For music journalists, the ubiquity of the cellular telephone has been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it allows us to reach travelling musicians just about anywhere on the road, from backstage to the passenger seat of a tour van. A curse because, well, cellphones basically suck if you’re trying to have a coherent conversation with someone over a long-distance connection.
After repeatedly dropping out, the Georgia Straight’s tenuous link to Emile Nikolaisen in New York cuts out entirely, leaving us with 15 minutes’ worth of fragmentary answers and frustration. The Serena-Maneesh frontman graciously agrees to reschedule, and so, a few days later, the Straight calls him again. This time the Norwegian musician is in a hotel room in Austin, on a mercifully clear land line. He and his bandmates are in the Texas capital to play five shows over three days as part of the South by Southwest festival. Setting up and tearing down its equipment so many times should be an exhausting endeavour for Serena-Maneesh. Known for a multilayered sound that owes a debt to the likes of My Bloody Valentine and Spiritualized, the Oslo-based six-piece doesn’t exactly travel light.
A photo on the splash page of the band’s Web site, for example, shows a guitar rig outfitted with 18 four-speaker Marshall cabinets. This awesome but outlandish setup was actually for a one-off concert at the Henie-Onstad Art Centre in Bí¦rum, Norway.
“It’s a marvellous place,” Nikolaisen says. “They launched this series of gigs, and the theme for that autumn was ”˜to be heard is to be seen’, so we figured out this was an excellent way of doing a practical joke. Basically, if you stand in front of this wall of amps you can physically and literally feel what it is like to be embraced by a wall of sound. It was a really cool experience.”
Needless to say, hauling all of those Marshalls around North America isn’t practical, so they won’t be coming on Serena-Maneesh’s current tour. They’re emblematic, though, of the bigger-is-better aesthetic that informs the group’s just-released second album, S-M 2: Abyss in B Minor. From the short, sharp burst of squall-pop that is “I Just Want to See Your Face” to the epic, droning noisescape of “Ayisha Abyss”, there are no small statements to be found here. And if some of the sounds could be described as “cavernous”, that befits an album that was partially recorded in a cave.
Yes, a real cave, located on the outskirts of Oslo and used by various musical acts as a storage and rehearsal space. Nikolaisen says he was drawn to the place because of its natural reverb, but mostly because it was so different from the usual sterile studio environment. “I just went into the room and it was, like, boom,” he recalls. “ ”˜What is this?’ You know, I had never seen anything like this. And also, just the feeling that I got when I got in there—I instantly just felt like ”˜I have to record some stuff here.’
“It was a messy place,” Nikolaisen continues. “Moss on the walls. It stank there, and all these things that we tend to like as rock ’n’ rollers. You know—all these stupid things that we romanticize.”
Serena-Maneesh plays the Media Club on Saturday (March 27).