Gothenburg-based sir Was (Joel Wästberg) will release his debut album, Digging A Tunnel, through City Slang on March 10th. A heady mix of pop, hip hop, soul and downtempo electronica, it is an album full of wonder and strangeness, idiosyncratically blending together varied rhythms and a rich tapestry of sonic textures.
Wästberg has a background in jazz saxophone and plays almost all the instruments on Digging A Tunnel, including drums, bass, keyboards, guitar, percussion, clarinets, and saxophone. He also has a surprisingly versatile voice, capable of producing falsettoed, heavily reverbed, ‘wall-of-sound’ moments that call to mind Jim James of My Morning Jacket (“A Minor Life”), before switching to the kind of drawling, conversational hip hop delivery (“Digging A Tunnel”, “Falcon”) that has made Beck’s forays into the genre so successful.
However, despite all the sounds, samples and textures on display – and there is truly a panoply, from live-sampled harmonica (“Bomping”) to extended monologues (“Revoke”), birdsong (“Sunsets Sunrises”) and TV announcements (“In The Midst”) – what is so impressive about this debut is its compositional assurance. With an almost Birth Of The Cool level of restraint, sir Was is able to manage the variety of the album with confidence and real authority. Despite all the backbeats, the detuned basses, overdriven guitars and other stray melodic lines on display, there is still a mature air of understatement prevalent throughout, bringing gravitas to this collection of songs, and announcing sir Was as a lasting and significant new voice on the indie electronic scene.
We caught up with sir Was to chat about his brilliant debut album, Digging A Tunnel…
You’ve said that you “ don’t care if 5 or 5,000 people hear [the album], as long as it comes out of my studio”… How is this attitude reflected in the songs? Are you referring to a sense of compositional freedom?
Yes, definitely. I made my album the way I wanted it to sound, and so I imagine people will respond to that how they like.
What are the 5 albums that have influenced you the most?
Weather Report, Sweetnighter
Dudley Perkins, A Lil’ Light
The Beatles, Best of The Beatles
You’ve done some studying in South Africa and travelling through Mali, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. How does this connection to the African continent come about? Was it a question of following opportunities, or did you specifically seek these experiences out?
A combination of the two. I had, for many years, wanted to go to Africa, and suddenly this opportunity arose. The university that I studied at in Gothenburg had an ongoing exchange programme with the university in Kwazulu-Natal in Durban, so that’s how I got to go there. From there I did shorter trips to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Years later I went to Mali with a friend’s band to play some shows and work together with some local musicians.
In a more general sense, how do you feel travelling has influenced your songwriting process? The album contains many diverse sounds and textures, including – I think – a field-recording conversation between yourself and a busker who provides the harmonica sample on “Bomping”. Are many of your songs inspired by your experiences in this same unique, direct way?
“Bomping” is the only song without lyrics. It’s more of a interlude type of a thing than a song. It think it’s often a combination of different things that add up to the song. I am not sure how it works out sometimes, but after a while there is a song.
Your background is in jazz saxophone, an instrument that begs to be played live (and usually within an ensemble). How have you found the shift towards solo electronic production, both in a personal and professional sense?
It’s been fun and interesting. I love to play instruments so I don’t do so much programming. More sitting behind the drums trying to find the “magical” beat for whatever I’m working on or sometimes it starts with something else, it’s different from time to time. Professionally, it just happened as I got more and more involved in projects that required less saxophone – so it was pretty smooth transition, I guess. I still play the saxophone and clarinet from time to time. I did a clarinet session just two weeks ago.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?
I dont know actually. I think about that sometimes. Maybe a bicycle messenger or a shrink, but my grades would be too low… so I’d say bike messenger.
Finally… In a perfect world, what is sir Was up to at this time next year?
He is a billionaire and lives in a big house with a big garden and has an amazing studio inside!
sir Was’s spellbinding debut, Digging A Tunnel, is out March 10th on City Slang.
Here is the album’s track list:
1. In The Midst
2. A Minor Life
3. Digging A Tunnel
7. Heaven Is Here
9. Leave It Here
10. Sunsets Sunrises