Interview by Shannon Lawlor
sgrow are an experimental electronic duo based in Oslo, Norway. Since 2013, Vilde Nupen and Kristoffer Lislegaard have released a debut EP, a remix album and two full-length LPs. sgrow’s sound can be best described as an ethereal blend of IDM, classical, glitch and post-rock, encompassing Nupen’s angelic vocal work around Lislegaard’s concise, textural production techniques. Drawing inspiration from a wide variety of influence, sgrow continues to, well, grow (for lack of a better fitting phrase), in incomprehensible ways, exploring the depths of experimental electronic music and clutching to the very thread of innovative composition.
On November 10th, sgrow released their sophomore album, and introduction to an ongoing miniseries titled Circumstance via No Forevers, which saw the duo advance on their already inventive, signature sound. Circumstance’s subject matter deals with self-discipline and control, or it’s scarcity of, coming from a self-reflective standpoint and portraying this through intimate and heartfelt atmosphere.
We spoke with vocalist and musician Vilde Nupen of sgrow on humble beginnings and brightened futures:
Could you give us some background on how sgrow was originally conceived?
The short version is that Vilde wanted to work with an electronic musician on her track ‘Mind Control’, to spice it up a little. The collaboration worked out really well and the song ended up becoming the opening track of our first EP, released in 2013. We’ve worked together for eight years now and we have no plans of ever not working together!
To put a cliche to rest – care to let us in on the meaning behind the name sgrow?
We’ll try to explain it without going into too long of a tangent – it’s kind of esoteric and a lot less interesting and mysterious than it sounds. We were working in the studio on a track, and had a small section of it on loop while perfecting some textural sounds. The lyrics of the vocal part in this particular section contained the words “is growing”. We listened to that loop for at least fifteen minutes straight and after a while it started to sound like one single, made-up word: sgrowing. After that we started to refer to that particular type of textural sounds as sgrow sounds whenever we used them. The word is kind of textural in itself and we took a liking to it, feeling that it kind of expresses or hints at what our sound is like. And so, it became our name. Norwegians can’t seem to pronounce it though, so at times we regret that we just didn’t call ourselves Boom Clap & The Unicorn Pony Tail Glitter Scrunchies or something.
Your latest album Circumstance is a rich excursion through an array of emotion – could you tell us about the recording process and how it may have differed from previous sessions?
We wrote, recorded and produced the album in Florence, Toronto, Oslo and Drøbak over 1,5 years. It was really cool to be inspired by the atmosphere of the different cities and try to let that influence the music. We take a lot of inspiration from our surroundings and it was a pretty big difference in scenery from making the beats in the metropolis of Toronto and then going on to record the vocals in Kristoffer’s parents’ boat house in the small city of Drøbak. Our debut album, Terrors and Ecstasies, was a collection of songs where most of them were songs we had made and played for years before deciding to record them. With Circumstance, we started fresh and thought about the whole thing conceptually. The seven tracks we’re releasing in November is the first in an album series consisting of songs created within the same time period and with related themes. In our opinion, this approach has led to our most focused and personal work yet. This is also the first album we’ve mixed entirely by ourselves, which we feel really paid off in making the album sound more personal.
Do you feel there are any key pieces of equipment, or any acquired techniques that may be essential to sgrow’s unique sound?
The laptop is an obvious one, with Ableton Live, Max for Live and the Soundtoys bundle being the most notable for the Circumstance tracks. Also, Mutable Instruments Clouds. We are extremely detail-oriented and fascinated with sounds and textures, trying to layer them in ways that will make the listener discover something new every time. That’s what we enjoy in other people’s music too. We do a lot of field recording, trying to find interesting sounds to process or create sampler instruments out of. We love to pitch elements up and down and process them with lots of effects. Then we resample that and do the whole process over again. A lot of our songs are constructed around samples of our other songs.
sgrow mixes together all kinds of genres, like electronica, IDM, post-rock and even some more subtle, ambient textures to create something original and distinctive. How much of your combined musical influence works its way into the music you produce?
