RH Interviews Sondre Lerche
We sat down with Sondre Lerche, the Velvet Viking, to talk about his new album Pleasure, and the art of making "pleasure music" -- how Lerche created a record that sees him freeing himself creatively and rooting his music in physicality.
Record Hospital: What’s the relationship between your last album, 2014's Please, and your new record, Pleasure, beyond the title similarity?
Sondre Lerche: It’s sort of a dialogue, and there’s definitely an overlap. But they’re both very distinct periods, to me at least. When I was recording and writing Please, there were certain songs that felt very important. But somehow they just felt that they belonged to the future, a different time. So as much as I wanted them on the record, it just became natural to leave them off. Songs like “Violent Game,” “Baby Come to Me,” and “Bleeding Out Into the Blue” — they were all part of that batch of songs. For different reasons I just couldn’t make them work, so I just accepted that they belonged somewhere else. And I just kept working and writing and recording a lot while we were on the Please tour, and I felt very inspired. So there was definitely an overlap. And then there was a distinct moment where I just woke up one day and I had this title in my head, which obviously also has a sort of play with Please. It’s a development — it has the same root but it means something entirely different. It felt like a very restless limbo of sorts, one that’s both exciting and full of pleasure, but also a frustrating place to live — which is a description of that time of my life — and it became this record. So I guess out of Please comes Pleasure.
RH: Where was there a moment musically where you felt like you were making Pleasure specifically?
SL: Yeah. Actually it’s funny cause we were just on tour in Norway and we came to a venue where [drummer] Dave Heilman reminded me that there, backstage, was the place where almost exactly two years ago I told my band, “the album’s gonna be called Pleasure — now we’re making pleasure music.” That was in March of 2015. We had just recorded “Baby Come to Me,” a song we’d started two years before that, but I rewrote the lyrics — there’s a lot of rewriting and restructuring for all of these songs — and also the song “Hello Stranger”, which was starting to look like it could be a full song and not just a construction. So I got a reminder [in Norway] that there was definitely a moment where it felt like, we’re making Pleasure music.
RH: There’s a real beautiful coherency between the two albums —
SL: Oh, thank you.
RH: — especially with “Crickets” [from Please] and “Serenading in the Trenches.” They’re both about singing in unorthodox ways.
SL: They’re definitely siblings, those two songs.
RH: The music, too, there’s that same sort of rhythm…it’s funky as hell.
SL: Well, that’s Dave, playing on “Serenading.”
Dave Heilman: Yeah.
SL: You didn’t play on “Crickets” though…
DH: No, that’s you!
SL: (laughs) That’s me. But that’s through the use of computer grids and stuff, couldn’t have done it without it. But yeah, there’s definitely a lot of interaction between the songs on those two records. On “Crickets” and “Serenading,” it started for me as an infatuation with this sort of rhythm pattern, almost like a fill or a rhythmic hook. I wanted to see how far I could go with just that. And there was also an infatuation with the feeling that I needed a really strong harmonic or chordal pattern to repeat. Those are songs that are fun because I’m trying to see if I can actually drum up a lot of emotion with just repetition, which is not what I’m used to doing. I usually have a lot of parts and a lot of dramatic arts and a lot of chords, but it’s really, really fun to see if I can create the same canvas of emotion and drama with fewer moments and just repetition. “Serenading” is the more dramatic of the two siblings, and I guess the difference with some of the Pleasure songs is that they’re very physical, and there’s a lot of physical metaphors. It’s obviously very concerned with the body, not just in a sexual way, but in a concrete way too. So where “Crickets” is about trying to see from different perspectives and trying to engage many perspectives to try to understand what has happened, “Serenading” is further down the line, and doesn’t have the luxury of trying to see things from different angles. It’s more of the body than the mind.
RH: It seems like there’s been a steady creep of electronic stuff from Please to Pleasure, and certainly from your 2011 self-titled record to now — there’s a huge difference. So has that changed the way you think about writing songs, or do you still find yourself composing in the same way?
SL: There’s definitely been a sort of natural, but perhaps conscious desire to expand my own writing process, and to expand my own conception of what a song amounts to, or what can become a song. The songs on the self-titled record and all the songs before that were sort of more natural songs, in a sense, and Please was the first time I felt I succeeded in approaching songwriting in a completely different way. In the past I’ve experimented with that and felt that I haven’t succeeded, because the songs haven’t given me the feeling that I want. And then I just lose interest.
