Archive for April, 2012

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

"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."

- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being