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Interview: Jakob Hemström (Oh Hiroshima)

4 March 2022

The ever-changing continuum for Swedish post-rock band Oh Hiroshima finds the lineup acting as a duo for the first time since their inception in 2007 with bassist Simon Forsberg departing in early 2021. While the departure served as a challenge, it allowed brothers Jakob Hemström (guitars, vocals, bass) and Oskar Nilsson (drums) to focus on the music, take risks, and set the course for the future.

Breaking free from some of the post-rock norms, Myriad features vocals on every track and Oh Hiroshima has incorporated instruments not commonly associated with the genre throughout the album’s seven tracks. Whether it’s the majestic trumpet blasts in tracks like opener “Nour” and “All Things Pass” or the smooth trombones slides found in “Veil of Certainty,” the duo are expanding what’s possible with their music and evoking emotions that hadn’t been tapped in previous work.

If there’s a takeaway from a conversation with Hemström just days before the release of Oh Hiroshima’s fourth album, it’s that the brothers have learned to adapt to changes, taking lessons from each experience to reimagine what’s possible and going with the flow rather than giving up.

How much did everything related to COVID affect the recording of Myriad?

JAKOB: This record is our fourth and every record we’ve made has had a different kind of recording session. The first record was a total DIY product, lo-fi sounding with limited skills and limited equipment. We wrote a lot of it in the small studio that we used. The second record we were working as a quartet and we recorded with a more professional audio engineer in a real recording studio and all the songs had been created as this quartet jamming in a rehearsal space. The next record, we were only three guys and we had to change the way we wrote music again. And now, with this record, another member left us about a year ago, so me and my brother, who is the drummer, are the only ones left in the band and we had to start thinking and writing in different ways. So, it’s not just the COVID situation for us. It’s been different every time.

In regards to COVID, when it comes to writing, it was mostly positive thing for us. We had more time on our hands. In Sweden, we didn’t have any kind of real lockdowns. We have a history of having a lot of faith in the authorities here so they used that as more to advise or recommendations, never any kind of hard lockdown of any sort. They recommend for us to stay at home during this period when we were writing for the album so I had a lot more time on my hands. I was also on parental leave so as soon as the kids were asleep, I went up to my room and started making demos and sent them to my brother and he added drums. That’s how we made the album.

Were you ready to start a record anyway or did the extra time give you the chance to start something early?

JAKOB: In 2020, we were supposed to go on tour like everyone else. It was canceled and we started writing like everyone else. But, we had written maybe 2/3 of a record, it was mostly me behind most of those ideas. This was when we were still a trio but the other guys didn’t get into the direction of the songs that we had so we put them on a shelf and started over. In a way, we would have been doing things in the same order even if there hadn’t been COVID but when we really got into the later stages of writing, we had more time on our hands.

Did you end up recording at home?

JAKOB: No. You can go into the studio and have very loose ideas or you can work really hard before you go into the studio to be able to put things down quick. That was the only way for us to do it this time. We had one week in the summer last year to record a record so we wanted the songs to be really prepared before we went into the studio. We had worked a lot on the demos before studio time. We went to the studio and recorded with Kristian Karlsson who is in similar bands [pg.lost, Cult of Luna].

Because you’ve recorded so many different ways, do you try to take something from each session and bring it to the next recording?

JAKOB: Definitely. For us, this is our most ambitious work yet and we learned a lot in trying to put more time and energy into this record. Every record has been different so we’ve had to rethink every time we’re going into the studio and writing sessions. With this latest record, just to have the demos really worked out and ready before entering the studio, that was great. We did change some things anyway but to know you have this well structured thing, you know what kind of instruments you want and what kind of sound you want on the different guitars and guitar parts, to have this clear vision helped us to feel free to make changes and not feel stressed out about that. When we thought that some part didn’t work out the way we wanted it, we knew the original ideas were fine but it was more about trying to make it even better. I think that’s something we will do next time we make a record. Now we’re a duo and we’ve adapted to that. For the next record, I hope – and I’m guessing – we’ll be in the same constellation so I think we can reuse the way we made this record a lot. We usually meet up and jam out some basic ideas, I’ll bring a guitar part or a guitar riff, and we just jam in the studio and record it. I go home and listen to the recordings and take out the best parts and work from that and then send it back to my brother where he adds drums. This way of working was really fitting for us.

