Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
It is the Saturday morning after James Blake’s phenomenal (not even hyperbole) debut live gig in London, at Plan B in Brixton. I say morning; it’s actually 2.30pm. The only reason I’m dragging myself out of bed is to speak to Nickolaj from Danish band When Saints Go Machine via Skype. I first heard Fail Forever, the title track from their debut EP out today on K7, last summer on their myspace. It’s a massive song (download it on the right) – just as insistent and addictive as Hercules & Love Affair’s Blind but darker, broodier, more bruised. Perfect for rousing tired heads and hearts, then. The four members of When Saints Go Machine – Nickolaj (vocals), Simon (keyboards), Jonas (keyboards) and Silas (drums) – grew up together in Copenhagen and started making music a couple of years ago. They initially had all eyes on the dancefloor but evolved into a more off-kilter electronic/pop sound, the sort Scandinavia seems to do best. They’re not exactly new to this game, having already released a well-received album on home turf (mixed, incidentally, by Christoffer Berg who has credits on The Knife’s ‘Deep Cuts’ and ‘Silent Shout’) but this EP will be their first UK release. It brings together five of the biggest and most diverse tracks from that debut – from the tumbling, sweet shudder of Pick Up Your Tears And Run to the oddball soaring waltz of You Or The Gang – and shows plenty of promise for their new album due later this spring, again on K7. Having pulled myself together enough to switch on video chat, I dial up Nickolaj in Copenhagen. Thankfully it turns out he’s in a similar state, having been out celebrating finishing writing the album a couple of days before.
Hi, sorry, I’m a bit hungover.
Yeah, me too. I can’t even talk right now. I had to make some coffee.
Ha, yeah – cheers [holding up tea cup].
Oh – our cups kind of look similar. Nice.
I went to see James Blake last nigh. It was really good but I got very drunk.
It was probably sold out, right? The show?
Yeah, it was sold out. It was mental – packed. I was thinking it was quite nice that people were singing along but then I realised it was because the album got leaked.
Anyway, thank you for taking the time to talk to me today when you’re hungover…
I first heard your music through a friend – I really love Fail Forever and Pinned. I don’t know much about your background…how did you get together?
Two of the guys from the band – Jonas and Silas – they’ve always been best friends. We all come from the same neighbourhood in Copenhagen. And Simon lived right across the street from Silas, and our parents all knew each other. So we knew each other but only from saying hi in the street. And then those three guys wanted to do a project with vocals instead of just house music because that was what they were into at the time. Simon and I used to play together when we were younger, and at the time I was touring with his older brother as a backing singer. And then we just met in the studio and thought it was fun messing around and so decided to form the band.
What’s your musical background?
I don’t really see myself as having any specific musical background. I started playing the bass when I was really young and got into Nirvana, of course.
Because that was what every teenager at the time was listening to. Then I got into rap music, listened to that for a lot of years. And soul and breaks – that kind of stuff. It got boring at a point. I couldn’t relate to a lot of the stuff when I got older – I couldn’t relate to the lyrics. Then I got into singing after I bought a mic and hard disc recorder. It’s a good one – I’m still using it. It’s right here [spins the camera round to show mic].
Cool. Had you not sung before then?
No, never. It’s just something I discovered that was fun – on the hard disc recorder you had different tracks and you could put one voice over another… [connection cuts out].
Oh I’ve lost you a little bit…errr, hello? Hello?
Hi…shall we try calling up again?
I think it’s working again now. So you started out doing dance music stuff…but listening to Fail Forever and Pinned, which are massive songs – such big pop songs. But then listening to Pick Up Your Tears And Run, it’s very different again. Is it a lot newer?
No, we actually did the songs around the same time but we just did them in different places actually. We did Fail Forever when we were finishing up some songs and when Silas was cleaning up the computer, by mistake he erased the song we were finishing up and we had to do it all over again and between 8 at night and 5 or 6 in the morning we made that. And Pick Up Your Tears And Run was something we did in Simon’s apartment – we recorded all the vocals in his shower, which is probably why it sounds so different.
It definitely sounds like When Saints Go Machine, it’s just got a different depth to it. It actually chimes a lot with what seems to be happening at the moment – the space and the slowness.
Yeah, nice to make something that sounds so this year [laughs].
You’ve been doing the band for a couple of years now, and you’ve done quite well in Denmark?
Yeah, in Scandinavia. But Sweden is a hard country to break into because they have a lot of great pop music. And there is a bit of a national feud or whatever you call it. We don’t help the Swedes out and they don’t help us out [laughs]. But we actually work with a guy called Christoffer who also plays with Fever Ray. He mixed our album. He mixed two Knife albums, and the first Fever Ray single.
So that’s your album that came out in Denmark – will we get to hear that in the UK through K7?
No but the tracks on the EP are from the album we released in Scandinavia. But we’re just finishing up a new album for K7. I just wrote the last words two days ago, after a year and 8 months of work.
I saw you tweet that.
Yeah, ha. It was kind of late and I was walking around in circles and I was like, should I go out? But I just went to bed. So yesterday I went out and celebrated.
Where did you go?
I went to this club called The Hill, it sounds kind of country but it’s actually in this small meatpacking district where we have a lot of clubs.
Like New York.
Yeah. I mean, probably. Something like New York, but it’s on a larger scale out there [laughs]. It’s a nice place, I got home about 6 or 7.
