Topping Royksoppís million-selling debut LP Melody A.M. was never going to be easy, but the Norwegians are back with Junior - a cracking electronic pop record with lashings of brawny female vocals and a strong fetish for Vangelis.
Barcode questions Svein Berge on Royksoppís not-so-difficult third album.
Royksopp was 10 years old last year, does it feel like you have been in the industry that long? If anything I feel itís slightly embarrassing; not that we have sustained 10 years but only released three albums Ė thatís hardly an achievement. So we want to tone down the fact that itís been 10 years, we only say itís an anniversary.
Are you more comfortable working at a slow pace? It would appear so; itís fair to say that we do spend a lot of time on all our music and the way that we make it, because we write the music ourselves and also play, programme and engineer the instruments as well as take part in the artwork and so on. Weíre not the kind of people who work every day; we like to have a relaxed approach.
Did you have a lot of time off following your last album (The Understanding) before starting Junior? We worked on Junior simultaneously to something that we call Senior, which we hope to release later this year Ė and those two started about 18 months ago. They are related to some extent, perhaps a different side to what we do. We tend to say that Junior is our more youthful, direct side Ė driven by vocals and rhythms, itís quite hectic. Senior was more time-consuming and introspective; there are literally no vocals on it; itís more about creating an atmosphere with space in the music.
Why was a double-album not appropriate? We though about that but were afraid that people might think that these guys are becoming really pompous and arrogant. Senior might be perceived as something for the specialist; I donít even know how weíre going to release it Ė it doesnít contain singles the way that Junior does.
Why did you decide to call the album Junior? Well, we feel that apart from being a nice name itís supposed to be a take on the youthful side of what we do, related to being a teen or young adult; the fascination for nightlife, the relationship between a boy or a girl or afterhours partying Ė all of which is very present in any young adults life.
Is Junior a deliberate attempt to broaden your appeal or do you just keep making the music you want to make and hope it stays successful? I think youíre completely right in that observation; it is fair to say that itís a progression for us because on The Understanding we flirted - at least in comparison to Melody A.M. Ė with songwriting and lyrical content, and then took it even further on Junior. Itís just a way of keeping it interesting and fresh by structuring our tracks into songs and letting the vocals take a big space that will automatically makes the album more accessible.
Is what you write linked to your personal lives or more towards your environment and what is going on in the world today? I think that on this album we are taking about different things. The Understanding was very much about longing, searching Ė those kind of things, more melancholic, whereas this album is more optimistic overall, representing the state of mind we were in while making the album.
Iím aware that youíre a big Vangelis fan, and the album to me definitely has that influence Ė was that deliberate or subconscious? Itís definitely more subconscious because heís a guy whoís been in our blood ever since we were kids and is one of these artists that steered us in the direction of electronic music, alongside Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk. We have a fascination for the guy but we donít really know that much about him and like to keep it that way. We donít really want to know too much about Vangelis, but heís a guy that we have always been mentioning as very influential, partially because he is one of these people that nobody wanted to admit that they like Ė heís not a very cool guy to like.
I can understand why you would cite Depeche Mode as an influence, but what access did you get to Vangelis as a youth? Thatís the funny thing. We were born in the late seventies and were children of the eighties. Obviously, growing up in TromsÝ, where we were, you live under the stars and nature is very present living above the Arctic Circle, so there was a fascination for stars and the universe combined with a fascination for movies like Star Wars or Alien. All these things are intertwined, and as a kid of that age my parents would play anything from The Bee Gees to Abba on the one side to contemporary pop, while my big brother and sister would play whatever was moving in the charts. As a child, if I listened to The Beatles and saw the cover I would automatically identify and recognise the sounds in the music with the instruments on the pictures, but electronic music was more mysterious, again, very related to space Ė I didnít even know what a synthesiser was. Then I remember seeing a programme on Swedish television talking about robots and the future, saying that by 2001 every home would have at least 5 robots [laughs] - the music was The Robots by Kraftwerk and I asked my brother to get this for me. So, he sent me Kraftwerk and also presented me the early works of Jean Michel Jarre, and also Vangelis. Later there was an exhibition in the local museum at TromsÝ; an installation or video montage explaining the theory of The Big Bang, and the music to that theme was the Vangelis track, Alpha. So to me it was all related, that electronic music has something to do with space.
