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Interview with Henriette Sennevaldt and Thorbjorn Krogshede




Spotted by Rolling Stone's chief editor David Fricke as one of the ten bands to watch in the future, then recruited by Howe Gelb to play on his 2003 album " The Listener", Under Byen won't stay Denmark's best kept secret for a very long time. The Aarhus based 8-piece went early 2004 to the Eurosonic festival in Groningen (NL). Here, they played a one-off gig at the Muziekschool, and met label bosses, festival headhunters and people from the media, the latter including the Rockomondo man, fan right from the start ( both Under Byen's albums have been " Album of the Month" in the radio-show). This interview took place the day after the gig, in a small café, with Henriette Sennenvaldt ( vocals, songwriting) and Thorbjorn Krogshede ( keyboards, songwriting).

ROCKOMONDO: When talking about Denmark, everybody knows, of course, Copenhagen, the capital. Aarhus, the place you're from, hasn't got the same international reputation although it's Denmark's second town. Can you tell us more about it, how it's like and what's happening there, so we can better imagine the place you live in ? Do us the tourist office speech...

HENRIETTE SENNENVALDT: Most of all, Aarhus is a city by the sea. It's even the main characteristic of this town: wherever you are, you're never far from the sea. So we have a harbour, beaches, forests each side of the city. Then there is a university, lots of young people, lots of people playing music. All in all, it's a very small and very charming city. I've lived there all of my life, so maybe it's starting to become a bit boring to me, but I think people who come there for the first time think that it's quite a charming place, especially during summer. Everybody's going outside again after our long Danish winter, people sit in the streets for a chat or a drink, they go to the beach and have a good time: it's really a great place to be.

RM: The former core of the band was made of you and Katrine Stochholm. You know each other since your childhood. What was your musical background ? Does it come from you childhood too ? Did you get some classical training for instance ?

HS: I haven't got any training at all, or any backgound that could explain my love for music. My father has a huge record-collection, that has certainly been a big part of my musical education, but that's all. It's quite different for Katrine and her two brothers - one of them also plays in this band - who have played music all their lives. She has been playing piano since she was a child.

RM: I've been suprised not to see her at the gig you did yesterday. Why didn't she came to this Eurosonic show with the rest of the band ?

HS: It's just that Katrine doesn't like travelling. She only does shows in Denmark, but doesn't come when we play abroad.

RM: Your biography says that you and Katrine first had the idea of forming a band in the mid-90's, almost ten years ago. As you're still all in your early twenties, it's something that started very early for you, that urge to express yourself through music ?

HS: Yes, that's right, and it's a chance that we know each other for so long now. I think the group as it is now, we have been playing together for four years or so. That makes quite some time, and it's great, because we know each other well, and we feel safe around each other.

RM: One thing I find amazing is that, right from the start, it looked like you had a very definite idea of the music you wanted to do. For instance, when you formed the band and chose the musicians, you didn't choose any of them: you found musicians who played acoustic instruments like accordion, violin, cello. So, even before the band started, you already had a very clear idea of the music you wanted to do and how it was going to sound...

HS: It was not the idea of how we wanted to make it sound, but more an attraction to these instruments because they were so exotic. You know, when you play music at school, all the traditional stuff, you don't have often the chance to play with instruments like these. I think we just found them exciting, especially the strings. Katrine and I were both very fascinated by this romance, and the strong feelings they can produce. But none of us had any pre-conceived idea of how it was going to turn. We didn't even know the instruments, by the way. We just wanted to have them in the band.

RM: Your first EP is really stunning. It doesn't sound at all like the debut recording of a young band. Most of all, it firmly sets up the Under Byen sound, which is something a bit difficult to pigeonhole: there are clearly classical, folk and jazz influences all mixed together. Where does it come from actually ? What are the roots of your music ?

HS: Well, it just comes from the people who form the band. Again, I don't think that there was any idea behind this band. The sound we have now is just a reflection of these people, with their personalities, their particular instruments and how we manage to assemble all these elements together.

RM: At least, there is an influence you can't deny, it's the one of Swedish artist Stina Nordenstam. Actually, you chose the producer of your first album, Manne von Ahn Öberg, because of her ...

