We never had a certain idea of what it should be more than a place with high ceilings for expression and room for development in any direction. So in it’s core Thus Owls is a creature that will always keep morphing.” – Erika Angell
Thus Owls are a Montreal-based band built around the core of Swedish-Canadian couple Erika and Simon Angell. The two met in Amsterdam in 2007. At the time, Simon was touring internationally as a member of Patrick Watson’s band, and Erika was playing with Loney Dear, although both were also deeply immersed in the experimental pop and improvisational scenes in their respective hometowns. The two met, and their immediate musical attraction grew into something more personal. Before long, they were married and the collaboration that is Thus Owls was born.
Simon’s harshly charismatic guitar sound blends with the urgency of Erika’s vocals to create a sound that bends and stretches their unusual compositions into ever newer and surprising shapes. Their soulful adventurousness almost overshadows their musical fluency; pop and folk song forms are refracted through lenses of free noise, punk-rock skronk, and jazz precision. Thus Owls borrows from every corner of popular music, while pushing boundaries beyond any hackneyed genre classification. Humbly, Erika explains it away: “Our personal reason for creating music, to write and record our own music, is always to try to make something that is as genuine, original and personal as possible. It’s not an easy task with so much amazing music already made and so many directions to choose between.” Her mild words and tone stand in contrast to the striking emotional soundscapes they produce.
In the earliest phase of the group, Thus Owls made use of the gaps in Simon’s near constant touring schedule and Erika’s multitude of projects to create two mesmerizing albums in Sweden (Cardiac Malformations in 2009 and Harbours in 2011). The band was always a labour of love and as such a natural priority, so when Erika relocated to Montreal in 2012, and Simon left Patrick Watson’s band, they began to focus full-time on Thus Owls. The duo secured a line-up that included some of their strongest collaborators from each of their communities (Montreal’s Stefan Schneider and Parker Shper, and Stockholm bassist Martin Höper, among others). Out of that swell of change, 2013’s Turning Rocks was made – and album that really reflects the focus and commitment of that moment.
It is in this constantly shifting scenery that Thus Owls finds their sound. The band is a vessel to hold the ever-changing inspirations it contains. In keeping with this spirit, the band has offered up a new EP called Black Matter, which goes back to the core in order to shake things up again.
ABOUT ‘BLACK MATTER’
The latest marker in the constant evolution of Thus Owls is Black Matter – an EP that steps off the path to examine their core from a new vantage point by engaging new sounds, new collaborations and new artistic relationships. Recorded at home and in friends’ spaces, and ultimately tied together with one such new collaborator, Pierre Girard at Planet Studios, the EP format allowed them to start fresh and go deep: “…to focus on something smaller with any kind of detail and perfection you like…” says Erika. Finding liberation in the shorter arc, the two set out to write a handful of songs and almost ended up with a full-length album despite their plan. This 30-minute, 6-song journey reveals uncharted approaches with respect to instrumentation, as well as deep contributions from drummers Liam O’Neill (Suuns) and Stefan Schneider (Bell Orchestre, Luyas) and striking string arrangements by Daniel Bjarnason (Sigur Rós, Efterklang, Ben Frost). The shifting perspective is not just felt sonically – you can see these movements reflected in Karl Lemieux’s (Godspeed You! Black Emperor!) incredible artwork as well.
One of the guiding principles for the duo was to strip back the instrumentation. At the center of the musical palette was the gorgeous, newly acquired Six-Trak – a vintage synth whose warm tones inspired most of the songs, and can be heard throughout Black Matter: “…the frames of these songs are still based around mainly synths, voices, electronics mixed with drums, and some guitars – or more specifically, sounds made with guitars.“ The initial sketches kept these sounds in a minimal and central role, but, as often happens in the band’s exploratory process, the arrangements grew beyond expectations.
This pairing down to the core can be felt in the lyrical themes of the album as well. Thus Owls has always offered a complex mixture of emotional and impressionistic abstraction. Black Matter continues in this tradition, while expanding beyond it. There is a deceptively personal sense of a quest, of finding your way back to your core. According to Erika, it’s a type of rumination and even celebration of “…times when we need to stop and listen, summarize and get rid of what ever garbage we’ve collected along our way to start from a fresh more true and loving place.” Amidst all of the staggering change in their personal lives, it’s only now that the pair have had the chance to take stock and get back to basics. Erika: “I think that the writing of this EP was necessary for me to clean the slate, to close the wide open door a little and give room to the voice that has and will always be the original fire in me.” The EP plays with the idea of ‘home’, and the challenge to find its meaning within one’s self, as distinct from any specific, physical sense of place.
As if to illustrate that subtle thematic concept, much of this work began while the duo were away from home in New York City in January 2015. SKAP, a Swedish organization for composers, has an apartment there at which Simon and Erika were awarded a 2-week residency: “It was such a blessing to spend the days writing music on the quiet and very sunny tenth floor of a building in Chinatown and spend the evenings enjoying the vivid and sparkling life of New York. The music was pretty much written when we got back from there.” The literal return home generated the music. Maybe it was the opportunity to look at it from the outside that allowed them to see it so clearly.
One of the new colours that Thus Owls imagined on this work were string arrangements, and they were lucky enough to find Iceland based Daníel Bjarnason, who aside from his own compositional work (3 albums released by the Bedroom Community label), and works for several large orchestras around the world, has collaborated with musicians such as Sigur Rós, Efterklang and Ben Frost. “What he wrote and added to our music was everything we wanted and beyond. He completely understood our direction and when we received the first drafts of his arrangements they were pretty much perfect right away.” These arrangements were brought to life by Thus Owls’ string quartet of choice: Melanie Bélair, Melanie Vaugeois, Ligia Paquin and Annie Gadbois. “They just nailed Daníels arrangements and put their own voice and additions to them in a beautiful way.”
Also new to the palette on Black Matter is drummer Liam O’Neill, who is a member of the band Suuns, among countless other projects. They set their gaze on Liam because of his comfort and ability to move between jazz, improv, rock, and electronic textures. Another drummer, Stefan Schneider who was a big part of Turning Rocks can also be heard on Black Matter, having contributed the drum beat that is the backbone for the title track.
Most of the synths and frameworks for the songs were recorded either at home, or in Patrick Watson’s Studio, or during the NYC residency. Afterward, they worked tightly with engineer Pierre Girard to record drums, bass and vocals at Planet Studios in March and April 2015. This collaboration of openness and curiosity inspired Thus Owls to explore the studio in the same way they explore composition and performance. “… he [Girard] fully understands our musical minds and is super curious and open to explore in the recording process the same way we explore music. He helped us create the sounds we longed for and introduced us to solutions and ideas that we wouldn’t have thought of ourselves.” The positive experience working with Pierre led them to enlist him to mix Black Matter as well.
With all of this sonic creation, the final puzzle piece was to find the perfect collaborator to draw all of this material together in a visual way – to complement the complexity and intensity of the music. Mutual admiration led them to enlist Karl Lemieux, also known for his work with Godspeed You! Black Emperor! Mirroring their sonic output, Karl provided even more material than they were able to use, but the simplicity and strong visual and emotional contrasts of the final selections frame the EP perfectly and bring Black Matter to life.