Interview: Erlend Øye on Kings of Convenience’s new album ‘Peace or Love,’ Feist & more
It's been 12 years since Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe last made a record as Kings of Convenience. Not that they haven't been trying to get one out sooner; it's just more complicated than it might seem for two guys with acoustic guitars. "We’ve fooled ourselves many times into thinking that now we know how to make records but the moment we’re in the studio we realize that recordings are really about capturing magic," said Eirik when Peace or Love was announced. "It’s very, very hard to make something sound simple."
Kings of Convenience have been working on Peace or Love, as in recording in studios, since 2016 thought not constantly: Eirik still lives in Norway, and has three children, while Erlend has been living in Sicily for nearly a decade. They've recorded while on tour, worked on songs at the PEOPLE Festivals in Berlin, which is where they reconnected with Feist who played on 2004's Riot on an Empty Street and contributes to two of the new album's standout cuts, and remotely, trading files with each other over the internet. The album was finished, for the most part, in February 2020 but then mixing, mastering and the pandemic added another year to the release, but here we are.
Despite the 12 year gap, things haven't changed much in the world of Kings of Convenience where quiet is still quiet (formerly known as "Quiet is the New Loud," a title so good journalists will never stop referencing it.) A drum machine has been allowed in on a couple songs and the band's bossa nova streak runs hot this time, but Bøe and Øye are still strumming nylon string acoustics and singing in wonderfully hushed voices.
Two days before the release of their first album in more than a decade, Øye seems pretty chill on our zoom call. He's just come back from a swim in the ocean, part of his regular life in Sicily which he describes idyllically as otherwise "cooking, eating, and then, playing music all night long." We talked about the the new album, how its title is a great conversation starter, making things that are perfectly imperfect, the lost art of the long fade, working with Feist, and when we might see the band on North American shores. Read that conversation below.
Read our review of Peace or Love here.
I've read a few stories about how long you've been working on the record, so when did you complete it? When was it mixed, mastered, all that
It was recorded, finished recorded, in February. One and a half years ago. And then, the mixing and mastering was happening, from September last year until November. No, until January. So the pandemic didn't really... Well in some way it was totally fine, to just be listening to mixes and replying. At the same time, it did take an extra long time because everything was on a distance.
I know you worked on different versions of the songs, a lot. Or that's what I've read, at least.
This week, with days before it's out, do thoughts run through your head like, "Oh, we should have done this," or, "We should have used that other take?" Or are you cool with it?
Well, it's been six years of that, six years of, "We should have done this, and we should have done that." So, I'm actually pretty done with that. Actually, somebody just wanted to hear some other versions of the songs for a radio show, and we sent some other versions of the songs. And at one point we realized, "Oh, shit there was another verse in that song. Ha-ha."
The songs, what's important for us, is that we select the version of the song which is very much in the middle of its potential. The middle being not too much to the right, not too much to the left. But then when we go touring, and years pass, this song will naturally change. And that's fine then. The original of the song, that's what you will then cover. But the original has to have that original feel, that it feels like, "Yeah. This is just meatballs and potatoes and pea mash. And then, later we can experiment with other spices, but let's just present it in a very plain way."
You said you've been working on this for six years. Was it hard for you personally to say, "Okay, this record is done. We're done. This is the record."
Yeah. Hard. But at the same time, you just understand when you are looking at options for songs, you just start to understand. "Yes, there are many options. However, we just have to choose this now." And the interesting thing is, what do you then go for? What is the thing? You want to choose a version. In the end, what do you go for? You go for the one where the vocal feels appealing, where the pronunciation of the words are good. Or most likely, for the one that just felt that it had a certain kind of magic, in the recording, in the moment. To hear what is a magic take, you need distance to do that. So we usually record a lot of versions of the songs. We take breaks. In this case, we actually took a year break, in the middle. In 2018. And then, when we listened to it again, it was pretty easy to say, "That's the one. It's the one that appeals the most. I know that this arrangement was so cool and developed later, but really this early version here, it's got something that, we didn't manage to do better, later."
Can you give an example of that? Where one of the songs had a very different version, but you chose a more simple version?
