From the magazine, ISSUE 86, June/July 2013
Nikolaj Manuel Vonsild is having computer trouble. His Skype connection is crystal clear; it’s another program that’s causing problems. “I’m designing the ‘album out now’ poster, and I’m really hating Microsoft Word,” explains the When Saints Go Machine singer with an exasperated laugh. “I’m ready to fucking throw my computer out the window.” Given the digital-happy quality of his music, it’s hard to imagine the Copenhagen-based musician at odds with technology.
Vonsild and his bandmates Jonas Kenton, Simon Muschinsky and Silas Moldenhawer met in 2007, bonding over music that Vonsild calls “a lot of strange stuff,” like Steve Reich and Alain Goraguer’s soundtrack for La Planete Sauvage. WSGM itself often sounds like the cyborg version of a soul band; synths twinkle and purr over sleek digital beats as Vonsild’s voice, swimming in liquidy effects, warbles in the foreground. “I’m not in love with how my voice sounds,” Vonsild says when asked about his penchant for an electronically tweaked delivery. “You can twist your words, change up your voice a bit, but it’s something that always sounds like you and that’s boring. I like treating every instrument—it always has to run through some chain of effects.” As heard on the band’s recent third full-length, Infinity Pool, the result suggests a robotic mini-orchestra, alternately serene and disturbed.
Tracks like “Mental Shopping Spree” sum up WSGM’s command of chilled-out, effortlessly hooky electrosoul, with Vonslid filtering his voice through heavy effects to make the choruses sound like little melodramas. Others, like “Deadboy” and “Degeneration,” sound eerily disembodied, an effect intensified by Vonsild’s elliptical turns of phrase: I’m a couple of stones off/ A couple of souls in/ Impossible not wronging anyone/ Impossible to stay fit. The record is both pop and unpop, and its cover, which looks like an ’80s travel brochure for a Middle Eastern vacation spot, amplifies the mixed signals. “I guess it’s really dark,” Vonsild says of the video for “Love and Respect,” in which two henchmen with AK-47s assault and drown an apparent rival, and the singer turns up as a stone-faced gangster having his hair braided. “But to us, it’s kind of comic as well.”
Vonsild’s offbeat aesthetics make more sense when you consider his zig-zagging musical history. His first love was early-’90s rap: Tragedy Khadafi, Nas, Souls of Mischief, MC Eiht. Later, he learned Nirvana songs on bass and discovered Donny Hathaway. But the inspiration to sing came from a different source. “The first song I ever sang along to, in the sense where I thought, Okay, someday, I might take this seriously, was Brandy’s ‘Baby,’” Vonsild recalls, citing a song that epitomizes the practice of setting a soulful voice against a sleekly synthetic backdrop. Discussing the concept of Infinity Pool, Vonsild suggests that, like a good sci-fi writer, the band offsets their embrace of technology with a dose of healthy skepticism. “People try to create something that looks natural in nature,” he begins, citing luxury swimming pools that seem to merge with the ocean. “It’s ironic because nature’s already there. Why do you have to fuck around with it?” It’s a sly, open-ended question, perhaps self-directed, from a singer obsessed with mechanizing his own beautiful voice.