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Interview: Pia Fraus

Pia Fraus - 2
17 December 2021

Pia Fraus – Photo Credit: Evert Palmets

Pia Fraus are an acclaimed indie music group based in the city of Tallinn in Estonia, a country in Northern Europe. The collective formed back in 1998 and they’ve released seven melodic, atmospheric, and stirring to reflective albums over the past two decades.

The band is currently composed of songwriter/lyricist Rein Fuks (guitar, vocals), Eve Komp (vocals, synth), Kristel Eplik (vocals), Kärt Ojavee (synth), Reijo Tagapere (bass), and Joosep Volk (drums).

The ensemble who started about as friends from art school are known for their refined, dreampop-pioneering sound that blends indie pop reverie with guitar-driven shoegaze, hypnotic electronica, and ambient/folk rumination.

In September of this year their full length compilation Now You Know, It Still Feels The Same arrived via their own Seksound label. The LP is a vibrant revisiting their debut LP, 2001’s Wonder What It’s Like, and other songs from that era.

Earlier this year, right before the compilation album dropped, the band members kindly connected through online means from their native Estonia for a detailed and insightful interview about the old and the new – for their music, their outlook, and their lives.

Some of the Q&A from this interview is exclusively featured as a Short Takes in the latest issue of Big Takeover magazine #89 and does not appear in this online interview, so definitely pick up a copy of the mag to read the full scoop.

Hello everyone! Thank you for participating in this interview for Big Takeover. Where are you all located now, and are you doing okay during the virus-driven pandemic?

Eve: We are still living in Estonia. That has not changed over 20 years. I think we are doing okay considering the pandemic. We haven’t had almost any concerts during this period. The last one was a year ago [when] we had a very nice concert at the festival “Mägede Hääl” in Estonia. But because we all have our daily jobs it has not influenced us so much. We have had time to focus on new material, and of course rerecording this album as well.

Have you been trying to stay indoors when you can because of the pandemic? Or maybe your jobs and other necessities make that impossible?

Reijo: Summer has been OK in terms of the pandemic. I work as a cameraman for the evening news. Work-wise for me it’s not that different compared with normal life. But of course, a lot of people need to work from home.

Joosep: It’s been quite lenient here in Estonia during the summer – No hard lockdowns or anything. I even managed to make a few trips outside of Estonia. And because I basically work alone I’ve been lucky enough to do my daily job the same way it was before the COVID outbreak.

Rein: I work as a freelance sound engineer/boom operator, and I have been at work most of the time.

Sorry to get really personal, but I’m curious – Are any of you in relationships with each other, or are you all strictly friends?

Reijo: We are strictly bandmates and friends. It has always been like this.

Do you all meet up and hang out sometimes when you’re not creating/playing music; maybe before the pandemic, but not these days?

Reijo: Sometimes. I wish we’d have more time to just hang out.

Joosep: I echo Reijo’s sentiments that I miss meeting up often. Me and Reijo are basically neighbors, but we rarely see each other outside the rehearsal room or occasional meeting of the whole gang. The working hours don’t match and we both have families to look after. But I meet with Rein quite often. I can safely say he is one of my closest friends.

Can you give a bit of insight about what the city/capital of Tallinn is like; maybe comparable to another city, like Oslo, Norway or…?

Eve: Actually I lived one year in Oslo when I was studying. So, for example, compared to Oslo, Tallinn is more versatile and eclectic in the sense of urban environment and architecture. On the other hand, Tallinn is a small capital city in Europe with approximately half a million people living here, and of course there is less going on than Helsinki or Berlin. But it is my hometown and I like to live here.

Jumping into your music, can you go into the details of what makes the new album, Now You Know, It Still Feels The Same, different from your debut LP, Wonder What It’s Like?

Joosep: The main difference is that we approached the process the way we should have done it back then. In the beginning I at least didn’t know how to play drums. Everything happened by accident. But the re-recorded versions sound like how they are supposed to. Or what we wanted them to sound but didn’t know how to achieve it.

Kärt: I think there is so much beauty in the way it was done back then – very rough, yet fragile, spontaneous and overloaded. The new recordings and the approach is clearly more mature and refined, based on experience and skills that have accumulated over the years. Like with any craft, the first samples are rudimentary, then through involvement you’re growing better in time. And at one point, looking back, you become inspired by this beginner’s imperfection.

There are actually 4 tracks on this new album that were not on your debut (“Prig,” “Bla (Morning Hue),” “Beautiful Next Time,” and “Plastic World”). Where do those songs originate from?

Rein: I found these songs from the demo tape we did in the late nineties. We played them at our very first concert in spring 1999. We kicked them out when we recorded Wonder What It’s Like as too-naive songs. Now, more than twenty years later, I’m totally OK and comfortable with these innocent songs. By the way, “Beautiful Next Time” is from the first album! We just made a new arrangement for it.

What does it mean that you made “new arrangements” for the original songs?

