GRIMSON – Interview & Track by Track

Eines der faszinierendsten Debütalben des Jahres hat ein junger Singer-Songwriter mit schwedischen und US-amerikanischen Wurzeln vorgelegt, der seit einigen Jahren in Berlin lebt. Climbing Up The Chimney von Grimson ist ein im Independent-Selbstverlag und auf Bandcamp zunächst nur digital erschienenes Werk, das im Laufe des September auch auf Vinyl und im Oktober auf CD veröffentlicht wird (Release-Party am 12.10.2023 im Urban Spree Berlin). Unsere Review gibt es hier!

Die 14 Songs des Albums sind ein Wunder an warmer Melodieseligkeit, detailverliebten Arrangements und hauchfeiner Produktion (Robbie Moore). Außer dem Multiinstrumentalsten Aiden Berglund alias Grimson und Moore haben daran nur wenige andere Musiker (das renommierte Oriel String Quartet, Chris Hill am Schlagzeug, Rain Johannes an der Gitarre) mitgewirkt. Wir haben mit dem Künstler, der auch ein großes Talent für animierte Videos hat, in Berlin-Mitte gesprochen und ihn dabei zusätzlich um eine Track-by-Track-Analyse wichtiger Songs von Climbing Up The Chimney gebeten.

Hi Aiden, or shall I call you Grimson? So, my first question is: Where does this mysterious artist name come from? What does Grimson mean?
First of all, please call me Aiden. The name is not so mysterious when You know my dad’s name is Grim. His dad came from Icelandic folk in Sweden, so my dad got this kind of Scandinavian Nordic name. Grim and his son, I’ve just put this together. I’m Swedish from my father’s side, my mother is from the US – from New York, where I grew up.

I learned from your PR you come from Brooklyn, you moved to Berlin some years ago. And you’re very young, 20 years or so. In my album review I doubted this official story, because Your debut record sounds so mature and rounded. So, what is true?
Yes, I’m a little bit older (laughs). I just turned 26 over the summer. But the first time I moved to Berlin was to study, when I was just about 20. My dad lived here, so I decided to move to Berlin when I finished art school – that was in 2019.

Please tell us about your development as an artist. You began writing songs in your teens, right?
May I start at the very beginning? Okay. These songs from Climbing… were conceived in high school and early in college. I went to a high scholl in Manhattan, and I was put into a quite competitive kind of songwriting course. They didn’t teach you how to write songs, it was more like… there was lots of space in this school for people who were really good at their instruments or who were singers. And there was one class of like 15 people who were songwriters, from the age of 14 to 18. And so I got put in this class, and these people were really thirsty and… sharp. You’re surrounded by so much going on, all the time, growing up in a city like New York forces You to kind of compress under that pressure. But when I joined this class I was already writing songs for four years or so. Even before high school, I played in a punk trio that was influenced by Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi, Hüsker Dü. To cut a long story short: In this class we worked with each other, many people played different instruments, we would audition our own original songs to be performed on stages or in clubs of New York City.

That’s exciting. What happened next?
So that’s where I kind of formed my musical identity. I got away from my punk side, and I got influenced by classic or psychedelic rock of the Sixties and Seventies. Most of the songs on the record were written around that time on school, so they are very old. It was kind of a difficult process to be caring of this material. My main goal was to offer something that people could discover in material that is old, because I’ve written two or three albums since then. Now these songs on Climbing Up The Chimney sound like they belong together – because they do. It represents me when I was 18. Of course I’ve grown as a person now. A lot of these older songs come from anxiety, depression, conflict – but I wanted to show an emotional journey. I like the idea of being present and showing what the past was.

The record sounds gorgeous with all these pretty details reminding me of great artists like The Beatles, Harry Nilsson, Jon Brion or Elliott Smith. Did You have these legendary people in mind when you recorded the songs?
Yes, I was definitely influenced by all these people you mentioned. I also am addicted to details in music. I’ve never really been satisfied with a song that has four chords and the same rhythm throughout. So I love these little details, like in Sergeant Pepper’s or Revolver by The Beatles. You might not always get it by the first listen but there’s always something there to discover. For me that’s a very loving and optimistic way to approach art. With these songs I also wanted to entertain myself because otherwise I get bored.

The lyrics of some songs sound quite sad or at least melancholic, for example Never Dealt (With Anything This Hard) or I Hate Myself Now. Are these words personal or fictional?
It’s all definitely personal. Maybe I’m gonna regret saying this but I couldn’t write a song if there was no personal element to it. I want to improve that to tell other people’s stories, but when I wrote these songs, as a teenager, I was overwhelmed with reality, relationships, family – so they come from very specific situations. I Hate Myself Now – that song in particular is funny because at that time, in this songwriting class, the most popular was writing about smoking weed, falling in love, the cosmos. So when I wrote this song, being 15 or 16, it was so uncool to sing about anxiety. But it’s honest, it’s a teenage feeling, it’s a teenage song. And nowadays it’s very popular to write songs like this – if you go to Spotify, there’s a million songs “I Hate Myself”…

So, if you don’t mind, let’s do a track-by-track review – choose some of your songs from the album and tell me and our readers about them.

