The Scandanavian Allure
Being Scandinavian myself, it’s always been fascinating and puzzling to experience how we are being perceived in the world: how parts of the world are attracted to our ways and culture and why.
Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian literature, architecture, furniture, and music have always had a massive impact, now more so than ever. As always, Japan crossed the line first, and their infatuation goes way back. The impeccable Japanese craftsmanship goes hand in hand with Scandinavian minimalism and an eye for clean lines in architecture and furniture design. They call this “Japandi”, of course. Japan and Asia as a whole have also been a fan of Scandinavian music for just as long. Especially folk and prog-rock bands of the ’60s and ’70s draw a particular allure driving the prices on vinyl through the roof on Discogs if they don’t turn up in droves to have a look and feel for themselves.
In the West, infatuation is equally high. However, the attention has lied more heavily on home interior design and the notion of “hygge” (homely feeling of coziness? Stop Googling this word!). Scandinavian literature, television, and film also contribute to this craze where the look and feel of Scandinavia are especially sought replicated.
David Fincher got into it with his remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) a decade after he famously blew up the Narrator’s IKEA furnished apartment in Fight Club (1999). Scandinavian music has also made significant splashes throughout history, especially when sung in English (ABBA, Roxette, and many others). Still, it wasn’t until the Swedish prog-rock and folk band Dungen released their third album Ta Det Lungt (2004), that a proper Swedish rock outfit enjoyed considerable success on the desirable American market, inspiring such acts as Tame Impala and Fleet Foxes in their wake.
Maybe the next big, quiet thing on the scene will be Cool Nordic jazz…
Bremer/McCoy are based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Jonathan Bremer plays the upright bass but also composes, produces, and runs his own record label. Morten McCoy plays the keys and tape loops and composes, writes scores, produces, and DJs. Bremer/McCoy’s roots in the Scandinavian pines are solid and well-founded.
When first hearing their music, the first association you would commonly get is the Swedish jazz and folk legend Jan Johansson, a beacon in Scandinavian jazz music history. His Jazz på Svenska (1964) is a canonical album as crucial to the Swedish sense of identity like IKEA. That is until you put Jan Johansson on, and you realize Bremer/McCoy is not like that at all. Bremer/McCoy have roots that travel far out of the Nordic pines and deep into the Caribbean mud. Dub and roots reggae are on an equal inspirational footing with the Nordic tradition. Johansson may cast a towering shadow, but Bremer/McCoy have since their debut in 2013 cast their own shadow — a shadow which other acts now find themselves in. Bremer/McCoy are an established act by now. (Almost) five albums in, their popularity has steadily grown like the albums grow themselves: gradually, gracefully, naturally.
The combination of the Japanese and Scandinavian aesthetic philosophy makes sense when describing Bremer/McCoy. There is an insistence on craftsmanship — on art made by hand — and there is a theme of what you could call nature-man symbiosis right there in the background as well as on the actual vinyl covers themselves. Not unlike the vision of ambient music where the purpose is to complement the listener and the journey and not be obtrusive, Bremer/McCoy arrange their sonic landscape to take you on a journey; where the journey goes is up to you.
The Bremer/McCoy aesthetic captivates the ear and catches the eye. The image and sound are inseparable, so much that they caught the attention of David Byrne (Talking Heads) and Yale Evelev of the Luaka Bop record label.
The Luaka Bop/David Byrne-Bremer/McCoy Connection
Luaka Bop was formed in 1988 to promote and release out-of-print exotic Tropicália music from Brazil. Since then, they release records from contemporary artists that fit the mold of “just bringing great music to the world”. The label’s albums are often deemed “world music”, but Luaka Bop calls it contemporary pop. They release music worldwide that has been greatly overlooked and deserve extra attention — like Bremer/McCoy. So Luaka Bop released Utopia in 2019 and usher this year’s Natten.
“We knew the Luaka Bop label,” notes the duo. “They have released so much great music, especially great music from Brazil and Africa. We certainly feel at home at the label. There’s no pressure, no stress. Luaka Bop expects us to make great music that they can release.”
