The Raveonettes: Breaking the Rules

Music Features The Raveonettes
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The Raveonettes’ goal was to create something surprising.

The Danish electro-rock duo (Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo) achieved as much with Pe’ahi back in late July when they released their seventh album with little-to-no alert or prelude. In fact, the only warning they gave was to those with photosensitive epilepsy, as every song was made immediately streamable as a lyric video that contained minimal art intermittently exploding with retina-stinging storms of flashing lights.

But the arrangements are, in essence, surprising. Each song is a phantasmagorical jumble of orchestral and electronic instruments. The arrangements are inherently impulsive, with shifts in tempo and key-signatures segueing myriad moods and fleeting melodies under a wavy pipeline of growling guitars and hissing synth. Fittingly, with such inlaid suddenness, the album is named for a Hawaiian surfing spot known for its perilously high waves.

The second track, “Sisters,” features both the most calming, beautiful moment and also the most berserk. The minimal chorus, a gentle section uncharacteristically free of distortion, is flourished by a harp solo’s majestic peal under Foo’s porcelain-smooth melodic whisper. But that leads into this banging, brutal bridge where a sparking, aggravated-sounding guitar sets the whole thing on fire with its solo.

“I wanted to do something aggressive, hectic, chaotic,” admits Wagner. But on the first take, unbeknownst to him as he started playing, a guitar string broke. The spirit of spontaneity called him to just try and continue shredding. “And it fit that song perfectly. If you want chaos, if you want unpredictability and aggression, well, then, there’s your solo, right there, done.”

If Pe’ahi sounds like carefully composed chaos, it’s because it was influenced by a particular Grateful Dead album. Wagner admitted an inspiration to replicate the recording approach of the Dead’s Anthem Of The Sun.

“They would record a verse in one studio and then the chorus in another and somehow they put it all together. I always thought about that, how I don’t have to go into a traditional chorus; I can just make pieces and I’ll put all these pieces together and see what happens, with unconventional structures where there were, just, no rules. I can go from a very heavy part into a super mellow glockenspiel or a very beautiful vocal part and then back into something completely nuts.”

“I was just inspired to do something that was surprising to people.”

Shape and Sound

When Wagner’s father, with whom he’d had a complicated and distant relationship, passed away on Christmas Eve, 2013, he and singer Sharin Foo were just starting to submerse themselves into the studio. “…And, instead of going into mourning or grieving,” Wagner says, “I basically just worked overtime and all of a sudden everything made sense to me, in terms of what album I was making.”
The resulting songs are seething with his most honest and accusatory lyrics he’d ever written. “So, in a sort of morbid way, you might say his passing helped shape the album.”

But Pe’ahi doesn’t sound morbid because the bereavement merely intensified their work ethic. The actual sound of these 10 new songs was shaped by the meditative shorelines near their home outside of Los Angeles. Most listeners peg the Danish duo as retro-revivalists, inclined towards early ‘60s rock and insistently noisy blends of ‘80s shoegaze and new-wave. Past releases found them spilling strutting beats under simple chord structures smacked with sweet bubblegum-pop melodies that were darkly drenched by sinister sounding storms of feedback and flashes of unnerving synthesizer tones.

But what they’ve achieved with Pe’ahi is the quintessential post-apocalyptic surf-rock record, dislodged from any era as much as it is from traditional songwriting.

It all starts at the beach. “When I moved to L.A. two years ago and I figured, now that I was in one of the biggest surfing places in the world that I should explore the history. Huntington Beach, Manhattan Beach, Malibu; I spent time by the oceans and just fell in love, bringing my camera, photographing surfers and reading up on the history,” Wagner says. He played with surf-lingo, “like wipe-out, waves, breaks, sand, beach, all that stuff…and put them into a different universe where you don’t write a ‘surf song’ but you use a lot of those elements metaphorically, forming more of a morose kind of setting.”

Wagner sounds particularly refreshed and reenergized by the inspiration of his newly adopted hometown. “It’s just that I had the time now to make this record. Moving here, my work ethic escalated. This is an amazing place to work because there is space around you and you’re not distracted. I worked for four months, 12 hours a day, straight. I was just so determined to work, and it was so inspiring to wake up here with all this space and sunshine.”

Here are some other “surprises” for you regarding Pe’ahi and the Raveonettes’ process: 1. Nearly every percussive element on the record could easily facilitate a rap song. Despite his reputation as some retro-revivalist of rock, Wagner’s first and only love has always been hip-hop music. 2. The duo is hardly retro at all, since they almost exclusively use computers for their recording process and perform live to programmed beats. “I love beat-making, all that stuff, so that’s why, early on, I got into samples,” Wagner says.

And, 3. Wagner goes so far as to say that without the disruption of Napster in 1999, he would have never started The Raveonettes. “I was exposed to so much interesting music that I would otherwise never have discovered, and it was so incredibly inspiring to me to download these songs and listen to them and think, just think, that this music exists or used to exist.”

Growing up in a middle-of-nowhere type place in southern Denmark, Wagner was “flabbergasted” by a rare book in his local library’s collection: a biography of one of his favorite bands, The Cramps. “Who actually decided that we need a book on The Cramps?” he recalls of the quaint library near his birthplace. Figuring no one in that town would miss it, a friend stole it for him. Now, without Napster, Wagner says, he wouldn’t have been able to track down all of Lux Interior and Poison Ivy’s all-time favorite songs (an extremely obscure batch of references listed in the back of the book).

So, Napster and a stolen library book were crucial to the creation of The Raveonettes. We found that surprising, just as some still find it surprising that this band is oceans away from being a retro “garage” rock band. “We came out at the same time as The Kills, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and White Stripes and were lumped together as this ‘garage-revival’ thing,” Wagner says. “Yes, there is a beauty in analog equipment, a certain nostalgia and an element of preservation that is enticing.”

“But I think there’s something just amazing about technology,” he continues. “If you wanna make something that sounds retro, you can do that and I bet no one could tell. But, there’s so many things you can explore and do and you’re constantly looking for new ways to tweak things the way they’re not supposed to be worked with, and you try to break every damn rule every time you make something in the box, and that’s the beauty of it.”

And that preceding thought, in a nutshell, also sums up the beauty of Pe’ahi.