Standing on Ceremony: An Interview with Wyrd Visions

Valentine Gurfinkel

The Microphones' Phil Elverum is re-releasing Wyrd Visions' haunting debut and Colin Bergh takes us through its genesis from beginning to end and well beyond.

Wyrd Visions

Half-Eaten Guitar

Label: P.W. Elverum & Sun
US Release Date: 2014-04-15

When the Microphones' Phil Elverum wants to rerelease your little-heard 2006 debut record, then you know there is some sort of magic pressed into that vinyl.

Wyrd Visions' Half-Eaten Guitar is a hauntingly crafted free-folk gem of Torontopia, an utopic (some may say myopic) time in Toronto music scene, in the mid aughts, when sounds and bodies co-mingled. This was a time when everyone seemed to be starting a band and playing in each other's bands because everyone were besties and anything seemed possible. (This is was also a time when this writer was still just a boyish twentysomething, full of hopes, dreams, and hair, so bear the nostalgic waxing.)

Recorded at a friend's bedroom on a guitar borrowed from another friend, Wyrd Visions' Half-Eaten Guitar embodies that era's DIY eclecticism. Built around short, repeating crystalline guitar chords strummed with hypnotic repetitiveness and murmuring vocals that feed into each other, the album is at once intimately bare and intricately composed. We hear every squeak, pluck, strum, whistle and sigh, all artfully arranged in spectral clarity. Echoes fade into echoes. Tracks segue in and out of one another without notice. Time slouches. A young man sings gnomic lullabies on the "moratorium of vocals." Or is it the "of orchids?" Or orcas? Sometimes he sings in Swedish. Other times he whistles. Sounding like a cross between Steve Reich and early Devendra Banhart (when he was more hobo than boho), Wyrd Visions is difficult to pin-down. This is music you walk into the night with.

"It was the community that made it possible," says Colin Bergh, the sole visionary behind Wyrd Visions. As he tells it, he only started performing as Wyrd Visions because his friends pushed him to. Back in 2005, he was psychodroning with them as part of Awesome, and he was the only in the group without a solo side-project. They all had one and they thought Bergh should too. So they set up a show where each band member would individually open for the band. Bergh played a few tunes he had lying around, "just as an experiment." He did it behind a curtain so no one could see him. He played a second show only months later, just because someone asked him to.

That's when people started talking. Without a loop pedal to back him up, Bergh played those early shows in a kind of hypnotic trance, strumming his guitar over and over and over. Brian Taylor, of Blue Fog Recordings, got wind and offered to put out his record. So Bergh settled on a name (Wyrd Visions, an homage to Orson Wells' movie-version Macbeth and Bergh's Nordic roots, seemed fitting; that and "Wyrd Sisters" was already taken), got together with his Awesome bandmate, Matt Smith ("my collaborator," as Bergh calls him it), and over the course of a breezy summer breezily recorded Half-Eaten Guitar on Matt Smith's home computer. When the record was pressed, Owen Pallett, whose guitar Bergh borrowed, took him on tour with him. Since then, Bergh has toured across Canada, USA, Europe, played with Grizzly Bear, Earth, OM, and collaborated on a 12-inch split with Jennifer Castle -- all while working as an art director by day and co-running "Bad Day Magazine.

Below, Colin Bergh talks in-depth about the early days of Wyrd Visions, the challenges of maintaining a life-work balance, and his own wyrd visions for the future.

* * *

Is it weird -- no pun intended -- promoting an album that you originally released some eight years ago?

It does feel weird. I almost feel guilty. It's sort of not fair if anyone can just keep reissuing their record, their one record, and have press, and release parties. I guess you can do it every five or six years when the record sells out. So I kind of feel strangely guilty about it.

Do find you have more opportunities now that Half-Eaten Guitar is released on an American label?

Yeah. I wouldn't say Elevrum & Sun is high profile, at all, but a little. They got a bigger profile than Blue Fog Records, who released the original record. It's Phil Elverum's label. Elverum was in the Microphones and now performs as Mount Eerie. He's quite well known, and with that comes more attention. He's got more contacts. He's got a PR person. There's just more going into the PR this time around. That's the advantage. It's on Pitchfork now. That wouldn't have happened with Blue Fog. I didn't even have a release party back then.

How did Elevrum hear your record in the first place?

I did a mini-tour with him, Grizzly Bear, and Owen Pallett for Pallett's He Poos Clouds, in 2006, when my record just came out. We played shows together, traded records. I guess they became fans.

Sounds like a great way to launch an album. How did you get on that tour, so early on? Were you friends with Owen Pallett?

We were friends. He actually lent me the guitar I used to record on my record, because I never owned an acoustic guitar. I would always practice and write on an electric guitar, but I wanted that acoustic sound for this record, so I borrowed his guitar. He heard the record as it was being made, and was excited about it, and put me on his mini tour. It was nice and very helpful. I made friends with all those people for life.

How did Colin Bergh become Wyrd Visions?

I was in a band called Awesome, with Paul Mortimer, Alex Snukal, and Matt Smith. All those guys had their own solo outlets -- Mortimer, The Pauls; Snukal, Animalmonster; Smith, Prince Nifty -- but but I didn't. But they all knew that I had songs outside of Awesome, and encouraged me to put a set together. So we did this show where each one of us would individually open for Awesome, four solo sets and then the entire band. That spurred the initial performance.

Out of Awesome, Wyrd?

It was just as an experiment. I guess people liked it; I got a lot of good feedback, but I didn't really think much of it. It's only months later, after I did another show, that I started thinking of making a record. A friend of mine, Kevin Hainey, was working at a record store, Rotate This, and told the owner, Brian Taylor, who is also co-owner of Blue Fog Records, heard about Wyrd Visions, and based on Kevin's recommendation he offered to put out my record. It was really the community that helped me. It was the encouragement of other people that made it happen.

