Erlend Øye On Kings Of Convenience’s First New Album In 12 Years: “Will People Kill Us?”
The Norwegian indie-folk duo's first album in 12 years features Feist and (gasp!) programmed drums
Erlend Øye is enjoying his freedom. He’s spent the last week and a day cooped up inside a quarantine hotel, whiling away the hours in isolation until he can safely join his friends and family. He doesn’t have Covid, fortunately, but he has just returned to his native Norway after more than a year away. “If you’re in Norway and you go out to do a very specific things,” he says, “you have a paper for that and you can do quarantine in your home. But I had been away much longer and I didn’t know what my rights were. So I ended up being sent to this hotel, which was pretty sad and weird. It’s really difficult to be alone for me.” Øye spent his days checking email, playing online chess, taking very long walks, and showering three or four times a day. “Cold, warm, cold, warm. Just to feel something. Oh god, that sounds crazy.”
It’s difficult to tell which is more exciting to the musician: being released from that hotel and back out in the world (he asked to delay our Zoom call so that he could take in a soccer game), or having a new Kings Of Convenience tour and album to discuss. While Øye makes his home in Sicily, he has returned to his native country to kick off a short, socially distanced tour in May. They have many more conventional tour dates planned for the next year or so across Europe. To kick things off, he and bandmate Eirik Glambek Bøe are releasing their first new music together in 12 years. This morning they released a new single titled “Rocky Trail,” which they’ll follow up with a new album, Peace Or Love, in June.
With its soft-focus production, gentle acoustic guitars, and even gentler harmonies, “Rocky Trail” reveals a band still dedicated to the promise of their 2001 debut, Quiet Is The New Loud. At the turn of the century, that title sounded like a musical manifesto, a call to abandon the loud, messy guitars that had defined so much ’90s pop. Kings were devoted to two voices and two acoustic guitars (usually picked, almost never strummed), and while they may have bolstered their songs with drums or trumpet or the most subtle of synths, they hewed to that austere lineup for two more albums, 2004’s Riot On An Empty Street and 2009’s Declaration Of Dependence. What made their devotion to quiet even more impressive is the range of their side projects, which generally rejected acoustic instruments in favor of loops and samples and synths; in particular, Øye’s DJ-Kicks set in 2004 remains a standout in that series of albums from !k7 Records.
On the twentieth anniversary of Quiet Is The New Loud, that spare palette remains surprisingly potent: a powerful means of creating a racket by turning the volume down and trusting listeners to lean in to their speakers or, hopefully, toward the stage. Their music not only demands sustained attention, but rewards it. And while Quiet is an album about young men finding their way in the world, it sounds especially poignant now that those young men have grown up. As Annie Zaleski wrote in her recent Anniversary appreciation of the album: “Kings Of Convenience excelled at zeroing in on the emotional core of a song. Accordingly, the album’s lyrics focus on tiny pivotal moments that open up greater truths — the kind of sudden revelations that flip a switch and change your perspective.”
Speaking from Bergen, Øye exudes a sincere enthusiasm and energy, folding and unfolding himself on his couch as he holds forth on his band’s new and old albums, personal pronouns in song lyrics, and whether or not the phrase “funky clothes” belongs in a Kings Of Convenience song.
You’ve been away from Norway for the duration of the pandemic. What have you been doing during that time?
ERLEND ØYE: I was last in Norway in February 2020, recording the last song for the Kings album. And then I went to Mexico to play two big festivals with the Whitest Boy Alive. Those two festivals were canceled, but then this weird thing happened. Me and one of the other guys in the band ended up on the Pacific side of Mexico in Baja, California. There’s a hotel that has a studio as part of it. The hotel was closed, but they said, if you want to stay, you can just stay and record. They gave us use of the studio. That came out as the record Quarantine At El Ganzo last year. I stayed there four months, then I went back to Sicily, which is where I actually live. I was continually working on the mixes from far away with Kings Of Convenience to do the master and stuff. Since then there’s been a continual problem launching the record during COVID.
And now you’re preparing for a tour. What does that involve logistically?
