After reneging on their plan to never make another album, Röyksopp are back with two cracking long-players at pretty much the same time, both featuring a host of collaborations and bolstered by some mighty peculiar multimedia content. But then the often weird and always wonderful Norwegian duo don’t like doing things by halves

Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland seemed ready to take a step back after Röyksopp’s ‘The Inevitable End’ slipped out in late 2014. Having spoken about no longer recording albums in the traditional format, the pair launched their ‘Lost Tapes’ project in 2019, uploading one-off songs and special mixes to various streaming services whenever it suited them and without needing to create tracks that fitted neatly together into a conceptual package.

“That became a much bolder statement than we intended it to be,” grins Berge, sitting across from me in a conference room at the group’s hotel in Oslo, Norway’s capital city.

“To us, it was an offhand comment,” says Brundtland. “Sort of, ‘By the way, we don’t think we will be doing another full, regular album’. Just a little thing. We weren’t trying to make an explosive statement. Now it’s become a big thing for some people.”

It has been getting a lot busier in the world of Röyksopp of late, though. The Norwegian outfit have mounted a stealth campaign that has manifested itself in two new albums in quick succession – their sixth and seventh – plus a whole lot more besides. Under the appellative umbrella ‘Profound Mysteries’, the first of these records came out a few months ago and the second is due around about now.

“It’s a bit like George Costanza sneaking back to work after resigning,” says Brundtland, comparing their return to a scene from a much-loved episode of ‘Seinfeld’, the US TV sitcom.

Berge, who is now helping himself to a cup of coffee from the machine in the corner, roars with laughter before attempting to explain the duo’s renewed interest in the old-fashioned and, some might suggest, moribund album format.

“What we wanted was to release music that was maybe 30 minutes long and put it straight out there without any filter. We didn’t want to have to think about the track before it, or the track after it, as you do for an album. Or have it subjected to critical opinion. Or have it go through a record company executive.”

He stops for a moment to consider what he’s just said.

“Not that we usually take those things on board anyway… because we are quite stern as far as they go.”

It’s probably fair to say that Röyksopp have done pretty much everything their way over the two decades since ‘Melody AM’, the group’s 2001 million-selling debut album. Perhaps because of this early success, people seem to assume they have the measure of Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland. But the closer you listen, the more intricate and involved and downright odd their music becomes – and the more the anomalies emerge.

Arriving near the end of a mainstream wave of downtempo electronica, the duo are really anything but straightforward. They certainly know how to fill dancefloors, but listening to the sonic worlds they construct through decent headphones is also recommended. There’s a frivolous Röyksopp and a melancholic Röyksopp – and the division is occasionally so acute that they have to bring out two albums within months of each other.

“Sometimes you have to make an album called ‘Junior’ and then one called ‘Senior’,” says Brundtland, referring to their 2009 and 2010 releases. “You’re talking about us having some sort of duality in our music and, well, if you give yourself enough space, you can make that into your own thing. We feel we have a lot to say all at once… and we meet people who have a lot to say all at once too. If you don’t have time to explore the duality, then it will just be a mess.”

While the ‘Profound Mysteries’ project sees Röyksopp in two-album territory again, this time it’s more like a multiverse. The releases are bursting with collaborations, both musical and visual. Across the 20 tracks, there are no less than seven different vocalists, ranging from long-term associates like Norwegian singer Susanne Sundfør to newbies such as British chanteuse Pixx, and the sleeve art and video graphics for the albums are curated by Australian artist Jonathan Zawada. The tracks are also accompanied by a series of interpretive and often surreal short films created by members of Bacon, the Scandinavian production company.

Röyksopp launched the first of the new albums with a party at a former textile factory in the graffiti-strewn Grünerløkka district of Oslo. Speaking to Berge and Brundtland at the event, they were clearly enjoying themselves, but I had the feeling that they were there for business. Both men were born and raised a long way from Oslo and they appear to have very little affinity with the city – although in a lot of ways that slight sense of dislocation made it the perfect place to celebrate a work titled ‘Profound Mysteries’.

Photo: Stian Andersen

A selection of the shorts formed the visual centrepiece of the gathering – 12 of them were shown concurrently on 12 separate screens – but it was Röyksopp’s impromptu stint on the decks that really got the blood pumping at what was still a surprisingly respectable hour of the day. There was plenty of eclecticism on offer. Anyma’s housey cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ mingled with Puerto Rican rapper Anuel AA’s ‘El Que Tenga Miedo A Morir, Que No Nazca’. Melé’s ‘Groove La Afrika’ edged into ARTBAT’s ‘Flame’. It was flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants stuff – and the crowd devoured it whole.

