The Record
1:23 am
Mon March 4, 2013

How One Band Turned A Ghost Town Into A Giant Recording Studio

Originally published on Mon March 4, 2013 11:02 am

In August of 2011, the three members of the Danish band Efterklang, dressed in survival suits, loaded a small recording studio worth of equipment onto an open boat docked on the island of Spitsbergen. Soaked by rain and rough seas, the boat pushed off into the fjord that separates the town of Longyearbyen from their destination: Piramida, a former Russian coal mining settlement abandoned by the state-held company that ran it in 1998.

In front of them: nine days in the cold, no human contact outside their small party and the threat of polar bear attacks.

"It was the longest boat ride I'd ever taken," says Rasmus Stolberg, Efterklang's bassist. "It felt like a very surreal and extreme way to begin making an album."

Spitsbergen is the largest island in Svalbard, an arctic archipelago about the size of Sri Lanka, 400 miles north of Norway's farthest northern tip. "It's a territory controlled by Norway, but it's not really Norway," Stolberg says.

Mads Brauer, who plays electronics for the band, says that starting from scratch on each new album is just part of Efterklang's process. Piramida promised the cleanest slate imaginable. There were no people in the town, just crumbling evidence of former occupants and their lives. The plan was to take recording equipment — mallets to bang on whatever they could find, microphones and flash recorders to document the noises they made — and return home with raw sound they could twist and turn into a new album.

A Ghost Town As A Studio

The thousands of miles between their adopted home of Berlin and an abandoned mining town halfway between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole might seem like a drastic length to travel, but the band members were inspired. For musicians obsessed with sound, Piramida offered unimaginable opportunities: to turn every object within sight into a musical instrument; to turn an entire town, in effect, into a recording studio.

"This place was quite optimal because we could kind of record a city without people in it," says lead singer Casper Clausen. "You can go to any other city and try and record, but there would always be some kind of sounds you're not in control of in the background."

Getting there wasn't easy. Access to Piramida is still controlled by the mining company that packed up and left in 1998, and despite emails, faxes and "a friend in Moscow that went and knocked on the door," they heard no reply. Finally, a German documentary crew who had permission to travel offered them a ride.

"Sitting in a boat like that with all of our equipment, going to this ghost town, not having written one song yet, everything felt so new and fresh and without direction," Clausen says. "In that sense it was a scary trip in many ways, I think."

After docking in Piramida, there was nothing to do but wander, collect sounds and worry about the polar bears, one of three land mammals native to the island. One of the reasons for taking the trip, Stolberg says, was hearing that the world's northernmost grand piano sits in the town's empty concert hall. But most of the instruments the band found weren't designed with music in mind. The trio began exploring the abandoned warehouses, playgrounds, residences and courtyards, banging on corrugated metal siding, lamps and fuel tanks. ("When you're up there for nine days, you get to hit on a lot of metal," Stolberg says. "After some days, all these start to sound the same to you.")

Some objects they found had an innate musicality. Clausen recorded his footsteps while running on a long boardwalk, which would later become the beat for one of the songs on the album. He crawled into pipes and sang, his clear tenor multiplying into a ghostly choir as it bounced off metal walls. A fuel tank, half full of water and covered in spikes — to hold insulation that had long since rotted away — turned into a giant percussive instrument once the band discovered that each spike had a distinct tone. Once they taught themselves to play it, it sounded a little like a kalimba.

New Sounds Out Of Old

Most of the sound Efterklang recorded in Piramida had to be treated in some way once the musicians returned home to Berlin — taken apart and reassembled. Fortunately, that kind of thing is built into the band's process. (As well as its name: in Danish, "efterklang" means "after-sound," or reverberation. Talk to Stolberg about the trip, and he can't help but giddily bring up this bit of trivia.)

Reverberation also turns out to be crucial to the way Mads Brauer makes new sounds out of old ones. The finished songs on Efterklang's album, which the band named Piramida, have an epic, widescreen character, and it was Brauer's job to transform the dinky sounds of mallets hitting rusty metal into something that could communicate the scale of the place where they were recorded.

For "Sedna," a hymnlike song on the album, Brauer started with a recording he made after climbing atop an enormous, empty fuel tank: "There's this valve, and if you hit it with a mallet it almost sounds like a vibraphone." Brauer also lowered a microphone on a cable down through the valve, to capture the sound of the reverberation from inside the tank.

