Q&A with Rasmus Stolberg of Efterklang
Efterklang is a Danish group whose latest album, 2007's Parades, merges electronic touches with sweeping orchestration -- a combination that results in a vivid, dreamy soundtrack to bliss. In advance of the outfit's March 14 gig at the Larimer Lounge, bassist/multi-instrumentalist Rasmus Stolberg pulls back the curtain on Efterklang's history, creative approach and future ventures in the intriguing Q&A below.
Despite the complexity of Efterklang's work, Stolberg concedes that he and his mates, including primary composers Mads Brauer and Casper Clausen, had little in the way of formal musical training -- a deficit he sees as a positive, since it allows the players to make choices more scholarly types might unconsciously avoid. From there, he outlines the weaknesses of their early groups, some of which date back to their elementary-school days; the renaissance that took place after they moved from their relatively isolated hometown to cosmopolitan Copenhagen; the manner in which Efterklang's electronic instrumentation went from a foreground feature to the underpinning for acoustic arrangements; the band's method of overcoming mental blocks through the use of invented imagery; a project with a Danish symphony that should put a punctuation mark on the end of the Parades era even as it opens up opportunities for new collaborations; and the combo's next album, on which more traditional elements will be added to the mix -- although Stolberg promises that they'll be subverted in the process.
Learn how below.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Were you raised in a musical family, either in the sense of relatives who were actual musicians or ones who simply loved music and played it a lot around the house as you were growing up?
Rasmus Stolberg: We have four co-members in Efterklang, and on that question, I think I can speak for all of us: We grew up in quite non-musical families (laughs). On the same level goes education and training. We never actually received any proper music training and education. So I'm not sure how we got this far (laughs). What happened is, I think all of us as kids were sent to music schools by our parents. There are a lot of those around Denmark. It's the same way you'd be sent to a basketball camp. In your free time, you're sent to learn piano or guitar or whatever. And all of us did that. That's sort of where it all started for us. And Mads [Brauer] and I, we went to the same kindergarten, and the same middle school. We went together all the way up to high school. And in the first years of our school, we had a very cool teacher who got us into making bands, making music and writing our own songs.
WW: In some ways, then, your band stands as a tribute to the Danish education system, even if you didn't have proper music training and education.
RS: Yeah, but not the professional education system, if you understand. The training we got there was very basic and on the amateur level. We just took it from there and started learning other things ourselves.
WW: But you found opportunity and inspiration there?
RS: Exactly, exactly.
WW: You mentioned that you and Mads have known each other since kindergarten. Given how young you both were, I imagine it's unlikely that you'd remember how you met. But do you recall?
RS: I think maybe Mads does. He has a very good memory (laughs). I'm not sure, exactly. I think he has a memory of meeting me there. My memory of kindergarten is, I got there a little late, and I thought that was because I lived for four years on an island before. But I didn't, really. I'd just been on a two-week vacation. I started two weeks later than the other kids (laughs). I think I was quite an airhead as a kid (laughs).
WW: I read that you and Mads began playing together in a band in fifth grade. Was that thanks to the teacher you mentioned?
RS: Yeah, I think so. It was three guys from our class. It just felt natural for us. It wasn't something he made us do. Just the fact that we were in a class where there was a lot of music going on, and we sang, and it was cool to play an instrument, it also felt right and natural to make a band. And in sixth grade and seventh grade, we had a lot of funny bands playing Beatles songs, Guns N' Roses songs. And quite early, we started writing our own songs. None of us are really hard-core musicians. I think it was always easier for us to write our own songs, because then we wouldn't have to figure out how to play all the other songs.
WW: Some musicians feel that a lack of formal training is actually beneficial, because they didn't know they were breaking rules. And sometimes breaking rules can make the music that results more interesting. Is that the case with you guys?
RS: I would say so, definitely yes. I, myself, do not write the music in Efterklang. But I can definitely say that our main songwriter [Brauer] is breaking a lot of rules he doesn't realize he's breaking. And I think it's for the better. He's just very musical, and he hears melodies in his head. And he doesn't really care about the time or the tonality of the melody. He just writes the melody, and he makes everything around it fit. So often you'll hear funny time and tonality things in our music, and it's just something that's there because that's how the melody was, and that's what suits the melody. It's not something we try to do to make it different.
WW: In those early bands you mentioned, what instruments did you play?
RS: I was playing drums, and Mads was playing guitar. That's how it was.
WW: And when did the bass and the guitar come along for you?
RS: I had a stupid drum teacher, so I swapped over to guitar and bass (laughs). That was in seventh grade.
WW: I heard that Casper [Clausen] came into the picture when you were in high school. What kind of music were you making then? Was it still mostly pop music? Or had you graduated to a different style?
RS: It was some sort of experimental rock music. But it wasn't that experimental - and it wasn't that good, either. I think we were inspired by Radiohead, how they sounded back then. Somewhere around OK Computer. And we were inspired by some Danish bands that were doing something similar. That was basically what we did. It wasn't until we moved to Copenhagen that we had a creative storm, I would call it. And that changed everything for us.
