I Break Horses (due tonight with M83 at the Ogden Theatre) started out as the bedroom project of Maria Lindén. Chances are, if she hadn't been in contact with Simon Raymonde of Cocteau Twins and Bella Union fame (the label that also released a few albums by the Czars from Denver), we never would have heard Lindén's hauntingly gorgeous songs. She named the band after a song by Bill Callahan, even though her music sounds like nothing that guy has ever done. But it's a fitting metaphor for reigning in her own anxieties and fears to be able to take her music to an actual audience, though she rightfully prefers to refer to those who come see her music as soulmates.
Along with her partner in the project, Fredrik Balck, Lindén put out Hearts in 2011, an album that was met with critical acclaim. We spoke with the incredibly gracious and charming Lindén as she was at home in Sweden about how she got into playing the sort of dream pop she now creates, how hearing My Bloody Valentine was a big turning point in her artistic development, how she has learned to overcome a kind of perfectionism with her art and her love of the films of Wim Wenders.
Westword: Is it true that in Sweden you are required to learn two musical instruments in school? Which ones did you learn to play, and what do you feel that classical upbringing helped in your current musical endeavors?
Maria Lindén: Yes, that's true. And I think I owe a lot to that, actually. Being able to start having music classes from a very early age. I think for every Swedish musician, they are happy about this because they are able to, and it doesn't cost a fortune, and everybody can learn how to play an instrument.
Which instruments did you learn?
I was forced by my parents. They really wanted me to play the violin. Not forced, but it was negotiated. My mother really wanted me to play the violin, so she said, "Oh, you can pierce your ears if you start playing the violin." I really wanted to play the piano instead. We agreed on the violin, plus piano. Then I got some really nice earrings. I started with that and I think my music teacher understood pretty quickly that I was more interested in the piano, so the violin thing slowly [went away]. Maybe I played for eight years, probably, but then we played more and more piano so that's what I played during school time.
How did you get into playing anything that wasn't classical music?
I played classical music and a bit of jazz during school, but I think it was probably my brother that lead me into a different type of music from the start. My older brother, I always looked up to him very much, and he listened to a different type of music. I don't know, when I started to find an interest in the type of music I make now, I think it was when I first heard My Bloody Valentine and the Loveless album, because I had never heard anything like that before. I froze when I heard that album. That was the best I had ever heard, and I fell in love immediately.
There was something about those harmonies and their way of combining distorted and weird sounds with very beautiful melodies that I felt was really for me. So that was my turning point, because before that, I had been listening to regular, radio, pop kind of music. But that was the first time I heard something that truly changed what I started to listen to.
When you were trying to create those sounds, were you playing guitar?
I started to play the guitar during school as well but I didn't take any lessons. I started playing in bands and I got this ugly guitar from my parents. This electric guitar I wished for for such a long time, and they got me this really metal kind of guitar that I started to play in bands with. When I started to create those sounds, it was on that electric guitar. Obviously with a lot of effects pedals and stuff, you can make beautiful and weird noises with a piano as well. But at that time, I didn't have those effects, and it's a bit difficult to make those songs with a piano. But yeah, that's where it started. I got an electric guitar and tried to figure out to make those crazy sounds.
You were using effects pedals pretty early on?
I was about sixteen when I started to play the electric guitar. It takes quite a while, and I come from this tiny, tiny place in the southern part of Sweden, where you don't even have effects pedals to buy. So it was when I first moved to Stockholm where they have a lot more things, instrument-wise, and where I understood that, "Okay, I will need tons of effects pedals to create those kinds of sounds."
Nowadays, and for this album, I probably had like ten different effects pedals connected to my synthesizers and guitar. But at that time, it was frustrating because I knew it wouldn't work with just a distortion pedal. I would need some more weird things to work with to create those sounds. It developed over a long period of time beginning with figuring out how each effect worked.
In that November 2011 interview with the Quietus, you mentioned Stina Nordenstam. When did you first hear her and why was hearing her music a turning point for you?
