A journey gives us the irreplaceable gift of experience, and a journey is how I would choose to describe Wild Ferment, the new album by The Steams, an incredible band from the already incredible scene from Greece.
Wild Ferment is as honest as it is intimate, an ode to detail. They have also incorporated traditional Greek instruments to the mix, which gives it an atemporal quality, each piece is an adventure. A sense of movement is a constant throughout the album, an organic kind of movement, so consistent it manages to build spellbinding destinations, and a personal journey within its landscapes. A gentle and austere start caresses the soul, like the dim gleam of daybreak that traces the edges of a mountainscape… that’s how The Harvest introduces itself. Solemn percussions walk on by the light in what might seem some kind of pilgrimage that expands and splits the night: the whole sky is illuminated by lightning. The song reaches its climax with a strange chant, a delirious yet quotidian soundscape that helps to dissipate the night. With an ancestral ceremoniality Ever Lasting awakes, “you’re in the wrong time, in the wrong age”, that verse could define the experience of listening to The Steams: it’s a timeless experience, Panos Dimitropoulos’ voice could perfectly be from a different age. A soft breeze stays present, along trills and feathers, it becomes a portrait of those lucid moments of solitude through which our surroundings and one’s thoughts make unrivaled company; this calm set of mind prepares us for the rush of a fleeting gust. With a sweetness worthy of spring itself, the silky swing of Amdajitr (the odyssey of young) takes hold of the course of time; bathed by the filtered beams of sunlight across the foliage, it turns about warmly like a kaleidoscopic ellipsis as it marches on towards a summer evening; the light and the warmth advance as well into the night; the light dims as it fades, and a breeze that carries these flowers of spring in its bosom, leaves a soft trace behind. Like laughter, Fjordian Blue stirs as it glides with a jolly impulse, like a memory that awakes neatly to a fragrance. Then The Drought settles in with a mysterious pace, a coppery, persuasive melody that could describe a ritual that is taking place beyond time; with a resolved demeanor; it unfolds like fire as it's fed by a ceremonious wind. After being so still, so hypnotized before the flames, Ephemeral Joys begins, the tone changes radically with this one and it's an absolute delight how the sense of movement remains; it’s also an absolute delight to listen to Ephemeral Joys compulsively in a euphoric outburst since it bids the soul to dance. A raspy voice recites in Greek as Perfect Songs From Afar starts, a provocative strut that defies the confines of the landscapes we’ve visited takes place, a hunger for more rattles across its arid atmosphere, suddenly an oasis appears: The Beautiful which flows timidly, like a young river that splashes a little as it twinkles tenderly with no destination in particular, time is as palpable as it gets in this one; being conscious of time often happens when we’re close to an ending, Black Sand, the album's last track, presents to us a complete pallet of destinations that are yet to be visited…
-How did The Steams came to life? How did you find your name?
It was a random autumn evening, sitting at my balcony with a friend. I needed a name and I was bad at names so he said the words and The Steams came to life. And they came to life like so many other bands, art projects or books do - because someone has the need to express something and so, they create.
-Ephemeral Joys is probably one of the most contagious songs from the album, would you tell us more about it?
Although Ephemeral Joys is my least favourite one from the album, I kinda knew that it would have such an appeal. It’s the most uplifting along with Fjordian Blue, while the rest depict a darker atmosphere. Gustav and Andrew love it; oh dear, you gotta see Andrew’s dancing moves on stage while we play it!
-Is there a concept behind you first full-length album? What’s the story behind the landscape of its cover? It’s rather intriguing.
Wild Ferment is an allegory that derives from a biochemical term also known as “Natural” or “Spontaneous Fermentation”. It concerns the production of wine and refers to the conversion of must to wine purely from natural (wild) yeast originating from the growing environment of the raw material, the land that grows the vine. In contrast to common practice, it takes a lot more time. This first album is indeed a Wild Ferment, a process that took years and is now complete. Songs written, worked and matured in a timeline of changes, self-review, and redefinition, drawing on elements of the wider environment, while maintaining its indigenous character.