WW: Did anything specific spur that storm?
RS: Again, I'm not the songwriter, but I know very much what they would say, because I've talked with them so much about this. But what I think happened is, we left the place we grew up, and we left the band we had there. And we really had this big urge to start over. Because I think all of us at that time had the feeling that the project we were leaving was awful, and it was generic. I think all of us, when we were in it, thought we were really doing something special, and we had some success with it. And through those successful experiences, we got to play bigger shows. Some of it was recorded and some of it was on video. I think at the time, when we saw ourselves on video, we were completely in shock of what we were doing (laughs). It just was not at all how it sounded inside our heads.
WW: Is any of that video floating around on the Internet right now?
RS: No, and we're doing our best not to direct anybody to it (laughs). This was back in '99. But we just had this big urge to start over, to find our own voice, establish ourselves in Copenhagen. And what this resulted in was, we spent two-and-a-half years in a rehearsal space, writing songs, learning how to play them, ditching them and writing new songs. Evolving what we were doing.
We moved in the year 2000, I think. We grew up in the countryside, and I remember that we could start ordering CDs online, and it was easy to get hold of underground music. But when we moved to Copenhagen, we were really presented with so many things. People introduced us to so much. It sounds so stupid if you look at how things are now. Every kid in every small town can do this by reading blogs or websites or Westword, maybe. But we were really introduced to so many things that it kick-started this creativity, I think.
WW: And the instrumentation suddenly became much more electronic. Did that instrumentation help you transcend the number of people in the group, and your individual abilities? Did it let you make more sounds, and more kinds of sounds, than you'd ever imagined before?
RS: When we moved to Copenhagen, there was a really, really strong electronica scene going on. There was a band called Future 3, and one of the guys was called Opiate, and they made very, very strong records from that time. We were very, very inspired by that, and Mads, who's in charge of all the electronics, he was tired of playing guitar, I think. So he started figuring out how he could do music like that on his own. For sure, it helped us a lot to figure out how many things we could put in. And just the fact that we could record with that equipment. So for sure, that was a big thing, that we introduced that element to our music.
WW: By the time the Tripper recording came out, you'd already started to transition away from just being an electronic group. You'd started adding all kinds of acoustic instrumentation, and the result was a really big, sweeping sound. Was that a natural evolution? Or did you have a sense that you were dissatisfied with what you were doing, as you were before, and decided to make a change?
RS: Not really. Since we moved to Copenhagen, we've been constantly moving forward, not really looking back. All the things we've been doing, it felt natural to do that, finish it, and then start working on the next project. Actually, I think it's up until now, with our third album... Actually, we're making it right now, and we're going to road-test the new songs on this tour. And I think this is the first time we actually stopped since the beginning of this decade and said, "What should we do now? How can we change things?" Because we feel that the Parades CD is sort of like the album we've been trying to make since we started Efterklang. We feel we succeeded enough with doing that, and now let's try something different. I look forward to how the next record will be.
WW: Before we move on, I'd like to ask you more about Parades, the electronic elements have been pushed further into the background, and you've got this incredible range of other instruments: violins and flutes and harps and choirs. Was there ever a fear that the songs might be overwhelmed by all of those elements? Or are they so intertwined that it's hard to think about one without the other?
RS: Yeah, I think that's exactly what's going on with Parades. All these things are so intertwined with each other that we feel if we take any of it out, something is missing. But the whole story of this is, we never actually looked at ourselves as an electronic band. We always saw ourselves as an experimental rock band. When you listen to Tripper and then Parades, you're right. Tripper has a lot more electronic sides to it. But they were made almost similar. A lot of those electronic things on Tripper are also there on Parades. It's just that the sound sources for it are organic sound sources. I think Mads may have done even more work on Parades, but it blends in so perfectly with all the acoustic stuff. He's using the same sound sources in the same way.
WW: Was the popularity of Tripper allow you to afford using more actual musicians as opposed to having the sounds replicated electronically?
RS: Well, there are also thirty guest musicians on Tripper. It's just how it's mixed and finalized. We were never actually that happy with the recording. So we turned up the electronic part, if you understand. And all the acoustic stuff was floating around creating a landscape in the background. In Parades, we sort of flipped that coin. We give a lot more prevalence to all the acoustic stuff. But we did get some success on Tripper, and some of that success helped us make Parades in the way we were hoping we could have made Tripper. That's for sure. But in many ways, they were actually made the same way. It's just that the directions of the two albums are slightly different.
WW: Fans of yours often talk about the cinematic quality of your music. When you're recording, do you have specific visuals in mind? Are you hoping that people will see certain things in their minds? Or would you rather that people open their minds and see whatever images occur to them?
