Just about a month and a half ago, progressive metal/math-rock act Town Portal birthed their sophomore masterpiece The Occident to the world, which we just reviewed very recently. The Danish instrumental trio have masterfully conquered that space within incongruity and discordance, where tight harmony and order remain. That ground may be small but seems infinitely fertile to them, as their creative harvest is dynamic and captivatingly epic. Every turn and layer of their instrumentation leaves jaws dropping in its wake, wowing people as far as extreme metal authority Decibel and alternative champions Noisey. With an Internet message board savant deeming them the result of an orgy between Russian Circles, Tool and ISIS (the band, of course), we can't help but agree.
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We chat with their bassist Morten and guitarist Christian about the band's sound and writing process, touring, and the music scene for them back home. Check out the five albums that have inspired and influenced them along the way too. They're also planning on doing an Asian tour in the near future so fingers crossed!
Hey Town Portal! For those who haven't heard you guys before, tell us a bit about yourselves and your music. What have you been up to these days?
Morten: Hello. We’re an instrumental rock band from Copenhagen, Denmark with a passion for gnarly rhythmical structures, dissonant chord progressions and dreamy melodies in dropped tunings. Right now we’re pretty much resting on our laurels after having played a line of shows and released our new album The Occident, which concludes two years of effort. Other than that, we’re secretly starting to plot what’s next.
You've released three albums so far, with quite a long gap between your last two. How has your sound changed over the years, and over the three records you've made so far?
Morten: After our first release, we were reduced from a quartet to a trio. Having one guitar less in the picture has definitely resulted in some sort of reassignment of roles among the remaining three of us, which I think has been an ongoing development over the course of the two following releases. For us it’s basically been learning how to do more with less.
Christian: For the new record, our sound hasn’t really changed - we’re still a guitar/bass/drum trio playing through the same gear, but the melodic and harmonic colors of the songs feel different to us from what we’ve done before. Production wise, each album always ends up a bit different, and this time we feel like we managed to achieve something that was heavy, big and organic at the same time. We’re pretty happy about that and feel like our ongoing collaboration with engineer Carl Amburn really payed off. Oh yeah, as a side note, we managed to sneak in a bit of Khim (traditional Cambodian hammer dulcimer) on the track 'Eschaton'. That was a new one for us. We actually ended up playing it with chopsticks for a 200% oriental tone.
The album cover for The Occident, Town Portal's second release as a trio.
Town Portal was formed on the idea of making a live band, instead of a recording band as some of your past projects were. How does this affect the writing and recording process?
Morten: I think I have to amend that we’re a live band and indeed a recording band too. Actually our utmost goal is to make good records that we’re proud of, but it’s definitely true that from the beginning, it was a premise that we should be able to play the songs live. And in part that meant for us that we didn’t want to depend on huge pedal boards to shape our sound, or anything else that would cause unbearable amounts of on-stage confusion. In terms of recording, it usually means that when we play a recently finished song in our rehearsal space it sounds pretty much the same as it will sound on record.
We actually thought it would be different with The Occident and had plans to add all sorts of layers to the songs while recording, but it turned out that they were way better off without it. They were finished. An exception here is the song 'Dream Bureau', which was partly composed during the recording session. It’s something that we’ve talked about exploring a bit more in the future.
From your Berlin Beat interview, it's said you guys are friends with most other bands in the general scene of post-rock and math-rock in Copenhagen. Who are a few of your band friends, and what other Danish bands would you recommend so your Singapore listeners could check them out too?
Morten: I think this interview was conducted a long time ago, and today there’s really no math/post-rock scene in Copenhagen anymore. People got older and for some this meant moving on to try out other expressions and for others it meant entirely giving up on (playing) music. However, anyone who’s interested could look into some of those past bands: Obstacles, Marvin’s Revolt, Governor of Alaska, My Polaris Artillery, Nightpass, and Trust (although Trust are not past at all, only in terms of being a math rock band).
Christian: There are lots of cool active bands going on over here though. Just not as much of a math scene. Some great active bands (non-math) to check out would be bands like The Malpractice, SVIN, Gooms or Thulebasen to name a few.
You've mentioned before that your guitarist Christian is from a shoegaze band, your drummer Malik plays death metal, and your bassist Morten plays math-pop. How has this difference in influences — and your musical dynamic — affected your collective sound and creative process as a band?
Morten: Yes, that was pretty much the picture back when we started the band. This has changed over the years though. Christian has another band right now called Dark Warble, which is a more straight up 90’s inspired alt-rock band. Malik doesn’t play death metal anymore, but definitely still listens to a lot of metal. Personally, I play in a hardcore/noise-rock band called Tvivler with members of the aforementioned Obstacles. Like that, it’s still true that we bring a lot of different influences to the table, and moving on to actually answering your question, this definitely affects our sound and process.