The record itself was recorded at a friend's bedroom, correct?

Yeah. I recorded it with Matt Smith, in his bedroom, in Toronto. Matt Smith was also in Awesome. We would get together every other weekend in the summer of 2005 and record on his computer. I would lay some stuff down and we would listen. I would come back another day, maybe two weeks after that. It was very casual and very loose. I wanted the production be very simple, very spares. I wanted the vocals to sound very close, sort of right in your ear.

It certainly doesn't sound like a bedroom record. Half-Eaten Guitarhas a very fluid, seamless sound. It's hard to tell where one song ends and the next begins. Is that how you conceived the album, as a kind of singe composition?

No, all the songs on the record were written individually, at completely different times. Live and on a record you can play around with things, like placing and pacing, to make it things sound like one, but I definitely work on each song separately.

That explains the sudden change of register in one the tracks from the rest of the album. Without giving too much away, much of the album has an acoustic sound, but somewhere along the way it takes a decidedly electro-drone turn. At first, I thought it was like one of those bonus tracks "from the archives."

Ha. I guess tonally it is different from the rest of record, but melodically I don't think it is. That track comes from me playing in my room, many years ago, when I lived at home with my parents. I didn't have a looping peddle or anything, but I would play riffs and would record them on a boombox and play on top of them, and play on top of those. That's kind of how I built that song, on a boombox.

The album opens with you singing in Swedish. Your background is Swedish, but were you concerned that many listeners wouldn't understand the lyrics?

I really didn't think about any of that. I didn't even think anyone would hear the record. If I am making music, I don't know if I think about what other people are going to think, or how they're going to react. Probably I just wanted to try writing a song in Swedish. It didn't seem like a strange idea at all, at the time. Now it would. I wouldn't write a song in Swedish now. It doesn't seem natural.

Why wouldn't you write a song in Swedish now?

Because it was just an experiment, before there was even something called Wyrd Visions. It's not something I want to continue to do. It was one isolated incident that had nothing to do with other music that I've written. I guess that's why it's unique.

Even when they are in English, your lyrics can be quite enigmatic. You use a lot of short, clipped phrasing. It's as though you are using lyrics less for their meaning, and more for how they sound. What role do lyrics play in your music?

Yeah, the songs were not intended to have any certain meaning or message. Lyrics are there to -- obviously this sounds very corny -- they are there to paint a picture or set a scene. It's hard to explain. I am not used to analyzing lyrics.

Is it a challenge to write lyrics?

Yeah. That's why I haven't put out a new album in many years because it's very difficult for me to write lyrics, or to complete them. I am very picky, and I am a big fan of lyricists. I want my music to be as good as the best that I listen to, or as good as the ones I admire. I set the bar very high and it's difficult to reach it sometimes I guess creatively I can be hard on myself in that way.

You're not inclined to release an instrumental record?

No. I really love singing, and I think people want to hear me sing. It would feel half-assed if I did something instrumental. I might do one track that's instrumental, but I like songs. That's what I'd want to do with Wyrd Visions.

There was a lot of buzz around when you started performing. All my friends were talking about your shows. Then, suddenly, you were gone, or you stopped playing live. It seemed very abrupt. Was that a conscientious decision?

I wouldn't say there was an abrupt end, maybe a lull. I've been performing pretty consistently. I may play fewer shows now than before. I am just really busy with the rest of my life, like running a magazine.

Your Facebook Page doesn't start till 2011.

Ha. Yeah. It's hard to juggle everything, and it's hard to play a lot of shows. It's also not interesting for me to play a ton of shows anymore because I don't have a ton of music to play. When I play shows, I kind of play the same set. To make it interesting it would be nice to have new songs -- but I find it more and more difficult to find the time.

What's next for Wyrd Visions?

I want to focus on putting out singles, rather than an album. I have songs for an album, but I keep thinking, "I need two more," and I don't know how or when that will happen. It's more daunting to do a record because it really should be somewhat cohesive. But putting out singles is kind of freeing.

You just release it as it comes to you, and then move on to the next single.

Exactly! It's more fun to work that way, to think "oh, okay this is just going to be for this one record and it's really just for one song." You can try different things because you're not worried about the songs working together so much.

Was that your approach to your 12-inch split with Jennifer Castle of Castlemusic, a few years back?

Basically. Neither of us had anything new out and we needed merch to sell at shows, so we thought we'd help each other out by releasing a split together. We just wanted something out, and that's how I feel now.

Are you working on something right now?

I do have something in the works right now. It would be cool to put out a single soon -- I should just put something out. I have this reissue coming out, and I feel it's kind of lame if I don't follow it up with something new.

You sound really excited for the rerelease.

Oh definitely. This goes back to your first question, how do I feel about the attention around the reissue. It's great, and it's really exciting. But you also don't want to toot your own horn about something you did eight years ago. Doesn't feel natural.

Besides doing Wyrd Visions, you also work as an art director by day and co-run Bad Day, the art magazine. And you run a weekly karaoke night! How do you juggle all that? What's your secret?

I don't know what's my secret. I get really stressed out a lot, so it's not really the most healthy thing. I've been learning to say "No." Maybe that's my secret. Before if someone asked me to do a little thing or favor, I would be completely eager to do it. I am still eager to do things, but now I know it's not smart because not everything can fit into a schedule anymore. So, yeah, saying "no" keeps things sane.

Well you do have a publicist now.

Ha. Yeah. Maybe that will help.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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