I guess I should have mentioned her first. [Her music] was my first turning point and not My Bloody Valentine, that came later. It was about the same thing that happened as with My Bloody Valentine. There was something with her voice that was really special, very fragile and coming from another musical world, if you like, when you grow up with classical music. The same kind of experience when I heard My Bloody Valentine, though that was one step further toward a more noisy kind of sound. But I learned that I really liked the nerve that she had.
In your interviews, it seems obvious you're a very private person. What motivated you to share your music with anyone at all?
That's a very good question because I'm a very solitary kind of person. I spend a lot of time on my own and it's been a huge step to actually release an album because when I was making this music, it wasn't my intention to create an album, actually. I've always been interested in making film music and working with music in a different way. I think that's because I am a solitary kind of person who freaks out standing on stage. It was a big step but it started more with a friendship with the owner of the label.
Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins, right?
Yes, exactly. I just ended up with a record deal and even if it wasn't my intention from the start, I felt like I wanted to do it anyway because suddenly I felt this urge that I wanted other people to listen to what I've been creating on my own in my tiny bedroom. It just changed the more I worked on songs. Of course we were very nervous to let go of a piece of music we made on our own and no one has heard it, and suddenly, with the release on Bella Union, I knew a lot of people would hear it. So it was kind of nerve-wracking. But I had an urge to release it anyway. And I'm happy I did.
How did you meet Simon Raymonde and come to work with Bella Union? Obviously the Cocteau Twins' musical connection resonates with your own work.
Exactly, exactly. It was a long time ago. I think it was back in 2007 when I first started talking to him on Myspace back when that was something people were doing. I just put some demos up there and that's when he contacted me. He wanted to hear some more, and we started to become friends and seeing if we could possibly work together.
It developed into a record deal, and they are a great label to be working with, and I'm happy it turned out that way. They're really beautiful people, and they really give the artist a lot of freedom to develop and do their own thing. That's really, really helpful. They are wonderful to work with in that way.
Until late last year or early this year you didn't play live shows. What have you had to do in order to be able to play music in the live setting and travel around the world?
We've had to make a lot of adjustments. It's a combination of me needing musicians, and they're not easy to find. Then dealing with my stage fright. I've always considered this some kind of bedroom recording thing, but obviously, I felt like, of course, that I needed to make this into a live thing. And I wanted to meet the wonderful soulmates that have liked the album and play for them.
It's been difficult and we haven't done many live shows yet, actually. Since I played everything on the record apart from the drums, we needed to be more people. I think we've done not more than thirteen shows so far and it's been a different set-up each time with new people because people have jobs.
It's been a very good experience, as well. I wasn't finished with the album when I had to be finished. So I feel like I've been given a second chance to make new versions of the song as well, so it's been both a struggle when it comes to logistics and finding people to play with live, but, like I said, it's been a second chance to change the parts I didn't like about the album and to make better versions than the album versions.
For this upcoming tour, are you bringing some Swedish musicians with you or hiring musicians from where you're playing?
We were going to play with some American musicians from the start but at the last minute they had some promotional things they needed to do at the same time that conflicted with this tour. So we will be four Swedes going. This time, it will be the same set-up we've done for two shows. We have four synthesizers so we'll see how it works. They're all old, analog synthesizers that we're bringing that weigh like thirty kilos. They kind of work when they want to.
This guy Christopher plays a synthesizer, but he's handy with fixing old gear, so when some synthesizer breaks down, he's there and can fix them so that's good. A technician is necessary when working with this old equipment. We have another guitarist as well and we've found a drummer.
Obviously, I would like to have a set-up with six or seven people, but it won't be economical to bring more people. It will be different from the album, but I hope people will enjoy that and it's not going to be like pressing Play on the album. They'll get different versions of the songs. I really hope they'll like it.
On your bio for Bella Union, it talked about how you taped songs and then destroyed the tapes and worked on Hearts for three years? Why did you scrap those early experiments and what did you learn in taking three years to record your album?
