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Interview: Death & Vanilla

15 May 2015

Death & Vanilla's debut "...to where the wild things are..." is one of my favourite albums so far this year (see the playlist 2015 page!). Thus, when they came to London last month, I seized the opportunity to meet up with the trio from Malmö, Sweden, for an interview. Their live shows are amazing, too, by the way. Although their music is quiet, it is hypnotic enough to silence even a roomful of over-excited record shoppers - as witnessed during a fine performance at the Rough Trade East shop on the day of our meeting.

First, we need to know about the name. Death & Vanilla - why, what, how?

Anders: It was basically two pet rabbits, one black and one white and they had these names. We just put them together. That was it.

And the others simply put up with this?

Marleen: Yeah, we’re a very rabbit-friendly band.

What’s the history of the band?

Anders: Well, Marleen and I met through a friend a bunch of years ago, we became friends very quickly and started talking about music and having a band together. It really went from there. We worked really slowly in the beginning, making one song every six months or so, before we knew what we were doing.

Marleen: We knew we wanted to do something and we had an idea of what kind of music we liked and we were inspired by. But you could say we didn’t form the band in the sense that we thought: “OK we’re going to form a band and we’ll call a few friends to get it going”. We just started recording some of the ideas. Anders had a rehearsal space, we’d go down there and just try out some ideas. So we made a first song, erm, “Run Rabbit Run”, and I was going to play the bass because that’s what I did in my former bands. We did a demo version and I put vocals on it just because we were trying to get the song together to show how it was going to sound, and THEN we’d start to call friends and see who could sing. That was our intention but it never happened. We just put the song out on MySpace – it was still that time – and it started to spread. And as that happened the band was probably officially formed.

What kind of bands had you been in before?

Anders: We had all been playing in bands for most of our lives but nothing spectacular or important. Magnus and I have been playing together since we were teenagers. We were basically both guitar players and we had computers.

From the moment you chose your particular keyboard sound that gave you a very particular direction. Why did you choose that sound?

Marleen: Because I was in a band with Anders, that’s how we got to know each other, another band. I came in quite late in that band, we did three shows and then quit. I was a bass player but they asked me to play organ so I  randomly picked up an organ for that band. When they quit I just kept it. So when Anders and I started making music together, the first songs, we used that organ. I didn’t think I would be continuing with it. I thought we’d find someone else and I’d play the bass – BUT I couldn’t sing and play the bass at the same time, SO I had to stick with the organ. Now I haven’t played bass for years.

It is completely coincidental, then, that this kind of organ-sound ties in with so much else that we like, like a certain type of garage rock as well as a post-Stereolab kind of sound?

Marleen: It was a really lucky strike to find that organ. When I did I immediately understood this is a really special sound. It’s not a Vox sound, not a Hammond sound, not a Farfisa sound – it had perhaps a little bit of all, plus a number of quirky features. There’s a ribbon band in velvet where you can draw your finger and you get some Theremin-sounding cool stuff. It’s a 1971 organ. I don’t think it’s very well known.

Did you have to pay a special vintage price?

Anders: Apparently it had been standing unused in a studio in Malmö.They needed the space and nobody really knew if it was working or not. So it was by chance. It was a good find.

Magnus: And, Marleen, how many Yamaha organs do you have now?

Marleen: Well, it started with this one, but I think I have four now. I think. I have one spare of the one I bought, I found we needed to have that for spare parts. Then I have a kid sister in the same series, and I have a big brother in the same series. A massive organ with two panels as well. I can never play live with that, I can’t carry it around.

In a couple of years you’ll be like Rick Wakeman.

Magnus: That’s the goal.

How did the vibraphone come in?

Magnus: I think they bought the vibraphone four, five years ago and they used it on most of their recordings and it became part of the typical Death & Vanilla sound. So when we started to perform live we had to have the vibraphone. So it fell on me to play it. Like I said, we were all guitar players.

When you started you were as much a beginner on the vibraphone as Marleen was on the keyboards?

Magnus: Yes. And that kind of sums up a lot about Death & Vanilla, lots of it is just trial and error. We try something and if it works we go in that direction. It’s the same with recording and song writing. We just try to piece things together, and if it works it works. A lot of trial and error.

It’s also interesting, the way you play vibraphone - you’re very restrained, you play very few notes. Whereas most people who play the instrument do it a jazzy way, fast and up and down the runs.

Magnus: I can’t. I’m not able to do that!

So your different way of playing becomes part of the style of the band.

Magnus: Yeah. Definitely. A vibraphone that size (as used at Rough Trade East) is kind of overkill for what I do. But it was the only one available for renting. The one we used on the album is way smaller.

How open was your environment in Sweden to what you were doing? Was it receptive?

Magnus: I remember when we finished that first track, Run Rabbit Run, we were listening back to it and we were thinking: Swedish people aren’t gonna like this. We just felt it didn’t really sound like anything else in Sweden. Most of the pop music in Sweden is usually electronic-based, lots of synths and leaning towards dance music.

