“I’m gonna walk / down the sidewalk / like it’s a runway / … / I’m gonna be like Madonna”
We Are Soldiers We Have Guns, November
I’ve just moved to New York City, and it’s just turned to November, and I have to say that I admire the attitude of those lyrics. When it starts getting darker earlier, and everyone’s bundled up in patterned scarves and heavy coats, the sidewalk starts to feel a bit lonely-I’d very much love to be like Madonna walking home from work some days.
We Are Soldiers We Have Guns may exist for just such times. The Gothenburg (Sweden, for all those not down with maps) based pop vehicle brings a sharp attack of straight-forward, honest lyricism with some surprisingly upbeat arrangements. This lushness is the product of the mind of Gothenburg’s Malin Dahlberg, formerly of Douglas Heart and Laurel Music, joined by a wide circle of instrument-wielding accomplices.
One could argue that the major musical accomplishment of the 1980s was to re-inject popular music with a sense of fun and excitement. Pop rediscovered that sense of child-like wonder that rock and roll had so foolishly squandered while trying to sound cool. Colorful clothing, silly faces, etc. Try to imagine the 80s without picturing a bunch of teenagers dancing around a library. See? You can’t.
The most recent decade of pop, on the other hand, has excelled at incorporating the sonic mastery and precision of experimental and progressive music into the pop framework. Albums sound great now. Modern luminaries like Animal Collective and Radiohead continue to score points by breeding sonic exploration with the pop we all know and love.
You’ll find We Are Soldiers We Have Guns at the intersection of these two decades—the undeniable fun and sounds of the 80s permeate the music, especially the “November”/”Our Lips Are Sealed” 7-inch below. Beneath that, however, is the careful sonic craft of this most recent decade of pop. There’s real attention paid to tone—Dahlberg’s voice in particular stands out as being spot on tonally nearly all of the time. Grand, multi-layered voicings back up the strong bridges and choruses, while un-layered vocals fill out the softer moments. Like M83 before them, WASWHG have learned how to pull from the 80s without sounding wistful—to use their influences as a boost, not a crutch.
On their early work, there’s a progressive sparseness that drives the power of each track. Much of the best work on two self-titled E.P.s and the mini album, To Meet is Murder is powered by the interplay between a lonely guitar and Dahlberg’s evocative vocals. “There’s no need for diplomacy in music,” says Dahlberg, “For every instrument I/we use I ask myself: Would the song be good without this? If the answer is yes, I never use it.”
That attitude is quite apparent. With their newest release, Get Up, Get Out, and on the lovely 7-inch we have on display here, WASWHG really flex their well honed 80s muscle while retaining the simple power of their early work. Gone are the sparse guitar-centered arrangements, replaced instead with fuller-yet-no-less-intense pop layouts.
Take the A-side “November” for example. This is an emotionally sneaky track; the opening strokes lead the listener down the path of a groovy polyrhythmic synth piece. When the vocals and guitar interrupt, the mood changes subtly to a more poignant pitch, only to be joined back by the keyboard and drums in the lead up to and joyful chorus. “I’m gonna be like Madonna,” Dahlberg sings. Madonna had this much fun, but rarely was she as emotionally on-cue as Dahlberg is here, squeaking her way through the tip-toeing verses and soaring over the joyous chorus.
The B-side “Our Lips Are Sealed” is a cover of the 1981 Go-Go’s track, and really, this is a clever, clever re-imagination. WASWHG have adorned the track with trappings of the soon-to-be-80s that bands like the Go-Go’s helped create. Where there were only the plodding 70s-style rhythm keeping, WASWHG have added some reverby drum machine hits worthy of any Casio-loving 80s band. A few well-placed synth lines later, and you forget that the original didn’t sound quite like this. The modern touches are there as well—the beautifully layered vocals and heightened melody of the chorus gives WASWHG’s version a contemporary tenderness not entirely present in the original. So, to recap: cleverly plays with the music’s history; captures its original essence; adds a modern touch. Yep, this is a great cover.
