Interview: El Perro Del Mar
El Perro del Mar plays the late show at Joe's Pub with Lykke Li this Wednesday, May 7th (sold out) and again at Bowery Ballroom on Thursday, May 8th (sold out).
"I was grieving a person that had left, someone who had always been very close to me that was gone. And I think, for the very first time in my life, I was really asking myself the question of 'Is there anything left?' Or, 'Is there anything following at all?'
On a mid-April Saturday (afternoon in New York, evening in Gothenburg), we're mere days away from the release of From the Valley to the Stars, the follow-up to El Perro del Mar. For inside the Valley, Sarah Assbring, the Swedish woman behind the EPDM curtain, purposefully ponders life and death, whether or not there's a god and whether or not there's a heaven. You know, some fairly solemn shit even if you do live in the land of long, long winters.
But the mere 20 minutes remaining on our international calling card pays our conversational seriousness no mind, so we've got a long way to go and a short time to get there.
I read an interview a little while ago--maybe even while you were still recording--that implied you were aiming for something a little more thematic than the last album.
SA: Definitely, yeah.
Do you remember the trigger that suggested Valley was the right direction? Do you remember the moment when you decided this was a good idea? Are you, by any chance, staring up at the sky?
SA: I think there definitely was a moment of looking up in the sky and asking myself all these kinds of different questions, but the questions themselves had very much to do about life and death, and they were very linked to looking up to the sky. I think that was the trigger. And from then on it just went from naturally having the only wish of doing that conceptual piece.
Obviously the sky's a major player here, but it's not only a literal concern, like, 'Hey, I see some stars and there's the moon over there,' but also figuratively in that heaven's supposed to be somewhere behind those clouds.
SA: Exactly. It's exactly what you're saying. It's the kind of the perpetual image that we people, like from the very beginning of time, seem to have this symbolic idea or wish for a comforting place somewhere above the clouds.
I don't know how much you get to watch American baseball, or even whether you would watch baseball if you could, but many Catholic ballplayers, often Latino players, cross themselves before they bat. And then if they reach base they'll cross themselves again, kiss their fingers and point up to the sky.
I'm not sure where I was going with that.
SA: No, that's kind of beautiful because, I mean, for me it's a kind of a pretty image because it is very much kind of hinting to any kind of religious belief system. Any kind. And the whole work with the album personally ended up with me in some kind of like universal, very human kind of original need for just some kind of answer and some kind of comfort when you're in need. And to me it's like the most, just very natural kind of thing. I thought that maybe I was looking for something that was kind of, you know, religious or spiritual. And I was maybe, but it wasn't linked to any belief system in that kind of sense. It only ended up with a very just basic idea of something, a comforting idea.
Since that was kind of like a mini-confession, that you were looking for something else out there, I will confess that I've read your blog.
Yeah. And I'm going to hit you with that in just a minute. But first I want to ask you about this exploration, because this album has been an exploratory journey for you. Now that you've finished writing and recording these songs and they're about to be released, did you learn anything?
SA: I did. I think I definitely did. I think something that would be good for you to know is that I started this work in a very kind of intellectual kind of way. I was like preparing myself, gathering diverse kinds of inspiration and inputs, and that had very little to do with writing music. It was rather like filling myself up with enough information so that the music could speak for itself. At the risk of sounding very pretentious. But anyway, that's how I felt. That the music would be like universal, or the language that I would use would be more of a universal kind of language rather than something that was very personal. And the kind of gathering of information that I did was this personal kind of looking for a God or looking for something to believe in. I was kind of doing that because I was grieving a person that had left, someone who had always been very close to me that was gone. And I think, for the very first time in my life, I was really asking myself the question of 'Is there anything left?' Or, 'Is there anything following at all?' Or, 'Are you still here?' I was asking myself those questions, and I think that I, in the process, ended up accepting a lot of things. I think I somewhere ended up thinking, 'No, there is probably nothing left, but it's the journey that we make. We start here and we end up somewhere out there.' So it ended up in a kind of embracing and jubilation over the facts of life: how we start and how we end and the beauty of that. It's just very simply that.
Well, let's move to the concrete from the abstract. Chronologically, what's the first song that you write for From the Valley to the Stars? Once you decide, 'This is what I'm exploring, this is what I'm filling myself up with,' what's the first song that you write?
SA: The first song is actually the last song on the album. It's called "Your Name is Neverending."
And what's the last song that you write?
SA: The last song is "Jubilee," the first song.
