Originally, Danish band Wake Me For Coffee was a solo project started by Copenhagen, Denmark based grown up wunderkind Thorbjørn Nyander Poulsen whose resume reads like that of a renaissance man for the 21st century: musician, singer, producer, maker of musical instruments, toys and effect devices, Gameboy music expert, technology hacker, circuit bender, medialogist, former employee at Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center in NYC, philanthropist.
Thorbjørn's live band of merry men: Kristoffer Juel (drums), Peter Ravn (bass), Stig Helmer Jensen (guitar), Christian Sund (keys) plus Carsten Skov occasionally playing vibraphone on "Uplifting Values".
You can listen to and download the full album at Bandcamp:
Q & A with Thorbjørn Nyander Poulsen of Wake Me For Coffee
The Nightfly: Wake Me For Coffee started as a solo project. At which point did you decide to form a band?
Thorbjørn: I attended the 2011 annual band contest 'Karriere Kanonen' [= Career Cannon, i.e. career springboard], hosted by Danish national radio network P3 in cooperation with the Roskilde Festival organizers. Since about 900 artists/bands applied for the contest, I didn’t expect anything to happen - I simply uploaded the song "Baby Burrito", and totally forgot about the contest. About a month later I received a call from one of the contest organizers who happily announced that Wake Me For Coffee was among the 24 artists/bands picked for the contest. I was to play a 25 min. live set three months later, so the contest forced me to get a band together. This was actually a nice process because I believe it would have taken me forever to consider which musicians to pick if there hadn't been a deadline. Due to the shortage of time, I simply asked four of my good friends, and I've played with them in WMFC ever since. I've realized that it’s important for me to play with people that I share multiple interests with besides music. For example, WMFC likes to do fancy fine cuisine dinners when we gather for rehearsal weekends.
The Nightfly: Describe your writing and recording process in general, and also for 'The Mulder Ties' specifically.
Thorbjørn: I like to keep myself away from the recording studio during the time that I compose. I usually don't get anything out of spending hours in a tiny, dimmed room in front of a large iMac screen in somewhat anaerobe conditions (studios are usually cramped and messy.) Mostly, ideas come to me when I’ve not played my piano or messed around with music software for a while. A lot of ideas come while biking around Copenhagen, another good artistic argument stressing the need for more bike friendly cities around the world. The traffic noise blends with the cycling rhythm of the pedals, and new ideas for beats and grooves pop up. Often I start to whistle or hum melodies and themes to the grooves inside my head. Sounds mad, right? I rarely do anything to remember the parts I come up with during my rides. I believe that if I still remember the parts when I get home, it's because the ideas are worth further exploration on the piano, the guitar, the bass or the computer. You could say it's my way of keeping some kind of artistic quality standard: my memory is the judge. Because my creative process is not structured, it’s hard to time the events - this is why it took me about three years to write the songs for ‘The Mulder Ties’. A lot of other songs have been written during those years, but they weren't good enough to be included on the album, or I forgot them before I made it home on my bike. The lyrics often originate from my reflections upon things I hear or watch other people do. I think writing about my own personal life is a bit too trivial. Not that I have a boring life, but I don't think it’s drastically more exciting to write about than others. I like to imagine personalities, locate tendencies in society, and write about that. For some reason many of my lyrics are rather sarcastic or bittersweet. I don't know whether to call it late modern, consumerism critical, or simply Scandinavian. Once the melodic and poetic parts have been explored and developed, I usually have a good idea about how the song should sound even before I start recording. Usually I record several songs at a time. I like to fool around with programmed drums and samples of everyday sounds. I'm also a big fan of strong verse bass lines. Although I look in many different directions in search of inspiring sounds and instruments, I work very fast once I'm recording. During this process I tend to listen only to the song I am recording - day and night over and over again - to get to know the vibe, and to develop it further. I even take it for a bike ride, and sometimes the background noises blend into the tracks that I'm listening to in a whole new and inspiring way. So you could say that a lot of my work is credited to biking.
The Nightfly: Do you prefer writing, recording, or performing live?
