Like a game of telephone, the Concretes’ pop sound becomes something different
It’s a bleakly cold night in Stockholm, and Lisa Milberg is excited at the thought of leaving for California’s sunnier climate.
“I can’t wait. It’s been the longest winter,” says the singer for the Concretes, talking on the phone from her Sweden home. “We’ve added an extra two weeks to our time in the U.S. so that we can travel Highway 1 up the coast.”
It’s been a long time coming for Milberg and the other members of the Concretes.
The eight-piece band, which appears in Midtown this week, is best known for its dreamy, ’60s-tinged twee-pop sound. Band shake-ups and the passage of time, however, have altered that sound in recent years. But not, says Milberg, the Concretes’ core essence.
Milberg co-founded the Concretes in 1995 with guitarist Maria Eriksson and vocalist Victoria Bergsman. In the band’s original incarnation, Milberg played drums.
The band’s self-titled debut album, released in the United States in 2004, was a lively collection of orchestral pop tunes, including the indie hit “You Can’t Hurry Love” (no, it’s not a cover of the Supremes classic).
With its 2006 follow-up disc, In Colour, the band seemed poised for even bigger international success.
And then Bergsman left the band to focus on a new project, Taken by Trees.
The remaining members of the Concretes, Milberg says, knew Bergsman’s departure “was the right thing.”
But that didn’t make it any easier.
“It was overwhelming. … We lost a very good friend and a family member.”
Still, she adds, “The rest of us still wanted to be a band, [so] we focused on that.”
That meant shifting a few things around. The band hired a new drummer, Dante Kinnunen, and Milberg moved from the back of the stage to the front to take on singer-songwriter duties. The Concretes quickly recorded and released a new album, 2007’s Hey Trouble.
In retrospect, Milberg says, she wishes they’d waited.
“When someone leaves the band, it’s a loss. … There’s a grieving process,” she says. “But I think we [tried to] delay that.”
As it turned out, the Concretes barely had time to think about the record they were making. Milberg, in particular, remembers blindly working her way through the transition from drummer to vocalist.
“It wasn’t that I was terrified [of singing on Hey Trouble]—it’s that I didn’t know what I was doing. I just ended up doing the record without thinking about it,” she says. “By the time I realized what I was doing, it was too late to back out.”
Now, Milberg says, listening back on that disc, she hears a singer who was trying to be someone else—and not succeeding.
“I noticed that when I tried to do something that wasn’t me—it just feels wrong,” she says. “That’s a very intense feeling, and I try to get away from it as much as possible.”
And so Milberg and the rest of the Concretes elected to take a short hiatus between albums.
The break eventually turned into three years as various members married, had children and worked on other projects.
When the Concretes finally reconvened, Milberg had a clear vision for the music she wanted to make.
The resulting album, Wywh, is a noted departure with the band moving away from its signature guitar-oriented pop sound to one that’s softer with an emphasis on dreamy electronic beats, all shot through with silvery glimmers of melancholy and sadness.
Naturally, Milberg says with a laugh, it’s a disco record.
“I knew that all along I wanted to make this a more rhythm-based album with songs that you can dance to.”
But songs such as the mournful “I Wish We’d Never Met” and the languid “Oh My Love” don’t exactly evoke visions of strobe lights and mirrored balls.
“In my head it sounds like how disco sounds to me, but obviously it’s not Saturday Night Fever,” she says.
“Disco to many people means something euphoric, but what I’ve always liked about it is the escapist angle,” Milberg says. “You try to escape something in your real life, so you go out and dance and try not to think about your troubles.”
That lonely-on-the-dance floor ethos is reflected on songs such as “Good Evening,” with its subtly bouncy rhythm and the hypnotic “Crack in the Paint.”
Although Wywh is, musically, a different approach for the Concretes, Milberg says she believes it stays true to the core essence of the group.
“Musically it’s hard to define, but there always tends to be a bit of melancholy in everything we do.”
The Concretes’ musical core is also defined, she adds, by a sense of purpose never quite fulfilled.
“We’re never 100 percent happy with what we do. We aim to do something and always end up close to that aim, but we never quite reach it.”
It’s not necessarily a pessimistic outlook, she adds.
“It’s like that game that where you whisper something in someone’s ear and then they whisper it to another person and it changes,” she says. “It’s not a bad thing—it’s just that something changed.”
The challenge of working with a collective is, perhaps, one reason Milberg tries to keep it simple on her solo music.
When she’s alone, the approach is quick and direct with little room for the distortion and changes that come with recording an album with seven other members.
“It’s not polished. I tend to think that the very first idea that comes into your house is the best one, and I want to keep as close to that as possible—when you make it perfect, it loses something.”
And although Milberg admits that sometimes it’s a relief to lose herself in that straightforward approach (“sometimes I need the band, sometimes I don’t”), the Concretes’ long, storied history keeps her grounded.
“We were so very young then, and now we’re wiser and older. Musically we’ve changed, but the spirit of the band remains exactly the same no matter what we do.”