Erlend Øye on the Return of Kings of Convenience, Tinnitus, and the Legacy of His DJ-Kicks Mix

Erlend Øye on the Return of Kings of Convenience, Tinnitus, and the Legacy of His DJ-Kicks Mix
Kings of Convenience by Salvo Alibrio

I first heard Kings of Convenience's music—wait for it—because of Hollister. I bought an issue of CMJ in the Paramus Park mall store that had a sampler that included "Failure," from their incredible 2001 album Quiet Is the New Loud, which I immediately purchased soon thereafter.

Kings of Convenience have always had a place in my heart because of that album, and I quite enjoy their new one, Peace or Love, which also marks the first release from Erlend Øye and Eirik Bøe in 12 years. Øye, of course, is also responsible for his amazing DJ-Kicks mix from 2004, which bridged the gap between techno and indie and still stands as a singular and hard-to-find release. After he'd "had a swim" in the Mediterranean off the coast of his home in Sicily's  town of Syracuse, Øye hopped on Zoom with me to talk about KoC, his struggle with tinnitus, and whether his DJ-Kicks mix will ever come to streaming (spoiler: it might!).

What's it been like living in Sicily?

The difference between here and Norway is that most people here try very hard to eat together for lunch and dinner. In Norway, people like to eat by themselves. I enjoy very much to eat in company, and here that happens a lot. Also a lot of the time you can be outside, which I enjoy, because I have a lot of ear problems with tinnitus. If you live in a place where you have to socialize inside, it gets a lot harder on your ears. If life is happening outside, it's just much more comfortable with me.

Given how everyone likes to eat together over there, I have to imagine the lockdowns changed modern life pretty drastically.

My pandemic time was very divided by truly amazing times and truly shitty times. I was in Mexico to play festival shows with The Whitest Boy Alive, and just as we had all arrived the festivals got cancelled. We were also invited to go to a place called Hotel El Ganzo to do a small recording session, so me and the drummer went there with a few friends.

As things got worse in Europe, we said, "Let's not go back." So we stayed there for four months, which was amazing. It was like Mars over there—very desert-y, very different, but at least it was something new. It's almost better to be in a lockdown situation in a new place rather than an old place where you're repeating the same things. We were treated very well because we were the guests, so we had a wonderful time.

When I came back to Sicily, it was summer and it was really nice, but the winter was really depressing. A lot of life here in the winter is based around going to meet people in restaurants, and all of that shut down so it became very boring. I was trying to make sure I was living with people, so you make your own quarantine family if you can.

Do you feel like you've changed in any way over the past year?

I appreciate even more what it means to me to perform live. It's key to my mental health. It's the one time where a musician goes to work, does the work, and then the day's over and the work is done. With recording, it's just a long series of doubts. Is it good enough? Could it be better? You go to bed and you're not happy because you could always do more. With live shows, it could've been better, but now it's done. Show's over, maybe you'll get another chance tomorrow.

A lot of people in normal jobs go to work and home. A lot less people do that now, but it's a total luxury. Working 8-5 must be amazing. Your mind is free. It seems like a total paradise. The people who do that do stuff like building, very simple jobs—or not. I guess air traffic controllers are stressed during the day, but maybe at night they're worried about, "Did I tell them about X, Y, and Z?" [Laughs]

The new Kings of Convenience album is the first that you and Eirik have released in over a decade. You take your time with albums in general.

There are bands who have a lot of plans—a few months of recording, mixing, and then you tour. That's impressive, but you haven't allowed for anything that might not go well. What if at the end of the process, you're like, "I'm not sure I like this?" You have to put it out. I think that it's important, as an artist, that you like what you do—that you don't find yourself, a year down the line, listening to your album being played in some café and saying, "Oh no! What's this? I don't like this."

There's so many people putting out music now. It's so easily available. You have to make sure that when you do put out something, you like it—that it's something that's worth for people to pay attention to. You only have your fans' respect as long as you respect them. I don't think our fans are complaining, "Oh no! They're putting out too much music! I can't pay attention!"

The Kings of Convenience sound is really centered around the acoustic guitar as an instrument. What has specifically led you to embrace it as a vessel for your songwriting throughout your life?

I didn't have such a strong connection with the acoustic guitar when I was a teenager. I was just impressed by music in general. Since we were 16 in 1992-1993—just before electronic things were cheaply available to most people—guitars were what we had. It was the one thing we could control, and we tried to do the most we could with that guitar.

It was rare that we wanted to do things that we already heard. I remember listening to Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" thinking, "How does that guitar sound so good?" But most of the time we were inspired by bands like Stereolab. It just so happened we had acoustic guitars. It just so happened that the more we did with acoustic guitars, I realized we could do a lot with them—we just had to work very hard to get where we wanted to go with it.