That's true, actually. First of all, it was my first album, and I was new to the whole recording process. It was very much a learning by doing process. I recorded demos at home at first and then thought maybe I confused these recordings and felt like I needed to record them in a proper studio. So I went to Poland to a studio there with some crazy people. The power went off several times, so we had to close down for several hours until the power went on again and we could continue. Then I came back with those recordings and didn't like them at all. So I lost the nerve you get from those first recordings.
The music is so much about the vibe and the atmosphere, it didn't feel right. Maybe people would have liked that more than when I started over but for me it didn't feel right even if they were more technically better or sounding. But it didn't have the vibe I was after. So I [recorded] an album again, and by then, I'd played those songs so many times I got tired of them and wanted to change. I think I did ten arrangements of each song, and felt like I was never going to be able to finish it. It was a lot of tearing my hair and tears. But then it came to a point where I just needed to finish. Hopefully I get a chance to make record number two and now I just need to let this one go. I just finished it and started working on new songs.
I worked full time at that time, as well, so it wasn't only that I was working on this album for those years. I had to combine it with a rather energy draining job in human resources. It was finding the moments to relax from that job and finding the inspiration to sit down with this. The combination of those things is when I synthesized what I wanted to do. That's why it took so long. I find it very difficult, when it comes to music, when I write a piece, I seem to want to fix it and change it several times and make new arrangements.
It takes a lot of time because I hardly ever just sit down with only the piano or the guitar and write songs from start to finish. I start with making some noises and develop the songs around that. Maybe that takes a little more time to do it in that way because you have already set the mood and then a lot of pressure comes to finish the song even when we've been working on the sound for a long time and it needs some structure as well.
When it comes to structure, I'm not there yet. But I seem to be working differently with the new songs and let them go and not listen to them a hundred times to find something more I could develop. We'll see how the new things sound. It's less stressful, at least, to working that way than to try to change every single little thing and never be happy anyway. I'm trying different ways now so it won't take another three years to do the next album.
Referencing that Quietus interview again, why do you consider people who come to see your music as "soulmates" rather than fans?
I don't like calling them fans. If they have found something in this music that they like, I really feel that they are soulmates. I could never call somebody a fan. I think I discovered the proper word for those people.
In various interviews you embrace supposed imperfections in your music and a kind of lo-fi aesthetic. What about that sort of thing appeals to you?
The lo-fi thing? I don't know, I've always been drawn to that. I was talking to someone two days ago about how I love bands like Dirty Beaches. The warmth, I've just always loved that sound and at the same time I can appreciate, I don't want to say "well-produced" because it's "well-produced" if you can appreciate the music, heavily produced music as well but there's something I instantly love about lo-fi-sounding music. I guess it's the sound of the old tapes. You can hear it in there.
I've also always loved when the sound of the tape pitch bends a little bit. The warmth of those recordings and the nerve I really like. But at the same time I can love the great hip-hop because I love many different types of music. If I had had the knowledge, I would have made this album even more lo-fi, I think. It's in the middle somewhere with this album. It's an ever-evolving process, learning to present the music you make in the best way.
I was talking with a friend two days ago and it's difficult to put to words on why you always like that special sound. I didn't come up with anything good but talking with my friend, it was an instant love affair with lo-fi-sounding songs. But it's not only the sound. Dirty Beaches has really great songs as well. There's a special nerve in the vocals. I really can't explain why but I love it, it's as simple as that.
A number of journalists have remarked on the cinematic quality of your music. Are there particular visual artists and directors whose visual style you feel resonates strongly with your musical endeavors?
I really love Wim Wenders, the German director. I've been very inspired by his films. Wings of Desire is so inspirational to watch and I immediately want to sit down and make my own music for that film. There are lots of other ones as well. [But] there's something very poetic [about his films]. Even if not many words are spoken it leave so much more to the audience's imagination, even imagine themselves in the movie.
But mostly it's the poetry of his movies. The colors and the moods. Generally I love films that leave a lot to the imagination for people watching those movies. Also that they don't explain every single thing. In that film there's very little music and the music that is there is super. I like mood-setting films.
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