Madrugada: Northern exposure

As you might expect, there isn't a big rock scene in the farthest reaches of rural Norway. But Madrugada are more than making up for it, says Tim Cooper
Click to follow

The streets of Oslo are piled high with snowdrifts and the market square is more like a skating rink. But the temperature is red-hot inside the tiny Late Train bar where Norway's coolest band is playing a secret gig to hardcore fans.

Madrugada overturn most preconceptions about Scandinavian music. Norway's slender artistic legacy since the 19th-century golden age that produced Edvard Munch, Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Grieg is led by the Eighties popsters a-ha, the dance outfit Royksopp and the acoustic duo Kings Of Convenience.

In stark contrast, Madrugada's dark, brooding songs are delivered with a narcotic languor that is more likely to evoke downtown Manhattan than the remote fishing villages of Norway's northern archipelago.

Like their crepuscular, guitar-led music, the dolorous baritone of singer Sivert Hoyem, somehow sneering and swooning simultaneously, suggests long winter nights listening to The Velvet Underground, The Stooges and The Doors. Not to mention Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen, The Gun Club and Suicide, Mazzy Star and The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Cramps and Suicide, to name but a few obvious influences.

Which is pretty much how it was.

"There's a lot of farming and fishing in the area but no real rock scene," says Hoyem over bacon and eggs in an Oslo diner the morning after the show. "There's nothing much to do in a place where you have to drive 25km to find the nearest liquor store. You get a choice between playing volleyball or football." It's hard to imagine Hoyem - whose high cheekbones, receding hairline and intense stage presence lend him a strong resemblance to the sometime Buzzcocks singer Howard Devoto - on a sports field. He describes his parents as "intellectuals", but says he only enrolled at university in Oslo for the student loans that would underwrite a music career.

"The town I come from, Sortland, has no underground scene, but I think that's good," he says. "It means you get to explore on your own." Living in an area where musical tastes were more inclined towards jazz, blues and progressive rock, the future members of Madrugada used the NME as a primer for their musical education.

"I listened to a lot of records growing up," says Hoyem. "That becomes a bit of a statement in such a small community." The bass guitarist Frode Jacobsen still remembers the excitement of his first Velvet Underground record arriving by post when he was 14. "I had read about them in the NME - that was how we kept in touch."

These influences soon found their way into Madrugada's music, whose panoramic sweep and melancholic moods also reflects the bleak beauty of the landscape that surrounded them. First formed in the mid-Nineties under the ill-advised moniker Axe, they changed their name to Madrugada - the Spanish word for the hour before dawn - after the later arrival of Hoyem.

"It took us five years to find ourselves and our sound, so it happened in a very natural way, just by rehearsing," says Jacobsen, who forms the rhythm section with drummer Simen Vangen. The band's sound is, however, defined by Hoyem's vocals and the multifaceted stylings of guitarist Robert Buras. Hoyem recalls their early gigs: "When we first played, I think people thought we were pretty weird. They hated us. I don't think they understood." Jacobsen explains: "I don't think many people were into the Velvets, Iggy Pop, The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Buzzcocks."

But those live shows built their reputation, prompting one Norwegian critic to liken their performance to "being hit by a rock'n'roll frying pan". As a consequence, Madrugada's first two albums - Industrial Silence in 1999 and The Nightly Disease two years later - were instantly successful in the domestic market, making them one of their country's most popular bands.

Their third album, Grit, featuring songs that range from the chiming guitar frenzy of "Bloodshot Adult Commitment" to the elegaic, string-laden ballad "Majesty", could - and should - be the one to give them their international break.

While Madrugada's sound may not tie in with our ideas of Scandinavian music, they point out that Norwegians have idiosyncratic musical tastes. "When you see people drive past in a sports car, in Sweden you would hear hip-hop music blasting out, but here in Oslo it would be Leonard Cohen, very loud," laughs Jacobsen.

Hoyem believes that Madrugada's sound has more in common with the literary tradition that produced Ibsen. "It's a sense of melancholia," he says. "I think it's important for us as a band that we create moods that draw you in. It's something we all have in common, a little bit like what you have in blues music, and psychedelic music, too."

Initially, their ambitions were less about stardom than the opportunity to travel outside Scandinavia. "That was a good reason to be in a band for someone from way up in northern Norway," says Jacobsen, "to be able to travel and play to people outside your country. For me, that was the motivation."

So far, Madrugada's music has failed to travel far, but long-distance success may only be a matter of time. Their first album was recorded in Berlin and the second in New York, where they played their first and - so far - only American concert at Arlene's Grocery on the Lower East Side, a venue better known for its punk-rock karaoke nights. "We actually got signed on the strength of that gig," recalls Hoyem. "Which was strange, as there were only 10 or 15 people there."

When they're not touring, Madrugada live in a frenzy of creative activity. They rehearse every day when they are in Oslo and are currently working on two new albums. "We never got into the business aspect, like working towards a goal or going on a US tour or getting albums out in different territories," adds Hoyem. "Our main goal is just to make that perfect Madrugada record. We don't feel we've reached that. We're very satisfied, but I don't think we've peaked yet."

Madrugada's double A-side single, 'Majesty' and 'Seven Seconds', is released on Monday; 'Grit' is out now on Music for Nations