The Nor-Wave Sunny Days For Norway’s Indie Scene, Even In the Dead of Winter

The Nor-Wave Sunny Days For Norway’s Indie Scene, Even In the Dead of Winter
Surrounded by the medieval ruins in Middelalderparken — a historic park in Gamlebyen, the oldest section of Oslo — electronic rockers 120 Days strut across the Øya Festival main stage like full-blown rock stars. Though they are still, even here, mostly just country kids with big dreams and some sublime songs. Their beats are a potent mix of live and programmed drums with chiming guitars and analogue synths soaring atop singer Ådne Meisfjord’s distorted, impassioned vocals, melding into a surprisingly now-sounding mix of old U2 and Cure and older Kraftwerk.

Their music builds and explodes like the best dance singles, culminating in the high water mark of "Come Out, Come Down, Fade Out, Be Gone” a ten-minute monster track that rides insistent techno beats and guitar feedback as Meisfjord jumps onto the monitor, tossing the mic from hand to hand and sings into the swirling chaos and roaring crowd. It’s a feeling they’ll have to get use to once the group sets off on their first North American tour this fall as the buzziest band to emerge from Norway in, well, just months, really.

Known for white nights and black metal, this northern kingdom hasn’t taken on the global pop scene since A-Ha’s 30 million-selling cartoon capers two decades ago. In an earlier interview, Röyksopp, the country’s biggest international crossover act since, placed blame on the domestic commercial scene’s lack of imagination. "Norway has been suffering from the phenomenon that many nations suffer, in that they try to make lesser versions or copies of what is going on in the U.S. or the UK. There is no identity in it because it’s just a replica so Norwegians don‘t have anything to offer the outside world — do you prefer the Norwegian almost-Eminem or the real Eminem?” Röyksopp’s Svein Berge told me; this sentiment remains prevalent in Norway today.

But even if, aside from Sondre Lerche, their mainstream acts still mostly riff off Americans and Brits, Norway’s underground scene knows you don’t need to sail those shallow waters when you can infiltrate the indie fjords with 120 Days and compatriots like neo-shoegazers Serena Maneesh, electronic folkie Erland Øye, club kingpin Lindstrom, underground pop star Annie and new rave act Datarock.

In other words, the Viking invasion is so on.

"We come from a very small town on the northwest coast of Norway called Kristiansund, which is really a hole,” explains 120’s Meisfjord backstage, and drunk, after their set. "It’s always very windy and the weather is always grey. There’s a lot of boredom, there’s not much to do. But boredom inspires you to do your own thing, to find your own fun. And our fun was to make music.”

When they first started in the fall of 2001, the four high school friends, then calling themselves the Beautiful People, quickly realised their town of 18,000 wasn‘t the best locale for a fledgling band. So the foursome set off for the capital city of Oslo, the world’s most expensive city, to live in a street-parked motor home and focus on songwriting and rehearsing — which they did, for an entire year.

"It’s hard to make a living out of this sort of music. But we decided that we really wanted to do it so we had to live as cheaply as possible,” he recalls. "It was a real experience — I wouldn’t move into a caravan again, but I’m glad I did. When you’re living on the street a lot of crazy shit happens and every day is a new experience. How do I get to eat this day? That was really important for us.”

During 2004, they released a pair of EPs that cemented their electro-rock sound (inspired in equal parts by Krautrock, experimental Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim and the Stooges) that got them noticed abroad and booked for several summer festivals including Britain’s Reading and Spain’s Sonar. They signed to Smalltown Supersound, a pivotal Norwegian label that’s home to artists like Lindstrom, ten-piece electronic jazz collective Jaga Jazzist and Erland Øye’s Whitest Boy Alive (see sidebar).

Then Vice Records’ head Adam Shore heard an MP3 and made them the first Norwegian band to sign directly to a U.S. label (rather than via a licensing deal). His only request was a name change because theirs was already taken. Alas, choice two proved equally abysmal. "The whole name thing was getting really tiring. So we just said, let’s call it Sex Beat. Then the next day we’re like ‘oh fuck, we’re called Sex Beat.’”

They soon re-rechristened themselves 120 Days (yep, after the Marquis de Sade text) and completed their just-released self-titled debut album, sending the international hype machine into gear — just as it had a few months earlier with the self-titled debut from Serena Maneesh.

