The Greek Theatre – “Broken Circle” (2017) review / interview
The Greek Theatre – Broken Circle (Sugarbush Records)
After only a few plays it’s pretty clear that the Greek Theatre’s brand new LP for the Sugarbush label, Broken Circle, with its dramatic arcs of windswept cool, amid a kind of twilight pervasiveness that surrounds the welter of dream/reverie soundscapes, proves itself another worthy collection of imaginative, pastoral-baked psychedelia from these Swedish questors of the modern mystic.
This latest sojourn, while, in one way, being determinedly hooked to the big sky of song dreams, also lands with a bump from time to time, pulling into its orbit one or two fleeting instances of the many troubles, and triumphs with which we all come up against at some point in the daily grind of life!
The group cites US vanguard hippie rockers Quicksilver Messenger Service as an influence on their playing, but whilst hearing Greek Theatre’s illuminating guitar and dynamic keyboards-based tapestries, plus their battery of other assorted sounds, including some highly effective vocal traits, we are also reminded of some of the work Pink Floyd put in during their immediate evolution following the departure of leading light Syd Barrett. Snatches of later sixties Byrds… and beyond can also be clearly heard in the ‘Theatre’s inclination to deploy rich, gorgeously placed pedal steel guitar flourishes, heard alongside incandescent wind and string-created melodies that oftentimes sit cosied-up alongside lyrics which, at least some of the time, tend to conjure up a somewhat darker, moodier blue style disposition than one might have first imagined to be the case. This spotlighting of harsh realities juxtaposed with a more poetic and dream-fueled escapism found in and through such songs as the delightfully strange, quasi-classical ‘Paper Moon’, whose thematics remind, as I’ve said elsewhere, of Leicester group Family – a rather unique outfit too … and also the brilliant ‘Stray Dog Blues’ – both these cuts, if you’re not yet aware, were first heard on last year’s fabulous Sunniest Day EP for burgeoning English folk-psych/experimental label Sunstone. These, and much more are a key part of the overwhelming and powerful effect this astute group’s music can have upon repeated play.
They had already hinted at those itinerantly stark qualities they possess here and there throughout their previous opus; Lost At Sea, their scintillating 2013 debut. In taking some of these similar ideas and bringing them forward and honing them into some fresh new material they’ve given their audience both a resume of where they’ve been, but also we glimpse a signpost toward where it is they might be heading to. And here on Broken Circle we can sit back and fully appreciate and enjoy the fruits of their ongoing work. Of particular note are ‘Fat Apple (At About Noon)’, a near-perfect way to open, setting the scene with its expansive instrumental range and alternating (also altercating) portrayals of light / heavy guitar action. The languorous sounding ‘Still Lost At Sea’ brings to mind the ’Floyd jamming with the Notorious-era Byrdmen and is truly verily the bees knees. As for the truly superb title track, it unfurls through gargantuan drums, organ and guitars then winds itself down on through and into some joyous, mellowing country-rock harmonising before once again working itself back up into an intense psychedelic-style blow out!
The not-inconsequential instrumental pieces ‘1920’ and ‘Ruby-Khon’ are also both noteworthy, featuring a raft of different textures and moves. Taken together, the contrast between the softer sounding vocal outings and various acoustic strata heard proliferating throughout, and as mentioned previously, the driving keyboards and drums, plus the very welcome appearance of some truly searing guitar licks makes for quite a breathtaking ebb-and-flow like journey.
It’s a sumptuous, cinematic-style panorama all in all, that shows The Greek Theatre to be a very capable group who, whilst in thrall to some of the great sounds that’ve gone down in the past have more than a keen sense of pushing forward and carving out space to create their own individuality, their experimentalism too very much succeeding with this, at times, totally astonishing latest effort.
Interview with The Greek Theatre founder Sven Fröberg
When did the group come together, and was there a particular purpose behind the creation of the group? Also where did you guys get the name from?
My father died in 1999 and left me some money. Not much but enough to pay for a couple of days in a good analogue studio. I asked some of my old buddies from my teenage years to join, and some new as well. The purpose was mainly to get quality recordings of some of my best songs. Prior to that I had, like most unknowns, been reduced to record at home on a shitty four-track. I still remember those days in the studio as being in heaven. Just to hear my own music come alive and for the first time sounding like proper recordings had a deep impact on me. As soon as those days were over I wanted to be back and doing it again.
Fortunately it didn’t take long ’til the advancement of home recording systems made it possible to make good sounding music outside of expensive analogue studios. That for me was the start of a creative outburst that I’m still to this day reaping the fruits from. One of the guys I constantly asked to help out and play and sing was one of my new friends from the studio sessions, Fredrik Persson. Apart from being an amazing guitar player and singer he had written some great songs that we both felt had a kind of kinship with my songs. The synergy between us was great and it was easy and very creative. So that became the nucleus of the band.
As we live in different parts of Sweden The Greek Theatre has never been about rehearsing and playing live, or to implement a band formula. It has, solely, been about creating, polishing and turning our songs into, hopefully, something original and beautiful.
For me a band name is no more than an empty jar. You can have the coolest name in the world but if you don’t fill it with good music it doesn’t help you at all. The opposite is also true; The Beach Boys might be one of the worst names ever but it has, for very good reasons, a magic glow to it. The Greek Theatre sounds to me like a third division L.A. soft rock group. I guess I liked the connotations of it.
Can you please introduce for us the group members and which instruments they normally play?
