By Harriet Kaplan
The Swedish-Canadian experimental indie rock band Thus Owls (link), featuring the husband and wife duo of guitarist Simon and vocalist Erika Angell, evoke the stylistic nature reminiscent of Bjork, Portishead, Kate Bush and Nico. Their approach to music features an unusual assortment of instruments and techniques that often finds the band making unique and compelling choices to expand their sound. Erika Angell’s octave-divided vocals offers remarkable contrast against the chugging rhythms of the band and pounding intensity of drums that also features an eclectic study in tone and atmosphere. The intelligent songwriting of Erika Angell has a melancholy quality to and the lyrics themselves are personal based on and inspired by true life events and family history. Recently, Black on the Canvas interviewed Simon and Erika Angell. The married duo gave more insight and perspective into what inspires their sound, the creation of the music and how the unit was formed.
What does Thus Owls mean? Does it have a certain symbolism for the band?
Thus Owls: I think the best way of describing our band name is the first T-shirt print we made. It’s a mysterious shadow of a person with shifty eyes that’s holding an owl. I’ve always imagined the shadow person to be Thus holding Owl. It looks soothing and dark at the same time and that’s kind of how we think about our music. It should leave room for imagination.
How long has the band been together? Did the project begin with Erika and Simon initially? When did it expand to the rest of the musicians involved to round out the sound? How were they chosen?
Thus Owls: The band started in Stockholm around 2008. Erika put together a group of Swedish musicians in order to try out some musical ideas and songs that she had written. Simon wasn’t in the picture yet at that time. We did a few shows and some demos like that under Erika’s name, but it was when Erika and Simon met during a tour in the Netherlands that the original sound of Thus Owls was created. After Simon joined in we named ourselves, Thus Owls, and recorded our first album. It was during that first recording process that we carved out the voice of Thus Owls. Since then the band has recorded two more albums and have moved across the Atlantic to Montreal. During the years, Thus Owls has kind of worked a little bit like a music collective with members joining, from both Sweden and Canada, around the core of Erika and Simon. Today we’re mainly working and touring with a Canadian band: Stef Schneider, Morgan Moore and Parker Shper. Every musician that has ever played with Thus Owls has been part of the band because of their personal and original musical voice and each and everyone of them has put their mark on the music we perform.
What did you take from being in other bands into Thus Owls?
Thus Owls: Every musical experience you have influences you in one way or another. It’s hard to say what comes from what. Sometimes one way of playing music makes you want to go the opposite direction too and create something complete different, which makes it even harder to know what influenced what. When we loose ourselves and don’t know what to do musically we usually go back to our improvisational roots and put together a free improvisation session or concert in order to find new routes. We are mainly looking for the free energy in music and when you meet musicians that are really good at bringing that energy to the table, that is when you get the most inspired.
Explain how the music is experimental? What are you listening to these days? What music has influenced or inspired your band?
Thus Owls: Turning Rocks is definitely a less experimental album than our two first ones. For us it was a challenge to restrain and define ourselves a little more and we tried to do that with Turning Rocks. But when you see us live you’ll find out pretty fast that we still have to break loose from that and there are little improvisations tucked in and around our songs. Sometimes in the shape of soundscapes or textures and sometimes in melodies, rhythm and harmony. I think the way we arrange and perform our music comes from experimenting with sounds. Right now we’re listening to pretty dark and minimalistic music, like Scott Walker, Ben Frost, Sunn O))), Last Ex, Portishead, Vera Lynn, Björk, Swans, Bryce Dessner’s Ayhem record and many more. The listening changes always and all of it is inspiring us musically. It feels important to listen to different types of music to constantly educate ourselves.
Do you find that your guitar style is something you came into your own organically learning the instrument and experimenting different tones, harmonics, etc? Does what you hear on the outside bear an influence on you?
Simon: Like any musician/artist, when you first pick up your tool of expression (be it a paint brush, a guitar, a camera, etc.) you do it because something you’ve seen/heard/felt has drawn you towards that particular instrument. From there, as you hone your craft, you start to discover your own voice within your medium. In my case, I do have a formal musical education (in classical theory, but mainly in jazz when it comes to actual playing), but it was pretty soon after my schooling, in my early twenties, that I left the notion of being the next Wes Montgomery behind 🙂 Not long after, I had the opportunity to study with Marc Ribot. He definitely helped open some doors to my own expression I didn’t even know existed beforehand. From then on, I’ve dedicated myself to, as you say, a much more organic approach to music and my instrument in particular. Using outside objects to prepare my guitar to carve out different sounds is definitely a big part of that. It comes more from instinct than technique. More gut and heart, less brain you could say.
As far as outside influence, as much as I love some other guitarists, I tend to look more towards other instruments, other music or other art forms all together to help me along the path of creation. Or to take it a bit further, years ago I used to live at the crossroads of a busy street and a highway. I would open my window wide so the traffic sounds where nice and present, set up two radios and put them both on different random stations, grab my guitar and would practice finding my place in the world.
What singers do you admire? Tell me how your filmmaking background has helped or enhances being in band? What does that background bring to the music?
Erica: I admire amongst many other singers, Beth Gibbons, Lotte Lenya, Björk, Joanna Newsom, Nina Simone, Sidsel Endressen, Robert Wyatt, Scott Walker, Yma Zumac, Meridith Monk.
What is your songwriting process like? I read you take inspiration from your life but also your grandmother and aunt? Did you look up to them alot growing up and admire them? Did they teach you valuable or important lessons? Also you said you wanted to move away from writing about yourself. Why is that?
Erica: My song writing process changes with me learning new things or getting bored with old things, or getting stuck and having to find a new way. In the past, I usually started with some harmonies or sound textures and after that came melody and lyrics. Today I do everything more in a bundle, I’m writing lyrics constantly and try to sit down and write melodies and harmonies as often as I can.. Sometimes the same lyrics end up in different songs for a while and then switch places. I guess I try to not write only one song at a time, but work on many so that they become siblings to each other. I admire my grand parents. Yes, they have better and worse sides like the all human beings, but a life story is always a life story and they are usually impressive and magical in their own way. I guess writing down my ancestors stories more than my own was a new way of approaching songwriting at that point for me. I needed a new direction and I chose this one. I needed a pause from looking inwards and wanted to lift my eyes and look around me instead.
How much music has the band released (EP, full length, etc) ? How much does touring help the band created a following and gain more exposure? How helpful is social media? How involved are you both involved with making the videos?
Erica: This Owls has released 3 full length albums so far. Cardiac Malformations (2009), Harbours (2011), Turning Rocks (2014). The touring is great for figuring out the core and dynamics of songs, or how to use them as sketches to push your musical energy through. And the more you know about yourself and your surrounding musicians the more you know how to best dig into that musical energy we are all longing to be within all the time. It can be hard to translate that feeling to a record, but I think it’s good to always explore and change things up live so that you bring that curiosity with you in to the studio. Touring can be amazing and hard at the same time. It’s a big world we live in and there is so much music out there. Some nights are packed with people and others aren’t, depending on if you’ve been to a place before or not mainly. Social medias definitely help to get the word out but it’s the live experience that counts for us. The communication that band and audience create together in a room and that energy can be magical with a few as well as with thousands of people. We are both pretty involved in the video makings. It feels important to take part of every creative process that has to do with our music to make sure it has our voice in it.