Q&A: Liima On Touring America, Donald Trump, & The Future Of Their Other Band, Efterklang
Back in the summer of 2014, Casper Clausen, Rasmus Stolberg, and Mads Brauer of Efterklang, and their touring drummer, Finnish percussionist Tatu Rönkkö, were invited to present a special collaboration at Finland’s Our Festival. The idea was: They spend 10 days in a cottage in the Finnish countryside, writing new music together, and present their work at the end of the residency. Having already reached a point where they were seeking something new outside of Efterklang, the group felt invigorated by the results. “It was the first time any of us had worked like this,” Stolberg explains. Though it wasn’t originally planned as such, the would-be one-off engagement became a new band: Liima.
The spark of that first session influenced how the band operated going forward. With Clausen then living in Portugal, Brauer and Stolberg in Copenhagen, and Rönkkö in Berlin, they decided to maintain the residency system, so that they could continue meeting in new places and working together in focused, sustained week-long bursts, all taking a completely equal role in Liima’s songwriting process. Their debut — ii, which was released in March — came out of a series of residencies that followed, in places as far-flung as Istanbul and Madeira. At some of the residencies, the band would have an open-doors policy, setting aside time where people could come watch them jam if they were interested. Like the original collaboration in Finland, the band always performs a show at the end of a residency to premiere the new music they’ve worked on.
ii is one of those albums that needs to unfold — the more you listen to it, the more its sometimes-strange, off-kilter songs reveal their beauty. As the noise of 2016 nears its conclusion, it’s proven to be one of the more underrated releases in this crowded year. While the whole album is excellent and features several highlights — the enigmatic pulse of prologue “Your Heart,” the otherworldly sample that serves as lead riff and pseudo-chorus in “Russians,” the intense pulsations of dual centerpieces “Trains In The Dark” and “Woods,” the series of infectious melodies in “Black Beach” — there’s one song in particular that stands out. Lead single “Amerika” has followed me around all year — through various European countries, and across my home country from which it borrows its name. For the band members, it was the sound of being caught between home and this other place, of thinking of who they were while passing through faraway, exotic lands. It can hit the listener that way, too — dredging up buried memories of the familiar while taking you to someplace else entirely, too. It’s the anthem of the record — poppy in places, then spaced-out and meditative, and ultimately searching for catharsis and resolution. It isn’t hard to feel its resonance as an American in 2016.
Back in September, the group toured America for the first time as Liima, nearly wrapping up their time on the road for ii — after all, at this point they’ve engaged in several more residencies that have already yielded a batch of new songs for a second record, one they hope will be out by the end of next year. Last weekend, they appeared at Iceland Airwaves for two shows — a late afternoon gig in the crowded, house-like structure of Reykjavik’s popular club Kaffibarinn, and a transcendent late-night set at Nasa, closing out Airwaves’ Saturday night. The Kaffibarinn set was almost entirely new material; much of it also appeared at the Nasa show. Some of it is a logical extension of the material on ii, and some finds the band pushing into different territory already — Rönkkö cites a potentially-heightened influence from R&B and hip-hop, while Stolberg mentions that seeing people dance at their shows encouraged them to shoot for some infectious, groovier stuff. Out of it all, there’s one new song that’s totally stunning, which they’re calling “2 Hearted” right now. It sounds like a pop song from an underwater city — a floaty, gorgeous song that rests on fluttering synth-pop moreso than the intricate rhythms of the ii material, Clausen hanging above it singing through Auto-Tune. It’s direct by the standards of what we’ve heard from them so far, but still feels like them — meaning, it exists just to the side of the conventions that might dictate how many artists would write a like-minded song. Amidst the end of their American tour and their Iceland Airwaves shows, I caught up with the band to talk about their process during the residencies and the making of ii. But we also talked about “Amerika” and 2016 and America in broader terms. Meaning: We also talked about Donald Trump and McDonald’s.
STEREOGUM: How do you select the cities you want to go to for the residencies?
RASMUS STOLBERG: It’s a combination, it’s places we want to go or where we have friends or where we get invited to go. Some venues and some festival organizers really get into the idea. The second one we did, we organized ourselves. We all met up in Berlin and we organized our own show. Since that one, we did Istanbul, where we got invited by this super nice venue. It was empty for a week, so they gave us the venue for the week and we played two shows on the weekend. Then we went to Madeira, this sort-of volcanic island. Those four residencies, they were all a week each and we had 16 or 20 songs from those. We’ve done four more since the album was completed. We started in London this year, Copenhagen, a contemporary art festival in Portugal, and then the Michelberger Hotel in Berlin, where they had that crazy Bon Iver and National thing.
STEREOGUM: So with these sessions leading toward a new album, is Efterklang still on hiatus?
