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Copenhagen - Interview

  by Dominic B. Simpson

published: 5 / 1 / 2005

Copenhagen - Interview


Evocative and haunting, Copenhagen are one of the more unorthodox bands based in London. Dominic Simpson speaks to members Neil Henderson and Kirsa Wilkenschildt about the group's confessional, orchestral baroque sound and their new album, 'Sweet Dreams'

Evocative and haunting, Copenhagen are one of the more unorthodox bands based in London. Originally an eight-piece incorporating many different instruments, the resulting sound is the kind of confessional, orchestral baroque sound that has drawn comparisons with Tindersticks and Scott Walker. The core of the group remains Sunderland-born Neil G. Henderson and Danish-born Kirsa Wilkenschildt, who originally comes from Denmark’s capital Copenhagen, which partially explains the band name. It was chosen also because they wanted a typically European feel for their moniker, and because it’s the name of a play by Michael Frayn that both had seen in London early on in the band’s formative phase. Kirsa tells me she’s been living in London “about twelve years” as we sit in an old-fashioned ornamental pub in Farringdon – the perfect setting for their music, in fact. Like The Clientele, another evocative London band, Copenhagen remind me of smoky back-rooms in pubs, tales of drunken illicit affairs in neon-ridden streets, and a rain-sodden metropolis by night. We’re here to talk about the history of the band and their new album, 'Sweet Dreams...', released on Flower Shop Recordings last November. Although the band’s origins can be traced to early 1999, Neil insists that “we sort of went under a few different names before that before the whole thing came together. We started writing a bit earlier than that, just feeling the water.” The band slowly acquired extra members, including the unorthodox method of using two backing singers, Jacqui and Pauline Cuff, who once in the mists of time had a Top 10 hit called ‘Hippy Chick’ under the name Soho. From this they expanded their line-up to include a double-bassist, a violinist, a trumpeter, and a drummer. “We did a few gigs under the name Metropol. And then there was Mono Lake [a lake in California, if I’m not mistaken] – but we found out there was a German band already called that”, Kirsa tells me, smiling. After settling on the name Copenhagen, they released their debut album 'Tales From the Forest' (“someone in a record shop in Denmark said ‘Copenhagen – “Tales From the Forest”?? That doesn’t make sense, Copenhagen is a city’”, laughs Kirsa) again on Flower Shop Recordings, together with a handful of EP’s ('Raining Again' and 'Home') on which they had a more experimental edge, exploring salsa rhythms, mariachi trumpets and – on one track - what sounds like breakbeats and samples. They also steadily gigged in London, including one performance upstairs at the Garage on a night organised by the promoters Strange Fruit, in which the eight band members had to somehow fit on the venue’s less than grand stage (for those who haven’t been, it’s tiny). “We were sort of hanging off the side of the stage. Were you actually off the stage?” Neil turns to Kirsa. “I was inside the toilet,” Kirsa remembers. Neil : I think you were on the stage when you played the vibes, and off the stage when you weren’t. Kirsa and Neil insist that the other members of the band, with the exception of drummer Andy Thompson, have since left as ‘full-time’ members but are still employed as rotating musicians. “There was a big change last year, round about springtime. There was a big leaving of various members of the band,” says Neil, exhuming smoke. Kirsa: Jackie, whose one of the twins – she went to live in Edinburgh with her family. Her sister was like, ‘If Jackie is going, I might as well go as well.’ It was pretty amicable the whole way. We wanted to gig and were making big leaps forward in the band, and at the end of the day the other members are session musicians and they need to make a living doing what they’re doing. They gambled on us for a while and then chose not to. But funnily enough, we went to record [the new album] and everyone – apart from Jackie in Scotland and John, our bass player – came back and did the album. So yeah, they’ve left but it’s more like, instead of being part of the band they are part of it when it suits them. Which is fine. So do the other members still do live shows with you? "Yeah, if they haven’t got a really well paid job or something coming their way. Which is fine in itself...I mean, at the end of the day, money sucks, but you’ve got to think about paying your rent and your mortgage"Kirsa considers. Are the band professional ? Kirsa : No... So you all have day jobs? Neil: Apart from Jon, the trumpet player – he’s professional. The violinist [Ruth Gottlieb] as well. I ask how it will be different now that various members have left. Neil insists, “It hasn’t really changed that much. We now have guitar, which we never had. On the new album, we’ve introduced quite a lot.” Which leads me to ask - how does the new album differ from the first one? Neil considers: “It’s changed in that we’ve added guitar. There was no guitar at all before...” Kirsa :But it’s not written around the guitar...it’s not as if the guitar is carrying it, necessarily...it’s still arranged. More like ornamentation? Neil : It’s still just another instrument, yes... Kirsa : ...But also, on the new album we kind of wanted to write songs this way instead of relying on trumpet and piano. More vibes and harmony – this time we wanted to have songs that could be carried with the voice, and then we’d add stuff on top, so we weren’t depending on trumpet and violin. Neil : With the first album, we had to write for those musicians. Now we don’t have to write for any musician particularly. We can build up and use whatever instruments we want really. Kirsa : Yeah, it was kind of like starting from scratch doing this album. It was like, ‘OK we don’t have to have this for the whole band...’ With the first album it was great doing harmonies with the trumpet and before then with the singles. But with this [the new album], it’s like, five people have left – how are we going to do it? Or should we do it or pack up and run away and be sad about it, feel sorry for ourselves? But then, a friend said ‘Don’t you see, it opens new doors’. So we could try all new instruments – ‘let’s try harp, let’s try woodwinds’. The consequence was that the album was a liberating experience for the trio. And the album’s first track, ‘Hold Back The Tears’, does indeed feature impressively a harp – not the most conventional of instruments. “It’s a proper harp – a big one”, boasts Neil. "We actually got session musicians to do all the stuff live.” Kirsa : The harp bit was a dream come true really. We always wanted to write a song for the harp. Neil : But we always said to ourselves, ‘When we record a song for harp, we do really mean a REAL harp.’ It’s an amazing instrument. The harp player hired a van and had these wheels that she stuck to the bottom of the harp. Double bass players do the same... You’ve always had double bass, haven’t you? “Yeah, the first album had some double bass. And half of the new album has got it too” recollects Neil, conceiving the new album as split so that “the first side of the new album is more kind of the pop side of things and the second side is more kind of instrumental.” There is indeed a beautiful instrumental in ‘Song for Edna’, a very personal song for Neil, as he explains: “that was written by my Dad, who died about two years ago. My Dad wrote one song in his life, and now it’s on the new album!” As befits a band with such a cinematic approach, the band approach their lyric writing often with a scene from a film in mind. As Neil puts it: “I generally sort of write with stories, same as the first album...A lot of it comes from films and books. You see something and you’re mind goes schoom and your story ends up nothing like what you started”. Any specific films or books? In Copenhagen’s case, I’m thinking it could be any number of indelible images from a Tarkovsky film such as ‘Mirror’ or ‘Stalker’, or a late night London noir thriller such as ‘Mona Lisa’, or even a poetic crime thriller by James Ellroy... “It’s just little pieces...I’ll see something that would spark me. More like a scene from a film - it’s not like watching a film [from start to end] and deciding ‘right....’ It’s more like individual scenes” Neil posits. The band’s Scandinavian link was extended for the new album when Neil and Kirsa decided to decamp to Norway for much of the writing which germinated into the songs on "Sweet Dreams...' “We flew into Oslo and then drove up to about an hour and a half north - the southern part of Norway but inland part way up”, Kirsa smiles, recalling their time there. “We started to write, and stayed in this log cabin that was absolutely in the middle of nowhere.” Do you think such isolation made any big difference to your sound? Staying in a cabin in the vast Norwegian countryside clearly makes a difference from the hustle and bustle of London... Neil : Well, we did it on purpose to go somewhere, and see what happens really....but you know, the whole sky was just these fantastic colours – a kind of awesome orange. It was amazing, totally amazing. I’d never seen colours like that, or vegetation like that - just this huge light.” And they weren’t even in the Northern Lights.... Have Copenhagen ever played in Scandinavia? As if reading my thoughts, Kirsa replies, “only in Denmark – in Copenhagen.” Do you think your music has more of a European feel than anything else? Of course in one sense that’s a ridiculous question in that you are based in London, but it’s true that your music has a kind of European aesthetic to it if nothing else... Kirsa : Absolutely. I’d like to think so. Neil: It has been said....we’re certainly not Americana. Yes, we are European, but... But you can be from Europe and sound American – I’m thinking of any number of dreadful no-name Nickleback impersonators who could be based anywhere from Dublin to Moscow on this continent... “I think it’s a kind of box that people put you in when you do something else than, you know, guitar, drums, bass....we use other instruments”, Kirsa considers. Neil : I don’t think we use anything that’s particularly that way inclined, but.... Kirsa : It’s nice to stick out, isn’t it? But what does ‘European’ mean? Of course it’s a bit of a false schism in one sense – “American music” and “European music”. What’s “modern European music”, ultimately? The artists that come to mind ostensibly are Nico (especially the austere, gothic 'The Marble Index'), Jacques Brel, Tindersticks, Serge Gainsbourg, even that old adopted Brit, Scott Walker – all artists, incidentally, that have been mentioned in the same breath as Copenhagen. “It’s funny, I can’t actually see the similarities between us and the Tindersticks – funnily enough I actually know the drummer....when I talk to him he says he can’t see it either. I just can’t see it, not that I’m being negative” Kirsa