New band of the week: Sälen (No 123) – bitter-edged synthpop with fangs

Meet the new London trio whose singer loves snakes, biting lips and shocking her mum, even if the music is sweet on the surface

Hometown: London.

The lineup: Ellie Kamio (vocals), Paul Taylor Wade (bass), Simon Milner (keyboards/guitar).

The background: Funny to see people being sniffy this week on social media about the return of Bros in 2017, saying they were bland and as such, on a (boring) par with Curiosity Killed the Cat and Johnny Hates Jazz et al. What, a pair of Aryan-blond brothers whose debut single was a Warhol-worthy disquisition on the imminence – not to mention immanence – of celebrity? Not interesting enough for you? Apart from their immaculate, perfectly postmodern image, there was their thrillingly hypercute Michael Jacksonesque pop. Those first four singles! When Will I Be Famous! Drop the Boy! I Owe You Nothing! I Quit! Up there, surely, in the greatest introductory quartet-of-45s stakes with the Sex Pistols, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ABC and the Smiths.

Sälen may not include in their ranks twin Levi’d mannequins – or indeed wear Grolsch bottle caps on their shoes – but they can boast Ellie Kamio, a singer with a sweet voice and a somewhat scabrous vision of humanity. Pertinently, they have just issued their fourth fine single on the bounce. I’m in Love With My Best Friend was the one that introduced this east London trio earlier this year, to Kamio’s effortless warble and Paul Taylor Wade and Simon Milner’s deceptively pleasant late-night balladtronica. Deceptive because Taylor Wade and Milner’s gentle sonics and glossy productions barely disguised Kamio’s art of darkness. Because there she was, on second single Diseasey, her honeyed coo hovering above the lightly throbbing beat, sighing ominously about “the teeth dying in my mouth” as she told a tale of marital deceit that found her declaring, “I’m into your sickness” and demanding that her lover “infect me with your weakness”.

“Simon and Paul are very good at encouraging me to be confident in what I have to say,” Kamio tells us. There’s something jolting about her choice of language in the seemingly mellifluous context, with its references to “kiss[ing] your husband on the neck” and his “touch being diseasey”. The word “bint” – probably last deployed in a public sphere in an episode of The Sweeney – is especially jarring.

“That was my mum,” Kamio explains. “My dad cheated on her and the word she used to describe the woman was a ‘bint’.”

Fair enough. What does her mother make of Sälen’s music?

“She likes it, although she didn’t like the Diseasey video. She thought it was a cumshot.”

Beg pardon?

“You know – a cumshot. There was a comment underneath the video on YouTube that said, ‘Porn video – I hate.’ That was our favourite.

“It was meant to be vomit,” she adds of the glutinous liquid dribbling down her face at the start of the promo. How about the blood-red stuff that follows? “Oh, that’s medicine and edible glitter.”

The third single, The Drwg – young people today with their idiosyncratic orthography – is their best yet, with its pristine pulse, aching chord sequence and portents of the unpleasant things that people do in the name of love. “Nobody makes me feel as good as you do,” Kamio breathily intones. “No one can make me do the things that I do when I’m with you.” The chorus is an insidiously pretty killer: “You’re the drug that I’m in love with / You’re the way that I waste my time.” Been listening to REM’s The One I Love lately, have we?

“I do know that song,” she admits. “But it didn’t influence me. I just wrote down loads of things that relate to being in love.”

Single No 4 – and the one that puts them in the Bros bracket – is Copper Kiss. As with its predecessors, it nails its colours to the deliciously tuneful/lyrically poisonous duality. This really is a litany of lacerating imagery: “Let’s bite until our lips are split … You’re so gross you make me sick … I’ll lose your taste with my spit … When you crack your bones I hope they snap in half.”

What’s it all about?

“I don’t really know,” she replies. “Biting someone when you’re kissing them cos you don’t really like them.” Then why kiss them? “Everyone has needs. I was being a bit sassy – in a brutal way. People say our music is quite pretty in some ways, with soft vocals, but the lyrics are very dark.”

Sälen are named after a town in Sweden (“We threw a dart at a map and that’s where it landed”) and are doing well on Spotify – Diseasey is fast approaching 1.5m streams, which you might like to know is more than any Bros single apart from that epochal debut. We went to see them in June at a venue in London called Birthdays but couldn’t get in, such was the queue around the block. People like Sälen. But do Sälen like people?

“I’m a feminist, but not a feminazi,” Kamio says. “I love men.”

She’s less keen on Taylor Swift.

“She’s meant to be the golden girl of pop, but she’s so boring. Rihanna once said something like, ‘I wouldn’t want to be your child’s role model – if you want a role model, look at Taylor Swift.’ I thought that was cool. She’s so wet.”

Kamio’s role models include her mum, and Richard Hell (Love Comes in Spurts could almost be a Sälen lyric). How about Kamio herself, with her lip-biting and vomit down the face – is she a good role model?

“If I do get a platform, I’ll be good at letting girls understand it’s OK to be a bit weird,” she decides, looking forward to filming the video to Copper Kiss because it features a python. “It’s good to be gross.”

The buzz:Ultra-cool and seductive electronics.

The truth: It’s sweet sugar-pop with a bitter aftertaste.

Most likely to: Bite your lip.

Least likely to: Shake the diseasey.

What to buy: The Drwg and Copper Kiss are out now.

File next to: AlunaGeorge, New Portals, Oh Wonder, Say Lou Lou.

Ones to watch: Kadhja Bonet, Newmoon, Love Zombies, Mallrat, Wendy Bevan.


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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