If you’re going to be a dictator, you might as well have a name like Igor Haefeli.
Not that Haefeli, the guitarist for British indie-rockers Daughter, actually is one.
“I say ‘dictator’ it in a self-deprecating way,” he says with a laugh.
His tendency to control others, especially in collaborative songwriting situations, is not a trait he’s particularly proud of, although it is one that reared its ugly head early in his musical career. As he tells it, his control-freak tendencies within the bands he formed while growing up in Switzerland tested more than a few relationships.
“I worked my friends to the limit of what they were ready to invest in the band,” he admits. “I worked them a little too hard, and then we quite quickly stopped making music.”
Perhaps it was for the best. Following the dissolution of his early bands, Haefeli — who started playing guitar at 14 and became obsessed with production tools shortly thereafter — relocated to London to study at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance. He describes it as nothing short of a culture shock. As it turns out, songwriting in his mother tongue of French doesn’t exactly make for bosom buddies with classic English pop songwriting.
“French songwriting is a lot looser and more about wordplay and puns,” Haefeli says. “The language is obviously quite different, but it’s a bit less about structure and form.”
It was there, while attempting to reconcile the curriculum with the songs he grew up with, that he met Elena Tonra. A fellow student, Tonra was performing songs around the city under her own name. Unfortunately for their biographers, no grand epiphany accompanied the beginning of their musical collaboration. Tonra asked Haefeli to play guitar for a few shows, he wrote additional guitar parts for her songs, and the shows went well enough that they decided to start working together for the foreseeable future.
In 2010, following the addition of drummer Remi Aguilella, they formed Daughter. As frontwoman, Tonra took on lyricist duties, but melodies and instrumentations were a group effort from the start. Two albums deep, the trio’s sound is guitar-driven rock pushed to its most haunting and soul-baring extremes. Tonra’s lyrics are at turns vulnerable, pointed, poetic, and veiled, and Daughter’s precise melodies sound spacious and effortless, anchored by clean production that commands attention. With only two guitars and a drum set, Daughter finds it easy not to overcrowd their songs, and the result is transfixing.
“Doing the Right Thing,” a single from Not to Disappear, is marked by shimmering and spacious guitars that stretch out beneath Tonra’s hauntingly clear alto. “We are built for reproduction / But I find it soothing,” she sings on the track, sounding as though she is in constant danger of slipping through the cracks of her own heartbreak.
Daughter’s tendency toward the ambient and emotional doesn’t mean the trio refuses to flash their fangs every once in a while. On “No Care,” a fierce cut rife with angular ’90s alternative-inspired guitarwork and frantic drumming, Tonra spits, “Oh, I’m too drunk to fight / hurling curses at your surface,” each syllable more urgent than the last.
As Haefeli tells it, Tonra’s lyricism comes from a place of vulnerability she can only access through song.
“With writing, she doesn’t have that filter,” he says. “It’s about that willingness to express something she’s feeling or thinking instead of saying it in a real life situation.”
Many of those lyrical expressions can’t be particularly easy for him to hear. Tonra and Haefeli were in a committed relationship for over a year before splitting in 2012, and the pain and heartbreak inevitably made it into Tonra’s lyrics. Haefeli adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward those songs, and today, he swears that there’s no ill will between the two of them. Despite their history, the pair maintain a close, productive friendship.
“Separations are never easy, and they’re probably less easy when you’re still going to spend a lot of time together,” he says. “We got through that with flying colors. It’s funny because now it’s more like a brother and sister kind of relationship.”
If anything, the breakup certainly didn’t hinder the band’s ascension in the indie scene at home and abroad. The trio’s most recent European tour culminated in a transcendent and critically acclaimed homecoming show at the Brixton Academy in London. Despite Daughter’s tendency to shy away from banter — “It depends whether we’ve had a couple drinks or not,” Haefeli says — and the tendency of audiences in London to be “a little bit blasé and a little bit quiet,” the show went down as a rousing success and served as a proper send-off party for the American portion of their ongoing tour.
Once the American leg is finished, Daughter will return home to the U.K. for a much-needed break. Between the January release of Not to Disappear and the extensive touring behind it that will continue for the remainder of the year, all three members are coming into December rather exhausted. And no, there are no plans for a third album.
“We have to take some time to reassess and figure out what it is we want to do,” he says, “and how we want to approach the next record and also take some time for ourselves. But we love making music, so that will happen anyway.”
Daughter plays with Alexandra Savior at 8 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 29, at the Warfield. $25-$35; thewarfieldtheatre.com.