Sondre Lerche, the bright-faced, smooth-voiced 24-year-old singer/songwriter who blossomed out of Bergen, Norway a mere four years ago, drew praise and critical acclaim with his debut Faces Down. Now, Lerche, who at a time claimed influences by the likes of Burt Bacharach and the Beach Boys, returns with an album of uncharacteristic -- yet charged and compelling -- music.
On Phantom Punch, which comes out Feb. 6, Lerche channels a young Bob Dylan –- in the sense that he went from an acoustic folk hero to an electric genius. By plugging in, Lerche does a complete 180 and shows how much fun he can have with his band, the Faces Down trio. The group is spontaneous, recording many of the tracks in a live setting in one or two takes to truly capture the essence without over thinking the production. With the help of producer Tony Hoffer (Beck, Phoenix), Phantom Punch is electrifying from the get go. Unsubtle in his attempt to have the songs come alive, this young troubadour crafted a collection of upbeat, engaging pop tunes. SomethingGlorious spoke with Lerche from his apartment in New York, where he splits his time between hometown Bergen, Norway to visit his young bride, who is studying in Manhattan and is an actress/model. Lerche is likely returning for a US tour this spring and has already gone back into the studio to work on "a project much much bigger than myself." Unfortunately, he's remaining tight-lipped so for now, we'll have to live in the present and enjoy Phantom Punch.
Read the entire interview below or just stream it.
SomethingGlorious: You split your time between New York and Bergen, Norway – are
you back in New York now?
Sondre Lerche: I came back Sunday night. When I'm at home, I'm in Bergen, but sort of all over the place. I go back and forth a lot between Bergen and New York. I have an apartment there but I also go to Oslo. I was just in Paris doing promotion for the new record. It's back and forth.
SG: Do you find that you spend most of your time traveling?
SL: I usually go to New York and if I'm here I'll stay for two to three weeks and then I'll go to Norway and maybe have some gigs or something going on there or in the studio. My band is all in Bergen. I'm usually traveling all the time. If I'm lucky I'm in New York for three weeks. There's a lot of travel but it's the work I do.
SG: I first saw you in San Francisco in 2003 at Bottom of the Hill and you had this cute stage presence. Your English wasn't great yet you were entertaining and engaged the crowd. Now that you've had time to mature as a musician, do you look back over the last four years and appreciate everything or is it more of a blur?
SL: It sort of feels a long time ago, and in ways it is. That was in 2003 and we just started 2007. It's not that long about, but it's four records ago. It's been an exciting ride. A lot has happened since then, with the music and songwriting and personal life. It's just the nature of that period in the sense that I was … when I did that first US tour I was probably 19. How old am I now, 24? You change a lot and your life changes very swiftly in that period. Of course when you're a touring musician and recording artist a lot of other unusual things happen on top of that. It's not like I was stoned or coked out my mind – I remember it.
SG: Was it part of the time then?
SL: No, no … I was a pretty well behaved boy. I still am.
SG: What sort of unusual things happened?
SL: It's a really strange occupation. It's a privilege. It's the one thing I've always wanted to do and was able to do it early on and make a living off it. I feel blessed and happy. But it's really strange to make music and play out for a living. I'm sure I would make music one way or another regardless of how it turned out, but when you're doing it and putting out records, in one way or another you're hoping or betting on that someone will like what you make.
SG: Touring the world like you do, have you experienced anything really outrageous or
SL: I never remember specifically anything but being up there on stage you get a lot of weird attention of course. Some like your songs or your appearance but people have different motives and you appeal to them for different reason or factors. I didn't ever think I would go to America in the first place. When I did, I was shocked. I came to New York and I didn't know what to expect and people were singing along to the songs and the label showed me all this press. That was pretty massive. I never expected at all that it would be possibly for me, as a young boy from Norway, to come to America and have people applaud. Then you travel around in a minivan and you're an opening act and in one way it's pretty miserable but it's also pretty cool. It's sort of a mythical – you're living like a dog but you keep doing it. Sometimes you wonder why, it's definitely a cliché among sailors, but I always find when I'm on tour you reach a certain point that you just want to come home. But then you want to go back out.
SG: You got married didn't you?
SL: I got married one and a half years ago. It's not typical – not expected of you to get married young in Norway. Obviously we wanted to. She goes to school in New York so she's set there. She has her own thing to attend. She's from Oslo. She's an actress.
SG: Has she been in any of your videos?
SL: Yeah, we met that way. She was in the "Days That Are Over" video; it was on Two Way Monologue.
SG: Phantom Punch was supposed to come out in 2006, right?
