Röyksopp & Robyn Dance with Death
Published Jun 04, 2014Since hitting it off working together on collaborations "The Girl and the Robot," a single from the Norwegian electronic duo's 2009 album Junior, and "None of Dem," which served as an album track on the Swedish electro-pop maven's 2010 critical smash Body Talk, Swedish pop auteur Robyn and Röyksopp's Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland have become close friends. In 2013, based on their previous successes, they formed a band, of sorts, keeping it a secret until they were ready to reveal a finished product this year. The result, titled Do It Again, is a five-song, 35-minute EP that runs the gamut from dance floor stompers to slow-burning, Steve Reich-inspired ambient meditations. Over the phone from Norway and Sweden, respectively, Torbjørn and Svein and Robyn spoke about friendship, time, death, Simpsons jokes and the power of music from the heart.
The three of you have spoken about being burned out after touring in 2010, and how that led to your collaboration. A lot of musicians would posit that the road is a difficult place to write, and that you need life experience to inspire more music. Where did the inspiration to want to make music again come from?
Robyn: I always feel like when I've made an album, that's when I feel the most… creative is a boring word, but that when I feel I'm "varm i kläderna," as we say in Swedish. [The idiom — which loses its meaning when translated roughly to "warm in the clothes" in English — refers to a feeling that one is "in the zone," comfortable in one's skin and sure of oneself. Thanks to Catja Freiin von Zedlitz-Neukirch and Linn Vizard for the translation help.] That's when I feel warm, like my muscles are warm and everything's functioning the way I want it to. So usually, when I've made an album, I usually feel like I want to keep making music. It was the same thing this time around when I made Body Talk; even though it was a long album, I had lots of ideas. Then two years of touring came in the way. Lots of things happened during those years that had nothing to do with work but [were] more personal, life shit. For me, I was just waiting to get back into the studio and do stuff. But I felt like I couldn't just go in and do the same thing over again. I had to collect my thoughts. It was hard to start on my own — I didn't know where to begin, really. Working with Svein and Torbjørn was such a relief for me, because it's such an inspiring and very kind but also not at all predictable environment to work in. I just went over there with a gut feeling. But we had talked about doing it before.
Torbjørn, in Röyksopp you're used to working with other singers — Anneli Drecker, Karin Dreijer from the Knife, Lykke Li — what's different about working with Robyn?
Torbjørn Brundtland: It started out — if you look back to the very beginning — not totally different from the other collaborations. We sent over beats, ideas, sketches; Robyn had a listen and made up her own mind about what she wanted to work on. We met, discussed, and we found common ground. Then we composed together. In that respect, the process for "The Girl and the Robot," which was the beginning in , wasn't that different. But we've become friends, and we like to hang out, talk about other things than music, and just do life stuff together as well, and slowly, it became clear we wanted to do something more. We wanted to create a band, and for this mini-album, we've been together from the beginning on many of these tracks, from zero.
Does being friends outside of being collaborators help the creative process?
T: Yes. It's definitely nice for losing inhibitions and showing vulnerability, not being afraid of taking things in new directions. When you meet someone very quick and collaborate with them, it's actually very important to have a plan for what you want to do, otherwise it might just not work. But with us being friends and so on, we could allow ourselves to not have a plan, at least at certain stages of this project. For instance, the day we started making "Monument," it didn't come out of a plan, we just started talking about stuff: time, life and death. We were inspired by our talk, and just started playing with time stretching and stretching sound. Just from that friendly talk, loose shoulders and hanging out, a creative process started. That's something you can do only with friends or, at least, if you trust the people you're with.
The three of you were asked what single word you'd use to sum up Do It Again, and Robyn, you chose "time," because the album was dealing with that concept. You can hear it on "Monument," when you sing about it being "a beacon when [you're] gone," and on the cyclical title track, "Do It Again." What was making you think about time in that way?
R: I can't speak for Torbjørn and Svein, but I think that maybe getting into this other part of your semi-grown up life between 35 and 40 might be something that makes you think about time and those kinds of things. When you go through things in life, you're faced with yourself, and you have to make up your mind about things: "What do I want to make out of this situation that I'm in right now, or confronted with? You have to take a stand, kind of. When those things happen in life, you create a before and after, in a way, and that before and after is very much about time and maybe creating possibilities for the future.
You kind of reference that on "Sayit." You sing "I want you," almost putting your foot down.
R: I don't know what "Sayit" means! I think it's a lot of things, actually. Creating "Sayit," for me, is a lot about repetition, about what happens when you repeat things, and in a way that's about time, too. I don't think the lyrics have a message, I think it's about creating some kind of tension between these two characters, things people might recognize themselves in, but might also open up for other references: a boy and a girl, or a robot and a human. For me, it's about repetition.
