Listening to their 2011 debut "Hearts," you can hear the influence of the Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Sigur Rós percolating underneath a blizzard of swirling melodies and opulent vocals.
This Stockholm duo is often mislabeled as a shoegazer band, and although the influences are omnipresent in their music (to a certain extent) they are so much more. I Break Horses literally transform the cold chill of Scandinavia into bursts of sugary, luminous sounds.
"Hearts" (out now on Bella Union Records) is an album filled with both broken and beating hearts that are as fragile and delicate as a single snowflake. Each track features layers of tumbling textured sounds encased within a shell of velvety softness from Maria Lindén's immaculate voice.
She sings as if it is no real bother and has a feel for what literally and figuratively makes the human heart beat. Balck then takes over mixing in harmonies and deposits of perfectly-timed waves of tremolo treats and pulsating palpitations. There are guitars and synthesizers present but they never intrude or overstep their bounds. Instead they serve as the bulwark for skimming the clouds and making the listener feel as if they have taken flight.
It's not hard to imagine these guys trudging through an expansive open wilderness to get to their recording studio as witnessed by the album's crestfallen opener "Winter Beats." It is pretty obvious that isolation, loss and solitude are pervasive elements of their sound. In fact the closest they get to rocking out is the uptempo and dreamy "Wired." "I Kill You Baby" begins with a Poe-like pitter-pat of a human heart before free-falling into an elegiac opus reminiscent of the early days of the Cocteau Twins (ironically, their label is run by Simon Raymonde of that very band). The grimy hands of trip hop have their fingers all over "Load Your Eyes," a blissed-out track with drum machine plodding along behind it that are reminiscent of Portishead, Chapterhouse or the Cranes.
I Break Horses are currently on the road, serving as the opener for M83 on their current tour. Live, the union of Lindén and Balck creates indescribable layers arctic headiness that has made American audiences take notice -- no mean feat for a band in the opening slot on their first major tour.
Vocalist Maria Lindén took some time out from the tour for an interview with me via email.
Rob Levy: How is the tour with M83 going?
Maria Lindén: It's going great. M83 are amazing and lovely people. The venues and crowds have been overwhelmingly beautiful.
How did the tour come about?
Simon Raymonde from our label Bella Union did some magic and made it happen!
There's a lot of great music coming out of Scandinavia right now. Why do you think bands from that area are getting so much attention now?
I haven´t really thought about it that much. But I guess/hope it has to do with that Scandinavians know how to make great music!
Why did it take so long to make "Hearts"?
It was a combination of things. Most of the album was recorded in my bedroom, I tried to re-create my bedroom recordings in a proper studio during the recording process but I felt like these recordings lacked the energy and the vibrancy that was there initially so I ended up scrapping what was recorded there and started all over again at home where I felt more comfortable basically. Also, working full time at my day job during that time also made the whole process longer.
Does being labeled as a "shoegazer" band bother you? You seem more expansive sonically than that.
It doesn't bother me but I don't agree with people labeling the music as shoegaze though, as I feel it has more elements than what people label shoegaze as. We do occasionally stare at our shoes live on stage though!
What is your process for making songs?
For the debut album I always started each song with finding inspirational atmospheric sounds and built a song around that, spending hours and hours with my synths and effect pedals. And then when the music was written we added the lyrics.
Working on the new songs I'm trying different ways, starting with programming a beat I like and evolve a song out of that.
How do you transfer the density and texture of the songs in a live setting?
It has been very difficult to find a way to transfer these textures in a live setting being just a few people in the live band and also not being able to bring all the gear needed to recreate the album sound. So I've been working on rearrangements of the songs better suited for live and finding the right nerve instead of just recreating the album. I kind of like that better anyway to be able give the audience a new experience as most of the ones coming to see us probably already have heard the album. I want to give them something special live rather than trying to just press play in a different way!
Have you begun work on a second album yet?
Yes, hopefully there will be a new album later this year.
There is a sense of desolation in some of your songs. Do you think coming Stockholm, a place that can get pretty cold, influence your sound?
Yes, I think that has a lot to do with it. People in general living in Stockholm are pretty insular; I'm also a very solitary kind of person. I record all my songs alone in my bedroom so I'm sure that had an impact on how the album sounds.
There also are some amazingly hopeful moments are the record as well. Are you a band that wears its emotions on its sleeves when you record songs or do you just let the songs happen organically?
I don't think it is a conscious thing to express THIS emotion in this song and THIS emotion in this song, it just happens sometimes in spite of itself. I may have some feelings of hope when I am writing a piece of music, but it is just as likely to end up sounding utterly desperate! How emotions COME OUT is something I don't think any musician truly understands, and that's a good thing. I think it's best we don't know these things. Analyzing why something sounds like it does is a fruitless task!
Are there any producers you would like to work with?
There are a lot of producers I'd like to work with for the next album. I produced "Hearts" myself so I'd really like to try out working with someone else this time haha! It would be amazing to work with Geoff Barrow of Portishead.
Your music is in a way very filmic, Do you want to do soundtracks?
I've always dreamt about doing soundtracks. That was actually my intention with starting to record music initially as IBH but it turned into an album instead. I'd love to do it if I get the chance some day and if the film is right of course.
What is next for I Break Horses?
We are doing a lot of shows until July and we have a second US tour coming up in September. I'm going to do some remixes and collaborations with other bands and hopefully I will finish the second album before the end of the year.
I Break Horses will be opening for M83 on May 2 at the Pageant.