Fault Lines is meant to introduce the storybook world of Grimson both sonically and lyrically, which is why it’s the overture of the debut album. I’ve rewritten the lyrics several times to get closer to its themes of innocence, guilt, blame and consequence, finally landing on the more honest portrayal I emotionally could: a young adult in conversation with his teenage self, opening up to peers about his admitted cruelty and naivety, searching for a path towards accountability and peace.

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Household was written from the perspective of two teenage friends who were oppressed by their controlling parents. Sung as a fable of a dog who desperately yearns to leave the house he’s imprisoned in, the protagonist oscillates between having the strength to fight his owners and falling back into submissive habits. I’m particularly proud of my string arrangements on this one – which obviously pay homage to George Martin’s Beatles arrangements, but also to hip hop producers like Dr. Dre and J Dilla. I animated the video for it with a college friend and artist T. Marsh.

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Round Trip Ticket is the oldest song on the record. It was based on a poem I wrote at the age of 9 or 10, trying to understand why and how my family split apart when I was a child. Though my friends have come to understand the meaning to relate to other moments in our youth – hopping turnstiles in NYC, lying to your parents – the ticket in question is a real itinerary that my dad had when he was returning to South Africa, where my family had lived before moving back to NYC. At least I think that’s the case, I don’t remember anymore. I love how simple the chord progression is, and I wrote it inspired by Bob Dylan when I was 15 years old. The lyrics, though, are incredibly direct and tell a very specific story that now makes both my parents tear up when they hear it.

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Never Dealt (With Anything This Hard) is the only love song I’ve ever written, and still a sour one at that. Written in college about a relationship that I was passionate about, but had no tools to understand. Nowadays we would call it toxic. One line in the lyrics is a reference to an inside joke that my partner and I had, that we weren’t each other’s sunshine, but the next closest thing, meaning we shouldn’t be everything to each other, but still important. I would have preferred to have been everything to her.

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Heavy Machine is a song about a partner who appears to be effortlessly fun and easy, when the truth of the relationship reveals cruel and selfish behavior. Inspired sonically by Queens Of The Stone Age and (Elliott Smith band) Heatmiser, along with a humorously out-of-style guitar solo performed by a friend of mine (Rain Johannes). I animated this video with an artist in Australia named Kiera Spilsbury, who was able to draw out amazing things from AI, while I animated characters on top. I like how the video reflects the grinding machinery of a locomotive, whose only passenger realizes it has no driver.

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I Was A Moth – despite focusing on the narrator’s proclamations, it is the most abstract lyrical story I’ve ever told. It tells the story of a big change that came and went, leaving a sharp divide between the past and the future, and the melancholy associated looking backwards to a simpler, more confident time. But still, the iterations that the protagonist has experienced are all quite dour in of themselves, which begs the question, why is the protagonist looking backwards with such nostalgia if he was so unhappy? I chose to rerecord this song because it is simple, direct, and has the fewest number of chords of almost any of my songs. It was one of those songs that just emerged without effort, which makes me a little suspicious about what realm it came from.

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Good Dreams is an honest and adept emulation of the 1960s more elaborately arranged psychedelia, conjuring impressions of The Zombies, Beach Boys and Os Mutantes, without losing those twisted elements that make it feel like my own. Good Dreams reflects on my very real experiences of insomnia as a teenager. Suffering intense anxiety and depression, I couldn’t sleep enough hours to stay lucid during school, and those brief interludes of rest were riddled with nightmares and sleep paralysis. I tried to bring a lush and almost opiate-like sonic arrangement that feels a bit like being covered in a heavy duvet, which can almost persuade the listener into thinking this is indeed a cheery song.

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Chimney Sweeper is most closely related to the visuals of the music video for it. Visually inspired by Michel Gondry’s unique animation style, and musically inspired by Hunky Dory era David Bowie, Chimney Sweeper is, by far, the most painfully ambitious project I’ve conceived of and executed. It was an exercise in the marriage of film and music, attempting to be more than a standard song and music video, but not quite a short film. The lyrics reflect one my social life towards the end of high school – feeling seen but not understood by my friends or my family, and finding an escape through the 60s pop music I held so dearly.

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Thank you so much for this fine analysis. So, you’re one of many American artists in Berlin right now. What do you like – or dislike – about this city? And will you stay, or do you think of returning to the US soon?
I don’t really have any plans to go back to the US at the moment. We can talk about the political or social situation: When I first moved here when I was 20 – Donald Trump was president, so it was just a breath of fresh air to kind of release myself from this suffocating world. Because I had the luxury of living here, and I’m a European citizen, I’m Swedish, I don’t have to struggle for a visa. I moved here and I felt comfortable. There was enough of New York here in Berlin, and enough foreignness and new experiences. A mixture of ease and challenge. So I could exhale, I could relax. And I quickly found people who were making music. For me, the most important part always was to find a community.

Tell me about your plans for your artistic future. Is there a second album on the horizon?
First of all, I’m relieved that this Climbing… album is out now. I have worked on a lot of music since then that shows my development as an artist. My goal is to maybe find a label, find a distributor because I’m doing all this independently now. I take my music very seriously, and I want to get it heard, and I really want to perform. The next album ist 40 percent done – and I think these are the best songs I’ve ever written. They have a lot in common with my older songs but stylistically they are more mature, the emotion is much more direct. The lyrics, the rhythms are less like walking through the woods, more like running down an alley. So I’m really excited. And I’m not getting any younger…

Thank you, Aiden! And good luck to you!

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Werner Herpell

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