RS: Especially in making of all the recordings we've done so far, we've talked a lot about images. There's no verse that comes back, there's no chorus that comes back. The form is more A-B-C-D-E-F-G. You travel through music with every song. And making that kind of music can be kind of abstract when you're talking about it and debating it and saying, "What should we do now?" Because normal songwriting is more like, "Now we take the second verse." And the way we do it is, "Wow, I have no idea." So it helps us to discuss what kind of image we felt the music was giving. Maybe somebody might say, "I feel it's like a forest in the morning, and there's a mist. Why don't we for the next part, we say that bulls appear and something happens? The bulls chase Jesus, or something." So we would debate an image, and then maybe we'd add something to that image, and then we'd add a history to that image. And then we'd sort of figure out how we would like to continue the song, or the piece.
WW: So is there a sort of secret narrative hidden in your songs?
RS: Well, not really. We never really wrote down full stories for every song. It's very random. It's all about the feeling, all about the music and the sounds and the melodies. That's the main thing for us, on a totally abstract level. We don't try to tell a story with a song. We just try to make the best song possible. Just try to continue to make good songs, and every time we try to make a better song. I think it's just a method for us. If we get stuck in a song, we'll use those images to get on. But the most perfect songs are the ones where you don't have to discuss those kinds of things. You just have to follow where they're going, because the song is almost writing itself somehow.
WW: When you play those songs today in performance, can you remember what images you were thinking about when you wrote it? Or does that get lost in the process and it becomes its own thing?
RS: As a collective thing, it gets lost. Maybe as an individual thing, some of us still remember it. Casper and Mads, who are the main composers and produceRS: I think it will be more present for them. And if they don't feel that the way we're playing it fits the image, they will say it. But they don't do that, because we've played them so many times, and all of us like the way we play them. It just becomes a natural thing, I guess.
WW: Do you have fans come to you guys afterwards and say, "When you play 'Caravans' [a track on Parades], I picture this"? And it may be completely different from what you may have imagined in the first place, but it's still a valid take on the song?
RS: We really welcome that. And it's really rare that people have the same images we have. That would almost be like a miracle, I think. But quite often, people have some very nice images of what they see when they hear our music. And it's very interesting. We don't intend to give people certain images. We just want people to sort of float away when they listen to our music, especially on our back catalogue. I think things will change a little with our new music we're making. Because we're still Efterklang, and we're still trying very hard to make good Efterklang music. But for inspiration on this new album, I think we just realized that a lot of us do like pop music, and the ways pop music is built up sometimes. I think we're trying to figure out if we can incorporate the good elements of that into Efterklang's music.
WW: So do the new songs have more of a classic pop-song structure?
RS: I would say so. And this time, we might not be talking so much about image, and what should follow this image. We're more talking about, is this melody working out? And is the groove all right here? And should we have a second verse here? It's more elementary, suddenly. But we're not trying to make it a traditional pop-rock album. We're just trying to steal some good things from that kind of music and put it into the Efterklang universe.
WW: Does that make this new material easier to play when you're on tour, as I understand you'll be when you come to Denver, with a seven-person lineup?
RS: Yeah. Well, I guess it will. One of our ambitions for this new album is, we want to play it live before we go into the studio. The way Parades sounds has a lot to do with the fact that there were no finished songs before we started recording. The recording was the actual songwriting. And when we were finished with that eighteen months later, we didn't have a clue how we could play these songs as a band. Which was interesting and special. We spent three months in a rehearsal place, with eight people figuring out how we could play the songs. And I think we got it pretty close, and some of the things became better live. But for this new record, the ambition is that we can play everything live. We can play in front of an audience, and so everybody in the band really knows the songs before we go into the studio. This method, I know, will create a different kind of album, and I think it's working out. So the new songs are easier to play live. But that also has to do with the way that we're making them.
WW: I read that this past year, you did a big recording with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, where there were fifty people onstage. Was that recording a way of putting a period at the end of the Parades chapter of your career in some ways? So that you can move on to a more pop-song based approach?
RS: I think you can definitely so say, yes. That's how we feel about that Parades concert. That felt like the culmination of everything we did on Parades. And we're going to release it on a DVD in the fall, so everyone can have a look at it. And we're also going to do it in Leeds, in England, with another orchestra. I'm kind of hoping that this Parades project can be something we can do maybe once or twice a year over the next ten years with different orchestras around the world. That's our ambition, at least, and we'll see how far we get. It looks like we've got two shows this year already, and maybe when we look back at our back catalogue in ten years, we'll see that this was the end of that era. But I really have no idea. It's so nice making albums and it's so nice having projects... There's all this talk about how the album is dying and etc., etc. But I really like the art form. It really is such a nice way of working with music, this form of putting together ten or twelve songs, and you set out dogmas or ambitions for that project, and then you finish. And either you feel like you did it, and you'll set up a new project, or you'll feel like you almost did it, and then you'll do another one where you want to have everything that didn't work out the last time work out.
WW: Do you have a time frame when you hope to have the album of new songs completed?
RS: I'm hoping we can have a finished album in early fall. And then it won't come out before Christmas, because nobody wants to put out weird music before Christmas (laughs).