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Catching up with Fenster

The first time JJ Weihl and Jonathan Jarzyna met, they ended up playing around a friend’s kitchen table late into the night. And from there, things just started falling into place, including a window, which shattered on Weihl’s head during the whirlwind eight-day recording process, earning the Berlin trio the name Fenster (or “window” in German).
Here’s an interview I conducted with Weihl an Jarzyna about the early stages of their music and their debut album, Bones. Pieces of this interview made it into my Song of the Day write-up for Fenster’s “Oh Canyon” for NPR Music, so be sure to check that out, too.
How did you guys first meet and what made you decide to start making music together? What were the early stages of the band like?
JJ Weihl: The first night Jonathan and I met, we ended up in someone’s kitchen playing music with a bunch of dudes til dawn. It was a pretty natural collaboration. First we started busking together – playing Johnny Cash covers in bars to save some money and build up a studio. We started showing each other song ideas and found we really liked each other’s stuff.

Jonathan Jarzyna: We started playing together more frequently, writing new songs and arranging older song ideas together. In January of 2011, we decided to ask our friend Tadklimp to come record us. That’s when things became more focused and serious I guess.

What made you guys decide to settle in Berlin over Brooklyn?

JJ: We all live and met in Berlin and it’s the city where Fenster began.  It was never really a question. I’m from New York City but I’ve been living in Berlin for the past three years.

Jonathan: I grew up in Berlin, and Rémi [the band's drummer] and I had never even been to the US before this last five week tour of ours which just ended. I mean, we loved New York but it’s not the easiest place to survive as a musician. We have a great and extremely inexpensive studio here and it’s where we’ve kind of grown up together as a band. We have plans to go back to the states, but Berlin is definitely a good base to have.

“Fisherman” by Fenster:

Is “fenster” German? Where does the name come from and what does it mean to you?

Jonathan: Fenster means window in German. We liked it because it’s sort of empty – just a view or portal to something. And a window fell on JJ’s head and shattered during the recordings of our first album, Bones.

JJ: I guess it’s something you usually ignore; it’s benign yet dangerous, apparently…

Could tell me more about the song “Oh Canyon”? The lyrics are kind of muffled, and once I saw them written out, I was surprised. For a song that sounds so upbeat, it’s kind of dark! What’s going on? 

Jonathan: “Oh Canyon” is about a loser with nothing to lose.

JJ: While the music sounds fairly innocuous, the lyrics beg to differ  “I’d stop the world to watch you fall/I love it when you’re low/ I’d hold the knife that cuts the rope/ I love it when you’ve broke.” The contrast between the music and the lyrics is meant to accentuate the song’s Schadenfreude - like, let’s have a party while we watch you suffer.

Where do the lyrics come from? What inspires you guys in the songwriting process?

JJ: I think we’re inspired a lot by dreams and cities. The way sounds collide with the unconscious – ghosts and traffic and the way some stories only make sense while you’re sleeping- but if you write down those fleeting images, you can still make them walk around in the daylight. 

Is this the first album for both of you or did you have previous musical projects? What was the recording process like? How did recording so quickly shape the sound of the album? Do you wish you had had more time in the studio?

Jonathan: I’ve been in lots of different bands over the years – some bands that toured and recorded a few records and some bands that fell apart before they really got started.

The recording process of Bones was super intense. JJ and I took a month before the recordings even started to make pre-recordings of all our song ideas – like little maps or sketches with musical arrangements and low-fi recordings. We asked our producer Tadklimp to come record the album, but we only had 8 days so we knew we had to be fast. We barely slept, and when we did sleep it was mostly in the studio, but we knew in advance what we wanted so it didn’t really matter how sleep deprived we were. Of course there is always room for happy accidents to emerge like small riffs, or outside noise infiltration – and we wanted it all to be included in the album.

JJ: We like imperfections and errors, so with the skeletons of the songs firmly in place, we allowed ourselves a bit of ornamentation.

I think the fact that we knew we would have so little time made us do a lot of preparation, and to distill our aestehtic at a very early stage in the recording process. Having too much time to prepare or re-work things can be a trap – it seems that things get better or evolve, but really initial ideas and instincts can just get muddier. So I think it was fortunate that we gave ourselves constraints and deadlines. Excess for us often leads to confusion, while limitations can ultimately grant us clarity.

“White to Red” by Fenster:

Listen Up!: 2012 So Far

The weather is just starting to warm back up again, but much of what I’ve been listening to so far this year has been a bit on the glum side. I’ll start with those and work my way to sunnier territory.

