“Ten years is a long time, when you are young.”
This sentence begins a two-page preface to Shout Out Louds’ fourth LP, Optica. The words belong to keyboardist and backing vocalist Bebban Stenborg, but anyone who has received an envelope from their high school roughly nine-and-a-half-years after matriculation could deliver the same sentiment over a single malt and a smoke. It is a truth often expressed by parents to skeptical children barely able to see past their current school year to the summer that will inevitably follow. Only as adults do we realize how much and how little can change in that time span.
Comparing Stenborg’s poetic press asset with the band’s first bio reveals a sizable shift in how Shout Out Louds present themselves, having outgrown the quaint introduction as “four boys and one girl from Stockholm in Sweden [who] play music together in a band.” That 8-year-old press release parades simplicity as cuteness, its narration splitting the difference between Oskar Schell and Forrest Gump. At the time the music resembled the Garden State-gaze that boomed in 2005, but lacked the tone needed to change lives.
Despite appearances, primary songwriter and singer Adam Olenius claims that from their inception, the band “were quite serious in everything,” but didn’t know how exactly to portray it.
“Though we may not have seemed like it,” he remembers, “we were very cautious; not afraid, but suspicious about everything. Now, with more experience, we know what we can get away with.”
Appropriately, since the release of Howl Howl Gaff Gaff in 2003, Shout Out Louds have largely ignored musical trends and conventions. Four LPs in 10 years has left significant gaps between recordings, though never has the band hibernated long enough to be forgotten when they return. Formed as five childhood friends, their bond is such that their band allows for each to pursue individual passions and dreams. Members of the band wishing to live in cities like Los Angeles or Paris are given precisely what they want—the time to do so. Olenius went as far to record and tour with a side-project, Serenades, while everyone enjoyed their personal time following the touring of Work in 2011. This, Olenius admits, is “probably a reason [they] are still a band.”
“[Our friendship] helps when we sit for six or seven hours on a tour bus and still have things to say,” he says, “even if it’s just talking about the people we all know. Our tour manager recently commented ‘I can’t believe how much you guys can talk,’ and it’s true; we still have a lot of fun together. Going on tour can feel like going away with your family.”
“At the same time,” Olenius adds, “you have to sacrifice a little of the friendship for creativity. While recording, we still hang out, but there is a tension that takes away from the friendship.”
Their latest studio endeavor unfolded itself over more than a year in a Stockholm studio. Stenborg’s written account offers up clichés like “pleasing no one but themselves” and “holding nothing back,” highlighting what some critics saw as a deficiency on 2010’s Work. Optica, rather, aims for a more vivid aesthetic, drawing judiciously from the last decade’s synthpop resurgence, maintaining Olenius’ uncanny similarity to Robert Smith’s vocal cadence, expanding their own trademark percussion toys to include electronic versions of similar rhythms, and, most surprisingly, injecting in the sunny danceability of fellow Swedes ABBA. None of these elements seek communion with a greater musical dialogue, yet Shout Out Louds musical language seems fresher than ever before, the band’s dying dialect delivered with a hope of being understood at the very least.
The recording sessions saw the group operating with a theme in mind, with Olenius recalling “a couple months into recording, we decided that the key word should be ‘light.’” Likewise, Stenborg also writes about the theme, noting that Swedes and others living near the Arctic Circle relate to light differently than those from warmer climates. Stockholm can see its daylight range from five hours to 20 depending on the season, with Stenborg adding that “sunlight is even prescribed as a treatment for some ailments.”
This manifests lyrically, with “Blue Ice” seeing “the sun get in your eyes,” “Burn” noting that the “sun hits your face,” and “Chasing the Sinking Sun” repeating its title to a shining arrangement perfect for an iPod commercial. The majority of Optica matches that glow, holding the theme more distinctly than the lyrics, with Olenius revealing that as the band’s intent.
“Every song should display a certain brightness,” Olenius hopes, “but it doesn’t have to be the same. Some songs can be a sunset. Some songs can be in the middle of the night. We talk about these images when we make songs because it’s more descriptive, as opposed to saying something sounds like The Beatles. You can hear a song and realize that it needs to be bright, like the light at the end of a tunnel, or even a religious light. It affected the way we’d even talk in the studio and we decided to have a brighter album in general, with more playful elements. It’s the first time that we’ve worked with something like a theme and, at least production-wise, it was very helpful.”
