By Hannah Levin
For fans and creators of subversive, intelligent art, it’s almost impossible not to romanticize Berlin. Whether it is its contemporary status as>"/>
By Hannah Levin
For fans and creators of subversive, intelligent art, it’s almost impossible not to romanticize Berlin. Whether it is its contemporary status as a major hub of talent for DJs and avant garde electronica artists, or its legendary history as the geographical local that nurtured the collaborative efforts of David Bowie and Iggy Pop in the late ‘70s, the idea of an artist retreating there to create their magnum opus is undeniably seductive. For the four women who make up the edgy and experimental English rock outfit Electrelane, it was actually the architecture of Germany’s storied capitol city that informed the structure of their enchanting fourth record, No Shouts, No Calls.
“The initial decision to take time off to write in Berlin was quite practical, actually [keyboardist and vocalist Verity Susman was living there at the time], but we didn’t realize until we got there what an influence it would be,” says bassist Ros Murray via cell phone as the band leaves New York City for their gig in Boston. “It was the first time we've gone away from England to write a record. We were having a really nice time and it was summer... sort of a joyful experience. In Berlin you are always surrounded by so much space, the streets are really wide, and where our studio was it was out in the east, opposite Treptower Park. There wasn’t anything else around and it was an older building, right by the river, so we were always surrounded by a lot of space and big empty buildings. I think there's a sense of that space on the record, and definitely I think you can hear that it's our most positive album…that we were all enjoying ourselves in the process.”
Electrelane was born in 1998, out of the teenage friendship between Susman and drummer Emma Gaze. The pair bonded over a mutual appreciation of progressive Krautrock artists like Can and with the help of guitarist Mia Clarke, began building a wholly unique sound that smartly fused thoughtful, classical musicianship with improv-driven experimentation. Their affection for vintage organ sounds, and open-ended, almost entirely instrumental jams darkly colored their impressive, acid-tinged debut, 2001’s Rock It To The Moon. Things became a bit more concise and almost upbeat with their Steve Albini-produced 2004 sophomore release, The Power Is Out, and a few tours of duty on the European festival circuit began building their fanbase and cache of critical accolades. 2005’s Axes (also produced by Albini) landed somewhere between those first two efforts, building sinister and intricate walls of guitar, buttressing them with bright ribbons of keys and weaving in more of Susman’s delicate, silvery vocals.
After finishing their pre-production woodshedding sessions in Berlin, the band decided to try a new approach and checked into the Key Club Recording Studio, just outside Chicago. The small, intimate space run by husband and wife team Jessica Ruffins and Bill Skibbe has birthed some very notable underground successes, including records by the Kills, Six Organs of Admittance, and Fiery Furnaces. “It’s a really nice atmosphere there,” explains Murray. “It’s smaller than Steve [Albini]’s place and the whole thing just felt more intimate.” The resulting record is indeed more inviting than intimidating, with Susman’s Stereolab-evoking voice pulling the listener into a delicate, deliberately layered web of hypnotic guitar lines and celestial-sounding keyboards. There’s also the intriguing achievement of managing to veer seamlessly between wistful, somber requiems (such as break-up lullaby “Saturday”) and romantically optimistic pop moments (most stunningly on the album’s logical single, “To the East”).
While not a dramatic departure, it’s still a remarkably sunnier disposition that’s on display for a band that originally sounded much like a brainy riot grrl’s post-punk acid test. “It wasn't really deliberate, but the whole thing was a really positive experience,” says Murray, acknowledging their tendency to brighten the corners this time out. “Actually we didn't know at all what we were going to do before we got together in Berlin and started playing. I guess in some ways it was a reaction against Axes, just because we'd toured it so much, but also it just came out naturally that way.”