“It’s a perfect match, and it came out of the blue,” they continue. “Yale Evelev himself (Luaka Bop label president) had stumbled upon our second album [2015’s Ordet] loved it and gave us a call. That’s an unusually old-school approach which suits us very well. If you love something, you share it and pass that around. No PR, no money, no agent involved, just the pure love of music. That’s a very organic approach, and that appealed to us a lot.”
Analog: The Physicality of Music
In How Music Works (Cannongate, 2012), Byrne views the evolution of music through the development of technology. He believes that technological discoveries such as the phonograph and electric guitar influenced how music could be made and what we perceived music to be. Now, anyone can make music. The software makes anyone a composer, and the push of a button does the recording and mixing.
Therefore, according to Byrne, it’s now a question of when to resist technology. Maybe we have to fight technology when it pushes us in specific directions creatively. Resist things being easy and sounding monotonous and uniform. This point of view suits the philosophy of Bremer/McCoy, who takes a laboring analog and tactile approach to everything they do.
“When you choose to go analog and record directly to tape, you are forced to work in the now — to be fully in the present and in your performance because you can’t edit out pieces or mistakes afterward,” they note. “We record whole takes and not bit-by-bit and splice those together. Therefore you have to play well, and that becomes the focus. By the nature of this process, you just get very good at playing your instrument and playing the music. Everything is just so much easier when you play well. When you play well, the vibrations you’re looking for arrive with ease, and getting to those right vibrations is what it’s all about.”
“Another benefit to recording straight to tape is that mistakes are bound to happen, and because those mistakes are impossible to edit out, we listen to them a lot,” they add. “More often than not, those mistakes make the music richer or even take the music in another direction. And that would never have happened had we recorded digitally. When you can easily edit mistakes, you tend to stay rigidly true to your original idea and root out anything that doesn’t adhere to that vision. However, we find that recording analog opens up the creative process because those mistakes force us to reevaluate that original idea and try out new paths. There are many such happy mistakes scattered on all of our albums.”
The Look and Feel of It
Music history is ripe with mythical collaborations between bands and artists. Warhol, Basquiat, Koons, Abramović, Murakami, you name them. It would be easier to name the artists who haven’t yet made an album cover. Bremer/McCoy are no exception, but they somehow take it to another level.
The Bremer/McCoy covers are not in-your-face or controversial, but the very opposite. Their impact is felt, but it’s not as cerebral as it is a bodily reaction. This is the marriage of sound and image—the result of total complement. The cooperation between Bremer/McCoy and Yaqup-oxbjr (Jakob Oksbjerg) on every album combines and connects the separate album pieces and creates an expression of a whole larger than the individual parts. Like Radiohead and artist Stanley Donwood you cannot extract Bremer/McCoy and Yaqup-oxbjr from one another.
“Right from our very first meeting with Jakob, he immediately understood what we were doing on a very deep level,” the duo tell us. “We hardly used any words. We didn’t have any words for our music anyway. Our connection was instantaneous and wordless. He made the cover, nailed it, and it looked exactly how we had hoped it would look.”
“When you make instrumental music, the cover is so important — it’s the only image the listener has of the music. There are no words, just titles and that cover image. Therefore that image has to be in perfect tune with the vibe of the album, which makes Jakob’s work very important to us and the way our music is perceived. He deserves a lot of credit for the success of our music.”
“For our new album Natten, we tried to make the cover work by using the imagery Jakob had developed for our previous albums,” they continue. “By now, we had established a procedure where we would hand our music to Jakob, and he would then disappear into the woods for three weeks and come up with a perfectly suited cover image. This approach didn’t work for our new album. It didn’t fit the vibe of what that album is.”
“Being who he is, Jakob then scratched everything and just painted what he heard in the music, and that was it. The vibe of the music was caught. The balance of the light and the dark colors of the music were just right.”
Please Remain Seated During Take-Off
The approach to recording using tape and insisting on the prolonged take bleeds into the way Bremer/McCoy tackles the live space. Sound is what they are about. The right sound. The feel of the sound. Consequently, Bremer/McCoy built their own sound system as is customary in roots reggae music. Music transports the listener. Sound is the vessel. Therefore sound is paramount.