RH: Did that happen at all on this album, did you ever get stuck?
SL: No. Or — well, there are songs you don’t hear on the album that got stuck. But because it happened over a long period of time, a song like “Reminisce” was probably the first thing we recorded, and could have ended up on Please. That song is earlier in a sense than all the Please songs. I think we did a session where we did “Lucifer” and “Reminisce,” and to me they seemed like twin songs. I guess they have sort of similar rhythms…
RH: Listening to it now, though, it seems like “Reminisce” fits so distinctly on Pleasure.
SL: Yes. Although [“Lucifer” and “Reminisce”] belong together, I was never happy with the lyrics on [“Reminisce”]. Ironically, that’s the last song that I rewrote the lyrics and redid the vocals for, in the eleventh hour while we were mastering Pleasure. It’s the first one we started that became a part of Pleasure, but the last one that made its way onto the record. I just didn’t connect with the lyrics anymore, and it didn’t feel important, and I thought, “well, I’ll give it one more shot.” The band also thought that was an important song, so we were happy when I could make it important enough for me, for my precious narrative and precious emotions. [Laughs.]
RH: How has working with [producer] Matias Tellez of Young Dreams been on Pleasure and Please?
SL: We have so much shared experience and influences. He’s a little younger than me, but we came up around the same time in Bergen, and worked with a lot of the same people. We became infatuated with a lot of the same music that we found, at different times.
RH: Had you known him before you started working with him?
SL: Yeah. You know, Bergen is a small town. I remember the first time I met him he was thirteen and I was eighteen, and I had just put out my first record and become a little well known, and he was a charming little fan. He was a little fan that became quickly a very talented young man. But because of that sort of relationship then, where he was a bit younger, we had this distance. Then when he started doing the Young Dreams thing, and I started playing with my bass player Chris, who used to be in Young Dreams, we started hanging out more. I thought the stuff he was doing with Young Dreams was so beautiful, such a great culmination of all his ambitions. And he was really starting to become an exceptional producer and arranger. It was just the right time. I needed somewhere to record with this new band that I had, of Chris, Alexander, and Dave. I was quickly growing very attached to these musicians, and I hadn’t had a real band for a long time. It was the beginning of a new time, and in a sense, the beginning of Please. Then Matias’ studio just became the natural context for us all to record and be creative, and I knew I wanted to work with him. We did a tour with them, also, where Young Dreams opened for me in Europe, and it was so much fun. The natural step then was for us to try and do a session together. We have all this history where he’s been a fan of me when I was a kid, and I’ve been a fan of him when he was all of the sudden becoming this incredible talent. We became almost like brothers who hadn’t been in touch for a long time. When you’re eighteen and thirteen, that’s a huge gap, but when he was twenty-five and I was thirty, it’s different. He’s an incredible, incredible talent. It’s also funny — Kato Ådland, the other producer I work with, produced Matias’ first album. And now I have this one relationship with Kato we were work together and do stuff, and on Please and Pleasure, half of it’s produced by Kato and half by Matias. It’s like the student becomes the apprentice, and the artist becomes the producer. It’s really exciting.
RH: So can we expect to see a Sondre Lerche feature on the next Young Dreams album?
SL: Yeah — well, it’s a funny story. The lyrics for “I’m Always Watching You” started as a Young Dreams lyric. Matias had asked me, and I wanted to try and write a lyric for a Young Dreams song. So I started working on the idea that I completed in “I’m Always Watching.” It was a completely different song that he had made, and he didn’t do anything with it. I don’t think it worked, the way that he thinks about words and syllables —
DH: AKA he blew it!
SL: [Laughs.] Yeah, he blew it! But I just knew there was something there, so I thought if he’s not gonna use it, I’m gonna make my own song. But that would have been [the SL x YD project]. There’s so many members in that band, though, they don’t need me. Actually, Njål, the keyboardist for Young Dreams, he did a lot of the keyboards on “Bleeding Out Into the Blue.” They’re all exceptional guys. Matias is limitless. A year and a half ago, he played me the new Young Dreams record, and I thought, “man, when people hear this, they’re gonna freak out.”
RH: You came out of Bergen — it’s probably safe to say that a good portion of the American audience first discovered you on Dan in Real Life, when you were scoring that film.