I play mainly finger picking acoustic guitar and sing. Some electric guitar, mandolin, ukulele, bass and some very primitive piano. I write the majority of the songs. Fredrik plays all kinds of guitars and is responsible for most, but not all, of the soloing. Also bass and organ. He sings with a kind of Brian Wilson quality, high and strong. Andreas Ralsgård is a folk musician who’s flute, saxophone and clarinet playing has contributed a lot to our records. Andreas Sjögren plays drums and saxophone on our first album. Amazing instincts. Tomas Eriksson plays drums on the new album. Great jazz chops. He used to drum for Swedish psych improvisers My Brother The Wind. Mathias Danielsson plays pedal steel on both albums. Like Tomas he used to play with My Brother The Wind. He has worked hard to master the pedal steel and the hard work has really paid off. Now he’s able to do amazing things. Lisa Isaksson plays flute, harp and sings on the new album. Anyone who hasn’t heard her band Lisa o Piu should get their first album When This Was The Future. It sounds like a strange cross between Linda Perhacs and Mellow Candle but with a Swedish spirit. Quicksilver Messenger Service used female voices to great effect on their first album. Linda Heiling has been our own one woman Ace Of Cups choir on Broken Circle.
What would you say are your own, and the group’s main musical influences … and has this been pretty much the same since the recording of the first LP, and if not then what things might have changed here for you?
We don’t want to sound like anybody else and when we try we usually fail, which to me is a good thing. Sure we’re part of tradition. Some might even say we’re short of original ideas and just doing things that have been done before, but that to me is missing the point. As long as you don’t sound like anybody else you’re doing something innovative. Compared to the first LP we tried to make to make Broken Circle sound bigger. We also wanted to open it up a bit and use longer instrumental sections. I hear more of early Quicksilver Messenger Service and (David Crosby’s) If I Could Only Remember My Name this time around. Expressionistic filmscores like some of Morricone’s have also influenced us. And if you listen closely you might even hear shades of Led Zeppelin here and there. When it comes to songwriting those who have informed me the most probably are Neil Young, Arthur Lee, Brian Wilson, Nick Drake and David Crosby.
Do all the personnel in the group like to read, and if so can you name just some of your favourite authors, stories, poems or books?
Yes definitely! To name a few favourite authors: Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Thomas Pynchon, Evelyn Waugh, E.M Forster, J. D Salinger. “The Son” by Philipp Mayer was a great recent read. Karl Ove Knausgårds “My struggle” is another.
Is there a literary influence that comes to bear on any particular songs you’ve written – it sounds like there could be – or are most/all of them written from personal experience or from just that burst of creative juice that some writers and groups are in possession of?
I think it’s more a case of being, from an early age, steeped in good storytelling and being exposed to a lot of the old classics. And let’s not forget we’re living in a golden age for TV series. Both Fredrik and I have been inspired by HBO series’ like Deadwood and Game of Thrones. But writing song lyrics is really a unique form. Sometimes the writing stems from something deeply personal. I know I’m onto something when I get a sense of a place or an emotional state. Hopefully the listener will feel and see something too. That those feelings and images are the same as mine doesen’t matter. At the same time I don’t think you should be afraid to fabulate. Use your imagination. Look at Dylan! The idea that all lyrics have to be self-referential is wrong and limiting. Those days of bursts of creative juice seems to be long gone. Nowadays writing a song takes forever. I wish it wasn’t so. When the songs come it’s always in a different form than I hope for. But as long as they come at all maybe I shouldn’t worry too much.
I’ve read that you guys are into some of the US west coast sounds such as played by the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Charlatans and more from that mid-to-late 60s era… but what about the scene in Sweden and in other Scandinavian and European countries, what do you think of the 60s groups that were operating there, and do you have any particular favourites that you’d like to share with our readers?
I hate to disappoint you Lenny but my knowledge of the Swedish and European bands of that time is quite limited. The grass is always greener on the other side (or should that be on the other side of the Atlantic) for some reason. I like the Danish band Day of Phoenix a lot. Very Mad River sounding. I was recently introduced to Hawkey Franzéns Visa från gungor och sand. He used to be in Lea Riders Group but made this album for children in 1970 but don’t let that scare you because you won’t notice that. “Gungor och sand” is such a fantastic song! My favorite Swedish recording from that period is probably Vargen by Thomas Wiehe. Sung in Swedish but I have no idea what he’s rambling on about. Still, utterly magical. The first LP from Contact Nobody Wants To Be Sixteen produced by Kim Fowley, is another one I like.
What other things in life act as a driver for the Greek Theatre, and would make them want to create such exquisitely ethereal sounds?
A need to escape mundane life. A chance for introspection and to see things that are hidden if you don’t take the time and look for them. Also to prove to myself that I’m not a complete failure at everything I try.
Are you happy with the way things are going presently with the group – I hear there have been one or two personnel changes going on in the group since the first album came out … what can you tell us about this and what more is on the horizon for you guys in the rest of 2017 and beyond?
Hopefully we can speed up the recording and mixing processes and release more records at a faster rate. There shouldn’t be four years between your records if you’re not U2 or some big old dinosaur. The next album will probably be a reaction to the latest; something more organic and not so huge sounding. And if possible make a more coherent band sounding album. But how it will turn out depends on what players we can use and what songs we will choose. And we don’t know yet.
I’ve been in contact with Jim Hobson who used be in one of the best bands ever, Morning. If you’re not familiar with that band they made two fantastic albums in the early 70s with the most amazing piano playing. And, believe it or not, but he’s willing to play on our next record. I’ve been one of the lucky few who’ve heard his new music and he’s still got it. If he can bring some of his magic to our music that would be extremely thrilling!
– Lenny Helsing
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