Interview: Berlin’s New Music Duo Them There
When Craig Walker and Phoebe Killdeer were put together in a Paris hotel room for a songwriting session by their music publisher in 2009, they wrote the No 1 hit ‘Fade Out Lines’ in just five minutes. Now they’re collaborating on a new Berlin-based musical project called THEM THERE.
It’s a bitterly cold February afternoon in Kreuzberg, Berlin, but deep in the bowels of the innocuous looking building that houses Riverside Studios a collection of songwriters and musicians calling themselves Them There are getting really warmed up. Usually Hot Press meets bands when they’ve finished making their albums, but on this occasion the recording is actually only just beginning.There’s a lot of serious musical talent gathered in the studio today. In the vocal booth, bearded and bespectacled Dubliner Craig Walker (formerly of 1990’s indie darlings Power of Dreams) and Australian singer Phoebe Killdeer (a one-time member of French act Nouvelle Vague) are working out the chorus of a mournful-sounding pop song called ‘Love is an Elevator’. “Love is an elevator/ takes us high above in the multicolored atmosphere/ Love is an elevator/ must be high or low…” In the main room, the rest of the collective sit around waiting patiently for the singers to get it right. There’s American bassist Tyler Pope, whose night-job is touring with LCD Soundsystem; French drummer Raphael Seguinier, another former member of Nouvelle Vague; and a talented young German guitarist named Jan Hendrik Schmid, who’s still a student at the Baden-Wurttemberg Pop Akademie. Overseeing – or at least overhearing – the song from the adjoining production suite is multi-award-winning producer Victor Van Vugt. An easygoing Australian, he has worked with everyone from The Pogues, Sonic Youth and Nick Cave to Chrissie Hynde, Beth Orton and PJ Harvey (for whom he helmed the Mercury-winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea). Other personnel present are filmmaker Alex Forge, who’s documenting proceedings with his digital camera, and Phoebe’s sister Chloe Tolmer, of Get Your Acts Together management, who’s organizing the whole project. Right now, she’s organizing dinner, setting the table in the studio kitchen and ordering a food delivery from a nearby vegetarian restaurant. It’s been a fairly productive day so far, and there’s a great buzz in the kitchen as we all sit down to break bread together and listen to Victor regale us with stories about first coming over to Europe in 1980 with his childhood friend Nick Cave and his then band The Birthday Party. Victor subsequently produced two Bad Seeds albums, The Good Son and Murder Ballads, and they’re still very much in touch. Craig has made a good number of studio albums in his time, some with Power of Dreams and others with his next band, Archive, but he tells me that this one feels very different. “The vibe in here is just lovely,” he says, speaking in a Dublin accent undiluted by years of living away. “It’s a great buzz. Everybody knows what they’re at and we’re all having a laugh. It’s not always like that with bands in the studio. We’re under a fair amount of pressure time-wise because Tyler has to go on tour with LCD Soundsystem next month and he’s off to New York for rehearsals in a few days. But we’re doing ok.” Craig is actually going to be hitting the road himself in the near future. He’s just made an album called Galvany Street with acclaimed German house duo Booka Shade, and they’ll be touring it around Europe from the end of March. Meaning that the Them There record definitely has to be completed by then. No time to waste. After dinner, it’s straight back to work. They decide to park ‘Love is an Elevator’ for a bit and work on another, more upbeat, song called ‘Invisible’ instead: “And I’m dancing through the madness/ with my smile on/ and the party’ll keep on swinging/ when we’re long gone.” Several hours later it’s almost done, but Craig decides it needs added vocals at the very end. “We’ll all do the last bit together,” he announces. “That means you, Alex, and you as well, Olaf. Get in here and fucking make yourself useful!” “But I can’t sing,” I protest, truthfully. “Everyone can fucking sing, man,” he insists, handing me the headphones. We all stand in a circle in the main room and do the vocals… several times. Someone is definitely out of tune (ahem!) when Victor does the playback. “Try that one more time, folks,” his disembodied voice commands through the headphones. “Well, that’s your song fucked now,” I say, when we’ve finally finished. “Bollocks!” Craig laughs. “You were fine. You’re on the album now.” The following afternoon finds Hot Press sipping lattes beside a battered old piano in a Kreuzberg café with Craig and Phoebe. We’re all feeling a little delicate. After leaving the studio late last night, we went to a nearby bar and stayed into the wee small hours. “That was actually the very first night that everybody went out together,” Phoebe says. “Usually after a long day in the