Danish rock & roll: It's different from ours. Courtesy Motormouthmedia
Danish rock & roll: It's different from ours. Courtesy Motormouthmedia

Northern Light Junkyard Music

Like God, if Under Byen didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent them. This Danish guitar-less ensemble are a perfectly 2007 phenom. They have as many girls as guys, two percussionists, a string section, a saw player and, on their new Samme Stof Som Stof disc ("Same Fabric as Fabric"), a penchant for creaky beauty and rustic grandeur as poetic as it is raw.

Take the Fat Albert-band weird-instrument vibe of, say, Arcade Fire and add the tousled post-partum estro-innocence/menace of Björk (Under Byen even have a member who calls himself "band doctor," plus shades of the bad-horn-playing Einar from Sugarcubes). Divide that by the exponential preciousness of Sigur Rs, then factor in they're from the even-more-pastoral village outside the Danish second city, Aarhus. Like Chicago, Detroit, or Philly—only with elves, poetry, a never-ending supply of cellists (the Youbees have gone through a few) and still, God bless the Vikings, a pretty singer, Henriette Sennenvaldt.

But what began in 1996 as an experiment funded by the Danish Rock Council (what American musicians call "working at Kinko's") has progressed into a decade of "an anti-rock band playing Northern Light junkyard music," as cellist Morten Svenstrup describes it. In fact, for an anti-rock band that sounds like Dead Can Dance by way of Yusef Lateef's Eastern Sounds, Under Byen aren't grim Scandinavians.

"There is actually a lot of humor in the music," Svenstrup insists in a late-night e-mail from home in Denmark on the eve of a U.S. tour with the Album Leaf. "There are a lot of emotions in making [this] music, where there should be. So whenever things are musically tense, there are a lot of emotions at stake—luckily!" On record, it's because Sennenvaldt sings in Danish through a homemade mic; the saws and cellos are distorted and stretched. Live, it's because their feminine arrangements mold to their audience. "Intention is something we don't use at all in our way of making music," Svenstrup explains. "Instead of 'improvising,' we try to lead the music the way it makes sense the particular evening."

As such, Under Byen have become a sort of Kronos Quartet for music-weary hipsters. David Byrne has given them props, but it's Tom Waits whom all eight members seem to like; Svenstrup himself is fond of contemporary Norwegian classical fare: "Music with a physical, spacious feel."

Like Metallica, Under Byen performed with a full orchestra in Denmark last winter, but with different results. "The bad vibes following orchestras and rock bands comes from the standard arrangements groups like Metallica wind up using," Svenstrup says. "On our records, we use a lot of 'classical' instruments, so it's easy to transfer that to the orchestra. So when we did it, we avoided the orchestra trap. By the way, the contrabasses sound like ships pushing you backward very slowly." Duly noted.

Under Byen usually play, as Svenstrup puts it, "punk clubs or art galleries," and they are perfectly suitable for both. For all their pretensions (a former cellist performed wearing angel wings), their sound is weirdly, wonderfully natural, which Svenstrup is quick to put in check. "Our music represents some kind of Nordic feel," Svenstrup admits. "Some might call it laziness. Really, we are lazy."

Lazy or not, they aren't a bunch of cooing angels, that's for sure. Where Sigur Rs are pretty and particular, Under Byen have a little of that Aphex Twin-like, shit-eating ambivalence in their flowery grin. The Danish language gives Henriette some leeway to coo, but where a guitar might invoke a swoon, Under Byen prefer to flit around a melody, inspiring more than demanding a response. Says Svenstrup, "We're kind of rude—we count on the listener to take a swim and capture the fish—it's not being served in front of her on a plate with parsley on top."

So what have they got against guitar? "It's like spicing a meal with coconut milk. It will always taste good, but it's hard to vary. It's more interesting to have other instruments taking the role of a guitar, instruments that perhaps usually are used for icing, like kalimba, marimba, or strings. Imagine a main dish of icing—that would taste rather weird." A saw solo it is, then. Enjoy.



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