Röyksopp’s Svein Berge and Torbjorn Brundtland grew up within the Arctic Circle in Tromso, Northern Norway. Their deft electronica is often marked by a playfulness that it is hard to square with the long, dark winters of their youth, but they also do ‘spooky ‘rather well. In 2001, the arch duo’s million-selling debut Melody A.M. spawned “Eple”, a ludicrously catchy synthesizer instrumental that was later utilised by Apple computers. Röyksopp — the name translates as ‘smoke mushroom ‘— had arrived.
Stubbornly working at their own pace, Berge and Brundtland returned with 2005′s The Understanding. Less of a unit-shifter but similarly acclaimed, it included “Remind Me”, a deserving winner in the ‘Best Video ‘category at that year’s MTV Europe Awards.
Röyksopp are true alchemists, their inspired keyboard tweaks evoking everything from the creaking lid of an iced-over puddle to the sound of a vigorously rubbed balloon. eMusic caught up with the ever-game Torbjorn Brundtland in Bergen, Norway to discuss the duo’s perky third album, Junior.
No Svein today, then?
Unfortunately not. The official version is that he is ill, but I also hear he was spotted boarding a blimp bound for Greenland with some swingers from Florida.
You didn’t fancy it?
No, I wanted to talk to you! We never expect much when we release a new album, so any interest is very welcome.
Junior, then. It is something of a departure for Röyksopp in that it has guest spots from various Scandinavian chanteuses. From Sweden, Robyn, Lykke Li and Karin Dreijer-Andersson of The Knife, and from Norway, Anneli Drecker…
Part of the appeal was that they are all admirable women who have taken control of their careers. On a nerdy, trainspotter level we like the way their vocal chords vibrate, but we also wanted co-writers; people with strong opinions that we could invite into our universe and have fun with.
What did that involve?
We did a lot of going out together here in Bergen, and we played football [soccer] on the roof during the day. It became like a scene from a comedy film where you play the most aggressive you can because you think it will impress the girls. But they’re not impressed by that, are they?
“The Girl And The Robot”, featuring Robyn. Bit of a floor-filler…
Yes, she’s very creative and we loved what she brought to that song. We wanted the lyric to be ambiguous: is it really about a girl and a robot, or is it about a human relationship and the difficulties that can arise when people have different goals?
Junior‘s mostly instrumental opener “Happy Up Here” seems to share some of its DNA with 2001′s “Eple.” Both tunes feature your trademark lead-synthesizer sound, and the melodies have a Möbius Strip-like quality in that one can’t quite hear where they begin and end.
I suppose the trap would be to fall in love with your own sound and repeat it again and again. We try to balance that, making use of that signature sound without overdoing it. The synth sound you’re talking about has a level of sharpness and sweetness to it, but the tunes also have something else going on, because they progress into unexpected chord changes. We can calmly break it down, but there’s another mysterious and magical factor that has to be in there before we will release something. The Möbius Strip you mentioned is a big compliment. Both of us have been fans of [Dutch graphic artist] M.C. Escher since we were kids, and he has some fantastic renditions of the Möbius Strip with ants crawling inside it.
Is it true that you hope to release Senior, a companion album to Junior, before 2009 is out?
Yes, that’s right. The albums are kind of intertwined and we’ve been working on them both at the same time. There is also a duality to them that reflects a duality that Svein and I have felt inside ourselves ever since we were kids. Back then we were like old men trapped in young men’s bodies, but we also had Peter Pan Syndrome, just wanting to play and never grow up. The new records reflect that yin / yang thing. Junior has a certain youthful energy and it works track by track, but Senior is more atmospheric and inward-looking and it will require time to process. These days it’s optimistic to expect that amount of patience from a listener, but we’re still romantic enough to think someone will listen to an album from A to Z.
You mentioned that, as kids, you and Svein felt like old men trapped in young men’s bodies. How did that manifest itself?
I think in our taste in things. We were interested in dystopian futures, philosophy, possible scenarios — all these things came quite early in our lives. We also liked some very experimental albums by [Greek electronic music pioneer] Vangelis; stuff like Spiral and Beaubourg. I can’t imagine we were the typical target audience for those albums back then.
Svein recently said that he wants to touch Vangelis’s beard, then he can die happy.
[Laughs] Vangelis has been a big inspiration, but we don’t want to sound like him. In our universe he’s been a stayer. As you grow older you find new things in his works when you revisit them. He is the Greek god of the synthesizer, after all!
And Jean Michel Jarre is the French god of the synthesizer, I suppose…
Oh, I wouldn’t say anything about that. I don’t think you can compare them other than that they both make synthesizer music.
Shifting territories again, how healthy is the Norwegian pop scene in 2009? Do you feel you are finally catching up with successful neighbouring countries such as Sweden and Iceland?
Well, in terms of popular culture, Norway has traditionally lacked the levels of investment that you find in Sweden. There’s a sharper divide between high and low culture here, and that hasn’t been helpful in terms of getting international recognition for Norwegian pop music, although that is changing.
Then if you draw a line to Iceland and Björk, you can see that she didn’t become popular despite being Icelandic; she became popular partly because she was from Iceland, and that shows a level of self-esteem that we Norwegians have sometimes lacked. When A-Ha got big in the ’80s, for example, it was despite the fact they were Norwegian. We were like, ‘Wow! This sounds as well-produced as the British and American stuff.’
I think we Norwegians need to have more confidence about where we come from and incorporate that into our music so that it has its own identity. Then it becomes more interesting in an international setting.
Having various guest singers on Junior has worked a treat, but did you worry about the financial implications of having so many guest writers? You must be sacrificing a large percentage of your royalties…
Yes, but luckily we have a farm up North where we grow a lot of cabbage. That’s more than fifty percent of our income these days.
You’re pulling my leg.
No, we’re getting into the trading economy. Money is becoming worthless, but if we can give cabbage and get back carrots and potatoes we will be able to sustain our livelihood.