Danish three-piece Efterklang never really stand still. Their music isn’t afraid of new directions, so much so that guitarist Rasmus Stolberg has difficulty coming up for a description for what it is that they do. Even this interview was done on the go (beer number four on a Brussels pub crawl). Now, the band are officially back on the ball with their first record since 2010’s ‘Magic Chairs’. ‘Piramida’, a record that veers off on a new (and slightly darker and more electronic ) course, is due to be released later this month. Stolberg was swigging a Gueuze when we met him, and talked to us about the album, making field recordings in a ghost town in Spitsbergen and what it’s like to team up with a classical orchestra.
I found it quite funny to be invited to a ‘walking bar interview session’. Is your aim to test all the bars and Belgian beers today?
Ha ha, not really, but I love Belgian beer.
Which one are you having?
This one’s a Gueuze, very nice.
How many have you tried today? Are you drunk yet?
I’m totally fine! I’ve had about three or four, but I don’t remember their names. All very good. We started this morning at Pain Quotidien, but that’s just a chain, I think. After, we began hopping from one authentic Belgian bar to another. If we’d stayed in the same place all day I’d just sink deeper and deeper in my chair with every interview and I would get very tired. Moving around and seeing different places keeps me alert.
Is it the first time you’re getting to see something of Belgium?
No, we’ve actually been quite present here since the very beginning. I don’t know why, but it was one of the first countries our music was well received. So we like to come back here a lot.
You’re from Denmark – do you feel your music is more appreciated abroad or at home?
In the beginning our music didn’t really work in Denmark but we had success in other countries. And then people went “Oh, look, they played in Sydney’s opera house, we should check them out”, and all of a sudden they love you.
“We felt very alone when we started out because we didn’t know anyone in Denmark who was doing music at least slightly similar to ours.”
What’s the music scene in Denmark like?
There are so many good Danish bands now. It’s very different from when we started out. We felt very alone at the time because we didn’t know anyone in Denmark who was doing music at least slightly similar to ours.
Do you think there is something like a Danish sound?
No. Music has become so globalised. There were periods in time when you could talk about the electronic music scene in Cologne or something like that, but since the rise of the internet that regionalisation doesn’t really exist anymore.
What are some Danish bands our readers should check out?
If you felt so alone when you started out – were not part of a particular music scene and not very well connected – how did you manage to make it as a band?
There weren’t many Danish labels and the ones we approached sent us away. So at one point we recorded a demo and send it to about 20 international record labels.
The old school way.
Exactly. And it worked! One day we got a call and this guy from the Leaf Label said he really wanted to sign us, he just had to come over and see if we were any good live. We were super nervous because we had only played around 15 gigs so far. But it all worked out. And all of a sudden we had a record that was released all over the world. It was a crazy time, everything happened so fast.
Now you’re with 4AD. Why did you change?
We never had problems with any label we worked with. But 4AD is just out dream label. We can really connect with the musicians, with their history of who they’ve signed in the past. They’ve taken on so many interesting bands, 10 or 20 years ago just as today. TV on the Radio was a massive influence for us, their ‘Return to Cookie Mountain’ album was just amazing. Then there’s Blonde Redhead, The National, …
How would you describe your own sound to someone who’s never listened to it before?
I hate that question, I’m so bad at answering it. Sometimes I say something like ‘experimental rock and orchestral pop’ but I hate myself every time I say it. It’s so difficult to describe. It’s not rock, it’s not pop, not folk, not electronic, not post rock, not punk…and I hate the word indie, I don’t think it’s indie. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a mixture that seems very familiar.
“To tell you the truth, we’ve never performed a concert just the three of us. We don’t really know what it would be like.”
For most of your live performances you take on additional musicians – why do you feel that’s necessary?
To tell you the truth, we’ve never performed a concert just the three of us. We don’t really know what it would be like. I think it would be pretty boring. There would be a bass player, a guy with computers, and a singer. Actually we are just in the process of preparing a show with just the three of us. We are not really a normal band, we are more like a project band that can do many different things. We don’t really have fixed roles. I don’t have to play guitar or bass on every album, we can do anything and just do what we find interesting. That’s why I like being in this band, it can take different shapes and formations. It’s always changing. Every album is different. And it’s not a reason for success, I can tell you. You build up an audience and then you make a new album and some of them will still like it but a lot of them will not like the new direction. Every time you have to start over a bit.
So in which direction are you going with the new album?
We wanted to create something that was much more electronic and also more dense. And not so lighthearted, we wanted to do something darker. And then we went on this trip to Spitsbergen. We found out about a ghost town there which has been abandoned for ten years, it used to be a mining city. It took us forever to get the mission planned but eventually we went. The idea was for all three of us to start the album from scratch on that same day. So we didn’t write anything before, we just went on this trip and said “now we’re making this album”. But we didn’t really write the album in the ghost town. We were there for 9 days and started the process there.
No one lives there anymore? So where did you stay, then?
Actually we lived in a container. It was a real adventure. We had fancy expensive wildlife equipment and stuff. And we couldn’t get to do our own expedition, so we had to join a TV crew that was going there.
Where did the idea come from?
We’ve always been into field recordings. And when someone showed us photos of this town we just went “wow”. He wanted to do a music video there and we thought “this is too good for a music video”. I started reading about it and found out that they had the Northernmost grand piano there. And I so wanted to play this piano!
And did you find it?
Yes, we found it! We played on it and it was lots of fun.
I saw your new video, are these images of Spitsbergen then?
Yes, exactly. And so we collected all these sounds up there, and when we came back home we started making beats out of it and instrumental parts. Afterwards we did small sketches using these sounds.
