Kings of Convenience: ‘We could write a book about couples therapy’

The Norwegian duo who started the acoustic revolution 20 years ago have just made their first album in 12 years, and their music is as delicate as ever. They talk to Michael Hann about how long it takes to make a record with no mistakes, good vibes, and why it is ‘kind of a miracle they are still together’

Saturday 12 June 2021 13:29
<p>Kings of Convenience: ‘We represented a cultural idea. And I think we still do’</p>

Kings of Convenience: ‘We represented a cultural idea. And I think we still do’

It was the most diffident statement of intent: who would be so bold as to insist on not making a racket? But when the Norwegian duo Kings of Convenience named their 2001 debut album Quiet Is the New Loud they were harbingers of a subdued revolution.

“The title was a bit arrogant,” says Eirik Glambek Bøe, one of their two singer-guitarists, along with Erlend Øye. “It was a bold statement. It gave us a trademark, because we represented a cultural idea. And I think we still do. We knew what we were doing. We were claiming we were prophets of a new ideology: ‘Follow us, please!’ We were surprised at how successful it became. We always thought we were the underdogs and we would have no success in the mainstream music world. So it was surprising, but at the same time we were asking for that type of attention.”

The contents backed up the title. Quiet is the New Loud was an album of filigreed acoustic guitar and murmured vocals, music so delicate you could blow it away like a dandelion clock. Though they were tagged as folk revivalists – wahey, it’s the Scandi Simon and Garfunkel – that has never really seemed accurate.

Theirs was no kind of traditional folk music; there was no bucolic gather-in-the-harvest, nor was there social comment. Instead there were songs that tried to articulate life experiences the pair had not yet had. Bøe says, amused at his own self-importance, that “there was always the aspiration to be a wise person and to be perceived as a wise person. Although life experience hadn’t been so rich yet.” He was always that way, he says. Before one childhood birthday, a neighbour asked him how old he was going to be. “I said, ‘I will be turning four. Alas, soon I will be turning 100.’ My neighbour never stopped teasing me about that. I was a wise little four-year-old.”

Success is relative, of course. Quiet Is the New Loud reached No 1 in Norway and their subsequent albums Riot on an Empty Street (2004) and Declaration of Dependence (2009) also reached the top 10. Their new record, Peace or Love – no radical sonic reinvention here, thank you very much – will likely do the same. None of those previous albums, though, even breached the British top 40. Yet their music sent its shoots and sprouts far and wide. It was perfect for soundtracking TV shows – Six Feet Under, Girls, The OC and more – and adverts. It was a soft breeze on a summer evening. And Quiet Is the New Loud produced a legion of fellow travellers in what became known as the New Acoustic Movement.

Øye tired of the woe-is-me merchants who followed them, and remains tired of them. He is very much of the “Cheer up, it might never happen!” school. “It’s more exciting in your life that something happens that maybe shakes you, but you turn it into music which is more life affirming and positive,” he says. “The album we have put out now definitely has its ‘Listen to my pain’ moments, but most of the time it is a good vibe, because life is all kinds of emotions.”

Øye is not quite what one expects from a man who made a name as one half of a group devoted to gentleness. The lankiness and oversize specs of his twenties remain, but he is reminiscent of nothing so much as Jürgen Klopp’s skinny younger brother: businesslike and forthright, offsetting a certain intensity with purposeful laughter. Well, he says, Kings of Convenience would never have been signed in the first place had it not been for him going round pestering record labels. “I was a very annoying, egocentric person,” he says. “Eirik had the luxury of being the introvert artist who didn’t have to behave like an idiot to get things going.”

Theirs is an odd dynamic. They are interviewed separately via Zoom, with just a couple of minutes when they share the call. They are very, very aware of their differences, even if they don’t necessarily note the same differences. Øye says keeping friendships going over a long period of time counts as success; Bøe says of his bandmate, “After a while he will get tired of you, if you are there too long.” Bøe thinks it is “kind of a miracle” they are still together after 20 years: “His natural tendency is to drift away and never come back, to go somewhere else, meet someone new and never look back. It’s a little bit of a challenge to keep a long-term project going.”

Next step: Kings of Convenience have released their first new album in 12 years

Twelve years separate Peace of Love from its predecessor, Declaration of Dependence. It’s not that the pair have been lazy – they both have an array of other projects, usually sharing the same dappled melancholy of their music as a duo, even if they drift off in other musical directions. It was more that they could never quite get this record right.

