Röyksopp on Staying True, Embracing the Mystery, and Their Incredible Career

Röyksopp on Staying True, Embracing the Mystery, and Their Incredible Career
Photo by Stian Anderson

This is a free installment of Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers also receive a Baker's Dozen playlist every Friday, along with some accompanying music criticism.

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OK, where were we? I've always been in love with Röyksopp's music, they are able to conjure darkness and light in ways that have pushed every button for me throughout their careers. They've released a ton of material this year in the guise of their triple-album Profound Mysteries series, and I thought it would be awesome to talk to them about their career and legacy, as well as their approach to keeping things fresh and staying true to themselves. The one thing I didn't get to ask about is their work with Karin Dreijer, which is a shame, but I hope you enjoy this chat regardless:

Melody A.M. (2001)

Torbjørn Bruntland: I think that record could be seen in context with our upbringing and friendship. Svein and I met at the age of 12. It was fate. We had the same interests in music, and we learned a lot at that time. It’s kind of crazy to think about how hard some of the obstacles that lay before us were—especially in terms of economics. Even though you had a computer, there was no way of producing quality music at the time. So we overcame those obstacles, and then when we met up in Bergen in 1997 again, we were at a different level because we’d already experimented and tried out different styles, ranging from hardcore and ambient to rave. We weren’t at the stage where we had to imitate—we found our own voice. That was the beginning of Melody A.M.

We were in our early twenties, so there wasn’t really a course set in our lives. We took control of it ourselves, and it was very scary, but mostly liberating. It was a very free time when it came to our existence in the world. We could do whatever we wanted. That’s reflected in the ease of which the music came out. Melody A.M. has a quality where it sounds like it was very easy to make, and that’s a nice quality to have in music—when it doesn’t sound forced. Obviously, it wasn’t easy, just to make that clear, but it does have that sort of carefree expression and freedom, rather than any heavy shit. We’re really proud of that album.

Rather than doing the same thing over and over again, our careers have been colored by the fact that we challenge ourselves. Each album is familiar in terms of the Röyksopp universe, but also different and slightly unexpected—like on The Understanding, when we tried to start singing ourselves, which I guess no one expected.

Tell me about the first time you both engaged with dance and electronic music in general.

Svein Berge: It had to be the early ‘80s. When we met, as kids in school we already had keen interest in the pioneers of electronic music—Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, Yello. It depends on how you define dance music, I guess. The Detroit techno and Chicago house of the mid-’80s was already present to us because of elder siblings and a keen interest in the development of electronic music. It also has to be said that pop music of the ‘80s—particularly European music, from Alphaville to Yello—was being played in Norway. We certainly were onboard with techno and house very early, as well as the UK and European rave scene of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when we were physically taking part in London raves.

Torbjørn: Obviously we like to be positive, but there’s something to also be said for the hatred of music. That may be too powerful of a word, but it’s important to have a distaste for music. It can be a really nice bonding experience for people sometimes, and that contributed to me and Svein becoming friends. We shared our dislikes a lot. When I grew up, I didn’t really like the music that was on the radio, so I wouldn’t say I was interested in music when I was a kid. It wasn’t until I heard the B-side of Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn,” which had a mystic soundscape—it’s not really song-driven, more just a sound collage—it spoke to me in a totally different way. From that time on, I could say, “It’s okay if I don’t like pop music, I still love this art form, and this is gonna be a big part of me.”

Svein: I have older siblings, so when I was in kindergarten the only music was available was whatever my parents and older siblings had. So it was my parents’ Beatles, Neil Young, ABBA, and Elvis records, but my older brother—who is more of a rocker—brought in Kraftwerk and Jean-Michel Jarre. I had the same experience as Torbjørn, the audio collages caught my imagination because they were reminiscent of science fiction and Star Wars—all that stuff I was into as a child. It’s about honing your preference at an early age.

The Understanding (2005)

Music journalists at the time were referring to the period of time that this record and Melody A.M. came out as the “Bergen wave.” Where was your guys’ perspective around this time when it came to Norway’s music scene and the attention it was receiving?

