Every time I venture into a new city, I can’t help but think, “Sure, this glitzy street with MacDonald?s and Starbucks feels authentic enough, but where do the rockers hang out? What do the cool kids get up to?” And maybe I’ll have a few friends in town that qualify as “locals” and would-be-scenesters who are up to the task. Luckily for us, however, the one person I could look up in Norway just happened to be the most qualified for just such an “artist tour.” And what better way to wrap up our Øyafestivalen coverage than with a primer for your next trip to Oslo?
Meet Emil Nikolaisen, mastermind behind the awe-inspiring Serena-Maneesh.
That day wandering through the streets of the city with Emil was a welcome respite from morning trips on fjords (no shit), afternoons and evenings at Øya, and after-parties at dingy rock clubs. And though the stated intention was to just talk Oslo, I couldn’t help but babble on about one of my favorite bands, particularly when I was hanging out with the man-behind-the-magic himself.
The Nikolaisens are fast becoming a dynasty in their native Norway. Think Kennedys, except musical. Or Osmonds, except cool. First, there’s Emil’s brother, who fronts Silver, a much-loved glam-rock act in Oslo. (Emil played drums for — and produced — their past efforts, as he does many up-and-coming Norwegian acts.) Emil’s dream has always been Serena-Maneesh, however, and though the band has a bit of a “collective” feel (with some members coming and going), among the permanent players is his dead-ringer-for-Nico sister, Hilma. And as if that wasn’t enough familial plentitude, there’s Elvira; the clan’s pop star, whom Emil calls the “Norwegian Norah Jones.” She’s a massive musical force in Scandinavia, the type of star you hear when you’re shopping for groceries and you see when you turn on MTV. She’s the sort of chanteuse even your grandpa knows and loves.
“And I spent my sister’s 20,000 Kroner (that’s Norwegian for cash money) advance from Sony on Serena merch!” a fact Emil proudly offered as we settled down along a riverbank. “But you see, we help each other out. There?s no compromise. We?ve informed each other, and now the millions she’s making as this huge ‘Norwegian Norah Jones’ figure are allowing Serena to continue to do it totally on our own terms. The freedom is what made the first record possible, and it?s the only way we could do Serena.”
And freedom is a tough get for artists in Norway. The city is amongst the world’s most expensive and, for those living “alternative” (or artistic) lifestyles, the wages don’t quite compensate. “It’s a true Robin Hood mentality. We all take what we can, when we can. And we all help each other out.”
For a look at this communal love in action, we moved on to Emil’s artist pad: a second story apartment housing four others (musicians, photographers, artists and the like). “The fruits of our backstage hoarding,” Emil laughed as I perused the random collection of candy bars, water bottles, beers and such in his room. “When we play these shows, they have massive spreads for us. If there?s ever a mistake in the rider, we use it to our advantage and double our alcohol requests!”
I don’t blame him! Drinks are SO EXPENSIVE in Oslo. But, Emil had some great recommendations for where to go to satisfy the urge for libation.
Blå ?- (Pictured above) “This club is really one of the best in Oslo, but the night you go defines your experience. It’s a platform for the avant-garde, but some nights it’s just cheesy pop, which I cannot stand! It’s a great venue, ranging from truly shitty to truly amazing. It’s a truly important venue in Oslo. Just avoid the nights with the hot pop bands of the moment ? because they are truly ridiculous.”
Last Train -? “This one has been around for twenty years. Focused primarily on punk, aesthetically. Housed in an old, proud building, which holds around 130 people. It’s a bit of a mix of an old brown rock bar, and the buildling is turn of the century. It really feels genuine in there.”
Elm St. ?- “This was another that was really important to me, it?s where I first saw Nikki Sudden and the Jackobites, the Cramps, etc.”
Mono -? “Runar, the man who founded Øya, is the one who started this place. He’s an incredibly important figure in the Oslo music scene. Except that now it?s all annoying, mid-twenties students that are truly the moderated face of indie rock, only there for the scene and without an open mind to the music. Yet, the people that work there are amazing; I love them. It?s a love-hate relationship with the place, really.”
