Primavera Sound 2014: Univers, La Entrevista

Photo: Giorgia Riguetti
by Pierre Lestruhaut

The first half of 2014 is almost over, and the debut album from Catalan sensation Univers, L’Estat Natural, still stands as our highest rated album of the year so far. Carlos Reyes declared that "the breaking and sheltering of up-tempo guitars rarely sounds this gorgeous" in his gleeful praising of the Barcelonan group debut. Univers were given the chance to do a small supporting tour for the album, with stops in SXSW and Mexico earlier this year, and more recently with a slot at the Pitchfork Stage at Primavera Sound in their hometown of Barcelona. I had the chance to catch their performance at Parc del Fòrum alongside fonograma colleague Glòria Guirao-Soro, which she wrote about in her recap of the festival. Although we didn’t manage to have a talk with them during the fest (mostly due to my own lack of internet access that coupled with disrupted sleeping patterns following an transatlantic flight), I finally sat down with singer/guitarist Yago Alcover and drummer Aitor Bigas at a café in downtown Barcelona a few days after the festival, where we discussed their debut LP, what playing these big festivals means, the perks of singing in Catalan, and the future of the Barcelonan underground music scene.

Listening to you guys play live for the first time at Primavera Sound, I was gladly surprised at how similar to the record you guys sound live. Did the recording process focus on trying to capture that roughness that’s typical of live shows?

Yago Alcover: Not really, in fact it’s very good you’re telling us this, because this really was a concert that felt like a litmus test to us. We actually didn’t even have a sound tech for Primavera, and these kinds of stages with so much power are always a bit scary. In fact, back when we were starting we always had issues in our live shows, since we always required so much echo effect and so much reverb, it made the sound bounce a lot. We had a sound that wasn’t very concrete and somewhat disperse, and in the end what you heard was percussion and a sort of noise bubble.

Aitor Bigas: It took us some time to discover our sound, especially live, where people were telling us that it still wasn’t all fitting in very well.

YA: When we recorded with Sergio [Pérez from SVPER] we were always facing sound as a challenge. We wanted for instance the guitars to sound somewhat sharp and that it hit you in your face, but of course with the echo it ended up being counter-productive. The album had a lot of work done mostly from the guitars’ point of view, when we finally started to seek a more concrete sound and dedicated a lot of time to finding it. It’s been a long process, so yeah, we’re really glad you’re telling us our live show sounded so faithful to the record, because it’s been really hard for us. It’s always difficult to get a proper handle on the effects, and we’re always struggling to find that balance between the music’s raw power and its more ethereal qualities.

What was it that made you want to record with Sergio Pérez?

AB: We first worked with him on La Pedregada, which was recorded in a single day, really fast, with just us on the studio. We really enjoyed working with him, and although we did consider other producers for the debut LP, we went with Sergio because we already knew him and we liked how he worked. We’ve been really happy with the sound he’s managed to take out of us, and how he’s managed to interpret our ideas as a band. I remember especially the issues with the guitars, which was really crazy but at the same time really fun. We found ourselves experimenting with a thousand different pedals and effects, so it was a really enjoyable process.

YA: Before recording our first EP we were thinking of who could manage to find us a peculiar sound. Of course Sergio had the [FKA] Pegasvs project, and their debut album was pretty much recorded at home. When I heard that record, I remember thinking “Wow! What a sound,” especially after hearing those amazing drums, we always thought that this was the guy who had to record us. He’s a guy who puts together the sound very well and who always surprises you. He’s not the kind of producer who always does things the same way. But it was really listening to Pegasvs that made us decide.

AB: In Pegasvs he recorded all the drums himself, and then played them through a pad with his fingers. He’s a genius. I remember a phrase Yves [Roussel], the guy who mastered the record, told us. That every album Sergio records is a different world of its own. He has a truly unique way of working. Yago, who’s worked with other producers, probably knows best.

YA: Yeah, Sergio has those strikes of genius that you just can’t understand or explain to someone else. And it’s always a plus if he can be an actual active musician.

I remember reading that the LP was written and recorded over a relative short period of time. Do you think that helped to give it that homogenous sound and feeling it has? 