studio we all just go straight home.” Craig and Phoebe both live in Berlin. They first met about ten years ago when their music publisher, Stephane Kaczorowski, put them together for a songwriting session in a Paris hotel. The very first song they wrote was called ‘The Fade Out Line’. Remixed by French producer The Avener, and renamed ‘Fade Out Lines’, it became a massive hit all over Europe in 2014 (its YouTube views are currently in excess of 36,000,000). “It went straight to Number One in Germany the week it was released,” Phoebe recalls. “Then it stayed there for a full year. It was just crazy.” The funny thing is that it took them just five minutes to write the song. “Yeah, we literally wrote it in about five minutes,” Craig smiles. “It was very, very quick. We wrote a few songs that day, but that was the only one that was fully finished. Phoebe had a bit, I had a bit, we put them together… and suddenly there was the song.” The massive success of ‘Fade Out Lines’ couldn’t have come at a better time for either of them. Having spent all of their adult lives in the music business, they were both feeling a little burnt. After she left Nouvelle Vague, Phoebe had released a few critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful solo albums with her bands The Short Straws and The Shift. She had been offered a lucrative deal with a major American record label but, fearing loss of artistic control, she turned it down. “They flew me over to New York to meet the label bosses,” she explains. “I told them that I wanted to make an album that was a bit raw, dirty and jazzy, because I love stuff like Tom Waits, but they told me, ‘That won’t work for America’. I just laughed because it was such a ridiculous statement. “They wanted to make me a pop star. They were saying things like, ‘We can spend a million dollars on your video’. I was stating, ‘But you don’t need a million dollars to make a video!’ Anyway, it was a ten-year contract they were offering. It all kind of felt like a jail sentence.” After Power of Dreams disbanded, Craig had signed up as the new frontman of established London-based electro act Archive. He made three albums with them before deciding to leave. “Archive were very, very successful in Europe,” he recalls. “They were big in France, Switzerland, Greece, Poland, and places like that. We toured everywhere and it was great, but it was also an intense period, because they’d already done two albums when I joined, so the two guys had been together for seven or eight years and they were pretty tight. “It was literally six months in the studio, and then six months on the road. It was great for a while, but I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. Also, they didn’t want me to work with other people, and I didn’t want to just do that.” He was feeling more than a little disillusioned with the music business just before ‘Fade Out Lines’ exploded. “I was getting to the point where I was just getting tired of it all,” he sighs. “I still love writing, but I just couldn’t be bothered with the rest of it. The industry has totally changed. What I found really frustrating is that if you weren’t an established band like Radiohead or whoever when the whole digital thing completely took over, and you didn’t have the fan base, you were fucked. If you did have that you could continue on. Once you had an audience, it was easy to hang on to it, but if you didn’t it’s like throwing your fucking CD up in the air these days. You know, it’s just endless content and endless music… and I was getting pretty tired of it, to be honest.” The unexpected success of ‘Fade Out Lines’ reawakened him to the possibilities of actually making it again. “That song changed our lives, really,” he says. “Suddenly all the doors were open again.” Figuring that they obviously had a really good songwriting chemistry, he and Phoebe decided to keep working together. Craig had been living in London, and then Dublin, but he moved over to Berlin in 2015. “We signed a publishing deal with BMG after the song,” he says. “And BMG also have their headquarters here and they helped me get sorted, they made everything happen. We actually always intended to write more songs, just never in the same place at the same time, but when I came here, we started to work and it started to evolve naturally. “I love Phoebe’s writing and singing, but there’s a trust thing as well,” he continues. “In a writing partnership you have to learn to trust the other person’s opinion, and what they are doing, but there is a mutual respect between us. I mean, after ‘Fade Out Lines’, we simply didn’t know if it would work again. We were going, ‘Maybe we should just leave it at that. Just perfect. One song that became a big hit’. But then we started to write again, and then it was pretty obvious we had a great chemistry.” They’d originally planned to write songs for other artists to sing, but the label execs in the States reckoned that their potential might lie in other directions. “BMG flew us to L.A. and we