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Over the past five years, the main avenue of exposure for dance music artists hasn't been club play or (ha ha ha) radio. It's been television ads. Think of Dirty Vegas's "Days Go By" soundtracking Mitsubishi before the song was even available on disc, or Moby's Play being licensed to 300 different commercial outlets. Since techno's streamlined beats and soothing instrumentals are upbeat and consumer-friendly without sounding as "dangerous" as hip hop's rugged, in-your-face rhythms, this is hardly a surprise. Still, with countless club favorites stolen by TV, there's something reassuring about the fact that most Americans probably heard chill-out techno-funkers Röyksopp for the first time the old-fashioned way: in the mix.
Last year, 2 Many DJ's released As Heard on Radio Soulwax, Pt. 2, a mixed mash-up manifesto whose highlight was a jaw-dropping segue from Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" into Röyksopp's gorgeous "Eple" ("Apple"). After Radio Soulwax became a critics' favorite, Astralwerks snapped up the group's 2001 debut album, Melody A.M., re-releasing it with bonus tracks last October. You might expect that the Norwegian duo would be fairly happy about the opportunity to bring their work to a wider audience, but Torbjörn Brundtland, the group's blond half, seems unfazed by it.
"I didn't hear a word about it until it happened," the 27-year-old Brundtland says about his signature tune's appearance on Radio Soulwax when we meet up in Astralwerks' Manhattan office. "The mix [into "9 to 5"] is not particularly clever. It's just one track, and then another track. There's not much to be said about it."
Svein Berge, Brundtland's 26-year-old partner, begs to differ. "Oh, it was clever, I'd say," he says. "I really trust that it's on that CD because they appreciate our music. I've heard it mixed better in other places, but it's likable."
So is Melody A.M. A hit in Europe a year before it touched American shelves, the disc, with its cool drift and warm rhythms, skirts the edge of background Muzak but never quite falls in. One friend calls it "the music in heaven's dentist office," which sums it up nicely. Though they're nowhere near as poppy as their French counterpart, there's something Daft Punk-esque in the way Röyksopp reinterpret '80s dance music through a scrim of loving nostalgia. Songs like "Röyksopp's Night Out" and "Poor Leno" have a sepia-toned, widescreen feel that's somehow both epic and modest. In a sense, Melody A.M. bears the same relation to Daft Punk's Discovery as Rjd2's Deadringer does to DJ Shadow's The Private Press: It's a softer-focus, and nearly as engaging, variation on its big sibling's thematic arc.
Friends since age 12 who grew up together in Tromsö, Norway--a city that lies within spitting distance of the Arctic Circle--Berge and Brundtland bonded over a mutual love of Kraftwerk. "Most people our age, in Tromsö at least, were into whatever rock and pop coming out--Bruce Springsteen and Def Leppard--and we weren't," explains Berge. So they got involved in the local rave scene ("We were hanging around DJs, handing out flyers," says Berge) and began experimenting with samplers. After leaving Tromsö for university--Berge and Brundtland attended separate schools, neither of them graduating--they moved to Oslo in the mid-'90s, working in record shops and producing appropriately glacial tracks under the moniker Those Norwegians.
As that name suggests, the duo exude a tongue-in-cheek mischievousness, in person if not on record. Take their earliest successful experiments with samplers: "We were really into prank phone calls," explains Brundtland. "We were 13, so our voices were too high to be taken seriously. So we sampled [prerecorded] phrases and pitched them down three semitones. It would sound quite adult, alcoholic, sluggish. We'd have conversations with people on the sampler, and they would think they were actually talking with someone."
"In the beginning," Berge adds, "the vocabulary would be quite narrow: The person that you called would think he was talking to a really limited person. So that was fun." He grins. "It still is."
Or was. Berge and Brundtland aren't making any crank calls on Astralwerks' lines today--though they come close, and I'm not about to stop them. If growing up means not making crank calls anymore, staying youthful means just barely resisting the urge every so often. And that same mix of what was fun to do as a kid with what responsibilities face you as an adult runs through Melody A.M. Röyksopp are still reinventing the electronic music they grew up on. "We don't have any idea of being retro in any way," insists Berge. "But [childhood was] when we opened our ears for the first time, and that's inside us."