The rugged earth on the cover is from the volcanic island of Santorini in Greece. I feel a connection with this place since I would move there annually to work for the summer. And that would happen every year May to November for the last 5 years. It’s been like my second home, a place I love and hate. During one of those summers, a friend and photographer Elena Sakoula came to shoot pictures in black and white film that would later become her graduate thesis to be exhibited in Berlin. Her project was titled “Gaia” and it emphasized man’s existence within nature. The frames resembled metaphors regarding notions such as genesis, evolution, quest, identification, liberation, and longing. Sadly, the prints were lost during the transportation from Berlin to Athens after she graduated, but fortunately, not the film negatives. The music of The Steams and these artworks share a connection as both were created at the same timeline and I believe that the cover of this record keeps this work alive.
-Tell us a bit about the journey from Feed/Green Fire to Wild Ferment.
Essentially, when the "Steams" concept was clear within me, the first step was the recording of Feed / Green Fire, which marked our first official release in March 2016. For me, those two pieces had to go together because they work “opposite” each other. There is romance and ecstasy in them and it’s a “beginning”. “Feed” was born through a live jam when the band was still at an early stage and at that moment I knew I found my sound. Green Fire is a purely erotic piece.
The next step took place when the recording sessions for Wild Ferment began last spring. It was the most intense experience I have ever been through. We recorded live and then I left Athens for my final working season in Santorini. See, I had to fund the project myself and I was convinced that we would release it without the support of a record label. When Ι returned from the island, we completed the recordings, in February we had the mixing sessions and in early March the album was ready for pressing. Extra appreciation to Alex Bolpasis, producer and current bass player, who during all those sessions forgot what actual sleep feels like.
-There is a beautiful sense of austerity and ritual to The Harvest, please tell us more about it.
There couldn't be a different track to open the album. We started writing The Harvest a year before the recordings, during a soul-demanding period of my life, just before I left Athens for another working season on the island and while battling some form of depression. In Santorini, I used to work in the wine industry, and when the grape harvest was high later in the summer, one of the islands’ remarkable winemakers was found dead with a noose around his neck in his old winery. This event shook us all, It was an intense season. After I returned to Athens, we would finish the recordings and before the mixing sessions, I went on a trip to Istanbul. In one of those long walks throughout the markets, I heard the call for prayer coming from the mosques. I took out my phone and started recording it while walking. Like a sonic memory I had to keep. Upon returning to Athens, I played it to Alex and we agreed to put it at the end of the song. That was actually the last thing that was recorded for Wild Ferment.
-This sense of ritual never really fades during the album, was this intentional? What would be the relevance of rituals nowadays?
I can’t speak much about rituals. Anything can be a ritual if you’re brave enough.
-What’s the story behind The Drought?
There are four “dark” songs in this album. Take them as a timeline. First, there is a Harvest, then comes a Drought followed later by Perfect Storms and all that happens on an island with Black Sand coasts. If that material ain’t enough, consult the landscapes and your imagination. Oh, and Gustav’s drumming!
-How do you relate to Greece’s folk music and how has it influenced your work?
Wild Ferment is deeply connected with the musical roots of the place I was born. There are folk stories which have been told through music that came from several parts of Greece and through the years traveled across oceans and cultures. Take the delta blues of the American south and put them side by side with Greek folk songs from the early 20th century. You’ll realize the progression is the same. I can’t say we play Greek music. The Steams lyrics are in English. For me, the inspiration for writing music came from the records I found in my father’s shelves, mostly 60’s and 70’s rock. When I started playing music, I liked to play the blues but this changed. Digging deeper and deeper through genealogy I found those roots in the shape of veins and realized that if you poked a stick there, the same blood would come out. Incorporating folk instruments was something I had in my mind early on, before the LP’s recording sessions, and it meant a lot to me. Not just in a sense of adding to the storytelling, but most importantly it felt like an anchor. An anchor sunk in the sands of time, holding strong the concept happening in the surface.
-On that note, could you tell us more about how you incorporated traditional Greek instruments to the project? Which instruments did you use?