“When we do something like that, there is no plan,” Berge tells me when we meet at the group’s hotel the following day. “Normally, when we play in a club in the UK or Germany or some other country, there’s a bit more planning. But then eight out of 10 times, we will deviate very strongly away from whatever we had intended to do.”

So quite different from a live set, then?

“Yeah, then we will have a setlist… like a ‘normal’ band,” says Brundtland.

“We usually hand the setlist out to everyone working with us seven minutes before we go onstage,” expands Berge. “We say, ‘Here’s the setlist’, and then we have to reprogram everything. That’s been our MO… much to everyone’s annoyance.”

One of the highlights of the first ‘Profound Mysteries’ album is ‘Breathe’, which Röyksopp recorded with Norwegian pop star Astrid S. I mention to Berge that Astrid S had already had a Top 40 hit in Norway with a song called ‘Breathe’ – a totally different song called ‘Breathe’, you understand – and I wonder if this was done deliberately, in keeping with the ‘Profound Mysteries’ theme. Berge looks ashen-faced at my suggestion.

“This is quite embarrassing,” he mutters, looking from side to side. “I’m very poor at knowing about what is going on in someone else’s career. I don’t really go deep into research on the people that we work with. It’s the little things that I usually like about them.”

He leans towards my recorder and speaks as if to address the singer personally.

“I am sorry, Astrid, because I did not know. It might be your biggest hit, but I am a moron.”

He pulls himself straight again and flashes a smile.

“We often have a vision, I guess, or at least some idea for a track before we approach a person,” he says. “It might just be a thought or a sentiment that we want to somehow convey, particularly in the context of an album. You know, ‘We need this or that for track number four’. And then we approach the person we have in mind and hopefully they say yes.”

“But we don’t have set rules for how we do these things,” adds Brundtland. “Our collaborations have been everything from someone being invited into our universe, coming with a lot of ideas and melodies and lyrics, to us having prepared the table way out in front. It’s different every time, I’d say.”

Thinking about some of the illustrious artists Berge and Brundtland have worked with – Karin Dreijer, Alison Goldfrapp, Jamie Irrepressible and Robyn, to name just a few – are they all muses in some way?

“A muse is a beautiful idea,” replies Brundtland. “I love that. So the answer to your question is, yes, of course. We invite people who have universes of their own in terms of their art and we merge those with ours to see what happens. That’s always the starting point. And then the rest is details.”

Röyksopp often encourage partnerships with artists you might not imagine would be an obvious fit with them.

“We feel it can add some sort of good tension,” says Berge. “Susanne Sundfør is a very skilled, classically trained musician, for instance. She plays piano and guitar, so she is more in the traditional school of a singer-songwriter. She knows all about acoustic instruments, but perhaps less about synths… until she met us. She has started playing a bit more with synths and electronics now.

“In this sense, then, the word ‘muse’ can go both ways. We have had situations where an artist will come and do something better than was originally planned. A tangential shift will lead them to a place that’s completely opposite to what both they and us had envisaged.”

By way of example, Brundtland recalls having an entirely different vision for ‘Something In My Heart’ on ‘The Inevitable End’ until Jamie Irrepressible began singing his own lyrics. The end result is one of the best tracks on the album.

“Sometimes even we are surprised,” he notes.

The short films accompanying the albums are a fascinating part of the ‘Profound Mysteries’ project. They are all beautifully turned out, while being highly diverse in their peculiarity.

Check out the dolled-up elderly couple in ‘I Hate My Shelf’, which is soundtracked by ‘Breathe’, and compare it to ‘The Conversation’, starring a vexed priest and inspired by ‘This Time, This Place…’. And also, one presumes, Catholic guilt. Or try ‘Initiation’, which starts with a white-robed cult member making a squirrel explode into flames on a golf course by the power of telekinesis as ‘There, Beyond the Trees’ plays out in the background. ’The Downfall’, on the other hand, will make you think of Sisyphus running up and down a mountain ridge attached to a giant yo-yo while Alison Goldfrapp croons on ‘Impossible’. See what I mean about peculiarity?

“The only rules the filmmakers had to obey were their pieces had to be more than 20 seconds long and they had to feature some element of the track,” says Berge. “It could have been one hi-hat if they wanted, although most of the directors didn’t do it like that. We liked the idea of a subjective interpretation of the music without any interference from us. We don’t want to always provide the final answer.”

“These films are not the official music videos,” emphasises Brundtland. “Each of them is just one way of seeing the track. So we’re not telling the listener, ‘This is it, this is what you’re supposed to see when you listen to this song from now on’. It just adds an expanse and I think people will know they are free to continue to interpret the music themselves.”