Woo. You did better than me, I got home about 4. You’re winning.
And I started cooking when I got home and my roommate gave me a scare, standing in the doorway yelling at me.
Ha. You must kind of want to get this EP out now then.
Yeah, we’re excited to have new people hear them. It’s fun that the songs will have a new life in the rest of the world. And we also did a new cover – with our friend Jason who’s on the cover of the EP, sitting in my bathtub.
What’s the new album sounding like?
I think it’s a lot less clubby. Of course there will always be these elements in our music, but I think it’s more alternative but also a pop element as well. We try to make it sound a little less clean than the last one; it’s more dirty and distorted, an older sound maybe.
I’m torturing you trying to make you describe it when you’re hungover basically.
Yeah, yeah [laughs]. I think it’s a better album – there’s not a song on it that we don’t feel proud of. On the last one we didn’t really know what we were doing, we just made a lot of songs. But now we feel like we’ve worked the whole recording business thing out…[laughs].
What’s exciting you musically at the moment, what are you listening to?
What do I listen to? I listen to Morrissey always. But new stuff…wait a minute, I’ll just open iTunes and see what I’ve been listening to. My roommate just bought me an album of the Housemartins actually. Some of the songs are really crappy but I like Pete Heaton’s attitude. Flag Day is an amazing song. Only Morrissey and that guy can pull off those [sings] ‘oh-oh-oh-ho-oh’s. And you really feel them; it’s so stupid but it works.
Of course I listen to James Blake, like everyone else. Of course. One of my friends told me about the Emeralds so I bought the album but I didn’t think it was as good as he was saying.
It’s a grower I think.
It might be but I used to listen to Vangelis so it’s kind of like that. Also I listen to Nick Cave a lot, I really like his lyrics. And I listen to house music, club music too. Do you know Nisennenmondai?
Nisennenmondai. They’re a girl band from Japan. I think they’re great. A couple of months ago I saw a concert here in Copenhagen and they also played the Roskilde festival.
It’s kind of repetitive, loop-based noise – disco-y…I don’t know. They have these tracks that are 30 minutes long, good for doing the dishes and dancing [laughs].
Ha, yes. You mentioned that what draws you to Nick Cave and Morrissey are their lyrics. And your lyrics are pretty melancholic, deep and dark. Could you tell me a bit about what your songs are about?
Whatever I experience or whatever feeling I have, I write about. I try to hide that it’s myself that I’m writing about but it’s hard to write about anything else I think. I mean, you always tell a story from your own perspective. Your own feelings are always in there. Fail Forever, I wrote that because we were always going out clubbing and you meet all these people that you don’t really know but they’re your good friends that you meet every time you go clubbing. There’s always this…you never have a proper conversation. It’s always ‘I’m so busy’ and ‘this is insane’…
It’s very surface?
Yeah and I felt like this is very fake and it should be… It’s so normal to be depressed or to fail all the time, but you never tell people when things are upside down. Yeah, I mean…that’s what it’s about.
I totally get that. It feels like over the last few years there’s this idea that we’re supposed to be happy all the time and it’s like ‘are you happy?’…everyone has to be happy all the time. And it’s maybe one of the reasons why there’s been the rise of this idea that if you’re not feeling happy every single day, you should take medication. That’s ridiculous. It’s fake. It’s good to feel bad sometimes because it makes you do something else.
Yeah, I wanted to tell people that that’s normal – that’s how I feel, that’s how you feel. And that’s okay. And at the end of it there’s some stuff that you never get to say – when your mouth doesn’t follow your heart or whatever, you stay silent. That’s Fail Forever. Pick Up Your Tears And Run was a lullaby – sort of from a bad dream. [Laughs.] I used to listen a lot to Sufjan Stevens, and it’s sort of inspired by the different voices and these old Brazilian…I don’t know what to call it, sort of…in their language every word sounds round – all these ‘ooun’ sounds and I thought it was fun to play around with. There’s a lot of melody in their language, in Portuguese.
I like that – using the voice more as an instrument rather than straight singing a perfect song.
Yeah. We played around with singing just one word, using a lot of different voices and going through a sentence we would erase all the other words. So from a lot of voices we created one melody that you’re not able to sing, if you understand what I’m saying.
So that was fun playing around.
It turns it into a science or something.
That’s the fun thing with electronics, you can do a lot of things that you can’t do live with your voice.
Does that make your live experience quite different, or a different challenge?
Umm, yeah we’re more producers than live musicians so we’ve really had to rehearse a lot to play live – now we’re getting better, we’re better musicians than we were two years ago [laughs].
You opened Roskilde…
Yeah, that went well. That was hysterical. It was great. I’ve never seen that many people before: 40, 50 thousand people. Amazing. It’s strange – it’s like they can see straight through you. It felt like that. There’s no barrier. I just felt like laughing.
Someone picked up afterwards in an article that when I was on stage I told the audience “from up here it looks ridiculous”. And they thought that I said the crowd looked ridiculous – but of course not. That was the craziest experience I’ve ever had, and of course they don’t look ridiculous.
Yeah, watch it! [Laughs.]
So what are you excited about this year?
We’re excited about getting the EP out, to see what happens and touring new music. About everything really. This past year’s been a bit crazy. My father died, and a lot of stuff happened.
I’m sorry to hear that.
Thanks. So yeah, this year I’m looking forward to everything.