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20 Questions: Casiokids' Omar E. Johnsen

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Tuesday, Oct 11, 2011
Ever have to turn in a term paper at the last second? While your band is on tour? The day before your back gives out? Well, Of Montreal-endorsed dance-rock group Casiokids know such pain, but share a great deal of wisdom and emotional depth in this fascinating 20 Questions feature . . .

When we last checked in with Norway’s celebrated dance-pop group Casiokids, the band was being given a large Of Montreal-assisted push stateside, and it was OF’s frontman Kevin Barnes who championed their U.S. singles collection Topp stemning på lokal bar, a frightfully fun and effortlessly-composed album.  Now, with tours behind them and degrees under their belts (no, really), the band is now set to try and get the world to shake its groove thing one more time with the release of Aabenbaringen over aaskammen (which roughly translates to The Revelation Over the Mountain).


Yet what separates these two albums is the absolute quantum leap in musicianship that the band has exhibited, with the new disc—although still very upbeat and very accessible—featuring sections of woodwinds, a heck of a lot more guitar, and a sweeter, softer core at the center, even when the band is rocking out.  The opening title track sets the stage for an almost orchestral takeover of things, but then the ‘70s synth strut of “Dresinen” helps remind you that at the end of the day, this is still a Casiokids album straight-through.  Its shifting dynamics keep you on your toes, but tunes like the Postal Service-indebted “London Zoo” show you that this band has enough pop smarts to last for a decade’s worth of albums.


Just before the album’s release, Omar E. Johnsen took time out of the band’s busy schedule to talk about matters both deeply humorous and deeply personal, seeking inspiration in artists, journalists, and filmmakers, as well as surviving the day when his body gave out after turning in his final term paper . . .
  


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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?


This is already getting quite personal, but the last time I cried to a movie wasn’t too long ago, and the reason for shedding a tear (or seven) had little to do with the film in itself, except it involved a scene of someone staying in a hospital passing away, and it reminded me of a recent matter involving my father. I was there with him together with my family, all gathered around him when we had to plug him out. So the last half year or so there has been, and there still are these moments where you read or see, or even smell and hear something that triggers those feelings, maybe more often now than before. This has also happened attending concerts, last time during a gig of a friend of mine Susanne Sundfør, a remarkable Norwegian singer.


So now I sound like a real cry baby. And I haven’t really answered your question, have I?

2. The fictional character most like you?


Kato, the sidekick of the superhero Green Hornet? Because he kicks ass. No seriously. But if I cut my hair though, and pick up my martial arts skills, and . . . at least I’m half-Asian, which translates into half-geek according to a general consensus as often showed in American movies . . .

3. The greatest album, ever?


Man, that’s a tough one . . . at least Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys is up there.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?


I never watched Star Trek, but I grew up watching Star Wars—and besides, Star Trek does not have light swords. So I guess that answers it.

5. Your ideal brain food?


So since monkey brains and such are out of the question, I would say salad? No, but more seriously: what tickles my brain are those things that interest me, which usually are connected to whatever makes me want to create and make things. That, for instance, may be picking up my old architecture theory books (I used to study modern architecture history—I said geek, didn’t I?) or design, art, and theater/drama books. I occasionally work for BIT-Teatergarasjen (a dramatic art venue), where many of those things come together. For instance text, music, sound, scenography, design, and also lights. Bits of this inspiration comes through to our performances, whether it is in the “pop”-world playing gigs when we do for instance the shadow puppetry version of our show together with our friends in Digitalteateret, or when we collaborate with modern dancer performers as we did at the Norwegian festivals Ekko and Insomnia last year, making cross-platform performances. I hope we will bring more of this on to the road in the future.


Other times reading autobiographies, like the one I’ve just started by the movie director Ingmar Bergman, make my thoughts spin. When reading others experiences, and then again reading what they’ve written about their own work giving their thoughts around it, can be really inspiring. It makes you want to achieve something in life—that means to create something, and then in the end, if no one else will write about you—at least you have something to write about yourself. 