Jonathan Zawada’s work on the albums is another talking point. His CV includes numerous record sleeves for Warp and commissions for the likes of Apple, Nike, Adidas and BMW, but he’s surpassed himself here. As well as the cover art for the two albums, Zawada has produced a graphic artefact and a “visualiser” (that’s a video to you and me) for each of the 20 tracks. He specialises in crafting hyperreal and meticulously detailed images with a fusion of old and new world tools, a similitude that isn’t lost on Berge.

“He likes the hands-on stuff that you get from old analogue equipment,” he says. “In our case, it’s turning dials and flicking switches, as well as creating the pristine digital soundscapes. In his case, drawing is his number one passion, but he loves computer graphics and forgotten technology too. Jonathan is interested in marrying these elements into a seamless whole, which is also what we try to do with our music.”

Röyksopp first came across Zawada when they noticed a promotional campaign featuring his cover art for future bass pioneer Flume’s 2016 album ‘Skin’. It’s fairly typical of the very arbitrary way they choose their working partners. A change of cadence in a voice on a single line heard on the radio or the flash of a street poster seen through a car window can often be enough to catch their attention and have them hunting for a phone number or an email address.

“Another thing that we have in common with Jonathan is a fondness for nature,” continues Berge. “Not necessarily a beautiful sunset, we all like that, but the little things. He has expressed a great love for the petals on a flower, for instance, and not in a new agey, hippy kind of way. It’s just the wonder of the aesthetics, the intrinsic beauty of the little things.”

“There’s also something that has happened with technology recently and it allows you to feel the natural beauty through digital motion,” asserts Brundtland. “This wasn’t really possible before. Digital art has struggled since its inception, but the systems have now advanced to a level where the visuals are actually alive.”

Röyksopp are viewed as one of the leading lights of the “Bergen Wave”, a phrase coined by the Norwegian media to describe the thriving music scene that developed in the west coast city of Bergen in the late 1990s. With its narrow cobbled streets and houses clinging to the hills, it’s been dubbed “the heart of the fjords”. It reportedly rains for around 200 days of the year there, but Berge talks of a warm vibe that emanates everywhere you go in the city.

“The thing is, we are not from Bergen,” notes Brundtland. “We were born in Tromsø. It had its own part to play in the rise of electronic music, but it’s less known than the Bergen story.”

“Electronic music in Norway – modern electronic music – started in Tromsø,” declares Berge with an air of pride.

Whereas Bergen has a population of 280,000, about half the size of Oslo, Tromsø has only 75,000 inhabitants – although it might have been more if fewer musicians and DJs hadn’t left for Bergen in search of successful recording careers in the 1990s. Tromsø is more than 1,000 miles north of the capital and 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. There’s permanent daylight during the month of June and permanent darkness during December.

“It’s just so physically far away from everywhere that there wasn’t anything else to do but to look abroad for inspiration,” says Brundtland. “Instead of looking to Oslo, you might as well look to London or Brussels, because it didn’t make a difference. The Tromsø thing really came out of punk and new wave in the early 80s, and then it sort of became electronic music, dance music, later on. Some people made the transition – well, almost – while others laid the groundwork by importing records into northern Norway.”

“The most innovative music here usually comes from all the small places outside the cities,” offers Berge. “It was the same with the black metal scene. Without trying to offend anyone, the evidence of there having been a scene in Oslo, even in the late 80s… well, there’s nothing to show for it other than people saying, ‘I invented house in 1981’.”

At which point, Berge mentions Biosphere, aka Geir Jenssen, who has a fundamental role in the story of Röyksopp.

“He’s like the godfather, or perhaps one of three godfathers, of Norwegian electronic music. He’s released a lot of records under different names.”

Photo: Stian Andersen

Jenssen was the synth player with Tromsø dreampop band Bel Canto when he started using the pseudonym Bleep to put out sundry white label dance tracks. A one-off Bleep album, ‘The North Pole By Submarine’, appeared in 1990, after which he adopted the name Biosphere. Was he a mentor to the young Berge and Brundtland?

“Not necessarily a mentor, but he definitely took us under his wing,” answers Berge. “We were born in the late 70s and we were kids – literally – when we first met him. We rang his doorbell and gave him a DAT cassette. We said, ‘This is our music… can you give us some pointers?’. And he took us on the road with him.”

