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Aural Borealis 

Norway's Röyksopp shines the northern lights on downtempo electronica

Wednesday, Mar 5 2003
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Producers of electronic music are notoriously typecast as wan, skinny folk who spend too much of their days debugging software synths and too little time eating. Not Röyksopp. While the Norwegian musicians may remain as pale as their cloud-covered countrymen, their recent international success has had distinct caloric ramifications. "We've grown fatter," says Svein Berge, when asked what's changed since listeners south of the Arctic Circle have discovered Röyksopp's charming brand of electronica. In the years before their big break, says Berge, "Torbjørn [Brundtland] and I weren't making any money, so we were just eating rice or mashed potatoes with spice on it." Of course, it's hard to know how seriously to take him after he remarks, "We've also ditched all our old friends because they weren't good enough," and then laughs.

Berge's sense of humor is as quirky and as subtle as the pair's debut album, Melody A.M. On the surface, the record offers the kind of lush, hook-laden downtempo that has made groups like Air and Zero 7 household names in the United States. But Röyksopp distinguishes itself with a sprightly, springy step and an offhand surrealism that sneaks through via unusual samples and textural juxtapositions.

It might be too much to say that Röyksopp promises to debunk American preconceptions about Norwegian culture, if only because few people in the U.S. have any ideas about that country whatsoever. But at a time when Iceland's Sigur Rós has music writers falling over backward in an effort to find synonyms for "glacial," Röyksopp's sunnily disposed music offers some nicely contrarian meteorological metaphors. While chill-out music often goes under the name "Balearic," after the Spanish isles where the placid style first flourished, Röyksopp's work might be better termed "Borealic" for its northern sensibility -- and its radiant aural glow.


Though the joke is lost on English speakers, Röyksopp's name reveals the psychedelic roots behind the duo's rich, unpredictable sound. The word is an archaic term for a kind of fungus that goes up in a wisp of dust when crushed; it's also a word for an atomic mushroom cloud. But the duo chose the moniker for a third reason -- one that might have American customs agents checking the band's bags a bit more closely when Röyksopp enters the country for its first U.S. tour. "If you divide the word into two, the first word, röyk, would be 'to smoke,' like drugs," explains Berge, "and sopp would be like 'eating mushrooms.' So it's just an over-the-top, stupid drug reference, like a combination of eating chocolate cake and hamburger. It's just too much, really silly, and we thought, 'That's the name we want.'"

At 26 and 27, respectively, Berge and Brundtland profess to have outgrown their youthful chemical transgressions, but rave culture was clearly a foundation for them. The two grew up in Tromsø, an isolated city far in the north of Norway that didn't seem to offer much to musically minded teenagers. "There are two things you have lots of in Tromsø: hairdressers and pubs," says Berge. "It has been referred to as the Paris of the North, which to me sounds like a complete lie. It's just people trying to get good hairdos and get really drunk."

But Tromsø had a hidden treasure in Geir Jenssen, who in 1992 had begun recording ambient techno for Belgium's Apollo Records under the name Biosphere. Jenssen's radio broadcasts, which showcased the experimental records he'd bring home from the U.K., were revelatory to Berge and Brundtland. "It was inspiring to see this guy in his 20s just sitting in a little flat in Tromsø, without anybody knowing he's existing, making this music," says Berge. With two other friends (Kolbjørn Lyslo, who records today as Doc L. Jnr., and Gaute Barlindhaug) the pair began making music as Aedena Cycle. When the boys brought Jenssen their demo, he convinced Apollo -- which at the time was home to Aphex Twin, among others -- to put it out.

Berge describes his adolescence with a twinge of nostalgia, recalling homespun raves with only 50 people. "You felt like you were part of something that the rest of Norway didn't know anything about. We would run around in our huge black Doc Martens and steel-cap toes, and ordinary people in Tromsø would think, 'What the fuck is this about? Who is this clown?'"

Aedena Cycle dissolved after its 1994 release, with Barlindhaug retaining the name for his solo work and Brundtland going on to record as part of Those Norwegians. Then, in 1998, Berge and Brundtland, now living in the western city of Bergen, founded Röyksopp. The following year the twosome released their first 7-inch, "So Easy," on local label Tellé; the single "Eple" appeared on the same imprint in 2001, and a signing with U.K. big-beat purveyor Wall of Sound followed shortly thereafter, virtually guaranteeing the group's success in the restless European dance scene.

Melody A.M. climbed as high as No. 9 on the British album charts, selling over 250,000 copies in the United Kingdom, and other accolades followed. Nominated for four prizes at the 2002 MTV Europe Music Awards, Röyksopp beat out Eminem, Basement Jaxx, Primal Scream, and the White Stripes in the Best Video category (for the song "Remind Me"); this year the duo was short-listed for Best International Group in the Brit Awards. Meanwhile, slots at high-profile summer festivals like Homelands and an autumn tour supporting Moby helped Röyksopp earn new fans across Europe.

Here in the States, Melody A.M. has been a sleeper so far, selling fewer than 25,000 copies since its October 2002 release. But the record has the potential to reach a much larger audience, including those listeners jaded by the legions of sound-alike downtempo artists. Part of what distinguishes Röyksopp's music is the band's detail-intensive sound design, molding familiar sources -- a Rhodes electric piano, a scrap of synthesizer -- into unusual new forms that stand out against the ambient background. The infectious single "Eple," for instance, employs a bright, hiccuping keyboard line that lends the track a levity rarely heard in breakbeat funk. "A Higher Place" uses similar tricks, offsetting the tune's sultry cool with a faint-of-breath vocal line and strings that teeter dangerously on the edge of kitsch. "Poor Leno," meanwhile, with its grandiose atmospherics and functionalist percussion, could be mistaken for any of a dozen cookie-cutter club tracks were it not for the swooning vocals of Erlend Øye (from Norwegian folkies Kings of Convenience). These kinds of tweaks give Röyksopp's music a freshness that's more than simple novelty. And while the tunes are never overtly jokey, Berge's droll, Scandinavian sense of humor still peeks out: Just listen to the intro to "Eple," which eavesdrops on a clandestine conversation between a dealer and a buyer -- not of drugs, but harmonic frequencies.

Certainly, no one's asking who these clowns are now -- at least not in their native Norway. The group is the country's most successful musical export since the well-moussed trio A-Ha, according to Simon Braein, Norwegian consul for San Francisco. "When it comes to pop, Norway hasn't had a very good reputation," says Braein, explaining how the group has been adopted as a national phenomenon. "Norway is such a small country that when someone like Röyksopp has success, everybody gets interested."

This attention has been the strangest part of the band's success, says Berge. "We grew up with the fascination for the faceless musician thing," he explains. "We really liked that, and that's why we're intentionally not in any of our videos."

But the mad wags are learning to live with their modicum of fame, even if it does have a sobering effect. "Now, here in Norway, we're living more in the public eye, so we can't really run around naked and burn things like we used to -- it would be in all the newspapers," says Berge. This newfound seriousness can only be good news for the band's fans: Now that the Röyksopp fellows have to spend most of their time hunkered down in the studio, there's no telling what kind of fireworks they'll come up with.

About The Author

Philip Sherburne

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