Rein: We made minimal changes, added some synths, backing vocals, and some guitars. The main reason why I wanted to re-record these songs was the sound. I wasn’t happy with the [original] result, and I used the chance to make it sound better. Back then, we weren’t mentally and physically ready to make a well-played, good-sounding album. There was a lot of confusion and euphoria in the studio. But the great thing is that we find good friends from the studio. I’m not trying to rewrite history. I just wanted to re-record the songs that I still like very much.

The original album’s songs were written in 1998 through 2000, and when you were all teenagers. I’m assuming the lyrics haven’t changed for the new record, right? Or maybe you did update some lines? Just wondering!

Joosep: The only updates were done out of necessity. The original lyrics of some of the songs were missing and we just couldn’t decipher some of the lines from the recordings. And so we just went with what sounded as close to the original as possible. Even if the lyrics were cringy.

Kristel: I’m glad we basically did not change a word for the lyrics. Today, for me to sing “on the floor is your great shoe / so can you tell the truth my love” is as weird (and natural at the same time) as back then. By the way, the same 20-year-old image of a red shoe appears before my eyes while singing. Rein, is your shoe red as well?

Rein: I’m not quite sure who wrote that specific line about huge shoes. I think it was Reijo… At least I remember when we wrote the lyrics with Reijo. We sat on the floor at Reijo’s girlfriend’s flat and wrote the lyrics. But if you ask me what color that shoe is, then I have to say brown. But it might also be red – or blue!

What did it feel like revisiting these songs from twenty or so years ago? Based on the new album title, I’m assuming that nothing has changed in your passion and interest in playing/recording these tracks.

Joosep: These songs were the first steps in our “career” in music and to me it was about righting some of the wrongs, and at the same time experiencing what I felt back then.

Kärt: I became super-nostalgic and wasn’t always sure how to proceed and do things differently. It has been amazing how Rein has directed the [entire] material into this beautiful outcome.

From what I understand, this re-recording process was possibly affected by the pandemic? Does that mean you each went into the studio individually to record your parts?

Eve: Yes, but we did not record separately because of the pandemic. We have a small studio and over the years we have developed a workflow on how to record the material in the best way. For Rein it takes a lot of time to record with each of us separately, but at the same time it is intimate, nice, and focused the recording sessions.

Rein: I met with members separately in the studio. Also Kärt recorded some synth parts at home.

Joosep: I rehearsed on my own mostly for this record. We analyzed some of the drum parts with Rein to see what works and what doesn’t. But since he had prepared the demos so well it was quite easy to work alone while preparing for the recording session. Why on earth didn’t we work like that in the beginning? There’s probably a million reasons, but the main one was we didn’t know one can do it like that.

Rein, this is a huge undertaking with a big ensemble of musicians/vocalists, and it sounds like you are the director/mastermind behind getting all of this done. Can you walk us through how a specific song, like “How Fast Can You Love,” was re-done and recorded?

Rein: I’m not the mastermind or director. I’m a songwriter and have a vision of how I want my music to sound. It’s not easy to achieve if you’re not in a professional band. We are just a bunch of friends who’ll try to do our best. Sometimes it turns out well; sometimes not. To be honest, it was the third time we recorded “How Fast Can You Love.” The first time we did it for the first album (I wasn’t happy with the result); the second time we re-recorded it to our second album (In Solarium). And that version is even worse than the first one! There were some arrangement errors, and it was also too slow. But now, the third version, at last, sounds perfect to my ears.

Why did you decide to re-record these songs now (Well, in 2020 and 2021)? Did the pandemic have anything to do with it, or is this similar to Silmi Island, where you put out re-recordings of songs from the first decade of your career?

Rein: In 2020 we released Empty Parks, the album that we did with John McEntire. We had the chance to do a little tour in Japan, but the US tour and the rest of the plans were cancelled. So I wrote most of the songs for the next album and decided to make a compilation to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Wonder What It’s Like. Maybe next year you will already hear our new music, and hopefully we can tour again.

Kristel: Why we re-did it, I’m not sure, but it was fun and I trust Rein’s decision. I’d drifted away from singing, making music, and I’m awfully thankful to Rein for pulling me back in, encouraging and leading me.

Rein, what was it like co-producing this album? I’m not sure if you’ve done that before…?

Rein: Actually, I have been a co-producer before.

On which albums?

Rein: Bad ApplesThe Autumn People (2009), Imandra LakeSeesamseesam (2010), Imandra Lake – Avane (2014), Pia Fraus – Field Ceremony (2017), and Pia Fraus – Empty Parks (2020). I record most of the stuff by myself, and I already impact the whole sound before the mixing process. I have a pretty strong vision of how I see my music, but it’s always good to work with other producers, engineers, and mixers. The third ear is always necessary!

And Kristel is back on lead vocals, with Eve on backing vocals. I guess you wanted to keep things as much the same as when you recorded the debut?

Eve: yes, it was natural that Kristel would join as lead singer for re-recording the album. Back then I was not yet in the band, so my backing vocals are a new addition.