Thorbjørn: I enjoy all of them. I love awaking emotions while I'm writing and recording, and I love making spectacles on the stage. I never performed as lead singer before WMFC, but I learned that the role is a very natural one for me, and it gives me a social kick. I love when people are having fun in front of the stage. On the other hand, writing and recording is a very personal and introvert experience for me. That is my refuge where I rest and recharge, spiritually and emotionally.
The Nightfly: Are you self-taught or do you have some formal musical training?
Thorbjørn: Both. I started playing the piano at the age of five. We had an old ragged piano in the kitchen which my farther and my older brothers had collected for free from a basement: they literally placed Rollerblades under the piano to move it out of there. Every night while my mom was cooking, I would listen to the radio, and try to play along to the songs I heard. Both of my older brothers played the saxophone, so I listened a lot to their jazz records, and tried to play those songs too (Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and others.) We would sometimes jam together - mostly jazz standards from "The Real Book" or Beatles songs. I played like this on my own for about five years before I consulted a piano teacher. Later on I took high level music theory classes in high school. I have a bachelor degree in musicology (straight-A student). This primarily gives me a lot of interesting classical piano training and knowledge about orchestral arranging.
The Nightfly: The music video for "Dogville" has great viral video potential owing to its very funny content. Are there more WMFC videos in the works?
Thorbjørn: I will be recording material for a new music video in the near future. I’ll be traveling in Northern California, Yellowstone National Park, Portland, and NYC in June and July, and I think I’ll try to record some good content along the way. My girlfriend and I will be going on14-day road trip from San Francisco to Yellowstone and back along the small highways. I hope it will produce some funny interesting footage. At the end it will be edited into a music video for either "Uplifting Values" or "Speak Up".
The Nightfly: You have travelled in California and will be returning in June. Could you envision living here?
Thorbjørn: I enjoy staying in California, and I've got some really good friends there. I love the climate, the nature and most of all the people. I lived in NYC for five months - the city is awesome, but the culture there burns you out in the end I think. Californians on the other hand are a little more tranquil. It seems to me that the music and creative scene is great in San Francisco - I would love to live there for a while.
The Nightfly: What inspires your lyrics and your music?
Thorbjørn: Most of my lyrics are inspired by my reflections upon modern society and its somewhat bizarre tendencies. I'm a pretty sarcastic and self-deprecating person, so I guess that characterizes my lyrics. There are a couple of love songs on the album as well. I love to come up with funny sounding phrases such as "the pilot is a dentist with a nitrogen mask" from "Drinking from a Pond" or a term like ‘Baby Burrito’. I believe I'm simply a fan of words - I talk a lot. And, as mentioned, my music is very much inspired by bike rides, technology sounds and city soundscapes.
The Nightfly: Name some of your favorite artists/bands, past and/or present, and explain why they are faves.
Thorbjørn: I must admit I'm a big fan of Beck. I can strongly relate to his playful investigations of combinations of sounds. I love the way he doesn't seem to care too much about genres, but more about melodic and rhythmic concepts and content - I have a similar approach to my work. I am also a big fan of modern classical composers such as Maurice Ravel. In my opinion his "Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte" is one of the most complete and beautiful musical pieces ever written. It is so transparent and yet so complex at the same time - I love it. I am also a big fan of video game music. I did my first electronic musical compositions on an old Amiga 500 computer back in the mid-‘90s. From that I learned the necessity for good melodic content in songs. On an Amiga 500 you can’t really fake anything because the platform is so limited - you have to make melodies, themes and rhythms that work well no matter what sound they are paired with. My favorite Amiga soundtracks are "Speedball 2" and "Lotus 3". Growing up with two older brothers who played the saxophone and a dad playing the trumpet, I was brought up with jazz. My brothers would practice solos by Charlie Parker, Coltrane and Paul Desmond over and over. My dad would blast Glenn Miller and Louis Armstrong from his worn ghetto blaster. This along with a lot of Herbie Hancock and funk music has probably taught me something about making cool riffs and lines. When I started playing synths in the late '90s I was a big fan of Peter Gabriel and his brilliant synth and piano arrangements. I had an old Korg M1 work station where I would layer a lot of cheesy 80s style sounds, and recorded a lot of quirky demos on tape cassettes. My girlfriend has introduced me to indie rock music. I'm not a big fan of the indie-folk wave, which is big in Denmark right now - I'm more into banging, energetic stuff like The Kills, Tame Impala and The Black Keys. But I must stress that my musical taste is very eclectic: the last record I bought was an old worn out vinyl with Greek disco. Pretty crazy. I actually love bad music. People often browse my iTunes library, and say "What is all this weird stuff?"
