Scrolling through Joel Wästberg’s instagram posts is at first a little confusing. What is the meaning or irony behind using a portrait of Henry the Eighth to announce the addition of the sir Was single In The Midst to an American tastemaker’s playlist?
It turns out it’s not ironic – Wästberg’s fascination with the world extends past his eclectic musical interests (John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, D’Angelo and J Dilla are a few he mentions during our Skype call) and into every crevice of artistry. He’s what you might call ‘enamoured’ with the world. “The fat guy! The big guy! Yeah, that picture is beautiful!” he enthuses in his heavy Swedish accent, and adds with a laugh, “I just wanted him for his looks, not for his abilities. But the paintings are just beautiful. And there’s so many of them! That nobody sees…”
That little sadness behind the beauty is present all over Wästberg’s debut album as sir Was, Digging A Tunnel. When we get to discussing the video for single Revoke – a stunning track with a fluttering shuffle beat, stomp-climbing staccato piano way down in the bass register, and Wästberg’s voice somehow going from pleading to resigned to resolved with almost no discernable change of tone – his theory surfaces.
The clip features a young man (Wästberg) working in a pub, washing the dishes, serving food, and pouring beers, for a mainly older clientele. “I’ve been walking past that pub many, many times,” he says of the Gothenburg haunt. “I walk past and think ‘Wow, that place is a beautiful place. It’s so classic, you know, but still it’s so rare. Always when I see these pubs that are kind of empty, you don’t know how they manage. It just raised some questions. People are sitting, kind of lonely, but maybe talking a bit, and there’s no music, it’s completely silent, but there’s a TV on with very low volume, local news. Not much happening. But I think it’s universal, it’s not typical Swedish, or any other countries. People come in with their life stories: what have they been through? I don’t know. That’s what’s so interesting. In a way, it’s so much about yourself – “
We’re cut off abruptly as Skype crashes.
A few minutes later he’s back: “I was saying: It’s like life itself. One second it’s great, like we had our great conversation here, I felt like I was really telling you the core of the film, and then of course it’s like click! Where the f-ck! And it breaks down. And I like that with the video – what we were aiming for is the double, the complexity of life.”
Only a couple of the instruments on the album are not played by Wästberg himself. One of them is the harmonica, which stretches throughout stand-out cut Bomping, and you can hear Wästberg enquire at the track’s beginning: “Can you play some more?” That question was addressed to a man who was sitting in an alley, “jamming for himself”, somewhere in the States, whom Wästberg came across while walking back to Jose Gonzales’ tour bus. (Gonzales, also from Gothenburg, is one of several musicians who has enjoyed Wästberg’s participation as a saxophonist in his touring band.) “It was like in a movie, and I was like ‘Wow! This is beautiful!’ He asked me do you have any weed, but I didn’t, but we struck up a conversation, ‘Where are you from, is it OK if I record something?’ My iPhone – the very iPhone I am talking to you through – is filled with hundreds and hundreds of voice memos; that’s why I don’t have any space for pictures.”
Amongst all those mysterious memos (listen for the birds on Falcon; Wästberg says they’re from a Parisian “zoo shop” [pet store]) and the fluid but surprising way he chooses his instrumentation, Wästberg says it is difficult to know when a song is done. “That’s the question, right? That’s the big question for art making! When is the belly of Heinrich the Sixth… Seventh… Eighth? When is his belly perfect? When is his beard perfect, full enough? The only thing I can do is try to listen to my gut feeling. If I have a good day, it’s easier to know. When I’m focused, I know. This is it, that’s the way it should be,” he says with a click of his fingers. “Then someone else likes it, and suddenly you are calling me from Australia. Fantastic! We can talk with some philosophers and psychologists for five years, but we still wouldn’t know the formula.”
Digging A Tunnel is out now via Inertia, on both CD and vinyl.