Astrud and Nina are from London, and make music as Paper Dollhouse. They first played in Berlin in 2011. (Full disclosure: the concert took place in our bomb-shelter recording studio, and we are going to release a recording of it soon.)
They returned in December to play a packed out concert at Madam Claude in Kreuzberg, and I was very privileged to interview them while shopping for records the day after the gig.
How did you meet? How did you begin performing together?
Nina: We met about fifteen years ago through a mutual friend. I remember the day clearly, we had a sophisticated dinner party and listened to our friend Sophie’s mum’s Frank Sinatra vinyl collection! But we were 16 and Astrud had pink hair and I had the same hair as now! We became close friends only about four years ago.
I started doing stuff with Liberez and John Hannon had been recording the Rayographs album which is how Astrud knew him. The Rayographs came to our shows and Astrud told me she was going to poach me for Paper Dollhouse.
Then a few days later I had a really vivid and beautiful dream that she came to my house with a small potted plant in her hands and offered it to me, when I took it, fire was falling from the sky and then a very heavy rain. I then knew that we would make music together. We started hanging out more and more and so it all began…
Astrud: I don’t remember this meeting at all but I do remember listening to a lot of 60s easy listening and garage on Damaged Goods and Teenage Shutdown, stuff like that.
Our friend Sophie was into it- she’s a very chic lady. We starting watching loads of French films and wearing scarves and stuff. There’s an amazing band called The Pebbles who had a song called “We’re Going Shopping” which is ace. Yeah we met again years later coincidentally. John showed me a film of Nina doing some spoken word things for Liberez while we were in the studio.
I think they might have used it as part of a set where Nina was a virtual presence, and I thought it looked so striking and unaffected. We went to Dungeness to take some polaroids for Rayographs- Nina had this old polaroid camera and the photos came out so wicked and ghosted due to the age of the film, Dark psyche.
We started sharing ideas a lot after that. Words, ideas, images, thoughts, came a long time before the music. The first album is predominantly acoustic, recorded in my house and garden. Sonically, Nina is in it very subtly but she is a strong presence in the album and took loads of photos of the garden, my house, walks we took, which in some ways informed it, or definitely provided an equal and opposite parallel visual world. It was all the same paradigm and a very creative, bright, special time
Your live performances are very formal and ritual-like, yet also unselfconscious. How did you develop this?
Nina: I think it’s a combination of two factors; of consciously wanting the performance to be a complete performance in itself without any distractions, like theater, like a kind of meditative experience but also I suppose the way we perform is completely natural to our work together and I don’t think we could do it any other way, it would not feel right. Our performances and stage sets are thought out as far as visuals, light and atmosphere and I think these things are important for the kind of sound we are performing. Our stage is always very dark with glimmers of light from the film or the instruments. We are often in shadow and very still while playing even if the beat is fast.
Astrud: I find the process of performing pretty meditative and trancelike in some ways. I’m a pretty cerebral person and prefer to project the dynamics and ideas of performance through visuals and scopic sound. It’s the way I feel I can best channel whatever it is I’m saying. I’d really like to develop the visual set up. I always have a lot of crazy ideas about how to produce a more theatrical presence like live theatre, but so it’s not too schlocky. I think if all the details stick out and are obvious it creates distance and consciousness about detail so you are not fully absorbed into the experience.
I think if it’s done well, the set, music, visuals, the whole environment is sublimated into one cocoon of sound, light and ideas rather than picking out individual features. I saw Haxan Cloak play a brutal set last year with a massive strobe and ear-assault and heavy bass. Was amazing and violently hypnotic. I think this is why I like a lot of minimal dark techno due to its hypnotic qualities.
Probably to tame thought and remould it in a different realm.
Memories and dreams are often themes in your songs, but there are also several cinematic references. To what extent are your songs autobiographical?
Astrud (L) and Nina (R) from Paper doll House buying records in Kreuzberg, Berlin in December 2012.
Nina: I think to some extent it is inevitable that lyrics are personal. We are equally influenced by dreams, memory, reality, our personal and collective experiences, cinema and folklore.
Astrud: I can only write from my own mind and from my own experience, because even if I wrote about someone else it would be my version or projection of their reality, channeled through a filter where my influence and experience has coloured it.
For me, there’s no separation between sound, language and imagery. Music can generate imagery, silent photos of nothingness sometimes generate an entire spoken word thing I my head as can some music or really white powerful sun distorting your consciousness.
