Exploded View Feast on Discomfort and Ground Chick Peas
What a difference a half-decade makes. Working in concert with Bristol-based BEAK>, Annika “Anika” Henderson cut Anika, her 2010 debut album — a skeletal, singsong-y satchel of covers and originals — in a mere 12 days. The LP felt equally alien, familiar and out of time, a scuffed reinterpretation of numbers by Bob Dylan, Yoko Ono and Lynn Ripley. Stiff and stark and somewhat Nico-esque, Henderson’s vocals leaped out from the production’s knotted beats, guitars and synthesizers like a sigul in a black and white Magic Eye image.
Four years later, the U.K.-born, Berlin-based musician would spend weeks recording what would become a very different album in Mexico City with a new group of collaborators. A year later, they’d realize that they had something special on their hands, and a year after that, they’re ready to unveil it. “Gothic” might be the right watchword for Exploded View’s eponymous first album, though it’s home to a broad spectrum of darknesses: the muted, gorgeous “One Too Many”; mesmerizing drone-poem “Lark Descending”; the trundling, bleary bleep-sweep of “No More Parties in the Attic.” On “Disco Glove,” the quartet locks into an industrial, No Wave groove that suggests a badly wired, breakdancing robot; “Orlando” rides thermal, ascending / descending scales and shredded drums into a quasi-New Wave blaze of glory. And at the center of it all is Henderson, her vocals increasingly incisive, malleable and emotive — reminiscent, at moments, of Natalie Merchant in 10,000 Maniacs’ earliest days — and her sentiments insistently, painfully personal in almost political ways.
A few weeks prior to the release of Exploded View, we interviewed the band via Skype; early in the day they’d performed at the Green Man Festival in Wales, and we spoke just before they took the stage at the Exchange in Bristol, U.K.
How did Exploded View become a band?
Martin Thulin (drums/guitar/production): We’re actually on our way to becoming a band, you know? Because this actually started as a job, with us rehearsing for Anika’s gig in Mexico City in 2014. It happened very naturally, with us trying to recreate what we played together.
Annika “Anika” Henderson (vocals/synthesizer): Yeah! I like that; it’s true.
Exploded View has a monolithic sound that's multifaceted — sort of industrial, sort of organic, a melodic gloom but with a lot of colors. I’m aware that improvisation was key here, but this album was recorded straight to tape and has a very defined musical point of view. Was there a particular vibe that you were trying to capture?
MT: No, not really; I think it just happened. We just started playing, and I think everyone was doing their part. [Exploded View] is what came out.
AH: Yeah, there was definitely no aim. We were never intending on releasing anything; it was just jamming for the sake of jamming, playing for the sake of playing.
Hugo Quezada (bass/synthesizer/production): The intention was to adjust to the technical limitations we had — like not using more than eight channels.
In the lyrics, there are a lot of elements at play — politics, sociology, personality, relationship dynamics — and an intimate darkness that suits the music. But overall there is an encouraging self-awareness, pushing listeners to take stock in themselves. There’s pessimism, but also encouragement. What inspired this album?
AH: A lot of unresolved personal issues and anxieties. The band brought me to this place and helped me work through it — it was a very personal, intimate thing in that I wouldn’t have shared my deepest, darkest secrets with just anyone. Because it was the band, I was somehow able to do it. Some of the songs brought out certain things that I’d been struggling with for years. So, it definitely wasn’t a contrived album; it wasn’t trying to be political, but these were things that were on my mind and came out with the music.
I didn’t want to edit things. Hugo and Martin, when they were editing this stuff, they weren’t editing [words], but just cutting out sections of what we recorded. Some of this stuff, I felt like it was a bit too personal, a bit too close to home — and they were like, “Come on, come on, just leave it in!” It’s very rare that I feel that comfortable, that I’m able to write that freely. I wrote everything on the spot. I’m never aware of what I’m writing when I’m writing it; if I ever am, then it’s wrong.
Annika, you were previously a political journalist. Do you view music as another form of reporting?
AH: No, not really. I feel like it’s more of an artistic relationship with the world. It’s not just a reflection, but it’s a reflection through your eyes. Good, honest journalism should be impartial and it should be balanced, but as an artist you’re able to digest it and express it in a different way that’s more understandable for people.
You’re not just directly putting across events that happened; you’re working through the emotions you feel when you see these events, and hopefully in doing that, you can help other people get some kind of release. Music can be for enjoyment, to help you get through a breakup, whatever. I think with this album, personally, I was working through a lot of stuff; hopefully it can help other people. It’s very different [from] journalism. I am politically engaged, though.
"Disco Glove" is my favorite song on the album: this mechanized, grinding, clanking beast. How did that one take shape?