Well, I think "Angel" is a really good example of that. We recorded it as the very first song, February 2016, in Santiago de Chile, and Eirik was more like, "Yeah, we're going to really get a studio here? Why? Is this going to be it, is this is going to be the beginning?" "Yeah. But let's just try," I said. And so, we did it. And it was, "Okay, cool. That's a pretty good version, but for sure, we're going to do it better when we really get started." And then, when we really got started, the song got more complicated. We added an ending part, and a lot of stuff. And then, in 2019, we started listening to this stuff again. And I found this old version, of the February version. It's like, "Hey, in this recording, it's just very simple." But this is a simple song. This is not the one that wants to be elaborate. This is the one that just wants to be nice, short and sweet. And, there was no discussion on that. It was just, when you've been away from it for a long time, it's very easy to agree. There's a lot of arguing in our band, but that's mostly when things are very fresh, because someone has as ownership to a certain idea, or a certain guitar, a certain guitar solo. Or something like this, that they are very fond of right now. So they very much champion a certain version. But then when you're not, when you're a year away from that, we see pretty much eye to eye, and agree very much on what we prefer.
You were talking about endings, and listening to the record I was thinking about, of all the decisions to make on songs and in recording. I often wonder about, how a song ends.
I have a good example for you, "Washing Machine." It ends quite abruptly. It's not the most confident ending. And it's even the last song of the album. That could have been better, but the rest of the song, it is best in this version. Were you going to mention a specific song?
I was just going to say that some songs, like "Love is a Lonely Thing," that ends, just with that last line, and it just... that's the end. And then you have "Angel" and "Fever" that have long instrumental endings. You guys tend not to do the long instrumental endings, but it was nice.
Well, I think it's quite important to have some long instrumental endings, to create an album. There are many albums out there where no song ever goes anywhere. And we have, like... "Ask for Help" is a song that has a long instrumental ending. And I think that's important that, you might be a fan of short and sweet pop songs, but at some point you want to be taken on a little emotional journey, where you are sitting there daydreaming, and then you move with the music. And I think that's what we have gotten on this record. We have kind of a nice mix of short and sweet pop songs, and longer pieces.
I miss the slow fade, nobody does that anymore.
I really miss the slow fade, too. It's just slowly fading down. We were wondering, with "Fever," we were kind of wondering if we should slow fade it out. It kind of is anyway, a slow fade without it fading down, that just rocks on the groove and gets to the end.
Is this your shortest record, to date?
Yes. It is, by far. The previous record [Declaration of Dependence] was too long. I thought it was impossible to listen to it in one go. But this record now, I'm pretty happy that it's the kind of record, you get to the end and it would feel probably tempted to just start again. And I think that people's attention spans have definitely not increased lately, so it feels better to be on the shorter side of things. And I think it's good, I really enjoy it if there is a piece of music, which I can say, "I liked the entire thing." I think that's more important. I would be fine, if our album was even seven songs long, as long as this was something that somebody out there would say, "I really like that," so, you can have this very uncomplicated relationship with this piece of art. You don't have to explain it. It's like, "I like it. I think it's great." At the same time, the cool thing about Declaration Of Dependence, our previous record was, it was quite long. 52 minutes long, 13 songs. And that's the kind of record where, you really need several years, before you really start getting into it. I don't think many people have the chance to get into song 10, 11, 12, and 13. It's so hard to digest it, because you have to know all the songs first. And then listen to it again, so you can be... you kind of have an idea how long, and how much they're going to take from you. So that's also very rewarding. I didn't have that feeling with Declaration Of Dependence, that it was a record that people really started to get excited about it, two years after it came out.
So then you gave them another 10 years, to let it sink in.
Ha, yeah. Well we didn't, it's just the way that... I think we are, we were very worried, that we would put out some bad material. To put out an album that people are like, "Ah, yeah. Not so great." That would be kind of sad.
I think the other thing is, that record came up pretty much when streaming services started, which changed the way people listened to music. When I was a teenager, I would go out and buy a record. And maybe that was the only new record that I had, for a month. And so, whether you really loved it or not, you listened to it a lot and you sort of convinced yourself to love it. And I think these days, there's just so many options, which is great. It's amazing. But you don't quite get the personal time with records, the way you used to.
