A spell of ice rain is no match for Estonian indie rock quartet, Ewert and the Two Dragons. Nor was it a match for their loyal fans, who had Mercury Lounge packed to the gills during the New York City leg of the band’s latest tour. Hailing from Northern Europe, Russia and beyond, the fans could hardly contain their excitement, no better than the venue could contain all of them. Touring in support of their 2015 album, Circles, this would be the Two Dragons’ first show in New York since 2012, when Hurricane Sandy struck and left them stranded in Manhattan for days.
More bad luck would befall the band during their most recent visit to San Francisco, where their van was robbed during a show at the Brick and Mortar Music Hall, including passports and souvenirs for the kids. Thankfully, the band was able to make a safe return home to Estonia, where family, friends and sold-out shows awaited them.
Unlike the archetypal indie rock band, the group didn’t get their start in a garage; they first met at a music college in Tallinn, where their focus leaned classical. “Classical music has always done extremely well in Estonia,” says guitarist Erki Pärnoja, during our interview at MTV’s Manhattan headquarters. “The [Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir] wins Grammys, travels all over the world.” Before joining the band, he had a flourishing career playing the horn. Drummer Kristjan Kallas’ percussional expertise encompasses everything from a marimba to a vibraphone. Bassist Ivo Etti also masters the clarinet. Frontman Ewert Sundja has flirted with various instruments, including horn and piano, but deep down, he always had a thing for rock ‘n’ roll.
“Punk rock intervened,” says Sundja. “Guitars became the new horns.”
The band got to indulge their guitar-studded dreams when contacted by Pärnoja’s uncle, Indrek “Summer” Raadik, frontman of the popular Estonian punk band The Tuberkuloited. Long after the band’s heyday during the 1990s, Summer embarked on a solo venture, recruiting his nephew and his team of bashful music nerds to write music for him. They assembled in a cabin, tucked away in the woods. “It worked so well that we thought, ‘Why should we do this for anyone but ourselves?’” says Pärnoja. This group would later reconvene to write their own songs and commit to a mystical band name, initially conjured up by Sundja’s wife. “‘Ewert and The Two Dragons,’ she said!” Sundja laughs. “It was a joke, but it just stuck with us.”
Their 2009 debut, The Hills Behind the Hills, was a self-released effort, recorded in the summer cottage of Sundja’s in-laws. But their 2011 sophomore album, Good Man Down would become a best seller for two years in Estonia. The soft, pastoral bent of their first album would intensify and evolve into heartier tributes to the American folk-country tradition, as in the murder ballad “Good Man Down,” or in “Jolene,” Sundja’s honorable retort to Dolly Parton’s no-good, red-haired rival. Their reputation as an exclusively Baltic band would be no more in the summer of 2012, when the band struck a deal with BMG in Germany, followed by their victory at the 2013 European Border Breakers Awards. The group was subsequently courted by Sire and Warner Bros. Records, whose reissue of the sophomore album would propel the Two Dragons towards transatlantic success.
Recorded in a barn at Bear Creek Studio, located just outside Seattle, Circles is the band’s third release, and the first they had ever recorded outside Estonia. They continue a tradition of folk rock balladry, underpinned by sweeping, orchestral compositions, no doubt informed by their musical scholarship. But the true character of the band shines through in the details—the nimble twinkling of a xylophone, the delicately syncopated face-offs between rhythms and melodies. Or in the way Sundja addresses the subjects of his songs with elegiac, longing sentiments, as though shipwrecked in one of Homer’s epic poems, years and years away from his beloved. Yet when prompted to talk poetry, the band can hardly recall their most recent literary escapades. That is, aside from Sundja, father of two. “Sure, I read books,” he says. “More like parenting books! Lots of stories about changing diapers. I just keep reading, ‘Don’t panic. Don’t panic!’”
It’s pretty sound advice, not just for parents, but for a band so frequently on the go. Despite all their international mishaps, the band is determined to journey onward across the globe, continuing their tour of Europe throughout the spring. Their latest album, Circles, is out now on iTunes.