HQ: That song and “No More Parties In the Attic” were the first ones we actually recorded. We met at my place — I have a small, home studio in my house — and started fooling around with instruments. I just set up this really old sequencer, and we built things around that really fast, annoying click track.
Amon Melgarejo (synthesizer/guitar): It was like this through the whole album; we were reacting to what was happening. This was one of the two most “bad vibes” songs on the album.
AH: I found it quite painful to listen to! While we were recording, I hated it; that’s why I sound so stressed, kind of angry, passive-aggressive.
MT: For me, on the drums, on that particular song, I had one reference; it’s a song by Second Wave called “Courts or War.” They used a drum machine; I tried to play on the live drums as if I were a drum machine.
For each of you, what is your favorite song on Exploded View, and why?
HQ: I guess for me, my favorite one is “Stand Your Ground.” The day we recorded that song in particular, Annika was cooking some falafel.
AH: [Laughs] Really?
HQ: Yeah! I started playing some chords on the Mellotron, and then the bass for the whole song started coming. I remember very clearly that Annika came into the room with the falafel, and started singing this melody. It was a really beautiful moment, as friends and as musicians.
AM: For me, it would be “Lost Illusions.” We were playing all day, and everything was shit, and we’d played and played, and nothing came. Hugo went to his guitar, his head against the wall and started playing that woooooo-woooo-wooo melody, and all of us joined in. And it was the first time I realized that we had something. I really love the whole structure of the song.
MT: “No More Parties” is probably my favorite track, because that was not a track I was particularly keen on when we were mixing it. It was really frustrating to work with that song, because I thought the other songs were really easy to mix. We spent a long time on fixing the mix. When I listen back to it today, I can say that is my favorite track because it really worked out nicely; it’s nice when you have a song that you’re really frustrated with and you put in some effort to make it work. There are also a couple ballads, like “Lark Descending,” that I find extremely beautiful. The music works in a very pointed way with the lyrics; it’s like a painting.
AH: I also quite like “Stand Your Ground” because it was really the core of my issues, in their most uncoded form. It was the unconscious completely laid out there, complete vulnerability in a way where I wasn’t hiding anything.
When and for how long a time was Exploded View recorded, and what was the process like?
AH: It was at the end of 2014; I think I stayed a couple of weeks.
MT: It’s set up in Hugo’s house, which is also his studio, and we were the producers — me and Hugo — so we had a lot of equipment there. Everything was centered around this tape recorder, an eight-track, which limited the whole thing because we were recorded everything live. You really had to think about what you were doing because you didn’t have 500 tracks to do whatever you wanted. When you work like that, you have to work with the limitations; I think that was really important. The fact that it was recorded in a house with a kitchen made it more like an everyday thing; it wasn’t like going to a studio.
So, in a way, there was more humanity to it.
AH: This was more of a friendship; it wasn’t just a recording session. That’s what made it so special. Personally, I’ve been working with people in Berlin for two years, and I never really got that environment of trust. There were these strange scenarios that were very forced, and [there was a lot of] talk about money and when everyone was getting paid for the session; it just became very uncomfortable. What was nice about this session is that no one wanted anything.
MT: When we were recording, there was a lot of frustration going on within the session between the band; it’s really uncomfortable, not very nice sometimes, but it also makes it very special. I think that frustration is all over the record. Maybe now that we’re more comfortable with each other, that we’re friends, we don’t need to make another album the same way.
As a listener, I’ll say this is a strong, fantastic record. Even if it didn’t feel the best while recording it, everything came out great in the end.
MT: To be honest, we left it to rot. [Laughter] For several months.
AH: At least a year!
MT: When we listened back, we thought, “Wow, this is interesting.” To be honest, I didn’t expect anything. When I started working with it, we had some really cool songs. I was amazed that it turned out more song-based than long jams; I thought we’d just had really boring jams.
AH: It’s strange, because I really wasn’t comfortable with releasing it for a long time. It was only at the end of last year that we started talking about it again. I think sometimes when something is so close to home, it’s too personal; you don’t really like it. It’s only when you’re really through those traumas that you can see an album as something separate from yourself.
When you perform these songs now, are you taken back to what these sessions were like? Or is it completely different?
HQ: We try to regain the structure of the songs, but not the feelings, because everything is totally different. I guess we’re reinterpreting the songs.
AH: I don’t bring back that frustration because it’s not necessary. I’m through it, we’re over it, it’s not still there. We don’t need to relive that every time we play.
MT: I’m now the drummer of the band; I’d never played drums ever in my life before this record. We’ve been switching roles. Maybe something that’s different, when we play live, is that for good or for bad — I don’t know — I’m actually becoming a better drummer. That could be good or it could be bad, because one thing about the record is that it’s extremely sloppy. Like amateurs.
AH: But that’s cool — it’s post-punk. [Laughter]
Sacred Bones released Exploded View in early September.