HS: Yes, we knew him from the Stina Nordenstam album called " Dynamite". It was mainly because of the way he had produced her voice, but also the strings and the drums. We really liked these three elements: very heavy drums, shimmering strings and feathery vocals. These three things display some kind of very allusive eeriness, and he brings them even further. That was an interesting soundscape he created, and we thought that it would fit perfectly for us, so we worked with him. He's a very gifted man and has a great talent in producing, particularly the strings...

RM: Signe, from the Danish band Jomi Massage, firmly claims the female aspect of the music she plays. If we consider that the creative team in Under Byen was mostly made of two girls at first, would you say also that there is a female aspect in what you're doing ?

HS: Yes, very much so, but it is something that is hard to explain. We are so many in Under Byen and this is very much a group, above all. There's a perfect balance in the band's line-up: four boys and four girls, so there is indeed a big girlie influence, but the opposite is true as well.

THORBJORN KROGSHEDE: The thing is that the creative team in Under Byen doesn't only consist of two girls. On the contrary, you have to think of the band as a bunch of people united with the aim of doing this particular music together. Each individual fulfills a role which is quite unique in the band. It would give totally different results with other people. So the idea that Under Byen has a creative team with a blueprint of how the music is going to be - belittling the rest of the band to the status of simple performers - is wrong. By saying this, I'm not undermining the value of Katrine's songs and Henriettes's lyrics which, of course, are truly blessed. I'm just pointing out the fact that the actual creative team in Under Byen is the band as a whole. Regarding that feminine/ masculine aspect, our music contains it all, one of its main structures being actually the tension that exits between these two poles. It is very difficult to differenciate between the two anyway. One side always contains the other, otherwise it will soon become unbearable. You could argue that Henriette's way of singing is very feminine, and indeed it is, but not only. And then we mix it with the sound of the saw, which I think is very masculine, and there you have it: a nice mixture of it all..

RM: Thorbjorn, you joined the band between the first and second album as a keyboard player but also as a composer. Has it been easy to join a songwriting team made of two girls who were friends since their childhood, and how did you manage to adapt your own songwriting to a music that had already such a strong identity ?

TK: Yes, it has been very very easy for me to join this band. The fact that the former songwriting team consisted of two girls is not important at all. It's simply not the issue. The important thing is that Under Byen's music contained all the space I had always needed to go further into the music, very deep inside. It is something that demands a lot of discipline. I had never experienced something like that before, neither in jazz nor in classical music. The things we do in this band, you can't learn them at " The Royal Highschool of Music". So I just forgot all that to get deeper into the music. But I don't consciously adapt my composing to anything. I hear Henriette's voice in my head, and from there it follows that I base a composition on the mood from her voice and poetry. That's all. You can call that some kind of adaptation. But it also goes the other way round, that Under Byen adapt to me. Actually, Under Byen adapt to everything that can make a promising song and sound. I think my songs make a good balance to Katrine's ones. Both her songs and mine stand out better in the light of each other.

RM: By the end of 2002, you've been chosen by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the ten most promising bands for the years to come. Then you've had numerous connections with the USA, some of you have contributed to the Howe Gelb album " The Listener" , you also played at NY's CMJ festival, did it help in opening doors for the band in the USA ?

TK: We talked with people over there, negociating, but it's too early to say yet. I don't know if it looks that promising, but it has definitely opened doors in the mind of people over here. I can really feel a difference since we've been in New-York. People are more concerned about us. They look at us a different way.

RM: And what about the rest of the world ? Until now, we haven't heard much about you outside Denmark ...

TK: That's true. But we're working at making things change. That's one of the reasons we are in Groningen right now. Anyway, next month we're going to play in Norway and in march 2004 we'll fly again to the United States to play at Austin's famous SXSW festival. It's amazing that such things are possible now, because we didn't play much outside the Danish borders before.

RM: Have you been told already that you should better sing in English if you wanted to reach a wider audience ?

HS: Yes, it's something we've heard already. Guys from records-companies wanted to sign us only if we changed our lyrics to English. So we talked together about it and we finally decided not to accept. It was the right choice. Actually, people are responding very positively to the fact that we sing in Danish. They seem to find the language kinda exotic and interesting. So I don't think it is a problem anymore.