played the bosses over there some of the tracks we were working on, some very early versions, and they said, ‘It’s too good, you should do it yourself. It’s too good, we wouldn’t recommend sending it to fucking Justin Bieber or whoever’, so yeah we had a bit of an awakening. I don’t think either of us can really write to order, but if you go into that field it’s kind of expected of you.” Back in Berlin, they resolved to write songs for themselves to perform. “We had intended to write songs for other people, and we still intend to do that, but it just felt like we had a collection of songs that were beginning to feel more like they should be together, you know, and the more we were writing together the more we kind of felt like that. We have sessions most days. We write a lot at Phoebe’s house, just guitar and voice, just sitting and writing, and we work quite a bit in my little studio as well. “One thing we have done is we’ll work separately on a track and bring the melody, and we’ll have two ideas, and bring them together. We’ll find a way to incorporate both. And it’s happened quite naturally, we’ve not been aware of what the other one’s gonna sing about, but it fits. And that’s interesting, the merging of two people’s ideas and words.” Phoebe nods her head in agreement. “It leads to very fresh, melodic takes on things. Because usually when I hear something with a melody on it then I can’t find the words. You know what I mean? Because then you’ve got that one in your mind. We write a lot with just guitars and voices. I think you get the best songwriting when you do that. When you get down to just guitar and vocal, then you can hear whether the song’s going to work or not. If it works guitar and vocal, it’ll work any way.” When they decided to record an album together, it was Phoebe who thought up the name Them There. “Do you like the name?” she asks, earnestly. “I just thought kind of ‘them over there’. That songwriters go behind, that they’re not at the front, and I thought it’d be really nice to have that kind of dynamic to it, to really treat it in a relaxed way, and not come up as hard and pretentious. We’re more relaxed than that. We’re the guys at the back, who sit in the dark. The songwriters.” While they’ll most likely seek out a record label when they’ve finished recording the album, they’re currently funding the entire project themselves. “We don’t really need the stress of a label right now,” explains Craig. “I’ve been in studios with bands before and there’s always some guy from the label coming down every fucking ten minutes annoying us and trying to tell us what we should be doing. There’s no label at the moment, we’re doing all this off our own back. Which is great.” Hot Press has only heard two songs, but what’s the planned vibe of the full album? “Well, the album does talk a lot about what’s going on in the world at the moment,” he offers. “But there’s still some positivity there. There’s social commentary for sure, I think, about where the world’s headed. It’s dark at the moment, but it’s not all dark in the lyrics. There’s some love there, too.” “I want the lyrics to be strong,” says Phoebe, “and I know that it will probably take me another forty years before I get to be any good. It takes life experience to get the words and the vocabulary, and then fitting it sonically, correctly, with the melody and all that. I always think that it’s important that a song has a story and meaning behind it. With anything artistic, if there isn’t a story behind it then it’s nothing really.” Craig sips his coffee and nods: “That’s what Victor said to us when we started: ‘What have you got to say? What are you saying? Have you something to say? And if you don’t have something to say, don’t bother saying it’. We’ve taken that advice on board.” As a veteran producer, Victor Van Vugt will be instrumental in deciding how the album ultimately sounds. “We don’t even know what it’s going to sound like yet,” Phoebe admits. “We’ve just got the drums and bass. We’re waiting to see what Victor’s going to make out of it. We’re really handing it over and putting our faith in him completely. “We really trust him with the direction,” she continues. “It’s great because he’s got a vision of what he doesn’t want, and then he’ll just try things out, and it’ll feel like, ‘Okay, we’re going that way, because it feels right’. And I think that’s what’s really wonderful about all this, too, is that everybody’s really concerned with what’s best for the song. Serving the song, the story, does it make sense, does it follow what it means? So it’s really great, because everybody’s listening to each other. There’s no big ego standing in the way.” On that note, it’s time for this talented pair of Berlin blow-ins to return to Riverside Studios for another lengthy recording session. Them There intend to release their as-yet-untitled album (though they’re currently considering Love is an Elevator) starting in September. It could well be a hit… provided they drop my vocal contribution.