Utilizing massive sound systems and earthquake-inducing subwoofers has been done many times before. Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sunn O))) in particular are famous for their massive sound and use of bass systems that go to the deepest registers. It’s not about being the loudest, but about going straight for the solar plexus. It’s a very visceral experience that tests what your body and mind can take.
Bremer/McCoy are on a different errand, though. Here, vibrations are king because vibrations can unite people when you “get them”. The goal is rhythmic meditation. “Our music is very spiritual — music is very spiritual,” they note. “But you can reach a whole other level when you also feel it physically and actually in your body. We want our music to be felt both ways.”
“In the beginning, we had to unlearn what we had learned. The goal of the typical live show is to get people going, hands in the air, and get everyone in the room to ‘take-off’ all at once. With Bremer/McCoy we are looking for the opposite reaction: we want to keep people grounded and really feel the music in their body, which is why we bring our own sound system.”
“Going so deep with the music had us worried in the beginning, however. We were afraid that we would play too slow and bore people off of their chairs. We were pleasantly surprised, though, because people wanted us to go even slower and deeper. That was a huge confidence boost for us.”
“When we succeed, it is as if the vibrations in the music, in us, in the room, and in the people attending our concert align, and you feel this ongoing feedback between us. That is a very spiritual experience, and that’s the highest it can go. It is total communion. That is what we seek out to do when we play live for our audience.”
“Those vibrations and that energy fuel what we do and inspire our creative process when we go back to composing new music,” they conclude. “The element of improvisation that we have live and which is guided by how people react to our playing is something we use in the studio. We strive to keep the feeling from those shows that the music can go anywhere and should go anywhere. Maybe most importantly, the live reactions have also taught us that we should never be afraid to take our time and let our music take its time.”
The Good Night (Writing Never Stops)
Covid-19. There is no way around it, but many ways you can go through it. Bremer/McCoy used that time writing new music but also on playing shows here and there. Their shows allowed for that because their set-up has a clear separation between the band and the audience. There’s no rowdy behavior. Just people seated with their eyes closed and a serene look on their faces. That also allowed Bremer/McCoy to play some new material for their audience and consider that response when they recorded the new album, Natten.
When you are always composing, the musical pieces are part of an ongoing process, and it can be hard to determine when a work is done. Also, old takes suddenly reappear, and they then form the basis of a new piece; therefore, the distinction between old and new material does not apply here. It’s all about the now, then. It’s an ongoing conversation, and that conversation continues when the music is performed live. The feedback is always a co-creator in a sense, and that feedback is brought into the studio setting.
“Time. The past, the present, future. It all bleeds together when composing and assembling the pieces that fit together to form a whole — an album,” the duo explain. “Often, and especially in the case of this album, we compose the music over long stretches of time, and then suddenly, we find that we have an album on our hands. It just makes sense. The spirit is there. The actual recording of Natten only took a handful of days. It sounds cohesive, we think, but the whole is made of many fragments formed over time.”
“It’s our least ambitious album,” they modestly state. “Or, rather, it kind of sounds that way — the way it gently flows and the feel of it, but it’s maybe our most ambitious album yet. A lot of craftsmanship went into it; we tried many different things on this album that we have never tried and never dared to try before. The thing is, it doesn’t sound crafted, and we think that is its strength, maybe.”
On Natten, the element of air — and space — is predominant. Questions of how you are grounded and knowing where you come from are put into play. At this point, Bremer and McCoy feel more secure about themselves and their abilities, allowing for more exploration: to go further and further out, knowing that you can always find your way back.
Likewise, if you feel too grounded and knee-deep into the practicalities of daily life and worrying about paying the rent steeping outside at night and looking up at the immensity of the sky and stars can recalibrate your mind and system and re-mind yourself that we’re all made of stardust. A spiritual and cosmic recalibration is an equally important aspect of being grounded, too. You can find all of this on Natten. It’s in there, magnetically grounded straight to tape.
Nearly a decade into their career Bremer/McCoy have struck a balance in their music, covering the range from the Nordic terra to the Northern cosmic nights. It’s a grateful place to be, and it certainly sounds as much.