“I never sit down and think I’m going to write a song about a broken heart. I write because I’m broken hearted. It’s just a natural way to express myself.” Blanka Inuanen doesn’t come across as someone that wears her heart on her sleeve during our interview in quite the way her lyrics for Len Sander might suggest, but it’s not first time the word expression makes an appearance during our conversation. I wonder if there is particular situation that disrupted her emotive state and I get my answer in the same universal manner her lyrics are penned. “It’s just a reflection on relationships, but certainly influenced by one particular relationship.” She doesn’t divulge more than that and I get the impression the personal influences need to remain personal for the Swiss singer. But it does start to explain the abstract expressive element in Phantom Garden, the remarkable debut from the band, a debut that took ten years to reach us.
Len Sander is a family affair and has its roots some twenty odd years ago in a small village outside Zurich. “My brother and I have been playing music since we were little. We started when we were ten, we are in our thirties now.” When their cousin, Flavio Schönholzer, revealed an interest in music after moving to Zurich, they asked him to join them in their musical project and Len Sander was officially born. “It’s a complete fantasy name. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s an idea my brother had; my brother has most of the ideas. We didn’t discuss it at all, because at the time, we didn’t take the project too seriously.” Through their cousin the rest of the band eventually joined and they have been playing together as Len Sander for the past ten years. Blanka is talking to me from her Zurich apartment, where the whole band now resides permanently and where much of the recording takes place.
“At one point we decided that we wanted to record everything on our own, because we had such a clear vision of what we wanted it sound like. But we had to find out how to do it all and that’s why it took so long.” A few of their first attempts, one of which was sung Spanish trickled out onto the internet, but never manifested as something substantial in the beginning while the band perfected their sound. Their environment had a lot of influence on their sound, right from the start. “In Switzerland every child learns an instrument in school.” The band’s musical training underpins each song on Phantom Garden. It’s easy to discern musicians in full demand of their craft as the different parts expose different talents in the band. From Simon Inauen’s keymanship on ungrowing to Dennis Schärer’s guitar work on Electrocardiography, the album is an excellent representation of musical ability. But it’s not only confined to the individuals, it’s also in the way they form a whole. Fusing electronics in what are essentially acoustic arrangements, Len Sander manage to craft a sound that is beautifully harmonious with the current zeitgeist, without delving into conformity. “It’s just an experimental aptitude that we have. We have an instrumental background, but Zurich is a city where there’s a lot of electronic music. If you don’t like Techno or Electronic music you shouldn’t live here. It’s everywhere. Maybe it’s because we are so used to hearing electronic music that it’s not even an option for us to make folk music. We just love to play around with that.” Alongside cousin Flavio, Alessandro Hug brings the electronic element to the music through sustained legato bows and processed drum machines. “Alessandro studied composition and jazz in Lausanne in Switzerland and I think he is the most experimental guy in the band. For him, it wouldn’t be an option to not push the boundaries of music.”
I try to decrypt Blanka’s responses to my questions about the compositional processes the band employs, but I soon realise that, like the lyrics, the music too comes from the subconscious domain, where the abstract expressive dwells. “We were working on this on our own in a closed studio and experimenting. We never had a discussion, because music and experimenting came first.” The whole album was recorded live in this manner, locked out from the outside world with the only influences finding their way into the music coming from the personal domain in the same way Blanka’s lyrics come to the fore. “I just process my emotions when I write the lyrics. It’s just a natural way to express myself. When I have a feeling or a thought or I watch a movie or I here a line or read a book, I hear something or read something that I can indentify with I write it down. I collect words I collect sentences from what I read and I see. I collect these and put down my own thoughts and turn them into a theme that is personal to me. I couldn’t write anything that I didn’t feel myself. It’s all therapeutically rewarding. It’s all about expressing myself.”
A visual element is important to incorporate for the singer, giving the lyrics a narrative and in turn providing the very visceral lyrics a corporeal dimension, something a listener could relate to if the music fails to communicate it in a universal language. It’s only now that the band have completed the album that they have started to think more about the reception stages of the work. “Sometimes you perceive your music differently than the audience does. I realise a lot of songs that were dance tracks, other people thought were quiet and slow. We realised that the songs had total different impact on people that we thought it would had.” They are in a fortunate position in Zurich, which affords them the opportunity to work in this bubble. The cultural funding in the city is especially generous to a group of their standing and alleviates them of the often-laborious task of finding a benefactor in the form of a label. It gave them the chance to record it under their own conditions and begs the question whether the album would have the same results if it were waiting for the seal of approval from an over-bearing label or management. What is clear however is that these conditions were the perfect situation for Len Sander to produce their seminal debut. I am hopeful that we won’t have to wait another ten years for the sophomore effort. “We never stop working on new stuff.” Blanka says the band is already recording some new songs and believes the reception from Phantom Garden has inspired a new direction for the band. “Maybe it’s too early to talk about it. We are working on two new songs one is really more pop like and the other is more techno dance. Maybe it won’t be as ‘quiet’ as Phantom Gardens.” In the meantime however the band will also continue to play live, incorporating as many destinations as they can, starting with their hometown. “I would say there’s not such a long tradition of making modern music in Switzerland or Zurich. But, people are hungry to hear new music from here. The public is really open and motivated to hear new stuff.”
Deetron pops to my mind when Blanka mentions this, but I struggle to recall another electronic music artists from that part of the world. What is certain though and what has become really clear throughout the interview is that Len Sander is very much a product of their circumstances. Phantom Garden could only exist under the conditions that bore them. If they attempted the album at the start of their existence, ten years ago, with an experienced engineer and producer, their debut would have been something completely different. On the surface it might be a well thought out plan, but it appears it was more a question of destiny in what Blanka described as a “fluid process” from beginning to debut recording. The fluid process taking them from their early childhood, learning and studying their craft, to the point of releasing Phantom Garden – Refining a sound over decades to get it to the point of the sonorous perfection.