You know one music scene that I rarely hear much about? Switzerland. Maybe I missed the boat on the 70s hard rock scene and black metal’s never quite been my thing, so, I’m sure some would disagree, but I personally don’t see a ton happening there musically.
Which is why I took notice when I hard Silver Firs, based in the capital city of Bern in the Swiss Prealps. The band creates layered, wispy music that combines tones of pop, folk, and musica tropical with choral vocals and African rhythms to result in pleasantly airy meeting of musical cultures, all courtesy of song-writer + frontman, Raphael Elmiger (above, second from left).
We got a chance to talk with Raphael about his band, his thoughts on the Swiss music scene, and to get some recommendations for little-heard indie pop in Switzerland. Listen to the band’s new EP and read on.
raven + crow: So, Bern, Switzerland—what’s it like there?
Raphael Elmiger: Bern is a friendly and fairly small city for being Switzerland’s capital. Culturally, it stands somewhat in the shadow of Zurich or Geneva. It has an impressive historic old town, surrounded by the river Aare. In the summer the river is probably Bern’s main attraction—the water is clean and you can swim literally through the city. It’s a good place to live if you can handle the slightly provincial groove. I like it here.
Sounds nice. And, to be fair, a lot of people have the same gripes about DC. Is there much of a local music scene in Bern? I feel like we’re relatively insulated from most popular Swiss music in the States.
There isn’t much of a local music scene in Bern for what we do. Sometimes I also get the impression that the city is a bit slow embracing new music. We actually played at one of the countries biggest festivals and in most of the bigger Swiss cities before we were properly booked for a show in Bern. But our country is small, so you’re not focused on a certain city when you’re a musician. There’s a Swiss music scene of like-minded people where you know each other.
I think there’s some really good music around but for some reason Swiss bands have a hard time getting attention abroad. It doesn’t help that the commercially successful local music is mostly from the Swiss German pop or cheesy (soft) rock camp.
Yeah, I feel like what little I’ve heard tends to fall pretty soundly into the categories of crazy metal or pretty tame folk. Definitely don’t hear the former, but there’s obviously some folk, singer-songwriter influence in Silver Firs’ sound. Then I get some of the tropical rhythms and instrumentation, reminding me of Tanlines or St. Lucia a little bit, which is surprising. Is that style something that you’re just a fan of?
I don’t know exactly how we came to sound like we do. We don’t feel the need to relate to the musical heritage of our country, so we were quite open with our influences from the beginning. I like folk, psychedelic and (no) wave stuff but I also enjoy listening to West African music. For example the stuff Soundway Records reissues is great. While we are inspired by these rhythms and instrumentation, we are not fully capable of playing them the same way. But we like loosing ourselves in rhythmic patterns with instruments we don’t fully master. Despite the global influences, this approach probably contributes to our own musical identity along with the fact that most of us grew up somewhere in the hinterland and that we produce everything ourselves.
Makes sense. Speaking of the band members, can you break down who’s in the band for us?
In the studio, I perform and produce most things myself, with the occasional help of the others in the band. They have all their own projects going as well.
Live Belia sings and plays synths, Olivier is on bass guitar, Christoph plays guitar, Dave hits stuff with a stick and plays guitar, Moritz is on drums and I sing and play guitar. We all play various percussion instruments.
How and when did you all start out?
I started Silver Firs three years ago when my former band split up. I began writing and recording the first album without a clear masterplan. At the same time I gathered musicians I am friends with from other bands around. I think I got a pretty sporty team together.
Totally sporty. Your music’s pretty layered though—do you use any pre-recorded material for shows or is everyone doing their thing live?
We play it all live, there’s just one song where we use a backing track. Sometimes it’s not so easy to recreate all the rhythmic patterns of our recordings but we prefer to keep the live shows a bit unpredictable.
Well-done—it kinda bums me out when bands play live with a bunch of pre-recorded material. It’s like, dude, I can go home and listen to that and just look at a picture of you all.
So, your full-length, self-titled debut, came out in 2012 stateside, then you followed up last year with EP#1 last year and now we’ve got EP#2. Do you all have any immediate plans for another full-length or are you concentrating on playing out right now?
We are already working on EP#3 and hope to be much faster with that one. Our plan is then to release all 3 EPs together on vinyl. Other than that, we’re trying to figure out what the next steps should be. We are not very organized in terms of booking shows and all these things, it was pretty much all DIY so far.
I say keep the music DIY; hire someone to handle all the annoying booking stuff. No, but I wanted to say, I love that shot on the EP#2 cover. Your trailer parks are much more scenic than ours.
Yes, we love it too. The picture was taken by our friend Christian Neuenschwander. The whole series he did about that trailer park is great. It combines typical alpine scenery with something that doesn’t seem to fit it. There’s this bleak aesthetic in his pictures.
Yeah, it kinda reminded me of that show, Top of the Lake. So where does the band name come from?
As a trained biologist, I have a soft spot for unappreciated critters and plants. The silver fir is a very common tree in the Swiss Prealps, where most of us grew up. It’s not a mystical or very popular tree like an oak—it just stands its ground out there. On the other side the English name sounds quite euphonic (at least to us). I liked this combination.
I just like the fact that you all do have mystical trees in Switzerland. I usually ask this of a lot of the overseas bands we like, but what’s the reason for singing largely in English rather than your native tongue?
That’s a legitimate question. I would actually like to try out singing in German but you reach more people when you sing in English. We grew up listening to a lot of music with English lyrics, so that’s as natural to us as German or French lyrics. Of course there’s a language barrier when we write in English, but in my songs the lyrics should rather support the imagery the instruments create, so I tend to keep things cryptic and short.
No, your English is better than mine, I think, but, yeah, that’s pretty much what I expected. Sonja from German band BOY had essentially the same response. So, tell me, as someone who’s never been myself—what do you love about Switzerland?
I think we have really good bread and I like that you can reach even the smallest village with public transportation. Also: our multilingualism, the mountain valleys of the Ticino (Italian speaking part) and the Graubünden, Gruyère cheese and our farmers’ fruit spirits. There are also quite a few things not to like, especially some of the recent political tendencies but that’s another story.
Yeah, I’ll take great bread over scary politics any day. Are there any other little-known Swiss bands or bands you’ve played out with that you’d recommend?
Awesome—I’ve never heard of any of them. Thanks for taking the time to talk and definitely let us know if end up stateside any time soon.