Heartache hits: Why XL’s Smerz ditched classical training for field recordings and footwork
Norway’s Smerz have been generating attention for their genre-melding, enigmatic sound. Steph Kretowicz talked to the duo about their unique inspirations and singular sources for field recordings, as well as their upcoming EP, Have Fun.
Smerz give a good first impression. Their footwork, R&B and techno inspired work is presented with effortless style, but has a certain sense of withholding that is striking. Words are obscured and field recordings are cut and layered to the point into esoteric new versions of themselves. This wary air of secrecy to their sound belies just how warm the two are in person, but who says you can’t make a good first impression twice?
Their sophisticated music is, actually, the result of a very intuitive, but often clumsy process of self-discovery, both for their artistic and technical developments. Catharina Stoltenberg, one half of the Norwegian duo, is hardly coy about the thorny path it took them to get to where they are now. “There were a lot of awkward situations where friends didn’t want to say that they didn’t like it but they couldn’t say that they liked it either, and we were figuring out that they didn’t like it,” she says, on a sunny July day at XL Recordings’ Los Angeles outpost. “My boyfriend was like, ‘Oh, yeah, great!’ People in the music business in Copenhagen were coming to our shows and afterwards would be kind of awkward.”
It’s not like that anymore. Last year Stoltenberg and her bandmate Henriette Motzfeldt released an EP called Okey, a collection spanning the duo’s years-long evolution as musicians. Lead single ‘Because’ shimmies along minimal beats and cut-up vocals that reveal an underlying, ungraspable truth. ‘Girl’ is one and a half minutes of ambience delicately punctured by a muted kick and hi-hat; its sentences come in fragments – “You know it’s easy, so fuckin’ easy for ya / I’ll be your girl so, if there’s any other girl” – sung in several combinations, sultry and aloof.
Following a gap year of singing and songwriting courses in their late teens, they left Norway to study to study Latin, law and mathematics the University of Copenhagen. It wasn’t long before they both dropped out to pursue music full time. But taking their combined experience in classical violin and theatre into the alien realm of self-expression – they produce in Ableton Live – was adjustment that took a lot of hard work. “Coming from musicals, you’re really used to getting a piece of paper with lyrics and notes and some old guy telling you where to go,” laughs Stoltenberg. “When we started songwriting school, where you just make a song, that was completely something else. We were both super scared.”
Two halves of a single whole, Stoltenberg and Motzfeldt are made for each other. You can sense it in the oppositional forces of masculine and feminine energies, performed in their music, then realised in the balanced reciprocity of their interpersonal dynamic. In the video for their July-released track ‘Oh my my,’ they sit on a bench in a nondescript yard underneath a drizzle, staring listlessly at the camera. A warbling melody carries Motzefeldt’s breathy mumble while being whomped by cuts of heavy distortion. It’s a scene and sound that’s both vulnerable and confronting. “It’s been super nice because with spending so much together, we end up talking so much about our lives and problems,” says Stoltenberg. “You can almost as easily, or maybe more easily write about the other and then probably you get this kind of overview because it is sometimes easier for another person to figure it out.”
Writing from an atypical point of view comes naturally to the duo, especially when they are writing about the heart. It’s a theme that stays with them even down to the band name, taken from a rhyming German saying Schmerz im Herz, which roughly translates to “pain in the heart.” “It’s not often directly about heartache but what mood you come into from the heartache,” says Motzfeldt about the main inspiration for their music. Sometimes that comes in the form of reserved uncertainty, like on the track ‘Thrill’. “The lyrics say, ‘At this point I go far for a heart beat,’” Stoltenberg says. “It’s a situation where you really want something to happen but you kind of don’t bother, then you try to do these right things that you should do to ‘get a heartbeat.’” In the video, these “right things” are dressing up: Motzfeldt languishes in a bright red vinyl jacket in front of a mirror, the usually dressed-down and androgynous Stoltenberg tries on girlier outfits and experiments with makeup.
New music for an upcoming EP called Have Fun is more confident and robust. ‘No Harm’, which they premiered earlier this month on their NTS residency, goes deep and dark with the wallop of a heavy bass line that’s smothered in the creepy high pitch of the empty, repetitious phrase: “No harm in trying.” Their latest, ‘Half Life’ lumbers on the creaking, bestial distortion of some kind of echoing sample of what sounds like combative human cries. The title track features the sound of a crowded room blended with layers of an atonal organ line and a crisp vocal repeating “have fun” in a rhythmic cycle. “
There are some limitations to our producing because we’re not that good at all the production tools, like we don’t use hardware and stuff,” says Motzfeldt. “Field recordings are like a intuitive way of working for us.” They have iPhone recordings of things like a conversation about techno with a regular at the café where Stoltenberg used to work in one song, a drop the two of them liked from a DJ at a random party on another. “It’s just the feeling, right?” Stoltenberg says. “If you think something is cool and then you throw it in there and if it fits, it fits and if it doesn’t, you take it out again.”
“When you’re not that good at making your own sounds, then bringing these random elements into your music is a nice way of…” she adds, before Motzfeldt, naturally, finishes the sentence: “…making them sound differently.”
Steph Kretowicz is on Twitter.