Another thing is that if we think about Spotify, as a streaming service, as it is the most popular one. They do everything they can, so that you don't listen to albums. For example, there's an album. And there's the icon of the album artwork. You cannot press on that and get to the album. No. You have to press on this little tiny three dots, and you have to scroll down to get, "Go to album." So they make it very, very complicated for people to digest music as albums, because what they want, is for you start listening to music as playlists. Those are cool, but the thing is that they're playlists. They also change. And how sad is that, that you, 10 years later, you want to listen to that playlist of that summer. It's not there anymore. It's changed. I think we're losing something with that. And I really wish Spotify would change themselves around a little bit, and respect more the legacy of music. If you see what I mean. This was meant to be, that it was created as an album, and let it be known as an album. And let it be easy to see the whole album. And you start playing it, and you play the whole album and then it finishes, then it stops. Last song, stop. It shouldn't go on to some other song.
I'm with you there.
I find that's really sad. Particularly now, when obviously, only 1% of the population listens to music with physical records. So, it's very sad now, that the whole concept, the art concept of an album in itself, is just dying. Because you are a music journalist, that's your job, you will still deal with it, but people who don't have that particular feeling, they will just go with the flow of how these platforms work.
Do you still think of side one and side two, and that sort of thing?
Yeah, exactly. We totally do. We really, this album particularly, the song "Killers" starts side B, because it's a big stake, of a song. So, it can be good to start with it, if you see what I mean? And, it's so much easier to do a good sequence of a side A and side B. It's very difficult, do it with a long, 13 song album. It's difficult. Have you got any feel, of this album's sequence?
I always felt like the first single was the second song on Side 1, and Side 2 starts off with maybe another important big song, so that makes sense with "Killers." I think the record flows really well, and find it easy to just let repeat.
That's also something that we've always tried very hard to achieve, that the albums are very usable and very listenable -- which might mean that a lot of reviews of our albums have been focused on the fact that, it's a bit boring. Or it's a bit it's, maybe, it's a little bit underwhelming. But I think it's important that you can choose to listen to it in a background music kind of way, but you can also choose to concentrate on it. And when you do that, you find another hidden onion layer.
Who came up with the album title?
It was a friend of ours. A guy we used to play in a band with in the '90s. And I think he was just coming up with possible song titles. And we just asked him, "Hey, that thing there. Could we take that for our album?" So, "Yeah, sure, great. Very happy if you do that." Because, it really seems something that says a lot about being 35 to 45. It says a lot about, this realization that it's more likely that it's going to be peace or love, than peace and love.
Do you think that they're mutually exclusive terms?
No, not necessarily, but lately I see that happening in many of my friends' lives. They'll either be choosing a sort of a safe environment, a safe life, where they're a little bit under-stimulated emotionally. Or, you live in a life full of emotions. Those are full of drama, and maybe an unable-ness to really be professionally functional, because it takes so much energy to work, to be in this relation that is full of drama and emotions.
Which do you vote for, peace or love, these days?
Well, these days is a bit different. In my life, I've usually chosen peace. It's been more important for me, to be able to live my professional life, to be able to take care of that well. And the pride that I have in my professional output, is very high. I always felt that, "Well, that's something that I'm able to do," where love is something that, I put energy into it, and it doesn't always come back. Because sometimes, I can put energy into it, and it comes back as a negative force rather than a positive force. So it's been like, "Ah, I think it's safer to focus on the professional happiness." Well, it's a conversation starter this album title.
That it is. Of course, with your professional life, many of your songs are about love and relationships. So it all sort of ties in together, in some ways.
Yeah, no, it doesn't necessarily, it doesn't sum up the record a hundred percent. It doesn't do that, but it is within those themes that we are meddling.
On songwriting. I'm just wondering, these days, do you sit down and decide to write a song? Or is it more like something comes to you in the shower, comes to you walking around town, while you're swimming at the beach. Where do ideas come from, these days?
