City Sounds: Berlin

This past Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. Growing up, I can still remember learning my geography on a globe with a divided Germany, but my only real memory of the Wall is a vague recollection of news bulletins featuring people swinging pickaxes at a graffitied slab of concrete the day the Wall came down. Perhaps it’s significant that these images of protest and creativity – the very things that have kept Berlin at the forefront of artistic innovation for decades – are what made the most lasting impression on the six year old me.

And now, some 22 years later, we are presented with City Sounds: Berlin, a six disc, 71 track collection from Naïve in conjunction with La Gaîté Lyrique, determined to explore that very concept: Berlin’s indispensable role on the international music scene. To listen to this collection in its entirety (approaching seven hours) is an ambitious undertaking, but it’s an endeavor well worth the effort, because, if you’re anything like me, you have a lot to learn about Berliner music.

For one thing, there’s more to City Sounds: Berlin than Kraftwerk and techno. In fact, Kraftwerk are nowhere to be seen. Sure, they occasionally show up as members of other bands – Berlin, after all, is the capital of DIWO (“do it with others”) as the immensely informative 60-page companion booklet is keen to point out. But City Sounds does a good job of keeping things interesting by avoiding what may seem like obvious choices to some and throwing in a few surprises for the uninitiated (like me), including Nick Cave, who makes a couple of appearances on disc one.

But what sets City Sounds: Berlin apart from similar compilations (similar, at least, in scope, though perhaps not depth) is that, while it no doubt makes for enjoyable casual listening, this collection, when given the proper attention, is also intrinsically fascinating. It is better to think of this as a carefully curated audio gallery than a simple CD box set – a direct result of the fact that the music of Berlin, perhaps more than any other scene, is directly tied to the city’s history. From its geographic location – window to the West isolated in the Eastern Bloc – to a West German government that encouraged artists and creative types to settle there, within the confines of the Wall, Berlin was for many years the last bastion of free artistic expression. And it was from this position on the fringe of Western culture, that artists were encouraged to tear down all self-imposed limits and let creativity run away with them.

Whether it’s Krautrock or minimalist electronica that does it for you, there’s plenty to love here.  Or maybe punk and new wave is more your thing. There are some stellar contributions of that sort, too. But for me, it’s been disc six – “Berlin Next!” – that has spent the most time in my rotation. Some highlights from the contemporary Berlin scene, it also happens to be one of the slickest “getting stuff done” records I’ve heard in a long time.

City Sounds: Berlin is only the first in what is planned to be a series of similar collections featuring the great music cities of the world. And if this first installment is any indication of what’s to come, then the City Sounds series promises to be a set worth collecting.

“2 words”, says Eric, “theremin and accordion”

We have another guest post for you tonight!  We love guest submissions, and always encourage them for many reasons, but until now, Dan Holloway has been the only one to really run with our invitation.  Tonight, I introduce to you Kate Metcalf, a fellow musician, anthropology-lover, and dear friend to us both.

First of all, for the sake of full disclosure, you should know that I have an ongoing love affair with everything Swedish. Blame my heritage if you want, but they have just about everything cool in spades. I mean really, Volvo, ACNE, Nina Persson, and H&M all call Sweden home. It makes me wish I did too, just to be as cool as them.

So having said all of that, I am in the throes of yet another freak-out for Sweden because they are the homeland of one of my new favorites, Detektivbyrån. The thing I love about this band is that they are chock full of seemingly far-fetched combinations made to seem totally plausible, like “of course this is the most natural, obvious thing in the world.”

They combine Swedish electronica from Stockholm and traditional folk music from their childhood region, Varmland. They dress like rock stars and live on a little farmstead outside of Gothenburg. But leaving those things far in the dust are their instrument combinations. Theremin and accordion, Moog and glock, traktofon and music box, toy piano, real piano, shoes, scissors, oh my! They are an amazing relief from the tried and true but often tired voice, guitar, drums combo. They are a purely instrumental group, with nary an ax in sight, that manages to do what I never thought possible with instruments like theremin and accordion. They make it all very, ridiculously cool.