Perfume GeniusPut Your Back N 2 It [Matador]
Mike Hadreas continues to wow me with his sophomore album, which proves to be just as harrowing as his debut. Though Hadreas often covers dark emotional terrain (suicide, identity issues, addiction, homophobia), he does so with amazing grace. When he sings, Hadreas seems to somehow cleanse both himself and anyone within earshot.

“Dark Part” by Perfume Genius, live at the Mercury Lounge 4/2/12:

Orcas, s/t [Morr Music]

Given the backgrounds of its two members – hazy ambient dream popper Thomas Meluch (Benoît Pioulard) and post-minimalist composer Rafael Anton Irisarri, Orcas sounds a lot like you might expect, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. Good ruminating music. Someone get this for me on vinyl.

“Pallor Cedes” by Orcas:

Grimes – Visions [4AD]

Grimes was one of the only artists to literally make me stop in my tracks at SXSW last year… or as one friend put it, “I want to stop listening, but I can’t!” Thanks largely to her Muppet-like voice, Claire Boucher’s strange, experimental music feels both cringe-worthy and addictive. But whether you take it or leave, Grimes’ sound is as uplifting as it is infectious.

“Oblivion” by Grimes:

Fenster, Bones [Morr Music]

Fenster, meaning “window” in German, is a whimsical pop trio from Berlin with a dark side and a pension for Schadenfreude. For weeks I didn’t listen to any other album. They have the sparse lo-fi quality and male/female vox that made me fall in love with The xx a few years back… but they also have a warmth that the latter seemed to lack. I just interviewed founding members JJ and Jonathan. Look for that in the coming weeks.

“Oh Canyon” by Fenster:

Is Doo-Wop Dead?

A couple of months ago, I poured over an article detailing the decline of doo-wop with interest. No, I’ve never been a connoisseur of the genre, but it always brought a smile to my face when I heard one of The Ronettes or The Temptations. In fact, those dulcet girl groups and foot-tapping melodies seemed to be creeping up with increased incidence. Hearing a little doo-wop between sets at a trendy indie show is certainly not unusual.

So, in this – the very age of nostalgia – why isn’t doo-wop more popular? Are we simply too cynical to accept it? Might it still have its turn for a comeback? And how do you measure the vitality of a genre? Does it have to keep churning out new artists and producing new music for it to be “alive”?

If you’ve got answers, I’d love to hear them.

In the meantime, here’s a modest little compilation of some of the essentials. Maybe it won’t be enough to rekindle an interest in the genre or to launch a new era of doo-wop groups, but as long as these songs continue to net hundreds of thousands of plays on Youtube – a site that seems to be a far more popular source of boobs and baby animals – the genre hasn’t breathed its dying breath just yet.

“Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals

“Who Wrote the Book of Love” by The Monotones

Fiona Apple… finally!

“Yes! 1996!” Someone joked as Fiona Apple walked out on stage at the Bowery Ballroom last night. Actually, try 1958.

Here’s Apple singing “It’s Only Make Believe,” a Conway Twitty cover:

Full write-up to come on Brooklyn Vegan.

Chamomile Tea and Crème Brûlée with Sea of Bees

I regularly get download links for new albums, but few have excited me more this year than the link to Orangefarben, the sophomore album by Sacramento native, Jules Baeziger of Sea of Bees. What was the story behind the odd album title? Had she retained the wide-eyed naïvety that made her debut, Songs for the Ravens, so sincere?

Sea of Bees (Photo Gabriella Clavel)

I had the chance to hear Jules play a few of her new songs at Pianos in February. Then following the show, we headed out to The Pink Pony, just a few doors up on Ludlow, to catch up.

“I love this place!” Jules said as we walked in. We settled into a small candlelit table along the wall. And, after surveying the menu, we decided on a couple of cups of chamomile tea and some crème brûlée to share. It had been a busy week for Jules, but even after playing eight nights in a row, she was still in high spirits. “I thrive off of how people in the audience are,” she explained. “So sometimes, even though my throat hurts, I still just give it my all because you’re sharing something so important, and something so fragile, and you want to show the true passion. It’s important.” And it’s this passion and zeal for life that seems to animate Jules – both as a singer/songwriter, and as a person.

Just then our crème brûlée arrived. There are people who are pleasant to their waitresses. And then there’s Jules. “Oh my goodness, thank you!” she said to our waitress. “That looks beautiful!”

The Pink Pony

From the first time I saw Sea of Bees play in New York, I knew there was something special about her. A few minutes into her set, and you think, “how charming.” Ten minutes later, and you can almost picture the two of you riding bikes down sunny streets together.  She draws you in with her child-like wonder, candid banter, and complete sincerity. If a bird happened to land on her shoulder mid song, you wouldn’t bat an eye. She’s that kind of person.

