Reinvigorated after a difficult few years in the wilderness, Swedish trio Death and Vanilla are back with a new album, a more focused pop sensibility, and a renewed sense of optimism

For many people, music has provided a much-needed balm in these challenging times. Personally, when I need a buffer between myself and the real world, I turn to comforting old favourites like film scores, library music collections and the pastoral electronics of the Clay Pipe label. But recently, more than anything else, I’ve been replaying the records of Death And Vanilla.

Part dreampop, part Radiophonic Workshop experimentalism, the Swedish trio have crafted a unique sound since first emerging in 2009, with a hazy shimmer that dips in and out of otherworldly psych, 1960s and 70s film soundtracks and kosmische, all bathed in a warm and inviting analogue glow. Their latest album, ‘Flicker’, finds them building on the gauzy drift of their previous records. It’s quite possibly their best and most accessible work to date, and making it proved to be a healing experience for the band.

“It feels like a fresh start,” says co-founder Anders Hansson, speaking from Malmö, Sweden, where the group reside.

On the couch next to him is singer Marleen Nilsson. Multi-instrumentalist Magnus Bodin joins shortly after. They’re a quietly spoken and unassuming bunch, but their passion for music and obvious excitement to be playing together again shines through as they talk about their first new material since 2019’s ‘Are You A Dreamer?’. Still, it hasn’t all been plain sailing – the last few years have been particularly tough, not least because Hansson and Nilsson both got very ill during the first wave of Covid.

“We had to take a break for almost a year before we could actually start again,” explains Hansson. “We were too tired to even listen to music. We had some stuff we’d started working on before the pandemic, but none of it felt relevant anymore after what we had just gone through. Basically, we shut down completely and didn’t do anything. We were working on a new album which was supposed to be released by the end of 2020, but that got cancelled. We all realised, ‘This is gonna take some time…’.”

Let’s back up a little. Death And Vanilla formed back in 2007, initially as the duo of Hansson and Nilsson. Magnus Bodin had known and played with Hansson in other bands since they were teens and was quickly added to their line-up. An attempt to bring in a live bassist and drummer proved less successful, however, so the group reverted to a threesome. Their cryptic name, incidentally, was inspired by two childhood pet rabbits – one black (Death), the other white (Vanilla).

The band’s 2009 digital debut single, ‘Godspeed’ / ‘Ghosts In The Machine’, immediately established Death And Vanilla’s base sound – reverb-drenched soundscapes of synth and tremolo guitar embellished with organ and vibraphone, with Nilsson’s hushed, haunted vocals woven throughout, sometimes at the forefront, occasionally as simply another texture.

The trio’s first physical release was a four-track EP in 2010. It sold out quickly, and a self-titled album followed two years later. In 2015, they signed to Fire – subsequent home to like-minded acts such as Jane Weaver, Vanishing Twin and Faten Kanaan – after a surprise Facebook invitation from the label.

That same year, their ‘To Where The Wild Things Are’ long-player hit just as interest in hauntology was gaining momentum, and the band soon found themselves tagged in with the scene. Hauntological feels like a slightly uneasy descriptor for Death And Vanilla, though.

They don’t sound much like typical Ghost Box artists, and although often compared to Broadcast (something that has become a source of mild annoyance to them over the years), the connection has undoubtedly helped them find a wider audience.

Then, following the ‘Are You A Dreamer?’ album, there was… silence. When they regrouped, Hansson says they all felt jaded and “a bit bored with ourselves”, and their enforced break compelled them to reconsider the sort of music they wanted to record. After six months or so of “jamming”, they tried to come up with new ideas. The temptation may have been there to make a piece about their recent ordeal, but Hansson is quick to stress that ‘Flicker’ is not about the pandemic.

“Even though that’s still going strong and there’s lots of crap happening around the world, we want to look forward,” he affirms.

“I think the only way it really impacted the songs is that we wanted everything to be more upbeat,” adds Nilsson. “After not having the strength to play music for so long, we wanted everything to feel positive. Getting together again and jamming kind of brought back a feeling of, ‘Yeah, we can do this – we can make good stuff and put Covid behind us’.”

Photo: Aron Lindhagen

It would be an exaggeration to say that ‘Flicker’ is a vast departure from previous albums – ‘Find Another Illusion’ is classic Death And Vanilla, with Nilsson’s dreamlike vocals atop a lush, wistful soundscape (“There’s a song where I layered up my voice until it sounded like a synth,” she reveals), while ‘Looking Glass’ is awash with haunted organ and vibraphone.