Was it easier to record as a duo?

JAKOB: No, it was hard because it took a lot more time. When we were a trio, we could be in the rehearsal space and we could shape whole songs or at least the skeletons of songs. Because we’re still operating like we’re a quartet, that’s the way we think when we’re making the songs, and then maybe we add some extras to the songs. Like, we had some horns and cello on this record. But, we can’t do that when we’re only two people. You can get a basic idea but the other instruments, what they do and what they bring, can change things very much so it’s definitely harder that way. When we worked as a quartet, when everybody has found their way of playing a part or a song, it’s like, “Okay, it’s done.” Everyone knows what to play and it sounds good, let’s just leave it. But when you’re working with demos and doing a lot of instruments yourself, you can go psychotic and redo things in an absurd way. You have to limit yourself and know when to stop and be satisfied enough.

You mentioned horns. I don’t know that I hear horns on many other post-rock bands’ records. Is that pretty unique to what you’re doing on this record?

JAKOB: I’ve heard horns on some post-rock bands but more often they’re this mixture of indie rock so they’re more like an indie rock thing with a post-rock vibe to it. A lot of great indie rock bands are using horns, like The National, I’m really into them, and, of course, Bon Iver and so on. For me, I take that kind of stuff from them, I really like the way they use horns in different kinds of ways. I agree with you. I don’t listen to a lot of post-rock these days. When we started the band, it was the only thing I listened to. For me, now, it’s different kinds of stuff. I’m very tired of some of the cliches that have stuck within the post-rock genre. We wanted to break away from some of the most obvious cliches that glued itself onto this genre. Adding these instruments is a way of kicking down some walls and try to broaden the sound.

Not only did you add horns, but you have them in the first song which is making a statement right out of the gate.

JAKOB: Yeah. That was not a conscious decision, it just kind of happened. We had that song and we wanted it to be the first song, it felt natural. And it was just this section where I thought, “Maybe we could add some horns.” It’s kind of a coincidence as well because I happen to have a father-in-law who plays the trumpet in a chamber orchestra, he’s a professional musician. And my wife is the one who plays the cello on the record. So, if I didn’t know them, I probably wouldn’t have had these instruments on the record. Also, another friend plays the trombone who is very good. I haven’t brought in musicians that I don’t know and hired them. I just called my friends and I had them in the back of my mind when writing.

The word “cinematic” shows up in just about every post-rock review and, well, your music really does make me picture movie scenes in my head. Do you picture those kind of scenes in your head when you’re writing music? And, if so, what kind of movie or TV show do you think your music would fit well into?

JAKOB: Very good question. I don’t think I get those kind of images. I guess I do when I listen to other people’s music. When I’m working with our songs, it’s just the songs in my head. I have this thing that when I write a part on the guitar or bass, I immediately start to think about what other instruments can play to match that in my head. It’s like a theoretical process in my mind. The first part of a song usually just comes out, I pick up a guitar and something comes out. But then I start to think and work in that way. But, it’s always just the music – where should this part lead into the next? Sometimes, the ideas in my head can sound pretty good. I’m playing this chord progression and I’m hearing this melody in my head and sometimes that fits very well and sometimes it’s all rubbish. I don’t know what kind of movie … it’s cinematic or epic or whatever word you want to use so it would be fitting to have in a space movie or something.

The visuals in the “Humane” video represent the song very well. There’s grey skies and woods and running through trees. I don’t know what kind of movie that might be, maybe a mystery or a thriller.

JAKOB: My friend, he used the word, I don’t know the English word for this but we say fjäll in Swedish. It’s not just mountain, but mountains with a lot of snow on it in the northern part of Sweden. He thought “Humane” looked like a fjäll apocalypse movie.