But it wasn’t easy for Jules. Growing up in the church, she struggled with her attraction to girls and grew unhappy. “Actually, if I’m being really honest, I thought before I met John [her friend and manager]… I thought I wouldn’t be here in life. I was suicidal before I met John. I was playing in a band for a bit, but I was like ‘I don’t think I’m going to be here much longer if I can’t be in love and I can’t do my music. What’s the point of being here?’ [...] I didn’t know what to do! I didn’t want to work for nobody. I wanted to make music. I wanted to love a girl!”

The first time she picked up a guitar it was for a girl in church.

“I was 15? 16. She sang with her brother. I thought she was beautiful inside and out. Very frail. Loving. She and her brother had beautiful vocals together and they played the guitar. I want to do that. I want to express myself that way, passionately. I want to show her that I can do that, too. [...] I played one string on the guitar to learn it for like two years. It was very frustrating. And I’m not trying to be cool, ‘Ah, I learned on one string, here’s my story.’ I just wanted passionately wanted to do it. And it was work, but I was drawn to it, I think for a reason.”

“Do you remember the first song you wrote?” I ask.

“Yeah!” she laughs. “It was for her.” She starts to sing. “It was like, ‘I’m sitting in the corner, thinking about you. Thinking what you’ve done. How you’ve saved my soul.’” She drops the song, and shakes her head. “But it wasn’t about Jesus. It was about her. She saved my soul knowing that I could feel that way about a woman.”

Nothing ever happened with her childhood crush, but eventually, Jules met Lisa, her “Orangefarben.”

“It was pretty crazy. Because it took a long fucking time. And all of the sudden, there she is – at a table where I’m making coffee on the other side. She’s sitting there with her bowl haircut and her nice tight jeans and her salmon dressy shirt. Green pretty blue eyes. She’s looking at me like no one has ever looked at me before. She saw me that way. [...] So I looked at her and I was wearing this nice vintage outfit that day. You know, not the Partridge family – the Brady Bunch. And I walk in, and I start wiping down her table. [...] And the way she was looking at me, it was like her eyes would not stop looking into my soul, and I couldn’t shake it. It was so nice. [...] After that she wouldn’t leave me alone!”

“So wait. What does ‘orangefarben’ mean?” I ask.

“The color orange. It’s because when I first met her, actually that night when we held hands on the rug. We stayed in the whole night, and then we got hungry. And I was like, ‘There’s a co-op across the street, let’s walk to it.’ It was closing, but my friends kept it open and we grabbed some fruit. It was the only thing they could sell. So I grabbed an apple, she grabbed an orange, and we went for a walk outside because we had to leave. And she was like, ‘I can’t open this orange!’ And I was like, ‘Let me do it, let me do it,’ and we were laughing, and I’m looking at her and was trying to show off. Instead I ripped the orange, and it was bleeding all over my hands. I called her my ‘orangefarben.’ ‘You’re my apfel then,’ she said. And ‘apfel’ is German for apple. And it was just a wonderful story. I didn’t sing that song, but girl, I showed her my town, and we felt so strong and in love. She did, too. It but it was like a story in a movie, but beyond that because it was real. Yeah, it was wonderful.”

Sea of Bees (Photo Gabriella Clavel)

The two have since parted ways, but from the experience came the album.

“So it’s a break-up album, but it’s not sad or bitter,” I begin.
“No,” says Jules.
“But you know. For most people, it is those things. They don’t write about it like you do. So why did you approach it that way?”
“Because I love her very much. [...] She’s very important to me. I see some things other people don’t see I guess. [...] Everyone has a misery, but she’s too good for that. She’s too cool for that. I think every love is too good for that. She didn’t deserve that and neither did I. We deserved to be happy. We deserved to be encouraged. And why write an album that’s not fulfilling or full of life? And I want it to be full of life for her. You know, there’s always so much misery in peoples’ lives, including mine and hers, but we needed it. We needed love, and I think it’s true love.”

“So are you in love right now?” I ask, an unscripted question.

“Mmm I’m not in love right now. I’m learning to love myself. and be powerful to myself and know what I like, know who I am, know what I can do, know how far I can go. You know. Know all the details of me. I think love comes when you are least growing, and I think I’m just beginning to grow.” She pauses and looks over at me with a smile on her face. “‘Are you in love right now?’ Rachel!” She laughs.

“Ok. I have one more question for you,” I say. “Can you describe your perfect day for me?”

And because it’s Jules, her long, thoughtful response includes wildflowers, rings, a walk on the beach, making out, a nice bath, cooking, watching a movie, and talking. “That is a perfect day. That is a nice day right there,” she says. “No work no nothing. I have that day every day,” she says.

