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Sampled sounds from an Arctic ghost town comprise the unlikely music on Efterklang's new album

by Laura Neilson
on 21 September 2012

Perpetually in search of new possibilities in the realm of music, the trio behind the Danish band Efterklang set out on a sound-seeking mission last August to the remote island of Spitsbergen to create their fourth album, Piramida. Over the course of their nine-day expedition on the Arctic isle—one that required a year's time to obtain permission to visit the territory and its abandoned structures—musicians Mads Brauer, Casper Clausen and Rasmus Stolberg recorded more than 1,000 audio snapshots.

It was the island's slow-decaying mining town, Piramida (or Pyramiden), which offered the band the most in terms of sounds and inspiration. Once an outpost for Russian miners, the site was abruptly abandoned in early 1998, lending a spooky landscape of life suddenly frozen. There, in a 400-seat concert hall, the threesome discovered the world's northernmost grand piano, which can also be heard on the album.

The diversity of sounds generated from human objects and organic occurrences in nature, and the trio's own voices interplaying with those elements, is astonishing in its sheer scope alone, but their later synthesis into orchestral-sounding notes to accompany Efterklang's lyrics showcases the band's talents both in and out of the production studio. Songs are melancholy and whispering at times, up-tempo and bright at others—but never would an unknowing listener suspect their actual musical origins. Band member Rasmus Stolberg wrote from Berlin to answer a few questions about the album and the planning that went into the expedition.

How did you first learn of the island, and what attracted you to it?

We were looking for a special location that we could center the making of a new album around. Then suddenly this email arrives from a director. He wanted to shoot a music video of ours up there. It turned out to be too complicated, but we could not forget that place. This was in the summer of 2010. It took us almost a year and half before we made it up there.

What did you have to do to get permission?

The town is owned by a state-owned Russian coal mining company. We emailed them, we phoned, we faxed—we even had a friend in Moscow walk into the office to request a meeting, and to hand over our application to record up there. No response. Suddenly after six months of trying, we got this email from a German TV team who were doing a documentary on the ghost town. They had been in a meeting with the director of this company, and he had mentioned our application. They were keen on the idea of having us as part of their documentary, and we were lucky enough to join their expedition. So we never really got their permission to record. We were considered part of the TV team, and we don't think the company ever found out what were up to.

Did you have any sense of the album in mind, before the expedition?

Nothing at all. We just knew that we wanted to focus more on the electronic side of things compared to our Magic Chairs album. The main idea was for all three of us to start from scratch.

Where there any favorite places, visually or audibly, that still resonate with you today?

These empty, eight-meter-high fuel tanks—each had a unique tone and pitch. And then Miss Piggy.

How do you plan on recreating some of the island's unique sounds when you play live?

Some of it runs as electronic tracks, but most of it can be played via midi keyboards. We turned the recordings into playable keyboard sounds, and that's what we do one stage—we play those sounds.

Piramida (4AD) debuts stateside on 25 September, while the band will play their only US concert this Saturday, 22 September, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For tickets and info visit the event page.

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