“Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt,” or so says Lucio in William Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure. The fear of failure (or atychiphobia) can weigh heavy on a person’s shoulders, and while Swedish multi-instrumentalist Joel Wästburg wasn’t completely crippled by a fear of releasing his own music, he does admit that “it’s been such a struggle for me to come past my own fears.” Now though, he’s released his debut album under the name sir Was, Digging A Tunnel, a record that consolidates all of Wästburg’s musical taste and talent into a singular ten-track collection. “The feeling of joy is much stronger than the fear. It feels liberating,” he enthuses. “It feels the opposite of frustrating! It’s like: ‘Ahh, yeah!’ Whereas before it was like: ‘Ooh, it’s a bit scary, what am I doing?’”
Digging A Tunnel has been a long time coming. Wästburg’s journey has been a winding road filled with twists and turns, his story bursting at the seams with a multitude of extraordinary experiences. It’s a tale that often sounds like an epic bildungsroman (and indeed his significant life events could probably fill out a fairly hefty tome in themselves). But his past isn’t just intriguing as a narrative; it’s also key to understanding the processes and sounds behind Wästburg’s much more recent solo output. As such, even before getting into the intricacies of Digging A Tunnel, it’s well worth diving into something of a potted history of Joel Wästburg.
As with any aspiring musician, he first had to adopt an instrument. Growing up, he was lucky enough to have a piano at home, but he particularly recalls how he began to play the saxophone. One day at school, Wästburg and his classmates were visited by a group of music teachers who presented their instruments as trials for the children to try out. Wästburg discovered that he had a natural talent for playing the saxophone. “Immediately I got a sound out of it like ‘BOOP’!” he recounts. “The teacher, who was my first teacher, he said something like: ‘Whoa, you got a thing, I think you’re a saxophone player.’ So I started with saxophone and ten years after that I was still playing it, and ten years after that too.”
Before long Wästburg was drawn to even more instruments. Even though he was experiencing an “intense obsession” with the sax, he started experimenting with playing drums too. “I have three younger brothers and one of them played drums for a bit, so we had drums at home growing up too. So I was on there playing, and I did play along to records and things,” he explains. According to him, it was only natural to be drawn to percussive instruments like the drums: “It’s a classic thing among a lot of musicians. It was the same for me! Just like; ‘Boom!’ ‘Bash!’ ‘Tish!’ How can you not like that?”
Wästburg’s enthusiasm for percussion, just like the saxophone, became unbridled. This feeling was only enhanced by an increasing taste for hip hop, and when he heard a seminal album for the first time he became even more mesmerised. “When I was 17, I heard D’Angelo’s Voodoo and that was a massive thing for me. I was totally blown away,” he says. From there, he started digging deeper, perhaps, he explains, because he wanted to trace these rhythms to their roots. There were numerous trips to libraries and record stores just to discover what else was out there. Then, while he was at the University of Gothenburg studying music and developing saxophone improvisation (what else?) he was afforded a unique opportunity to explore these roots even further.
Wästburg was accepted on to an ongoing exchange programme with the University of Kwasulu-Natal in South Africa. It was the perfect way to satiate his increasing wanderlust. “I wanted to go on adventures far away, so it was a dream come true,” he says. “I was suddenly on a paid flight and an apartment, and it was so loose down there!” Having already finished all of his final exams, Wästburg spent much of his time playing in shows with the teachers, meeting musicians and unleashing his adventurous spirit. “I went to Mozambique, Zimbabwe, I went around within South Africa and it was a fantastic opportunity. I was free, it couldn’t be better, it was amazing.”
