Occasionally a band sneaks up onto the radar so smoothly that you barely saw them coming until they were there, fully formed in front of you, bearing down on an unsuspecting audience with an undeniably imposing presence. As Roll the Dice, the Swedish studio-sharing duo of Peder Mannerfelt and Malcolm Pardon, are one of those bands. Separately they’re both working musicians, Mannerfelt in Fever Ray and Pardon as a film/TV composer, but last year Digitalis Recordings put out their first forays into analogue kosmiche ambience as Roll The Dice with their self-titled debut, that won them the attention of the ever encompassing Leaf label – a freewheeling home to artists as diverse as Efterklang, Murcof and Vladislav Delay.
Earlier this year Leaf put out the Live In Gothenberg album that featured two fifteen minute slabs of tracks, taken from a live show performed in the summer of 2010, that were reinterpreted from the self titled Roll The Dice album. Since then the duo have been working hard in the studio storyboarding and soundscaping their follow up full length album, In Dust, which will be released by Leaf on 12th September ahead of their first ever London show which takes place at Cafe Oto in Dalston a few days later on the 20th.
We caught up with the duo ahead of these big events to discuss how they ended up here and discovered that their path is one of multiple real and imagined voyages.
Sonic Router: How did you start working together on the band?
Peder: We’ve been sharing the studio for about five years. After about the first year or so me and Malcolm started talking about doing something together since we don’t usually work together in the day time, we work with two different people in two different constellations so we just wanted to try something out. We just stayed one night, shared some wine and started fiddling about. From that, over the course of two years and nineteen sessions, once a month or so, without any planning into what it should be or to do an album, we sort of set up some rules, regarding instrumentation and how we would create the tracks, and just rolled the dice from there.
Mannerfelt is involved with Fever Ray’s live band and Pardon is a producer of music for film and TV. Is there any overlap between other work and Roll The Dice? In either direction?
Peder: Not as such I would say. This is a very separate thing to the other…
Malcolm: We bring a bit of ourselves into it obviously. We’re not trying to bring in whatever we have into it, but we do anyway, just by liking the sound. Without having put any thought into it, subconsciously we do bring in something from our different worlds but it’s not something we plan, we try to make it a bit different. I think you always do bring yourself into it and those things you do like, you try to keep in and those things you don’t like you keep out.
So you’re never working on a score for a TV program and find that something that might not be working for it might turn out to be useful appropriate for a Roll the Dice composition?
Peder: It’s pretty separated. For this album we had this mental picture and we spoke about it quite a lot. The live EP we released earlier this spring is this transition to the new world so to speak, so it’s more about that and the sound world that comes from that mental picture of where we are on this album. It helps a lot from doing the sounds and the motifs…
The album sounds equally composed and intuitively improvised – is that an accurate mini-description of how you created it?
Malcolm: It goes back to the fact that both of us really tried to do something that we don’t do usually, like not using any beats or sequencers, no vocals. It was pretty decided in a sense ‘OK, let’s do it this way’ and we made a decision that as it was going to be kind of improvised. The thing about working with computers is that you muck about a bit and then go back the next day and change a few things and then go back the next day and replace them. For us it was more, we’re going to make one song in each session, either good or bad, but when the session was over we weren’t allowed to do any overdubs to it or make any changes. We obviously left mixing to a later date, but we had a kind of dogma, not allowing ourselves not to think too much and just do it. Once it was done, it’s done and that still works in a sense. A different angle for both of us I think, to make music, which is quite important – its fun to try something else.
There’s a clear difference in the scope of this as a whole album project. Did the production of this record differ from your last releases at all?
Peder: Well actually the new album is more composed than the last album; we did the last one in a shorter space of time and kind of had an idea what kind of sound we were already working on.
Malcolm: The new album is kind of a continuation from the last one; so we had a continuation of something whereas the last one was kind of a blank page.
Peder: We wanted the new one to evolve from the last one, we got a lot of inspiration from playing live because we did maybe fifteen shows after the first album and it really progressed into something else for us. It was really nice to get the energy and vibes from that and put it into the process of making a new album.
Are your live tracks the same?
Peder: Haha. No, no. Our first gig we played one song for 45 minutes, our second we played two songs for 20…
Malcolm: Now we’re working towards playing three songs for 45 minutes.
