Remember fun? It’s certainly been a while, hasn’t it?
Almost a year has now passed without any real sort of stimulation for most of us, as if anyone needed reminding that life hasn’t quite been the same during these tumultuous twelve months. The dire situation we still find ourselves in has many of us calling for some small morsel of joy to be injected into our lives, and the seemingly endless slew of disappointing news has us turning to increasingly more serious conversations.
Enter Pom Poko.
With their sophomore album Cheater, the Norwegian art-rock quartet have delivered the perfect antidote to the present glum atmosphere we’ve grown accustomed to; a feverish celebration of weirdness, with mazy hooks and surreal shrieked lyrics that are bursting with charm. While its runtime barely exceeds half an hour, the incessant levels of creativity will provide you with endless replay value to stave off the dour mood and have you finding something fresh upon each listen.
Having impressed with their off the wall approach on their debut, 2019’s incredible Birthday, the swift follow-up does little in the way of showing any sense of maturation or becoming more introspective – instead the more reserved moments that graced their first album are traded for further frenzied moments on the second. The musicianship of the four members demonstrates an indelible chemistry, yet throughout the ten songs there is an unbound freedom in how they weave their parts in between each other.
While the high-octane singles ‘Andrew’, ‘My Candidacy’ and ‘Like A Lady’ earnt the praises of many, the band truly come into their own and showcase the myriad of talents they’re capable of. The interplay between guitarist Martin Miguel Tonne and bassist Jonas Krøvel is nothing but a marvel, with the jazzy drum rhythms of Ola Djupvik only adding to the technical prowess of the group. Meanwhile, the almost childlike quality of Ragnhild Fangel Jamtveit’s vocals completes the band’s manic sound, and whether she’s shrieking surreal lyrics about waterparks and ice cream on tracks like ‘Andy Go To School’ or wishing someone were a dog on ‘Curly Romance’, her contributions appear to provide the perfect finishing touch.
Sure, there are no gigs to go to currently in the UK, but one thing that can be assured is that when Pom Poko do return to the stage overseas, their live show will be just as chaotic as they manage to sound on record (Martin goes as far as to label the last performance of theirs that I saw as having been ‘a dangerous show’; take from that what you will). Despite this absence from performing over here, both Martin and Jonas were eager to discuss the decision behind their quick follow-up to Birthday, returning to normal live shows as soon as possible, and the importance of the love they have received from the UK music press.
First things first, how are you doing? Cheater recently came out and there has been an awful lot of excellent reception for it. What is your general reaction to how people have received it been?
Martin: I think it feels kind of funny to get good press and reviews and stuff now because we recorded the album some time ago. Once it comes out, our job kind of feels like it’s done, but market-wise that’s when it begins. With all the stuff that’s happening now, it feels like we haven’t done anything for that, even though we made the music.
You made the record quite some time ago, right?
Martin: We started recording it almost two years ago, but the last recordings were done this summer. We actually started recording it just before Birthday came out.
Jonas: There were some problems with vinyl pressings, they had some delays because of the virus. In the end it was okay to have it released in January. I think it was nice to begin the year with something good.
You’ve just alluded to the fact that it was a very short space of time between the two records, and they do feel similar in their approach. Was there anything that you consciously thought about for ways in which you wanted to approach making the album differently? How did you think about pushing yourself forward in different ways?
Jonas: That’s a long time ago. We started thinking about if we wanted to do something deliberately different and if we wanted to have some kind of concept, or idea.
Martin: We talked about the possibility of doing it. But in the end, obviously, we didn’t do it. I felt at least that it made sense to not have a second album that was hugely different from the first, even though for us, we knew what our music sounded like. I sometimes felt the urge to, make something very different. But I think that would have been strange when I look at it now. I’m happy we just kind of wrote the songs and made them. Maybe the biggest difference was in the production, we did less overdubs and less massive studio work. But all in all, it wasn’t that different.
You recorded it mostly live then?
Jonas: Yeah, the drums, guitar and bass was all live and Ragnhild was singing with us, but not recording the vocals. The vocals are overdubbed – that was also the case on Birthday. This time we recorded the vocals in the studio, but on Birthday, we recorded them on our own in the rehearsal space. Marcus Forsgren, the guy who engineered and produced it helped us with recording the vocals better, I guess.
