As far as electronic artists go, Anders Trentemøller might be the most famous name you’ve probably never heard of. It’s early afternoon and the Danish multi-instrumentalist and producer has just arrived in Montreal, where him and his touring band will play to yet another sold out crowd ready to dance their worries away. It was the same the previous night in Toronto, and it will happen again a few more times on this week-long mini-tour of North America. Despite his relatively low profile Stateside, it’s clear plenty of people are in on the secret.
“I think that the Internet has helped quite a lot,” Trentemøller says over the phone, his excellent English nonetheless heavy with a Danish accent. “I’m not the kind of artist that has a huge, major hit on commercial radio – it’s much more underground, but that scene is still big in many cities. It’s really nice for me to be able to play my music in so many different places and also feel like we can come back.”
Trentemøller’s gratitude and appreciativeness carries digitally, and it’s easy to believe his sincerity when he talks about how fortunate he feels. Now starting the third decade of his music career, Trentemøller doesn’t write songs as much as he forges sonic landscapes. His albums are rich, self-contained universes that beckon the audience to explore them fully, and invite repeated listens to capture all the detail and nuance. And to his credit, Trentemøller – ever a perfectionist – does his damned best to ensure that it translates to the live experience, each and every night, tweaking and evolving as he goes along.
Brightest Young Things: You’ve been playing music professionally for the better part of two decades, and have traveled across the globe. How has the reception by North American audiences differed from that of European audiences?
Anders Trentemøller: The funny thing is that I think it’s actually quite similar to play here as compared to playing in Europe. The people kind of react the same way to instrumental music, but the feedback and reaction is also extremely similar for songs with lyrics and narrative. Maybe things are a bit different when we are playing some of the smaller cities in the States, as compared to Europe – just because I’ve had a longer history over there – but honestly, the reaction and feedback isn’t that much different. The same thing happens when we play in Asia. That’s the beautiful thing about instrumental music; it doesn’t really have any borders, and this music is an international language, I think. [Chuckles]
But also, I think it’s because we have a good live show and people want to come back. It can be quite hard if you’re only releasing an album every fifth or sixth year, because you can be very easily forgotten, I think. We have been playing for so long and I’m always releasing new stuff – I think that also helps.
BYT: Going back to your comment about the Internet playing a major part in helping you build name recognition: many people first came across your work through your BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix from 2006, which is still considered a classic. Did you notice any sort of uptick in your career after releasing that mix?
Trentemøller: No, actually – not really. [Pauses] Not really. I have never seen myself as a DJ, and so I don’t think that mix did that much for me, but of course it maybe opened up some people’s eyes to my music. However, that mix didn’t feature that much of my own songs, and while it was good for me, it was also a bit bad for me. People saw me as a DJ and I’m more of an artist doing my own stuff. When I play live, we are only playing our own stuff and we do it with a live band, which we have been doing for over seven years.
It was the same way with my remixes – people have maybe heard my Depeche Mode or The Knife remix, and they hopefully got into my own music, but doing all of that work was a bit of a trap for me. I didn’t want to end up as a DJ only, so I’ve been struggling with that. Especially in the beginning when I started playing music from my first album [The Last Resort] and we went out and played live – people were a bit disappointed that I didn’t DJ and played my own songs with my band, particularly a decade ago. But things have totally turned, and people are there for my own music, and that’s really very nice for me, of course. [Laughs]
BYT: The Last Resort, and in particular the song “Take Me Into Your Skin”, was a major part of the soundtrack to my second year of college. It’s fantastic.
Trentemøller: Oh, thanks! And yeah, we are closing out every show on the tour with that song. A lot of people remember that song fondly, and it helps that it’s really fun to play it live, also. It has a lot of electronic feel, but it has quite a few organic moments; it’s nearly something symphonic, sometimes. So we love to play it as a band. Thank you.
BYT: Listening to your live performances and the broad range of dynamics and song structures present in your music, it seems like you’re constantly reinventing your sound from album to album. Amazingly, you’ve maintained a somewhat hypnotic quality and depth throughout. What’s the inspiration and impetus behind these sonic changes? Are you going into the studio thinking about ways to actively differentiate from what you’ve done before, or do these changes happen organically?
Trentemøller: For me, this is something that happens very, very naturally. It is not something that I plan when I start working on a new album – I really like starting with a blank page instead of thinking about what I did on the last records. I don’t want to do the same album twice, of course, but I focus on what feels right for me. I never think about reinventing my sound, because this is just natural development. It doesn’t have to be totally new or different, but it often ends up being quite far from what I’ve done previously.
I feel like every album is a snapshot of where you are in your life, and my life changes, and I’m growing up also. [Laughs] The way I sounded fifteen years ago is very different from what I sound now, but I think there’s a natural development when I look at my albums. That being said, it’s a little hard to see that progression when you’re right in the middle of it – maybe it’s more easy for people outside to see the difference. It feels like a very natural flow for me.
BYT: Your most recent release, Fixion has a couple of vocal features. How did these collaborations come about? I know you generally play all the instruments in the studio recordings, but how did you decide who you wanted to work with to bring these lyrics to life?
