How a largely instrumental album by an unknown Norwegian duo became a word-of-mouth million-selling sensation at the start of the decade, thanks to some unique hooky melodies and different ways of getting their music out there...
“We formed a musical partnership soon after we met at the age of 12 and 13, and it was only a matter of months after we met that we bought our first synthesiser and started doing things with it together,” dark-haired Svein Berge tells DJ Mag, sat in a swanky London hotel on the southside of Blackfriars Bridge.
The more talkative of the Røyksopp partnership, Svein explains how the two of them began as principally a covers act, doing tracks by Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode, before moving on to making their own stuff. With some pals they had a release on R&S as Aedena Cycle in 1994, and then started a band called Drum Island. “There's an age difference of one year, Torbjørn finished school one year before me and moved to Oslo, whereas I finished school back in Tromsø — where we come from — and then I had to do military service for 10 months,” Svein says. “We were apart during that time, and after that we met up again — about 1997 — and formed Røyksopp.”
A small scene was developing in Norway — specifically Bergen, the second biggest city in Norway (population approx 250,000). Based around small club nights and the Tellé label set up by their friend Mikal from their local record shop, other Norwegian acts like Kings of Convenience and Annie were also around at the time. “That scene really only consisted of about seven or eight people, but it was a good time and it got a lot of attention internationally,” says Svein.
They pressed up a mere 500 copies of their debut Røyksopp single 'So Easy', but it got them a lot of props from other territories. “It got into the hands of the right people,” remembers Torbjørn Brundtland, the fairer one. “It started buzzing really quick.”
Various labels started chasing Røyksopp, but they eventually signed to maverick UK independent Wall of Sound. How come? “We were taken by [head honcho] Mark Jones’s charisma,” says Svein, smiling. “And also the fact that the man who was the head A&R of the label even brought Banksy to Bergen to spread his art. So you have to take into consideration that we are two simpletons from north Norway and we are easily impressed by those things. I guess that was it.”
Svein tells of how Banksy, the now-infamous street artist and Wall of Sound associate at the time, did some paintings around Bergen but the city council painted over some of them thinking they were 'just' graffiti. “Banksy was staying at people’s houses, and for that and for friendliness he was giving them paintings,” says Torbjørn. “One guy we know later sold his painting at Sothebys, and that was enough to start his own business — his shop is named after the [Sothebys] lot number. At the time Banksy was an unknown artist, and it was like ‘OK, thank you, I like this’, and later [our friend] decided to use it to start his business — now a thriving clothes shop in Bergen.”
Svein then explains how Banksy painted some limited-edition hand-painted copies of their debut album 'Melody A.M.' as well, which was all recorded in the living room of the bedsit where they resided in Bergen. “The way that we have always worked is that we have a very limited amount of equipment — a lot of outboard analogue stuff,” Svein explains. “Stuff that we bought when we were kids, we still use that — we know it and love it. It was quite a lo-fi thing for us in that respect. It was recorded on the same equipment that we still use.”
“The key was an Akai sampler, a really simple mixer and a reverb that somebody, not us, nicked from a radio station,” outlines Torbjørn. “That was the core of it.”
“The opening track on the album ['So Easy'] was made on an Atari computer — quite vintage,” adds Svein. “This was in the age of MIDI, or audio editing as we know it today."
Torbjørn doesn't really want to go into any more detail about how 'Melody A.M.' was made. “It would function almost like trainspotting and bragging if we were to go into that,” he says. “When we talk to people, they expect us to have more special equipment than what we really have, which is sparse. And we love that. Limitations force creativity.”
“We love the limitations,” adds Svein, “and we also strongly believe that if we produce the music and choose the sounds that are not necessarily the obvious choices, it makes for something more interesting. As soon as you start opting for the obvious generic sounds, you become less interesting. Had we replaced the drum sounds in 'Melody A.M.' with the TR909 drum machine, it would have been less interesting. Maybe easier to swallow for some people...”
Crunchy, floaty early single 'So Easy' — with its backgrounded “Blue on blue, heartache to heartache” distant vocal refrain — sampled easy listening kings Bacharach & David, and was used to kick off 'Melody A.M.' The jaunty, widescreen, upbeat 'Eple' — with its chiming, whistle-tastic earworm melody — followed next, easing into the chilled-out 'Sparks' with vocalist Anneli Drecker from Norwegian dreampoppers Bel Canto. 'Poor Leno' and 'Remind Me', both singles, featured their pal Erlend Øye from folkie duo Kings of Convenience on vocals, there was the foresty melodrama of 'Royksopp's Night Out', chilled jazzual interlude 'A Higher Place'...