If the last song you wrote is first on the album and the first song you wrote is the last on the album then I've got to believe there's a reason behind it. Does that knowledge tell me anything as a listener?
SA: Yeah, definitely. Definitely so. Since I took on this project in the kind of way that to me was feeling very much like the way that I think of classical composers writing a symphony or working on a symphony, I think that you have this idea, this chronological idea almost as a writer, like a literary writer, where you know you have to have this certain chapter and then you have to have that certain chapter to fill up the whole piece of work. And you're very conscious about that during the whole process, and I think it's pretty common that it works like that. You're starting from the end and ending up at the beginning. That's the kind of feeling that I got working with this. It was the kind of circularity, and that's also the whole story of From the Valley to the Stars. It starts there and it ends up and then it goes on and on and on in this neverending circle.
And "Your Name is Neverending," the first song you wrote for Valley and the last song on the disc is one of the few songs on the record that continues to use the acoustic guitar that's all over your last album rather than the organ that's prevalent here. It's almost like a hangover of instrumentation. Does that make any sense?
SA: Definitely. And maybe that is also kind of an answer to your previous question. I mean, that the last song was written first. And I started with the acoustic and pretty quickly I realized that I need to explore something different. I needed to take this in a different way. And I pretty quickly was very drawn to the organ.
Your December 17, 2007 blog entry reads: "It seems every time I visit a church there just happens to be a musical event going on. And every time I'm hit with this feeling that I made the wrong choice as a musician. I would've been better off as a choral person; someone in the crowd of a choir. I just think about the atmosphere and the focus that the very room of a church inspires and what it does to me." And it seems like anyone listening to Valley from the Stars would know that you've spent some recent time in church.
SA: Yeah. Is that a question?
No, I just like hearing myself talk.
SA: (laughs) That's a statement, yeah.
And "Happiness Won Me Over" is extraordinarily hymn-like.
SA: It is.
Okay. I was just making sure we were still on the same page.
SA: We are. Definitely.
Good, then let me ask you this. Last fall you weren't quite finished recording the album and you decided to go to India. That seems like a weird time to leave, when you're so close to being done. Why did you go then?
SA: That was just a pure miscalculation of planning. The original plan was to be finished with the album when I was to leave for India. But I totally, totally miscalculated the overwhelming, the massive work that was left, so I had to go. I had the tickets and everything so I just had to go and I had to accept that I wasn't ready and it wasn't finished. And that was very frustrating. I was very, very frustrated when leaving and thinking, 'Shit, I totally just blew this.' And it took me about a week to realize that it was probably for the best. I came back with a whole different kind of perspective to what I was making. And I'm very happy that it happened to end up like that.
So why India? And given the fact that you went there at such a tenuous, important moment in terms of making this record, what effect. [Here an operator recording breaks in with a two-minute warning; I cuss vehemently and Sarah laughs] . . . Why India and what effect did your trip have on the record?
SA: I've been very into like the philosophy, the old philosophy of India and the religions of the India, I guess. And I've also been very much into Indian music for a long time and I think Indian music was very much part of the trigger that made we want to do this album. Along with that, I've always, always dreamt of going to India, so India, in my mind I think, was a very big part of the whole process of the album and now, looking back on it, I think I had a very romantic image of what India would be like and I'm very happy that I went there to realize that it's so much more than that idea. I think part of my idea was shattered, but a big part of me learned a whole lot and that's why I think that the miscalculation of my work and having to go to India before the album was done and then coming back from the experiences that I had was very giving to the end result.
Tell me something that you've never ever done before.
SA: Rock climbing. I haven't done that. I would love to do that, yeah. Extreme rock climbing.
Tell me something that you've done once and one time only.
SA: Ride a horse.
Just once? How long ago?
SA: I was very little and I fell off and I will never do it again. That's what I thought then. I thought it was very, very difficult.
So the old axiom, 'If you fall off a horse, get right back on,' didn't work for you.
SA: It didn't. Not at all. It was like, 'Wow, how can this be so difficult when it seems like it's so easy? There must be something wrong with me. I will never do it again.' That's how I felt.
What's the sky like in Gothenburg right now? Inspirational or not? SA: The sky in Gothenburg is orange just above the rim of the horizon and light, light blue over that. It's been a beautiful spring day today and the night sky is colored by that. I love nights like these. Totally inspirational in all its silent grandeur.
El Perro del Mar plays the late show at Joe's Pub with Lykke Li this Wednesday, May 7th (sold out) and again at Bowery Ballroom on Thursday, May 8th. The EPDM blog is at elpd.blogspot.com.
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