Anders Trentemøller, Danish Electro Ringmaster

MTV Iggy, December 7, 2011

His American breakout moment came earlier this year when he tore up the 2011 Coachella festival, in a high-intensity electronic set backed by a full live rock band and a visual show that had breathless bloggers and reviewers proclaiming it the festival’s high point. But in Europe Anders Trentemøller has been a figure to contend with on the club scene for quite some time.

Some know him for deep, hard house remixes of the likes of Royksopp’s What Else Is There or his takes on Franz Ferdinand, Moby, Modeselektor and more—sometimes spare and fidgety, sometimes opulent and intense—that have made him one of the continent’s prime remixers. Some know him for his own moody, sparse 2006 album The Last Resort.

Many had their minds blown—whether the 50,000 people in the crowd or many more who’ve watched the video online—by the ultra-high energy and lavish staging, complete with ghostly choreographed armies, wild curtains and glowing parasols, of his “Silver Surfer Ghost Rider Go!” at the 2009 Roskilde festival in his native Denmark.

In Copenhagen, where Trentemøller has been a mover and shaker on the local music scene for well over a decade, he’s also known as a rock and roll guy who played in a bunch of bands before “going electronic,” and still likes to relax spinning a casual rock set at one of his favorite local bars.

With his latest album, last year’s Into the Great White Yonder, Trentemøller has cemented his place at a fertile crossroads of rock and club music. It even found a place in the fervid imagination of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, who used “Shades of Marble” in both the trailer and film for his latest, The Skin I Live In. 

But Trentemøller’s also got a brand-new collection, Reworked/Remixed, of not only remixes he’s made but also versions of his original songs remixed by others. And despite a crazy worldwide tour schedule in the past couple of years, he’s also made time to try his hand at producing, starting with Copenhagen protegées Darkness Falls.

So who is Trentemøller, anyway? In a long telephone conversation a couple of weeks ago, MTV Iggy’s Siddhartha Mitter discovered an open and thoughtful musician, refreshing himself in the quiet comfort of his Copenhagen base, recovering from his travels and taking a breather before launching into his next album project.

You’ve just ended a huge tour in the United States. Although it seems you’re constantly on tour somewhere.

Yeah, I think we’ve been playing pretty much for the last year and a half. Europe, Australia, back to the States… I must admit I’m a bit exhausted now. But now I’m only going to play two gigs in Copenhagen and then just work on my new album.

You’ve been doing your thing with a lot of success in Europe for some time. But it feels like you are having one of those breakthrough moments in the US right now. The blogs were buzzing about your set at Coachella in particular. Was that set as special for you as it was for the crowd?

It did feel special. For me Coachella has always stood for something special. Many of my favorite bands played there. We were really looking forward to it. We had played San Francisco the night before, and we partied pretty hard after the show, and so at Coachella we got on stage with pretty heavy hangovers. And that was actually good for us, it made us more down to earth, it made us just play our music and not think too much about having 20,000 people waiting for us.

But on the same tour you also played some small clubs. It is weird to go back and forth between intimate rooms and huge festival venues? Do you change your show?

It’s very different. But I like both. When you’re playing in front of a big audience you maybe show off a little more. And maybe you concentrate on the music more in smaller venues—maybe. You do get a much more intimate feeling, you can see the crowd in their eyes, it’s much more personal. But then there’s this massive energy you get from a crowd of 20,000. It gives a fantastic energy to the band. But here in Denmark I sometimes DJ a rock set for a hundred people…

That must feel like family.

Exactly. It’s my way of relaxing. Here in Copenhagen I’m mostly playing for free beers. It’s fun, my friends are there. It’s always important to remember where you came from.

Do you think Americans tend to want something different from their electronic music experience than Europeans do?

I’m maybe not the right one to ask about that, because I feel my connection to electronic music is not very up-to-date! But I remember when I deejayed a few years ago, and I was in the States, it was fun to see that some of the sound from Berlin, this minimal thing, was just arriving, late. In that way, Europe was ahead.

But then you have Detroit, Chicago house, which was a big influence in Germany. So it goes both ways.

In your own work, one is struck by the variety—the different levels of energy, the minimalism and then big maximalist sounds, almost both at the same time.

That’s just how I do music. I’m a big music lover, I listen to classical music, jazz, indie rock… so it’s about trying to define music from my own heart and not one specific style. I think my record label in the beginning found it a little frustrating. But it’s more important that I challenge myself with the music I write.

You’ve been criticized sometimes for seeming to try to do to much, to be all things to all people. Do you ever feel like you’re pulled in too many directions?

I can definitely see that sometimes. But it comes out of this love for so much different music.

So you get bored easily?

Yes and no. I get bored musically when I feel I’m repeating myself. It’s important not to get bored with your own ideas. It should be a playful thing. If I don’t get a kick of adrenaline from a new melody, a new bass line, then it’s no fun for me.

How did electronic music come to you in the first place? What made you go this way instead of being a regular rock and roll guy?

The breaking point was when I went to London about 15 years ago. At the time I was playing in local indie bands in Copenhagen. In London I heard trip-hop, drum and bass, jungle… I was blown away by the energy. Especially the energy of jungle—it reminded me of punk energy. Also I listened to the early Massive Attack and Portishead albums. When I went back to Denmark to the two bands I was playing in, I tried to incorporate breakbeats, using a sampler. Adn the other members felt I had lost it completely. So I quit and started making music on my own, where I didn’t have to make so many compromises. I did 10 years making music on my computer, and then I missed the feeling of a band.

