Band To Watch: Spielbergs
Ever hear a new band that’s so truly, madly, and deeply your shit that it immediately seems like a prank?
On some random afternoon in 2017, Spielbergs’ debut single found its way on my radar. I can’t even remember how — it probably appeared somewhere deep in my Twitter mentions and any evidence of its existence in 2017 was been washed from the internet. But the pitch involved Japandroids, Cloud Nothings, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, No Age, and Titus Andronicus. I know the drill when these bands are brought up: It’s loud, it’s loose, the chorus probably has a “WHOA” or “YEAH,” and it’s usually performed by dudes.
99.9% of the time, these songs lack the death-or-glory stakes that transformed the aforementioned into indie legends, but not Spielbergs. This song was an anthem where no one waited to get to the anthemic part — the verse is a constant militaristic drum fill, the guitars fire and recoil like machine guns and after a chorus that reimagines U2 as a post-hardcore band, it swerves to a molten psych-rock freakout a la Joy Formidable’s “Whirring” or “Black Metallic.” Even the song title was all too perfect to convey the “this is the last song we may ever play” urgency — “We Are All Going To Die.”
On the one hand, this song fucking rules so fucking hard. On the other, I sorta felt ashamed of myself and Spielbergs for that matter — congrats, you’re a new band that set its exact coordinates to that of the 30-something rock dude. Good luck with that.
Perhaps the skepticism arose because I mistrust this kind of music coming from a young, new band. Japandroids infamously intended Post-Nothing to be their breakup album after gaining zero traction whatsoever in Vancouver and then Stuart Berman, a 30-something Canadian music critic at Pitchfork, discovered “Young Hearts Spark Fire.” Likewise, Alex James was pushing 40, a decade removed from a long-forgotten casualty of the Green Day gold rush, before Beach Slang’s “Filthy Luck” caught on with aging, wistful punks who wished every hardcore dude didn’t eventually go alt-country. And here’s where Spielbergs really stick the landing: Their Distant Star EP — premiering above ahead of its release this Friday — is easily 2018’s most invigorating and shamelessly loud collection of celebration rock, and the singer is a father of two who works as a librarian at the University of Oslo. Their bassist works in a kindergarten.
It’s so on the nose, I’m pretty sure Mads Baklien is bullshitting me at first. He claims his six-year old daughter is mostly into Frozen and “Carly Rae Jepsen has recently become a big hit” in their household, meaning that she’s more in touch with the indie rock zeitgeist than her father. All of them have been in bands that “never made it to anything really,” which is a bit misleading. Drummer Christian Løvhaug was briefly in Team Me, whose 2011 album To The Treetops! won a Norwegian Grammy. Sample song titles: “Patrick Wolf And Daniel Johns” and “With My Hands Covering Both Of My Eyes I Am Too Scared To Have A Look At You Now.” Believe it or not, they were a chipper indie folk-pop band. He was also in Accidents Never Happen, who [extremely 2007 indie blog voice] played shows with Asobi Seksu, Yeasayer, and the Mae Shi. Meanwhile, Baklien was shuffling around the Norway punk scene as a post-hardcore artist, a solo act, and a touring member of Lukestar, which also featured Løvhaug. “They kinda made things happen,” Baklien mentions, and a brief Googling shows that their lead singer once wore a Boy Scout outfit in a previous band. They got a 7.0 on Pitchfork in 2008.
After knocking about as bit players in Norway’s indie-pop scene, both Løvhaug and Baklien went back to university. “Trying to live the ‘normal’ structured life with a normal day job seemed like a dream after many years of being flat broke, and touring,” Løvhaug notes in an email. It was a practical decision both financially and spiritually — the “normality” was a way of figuring out who they were outside of being “that guy in a band.” Or as Løvhaug more pointedly puts it, “Life is not only about us and our own fucking needs.”
The irony here is that Spielbergs owe their origins to a very basic and adolescent form of attending to their own fucking needs. “My girlfriend ordered me out of the house!” Løvhaug says. “I was grumpy and missed the whole creative process.” This was likewise true for Baklien, and the duo started an “adult youth club thing” where they’d meet every Friday night in a rented rehearsal space, workshopping jams over beers with no operating principles other than (a) it had to be fun and (b) there had to be no expectations attached to it. The first song that came out of these sessions was, appropriately enough, “We Are All Going To Die,” which was completed once Stian Brennskag was recruited on bass. “I remember meeting him in the men’s room at a farewell show to one of the last remaining bands from that DIY scene,” according to Løvhaug.
Initially, “We Are All Going To Die” was going to be their “Bad Company” or “Black Sabbath” or “Titus Andronicus,” the introductory salvo that would double as their band name. The others thought that was “too emo,” according to Baklien, and to answer the obvious follow-up, the World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die “definitely came up in the conversation.” Instead, in line with their initial ambitions and expectations, they just kept on jamming without any band name or song titles.