SL: Well, most Americans don’t know me at all! But the ones that do know me from that.
RH: So thinking about scoring films, is there a film you think Pleasure would make a good soundtrack to?
SL: I’ve been really into Brian De Palma films lately. When I was finishing Pleasure they ran a De Palma series at one of the cinemas in New York, and I also went to see the documentary about him, where he just talks through his films. And he made some really…sort of corny, but a little creepy and a little bit sexy, erotic thrillers in the early Eighties, and I feel like that’s where we’re at. So it would have to be one of his corny, creepy thrillers.
RH: That sounds like it fits perfectly. I also sensed on the videos for “I’m Always Watching You” and “Soft Feelings” a little David Lynch vibe?
SL: Yeah, Lynch is never far away. And for me, I’m way into Hitchcock, so “Watching” is a modern Rear Window, in a sense. “Soft Feelings” has a certain Vertigo infatuation. That nude shot of me is the falling man on the Vertigo poster. They flirt and flatter themselves with some of these references. Somebody was suggesting “Serenading” had a Strangers on a Train type feel, cause it has this undercurrent of homoeroticism and relationships without boundaries, which Strangers has some of. Man, you can use Hitchcock for anything, psychologically or thematically.
RH: There really are some stunning videos on this album. They’re almost like short films.
SL: Thank you!
RH: It kind of seems like the songs also have a greater filmic, or visual sense. You even spliced audio from Strangers on a Train into “Siamese Twin.” Have you been thinking about these songs in a more visual sense, or has it been at all like your experience scoring films?
SL: I think I use myself in a different way in these songs. It started with Please, I guess, but more so here. I use my own life in a different way, in a much more conscious or concrete way, and it spills into the music much more clearly. So I have a real clear image of what this means to me. It’s not just pretty chords and melodies — they have a very specific function with regards to my own process and sorting out my own head. And it’s easier for me to visualize it, because I know exactly what it is. Of course, I want to leave room for the audience — they don’t have to be in my shoes or live my life to understand it, hopefully. But it’s easier for me now when I think about videos.
When I started out as a musician, I thought [videos] would be fun to do and I was fine with someone else coming in and saying, “okay, let’s do this, let’s do that.” I thought it was fun to do goofy videos — and some of those are cool, like the “Two Way Monologue” video — but I was open to anything because I had no preciousness when it came to the song. I had no ambition to enhance a certain feeling. And that doesn’t mean that you have to dramatize the lyrics — that’s often a terrible idea — but I had no consciousness towards, “what is the theme of this song?” Now I think about symbolism much more, both in the songs and in the visualization of it. I wanted to use my body, also, in the visualization of this record, because it’s a record that so exists in the body. So it just felt natural to make these videos that in a way, exploit my body. In a sense, we’re used to seeing that with big pop stars. We take it for granted that big pop stars exploit their bodies in their music, especially female pop stars. But I feel this album is also very interested in its own sense of masculinity and feminine character, so it just felt natural that it would be represented by these videos, where it would feel wrong to get someone else to do that.
RH: That was one of the most interesting and perhaps surprising things about this record. There’s the “Serenading” video, which kind of highlights the fact that you’re interrogating masculinity, and you premiered it on Out Magazine’s website. And you talk about “wanting to turn male privilege on its head” [in “Reminisce”].
SL: Yeah, and I think also that [male] privilege is a privilege, and you don’t know if you would survive without it. And the “Serenading” video rests very heavily on the participation of Dave, who I really thought could carry the whole video and then some, and our relationship. And once again, I’m exploiting his body as much as my own, and our relationship also. I felt we could carry and play out all these different roles. He’s such a physical and larger-than-life guy. So I’m using my life in a bigger sense than before, explicitly in the presentation of the music. But it’s also cause I think about it more, and have more ideas. I used to not be interested in “the song,” and sometimes the only thing that truly interested me was the chord progression, you know? [Laughs.] Then I got more interested in lyrics, and lyrics became more important. Now the lyrics lead to visual representations of the ideas, and then you become more interested in that.
RH: You’re often asked about your influences, and in the past bands like Prefab Sprout and Orange Juice commonly came up. But as you’re moving towards a little bit of a more electronic influence, and more of a personal inspiration on this album, are those bands still at the forefront? Is music even still the main reference point for your inspiration for this record?