AB: Yeah, I think it was right around this time of year last year when we started recording, and focusing entirely on getting this record done, trying to figure out which songs should be included and which should be dumped. But in the end the unifying idea for the album, was that all the songs had to be liked by everyone in the band, and they all had to have a really powerful sound. So perhaps that’s why it feels somewhat homogenous.

YA: I remember that ever since we started playing I told them I was interested in the idea of writing an album in a short time, mostly because of my own previous experiences in other bands. I’ve done albums with songs that were written with a lot of time between them, and they ended up being too heterogeneous. So I wanted our first album to be very compact, one where all the songs came from a precise moment. It’s obviously not a concept album or anything like that, but I really did want our debut to be a sort of cover letter, and that it would stay within certain stylistic boundaries. And there’s of course the mastering and everything, where I think they managed to give all the songs a very similar finishing, so I think that really helped too.

"Paral-lel" was the first song you guys wrote. Why did you decide to have this song in particular included in L’Estat Natural

AB: "Paral-lel" was the first song Edu [Bujalance] and I did together back when we were sharing a place. The project was only starting, and it was only MIDI drums, guitar lines, it was all very homemade. But despite being the first song, everyone seemed to really like it, even when it was only a demo. We really liked it as well, and felt that it fit in the new LP in both ideas and style. And of course there was the fact that it had been poorly recorded and we wanted to do it justice. It could have ended up not being in the record, and in fact we have a discard from L’Estat Natural that’s probably going to come out as a split 7” soon. There was some arguing around it as well, I used to say “I want this song in the album,” then Yago would say he didn’t want it, but we would always reach an agreement. In the end this is a family.

YA: The song deserved a proper version, and besides it was a very significant song for the band. It was the first song we ever played together.

AB: And it was originally in English.

Speaking of language, how do you guys come to decide what language to sing in? Not only in the case of Univers where you sing in Catalan, but of your other projects where there’s English and Spanish singing as well (Mujeres, Aliment, Piñata).

YA: I think it was all really simple. We were starting to play and just saying “Well we’re going with English right? Right.” And then we thought well what if we try something else? Spanish obviously not, because [the other members] are from the interior of Catalonia, and they’re never going to be in a band that sings in Spanish. But staying away from the territorial issues… we actually thought it could be fun singing in Catalan, but not because we wanted to do things differently. If you think of it, it’s hard to distinguish anything we’re saying regardless of the language we’re singing in anyway. But it’s really beautiful to be able to write in your own language, even more with it being a really small language.

AB: And I don’t think it was that we wanted to innovate or anything. But if you look at it now, a noise pop band doing this type of music in Catalan, that’s not something we’d seen before. And it gave the project some sort of originality even if we weren’t really looking for it initially. Perhaps from an outside perspective it’s a bit harder to understand, but seen from here, singing in Catalan is a really weird thing to do when you consider the kind of music that’s been made in that language. Though sometimes maybe singing in Catalan has closed us some doors.

YA: I don’t think so. In fact I’ve read articles from outside where they say that the whole shtick of the band is that they’re singing in an uncommon language.

I think for some people, it’s given the songs a sort of cryptic value to them. While facing non-Catalan crowds, for instance in SXSW and Mexico, what kind of feedback would you say you got?

YA: Honestly very good. I think people just speak the international language of music, and in the end what people go see is a musical proposal. With Aitor the other day we were listening to a band that sings in Japanese, and I have no idea what they’re saying but they’ve got a sound that I find compelling. Even though it does feel really satisfying to have a proposal that feels really ours because it’s in our language.

AB: And we really haven’t mentioned that the vocals, well, they’re just really another element in the mix, another instrument. They don’t have that much prominence and we use so much reverb that the words just end up being sort of drowned out. It might be different if we were doing more classic pop where you could hear the words a little more.

YA: Yeah, and well the name of the band is in Catalan, the name of the album is in Catalan, so the concept is pretty evident. But I never thought it could end up being seen as something cryptic like you said.

Now that you’ve played at both SXSW and Primavera Sound, do you feel playing these big festivals is a milestone in a band’s career?

