Initial reaction to Royksöpp’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.
The gradual awakening of the world to Norway’s Torbjrn Brundtland and Svein Berge saw them become one of leftfield dance / electronica’s best-loved acts.
We caught up with the unflappable, and at times unfathomable, Torbjrn 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…
Speaking from his parked-up tour bus outside that night’s venue, the University of East Anglia, Norwich, Torbjrn 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.”
This 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.”
– Torbjrn Brundtland on conflict management the Norwegian way.
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 Torbjrn, “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.”
Success 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’?
– Torbjrn Brundtland with an unrefutable truth.
Not so, says Torbjrn: “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!”
The 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 Royksöpp 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 very high!”
As 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 more underground.”
– Torbjrn Brundtland on Royksöpp’s shifting identity.
Royksöpp’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. Torbjrn 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 the meaning.”
Alas, we may never know, but with Torbjrn explaining he and Svein could start work on their next album as soon as early 2006, it seems Royksöpp will continue challenging people’s perceptions of them and their music, and that is one thing we can all happily understand.
Röyksopp – Profound Mysteries
Röyksopp – The Inevitable End
Röyksopp – Senior
Röyksopp @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
Röyksopp – Junior