SL: I guess I don’t think as much about that as I used to. But there’s definitely a couple of nods to Prefab on this record, although they’re mostly lyrical nods, like on “Hello Stranger.” I just like songs that acknowledge their connection with other songs.
RH: “Soft Feelings,” of course, does that in the first bar, referencing New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” and it’s like — damn!
SL: [Laughs.] Yeah, I could quote another Prefab song: “if you steal, be Robin Hood.” I’ll always surround myself with that, and be pretty blunt about those things — but it no longer defines how I do things. Ten years ago, when I was making Phantom Punch, I would be very conscious about, “on this record, I want to create this energy that this band has going here.” The bands would be a very clear influence, and I would sort of cling to that. It was very important to me, and gave me a sense of identity. No, everything just washes together in my head, and musically I feel freer. Because I feel I can do anything, and I’m pulling from a bigger bank of references or ideas. I’m the first now to forget where a song started. I think it’s good that I’m freer in that sense.
RH: Is it the same thing lyrically? Because you’ve always seemed to have this sort of almost esoteric lyrical vocabulary. Are there poets or authors or other songwriters that you’re drawing on?
SL: Two years ago, I sort of rediscovered Joni Mitchell. I always appreciated her, as you appreciate “the greats,” but I had never found a way to make her mine. And two years ago, I just needed Joni Mitchell, I guess. On a lot of her Eighties and Nineties albums, the less acclaimed, less popular records…I found a lot of beauty in those. I think she’s the greatest poet in music. Maybe it didn’t bleed into Pleasure, because they’re lyrically very different songs from much of her style — which isn’t to say that she has one style — but when I fall into the well of great artists like that and consume her music and stories and phases, it does lead me to try to be up for the challenge of writing. I can never do what she did, but it’s like seeing a point on the wall that I want to stretch towards. There’s definitely songs on what will be the next album where I really try to absorb more of the scope of someone like Joni. The scope of the poetic and literary world she creates is so much bigger than everyone else’s, but still she’s very intimate. It’s like in every song she considers everything, and I don’t know anyone who does that. That’s something to strive towards.
RH: One of my favorite examples of your way with words, if you will, is in your songbook. The tempo markings are brilliant — “No One’s Gonna Come” is “restless and none-the-wiser"; “Two Way Monologue” is “fluid and erratic”; “Face the Blood” is just “too fast.” If you had to give Pleasure that sort of one-line musical demarcation, what would it be?
SL: I had a lot of fun coming up with those. It’s a good question…[thinking quietly]
DH: It’s too soon!
SL: [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s too soon, but I like that question. I don’t know. It would definitely be…[thinking more]…I think it would be like “horny and bombastic,” or something.
RH: [Laughs.] “Horny and bombastic.” That’s fantastic.
SL: I think that’s it.
RH: We were speaking earlier about how half of your touring band had their U.S. visa applications rejected on April 10th, which in small part represents the immigration woes we’re going through in the States. But I think it also represents a growing disregard for the importance of art, as we’re about to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. Do you feel like there’s a reason why the government needs to support art?
SL: Well, of course coming from Norway I see the contrast between a country where the government funds art, and a country where it doesn’t happen. And there are positive and negative consequences to both things, I think. But as a general rule, I see value in art everywhere. Art is always challenged, especially in a world that values profit more than anything. History is full of great artists who barely could make a living doing it, and the value wasn’t seen until later and the art wasn’t profitable until later. I see great value in governments and institutions supporting the arts, simply because you never know where it’s gonna come from. You can’t just support the stuff that supports itself or that is profitable. You never know where the timeless beauty lies, the stuff that will reveal itself in ten or twenty years. I certainly think I am creating stuff that I want to exist for a long time, and to maybe reveal itself in twenty years, perhaps in the context of something that I haven’t made yet. I like that idea. When you’re onstage, you’re in the moment, so I get my fix of that. But with the songs and the records, it feels like putting something into eternity. For artists to be able to do that, you need support. In America, there’s a lot of private funding, and people rely on that. And I guess that’s good, but that creates a different thing. In Norway, you have the opposite problem, because there’s so much support for art, it sometimes makes people a little comfortable, you know? Maybe they aren’t as hungry as some of the artists that are here in America. But then, you shouldn’t romanticize that sort of “starving artist,” because that’s the oldest cliché in the book. I do see sometimes that there’s not as much risk in Norway, though. I like living in New York because people are hustling. It’s a different world. There’s a lot to learn from that.