"We’re not big in Norway,” says S-M’s Emil Nikolaisen, a charismatic, black eyeliner and pink scarf-wearing bandleader currently sitting back with an overpriced beer on a cobblestone patio in Oslo. Hailing from the tiny "redneck” town of Moi, seven hours south and home to only 2,000, Nikolaisen is a member of a musical dynasty that includes a sister in Serena, a brother in punk band Silver (Emil is their former drummer) and another sister, Elvira, whom he describes as the "Norwegian Norah Jones.”

"She’s a huge star in Norway and all over the place. She’s much more proper than us, and it’s ironic because we took her Sony advance to print our merchandise,” Nikolaisen laughs. Nonetheless, it was Serena that became the family’s first overseas success story after becoming the talk of last spring’s South By Southwest music festival when they played four separate sets of incredibly loud nu-gazer noise-rock.

"But our music has hardly been played on the radio here, it’s never been listed. It never hits because we don’t write hits. I’m not bitter, but you can’t really survive [only in Norway] if you make this kind of thing.”

For Serena Maneesh this wasn‘t an issue since they’d made an international impact before their album even came out on Beggars Banquet-backed sub-label PlayLouder, thanks to a tour with the Dandy Warhols and, more importantly, positive posts from Pitchfork.com and assorted blogs. "Suddenly… boom! It was quite exciting but at the same time quite strange because we hadn‘t even been playing much in Norway yet.”

Much like Canada‘s insecurity complex, once bigger countries begin praising home-grown bands, Norwegians finally start paying them some mind. But this didn’t happen much until recently. "Ten years ago there were very few Norwegian artists working internationally,” explains Inger Dirdal, managing director of Music Export Norway, a government-funded organization that’s been pushing Norwegian music over the borders since 2000. "But now the music industry, management and record companies are much more organised and have been to places like South By Southwest. It’s coming together now, the business is better and the artists are going more places. Do you know Röyksopp? That opened up a lot of electronic music because then they say Röyksopp is from Norway so there must be something else as well. But it’s not one special thing that happened, it’s just a lot of long-term work.”

As Serena and other Norwegian breakthroughs like Annie have proved, it’s also been a result of the increasing influence of online magazines and music blogs to break new artists to worldwide tastemakers (journos, bookers, programmers and other assorted music-obsessed hipsters).

"In Norway, Serena Maneesh has been getting a lot of press coverage because of the international attention. Then they get the people in Norway behind them and they’re getting bigger and bigger. It’s really important to have international support and then the journalists from Norway will call us and say ‘I read this on Pitchfork.’ When the right people say it, then it’s really helpful,” offers electronic producer and Feedelity Records boss Hans-Peter Lindstrom, following his festival performance with sometime partner Prins Thomas.

Lindstrom has become known for his own tracks as well as high-profile remixes of LCD Soundsystem, Roxy Music, Franz Ferdinand, and Juan McLean. But since Norway is a rock-oriented nation, getting music to foreign markets is even more important for dance acts. "If it wasn’t for the people in Japan and the UK and Berlin buying my records it would have been impossible. Maybe me and Thomas were lucky because for some reason people in London were looking for something else and I guess we maybe did something else. I think the electronic musicians in Norway have always been doing something different,” Lindstrom says. "I don’t feel that Oslo is a capital city like Copenhagen or Berlin or London. It’s a bit isolated and that’s good because we’re not a part of any scene going on in Europe.” So you wind up with such experiments as Lindstrom’s banjo-disco single "The Contemporary Fix,” from his new debut solo album It's a Feedelity Affair.

Ironically, the Norwegian music scene’s still-rising international profile started from the electronic side when Röyksopp dropped their smash Melody A.M. back in 2002, which made its way into the British top ten. Raised in Tromsø, the world’s most northern university town, hundreds of kilometres inside the Arctic circle, there was no scene, per se. "There were 12 people involved in electronic music that had a passion for it and one of these guys had a radio show with, uh, 11 listeners,” recalled Berge.

Eventually they moved to Bergen — Norway’s second biggest city, a rainy port in the country’s south famously surrounded by seven mountains — and helped launch what became known as "The Bergen Wave” and saw Norway briefly dubbed "The New France” (which is, one supposes, the Euro version of "The Next Seattle”).

Centred around small indie label Tellé Records, started by 20-something record shop owner Mikal Tellé, it also included Kings of Convenience (and KoC’s bespectacled electronic dabbler Erland Øye) and later Annie, the effervescent electro-pop singer who became every music geek’s biggest crush last year after her Röyksopp co-produced album followed the familiar route of blogger effusion, Pitchfork raves and a hipster label release (Vice and 679 Recordings).

