A spectrogram-powered Russian synth, Tibetan drums made of human skulls, and the world’s largest cowbell are just some of the weird instruments that feature on the new album from Helsinki’s Pepe Deluxé. We lift the lid on their box of delights 

“The Great Stalacpipe Organ in Virginia is the largest musical instrument in the world,” says James Spectrum of Pepe Deluxé, explaining the original impetus behind their bizarre new record, ‘Phantom Cabinet Vol 1’. “It’s been there since the 1950s, and every year half a million people go to see it, but nobody had composed a single song for it before we did. And that gave us an idea – if this beautiful monster had been hiding in plain sight, what other gems might be out there? So we thought, ‘Let’s find two or three other instruments like this’ – but what happens very often with our adventures is that we open one door, step  in and can’t return. We open up a new dimension.”

Over the last 24 years, Finland’s Pepe Deluxé have evolved from their roots as a sample-driven electronic act, most famous for the track ‘Before You Leave’ (used in 2001 on a Levi’s advert), to become a far more wide-ranging project. But ‘Phantom Cabinet Vol 1’ is a giant leap into the unknown and, without doubt, the strangest and most ambitious record they’ve ever made.

Taking in such disparate inspirations and sound sources as Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions, Soviet synths that translate pictures into sound, Indian rocket technology, epic Finnish myths and Tibetan drums made out of skulls, the album is a time-travelling, worldwide ride with a tangential disregard for genre purism. The aforementioned Great Stalacpipe Organ, an esoteric American tourist attraction in Luray Caverns, Virginia, first cropped up on 2012’s ‘Queen Of The Wave’. It gave Pepe Deluxé (today consisting of core members James Spectrum and Paul Malmström) the idea of using a plethora of weird and wonderful instruments, many of which had been forgotten or neglected.

‘Phantom Cabinet Vol 1’ plays on the German idea of the “Wunderkammer” – the cabinet of curiosities – by showcasing an array of distinctly odd musical devices. It’s not simply a matter of putting them in the spotlight. Spectrum and Malmström aim to preserve their “souls”.

“If you take an old acoustic instrument and you don’t play it, you start losing the sound,” explains Spectrum. “Instruments in museums are slowly dying. We were capturing their souls, their phantoms, in a cabinet of sounds.”

Spectrum and Malmström are talking from different parts of the world. Spectrum is in Helsinki, the afternoon light fading in the window behind him, heralding the coming Nordic winter. Sporting a baseball cap, he’s an animated presence whose excitement about the new record is palpable. Malmström joins from a bright living room in New York where, he tells us, “It’s a chilly but beautiful fall day”. Wearing a smart shirt, he says less, and is measured and thoughtful in his responses.

‘Phantom Cabinet Vol 1’ has been 10 years in the making, during which time the duo have collaborated remotely across the Atlantic, meticulously collecting, archiving, recording and piecing together the elements of the songs. The album is eclectic in the extreme, switching styles mid-song or affixing fragments of various genres into psychedelic mosaics.

‘Sommarland’ moves from breezy guitar strums and cheerful whistling into melancholic pastoralism, like something from a folk-horror film. ‘22nd Century Dandy’ is a marauding blend of 70s psych rock, funk, prog and gnarly synths, with a rabble-rousing female vocal from Charlotta Kerbs, and ‘Fire Up The Crimson Lion’ features weird robotic vox, dubbed-out bass, baroque chords and words that seem intoned by a Valkyrie (also Charlotta).

“It’s like discovering a whole bunch of unusual colours, then finding an interesting way of putting them all together to become something new,” explains Malmström. “It’s postmodern, I guess.”

Although the songs on the record contain sounds from some of the most unusual instruments in the world, it never feels like a gimmick. One of the wildest tracks is ‘Tyger Boy, Rocket Boy’, a head-scrambling blend of Indian classical vocals, Bollywood strings, surf-rock guitar and drum ’n’ bass beats. The motivation for the song was Tippoo’s Tiger, a famous artefact in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. A large wind-up automaton carved from wood and depicting a tiger mauling a soldier, it was made for Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore in South India, who for some time successfully repelled the British army with explosive rocket technology. While the device itself was enough to fire up Malmström and Spectrum’s imaginations, it also had a built-in organ keyboard, which appears on the track.