Spasi Bar — “This bar is in the King?s Castle Park, and it?s connected to the art school. It?s a really great place to go and hang with a great, artistic crowd. Highly recommended.”
So What -? “This club really used to be amazing, and went to great lengths to bring truly important bands (like Tortoise, Low, Magnetic Fields) to Scandinavia.”
Robenet -? “And this place I?m partial to because our drummer works there (laughs). But it?s really intimate and mellow, and they play awesome music like Fleetwood Mac, The Stooges, Stereolab, the Stones, Zappa.”
Domkirke Ken -? “This is if you want to hang out with old Oslo drunks.? (And who doesn?t?) “The backyard is really beautiful, and it can be quite entertaining, really.” Ivar’s is another great place for this.”
“I’d definitely consider a move to Brooklyn,” Emil offered as we discussed the relative merits of our hometowns. “But I may have to get rid of my bandana!” I didn’t quite follow. “Well, the last time I was hanging out with Sufjan in some bar there (Editor’s Note: Sufjan!), the bartender said, ‘Sorry man, but you’re gonna have to remove the bandana. It’s against bar policy because of gang violence.’ Soof and I lost it!”
Next, Emil’s tips for record shopping in Oslo.
Ringstrom’s Antivariat -? “My favorite. They carry new and second-hand vinyl. The tastes are a bit more sophisticated here, and really beautiful.”
Neseblod -? “In English, this mean’s ‘nose bleed,’ so it stands to reason that they carry black metal, punk, rock, dark wave and goth stuff. A true Norwegian treat, those genres.”
And just which Norwegian artists would Emil recommend we check out at said record stores, you ask? He was good enough to write out a list of recommended artists for ya!
He wanted me to add Noxagt and 120 Days to this list, but you already know about them.
Talking about records lead our conversation to what we listened to growing up, about MP3 blogs, and about the use of this here series of tubes for music proliferation.
“I grew up in a small town north of here, and finding out about real music ?- Sonic Youth, Stereolab, The Velvets ?- required some independent thought and initiative,” Emil offered. “You worked hard to find good music, to understand where it was coming from. And then you really spent some time with those albums. You understood it. It wasn?t like it is now, where you can get the whole family tree in one click, you know what I mean?”
“95% of all music should never have been recorded,” Emil said flatly as we walked through a historic and serene graveyard. “Don?t get me wrong, music is very human, and the impulse to create it is beautiful and should never be quelled,” he stated reverently as we scanned the multifaceted tombstones. “But back in the ’70s, it was like getting signed was a huge deal, and making a record and putting it out was this sacred event! Something about the disposability of music has altered it. But then, I do as you do, and I’m sure your readers do as well: jump up and scream about the 5% that’s fucking massive!”
As for Serena?s next step? Well, you won?t get much out of Emil regarding a follow up to their phenomenal, eponymous debut. “By verbalizing it, you begin to commit to an idea as to the sound, and that limits what it could be.” He paused, as we sat with our falafels and beers in the ancient ruins adjacent to the Øya grounds. “This is also why I don?t believe in demoing material. We don?t do any serious recording before the actual studio sessions. Maybe just some light sketches and such, rehearse to capture moods, color, and shape for the eventual sessions.”
“There is something to the magic of a sound when an idea is conceived,” he continued.
“That can’t be recreated. In fact, I ended up using snippets of the initial demos for the first record on the actual end product, just squeezed them in there. Next time, the studio will be where every bit of that magic happens.”
Awesome. We love magic.
Stereogum wants to say a huge “Thank You!” to Emil for the walk through Oslo and for all of his tips. If any ‘Gum readers wanna express their appreciation, get out to one of the dates on Serena-Maneesh’s headlining tour through the States, beginning in September (at Bowery Ballroom on the 8th). It is well worth your time; S-M are one of the greatest live acts around.