Catching Up With Sondre Lerche

Music Features Sondre Lerche
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It’s been 10 years since Norwegian songsmith Sondre Lerche released his first album in the U.S., but he’s yet to show any signs of slowing down. He’s released a total of six stellar albums over the course of his career, each one slipping seamlessly in and out of various genres. He’s been touring consistently and even provided the soundtrack to the Steve Carell rom-com Dan in Real Life. Now he’s set to release his first live record, Bootlegs, and re-issue his first four albums on vinyl.

We caught up with Lerche as he prepared for an upcoming tour to talk about what makes a great live album, what it means to make music for 10 years, and we even found time to have a little discussion about Beyoncé.

Paste: So, you’re about to go on tour soon. Is there anything about this particular tour that you’re getting really excited about??
Sondre Lerche: Well, it’s pretty exciting to go on tour with so many songs. Usually, you go on tour and you have a new record that you’re excited to focus on. But this time, it’s sort of in the context of this live record, Bootlegs, which in a way just relates to my whole catalog. Then later in October, we are re-issuing my first four albums on vinyl. So, in a way, it’s a chance to play songs from almost my entire catalog. And that has led me to go back and bring back some songs that I had sort of forgotten about and that I haven’t played in concert. Some of them I haven’t played for 10 years. So, I’m excited about that because, with 10 years of doing this and with 10 years’ experience, I get to sort of revisit some things that I did a long time ago and bring new life to it. Some of them feel like new songs just because I haven’t really paid much attention to it since I put out the records.

Paste: Does it feel crazy that it’s now been 10 years since your career started??
Lerche: Yeah, it is pretty crazy. The concept of 10 years is not one that I know much about because, when you’re 10 years old, you have no concept of time. Then when you become 20, that’s sort of the first 10 years that you have some sort of perspective on. But because you have nothing to compare it to, it still doesn’t mean much.

In my late teens until now, I’ve been putting out these records and touring. It’s sort of strange—I still haven’t really come to grips with what 10 years actually is. I’m trying to figure out what it all means. But it’s fun to see all the work that I’ve done and to find out that people appreciate what you do enough so that you can keep doing it. That’s a pretty amazing realization.

Paste: Can you tell us what prompted you to put out a live album?
Lerche: It’s not something that was planned at all. In fact, I’d sort of given up the idea of making a live record or even just recording a concert. I was through with it because I had tried it so many times through the years, and I was always left disappointed and cold. It never felt as exciting as being there, and these are professional high-tech recordings. But then, my management here had recorded this very chaotic and rowdy show we did in Norway, in my hometown. We didn’t know we were being recorded, and I think that was key to it being exciting in a way because we didn’t have any self-awareness as to anything beyond the moment.

So when I heard that, I thought, “This is actually pretty cool. This is what it feels like in a way. This is, for better or worse, a truthful document of a concert.” The only problem being that it was a very primitive recording. It wasn’t a professional recording at all. So, it didn’t leave any room for manipulation, or mixing, or any of the things that we’ve come to expect or deal with in the music industry. Then I thought, “Fuck it. Who’s to say that you can’t put it out just because it doesn’t sound like it was professionally recorded?” Actually, my problem with a lot of live recordings now is that it sounds like a studio recording but completely life-like and anemic. But because we’re so used to hearing things that have been manipulated, and processed, and mixed, and balanced, and sucked the life out of, I thought, “Yeah, I want to share this.” My initial thought when I heard this was surprise and excitement, and the desire to share it with my fans. I just followed that instinct. So, it’s a pretty different live record than other live records around, but I think that’s a good thing.

Paste: So, all these songs are recorded for that one particular show in Norway??
Lerche: No, most of them are from the show in Bergen, and then there are two songs from New York actually. I simply wanted these two songs—they’re solo performances—and those two songs in the Bergen show I played off mic, just completely acoustic in the room, which was really great there and then, but it made it so we didn’t have a recording of those songs, so I found them in another show.

Paste: Because these songs weren’t recorded professionally and have this raw quality to them, is that where the title Bootlegs comes from??
Lerche: Yeah, I thought it sort of resembled recordings that I grew up listening to that were not even official albums. I would go to these record fairs and buy bootleg recordings of old Elvis Costello shows, and Nirvana, and stuff like that. This was in the early ’90s, and I just loved the sound of that because you really felt that there was no filter and there had been no manipulation. There was no agenda except: “This is a document of a show. This is how it goes down, and this is what these people do.” There is something honest and raw about sharing that, and because this recording had that same quality, and because it was never intended to be a professional live recording, I thought, “Well, I’m going to call it Bootlegs, so people get the idea.”