SL: We finished it may of last year and we put out my last record, Duper Sessions, in March. I always thought of them as sort of companion pieces. They're very different but to me they represent the same desire to make a record that was about putting instruments in a room and figuring out how we're going to play the songs and capturing that vibe and energy. The songs were written at the same time and I always imagined them as two records but recorded more or less in the same period. We recorded Duper Sessions in the fall of 2005 and didn't intend to put that one out. I wanted Phantom Punch to come out first, but the label really liked it. And I was happy with it. We didn't want to make too much fuss over it but just put it out there. Of course, according to plan, when that came out, I went straight into the studio and started recording. My plan was to just put that out. The label wanted more time to promote Duper Sessions. It was doing quite alright and we approached a new audience we hadn't reached before. I couldn't deny them that. I agreed to wait with Phantom Punch.
SG: While there are songs on the album that are sort of your more mellow, jazzy stuff, and Phantom Punch – you really plugged in and took it in a new direction. Where did this new energy come from?
SL: I just felt – and maybe because I'd done the records I'd done in the past – those are more mellow and more produced. They were done with my producers and then brought in musicians to play more based on what we need. That's probably why I felt the need to do something that was about playing and to make the most of a limited ensemble. For both of these records, I wanted to have guitar, bass and drums and make the most of that. I wanted to do things that were more physical and not laid back. I wanted something more primitive and anti-subtle, sort of. I didn't want to spend another record working on subtleties and arrangements. The songs should be short and energetic with a restless vibe.
SG: What was your inspiration for it, I mean, you were rockin' out!
SL: With my first two records I was really into Burt Bacarach, Beach Boys, Steely Dan – these sort of more – for lack of a better word – more sophisticated pop groups. I've always loved anything that Elvis Costello does and love his work, but I've always loved his aggressive stuff he was known for back in the day, like Blood & Chocolate. I've never used that as a reference for my own music. When I was 15, I got into XTC and their early records and then their later records that are more textured and sophisticated. For this record, I ended up going back to a lot of records and I discovered a lot of debut records of a lot of post-punk pop groups in Great Britain in the early '80s – they have this heart breaking restless, ambitious energy that's all over the place, but every now and then there's this undeniable fantastic melody or song in the midst of this sort of hectic intense playing. Bands like Orange Juice, Aztec Camera and Prefab Sprout. … their first records – and then they went on to make a more produced record that wasn't as good as the first, except Prefab Sprout, which the second was better.
SG: You did most of the songs on a first take, right?
SL: A lot of the recordings, I knew it would be significant if we could get as much of the music in one take. Some of the more complex songs we had to go endlessly and do numerous takes. With "She's Fantastic" and "Face the Blood," if we could get it within the first or second take, if not, we'd be standing there going over and over again and losing the initial energy that was essential to make the songs fly. That's the quality of those British bands that I adore – the songs aren't in their range; they're reaching far beyond what they're actually capable of and at times they're really beautiful.
SG: The songs are definitely different for you – and even on "Tragic Mirror," with the acoustic guitar and your voice I'd say your inner Lennon came out on that, which is something I've never really heard in your music. Are you a Lennon fan?
SL: That's sort of the thing. For me, it sounds really flattering and cool, but I haven't had my big Beatles period [laughs]. I'm saving that for later. I haven't gotten into that but they're inescapable. I'll hear a song and be like, "God damn, that's good," but I'm going to hold off on see what happens.
SG: Going back to Norway, what's the deal with the culture that cultivates so many great emerging bands in the last few years – you, Annie, Royksopp, 120 Days, Low Frequency in Stereo?
SL: I don't know – it is pretty remarkable for such a small country. We're probably half as small as Sweden and they're pretty significant. It just keeps popping up new bands all the time. It's really cool. They're really diverse and I think now that you have a band like 120 Days, who really blew me away. For a band like whose sound is very unusual, for them to come out of Norway, it really impresses me. I don't know what it is. Being a musician in Norway, in a culture that's so dominated by the USA and the UK, you probably automatically feel like an outsider in that culture, but you can't escape how much of an influence the dominating factors in popular culture is on you. It's a cool combination.
You have to accept that you're in the outskirts of pop music culture but you may have something to contribute.
SG: Do you ever work with any of those other artists?
SL: I'm not much of a collaborator, but I have to find a way to do that. It's really difficult for me to sit down with someone and write a song. It's such a personal private process for me. Sitting down with someone – you have to hold back some ideas and make room for someone else. I keep thinking, why should I do that until I feel like I need to work with someone else.
SG: You wrote something really interesting in your online diary – that you discover music much later than when it comes out – but that maybe music is meant to be heard at a particular time. Do you think your music is meant to be heard when you release it or should it be saved for a few years down the line?
SL: I really find that while I hear about all these new bands and records that are
acclaimed it always takes a lot of time for me to hear it and get into it. I don't know, maybe that's the case with my music. Maybe it takes 15 years to hit the mainstream. The most important thing for me is to make music that I feel really strongly about because I think that with the kind of music I do it's the only way to communicate with and reach the audience. Maybe it takes 15 years to really reach all the people you can potentially engage with your music. It's one of those things that if I ever reach a bigger audience or crossover, it's going to happen when you least expect it. Least of all me.
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