Here’s Jules playing one of her new songs at Pianos:

Reason #532 for living in New York…

Because at 2:00 p.m. on any given day you might receive invites from three different people inviting you to see a private show featuring The Shins.

Stepping into Le Poisson Rouge last Wednesday was a bit like stepping back into time. As I stood in the crowd, waiting for the show to start, I found myself looking around, half expecting to spot Natalie Portman lurking somewhere in the shadows.

Though The Shins had released two albums (and decent ones, at that) well before Zach Braff’s heralded Garden State soundtrack hit the ears of the mainstream-indie masses, much of the band’s rise can arguably be linked to this infamous scene:

“You gotta hear this one song. It will change your life, I swear.” (2)

And yet, it hasn’t necessarily been a smooth ride for the band. Shortly after they left Sub Pop in 2007, The Shins underwent a swift series of major structural changes, leaving only one principal member, singer/guitarist James Mercer, left standing.

The (new) Shins (photo courtesy of the artist)

But despite the change in line-up, as soon as I heard Mercer’s distinctive voice break into “Kissing the Lipless,” it was as if nothing had changed. It was surreal. The sound was tight, the energy, there.

“Simple Song” (the first single from their upcoming album)

“Saint Simon”

With or without Portman’s approval, The Shins are poised to be one of the better indie bands of the last decade… at least as long as Mercer is in the band.

The Shins’ new album, Port of Morrow, drops on March 20th on Columbia. Until then, you can stream a video – or just the audio – of Wednesday night’s show courtesy of NPR Music. (Clearly, the audio quality is much better over there.)

Set list
Kissing The Lipless
Caring Is Creepy
Simple Song
Bait And Switch
Saint Simon
It’s Only Life
September
New Slang
The Rifle’s Spiral
Australia
No Way Down
Phantom Limb
One By One All Day
Port Of Morrow


(1) Apparently, former keyboardist/bassist Marty Crandall agrees. “I would definitely attribute a lot of [our rise in recognition] to Garden State. That had a pretty huge impact. We saw double and triple sizes of crowds and sales of the first record. It multiplied our fan base immensely.”

(2) The Shins nearly did change my life, quite literally. On the way to see them play my freshman year of college, an aggressive 16-wheeler was inches away from careening into our navy blue Volvo station wagon on an overpass. (My only thought during my near-death experience was, “Oh come on, you’ve got to be kidding me! At least we could die after The Shins!”)

Bj​örk’s Biophilia

Björk – Roseland Ballroom – Febuary 28th

Eight screens with swirling white lights crowned the stage at Roseland Ballroom. Over in the shadows, the keys of an organ danced up and down as if each one were a sentient creature, sending muted melodies through the excited crowd. There was no opener – just a prerecorded introduction that resembled the kind of explanatory speech you might expect to hear at the entrance to a museum exhibit, delivered in a crisp British accent:

Welcome to Biophilia, the love for nature in all her manifestations from the tiniest organism to the greatest red giant floating in the farthest realm of the universe. With Biophilia comes a restless curiosity [...] In Biophilia you will experience how the three come together: nature, music, and technology. Listen, learn, and create. [...] We are on the brink of a revolution [...] until we get there, prepare, explore Biophilia.

And with that, Björk, along with no fewer than 20 back-up singers and dancers, made her entrance to ecstatic cheers.

Björk (photo Julieta Cervantes)

Her opening song, “Thunderbolt,” was electric to say the least… and not just because of the 6-foot long Tesla coil that generated miniature bolts of lightening in time to the bass line of the music. (Yeah, that happened.)

I confess I haven’t spent too much time with her latest release, but the live production was expertly executed, down to every twinkling note. More than simply an album, Biophilia is a wildly ambitious project that is at once organic and wildly innovative. Who else but Björk would think to release individual interactive apps for each of the songs on her album? And who else but Björk can make you care about transmuting proteins? Watching Björk excitedly circle the stage in her blue bubble outfit and fiery wig is not something I’ll soon forget.

Here’s “Hidden Place,” which features lovely backing vocals from the women’s choir.

As I watched Björk and the women dancing around wildly on stage, hair flying, fists raised to the explosive finale, “Declare Independence,” it hit me. I totally want to be Björk when I grow up. Fifty years ago, most of the artists we obsess over today will have long ago faded away. But Björk? People will still be talking.

"Raise your flag! Higher, Higher!" (photo Julieta Cervantes)

Set list
Thunderbolt
Moon
Crystalline
Hollow
Dark Matter
Hidden Place
Mouth’s Cradle
Virus
Generous Palmstroke
Sacrifice
Sonnets/Unrealities XI
Where Is the Line?
Mutual Core
Cosmogony
Solstice

Encore
Possibly Maybe
Náttúra
Declare Independence



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