Svein: One could draw a parallel to what happened in Iceland a few years prior with Björk. There were a few artists coming out at that point, and quite a lot following in the wake with huge attention to the scene, particularly in Rejcakvik. Then there was a lot of foreign attention towards Bergen, and a lot of artists jumping on the bandwagon. Some of them good, most of them—in all honesty, I have to be harsh and fair—not so good. It’s just the way it is, I guess. Somebody makes something that feels fresh, good, and special, and there’s a lot of people either trying to emulate it or just trying to say, “We’re also from Bergen.”

Torbjørn and I have an urge to explore and push our own boundaries. Curiosity is a driving force. So we wanted to steer away from Melody A.M. while maintaining the Röyksopp identity—we wanted to add more songwriting, more acoustic instruments, we wanted to sing. We didn’t want to be a one-trick pony and just make Melody A.M. Pt. 2. That was our M.O. forever, really—to not repeat what we did in the past without straying from who we are. So it was about finding a balance, and it was a very conscious decision. We weren’t going to do “Eple” all over again. We wanted to make it clear that we didn’t want to linger on our success. We wanted to do something else.

Torbjørn: Growing up, there were a lot of people who didn’t feel like they could be themselves in terms of music. They wanted to emulate American phenomena. You can probably imagine how it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “I want to be Norway’s answer to insert big U.S. artist here.”

Svein: It’s got to be said, that’s been the Norwegian way ever since the ‘50s. I want to be the Norwegian Elvis in the ‘50s, I want to be the Norwegian Bob Dylan in the ‘60s.

Torbjørn: Sweden, our neighboring country, already had that figured out. They had a much stronger identity and proudness when it came to who they are and where they came from, and they used that in the music. I think we spearheaded, if I may be so bold—

Svein: One should be!

Torbjørn: This change in cultural self-perception in Norway. We called ourselves Röyksopp and we made the music that was really in our hearts, and we didn’t try to internationalize anything—apart from the obvious irony that we had English lyrics. But there’s this different way of seeing oneself as coming from Norway, where it’s so much more natural how we did it. We inspired the “Bergen wave” and all that, and that’s when it became interesting to the whole world. We thought that people in Norway were blind to that. People aren’t interested in the Norwegian version of so-and-so. They want the real thing. Show us who you are!

Svein: I should add that, when we came to Bergen in 1997, there wasn’t really a scene apart from a handful of DJs—five or six people who we met. So when Torbjørn and I set up our little studio alongside Bjørn Torske—who’s often forgotten when it comes to electronic music in Norway—that was what speared the “Bergen wave.” Without the music we made, you wouldn’t have had people like Erot and Annie, and you wouldn’t have Tellé Records, which catered to the fact that we wanted to have some promo material to share with the work. That’s us tooting our own horn quite loudly and brutally—but if we didn’t come to Bergen, the “Bergen wave” wouldn’t have happened.

Röyksopp’s Night Out (2006)

You guys covered Queens of the Stone Age’s “Go With the Flow” on this live record. Tell me about why, and your relationship with rock music.

Svein: We’ve touched on our innate need to entertain and explore, on a small scale—we don’t have to depart completely—and when it comes to the live format, cover versions is something we’ve done a lot, along with alternate versions of our own tracks. We want to entertain, and we also want to give the listener a feeling of, “You don’t really know us at all.” [Laughs] At the same time, we like to display our eclecticness, which I think is very evident in our music. It can be esoteric, for those in the know—and that sounds awful and elitist, but it’s also kind of true. You’re rewarded if you have a background in pop music history, which brings me back to rock music.

We were pretty strict when we were teens—guitars, that was a no-go. It had to be the 909, or the Juno 106. A few years later, we thought that it’s odd to be restrictive when it comes to your inspirations, because it’s already there. I think it’s evident that there’s certain bits of rock in our music, in tracks like “Alpha Male” and “Röyksopp’s Night Out.” It’s not like the glam-metal of L.A., just a different take on rock. We chose to cover “Go With the Flow” because we think it’s a beautiful song. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing too. I haven’t listened to our cover in years, but from what I remember it’s pretty stripped-down and basic in form, which that kind of rock music should be. It should just be four or five components.

Covering stuff live is something we’ve done and continue to do. We’ve covered Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights,” and we’ve covered Depeche Mode. It’s just a fun and entertaining curveball to throw at ourselves and the audience, and the songs we cover are songs we actually love. It’s not irony.

