In August of 2011, the three members of the Danish band Efterklang, dressed in survival suits, loaded a small recording studio worth of equipment onto an open boat docked on the island of Spitsbergen. Soaked by rain and rough seas, the boat pushed off into the fjord that separates the town of Longyearbyen from their destination: Piramida, a former Russian coal mining settlement abandoned by the state-held company that ran it in 1998.
In front of them: nine days in the cold, no human contact outside their small party and the threat of polar bear attacks.
"It was the longest boat ride I'd ever taken," says Rasmus Stolberg, Efterklang's bassist. "It felt like a very surreal and extreme way to begin making an album."
Spitsbergen is the largest island in Svalbard, an arctic archipelago about the size of Sri Lanka, 400 miles north of Norway's farthest northern tip. "It's a territory controlled by Norway, but it's not really Norway," Stolberg says.
Mads Brauer, who plays electronics for the band, says that starting from scratch on each new album is just part of Efterklang's process. Piramida promised the cleanest slate imaginable. There were no people in the town, just crumbling evidence of former occupants and their lives. The plan was to take recording equipment mallets to bang on whatever they could find, microphones and flash recorders to document the noises they made and return home with raw sound they could twist and turn into a new album.
A Ghost Town As A Studio
The thousands of miles between their adopted home of Berlin and an abandoned mining town halfway between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole might seem like a drastic length to travel, but the band members were inspired. For musicians obsessed with sound, Piramida offered unimaginable opportunities: to turn every object within sight into a musical instrument; to turn an entire town, in effect, into a recording studio.
"This place was quite optimal because we could kind of record a city without people in it," says lead singer Casper Clausen. "You can go to any other city and try and record, but there would always be some kind of sounds you're not in control of in the background."
Getting there wasn't easy. Access to Piramida is still controlled by the mining company that packed up and left in 1998, and despite emails, faxes and "a friend in Moscow that went and knocked on the door," they heard no reply. Finally, a German documentary crew who had permission to travel offered them a ride.
"Sitting in a boat like that with all of our equipment, going to this ghost town, not having written one song yet, everything felt so new and fresh and without direction," Clausen says. "In that sense it was a scary trip in many ways, I think."
After docking in Piramida, there was nothing to do but wander, collect sounds and worry about the polar bears, one of three land mammals native to the island. One of the reasons for taking the trip, Stolberg says, was hearing that the world's northernmost grand piano sits in the town's empty concert hall. But most of the instruments the band found weren't designed with music in mind. The trio began exploring the abandoned warehouses, playgrounds, residences and courtyards, banging on corrugated metal siding, lamps and fuel tanks. ("When you're up there for nine days, you get to hit on a lot of metal," Stolberg says. "After some days, all these start to sound the same to you.")
Some objects they found had an innate musicality. Clausen recorded his footsteps while running on a long boardwalk, which would later become the beat for one of the songs on the album. He crawled into pipes and sang, his clear tenor multiplying into a ghostly choir as it bounced off metal walls. A fuel tank, half full of water and covered in spikes to hold insulation that had long since rotted away turned into a giant percussive instrument once the band discovered that each spike had a distinct tone. Once they taught themselves to play it, it sounded a little like a kalimba.
New Sounds Out Of Old
Most of the sound Efterklang recorded in Piramida had to be treated in some way once the musicians returned home to Berlin taken apart and reassembled. Fortunately, that kind of thing is built into the band's process. (As well as its name: in Danish, "efterklang" means "after-sound," or reverberation. Talk to Stolberg about the trip, and he can't help but giddily bring up this bit of trivia.)
Reverberation also turns out to be crucial to the way Mads Brauer makes new sounds out of old ones. The finished songs on Efterklang's album, which the band named Piramida, have an epic, widescreen character, and it was Brauer's job to transform the dinky sounds of mallets hitting rusty metal into something that could communicate the scale of the place where they were recorded.
For "Sedna," a hymnlike song on the album, Brauer started with a recording he made after climbing atop an enormous, empty fuel tank: "There's this valve, and if you hit it with a mallet it almost sounds like a vibraphone." Brauer also lowered a microphone on a cable down through the valve, to capture the sound of the reverberation from inside the tank.
While the vibraphonelike noise from tapping on the valve disappeared in a couple of seconds, the sound inside the tank took much longer to decay. By cutting and looping a tiny portion of that decay, Brauer was able to make a sustained note with "a little movement in the sound." He then layered that sound with the decay from a note played on a piano. The combination sounded something like an organ. He programmed a keyboard to shift the pitch so it could actually be played like one, and picked out a melody around which the band composed and recorded the song.
The finished songs bring up a question: When you listen to the album, sounds like the manufactured "organ" on "Sedna" can fade into the dense fabric of the music. Some recordings made it onto the final album nearly untouched, such as the spiky fuel tank played on Piramida's opening track, "Hollow Mountain." But often, you don't hear the abandoned town at all. So why was it so important to make the journey there?
Stolberg calls the album "an abstraction." Brauer agrees. "[Piramida is] not a documentation of the place. It's just where we started. And the whole inspiration point of it is, in a way, just as important as the sound that we recorded."
Hein Bjerck has felt that same rush of inspiration. Now an anthropology professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Bjerck worked in the governor's office in Longyearbyen for three years in the late 1990s. When he first visited Piramida almost 20 years ago, it was still an active mining town with close to 500 inhabitants.
The Russians who worked and lived there served two-year contracts and rarely got to leave, but they had a good life, Bjerck says. They had a metropolitan mindset and dressed in furs rather than Gore-Tex. The town used residual heat from producing electricity to warm the buildings, which included a greenhouse, the concert hall with that grand piano and sports facilities.
"I remember I was there in the last years before the town was abandoned. I think I was one of the last ones that was actually swimming in the heated pool," Bjerck says. "It was fantastic."
More than a decade after the mining company packed up and left, Bjerck returned to write a book about the town called Persistent Memories: Pyramiden A Soviet Mining Town in the High Arctic, published in 2010 ("Pyramiden" is the Norwegian name for the town). He says he could see the remnants of a life of longing still hanging on the walls of the empty homes.
"There are many pictures of things that were lacking up there. Dogs and cats and rivers and nice woods and of course all their family that they're missing," he says. "Also, typically, an abundance of maps and pictures of airplanes that are kind of pointing from the town and back, and also calendars where you can see they were counting down the days in these two-year-long periods."
The members of Efterklang stepped into this place with only one thing worked out: They were starting, together, from zero. They had no songs, no structure, no album.
"We had a trip together, the three of us," Clausen says. "We started this off with an adventure to kind of formulate a starting point. And we found a lot of sounds, but we also sharpened our senses. I think that was the most important [thing] about it."
Sharpened senses to locate and carefully preserve the echoes of a slowly decaying city. Raw sounds became finished songs. Now out on tour, the band has come up with a third step in Piramida's progress: Live instrumentation and orchestral flourishes in new versions of the songs pull them further from the raw audio. Like the town it was named for, the album is an artifact of a place and a moment, once creative and thriving, now frozen in time.