STOLBERG: We never actually were on hiatus. It was how it was conceived because we were stupid to announce the “last concert.” What we meant was, sort of, the last concert of how we’d been a band the last 10 years. We wanted to change how we operated as a band and how we were a band. Starting a new band with other people was one of the things we had talked about, but also just stepping outside of the album cycle thing and being able to do other projects, to have time for that. One of the things we did was co-write this opera with Karsten Fundal. We’re doing eight shows performing this opera in February and March. Liima is taking up most of our time.
STEREOGUM: When you were doing those different residencies, how did each place start to impact how you were operating? Did you find yourselves being influenced by the culture or rhythms of different places?
TATU RÖNKKÖ: In the first residency, we recorded a lot of sounds from the environment. We were in a summer cottage, surrounded by nature [in Finland]. We got a lot of nature sounds that wound up being used as samples or synth sounds. The same idea was always there when we went to a new place. For example, in Istanbul, where the vibe was completely different, we had a residency in a dark club and it was rainy in January. The whole energy of that urban, hectic city effected the music. Sometimes it’s more clear, we’d take some concrete samples and put it into the music. Sometimes it’s lyrics, or the mood, things that are more abstract but have definitely influenced how the music has come together.
STEREOGUM: Are these sessions totally improv-based?
STOLBERG: The writing is improv-based. Where we are, the cities and the vibes, it has an impact. I think the main inspiration, the main thing that happens, is the four of us meeting up after having been away. We start from scratch. Nobody comes with ideas or sketches for songs. We show up and say “Hey, how are you?” then start playing. The first day or two we just have super-long jams. We record everything and try to remember the good moments. From those initial improv jams, we pick out moments we all like and start making it into songs. Usually, we’ll make four new songs in a week.
STEREOGUM: It seems like a fairly quick process. Many artists tell me about taking months to labor over a song.
STOLBERG: It is an extremely quick process. All four of us have also worked like that, taking more time. Efterklang works like that. Maybe we’ll take some inspiration from the Liima process. It’s an extremely good learning process for us. None of us had composed like this before. It’s really fun to be in a band where it’s four voices together that makes the music like that, there’s no key songwriter. It’s rare to be in a group and it actually flows. And ideas come together and you think, “Wow, I could not have done this on my own,” weave something together that feels unique because of the way we do it.
STEREOGUM: When you go through these jams and try to find the bits to turn into songs, is it sometimes a puzzle where it’s like “Oh, this minute over here can go with these two minutes over there,” or isolating a part and fleshing it out?
STOLBERG: It changes, but it’s more like, these moments you bring up and try to recreate that moment and from that moment we usually get ideas for what could follow or what could come before.
RÖNKKÖ: It’s impulsive in that sense, you seize these things and that inspires the next thing. Sometimes you have a one hour jam session and you’re like, “OK, let’s take this two-minute thing and this cool thing at the end of the 60 minutes and put them together.” Sometimes it is a little bit of puzzle-making. Last session we started to use a whiteboard. It helped us figure out these things.
STEREOGUM: That’s always an interesting part of the creative process to me, trying to enforce borders on something that was inherently unhinged before. Casper, do you then write all the lyrics?
CASPER CLAUSEN: It’s a combination, I start them usually. The way I write lyrics is sort of related to Efterklang. I usually start with a verb and I listen back to the recordings and I start hearing certain things, certain things I said. “Amerika” is a good example — I had stuff in my notebook that would be related to being in the middle of the ocean and having America on the other side and Europe [on the other], being in between and having the reflection of both continents. But usually, those guys are jamming and I’ll jam along. When it comes to finalizing lyrics, I’ll usually bounce ideas off with them. Rasmus might say, “I hear you singing this…” and I’d might say, “Oh, I was actually singing this but maybe that fits in.”
STEREOGUM: Is there a thematic whole to the album or is it more like snapshots, reflecting the way you guys made it and those places you were in?
CLAUSEN: My first instinct would be to say that it’s snapshots, and then looking back at the record I start seeing patterns of how songs are related and the state of mind I was in at the time. I do think it’s, compared to anything I’ve been doing before, it’s a very communal and very collective way of making songs. I have to find that recognition in the others. I find that something that matters to me a lot…I can go off in one direction, but if I don’t see any response, or any kind of connection to it, I usually scratch the idea and try to find the path again.
STEREOGUM: “Amerika” is one of my favorite songs of the year. Can you tell me more about writing that one?
CLAUSEN: It started from the pure fact of geographically being… we made all the residencies different places in Europe, so Europe became, in my mind, our setting. What is Europe — how are we related to Madeira when coming from Finland [or Denmark]? We were out there on this island looking at this ocean, and out there is America, somehow. It feels so alike, in a way, when we’re over there. There are so many things that I can relate to culturally and musically. And at the same time, there’s this alien, exotic twist to it. There’s almost a warped image of something you know, in a way. I was trying to go through my brain and think about the stuff that defined America for me. It started at a very early age with Eddie Murphy movies and Nike clothes and McDonald’s. I remember my first Happy Meal. It was quite a distinctive moment.
