The thing about sex and romance is that they're kind of gross IRL, but you would not know that from mainstream pop music alone. You don't hear songs in the Billboard 100 celebrating period sex with lyrics like "let me roll your blood on my tongue". You don't see X Factor finalists releasing videos where their faces are dripping in white goo while they're singing "I'm into your sickness, infect me with your weakness." Sure, pop is getting weirder, but it's not that weird is it? Selena Gomez might be rolling around on slimy egg yolks while singing about fetishes, but you're never really like "ew". It's still relatively palatable, always skirting around the boundaries of what's considered tasteful.
Enter Sälen: a three-piece pop band from east London who are making music that definitely tips over into that "ew" realm while still retaining a slick, sickly pop sound. They often come at pop's familiar themes – sex, love, heartbreak – but in a way that doesn't shy away from sensory experience, bodily fluids or jarring imagery. Paired with singer Ellie's sugary sweet, peaches-and-cream vocals, the result is a sound that's both inviting and repulsive – which is a pretty accurate reflection of how chemistry can play out, I think.
I meet up with them in a windowless rehearsal space in Kings Cross, all three of us bundled on a leather sofa, surrounded by instruments. I wonder why they're so drawn to these "explicit for pop" themes. "For us, it's mainly because it works in a visual sense," Simon, the band's producer (and by far their most talkative) tells me. "When you can hear something and it also puts that picture in your head, it becomes more of a sensual overload." Ellie says she also likes singing about real, gross stuff to add a bit of shade to her natural light. "I have quite a sweet-sounding voice, and because our music is quite poppy, if we then had really 'nice' lyrics… it would be a bit much! It's also cool to make people care less about that stuff in general," she explains. "Yeah and beds sheets get dirty, don't they?" Simon adds, laughing. "You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs!"
Today, they're putting out two tracks from their upcoming EP, which is out later this year alongside a short film they have written and directed themselves. The first of those two offerings, "I Am Champagne", is the sort of minimal electro-club track that's played at closing time when people are spilling out onto the streets at 2AM, bleary-eyed and lighting up cigarettes. "You're so easy and so fun to corrupt, I've been blessed enough," sings Ellie, her sugary tones floating over a hypnotic, bubbling beat. "You know how some people you can just… be around without getting off your face?" says Simon, when I ask about that song and what it means. "It's about someone you're interested in, but you don't have to get fucked up with. You don't need the champagne, because they're the champagne."
The second of those two tracks, "I'm in Love With My Best Friend", was actually released almost two years ago, but only in its initial, raw shape. It's since been polished, buffed up and re-recorded to reflect their updated sound and skillset. "It was the first song that we did, but we wanted to release it properly with proper artwork," Simon explains. "The first time, we recorded it in one of our bedrooms, but this time we did it in a studio. Paul's learnt a lot of extra production skills since those early days as well, and Ellie re-sung the vocals, so it was cool to make it so much more polished. Hopefully we can get rid of the other one!"
The result is a shiny, revamped gem that's so slick you can almost hear it glisten. Out of all their songs, it's perhaps the one that bears the most resemblance to the output of PC Music, who obviously also use a lot of high, supersaturated vocals and uber-sweet production. "Yeah, we hear that a lot!" laughs Ellie. "I think it's the tone of her voice," says Simon. "And some of the production as well. We're working with a new producer who contributed to that SOPHIE and Charli XCX EP. We're currently experimenting a lot with who we work with."
So, what's next for Sälen? When I ask them, their answers are vague and chill. Ellie's going on holiday in Japan for a few weeks to stay with family, and when she gets back they'll keep working on their debut album, which so far has too many songs to count. Before the album comes out, though, they'll be releasing their aforementioned short film (listen out for more info) and they'll be playing a bunch of festivals, including Pitchfork Paris in November. "We've progressed so much as a band in the last two and half years," says Ellie, "and we're constantly developing, so we just want to focus on our sound and release something that truly reflects it."
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