On paper ten years might not feel like a long time but in the reality of our rapidly changing society a look back to the fall of 2011 feels like you’re looking at another life in many ways. Of course, there was no sign of a pandemic and although the climate catastrophe was already on the horizon it was widely ignored by society and politicians. On top of it social media was still a niche, the digitalization of the world was at an early point and streaming hasn’t made its way to Germany when I was handed quite an inconsiderably looking CD with a vague grey texture for an artwork and the labelling “An Album by Korallreven”. I freshly started my first unpaid post-graduation internship at an online music magazine. While that also marked my first steps in the music industry I simultaneously also witnessed the final breath of a dying field. Change was inevitable and it was already waiting around the corner although nobody didn’t really know how it would look like. Well anyway, CDs were still going strong in Germany and at the office the daily assignment within the team was a much loved tradition. I don’t know if my former editor-in-chief already knew that I was up for cheesy pop stuff or how it ended on my table but I grabbed that disc, gave it a spin and that was the beginning of a musical love affair that would continue to outlast all jobs and changes in my life throughout the past ten years. In the frosty fall of 2011 Korallreven‘s debut album filled my heart with tropical warmth, utopian escapism and a sound that evoked a deep emotional connection within me. I couldn’t explain it so it must have been love, right?
Korallreven was a musical joint venture by two Swedish artists – Marcus Joons, mainly working as a journalist before this and Daniel Tjäder who was already part of acclaimed indie-pop group The Radio Dept. during that time. I was quite active in the blogosphere back then and I remember stumbling upon the name before at least once, probably due to the chilling CFCF rework of their single The Truest Faith that came out in 2010. The album however was a totally different affair – it was a rich blend of various influences, fuelled by Polynesian sounds as well as Balearic house beats, dub music amongst many other things. “I always had the idea of making something I called ‘Tropical Shoegaze,” explains Marcus Joons to me and that term might sum up the vibe of this album pretty well. After all the bandname is the Swedish term for ‘coral reefs’.
It’s almost exactly ten years after its release when I managed to get hold of the two former Korallreven masterminds. Zoom-calling with Marcus in Stockholm and Daniel Tjäder in Malmö I was curious to find out more about that mysterious little album that wasn’t quite a global smash hit but definitely caught the attention of a specific group of people. For all of us that video call obviously marks a trip to our own past. I remember my first days in a new city, a new job and also the start of a new chapter in my life. Marcus was living in New York back then: “For me it’s a trip back to that alternative pop scene back then and the realization of how different it is today.” Daniel revealed to me that he only listened to the album a couple of months ago for whatever reason. “A couple of things have struck me,” he says. “There’s this sense of discovery and curiosity that still shines through. I’ve recorded with The Radio Dept. before but I’ve never written and produced songs before. Everything was kind of new but also exciting.” And that’s a great way to describe the feeling of this album. It feels like an adventurous journey into the unknown although the path we’re going to follow is loaded with lots of familiar sounds and pop musical references.
As Young As Yesterday opens the album with a subtle beat, a warm wall of synthesizer sounds, pitched vocals (all from Daniel) and the gentle voice of Marcus. To me surprise the two Swedes reveal to me that they didn’t use any samples in that song which really is news to me as I could have sworn that that was the case. Marcus explains: “These days you have whole YouTube clips that deconstruct whole songs by The Avalanches or Jamie XX and explain all the samples. But if you take a track like ‘As Young As Yesterday’ I realize that we actually didn’t sample anything in there. There’s so much in there – shoegaze, Houston Rap, beats, a Madchester house piano, campfire acoustic guitars and Beach Boys harmonies.” Daniel confirms: “No samples but lots of love and inspiration” and also adds that there might be two or three samples on the entire record but that’s it. So unlike The Avalanches and their fellow Swedish colleagues Air France the Korallreven sound was indeed build on original sounds.