I'm trying as much as I can to not force the creative process, and would rather wait for that burst of inspiration to come to you. Because that is really what you want artists to do, you want them to talk to you when they really have something to tell. And of course, a lot of years have been going since we put out an album. And that means that we have had time to wait for the moment when we are truly inspired. Eirik and I, we make tons of guitar ideas. But it's only once in a while that a lyric and melodic idea comes to you at the same time. We never sit down to write a song, that's for sure. The thing that's the hardest to find is lyric inspiration. "Fever" is a song that came, basically, as I was visiting a friend of mine in Madrid. While I was there, I had a cold, then I came back here to Sicily. And I spoke to her, and it turns out that she had gotten the same thing from me. And that she was sort of in bed, with fever. And so the lyrics of "Fever" came, because I just wanted to send her something to cheer her up. So it's a song written in 15 minutes. And, it works. It's just, you go for a long, long time without ever having that kind of inspiration. And then, the smallest things can be the right kind of inspiration.
Songwriting is a lot about finding the angle in which you describe something. I think a lot about it as a table. Like, the song... Here's the table. [Erlend moves the camera to show his kitchen table] So you have, your subject is the table. But what you do, in order to talk about it, is that you talk about the corner. [Erlend zooms in on the corner of the table.] You describe the corner, and from that corner, you the listener, kind of can understand that there is a table there. How to look at a table in a way that it hasn't been looked at before. Or, you can describe the shade, underneath the table, how much lighter it is on the up side of the table. And that will sort of tell you what it's actually about.
You have a nice kitchen. Are you a good cook?
Not necessarily. I'm a good buyer. So what I usually do, is that I go and do the grocery shopping. And then my friends cook when they come and visit. I know where to go, and I take it serious, to get the best. I don't buy stuff at one place. I go to different places. And yeah, Sicily life is a lot about cooking, eating. And then, playing music all night long.
That sounds nice.
So during the pandemic, you didn't get into baking bread, or anything like that? The way some people became obsessed in...
I know. I was away from Norway for 14 months, I came back there, and everybody and their brother was making bread. Bread, bread, bread, bread, bread, bread, bread, bread, bread, bread. Amazing. No, it's something I've learned in the last 15 years of my life. Don't worry if you can't do everything. It's a very Norwegian way of thinking, that you have to be independent and be able to do all things yourself, and don't ask help from other people. I, on the other hand, realize that society works better. If everyone just finds what they're good at, sticks to that, and then ask and try to create a group of friends in which all the skills you need are present. And then, you create a kind of friend economy, in which things go around.
On that note, friends, you've got Feist on this album, your first time working with her since Riot On An Empty Street. Did both of those songs stem from the PEOPLE Festival in Berlin?
It did. Yes. The song "Catholic Country," we even started working on that together with a British band, The Staves.
Yeah. I've seen a little video clip of that.
Yeah. We never really got a good recording of that, though. And then when we were working with Leslie, some years later here in Sicily. We got her to sing the parts that The Staves were playing before. There is no reason why The Staves couldn't have made it onto this album, but there are so many stars that have to align for a good record to be done. And for some reason, when we did it with Leslie, it was very ripe fruit that was picked so easily. Maybe because we've had a year break, and we hadn't played the song for a very long time. So it was, it felt, it was just more spontaneous and good.
But yeah, so we went to both PEOPLE Festivals, both 2016 and 2018. And 2018, Leslie came and there is this famous YouTube version of one of her songs. We were sitting in this corridor, listening to her playing her new song that we were going to be singing together. We had only heard it a couple of times, by then.
That's also when we started to work on that song, "Love Is A Lonely Thing," which is kind of a fun story. The original plan was to sing it in unison, that all the three vocalists are singing the same melody throughout the whole song. We did that for a while. We did that at the PEOPLE's Festival. And then we were here in Sicily, in the summer of 2019, and we started to record it. It was okay, but not great. And then we were in Berlin in September 2019, and we tried again and someone had the idea, "why don't we try having you sing the first, you sing the second and you sing the third?" "Ah, okay. Yeah, let's try that." So we went to the recording room and did that. And that's what you hear, on the record. So it's the first time we're singing our part, by ourselves. But the genius thing was, we had already learned how to play the song, but this was the first time that we could really hear ourselves singing. And therefore, have a chance to sing the words and the melody with our own emotion, and our own expression. Yeah. We each could get our own expression in it. You always want to record the first take of the song. But you also have to learn the song. So usually what happens is that you're trying to learn the song, and then you're losing your first take energy, because you've sung it too many times. So we kind of tricked ourselves into giving ourselves a first take, even though we were at the point where we actually really knew it quite well. So for me, that's the recording that I'm the most happy with. That one, because it is really just the three of us going in there, and really just playing music without too much thinking.
