Understanding The Unfathomable
to original article:
Initial reaction to Röyksopp's 2001 debut Melody AM
was low-key to say the least but slowly, word of mouth saw
it grow into a unit-shifting beast that sold over a million
copies worldwide, half in the UK.
gradual awakening of the world to Norway's Torbjörn
Brundtland and Svein Berge saw them become one of leftfield
dance / electronica's best-loved acts.
Singles like Eple and So Easy featured on everything from
mobile phone adverts to Match of the Day. Now, with their
well-received follow-up The Understanding, the duo have
taken a more song-based approach yet their music remains
as uncategorisable as ever.
caught up with the unflappable, and at times unfathomable,
Torbjörn to talk about the pressures of success, 'difficult'
second album syndrome, and the unique way he and Svein settle
their differences while on the road...
from his parked-up tour bus outside that night's venue,
the University of East Anglia, Norwich, Torbjörn emits
a rather unhealthy sounding cough down the phone... which
he immediately attributes to the opium he's just had. Forming
the perfect introduction to a desert-dry wit and surreal,
self-effacing sense of humour, the fair-haired half of the
band then explains that, while he looks forward to every
gig, all the running around is something he would gladly
forego: "If there was a teleportation device then the
concept of touring would not really be necessary, I doubt
many people would go into it if such a device existed. Travelling
traditionally has a romantic aspect to it doesn't it? A
lot of that is kind of removed when you have the groundhog
day of touring."
may sound like a gripe but is spoken with such light-hearted
flippancy it just acts as an excuse for another joke. It
is hard to imagine someone with such a demeanour engaging
in any conflict but surely spending so much time together
with Svein must create the odd disagreement? "We traditionally
solve any conflict by old school duelling, with banjos (sings
Duelling Banjos from '70s film Deliverance) just to create
the right kind of vibe we need on the tour bus," he
jests, before adding: "Seriously, we do get along quite
well. What we're doing as musicians has sprung out of our
friendship that started when we were kids. It may not work
for everyone but for us it really works."
The immensely successful music that emerges from that friendship
certainly works too, but surely selling a million copies
of Melody AM must have had a massive impact upon them as
artists? "It had no impact whatsoever," asserts
Torbjörn, "I don't think it should be the most
important thing for any artist. We obviously want our music
to reach out to as many people as possible but there are
so many things that we won't do to achieve those goals."
That includes not selling out: "We need to sort of
control ourselves and to stay true to what we are about.
The aspect where it is about being successful and all that,
it's not that important. Actually, to be honest, it's more
important that we got some money out of it so we can continue."
may not have changed them, perhaps due to their laidback
personalities or maybe their popularity slowly swelled in
such a steady manner that the duo could easily acclimatise
to it. However, enjoying such a hugely successful debut
surely carries with it a massive weight of expectation and
pressure to achieve the same high standards for the next
release - the dreaded 'difficult second album syndrome'?
Not so, says Torbjörn: "It created very little
pressure. We were aware of the typicalness of 'pressure'
when it comes to making a follow-up to a considered success
but the only pressure we ever feel is the pressure we put
on ourselves to make interesting and good music." So
how intense is that pressure? "It's not intense enough,"
he jokes, "We actually have to hire people to boost
the pressure level, to hang around us and try and wear us
down. It works, you have people standing outside the studio
window and shouting, saying that it's not good enough, it's
expensive but it's worth it!"
Understanding is definitely good enough. Good enough to
receive widespread critical praise, good enough to achieve
a decent UK chart position and good enough to keep people
guessing which box they should place Röyksopp in, both
personally and musically. "People can't agree between
themselves what we are and, even now, especially with The
Understanding which is so open, what our music is about.
That's something we really like, a certain level of vagueness
that suggests more than dictates." When asked to pigeon-hole
their music, the typically playful reply is, "urban,
slash local, slash global: to keep the level of vagueness
before, elements of dance play alongside pop melodies and
hooks while the quirks of leftfield electronica add some
spice to the mix, but while the new album may be more lyrical
and song-based, this is a natural evolution rather than
any shared perception of dance music's demise: "Attention
has diverted from dance music for several reasons: the novelty
probably wore out at some point and people were getting
up their own arses using the same sounds over and over.
I don't think it's less popular, it's just moved and become
Röyksopp's musical ambiguity seems to have helped place
them above any such media-fuelled trends while reinforcing
the enigmatic aura that surrounds them at the same time.
Take the smoke-screen that surrounds the new album's title,
for instance, an explanation of which the duo have said,
almost certainly with tongues in cheek, will be announced
in the coming months. Torbjörn does explain: "The
Understanding is about the lack of universal understanding
when it comes to music. Thinking about that and how non-universal
and how tied up to culture experiencing music is. It's striking."
However, when asked if this comment marks the long-awaited
moment of truth, he adds mysteriously: "It's not yet
time I'm afraid. We're not mature enough right now to channel
we may never know, but with Torbjörn explaining he
and Svein could start work on their next album as soon as
early 2006, it seems Röyksopp will continue challenging
people's perceptions of them and their music, and that is
one thing we can all happily understand.
- Ian Roullier, 10/2005