A longer trip to Samoa and Oceania by Marcus in 2007 might have been a sub-conscious starting point of the project and ultimately led to the manifestation of the “tropical shoegaze” concept in his head which would ultimately lead to the recording of the first track Loved-Up back in 2009. Another crucial part in the origins of the band was played by former Concretes singer Victoria Bergsman aka Taken By Trees who is also featured on the album and used to be Marcus’ girlfriend during that time. “Victoria had a club in Stockholm, a tiny bar and I DJ’ed there a lot,” he says. “Then I had to be on the poster and the bill for the night and my real name was too boring so I came up with Korallreven. Then I went to Johan Duncanson from The Radio Dept. to help me with the recordings and to put together some samples which didn’t really work out in the end. Instead we created a track and that became Loved-Up. And then Ola Borgström from Swedish label Service came to one night at the bar and asked me “What is this?” and I said: “Well, it’s me.” And he immediately wanted to release it. I know that sounds like one of those cheesy autobiographical moments you know from movies but it really happened that way.”
Marcus smiles and continues to tell the story of how he and John added a few vocals to finish the song. Later on Patrick North from buzzing American underground label Acéphale really enjoyed the song as well and reached out to Marcus and asked him whether there was more music coming from him. “And I actually lied and said: Of course, there is,” confesses Marcus. “But Johan was too busy back then as The Radio Dept. were about to release their album ‘Clinging to a Scheme’. And I’ve known Daniel way longer, we’ve been friends for ages. And I remember him showing me his demos back then and I asked him: ‘Well, why don’t we two get together. I have a label from North America that’s interested so we should give it a shot.'” The first track he and Daniel recorded together was the already mentioned wonderful The Truest Faith and from here on the Korallreven cosmos continued to blossom, lead by two longtime friends who had to learn a lot about actually writing and recording music during the process. The fact that Daniel and Marcus were dedicated music lovers and music journalists during that time surely helped them to craft they album in advance, despite thinking from track to track.
“I think there was a spiritual vibe between us and we tried to melt all our influences together. But we talked a lot about how we wanted it to sound before we actually did it. And we also had to learn how to do it, so it was lots of trial and error.” (Daniel)
“The major component was … if you like to call it that was … the believe that we have great taste,” says Marcus in all seriousness. Within that mutual trust there was room for creativity. They also experimented with dub in a song like Honey Mine while the soothing nine-minute long Comin’ Down was always envisioned as that mighty ambient-like closing track. “We started to sketch an album back then,” explains Marcus. Daniel adds: “I think we even mentioned the word ‘concept album’ at least once … only to make clear we’re not doing one.” The duo had an overall curve in mind on how the album might sound and they also used the same engineer, Mathias Oldén, who held all the tracks together. Daniel also tells me about the nice little detail that the album starts and ends with the same sound in the form of a South American percussion instrument that makes a textural, noisy sound. It’s a friendly invitation to give it another spin.
Obviously, context is an important element when you discuss the effect of such a record. An in that case that does not only include our personal context back in late 2011 but also the world of pop music that still seemed to be in a fragile transitional state, caught between a slowly crumbling past and an uncertain future. Well, and that could also result in a continued need for classification which brings us to the elephant in the room … chillwave.
“I’m not even sure what exactly ‘chillwave’ is,” says Daniel with a big smile. I mean, who actually knows what it was back then? A slightly slowed down form of texture-loaded R&B, packed with reverbs and pitched vocals? But I’m pretty sure that you can also ask artists like Washed Out and Toro Y Moi today about that and they would probably deny to ever be part of such a movement. In retrospect chillwave felt like a construct by the all hyped blogosphere and I’m fully aware that NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION also released a Bandcamp sampler called Nothing But … Synthgaze back in 2012 (including a Korallreven remix) so we definitely jumped on that bandwagon. “The only scene I felt I’ve been attached to back then was the whole Acéphale gang and the New York group,” says Marcus. “I remember artists like CFCF, Pure X back then or DJ’ing before Tame Impala because Patrick North who run the label back then also worked for Modular. I’ve seen Salem‘s first show at a small gallery where How To Dress Well as opening. That’s the era I felt most attached to.”
“I totally understand the comparisons but for me a scene happens when people start hanging out with each other, play on each others albums, dancing on stage when the other acts are playing and stuff like that.” (Marcus)
Korallreven also had good connections to the artists that remixed their songs and carefully picked the people that reworked their songs. “I mean, we had one of the earliest Arca remixes for ‘Sa Sa Samoa‘,” says Marcus before proudly adding: “These days she barely does any reworks unless it’s Lady Gaga.”