Were you into lots of different keyboards, or were you all about programming and software?

Actually the first 10 years I was using my old Atari computer with just 1 MB of RAM! While my friends were all into Macs and PCs, I was still really into working on this Atari. But then it started crashing all the time.

They must have made fun of you.

Yeah, I was known as being stupid because I kept making all my music on this crappy computer. But when you are limited technologically you can also come up with some new creative ways of making music.

Your album The Last Resort has that very wintery feel. Is that about your own mood and esthetic, or is it pretty much a Scandinavian thing?

It’s very typical for Scandinavian music, that it has this wintery feel, this blue vibe to it. When you listen to other bands from Scandinavia, like Sigur Ros, they have this melancholic vibe. I don’t know if it’s because it’s always sh**ty weather here. Even 300, 400 years ago, folk music from Scandinavia also had that melancholic vibe.

What did you want to do differently for your last album, Into the Great White Yonder?

It was quite important that I got back to playing instruments. The first album was done pretty much in front of the computer, using a mouse. But I play a bit of different instruments—guitar, keyboard, bass, drums—and it was good to go back and do that. When I started working I was sitting at my upright piano, finding melodies…

Instead of starting at wave forms on the computer!

Yeah, exactly. It’s much more important to use my ears. And then after that I use the computer to build around the melodies and the chord progressions.

And that’s why you play with a live band now.

It’s something that came out of a need. I wanted to play the album live, and it was clear I had to have six people on stage—there were so many guitar parts, and drums.

And I wanted to make different versions in different contexts. With electronic music often people just change the tempo, but there are so many other ways to give the music a new face.

That’s a paradox—is live instrumentation the future of electronic music?

Yeah, it’s hard to tell what will happen, but for me mixing it together is very important. There are too many electronic musicians who play “live” but are just standing in front of a computer with a MIDI controller. It’s still controlled by the computer. I want the opposite, to be using the computer as an instrument. You shouldn’t be a slave to it.

You’ve also got an elaborate stage set.

My former drummer is also a fashion designer. He has really cool visions about music. We wanted a stage design that was pretty analog, not so high tech. Something a bit mystic. So when the curtains go up not quite in sync, or the light flashes a little bit weird, all those errors are built into it. We don’t want just projections on a backdrop, we want to work with the whole stage, and feel three dimensional. It really has this big effect when people come to a venue they know, you go into this room that you know and find that suddenly the whole stage has changed. Even if it’s a lot of work to set up, and it’s also quite expensive to fly everything in.

You’ve just released Remixed/Reworked which shows this great exchange—there’s some of your remixes, and then remixes of your songs by other people. It’s a blurring of the roles.

It’s a good exchange. The Modeselektor and UNKLE stuff, it all started when Modeselektor wanted me to remix one of their tracks, and I said instead of paying me money they should remix me back. So it was just artist to artist, no labels were really involved, and no money was involved. It was just about the musicians.

You’re also trying your hand at producing now, with the band Darkness Falls…

Josephine, the singer in Darkness Falls, also sings for me, and she has toured with me. Last year she was playing some demos that I really liked. She was pushing me to produce it. In the beginning I was afraid it would take too much time. But one of the great things about producing is that you suddenly have a chance to step outside of yourt own stuff. It’s challenging to see the music from outside. It was a great process for me.

Give me some other Danish bands that we need to listen to.

Right now Choir of Young Believers is a fantastic band, they’re about to release their second album. There’s a band called Chimes & Bells, they’re on my remix album. Another one is Sleep Party People. They’re really interesting, they also blend electronic and rock and they do it in their own weird way. And then of course there’sThe Raveonettes, who are more famous.

I’m noticing that all these Danish bands have English names. Is that some kind of requirement?

That’s true! I could also mentionEfterklang. They have a Danish name. They’re pretty well known too. But it’s funny, not so many bands have Danish names, but they all have a very Danish or Scandinavian sound.

Speaking of Denmark, are you satisfied staying based in Copenhagen? It’s home and family, but does it stimulate you?

Copenhagen is cool. It’s really cozy and small, and I like the fact that there’s not that much happening here. You have quiet space to think your thoughts. But if I were to choose another city to live in, it would definitely be New York.

Both in Europe and America right now there’s an atmosphere of crisis, protests, the economy is bad. As an artist, do you feel affected by those things?

Kind of. I’m not the one who makes political statements in my music; it’s more about feelings. Some people use music as therapy; this world is so chaotic right now, music is a place for people to go that is still pure. But the whole vibe is depressing right now. It is quite a dark moment for the whole world.

We have this picture of Scandinavia as a place where social values are strong. You’ve said that a government arts subsidy helped you get your start in music. Is that in danger now?

It’s definitely in danger. Everyone has to save money now and unfortunately the arts often don’t get attention, because it’s not as important as giving old people a place to live, for example. So artists have to fight more now. But there’s something good too, because otherwise you get complacent. Sometimes bad times create good art, so maybe in a weird way it’s good for something. One thing for sure, art will never die.

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