For children today the ringtone is probably a more immediate introduction to electronic music. How do they get to experience the mystery of electronic music as we did in our youth? Thatís an interesting take and obviously now with electronic instruments being very ubiquitous and linked to every musical style Ė even American rock bands like Green Day are using more state-of-the-art electronic music than weíre doing, so the influence that electronic music has had on so many genres is so present now. I donít know how one can get that freshness in there; it will be interesting to see Ė hopefully it wonít be all revivals in the future but something uniquely new.
Will sound reproduction have to become more important than the music itself to create something new? It might be that. Nowadays people get stimulated in so many ways and kids seem to handle it; they can be surfing the net while playing a computer game while texting friends on the cell phone. So it might be that one decides to combine the listening experience with the viewing experience.
Two tracks on Junior feature vocals from Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife, why did you contact her in particular? Well, Iím head over heels in love with whatever The Knife does, and Karin has a very distinct and truly unique voice that we admire. To us, the voices that are featured on the album are equally as important as the sounds that we choose. We try to introduce new or fresh sounds that arenít necessarily that easy to pinpoint, and itís the same with the vocals Ė we want them to have a certain identity, and Karin definitely has that. Her voice has some sort of outer-worldly, strange beauty to it, an element of rock energy in the way that she sings every word because sheís really feeling it, she really means it. Whenever we want to make a track with a dark undertone to it, Karin is the obvious choice. The track The Girl and the Robot is sung by Swedish singer Robyn, was she also cherry-picked by you and Torbjorn? Her voice is definitely the most poppy on the album, itís a very distinct voice that cuts through. The Girl and the Robot is one of the loudest and most hectic tracks on the album, but yet her voice is of such a quality that it pierces through the whole thing. Thereís definitely a sexual element to her voice that we find appealing, the way she uses her breathing. Again, like all the other artists that we worked with on this album, Robyn not only has a beautiful voice but is a great composer as well, so we really wanted to get her input on the song and take part in writing the lyric and parts of the melody as well. Thatís something we need in order to create the diversity that we were hoping for on this album.
Did you know what songs you wanted the vocalists to sing prior to approaching them? Well, we had a few ideas Ė sketches if you will; a set of chords and melodies that we introduced to the artists in mind. For instance, with Karin we had a set of sounds that we felt would fit her, and some that we felt might fit Robyn. But then again we didnít want to push anything on these people; we played them the theme, the sketch, and looked to see if they might respond to it. So they took an active part in selecting what songs to work on.
There are very few male vocals on the album I noticed? Thereís one and a half Iíd say; the last track ĎItís What I Wantí features TorbjÝrn and myself, but we substantially tweaked our voices. On Happy up Here, thatís also us, but itís been pitched, vocoded and treated.
I know that you are quite secretive about your studio, but can you tell me what the key components of it are? Is it a primarily software-based environment? Definitely a mix, we are most comfortable with hardware Ė thatís where we have our background, but prefer to exist within a universe of both. To us, you canít really beat hands-on technology, where you are physically tweaking and altering the sounds. But then again, these days you have a lot of software made with such quality that itís almost idiotic not to use it.
Do you use software for arrangement and then hardware for playing the music? Yeah, thatís the most common thing. We donít use Macs, weíre PC people Ė weíre a dying breed, but we use PCs in terms of audio editing and prefer to use Steinbergís WaveLab because it has a very nice audio montage feature. That is one of the main components of our production, how we layer the sounds.
Did you try using a Mac but decide itís not for you? Itís the habit. Initially we started with an Atari Ė because thatís the only thing we could afford when we were teenagers. Then we moved to PC and just simply stuck to that. Also, in order for us to maintain what we hope is a unique sound, we prefer to use what most people donít use. The danger of using Pro Tools or a Mac for instance is that we might wind up using the equipment, soft synths and plug-ins that everybody else is using and end up sounding similar, which we want to avoid.
