It’s early on a Sunday morning when I finally catch Anders Trentemøller, though for him it’s already past dusk, during a gap between soundcheck and showtime in the Netherlands. From my end of the line I’d begun to wonder whether I’d ever get through, dialing the international exit code time and again while the Schoolhouse Rock version of “3 Is The Magic Number” played as an interstitial tone—perhaps the clearest sign I was waiting to leave the states behind for a more idiosyncratic cultural mindset.
In fact, this limbo of redials was simply the result of Trentemøller having switched off his phone while checking his levels and pedals and gear, but in the broader sense the Danish multi-instrumentalist is an artist who’s difficult to pin down. Seven years ago, Trentemøller’s downtempo debut, The Last Resort, drew wide exposure for its atmospheric mix of club beats and Nordic gloaming. Despite slotting in as a consummate chillout album, The Last Resort was neither reflective of where Trentemøller had been (spinning hedonistic styles of House Music) nor of where he was going (incorporating live guitar, drums and vocals with a more traditional “band”).
Trentemøller’s most recent release, Lost, further blurs the landscape. Evocative, electronic-driven instrumentals flow into more conventionally structured tracks, as the album features collaborations with an all-star cast of alt-rock vocalists, including Mimi Parker (Low), Kazu Makino (Blonde Redhead), and Johnny Pierce (The Drums). Not mere collaborations of convenience—Trentemøller independently wrote melodies specifically modeled to the style of each vocalist, producing an uncanny effect where the resulting tracks sound prototypical yet skewed. Keeping one foot rooted in his world as a celebrated deejay/producer while stretching the other toward the hazy boundaries of indie rock, Trentemøller turned the balance of Lost into an integrated whole, unified by the pursuit of doubles, reflections and intermediate states of consciousness.
“That state between being awake and dreaming is definitely something I’m working with,” Trentemøller says. “All the subconscious atmospheres that you have when you’re not fully awake and not fully sleeping. That’s an idea I’m very inspired by – not only in the lyrics (because it’s not me writing them, that’s something I do together with the vocalist) but also in the way the sound comes across.”
In conversation, Trentemøller’s words race to keep up with the vigorous bounds of his mind, the syllables often tripping up and snagging in the process. In its conceptual foundations, the music engages many of the same themes as the shape-shifting L.A. author Steve Erickson, who struggled with a youthful stammer before letting his imagination run wild in works teeming with doppelgangers, alternate realities and chameleonic genre play, taking wildly different tacks with each novel but frequently returning to the galaxy of time and space between ready thought and stalled speech.
“I’m not thinking as much in a visual way when I write the songs, but when the songs are finished I spend a lot of time finding the right order,” Trentemøller says. “I spend hours and hours drawing curves to see the dynamic of the songs because it’s very important to me that the right track opens the album and the middle of the album should have a track that defines the middle of the story and then the same with the ending track. It’s always a challenge for me to hopefully get a flow on the record, so there’s this natural progression that doesn’t have too many big contrasts but hopefully the songs can melt into each other in a quite natural way.”
“The Dream” opens Lost with both the album’s biggest coup and its biggest risk: sung by Mimi Parker, the lovely ballad is an eerie dead-ringer for late-period Low, with a glacial and disorienting quality that establishes the album’s themes while also presenting an immediate crossroads wherein listeners may literally feel “lost.”
“(“The Dream”) was one of the first songs I started working on for the album, and even if the music is maybe a little more downtempo than what I’ve done recently, it really works as an opening track for the album because after that tune everything is kind of possible,” Trentemøller says. “And Mimi Parker has a wonderful voice that invites the listener into the album and I thought it would be quite strong to have an intimate human vocal as the first thing, before the album opens up and goes different places – it’s an album with many different layers, so I also thought it was important to have something quite simple in the beginning and something that would give space to grow.”
In addition to opening up the world of Lost, “The Dream” also initiated the record’s creative methodology, “a nerve-wracking process” where Trentemøller wrote the songs with particular vocalists in mind—only without those singers actually knowing it. After writing the melodies and laying down the basic tracks, Trentemøller then crossed his fingers and asked each artist to perform on the accompanying song.
“I have been a Low fan for many years, since their first EP and albums came out. So when I wrote the Low track I definitely had Mimi Parker’s voice in my head, but I really didn’t dare to actually contact her because I’m really starstruck by her. I really think she has something so special about her voice that captures the essence of their sound. So I actually had this song finished for six or seven months and then I finally took the steps to try and contact her, and that was actually quite difficult because she doesn’t have a mobile phone and she’s very rarely on the Internet. So I finally got in contact with her manager and sent a CD with my song and she was very happy with it and could maybe tell the song was written especially for her voice.”
Trentemøller says that every one of the artists he contacted agreed to sing on their unique track. Which, of course, brought about a subsequent set of challenges: whenever the longtime DJ says “my band” his voice brightens with the familial pride others might use when saying “my team” or “my tribe,” and playing gigs with his band means playing with a live lead singer. In order to tour, Trentemøller and a core group of musicians deconstructed all those tracks that had once been carefully matched to a diverse array of performers and re-shaped them to suit the versatile talents of Danish singer Marie Fisker, a veteran of past Trentemøller albums and a vocalist able to shift from the existential pain of Beth Gibbons to the throatier, seen-it-all tones of Marianne Faithful.
“I was very aware when I started working on the album that I wanted to write strong melodies for the artists to sing and also because if the song structure is solid enough you can make your own versions,” Trentemøller says. “The big challenge for me was together with Marie to make new versions that were closer to her way of singing, since of course I couldn’t bring all the different artists with me on tour. It was really fun for us to try to break down the songs and build them up again around Marie’s voice, because I really didn’t want her to copy what the other artists did – we spent a lot of time trying to make those songs her own songs.”
That touring incarnation—featuring two guitar players and a drummer in addition to Fisker and Trentemøller—will likely reach the U.S. in April of 2014. Though still early into the first leg of European dates, already Trentemøller says he’s “hungry and really eager to get started working on the next album.”
Inevitably, that next release will defy expectations. Even as Lost takes significant cues from what Trentemøller calls “the beautiful melancholy” of bands he listened to growing up—from The Cure to The Smiths to Siouxsie & The Banshees—he isn’t interested in pursuing retro sounds purely as a form of homage. Instead, he speaks enthusiastically about discovering the common ground where all the forms of music he loves can melt into the deep Scandinavian roots of his own sound. From that foundation, each artistic step he takes is calculated to avoid being caught stuck in place, left with no choice but to make The Last Resort 2 or Lost Again.
“That (artistic freedom) is totally fundamental for me,” Trentemøller says. “That’s also why I have my own record label, which makes it possible for me to have a platform from where I can do exactly what I want to do without thinking about what people might expect or thinking about any type of group. For me, if I have to focus too much on those aspects while I’m writing music, I will definitely lose my inspiration.”