Berge and Brundtland later hooked up with two friends to form Aedena Cycle, a Tromsø group whose ‘The Traveller’s Dream’ 12-inch came out in 1994 on Apollo, the ambient offshoot of R&S. Biosphere was also signed to Apollo. Aedena Cycle took their name from the title of a series of sci-fi graphic novels by the French artist Mœbius (aka Jean Giraud), best known for the legendary comics anthology ‘Métal Hurlant’, as well as putting his stamp on films like ‘Alien’ and ’Tron’.

“They were these very LSD-influenced comics from the 70s and early 80s that we really loved,” says Berge. “I think Mœbius must be popular culture’s most unsung hero.”

Berge and Brundtland left Tromsø for Bergen in 1997. Within a year, they were working as Röyksopp, issuing their earliest records on Tellé, the Norwegian label most closely associated with Bergen Wave. Their first single, ‘So Easy’, was used on a television advert for T-Mobile in the UK and was followed soon after by the effortlessly catchy ’Eple’, which is still one of the band’s most popular tracks.

By the time of their ‘Melody AM’ album in 2001, Röyksopp were being championed by hipster magazines such as The Face. The record went on to sell almost half a million copies in the UK alone, most of them in the first 12 months of its release. Were they surprised by its success?

“I could never have foreseen that it would become as big as it did,” says Berge. “But it was a slow build. At the start, it was picked up by the underground. When we were in London, we’d hear it in a cool pub in Shoreditch, then we’d go down to Brixton and they’d be playing it there too. The tastemakers, or whatever you want to call them, were there at an early stage of the album.”

“It was as if you were going into a wave,” says Brundtland. “The beginning of a wave actually tells you how big it is going to be – and you’d know that intuitively, even if you hadn’t been to the seaside very many times. We just felt like this would push us all the way up to the crest, or at least that’s how I remember it.”

Röyksopp’s second album, ‘The Understanding’, didn’t come out until 2005. They were so busy in the interim, mainly remixing other artists and touring (which they see as an add-on to what they do), it was put on the back-burner for a while. And when the recording did get underway, they took their time about it. They both say they love working in the studio. It’s the process, rather than the final product, that they thrive on.

“I don’t know whether we would be better at what we do if we had to struggle more when we’re making an album,” ponders Berge, perhaps a little sardonically.

“No,” says Brundtland, putting that old rock ’n’ roll canard to bed with admirable certitude. “If it was hell making an album? I don’t think so, in all honesty. Part of the reason the recording takes time is because we enjoy the work. We don’t have to rush to get it out there.”

‘The Understanding’ was, ironically, largely misunderstood on its release. It still sounds fresh, though. Brundtland likens its reception to the misapprehension that greeted Air – a band Röyksopp have often been compared to over the last couple of decades – when the French duo followed up ‘Moon Safari’ with the now reassessed and even revered soundtrack to ‘The Virgin Suicides’.

“It felt like a related experience,” he notes. “You feel these small frustrations artistically when people have very specific expectations that you will make the same product every time.”

“Yeah,” interjects Berge. “‘Hey, why didn’t you just make ‘Eple’ once more?’”

“But you know that, in your heart, if you were to do this, you would do something wrong towards yourself,” says Brundtland.

We need to discuss the underlying weirdness of Röyksopp’s work. It’s long been there, but with the ‘Profound Mysteries’ albums it’s more a kind of suburban weird pitched somewhere between ‘Twin Peaks’ and a Scandinavian TV crime drama. It’s hard to put your finger on what it is precisely, but it does feel like something strange is lurking in the dark, especially on tracks such as ‘(Nothing But) Ashes…’ and ‘This Time, This Place…’.

“Well, I’m glad you’ve picked that up,” says Berge. “I’m not saying there are any definite answers but, yeah, that’s kind of the intention we had. We have a certain mystical quirk in us, but without being too jokey, and I’d say that is more prominent on the first of these albums. The second one is probably a bit more accessible.

“I don’t know how much I would want to steer people in any direction, or shape their view of it, but we do like quirkiness. I mean, everybody knows we hail from the sticks. Tromsø really is a David Lynch landscape – the secrets in the forest – and that’s what we grew up with. So I think it’s inescapable for us.”

To emphasise the point, the pair talk about traipsing around the glaciers close to Tromsø, searching for things they could record, manipulating and merging found sounds into their music surprisingly early in their development as artists.

“We got hold of a Sony DATman, which was a portable data recorder,” explains Berge. “This was in 1988, when they were still very new, and we would record everything we could. I can remember us once throwing a glass bottle, which was unusable and rubbish, onto a concrete floor… although that had already been done by The Art Of Noise, of course.

“After a while, we began to understand that the key was to have the mic a certain way [gesticulating with an imaginary microphone] and being able to get the ambience of more non-specific places, like an airport. We learned that pretty early on. By the time we recorded ‘Melody AM’, we had a lot of that baked into it.”
The natural world continues to play a part in the group’s music to this day.

