It’s really great when there’s a personalised e mail from a band in my inbox. One thing it proves to me is that they are interested enough to find out who I am, what I do and why they’re contacting me. Michael from Sepiamusic first added Cat On The Wall on Twitter and after we followed back he got in touch via e mail with a private link to a copy of their new album ‘Trenches’. Intentional or not, Sepiamusic sounded like a fantastic fusion of many artists that have graced my mp3 player over the years – think Sneaker Pimps, Lamb, Depeche Mode and Paul Oakenfold to name but a few. The fact that the tracks were a joy to listen to in terms of production sealed their fate so to speak. I promptly got back to Michael with an interview request, the rest, as they say, is history…
Cat On The Wall: For those of our readers who have yet to discover Sepiamusic, can you tell us a little about yourselves? How and when did you meet?
Erin Chapman: I moved to Copenhagen from the States about 10 years ago and met Michael through some friends and his brother. We were both in the advertising business at the time working as art directors. I found out through the grapevine that Michael had quit the ad biz to pursue a long-time dream of a making music and was looking for a female singer. I’d always had the thought in my back pocket and studied music in school, so I gave him a call. One thing led to another and after meeting a few times, we basically made a handshake agreement that we’d give it a go and see what would come out of it.
After a few months of writing some songs together, we ended up getting some luck with our demo tracks being played quite heavily on the radio in Denmark, so it was great incentive for us to keep writing and developing our electronic sound. Even today when I listen to our demo tracks from years ago, I can hear we really had some sparks firing back then and we’ve tried to creatively grow while still holding on to the core of sound that got us noticed in the first place. Michael and I have an interesting dynamic in that we both have a visual background, but grew up in completely different places in the world: me in a small town in northern Wisconsin, USA and Michael in the northern region of Denmark. We are both very visual – cinematically influenced people – with a love for intensity and beauty in music. Personality-wise, I’d say that we are like the tortoise and the hare – Michael being more focused on details and taking the time it takes, and I tend to be more spontaneous. It can cause us to butt heads from time to time but I actually think that makes for a good creative dynamic and something always good comes out of our efforts.
COTW: Prototype was your first album released back in 2003, Trenches, your latest release in 2009, took quite a few years to form. What happened during those years? Was it a conscious decision to take your time on the follow up to Prototype?
Michael Adler Miltersen: Yes. Way too long time between albums in our opinion as well. It was a combination of things. Actually, the first song written for the new album was Sweet Pollution. It came up as a demo right after the Prototype album was out. We created it as a quick demo/live version and played it live for the Prototype tour. The reason was that the whole experience of playing live made a significant change to our sound. Before playing live, we had only been a band working in the studio – constructing tracks and songs layer by layer – so performing the songs live was a different experience. We found ourselves feeling more at home with certain tracks from the the Prototype album, and totally lost in others. The slow, quiet acoustic songs were especially difficult for us live. So the live sound took us in another direction. And I think we also rediscovered what we were about, since the making of Prototype had been a journey to find our true sound.
After touring we took some time to breathe. We had to decide if we were going to make yet another album. That decision took some time and once we decided to go in the studio again we had to experiment a lot to find the new direction for the next album sound. Not leaving our old sound behind, but it was important for us to challenge ourselves for the follow-up of the first album. And we wanted to dig deeper into the core of our music, which we spend a lot of energy on. One of the reasons for taking so long is that we actually created hundreds of sketches before deciding which tracks would unfold and become full tracks. As time went by, we would keep seeing those songs/sketches in a new light, depending on the progress we had made with other tracks. And we were very keen on making an album with strong songs all together, not just album-fillers. So setting the bar high can also be time consuming. I am also very meticulous in my way of producing and mixing – especially for some tracks. I can’t stop tweaking.
We also experimented a lot with vocal sounds and feelings and this second album is a much better vocal performance by Erin. Some songs came easier than others and we reworked a lot of the tracks in the process, trying out “new styles” for them. The track Skin was originally a fast song before it became a more ambient guitar-driven track. Crazy Burn actually sounded like a cheap toy organ at some point, before becoming a synth explosion. The same goes for the lyrics: some came easy for us, while others went through 5-6 rewrites. After the album was done, I was mixing it for 2 months and finally went to New York to master it by one of the greats. But we weren’t satisfied with the result, and we decided to remaster it all again. In the same process, artwork and photos also had to fall into place and Erin was working hard on that. Kristian Boserup, who is our main designer, was dragged through the mud by us, to find the exact right concept for Trenches. We owe him big time! Finally, getting the album signed was a painfully long process too. We wanted to find the right “home” for the album and that took over a year of scouting and talking. It all added up and suddenly a great deal of time had passed. So the combination of being perfectionistic, DIY artists who are ambitious, selective and reflective – is not equal to having a speedy process.
COTW: A few remastered tracks from Prototype appear on Trenches. Why those particular tracks?
MAM: In the process of signing our current album “Trenches” to Quango, the label head Bruno Guez heard the previous album as well. There were a few tracks on there that he absolutely loved and wanted to reintroduce to the US audience. He wanted to put together the strongest album possible and asked us to include those tracks on his label as well. It was a bit weird for us because those songs were part of the past, but we couldn’t ignore the argument and decided to include them on our first official US release. We remastered them to make them fit the new album sonically. Since Prototype wasn’t exactly a big release, a lot of people are now dicovering Sepiamusic through “Trenches” and we’re happy they get to experience some of the best songs from Prototype as well. Not all the songs from our promo of Trenches made it to the US version of Trenches either. So we plan to leak a few new songs over the next year or so.
COTW: What’s the story behind the ‘Crazy Burn’ video? Where was it recorded?
