Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Kings Of Convenience: The HAD Interview

Last week we were psyched to get to catch a rare performance by Norway's Kings Of Convenience. As such, it was even more exciting to learn that we were going to get a chance to sit down with Erlend Øye, one half of the dynamic duo. We met Erlend at EMI's headquarters in New York where, despite being a bit under the weather, he was kind enough to join us in a discussion about songwriting, capitalism, recording and impromptu In N Out performance. We hope you enjoy.

HAD: How's your day going?

EØ: It's good but...

HAD: Yeah.

EØ: Yeah. You know, yesterday was the same, and concert, and now...

HAD: The concert sounded great though...

EØ: You were there?

HAD: Yeah, we were there last night and we really enjoyed it. Nice surprise at the end, too. With Feist.

EØ: Cool, cool.

HAD: We've enjoyed your records from quite a few years back, so.... New York is your only scheduled performance - are you planning on doing any other major cities in support of the record later on?

EØ: Yeah, that would be a proper tour, like in a year, maybe April or something, but we're still not sure if it's going to happen.

HAD: What was the motivation for the sort of impromptu concert here?

EØ: Well, Astralwerks asked about it, and we've been working with these people for a long time. Most record companies in most countries change personalities all the time, but these people have stayed the same. So, you know, we kind of have a special relationship with these people. So they asked, and okay okay, why not? Come over here, do a show, do some promotion, play at the radio. It made sense - the United States is one of our biggest markets.

HAD: So, continuing along those lines, do you feel like in your absence over the past few records, have they been ready there for you to release the record whenever you were ready?

EØ: Yeah, yeah - I mean they've been asking: "What's happening?". So that's good.

HAD: You mentioned last night that you're a big fan of the New York restaurant scene, and that you guys got dinner at Kampuchea. What are some of your other favorite places around town?

EØ: Well, we went to Freeman's, because we stay across the road, that was pretty good. We also went to Cafe Select...

HAD: Did you go to the bar in the back?

EØ: No, is there a bar in the back?

HAD: Yeah, you go through the kitchen where they're preparing food, and it's the room in the back that's two levels and tiny with a bar and waitress. Yeah, it's totally weird.

EØ: So it's open all the time? I didn't really see people walking up... That place had good food, but it was way too loud. That's a big problem for me. I hate music in restaurants. It's okay if it's a cafe or something, but a restaurant? If the food is good, you don't need music.

HAD: In terms of music in general, what records are you listening to right now?

EØ: I don't listen so much to music. You kind of, you're working on making music yourself, and there's so much music during the day, you want to hear silence. But what do I listen to? For example, the song "Tigresa" by Caetano Veloso, a Brazilian singer. And, I like, I was listening to the record of the band The XX - a new band from England.

HAD: How would you characterize them, if you can?

EØ: It's not loud, it sounds a bit like early The Cure.

HAD: So, with the new record you kind of went in this bossanova direction...

EØ: We continued the bossanova direction! I guess that's the thing is like - if I would say one thing about this record that it's "more" than the others, it's that it's more slow songs, even more slow songs. There are the bossanova songs, and the rhythmical songs for sure. Well, I just think there's more of it.

HAD: Do you think that's a result of the natural evolution of your earlier work, or was there some outside influence that pushed you in that direction?

EØ: Well you know, there haven't really been - there was bossanova on the first record. We haven't had so many new influences on the band, honestly. There haven't really been anything that we're like "whoa, this is the new thing". Have there? Well, there's this one song "Rule My World" - that has a bit of a French House inspiration. That's the only new thing.

HAD: One of the things that I've spoken with a lot of people about who are big fans is the Versus record, and we were curious how much ownership you feel of that record as part of the band's catalog, versus how much it's other people's work, really?

EØ: Yeah, that's a good question, exactly - because it's not really us - it is our record, but at the same time - it's not really us. So, I think our fans are much more conscious about this record than we are. I rarely think much about it. It's a great record - it's probably the greatest remix record ever, not that that says very much, but it does work.

HAD: Did you have involvement with choosing the artists who did the remixes and picking those people, or was it more the label who did that?

EØ: No, we were very involved - I think our A&R found three of the artists.

HAD: One of the things about your live show is that it's very tight - you have a lot of interplay, and what we hear on the record is very well represented, live. When you get into the studio, do you go for a live performance, or do you work with multiple tracks? What is your recording and rehearsing style?