Another thing that just popped into my mind now, a thing that really inspired me and made me think the other day, was attending a political debate—something I seldom have the time to do. Here, Christian Borch (a NRK correspondent, the national TV station similar to BBC) presented his new book which had made some fuzz in media because he was criticizing some certain politics (with the details which I don’t want to bore you with now), but the thing that was the most inspiring was to see a confident and rhetorically strong person in action. One of the themes of discussion was in fact rhetorics, and so it was interesting to see the debate on a meta level, or at least from a distance, noticing who had their rhetorical skills intact and who hadn’t. So in other words, not just what people has to say, but how they say it is of interest. Which brings us back to music again. Listening to both music others make, and what we in Casiokids do—is constantly feeding my mind with ideas—not only about which notes or words that are being played or sung—but how they are presented. Both the auditive—how the sounds are shaped—and visually—how you as a performer presents it.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?


I’m proud, or at least glad, I got to finish off my masters thesis on tour in the UK a couple of years ago, or maybe the other way around—managing to play that many gigs whilst writing without breaking down. I was really close. (I think we did at least 170 gigs that year). We were seriously pushing it. I really felt like a wreck at the time—big time. In fact, when I come to remember—I actually had a breakdown. Literally speaking. My back broke down to the point where I almost fainted the first thing getting out of the van on a service station the day after the text was handed in. Fortunately it was just a physical breakdown. Happy days.

7. You want to be remembered for . . . ?


Well, professionally, I at least hope we for a while will be remembered for the effort we are making with Casiokids, trying to bring some awesome music and joy to the world (even if you don’t understand the gibberish kind of sounding language we sing in). So more generally speaking I would say I would want to be remembered for what I have been part of creating.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?


Well, there are so many I don’t really know where to start. In the field of popular music I could just mention some of the people and bands that have or still inspires me. People or bands like for instance Keigo Oyamada (AKA Cornelius), Kraftwerk, Deerhoof, Bob Hund, Frank Zappa, Prince, Robert Fripp, John Cage, Gijs Gieskes, Kate Bush, and James Murphy. Set their music aside, which I find great—I guess my impression is that they are, or have been really hardworking people, and some of them studio workaholics. I guess the same could be said about the great Adrian Belew. Man, I love his quirky sounds and awesome guitar playing.


The most of these mentioned have something in common, which is that they in their own fields break new grounds. I find that appealing.


Further, you have some really inspiring music communities, like for instance the people involved with the record label Metronomicon audio and their collaborators—Yokoland, the design team. Another industrial design team that makes me want to play and create stuff just by seeing their products is Teenage Engineering.


When it comes to other inspiring stuff, I for instance love the movies and the work of Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick for perfectionism and not being afraid of using time, Anderson for his warm humor and wonderful characters. I’ve also fallen in love with the writings of Haruki Murakami—when I start reading his books, I just can’t put them away. In architecture I find Arne Korsmo, Sverre Fehn, the Smithsons and Kenzo Tange [inspirational]. I guess I have a fetish for Brutalism and Japanese-inspired buildings.


For interesting and inspirational ideas and getting a good overview of—as well as understanding the mechanisms in society and your own position within it—I’ve learned a lot by reading Pierre Bourdieu.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?


If I were to be an artist and making art, I wish it would have been a certain exhibition by fellow Norwegian Børre Sæthre named “From Someone Who Nearly Died But Survived”, held at Festspillutstillingen in Bergen, 2007. I believe at least excepts or parts of that exhibition was shown at MOMA as well. Seeing his work, or rather being in it, was like walking into Blade Runner, the movie. It gave me the goosebumps. Børre Sæthre should definitely have been on the list above by the way.

10. Your hidden talents . . . ?


I guess I have a talent for drawing, or at least I had. Sometimes I wished I pursued that direction either into art or architecture. But I guess it isn’t too late anyways. Again, going back to a former question, Kim Hiorthøy is also really inspiring and a fantastic artist, graphic designer, and musician. (He is doing artwork for Smalltown Supertown and Rune Grammofon.)

