US are the unlikely union of Andrew Montgomery from GENEVA and Leo Josefsson of LOWE. Their impressive debut album ‘First Contact’ is a rousing collection of eleven epic songs, each exuding a unique Celtic Scandinavian air with Montgomery taking centre stage with his magnificent three octave vocal set to Josefsson’s spacey electronic soundscapes.
An album of two halves with guitars and drums also occasionally making their presence felt, ‘First Contact’ is a well-crafted debut record, expressing broken dreams and midlife sorrows with a sublime cinematic quality. Meanwhile with their live presentation, the striking visual spectacle puts the duo up there with KITE in terms of ambition.
While GENEVA recently reformed and LOWE have been on hiatus, for Montgomery and Josefsson, US is presently their main creative outlet. The pair chatted to The Electricity Club about their ‘First Contact’, producing “The soundtrack to the movie of your life” and much more.
The two of you have had not insubstantial profiles in your previous bands GENEVA and LOWE which produced very different types of music from each other, but how did US all come together?
Andrew: It’s indirectly the fault of the late, great Glen Campbell (RIP). Both of us were at a barbecue held by a mutual friend in the Stockholm suburbs in May 2015, just a few months after I moved to Stockholm. We were all making merry and I got up to sing along to ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ (as you do). Leo heard me sing and afterwards asked if I wanted to try writing a song with him. He said something like “I think my sound and your voice would work well together”, and it proved to be true, as we wrote our first song in just a couple of hours just a few weeks later. The song is called ‘Everything Is Leading Up To This’ and it’s included as a bonus track on the Bandcamp album page.
When you were discussing directions, were each of you pleasantly surprised by some of each other’s tastes where you found a commonality?
Andrew: I was surprised that Leo wasn’t an aficionado of Glen Campbell 😉
Actually, even if Leo was coming from a ‘synthpop’ background and me from indie-guitar band origins, what we both had in common right away was a love of drama and packing as much emotion as possible into the structure of a pop song, and that works whether it happens to be guitar-based or synth-based. And I don’t recall that we discussed a huge amount of influences at first. It was more just getting into Leo’s studio and start writing.
It had to be epic, it had to be filmic and the finer details just arrived organically. Though it’s fair to say that I probably badger Leo more about possible influences / ideas that I hear; I’m quite mercurial in that respect, as I constantly churn my way through mini-musical obsessions. One week ambient electronic, the next week melodic techno, the week after that Tibetan nose flute orchestras…
Leo: Andrew constantly tries to persuade me to introduce nose flutes when we write new songs, but to date I’ve been able to resist.
Some artists like to impose restrictions to aid their creativity, are there any “no-nos” in US?
Leo: Perhaps you mean “no-nose”? Apart from that I would find it most improbable that we would end up writing “schlager festival tracks”, but I wouldn’t rule anything out at this point.
Andrew: I think it’s more about what we should be, rather than not be, and that’s original, heartfelt, filmic and engaging.
Do you have defined roles with regards songwriting and production or does it overlap?
Andrew: It does overlap, simply because we are open to each other’s ideas. And also because Leo in particular can play the instruments, produce, come up with lyrics and sing, so he has an ear for melody that has come in handy.
For example, in the chorus of ‘Technicolor’, which for a while was a little bit stuck with the melody / lyrics that now occur in the middle eight (the bit about “now and then I’ve found…” etc). Leo came up with this defiant “I see the world…” chorus that is a perfect counterpoint to my rather agonised verses, a sort of ‘fukitall’ vibe that is almost saying to the subject of the song “your loss” after the initial “whys?” of the verses.
I do tend to write most of the lyrics and most of the melodies though, as I’m into doing that and work hard on it. I also suggest little tweaks here and there to songs that Leo then (patiently) translates into something more concrete and makes the change. One example was the change to a four-to-the-floor beat for ‘The Stars That Arc Across the Sky’. We’d been wrestling with the arrangement of that one for some time, and once that clicked, Leo was able to work his magic.
What about differences in the Scottish and Swedish ways of thinking? Have there been any amusing moments while writing and recording?
Leo: I’m kind of a “flatliner”, meaning I can control my temper. Sometimes, Andrew cannot. I just laugh at him, and buy him some candy and everything will be ok within minutes. Sometimes when we’re out clubbing, Andrew is confronted by Swedish drunk manners and responds rather robustly (which I’m not used to), that can be very entertaining and frightening at times. 🙂
Andrew: I think Leo does very well to: 1) Decipher my accent when I lapse into Glaswegian-dialect English and 2) Follow my rather idiosyncratic Swedish (we probably spend about 65-70 per cent of the time talking in Swedish).
‘Till The Dying of the Light’ has that glorious Nordic Noir quality, how did that come together as your first single?
Andrew: Thanks. Glad you like it! We’re proud of that one too. I think (and Leo can correct me if I’m wrong), there was a keyboard improvisation that I came up with the verses to. I have a picture in my mind’s eye of US writing the chorus and me coming up with the melody… it was spur-of-the-moment as it often is. But I seem to recall me Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ being an image at the back of my head, crossed with relationship travails. I have to credit Leo alone for the Nordic Noir production – he did a great job, and maybe there was a little ‘Blade Runner’ creeping in there too?
Leo: I think this was my first intention to take US into the “synth domain” after a few months of experimenting with different sounds and genres. I instantly felt that the song needed that suit, and it was instantly clear that it would work out perfectly.
The Electricity Club described ‘Voyager’ as being like “MUSE at Gatecrasher”, but what did you have in mind when you were recording it?