EØ: Yeah, this record is, yeah, the most live recorded album we've made. Um, and it's - at the moment that the album is recorded, it also marks the time that we are free to move away from that version. You sort of try to figure out "what is the ultimate, what is the pure version of that song?" - that's what we try to record. But the moment it is recorded, then we're totally free to remix it. But we try not to remix it, you know, we want the recorded version to be mostly substance and no style. "Style" meaning if you would add a long instrumental passage because, live for example you have a long instrumental solo. But when we record, we try to have it very compressed. What you were saying that the version on the record were similar to the live versions, that's something that will probably change. We'll go on a tour for real, because now we can change it totally around, if we want to. Because, the real, the ideal, version is on the record.

HAD: When you're playing live, the steel string you use, is that a D-28?

EØ: Very similar to that, yes.

HAD: Are your guitar choices static, and have they been static over the years, or do you vary the guitars that you play on?

EØ: There is something about if you write a song on a certain guitar, and you play it on another guitar, you could be like: "Huh, it doesn't work on this guitar". So, you kind of get stuck with the guitar you bought, in a way. Naturally, if you had tons of different guitars, you could do tons of different things in the studio, with more variation. But, when you then go on tour, you'll have a problem, because you have to bring all the guitars. Because a lot of them won't work on the one that you bring. So I try to stick to my Martin - almost a D-28, but not quite. I don't know why...

HAD: When you do go into the studio and you're recording, how much, if any, of a relationship do you have with the technical side of the studio? Is that something you get involved in?

EØ: Yeah, I'm actually quite into the technical side. It's something I really learned from my time in The Whitest Boy Alive, where it's very DIY. So I learned a lot there.

HAD: When you're recording, are you doing digital or tape?

EØ: Yeah, we haven't used tape for a long time - we used it on the first record. But I found, it's not so much about the tape as it's about how you use microphones, and what kind of room you're recording in. You hear it much more there than in the tape vs. digital. There is a difference, it's tiny, it's there. But it's - digital is so much easier.

HAD: When you're choosing microphones and rooms, do you have certain go-to microphones, or do you experiment in the studio, or both?

EØ: Well, we have some microphones called Schoeps, kind of cigar mics. They've become our main mics.

HAD: When you record, is it the two of you in a room recording live?

EØ: Yeah. Although two songs are more layered, "Mrs. Cold" is one of them.

HAD: We were talking about "Mrs. Cold" before we got here - specifically about a YouTube clip of you playing it at In N Out two years ago. Aside from the In N Out story, we wanted to know how old are the songs on the record, how long have they been floating around?

EØ: Yeah, I mean, "Mrs. Cold" is kind of a new song, which means that it was written in January 2007, so for us that's pretty new. Yeah, after Brazil and Mexico I was in California in March 2007 driving with my friend Simone. We stopped at In N Out where some people challenged us to an impromptu rap battle. I had my little ukulele with me, as we were at In N Out, and well, I played the song.

HAD: Did you win?

EØ: Heh - well, I guess so! But, to my big surprise, it then like a few days later was on YouTube and also on Pitchfork. Pitchfork posted it, and it was so random. But that's really fun, I really love that with, it's the really good thing about, the new digital age. About everyone sharing consumer content.

HAD: And then another song from the new record, "Riot On An Empty Street", it was said that that was originally a song intended for the album of the same name...

EØ: Yeah, the moment that song didn't make the album, the idea that it was a good album title came up. That song is really old - from 2001. But we had a new recording of it that we felt did it justice.

HAD: There's a page on the web that has an extensive set of all the interviews you've done...

EØ: Yeah, the .org, yeah.

HAD: ...and one of them mentions that you had a desire to live in California. Is that something you still think about?

EØ: Yeah, you know, I have to say I'm kind of over that: I can't drive, you know? You kind of get enough of America. America is very catchy, but not so deep. I find after a while, I really enjoy America, but Europe is the best place. It's the most variety in shortest distance. And it's fun with the different languages and the different cultures. It's really, yeah, there's more to dig. Always more to discover.

HAD: In a lot of documentary films about European bands coming to the states, there's this idea of New York as a mythical mecca of pop culture. Specifically, in both The Clash and U2 documentaries, there are scenes where they enter the scenes and they show the band's jaws drop as they see the city. Did it have that effect for you? Did it have a mythical aspect?