“It even inspired the lyrics, because the stories that go with Tippoo’s Tiger are just so awesome,” enthuses Spectrum. “I think the V&A has something like four million objects and it’s one of the main ones – one of the many things that the British stole from other countries. So we’re writing from the perspective of turning them into representatives of an evil empire. The bad guy from the British point of view is actually the hero of the song, because he was an Indian freedom fighter and also the last proper sultan. The British were so successful in later wars because they took the rockets from Tipu and improved them.”

A poem by Leonardo da Vinci is transposed into a melody in ‘Fire Up The Crimson Lion’, using sounds in the words as pitches on a musical scale. It also employs two musical inventions by da Vinci, which were never realised at the time – one a primitive drum machine, the other a synthetic string orchestra. Pepe Deluxé played devices created to da Vinci’s original blueprints, painting the artist and inventor as an unwitting pioneer of electronica.

“‘Fire Up The Crimson Lion’ is a line that actually refers to da Vinci himself, and also to a drum machine which was never built until now,” says Spectrum. “He designed it because he felt sorry for the drummers who died during the battles – guys who had nothing to do with the fighting.”

“Horses could drag it, and it would play,” adds Malmström. “The other instrument, the organista, was basically a combination of a string orchestra and a piano. It was eventually built by a Polish instrument maker – it took him 5,000 hours – so we composed for it and got access to recording with it.”

The esoterica continues elsewhere on ‘Phantom Cabinet Vol 1’. ‘Halls Of Kalevala’ concerns the epic Finnish folk tale ‘Kalevala’, which inspired JRR Tolkien and countless other writers and artists. The halls themselves were proposed by famed Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen as a centre for the study of ‘Kalevala’, which would also house cinemas, research labs and a slightly creepy addition to the basement.

“Saarinen wanted to have a crypt underneath where Finnish heroeswould be buried,” recalls Spectrum. “But the halls were never built. Theywere designed in 1919, but as we’d become independent from Russia in 1917, nobody had any money so obviously it never happened. So we thought, ‘Let’s make it with music’.”

To recreate it via sound, Pepe Deluxé recorded live drums in different rooms to give the feeling of movement through a physical space, and also played traditional wooden horn instruments from the same regions of Finland where the ‘Kalevala’ folk stories were first gathered. But what gives the song its special atmosphere is the spoken word vocal of Cyrus Faryar, who acts as a virtual tour guide of the imagined halls. The original voice on ‘Cosmic Sounds’ – the 1967 milestone by The Zodiac and one of the first widely popular synth records – Faryar is the connective tissue between Pepe Deluxé and the long lineage of electronic sound.

“His voice is so perfect,” says Spectrum. “It’s like an exotica voice – you can’t really place it anywhere and it has this timeless quality. If we had any kind of regular person doing the narration, it wouldn’t have had that magic. His voice is from another dimension, and it also has a connection to the beginning, to the first synth-rock album. It’s a nice cultural connection.”

Perhaps the record’s strangest instrument is the ANS synthesiser. Developed in the Soviet Union by Evgeny Murzin, it had the occult capability of transferring images into sound via an artificially drawn spectrogram. 

Pepe Deluxé, in a darkly humorous acknowledgement of the apocalyptic times we live in, decided to take William Blake’s drawing of ‘The Last Trumpet’ – “The one that signals Armageddon is coming,” explains Malmström – and turn it into a musical embellishment on the song ‘General Deluxé’.

“The name ANS comes from Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin,” adds Spectrum. “He was a 19th century Russian composer whose final multimedia work was intended to last for one week and take place in the Himalayas. It would finish with the end of the human race and the coming of a new, higher creature.

“The ANS was invented in the 1930s, but you could never build it properly because it was in the Soviet Union. You couldn’t buy any of the components privately. The only way you could build one would be by stealing the parts and you knew what would happen if you did that – you’d be sent to Siberia. After Stalin died, the rules got a little bit looser, so you can hear the ANS synthesiser on ‘Stalker’ and ‘Solaris’ – the famous films by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s a perfect machine for these spacey atmospheres.”