At this point, Detektivbyrån has two records available, E18 and Wermland. Both have a few tracks bearing a striking resemblance to the music of Yann Tiersen in Amelie, which I love. They in fact cite Amelie as one of their major influences along with their time spent as street musicians when glocks and accordions were conveniently portable. Now they’ve taken those influences and melded them with electronica and synths to craft a very distinctive and genre-spanning sound about which they say this:

“Indie kids come up to me after shows and tell me their parents gave them an accordion as a birthday present, they started to play it since they listened to us, and that’s one of the most beautiful things I can hear after a show. Then there’s an local radio station which has this accordion special every Thursday and usually there’s just old traditional stuff, but they really dig us and play for the old people out there, and these people send cute e-mail to us, they are glad we are taking care of their accordion tradition.”

So fantastic!

If you want to hear more, hop on over to www.detektivbyran.net to check them out, download a couple songs, and even stream both albums. Even better, hit up the store for the CDs or vinyls. They are ridiculously affordable and the guys send out all their orders personally, so they’ll sign the covers if you say pretty please.

Emilie Simon in Chicago: the complete abridged interview transcript

Photo by: Elizabeth Sentianin , Sculpture by: artzura.com
Photo by: Elizabeth Sentianin , Sculpture by: artzura.com

Here it is. Finally. The (abridged) transcript of last month’s interview with Emilie Simon. Emilie is off touring Europe right now, so here in the States, we probably won’t be hearing anything from her for a while. In the meantime, you will just have to read this and get all excited for the eventual American release of her latest album: The Big Machine. If you live in Europe, you can already buy the album (or, at least you can in France). You can also catch Emilie on tour, which you ought to do, because it is a life-altering experience. You can read the complete (almost) interview here.

The Indie Handbook: First of all, let me say that it is such a pleasure to meet you. Have you ever been to Chicago before?

Emilie Simon: No, this is my first time to even leave the club, so I will discover it with you.

TIH: So you’ve been living in New York for a while, right?

ES: Yeah, it’s been almost two years now.

TIH: What made you pack up and come over here?

ES: At the beginning, I just came for vacation and I enjoyed it, so I decided to stay longer. And I ended up moving here. I think it was just the right timing for me. I was between two albums, so I finished my tour and came here.

TIH: How long do you think you’ll stay.

ES: I have no idea. I didn’t plan it, I don’t plan ahead. I plan what I have to plan, like if I have a tour. I know I am going to be touring pretty much all of 2010. But you never really know what’s going to be happening in your life.

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“He was a steampunk jeweller called Pete, and the spit of a pre-pubescent Andy Warhol…”

September 10th was a big night when two of my favourite places, the music world and the twitterverse, collided. A few miles down the road at London Bridge, the London Twestival, headlined by no less than The Hours, was opening its doors. But I was at a far more important gig, at The Good Ship in Kilburn, the first ever #twittergig (to make sure you don’t miss future ones, keep checking the twittergig hashtag), organised and hosted by, and headlining, To The Moon.


No other band more personifies the eccentric, creative, interactive and, let’s face it, slightly bonkers world of twitter. The two-man alt-electronica combo of mJ and Dennis advertise themselves as “preparing for the worst by evacuating earth and heading To The Moon”. They greet each new follower on twitter with salutes, and regularly report in on their mission status. They make Muse look like Internet amateurs. Which is the reason I was there rather than down the road (er, the fact The Hours were headlining admittedly played its part, after I’d stood through their self-important twaddle when they supported Kasabian’s recent UK tour) at a do that had, from what I could see, about 8 corporate sponsors. Yes, Twestival was for charity, and I hope it was a success, but it’s not very twitter!

It’s not the first time I’d met the musical side of twitter – the previous Thursday about 10 of us had swapped usernames at an InLight concert. But it’s the first time I’d met a band I’d come across there, and what I discovered just reinforced my opinions of the twitterverse. I’d interviewed mJ and Dennis a couple of months ago for my regular blog column, and they were (there WILL be puns) out of this world, on another planet even. So I was delighted to be told, on arrival, having flashed my twitter boarding pass for a pound off, that I could find mJ “up there, trying on his space suit”.

Dennis, against a backdrop of a 1950s rocket console, was opening the evening with a DJ set that was perfectly spacey and trippy, with the occasional whir and roar that sounded like an engine launching. mJ, meanwhile, was on the balcony with his girlfriend, sewing felt and calico and bits of tubing together. It looked like his girlfriend’s mate was on the stage, doing some kind of performance ritual. It transpired she was trying to fit a fluorescent lighting strip to the floor to make the stage look even more like a spaceship.