For a start, Bøe is something of a perfectionist. Every song begins as the perfect song, he says, and then falls from grace. “It’s the best song I ever wrote, before reality kicks in, before I realise that I have to write a second verse and a third verse, and those won’t be as amazing. And I have to record it and it is not going to sound as good as my idea sounded in my mind. So there are a lot of reality checks before the song is ready. And I think the 11-year stretch of making this new album was filled with reality checks. A lot of doubts.”

Even when songs were in place, the recordings weren’t. And so they were done again. And again. And in some cases again and again and again, because when your group is two voices and two acoustic guitars, you can’t bury anything in the mix. An error that could be concealed on, say, a Kings of Leon track can’t be hidden on a Kings of Convenience album. “So we have to sit down and play a version that has no mistakes,” Øye says.

“Here are things that typically happen. We pronounce a word wrong. And just that can be enough to say we cannot use that version. Because then we try to fix it and it clearly sounds fixed. Or we try to fix three or four things and then we feel it is starting not to sound real anymore. We don’t really have any producer that has enough time in their life to work with us because the way we do this is so incredibly long, and a trickling river. It’s never just two weeks’ work and done. It is surprisingly difficult to record two vocals and two guitars at the same time in a room, and if there is no one else doing it, we can’t ask anyone else, ‘How are you doing it?’”

“There has to be this emotional presence,” Bøe says. “We have to be present in the performance and there has to be a clarity and it has to sound beautiful. A broken nail will make a guitar sound ugly, a sore throat means it will not work. There are so many factors that need to be in place for it to sound natural and easy and groovy and beautiful and credible. That’s another thing. It has to sound credible.”

Then there’s the simple fact of quality control. “Since our previous albums are, I have to say it, pretty good, then our new album now can’t be worse,” Øye says.

The other week Bøe had to listen to a writer explain to him that his group were mere revivalists. Actually, one might argue that Kings of Convenience, far from being revivalists, were ahead of the curve. They were a very modern duo at a time when fealty to genre was still prevalent in the indie milieu from which they sprang: their debut album was remixed as Versus; Øye’s Unrest album and DJ-Kicks compilations were among the first records on which an indie musician’s assimilation of dance was seamless rather than bolted on; his Whitest Boy Alive Project sounded, approximately, like peak New Order played on electric instruments; the solo album Legao – recorded with an Icelandic reggae band – was reggae, of a fashion. Bøe, meanwhile, has Kommode, whose album title summed up their sound: Analog Dance Music.

Bøe would rather step away from that. He’s not just being modest. He thinks Øye gets too much applause for his musical variety, too. “We tend to get credited, with the Versus album and Erlend’s DJ Kicks album and Erlend’s Unrest album – we tend to get credit for these electronic releases which were really made by the producers of those tracks. And then the singing and the additional guitars, we added that. I have to say we have been quite focused on writing songs with guitar, writing lyrics. We are more traditional songwriters. And then we have friends who work with other genres and we collaborate with them and we, especially Erlend, get credit for being multi-instrumentalists who can both make electronic music and play guitar. But he is mainly a guitarist who writes songs.”

Both are also at pains to clarify – in a manner that suggests a perception that otherwise might have irritated Bøe at times – that it was Bøe who introduced Øye to dance music; the latter just happened to make electronic records earlier.

A lot of my dreams have been fulfilled

Erlend Øye

Here they are, then, middle-aged men who have known each other since childhood, who now live in different countries – Øye lives in Italy, Bøe still in Bergen – who still come together and create something quietly magical. And they have changed. “I am not so horny anymore, so I can relax in my house in Italy and eat nice meals and pat my cat,” Øye says. “The main thing that’s changed is that I have achieved a lot. A lot of my dreams have been fulfilled. I wish every person in the world could have that feeling I had after a couple of years when all these projects started doing well. Great, I wasn’t drunk, I was right to pursue my dream.”

“It’s been up and down,” Bøe says of their relationship. “I can tell you that. It’s a very strange and fascinating relationship between me and Erlend. I think we will have to write an autobiography of the two of us together, because we’ve been so much a part of each others’ lives, although we are so different as people. With the amount of conflict and different ideas, I think we could write a book about couples therapy. We’ve made some important discoveries that can be applied to any struggling couple.”

Marriage counselling with a bossa nova beat, set to a soothing melody. Pop has produced worse ideas, without doubt.

‘Peace or Love’ is released on EMI on 18 June

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