The Nightfly: What is the back story on the album title ‘The Mulder Ties’?
Thorbjørn: My old elementary school buddy Rollo and I would always get together and watch ‘The X-files’. A couple of years ago we met up, and watched all the seasons again. We called it an “X-files marathon”, stayed up whole nights, and rediscovered this amazing show. I love David Duchovny and his sarcastic Mulder character. We began to notice how Mulder wears a lot of gnarly colorful and ugly neck ties throughout the episodes, and laughed a lot about this. So when I was to name my album, ‘Mulder's Ties’ popped into my head. I also felt that the eleven songs were varied, colorful, and investigated various musical paranormal phenomena in the same way that Mulder does. Hence the name, 'The Mulder Ties'.
The Nightfly: Because I am so taken musically and lyrically with all of the eleven songs on ‘The Mulder Ties’, I would like you to comment on each track, going off of the order on WMFC’s Bandcamp profile. Thus we begin with track # 1, ‘Dogville”:
Thorbjørn: Dogville is a funny combination of an old melody I made many years ago (originally with lyrics in Danish), and some considerations I made during an afternoon at Alamo Square in San Francisco during my 2009 California trip. I noticed how dog owners always seem to have something to say to each other, mostly about each other's dogs. And it seemed to me that dogs are probably not man's best friend, but it is man who is a dog’s best friend. It seems dogs do make people go crazy and fall in love all the time. It seems very irrational to me, and I love making fun of dog owners.
The Nightfly: She’s Got A Lovely Sweater (# 2)
Thorbjørn: In 2007 I watched a concert with Lesley & The LY’s in Copenhagen. Lesley Hall operates The Mobile Museum of Gem Sweaters, and she did a hilarious performance in a big golden spandex dress - she's a big girl, so it looked amazing. That gave me the idea for the first line in the song. I decided to make it a love song, and the rest of the lyrics came very easily to me, some of it during a short flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I wanted the track to include all of the synthesizers that I owned at the time I recorded it. It was a fun experiment, and I guess it’s probably the most hysterical and complex track on the album. I think I recorded over 100 layers, and my producer who helped me mix the album, had his hands full on this one due to the complexity of the track.
The Nightfly: Baby Burrito (# 3)
Thorbjørn: Baby Burrito was composed while biking to the library reading hall on a cold morning in March 2010. My girlfriend had prepared a lunch pack for me, consisting solely of a small pear because that was all we had in the fridge that morning. I was so happy about her sweet, brave initiative. For some reason Alamo Square snuck into the lyrics: I probably needed a vacation at that point, and that could be the reason why I was thinking about my San Francisco trip.
The Nightfly: One Million Girls (# 4)
Thorbjørn: I know a guy whose only goal seems to be to score girls. He's a good guy, but he can be extremely cheesy and very scheming. Watching him approach girls at parties can be a real joke. His activity partly inspired the lyrics of this song: it's about a douche bag who scores girls in a cheesy manner. I worked a lot on the track before creating the lyrics. I wanted to try producing a beat that had no emphasis on the 1-beats (where you would usually find a bass drum kick). I think it creates a nice tension. I recorded the drums with a single bad microphone at my musicology school. Because it was so poorly recorded it immediately sounded like a lo-fi sample - I liked that, so I kept it. The track has some of the most interesting bass fills on the album: I made it with a keyboard synth bass. It makes it a real challenge for my bass player, but he loves it, and usually plays most of the crazy fills - amazing guy. I love the groove of this song. It always works great live. Sometimes I invite a person from the audience to come up on stage and play the cowbell, which is banging away through most of the song. It's a funny live gimmick. "More cowbell!"
