TMO interviews Danish songwriter / producer / dj Anders Trentemøller to talk about his latest album, his favourite musicians, and why much of his music seems to veer towards the darker melancholic edges of town.
Lost is the title of Trentemøller’s third album, and Anders Trentemøller could be forgiven for feeling exactly that, as we meet up backstage prior to the second show of his 2014 European tour. We’re in the North of Italy, and just a couple of days ago he was performing in Iceland. In two days time, after a show in Rome, he’ll be off to Greece, and then the Danish musician, whose roots lie in both indie rock and electronica, will be off back to Northern Europe, Britain and the States.
“Sometimes it can get a bit blurry”, admits the softly spoken Trentemøller, “because you wake up in the bus. After the show you get on the bus to drive for a couple of hours because the crew have to get everything down etc, and normally we just party a little bit and try to calm down. Then we get in the new city, but normally we’re quite good about walking around in each city – sometimes we go to a museum – get a sense of how the city is. Today we’re kind of outside the city, so it’s more difficult to get a feeling of Bologna.”
Indeed – we’re at a venue with a huge car park, situated beside the main motorway, and in the early winter evening there’s a hint of fog which makes the place look god-forsaken. It seems strange, for a musician like Trentemøller, who, more than most, could remain a studio based project, to push himself through a rigorous touring schedule. “I love it,” he enthuses though, when I ask him the appeal. “We’ve got a really great band, and a great crew, and we know each other well, and it’s great contrast to the isolation in the studio, when I spend many months, to suddenly be sharing my music with other musicians, and telling them about my vision for the music but also having their feedback – that’s really great. We have to adapt the music from the studio to the live stage, because sometimes there are maybe ten moog synthesisers on top of each other and seven guitars (laughs) so we need to find the basic elements of each track, and there’s the challenge for the vocalists – we can’t bring Low or Blonde Redhead [whose vocalists collaborated on Lost – but more of that later ] out for every show, so me and Mary sit down with an acoustic guitar and my piano and we find the essence of each track, and build it up again with the band. That’s also a process that I really love, because it gives new life to the song.”
Let’s backtrack, and talk about the initial stages, writing Lost. The songs now find themselves being played in big venues across the world, but where do they start out? What kind of environment does he write in? “It really matters to me that there are windows and light, and outside [his studio ] there’s a quite beautiful oak tree, so I’m looking at things. It’s in the suburbs of Copenhagen – and actually some of the other buildings are quite raw and industrial, but just outside my window there’s this tree, which is nice. Inside is a quite big studio, with a lot of guitars, amps, keyboards and drums and different stuff that’s always connected, so anytime I get an idea I can press play and record; I don’t have to set it up every-time. I share the studio with my drummer; he plays of course on the records, and he also does his own stuff – so he has one room and I have another, and then there’s a big recording room to practice with the band.”
Plenty of space to practice with the band, but it’s also clear that when he’s writing the music it’s generally a solitary thing. “It is me isolated in the studio for something like fourteen months, and I’m actually quite shy about playing the music, even for my girlfriend or friends, because it should be perfect for me before – or not perfect, but as I wanted it to sound from my head – so I wait until very late in the process before I open up to anyone elese, and then it’s only up to myself to judge, and that can be hard. Mabye one night I’ll have done a melody that i think is really, really good, and then the next day after having slept, had breakfast etc and I come into the studio, and it’s no good [laughs]. Many times there are songs that don’t make it through to the album – maybe I’ll use elements from them…”
It’s interesting, because Lost seems to have rebelled, in some ways, against this solitary path: “The last album I started doing it with the idea that it would be 100% instrumental” he admits, “but slowly the songs that I wrote demanded that there should be vocals because the melodies that I wrote would work even better with a vocal.” But working with vocalists still didn’t mean big band sessions and bonding in the studio, as he explains: “Most of the time, this time, it was done over the internet. So I had these kind of finished songs, produced 100%, that I sent on to vocalists, and just hoped that they liked it. It was kind of the opposite way around to how you normally work. Then the vocalists sent back stuff, and sometimes it was really good and sometimes it needed to be worked upon. So the songs evolve. Often I found that too much was happening in the music for the vocals, so I had to take things off, and sometimes it’s really about knowing when to stop because there needs to be space. That’s quite easy for me now, but in the begining when I started out it was one of the most difficult things – to be able to say ‘now, this is enough. you don’t have to put anything more into the music”.
I’m intrigued by this idea that the songs called for vocalists, almost against his will; all the more so given that the collaborations were mixed between vocalists he knows personally – like Kazu from Blond Redhead, or Danish singer Marie Fisker who currently tours with him as well – and those that he has never met. For example, Mimi Parker, from Low whose contribution to the album, The Dream has been described as having a “glacial and disorienting quality that establishes the album’s themes“.”I’ve never met Mimi Parker from Low. I’m a huge Low fan though, from the first album onwards – I’m a dedicated fan. That was maybe the biggest thing for me, when I finally managed to get in touch with Mimi – she doesn’t have a cell phone, and she’s very rarely online, so it was a big hunt for me tracking down her manager etc. She actually knew my music, which surprised me, because she’s very much associated with indie music, but we really clicked together and talked through skype and emails etc. It’s really cool though – this intimate kind of song, made with me sitting here on one side of the world, and she’s on the other, and yet we can still build this really intimate kind of song.”
It’s a way of working that clicked with the other vocalists as well. “Kazu actually told me that she liked it because she could record the vocals, in the bathroom (I don’t know – maybe the sound is better there), when the time felt right for here. She wasn’t in a big studio with a studio guy saying ‘take five, then we’ll do it again’; she could do it in her own time, without anyone stressing her, and she felt it was really nice. She’s thinking of putting up her own mini-studio in her appartment after having worked like this.”
Talking with Trentemøller, about the past and present, it feels like a defining dynamic for his music is this tension between working alone, perfecting ideas and sounds that he hears in his head, and working with others. He doesn’t seem entirely happy in either world, but rather prowls the boundaries between the two. He remembers back to his roots, and how he started out playing with indie bands in Copenhage, before tiring of that setup in favour of working on his own: “I was a bit tired of rehearsing with all these bands – we rehearsed so many hours a week, and then the drummer would do something, or the vocalist might think we should go one way while my ambition was to go a different way, so it always ended up as a lot of compromises; it’s great playing in a band because you get so much input, but then we weren’t really focussed or agreed on doing the same thing. So I got tired of that, and I found out that it was possible with a sampler and computer to do my own music, and then i was in control. But then at the same time I quite quickly started missing that thing of playing together, so it has always been a dillema for me, these two worlds.”
And yet there’s definitely a sense around the venue, and on the tour bus, that the touring band is a very natural and cohesive outfit – one with which he’s more than comfortable. Does that mean, perhaps, working more in a live environment for the next album? “We are talking about maybe for the next album going to Iceland – because we’ve just played there, and it’s got such beautiful nature, and see what happens. I have some basic ideas, and maybe then the band can come in with some input, but normally in the writing process I like to be alone and just focus on the songs; I often have a really strong idea of how a song should sound and it can sometimes be a bit confusing for me if there are too many people coming along with ideas during the songwriting process, but then later it’s really nice.” He’ll come back to the Iceland idea/project several times during the interview, as if to suggest that it’s a dillema he’s still very much grappling with.