The Unusual History Of Ether | Interview

Copenhagen based act The Unusual History Of Ether might technically be returning to Dublin as international representatives at YouBloom Dublin, but dig deep enough into their history and you’ll learn our capital is actually their home. Irish frontwoman  Rebecca Collins is a Danish-based emigrant, forging a musical career in one of Europe’s modern day musical hubs, home to the likes of Efterklang, Trentemøller and Horrorpops. Ireland still holds and allure, clearly, with the band returning regularly to tour the island and deliver their own brand of atmospheric, jazz-inspired dinginess to our shores. It’s easy to love: check out what Rebecca had to say about the band, and the gorgeous ‘Part One’ EP below.

The Unusual History of Ether is an enigmatic name. Where did it come from?

One of the first songs Mikkel and I wrote together is called ‘Joshua’ and it has a lyric about “twirling in the ether”. When it came time for us to choose a band name we both coincidentally wanted to use the word ether – it has a mysterious quality to it, but also some curious scientific undertones. So we did some research and found an old medical article called “The Unusual History of Ether”. We laughed about how ridiculous it would be to give ourselves such a long name, then we fell silent, realizing that it had just attached itself to us.

You’ve just finished writing your debut album, ‘A Distant Age’, which isn’t due until September. What kind of reaction are you hoping for?

Yes, the album will be released on 2nd September on the Danish label ILK. A positive reaction would of course be nice but it feels strangely abstract to think about “the big picture”. It makes more sense for me to think of it on a personal level. I’m thinking of the people who’ve been coming to our gigs so far, and responding in such lovely, personal ways to our songs – I hope that the album fulfills its purpose as a way for them to have our songs in their everday lives. Of course, if more people discover our music through the release of this album, all the better.

What are you collective musical backgrounds, and how did you come together as a band?

I’m from a song-writing background but I fell in with a bunch of great jazz musicians as soon as I left college, so I’ve mostly played with musicians from that world over the years. That is how I met Mikkel – a mutual friend organized a concert of my songs for the Dublin Fringe Festival back in 2006 and Mikkel was one of the musicians he enlisted to play the show. Mikkel and I started writing together in 2010 and I moved to Copenhagen when we officially became The Unusual History of Ether and started gigging. Through Mikkel I met Jeppe Skovbakke and Jeppe Gram, who make up the rest of the band. They all come from a jazz education background but I would hesitate to call them jazz musicians because that would seem too restrictive – they are all just fantastic musicians and composers, who dig all kinds of music and play in all kinds of bands. The more musicians I meet these days the more I realize how genre is less and less relevant.

The album has some fantastically dramatic, decrepit imagery on the cover. How does that fit in with the music?

Thankyou! All of the artwork for this album (and also for our EP ‘Part One’) is the original work of a fantastic young German artist named Luise Schricker. When you encounter an artist with such incredible focus and depth, you don’t want to interfere or dictate. It’s a trustful collaboration, as it’s clear she has an element of darkness to her, which we share. So, we just asked her to give us her emotional response to the music and the lyrics and that’s how it fits together – it’s just her honest artistic response.

You covered Beach House last time you were over in Ireland, and your sound has a lot in common with the Baltimore act. Do they hold a special place in your hearts?

I’m certainly a Beach House fan, and I know that Mikkel is too. I think they are fantastic songwriters – you really sense their devotion to songwriting as a craft, and I really respect that. It was quite a spontaneous decision to do that cover song though. We were asked by Lyric FM to do a cover as part of a live session and it was around Halloween time so, cheesy and all as it is, that song popped into my head and the others said “Let’s do it!”. We changed it quite a lot though, tried to come at it from a totally different angle. I must also admit that I made up some of the lyrics because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what she was singing sometimes! We also transposed it up a bit so I could sing in a higher register because Victoria Legrand has such a beautiful, distinctive low voice and I felt I would just be doing a poor impression of her if I sang it in the same key. So it ended up being pretty different.

There’s quite a dark edge to your sound. Is there an element of therapy to it?

The perception of “darkness” in music in general, intrigues me. It points to so many things. Is it the excitement, the danger, the sadness, the slowness, the loudness, the quietness, the minor key..? It can be all those things and more but, ironically, it seems to be the element that so many people are thrilled, animated and overjoyed by. It’s a beautiful paradox. My personal opinion is that “darkness” is as integral a part of music as it is an integral and undeniable part of human nature. And that is why all music, not just our music, can be so massively therapeutic for anyone who experiences it. To acknowledge the duality of ourselves and our world can only be a relieving experience for most of us, who usually go about our daily lives suppressing so much and trying to be perfect!

You featured on RTE’s The Works not so long ago. You made it on to a good range of radio stations, too. How was the experience? How difficult is obtaining publicity in Ireland from further afield?