When studying in Gothenburg, Wästburg had also met Fredrik Källgren, the bass player in Little Dragon. He’d also spent some time playing in a free jazz group with the band’s keyboardist, Håkan Wirenstrand, and played one show with singer Yukimi Nagano. “Gothenburg is a small town,” he says, and that certainly seems to be the case, as through Nagano he also happened to meet singer-songwriter José González. Nagano apparently told González that Wästburg was a great musician (“or something like that!”) which led to González asking him to go on tour with Junip. It was yet another completely new experience for him. “At that time I hadn’t been touring either, as I was caught up between jazz saxophone and playing drums, and I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Wästburg spent around four years touring with Junip and as part of González’s solo band, but something else was stirring inside of him. He intimates that he was becoming a little restless with simply being the man behind the kit or keyboards: “I was like that guy who was touring around, a side man who works with other people. You’re constantly compromising.” He’d found an outlet to channel his own musical instincts into solo material, working on his own melodies over the years. Unfortunately, the spectre of fear kept rearing its ugly head and Wästburg was ultimately extremely reluctant to share his material open with others. “I was working hard on my own stuff secretly on my laptop, and sometimes when I was drunk I’d show it to a very close friend who’d be like: ‘You should release this somehow’,” he explains. “I was like: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ Something was holding me back.”
Eventually, Wästburg reached a fork in the road. He could either continue to work as a session musician in other bands, or finally take the plunge and go solo. It was something of an existential crisis. At first, he didn’t take the road less travelled. “It was so frustrating to be working on something and not going through with it, so I was just like: ‘Ah, fuck it, I’ll just be the guy who plays around with other bands’,” he says. That frustration simply must have become too much to bear. Wästburg began to seriously question himself and the reasons why he wasn’t prepared to release his own music. “I said to myself, ‘I’m not getting any younger here, what’s the fucking problem?’” With a little help from his friends, he plucked up the courage to start airing his own work. Nagano was particularly encouraging, having heard some of Wästburg’s demos in the practice building he was sharing with Little Dragon. It helped spark something special, eventually garnering interest from Berlin-based label City Slang. “She said that I should put it out and by then I was like, sure, I’d be happy if more than 20 friends heard it! Then couple of months later a record label was interested!”
Before releasing anything though, Wästburg needed a name. It needed to not only be a bit off the wall (“I’m pretty drawn to silly names”) but it also had to deflect some attention away from the man behind the music. “It was too intimate to be called Joel Wästburg, that’s who I am on a daily basis,” he said. So even though the name sir Was might at first seem a bit random, it actually makes perfect sense. The “Was” hints just a little at Wästburg’s surname, while the “sir” was a deliberate way of giving him a bit of a quasi-ego boost. “I needed to hype myself too! I needed to boost myself! Why not?” He laughs. And yes, the fact that it’s in lower case is very deliberate, poking fun at perceived notions of superior status: “This whole hierarchic ladder is so provocative, so I thought yeah, I’ll call myself sir and do it with a small ‘s’ because it’s even more irritating!”
None of these little coded witticisms are particularly surprising, as Wästburg isn’t just an almost ridiculously passionate person, he can also be a pretty funny man and exudes joy when talking about his work. That all came out in the title of his debut EP in 2016, Says Hi, a very literal introduction to his music. He sees the funny side in trying to perfectly group a large collection of songs under a united banner too: “Summer Tree? Birds in the Sky? What do people call their albums?” Nevertheless, when naming his first album, Wästburg, perhaps surprisingly, didn’t go with something absurd or silly. He just went with what felt right. “It could only be named Digging A Tunnel because that’s what made sense,” he says. “It’s like me digging a tunnel through my own fucked up thoughts and my own holding myself out.”
Just like with the album’s title, “go with the flow” was pretty much Wästburg’s mantra when making the album. He’d never written lyrics before, but found himself getting into a certain rhythm when putting pen to paper. Again, that was mostly because he’d relegated any fears about what others might think to the back of his mind. “I was in this flow because I didn’t think I would be sitting here having interviews with someone from England. I was just in the zone,” he says. “Yeah, I was aware that I was going to put it out but I was keeping it pretty tight to myself, to the source, and what felt right to write!” In the end, the seemingly difficult task of writing words for songs for the very first time was actually “pretty natural,” but Wästburg suddenly gets a bit humble about his seemingly innate talent: “Hey, human memory, you always remember the easy parts!”