I would also like to talk about the video for "Rocky Trail," which feels to me almost like a cousin of the "Misread" video, both are done in one take. How many times did you have to shoot that?
I think there was six times, we shot it. And then in the end, I think we chose take three. We were choosing between take three and take five. But yeah, basically, every version had something cool about it.
There's a lot of fruit preparation in that video.
We ate a lot of papaya. And we had a lot of fruit juice. I was there in Madrid, and I was talking with Clara, who is the painter who has the studio. I told her, "Hey, I got to make this video. We have to make this video now, apparently. And Eirik is in Norway, and COVID," and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. "So it's going to be difficult." But eventually, we just came up with this. We found some people that we actually didn't know, and got Eirik to fly down. And, it was such a stress. It was such a hard time, to do anything. We had such a short time. And we were so incredibly happy that it actually worked out, that we managed to create something.
And of course, again, just a little bit back to what I was just saying about the recording of "Love Is A Lonely Thing." There is this cool thing that, you don't really know what you're doing, but you're recording. And just that moment, when you actually kind of discover what you're doing, you are recording yourself. So, it is a pretty spontaneous thing, and we managed to do something that we didn't have full control of what it was about. And a lot of people now, they want to be very, very much in control of what they do. And that's why it's boring to look at their art. It's just too controlled. Or people are discussing too much, "It has to have this, has to have this, have to have this. Have to have this." At some point you might end up killing a lot of the cool, the fun things, about music and videos.
The basic steps were choreographed, but everything else sort of fell in between? Like if Eirik had dropped all the limes, when he was juggling. You would have kept rolling?
Well, that's kind of the take that he does. He does lose one. But that's exactly why we chose that take. I think that's one of the main reasons, because something had to go wrong, anyway. And you can see, there's a lot of things that go wrong. I mean, for example, on the take we choose, suddenly there's a lot of time where I'm supposed to play the solo. But on the other takes, I only had a few seconds to play the solo. And I'm just there with 15 seconds. And I'm like, "Okay, I'm... All right. Solo it is." [Mimes "soloing"]
Well, one last thing, I know you did your very intimate tour of Norway earlier this spring, and you've got your big UK and European tour coming up. Any plans to come to North America?
Yes but the problem now is that almost all venues are booked up for the next year, because for two years, people have been bouncing back their tours. So things are very, very crowded. and I guess we don't really want to plan anything more before we can manage to at least go through with, let's say the London show, which is the first show. If we can go through with that, and we are actually playing in front of 2000 people in a seated venue, then I can say, "Okay, I think it's time, we can start planning the tour." But to now plan, even more things that might not happen? I'm starting to feel that, it's not given that this, the vaccine, things are really going to work the way they're hoping are going to work. I hope they do.
I hope, we all hope that, but there's so many things that can go wrong, and the disease can develop in new ways we didn't expect. So, it's been really hard. For me, and the people working in the booking industry. I think they all have an ulcer now, because you're planning things and it's falling apart. And you're planning things again, and it's falling apart. And then ooh, yeah. Sometimes it seems like it would be better just to really have absolutely no ambitions, at this time. Just two years of doing really, absolutely nothing, no plans whatsoever. And it's been very frustrating too, for us to put out this album. Yes, it's a pandemic but yes, the expectation, to you the artist, you still have to do this and this and this. "Where is the other video, and where is this?" "Yeah, but it's a pandemic." "Yes, but you have to." So.
Well, good luck with all that I guess (laughs), but congratulations on the record. I think it's great. And hopefully we'll see you over here, sometime.
Maybe I came off a bit wrong. We would love to tour the US, we have probably our biggest fan base there, actually. It's a big country, but if you look at our streaming numbers, it's our number one country. And, people do understand our lyrics, all of them, over there. And we have had incredible shows, particularly in Washington, New York, LA, San Francisco. And it's really time to go back. And I must say that, all the interest that's coming now from the US, from people like yourself, of course increase our wish to come. It seems like the album is really well appreciated, over there. So let's say, let's hope that it's sooner, rather than later.