Rein: Yup! The whole idea for me was to re-record these songs with the original lineup, and I am happy that everybody except [original band member] Tõnis joined me to do it.

Can you divulge why Tõnis was absent from this endeavor?

Rein: I think that Tõnis is just too busy with his job and family. I asked him to join us when we recorded Field Ceremony and Empty Parks, and I also invited him to join us to record Now You Know It Still Feels the Same. But we had no luck! We’re sad that he is not with us, but we respect his choice.

But Tõnis is listed with the rest of you for the ‘arrangement’ of this new album on your Bandcamp page. So I’m a bit confused…

Rein: Tõnis wasn’t in the studio with us this time. We asked several times, [but] it was his choice. [So] I made some cosmetic changes when we re-recorded them. I played all the guitar parts, and also those that Tõnis played on our first recordings.

Moving on to the history of the band’s singers, Kristel is the original vocalist, and when she left the band, Eve signed on as lead vocalist. But on more recent albums, Kristel returned to supply backing vocals. I’m just wondering what the backstory is for all this.

Rein: I never wanted to become a singer, but when Kristel left the band, I started to sing, and when Eve joined, we started to sing together as a girl/boy duet, mostly because it sounded good. In the ideal world, Kristel and Eve should sing together. For me, it’s not important who’s the lead or who’s backing vocal. If they sound nice, then it’s perfect!

What has it been like running your own label, Seksound?

Eve: We started the label when we released Mooie Island EP in 2004. It has always been a mission and hobby; not a profitable business. So a lot of energy and time has been invested to run it. Over the years we have had more than 70 releases, so in that sense I think it has been successful. We have had nice collaborations with different record labels, starting with Clairecords and Vinyl Junkie, and also with Shelflife. But so far, even if we know that releasing albums takes a lot of work and also funding, we are still doing it ourselves.

What do you credit your longevity and drive in the music world to?

Rein: For me personally, it’s a natural thing to do! I started writing songs when I was eleven or twelve, and I never stopped. I’m also a huge music fan and a record buyer. It’s been such a big part of my life. It’s easy to do things when you have support from your fans. We’re extremely lucky that we have very loyal and supportive listeners around the globe. Thanks to them, we have the motivation and energy to continue.

You started out in 1998, after the whole ‘90s shoegaze wave in the UK. How much did that movement/music impact your sound and/orvision as Pia Fraus? Were there other music/art scenes that you feel influenced your sound – or acts/artists like Stereolab, for instance?

Reijo: When we started Pia Fraus we didn’t know anything about this shoegaze wave. All these early UK shoegaze giants we discovered when we recorded our second album In Solarium. When we made our first, we listened to a lot of Stereolab, Wedding Present, some Britpop and punk, and we had some great indie bands also here in Estonia.

Joosep: I think somewhere between 2000/2001 I started looking into bands like MBV, Slowdive, and Ride. So the whole first album all happened by accident and was driven by our curiosity multiplied by our inexperience.

How did you pick the band name, and/or how does it relate to your outlook and/or music – or maybe it doesn’t?

Reijo: We had some options that I offered to others and we democratically voted.

Joosep: Reijo, I still think we should have gone with Antoonovkad (a variety of apples, for those who don’t know).

LOL… Hmmm, I just realized that maybe you’ve not yet performed in the US? I read a list of where you’ve played/toured: Estonia, Poland, Latvia, Finland, Japan, China, Taiwan, England, Scotland, Ireland, and Canada, but no mention of the United States of America… Is this list correct, or have you played shows in the US? And what about France, Spain, Portugal, and also other countries around Estonia? I’m thinking this list I found may be incorrect or out of date!

Eve: That’s true, we haven’t played in the US. We would really very much love to… Hopefully some day it is possible. Actually, we had already started to organize the tour when Empty Parks was released, but then the pandemic cancelled the plans. Besides those countries mentioned above, we have also played in Sweden, Norway, Spain, and Russia over the years.

Since shows unfortunately have been on hold for a while now due to the pandemic, let’s get nostalgic for a bit and think back to your previous gigs. Do you have a favorite memory from your shows and travels; one that stands out more than others?

Joosep: As I left the band in 2003 and re-joined in 2018 I don’t have that much live experience with the band outside of Estonia. But we got to do a small tour of Japan just before the pandemic halted everything and I really enjoyed it. My second pick would be our second-ever concert in a place called von Krahl. It was a legendary place and as an indie band you wanted to play there. The fact that we managed to get a gig there the second time we gave a concert left me wondering about what’s next as everything seemed to be achieved already by the age of 17. Maybe that gave us the motivation to start looking for labels and a way out.

Rein: We have had a lot of fun times while touring! A lot of laughs and crazy situations! But to be honest, I’m a shy person when I’m onstage, and I enjoy studio time more than playing live. But of course, sometimes I enjoy playing live too. And I love to meet our fans around the globe. It’s unreal that we have so many supporters! I’m so thankful for all of them! We love them all!

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