Peder: We’re taking the basis of the songs from the album then stretching them out, and really, I wouldn’t say meditate, or say jam on them, but we let them evolve in time, experimenting with the form of them.
Are the places in which you get to improvise predetermined or is there a lot of communication on stage to alter the form of the pieces?
Malcolm: There are certain things we can do live that we can’t do when we record, and the other way round as well, so we take the bits we can do live and let things evolve. At the end of certain songs there’s a space where if we get a particular feeling at that moment we can start jamming a bit from thereon and take them somewhere else and that’s not anything we’d do when we record. I think it’s quite nice to not totally follow the album live. Its two different worlds and I think it’s great.
In Dust features lots of atmospheric signifiers, like the church bell tolling of ‘Call All Workers.’ It feels very cinematic, visually thematic and evocative, like there are sounds that illustrate the narrative that arcs through the album…
Malcolm: There is a story that we use to picture it while we were doing it, and that’s a continuation of the first album. Someone said to us really early on that it sounded kind of wooden; wooden ships, trees… So we took that a bit further mentally and felt like; ‘OK, we’re these two settlers that are trying to find a new world for themselves, imagine being a gold digger in the last century or something’ and that spun us further when we were working on it. We had those mental pictures when we worked on writing it and that came together in a nice way so we took that narrative and that story with us into the next album. We imagined these two settlers not really finding any oil or any gold and not being very successful in their search and then they had to move on to the next thing; and that was to get in line and get involved in the world of early industry, moving from the countryside into the city. That’s the rough mental picture of this new album.
In Dust is quite a psychologically challenging record, similar in task to the creepy orchestral Carpenter scores and the entirely digital claustrophobia of the recent Dalglish album. It descends through a very dark place around the record’s middle; the development of darkening motifs and sounds appearing from there on out towards the end. It’s an observation which they both laugh off in agreement with and to which Peder adds, “Well what would you feel like working in a factory all day? It’s hard work man!” But far from the factory, away from the physical toiling, all the cosmic momentum that’s been building over the album collapses through fissures and rips in the fabric in which it exists around the end of ‘The Skull Is Built Into The Tool.’ Driving down through ’Evolution’ to the grinding swells of ‘The Suck,’ the lightness then spurts outward again on ‘Cause and Effect,’ albeit a scarred version that’s charred around the edges, enhanced by the warped crackle that came before it.
The beat less atmosphere created by Roll the Dice has far more in common with the Earthly windswept vistas of a record like William Fowler Collins’ Perdition Hill Radio; both that album and In Dust occupy a wilderness of decaying ambience; through bursts of radio static, silhouetted spires of dead transmitters leak weak signals into a dying landscape. In Fowler Collins’ music the land is an America of the future, an America stalked by wraiths wreathed in blackened metal buzz, cursed shadows dragging the rusted chains of grim history from their dusty ankles. Roll the Dice’s land is less tangible and of an industrially muted past, not a blasted premonition but both a recollection of a distant past and an historic voyage.
Their compelling hour of dramatic, cinematic sound is one dotted by frequent bleak moments and a horizon that hints at inhospitable lands just beyond it, rather than the solar radiation like fractal pattens emitted by the new wave of kosmiche bands. Where a band like Emeralds use guitar and synths; Roll the Dice use a piano picking their way across the throbbing base layers of sound and unlike many of their loosely related peers who literally lean on their synths for the body of their work, Roll the Dice feature the piano as the lead instrument in many of their tracks. There’s an adage around the instrument that there is no purer music outside of that composed on a piano, but is that a statement the band relate to?
What is it that makes it so integral to their sound that it couldn’t be replaced by a guitar?
Malcom: Well, we found quite early on that the piano has a certain resonance. In the midst of what we’re doing it cuts through quite a lot and it finds a really good space to deliver the melodies and the feel of the song without having to ad so much more. The piano has a really kind of human feel that comes through quite a lot as opposed to if you were using a guitar or something. The way you play the piano, the way you play the notes makes it quite an emotional instrument…
Peder: …and technically speaking it’s got a really, really wide frequencies range, so even if you play really high notes it gels everything together and works really well with the synths. Also, we don’t have any percussion and we found that the piano was very percussive, so we work a lot with that as well, like counter-polyrhythms and the melodies.
I got that from the album, the way the keys punctuate the rhythms of the synths as a replacement beat, but they carry a melody in a way that drum can’t…
Malcolm: It works in both ways really well, it works as a rhythm instrument and a melody instrument, it can be both at the same time.
