It’s the first time at the Berghain for me, after roughly 3 ½ years I finally succumbed to the suction of this hotspot of Berlin nightlife and can marvel at the interior, a rather beautiful and large-scale wall painting and the admittedly great acoustics of the place that I boycotted for having face-controll at their weekly parties. I don’t do that. Elitism at the club entrance is gross.
The reason for my first visit had to be a good one to abandon my standpoint on these sorts of clubs and it sure was – Sylvan Esso were playing and if you want to dance till you melt into the ground, get a little nostalgic and enjoy a very energetic live act then this is your jam.
Sylvan Esso, aka Amelia and Nick, met at a show where both of their previous bands Mountain Man and Megafaun played and hit it off immediately. After a long email-exchange, they suddenly had their own song in their hands – “Play it Right”.
Amelia is one of my favourite onstage-dancers.There’s no self-consciousness just moving to the music.
They continued their mailing but soon realized that it would probably save a lot of time to live in the same city, so they both decided on Durham, USA, an apparently growing second coming of Portland – watch out Portlanders!
If you want to describe Sylvan Esso – named after the game “Swords and Sworcery” (that’s not a typo) – with very broad strokes, you could go along with a somewhat 90s inspired dance-pop. But if you have a few more seconds left, you could also add that they dabble with 40s folk-music and harmonies (mainly because Mountain Man were all about all the beautiful lady-harmonies). The first song on their self-titled debut therefore doesn’t start with any beat, just Amelia’s voice layered slowly easing us into the band’s knack for creating rhythm purely through vocals and then suddenly throwing in a heavy bassline and turning this beautiful a cappella song into a glimmering disco-miracle.
Oh, and there is so much beauty in this and all the following songs that are either right in your face (‘HSKT’ sweeps you off) or slowly reel you in like this super cool dancemove from the 90s. Do you know what I mean? The lasso and catch-dance-move. Classic.
Where was I? Ah yes, before I ventured into the Berghain that night, I met with the band for an interview and had a blast which I want to share. So let’s do this!
Me: How are you two together on tour, does it work or are there rows and everything?
Amelia: Oh no, we’re quite good at it. We’re also quite good at getting into fights, so we’re good at fighting which is so nice. Fights are kind of fun.
Nick: It’s true, we disagree on things very rarely…
Amelia: Even when we do, it’s more like ‘ooh, a disagreement.’
Nick: ‘Ooh, we disagree on this, well, fuck you.’ Sorry, is this for the radio, should we not do that?
Jule: Yes, it’s for radio but in Germany you can curse.
Amelia: Yes, they have the ‘your boyfriend’s a dick he brings a gun to school’ (editor’s note: that’s a Wheetus-song-lyric which I sadly didn’t even have to look up to reference here).
Cue the shameful memories of puberty
By this time, we get into a little sketch where both start to shoving away their freshly prepared lunches, so the clatter of the cutlery and plates doesn’t disrupt the recording. I say that it’s ok but these guys are way too polite to keep on munching.
Me: You both started out writing your songs via email and now you live in the same neighbourhood – did that change the songwriting process or did that change the kind of songs you did?
Amelia: Oh yeah, definitely. We figured out that we should be close together to be able to exchange ideas as opposed to waiting…
Nick: Yeah, we did ‘Hey Mama’ and ‘Play it Right’ quite easily over email and then we started ‘Dreamy Bruises’ right after that and we quickly realized that our email chains would be – *motions a neverending chain of mails* –
Amelia: And usually we would just hop on the phone, too.
Nick: Yeah, so we realized that we needed to do this in the same place. It just made everything happen a lot faster. I think it would have taken us a long time to do this record over email. I don’t think it would have been the same.
Me: Did you compromise on Durham? Because it’s a weird…sorry but it’s not Portland or something…
Nick: Yeah, you’re right.
Me: What bands come from Durham?
Nick: The reason was that Megafaun comes from there and I played in Megafaun so I moved there to make that easier but that was…*to Amelia* and then you got off tour, right?
Amelia: I got off tour with Feist, singing backup for her and I thought, ‘I want to live someplace where I don’t spend that much money and where I’ve never been.’ It’s in the south in America and I’ve never hung out in the South. And by magic I found a house that was a block away from Nick’s house. So we could just run back and forth.
Me: I’ve heard that Durham has this artistic scene that is a bit like Portland.
Nick: It’s a lot smaller. But the people that are there are working at a really high level.
