Interview: The Embassy

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 09.04.12 in Interviews

Life In The Trenches


[In honor of his new album, I Know What Love Isn't, we asked Jens Lekman to take over eMusic. All this week, you'll be reading both Jens-assigned Reviews of the Day and interviews commissioned, at his request, with some of his favorite bands.]

Embassies are funny places. They tend to be grand old buildings in posh residential areas, either surrounded by protective walls or doing their best to blend in with their surroundings. They are, above all, discreet — as though recognizing that there’s something odd, perhaps unseemly, about the arrangement by which they’ve staked out a plot of sovereign land in their host country. For most of us, they’re non-places: Who, besides diplomats, ever sets foot in one?

The Embassy, then, turns out to have been a particularly apt name for Gothenburg, Sweden’s Fredrik Linson and Torjörn Håkansson. Since 2001, they have acted as unlikely go-betweens in an ongoing, low-key summit between classic indie pop and breezy electronic music; influenced by bands like New Order and Belle and Sebastian, their music has a distinctly Anglophilic cast, but also an internationalist bent. A reading of Karl Marx underlies their critique of contemporary European capitalist society; you also get the sense that they’re followers of Groucho Marx — or, at least, his dictum that he’d never want to belong to any club that would have him as a member. Because, for the extent of their now decade-plus history, the Embassy have consistently declined to capitalize on their growing acclaim. Besides their two albums, 2001′s Futile Crimes and 2005′s Tacking, their catalog is thick with 7-inches and CD EPs that seem more interested in dodging and feinting than building a grand narrative, flitting between wistful pop and oddball disco and cutting up jangling guitars with jarring samples and sleek house beats. (A selection of those singles and assorted remixes is gathered on 2011′s Life in the Trenches.)

Throughout their elliptical career, however, the Embassy have been influential, particularly in their native Gothenburg. Pitchfork cites them as key predecessors of Jens Lekman, the Tough Alliance, Studio, Air France and jj, among others; reviews of the band’s records often describe them of being ahead of their time, painting the Embassy as unheralded patron saints of Swedish independent pop. Finally, however, they may be ready to receive their due. Seven years after Tracking, the Embassy are preparing a new full-length for release this fall. eMusic spoke with them about Gothenburg, their notion of “underclass disco,” and why lo-fi is for underachievers.

I just came from a visit to the American Embassy in Barcelona — well, the consulate, but close enough — so of course, my first question has to be, why did you call yourselves the Embassy?

Fredrik Linson: Don’t remember really. Guess it just felt fresh, catchy. A name you could say with pride.

What was the music scene like in Gothenburg when you were growing up? The bands that seem like they may have influenced you — New Order, the Smiths, Belle and Sebastian, Sarah Records, perhaps the Pet Shop Boys — were they easy to find in the city’s record shops?

Linson: Back in the late ’80s, when we were still too young to get in into clubs and bars, the Gothenburg music scene was very underground and experimental — rock music, art and occultism was mainly released by a label called Radium. Musically, it was hardly listenable, but you were affected by the alternative spirit. A few years later, Radium was gone, but loads of new bands had come up in the city, some of whom would become massive later on. It was a movement. I must say though — labels like Sarah and Heavenly were not highly ranked. We were just a small clique who were into that.

Of the music that influenced you back then, or simply captured your imagination, can you explain what it was that attracted you?

Linson: It is, of course, many moments and many attractions, but when I first saw a photo of Stone Roses, suddenly it was something deeper — like I was part of something. And after such a thing, I guess, there is no turning back. That summer I got some Joe Bloggs shirts and formed a band with a friend with instruments we didn’t know how to play. We quit a few weeks later, but that’s how it kind of started.

Torjörn Håkansson: Seeing Pet Shop Boys performing at The Tube on TV, like in 1986, my small-town ways were forever changed. Still a very good show, a good format. Time to start something like that again, take music seriously, create dreams.

From your first records until now, you have taken an unusual approach to genre. On a song like “Great Indoors People,” for instance, you balance a fairly traditional, jangle-pop sound with synthesizers and incongruous horn stabs. That kind of hybridizing may be more common now, but it was certainly unusual in 2002. Were you intentionally trying to fuse genres, or was it more just that those were the sounds that arose from the tools you had at hand?

Linson: Both. Our limitations are much of what we are, but it has also been very intentional. To make people look somewhere else. We can’t stand when it’s too conformist.

Håkansson: The late ’90s were all about being true to your genre and being successful. That’s the opposite of what we value.

I get the sense that you’ve never been particularly interested in lo-fi. Even on your early records, there was a real sumptuousness to your sound (those marimbas on “Sincerely Yours” — spine-tingling!) Where did your appreciation for hi-fi come from? Is that the disco side of you?