I feel like it definitely captures the same sort of energy that you have live that way.
Martin: I think it makes sense for us to do it like this, because we write all the songs as a band. We write the song and play it, and then it’s finished – it feels like a proper song. That may be in contrast to like, if you’re a singer-songwriter, and you write the song, then you bring it to the band in the studio and produce it to sound like that. For us, I think it’s more like, we have made the song and recorded it in the studio, and if we want to sprinkle some stuff on it, we do. We usually try out lots of stuff and either record it and delete it, or just don’t record it at all. Some of it makes it on the album.
The music itself is quite frantic and goes through a lot of rapid changes, but because you write as a band, what sort of challenges you face when trying to get ideas to work together? How have you adapted to each other’s styles in the time you’ve been a band?
Jonas: It’s pretty demanding when we write together because we have to be very switched on all of the time and always try to react to what the others do. I don’t feel that ideas typically collide, that’s not a problem. It’s usually one person taking the lead while the others trying to supplement it, rather than coming with an idea. I think one of the challenges with being in the same place is if someone feels that they have a good idea, and one of us struggles to really come up with something, that really slows things down. I’m quite slow coming up with ideas sometimes. It can be hard because I just don’t know what what to do, but then it always ends up with something. I guess that everyone’s been there.
Were there any new influences you wanted to incorporate on this record or things you heard in the time between recording the previous record and this one that you thought you wanted to sound more like? Any surprises?
Martin: The only thing stands out for me it was Marcus Forsgren’s really deep love for 90s alternative rock, especially with the drum sound. We were just talking about it earlier – the song ‘Like A Lady’ had a really fucked up intro originally, like bad improv noise rock – very long. We just listened to the demo of it and it sounded terrible. But that was the version of the song we were going to record, and then Marcus said “can you try this idea,” which was inspired from a Breeders song. “maybe you can try to pump on that chord and then go straight into the verse”. We did that, and that was much cooler so we just stuck with that. The drum sound for lots of the record has a high pitched snare, which for me, is kind of that 90s rock vibe that I think Marcus was into at that time.
Jonas: I don’t know if the band really listened that much 90s – rather, we’ve listened more to it after Marcus has shown us stuff.
How did you come to choose those ten songs for the album – since most bands would have had the opportunity to test them out on the road in a live setting before the album came out? What made you feel like those are your ten strongest songs?
Jonas: We had two sessions – one in February 2019 where we recorded [non-album singles] ‘Leg Day’ and ‘Praise’, but also ‘Like A Lady’ and ‘Baroque Denial,’ and also two more songs which are not on the album. ‘Leg Day’ and ‘Praise’ were very much a large part of the same process, but I think we had a discussion to not include them on the album, although they could have fitted there. They had been out so long for such a long time that it didn’t feel right. I don’t know how many we didn’t take to the album, I think maybe three or four.
Martin: There was at least one from the session this summer that we recorded that we didn’t use, and then some of the songs from the session in Italy.
Jonas: It wasn’t because they were bad; it was deliberate that the album was going to be shorter than the first one. I don’t remember why, but we wanted it to not be too long, maybe inspired by some very short records which we really like. 20-minute records are very satisfying to listen to. I think it was Ragnhild who really liked ten songs – that’s perfect.
Martin: ‘Like A Lady’ would have been played quite a lot live. The number of times we played it is kind of artificially high because we played lots of school shows in the beginning of 2020, so we played it maybe 40 times. Some of the songs like ‘Baroque Denial’ we barely played good enough to record it, and then after we recorded it, we never played it except for at some rehearsals in very recent times. We were really back and forth on that one. I really love that song, but I also have like strange feelings about it.
As we all know, touring is not what it used to be. Are you able to do like seated shows in Norway at the moment?
Jonas: We actually just did one. It was fun, but also a bit strange. It also looked like a talk show in a way because we were on the floor and the audience was in an amphitheatre with quite a lot of distance and seating. We had to really concentrate on some of the new songs, so the energy went into something else.