STOLBERG: When McDonald’s opened in our town, it was a big deal.
CLAUSEN: I got my first Happy Meal because my friend’s mother went to work maybe seventy kilometers from my town. I don’t know how she managed to keep it warm. On the way there, before it opened in our little town, she picked up something like fifty kilometers away and brought it back to us. [Laughs] Seeing that little box and that toy and that burger that tasted like something I’d never tried before…we had burgers before…it looked like a toy in itself, somehow. I might’ve been around ten, eleven years old.
STOLBERG: It was in the ’90s when it opened up. I think it’s hard to understand for Americans, but when you grow up outside America or anywhere in the world, America is this extremely exotic place. The idea of it… all the action heroes… Miami Vice, for example, I was obsessed with it. You just get this crazy idea of what America is. On top of this, we grew up during the Cold War, very close to Russia. America was always this sort of protector, this older brother, that’d come and save us if the Russians ever came in. So, as a child growing up, you sort of get this idea of America being amazing and cool and then you travel there and of course you realize a lot of things, but you arrive and you know how the traffic signs look already. You’ve seen it in movies.
CLAUSEN: Flying into Chicago, the first time I arrived here, I could see the highway and this huge America truck coming.
STEREOGUM: An 18-wheeler? Did you just call it an “America truck?” They have those in Europe, don’t they?
CLAUSEN: I have not seen them. There’s something different about them. It’s super, super fascinating for us.
RÖNKKÖ: Everything’s just bigger there.
CLAUSEN: America, especially in the big cities like LA or New York, is very intense. It’s like what Rasmus was saying, you just recognize so much. You feel like you’ve been there even though you might not have been there that much. You’ve just seen it and you’ve been growing up with it and you know it so well.
STEREOGUM: Given you wrote this song that was filtering all those reflections, what is it like to have now toured America in such a strange, uneasy election year, playing a song like that?
STOLBERG: In the beginning, I was thinking a lot about it. Here we are singing a song about America for Americans. [laughs] I mean, it’s a very positive song, but it’s also this idea of when you realize that this stainless steel superhero isn’t actually…you hear about Donald Trump, you know? I think most people who come to our shows probably have the same feeling. That’s the thing about this country, there are so many things at the same time. When we launched the video, it got really exciting at the beginning, because there were some people who really reacted strongly to it. “Who do these Scandinavian welfare-socialist people thing they are to make a statement about what America is?” For a moment, we all got the popcorn out and looked at the Facebook comments, but then it died out too quickly. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: You thought you’d be a controversial band?
CLAUSEN: It’s the promised land. For me, America is still surviving on that hope that is still elevated beyond all this garbage and roughness. There’s always this thing that makes it extremely fascinating, and also makes it extremely exotic. It’s difficult to pin down, but at the same time it’s there. Even though you learn all these things and you see a character like Trump, which is so far away from anything we’ve come from in a way –
STEREOGUM: Is there no Trump-like character in Denmark?
STOLBERG: There is, actually, but they don’t get to be that powerful.
CLAUSEN: It’s just amplified [in America].
STOLBERG: A character like Bernie Sanders, he felt very European to us. Hillary is actually more of an enigma to Europeans. Because it’s a power game, it’s all this big money and helping out big corporations. These weird super PACs, I still don’t understand what that is. To me, she is more difficult to understand as a politician, though I really hope she wins. Donald Trump is more like this, you know…little town clown.
CLAUSEN: Just the fact that we’re talking about it to quite a lot of Americans along the way, while we were on tour…none of us or none of those in our circles of friends know anybody who would vote for Trump. Just the fact that there’s all these people out there that you’re not in touch with…
STEREOGUM: One final thing: this new stuff you guys have from the new residencies, how is it sounding relative to the first album? Is it going in a different direction?
RÖNKKÖ: In my head, it’s going in a different direction. I think it’s slightly more digital. More synthetic, but in an organic way.
CLAUSEN: Bio-McDonald’s, right? [Laughs]
STOLBERG: They have that in Berlin now, organic McDonald’s.
RÖNKKÖ: So Liima goes organic, virtual McDonald’s that’s actually handmade by Finnish and Danish hunters.
STEREOGUM: Is that going to be the title of the second album then?
STOLBERG: [Laughs] The special edition only comes out in Finland. I’m still trying to grasp it. It does feel different. The way we perform music is also how we write music, because we just set up our stuff and perform, the four of us. We don’t use Logic or ProTools to add layers and listen back to it. It’s all just how we play it. Old-school. This also means that we haven’t introduced brass or new instruments, so in a way it’s still the same. But, in a way, I feel like we’re getting better at being Liima. We’re getting better at writing music together the four of us.