Håkansson: Definitely disco. We always worked with producers to get the sound we wanted. Lo-fi can be groovy, but you have to be Ariel Pink or Hype Williams to get away with it. Otherwise, it just feels unfocused and rockish.

Linson: The term lo-fi doesn’t appeal to me. It’s like you want to reach low.

Somewhere along the line, you got dancier. “That’s Meat Boys,” for instance, is a relatively purist house track, although your vocals set it apart. What changed? Did you start clubbing more, or playing more festivals with dance tents? I’ve noticed that your last album, Life in the Trenches, struck a careful kind of balancing act between “pop” and “electronic” music.

Håkansson: We hate festivals and tents, but love clubbing and are pretty good DJs. We’ve always been listening to dance music as well as pop, it feels natural to go hybrid. “That’s Meat Boys” is a remix and not made by us, and Life in the Trenches is a collection of non-album tracks. But you’re totally right, Tacking is more dance-oriented than Futile Crimes and the next record will be even more so.

I have a confession to make: I almost never listen to lyrics. It’s not that I don’t want to; I just can’t. They go in one ear and out the other. I think it might be neurological. With that in mind, how important are lyrics to your music? What am I missing out on?

Linson: I don’t know. I am kind of the same. Catch some lines here and there. I like good lyrics, can’t stand bad, opportunistic ones. But the words in the rhythm come first. Storytelling second.

Håkansson: Sound technicians often focus on the vocals, because they don’t know better. The relevant experience is to find the flow — that is everything. Vocals, bass, beat, guitar, melody… everything has the same value in our world.

Tell me about your Tumblrs — Embassy Classics, Flesh of My Flesh and Hip to Hate. They seem cryptic in the extreme, with these koan-like phrases: “Prelude to rave,” “Elan vital,” “Cambari bitter,” “exploring the notion of lived time”…They’re not your typical band websites.

Håkansson: It’s stuff thats gets you going through the day. Might be a tune, a line, an idea, a video. It can be explanatory or cryptic, taken out of context — there’s no standard style here. More of a memory board, really.

Can you talk about your notion of “underclass disco?” How important is class consciousness to your music in general? And is your position unusual for Gothenburg, which I understand is a fairly prosperous city, or does that kind of class consciousness run through the indie/DIY scene in general?

Linson: There is very little class consciousness in Sweden in general. I think people still associate class with how much you earn, and as you might know, Sweden managed to erase much of those differences during the last century. So the common opinion is that class doesn’t exist here anymore. But, of course, it does play part in people’s lives and opportunities, and maybe more than ever in an individualistic era.

Our “genre” might not be that politically ambitious; it more came from our attempts to play disco without knowing how to do it, and [our belief] that that not is a problem, but that it hopefully might lead to something new.

You had an album last year, after a six-year delay, and now there is another new one on the way. You don’t usually work this fast. What changed?

Håkansson: We split up after Tacking; there was nothing more to say. Fredrik had a new band called the Crepes and I moved to L.A. Bad decisions really, but it created a void and some longings.

In interviews, you have criticized the “careerism” that’s rampant in the music scene. Now that you’ve been doing this for a decade…has it become a career? How do you fight against getting too comfortable, especially the more heralded you become?

Linson: We’re not the ones getting comfortable. And it’s not like that in Gothenburg. No one’s a legend. People laugh at each others’ mistakes and failures.

Air France told Pitchfork, ” I don’t feel there’s a community or a scene here [in Gothenburg], which is really liberating. With a community, there’s rules, hierarchy, all these things I can’t fucking cope with. It turns people into morons.” Do you agree with that assessment of Copenhagen? Has Gothenburg continued to be a supportive place for you to make music?

Håkansson: There’s never been a community or scene in Gothenburg, but some key individuals that were very good at what they were doing worked there at the same time. Generally, I don’t know about scenes in the post-internet-era, do they exist? It feels more like a construct for tourists, like Brooklyn.

Linson: It’s not a supportive town in that sense, and I agree with Air France that that is a liberating thing. Local politicians and the business sector don’t care what’s going on, therefore you learn: 1) You will never be anything with music, and 2) you’re free to do whatever you want.

Given that Jens Lekman selected you to be interviewed by eMusic, what can you tell us about your relationship with him? He came up after you, I take it; how did his music affect your own (if at all)?

Linson: He’s a great and truly inspiring person. I think of him more than I listen to his music.

Finally, what can you tell us about your upcoming album?

Håkansson: It’s a brotherhood record. We made it for each other.