EØ: Still does. New York still is a one of a kind place in the world. In Sao Paolo for example, there's a beautiful old part of town, with beautiful sky scrapers: super dangerous. At night time, kids can't be around there. It's so unique in New York, it's the sort of shopping window of the capitalist idea. Here, capitalism works. The best survives. The small, tiny, independent restaurant, store, survives. You go a little bit outside, it's Burger King, Taco blah blah blah. Chains. That's the bad side of capitalism. At some point it has to continue to grow, and it can only keep growing by crushing the small independents, and the quality gets worse and worse. But New York, yeah, it's the best of capitalism. The biggest argument for capitalism. And amazing diversity, and amazing food.

HAD: How does that carry over to Bergen? Has it penetrated in the same way in Europe?

EØ: In Norway, it's much better overall than the United States. We have free health care, social security, not so many chain restaurants. We don't have so much of these "forgotten areas" of the country, like Detroit for example. But, it's not a big country, so, you know.

HAD: Are you living in Bergen now?

EØ: Yeah.

HAD: We've actually been to Bergen: took the Hurtigruten up all the way to the border of Russia and Finland.

EØ: Yeah! Well, I've never taken the whole trip, but I've taken it little by little.

HAD: When you tour some of the cities up the coast, is that how you get there?

EØ: Yeah, or you travel between them at least. We were at a show and the boat was leaving at one thirty at night. It's like, "Oh, good boat! Nightliner!"

HAD: What do you think when your fans, you were joking last night about people trying to speak Norwegian phrases to you, do you think there's an imbalance with American fans? Do we have less international perspective?

EØ: Well, you know, it depends - it's hard to say "Americans" in one big stroke. I mean, as far as I know only 10% Americans have passports, and in Europe that's like "what?" totally unheard of. So, we travel more, but you have all these Spanish speaking people in your country, so, you know, strange. But I'm not expecting anyone to know anything about Norway. And I just kind of laugh. People think it's so amazing to learn a Norwegian phrase. You know, it gets old! The first time it happened it was cool, but then the fifty-ninth time you're kind of like "Haha, okay, 'Good Morning' in Norwegian...yeah, okay."

HAD: Back to the music a little bit - in terms of songwriting, and how you view your music. There's an anecdote about Lennon and McCartney, how they were two guitars, two voices, and had never really considered the concept of a "lead". Then somebody wanted it for sheet music, and asked what's the "lead" vocal line, and they really didn't know - there were just two of everything. When you write and perform together, do you have that concept of taking the lead?

EØ: Well, that's a really interesting anecdote. I think Lennon and McCartney is a really good way to describe me and Eirik, because that's really how it is. It's kind of clearly different, at the same time, you're not always able to tell who it is. There are clearly separate voices, but not always so easy to see. And, the great thing is really the combination of the two makes for a good band. For sure, there are just two guitars, there are just two voices. We don't really care. One is not supposed to be louder than the other. You're just supposed to choose one that you listen to.

HAD: Is that true for writing as well? Do you collaborate, or do you individually bring songs to the table?

EØ: We're much more collaborative than any other band I know. It used to be much more on the first record, much more collaborative. Now it's more half finished songs being brought in, and then we arrange them together.

HAD: In addition to this record, you also had another record this year with The Whitest Boy Alive in March - how do you find balance between the two? Do you complete one and switch to the other, or are they both going at all times?

EØ: Yeah, they're somehow going at the same time. It's not that difficult to differ between them. Usually the songs with The Whitest Boy Alive we jam together and songs come up. But I like the idea of being in both bands. I have a lot of song ideas which are quite similar and it's good to have these kind of different bands, because it just makes it less similar. The different songs kind of become less similar than they would if there was one band and one output. And also, because The Whitest Boy Alive is...the concerts are very different. People are dancing, it's a party, we play festivals. Kings Of Convenience is different, very quiet.

HAD: You said a lot of the recording you do with Whitest Boy Alive is DIY. How does that work? Do you demo a lot of things, use a four track?

EØ: No no, all the members know how to use computers and proper mixing desks, and proper mics.

HAD: Do you have a preference for a digital recording system?

EØ: We use Logic. It's cheaper than Pro Tools.

HAD: And you get to pick your hardware.

EØ: Yeah, that's true too.

HAD: Well, unfortunately it looks like we're getting to the tail end here. Great talking with you.

EØ: Same - it was fun. Thanks.

Photos by Colin Nederkoorn