YA: Yes of course. Also a challenge, as a band, since you’re facing a situation that’s very different from the ones you were facing back when you were starting -- the small concert rooms, the small local tours. Even though we did play pretty early in the afternoon at Primavera this year, there was still a big crowd for us there. And it’s always very challenging -- you've got a big crowd there, you’ve got the clock against you. I think Primavera has always been a stepping stone festival for many bands.

AB: Being from Barcelona, we’ve been attending the festival for many years, even playing sometimes here and there. Yago had played with Mujeres already. But the fact we played the Pitchfork stage, on a Saturday, in front of that big of a crowd, we really weren’t expecting it. We’re really happy that it happened, as we were to have played at SXSW. We’re very excited for what can come next.

Critics and journalists always like to show off their musical knowledge while describing bands, and I’ve always felt you guys as the midpoint between the distorted beauty of shoegaze and the more simplistic flair of C86. How would you guys describe Univers?

AB: Honestly we all listen to very different music. It’s evident that for this project we were focusing on bands from the C86 style, and some shoegaze bands mostly from Creation Records.

YA: Yeah and I think we’re going towards C86 every time more. That brand of naked pop, with very visible arrangements, melodies that are clearer. At the beginning it seemed like a noisier thing, but I’m getting the feeling the band is going that way right now. Perhaps even a more delicate approach than the one C86 bands had, capturing its more carefree side. I don’t see us becoming a lo-fi band, but something more finite. Maybe also with a tinge of New Wave, the record feels sort of 80's-style, kind of dark actually. We’re a very nostalgic and melancholic band.

AB: But I think the bands from C86 already had that dark side to them. I’ve been listening to Sarah Records a lot recently, and it’s like all the songs are about heartbreak. I can totally see that C86 was a starting point for us, but I think we still sort of managed to bring into our own field and darkened it all a bit more.

The visual aspect of the band (cover arts, videos) is quite remarkable as well; we can see you take care of this very seriously.

YA: Yes. We’ve been very lucky that the people in our entourage, and even ourselves, all come from a background of studying visual-related things. Aitor’s roommate is a photographer, and for instance we’ve got it clear that it’s them we want taking care of our photo shootings.

AB: Actually there’s a funny story about this. I think the first time we were featured in Club Fonograma it was because Giovanni [Guillén] was a fan of our friend Alba Yruela’s photos, and she’s the girl that appears in the cover of "Cavall Daurat". So I think he discovered the band through there, it’s a nice story. And I think in a way for us having a band isn’t really about only making music, it’s something bigger than that. Cover arts, pictures, videos, it ends up being a whole that converges into a music band.

I was reading an interview for Binaural where you were saying that "the crisis was opening a whole new panorama for the underground." What exactly did you mean by that?

YA: When we first touched on that subject, it was in relation to the fact that for some years this city lived a time of tremendous welfare. And I think that somehow affected the underground, because for many people, even from the minute you first showed up, it was pretty easy for you to get started. What that it did was just make us all more comfortable, and a lot of people stopped doing cool things because they had full-time jobs and stuff. But then all of this suddenly came to a halt, we had venues that started closing, bands that weren’t getting paid, people who stopped working, or couldn’t work anymore. So right now, you can really start feeling that people are tremendously pissed off in this city, and that they have a huge hunger for things to happen. I think this is going to be incredibly rewarding for our city for many years, because we had kind of lost that hunger precisely because of the state of well-being that we had.

It’s as is if the crisis environment is being a lot more conducive for people to be creative.

YA: That reflection originally came because we were asked if we felt there were a lot of similar bands coming up, making “noise music,” and I ended up referring to “noise” more in respect to that panorama where I could see a lot of people being pissed off and wanting to do things. I mean today with all the technology there is, you can record from your own bedroom; if you want to do a music project all you need is time or having the need to say something. So right now, I’m seeing a lot more discourse, a lot more ideas, people who are really polishing their craft. It’s become really hard to find a label that can release your stuff, and people have to find ways to self-release it. When you think of the word “underground” that’s exactly what you want. You don’t want people creating an anti-system just because; it requires a complete failure of the system, a system that doesn’t help you or supports you. That’s when people go on to create their own system.