Peder: It’s almost like the lead instead of a vocal, it gels the whole song.
I’ve read that you will be using analogue visual equipment in your upcoming shows. What can people expect from that?
Peder: Yes actually, we’ve only done one show with that, it’s a friend of ours called Ruben. He has a company that makes analogue synthesizer modules in synthesiser cases and they’re basically similar to synth modules but they are synthesizing videos. He has a couple of those and some homebuilt circuit bent stuff. He’ll be taking inputs from the instruments we’re playing, the synths and the Fender Rhodes and that will affect the picture. It’s kind of Mad Professor style stuff right now, we don’t really know how it’s going to look. We did one show in Roskilde with it and it looked really, really amazing.
Are the visuals an important aspect of the concept, or the scope of what you want to achieve with Roll The Dice?
Malcolm: I would say so; it’s just difficult getting it to the level you want it to be at. Obviously with this new thing we’re experimenting a bit and it’s all about being able to bring someone along on the gigs and everything. It’s a bit of a tricky affair but we’d like to say it’s a 50/50 thing for the live show; for the experience of it. I’m not sure we’ve got it there yet but our ambition for it is to have it as an integral part of the show, definitely. We’re just two guys standing there, so it’s got to be… [laughs]
Peder; I’m sure you could do it pretty easily with laptops but we tend to make stuff more difficult for ourselves by using these analogue synths. It’s in the name Roll the Dice, we never really know how it’s going to be but we try and aim for something. Analogue is like higher the risks, higher the reward.
Malcolm: Like at Roskilde, we got down there and we realised we couldn’t use some of the instruments we brought because, basically, we couldn’t plug them in. They only had all digital projectors and one analogue projector, so we were fucked basically.
Your two recent videos – for ‘Undertow’ and the album teaser were directed by the same person, Frode Fjerdingstad . Is that going to be a regular collaboration? Can you tell us a bit about Frode?
Peder: We have a group of people we’re working with and Frode has done all our visuals and done live stuff for us before, and now Ruben’s going to work on live visuals. We have the same guy who’s done all our artwork, Gustav. And a girl called Julia who’s done our stage costumes. So we have a small extended family and everyone gets to Roll the Dice as well, to be a part of it. It’s kind of an open relationship. We give everybody the brief and everybody can do their thing. It’s kind of rewarding for them, because they’re all friends and since we don’t have huge budgets to give everybody it’s nice that they can express themselves as well.
So what’s happening next in the world of Roll the Dice?
Malcolm: Obviously the album’s not out yet so we’ve got to do that first, get it out there and see what happens. We’ve got some gigs coming up, we’re going to play throughout the Autumn. We’re doing a gig in London on the 20th, and then we’re doing something in Berlin in October and a few different things in Portugal, Geneva, Stockholm and Paris. We’re not really setting up any major plans; it’s more interesting to see what will come through. Last year on the first album we didn’t have any ideas of playing live in the beginning and then we ended up playing places like Brazil and Poland, so it’s all part of the surprise element for ourselves. We’ll just see where it goes.
Peder: That’s the thing; it’s a victory for us because we started out with no real ambitions for it. When we got the first two tracks down that felt like a victory, then we had an album finished then it took almost a year before someone released it and that felt like a huge victory, and now it’s a bigger label with press people and people helping us work it. It’s a huge step up. Everything feels like a victory for us.
How are you finding working with Leaf?
Peder: They are really amazing.
Malcolm: Yeah, they’re really great for us. As Peder said, on the last album we didn’t really have anyone working it like they are. On the first album we had this great guy from Oklahoma helping us out but it’s isn’t the same level as Leaf, it just came about naturally, he’s really dedicated. The Leaf guys are really ambitious and they’re working it really hard. They’re brilliant for us. Also just the fact that we ended up with them is also in the same vein as what we’ve been talking about, what happens will happen. It’s kind of a coincidence that they got in touch with us last year just as we’d done with the first one and were sitting thinking maybe we should think about starting a new album. At the same time Tony from Leaf got in touch just by chance and said ‘Hey guys, I like your last album where are you at? Have you got a new album?’ It just came through naturally; it was an organic growth kind of thing.
Roll The Dice’s In Dust is out on the 12th September through the Leaf label.