The song "Do It Again" could be read as a positive or negative, as either a celebration or a Sisyphus type of narrative. Was it meant to be somewhere in the middle?
T: We definitely don't like to dictate interpretations. We've always been fond of things that are two-sided, at least, that can have a mature interpretation and something that's more immediate, like a Simpsons joke that makes children laugh and parents laugh at the same time, on different levels. That type of thing can be a tool in writing, and we use it all the time. On the surface, "Do It Again" can be that moment when you just say, "Fuck it! I know this might not be the smartest decision in my life, but let's go" — that feeling of elation and freedom and empowerment. But there's also a shadow underneath it all, a sadness or loneliness in the music that's there. This double-ness.
I sense a definite beginning, middle and end to this EP. Were you trying to construct a narrative here, across the five songs?
R: No. I think we just made the music, and because we were in the state that we were in — not like, a horrific state, but just, life.
Svein Berge: There's definitely an aesthetic vision to how the mini-album is put together. Not necessarily as a narrative, like a book — because then we probably would have written a book instead — but yeah, if you look at it, it's actually got a structure to it. There's the long intro and the long outro, and sort of an energetic peak in the middle.
It's almost got a gothic sensibility. It's a celebration, but celebration in a decaying way — it has a darkness, it's crumbling.
S: That's definitely a theme that we think about and write about, yeah.
It has real patience to it — long builds and moody atmosphere, rather than big choruses and verses, for the most part. Robyn, as the more traditional verse-chorus songwriter here, was that a difficult thing for you to adapt to? To sit back for songs like "Inside the Idle Hour Club" and such?
R: No! For me, that was pure pleasure to be pulled in a different direction.
T: You were part of it, as well! None of it was you wanting to make three-minute pop songs and us saying "Oh no no." It's everyone pulling in the same direction.
R: Yeah, exactly! And thank you for saying that, Torbjørn, but what I was going to say is that one of the aesthetics we actually talked about was letting things take time, and not making what was expected. At a very early stage, we discussed a more airy and floating kind of musical space. Of course, a few of the songs aren't like that at all, but that's the energy we were in when we started writing things. "Do It Again" was a floating, airy kind of song in the beginning.
The press release for Do It Again says that this mini-album serves as an introduction for the next Röyksopp full-length. Can you talk about that album?
T: Well, very little. Going back to the beginning, when we started out making music as kids, there were always people around us telling grand stories of what they were going to do. We never spoke of what we were going to do, kind of with the feeling that if you just do it instead, it's more efficient and it happens the right way. We basically don't want to tell you too much about it, if that's okay.
S: Obviously, Robyn has equal part on this mini-album, so it's not as if we're trying to glue this release or pin it to our release coming later this year, but as Torbjørn pointed out, we are within the same sort of realm when it comes to themes. It's about spirituality, satisfaction and fulfillment, and it's about decay and demise, doubt and denial, attractions and compulsions; themes we've dabbled in in the history of Röyksopp. It will be down that route with a darker sentiment; the same kind of darkness you find on this release.
Robyn, are you on that album at all?
R: Um, I don't know! We'll see… what happens.
T: I think we'll point back to what we said; we don't want to give too much away.
That's fair. Robyn, you've said that making this album meant "not having to live up to anything but my own expectations," but not being on a label, I would imagine you're used to creative freedom. The Billboard article from which I got that quote points out you haven't been on the Hot 100 chart for 17 years, but given your success, I would imagine that doesn't matter. What I want to ask is, in what way has your career changed the most since going independent?
R: To name something concrete, I think the biggest change is that I don't have to play music to anyone until it's done. That's the biggest change I can describe in an easy way. The biggest change for me is I have a platform to explore things. There's psychology behind it, when I know that I'm the one that's responsible for what I'm putting out and that I'm the only one that has ownership of it. When I know that I don't have to show it to anyone or please anyone with it, it changes my mindset. That's something that's been happening gradually. I'm happy if people feel like I'm doing what I want to, but that's a process, as well — I don't always know what I want! It's a part of life to try and figure that out, almost like figuring out who you are. A way of doing that for me is to make music, so the platform that I release the music from needs to be protected; that's something that enables me to explore this part of my life or part of myself more and more.
It allows you to work on projects like this.
R: Yes, exactly. I think that's one of the things that's really important when it comes to describing what this is. It really started out of us just making music together, in the moment. Out of the fun we had together is where all the ideas came from. It was very rewarding to work that way: nobody knew we were in the studio together, we were just thinking about our own needs or our own thoughts or whatever we wanted to do, and to me, that's what music is about. Music all over the world, if it's made like that, it's like its own language. I don't even have to know the person who made the music. I still feel very connected, and I think that language can't really be faked. It has to come from a real place, and I feel like we've done that on this record.