Musicians will sometimes go to incredible lengths to get the sound they want. That’s especially true of a Danish trio called Efterklang, which means, fittingly, “reverberation.”
Recently, the three members sat down with me in one of our warm, comfortable studios here at The World.
When I asked them about making their latest album, they chuckled. That wasn’t at all surprising, considering what they’d gone through for their latest album, “Piramida.”
Efterklang’s music has always been shaped by the sounds they gather from here and there. But in 2010, when the group started thinking about material for a new album, they decided they wanted to find one place, and tell its story through the sounds they found there.
The band started digging, going online, and generally trying to find interesting places.
But nothing really grabbed them.
“And then we suddenly get this email from a Swedish film director,” says bassist Rasmus Stolberg. “He suggested that we make a music video, and that we make it in this ghost town he knew about. And he attached some photos, and we were just mesmerized instantly.”
This “ghost town,” Stolberg says, is not something out of the American Wild West.
It’s called Piramida, and it’s a long-abandoned coal mining settlement on the remote island of Spitsbergen.
“It’s really far up. It’s on the same parallel as the northern part of Greenland, the northern part of Canada,” Stolberg says.
“They claim everything up there is the world’s northernmost. I remember reading that the world’s northernmost grand piano still stands up there in the ghost town, and that got me really excited.”
And so the band decided — Piramida or bust.
Stolberg notes that Spitsbergen is a daunting destination — inhospitable, strange…and potentially dangerous.
“There are more polar bears than people. And that’s a cool tagline for a place, but it’s also something to be taken seriously.”
So to is getting permission to go there at all.Spitsbergen is part of what’s called the Svalbard archipelago, which is administered by the Norwegian government. But it’s also a free-trade zone, and other countries have had economic interests there over the years.
Sweden, for example, built the original coal mine there in 1910. Then it was sold to the Russians in the late 1920s.
It’s called Piramida because of the pyramid shaped mountain next to the mining facilities.
The settlement, which at one point was home to 1,000 Russian workers and their families, was abandoned by the Russians in 1998. Essentially, the coal ran out.
But, as Efterklang’s Mads Brauer found out, you still need to get permission from the Russian mining company to visit.
“The company isn’t very communicative,” Brauer says with a smile. “We sent them letters. We sent them letters in Russian. We had friends in Moscow go to their offices and ask, ‘Did you get those letters?’ And nothing happened.”
Stolberg jumps in: “We even faxed them. I hadn’t used a fax in years.”
Eventually, though, in the summer of 2011, the band got the green light.
So, they loaded up on Gore-Tex and canned food. They packed up their recording equipment, and hopped a flight to Longyearbyen, the main settlement on Spitsbergen.
But to reach Piramida, you have to go even further north.
“We went there with a boat, a Zodiac boat with all of our equipment, and these big suits and skiing glasses. It was a three hour, crazy ride in the ice cold water,” says Efterklang’s singer Caspar Clausen.
“We’ve been used to that idea of finding sounds, sampling metal and different sources of sound to make music. But it’s different to be in a place like that where your only mission is to find sound. Real soon you figure out it’s not necessarily about the sound, but it’s also about the kind of spaces you’re in.”
You have to understand: the Russians had brought in everything a real community might need. They built apartments, a school, a hospital, and then abruptly left it all behind in the late 1990s.
Rasmus Stolberg says it’s all almost perfectly preserved.
“There’s this blacksmith kind of workshop place, and they still have the rubber boots, the boots that they would wear going to work, they’re still there. And the uniforms too,” he says.
“When you go into where people are living, there are still photos on the walls, the furniture’s still there. We found all the medical journals in the hospital. They’re still in there.”
Even the dead, dried leaves of the indoor plants are still clinging to the branches.
“So freaky,” says Mads Brauer.
But the things they found to create sound were mind-blowing.
“There were these concrete construction blocks which were held together with metal bars,” Clausen says. “And they were just lying, dumped somewhere. And if you hit metal bars with mallets they would have single notes — ding, ding, ding.”
Those were the kinds of sounds the band recorded, and brought with them back to the studio. That “found sound” is woven throughout the new album.
The band spent a week and half at Piramida, and they did manage to find that northernmost grand piano.
“The most annoying thing of course is that we didn’t bring a piano tuning key,” says Mads Brauer. “We found one chord (it was an E minor) that kind of was in tune, and there were a few single notes that you could use to create a sound.”
“It’s not really like a piano,” he says, “but it has kind of ghostly feeling of the piano.”
Even thought the piano didn’t end up figuring heavily in the album, Brauer says, it’s not a big deal.
“Of course you get all the sounds, but you also get all the thoughts and all the impressions and all the memories – of just being in such an extreme situation and an extreme place. It also changes you in a way, and it’s great that that makes it onto the album as well.”
There also ended up being an accompanying documentary, done by Danish film-maker Andreas Koefoed, who went with Efterklang to Piramida.
“I think he had a secret plan about making a horror documentary about a band being eaten by polar bears,” jokes bassist Rasmus Stolberg. In the end, though, the band didn’t see a single bear during its time on Spitsbergen.
Stolberg remembers that worry began to grow that three Danes working in the silence of Piramida, not being chased by polar bears and generally not having any of those VH-1-style “behind the music all was not well” moments would make for a pretty dull documentary.
And then, by sheer luck, the movie was saved.
“Suddenly this old Russian ice-breaker boat arrives when we were there,” Stolberg says. “This old man steps off the boat, and we meet him, and he says, ‘I’m here to visit my paradise, Piramida, for the last time.’”
It turned out the old man’s name was Alexander, and he was one of the Russian workers at Piramida.
“He had lived there for more than 30 years,” says Stolberg. “He saw us filming, and he got interested. He started telling us that he’d done all this 8mm footage from the place and the town, and he had it on DVD. It was just incredible footage.”
That archive footage, and Alexander himself, became the focus of the film “The Ghost of Piramida.”
The soundtrack is provided, of course, by Efterklang’s own album, also called Piramida.
I asked the guys in the band if they’re already looking for another crazy, abandoned spot for their next album.
They joked that after the cold and rain of Spitsbergen, the Portuguese island of Madeira was looking better and better.