“People always ask how we get our reverb and delay,” says Berge. “It’s sampled field recordings that we make, just looped or pasted onto other sounds. Using nature’s reverb is central to what we do. We love working with textures and the quantum details you can hear on headphones or whatever, building a sonic world you can re-listen to and discover new things within the music beyond the melody and the chords. Like, ‘Did you hear that little sound of shaving in the background?’.”

The blend of analogue with digital is another notable aspect of Röyksopp’s approach to recording. They’ve never had any compunction about mixing the two.

“When some of the acoustic musicians first went to digital hard disc recorders, their albums sounded very bad,” says Brundtland. “Whereas for the people who combined analogue and digital with acoustic, it simply added another dimension. To be clear, all these things are mixed into the computer at the end, but we love analogue stuff. It’s essential to what we do, basically. It’s the paint itself.”

Röyksopp started 2014 in good shape. ‘Do It Again’, a five-track mini-album with Robyn, topped the Billboard Electronic Music Chart and was followed by a well-received joint tour. But when ‘The Inevitable End’ came out towards the end of the year, it somehow felt slightly jaded. If this really was to be their last album, they were going out with a whimper.

“Yes, I appreciate that,” says Berge. “I probably shouldn’t admit to this, but I do concur. I’m not saying we weren’t focused during ‘The Inevitable End’, but you can maybe sense there was a bit more chaos and turmoil in our lives then, for whatever reason that might have been.”

“I think the material is actually there on ‘The Inevitable End’, but maybe the form is just wrong for some of the tracks,” offers Brundtland. “I believe our art has landed in a very nice space now, though. There’s a lot of variety in the ‘Profound Mysteries’ project, which helps each of the individual pieces of music.”

“I agree,” says Berge. “But we do love everything that we’ve done, even though it sounds like we’re slagging ‘The Inevitable End’ off.”

“It can take it,” chuckles Brundtland.

The first ‘Profound Mysteries’ album is put together in such a way that it’s supposed to feel like Röyksopp are emerging from the dark. I listened to it while I was sitting on the plane at Gatwick on my way to Oslo and it soundtracked the take-off with remarkable precision – the ambivalence of ‘(Nothing But) Ashes…’ as the jet pulls away from the departure gate, the traversing of the runway with the upbeat ‘The Ladder’, and then the ascension with Alison Goldfrapp on ‘Impossible’.

‘Profound Mysteries II’ is far less diffident, with drop-laden floorfillers like ‘Unity’, which features Karen Harding. It’s also loaded with miniature and not so miniature homages to artists who have influenced Röyksopp over the years – from Erik Satie to Adamski. Kraftwerk are referenced on ‘Control’ (and also on ‘Press «R»’ on the first album), while even Fleetwood Mac and 90s R&B get a look-in. And is that a cheeky nod to Daft Punk in the Nile Rodgers-style guitar on ‘Oh, Lover’?

“It’s difficult not to be influenced in some way by the French scene,” says Berge. “We feel we’ve been marching alongside them, but perhaps in their wake at times. We have to applaud Daft Punk, particularly for ‘Homework’ and ‘Discovery’, which are great albums.”

I sense a “but” coming…

“I might be taking a big leap here, but I do think their ‘Random Access Memories’ album suggested that they may have had a sneaky peek at what we’d done previously. It was more proggy, for a start.”

“And ‘The Understanding’ too…”, interjects Brundtland.

“Yes, ‘The Understanding’, exactly,” agrees Berge. “We did a tour with Sébastien Tellier and then Guy-Manuel from Daft Punk worked with him on his ‘Sexuality’ album. We have this unverified theory that they might have come across us and they might have thought, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s interesting, let’s try to do something like that’. But this is just speculation and we love Daft Punk… obviously.”

I’ve already mentioned that Röyksopp have been compared to Air in the past, but there are some parallels with the career of Daft Punk too. So the possibility of some symbiotic exchange, whether conscious or unconscious, is not such a crazy idea. And the Norwegian duo’s progression is certainly as impressive, as uncompromising and, in many ways, as mysterious as their helmeted counterparts.

Not bad for a couple of boys from the sticks.

“I think it makes sense,” continues Berge. “If you love music, which I imagine all these people we’ve been talking about do, then you’ll think, ‘Hmm, what are those guys up to?’, and you’ll have a look at what’s going on over the fence.”

Another example of suburban weird, then, but on a much bigger scale.

‘Profound Mysteries’ and ‘Profound Mysteries II’ are out on Dog Triumph

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