And while the rest of the band—guitarist Carl von Arbin, bassist Ted Malmros and percussionist Eric Edman—all played important roles in the creation of what Olenius describes as their “most collaborative album,” Stenborg’s increased lyrical presence might earn her the project’s MVP award, with Optica fitted expertly for an increased femininity. When both Stenborg and Olenius use the word “we” when discussing the lyrics, it would appear as if they were written together. Strange as that seems, it is exactly the case.
“It is quite hard to let someone into that world,” Olenius admits, “and I have my way of expressing myself that when I try to explain, it makes matters even worse. Working with Bebban on this album further proved her skill at putting words together, and we had 22 songs that we were working on, all at the same time. She came in and started asking me questions that were really challenging, and that turned out to be a really good thing. I would try to explain to her what I was trying to say and she went home and wrote new words, coming back with a new verse or a changed word here and there. It was for the better, because she helped me get the message out there.”
“We would discuss how I like the way a word sounds,” Olenius continues, “and that the melody and the words create harmony with each other. Bebban is more interested in the message, and she could be really anal about it, which I like. We had a few fights, but it was a really interesting process. For the next record, I may even try to give her just a sentence or two and see what she can do. As long as I still have that sentence come out of my mind and I start singing little melodies while I’m riding around on my bicycle, then maybe the next record will come out in only two years instead of four.”
With lyrical responsibilities now shared, the band also took on the role of producer for the first time. Shout Out Louds had previously opted to work with well-known names, having Bjorn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn and John helm Our Ill Wills and Phil Ek, whom Olenius calls “my favorite American,” handle Work. Now with an open timetable, Olenius says the band was ready to work without “being told what to do.”
“We really wanted to try every idea and then clean it all up in the end,” he explains. “So, we started in this studio in Stockholm and were kind of intrigued by how it went, so we just started booking more days after that. Our co-producer, Johannes Berglund, became more like a sixth member, while still acting as engineer. But, we all felt that we didn’t want to have a traditional producer on this one.”
Steering their own ship, the sound of Optica manages to be distinctly their own, particularly when they approach a certain Tommorowland aesthetic, with tracks “Glasgow” and “Chasing the Sinking Sun” capturing an ‘80s vision of the future, songs suited for the radios of flying cars, a far cry from their start that earned reaching comparisons to The Strokes and Grandaddy.
“I like how the debut sounds,” Olenius states, adding, “Howl Howl Gaff Gaff is a very debut-sounding record. I think it would be a little bit boring if we had put out Optica album as a debut… It would just be too good.”
If the Shout Out Louds’ goal for the album was to please themselves, Olenius’ words indicate success. Now with the release this week and extensive touring scheduled throughout the world, including appearances at South By Southwest, the band will celebrate both its longevity and its vitality as the group travels in 2013.
“I didn’t think there would be still such hunger and energy,” Olenius reflects, rendered nearly speechless when seriously considering the personal significance of the band’s run. “Ten years ago, I didn’t think we would still have that, which we do today and I am happy about. There is still genuine excitement of going on tour. Ten years ago, I was more pessimistic, but, also, when the first album came out, we were so excited that it was hard to look past the next week. Despite that fact, I already had the second album in mind. You are supposed to take one album at a time and we did, but, still, I had a plan for the next record and a dream that we would still be doing this in 10 years. Sure, it would be nice to play in front of four or five thousand people in New York and L.A. instead of one thousand, and maybe we’ll get there, but I’m happy that people still come to our shows at all, and that we are all still good friends, and that we still like what we do.”
This “hunger” and Olenius’ Swedish stoicism keep the singer from being too sentimental about a 10-year anniversary, with the idea of 10 more years of Shout Out Louds not as far away as it might have seemed to “four boys and one girl from Stockholm.”
“I really hope that we are still a band 10 years from now,” Olenius says. “This has been a less nostalgic album then it has been a futuristic album. And, the way we have recorded and the way we wanted it to sound, it might be something we could continue working with. It’s an album that we could live with for a long time.”
“Plus, we’ve never done anything in Swedish,” he continues, considering what the next 10 years could hold, “but I don’t know if that would work for us. Maybe I’d like to collaborate with another artist.”
Olenius stops mid-thought, as if he had forgotten lessons learned and suddenly remembered that change is not always the dominant symptom of time’s passing.
“I think about stuff like that and I come back to it being best when I’m working with the band, and not having too many people involved,” Olenius concludes. “I think continuing with what we are doing—that’s the smartest way to go.”