The whole body of work hung together beautifully — sounding pretty much like nothing else that was around at the time. “The way we've always thought we should make music is to allow ourselves to be inspired by musical genres that are not necessarily related to electronic music,” says Svein now. “We are just as inspired by progressive rock and country music and r&b as we are by Detroit techno and deep house. For us it's a matter of landing all these things together, without making the references so obvious that they stick out to make a very unpleasant mix. It's just a matter of finding the balance.”
“Also, we don't have any prejudice when it comes to music,” he continues. “We're not afraid of allowing ourselves to move into pop territory — without going all in. So there is a bit of a pop element in there as well, which I guess can sometimes have a certain mass appeal.”
Wall of Sound didn't exactly have a huge advertising budget to promote the album, but it didn't matter cos 'Melody A.M.' was one of those long-players that spread on word-of-mouth recommendation. Tracks from it were also synced to various TV programmes and ads, which helped get their music out there in less conventional ways. Why do they think the film and TV people came calling? “They just wanted to be associated with Torbjorn's cheekbones!” jokes Svein. “No, we do not know why TV and film companies wanted to have our music, other than it does kind of appeal to imagination — it lends itself quite well to imagery, pictures.”
When Moby had most tracks on his 2000-released 'Play' album synced to ads, he was widely criticised, but this issue didn't affect Røyksopp — largely because they were fairly selective with who they let use their music. “It wasn't that easy for us to go to a radio station or a radio plugger and say, 'Here, play our music on radio',” Svein says. “So we thought, 'OK, we're getting all these requests from ad companies to use our music, why don't we just single out a few of them and get our music out there with the ads that we feel are artistically justified — or non-offensive and clever-ish — just so we could get the music spread?' This was in the day and age prior to the internet — there wasn't really any other way to get our music heard.”
As the album did the rounds at sync companies and with music supervisors, they got many offers. “We turned down maybe 99% of them,” Svein reveals.
“We did it case by case,” expands Torbjørn. “When we've said yes, we've had huge success, I believe. For one commercial particularly in the US, and a phone company in the UK. When it works it can be really good, and I believe it can be better than having something on the radio. It's like an opener to people as well — you have a little mystique, because it doesn't say who it is, so people are like, 'What is that? Where can I find it?' I like that.”
Svein says that there's less politics in a way through having your music in an ad than on the radio, and that he doesn't understand the mentality of being opposed to using your music in an ad — something that few people are opposed to now. “It doesn't take anything away from the music, I think. Having your music featured in an ad that isn't the NRA [the US's trigger-happy National Rifle Association] is a clever way of doing it.”
The band had some of their own experimental videos for singles out as well, of course, and these became heavily rotated on MTV. DJ Mag also helped spread the word about the album, by putting these unknown Norwegians on the cover at the time of 'Melody A.M.'s release. “I remember doing the [DJ Mag] cover and seeing the cover, and the piece was well-written — so we were pleased,” says Torbjørn.
“For us, to be embraced in the UK — and also it was word of mouth, from the underground up — was probably one of our biggest achievements on a personal level, cos we were always looking towards the UK scene,” adds Svein. “That's what we grew up with, the whole rave thing — people like KLF and The Orb were so influential on us. The main goal we had was to make it in the UK, and to see all these magazines like you guys lift us up and give us praise was quite a remarkable experience for two fishermen from the north.”
'Melody A.M.' ended up selling a million copies worldwide, hitting No.1 in Norway, with all the first three singles crashing into the UK Top 40. Røyksopp started playing live at loads of festivals, with souped-up versions of their album tracks, and they built towards their second album in 2005 — 'The Understanding'. DJ Mag calls it underrated, but Torbjørn jokes that it was overrated. Critics moaned that there was no 'Eple' on it. “But we already made 'Eple',” says Svein.
The more commercial 'Junior' album and then the more melancholic 'Senior' followed at the end of the decade, and now — following a mini-album with Swedish singer Robyn — they've just released their last-ever album, 'The Inevitable End'. It isn't the end of Røyksopp, though. “We're extremely happy and proud of what we've done with our five studio albums,” says Torbjørn. “It's something that looks like a complete body of work, this cycle of albums. We want to preserve it, and quit while we're ahead — because we love it. We said, 'This is the end of a chapter', and it closes up nicely. These five albums represent something of their own. We just wanted to preserve it.”
The guys are at pains to say that they don't think the album format is dead or anything like that — it's just time to move on. They'll still be releasing music, of course — on vinyl, as EPs... “There's no limitations really,” says Svein. “If we want to make a piece that's two hours long, we can do that cos we're not bound to the physical limitations of the physical format.”