What kind of stuff do you enjoy reading or watching? Actually, before you answer, I’m going to guess. I’m guessing you’re more of a science kind of guy.

JAKOB: Yes, I am. I’m a teacher, actually. I’m a science teacher and also a teacher of religion. Here in Sweden, you read about all the world religions and ethics and stuff. I’m very interested in all those types of things and I read a lot of popular science books, philosophy, and things like that. I do like to read fiction as well but I think I would never pick up a new novel, maybe certain writers. I don’t think I read enough fiction right now but when I am in those kind of periods, I pick up classics because I want to know that this is a great book before I pick it up. I don’t want to waste my time with a book that’s not great. You were spot on. There are themes in this album and in the videos that we tried to connect and create a thread throughout the record. It’s not a concept record but there are common themes that connect the songs.

Your videos look great. Did friends help you make them or did you have some budget to film?

JAKOB: It was actually my brother who made both videos. It’s a role he has in the band. The previous record that we released on Napalm, we made two videos and that was the first time we had made a video. He has some experience, he has worked with some other artists making videos. He loves to film and has a lot of cameras and loves to develop in that area. We directed together, brainstormed ideas, and I had written the lyrics and I tried to talk about my ideas behind the lyrics and the themes. Together, we brainstormed the basic ideas for the videos but he’s all in control, the angles and how to shoot and the editing. He does everything.

How do you think most people discover Oh Hiroshima’s music?

JAKOB: When we started out, when we made our first record, that was a total DIY product and very basic in how we recorded. We just put it out online, digitally. The next record, In Silence We Yearn, we released that one in the same way but after half a year or a year, it started to get a lot of hits on YouTube in this post-rock channel that put the whole record out. That’s how we managed to land this record deal with Napalm. They found out about this YouTube clip with all the songs and a lot of people started to get into the band through this so that was our way into breaking our way into the lower tiers of the record industry game. When I started to listen to this genre, it’s sort of an obscure genre, there are thousands of small bands making demos and EPs and everything. When we started out, we were searching the web for all these kinds of forums and downloading demos and listening to all these kinds of bands. There were some bands that were making it into, more or less, the mainstream, like Explosions in the Sky and Sigur Rós. It’s internet music for me. Kind of like how I was back then, when I found out about this very different genre, it opened up the world for me and I wanted to dive in and know everything about it. I think a lot of people approach the genre in the same way. You get messages or see comments where people say, “This was the first band in this genre that I listened to and then I got into this and now this is all I’m listening to.” There seems to be these hard-core listeners who go in and immerse themselves in this kind of music. They are very friendly and very kind in spreading and sharing it with friends.

Because you’ve got a family and a job as a teacher, do you have any tour plans or will you be happy to just keep recording and putting out music?

JAKOB: Just a couple of days ago we announced that we’re going to join God Is an Astronaut as support for two weeks in May. We had tour plans in 2020 but the music live scene in Sweden is terrible for smaller bands, especially if you’re a smaller band in the post-rock genre. When we released our second album, we finally had a full band so we started to play live but not any good shows. On a week night, we could drive 4 hours and play for 5 people and then go home and go back to work. But when we started to pick up some interest from bookers abroad, we were on our way to do some shows but then there was some stuff going on within the band and we were on hiatus for a little while and when we got back together, it was more like, “Let’s just focus on the studio and writing and recording.” It was not until 2020 that we thought we should get back into the live thing but then COVID struck. It feels great to have these tour plans and I’m actually starting to believe it might happen.

That leads well to the last question. Are there any dreams you still have for the band, anything you haven’t done that you hope to do?

JAKOB: I don’t think. I’m not a big dreamer. I have a hard time envisioning a long time ahead. I’m just super happy and feel very blessed to be able to do music and release records and now to go on this short tour. I’m very grateful for everything. If I can just continue doing this at this level, that would be good enough for me. I’m just trying to squeeze in all the time I can to make things happen with the band.