Leo: I think you’re on point there, even though I was more diving into the world of Jean-Michel Jarre and spent a few days getting the arpeggios right. Turned out to be worthwhile if I may say so. The song went through many different stages before ending up the way you can hear now… there’s another version called ‘To The End Of The World’ that is more live band-based and is a result of an early idea I had for the track that I just couldn’t leave unfinished.
Andrew: I LOVE that description! Thank you! I just recall Leo being really happy with this brilliant synth arpeggio he had come up with and me asking for a bit of time to go away and do it justice in terms of melody and lyrics. It just felt very spacey and, as with a lot of Leo’s musical ideas, it had a visual aspect that made me think of Voyager (or its ‘Star Trek’ equivalent V’ger) and deep-space travel. Then there’s the sentiment of thinking that the past is behind you but something coming back to remind you of those darker times. The impulse to travel to the end of the word to avoid it is strong, I can tell you…
‘The Stars That Arc Across the Sky’ and ‘In Denial’ are quite guitar driven anthems which are perhaps not that far off U2, was that intentional?
Andrew: Leo had been talking about getting more guitar into some of the songs, and it seemed to really work with both of those. I see where you’re coming from with U2, though I must admit that I hear late 70s / early 80s ROXY MUSIC in the former’s guitar arrangements and PULP in the latter.
Leo: Throughout the work with ‘First Contact’ (although it wasn’t until 2018 that we decided to make an album), I had this stubborn idea that our first musical period would be totally electronic. But working with a few of the songs, live drums, guitars and electric bass (no, not nose flute) kept raising their heads and I had to surrender and open up to a bigger sound palette.
NEW ORDER have separate electronic and guitar-based tracks, so are you thinking US can fit into this multi-faceted template?
Andrew: We are both fans of NEW ORDER and I think that’s a good idea you have there!
Leo: Again, you’re on point. NEW ORDER has been a great influence and I hope we can do the idea of guitars and electronics justice.
‘Mute’ is particularly poignant, was it inspired by real events?
Andrew: It’s actually a cover of a 90s-era song by STAKKA BO, so we had no lyrical inspiration there. Leo knows Johan Renck, one half of STAKKA BO and now an acclaimed director whose work includes the last two Bowie videos (‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’), and the MUST WATCH ‘Chernobyl’, which after having seen four of the five episodes is the greatest series I’ve ever seen.
‘Technicolor’ is quite unusual compared with the other tracks on ‘First Contact’ with its Schaffel backbone?
Leo: Originally I experimented with mixing Schaffel parts with straight quantised parts which was very interesting at first, but the song felt a bit more interesting and progressive keeping it “schaffeling” all the way through and that’s how it ended up.
There is a surreal blues tone to ‘The Healer’?
Andrew: Wow, you are very descriptive! I really like your insights, Chi. It felt like it was a sort of downbeat blues-based song when we first came up with it. We left it to the side for a bit but came back to it because it had something that Leo felt he could develop further. The lyrics are a bit stream-of-consciousness, but that often hints at a deeper truth, though in this case I’m not sure I care to explore that further…
Is the visual aspect important to US with the videos and the ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’ scientist imagery?
Leo: I think we’re both into sci-fi movies and futuristic aesthetics and it felt like a natural way to place US into that world. We try to write timeless music and we hope people keep discovering it for many years to come.
You’ve have gone out live, what has the reaction been and what sort of people are US appealing to from the audiences you’ve met?
Andrew: There are fans of both of our bands, people who like electronic music, people we know and people who like to investigate new music.
Leo: The live part is very important to US, and I think we have been a very positive and unexpected pleasure for people that have had no idea about our music beforehand.
Andrew: GENEVA has actually reformed, and we’ll be playing four dates at the StarShaped Festival at the end of August and into September. That’s a wee bit of a nostalgia fest, but it’s actually opening the way for GENEVA to do some writing and we’ll see where it goes, which is great. But I live in Stockholm and my life is here, so it’ll have to fit around that. And can I just say if Leo ever decided to park US, I would be devastated! I’ve been waiting to make music like this all my life, and Leo is the perfect creative foil for me as well as a good friend. I hope we can do a lot more live work to promote this album (limited funds and day jobs currently intervene), and then work on more US music.
Leo: LOWE has never officially split up, you could say it’s on a long-term vacation. It would be great to pick it up some day, even though US is the priority right now.
How do look back on your times with the bands you made your names in?
Andrew: Time tints the glasses a bit, gives them a bit of rosy nostalgia. I’m really proud of GENEVA, and your first band is always really special. That’s why it’s great to be doing something with that project again. But it wasn’t always easy with record company politics, commercial expectations and the pressures of trying to make it work under a very harsh spotlight. Overall it was an amazing but also challenging experience for me, I must say. And I’m grateful for the musical path it set me on, that continues to this day with US.
Leo: Since we started LOWE in 2003, we have been touring all over the world and I’m very thankful (and full of nostalgia) to the fact that I’ve seen places I would never see otherwise. It’s been great to get to know other cultures and music scenes, especially in Eastern Europe where I’ve made many good friends.
Overall, how has the response to ‘First Contact’ been, was it what you hoped for?
Andrew: We’re really happy to have released the album after four years of development. That reviewers like you guys at The Electricity Club like it makes US even happier! There have been some lovely reviews and good feedback, and I think it’ll prove to be a grower, word-of-mouth thing. Please just spread the word, as it’s difficult to reach as many people as we’d like without the backing of a full-time organisation or promotion. We’ll continue to promote it in the months ahead.
What’s next for you both, either as US or with other projects?
Andrew: I mentioned the GENEVA project. US plans to play live more after the summer, and see where we can go next with this hugely enjoyable musical adventure.
Leo: I’m personally high on the US-vibe right now and have already ideas for new tracks. I have no doubt this is just the beginning.
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
Photos by Mehdi Bagherzadeh
8th June 2019