Paste: How did you choose which songs to include on Bootlegs?
Lerche: The full concert that most of this is based on was the 17 songs, and I wanted it to be sort of short. Live records and even greatest hits records in the ’70s were 10 songs. It wasn’t this bloated, double-disc CD with a DVD thing. I wanted it to be sort of classic—five songs on each side. Also, this was a really chaotic show. Some songs, there was feedback and there was trouble with the guitar. So there were some songs that were not really an option. I went for the songs that had the right balance. There are a couple of songs where you have things go wrong, and all the sudden the guitar drops out a little bit, and then it comes back way too loud. I sing the wrong words, or I sing the wrong note or stuff like that. As always when we perform, there’s a lot of spontaneity and improvisation, and I try to make room for that. Some nights, that makes it really successful, and some nights you fall flat on your ass. You improvise too much. But this night, I felt there was a lot of inspired stuff happening. In “Two Way Monologue” and “Airport Taxi”—and even “Sleep on Needles”—there’s some fun stuff going on even though it’s a pretty rowdy version.

Paste: Do you consider yourself to be more of a live musician or a studio musician??
Lerche: I think when I started out I was dreaming about being able to go into the studio and do whatever and spend as much time as I wanted to because that is what I didn’t have access to. I was getting used to being on stage and playing live, and I thought that was such a rush, but the studio was off limits. So, once I got into the studio and we started recording my first record, I felt like, “This is where I belong.” I feel like the two first albums reflect that—this excitement of all these amazing possibilities that you find in the studio. So, in a way, they feel unrealistic. They’re more production based. There are arrangements and stuff going on.
But I think as time went on, I became more interested in what happens when you’re on stage. I guess I just got more confident and more excited about playing solo shows or playing with a band. Any setting became a fun challenge to see—“Well, what happens if you play this song, this way, in this setting, and in this tempo?—and so forth. So the two albums that came after, Duper Sessions and Phantom Punch, are much more stripped down and much more about trying to capture musicians playing together, much like you do in a concert, but trying to do that in the studio and to not really do anything more than that. They’re sort of opposites in that sense.

So, I feel as time has gone by I’ve become more and more interested in playing live because that’s where you reinterpret yourself. The album can’t change. The album is a document of there and then, but the concert is always changing, and that’s where you show where you are right now. I feel like that’s maybe more vital. I write songs that I hope can withstand almost any condition, meaning that you can play them a bunch of different ways. The album is just one way of doing it.

Paste: You mentioned that you are preparing to re-issue your first four albums on vinyl. Can you tell us what brought that about and why you chose vinyl as the medium?
Lerche: I always wanted to do that, but it wasn’t really something that we spent a lot of money and time on. I was on a major label when I started out, and there were a lot of great things that came with that, but making vinyl records was not very high on their agenda. So, instead we made lots of expensive music videos, which was fun also, but that’s more a fleeting thing. I thought, “Now that time has passed, and I have my own label. Maybe it would be possible to license the records and do the job myself.” EMI was very cooperative in letting Mona records re-issue these records. They appear on vinyl for the very first time, and I wanted to go back and find some of the key tracks that didn’t make the album, songs that I feel are associated with the different albums, and include that. So there’s some of that on the vinyl and a bunch more are available as digital downloads when you buy the vinyl. It’s expanding the concept of these records. They aren’t just the songs that made it on the record, but they’re also the songs that I wrote before and during and after and some stuff like that.

Paste: Well, before we let you go, we were wondering if you had decided what song was going to follow up Beyoncé’s “Countdown” as your annual Christmas cover this year.
Lerche: I’m looking at some options of course. Usually by the end of the year, it’s very clear to me what song it needs to be because there is one song that I keep coming back to. It was very clear to me that it needed to be Beyoncé and that song, and also just the challenge of trying to justify doing a version like that of such a song. Obviously, it’s a production number, but I felt there’s also a more classic/traditional song under it that I can find.

Right now, I’m listening to a lot of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and they have a lot of really great songs on their album, but I think that album is even from last year. I’m sure there will be some pretty cool records in the fall that will be tempting to cover also. We’re only halfway there, so we’ll see. I don’t know if Beyoncé is releasing anything new this year. You never know.