Emil Nikolaisen–the guitarist, lead singer, and songwriter of Norwegian rock band Serena Maneesh–talks about writing songs like the late Hunter S. Thompson talked about lost weekends in Vegas. This isn't a pharmacological comparison by any means. It's just that Nikolaisen channels pure passion when music is the subject at hand; he aggressively, almost breathlessly, gushes that he wants to make music that challenges preconceived notions of pop and rock.
"There are so many ways to let a tone or melody shine through," he says. "Every song should have a personality and an upbringing. They're like kids."
The kids, certainly, are alright. Nikolaisen's verbal excitement hints at the raucous, unhinged sound Serena-Maneesh creates on stage, with sets of songs that sound like gilded My Bloody Valentine-style sonic structures being demolished by the macho rage of The Stooges. At their March show at Chicago's Empty Bottle, the group dropped into a trance and Nikolaisen followed suit, his thin frame contorting and channeling feedback like a Norse Jimi Hendrix. Surrounded by fog belched from a smoke machine, his left arm, wrapped in a swirling snake tattoo, shook the electric guitar's fretboard while his right hand unleashed warm waves of fuzz. "Every night we play is a new story," he says. "On stage, we're a psychedelic band of gypsies."
The band's history certainly supports that comparison. The group has seen members come and go over time, from its formation in Oslo in 1999 to the recording of the 2002 Fixations EP and their self-titled debut album. Nikolaisen's striking sister, Hilma, often compared to chanteuse Nico, plays bass (though she wasn't in the lineup for their American tour last winter). The band is also rootless, having traveled extensively (Chicago, New York, Stockholm) while recording their debut full-length.
The only constant with the wandering members of Serena-Maneesh is their inquisitive musical approach. "We're trying to return back to when rock was immature and curious and take a new tangent," Nikolaisen offers. That tangent involves taking apart pop and building it back up again, threading lines of gorgeous, extroverted guitar between droning soundscapes, tribal drumming, and cryptic English lyrics. Though comparisons have been made to shoegaze bands, Nikolaisen feels the group has more in common with acts like Royal Trux and The Stooges. On songs like "Sapphire Eyes," pushed ahead by a manic beat and ethereal blues riffs, and "Beehiver II," which courses with aggressive and sleazy guitar, the influence of those groups isn't hard to divine. But in other places, the head rush of layered noise and warm vocals recalls something My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields would cook up in the studio.
Already at work on a remix album and a fall U.S. tour, Serena-Maneesh plans to continue pressing forward, with little rest in sight. The end goal is as nebulous as the band's music. Nikolaisen speaks of a dream sound he hears in his head. As the band navigates its way through one intense live performance after another, it's easy to imagine that sound is lost somewhere inside the chaos.