Röyksopp - A chilled duo find warmth

Röyksopp are known for their eerie and atmospheric instrumentals. The Norwegians tell James McNair why their latest album is full of pop songs
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The Independent Culture

In 31 Songs, Nick Hornby's book about some of his favourite music, "Night Out" by the Norwegian electronica act Röyksopp initially gets the big thumbs-up. But when the author hears the song in The Body Shop while buying shower gel, his liking for the duo's sound evaporates: "['Night Out'] had become a cliché, lazy shorthand for a sort of vacuous monied hip," he writes. "I couldn't bring myself to play it again."

Hornby's sudden volte-face seems harsh when you consider Röyksopp's modus operandi. Svein Berge and Torbjorn Brundtland have never succumbed to commercial formulae, and revenue generated from the licensing of their music has been particularly important for them.

"Omnipresence isn't always good," agrees the wan-faced Brundtland acknowledging Röyksopp tune usage in everything from "sex tapes for women" to Apple computer software, "but I think what Hornby wrote is to do with that 'ownership' feeling. People like to discover things and keep them to themselves."

Brundtland, 33, is sitting in a quiet café in Bergen, the rainy coastal city where he and Berge are based. He has two little pillows of snuff tucked under his top lip and is wearing a pink sweatshirt depicting a waving spaceman.

We've met in Norway to talk about Röyksopp's new album, Junior. Something of a departure for the predominately instrumental duo, it is a more song-based affair featuring guest spots from various Scandinavian chanteuses. Solo artists Robyn and Lykke Li represent Sweden alongside Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife, while Anneli Drecker, hailing from Röyksopp's home city of Tromso, ensures that Norway avoids nul points.

"All of these woman are singers who have taken control of their careers," says Brundtland, "admirable woman with strong opinions. On a nerdy, trainspotter level we like the way their vocal chords vibrate, but we also wanted co-writers; people we could invite into our universe and have fun with.

While there's certainly something of Abba's late-period noir about "You Don't Have a Clue", featuring Anneli Drecker, Junior is mostly the perky young scamp its title suggests, opener and current single "Happy Up Here" packing sweet and bouncy lead synthesiser à la Röyksopp's much-heard 2001 instrumental "Eple." Indeed, much of Röyksopp's enduring appeal stems from the fact that they are the Heston Blumenthals of timbre, the pair's keyboard tweaks variously evoking the creaking lid of an iced-over puddle or the sound of a vigorously-rubbed balloon.

Interestingly, Brundtland and Berge also hope to release Senior, a contrasting partner to Junior, before 2009 is out. "Junior is lighter and it works track-by-track," says Brundtland, "but Senior is more atmospheric and inward-looking and it will require time to process. These days it's optimistic to expect that amount of patience from a listener, but we're still romantic enough to think someone will listen to an album from A to Z."

Svein Berge and Torbjorn Brundtland grew up within the Arctic Circle in Tromso, Northern Norway. "You have the midnight sun in the summer and long periods of darkness in the winter, but being a university town it's also quite vibrant," says Brundtland, who adds that they met at a mutual friend's house when Berge was 12 and he was 13, and that the junior/senior dichotomy reflects a duality he and his bandmate felt within themselves even then. "We were like old men trapped in young men's bodies," he says, "but we also had Peter Pan syndrome, just wanting to play and never grow up.

The friends parted company for a time when Brundtland relocated to Oslo to pursue his music. But by 1997 he had become disillusioned by the cooler-than-thou attitude of certain individuals he met on Oslo's dance-music scene, and by what he describes as "a wrong approach" to drug use. "We'd heard that Bergen was different, that it was more about the music and friendliness, so both Svein and myself moved here."

Then, in 2001, when Röyksopp (their name translates as "smoke mushroom") released their million-selling debut album Melody A.M., they found themselves at the epicentre of a musical phenomenon UK journalists were calling "The Bergen Wave". "Without wanting to take away from any of the bands involved, it was a media-created thing," says Brundtland. "But Bergen is certainly a creative place," adds Brundtland.

"It's very finely tuned with just enough going on before it becomes too hectic or trendy. We have the middle distance, and I think that's healthy. We've somehow ended up in our own little bubble."

Brundtland and Berge are still good friends who socialise outside of their commitments with Röyksopp. They like cross-country skiing and have founded The Idle Hour Club, an informal two-man forum in which they discuss everything from the textural merits of spherical "pizza balls" to whether or not Gandhi's non-violent stance would have worked in Germany circa 1939.

Our interview vacillates between serious discussion and gentle spoofing. They claim that more than half their income is derived from a farm where they grow cabbages.

However Röyksopp fund themselves, it is hard to imagine the duo giving up their "what happens if we push this?" approach for something more mundane. "Curiosity is our driving force," agrees Brundtland. "We don't always know what's going to happen, and that's the thrill."

'Junior' is out on Wall Of Sound on 1 April

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