RH: You go a little bit viral around every Christmas with your annual pop cover [this year, Ariana Grande's "Into You"]. Do you see a difference between the pop that you’re covering and the pop that you’re creating, or is pop just — pop?
SL: Well, I call my own music pop music. I’ve always felt that is what it is. But through the years I’ve accepted more and more that my conception of pop is very different from the ever-changing “real” pop world. And the discipline of commercial pop music is a discipline that I maybe don’t have, or seek. I do think there is a difference, because I need complete freedom in my process. The pop songs that I cover every Christmas, they’re not created in a free environment. They have a specific agenda, and when that agenda succeeds, sometimes great music comes from it. Sometimes that agenda succeeds and I think it’s terrible. And there’s so much terrible pop music out there that I just like to celebrate that moment when there’s a song out there everybody loves, because it doesn’t happen that often. Of course, those songs were written and composed with a very strict agenda, and that’s not my skill. Maybe that’s why it’s fun to visit it every once in a while and interpret it…but it’s not my game.
RH: It does seem like it’s a Scandinavian skill through. You have Max Martin and Ina Wroldsen and all these people producing half of what’s on American pop radio.
SL: Yeah, this is true. I think it’s very impressive, because it’s a sort of really extreme “kill your darlings” where you’re not even just killing your darlings — you have to have this instinct for the essentials and for repetition. This crazy, “this has to repeat that many times before it’s gonna sink into the popular consciousness.”
RH: Do you feel like there’s a reason why Swedish and Norwegian songwriters seem to be an outsized presence in the pop world?
SL: Well, the Swedes are exceptional, someone like Max Martin. He’s interesting to me because he comes from a heavy metal background, and he’s well-versed in a certain sort of melodicism that I recognize as a little bit Swedish.
SL: Yeah. An important thing that he has, that I think maybe some underestimate, is the importance of phrasing in pop music. It’s not just, “this is the melody and it’s gonna go like this.” He instructs them in, “you have to moan this way.” If you’ve heard some of his demos, he’s moaning, and he is articulating what Britney Spears became famous for singing. It’s completely controlled, which is very impressive and also very freaky. That’s a huge skill. But it’s certainly not my game.
RH: Obviously you’ve undergone some major changes between [your 2001 debut] Faces Down and Pleasure.
SL: Oh boy. Yeah.
RH: But, at least time you were here at the Sinclair, you were still doing classics from that record, like “No One’s Gonna Come” and “Sleep On Needles.” First of all, are those songs still in the show, or at least songs from that era?
SL: Oh, yeah! Especially with this show, the Pleasure songs re-contextualize and give a lot of new energy to a lot of the older songs. I guess “No One’s Gonna Come” has been a regular since Faces Down. I still really connect with that song.
RH: So you still feel emotionally connected with these older songs?
SL: Yeah, and sometimes that changes. There are certain songs that you grow tired of or you lose touch with, and they don’t feel as relevant. But some songs are fun to play because people want to hear them. Sometimes it doesn’t take more than that. I still love playing “Two Way Monologue” because, well, it’s a good song and there’s a lot we do with it to keep it fresh, but also just because it pleases people. And I’m lucky enough to have some songs that are popular that I also still am very proud of. So it’s not like, “ugh, I’ve gotta play some of the songs I wrote to try to sell out to a bigger audience.” I’ve just never done that. I’ve only put out songs I like. Some of them you lose touch with. But we also brought back “Minor Detail” from Duper Sessions, which we’ve rearranged and which feels maybe more relevant to me than it ever has. It feels like a new song — we haven’t really changed it much, we’ve stripped it down, if anything. That comes from Pleasure, thematically and maybe sonically, sort of rubbing off on some of the older songs. All of the sudden you see them in a new way, and they have a new role, and I can sing them in a different way. I’m very proud of my work. [Hesitates.] Most of my work. [Laughs.] I want people to hear it.
RH: Thanks so much for sitting down with us.
SL: It’s my pleasure.
Sondre Lerche's newest album Pleasure is out now via his own imprint, PLZ. You can find it here.
Teddy Brokaw is the Director of the Record Hospital.