I think that if you were to draw a Venn-type diagram of our respective musical tastes you would find a very small complete overlap in the middle, which is the ground on which we’ve built Town Portal. I noticed that quite often when people compare us to other bands, they go for these unlikely combinations of two or more somewhat incomparable bands like “Meshuggah meets Swervedriver”, or “Pelican meets Rush”, and I think that’s the result of our differences. I quite like that.
What is your favourite thing about touring, and where is your favourite city to have performed in so far?
Morten: During the past few years I’ve come to find that even more than performing my favorite part of touring is having a good time with the people I tour with and the people we meet on our way. You drive all day, carry heavy stuff, soundcheck, do a lot of waiting and then you have maybe 45 minutes of actually playing music. If you can’t find a way to have fun even while doing all the boring stuff, touring is awful. I’m not sure about the favorite city thing.
We’ve played a lot of cities that were great for different reasons, but I’m pretty sure that we all agree that playing at the Rock Valley Festival in the small Italian town Santa Maria Della Versa is on the top of the list. Nothing beats a summer night on a stage with a view to vineyards and a crowd made up of both hardcore town portal fans and elders of the village.
What can we expect from Town Portal's first Singapore show?
Morten: Well, let’s see if we can make it happen. It’s something we really want to do some day, and if we do, you should probably expect a mix of songs from all releases mediated in their most earthquake inducing versions and subjected to further interpretation via semi-awkward but enthusiastic stage moves.
TOP 5 INFLUENTIAL ALBUMS
We’ve had this kind of questions a few times before in interviews, and we tend to always mention a lot of the same stuff (i.e. Meshuggah, Self-Evident, Faraquet), so let’s try some new ones this time:
Steve Reich | Music For 18 Musicians
I didn’t actually listen to this piece of music until i was in my twenties, but I remember that the first time I heard it, I felt like, after hearing echoes of it in a ton of other rock-oriented records, I had finally reached the source - some sort of pure essence of patterns in music. Because that is really what this piece of music is about. Patterns, going in and out of synchronization, changing ever so slightly, and coloring each other in new ways. I’m no expert regarding minimalist classical music, but I feel like the instrumentation is pretty unique too. Loads of chromatic percussion, piano, strings - even some opera singers. It’s really special. If you - like I do - have a soft spot for patterns and vibraphones, it doesn’t get much better than this stunningly beautiful 68 minute journey.
Shiner - Lula Divinia
A hidden 90s gem and one of the few records I have had in steady rotation since my teenage years. A perfect balance between beauty and dissonance. Complex yet accessible. And probably the record that in my mind best captures three people playing together like one well oiled machine. And did I mention the drumming? Man, the drumming.
The Forms - The Forms
I think I have listened to this record more than any other record I own. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is I find so fascinating about it. The production is as organic, warm and submerging as anything I have heard (Albini’s work). The sonic equivalent of sinking into a bathtub of warm honey. The record also displays a layered vocal style unlike any other band I have heard. But I think what really gets me is the way the compositions play with rhythm and cycles. A lot of the songs actually play in odd time signatures, but the guitar riffs never seem to have any clear start or end, and just flow so seamlessly into one another, while the rhythm section keeps everything in check like some sort of calm, steady archaic motor underneath everything else. It’s almost like they are playing in circles rather than meters or something, and combined with the production and the melodies and harmonies, it’s just a sort of heavy woozy bliss, I never seem to tire of.
Deftones - White Pony
This album was released during the formative years of my interest in music (i.e. interest in music beyond listening to whatever was on the radio), which initially saw me becoming a proper indie kid with an ill founded prejudice against heavy music as being this sub-intelligent way of expressing really unrelatable stuff (think goat slaughter and corpse paint philosophy). White Pony was the first (of many) records to dispute that assumption, being at once more musically intelligent and more emotionally complex than most of the indie stuff I was listening to back then.
Moreno has this way of moving down some really safe and familiar melody line only to end it on some ominous semitone that renders the previously familiar oddly uncanny. It’s really not that weird and yet it’s full of surprise and wonderment. That’s a quality I admire and try to convey, not just in Town Portal, but in any band I’m engaged with.
Extra Life - Secular Works
Moving a bit further towards a pole on the weirdo spectrum, this album really spellbound me from the first listen. At first sort of involuntary, being that kind of album that you quickly write off as either overly annoying, pretentious, or just way too much, only to discover that you can’t really stop coming back to it. And then once you start listening to it so much that the term guilty pleasure doesn’t suffice any longer, you just have to surrender and start calling it a favorite album.
There are moments on that record that has all three members of Town Portal dropping their jaws, which is a rare thing in itself, and a surprising thing to say about an album that sounds like an anachronistic experiment of equipping a group of medieval troubadours and bards with electric instruments and instructing them to play math rock and interpret postmodern NYC-life.