"I never really felt that it’s a music scene, to be honest, there’s just so much different music there,” Annie says of Bergen. "It’s more just a load of creative people living in a small city. If you’re inspired to do something and you need somebody to help you out with the bass, there’s not so much jealousy. You don’t have any big record company following you and telling you what to do. It’s a nice environment to work in.”

Speaking of the environment, if there is anything that ties all these disparate artists together it’s the extremes of Norway itself. Its small population and northern isolation fosters cooperation and an accompanying tendency to mix’n’match genres — for example, present and past members of electro-jazz ensemble Jaga Jazzist are also involved with pop group the National Bank, alt-rockers Motorpsycho, metal band KILL and adorable lounge-pop duo Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, whose new album Melody Mountain contains sweet natured covers of songs from Leonard Cohen, Kiss, Depeche Mode and, best of all, Joy Division’s "Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Meanwhile, the predominant use of English, rather than Norwegian, gives lyrics a refreshing simplicity. As 120’s Meisfjord notes "my vocabulary is not the same in English, that means you have to say a lot with less words and I like that idea.”

Of course, everyone also discusses the impact of the long, cold and oh-so-dark winters that keep people inside — whether to write songs, perform or simply socialise in cosy confines — and gives a lot of Norwegian music an underlying sense of melancholy.

But not too much. As Norway’s now-booming indie scene has shown, those light summer nights are always right around the corner.



VIKING METAL

In a country where cute little blonde schoolgirls wear "Enslaved” ball caps, Norway’s most Norwegian musical export has always been black metal. Though the term was coined a quarter-century ago by British band Venom’s second satanic album, the genre really took root in Norway during the 1980s, making headlines with its demonic content and connections to church burnings and murders. Later subgenres were adapted by Norwegian romantic nationalists and neo-Nazis and there are even Christian black metal bands like Extol, an old outfit of Serena Maneesh’s Emil Nikolaisen. "It’s the extreme history that we have, going from extraordinary paganism and darkness and being close to quite drastic nature and the ancient heritage and culture of the Vikings,” says Nikolaisen of black metal‘s enduring connection to Norway. "We’re raised in modern culture but we still have the medieval heritage. When you’re doing music I think it’s something subconscious and in that way it is coming not just from you but from your previous generation and your citizenry.”

THE NEXT WAVE

Datarock
The basement club John Dee (below Rockefeller, natch) is already rammed for a secret show by Bergen "new rave’ act Datarock. Fredrik Saroea, Ketil Mosnes and their "men‘s choir” — all decked out in dark glasses and matching red track suits — take the small stage and almost immediately cause the beyond-capacity crowd to start bouncing and singing along to every word of "Computer Camp Love,” their Revenge of the Nerds-inspired ode to Commodore 64-era summers, the Devo-ish "I Used to Dance with my Daddy,” the sophomorically hilarious "Nightflight to Uranus” and their latest indie-disco single "Fa-Fa-Fa.” Their electronic pop-rock concoction sounds like the Go! Team if they actually had songs. Though their so-nice-they-named-it-twice debut album Datarock Datarock came out in Canada last year via distributor Fusion 3, it arrived relatively unheralded. Not so with the record’s recent release in the UK, where the band has been adopted by NME and sent out on tour to play for crowds who, like their long in-the-know Norwegian fans, can’t stop dancing. Expect Datarock to soon take the form of conquering heroes.

The Whitest Boy Alive
You know Bergen’s own Erland Øye, you love his folk-pop duo Kings of Convenience and his karaoke-inspired DJ Kicks compilation soundtracked your parties for, like, a whole year. Well, prepare for his latest lark, the Whitest Boy Alive. Technically based in Berlin, where the Norwegian now lays his head, WBA’s laidback organic dance music has avoided going the techno route and still sounds like Erland, with its considerable charm largely rooted in Øye’s inimitably sleepy-soft vocals on tracks like the dreamy "Burning” and sad-eyed "Done With You” Though once totally electronic based, the minimalist songs continue to groove with Øye’s guitar licks, Daniel Nentwig’s analog synths, the funky bass of Marcin Oz (aka DJ Highfish) and double-time drumming from Sebastian Maschat — but no programmed elements. Their debut album Dreams is out now on their own label Bubbles, but may require a special request at your favourite indie record shop. They’ve stuck to touring Europe so far, but Whitest Boy’s buzz should build over here soon as they cross the pond.