About a month ago I was at a very small and intimate gig in North London, not particularly expecting to enjoy myself (it was cold and late and I wasn’t drinking). As with most social events I attend, I was proven wrong by Amsterdam-based alt band Klangstöf. Easily my favourite newcomers of the year, I was struck by the bands sheer craftsmanship, and lead singer/songwriter Koen’s command of the small yet devoted audience, who chanted every deliberately disjointed hook the band played. There’s so much to love about their latest album ‘Close Your Eyes To Exit’ – the dark swathes of retro-tinged synths, Koen’s sparse yet intimate lyrics, the knowing nods to video game music and the Scandinavian landscape, and the overwhelming feeling of ‘otherness’, of being an outsider, that permeates the entire album. I spoke to Koen during the bands US tour:
KM: Tell me how you initially formed the band.
K: As a band we had a very unnatural start. I was working on this album on my own, and when I finished recording it, I got a label to release it, and could then go and find a nice band to play with. The search for band members was a tough one though. I really wanted the band to just be an extension of my own mind. And of course you also want them to just be cool and handsome people, since we would be sitting in small minivans looking at each others faces most of the time.
KM: Naturally. I’ve heard your name derives from a mixture of Norwegian and Dutch words. Is that true?
K: Yeah. Sounds a bit cliché, but I thought it would be nice to have a name that reflected my musical background. I lived in Norway for a long time, where I pretty much started to produce and create music, and later on went on to finish the album in Amsterdam. The word ‘klang’ means ‘echo’ in Norwegian, and ‘stof’ means ‘dust’ in Dutch.
KM: Your music has been said to be reminiscent of the ‘quiet and fascinating’ Scandinavian landscape. Do you think your Norwegian roots have influenced you?
K: Very much. And to be honest, it was pretty unintentional. It wasn’t like I was trying to sound Scandinavian or anything. It is just something that happened because I was there. My parents had a big house in the middle of nowhere, and I had occupied the whole basement and very slowly started to build a home studio there.
KM: I would say your latest album ‘Close Your Eyes To Exit’ is a must-listen for fans of Radiohead and Sigur Ros. Which artists do you look to for inspiration?
K: Those two, obviously. I’m a big fan of “weird” productions. I recently bumped into the latest Chris Cohen album, which sounds amazing. Also the latest album by Metronomy has been on repeat lately.
KM: Speaking of ‘weird productions’, ‘Close Your Eyes To Exit’ has these expansive dark soundscapes all the way through. What mood or feeling were you trying to evoke, and were the production elements of your songwriting important in achieving this?
K: It’s funny. I never had the chance to think about the way I was writing until the album was done. There was no pressure when creating this, and I didn’t have a clear picture in mind of what I wanted to make or was making. It was a very natural process where I pretty much wasn’t aware of what I was making or doing. It all just happened.
KM: One of my favourite moments from the album is the title track. What struck me most was the use of unusual chord progressions and cadences – was this intentional?
K: I always try to go a bit out-of-the-box when it comes to progressions. Basically because that’s what I like most about music. I love it when I listen to songs and the chord progression keeps on surprising me. The same goes for the production. I want to keep on surprising during a song. My goals is always to make sense out of things that don’t make sense at all.
KM: Can you tell us what inspired you to write it?
K: During the recording of this whole album, I always felt like a bit of a strange dude. Still do.. I thought I felt everything in a different than everyone else. So I always carried a lot of emotions around, because I didn’t feel the need to share them with people that wouldn’t understand me anyway.
KM: There are many brilliant instrumental sections, which are almost orchestral in their quality. Do these come about as a result of playing with the whole band?
K: Nope, not at all actually. I wrote 90% of the parts on my own. A lot of the production and recording was almost like maths on this record. I tried to fit every instrument in its own little spectrum, and really carefully crafted all the builds. I would end up with 50 synths on top of each other on a few tracks. It was a really inspiring process to get this album together.
On the other hand it was pretty hard to then scale it down again to a version that would work with a 4-man band. You need to make some tough decisions in order to make the track work just as good on stage, as it does on the record. It took us almost half a year of rehearsing before we hit the road to play the first couple of shows back in July.
KM: A lot of the album makes use of retro drum machines and 8 bit synths. Was this a kind of throwback to 80’s and video game music?
K: Yup, I spent most of my life gaming. For me this is still the most under-appreciated form of art there is. It combines the best of visuals, music and films. And my dad is one of those guys who got kind of stuck in the 80’s when it comes to music. He would listen to Duran Duran, Simple Minds, Depeche Mode and Pink Floyd all day, every day. I wasn’t inspired, but it just unintentionally got into my creative flow.
KM: You certainly don’t make things easy for your drummer – your songs feature a lot of awkward rhythms and off beats. Do you set out to push yourselves musically when you compose?
KM: I recently saw you play in London, and you certainly have a good following of fans that will sing along to your songs. How does that make you feel?
K: It’s amazing. As soon as those kind of things happen, you feel that there is something going on. In pretty much every country we play in a spot a few faces that are singing along to every song. It really lifts the band up to another level on stage. As soon as we feel connected to the crowd, we are so down to try to give them the best time of their lives.
KM: You’re in the midst of a huge US tour – how is it all going?
K: We thought it would be a very hectic month. A lot of shows in a such a short period of time is something completely new to us. But with a nice crew, good hotels and great fans around, it is more than doable. I would almost dare to say that this is probably the best month of my life, so far.
KM: I have a feeling that the future is very bright for Klangstöf. What do you think?
We have the opportunity to look a little bit into the future when it comes to shows and other cool things that we have scheduled – and we really can’t wait for 2017. If we manage to be on the top of our game during the live shows that are coming, we might have a very bright future ahead. But it’s important to keep our feet on the ground now and just keep on focusing on making the best music possible.
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