Depression Goes Pop: An Interview with El Perro del Mar

Reigning Swedish chanteuse, Sarah Assbring, (aka El Perro del Mar) dishes about the synths on her last album and why she's still writing about disappointment, love, loss, and longing.

El Perro del Mar

Pale Fire

US Release: 2012-12-04
US Label: Control Group
UK Release: 2012-11-12

Sweden’s Sarah Assbring has spent the last several years perfecting her own brand of morose-pop, exploring the inner reaches of depression that has informed every one of her releases. Her rather capricious start in music was the result of a strange encounter with a stray dog on a beach in Spain. Under the moniker El Perro del Mar (“Dog of the Sea”), Assbring would go on to record a quietly mournful set of songs that would comprise her self-titled debut. The Swede’s coy mix of Brill Building pop and gamine affectations were genuinely intoxicating, earning plaudits across Europe and bridging the gap between Stina Nordenstam’s difficult anti-pop and Anja Garbarek’s space-age diva-sonics. Assbring followed her full-length debut with another batch of confectionery lullabies entitled From the Valley to the Stars, before recording 2009's Love Is Not Pop.

Pop heralded a new direction for the songwriter, who up until then had employed a guitar-based band set-up. The first few traces of synthesized textures heard on her third full-length effort would eventually blossom into the entirely different beast that is now Pale Fire, a weirdly dubtronic exercise in dark confessionals that reinvents the singer’s depression by way of electronic gadgetry. Notable numbers like first single “Walk on By” and “I Carry the Fire” detail a new-found passion for Detroit techno, while other tracks like “Home Is to Feel Like That” cull from the airy atmospherics of 80s synthpop bands. As always, Assbring delivers her lyrics at one remove, never entirely yielding to the poisonous emotion brewing just underneath the cool of her icy veneer.

Assbring also demurely explores politics on her new LP, the title track making rather indirect comments on the London riots (though they could just as easily be about the politics of love). The Swede’s rather aloof, dispassionate musings on the violence of an era brings to mind a typically Scandinavian approach to social interaction, keeping a keen eye on the surrounding action but a cool and contained heart that favours reason and rationale. The conflicting overlay of rage and emotional detachment results in some interesting and rather chilling observations on the toxic mix of social unrest and private, personal passions.

Here the artist discusses the musical evolutions that led to Pale Fire and some of its themes.

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There is clearly a stylistic shift with your music on this album. You started out making music that was directly influenced and inspired by a lot of the Brill Building pop music of the '60s. Your album Love Is Not Pop began to show some signs of a move toward electronic music. Your newest, Pale Fire fully embraces electronic pop and pretty much abandons all the '60s pop you explored on much of your back catalogue. Can you give some insight into this progression?

When I look back at my albums I realize that throughout every album I've been working very much according to a specific method -- every album's had a certain instrument that's been the starting-point of the whole writing process which in the end has given the album its specific sound. Methodology is key to the way I start working on an album. I search for the method, the instruments that excite me the most for the songs or the sound that I have in my mind. With this album it was analogue synths and drum-machines because they felt new and exciting to me. With my debut album it was the acoustic guitar because it felt new and exciting to me (I had just started playing the guitar at that point). Also, I have of course been listening a lot (perhaps more than anything else) to electronic music lately so that's been my main musical influence as well.

The subject matter in your music is most often talked about; profound disappointment is a constant running theme. This was a theme perfectly suited for your more '60s pop-inspired albums because the albums were made for a more introspective, home-listening experience. Your new album is aimed more at the dancefloor. Did you find the subject matter you normally sing about change with this new experiment in sound?

I don't really. I think the themes I'm still writing about -- disappointment (like you say), love, loss and longing -- still are the same. They are the constants in my writing and I think, will remain being constants. What changes might be the perspectives I see things from, but I simply think of my subject matters and music developing or changing along with how I'm changing personally. I'm not the same as I was when I wrote my first album (thank God) but the core that is me is. To me it's as simple as that. My music is simply an extension of myself and what changes I go through personally will touch the music as well.

Every album usually has some sort of theme. What ideas were you trying to communicate when you wrote Pale Fire?

That's right. I always work around themes. Pale Fire is about finding something to hold on to, some kind of saving light or force like hope, inner strength or love (or all of them) in a world of darkness and hopelessness.

Swedes often get pegged as the reigning kings of upbeat pop music. There's also the stereotypical view of Swedish self-deprecation and depression. It's a strange dichotomy. What are your personal views on how these two elements seem to find their way into much of Swedish pop music?

To me that dichotomy sounds like a perfect match as I think pop music with a melancholic streak is the best one. To me, pop music needs to contain some kind of tension, some kind of contrasting sentiments or elements, to make it stick out and matter. I don't know if this is a typical Swedish trait, it might be. I know it's something I see as a natural and important thing in my music though.

Your previous onstage performances featured a live band set-up or just you with a guitar. Because Pale Fire is mostly electronic, how do you plan on translating that sound live?

I'm keeping true to the sound of the album so I'm performing it based very much on the instruments I used when recording it: synthesizers, drum pad, sampler, and so on. The main focus on the live show is on my voice and the clubbiness of the album. I think minimalism will make the experience of the live performance greater than maximalism so that's how I'm keeping it.

You are already affiliated with some very talented Swedish music artists (whom you've also worked with). Are there any other artists that you would really like working with on future material?

I'm much of a solitary musician. I don't really function so good together with others in a recording situation but if I did, I'd love to work with Gang Gang Dance for example. I'm a huge admirer of their work and sound.

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