Last November, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds played a sold-out live show in a stadium in Athens and I was standing at the arena among thousands of people waiting for Cave to come on stage. There’s always this feeling while waiting for a big concert to start, and when you’re not in a party of friends, you just observe the others. So while my eyes were scanning the area, I spotted the figure of a long-haired old man sitting at the bleachers near the stage. I realized it was Psarantonis, the 80-year-old Cretan Lyra player and one of the last living legendary folk greek musicians. At that moment, I promised myself not to leave the stadium without talking to him. After Nick Cave’s unforgettable performance, I rushed to the bleachers and then in the backstage area knowing that Psarantonis would be there to shake Cave’s hand. I found him exiting the Stadium towards the parking lot (it was pouring rain) and then I shouted: -Mr. Psarantonis! -He turned around, I introduced myself and long-story-short, we agreed on a collaboration.
That was the beginning of my folk instruments incorporating endeavour and then I contacted a few other musicians such as Dimitris Sideris (lute), Alexandros Kleidonas (tsambouna) and Kostas Stergiou (lute, saxophone) who worked with us during the final recording stages adding the folk and Anatolian sound I had imagined.
-How about the story behind the delightful Amdajitr (the odyssey of young)?
Amdajitr was heavily inspired by the refugee crisis in Europe, thus marking the only track with a political message. The title of the song is the name of the story’s protagonist, who appears to be a traveling messiah. The odyssey of young in the parenthesis has two meanings. One describes the nightmare of the young refugees trying to flee the war zones in general. The other one happens if you put the phrase before the song’s title, where it describes the situation specifically for the protagonist. In the lyrics, there are mentions of a female entity that’s not necessarily a human being. It can be a country, a scenery or an idea. The essence to every story, which is basically an allegory, is that anyone can understand it in their own unique way, it doesn’t dictate only one meaning.
-There is a sense of journey and movement throughout the album; could your music be inspired by landscapes? If so, what is it that inspires you in a landscape?
Landscapes -literally and figuratively- have been my main source of inspiration and allow me to share my latest example. I recently visited the island of Serifos which I knew nothing about, for a 5-day vacation. It’s a dry, rocky isle with crystal clear golden sand beaches (like most of the “Cyclades” island complex). To visit these beaches though, you have to drive the island’s cliff roads and once you’re out of the town, you start to observe abandoned buildings and rusty metal constructions. Soon I realized that the whole place was a mine. And it was a mine since the ancient times where iron was mined by people working in terrible conditions through the centuries and under different leaders or barons. Finding out about it got me into a research and that was when this “vacation” came to life for me. Long-story-short, in 1916 there was a blood-covered strike were the mining company tried to break it with the royal gendarmes (yes, there was a king in Greece those days) who shot at the miners while they were protesting for their work rights. The strikers' wives managed to push the two gendarmes’ sergeants off the cliffs and killed them with rocks. Then the battalion threw away the guns and started running. A further massacre was stopped by the miner’s union leader and a few days later, the 8-hour workday was established in Greece.
I believe that the best musicians and writes have to be able to do two tasks. a) Observe and recall, b) use detail and depth to describe either their interior landscape or the landscape of those around them (preferably both). Observation in recall in music is the ability to hear notes, chords, timbres, and then recall them at a later date on your instrument (whatever that might be). Using detail and depth to describe is the same in music -when you play you are either describing or presenting your interior landscape (introspective) or the landscape of others using the musical vocabulary from observation and recall.
-Would you tell us more about The Beautiful?
During the early days of the band, one of the members was Johnny Labelle. Together we composed a few songs and experimented a lot. During a post-midnight studio rehearsal, and a lot of wine, we started jamming what later became The Beautiful. Back then we used to call it Moon Jam and ever since there is not a single time we play this song live the same way. After Johnny left the band to follow his solo plans, I recreated the song with the current line-up and named it after Johnny’s last name (La Belle = The Beautiful) as a dedication to him.
-The album seems to be doing great! Where are you taking this brand new album? Any dates you’d like to share?
We are pleased to announce the sell-out of our first pressing and now we’re planning the second. We’re playing shows and festivals around Greece for the summer and autumn and bigger plans will be revealed soon.