At some point a few a years ago, a Swede named Marcus Joons took a trip to Samoa. When he went and how long he stayed and why he was there are details of little importance. What matters is what he heard on the Pacific island (local Catholic choirs), how that made him feel (awed, inspired) and what it prompted him to do upon returning to Scandinavia (start making music with Daniel Tjäder of the Radio Dept.) This is the origin story of Korallreven, and as far as these things go, it’s a pretty nifty one.
It’s also fairly unnecessary. Yes, it makes good copy, but following in the wake of Studio, Air France, Pacific!, and jj, is anyone batting an eye at a Swedish act making sun-kissed electro-pop with tropical vibes and balearic flourishes? What does matter, however, is that Korallreven do it very, very well. The duo’s full-length debut – the inventively titled An Album by Korallreven – is beautiful and entrancing, not to mention understatedly ambitious in the wide range of styles (dub, dreampop, Polynesian choral, trance) and instrumentation (huge drums, acoustic guitar, 808s) tastefully pulled under its big tent.
And if we choose to judge someone by the company we keep, then Korallreven is particularly hip by association. “As Young as Yesterday” and “Sa Sa Somoa” feature vocal assistance from Victoria Bergsman (The Concretes, Taken By Trees, do-do-do-do-do-do) and Brooklyn songstress Julianna Barwick, respectively, and the creative minds that have lined up to remix those songs include Panda Bear, Girl Unit, Elite Gymnastics, and Studio’s Dan Lissvik. These are not shabby endorsements.
The act visits the Black Cat this Monday, the second stop of a brief U.S. jaunt that we’re flattered includes DC. In anticipation, we checked in with the globetrotting Mr. Joons to talk about his Korallreven’s past, present, and future, and what it all means. Literally: what does “Korallreven” mean?
BYT: Korallreven performed live for the first time a few months ago. Were there any challenges you faced when bringing your music to the stage?
MJ: Yeah, I mean, we just dreamt up an album, it was all about the album, and now we’re here, playing all around the world. It’s surreal. I had never ever even been standing on a stage before, so after one show in Copenhagen and one in Malmö, to go up and sing in front of like 700 people or so in Stockholm felt kinda surreal. But we made it, and I almost fell into trance up there. I hope to get there again in the U.S.
BYT: What kind of set-up are you bringing over?
MJ: It’s me on vocals, Daniel [Tjäder] on keyboards, his brother Niklas on guitar and drums, and then Jamie Harley on visuals.
BYT: There are a lot of elements that float in and out of Korallreven’s music: live instrumentation, samples, programmed beats, synthetic noise. Any one of your songs seems like something you could endlessly tweak. How do you know when one is done?
MJ: It may look or sound like that – haha – but we usually know exactly where we want to go with a song, and then we take it there pretty quickly. Then, to not get bored, we often think up what would be the total antithesis to the first idea and then, after that, I feel that we sometimes reach the magic that we’re after. So, 1 + 1 = 3
BYT: How did you end up working with Victoria Bergsman and Julianna Barwick?
MJ: Victoria is one of my dearest friends with one of the most beautiful voices this side of the universe. She really digged the tracks when I played them for her and it just felt natural that she should sing on them.
And Juliana. I had a real dark summer last summer and the only thing that I could listen to get rid of my black feelings was Julianna’s vocal loops. It really calmed my fucked up thoughts down. Then I went to see her live at a small place in Brooklyn and talked a bit with her afterwards. She seemed to be super lovely so I sent her a demo with “Sa Sa Samoa” and asked if she wanted to sing on it and she said yeah. Easy.”
BYT: Who would be on a wish list for Korallreven collaborators? These can be tangible options or slightly unrealistic dreams.
BYT: You’ve cited the Catholic choirs in Samoa as inspiration for Korallreven. Where were you encountering these groups? What about them captured your interest?
MJ: It had nothing to do about religion. Their chanting was just so over worldly beautiful. That’s all I can say. True beauty can only be experienced.
BYT: You and a number of your Swedish compatriots – jj, Tough Alliance, Air France – get grouped together as “escapist” pop, specifically as music that evokes warmer climates and seasons. Is that a categorization you agree with? Why do you think such a current runs through Swedish culture?
MJ: Sorry, but I don’t have a clue. And, to be honest, I don’t know if we have anything in common with these groups more than that Henning [Fürst], who used to be in TTA, and Joel [Karlsson] in Air France are my friends. I feel more related to, say, Animal Collective and their take on music than anything Swedish.
BYT: Your mixes have revealed an appreciation for a wide range of music, including big commercial pop songs. What’s been on the Korallreven iPod lately? Anything potentially surprising?
MJ: I don’t know if I can surprise you when you are waiting to be surprised – haha – but I haven’t had that much time to listen to new stuff. The new Bural release is pretty good, especially the track “Loner”.
Apart from that, I have mostly listened to soca music. I kinda hate genres, but soca music must be one of the most overlooked music genres in the so-called Western world. When I was in Saint Martin – a tiny French/Dutch island in the Caribbean – last summer a girl called Destra Garcia was on the radio all the time. Such ecstatic and such beautiful melodies at the same time.
BYT: Your reworking of Britney Spears’ “Til the World Ends” received a lot of love over here this summer. Has it lead to any interesting remix offers?
MJ: Yeah, for sure. Some very, very big names have asked us about it and we have said yes to some. You’ll see real soon!
BYT: What’s been your favorite remix of a Korallreven song?
MJ: I truly love the brand new Elite Gymnastics remix of “Sa Sa Samoa”.
MJ: It’s rave-y, it’s dream-y, it’s old school, it’s the new school, it’s Whitney, it’s lovely.
BYT: What is the concept of the “Sa Sa Samoa” video? I mean, I totally get it, but for all the readers out there…
MJ: Sometimes you just have to leave everything and get out in the wild, wild, wild beauty that’s nature. At least you have to take a quick peek before we have destroyed it.
BYT: What does Korallreven mean? That is to say, the origin of the word, not the existential meaning of the band.
MJ: It is “coral reefs” in Swedish.
BYT: Can you help us with the pronunciation?
MJ: It doesn’t matter, but please come to our show in DC and I will teach you Swedish all night!