[26 October 2009]
Before this month, Norwegian acoustic duo Kings of Convenience had released only two albums in eight years, spending much of their time apart pursuing electro-pop side projects and making babies. On the heels of their October 20 release, Declaration of Dependence, co-singer/songwriter Erlend Øye chats with PopMatters about the influence of French house music, his hatred of flutes, and why his dashing musical partner is such a hit with teenage Korean girls.
Perhaps no proclamation has been as delicately declared as the one made eight years ago by two Norwegian troubadours: “Quiet is the New Loud.” The debut album of the same name from Kings of Convenience was a melody-driven acoustic-pop record, with no synthesizers, drums, or fancy production techniques. The album title was quickly co-opted by journalists and publicists alike as the unofficial motto for a movement of performers who emphasized delicate and sincere songwriting.
Erlend Øye is perplexed by how the group came to epitomize an entire musical genre. “I mean, I guess we have something in common with Jose Gonzalez,” he says, citing another quiet strummer. “But that’s pretty much it – and I don’t think you can start a ‘movement’ with only two groups.”
Although there are few pop outfits as insistently bare-bones as Kings of Convenience, their sound didn’t originate that way. The origins of the band have been frequently up for debate, but the most recent version is that Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe met at school in Bergen, Norway, and bonded over a goofy white-boy rap they wrote about a gym teacher. (Previous iterations provided to the press involve inter-school geography competitions and Norwegian embassies in Pakistan). After a failed EP with a generic four-person rock group called Skog, Øye says the twosome decided that breaking off from the outfit and performing on their own would be, well, “more convenient.” By the summer of 1999, the duo had signed to Kindercore Records, and promptly started work on what would become 2001’s Quiet Is the New Loud.
The group has since stayed with its tried-and-true formula of acoustic guitars and two-part pop harmony. 2004’s Riot on an Empty Street was just a shade spicier, incorporating the occasional violin or piano while flirting with elements of bossa nova and jazz. The band even found moderate mainstream success with “I’d Rather Dance with You” thanks to its euphoric chorus, upbeat music video and, most groundbreaking of all, newly added drum kit.
Kings of Convenience’s third album, Declaration of Dependence, out October 20, had been recently mastered when we checked in with Øye last month. Calling from a hotel room in New York City less than 24 hours after the group’s first stateside gig in four years (at Bowery Ballroom), Øye was unequivocally giddy about the Kings’ return to the stage. “It’s so cathartic to finally be performing for people,” he said. “To be done with the album is great. The record button is off, and now it’s just about the shows.”
“The shows,” in fact, were largely responsible for the composition of Declaration in the first place. In the years immediately following Riot, the two group members generally went their separate ways. Bøe spent time with his wife and new baby, while Øye dabbled in his electro-pop side project The Whitest Boy Alive and “played lots and lots of tennis.” The duo gigged sporadically from 2005 to 2007, slowly piecing together songs during soundcheck. (“Boat Behind”, for example, was conceived at a venue in Bari, Italy, normally used as a boxing ring.) Such settings inspired a flurry of new material, enough so that, by the time of a March 2007 gig in Mexico, Øye and Bøe realized they had the makings of a third record.
The recent hiatus is nothing new for the Kings, who seem to cherish downtime as much as touring and recording. Between the band’s first and second albums, Øye traveled the Europe club scene as an electronica DJ and put out a solo synth-pop record, Unrest, while Bøe returned to Bergen to complete a degree in psychology. Øye contends that the breaks have been a natural and even necessary element to their songwriting process. “You write music about stuff in your life, like getting to know people and building relationships,” he says. “If your life is just being in the studio, then it’s obviously not going to be very exciting, now is it?”
For a band known for straight-forward themes and what Øye describes as “some naïve moments,” Declaration marks a step forward lyrically, with pointed barbs on tracks like “Rule My World” (“How come when they kill it’s a crime [and] when you kill, it’s justice?”). The Kings’ latest is arguably their most mature, with pseudo-political offerings such as “Peacetime Resistance” and “Freedom and Its Owner”. “It’s not just this guy and his poor heart all the time,” says the 33-year-old. “There are definitely some songs that are more topical.”
Anointed by Øye as “the most rhythmic pop record ever to have no drums,” Declaration is filled with an array of percussive elements generated by tapping on guitars and plucking strings, from the shuffling “Me In You” to first single “Mrs. Cold”. Especially when compared to Riot, which dabbled with strings and pianos on numerous songs, Declaration is noticeably stripped-down. Øye recalls that during studio sessions the group frequently incorporated additional instruments before realizing that the music sounded better unadorned. “Sure, if we added bass and drums to a song, it would be different from all the other ones on the record,” Øye says. “But if we did that to all of them, then that would make us less different from all the other bands in the world. We are sticking to what we do best.”
Their latest also showcases unexpected influences ranging from French house music on “Rule My World” to trip-hop on “Scars on Land.” Believe it or not, folk music is actually one genre the duo does not reference. Øye concedes that their tunes share some superficial similarities with the harmony-rich compositions of Simon & Garfunkel (try listening to Riot‘s “Homesick” without being reminded of “The Dangling Conversation”). Nevertheless, he winces at the thought of being pigeonholed into that genre. “‘Folky’ makes me think of flutes,” he says, before deadpanning, “We don’t like flutes.”
The band’s new material has been received well, Øye says, even if that has sometimes manifested itself in comically divergent ways. The Bowery Ballroom gig in September was swathed in an almost religious silence. Last year’s shows in Seoul, meanwhile, featured throngs of giggly Korean teens feverishly shrieking at the duo’s every move. Regarding the latter example, Øye is refreshingly forthright in explaining away the swooning: “Tickets were really expensive there,” he says, “so the only ones who went were rich girls who are sexually interested in Eirik.”
Swoon-friendly or not, American fans will be lining up early next year, when Kings of Convenience embark on their US tour. Until then, the band will keep plugging away on their mission statement. “Our ultimate goal is to get the most textures and the most music out of just two guitars and two voices,” he says. “The idea is to do the most you can do, with very limited means.”