There’s a couple of other elements that help make Wästburg’s debut stand out from the crowd as well. One of these is his vocal delivery, which moves from being a conversational, almost spoken word style of rapping on ‘In The Midst’ to more emotionally-driven singing with tracks such as ‘Revoke.’ On songs like ‘Falcon,’ he moves deftly between the two without missing a beat. It’s a shape-shifting style that refuses to be pigeonholed, and Wästburg himself also refuses to be placed into a box. “I’m not a singer, I’m not a rapper, I’m just making music,” he says. “You can call it what you want, rapping, singing, whatever, but I just do what I’m doing! I could have done an album where I tried to sing opera, but I don’t think that would have turned out so well. I just stuck to what felt best and go with the creative flow, and that’s where we landed this time!”
That refusal to conform to any particular genre or label extends even further into his music as well. He channels his absolute love of disparate genres – inspired by everything from the shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine and soul of Sly And The Family Stone to hip hop artists like J Dilla and even the avant garde black metal peddled by Liturgy – as well as his many experiences as a person and musician into Digging A Tunnel. Remarkably, Wästburg played almost every instrument on the record himself, including bass, keyboards, guitar, clarinets and, of course, drums and the saxophone. The only elements he didn’t have a personal hand in playing were the bagpipes and harmonica. He recorded the latter on his iPhone; it forms the backbone of the bluesy ‘Bomping,’ which is deeply reminiscent of Odelay-era Beck. Tracks like ‘Interconnected’ manage to fit together jazzy drum licks with an almost asynchronous church bell motif, while epic closer ‘Sunsets Sunrises’ unfurls its piano melodies and arpeggiated synths over the course of seven minutes, building up to a percussion-heavy climax.
Digging A Tunnel is therefore musically diverse and filled with seemingly disparate sounds, which makes it thrilling, but at the same time it somehow all fits together like a carefully constructed jigsaw. Its beats, clearly inspired by the hip hop and African rhythms he loves, are like the glue holding the record together, while its lo-fi charm is also a significant binding agent. But of course, this is Wästburg; he was aware of his influences seeping through into his own work, but the way in which they all slotted together was apparently something of a happy accident. “Obviously what I listen to will show in the music I create,” he says, but at the same time he says that he wasn’t really sure how aware he was of its cohesive nature on an “analytical level.” Not that the issue had passed him by. It did cross his mind that an album should have some form of thread running through it, either in theme or tone, but his attention was mainly centred elsewhere. “I was mostly just focusing on letting the songs be as good as possible and let them bloom, follow the flow, and not looking too deeply into things.” Once again, he just went with the flow. “I felt like I wanted to follow whatever trail I stumbled on. All these trails are in my own forest.”
Even if Digging A Tunnel hadn’t turned out to be as strangely cohesive as it is, Wästburg probably wouldn’t mind anyway. “Who gives a shit in a way?” he asks, “it’s fun when artists do one album that sounds one way and then two years later they do something completely different.” For him, if an album twists and turns and is unpredictable at every step then it might simply reflect the artist’s state of mind at the time, and that was the case for himself too. “We can try to control our expressions, but you can’t let others write your music. You can’t be too hard or analytical on yourself,” he says. “There’s no point in being objective to please others. What’s the point if you don’t even like it yourself?”
Wästburg is unerringly true to himself and his own unique vision, and it’s admirable. He doesn’t make music for fame (although he does joke that a bit more money his pocket would be pretty welcome), he just enjoys the rush of being creative. It’s for this reason that he’s not entirely certain whether he’ll perform as sir Was forevermore. “I don’t know, I have no idea!” he laughs, although he does have more material already in the pipeline. “I’d like to do a couple more albums and I’m working on a second already. I’ll do it as long as it’s fun, or important to me. As long as it feels like I should do it.” Wästburg is just happy that he’s in a good place, that he’s conquered the darkness and overcome the fears to get to this point: “I’m happy that now is now and I am who I am now.” Wherever his journey takes him next, he’s definitely no longer just the man behind the kit.
Digging A Tunnel is out now via City Slang. He plays at Birthdays in London on Tuesday 11 April. For more information, visit sir Was’ Facebook page.