Anders: We were saying probably this is gonna work better in England or France or places like that. And it turned out to be exactly like that. Maybe it’s because most of our influences come from England or France or America.

Whenever you’re talked about in England the obvious pointers come out, Broadcast, for starters. Isn’t it slightly irritating, to be put in a box like that straight away?

Anders: It is, actually, yeah. But I can understand it too.

Marleen: I think if you want to spread the music and the writers might want to write about you they might want to compare it to show to people “if you like this band you might like that as well”. It’s a way to explain the music in one way, so I think we’re OK with that because I think it does give a bit of a comparison to other bands. On the other hand, we would also like a few terms for our own style that aren’t just a comparison. We’d hope there’s other things to say about our music, too.

Anders: I think a few writers they think that’s where we draw the influence from. So they don’t investigate any further. We like Broadcast, but there is so much, so many other bands that we like that Broadcast probably also liked.

Marleen: I’d say we probably shared a lot of influences.

Like Pearls Before Swine?

Anders: Yeah. Definitely. Any 60s type psychedelic scene, like the Zombies, or Electric Prunes. And also a lot of film music from the 60s and early 70s, and also a lot of electronic music from that era, too.

I hear a bit of Velvet Underground in your minimalism.

Anders: Well, yeah! We’re big fans of Velvet Underground.

Marleen: Because of the minimalism.

Anders: Take their first album - on one hand there’s some quite harsh-sounding songs, like Heroin and Black Angel’s Death Song, on the other there’s those lullabies, like I’ll Be Your Mirror. Sweet songs next to harsh songs. I really like that contrast. And they still manage to make it sound like one band. I really like the combination. That’s something that inspires us as well. On our album there’s a few instrumental songs, and some that are a bit bigger-sounding, and noisier. And there is also the more pop/melodic songs.That probably comes from listening to a lot of Velvet Underground. Not forgetting Throbbing Gristle! They did the same thing, they made a lot of noise, but also some pop songs which were great. It’s nice to be able to do some kind of crossover and combine an experimental side with the simple pop things.

Is there anything particularly Swedish about what you’re doing?

Marleen: Sweden is known for good melodies, I think. If you talk about Swedish bands you often talk of good melodies. Maybe that’s our Swedish side, writing pop music and melodies. Paying attention to playing both catchy melodies and sophisticated melodies.

You mentioned a French influence. Do Swedes listen to a lot of Frenchpop songs?

Anders: Not necessarily. But we really like the 60s yé-yé pop. Also there are a lot of soundtrack composers in the 60s and 70s and a lot of experimental things as well, people like Pierre Henry. There was definitely a scene in France with lots of good music. I guess they were initially copying the British and the Americans but they put their touch and their personality to it so it became their own.

How did you end up with Fire Records?

Anders: They contacted us. They sent a message via Facebook. We’d never really thought about getting signed before. We’ve always done all the recordings by ourselves, wrote everything by ourselves, mixed everything, did the videos, the covers. A lot of DIY. And the records we’ve put out in the past were along the same DIY aesthetics, and we were quite OK with that. So we never approached anyone trying to get signed. Then Fire contacted us. We’d been contacted by others before, but never paid too much attention to it. Now the timing was right. See, the internet does work. It’s great.

This attitude “it happens if it happens” seems to indicate you don’treally have to make your living from music?

Anders: Yeah, we don’t make our living through music. That’s also why weweren’t trying to get noticed. We just want to make music, that’s the mostimportant thing, that’s what drives us. Listening to music, writing, recording– it’s so much fun.

Marleen: It gives me freedom to know I’ve got my daytime job to supportmy rent. So when I do music I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to think “Ineed to pay my rent by doing this and this and this”. I just do what I want todo and put all energy and creativity into that.

What kind of records did you buy when you were 15?

Magnus: Maybe stuff like the Misfits. I was really into Black Flag. Also Einstürzende Neubauten, Dead Kennedys, lots of things like that. I still love that. And a bit of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division. And Celtic Frost! They were big favourites and I still listen to them, too.

Marleen: Me, being 15, I was the proper pop girl. I was a big Pulp fan, still am. But also I discovered Diamanda Galas at around that time, strong emotional music.

Finally - I'm vaguely aware of some Dutch and Danish bands in the 60s and 70s, Supersister and Burning Red Ivanhoe, Savage Rose. Was there any music in Sweden at that time we should know about?

Anders: Yeah, there was Träd, Gräs och Stenar – Trees, Grass and Stones.They were one of the most famous experimental bands, really long songs, lots of jamming, really really good. They’re still doing it. And there’s a Swedish organist called Bo Hansson, he had a duo with a drummer and then went solo to make really atmospheric music. He made the Lord of the Rings, that’s his most famous album, a lovely album. I think some English music magazine rated it as the cheesiest album ever – they haven’t paid attention.

Death And Vanilla, "...to where the wild things are..." (Fire)