Babel Fish Biography
Last updated: 11/15/2001 09:35:13 PM
This Norway-based pop quartet - Jan van Ravens (vocals, guitars), Hal Holter (keyboards, vocals), Odd Jensen (drums, programming), Simon Malm (bass) - traces its beginnings back to the high school days of the late 1980s when both their talents and musical vision were fast coming together. Babel Fish's creative journey culminated with the band's recent ascension to the #1 spot on the Norwegian pop chart with the bright, melodic "Mania" - which now sets the tone as the first track on their self-titled Atlantic debut.
Recorded both in Oslo, Norway and Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York with producer Neil Perry (Smashing Pumpkins engineer), "Babel Fish" moves deftly from reflective balladry to crisp, clarion rock to brilliant four-part harmonies. Fueled by Jan's bold, dramatic vocals, Holter's assertive keyboards, and the tasty Jensen/Malm rhythm section, "Babel Fish" is sure to take its place as one of the year's most exciting debuts.
"Babel Fish," the band's Atlantic Records debut, veers from melancholic ballads to brazen power pop, all fired by Jan van Raven's bold, dramatic vocals and the band's majestic four-part harmonies. With an inventive sonic palette of lush guitars, celestial strings and complex, hooky rhythms, songs like the shimmering album-opening "Mania" or the languid and touching "Two Feet Tall" reverberate with originality, energy and passion.
The tale of Babel Fish begins in the late eighties when Jan, Hal Holter and Odd Jensen- all musician friends from around Oslo - formed their first band together. They made a demo almost immediately, with songs whose sound veered from heavy rock to power balladry to faux country & western.
"We sounded like five different bands," laughs van Ravens, remembering those early days.
Nevertheless, the fledgling group took their tape to London to become instant rock stars. Or at least that was the plan.
"We managed to lie our way to a meeting with an A&R guy," says Hal. "He said, 'Sorry guys. I don't like your music, I don't like your image so, basically, f--k off.' And that's what we did."
"But we continued," Jan says. "Of course, at that moment, we just went to a bar and got smashed. But after that, we continued."
Upon their return to Norway, they became a successful cover band, gigging regularly on the Oslo club scene. when they realized they had grown dependent on the money - at the cost of no longer focusing on originals - they promptly ended their covers career. To supplement their income, Jan and Hal gave guitar and piano lessons at a women's prison in Oslo ("There are a lot of nice people in jail," smiles Jan) and the three worked pretty consistently as session musicians.
The early-to-mid nineties saw the three musicians earning the rent by continuing to work as studio musicians as well as touring session players. Flash-forward to 1995, when the three signed with Oslo's Waterfall Productions who funded some new recordings. With a few dollars in hand, they enlisted their friend Simon Malm to join up as bassist. In 1996, under the name Daily Planet, the band released their first single, the multi-colored "Light of Day." The song - included on Babel Fish - was an instantaneous hit on Norwegian radio, appearing on the playlists of 68 (out of 72) stations.
Alas, a band from neighboring Sweden had been using the Daily Planet moniker for some time, so the band had to seek out a new name. A longtime fan of Douglas Adams' deliriously absurdist "Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" novels, it was Odd who suggested calling the group Babel Fish.
Thus designated, Babel Fish returned to Waterfall where they recorded with a vengeance. They released the exultant "Mania" (which kicks off Babel Fish) to Norwegian radio and all of a sudden their rock 'n' roll dreams began to come true. The single was a #1 airplay smash in Norway, residing in the top five for more than two months. Despite the fact that they hadn't officially released "Mania" as a single, they performed their hit on a number of Norwegian TV programs and soon found themselves putting their signatures on an Atlantic Records contract.
"Having a #1 single which is not for sale and then signing to a major label in America," says Jan of their growing success. "This is not common when you're from Norway."
With deal in hand, Babel Fish began to put together their debut. The band's eponymous Atlantic release features five songs - including the aforementioned "Mania" - which were recorded at Waterfall Studios in Oslo with producer Kai Robøle. The remaining tracks were cut at the famed Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York with Smashing Pumpkins engineer Neil Perry.
"It was a really good studio and the surroundings were so quiet and nice, the only thing to do was work," says Jan. "It's a small town, so after a few weeks, you've really seen it all."
With a pool of influences that includes The Beatles, Crowded House, Led Zeppelin, Simon and Garfunkel, Kate Bush, Massive Attack, and U2's "ACHTUNG BABY," the sound of Babel Fish fuses folk's emotional resonance with a pure pop sensibility.
As songwriters, Jan and Hal first conceive Babel Fish songs for guitar, piano and two voices, then bring it to the band to flesh out the kaleidoscopic arrangements. Though van Ravens and Holter each pen lyrics individually, the two then collaborate until the songs meet the unified Babel Fish seal of approval. Both songwriters are expert in meshing reflective introspection and witty surrealism in their words, despite the fact that said lyrics are not written in the songwriters' mother tongue.
"We grew up on English-speaking music, either American or European, so it feels natural to write in English," explains Jan.
"Also, with our ambition of going international, you can't sing in Norwegian," Hal remarks. "There's no point in having lyrics that nobody can understand."
That said, from the turbulent energy of "Turning a Blind Eye" to the blissed-out "Out Of The Blue" to the achingly poignant album-closer "Boyscout Without Eyes," Babel Fish's diverse songs are all easily understood, marked as they are with the band's charming sound, an idyllic and inventive music guaranteed to warm even the most hardened pop fan's soul.
"We write very pop songs, with chords and melody," agrees van Ravens. "Though the lyrical themes might be different - it could be a story, it could be just a sensation or a mood or an observation - we still try to write the music in a way that fits us."
"You should be able to tell in ten seconds that it's Babel Fish," notes Holter.
Though Babel Fish are nothing if not modern, they have incorporated such psychedelic staples as mellotrons, Wurlitzers and Vox amps into their recordings.
"We like to take things that give you associations to classic music," says Jan, "and then combine them with sounds that are very nineties, like drum loops or synthesizers."
With their unique approach towards music and their affable intra-band camaraderie, Babel Fish are now poised to bring their delightfully dynamic pop music to the people. As with their literary namesake, the songs and sentiments of Babel Fish are certain to translate into the world's heart.