ØYE: We’re doing a very small tour of Norway, a socially distanced tour, which is basically so we can remember how to play shows again. It gives us a reason to be together. Supposedly the state is going to give us support, but that’s kind of vague right now. We’ll see about that. There’s only 100 tickets for sale. But these are big places, so people are going to be put in different places apart from each other.
When was the last time you played live?
ØYE: It will be my first live show since December 2019. For musicians, it’s the one thing that we do that makes us feel that we did something that day. Everything else that you do is full of doubt. We recorded a song today. Is it good enough? We did a new mix today. It’s good, but could it be better? Making a record involves a lot of doubt. Doubt, doubt, doubt. So you never really finish anything, at least in your head. It’s an important part of our mental health to do a show and be able to say, that was the show and there’s nothing more to say about it. It was what it was. It’s the one thing that you do in your life that really makes you feel like you’re doing something useful. It makes me happy to be alive.
The live show has been our happy place. I really enjoy being onstage and talking to a crowd. I love getting an audience involved in the music. They are super important. If they’re not paying attention, obviously it’s going to be hard. But if they sing along, it really changes everything. That’s why we’re not so much into these livestream shows, because more than fifty percent of the concept of why we do a show is gone. With just two voices and two guitars, you’d think we would struggle to translate to a big stage, but somehow the power of the music is even bigger. It becomes very peculiar.
You debuted some of the songs on the new album during the Unrecorded Tour in 2016. What took so long to get them assembled into an album?
ØYE: We started working on it some years ago. The first recording is from February 2016. We were playing Santiago, Chile, and we recorded the song in a studio there. Then we started working on it that year. We did some tours where we were playing all new material, and we thought: This album should be in the box very quickly. However, it wasn’t easy. It’s a lot to do with our personal lives. There are a lot of people in our lives. Eirik has three kids. So things can go slowly sometimes.
We did a lot of recordings in different places. Very often the result was that we weren’t entirely convinced, and at a certain point, after I’d been working on it for one and a half years, I was pretty bored of it all. I was tired not feeling convinced about it. So I had to take a longer break. Eventually what happened was we started to work again a little bit on it. And then came Leslie Feist. Me and Eirik, we weren’t … well, I’d basically buggered off to Sicily. But Leslie came and said, Hey guys, I’m coming to Europe. She was going to be in Italy and wanted to see if we could meet and do something. She sang on our 2004 album, Riot On A Lonely Street, but she was not part of our third record in 2009.
So we organized this session at my house and tried to record something. It was very, very … what can I say? improvised. But she gets the best out of us. When we’re with her, we both want to do our best, because we both appreciate so much to sing with her. We recorded one song then, and then recorded a song in Berlin two months later. So she’s on two songs on the record, “Catholic Country” and “Love Is A Lonely Thing.” We got very lucky and were able to do two very good songs with her. It felt very natural again to do something with her, and I hope we can manage to do something with her in the future for her record. Because that’s when it started to feel like, okay, I think we have the necessary quality. We have the power we need. And we had the idea to re-record a few things that we were not so convinced with. We started to feel like we finally had something good just before the pandemic started.
Coming out near the anniversary of Quiet Is The New Loud… When you go back to those songs, do you hear them differently now that you’re older?
ØYE: What I think when I look back at our catalog, the one thing that strikes me the most is the difference in mastering. All the older records are recorded in quite a similar way, but Riot On An Empty Street was pushed very much in the last mastering step. So it’s much louder. Quiet Is The New Loud is much softer. It’s much more of a record that you can listen to at home, where as Riot became a record that is actually more commercial. It jumps more out of the speakers. If you’re a sensitive soul, it might be slightly too aggressive to your ears, but I think for most people it’s like, oh, I like this. But Quiet Is The New Loud is a record that I enjoy listening to because it’s not very bright. It’s very, very woolly sounding.
Was the sound of Riot a reaction to that wooliness?