Our experience of playing on The Works was extremely positive. They put a lot of thought and effort into incorporating some of our video footage and visual aesthetic into their set design, which was really heartwarming actually. On the day we pretty much hit the ground running and were in and out quite quickly. Everyone there was super nice to work with. In terms of obtaining publicity, it may be a slight advantage being based overseas, in that it’s a bit of an “angle” pr-wise. I don’t think it makes a huge difference though…it’s still very challenging to get coverage as an independent band. I’m an old-school believer in word-of-mouth and since it’s the only thing we can actually control, I see every gig we do as publicity.

Are there Irish and Danish aspects to your sound? The most obvious come through the distinctly Irish lyrics, perhaps, but can you pick out any other specific regional influences?

Honestly, picking out specific influences in our music, regional or otherwise, would be quite a challenge! When I think of the four of us meeting up to work on our music…the amount and range of music we’ve listened to, absorbed, played or created in the previous week alone…it’s amazing that we can somehow all hit the same wavelength and produce something! It’s a great chemistry, and makes it more interesting and challenging to create together than if we were all obsessed with the same couple of bands. We each bring a huge assortment of ever-changing tastes and influences to the table. However, in terms of us being a Danish band…perhaps if you listen closely enough you’ll hear echoes of the kind of rugged determination required to cycle through the snow to rehearsals…the slight hysteria in our voices at the first hint of spring….the fizz of a beer can when we stop for a break… In other words, it’s just like Ireland – weather and alcohol!

The music industry is notoriously fickle. If you had just one song to make your case, and push the band forward, what would you want people to listen to?

Ah, if you only knew how we’ve struggled to figure this one out! It’s three months to our album release and we still can’t decide on a single! We genuinely just cannot decide. We have asked so many people and absolutely everyone, including the four of us, have different favourites. It’s a bit of a conundrum, actually. Everyone we ask has such a strong opinion about a certain song and it’s quite obvious that they’ve connected with it quite personally, so how can we possibly decide for others what song they will connect with? It’s very un-savvy of us, but as you say, the industry is a fickle beast so we’re not too concerned with trying to please such a creature. It’s just encouraging for us that all of our songs seem to appeal to a wide range of listeners.

Danish music seems to have a growing reputation internationally, with Copenhagen in particular a real hub. What are the best and worst things about the city?

Well, I can only speak from my own perspective, as an Irish person who has lived there for almost 2 years now. It’s true that there seems to be a greater focus on Danish bands at the moment, which is wonderful. I think a lot of Danish bands, like Iceage, Pinkunoizu, Our Broken Garden, off the top of my head, have been doing really well in the UK and I guess that means that the UK, which is a huge music market, has turned its head a bit towards Denmark. The music scene in Copenhagen feels really vibrant to me right now. I love it here and it actually reminds me a lot of Dublin in terms of the size of the city, and all the various little “scenes” rubbing up against each other. One of my favourite things about the city is how healthy it feels to live here. Because so many people cycle, it doesn’t feel so polluted, and I’m talking about noise pollution too! Before I moved here, I lived in London for a few years and I really love being beside the sea again, just like in Dublin. In general I feel like there’s a really nice balance between urban life and nature in this city, and that’s hugely important to my mental wellbeing! The bad things are all weather-related for me: the crazy wind that blows against you no matter which direction you’re going in, the rain that suddenly comes down in biblical amounts, and the seemingly interminable winter!

Which other local bands do you consider to be ‘must knows’ for anyone visiting Copenhagen?

I recently caught a great gig by a band called Selvhenter. They blew my mind – it’s sort of improv/rock but with 2 drummers and 2 horns, and I think sometimes violin too. Incredible intensity and energy!! There’s also I Got You on Tape, who have put out some fantastic albums over the past few years. Our bass player Jeppe Skovbakke also plays with them. Incredible surrealistic lyrics…really good. Another great Danish band is Ibrahim Electric – they’re a trio of organ/guitar/drums and their music is like a crazy mash up of many styles from jazz to rock to balkan music. They are super energetic and also really joyful and humorous. Then there is Equilibirum, which is one of Mikkel’s other bands. Equilibirum also consists of one of my favourite singers, Sissel Vera Pettersen, and one of my favourite saxophone players, Joachim Badenhorst and their music is sublimely beautiful, well worth checking out!

Finally, what do you hope to get out of YouBloom, is there anything in particular you’re excited about?

I’m hoping we get the time to check out some of the other acts that are performing. I think I saw that Katie Kim is also playing. She’s from Waterford, same as me, and her music is really really beautiful, so I’d love to catch her gig. We’re mostly just really excited to be returning to Dublin. We haven’t played there since last Halloween and we won’t be back until the album tour this October so it’s really great to have the opportunity to play there under the YouBloom banner. It feels nice to be part of a larger event, and a broader musical context, instead of the usual feeling of being on our own little intrepid voyage, which is how touring often feels!

The Unusual History Of Either play Twisted Pepper, Abbey St, Dublin at 8.20 on Saturday June the 29th 2013, as part of YouBloom@Dublin.

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