Trentemøller: This time I wanted to work on an album that didn’t have that many vocal features, because my last album had like five or six different vocalists on it, and I really felt it suited the album, but I could also somehow see that it was maybe too much. It was hard to get that personal, intimate feeling when you’re listening to all these different voices. For Fixion I originally wanted to only work with Marie Fisker – and she’s also the one performing with me live – and I think she has a fantastic voice.
My idea was to have her as the only vocalist on this album. But then I started working with Savages, the UK rock band, when they asked me to mix their new album. I met Jehnny Beth, their lead singer. I’m a huge fan of Savages; I really love that band, and we really clicked well together and had a very good time mixing their album. We often talked about working together some day.
I wrote two songs for Jehnny Beth while I was working on my own album, and then my idea of only having one vocalist was done – I really wanted Jehnny to be part of it. Marie Fisker and Jehnny Beth’s vocals are somehow very similar; they have the same energy and the same vibe, and I actually think they are fitting quite well together. I wanted Fixion to feel like it’s only one voice taking you by the hand and guiding you through the album, and I hope that listeners still have that sensation – that it’s a little bit more intimate, maybe. At least that was my idea for the album. [Laughs]
BYT: And there’s a bit of a play on words with the name, Fixion – you’re telling a story and taking the listener through a narrative.
Trentemøller: Yeah, yeah! That’s a part of the idea – that actually making music for me is like writing fiction. It’s about building this artificial dream world that I had to go to and explore things that maybe I cannot realize in real life. At some point it makes sense that the narratives of the songs would reflect that. I like to think of this album as much more personal because I limited myself to working with only these two people.
BYT: I have read that you still get upset at negative reviews, and that you take them very personally – [interrupted]
Trentemøller: [Scoffs, laughs] That is actually a weird thing, and some other people have brought it up. I don’t think I’ve ever said that, except in one interview where I said I don’t read reviews that come out immediately after the album is out. I’m still so attached to the album. Making an album and releasing it is like having a little baby, so the first months after my album is out I am somehow too connected to it. But then I tend to read some of the reviews because you can also sometimes learn a bit. However, when I’m in the middle of rehearsing with a band after the album is released, there is so much tension and there is so much to still work on because we are getting ready to go on tour. Sometimes I am really feeling like it’s too close to me, and it confuses me more than it helps in that moment. But then later it’s much easier to read a review because I’m able to step outside of myself.
BYT: How do you channel that feedback productively? Have you ever read a review and thought “they’re fucking wrong”?
Trentemøller: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah! Definitely! Especially those reviews that are not so much about the music. I had some reviews, particularly earlier in my career, where people said that I was just a part of the new hype or fashionable thing. That really makes me angry because I’ve never made music because I think it’s trendy or fashion – I’ve been making music since I was five years old, and it has always been my biggest passion. I don’t take those reviews seriously.
If there’s some comment about the music, or maybe something that they’re right about, I’m willing to listen — the beautiful thing about listening to music is that it’s different person to person, and other perspectives can help you grow. I’ve also gained some more self-confidence through the years so I don’t take it as personally anymore, but of course, you still get upset if you have the feeling that someone is just writing a bad review because they don’t like the music style or the state of music. That’s also a part of being an artist and releasing music. You should be ready to get back up quickly, because it can sometimes help. I’m also thinking of some of the criticisms I’ve taken into account and used later in my career, and it has helped, definitely.
BYT: If you could sum up your career thus far in a few words, what would it be?
Trentemøller: [Deep sigh] Ah. For me it’s been a fantastic joyride. If you asked me twenty years ago, I’d never have known that I’d have the chance to play around the world and travel and make a living out of making music. I’m really, really grateful that it’s possible for me to do this, and I always wanted to spend my life writing and making music.
BYT: I don’t know how in the loop you are about political goings-on in the United States, but Trump is trying to cut funding for the arts in this country, and it’s such a shame. It’s horrible.
Trentemøller: Yeah! I’ve been reading quite a lot about it, and unfortunately we have some of the same politicians and things going on in Denmark – a lot of the cultural stuff is cut away to fund expanded military. Culture is really important for society; of course I say that because I’m a musician and composer, but it’s so crucial. I’m not political in my music, but I tend to say something on stage if I feel something is wrong. If you want to make your life as an artist, you should be able to do it, and you should also be able to let your art grow. That can be quite difficult if all the resources are cut down, and it’s sadly happening in a lot of European countries as well.
BYT: What advice would you give to producers or musicians just starting off in their careers?
Trentemøller: Ah, that’s a very good question. I think I would say always trust your gut feeling, because that is something I have been using all my life. You can very easily get into that thing that you’re trying to do what you think people expect of you – what is hip right now, or what is trendy right now. I think it’s really important to always follow your instincts and try to play around without overthinking what you’re doing, especially in the beginning. Writing music and playing music is also about having heart – of course you have to rehearse and practice, but you should always feel comfortable in trying out new ideas. Anyone with a laptop can make an album now, and particularly in electronic music, but it’s important that you find your own sound. And that’s quite hard work that not everyone wants to put in. [Laughs]