“We were watching Close Encounters [Of The Third Kind] and..let’s just say I was really inspired that evening,” Baklien says. Numerous times throughout our discussion, he preemptively apologizes for what he perceives as an imperfect grasp of English, so it’s unclear whether “inspired” is a euphemism for being high as fuck. Like all of the other songs the unnamed band made to that point, it had a placeholder title — “The Spielberg Song.” Eventually, Tord Øverland Knudsen, a Norwegian bassist from the low-key very popular Wombats who had been overseeing some of the band’s demos with Løvhaug’s former Team Me bandmate Marius Drogsås, got tired of the back and forth and asked, “What if you just called the band Spielbergs?”
Most of the songs from those sessions made it to the Distant Star EP. Three of its five tracks were released in Norway to local acclaim and everything included already feels like a standard, something you can build an entire album around. “Daisy! It’s The New Me” and the title track counter the zealous mission statement of “We Are All Going To Die” with spring-loaded post-punk and pure glam-rock bubblegum, while the “new to us” ballads are even more promising. The band points out Appleseed Cast as the inspiration behind eight-minute post-rock opus “Ghost Boy,” while closer “Setting Sun” trails off into a fog of fluorescent light and dry ice.
It might be too good for its own good: EPs aren’t typically afforded the same esteem as an album, and if Spielbergs were to just slap three even decent songs onto Distant Star, it’d still be one of 2018’s most outstanding debuts. It’s already 25 minutes long. And by offloading “We Are All Going To Die” and “Distant Star” onto an “introductory EP,” there’s the legitimate concern of whether they’ve already peaked before their first album or whether they’re just getting started.
But keep in mind that any kind of hype or expectations are still very new to the members of Spielbergs. Though they were always “the guy in the band,” none of them were the primary songwriters — think of Chvrches, where bit players got together and took the lead, with the express purpose of making the kind of music that was way too fun for their previous acts. “When I wrote songs for Call Vega, I tried to be smart all the time,” Baklien admits. “It was screamo post-hardcore, so it had to be really difficult guitar riffs and everything should be all clever. Now we just try to make good songs, just to make them work.”
And so that’s why Baklien was initially worried that the shout-at-the-devil “We Are All Going To Die” seemed too easy for Spielbergs. “We’re Norwegian, and we haven’t mastered the English language. When I tried to be smart writing these post-hardcore lyrics, they just became gibberish, it didn’t mean anything,” he says. That never stopped At The Drive In, but Baklien decided to instead just write about everyday struggle of holding down jobs and families in more melodramatic terms. “Both of us, we’re just whining…poor me and stuff like that,” Baklien jokes, “But we put into songs and we can distance ourselves a bit.” While the sound of “Distant Star” recalls the arena-rock LARPing of White Reaper, Baklien’s lyrics touch on the very 30-something fantasy of about wanting to ditch every playdate, work function and bill for a life free of obligation. Sometimes I look at my lyrics and think, ‘This is stupid,’ but that’s my process [laughs].”
At least locally, Spielbergs have been embraced with the same immediacy with which they write, achieving the kind of buzz that always eluded their members in their younger, more self-conscious incarnations: “Daisy! It’s The New Me” was their first single released in Norway and it ended up “in one of the national newspaper’s best songs of the year list and made 27th place or something.” Their label helpfully points out that it was between James Blake and Chance The Rapper. His first reaction: “What have we done? No one had even heard of us before, so it was…what the fuck is happening?”
I had wondered whether Norway was more likely than America to produce a band like Spielbergs in 2018; the current state of national indie rock has shifted hard towards towards mid-fi 90s revivalism, suffocating earnestness, and the unfortunate circumstance of having every piece of art filtered through a political lens whether it wants to or not. As it turns out, things aren’t all that different on either front. A few days before we spoke, Sylvi Listhaug, Norway’s justice minister and member of the far-right Progress Party, made a Facebook post accusing the center-left Labor Party of favoring terrorists over national security; she has since resigned. Meanwhile, “many other bands in Norway are going for more traditional power pop and also indie back to the ’90s like Pavement and Sebadoh,” according to Baklien, while the youth-oriented radio stations are dominated by electro-pop and hip-hop, both domestic and international. “Maybe it’s the people our age who are missing the guitars, we hit some kind of nerve,” he speculates.
Maybe, but when you consider the longevity of the bands with whom they’ve been compared, it would be disingenuous to assume that Spielbergs can only appeal to people their own age — the proverbial “Younger Us” had to be the literal younger us freaking the fuck out over this kind of music at some point. And yet, I continually feel that it takes a legitimate desperation that can only be accessed with age to make it ring true — a knowledge deep within one’s being that there is no way this music will ever be cool, it’ll probably be directly antithetical to wherever critics decide rock is going or needs to go. And yet, these bands play it anyway because their love for big ol’ anthemic, questing rock overrides any of those considerations, and it’s the only thing that makes sense when the world feels like it’s passing you by. A song like “We Are All Going To Die” just makes you want to go out and live.
The Distant Star EP is out 4/27 on By The Time It Gets Dark. Pre-order it here.