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An ode to blubber concrete


Schmeerenburgh members, from left to right, Ketil Rønning, Mads Sandvik, Haakon Sandvik and Jeff Holmes released their first CD, Longyear Brenner, earlier this month. Photo by Eric Gyllander.

Videos, photos, performance dates and twisted tales at Schmeerenburgh's Web site

Web exclusive: Download "Sysselmannen" MP3 from Longyear Brenner EP

"When you're the world's northernmost rock band there's little use for wasting lyrics on "struggles" other acts find "substance" in like bad relationships and drug trips. Especially when your forefathers were boiling whale blubber in a settlement so miserable prisoners refused to spend a season working there instead of serving a life sentence.

Of course it's not an experience the average teenybopper or stoner relates to, so don't expect the band's songs on "Idol" anytime soon.

But those willing to venture to the end of the Earth – or maybe just send an e-mail – can hear the debut CD by Schmeerenburgh, a Longyearbyen foursome that released the five-song Longyear Brenner during the annual Solfestuka celebration this month. In addition to the blubber boilers, there's tributes to legendary drinkers, the governor's office and people arguing about who's spent the most time enduring the brutal outdoors.

Exotic, perhaps, for strangers to the area. But if the overcrowded release party at Huset is any indication, it's material a hefty portion of the local population is familiar with and embraces.

"It was the most microphones and guitars ever knocked over in a concert," said Haakon Sandvik, a bassist who's lived here most of his life. "Eight or nine people fell on the stage."

Songs may sound like the typical garage punk/thrasher band to the unfocused ear, but pay attention and it's clear these aren't your typical rockers – or groupies shouting out lyrics.

"My yoga teacher was crowd surfing, which was amazing because he's in his 60s," said drummer Jeff Holmes, who's about to use his newly earned PhD to travel the world studying the aurora borealis for the U.S. Air Force.

Schmeerenburgh formed as a covers band several years ago and typically plays three or four concerts a year. But the album didn't happen until, ironically, the group was facing even more of a breakup than exists with two of its members on the mainland.

"Mostly it's because it took a very long time before we wrote anything," Sandvik said. Their first song, "Veteran," was written about three years ago, "then there was a year until another one and then they came pretty fast."

Composing "Veteran" involved a combination of individual and group contributions, said Ketil Rønning, the group's lead singer and a technology transfer adviser for BioScience Park Ltd. at The Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He said everyone "agreed (songs) should be about Svalbard issues," and the first to come up was "talking about what happens to people in the wilderness, cabins and the binge drinking going on everywhere."

"Most people in Svalbard would like to go the the most exotic places, to go as far away as possible to go where nobody else is," he said. "That's sort of a competitive sport here in Svalbard, talking about who's been here the longest."

That makes "Veteran" an ideal call-and-response song since "I call out place and they say they've been there," Rønning added.

Gutarist Mads Sandvik came up with a riff that Rønning, working solo from the mainland, listened to repeatedly while composing lyrics. Then the group refinement began.

"I sent the text to the other guys and they may say 'it's missing a part here,'" Rønning said. Finishing touches on songs happened when the group reunited, sometimes right before performing.

"Some of the songs changed completely at the last minute," Sandvik said, referring to the Longyear Brenner recording session last November.

None of the songs are overly deep or structurally complex, but Rønning said one of his hopes is people actually hear (not just listen to) them, because "in Norway fewer and fewer bands are singing in Norwegian. Also, we sing about Svalbard, so it's a small segment."

At the same time they're not exactly targeting a somber audience.

"Our motus operandi has always been to get people jumping around and having fun, not conveying any message," Holmes said.

For those unable to grok the lyrics, the songs on Longyear Brenner and their themes are:

• "Alkekongen:" The word means "a small bird up high," Sandvik said. "It could also be the king of alcohol." Holmes said the song is "a tribute to the legendary drinkers such as the miners at Karls-Berger."
• "Sysselmannen:" Perhaps the group's best-known song. One might expect a a hard rock tune about Svalbard governor's office to be heavy on protest, or at least satire, but "the people are so nice we didn't have anything bad to say about them," Sandvik said. "It's a tribute."
• "Spekkbetong:" Literally meaning "blubber concrete," it's what 17th century Dutch whalers in Smeerenburg found themselves making when boiled whale fat spilled and mixed with the sand and gravel.
• "Veteran:" The aforementioned tribute to those fighting about bragging rights for taking the most trips to intoxicating places.
• "Kaldt Vann:" Translates in English to "cold water." "I guess we're in disagreement what that song's about," Holmes said.

The band began discussing recording an album about a year ago, Sandvik said. He said they received a 15,000 kroner grant from Longyearbyen Lokalstyre, plus money from Kroa and Huset, who have provided funds to make previous concerts at their venues possible.

"They figured out when they paid for two plane tickets to bring the other members up here they pack the house," Holmes said.

Most of the recording took place on the main stage at Longyearbyen School, which is "not like you're recording in a bathroom, but it's not ideal either," he said. But the band never considered meeting up with the members on the mainland and using a studio there.

"I think we wanted to do it up here, to make it a local project," he said.

Rønning, who recorded his vocals separately on the stage at Huset, said the decision actually turned out to be an improvement over recording he has done with other bands.

"It was different than all these crappy studios I've been at in Oslo recording," he said. "It was a more professional experience. I had to take the plane down after two days, so we had to be more professional about it."

Hopes of recording a full-length album fell victim to time limits.

"Half of the things that we've created aren't on the record," Rønning said. But the recorded portions of the incomplete songs are being kept for possible future projects "so it's not wasted."

Reaction from listeners has been positive, members of the band said, but not always in ways they expected.

"We wanted the songs we thought would be the most popular to start to give it a fresh start," Rønning said. "Most of the reaction I've got is it's the last two songs that are the best."

Hundreds crowded into the main Huset stage for the March 7 release party and concert. The scene inspired Holmes to try surfing the crowd after pulling a fill-in drummer from the audience, but "it was too chaotic."

"That was really the first time I was afraid to stand there because it was really crazy this time," Rønning said. But, he hastened to add, "that's the best tribute a band can get."

The band also did a considerably tamer promotion at Svalbardbutikken, signing copies of their CD at a folding table while their compositions played at low volume on a small boombox.

"I felt kind of embarrassed, four rockers sitting at a table while people are coming and going to buy milk and stuff," Rønning said. But he said an interesting mix of locals and tourists stopped to buy the recording, including "people between 50 and 60 years old buying them for their grandkids."

Schmeerenburgh's next performance is scheduled during the inaugural Spitsbergen Rock festival in June. That probably means having a drummer fill in for Holmes, but band members said they intend to keep performing regularly.

"You're not getting rid of us that easily," Rønning said.


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