There’s silence on the line. But it isn’t Jannis Noya Makrigiannis’ fault by any means. The Choir of Young Believers frontman is nothing if not amiable, discussing radio performances and the exhausting fun of SXSW in great detail. But the conversation has turned to Grasque, his band’s third album, and things have gone uncharacteristically quiet—save for the low hiss of an occasionally questionable Skype connection.
After a few tries, he rallies and jumpstarts the topic by admitting that if he had go with first impulse, there never would have been a third album. At least, under the Choir of Young Believers name.
“I just think that it doesn’t matter if it’s your personal life or your creative life, routines get really boring after a while,” Makrigiannis says. “I remember early on, I wanted Choir to inhabit all of these things…I think it was because maybe I didn’t, sometimes you forget that this band, I can have all these ideas in my head. But people only know the things that you release. I think I felt after Rhine Gold that I needed to point in a different direction. I felt like the two [previous] records were point in certain directions. I needed to broaden the specter of where the band could work.”
Makrigiannis’ decision to nudge Choir of Young Believers toward a different sonic palette was solidified when he was invited on tour with Depeche Mode. (He notes that while having an appreciation for the band, he lived out teenage levels of super fandom through his friends, who visited him on tour for a chance to gawk at the iconic group.) Uninterested in simply rehashing previous ideas, the Danish musician enlisted producer Aske Zidore (who he had previously worked with on Rhine Gold) and entered the studio to generate new material.
But finding their footing wasn’t easy. It’s difficult to tell if Makrigiannis is being charitable when setting the scene, but he describes his previous behavior in the studio as “protective” of song ideas, and not always responding well to notes from his collaborators. The pair cooked up an elegant solution to help him ease up on his desire for ownership.
“To avoid these conflicts, we decided to map out the sonic landscape of the record by improvising,” Makrigiannis confesses. “The first mini sessions in his studio in Copenhagen were pure improvisation. Also we went to Sweden for a week and just recorded hours and hours and hours of music. It was all improvising. That kind of made the fundament in production. We found our common ground and the universe we wanted to take the songs into.”
Grasque still embodies all the adjectives that could easily be applied to previous Choir of Young Believer releases. (See: Yearning. Autumnal. Emotive.) Still swinging at musical fences, Makrigiannis has lifted his work out of the orchestral pop realm (bye bye guitars and orchestral refrains, hello synths) dipping into electro, soul and hip-hop beats in equal parts. Lead single “Face Melting” even incorporates a dusting of Auto-Tune. (Because why not?) To hear Makrigiannis tell it, the single, a melancholic meditation on the idea of shape-shifting, became a personal anthem of sorts.
“I had some kind of identity crisis. I turned 30,” he confesses. “Just around my 30th birthday, I broke up with this girl that I had been together with for five years. That kind of really changed a lot of things in my head. For a moment I thought this relationship is gone, my 20s are gone. Maybe the best thing is to start a new band. One of the reasons why I kept on with Choir of Young Believers, even though routines get boring after a while, I think music is everything. It’s a big part of my identity. I’ve been playing music all my grown-up life, since I was 12, 13 years old. It’s been the most important thing in my life. It’s been the red thread in my life. Since I was 23, Choir of Young Believers has been that red thread. I’d really like that red thread to continue even though the music changed and I changed. I would like a continuation.”
The change has worked. Makrigiannis says these days the horizon is broader. The musical “what if”s are no longer a source of claustrophobia, but rather curiosity. Even if he’s not sure when he’ll get around to satisfying them all.
“It really feels great to have opened up the idea—I really have no idea where the band is going now and where the next material will be,” he says. “But I feel very open to a lot of different new stuff, which is definitely a thing we started out with the making of this record. This is the new fundament of many places I can take this band. It feels very exciting. I don’t believe that I’ve felt like I’ve been in this position with this band before. Having some history to the band also helps me; in many ways I was very insecure on the first two albums. Maybe also not pointing in too many directions with the music was out of fear. I definitely feel very fearless at the moment. That’s a nice feeling. But at the same time I also know I have this idea that this album might disappoint some people.”
He pauses, laughing ruefully.
“It might even piss some people off. But maybe we’ll win some new people over too.”