But where previous works would linger in the atmospherics, ‘Flicker’ cuts to the chase with a stronger, more focused pop sensibility. ‘Out For Magic’ has a propulsive drive (“The result of me listening to Talking Heads constantly – post-punk basslines, but done our way,” says Hansson), while ‘Mercury’s Rising’ is arguably the loveliest thing they’ve ever made. A softly shimmering lullaby, it radiates with warmth and Nilsson’s reassuring vocal – “We are in a dream / Nothing can be real / And we’re doing just fine”.

“As Marleen said, ‘upbeat’ has been the mantra over the last two years,” stresses Bodin. “When we do our long instrumental jams, it’s often slowed down, droney. We have a tendency to get stuck in the ambient stuff – that’s easy. It’s very difficult to make a three-minute pop song and very easy to do one that lasts 15 minutes!”

“Everything we do is built on loops,” explains Hansson. “We record a drumbeat, a bassline or whatever, and then layer something on top. The writing is also the recording. We don’t ‘write’ songs, as such. We record sounds, and then we make them into songs. Usually, we have to get rid of lots of tracks because there are so many!

“On ‘Are You A Dreamer?’, drummer Måns Wikenmo played on all the tracks, but our early records are all drum machines and samples, so we went back to that, using different drum machines and giving them a lot of attention. Marleen started playing bass on the organs again. I was playing more guitar and suddenly we had a band sound instead of ambient. We were having a really good time. So, yeah… we kind of started again from scratch.”

Influences on ‘Flicker’ came from some surprising sources.

“We were listening to a lot of 80s stuff,” says Hansson. “Particularly The Cure’s early albums, like ‘Faith’. We used to listen to them growing up and they still feel relevant today. When we were ill, we were mainly playing a lot of new age music, because it was soft and quiet. Things like forest sounds mixed with synthesiser – I started to really enjoy it! But a lot of what I’m into at the moment is reggae and dub.”

That certainly shines through in the thick low end of the second track, ‘Baby Snakes’, which positively booms out of the speakers.

“I think it’s safe to say we all have different influences,” adds Nilsson. “We listen to hip hop. I don’t listen to metal but Anders and Magnus both do. Quality always matters more than genre.”

Following the album release will be a string of UK shows in April, and while they’re clearly excited about getting back on the road, they’re also intimidated by the prospect of performing live again.

“We haven’t played any of our songs for over three years,” says Bodin. “Time is going really fast and we’re having to relearn everything.”

“We’re looking forward to the shows, though,” adds Nilsson. “We really want to get out and play this album in particular.”

Having been together for 16 years, Death And Vanilla know each other’s foibles inside out. Stylistically, how have they changed during that time?

“I don’t know,” admits Hansson. “When I think about it, a lot has changed. When we started, we were almost in our own little bubble.”

He puts their continued success down to how well they gel in the studio.

“We’re a good unit, you know? We know each other very well, musically. There’s never really any discussion, like, ‘What are we gonna play?’. When we’re together, we just start playing immediately. Everyone knows where the other person is coming from. We know what sounds good and what doesn’t, which is something that’s developed over time.”

As for the future, the band are keen to play more shows and further explore the possibilities of composing soundtracks – which makes sense, given their cinematic chops. They’ve previously composed two live scores to accompany film screenings, which were later released as albums.

The first was an eerie, Moog-centric set for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s iconic 1932 horror movie, ‘Vampyr’, performed at 2012’s Lund International Fantastic Film Festival and released the following year. This was followed by a haunting and melancholic reimagining of Philippe Sarde’s score for Roman Polanski’s ‘The Tenant’, recorded at 2015’s Cinemascore film festival in Spain and issued on vinyl by Fire in 2018.

“Doing those was great,” enthuses Hansson. “‘Vampyr’ happened by chance, really. We were asked by the festival, and we thought, ‘We’ve never done that before, but it sounds cool’. We had a few pieces worked out, but most of the music was improvised as we rehearsed. It was hard but satisfying – a very different thing from writing pop songs. The soundtracks kind of feel like an unfinished thing for me. We need to do at least three! It’s a magic number. We’re waiting for a good opportunity for that to happen.”

For now, though, Anders Hansson, Marleen Nilsson and Magnus Bodin are feeling optimistic and happy to be making music again – although the scales could very easily have tipped in the opposite direction.

“It could have gone the other way,” admits Nilsson. “You have all these things you maybe want to address or make the music about, but instead we decided we wanted to put all the bad stuff behind us and just have some fun. Making music brings us so much joy, and that’s the thing to hang on to.”

‘Flicker’ is released by Fire

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