It's not as if we can go to Nashville and ask a country producer to help record us. The way they think of acoustic guitars is very different. Our acoustic guitars are also supposed to be bass guitars—they're not just supposed to be these strummy things in the middle. They're supposed to fill everything up. So we've been very much alone in this process. We've never met an engineer that knows how to get the sound we want. It's just people we've worked with before, and if we work with them again, they've figured out new things with us.

That's why it's very difficult to be in our band, and why we take a long time to record. But finally, we have no competition. I mean, there is Jose Gonzalez. He's in our area.

Leslie Feist is someone you've let into the band's world a few times now.

I really respect her as a lyric-writer. Of course, she has an amazing voice, and her singing with us is a great match. Those things don't grow on trees, good matches. I was also lucky to meet Eirik early in my life. When we sing together, there's a special thing happening, and it's the same Leslie. Also, with Leslie, there's a lot left to do. And she's a great guitar player. We're completely on level. I hope we can work together even more in the future. With Kings of Convenience, we work as a democracy of two, so she's the vote-breaker. When Eirik and I reach a dead end, she comes along and our energy and mutual respect for her resolves things very quickly.

You mentioned suffering from tinnitus before. What's that experience like as far as playing live is concerned?

It started in 2000—a very small thing in the right ear. I got used to it after five or six years, and it didn't bother me so much. I just accepted that there was a sound there. But when we toured with The Whitest Boy Alive in 2009, it was a very loud tour, and I thought, "OK, now it's gone to another level." In 2012, we ended The Whitest Boy Alive, and that was one of the main reasons. I wasn't able to do long rehearsal sessions with the band, it was just too painful for me. My ears were already scraped down to the bottom, and every session was another nail in the coffin.

I had to find a way to control it more—to choose the moments when I lose my hearing, so to speak. "OK, now I'm doing a show, it's going to be one hour of live music and it's worth it." But randomly seeing a loud band for the fun of it? No. DJ'ing? Impossible. With The Whitest Boy Alive, I couldn't be motivated to work on a new album because, what would that mean? 50 more shows around the world? I couldn't really do that. The last four years, living here, I do a lot of acoustic music with La Comitiva, which works because it's quiet music.

But no one really understands what I'm dealing with, which makes me feel anti-social. When a fan comes up to me and starts screaming in my ear, I have to say, "Please! Please! I would like to meet you, but what you're doing right now is so painful for me!" So I don't go out. I don't want to end up in situations where I seem like an unfriendly person all the time. It'd be very nice for me if people had knowledge of this thing, so I could just be like, "Hey, I got tinnitus," and someone could go, "OK, I understand, I'll talk to you on the street in the daytime." I love to meet people! But unfortunately I have to control the situation of how I meet them a lot.

What are some of your most cherished memories of seeing or hearing dance music?

A lot of great moments. I lived in Berlin in 2002, and that was a great time—when dance music was still very underground. It was an amazing scene where all the dancers knew a lot about music. Before then, I thought they just wanted to take drugs and get drunk, but it was really amazing then. They were all connoisseurs of wine or something. "Oh, this is too fast for me, I can't dance to it." It's all red wine to me, so it was exciting being around people with opinions.

I went to Sonar in 2002, and there was an international DJ night that was insane. It was such a good vibe. The sound they were doing then was very amazing. Very cool night, back when I had the energy to dance that long. [Laughs] It's been so exciting for me my entire life to find music I don't understand, immerse myself in it, and enjoy it.

Your DJ-Kicks mix is a seminal release in a few ways, to this day.

I'm very proud of that release. It was possible to make it because, in 2002 and 2003, I was traveling in Europe behind the solo record and the Kings stuff and I was running into people who would present good music to me. I'd be in Paris, and someone would show me Alan Braxe's "Rubicon." "Oh, it's not going to be released until next year." But I got to hear it, and also, can I have the white label?

So when I was asked to do [the mix], it was the only time I'd had some type of special knowledge. I wasn't only into minimal techno—Phoenix was a good example of a band that was on the same label as me, and we'd did a Cornelius remix with Kings so there was a special connection there.

I realized that what I did was incredibly uncool in Berlin. It was so wrong around the connoisseurs of techno. But I was having a lot of fun. I was in a very unique position, because I was a total indie guy, and after three years of getting to know the techno world I did a blue-eyed, innocent, Norwegian idea of what I thought was good dance music. It stands the test of time because no one else did anything similar.

It's also very hard to find in general. Me and several other people keep passing the same Mixcloud link back and forth these days.

You can only get it if you find the CD because it's so complicated to license all the songs now. !K7 never acquired a digital license, and most of the artists don't want to give away those rights. Apple Music is talking to me now, though, and have found a way to license it. It's possible that it can come out there. I'm still trying to get my head around it.

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Jamie Larson