To what extent does the technology lead your sound as opposed to you having a very clear idea of what you want from the start? I think it depends on the type of track we are making. For us, one way of making music is to improvise; perhaps start off with a sound that you find interesting and perhaps create a loop of it and take it from there, adding layers of sound. Itís very often the case of not just sticking to one type of sound. If, for example, weíre using a bass kick that sounds very contemporary, weíll make sure to add a set of hi-hats that might sound as if theyíre from the seventies - to balance it out. We strive for a certain timeless quality in the music; itís very ambitious I know.
Do you tend to upgrade your software and hardware regularly? There is a hunt [for new gear] but we already have quite a lot of synthesisers and so on. Itís always fun to get something new, although we have a few favourites that we always turn to Ė because we have bought things in the past that we donít really use that often. We donít use the Moog that often, but a few of the synths that have always been there - and I guess always will be - are the very versatile Roland Juno-106 and the Korg MS-20; also good for creating effects - even bass lines.
According to your biog, the track Miss It So Much is a song about ďmissing analogue in a digital worldĒ. Is Royskopp trying to lead an analogue crusade? Well, that could be misguided because we do embrace digital equally, but itís ok to romanticise about the past. Weíre not saying that one is better than the other, if anything we believe in a union of the two and thatís where we thrive musically I guess. I think nowadays there are so many outstanding digital compressors that the level of loudness, or thump, is just incredible Ė something we could only dream of in the eighties and nineties. So that is in place, but I definitely agree that there is a certain level or richness in analogue that is beneficial to contemporary music Ė and obviously thereís the fun part of it as well, to physically have your hands on the filter as opposed to just controlling a mouse.
In your opinion, can digital effectively replicate the analogue sound source? Well, again, we like a combination of the two. Especially some of the more ageing analogue stuff that we have, from the early seventies Ė like three different MS-20s, and one of them is definitely preferred because itís slightly out of tune; thereís something Ďoffí with it that adds something to the music. Weíre the kind of people who like to show a bit of human emotion in the music, so when you mention quantising and so on, if we record a melody and donít hit the note exactly on the beat or the bar we very often keep it that way to let that human aspect remain present in the recording. And the same goes for things that are out of key, we sometimes intentionally turn things a bit out of tune just because itís nicer.
Itís funny how digital was designed to make everything perfect and now itís fashionable to find ways to unwind it using the same tools? Yeah, I think in five years time people will look back at how one is using, for instance, Auto-Tune these days. We will look back and think, hmm Ė I think we overdid it.
These days, bands tend to switch labels with almost every release, but youíve been on Wall of Sound since the start, is that continuity important to you? Well we believe in loyalty more than anything and the guys at Wall of Sound work hard on the music, they believe in the music and donít say no to a party either. So far, our work together has bore fruit, and we believe in that.
Youíre aiming for a hat trick of Number One albums in Norway, how confident are you? Fingers-crossed that would be a nice achievement. I think for us, the pride lies in the fact that in terms of the media we are completely secluded and itís all about the music. Although we are recognised in Norway, we are not really seen as a mainstream act, which is even more intriguing to me. We are quite pleased with how we are perceived from a Norwegian point of view Ė there is an amount of Norwegian singer/songwriters, which you would have in any country I guess, but the mainstream would feature anything from Beyonce to Lily Allen.
Your remix work appears to have slowed over the past few years (Streets, Coldplay, Peter Gabriel), is that deliberate? No, I think weíll probably pick it up again Ė it has a lot to do with time. Itís something thatís very fun to do, but we really havenít spent much time on it simply because we wanted to focus on our own music.
I presume you will be touring the new album this year? We will be touring yes, starting with a few gigs in the bigger cities of Europe in April, and then weíll go back home and hit the road again for the festival period in the summer. Then in the autumn I guess weíll do it all over again - weíll definitely be coming to London.
Royksopp interview, Barcode 2009 ©
This interview is the full, unedited version of an interview that Barcode was commissioned to write for Future Music magazine - issue 214, June 2009. No part of this interview may be reproduced under any circumstances without the written or verbal permission of Future Publishing Ltd.