TALLINN - On one of those overcast, changeable days in early autumn in Estonia when you’re not sure whether to wear a jacket or an overcoat, it somehow seemed like an opposite day to meet Odd Hugo, the band that has always both succeeded and suffered due to its refusal to fit into conventional classification. The Baltic Times met Rando Kruus and Oliver Vare in one of those cool, light-wood cafes in their home city of Tartu where there are several different kinds of latte, all imperceptibly different.
There was more of a perceptible difference between Odd Hugo’s debut album and ‘Pocket’. Rando tries to explain, “mostly I think it’s instruments; on the last album, Oliver played the electric guitar, but this time he’s mostly on piano. We just tried to capture our sound the way we heard it in the rehearsal room. I think this time we were successful.
One thing that has not changed is the way Rando and Oliver exchange ideas while writing songs. “The writing process isn’t that different itself. Sometimes he has a riff, or a lick, and I write on it, because I like the sound and the lyrics start to come into my mind. But then maybe he puts some lyrics in, and we finish it together. We even have some lyrics that originate from 2013.”
The album sleeve for ‘Pocket’, which will be pressed into an initial run of 500 CDs and also available digitally through all major music outlets, shows the building in Tartu where the album was recorded, with the branches of a tree growing out of it. ‘Pocket’ is also the name of one of the tracks on the album, “one of the strongest,” according to Oliver. Rando adds, “it seems more compact than the other album. We originally planned to put seven songs on the album. The music might be a bit more compact, there’s the city on the cover, and there’s the feeling of everything being close together.”
Although the sound, which the band describe as “recycled” in places, is an evolution of the progressive, dense folk-fusion music that fans enjoyed so much originally, the first track, ‘Forget-Me-Not’, might surprise some people. It features violins from the former members of string trio Midrid, and a much more conventional melody than we are used to from Odd Hugo. In fact, it might well be the closest they come to Nick Drake’s lush sound on Bryter Layter. “I think it just came together,” Rando reflects. “The Midrid girls agreed to play on it, and we just went in the studio, without really rehearsing, and they just figured out something to play. I remember when we were recording, and the violins were playing, I got this really nice feeling.”
The penultimate song, ‘Naked Under the Sun’ is another standout track from ‘Pocket’. Beginning with a single, insistent, piano chord, Rando and Oliver’s harmonies flesh out a narrative about travelling, touring, and meeting new people. The ukelele joins, and the build-up is gorgeous, sustained and languid. Was the track from a place in reality, or fantasy? “That’s a question,” Rando reflects. “This is a recycled song, from all over the place, I guess.”
“The European tours are referred to. I think it was a walk down memory lane with our past travels, and a nice idea, that you might stand on the corner and play ukelele while some German guy comes up to you and says, ‘hey, that’s a ukelele,’ and it makes people happy. This is more of a fantasy, but I’m pretty sure it has happened. Not to me, on a corner in Berlin, but it’s happened to someone.” Oliver jumps in, “I think we were playing in Berlin at one point, because our manager said so, and it’s the kind of thing bands do... but it felt a bit weird! It didn’t have the right vibe for us.”
Having toured Europe extensively, Odd Hugo have built up constituencies in a variety of countries. They have to think in which touring destination their music was best received. “Funnily enough, it’s not Latvia and it’s not Lithuania. It might be Holland, but the local bands say that Holland’s music market is hard to get into. I think the most fun we’ve had is in Germany.”
Both members prize spontaneity above obsessive planning, as Oliver recalls. “We recorded Forget-Me-Not with the violins, it sounded perfect. Then we went back a month later to try and record ‘Pocket’, ‘Polaroid’, and a few others, and we thought, ‘this is shit!’ Sometimes if we practice more, it doesn’t work.”
Their model of a modern musician at the peak of his powers, in spite of their idolising of Jack White and Andrew Bird, is Damien Rice, with both Rando and Oliver having been blown away by his performance at a festival in Ireland. “That was really, really cool,” says Oliver. Rando adds, “when people see us perform, they sometimes say, ‘you look so gloomy, why don’t you look more happy? Why can’t you do something like [Estonian rock band] Elephants from Neptune do? But then you see those Irish musicians, and they’re awkward!” Oliver is amused by the memory. “There’s a tent with, like, 10,000 people, and they’re saying [mumbles an impression of something inaudble].”
“Damien’s one of my favourite artists,” says Rando, “and his voice is so massive -- I can’t handle it sometimes. The talks he had between the songs, he talked about life, but he didn’t talk about them like an artist, he talked about them like a man does when he talks about relationships and things.” One senses that Odd Hugo want to communicate with their audience in a similar way with ‘Pocket’ -- like people, not like artists.
Stuart Garlick is a freelance writer based in Tallinn. You can follow him on Twitter @StuartGarlick.