By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Adam Robertson.
Ephemerals frontman Wolfgang Valburn likes to stay enigmatic. The soul revivalist group from London, UK is lead by a man who lives in Paris, originally from New York though, and the fact that he’s named Wolfgang Valbrun should clue you in to the fact that he’s a character.
He shows up to Ephemerals tours right before the first gig starts and commands the stage, with the rest of the band hanging back to let him do what he does best. All of this makes him an ideal performer, at least the idealized version of what guitarist Hillman Mondegreen was looking for when he started the group.
BTR was able to speak with Mondegreen, not Valbrun interestingly. Though if Valbrun was easier to track down, the grandeur might be diminished. But only slightly. Mondegreen felt it easier to discuss his bandmate in the abstract, and a ‘Bill Brasky’ sense of mythology.
Hillman Mondegreen lives in the London neighborhood of Soho, “next to Piccadilly Circus,” and when it was brought up that Sherlock Holmes’ neighborhood was situated close by he remarked that “it’s definitely in the consciousness of England, I think. No one ever tells you about it but it comes through a membrane wall.”
There is a bit of detective work to be done with Ephemerals’ music though, because what you’re hearing on the surface level is not necessarily what the song is about.
“In the lyrics there’s a lot of politics. I do a lot of research and that gets driven into it which I think is how we manage with a retro-ish sound but I think we manage to stay current in that context. The first song on the album is talking about the NSA spying on people. It’s got that current discourse. That’s something that definitely weaves its way into our sound that’s not musical,” says Mondegreen on the agenda of their lyrics sheets.
Mondegreen is a fan of the “break-up” theme in his songs, having written “explicitly” about what seems like a typical relationship falling apart, but is really about leaving behind as complex relationship as ever–a record label and band. Mondegreen’s departure from his last squeeze, Hannah Williams & the Tastemakers, “felt like I had split with seven people at once” as he describes it.
Of course, we wouldn’t even be talking about Ephemerals if he hadn’t quit the Tastemakers.
By the time Mondegreen left the Tastemakers, he had a whole album’s worth of material that he was sitting on and didn’t know what to do with; music that was supposed to be the “follow-up” to a Tastemakers album. He had met Wolfgang Valbrun, “on the tour date when we were playing in Paris,” describing Valbrun as the “perfect singer.”
Mondegreen called Valbrun and asked what he was doing in “three weeks time,” inviting him to make the previously unused songs into what became Ephemerals’ debut Nothin Is Easy.
Mondegreen’s appreciation for Valbrun seems to transcend music and he really just admires Valbrun’s entire being. Mondegreen had ideas about what he wanted in a singer but it was one of those situations where the reality was better than the fantasy. Like in the movies!
“I’m a writer so I can’t sing for shit. I’m always on the hunt for a good singer or a singer that sounds like something in my head that I’ve been writing currently. He was definitely that kind of style,” says Mondegreen on his larger-than-life singer. “I check out every support act that I play with so when we get a show, wherever it is. I found this band that was supporting us in Paris and they had this one song on YouTube, the singer was amazing. It was like, ‘Shit. Yeah, he’d be perfect.’ That guy is an enigma, like I have no idea where he is or what he’s doing ever. We went on tour in September and he just turned up like five minutes before.”
The Merriam-Webster’s definition of “ephemeral” doesn’t exactly bode well for the longevity of the band. Their original name was “The Ephemeral Tastemakers,” indicating a (brief?) continuation of Mondegreen’s previous band.
On whether or not the band’s name was taken as a literal manifestation of the world, Mondegreen gives two answers. One is that Ephemerals just “looks nice on the page” but also that he “didn’t want everyone to get too excited that the band’s gonna be around forever,” because “these things tend to come and go.”
Yet his reasoning is still more romantic than mere rock n’ roll fatalism. To him, this music is “very current, and when I look back in ten years it will feel like ten years ago to me.”
Perhaps that same urgency you can hear in the band’s sound is the motive for seeking out “the perfect frontman”–Mondegreen knows the band won’t last forever so during Ephemerals’ moment in time, he wants them to be as grand as they can possibly be.
With the ending in mind, it’s hard to listen to Nothin Is Easy without noticing that the last track “Life Is Good” wraps the record up in such an uplifting and soothing away. Of course, this was all planned. Mondegreen admits to having written the record’s bookends, “Things (Part 1)”, and “Life Is Good”, specifically as the first and last tracks. In addition there’s professed conceptual continuity: “Things (Part 1)” is meant to be a continuation of the last track on Hannah Williams & the Tastemakers’ LP entitled A Hill of Feathers, as the last chord in the song “doesn’t resolve” and continues on his latest release.
“There’s some darker moments on [Nothin Is Easy], it’s not dark dark, but there’s a lot of issues on it. There’s quite a bit of politics and there’s a couple of break-ups. I really wanted to finish it off with something that was really catchy that had that big chorus where it’s the last song you play live and people go home singing, ‘And I feel life is good…’ Literally, I wanted people walking around in the streets singing ‘Life Is Good’”, says Mondegreen.
On top of all of this, “Life Is Good” ends on a fade out which is an obvious nod to the kind of soul music the band was hoping to bring back with a modern kick with from its very origins.
“I wanna fade everything, man. I don’t know, I just find endings a bit tacky. You know when a play ends in a theatre and they drop the curtain? A lot of new plays and new writing don’t bother having a curtain so it goes black and everyone has to shuffle off the stage. No one knows whether they’re in character or not and people are clapping. These are people who have been playing a role for an hour and a half and they’re just shuffling off in the dark. That’s what an ending is in music to me. It’s a bit weird and it’s like, ‘Shit, what do we do now?’”
Shuffle off into the dark with Ephemerals by clicking here.
Check out Ephemerals’ music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.