WHAT IS A BLACK SEA DAHU?
The 80s. Goonies. Camping trips. The vast, sprawling smell of summer itself. The warm, glowing crackling of a campfire. Skin on skin. Everything both alien and familiar. All those sweet scents. Tastes. Odd angles and textures. And the sound of that guitar rolling out like the surf and drifting off into an endless, starry night… A cosmic revelation. A handful of tiny, shrivelled up mushrooms. The world unraveling. Stark naked. For the first time. Just for you. The boundaries between you and it and everything else a soft, glowing blur. Listening to Black Sea Dahu reminds me of all of that. But it also invokes a sense of loss. It makes me aware of the fact that all the things that I hold dear will eventually be devoured by time. And strangely, it leaves me feeling even more alive.
Intrigued and inspired, I sat down with vocalist and songwriter Janine Cathrein to discuss music and life.
I’m having a hard time trying to figure out if Black Sea Dahu is just you or if it’s a collective, can you help?
Black Sea Dahu feels like a collective, but it’s also a solo act, as in just me alone, on stage. I write these songs, but I have great musicians around me who help me fulfil my sonic vision. We all work together and I try to stay true to myself and my idea of what it should all sound like. We’re a band, but I can veto anything. It’s strange that it’s so hard to clearly answer this question. We are a gang, a family, but if I ever leave, then Black Sea Dahu won’t exist anymore. If they leave, it will still be here, because I am.
How does this translate into making music? I mean, White Creatures is clearly a collective effort, but the question is: do you let things just happen and allow the polyphony of voices to shape the outcome, or do you micro-manage?
I don’t remember showing any of the songs to the band before I went through a few versions. The songs already have a certain shape and a certain sound when I bring them to the others. Experience has shown me that I can learn plenty from just letting things happen and pursuing a lot of different ideas. But the most important thing is that I can still stand behind it in the end. There was a time when I thought that my songs have to embody me and all the other band members equally. But somehow that made me feel so lost, and I didn’t feel any joy anymore while working on my songs. I wasn’t honest with myself and with how this music sounded in my head, in my body, in my world. I think a song shouldn’t sound like a compromise – that can take all of its strength away.
The material for this LP was written over a period of 4 years, what does it feel like to relive all these moments while playing them out live?
It’s liberating and exhausting. A lot has happened in these 4 years and I’ve fought hard not to drown along the way and give up. The most incredible thing for me is that I’m still standing and actually going on tour with this record. Sometimes it’s really hard to relive all these moments on stage. With certain songs it feels like I’m getting pulled down, and when they finish I can finally reach the surface again – that’s when I realise that I’ve been absorbed by my memories and the music. I’ve cried a couple times now while playing, but I don’t think anyone realised it, or they just didn’t say anything. Being on stage in such a condition is, well… you’re exposed. But I don’t want to play music and not put any feelings into it. I can’t. Maybe I have to learn to stay cool?
Would you say that making such personal music is a healing process?
Yes, absolutely. Well, for me it is. Writing about stuff always helped me with coping.
You recorded the whole thing in Giske, Norway – why there?
(Laughs) Have you seen the studio? The equipment list? The surroundings?
I wanted to record this album somewhere far away from everything, somewhere where nothing distracted me and where I could emerge and open up my mind and my heart, get creative and, most importantly, concentrate on nothing else but making music.
We’ve never been to Norway before and a road trip to this destination was a tempting idea.
It was nice to take our time to get there, and we used that to get ready. So we were in Norway, barely any other houses around – literally right on the beach with a view onto the cold, clear, blue ocean. The place was amazing! You could sleep upstairs, and we had our own kitchen. I was madly in love! I behaved like a 6 year old and jumped around in the recording room, running from one guitar to the next. I couldn’t believe we were actually there!
How did this shape the final record?
First of all, I learned that when I’m open-minded and free of worries and obligations, when I’m far away from the pressure that I feel in my normal day to day environment, that’s when I can create wonderful music. Peace and quiet, concentration, nature, no everyday life, no everyday people to disturb me – that’s what I needed.
We recorded every song on tape. All the basic tracks, with all instruments and the lead vocals were recorded live. That was definitely a challenge for us, we didn’t know if we could pull that off. It felt incredible and so natural. So good! Who cares about small mistakes? It’s music! It’s alive! At least, that’s what I think.
It was very exhausting for me sometimes, emotionally. My heart and soul were wide open. I had to expose myself to let those feelings out and pour them into the songs, into the music, the lyrics. All in all, we were in another world. We were creating something, playing music all day long. It was amazing, happy, creative, magical, I don’t like that word, but I don’t know how else to describe it. I was completely in my element. It was important for me to capture the mood and the emotion of every song, to be real, genuine. I think we accomplished that with every single song.
White Creatures was produced by Gavin Gardiner of the Canadian outfit The Wooden Sky, and, apparently, he had some pretty crazy techniques to get you guys to deliver – can you tell me about that?
One day, we had a hard time nailing “Big Mouth”. Gavin told us through our headphones: “Ok now. Enough! Everybody go upstairs and put some decent clothes on, okay? This is no way to work. I don’t want to see you in sweatpants or hoodies or in any casual clothes anymore!” We thought he was joking and we laughed, but he was dead serious, and sent us upstairs. I felt like a 10 year old who had just been scolded. So everyone went upstairs to put on their most smart looking jeans – that single pair that each of us took along to Norway (laughs) – and a fresh shirt. And then we all went downstairs again with no clue as to what’s gonna happen next. Gavin gave me a hat and a red jacketm which was way too big for me, but I wore it anyway. And then we tried again, and it worked. Sometimes all you need is a change of atmosphere and there are many ways to accomplish that.
Other techniques that he used to get us in the right state of mind were: standing on a chair for a guitar solo, turning off all studio lights and turning on a strobe light on the mobile phone, sending us off to crash a wedding so that we could clear our heads. Or here’s a classic Gavin motivational quote: “Okay, this has to be it guys. The tape is almost full. You have one take left!”
Your collective consists of friends and family, what’s that like to share such deep emotional spaces with them, and to go through the trials of touring together? Does it make it easier or harder that you guys are so close?
I don’t want to explain every line of my songs because that makes me feel really exposed, even when I’m dealing with my friends and family. But I will tell them, if they me ask about it. Most of the time they make sense of it anyway, because they know what’s going on in my life.Being as close as we are can make everything more complicated, more emotional and more intense than it really needs to be. But we also carry each other. And we are on this great adventure together. A team spirit makes you feel at home anywhere you go. It’s fun. It’s like being a child out in the woods sitting around the campfire and feeling that you are a part of a group. I am a lone wolf, but I can’t deny that I long for simple and pure companionship and belonging.
In closing, what is a Black Sea Dahu and where could we find one?
“Black Sea” is an excerpt from the lyrics to my song White Creatures (White creatures looking after me, oh-ooh, I lost faith in the human I wanted to be, oh open black sea let me in, giant trees give me shelter in that haunted place.) The “Dahu” is a mythological creature that appears in folk tales in France, Switzerland and Northern Italy. It’s a mountain goat-like animal whose legs have differing lengths so that it can walk upright along the mountain slope. It’s hilarious! As a band name, it’s a mixture of something with genuine depth and the joy found in plain silliness. It’s something that pretty accurately describes two of my main features.
Interview by Oro D. M.
Photos by Paul Märki