Articles - Features

L’esprit de l’escalier: An interview with Perlee

Ahead of playing Dublin and Belfast this weekend, Berlin-via-Navan duo Perlee discuss the magic of taking chances, putting their stamp on dream-pop and releasing one of the Irish LPs of the year, Speaking From Other Rooms

Speaking From Other Rooms is one of the most accomplished Irish albums of the year. It spans soundworlds and explores some really strong themes like self-actualisation, destiny and long-distance love. It feels like you invested a lot of your soul into the release. Looking back, does it feel that way to you?

Thanks for saying so. There were so many beautiful Irish releases this year. In terms of our soul and this record. Yes. The more music we make the more it seems it acts upon us and changes us also. We sort of became the people who could sing these songs by trying to sing them if that makes any sense. And then when it’s made and as finished as it’s ever going to be, you are no longer the person who can make that again. It’s a weird and wonderful process.

The time when we were writing, tracking and mixing this album was a tumultuous time. Saramai was pregnant for a lot of it and we were pretty isolated in ways because of the big P (pandemic not pregnancy!). We were working with Matt Ingram (Laura Marling/Keaton Henson) in London who did some remote drumming days for us and then he also mixed the record for us. That exchange meant we really contemplated each song and invested heavily. Stephen Shannon (Mount Alaska/Adrian Crowley) also tracked two live songs for us in Dublin. We were coming off a small tour and wanted to preserve Jazz drummer Conor Murray’s lovely drum parts for ‘Wilder’ and ‘The Wave’. What we thought was just a session documenting the parts became part of the final record because that whole process and live feeling in the recordings was something integral to the album for us.

As your third body of work, it feels like a big leap in certain directions. On songs like ‘Bad Night’s Sleep’ and ‘Pomegranate,’ there’s a depth and coherence that usually only comes from feeling particularly inspired. Tell us about where your heads were before entering the studio.

For these two songs, we were inspired by sound worlds that we happened upon. ‘Pomegranate’ was born out of two things. One was the confidence we had built from doing a DIY EP (Half Seen Figure just after the release of our first EP Slow Creature. We started recording found- sounds through guitar pickups and re-amping. Getting less precious with the sonics and more interested in finding the feeling, however we could, definitely paved the way for us to track our album ourselves.

The other thing that led to the sound of ‘Pomegranate’ was Saramai commandeering one of Cormac’s new pedals –  an EHX Attack Decay. She put one of her old synths through it with an awful lot of reverb and it was this big gnarly sound that we just were engulfed by. We must have played around with this sound for days during the first lockdown and then the early demo version from this time ended up on the album. We also use the same sound on the opening track of the record, ‘Slow Motion Impact’. Although it doesn’t appear elsewhere on the album it does feel like a bit of a lighthouse for the album as a whole.

‘Bad Night’s Sleep’ was born in the East of Germany in the depths of Winter close to the Polish border where we were dog-sitting for a week in an old Farmhouse for the brother of a good friend of ours who does all our design work. We were in the flat lands where the Russians had launched their final offensive in WW2. There was a heaviness to the place but it was offset by the misty mornings and clear skies at night. We have a vintage drum machine and with some distant micing we sort of got into a hypnotic trance with the song. We felt how it should feel so when it came to tracking the final version we were pretty certain about how it should be.

I’ve long believed that if you can’t occasionally listen to your own music, and enjoy it, something’s probably off. With that in mind, do you have a favourite song on the album and why?

: I think we both feel that ‘Pomegranate’ is a highlight. Musically it started out with the little riff that emerges from the fuzzy haze that begins the long outro section. We then slowed the whole thing down and tried to let a brooding feeling emerge. The heaviest middle section of the song is a few bars longer than you would expect and we love that! It’s also got my favourite of Saramai’s lyrics on the album.

Saramai: When I listen back to this record I am back, heavily pregnant, sitting in our old Caddy Van in the carpark of a Hellweg (Germany’s version of Woodies/B&Q) listening at an outrageous volume with the doors open because it’s 35 degrees! I kept expecting an irate German employee to bar us from the carpark as we were there that often! We couldn’t listen loudly at home because of the neighbours and we were getting mixes in from Matt all the time so it wasn’t really tenable to be running to the studio every half hour. Our process was to burn the tracks to CD and then go and listen in the van. This continued for the mastering process so we owe a lot to our Caddy for the sound of this record. Also, we owe a lot to the amazing mastering engineer Stephan Mathieu who got on board with our mid-heavy sounds! So aside from the time travel that listening back to the album provides I would agree with Cormac about ‘Pomegranate’. I like the ebb and flow of tempo and in a way its simplicity.

It’s not the easiest alchemy to get right while sounding original – which you absolutely do – but your sound fully warrants dream pop status. Which artists associated with that world do you think guided you sonically?