Reading your question back, we would have to say a lot! But not every influence is as noticeable. We often use elements and sounds affiliated with specific genres, but we like to focus on blending different influences and creating something unique. In many cases our influences have more to do with how we approach songwriting, production and sound processing, and this is not even always on a conscious level. More often than not it has to do with what the track demands and what feels right in the moment.
Since forming sgrow, what are some of your most memorable career highlights?
We really love to play concerts and connect with an audience. We’ve been fortunate to play a lot of cool concerts, where a few highlights include playing with a symphony orchestra in Vilde’s hometown, playing at Slottsfjell festival (which in our opinion is the best of Norway’s big music festivals), and doing a mini tour in Germany and Belgium a couple of years back. We hope to do more travelling! Other than that, we’re living a highlight right now: we feel really good about the music we’re making and about being able to do almost everything ourselves, we’ve been receiving some international recognition which we are so thankful for and that feels like validation for all of our hard work, and we’ve teamed up with amazing music video directors for our last two singles (Gunnbjörg Gunnarsdottir for ‘Feel Something’ and Linnea Syversen for ‘Kismet’) who’ve created some incredibly cool visuals that we are super proud of. It’s just an exciting time! And it’s more fun than ever.
Your live shows are intimate, and deeply immersive. What are some of your favourite aspects of performing live as opposed to recording in studio?
So much of electronic music is about working in a studio, so to actually be on stage and play is a lot of fun. It’s a whole different ballpark. There’s something raw and real that happens in the moment of performance that we really treasure. It’s a space where we can be expressive in a whole different way, vibe with an audience and showcase our music in a different way. A lot of interesting things can happen. Also, there’s really something about having your music blasted on a great, big sound system! But performing does take quite a bit of preparation. We are always working on being free to express ourselves and to have lots of possibilities within our setup. Our live set is constantly changing and right now we’re looking forward to start playing the new songs with a setup that grants us even more freedom than before.
When sgrow aren’t performing or writing – what do the two of you like to do in your spare time?
We are really into cinema, analog photography, learning, teaching, developing new tools and instruments for live playing, dancing, hanging out with family and friends and talking about life stuff.
If you could collaborate with, or perform alongside any artist – who would you choose, and why?
Tough one! We feel like we should pick someone not too similar to us, someone that can bring something different to the table in order for us to develop something new together. It would be cool to collaborate with a rapper. We’re thinking it also would be super cool to produce tracks for other people, produce a track for Björk for example. That would be insane. To collaborate with Röyksopp would be a childhood dream come true too, for Vilde as a vocalist at least. And Brian Eno, because of his ability to approach old ideas from new perspectives and break established thought patterns on music making.
Three favourite albums of 2017?
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN
Christopher Willits – Horizon
Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
Tell us about Norway – how would you describe the music scene in Oslo, and how do you think it could improve?
The general music scene in Oslo is huge, with a lot of great venues, festivals, cultural initiatives and just a lot of stuff happening. We both come from smaller towns with not as much going on, so we really appreciate that. More people come out to the shows too. There’s a genuine curiosity and support for up and coming artists present here, and maybe also a sense of newfound pride since a lot of new acts have been starting to make waves outside of Norway lately. At the same time, there are a lot of us, and the business side of the Oslo scene can be perceived as hard and cynical at times. We wish that smaller, unique venues wouldn’t have to close their doors right and left. It’s a hard blow to the diversity of the scene. There should be places where smaller, alternative/underground or niche artists can display their work, not only places for the huge Norwegian acts that make the big ticket sales and get all of the radio play. Sometimes it feels like if you’re not a Bon Iver or Halsey wannabe, you don’t stand a chance.
Purchase sgrow’s latest album Circumstance out now via iTunes
For more information follow sgrow on Facebook
(Image credit: Erika Hebbert)