EC: We originally had a different idea in the back of our heads for a video for Crazy Burn. But then we met the director, Thomas Busk, through our album cover designer, Kristian, and they came to us presenting a totally new idea. Basically, they wanted to follow the pure feeling of the music rather than the literal lyrics. They wanted the intensity to grow from peace and quiet into a wild frenzy and they wanted to show this through changes in weather/nature. We thought the colored rain idea was very cool (and also matched our album art) so we proceeded to work out details.
The video was shot in a birch forest just near Copenhagen’s airport. There are actually not many places in Denmark where birch trees grow in such a large amount in one space and the guys were specific with birch, since it would pick up the intense changing colors of the “rain”. Once we found the location, it led us to another obstacle: how were we going to make colored rain and how to make it change in color while out in the middle of a forest? We knew we wanted to do it as “analog” as possible. So after a lot of tests with paint/water mixtures and 2-3 tests on home-built water pumps thanks to my husband, Brian, we figured it out and went out and shot it all in one night with the help of a lot of friends. It was late October, mind you, so my lips really WERE blue toward the end… no make-up needed! (laughs) The final colour work and after effects were done by Lift in Chicago through even more friends. Thanks, friends…
COTW: How do you both work together with regard to the writing of the songs? What’s your creative process?
MAM: It seems to be the standard answer these days, but it varies a lot. We don’t often sit and write stuff together. It happened a few times, but we are not working traditionally in that way. We bounce off each other’s ideas instead. Sometimes Erin gets a melody or lyrics stuck in her head and we go from there. Sometimes I have some ideas roughly laid out on the computer. A beat or even the draft for a full song with melody and “bullshit lyrics”. It’s more experimental than traditional. But every song comes from a different place in us. We would like to think we have a certain sound throughout all our music, even though there’s a broad difference between some songs, like Skin to Crazy Burn.
EC: …and sometimes “bullshit” lyrics become the main theme that we keep. It’s funny how things often happen subconsiously.
COTW: Who or what inspires you artistically?
EC: My dad has always been a big antique collector and I grew up surrounded with a bunch of Wurlitzer jukeboxes. From the age of 2 or 3, I had free range to play (and dance to) all their 78 records as much as I wanted. I think this was the start of my interest in music. That, and I have always been a very emotional and vocal person – music for me was the perfect outlet for just about any emotion I could think of or wanted to feel.
I think my first taste of what I consider “early electronica” was when I became obsessed with the Moog solo in the song Lucky Man by Emerson Lake & Palmer and the trippy intensity of bands like King Crimson (also records of my dad’s). I couldn’t get enough of it at one point and that flipped a switch in me. It wasn’t until many years later that I heard Björk’s “Human Behaviour” and Air’s “Moon Safari” that I knew I loved this organic electronic sound on top of all the other old music I was listening to. That, and the trip hop wave came with bands like Massive Attack and Portishead. Those bands were what originally connected Michael and I to a similar taste in music when we first met.
MAM: It’s always hard to know where inspiration comes from. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. So what inspires me? I can be inspired by a simple sound while playing a synth. Some sounds can tell a story in itself. It can be agressive or yearning. Optimistic or sad.
But sometimes the idea comes first: A news story. A night out. A breakup. A memory. A movie or song.
Like, the song Skin is about intimacy. How sexual it can be and how difficult it can be. It can be a power play or the most beautiful thing. When one person is ready to go, the other person might pull back. Prototype is the typical song about being a misfit. Not a difficult song to understand, but it works. Heart Debris (from the old album) is about being out on a Saturday night and feeling that everything is “off”. How sometimes I can just feel emotionless and empty and have to pretend to care about other people, because I’m more absorbed in my own world. That might sound a bit dark, but it’s only interesting because it’s not usually the case (laughs).
Musically, I’m inspired by what I heard growing up as a teenager. That might sound obvious, but some people are more inspired by music from before they were born. I know a whole lot about music from the 1980s till today, but I don’t know the classics well enough. Funny thing is is that I was reminded about this the other night. I was at a dinner party with a fellow musician, and as always, music is the topic. He’s the kind of guy who has his entire appartment stuffed with vinyls. From floor to ceiling. Mostly from the 60s and 70s. He and I live in different worlds. Even though I grew up in a home with lots of music played by my mom and dad, my own insight in music started with bands like Depeche Mode, The Cure and New Order. When I was introduced to my first synthesizer from my music teacher at age 10 – I knew I wanted to be a musician.
So mainly electronic music was my big source of inspiration – and still is. Some of my favourite bands are Sneaker Pimps, Massive Attack, IAMX, Lamb, Ian Brown, Portishead, Depeche Mode, Leftfield, Goldfrapp, Imogen Heap, PJ Harvey, Martina Topley-Bird and Tricky. My favourite album of all time is “Splinter” by Sneaker Pimps. I think our sound is deeply rooted in a lot of these artists’ way of writing and producing.
COTW: There is mention of a possible tour, can you tell us any more about this? Is there anywhere you would like to play that you haven’t yet?
EC: We are currently working on getting the live show together and we really look forward to making it happen again. It’s been a while and it’s such a good way for us to connect with our fans. As for where: is “everywhere” a good answer? Over the years, we’ve gained such a worldly group of amazing fans and if we had a dime for every time one of them asked us when we will be playing in their country or city, we’d have enough money to actually do it! Personally, I’d love to play in the USA, since I’m from there and we didn’t get the opportunity the last time – I want to feel the difference between an American audience and the European audiences we’ve played for. But no matter where we play, we look forward to it.
COTW: Finally, what are your plans for the near future?
EC: More videos, live shows, new remixes & released tracks. More Sepiamusic love. We are constantly humbled by our ever-growing fan base so we of course want to keep them happy. But we also want to keep bottling all of our experiences and emotions along the way, so we’ve got something to pop open when it’s time to write new songs.
Interview by Jo Whitby