Of all the pigeonholes, I think dream pop is the most palatable for us! When we started playing live people would make Beach House and Mazzy Star comparisons. I guess there are traces of Cocteau Twins, The Blue Nile and Galaxie 500 in there too. Low and Yo La Tengo are absolutely North Stars for us also.

In general, do you think any artists – or albums – made a particular imprint on how you approached the album’s tone overall?

I think Low’s Double Negative showed us that it was ok to take some chances. The contrast of singing softly while letting all hell break loose instrumentally fascinated us for some months while deep in the underbelly of these songs.

One of the things that keeps me returning to your music is the attention spent on composition – the burrowing chord shifts, the deft, lilting refrains. I assume that’s the result of a lot of time spent quietly obsessing over the craft?

It is very reassuring to us that this might be heard in our music as we do indeed obsess over inversions and chords and melodies. Because we live and work together sometimes songs would click while one of us is cooking and out comes the acoustic guitar and the phone to record this slight variation or half-way through a movie it might get paused while we would try something new on a song. The French have a phrase for it – L’esprit de l’escalier – that ‘turn of the stairs’ inspiration that you don’t get when you are really looking for it. It helps that we are both as invested and also that somehow we both know what it is we are trying to reach with a piece of music. That’s not something we have to discuss.

You’ve been based in Berlin for some years, having originally met through the DIY scene in your hometown of Navan. Has it been a shift acclimatising to a new city – particularly one with such a musical legacy – or has it come naturally?

I think just getting out of your comfort zone is great. Figuring out how to get around the city with our gear was a challenge and then we did so many singer-songwriter nights we spent a lot of time arranging our music to work in that setting. It was like a welcome headache. We met so many welcoming and inspiring people in the music scene. The variety and experimentation that was going on was an eye-opener for sure and then it spurs you on.

More broadly, how do you think daily life in Berlin feeds into your output?

Berlin feels more like a big village or lots of big villages beside one another. It’s a big ball of contradictions and also a wonderful place to live. There are a lot of socialist tendencies shaping policies there, so it’s a city that serves the people. Public transport is cheap and efficient. The rents have been pretty cheap though they have been on the rise lately. Food is cheap and you can meet a friend for a beer outside a Späti (a newsagent kind of shop) for 2 euro so even when you are really strapped for cash you can still socialise if you want to. Also, it feels a bit like people care less about what you have and more about what you are doing or what you have to say. Whatever the opposite of ‘death by a thousand needles is’ – that’s what it’s like. It frees you up in ways you didn’t know you were tied. But we must temper this by saying it’s not Ireland. We come back a lot and now spend half our time here on home soil.

It’s been a really positive year for the band. What have your highlights over the last few months – and have there been any stand-out moments where you turned to each other and went, “This is why we do this.”

Recently we played our album launch in Berlin. It was a full house and we had Kev Sheridan on drums and A.S. Fanning on bass. After ‘Pomegranate’ we shared a glance that felt like a Moment! Getting played on the radio too was such a buzz as we really thought it wasn’t an album suited for radio.

Now we’re holed up in Leitrim and are knee-deep in writing the next album. We are going to be working with an amazing producer in a beautiful studio with an incredible engineer so that’s a moment for us too as it is all because of the album, really.

You’re part of a litany of Irish acts that have delivered world-beating records in 2023. Which fellow Irish artists have you been listening to, and feeling inspired by this year?

It’s scary how many! Hilary Woods, Arborist, Lisa O’Neill, Brigid Mae Power, Stephen Shannon, Joy Booth, A.S. Fanning, The Bonk, John Francis Flynn. We’ve also been privileged to get a sneaky listen to records by Oisin Leech and David Hedderman which come out next year and we’re very excited for people to hear them.

You’re playing a string of Irish dates over the next few days. As Christmas creeps into view, how are you feeling about zig-zagging around the island to play to people old and new?

It feels great to honour the record with this North-South-East-West mini tour. As we have a wee man now it is a real treat to play a show. We have amazing family support here and playing live feels like a nice muscle to stretch again. Also, each show has a unique feel so we are arranging the songs a little differently for each venue. We did a live session with Stephen McAuley on BBC Ulster last week in advance of our Belfast show.

It’s amazing what comes out of performing live. Each show we are doing is with artists we met during our time in Berlin so it feels like a family event really doing these shows. We played the gorgeous Levis’s bar in Ballydehob last week with Rufus Coates and Jess Smith (who have stunning new music coming soon) and The Glens in Manorhamilton with David Hedderman also, so we have been seeing the length and breadth of the country and falling back in love with the highways and byways.

On Saturday, 16th December, we open for David Hedderman in The Workman’s Cellar in Dublin. The next night, Sunday, 17th December, we are in The Sunflower in Belfast with A.S. Fanning. It will be Perlee’s first Belfast show and we can’t wait.

Buy tickets for Perlee in Dublin and Belfast on 16th and 17th December

Photo by Mattia Stellacci and Lena Hansen

is the editor of The Thin Air. Talk to him about Philip Glass and/or follow him on Twitter @brianconey.