If you’ve been listening to the radio at all in the last few weeks, you’ll have heard Sir Was. If there’s a catchier slice of white soul/funk than his recent single ‘In the Midst’ released this year (yes, year) I’ll be amazed. Ahead of the release of his debut album, Digging a Tunnel, out this friday (10th March) On City Slang we charged our man Gram Trelford to pose the questions to Sir Was (aka Gothenburg’s Joel Wästberg) to find out more.
Hi Joel, Thanks muchly for speaking to Backseat Mafia in the run-up to the release of your debut album, Digging a Tunnel.
You’ve stated in the past that it has taken you a long time to knuckle down to write and record your own music, and you have largely worked as a sideman for other artists, notably Jose Gonzalez; Why do you think it took you so long, and what was the final motivation to make it happen?
I was ridden by fear instead of the joy in creation if you catch my drift. I was haunted by the thought that it wasn’t good enough. It got to the point where the whole situation was just too frustrating so I tryed to quit working on my own stuff but that was just even more frustrating so finally I felt that i sort of “had to” do it for my own sanity and health.
Which artists might fans of your music be surprised to discover are a big influence on your work, whether directly or indirectly?
I dont know what would be a surprise or not but I sometimes find inspiration in just watching bad TV programmes, hearing a hit song played in Seven Eleven when Im buying a coffee or such. Benjamin Britten or Britney Spears, both of them creates feelings of different kind and that is interesting to me.
What’s the story behind your artist name?
To me it conjures up the image of a disgraced monarch or an aristocratic ghost…but maybe that’s just me…: I happen to like band names that are a bit “silly” and so is sir Was I think. Also Was is a part of my last name wihout the umlaut (Wastberg) and that is what sir Was is I guess, a place/institution, basically an artistname (!), for me to do stuff! sir with a small S is also me playing around with the whole Lord /Highness/King/whatever title stuff that a little elit group in our society happen to have. Noboby named me Sir so Ill do it myself then.
You play a number of woodwind instruments, but they are noticeably absent on Digging a Tunnel. Were you deliberately trying to remove yourself from that side of things, or did it just turn out that way?
You have to listen carefully to the mix my friend! If you search you shall find. There is some stuff on the album that you wouldnt think is woodwind I guess but also it just happened. I just made some music and this is how it turned out.
The album contains a considerable number of tracks that are built around lo-fi Field recordings, such as church bells, street harmonica players and Bagpipes, giving a very pastoral feel. Is it true that these were all made using your smartphone?
It’s true to 98 percent. The churchbells were sampled and something else, cant really remember.
Is this something that you intend to become something of a calling card/trademark that informs your future work?
Haha, no, I just made stuff that sounded good to my ear. Next album is the next album.
The album is being released on City Slang, who are internationally revered for the diversity and quality of their roster; Could you tell us a little about how that came about, your favourite artists on the label, and any you would be keen to collaborate with?
It came about because when I was reaching the final part of the production of the album. I thought that it would be fun if someone would put it out. I knew that I wouldn’t have the capability of getting peoples attention so I asked José and he said : why dont you ask City Slang? Junip is on City Slang so it made sense, I had met them very shortly a couple of times over the years when touring as a hired gun with Junip. I sent them a song and here we are. I am sure there is many great artists on the label but haven’t really been thinking about collab stuff at this point. Just want to have my album out and then take it from there.
It feels like Vocals and the music of the album exist almost as two separate entities – Do you have any desire to release instrumental versions of your music, or an album of original instrumental material? This is something which has worked out well for the likes of Adrian Younge and Oddisee, whom it wouldn’t be a stretch to refer to as your peers/contemporaries?
Ok, interesting that you perceive it like that. Well, maybe in the future, who knows.
I’m wondering about your recording process – Your work sounds fresh and modern, with a wealth of current electronic sounds, but that seems to be counterbalanced with plenty of classic/vintage sounding equipment – Are you a hardware geek, or do you just use whatever it takes to get the job done?
More the kind of “what ever gets the job done” type I would say.
Do you plan to tour in support of the album, or is it the other way round? It seems like these days, an album is little more than a promotional device to drive people to the shows. Would you agree?
I agree in the sense that it is a lot about playing live shows these days. If I support the album via touring or vice versa I actually haven’t really thought about. I should think about that.
What do you envisage your live set-up to look like? Will it be a solo affair, or will you be putting a group together?
I have a great group with me, me and 3 other musicians that are both my favourite musicians to play with and my friends.
Which current artists are making you sit up and take notice at the moment?
Have you ever ridden a horse?
Yes, I have. Last time was in September, 2016.
Gram Canyon spoke to Sir Was for Backseat Mafia