ØYE: No. I’ve realized personally that I was not aware enough of these things. I’ve learned a lot about music since then, and maybe I’m still learning. I didn’t realize how much of a difference there was because we had such a short time back then. On the last stage of the new record we just spent a year for what we normally spent two months doing. I spent a lot of time controlling things. We had ample time to make sure this record sounds the way we would like it to. It’s obviously not a very big departure for us. We still try to do as much as we can with two guitars and two voices, trying to be inventive while not trying to reinvent ourselves. I think there’s a lot of songs on this record that are very similar to the other ones. It’s a bit like the blues, you know. It all sounds the same, but it’s all also very different. It all depends on how many listens you give it. So, yes, on the surface this might seem similar to what we’ve done before, but for us we know very well that every song is from a very specific inspiration. They’re all there for personal reasons.
Listening to Quiet Is The New Loud recently, it struck me that it’s a young man’s record. It seemed like the songs were about trying to figure out where you stand and how you relate to other people, specifically women, as a young man.
ØYE: Definitely. When we made that record, we were young men. We were Norwegian men really trying to figure out what it meant to be a Norwegian man. Eirik’s father died when he was seven, and I grew up with a stepdad who was quite vague. So we had to figure things out, like: What should I feel? Who am I? We were very serious about it — sadly way too serious for the young age. We were thinking: We’re kind of old now. We’re 22! Back then we were envious of older people who had experienced a lot and gone through a lot. Well, now we are people who have experienced a lot and gone through a lot. For good and bad, we have a lot to sing about. There’s more to sing about when you get older because all your friendships get deeper. There’s so much more that happens that wants to be poetry.
And yet, not every band recognizes that or can find those new things to sing about.
ØYE: We were very lucky to begin with, because the concept for our band — the guitars and singing parts — wasn’t going to go out of fashion. If our sound would have been full of references, it might become dated in a different way. We have to write about something, and Eirik and I don’t really worry too much about the sound or the production. Well, I worry about it, but mainly I’m worried about: Is this song about something? Does it really deserve to get out there or not? And if it does get out there, is it going to work this way or some other way? We could invite a drummer or we could have strings or synthesizer. We could do all that, but it doesn’t seem to me to change very much the music.
I always wished that the people who write about music would be better about talking about what kind of song this is. Is it the kind of song where I’m talking about me and my pain, or is it where I’m talking about other people? Is it a kind of direct songwriting? It’s so easy to say if something is electronic or acoustic and talk about the production. For me that’s all just an arbitrary choice. You walk into a studio. Oh, there’s a synthesizer, so let’s use the synthesizer. There’s nothing more than that behind it. And of course, every rock band after two records starts to use synthesizers. It’s not so interesting to talk about.
But what I do find interesting … Do you know Jens Lekman? When I heard his music in 2004, I instantly recognized that this guy had been writing songs while walking home from going out on a Saturday night. It must have been at least a one-hour walk, and he’s singing to himself. Then he gets home and he records it. That’s how the song is born, and so it doesn’t really matter if it sounds like soul or reggae or pop or whatever.
So, you’re saying the decisions you make regarding the words and the melodies are more crucial than the decisions you make regarding the instruments and production?
ØYE: Yes. There’s a song on the new album called “Fever,” and it actually has programmed drums on it, which we were a little bit worried about. We don’t normally use programmed drums. Will people kill us? Will they stop liking us? I don’t really think so. But I was more worried about something else. At some point I wrote the line, “Driving around on your scooter in Christmastime in funky clothes.” I felt like maybe those words were not part of the poetic canon. It’s much more prosaic. It’s a much more everyday kind of thinking. Some of my friends said, are you really sure about that line? Was it a big risk? I don’t know. Maybe nobody cares, but I think somebody somewhere will care. I guess we’ll have to see how this record is received by critics and what they talk about.
I like that line. It sounds very evocative and weird. But I get what you’re saying, where you have to think like a poet and consider every single word.
ØYE: It feels more exciting because poetry is such an old craft. You’re part of a network, an older lineage of writers. Too many times our pop universe seem to start in 1962.
Are there any writers or poets that you go back to for inspiration?
