“We grew up with Star Wars and the sci-fi of the 1980s, that fascination with space, and when you grow up in northern Norway and you can look out at the sky and the Aurora Borealis and the stars, it can really shape you as a human being.” Unless you’ve had your head under a rock, or indeed, in the stars, for the last 10 years, it would be impossible to have missed Röyksopp’s dreamlike music from the far north of Scandanvia; strange, soothing, effervescent broadcasts from the top of the world.
For a few years after their debut album Melody AM arrived in 2001 it seemed that the music to every other advert, documentary, or programme link was one of their mellow, catchy, musical textures: the wistful Remind Me, dreamy So Easy, infuriatingly catchy Eple, or ubiquitous ‘chill-out’ compilation standard, Sparks.
Röyksopp is Torbjørn Brundtland and Svein Berge, and it is Berge who is explaining how growing up in Tromsø, the most northern city in Europe, might have cultivated the Röyksopp sound.
“We’ve not done it deliberately, like some kind of arctic New Age thing, but what you encounter and experience in your life will shape the outcome of your art. This is the environment we’ve been brought up in. Nature has always been very close to us – you can walk out of Tromsø and be in complete wilderness,” he says.
It’s hard to put your finger on it, but there is something of the wild found in the music that is pouring out of Scandinavia. The Bergen Wave, the rash of Norwegian bands that emerged 10 years ago named after the southern Norwegian city they called home, is an incestuous mix including Röyksopp, collaborators Kings of Convenience and Erlend Øye, whose vocals graced Melody AM, and The Knife, whose singer Karin Dreijer Andersson can be heard on Röyksopp’s new album, Junior. In the last few years another Scandinavian invasion has ushered in the likes of Swedes Robyn and Lykke Li – whose voices feature prominently on Junior, but also Danish popsters Alphabeat, the inappropriately named I’m from Barcelona (they’re from Sweden), and many others.
In each there is something of the melancholy silence of the snow, the dazzle of the Northern Lights that Berge and Brundtland grew up admiring, the clarity of the Scandinavian air. Many of them produce modern electronic pop music, but it is pop with depth – bitter as well as sweet.
Berge and Bruntland met at a party when they were 13, brought together by a love of music and computer games – and the music of computer games, which during the reign of home computers like the Commodore C64 in the 1980s was the cutting edge of budget electronic music. Six months later they had bought their first synths and drum machine together and begun a musical partnership still going strong after 20 years.
“Tromsø is small and isolated, we had two record shops and they only sold Iron Maiden and Metallica,” Berge recalls. “We were interested in electronic music, and a friend’s boyfriend would travel abroad to London and bring back music from Blackmarket Records and we’d soak it up.” House and techno from Chicago and Detroit from the likes of Derrick May and Underground Resistance as well as synth-driven bands like Depeche Mode helped ferment their sound as much as their Scandinavian surroundings.
“When you’re 14 there’s plenty of hormones that make you want to jump about like a madman, but at the same time we wanted to be seen as intellectuals,” he laughs, denying that this shows an early understanding of good PR. “We never had any ambition to become a band, or be famous. We just liked dabbling in music. We’d formed a liking for the experimental, intellectual side of music, but also the lets-go-crazy rave music too.”
After the success of Melody AM, their 2005 follow-up The Understanding was more measured, moving into more traditional song-structured territory, but arrived sounding too accessible, without their previous work’s hooks. Röyksopp are unashamed at having spent another four years making their third album, Junior, because, Berge says, “we wanted to make it more soulful”. It certainly has that: single The Girl and the Robot features the urgent, husky tones of Swedish singer Robyn longing for the return of her mechanoid lover (“available in industrial and domestic models”).
It is Junior’s standout track, and sounds like a departure for Röyksopp. “Robyn has a very distinct voice and her energy is so evident in the track that it could be bewildering for those who are only familiar with Melody AM,” Berge says. “The thing that holds it together is our passion for soundscapes and music with longevity, made with layers that can be listened to in different ways.”
Certainly, this is no downtempo, chill-out track like those the band’s reputation was built on: four minutes of lush synth strings, a roaring arpeggiated bassline, crisp drums – it’s seamless dancefloor material.
“I don’t like this idea we’re a chill-out band,” Berge complains. “I think that’s pretty misguided. There’s plenty of things we do that couldn’t be defined as chilled. Chill-out to me is Café del Mar volumes 1 to 10… that’s all fine by me, but I hope to be more than music to fall unconscious to. We make music that can be peaceful, but when we play live, it’s messier, uptempo and energetic,” he laughs. “Those that expect to sit there with a bong and a blanket are in for a shock.”
A girl going quietly mad as she pines for her robot – “In the night, call you up and/Wanna know when you’re coming home/Don’t deny me, call me back/I’m so alone” – surely there’s a subtext here beyond the literal: “You never seem to know when to stop/I never know when you’ll return/I’m in love with a robot”? Boys and their machines, making techno-soul for the fairer sex?
“Well,” Berge says, drily, “it’s common knowledge the male species is inadequate at expressing emotions. There are many ways of approaching the song. The Slavic word for a worker is ‘robot’, so it’s also about difficulties with communication in a relationship, but we don’t want to go all Shakespearian and profound.”
Berge recalls how a journalist approached him on the subject of the lyrics to another album track, What Else Is there? “She had one perception and I said, that’s interesting but not really what I thought. I think she felt a bit robbed that she hadn’t got it right,” he says.
“We don’t want to be too revealing because it takes away the mystery and can destroy the enjoyment of the music for others.”
Junior is in fact one half of a two-parter: another album of material recorded over the same period, Senior, is due to be released sometime this winter. Senior is “more introspective and introverted” and more freeform – “hats off to the Brian Eno school of ambient,” he says.
Have Röyksopp committed the cardinal sin of creating… a concept album? “It’s about creating an atmosphere and a sentiment, and it’s also I suppose a lost homage to the album format, not an album as just a collection of singles.
“I don’t expect it to be celebrated,” he says, ominously. “It’s cerebral. That sounds elitist, but yes.”
And on the subject of elitism, Berge defends himself from critics, explaining that by agreeing to put their music to adverts Röyksopp gained airplay that was otherwise hard to come by for an unknown band from Norway. And to suggest that this was all a big cash-in is not strictly true, he says. “For us it was an easy choice to make but, for example on So Easy, as we used a Burt Bacharach sample so we made nothing off it – all the money went to fund Burt’s new hairdo and tan.”
Is this a sell out? Has Iggy Pop, whose voice and image now adorns car insurance adverts, ‘sold out’?
“It’s strange,” Berge says. “Some people say, boo Iggy. But if you’re Busta Rhymes and you do a deal with Mountain Dew and make millions in sponsorship they say, yay Buster, Buster wins , Buster makes money off the man.
“I’m not the kind of guy to judge. It doesn’t affect the music for me, because I’ve never had posters on my wall – I liked the music for the music, not the musicians as heroes.”
Perhaps, he ponders, the future lies in musicians making deals to get paid in exchange for music in computer games, adverts and film soundtracks, while the internet supplies endless free music to the masses. “Good music will always prevail, so the only thing we have to worry about is always making interesting music and not worry about anything else. But they still need to get paid, so lay off Iggy, I say.”
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, August 2009]