The Nightfly: Speak Up (# 5)
Thorbjørn: This is the oldest song on the album. I composed the string theme heard in the intro and chorus five years ago. They are also the only lyrics I didn't write completely on my own: one of my friends Sigrid, a Norwegian designer living in Copenhagen, wrote the verse lyrics on a note and gave them to me. She thought they might inspire me somehow - and they did. During the time I composed the marching intermezzo, I was analyzing "Mars, The Bringer of War" by Gustav Holst at the university. Many people claim that the intermezzo inspired [John Williams’] "The Imperial March" from Star Wars. Personally, I think that both the Star Wars march and my march are primarily inspired by Holst's march. My song is about extreme self-absorption, and I think the intermezzo emphasizes that topic pretty well.
The Nightfly: Cell Phone Free Zone (# 6)
Thorbjørn: When I composed this song I was thinking about all the Christmas songs that are released every year. I wondered how a song could celebrate another holiday. So I wrote this track which combines Easter related symbolism with a sour evaluation of the mass communication society. I am proud of the guitar part. I'm a poor guitarist. The secret behind this guitar part is that it very easy to play and still possesses a strong melodic idea.
The Nightfly: Drinking From A Pond (# 7)
Thorbjørn: A couple of years ago there were some riots going on in the streets of Copenhagen. You would see a lot of young people mostly concerned about being on TV rather than the actual political issue. This song is sarcastic comment on that tendency: individuals with strong non-ideological and self-promoting urges.
The Nightfly: Uplifting Values (# 8)
Thorbjørn: This song is a sarcastic kick-in-the-balls to the baby boomer generation: their hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and consumerism. I guess I'm just being a child teasing his parents on that track. The song always works great live. (Sometimes Carsten Skov, my producer and vibraphonist who performed the recorded solo, plays it live with the band.)
The Nightfly: The Oyster Pit (# 9)
Thorbjørn: This is the most emotional song on the album. The distorting drones you hear in the intro and throughout the song were made with an old reel-to-reel tape recorder which I shorted and turned into a delay machine. The sound you hear was achieved by playing a guitar with a volume pedal into the machine. It has a life of its own: it roars and screams, does surprising things, and it gave a really interesting texture to the track. To my ears, the track sounds like the song of a longing, lonely robot, and goes hand in hand with the lyrical topics of longing for a more substantial and lasting existence. There was actually another verse that went "when the backlit screen turns off, you will see the reflection of a lonely man". I thought it was a little too techno-apocalyptic for this song, so I cut it out - I'll save that for another song in the future. I love the piano part in this song: I like the feeling of having a difficult piano part on the album though it's very discrete and subtle. I don't want to show off, but since my main instrument has always been the piano, it's a good feeling to have a skilled piano part there.
The Nightfly: You Know What To Do (# 10)
Thorbjørn: I wanted to make a garage rock song, and tried it this way. Since I hardly play the guitar, it was fun for me to noodle around recording all the riffs and fills. I was surprised by how well it ended up sounding. I knew I wanted a crazy guitar solo, but I also knew that I could never play it myself. So I decided to program it on an old Nintendo Gameboy, using the program Little Sound DJ. It actually sounds like a distorted guitar. In this way I could program the exact ‘80s poodle rock style solo I imagined. It was a very fun process. I always execute the solo with the Gameboy at live shows, and it's a very neat gimmick. People love that sound. (If you, or any of your readers wish to dig more into that kind of hybrid Gameboy rock, I recommend listening to Anamanaguchi's soundtrack from the ‘Scott Pilgrim Against The World’ game released in 2010).
The Nightfly: Doing Great No Matter How We Do (# 11)
Thorbjørn: I composed this song in Northern California where I was “wwoofing” at some old hippies’ ranch in 2009. Wwoof stands for "Word Wide Opportunity On Organic Farms". I had bought a little backpacking guitar in San Francisco - the only instrument I was carrying at that time. In the afternoons I would walk into the redwood forest, and just relax. It was a beautiful experience. That's where "the redwood stub" comes from. The man I worked for drove around the garden in an electric golf wagon. That ended up as "a riding mower" instead. I chose this song to end the album, because it's the most optimistic of the songs.