Nick: Everyone from there for the most part is touring and working and putting out records. Everyone holds each other to a very high standard. It’s a magical group of people right now. It’s a really cool time to be there.
Me: You both came from – kind of – different backgrounds musically, when you got together did you have a talk what you imagined for this project or did that just come naturally?
Amelia: We knew that we wanted to make a pop record. But the sounds that came were just the natural sounds that we wanted to make. It was very intuitive. We were recording and writing the songs at the same time, so each song was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re also like this and we’re also like this’ And now the record we have is kind of a full statement of who we are and we don’t even know what we’re gonna be next cause with “Come down” – we purposely put that at the end of the record to leave the door open.
Nick: The song still feels like a deep part of the rest of the songs to me. It feels like the same set of sounds and energy as the rest. I feel that song is a certain distillation of those. We just tried it as naturally as we can, it was just truthful. Right after we made ‘Play it Right’ we realized that we always wanted to be in a popband. ‘hey, that thing that just happened, we can do something like that!’
Me: I’ve read that Nick improvises a little bit when you’re live on stage. Did that work immediately or was that trial and error?
Nick: Trial and error. Right?
Amelia: Kind of. I mean, it’s always been pretty easy for him to do that. It’s hard for me because it’s different when all of a sudden my voice is being manipulated in a different way or I hear a different version of my voice reflecting off the room which is really jarring at first but other than that it’s fun to have a super flexible surface to sing over.
Nick: There are a lot of improvisations within the sounds of the song and the drum patterns and bass lines and stuff like that but outside of that it still stays in a pretty rigid structure. Most of it does. I mean, I sample different parts of her voice now and then and I try to do different things like that just enough to keep it feeling different night after night. I’d hate for someone to come to the show and feel like they just watched ‘hey, the woman in the band sang over the beats of that guy in the band’. We wouldn’t want to be boring.
Amelia: – or Karaoke-like.
Me: Did you try that out after you wrote the album? Because I wonder whether that would influence the songwriting.
Amelia: We tried it with half the songs. We wrote half the record and then played a couple of shows and then wrote the other half of the record, so we knew what it would feel like to do it live when we were writing the second half of the record, realizing that we wanted to sample live.
Nick: At the very least we knew how the show felt. I am not sure it directly influenced the rest of the album but it definitely felt as if the shows cemented on how we felt what the energy of the band was.
– FOOD BREAK…AND FOOD DANCE BREAK –
Me: I actually wanted to ask whether you would want to do a game soundtrack and then read an interview in preparation where you got asked the exact same question and thought: that sucks.
Nick: Aw, but we do, we really do.
Me: So instead I will ask, if you could do the soundtrack for a tv show – preferably an HBO-show because those are the best – what kind of genre would it be?
Amelia: We would do the music for the entire season?
Nick: It’s tough. I think so much of writing music is reaction so if you’re in that environment, I would react totally different to ‘Boardwalk Empire’ than I would to ‘Mad Men’, than I would to ‘Sex and the City’.
Amelia: I would like to do the soundtrack for a ‘True Blood’…kind of situation.
Nick: Yeah, absolutely.
Amelia: Something that is super weird, maybe a little questionably silly.
Nick: Something were you could be silly.
Amelia: With magical stuff in it so you could use that *makes the magical chimey-noise of most fantasy-stuff* bell-thing.
Nick: That sounds great.
Amelia: I would really get myself into odd percussion if we were doing it.
Nick: You would just wind-chime only.
Amelia: Not just wind-chime only. Many. Many small types of percussion.
Nick: It’s tough to say. I think scoring is something that we’re both really into. I was a composition major before I dropped out of school to be in a rock band (editor’s note: don’t do this at home, kids!) so that was always a big topic. I’ve always been in love with it.
Amelia: The thing that is really exciting about writing music for video games is that you have to write songs that can be heard over and over again. And they change beautifully. The trend right now in writing for video games that I find to be so beautiful is that everyone is trying to figure out how to transition from scene to scene and continue. The game ‘Swords and Sworcery‘ that our band is named after is a beautiful musical experience. Have you played it?
Nick: The sound effects match with the score.
Amelia: The guy who designed it, his name is Jim Guthrie and he’s from Toronto.
Me: The name rings a bell.
Amelia: Yeah, he’s been in a bunch of bands. (editor’s note: Human Highway, Royal City, Islands)
– this is where they told me a super cool secret about the game that you have to play to find out. Har har.
