Joel Wästberg, known to his fans as sir Was, has just released his debut album, ‘Digging A Tunnel’. Written and performed entirely by the Gothenburg-based multi-instrumentalist, it’s a highly personal collection of songs blending hip-hop, soul, and electronica, drawing inspiration from the likes of Moondog, My Bloody Valentine, and D’Angelo via Sly and the Family Stone, The Beatles, and Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Ahead of his performance at Birthdays, he tells us about recording the LP, learning to play everything from sax to drums, the thrill of South Africa’s minibus taxis, having a machine gun pointed at him during a border crossing, playing in José González’ band, and the “zone” of live performance.
There’s a long list of artists who influenced your album, and you’ve said: “I listen to a lot of stuff!” Is there anything you wouldn’t listen to? Or that you wouldn’t be able to draw inspiration from?
White power music I will not listen to. Inspiration is a funny thing and works in deeper levels than one thing, I think. Regardless if you like or dislike certain things something will happen to you, whether you like it or not. Maybe the things we dislike help us to be more sure of what we actually like?
You did pretty much everything on the album. Were these songs too personal to share?
Yes, I needed to be alone and do this.
You play a lot of instruments. How did you get to this point?
I was fortunate to grow up in home where music was appreciated. My mother had a piano and that was fun from a very early age, I recall. I started with cello but I was way too young so I quit after a semester. It was more fun to dig holes in the ground with my friend Daniel around that time. When I turned 10 years old I started to play the sax. There was a demonstration of different instruments in school and I happened to get a sound on the sax straight away. The man, Lars-Gunnar, who later became my first teacher said: “Wow you have good sound there, buddy!” At least that’s how I remembered it. Then one of my brothers started to play guitar so there was a guitar around! Then another brother started to play drums, so they rented some drums for a while so yeah…That was great. All of this was possible because during that time you could take lessons for different instruments for a very very low price! Municipal music school. Teachers came out to your local school and taught you how to play! Totally amazing! I was deeply into the sax for many years but around my mid-20s I felt that I wanted to do more things than only play the sax so I started to watch a lot of YouTube videos and practised a lot of drums!
Is there anything you learnt in those early days that you still use?
Yes, most definitely but I can’t tell you exactly what but surely I learnt a lot. It would be strange otherwise. Things will stick with you whether you are conscious or unconscious about it, I think.
Much later, while studying at the University of Kwazulu-Natal in Durban, you picked up an interest in pan-African rhythms. Is there anything else you discovered during your time in South Africa? Bunny chow? Biltong? Minibus taxis?
I loved the minibus taxi! One time I sat next to a big guy who had done time in prison and he wanted to scare me a little. He said: “I´m a lion in this and that prison!” People around were like: “Hey, cut it out man.” Anyways, I remember people were really nice to me in general. Caring and concerned about one’s well being and safety. I am very happy that I got that opportunity to go there.
You also travelled extensively through Southern Africa. Is there any one experience you could pinpoint as “life altering”?
I can’t pin it down to a certain moment but I can say I saw many things and met a lot of people and that had a huge impact on my view of the world and myself. One time I came into South Africa via Zimbabwe – that was an amazing trip, by the way – and some undercover cops came up, pointed a machine gun at me, and checked me and went through my bags for drugs. It felt unreal. In all, I learnt a lot about music and also I think I understood more about what kind of function music can have in one’s life as a type of “motor” to keep going. I experienced a lot of different things as you do when you travel – it was an amazing couple of months that changed my life.
Did playing with someone like José González show you what you wanted to achieve with your own music?
I learnt a lot from José about a lot of stuff. It was great to play his songs night after night and go deeper into them. Maybe I started to listen more closely to lyrics during those years. Also, the technical aspect of playing live shows, making the music “work” on a practical level on a big PA for instance. Being on tour with a small group of people for a long time was also really educational about oneself and others and the way we function together.
In the run up to recording ‘Digging A Tunnel’, you told yourself: “I need to make an album or I’ll become bitter and angry”. Now that the album’s been released, how do you feel?
I feel relieved!
Has it been easy or difficult to transfer what you created alone in your studio to the live setting?
Some songs are easier than others but it’s always things that need to be improved. The biggest challenge, I think, has been and still is, not to be too hard on myself.
And for anybody who hasn’t seen you live, what can they expect from your upcoming London show?
I don’t know, but hopefully something that gives one energy! My aim when playing live shows is those moments where we are all in the “zone” together!
- sir Was plays Birthdays in London on 11 April.