While the vibraphonelike noise from tapping on the valve disappeared in a couple of seconds, the sound inside the tank took much longer to decay. By cutting and looping a tiny portion of that decay, Brauer was able to make a sustained note with "a little movement in the sound." He then layered that sound with the decay from a note played on a piano. The combination sounded something like an organ. He programmed a keyboard to shift the pitch so it could actually be played like one, and picked out a melody around which the band composed and recorded the song.

An Abstraction

The finished songs bring up a question: When you listen to the album, sounds like the manufactured "organ" on "Sedna" can fade into the dense fabric of the music. Some recordings made it onto the final album nearly untouched, such as the spiky fuel tank played on Piramida's opening track, "Hollow Mountain." But often, you don't hear the abandoned town at all. So why was it so important to make the journey there?

Stolberg calls the album "an abstraction." Brauer agrees. "[Piramida is] not a documentation of the place. It's just where we started. And the whole inspiration point of it is, in a way, just as important as the sound that we recorded."

Hein Bjerck has felt that same rush of inspiration. Now an anthropology professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Bjerck worked in the governor's office in Longyearbyen for three years in the late 1990s. When he first visited Piramida almost 20 years ago, it was still an active mining town with close to 500 inhabitants.

The Russians who worked and lived there served two-year contracts and rarely got to leave, but they had a good life, Bjerck says. They had a metropolitan mindset and dressed in furs rather than Gore-Tex. The town used residual heat from producing electricity to warm the buildings, which included a greenhouse, the concert hall with that grand piano and sports facilities.

"I remember I was there in the last years before the town was abandoned. I think I was one of the last ones that was actually swimming in the heated pool," Bjerck says. "It was fantastic."

More than a decade after the mining company packed up and left, Bjerck returned to write a book about the town called Persistent Memories: Pyramiden — A Soviet Mining Town in the High Arctic, published in 2010 ("Pyramiden" is the Norwegian name for the town). He says he could see the remnants of a life of longing still hanging on the walls of the empty homes.

"There are many pictures of things that were lacking up there. Dogs and cats and rivers and nice woods and of course all their family that they're missing," he says. "Also, typically, an abundance of maps and pictures of airplanes that are kind of pointing from the town and back, and also calendars where you can see they were counting down the days in these two-year-long periods."

The members of Efterklang stepped into this place with only one thing worked out: They were starting, together, from zero. They had no songs, no structure, no album.

"We had a trip together, the three of us," Clausen says. "We started this off with an adventure to kind of formulate a starting point. And we found a lot of sounds, but we also sharpened our senses. I think that was the most important [thing] about it."

Sharpened senses to locate and carefully preserve the echoes of a slowly decaying city. Raw sounds became finished songs. Now out on tour, the band has come up with a third step in Piramida's progress: Live instrumentation and orchestral flourishes in new versions of the songs pull them further from the raw audio. Like the town it was named for, the album is an artifact of a place and a moment, once creative and thriving, now frozen in time.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're going to hear, now, about a band that embarked on an adventure you might call extreme music-making. It starts with the fact that members of the Danish band Efterklang are obsessed with sound; with finding it and manipulating it. They've made four albums over the last 10 years and gained fans around the world.

NPR's Jacob Ganz has the story of the lengths they went to in producing their latest album.

JACOB GANZ, BYLINE: Efterklang could have gone into a studio to record "Piramida," but the band has done that already. Instead, its members: Mads Brauer, Casper Clausen and Rasmus Stollberg decided to travel to an island more than 400 miles north of the farthest northern point in mainland Europe.

RASMUS STOLLBERG: It's a territory controlled by Norway. But it's not really Norway.

GANZ: That's Rasmus Stollberg.

HEIN BJERCK: Svalbard is an arctic island. It's about one and a half hours, with the airplane, north of Norway.

GANZ: Hein Bjerck is an anthropologist in Norway. For three years in the late 1990s, he lived in Svalbard. When he first visited Piramida, named for the pyramid-shaped mountain that looms above it, the town was an active Russian mining colony.

BJERCK: At the time it was close to 500 inhabitants in the settlement.

GANZ: Now there are none. In 1998, the Russians abandoned it. That's exactly why, a dozen years later, the members of Efterklang wanted to record there, says lead singer, Casper Clausen.

CASPER CLAUSEN: This place was quite optimal because we could kind of record a city without people in it. You can go to any other city and try and record, but there would always be some kind of sounds you're not in control of in the background.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GANZ: Getting to Piramida wasn't easy. They had to pack all the gear they'd need to record in the abandoned town. The hour and a half plane ride was followed by three hours in a boat, crossing stormy arctic waters.