Torbjørn: We often hear people coming from a different musical background than us say, “I don’t really like electronic music, but I like you guys.” I could probably say the same to the members of Queens of the Stone Age, because I personally do not follow rock music that closely. But their music has always sounded extremely enticing to me.

Junior (2009) / Senior (2010)

When I first heard Senior, it really sounded like a radical departure from Junior to me. When I listen to them back-to-back now, though, they make a lot of sense.

Svein: We worked on both of these simultaneously, and initially we wanted to do a double-album but we decided it didn’t work. Both records have a kinship, but they shouldn’t be sat together. We also wanted to solidify the main sides of Röyksopp—Junior being the more accessible, pronounced, and energetic side, and Senior being the more introspective mode of expression that we have. They represent two aspects of us that are kindred spirits, like two different expressions from the same people. We don’t want one to overpower or exclude the other, either.

Torbjørn: Doing new things is something we need to do, even though we know certain types of music gets us a bigger audience response. One thing you need to take into consideration as an artist is that if you do something catchy with energy, you’re gonna get so much more of a response than if you express the other side of things. But we need both sides.

Svein: We have yet to approach the full-on commercial approach. With Junior and Melody A.M., we planted little seeds in the States when it came to a following, but releasing Senior and The Understanding are, if not commercial suicide, then starting from scratch again. We’re acutely aware of that, and they’re conscious choices founded in artistic integrity, which is important to us.

Do It Again EP with Robyn (2014)

Speaking of audience response, I saw you guys play the double-bill with Robyn headlining Way Out West back in 2014. Seeing the response from a European audience was huge, and very different from the type of response I’d see in the States.

Torbjørn: Our work with Robyn is very diverse. We have songs like “Monument,” and then we have “Do It Again,” which is almost shameless in its directness. We both like to indulge a deeper side of songwriting alongside direct and more physical performance-type music. What we did with Robyn live, we honed in even more on an end result that has an in-the-moment appeal with direct energy, but we like to explore too—the whole gig just becomes so much more happening when we do.

Svein: For that double-bill, we allowed ourselves to be the slow-burn—the intro tracks to Robyn. That sounds awful when I say it like that, but we deliberately wanted to build a dynamic in the show. So we know what impact Robyn on stage has standing in front of two guys behind keyboards, and we’re fine with pulling ourselves back and letting herself be introduced. Then when we do a joint thing, we can go a bit louder with it too. We were fine with establishing atmosphere and then letting her take complete control before coming together to do the thing we do.

The Inevitable End (2016) / Profound Mysteries (2022)

‎‎It’s kind of funny that The Inevitable End was touted as some sort of conclusion to you guys making music, and this year you’ve put out tons of it.

Svein: For whatever reason, it was communicated to the world that The Inevitable End was our final album, but it wasn’t meant to be that. It was meant to be like, “This is our last traditional album.” All things have an end, in whatever scale that may be. So that meant that when we’re returning, we had that hanging over us. “You guys said you were quitting at making albums!” And we had to say, “Well, we’ve returned”—but with something that’s highly untraditional, which is a triple-album.

How have you seen the business of making music change over the last 25 years?

Svein: We’ve spoken about artistic integrity being important to us—it’s not about being famous and conquering the world, and that should be fairly evident to anyone who’s followed us. Having said that, we’ve made things even more difficult for ourselves by not being on social media. I know there’s a Röyksopp account where we pop up every now and then, but we do not go hard into that, and that’s supposed to be such an important thing when it comes to reaching out, being present, and gaining a new audience. But it’s not for us. There’s nothing bad about it, but I would struggle to do a TikTok to my music, I must say. I don’t mind other people doing it, though, but that feels like the main big, definite change. Also, physical sales don’t really matter anymore—they’re more like a perk than anything else. Which we like, by the way. It’s very important for us to have our music available on physical formats. We cater to the old-school, and in that regard we’re possibly stuck in our ways.

I miss not knowing much about artists, or at least not having the level of access to their every thought that we have now via social media.

Svein: I couldn’t agree more. Most of the artists we admire have one thing in common: We know very little about them. And I like it that way. It’s all about the music. I don’t care what they had for breakfast. I shouldn’t care less whether they’re on vacation in Italy. I don’t care! But I do love the music, and that’s how I feel.

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Jamie Larson