The first time I saw you play, your setup was a lot more primitive. You were using children’s toys, plastic-pipes and acoustic guitars to make your music.This time Nina is playing the synthesiser, and Astrud is playing the electric guitar. Does this reflect the future direction of your sound?
Nina: Yes, we are starting to experiment a lot more with electronics, synth sounds, programming beats and using effects. The sound will of course keep developing and evolving, the record we are working on now is a lot different to the first Paper Dollhouse record. For us it is very exciting and we want to learn, get better at our instruments and make new sounds. The essence of Paper Dollhouse will always be there, the music will always be informed by the things we love and are influenced by, but I think the sound is becoming less ambient and more electronic/dark pop which is nice.
Astrud: Definitely. At the beginning we were doing stuff so embryonically, in contrast to the volume and whole sound of Rayographs; we did it in pockets. It was like faint sketches, as is the first album in some ways. It was an embraced choice connected to the level of technicality we had at the time and an appreciation of technological naivety and simplicity.
It was very very bare but limited in that essence. In learning how to work with samplers, synths and vocal pedals we can create a much more enveloping world in a way I’ve been interested for a while.
I listen to a lot of deep, ambient electronic stuff and wanted to match that aesthetic more bit by bit. Not to copy, to reappropriate some of the sounds. It’s a way to learn and it’s always evolving.
Your label, Finders Keepers, is known for putting out reissues and forgotten classics. How do Paper Dollhouse fit in alongside albums like “Dracula’s Music Cabinet” and “Bollywood Bloodbath”?
Nina: I love the weird and wonderful Finders Keepers film soundtrack releases, world music reissues and compilations.
Recently I’ve been listening to Life is Dance which is music from Pakistani films from the 60s and 70s, it’s so so good. I have this idea to do a compilation of Bosnian metal haha.
I think that would be really cool.
Astrud: I love the eclecticism, aesthetic and approach of the label; I used to work at Pias who distribute it and got into it when I worked there. I collected lots of their catalogue before Paper Dollhouse was signed to Bird to I was totally gushing when they offered to put stuff out.
Of course our sound is not similar to those releases but I still love them. I have a big love for soundtracks especially for odder films and the Paperhouse connection shows that.
I’m pretty sure Paper sound is a lot darker than some of the other stuff but Finders Keepers are incredibly inclusive both musically and personally and I really value that.
Your song “Daisies” is absolutely fantastic. The lyrics are very vivid. What was your inspiration for it?
Astrud: It’s a reference to the film Daisies, which features two girls on a vivid journey of fun via Czech new wave film techniques and cool bedrooms.
As much as it felt like the making of our music is like this, that song is more ambiguous. It signifies an independence which relates to the story in the film. It’s a bit of a fucked up nursery rhyme.
All nursery rhymes are fucked up. And all lessons.
Nina: I agree. I could watch that film every day, it’s so cool and rich visually and metaphorically. Most European films that were banned around that era are interesting because they are provocative or ground breaking in some way
Paper Dollhouse setlist from Madame Claude.
There are some tracks on the album where the lyrics are spoken.
Do you distinguish between poetry and song lyrics?
Nina: I think for me there’s a fine line. I think having worked with Liberez in a completely experimental way I am very much influenced by and interested in that discipline.
Although I love lyrics I am always inclined to want to edit heavily and experiment with the voice as an instrument rather than for singing as such. I am interested in voices and especially the speaking voice and like to use my own voice in that way.
I think our voices work well together, they have different qualities and they naturally want to go against each other which can be really nice.
We’ve started sampling vocals live- capturing voices on a recorder to later use live or putting a dictaphone through the microphone just to build up texture, it’s nice to sometimes work in simple ways like that.
Astrud: When I started writing songs years ago they were a little more formal but however hard I try to stick to a terrain they always become these mental puzzles which seem to make perfect sense and zero in on a purist emotive and visual essence that would be impossible to generate in ordinary sentences.
That’s what’s so powerful about song lyrics, they can intensely resonate. Poetry can do this but it’s to do with the brain latching onto verse and that complicated verse is tricky to deliver effectively within a song. I started writing lyrics in Rayographs then moved on to edited them in my head with sounds so they became more free form.
I try both I guess. Sometimes they just come out as they are which is why some don’t make sense or aren’t in fact actual words. If lyrics made complete sense you probably wouldn’t remember them in the same way. And the words i write always make total sense to me.
I know what they’re about, even if I didn’t fully at the time.