It as a time of liberty as the two confirm to me: “We did a lot of unplanned and fun things, like bootleg remixes of Britney Spears and releasing a mixtape in advance of the album,” says Marcus. “And we didn’t thought about live shows until somebody asked us whether we would be up for it. I remember when we went on an US tour and the first show was our sixth overall concert. It were three years from DJing at my girlfriend’s bar to playing at the sold out Bowery Ballroom in New York in early 2012.”
The music worked quite well because it fitted into the time as the two Swedes explain: “It felt like a brief window where you could easily sell 500 to 1.000 vinyls and it also took two months to produce it because none of the majors jumped onto the vinyl hype back then,” says Marcus. Obviously today you have to wait between six and nine months, especially following the Covid crisis, simply because every Major label re-releases their entire back catalogue on vinyl now in order to make more money. That capitalistic greed surely was the opposite to the inspirational and fun era the group described me. “Back then it felt like the release of a great album was enough and you didn’t need a big machinery build around it or any social media presence,” says Marcus and Daniel agrees: “These days I might have to attend lot of meetings with some executives and have a plan. Something we didn’t have back then.” An Album By Korallreven is a testament of joy, friendship and fearless hunger for musical exploration, one that didn’t really care about streaming and sales figures or a big marketing plan. That’s why it probably couldn’t occur in a world like today. At least not in that form. It gives the otherwise quite positive record a bittersweet side note.
Korallreven continued to tour and released a follow-up album called Second Comin’ in 2014 which went for a different musical direction but still saw the pop musical thirst for adventure from these two protagonists. One year later they decided to end their tropical shoegaze adventure for now but continued to make music together under the moniker Yoo-Yoo, as producers for others or by creating sounds and mixtapes for a two-star Michelin restaurant. Especially that latter project was lots of fun for the duo since the ‘behind the scenes’ job freed them from any commercial pressure and brought back the spirit of the old days.
While Marcus stopped making music a few years ago to focus on his work as a journalist, Daniel just started studying sound design in Malmö and is hosting exhibitions. They are both parents, live in different cities and naturally that leaves limited space for any thoughts of a Korallreven reunion. “Making music might not be impossible but playing live really is right now,” says Daniel. “Unless a multi billionaire wants us to perform at his wedding,” says Marcus while laughing. The duo even revealed that they might be releasing two new Korallreven tracks in the not so distant future as they still have unreleased material lying around from the time between 2017 and 2019, so fingers crossed for that. But in the end the project is carried by their friendship and this special spirit of making music together. And although the time window is pretty narrow these days you never know whether it might open again in the future.
In retrospect the good memories remain but the two artists haven’t forgotten about the struggle as well. For Daniel the work on the album was a way to cope with personal struggles during that time while Marcus said the whole experience helped him to deal with his shy side. “Otherwise it would’ve been impossible to enter a stage and play in front of hundreds or sometimes even thousands of people,” he says.
So, where does that leave us one decade later? For Daniel it’s still best to experience the album on headphones and Marcus is really looking forward to a new generation of listeners to discover the album as he thinks it can still be relevant.
“I might have done a few things different now but as a whole it’s a very rewarding trip. It’s also quite a DIY album that was recorded in bedrooms with limited equipment. No fancy mics or pre-amps. It shows how far you can come just with interesting songs.” (Daniel)
The tale of Korallreven is also one of a band that wrestled with the imminent digital revolution back then and acceleration of modern music consumption. “I never really enjoyed the digital landscape of music,” confesses Marcus. “It’s not where I come from and how I like to experience music. That’s why I loved how we did it, focussing on 7-inch-singles at the beginning. I’m not a fan of algorithms suggesting me what to listen to.” It’s about putting a little more effort into the music than just hitting the ‘play’ button. Marcus even mentions the Swedish saying “gå över ån efter vatten” which is literally translated as “crossing the river to get water” and I think you know what he means by that.
An Album By Korallreven is a record that is carried by that love for music and the value of it, packed with dozens of references and flashbacks and the admiration of its two protagonists for all these things. It’s a tale of a time where the promises of the digitalization where more a chance than a problem, where the future seemed a little but brighter and more hopeful than it currently does. And maybe that’s why we should give it a spin these days and why I kindly invite you all to discover this warm tropical breeze of utopian ecstasy. You are allowed to take the shortcut via Spotify & Co. but hopefully it will result in a long-term relationship. I’m more than happy to share my admiration with others. It’ll be worth it, trust me.