Martin: That whole part of the live show is non-existent in those shows, so we can’t really fill that void with playing different or playing better. If anything, I think we play worse. I think we were fine, but you don’t get as riled up from the action in the room, and it’s hard to show appreciation when you’re sitting down. So it’s more like Jonas said, just concentrating on playing, and also that it was very weird to play a show, finally.
You’ve booked a return to the UK in in September, and I wanted to ask you a little bit about your relationship with the scene over here. You’re signed to a UK-based label in Bella Union, and you’ve got a lot of very vocal fans such as Marc Riley of 6 Music and Tim Burgess. How closely do you feel linked to the scene here in the UK and how would you compare that with the scenes that you’re part of in in Norway?
Martin: I think we always have a great time when we play in the UK, and there seems to be a bit of a different culture about going to gigs. I think that the threshold people have for going out and seeing a show is much lower here it seems, at least in in Oslo, where it costs quite a lot more to go to shows and people are much more stingy with what they actually end up using their money on. It seems to me, and I think we’ve talked about it that British people just respond better to noisy music than normal Norwegian people. I don’t know why.
I wanted to talk a little bit about how you met through folkehøgskole [folk college] – from what I understand, it’s quite a creative place to be, and encourages a lot of free thinking and freedom to study whatever areas you’re interested in. What kind of influence that might have had on your ethos as a band and the way you approach making music?
Jonas: We didn’t all meet at the same time, so it’s a bit complicated, but we met at different times at the same school. They’re one of the few that has a jazz study, and lots of musicians in Norway have gone to that folk college because I think their way teaching jazz music conservatory in Trondheim, which is where Martin, Ragnhild and Ola went afterwards. I don’t know if the folk college spirit in itself inspired very much in Pom Poko, but that particular school with that particular line of musical teaching, using improvisation as a tool in all kinds of music – I think that influenced us.
I feel there’s quite a strong link between you and the world of creative arts, because all of your music videos seem to incorporate other things like collaborating with dance troupes and comedy/drag king groups as well. How much does art influence what you do as a band?
Jonas: I think Ola has said that it’s mostly the people that we know in Oslo where there’s a big community of people. It’s usually just some guys that we know who often make some kind of art that we like, and we just ask them if they could be interested in making something with us. Maybe I shouldn’t talk about this, because I don’t live in Oslo, but I just have that feeling here that you can just collaborate with whoever you want. It’s very open, and actually very professional as well. If you contact someone there, they’re going to be very serious. If they say yes, it’s going to be very well done.
What was the idea behind doing your talk show recently as well? How did that come about?
Martin: I think it was Ragnhild who came up with the idea because she knew Marin [Håskjold], who also made the ‘Like A Lady’ video. Marin has made a sort of ‘art talk show’ before, and then when we were talking about stuff to do for the album release, we all felt that we didn’t want to do a normal streaming show because, that didn’t seem like too much fun for us. Then in the spirit that Jonas is talking about, we mostly just let the people who had cool ideas do their thing. When they needed stuff from us, or input from us, we gave it to them. But yeah, we really like to just have interesting and talented people do stuff and come up with the ideas and then see where that takes us.
What are the plans for next and do you see the band developing? You often get compared to bands such as Deerhoof and Lightning Bolt who’ve had very long careers where they’ve reinvented their sound over and over again – do you see yourselves doing the same thing?
Jonas: It’s actually very interesting because I recently found out that there are some amateur album review communities online – we found some very funny reviews. There are some standard praises there, and also some very original ones. Some people really like to point out how this album is good, but it’s mostly a sign of where we’re going, like it’s the start of a very long career where maybe in ten years’ time we’re going to make a great album that this is just, you know, rehearsing. But yeah, we’ve already started making music. I don’t know how much we really know ourselves yet about what’s going to happen, because obviously, there’s going to be a very big time-lapse between the album release and playing shows outside of Norway. We have some plans as to how to fill that gap with something and it feels like we have some good ideas of something that we want to release. New music, but maybe not album format music.
Words: Reuben Cross // Photos: Jenny Berger Myhre
Pom Poko’s sophomore album ‘Cheater’ is out now via Bella Union. You can purchase and stream the full album via the group’s Bandcamp page.