Nick: There’s also this game ‘Braid’. The soundtrack to that is integrated into the mechanics of the game. There’s this notion of reversing time and the music flows with the time, so it reverses and moves forward and slows down. The music becomes this beautiful extension.
Amelia: It sounds beautiful in all forms.
Me: That’s one hell of a task to write this kind of music.
Amelia: Yeah, it’s like music in 3D, it’s totally weird.
Nick: Totally different challenge. Which is why I think that we both really get into the idea of a video game. There would be some creative problems to be solved.
Me: Do you have any other plans for stuff like video games, soundtracks…
Amelia: We have to wait and go on tour and see who we meet because usually all the projects appear through making friends that’s what I am most excited about. We’re pretty much going to be on tour for the next year.
Nick: I really want to do a set of minimalist ringtones.
Amelia: Ah God, you really should do that.
Nick: Just pure soundwave.
Amelia: No why don’t we do that, dude? We could give them to the fans at the merch booth.
Nick: Give them a little card with a code. Ringtones are so intense and I don’t like them.
Amelia: I love stupid ringtones.
Nick: I love beautifully constructed but functional ringtones. That’s why I like the idea of making a set of soundwaves like the most basic sound you could hear which just is a ‘boop’ and with different intervals, so you would know that a fourth is a text message and a fifth is an email.
Me: You could do one for different age groups like aren’t there sounds that only teenagers can hear? And if teenagers have that they could get phone calls in school without the teacher noticing.
Nick: That’s a super good idea. Super high-pitched stuff?
Amelia: You could do that for dog’s phones, too.
– Ok, back to business
Me: Amelia mainly writes the lyrics, do you talk about what you have in mind with them or do you just do your thing?
Amelia: Sometimes. Nick: Both.
Amelia: If I am having trouble with wording and I’ve been chewing on it for two hours we come together and help each other out. Same with Nick.
Nick: Absolutely. I definitely do almost all of the production and sounds and she writes all the lyrics and melodies but all of it is such a constant conversation. Also, we hang out so much that we’re both referencing things that we’re talking about outside the studio all the time. Me and music and her and lyrics.
Me: Because I recently saw a Sondheim-documentary and he talked about – and I never thought about it as someone who listens to music more than doing music – that he always thinks about the lyrics and how to get breath in between lines and stuff like that. Do you think about that consciously when you write?
Amelia: I don’t think about it as much as I probably should. It’s also different when I am writing because Nick can chop my voice and rearrange it. Sometimes all of a sudden it’s in a configuration where that’s hard to do and figuring out how to do that.
Nick: Like ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (HSKT)’. That chorus is really hard to sing.
Amelia: It’s super hard. But I also wrote that chorus…
Nick: It was totally your fault.
Nick: She also writes almost all of her lyrics sitting on my front porch. Stephen Sondheim probably sits – I like to romantically think that composers sit with pen and paper somewhere…*sings ‘The sun will come out’*
Me: He actually lies down. He said that he has a really bad back because he always writes lying down.
Amelia: That’s great. Although he has to think about dancing and people emoting a lot which you do but it’s so different when you’re writing for different lungs than your own and when you’re writing for choreographed songs.
Nick: Even in keys. I sometimes hand her an idea for a verse part or something and when I sing it, well we obviously have totally different ranges.
Me: I like that some of the songs start this basic, acoustic way. I had to think of the Dixie Chicks and ‘Iko Iko’ when I heard ‘hey Mami’ because it has this southern kind of folk song but not in the modern folk version but the harmonies of the 50s and 60s, 40s. And that that transitions into the electronic thing. Was that immediately a thing you wanted to do?
Amelia: Yeah, it was a very natural way for us to write the song. And I used to sing in harmony because of my previous band Mountain Man which is all harmony, all the time. Non-stop beautiful ladies harmony.
Nick suddenly giggles.
Nick: Sorry, we saw this stripclub in the states that had this huge sign outside and the stripclub was called ‘non-stop beautiful ladies’ –
Amelia: – which is a really beautiful and heartbreaking title.
Nick: We couldn’t stop saying it.
Amelia: Yeah, we try to work it into our daily lives.
Me: So that’s ‘check’ for today.
Nick: Anyway, even the harmony thing became something fun to play with. We’re really into contrast musically. ‘Hey Mami’ for example is this three part thing happening the entire time in the background while the fourth part is the melody on the top but then you move through the record and there’s ‘HSKT’ which literally is just the scratch vocal one take and that’s it. It’s the polar opposite of the other song. It was fun to try to work with each other’s strengths in all sorts of different ways.