“If you took out the field recordings, that would be like taking away one lung of someone’s body.”
What kind of sounds?
Anything. Metal sounds, sounds from fuel tanks, the piano, earth sounds, wind, watery sounds, … Some of them we used directly as they were, and others we changed into something new. The sounds are all over the album, but you don’t really hear them.
But if you took them away something would be missing.
Exactly. It would be completely different. It would be like taking away one lung of someone’s body. So we had all these sounds and then we recorded the album in Berlin.
So many musicians, bands and DJs from everywhere, are moving to Berlin these days! Isn’t it getting old? Why’s everyone still going there?
Sure, but it’s been over several times, people already said that six years ago. ‘Berlin is over, it’s Lisbon now!’ But it’s still a nice cheap place to live for a musician. It’s an international town. Our studio is in Berlin, everything we do is in Berlin, since July 2010. I’m the only one who’s still living in Copenhagen.
So how do you organise everything if you live in Denmark and the others are in Germany?
I go to Berlin all the time. It works out very well. I’m a big part of the songwriting but I’m not the major songwriter. I’m more like a third set of ears. They do something and then I listen and say “This is genius, do more of that” or “Maybe you should add this or this”. They send me stuff via email and I respond to it. And twice a month I fly over to Berlin and we have very intensive days where we spend the whole day going through all the sketches trying to build on it. It’s much more intense now then it was before.
But what about the live gigs, don’t you have to meet up a lot to practise?
For example tonight I go home, but tomorrow I go to Berlin again because we have to practise. We practise for two weeks, in sessions, not once a week or something like that.
How did you spend the summer as a band? In the studio? Or did you play many festivals, go on holidays..?
This summer was special because we played Sydney opera house, in May. It was a very very big relief to get that over with.
You played there together with a classical orchestra?
Yes, with the Sydney symphony orchestra. We played the whole album from start to finish with them, even before we had finished the album. It was a quite hectic experience. When we came back we finished the mixing and in June we spent a long time mixing, getting everything ready, getting the artwork finished, … and then we took a break. In July I went to Roskilde festival, I try to go there every year. And then I went on vacation with my wife.
Where did you go?
We went to Amsterdam to see Paul Simon play Graceland and then we went to the South of Italy, the heel, Puglia and the Amalfi coast. We came back in August and now I’ve been working a lot on the release of the new album, getting everything ready. I do all our management actually. I also put out the record in Scandinavia myself, we have our own deal there. It’s a lot of work.
And you must be starting to tour soon?
Yes, next week. We are doing 15 shows with symphony orchestras, also one in Belgium. We’ll also do one at the MoMA in New York, I’m really looking forward to that. A lot of really big shows. It ends in November and then we start rehearsing for the smaller band version, the rock band version, and go on tour again in December to play 120 shows.
How is it different, playing with a classical orchestra? Is it difficult to bring the two worlds together?
It’s very different. We work with composers who help us write the music – composers we really like and who know our stuff. It takes a long time but once the score is written out for the orchestra these musicians are so good they just read it and play it right away. The first day of rehearsal it sounds awful, but the day after they get it and it’s great. But you always have to convince them in a way. For them it’s a job and they show up at 4 and play what they’re told to play and when they see you they wonder who those weird guys with the moustaches are and you have to get them on your side, buy them a beer or something. You have to build some kind of relationship with them. They have to get into it, we don’t want 30 people on stage who are bored and do Sudokus or something. We want an integrated experience. Once we asked the composer to write a piece just for the orchestra, that’s also a way to make it work. So in the middle of the show there’s this modern classical music piece for like 10 minutes. It works really well.
Where did the idea come from in the first place, what’s your relation to classical music?
We have this history now of playing with orchestras. It all started with this album we wrote that had brass and strings and all that on it, ‘Parades’. We thought we should try to perform this album live, really as it is. So now we get a lot of requests to do this kind of thing. We try to use it in the best way we can.
But what do you prefer, the rock experience?
Yes, it’s just more flexible. It’s more lightweight. And you can go to weird places, you can play big rooms and small rooms and just anywhere, basically. But I really don’t want to miss out on playing with these orchestras. This feeling of standing on stage with 30 people playing your music…it’s amazing.
The theme of The Word’s current issue is pink. What’s pink music for you?
I don’t know why, but I’m immediately thinking of Prince. And Flamingos.
“I have to be able to connect with music, it doesn’t have to be fancy-pantsy or avant garde.”
Have you discovered any great new bands lately? Do you listen to lots of music looking for new things?
Yeah, I try to. Right now I’m in a kind of dark period where I’m getting really depressed by music. I keep on trying to find new bands but I keep getting disappointed. It’s very difficult. It’s a personal thing at the moment, I don’t get a kick out of it. And I’m very tired of the indie scene.
Why is that?
I don’t know really…
But you are wearing this typical indie hipster moustache!
I know! But I have it for six years now, that’s why I’m so angry! And I hate the whole idea of hipsterness. But yeah I really like Dirty Projectors and Beach House. But all those records from all those bands that came out this summer – I don’t feel it anymore. I really liked the Dirty Projectors record this year but it’s not as good as ‘Rise Above’. Maybe I’m just not excited enough anymore. Dirty Projectors just make adventurous music and they love music and have so many ideas and are incredible at realising them. I have to be able to connect with it, it doesn’t have to be fancy-pantsy or avant garde. It’s very hard to find something that speaks to you. Actually, the last time that I was really blown away by a band was one and a half years ago when I discovered Timber Timbre. You should really check them out.Piramida is out on 4AD on 24th September efterklang.net