CLAUSEN: Sitting in a boat like that, with all of our equipment, going to this ghost town, not having written one song yet, everything felt so new and fresh and without direction. So in that sense, it was a scary trip in many ways, I think.

GANZ: Once they got there, there was nothing to do but wander, collect sounds and worry about polar bear attacks. One of the reasons for taking the trip, Rasmus Stollberg says, was hearing that the world's northernmost grand piano still sits in Piramida's empty concert hall. But most of the instruments the band found weren't designed to be played by musicians.

STOLLBERG: When you're up there for nine days, you get to hit on a lot of metal. You get a lot of rusty metal sounds.

GANZ: They banged on corrugated metal siding, lamps, a tiny shed made of glass bottles; they recorded their footsteps on a boardwalk.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

GANZ: They found a fuel tank covered in spikes, each of which made a different tone when it was struck. Once they figured these tones out, they could play the tank like a real instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GANZ: That spiky fuel tank was musical by itself, but much of the sound that came from Piramida had to be treated in some way - taken apart and reassembled. Fortunately, that kind of thing is built into the band's process and even its name. The word Efterklang actually means reverberation in Danish. The sound, say, a piano makes not when the hammer strikes the string...

(SOUNDBITE OF A PIANO NOTE)

GANZ: But all the sound after the strike itself, the sound of that ping reverberating in the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF A REVERBERATING PIANO NOTE)

GANZ: After clang, after sound, that after sound - reverberation - turns out to be a crucial part of making new sounds out of old ones...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GANZ: ...of turning dinky noises into widescreen music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GANZ: Here's how Mads Brauer turned those noises into elements of one finished song called "Sedna." The musicians started with enormous, empty fuel tanks.

MADS BRAUER: On the top of them, you could climb up them and there's this valve. And if you hit that with a mallet it almost sounds like a vibraphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL NOTE)

GANZ: Brauer then lowered a microphone down through that valve, to capture the sound of the reverberation inside the tank.

(SOUNDBITE OF VALVE REVERBERATION)

BRAUER: If you kind of freeze that sound, like freeze the decay, you get this sustained note and it will kind of loop back and forward, so you'll have a little movement in the sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF VALVE REVERBERATION)

GANZ: Brauer combined that looped decay with the sound of the decay from a piano,

(SOUNDBITE OF VALVE AND PIANO REVERBERATION)

GANZ: The end result sounded something like an organ.

(SOUNDBITE OF VALVE AND PIANO REVERBERATION)

GANZ: Then he programmed a keyboard to shift the pitch of that composite sound, so it could actually be played like an organ.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GANZ: Then the group composed the song around these sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEDNA")

CLAUSEN: (Singing) You're tipping me over, darkest woman taking all...

GANZ: The finished songs bring up a question: When you listen to the album, you don't hear the abandoned town. So why was it so important to make the journey there, for sounds that might be a huge part of a song, but are basically indiscernible to the average listener?

BRAUER: It's not a documentation of the place. It's just where we started. And the whole inspiration point of it is, in a way, just as important as the sound that we record.

GANZ: It was about being there, says Mads Brauer, in this place that was once full of life. Anthropologist Hein Bjerck, says that the Russians who lived there had good lives. There was a greenhouse, a heated swimming pool and that concert hall. More than a decade after it was abandoned, Bjerck went back to Piramida for a book about the town called "Persistent Memories." He says you could see the remnants of a life of longing, still hanging on the walls of the empty homes.

BJERCK: There were many pictures of things that were lacking up there. Dogs and cats, and, of course, all their family that they're missing. Also, typically, an abundance of maps and pictures of airplanes. And also, calendars where you can see they were counting down the days in these two-year-long periods.

GANZ: The members of Efterklang stepped into this place with only one thing worked out: they were starting, together from zero; no songs, no structure, no album.

Here's singer Casper Clausen.

CLAUSEN: We had a trip together, the three of us. We started this off with an adventure to, kind of, formulate a starting point. And we found a lot of sounds but we also sharpened our senses. I think that was the most important about it.

GANZ: Sharpened senses, to locate and carefully preserve the echoes of a slowly decaying city. Now, like the town itself, Efterklang's album, "Piramida," is an artifact of a place and a moment that was once creative and thriving, and now frozen in time.

Jacob Ganz, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You can hear songs from that new album and see images of Efterklang in the Arctic ghost town at NPRMusic.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.