natural, and is easy for me to play. And I can hit it! I want to hit things.
AW: Resonance is really important to us, and a natural sound – if you can hit it just once that should be enough.
MW: We had a show one and a half years ago where we thought we’d try and use all these pedals and electronic stuff – I mean, people write that we play like that so we thought we’d try it! – but it was just chaotic. It felt like too much.
It took away from the focus?
MW: Yeah – the core of this band is just drums and vocals; obviously we use other instruments, but they’re what’s really important to us.
You mentioned your song ‘The Window’… in its lyrics, it seems to reflect what it means for you both to be in a band, like a mission statement almost. Could you tell me a bit more about the song?
MW: That was actually one of the first ones… the first song?
AW: Yeah – we recorded it at the first rehearsal. We had an old demo with a couple of songs we did straight away. The first time we played it, we just thought… that’s exactly the way we want to make music. But you (Mariam) have to talk about the lyrics…
MW: Well, the lyric is… I have a really hard time explaining and analysing lyrics! Because in one way they’re so personal, but can be interpreted in different ways by other people, so I don’t want to put my words _in_ the words, if you understand what I mean…
As in, you don’t want the mystery taken away?
MW: Yeah. And that’s one of our most important songs, as we started with it and it’s very… honest. The lyric is just... just how I felt. And a little about my childhood, too.
In terms of where you are now, Heartcore is brand new for us in the UK, but you actually recorded it almost two years ago. How do you feel about the album in retrospect?
MW: Well, that was – for both of us – our first album, although we’ve played on others before… We didn’t have a producer or anything like that – we just did it ourselves and cut and pasted it all together. A year after I became tired of it, because we did it so intensely. But now… when we knew it was going to be re-released and listened to it again and it still worked for us. As much as I can still feel dissatisfied with it only having one version of each song on it. I’d have an album with just ‘The Window’, twelve different takes! But the album… I’m happy with it.
In terms of you guys being a couple as well as a band, I suppose it’s always been that way so you don’t know any different…
MW: Yeah, we got together and then a year afterwards we started playing as a band… so that question – which we do get asked – about being together and in the band… we don’t have anything to compare it to really.
AW: I would say that all the previous relationships we had before this all sort of ended because of music, really – ‘cause it’s always been so important; the primary thing, for both of us… and now we can share it.
One of my favourite songs on the album is ‘The Battle In Water’, where you two duet. Do you plan anything else along these lines?
MW: Yeah, well, on the next record we do that a bit more! Oh… it’s like we’re behind all the time! Maybe one day we’ll catch up. But it’s also natural for us to play more things. Two years ago I never played so many drums, and Andreas sings now more and more. Which is great, because we’re like experts – well, not experts – but to each other, I’m the singer and Andreas is the drummer, but ultimately we want to create this unified whole, you know, that makes sense; so it’s a very natural evolution – that we break loose with our instruments as we do with everything else.
I spoke to Lykke Li recently, and we considered whether there’s a Swedish “scene” as such at the moment. And I mean – obviously there is, to a point – but then there are scenes everywhere. Do you guys see yourselves as part of anything in particular, or similar to any other Swedish artists, generally?
MW: No. Well, of course we’re a part of a friendship circle, where we’ve been living in Gothenburg…
AW: We have a really wide group of friends, and musically everything from really hardcore free-form sax players to… like, Emil Svanängen (Loney, Dear). Everyone has the urge to create something unique, which connects us all.
MW: In the end that’s global I think. There’s a lot of great stuff coming out of Sweden, like Lykke Li and El Perro Del Mar, a lot of things going on…but I don’t think we’re really part of a “scene”. Maybe we’re part of our generation more than anything else, who have grown up with all this fusion.
Okay, I know you guys are on soon so won’t keep you much longer. Is there anything you’re listening to at the moment you’re really loving?
MW: There’s so much! I’m thinking really hard – I always go blank when I get this question… I’m trying to remember my iPod playlist…
AW: I’ve been listening to the latest Iron & Wine album – it’s beautiful.
I love the last song on there…
MW: I still can’t think, sorry! And that’s always the most fun answer to read!
And now of course you’re playing with Caribou, and have played with Efterklang recently…
AW: And the other night with A Hawk And A Hacksaw!
Oh really? They’ve been supporting Portishead too…
MW: The new Portishead! That’s really nice. Have you seen them?
(at this point conversation dissolves into the merits of the uber-plush special edition of said band’s Third and its 'P'-shaped USB stick, which seems to excite myself and Andreas rather more than Mariam)
Okay and finally, what are your plans for the immediate future?
MW: We’ve got a few more shows, and some festivals in the summer – mostly Scandinavian ones, and we have our first headline show in the UK actually, at the Luminaire on the fifth of June I think. We plan to play as much as possible this year, as we can’t really record anything new right now! And we just hope that more people will listen to Heartcore and enjoy it.
AW: It feels like… like the album’s been given a second chance, you know? It’s nice.
And with that we wrap up the interview. “Nice” is actually something of an understatement, the couple proving absolutely wonderful interviewees – friendly and open, a fervent passion for music shining through in exactly the manner you might expect.
At just after eight-o-clock they begin their set, as a slow-slow-slowly filling up Scala’s heads are turned – jolted, even – towards the stage and the extraordinary show unfolding upon it. Heartbreakingly I have to dash across town for a prior engagement, and steal away with enthusiastic applause ringing in my ears, having stayed just long enough to see 'The Window' open proceedings. Unfortunate, yes, but some solace can be taken in that come June I’ll be able to witness them in one of the finest venues of this fair city. Hey, you should come too! Nice, indeed.
Wildbirds & Peacedrums' Heartcore is out now on the Leaf label; check out the Myspace here and get yourself down to one of the following UK dates:
June 5 London Kilburn The Luminaire w/ Joe Gideon & The Shark 6 Bristol Arnolfini Gallery w/ Matmos