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?


To apply for music high school, by my former piano teacher Inger Ann Folkvord (RIP) when I was around 11. She made me realize/convince me that I had enough skills to make it, and that it is possible to follow the path of music in life. But come on, how cool is it to be the-little-Asian-guy-playing-the-piano when you are [a] teenager? Slightly better than playing the trumpet, I guess. Anyways, a couple of years after this, I quit playing the piano; I swapped it for the electric guitar. As if that helped. I don’t regret beginning to play the guitar, but now I regret putting away the piano. Hence doing a comeback on the keys—on Casio keyboards . . .

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?


For many years Casiokids “borrowed” a Korg M500 micro preset (an old ‘70s analog monophonic synth) of a friend. Basically we borrowed it and never gave it back. Now it is integrated as a signature sound for us. I actually believe it is the case as well for a couple of the Casio keyboards we have had the longest . . . we might have given them back now, as we were given one by Alexis in Hot Chip after playing a support tour for them, which was a very kind of him.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . . ?


I would maybe say Levis, but lately I have been using Scandinavian brands such as Cheap Monday and Acne, as well as clothes from Supremebeing and the very local brand called Sofakolleksjonen. For the weather in Bergen, Norway (where I live, known for its rain), I’m quite happy about my new Fjällräven jacket—something that never will go out of fashion. Well, it might not be that fashionable next year or the year after. But I don’t care, and if I did, at least I can certainly pick it up again when I turn 50. I guess I kind of like some of the sleek and posh Armani stuff, but taken down a notch, less formal. Maybe that’s where the Scandinavian design and fashion come into the picture, you get a bit of both—maybe something not too far from Marc Jacobs.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?


I think stealing Bernice Alexandra “Ray” Eames for a night out at the Ritz would have been quite interesting, or the Norwegian equivalent, Grethe Prytz Kittelsen. Otherwise, their husbands both would have been of great interest, but I guess they have had to come second in this matter—they have gotten enough attention as it is. It would’ve been fun to been given a lecture and discuss topics like architecture, design, and society with them over a nice meal.

15. Time travel: where, when, and why?


In order to do whatever was required in the last question, I guess time travel has to be the solution somehow. But how about California, back in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s? Or, when I think twice about it—somewhere in the future would’ve been even more exciting to check out.  Maybe actually my hometown Bergen in Norway, in 100 years or so—making a comparison of the places I know so well. But then again I forgot about the moon and space-traveling . . .

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation, or Prozac?


The spa-like trip to the Blue Lagoon we had after playing the Iceland Airwaves festival kind of made me a whole person again after several months straight touring. But I guess a coffee at my local cafe “Landmark” would be the closest I get for a while, which basically means an hour of sitting down enjoying a cup of Joe whilst reading newspapers.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . . ?


Well, I guess music doesn’t come far from being essential . . . but that’s the boring answer, and a totally wrong one since you can’t really inhale or eat it or, right? Well, if so I would say my mom’s Satay (Malaysian barbecue). (Hi Mom!) But, heck, where would I (or anyone for that matter) be without coffee . . . or a party without booze? Hmmm . . .

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?


A house by the sea, not too far from a not too small a city. For now, Bergen, Norway, suits me fine, oh—except for the weather. Berlin has crossed my mind. Didn’t we just talk about L.A.? It seems that maybe a house boat would be the solution. Something mobile.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?


I think most Norwegians (whatever political view) nowadays would have said something like “Well done handling the terrorist attack in Oslo and on Utøya.” (To Jens Stoltenberg, our prime minister.) He did show some good leadership, saying the opposite of what former president George W. Bush would have in a similar situation.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?


Right now we in Casiokids are preparing the release of the new album Aabenbaringen Over Aaskammen, rehearsing new songs, and also we are working on building a new studio (again) which we are going to share with our friends in Young Dreams, which Fredrik in our band also is a part of. It is an extraordinary good band. We are also having meetings with our excellent in-house designer Petri Henriksson, who will be part of making one of our upcoming new music video, so stay tuned!

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