RM: Your music is strong enough so that we can enjoy it without understanding the words. But as I'm curious, I find a bit frustrating not to be able to know what you say. So, what are your lyrics about ? Do they tell stories, or is this something more poetic, more elusive ?

HS: Thorbjorn, could you answer to that one ?

TK: Ok, thank you very much, I'm honoured. Erm, I can try to say what they mean to me, at least the one that I wrote, and it's... well, maybe there's little stories in it, but not like narrative stories. For me, it's much more a mood, it's more something poetic. For example, the title of our second album " Det er mig der holder traeerne sammen" that you can translate by " It's me who is keeping the trees together", well, what do I get out of that ? It is meant to create a special mood which I think is also in the music. There's a close connection between the two. It's quite a difficult thing to explain, really. For the next album, we'll try to put an english translation on our website (1).

RM: The last recordings you did were for a movie-score. Can you tell us more about this film ? Is it a Danish movie ?

TK: Yes it is. It's some kind of a teenage-movie called " 2 ryk og en aflevering", which is pretty hard to translate. It is actually a soccer expression, but it also has sexual connotations.

RM: How did you work to do that movie-score ? Did you actually compose the music from what was happening on the screen ?

TK: Absolutely. Actually we saw the movie while we were playing because we didn't own any modern movie equipment. So we couldn't work on computers like regular composers do. It was very primitive in fact: we just sat and played while watching the film on a video monitor. It was a pretty hard process.

RM: Was it the first time that you played music for a special purpose, other than doing you own records ?

TK: No, it wasn't. Before that, we also made music for a big event on the Aarhus harbour called " Portpolis" where Henriette was actually the main figure. It included sailing and theatre while Henriette was singing, very imposing, very beautiful ( laughs)

RM: You also did songs for a theatre play...

HS: Yes, we did a song but it was not one of our own compositions. It was an old german song that we performed for this theatre play about a German serial killer called Herman. It was actually with the same guys who were with us for that big project on the harbour which was, I don't know how to call it... it mixed sailing, theater, architecture, movies and music all together. It's a Danish theatre group from our city, and it was very interesting to work with them. But it was also an exhausting experience. When we had finished we were really tired, all of us, after trying to adapt ourselves to somebody else's needs, and we were quite happy to do our own stuff again. So, I think there will be some time before we do this again.

RM: I quite like the cover-art of your second album with that very intriguing photograph series. It shows that things are not always what they may seem at first, but it also displays some kind of very peculiar sense of humour. Is there a place for humour in Under Byen's music ?

HS: Yes, I definitely think so, and sometimes it's quite a frustrating thought to feel that nobody ever sees that. But I swear it definitely exists. If it didn't, it would mean our music is... pretentious, that it takes itself very seriously, with all those emotional outpourings, it's just too much you know. So you have to believe there's humour in it. You have to keep some distance and put a certain amount of irony in it, just to do it. Otherwise you'd just get sick.

RM: What will happen now after the music score you've just released ? Did you already think about how your next album will sound like ?

TK: We are in a quite difficult situation, because we don't know at all what we are going to do now. We just know that we have a great need to do something completely new. It would be boring to do something we've done already. Lately, we tried to record some old songs, but we finally gave up. We were not satisfied with them, maybe because we were not surprised by them anymore. So, if we do something, it definitely has to be completely different. We are looking for new directions. Because of the theatre and film music we've made, it gave us new ideas, and most of all it helped us knowing what we DIDN'T want to do. The rest is a matter of time.

(1) An excellent English translation of Under Byen's lyrics ( and fine pics of Henriette live) is now available on

( At the time I put this interview online, Under Byen are on the verge of doing their first French tour with the itinerant festival " Les Femmes s'en Mèlent" . Their second album " Det her mig der holder traeerne sammen" will be released in the Netherlands by Excelsior Recordings and in France by Telescopic. The SXSW gig was cancelled due to a change of venue - the stage was too small in the new one-)

Check also:

- Under Byen: " Kyst" review

- Under Byen: " Det her mig..." review ( official) ( excellent unofficial website okayed by the band)