“It took me 15 years to feel brave enough to do this!” Joel Wästberg, the man behind the eccentric sir Was alias, confesses. “To reach the point where I could let myself do this was a long struggle. But once I felt less scared, it was kind of easy. It just came out, like: ‘This is the sound!’”
If you’re looking for the story behind sir Was’ debut album, you don’t need to go far. The secret was there in the opening lines of his magical first single, ‘A Minor Life’. “Stayed behind these walls too long,” a vulnerable falsetto advises us. “Kept my life on hold too long/ Dreaming of all I was not…” It’s a confession typical of typical of an artist who demonstrates an unusual but gratifying honesty, and its musical accompaniment – distinguished by the unconventional sound of bagpipes and recorders – is similarly appealing. These opening lines are, you see, a statement of intent, and what follows is what happens when sir Was’ walls come tumbling down. If you’re surprised, though – and you will be, rest assured – don’t fret: it turns out you’re not the only one.
Wästberg’s revelation is far from the only surprise on DIGGING A TUNNEL, an album that constantly bucks trends and confounds expectations. Boasting a continually evolving sound that remains nonetheless unified, it comes as close as any record can to defying description. Still, let’s try: It’s as though D’Angelo and Prince threw David Crosby into the studio with Tame Impala and Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis. If you don’t like that, come up with your own: there’s as much joy in trying to pin this down as there is in hearing it. But bear this in mind: however you characterise it, DIGGING A TUNNEL relentlessly provokes reactions, ones that require regular reassessment, often within the same song.
Growing up in the tiny village of Frillesås on the western coast of Sweden, an hour or so from Gothenburg, Wästberg began playing music at an early age. “I started with the cello, but I was too young,” he recalls. “It was boring, and I think my teacher was depressed. So I quit, and at the age of 10 I started to play sax. My other brothers” – Wästberg is the oldest of four – “also played instruments, so we had a piano, a bass, a guitar and even a drum kit for a couple of years. I played along to records on all of them.” Armed with this knowledge, it’s perhaps less bewildering to learn that Wästberg played almost all the instruments on his debut, including drums, bass, keyboards, guitar, percussion, clarinets, and saxophone. “Everything except the bagpipe and the harmonica,” Wästberg smiles. “Those I captured with my iPhone.”
Wästberg left home at 18 and, inspired by Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, studied jazz saxophone in a so-called folkhögskola in the southern Swedish countryside. Such was his talent that he was soon flying around the world to perform with a variety of ensembles, and his more unlikely experiences included jamming with a pyjama-clad Sean Lennon in his New York apartment and escaping the 2012 coup d’état after playing at a festival in Bamako, Mali. Though he’d by now moved to Gothenburg, he also spent time at the University of Kwasulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, where he developed an interest in pan-African rhythms that was furthered by travels through Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Stirred by the liberating philosophies of post-modern composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman, about whom he was reading, as well as by the complexity and feeling of the music he was hearing – and indeed playing with other musicians he met along the way – Wästberg began to question his musical identity. Leaving his saxophone in Durban, he returned to Europe with his head overflowing with rhythm. “I’d learned I’d rather play a beat that makes people dance,” he explains, “than play a fancy solo.”
Soon he was making a living not from his saxophone – as he had since 2010 – but from other musical adventures, including playing with Jose Gonzales. Eventually, however, the time came to strike out on his own. “I’ve been interviewing myself in the shower for years,” he jokes, “secretly dreaming about daring to put out my own music. But I finally felt ready to give myself the opportunity. I didn’t have a clear intellectual idea, but I had a gut feeling, an imagination of a sound. A lot was going on – big changes, break ups – and life felt shitty, but also open. I was broke, but I was starting to feel some kind of new feeling of… let’s call it freedom. I realised that I needed to make an album or I’d become bitter and angry. I thought, ‘If I don’t take myself seriously, I can’t take anyone else seriously either’. I don’t care if 5 or 5,000 people hear it, as long as it comes out of my studio.”
And what emerged – all of it filtered through Wästberg’s love for hip hop – was as unrestrained and spirited as the music that inspired it, though trying to pin that down, too, is as hard for Wästberg as it is for the listener. “Moondog, Bob Hund, My Bloody Valentine, D’Angelo, J Dilla, Thomas Mapfuno. Liturgy, Dudley Perkins, Sly and the Family Stone, The Beatles, Mahavishnu Orchestra… I don’t know. I listen to a lot of stuff!”
So DIGGING A TUNNEL travels as widely as Wästberg has, from the supple, Beck meets D’Angelo groove of the inexplicably exhilarating “Falcon’ (named after a Swedish beer) to the more tense title track, whose affirmative lyrics address Wästberg’s former procrastination: “Whatever you will do will never be good/ That voice inside is asking/ You really thought it would? Maybe it could…”. Then there’s the playful, onomatopoeically titled ‘Bomping”, which builds from studio chatter and bebop piano to a harmonica-bedecked instrumental, the breezily blissful ‘Heaven Is Here’, and the low-slung, church bell-embellished ‘Interconnected’. That’s not to mention the uplifting broken-heart-be-damned! sweetness of ‘Revoke’, and of course the unforgettable ‘A Minor Life’, that remarkable, bagpipe-wielding debut.
Much of DIGGING A TUNNEL was recorded between autumn 2014 and spring 2015 in Wästberg’s favoured Gothenburg studio space, Stampen, but the record is lent its especially singular atmosphere by the strange background noises the producer employs, many from field recordings he compiled during his travels, whether maracas in Mexico or flutes from another distant land. It boasts, too, an effortless flow, reflected in Wästberg’s vocal delivery, which shifts from the aforementioned falsetto to a lazy spoken word delivery that circles round the beat rather than landing on it. It is, in short, brilliantly restless and boldly alive. Wästberg may humbly conclude on ‘A Minor Life’ that “it’s good enough for me,” but that’s just another symptom of his characteristic, endearing self-doubt. DIGGING A TUNNEL is way, way better than that.