Efterklang captures the sounds of a ghost town
Horror movies have taught us that things seldom end well when a group of wayward travellers stumbles onto an abandoned settlement in the middle of nowhere. For the members of Copenhagen’s Efterklang, trouble started long before they arrived in a ghost town on Spitsbergen, a Svalbard archipelago island located halfway between the Norwegian coast and the North Pole.
For much of last century, Pyramiden was a thriving coal-mining community set up by the Russian government. In 1998 the town, which had once numbered 1,000 inhabitants, was somewhat eerily vacated overnight. Fourteen years later, Efterklang—singer Casper Clausen, programmer Mads Brauer, and bassist Rasmus Stolberg—became obsessed with the idea of visiting Pyramiden. The goal was to soak up the sights, sounds, and atmosphere of the place, the hope being that it would inspire the band to begin working on a new album. While the voyage would eventually lead to the creation of Efterklang’s fourth-and-latest full-length, Piramida, things didn’t exactly go smoothly.
Thanks to an international treaty, foreign governments are allowed to settle and operate on Spitsbergen, even though the island belongs to Norway. Step 1, then, was dealing with the Russians, which is quite famously never simple.
“Getting permission from the coal-mine company that owns the place was difficult,” says Clausen, on the phone from an Austin, Texas, tour stop. “We sent a billion emails, and then even had friends in Moscow go up and knock on their door. We even sent a few faxes, unbelievable as that might seem in these days. We did quite a few things, all with no response for half a year.
“Then, out of the blue, we got contacted by a German TV-production company,” he continues. “They were also in contact with this Russian coal-mining company and wanted to do a documentary on the place. They had asked if there were any artists interested in being involved, and the Russian mining CEO pulled our application out of a huge pile of papers and said, ‘Yeah, these guys do—I don’t know what it’s all about, but you can try and get in touch with them.’ ”
The actual journey to Pyramiden wasn’t smooth sailing either.
“We had a quite crazy buildup,” Clausen relates. “We arrived in the main settlement in Spitsbergen, and then we took a boat from there. The particular day was really windy, so they just about called things off. When we got on the boat it took forever to get out there—the waves were horrific. It was the greatest adventure you could imagine—we had on suits and ski goggles. When we finally got there Rasmus was sick for a day or two afterwards, and we were all completely torn apart by the trip. So the place in some ways seemed like a haven.”
Pyramiden ended up being hugely moving. The settlement would prove fascinating to Clausen and his bandmates, who set about making field recordings of almost everything they happened upon. Sometimes, thanks to photographs they’d seen of the settlement in the past, the musicians knew exactly what they were looking for, including a grand piano sitting in an empty concert hall. Sometimes they’d stumble across less-dramatic structures, like offices packed with papers and documents that no one saw fit to take with them. Efterklang recorded themselves rifling through those papers, as well as banging on oil drums, hammering on the piano, running on boardwalks, and much, much more. Over the course of a 10-day stay, they stored up hundreds of found sounds. Upon returning to mainland Europe, they began turning those sounds into songs.
A grand and elegant exercise in often orchestral pop, Piramida is a record that belies its decidedly unmusical origins. There are moments when Efterklang’s field recordings sound very much as they did when committed to hard drive; witness what seems like the pounding of feet on a stretch of boardwalk in “Dreams Today”. Efterklang’s main goal with Piramida, however, was to make a record that didn’t play out like, say, a long-lost Einstürzende Neubauten recording. Hence, you get the aforementioned “Dreams Today” starting out all spartan and grey before exploding into something unspeakably gorgeous with the arrival of an angelic 70-piece female choir. Horns and strings colour much of the album, giving chamber-rock triumphs like “Black Summer” and “Apples” a dark and brooding majesty.
The whole project was assembled in Berlin, where sounds collected at the settlement were carefully manipulated and blended with strings, piano, and other instruments. As a result, instead of coming across like the world’s largest toolbox falling down the stairs at a Soviet-bloc cannery, Piramida plays out like an actual album, not a clever gimmick.
“The record started out as sketches,” Clausen says. “We’d go through the material we recorded up there by memory—like ‘I remember being at this fuel tank, so let’s try and find that recording and then make something from that.’ I would sing a little bit on top, and then things would develop into a song. I think what was important was to make music that everyone could listen to as songs without necessarily knowing the story behind it.”
Ultimately, what Efterklang fans will hear is an abandoned town making a subtle, but at the same time huge, impact on a group of people who will never forget discovering it. Not all ghost towns, it would seem, end up being a backdrop for hair-raising horror stories.
“We didn’t want to make a soundtrack of Piramida—we wanted to use Piramida as a beginning,” Clausen notes. “We went up there without any songs. We knew about the place, but we had no idea what would come out of it. I think that searching for something, taking things out of the place, and, afterwards, blending our personal lives into the songs, created something special.”