WASWHG wrote once on their website, “We Are Soldiers We Have Guns will never be cool; never be cute.” While I disagree slightly (See this. You can’t tell me that’s not cute), the notion is spot on: this is music that does not pretend to be anything other than direct expression from artist to audience. “I don’t change my words just because they’re put into lyrics,” says Dahlberg. “I use them as simply as possible, just as I do when I speak.” There’s no indie-pretension or shameless image shaping, just sounds that move beyond their source to live wholly in the song. And that makes this nothing short of urgent, beautiful pop music worthy of your attention.
Ampeater Review: I suspect that people are surprised when they discover, We Are Soldiers We Have Guns isn’t a hardcore punk band. So, why the “aggressive” name and how do you think it interacts with the sound and tone of your music?
Malin Dahlberg, We Are Soldiers We Have Guns: Some are definitely surprised, yeah. To me that name sort of shows how you can make hard music without the usual clichés. You know: lots of guitars, lots of screaming and lots of jumping up and down. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just not what I want to do. I wanted a name that sounds empowering, uncompromising and, well, pretty hardcore. To me those are pretty important sides of my music that I think a lot of people miss out on because of the traditionally un-aggressive expression.
AR: Which aspects of your sound then have you tried to make uncompromising? Lyrics and simplicity of tone jump to my mind first, but I’m curious to hear your take.
MD: For instance, take “The Line is a Dot to You” (it’s on my Myspace for those who want to hear it). The song is about this horrible guy that I met once, and instead of singing, “I’m a bit angry with you,” I sing, “We will aim and shoot you down.” In reality I didn’t even approach him, but in the song I can kill him off if I want to! There’s no need for diplomacy in music, so I’m doing my best to keep it out of mine. It could be by simplicity or lyrics – I just try to keep an uncompromising attitude towards everything that has something to do with my music.
AR: I noticed that all three of your music videos involve, in some way, you looking directly at the camera for long periods of time. Whether that’s all a lovely coincidence or not, it does seem that your songs are concerned with being really direct with the listener? Would you agree?
MD: I actually haven’t thought about the fact that I do so in the videos, I don’t know why that is. But definitely agree on the soldiers being direct. I don’t change my words just because they’re put into lyrics. I use them as simply as possible, just as I do when I speak. And for every instrument I/we use I ask myself: Would the song be good without this? If the answer is yes, I never use it.
AR: You can definitely hear the influence of 80s pop, especially in the new full length. What do you like about pop music from that decade and what 80s pop elements have found their way into your recordings?
MD: I don’t set out to sound like an eighties band or anything, but on the other hand it would be weird if my music wasn’t at least a little bit affected by the eighties. I grew up during the eighties, and now I’ve gotten old enough to appreciate it again. I listen quite lot to disco from the late seventies – early eighties and I love post punk bands such as Delta 5, The Au-Pairs and (obviously) The Go-Go’s. I really like the tackiness, the limitless use of effects and funny synth sounds.
AR: Can you talk a bit about the songs you’re tracking right now? In what ways do the songs feel similar or different from Get Up, Get Out? I’m also curious what it’s like recording in Brooklyn vs. Gothenburg.
MD: The new bunch of songs go under the working title Payday. To me the biggest difference between recording in Brooklyn and Gothenburg is that I don’t have a job over here and can finally get the peace one needs to do something creative. That’s also what a lot of the songs are about: The way everybody works their life away without ever getting properly paid back.
I don’t really know what the songs sound like compared to Get Up, Get Out, but telling you about the setting might give you an idea: Get Up, Get Out, was recorded in a studio with about 15 people contributing. I record the new songs alone on my laptop, using only an old Casiosynth that I bought in a Swedish thrift store and the stuff that I find on the streets. So no guitars on these tracks, but a lot more drumming on boxes and furniture from the streets of Brooklyn!
AR: Final question, very important: 1980s vs. 2000s. Which decade’s music wins in a bar fight?
MD: Let me put it this way: The 80s would definitely win the fight, but 2000s is most likely to go home with the best looking guy/girl in the place. While the 2000s is whimsing around with its post-this and ironic takes on that, the 80s would just give her a nice head butt and call it a day. But while the 80s is drinking her eleventh beer by the bar, the 2000s is already at someone’s place talking about deep stuff while getting undressed.