Dennis’ set merged seamlessly into Rabid Gravy’s. I must confess, I was actually rather nervous about meeting someone who calls himself Rabid Gravy (I just couldn’t get school dinners out of my head!), and whose avatar is a dog with red eyeballs munching on a syringe. More worryingly still, Mr Gravy (no relation to Woodstock’s Wavy, I believe) bore more than a passing resemblance to the dog in question. It was hard to tell which of them had been cooked up in a Photoshop session. Which is probably appropriate for a cybergig.

Once I got over the sample of nails scratching an electronic blackboard, Rabid Gravy’s music blew me away. It was quite clear this was something different. Something very serious (he even, albeit in a DM, used the word prog when I tweeted him the next day). And VERY good. He played two sequences of about 15 minutes each. The first was, on the surface, light, built around an electro-glockenspiel sound that had elements of the music from Heidi, and felt decidedly Alpine throughout (I’m sure at times it was mimicking the sound of human yodelling). The second was an altogether different beast, like a Steve Reich take on an East Berlin Stasi torture brothel. It was dark, distant, full of screams rising from oubliettes and interrupted noises, shot through with decadent Salon Kitty eroticism. Taken together, it felt like Gravy had taken us on a musical tour of the dark side of 20th century Europe.

Needing some air, I went out to chat with mJ and Dennis before their set. I asked them why Twittergig was, in their opinion, better than the Twestival. “Well,” said mJ, “they won’t be beset by technical difficulties! And they won’t be fighting on through challenging hair!”

When we went back inside, I asked to be introduced to a guy who’d been intriguing me. He was about 6 foot, dressed in a black polo neck with a shock of white hair, clearly intended to make him look (with uncanny success) like a pre-pubescent Andy Warhol. He turned out to be a steampunk jeweller called Pete.

By now it was time for the star (er, planet, er, spheroid lunar body) turn. The whole place felt like the inside of a spaceship, or a substance-distorted encounter with a Rocky Horror troupe on a dark night in, again, East Berlin. Hmm, there’s a theme emerging. To the Moon emerged garbed in lab-coat and space-suit respectively, and launched (damnit with the puns!) into a set that was, in its way, as experimental as anything from Mr Gravy. The interstellar theme permeates the lyrics and electronic but it’s suffused with enough cross-genre references (yes, that IS Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds at the start of A Halo, although he denied it when I asked him!) to keep anyone satisfied. Combine it with a trippy filmic backdrop and the effect is enough to wrap every one of your senses in a gigtacular spacepod and allow you, for one night only, to transcend the dull confines of your usual events.

Back to why twittergig 9/10 outshines any twestival, and in mJ’s words, “it’s like a gig, only there’s not a guitar amp or a drum kit in the building!” No, but there IS a spaceship, a bunch of buggered lighting, and a steampunk jeweler called Pete.


Maltese Additions…

Although I generally eschew domestic responsibilities/activities of all sorts, there’s some housekeeping to be done before I begin my “actual” post tonight.

1. Gee whiz, Eric and I sure do love to write about music, y’all!  Is it because we’re terribly pretentious and dreadfully pompous people?  No, sillies!  Reference our About Us section to sweeten our sarcasm with sincerity.

2. If you read our About Us section and can still stomach us, be our fans.  For realz.

3. Also, as much as we love love love writing, our day jobs sometimes get in the way of us doing all we would like to do (and knowing all we would like to know).  We value your knowledge, and also your writing abilities.  Send us guest submissions at the.indie.handbook@gmail.com — we are great editors, promise!

Now, onto this evening’s post.

Well, the great thing about having weeks dedicated to music of other countries (re: Dutch Week, Malta Mayhem…) is that often, we’ll hear back from musicians and music lovers in those countries with glorious recommendations,  picking up what we have missed.

So, although Malta Mayhem is over and done, it lives on in our hearts and our ears!  And I have two more bands to share with you, thanks to a lovely email from a Maltese music connoisseur extraordinaire.  Yes, I did make that title up myself. The first is a band I had previously considered reviewing…but Brikkuni beat them out.  Maybe only because Brikkuni’s myspace page is better-looking, I’m not sure.  Packed with interesting sounds and instruments, Hunter’s Palace must be named experimental.  With such an emphasis on guitar motifs and a percussive feel, melody definitely isn’t the main focus here.  Hunter’s Palace achieves something very similar to what Sigur Ros achieves, but through very different means–atmosphere; the listener can’t be half-hearted, as they must immerse themselves in the musical experience or they probably won’t be very interested in what’s going on.  This may or may not be what my grandma calls “noise.”

