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WHEN SAINTS GO MACHINE play XOYO after a storming sellout show at Concrete and joyful reception of their new album, INFINITY POOL, out now on K7 records.
When Saints Go Machine are a hard band to pin down, four young men doing things with electro pop that no one has done before.
The Danish four-piece formed in 2007 — Nikolaj Manuel Vonsild (vocals), Jonas Kenton (keyboards), Simon Muschinsky (keyboards) and Silas Moldenhawer (drums) — are a complicated mix of influences. There’s dance music in there, for sure, but also post punk, some experimental electronica in the Aphex Twin mould, and, crucially, a healthy dose of pop. You could describe the end result as a heady mix of Caribou, The Knife/Fever Ray and Arthur Russell. But, really, it doesn’t sound like anything else out there.
One of the clichés about Scandinavian countries is that they are neat and tidy, well ordered, clean. The same could not be said of Copenhagen four-piece When Saints Go Machine’s second full-length album, ‘Infinity Pool’. The opposite, in fact. It’s a record born out of an atmosphere of chaos. Frontman Nikolaj Manuel Vonsild explains: “We tried to record this album in a summer house in the country, like we did with the last one, but it didn’t feel right. We also tried going into a big studio to record the sketches that we made, but that didn’t work either. In the end we figured out that doing things at home, separately, a more chaotic approach, was how we were supposed to record this music.”
Which is not to say that the result is disjointed. It’s harder, darker and more synthetic than its predecessors. It opens with ‘Love And Respect’, which features a guest vocal from Grammy award winning rap artist Killer Mike, who freewheels over chugging, synth-drenched beat. “I guess people will be surprised there’s a rapper on the album,” says Vonsild. “We just did a song that we felt needed a rap verse. In order to keep making music we have to surprise ourselves. If we stop doing that we’ll have to stop making music.” Elsewhere, ‘Dead Boy’ sees Vonsild’s tremulous falsetto digitized and then floated over a semi-ambient soundscape, while ‘Infinity Killer’ pitches skittering sound effects against a low-end drone.
It’s more unapologetically electronic than anything the band have done before. “On the previous album, ‘Konkylie’, we tried to make machines simulate nature,” says Vonsild. “With ‘Infinity Pool’ we were trying to capture a feeling of the absurdity of mankind trying to construct nature. Maybe it’s something to do with being in the city. You are always influenced by what’s going on around you.”
It’s also to do with the music that inspired them. “There are a lot of references to the early ’90s on the album,” says Vonsild. “It’s not a rave album, but there are a lot of elements of rave on there. ‘Degeneration’ sums up what we were trying to do. There are some tracks on the album that could almost have been rave songs under other circumstances. I think that it’s one of the songs that I don’t think anyone else would have made.”
Rather than go at these rave influences full tilt, they did the opposite of what might be expected: they stripped them down and twisted them into new shapes. “Yeah, especially on ‘Degeneration’, there are very few instruments and nothing happens really,” explains Vonsild. “We tried to pick away layers. But generally most of our productions consist of a lot of layers in each song. I think the initial difference between those two albums are, that with ‘Konkylie’ each of those layers almost fought to get the most attention. Whereas this time we tried to make a lot sound a lot immediate and simple. This album is slower and harder. There are a lot of tracks with no drums, but when there are drums they play an important part in the song. But it still has this longing feeling.”
It’s that “longing feeling” that’s the glue that holds the album together, the thing that lets you know it’s a When Saints Go Machine record. Vonsild pauses, reflectively: “I think that’s our trademark. Longing for something.”
He won’t say exactly what. As ever, Vonsild and the band are reluctant to talk about lyrical themes, preferring to let the listener work things out for themselves. However, he does talk obliquely about “stuff that’s hard to understand”. He continues: “It seems like people have to get killed for stuff to happen. A tragedy has to happen before people will address an issue. They won’t do it before it happens. I guess it’s nature. That kind of thing can make you mad.”
The dark undercurrent that coloured the band’s previous releases is intact, then. It’s something that makes the fact that When Saints Go Machine won a string of awards in their native Denmark last year all the more surprising. Vonsild is sanguine about that kind of music industry approval. “We won some of the biggest awards in Denmark last year which came as a surprise,” he shrugs, “but it doesn´t really change the way we approach making music or our artistic ideals.”
While it’s nice to be liked, Vonsild says it’s far more important to challenge people as well as yourself. He says they felt nervous about the direction they took on ‘Infinity Pool’, unease that they were operating outside their comfort zone. “But,” he adds, “that’s a good thing. Whenever you feel a bit scared about putting something out, that’s how you should feel as an artist.”
Who would argue with him? It’s certainly paid off here.
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