considers. Could a lot of these comparisons just be lazy generalisations based on the fact that you’re a bit orchestral and a bit different to what is seen as typically constituting a rock band ? “Yeah, there’s other things...we play in ¾ time - therefore it’s Jacques Brel and kind of theatrical,” Neil says sarcastically. “It is sort of lazy, but if you’ve got to pigeonhole us, then that’s where they’ve got to pigeonhole us, I guess. I mean, Scott Walker – we don’t have a 30 strong piece orchestra.” Your voice is very different to him anyway. “Very much so”. Then there are the reviews which have used adjectives like “jazzy, late-night blues” and which – inevitably – have mentioned the “noir” element to Copenhagen’s music (exacerbated not just by their music but also perhaps by their contribution of a track to 'Sunset : False', a compilation on Slow Noir, a label affiliated to Pennyblackmusic ). Neil : I don’t know if it’s just a case of because the band always wears suits. The jazz thing probably comes because from the trumpets and the double bass”, Kirsa says.( Andy Thompson, also employs brushes a lot in his style rather than sticks, a big influence on their sound). Neil : The music generally is quite dark, the lyrics are quite dark...that sort of feel. But it’s not jazz. We don’t play jazz. It’s jazzy, maybe...the instruments we use.” All these journalistic clichés have led to Kirsa admitting, “when you do your press release you have to channel it down – you always have to mention ‘we’ve been listening to this’ or ‘it sounds a bit like that’....You shouldn’t really have to do it. So when we did our last press release I was tempted to compare us to death metal bands (Laughs). You always like to think that your music is unique but the thing is that we don’t listen to handsome trendy bands that kind of pose on stage [hello NME!] and think, “Oh we should sound like that”. Because we listen to such a broad range – rock music to heavy rock to classical...the whole range, you know?” Copenhagen’s music remains well beyond any ephemeral notion of ‘cool’ expounded by certain publications, something that extends to their current listening tastes: “It differs from month to month really. I listened to Tom Waits for a while....and Nick Cave’s new album as well”, Kirsa enthuses (was she prepared to pay the now notorious £75 ticket fee for Waits’ recent gig at the Hammersmith Apollo? “Not for that price. No way!”) Not that listening to Cave has made the band particularly morbid. According to Neil, “I think it [the new album] has got more singing than the first album.” Kirsa : It’s more rockin’ and poppin’ [Laughs]. Neil : We’ve let our hair down. Of course, it’s an understatement to say that Copenhagen’s conception of ‘rockin’ and ‘poppin’ is likely to differ from other people – and it may simply just be that, as Kirsa admits, “there’s more major chords”. Nonetheless she believes that the first album remains a bit more morbid than "Sweet Dreams...' – “it’s more darker”. And according to the band there will be upbeat vibes when they do eventually take the stage, with Kirsa promising “We’re going tochange when we do our next live show. We’re going to be rocking out!” Speaking of which, what future plans can we expect from the band? Neil : We’re going to take time out. There’s a lot of people doing different things at the moment. When asked for live plans, they will only impart, “We like not playing traditional venues. We’ve kept away from those.” You like playing more interesting venues? Neil : Yeah, we try... Kirsa: I think it’s more a question of...it’s not the actual venue as such but it’s being sandwiched between two punk rock bands, you know, something that you don’t really think you’ll go down well with. We try to hire the venues ourselves, things like that. They tell me that the Tonybee Arts Centre in East London is a favourite, where they put on a night with themselves playing, and their friends Idiot Son and Heist supporting – two allies in a small London scene of like-minded bands. Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush, I venture, is another venue that would be a perfect setting for Copenhagen’s music – luxurious and sophisticated, with a grand piano and chandeliers. Kirsa : Yeah, I’ve been there a couple of times. It’s a lovely venue. There’s a sign that you’re not allowed to smoke there, though.... Where do you see you’re sound going next? “We only just started playing with new ideas, new songs, when we were in Norway a couple of weeks ago”, says Neil. “The band as such...we write and work it out and get to auditions and it’s all ready.” “Sometimes it does happen though that you’re rehearsing and someone will just come up with a nice little line, and that can stick – ‘let’s take it from here....’ But most of it I have arranged in advance”, counters Kisa. Perhaps it’s just a little too early to say after only having a new album out for two months or so. Melodramatic they may be at times, but Copenhagen are the kind of adult, bookish band that best typify a slower, more stately approach to music – one that’s sophisticated, urbane and romantic. If this makes them different to any number of the current guitar-toting wannabes in Shoreditch modelling themselves on the Libertines’ guitar riffs, then all the better; there’s plenty of those kind of bands slugging it down the Bull and Gate every Tuesday night anyway. Copenhagen are a much rarer breed.

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Copenhagen - Interview

Copenhagen - Interview

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