To be quite honest, I don’t really listen to much electronic music; it isn’t really my style.  I’m more indie-folk, I think.  But when I heard Mathematikal (and passed them on to my little sister, who is into some electronic music, and by that I mean, she really likes Crystal Castles), I agreed that they were definitely worth mentioning and experiencing on our little indie blog here.  They’re electrosynth all the way, with plenty of beats and changes and voice distortions to go around.  I asked my sister whether she got an 80’s vibe from it, because I kind of do, but she doesn’t–she said she gets a strobe lights vibe.  I’m not sure what that means, but I’m gonna go with it.  If you check out their myspace, I especially recommend “The Mathematimix,” which reminds me of Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds at some points (and to me is a good thing, soooo is Eric going to kick me off the blog for that?), and in the middle, there’s a little Michael Jackson remix (I’m still in mourning).  I also really enjoy PonyPonyRunRun_HeyYouRMX–the beat, the layers, and the vox are a pretty awesome combo.

Well folks, if you were still yearning for a bit more from Malta, here you go!  If nothing else, these two great bands are a bit different from mine and Eric’s usual taste, which you better not be sick of yet, and so isn’t it always nice to have something fresh and exciting?  Answer: yes.  Enjoy!

I suppose “Blithe Spirit” is a literary allusion

I was going to post about Dear Reader tonight. I told Kristin I would. But I have changed my mind. (Besides, I plugged them on Facebook a fortnight ago.) There is something I’ve been wanting to tell you about since we started this blog, but I decided to hold off until we had a larger audience. This is one of those artists I always tell people to check out even though I know they won’t. (These are the same people who interrupt a trip-hop DJ in a posh martini bar to request Sum 41 or Lady Gaga or whatever the kids are listening to these days. Yes, it happens. Yes, they are my friends. Yes, it is embarrassing. No, don’t remind me.) So, anyway, I can’t hold it in any longer. I hope Kristin doesn’t beat me up at the company picnic.

Piney Gir is from Kansas. Let me rephrase that. Piney Gir is from Kansas in much the same way that T.S. Eliot was from St. Louis. Granted, she doesn’t insert Ovid, Dante, and Shakespeare into her work with quite the frequency or fluency of Eliot, but she does play the accordion, which is at least as hot as historico-poetic allusion, perhaps more so. (For those who lost me after Kansas, she lives in London now.)

Unfortunately, I cannot tell you why I love her music so much. Chalk it up to the accordion, if you like. Or maybe it’s the fact that “Jezabel” from Peakahokahoo still ranks in the top two on my list of the sexiest songs I’ve ever heard, in a disconcerting Joan Jett kind of way. Or it could be because we both love 50s frocks. (Though I tend not to wear them. Kristin and I did, however, visit the Golden Age of Couture exhibition at the V&A two years ago whilst I was on a layover, bound for Scotland). Perhaps it is the very indefinability of her music that makes it so alluring. The first album, Peakahokahoo was highly influenced by electronica and those Casio keyboards she loves so much, and included a(n absolutely) fabulous take on “Que Sera, Sera”. The next album, Hold Yer Horses, by The Piney Gir Country Roadshow, I take to have had a distinctly more countrified flavor. I haven’t heard it, unfortunately, because every time I try to track down a copy, everyone tells me it doesn’t exist. Then again, maybe that’s it. Every dead end makes me want it more. And exclusivity is the sexiest thing of all.

And there is a new album coming. The Yearling, this time by Piney Gir & the Age of Reason, will be out sometime soon, I guess, I am having trouble finding a date (don’t worry, I’m used to it by now). If you can help, let me know (that goes for the other thing, too). The limited edition lead single “Of All the Wonderful Things” featuring Eamon Hamilton and beautifully twisted lyrical moments like “as much as I would like to see you die, I never find the strength to strike you down”, is out now in the UK (buy it via the link here) and will be released in the States on 30 June (with a different B-side, so buy them both).

Speaking of 30 June, Piney Gir & The Age of Reason will be playing the Lexington (in London, not Kentucky). Check the Facebook event page for more details. Sadly, once again, I will not be there. Piney, I promise I will hear you play someday, you just never have gigs when I’m in your country. (I am getting the distinct impression that an Indie Handbook field trip is in order.)

Oh, and one last thing. Her MySpace postings are precious. If we ever decided to expand The Indie Handbook, I would want her to write for us, though I’m sure she has better things to do.