To source the sounds for the new record, Pepe Deluxé often had to work remotely, composing the musical parts and then sending directions to the owners of the weird instruments, instructing them how to play and record the relevant sections. Sometimes, though, there was really no option but to be there in person.

“In Denmark, at Frederiksborg Castle, I recorded this pipe organ,” says Spectrum. “Paul had composed the music, but I had to be there to guide the organist. We only had two or three hours to come up with the sound. A pipe organ isn’t really an instrument – it’s more like a vast orchestra. So telling the organist to play these notes is no help, because it’s all about the stops and levers. You have to be there to record and capture the sound.

“Sometimes it was unavoidable, but many times it was all about asking the owner of the instrument or the museum to do the recording, and we had this whole procedure for informing people how to do it. It sounds quite simple, but it usually involved 100 emails and sometimes many tries before it actually worked out.”

Although the record involved minimal air miles, Pepe Deluxé devised ‘Phantom Cabinet Vol 1’ as a kind of aural travelogue, bringing different parts of the world – and imaginary places – to the armchair traveller through the sounds of these recondite instruments. At a time when many are prevented from physically travelling, these virtual journeys have appeal.

“At the beginning of this album, we talked about the idea of travelling to places that maybe didn’t exist,” says Malmström. “So I guess it’s a worldwide tour, but also of a world that doesn’t exist. It deliberately gets quite esoteric because that’s what’s fun. That’s our way of having a beer together.”

Pepe Deluxé started out as a hip hop and sampledelia outfit in 1998, comprising James Spectrum, DJ Slow and JA-Jazz. The other two members left over time, with Paul Malmström joining in 2008. Though their sound has certainly changed and become more organic in recent years, the band still approach their music with a sample spotter’s magpie mentality.

“We started with samples and we’re still part of that world where you’re sculpting and you add stuff, then you carve something away,” says Spectrum. “The musical diversity comes from the fact that it’s not a linear process. This is the way we work, taking all these ideas and making them into our music. We don’t constantly listen to Indian music or 70s funk, but all styles have perfect ideas, perfect for something.”

Through all their music runs a seam of madcap humour, whether that’s manifested as outlandish noises, unexpected twists and turns or comical spoken word parts. The new album’s ‘Placebo PCB-1’ satirises the instant gratification of the internet age, with a fake advert for a guitar pedal that transforms the player into a god-like musical genius. Pepe Deluxé acknowledge this humorous thread is a vital part of their work – but also worry that not everyone will understand where they’re coming from.

“I think that’s an essential ingredient in everything we do,” agrees Malmström. “There are many little moments where we think, ‘This will be fun, right?’.”

“But it’s also dangerous because some people don’t really get it,” interjects Spectrum. “Sometimes people think we are being ironic or, as the British say, ‘Are you taking the piss?’. Absolutely not, because we love these curiosities and these weird cultural things. I think it’s because we share this Nordic, slightly dark sense of humour. We are quite serious people, and the ability to laugh at things – especially the weather – and be proudly crazy is part of the Pepe thing. It’s about playing, but without worrying about what the other people are thinking.”

“Any human brain has the ability to have a couple of different emotions going on at the same time,” adds Malmström. “No human being is that one-dimensional. The fact that you can pay tribute to something sincerely and have fun with it at the same time is perfectly acceptable. Why not?”

In addition to the ‘Phantom Cabinet Vol 1’ album, Pepe Deluxé have created a website that will act as a virtual gallery (or Wunderkammer) for the curious to explore the artwork and stories behind the album’s array of instruments. Having gathered so much material and recorded so many songs, they’re also not far off completing ‘Vol 2’, which has the even more ambitious and deliciously absurd conceit of evoking the Big Bang through music.

“It’s about keeping the playful attitude because it’s not really work,” says James Spectrum. “It’s not like, ‘Let’s compose a song’. It’s more, ‘What kind of adventure or wild ideas can we come up with?’.”

“The amount of time it takes and the amount of detail that maybe only one or two people would appreciate – is it worth it? But clearly, for us, it is,” smiles Paul Malmström. “When you’re doing something that feels really good to you, it’s almost a consequence that there will be souls out there who will enjoy it too.”

‘Phantom Cabinet Vol 1’ is out on Catskills. For more, visit pepedeluxe.com

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