ØYE: 69 Love Songs by Magnetic Fields I’m always coming back to. It’s always an impressive record. But then the next record, the one called i … I was completely uninterested in that record because I personally hate “I” songs. I was trying hard at that same moment to stop doing all these songs that start with “I.” It’s a classical problem. There are too many songs that start with “I,” and the angle is always the same. You have to think about how to use the words. How can I describe something in a different way than saying, I looked at you? So I didn’t care for that album. But I love the direct songwriting on 69 Love Songs. You can probably tell in Kings Of Convenience that I’m a very big fan of direct songwriting and Eirik is far more metaphorical in his songwriting.
Maybe this impression isn’t based in reality — I’d have to scan the lyrics sheet for pronouns — but I think of Quiet Is The New Loud as a “you” record. I feel like it’s addressing people fairly directly in second person.
ØYE: That could be. Yes. For example, “Toxic Girl” is very nice because it’s basically in third person. We’re talking about this friend of ours who was very much in love with another friend of ours, who’s a girl. I guess it’s a “you” record. I don’t think it’s an “I” record. I’m very proud of it. For example, I’ve been particular fond of the song “Summer On The West Hill.” We managed to make it and it was like, How the hell did we do that? I still wonder.
There seemed to be a wave of bands in the 2000s who were doing something very similar to Kings Of Convenience. I’m not trying to suggest you created a movement, but I wonder if you saw a wave of quieter bands.
ØYE: I guess I’m struggling … the only person that I can think of who does something similar is José González. Perhaps Badly Drawn Boy as well. He came at a similar time, although he was not specifically acoustic. It’s still strange to me that even in concert we are just two guys playing guitars. You see that often in people’s homes, where you might have two friends playing guitar, but it never seems to become an actual band that does something with that combination. And I think that’s because it’s very hard. It’s not easy to make music only with two guitars. I’m struggling to think of anyone who does that and has a similar kind of softness. I’m sure they are there. I’m personally inspired by Suzanne Vega, who is very dry and not dramatic. Someone like her doesn’t come along very often. I think it makes it easy for us. We don’t have to worry. It’s still only us, with very little competition in our tiny field. It’s like we’re competing in the sport of curling or something like that.
But softness seems relative. I remember seeing comparisons to groups like Belle & Sebastian.
ØYE: True. They were very important to me. Eirik and I, we have very different tastes. He was never into that band. Very randomly I saw them in 1997 in London for the first time, and I was impressed by how powerful it was without being loud. It made me feel good and very excited to hear music without any prominent guitar. It had more to do with the way they played together. I used to be into bands like Ride and My Bloody Valentine, but Belle & Sebastian cured me of that in a way. I realized that music doesn’t have to go there. It can stay calm and still be great.
There was a wave of people after Belle & Sebastian who didn’t have to be super loud. That was a parallel with us. I saw a lot of performers who were taking your attention, but not by playing loud. They were being quiet and getting the audience sucked in. Most of them were not doing that exclusively. We were very lucky that a bigger label trusted us and let us stay as quiet as we were.
Getting someone’s attention with quiet seems like it might be harder than maintaining their attention.
ØYE: Exactly. As long as people are paying attention, it’s good. But it’s hard to get their attention. It was hard in the beginning for Kings Of Convenience. We couldn’t just latch on to an existing genre with existing fans, because there was no one doing anything like it in 2001. There still isn’t really anything now. We’re in 2021, and our old world doesn’t exist. There are not those secret connections around the world of people who are super into indie pop. There used to be a whole world of it. We’re all very connected, but I’m struggling to see that kind of mass movement of genres. Maybe it’s not for me to see. My friend Clara from Spain says that music is like interior design and Spotify is basically a kind of interior designer. It makes your home space nice. That’s what it gives you.
With that in mind, are you still committed to the album as a medium?
ØYE: Yes. We’re kind of stuck with it because of our incredibly old record deal. Delivering an album doesn’t always make sense, but it feels very strange to release just a song. There’s a lot less for the imagination to do. That’s basically what we wanted to go with the new album — to give listeners space to imagine and to work out the connections between things and why they are together in that way. We used to like very much the last song on an album. Our concept was to make an album that was only last songs.
Peace Or Love is out 6/18 via EMI Records. Pre-order it here.