– by Jacob Stubbe Østergaard
Back in the 00’s, I was part of a secret, underground music environment that very few know about. Just like other music scenes – such as the gothic scene of London in the early 1980s or the techno scene of Berlin in the early ’10s – it had a creative core consisting of a few key bands. As with all such environments, bands would sometimes exchange members, clash together in new constellations and roll away into arcane spinoffs.
Any memorable music scene has a geographical centre. The London goth scene had the Batcave, Berlin techno has Berghain. My secret 00’s music scene also had one undisputable centre, at which dawn would often shed its light on empty bottles, broken guitar strings and people sleeping in the corners after a long night of jamming and general drunkenness.
This, however, marks the end of similarities between the music scene whose life I am about to reveal to you and normal music scenes.
Wait, there is one more thing;
It felt just like any other bustling, creative environment. The ideas emerging from minds interlocked, the ebb and flow between personal emotions and musical creations, the interpersonal relations being played out in the form of song lyrics and soundscapes – all of that was there. And, to quote Marc Almond, however young and delusional we were “the laughter and the tears were real”.
Now I guess it’s time to come clean about the main difference between this music scene and others: The entirety of the environment comprised about 10 people. Four at the core, two more attending regularly, and about four irregular visitors.
The epicentre of it all – our Batcave – was my friend’s apartment in Tilst, suburban Aarhus, Denmark. And when I say suburban, I really mean suburban. We’re talking grey concrete blocks full of broken destinies, engulfed by terminal silence, grass and delinquent youths on scooters. Nothing short of the Mumbai slum would have been unlikelier than Tilst as the setting of a cultural melting pot. And yet there we were, getting drunk and making songs.
The scene endured for three years, from 2005 to 2008; for as long as Hans Christian Andersen – that really is my friend’s name – held custody over the suburban apartment that became our spiritual home.
Now, allow me the exquisite pleasure of presenting to you the people of the Tilst scene and the many strange bands they conceived:
Hans Christian (H.C.) – the host and spirit guide of the whole thing. A heavily introverted, much too thoughtful guy, officially diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and unofficially with a severe nostalgia for the age of British post-punk. An apathetic anarchist and a sort of involuntary poet/philosopher. Touched a music instrument for the first time in 2004.
Favorite band: Manic Street Preachers.
Instruments: bass, computer generated noises, occasional guitar
Jacob (me) – a tall, somewhat awkward guy with a flair for over-the-top dreaming and being unluckily in love. With a love for romantic poetry, Kafka and melancholic 80’s synth-pop, I was H.C.’s brother in youthful elegism. I’d usually get even more drunk than the rest, and a lot of the metaphors I put in my song lyrics would become the objects of future facepalms.
Favorite band: The Cure
Instruments: keyboard, vocals and really shitty guitar.
Søren – the indie kid of the crowd. Søren had a sense of style, which was something otherwise unheard of in this community. He sported sunglasses and smoked cigarettes and composed minimalistic lyrics about culture, alienation, boredom and despair. Also diagnosed with Asperger’s and overthinkingly hateful of modern society.
Favorite band: some obscure indie outfit none of the rest of us had ever heard about. Hated The Cure.
Instruments: guitar and vocals
Thomas – the guy everyone knew everyone from. Fostered on britpop and men singing in tenor who can’t quite decide if they’re happy or sad. Being extroverted and very friendly, he deserves a lot of the credit for putting all us antisocial kids in a room together and making us compose. Thomas and I bonded over Hermann Hesse and romantic poems and too much love in our hearts. I guess that’s what it’s like when you’re a teenager. We were actually in our twenties but nobody paid any attention to that.
Favorite band: Somewhere between Beatles, Manics, Mew, Travis and The Cure
Instruments: guitar, keyboard, vocals
Ole – Ole’s idea of a fun night out was getting drunk alone while playing computer games and then going into town to search for rooftops and backyards to put up notes with dadaistic slogans on them. Ole had less hope than most of us, and thus also less despair. The world seemed already to have gone to the dogs in his view. He spoke rarely, but when he did, it was either wise or twistedly funny. He was a lighthouse on the surreal art side of it all.
Favorite band: Red Warszawa
Instruments: none/spoken word/improvised percussion
Johan – Johan actually played in a widely successful band at this time. He was a skilled guitar player and a childhood friend of Thomas and H.C.’s. He was altogether too positive for all the unhealthy nostalgia and the subversive drinking, so he would only visit sporadically, contributing good spirits and real musical ability.
Favorite band: Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Rufus Wainwright
Instruments: guitar, keyboard, vocals
Those were the various protagonists. But there was one thing we all had in common: Strikingly, our shared feeling of being a bit misplaced in the world was, for every one of us, counterpointed by a passion for surreal and nonsensical humour. OCD/C recited cookie recipes and played them backwards. I played a toy saxophone filled with white wine for The Immoderate Past. Jean Claude Verdammt rapped the full text of a random article from the German Wikipedia. Much of it was just about being as crazy as possible.
And then there was the one band every one of us listened to: Manic Street Preachers. Perhaps it is no coincidence that it is Richie Edwards who originated the quote ”boredom and outrage go hand in hand'”
The first band was Novalis (members: Thomas, H.C., Jacob). Novalis was a big thing. Novalis was a serious band. Novalis was made of enormous, vague dreams and infinite youth. It was going to be the greatest band in the world. Measured strictly on the amount of whiskey we drank while making ambitious plans, we certainly were one of the greatest bands in the world. We also did very well in terms of producing pretentious lyrics. The only matter in which we were decidedly lacking was the matter of playing music. That was our weak point. It took us two years and countless evenings of drinking and dreaming before we finally got around to recording two songs in 2006. They were very bad, but in a good way: They completely failed to be what they wanted to be, but one vaguely sensed that if they had actually been what they wanted to be, they would have been good. Novalis never played to anyone. Songs with pretentious titles are bubbling around in the great swamp of the past:
Live / Evil,
Too Drunk To Die…
Novalis just sort of fizzed out, ending in early 2007 when Thomas moved to Copenhagen and Jacob suffered carpal tunnel syndrome from attempting to type the alphabet in less than two seconds. But I guess we never officially split up. … Hey guys? Wanna finally make that legendary album?
The ensuing outpour of musical creativity was fueled by the creative energies gradually set free by the demise of the excessively ambitious, inspiration-devouring monster of Novalis.
In the wake of Novalis, H.C. and Søren formed OCD/C. OCD/C did not take anything seriously. They had started off by going to the music store and buying a whole goodiebag of weird toy instruments. Nevertheless, they quickly produced the biggest hit of the entire scene: “Goth-kaffe” (Goth Coffee) – a song about drinking coffee that’s as black as your lonely heart because after all, “it’s hard to stay awake when all you want is to die”. Goth Coffee was captured on an epic live recording starring Thomas on keyboard. At the end of the recording, a doorbell can be heard, then H.C. proclaiming amid laughter: “Oh shit! Somebody’s gonna complain about the noise.” But it was only yours truly, having kindly waited to ring the bell until the music had stopped.
Goth Coffee would become a meme in the community. It was “remixed” several times and it formed the soundtrack to many of our drinking binges. We even played an English version live over the phone to H.C.’s British friend so he could get a piece of the awesomeness of the lyrics.
After Goth Coffee, OCD/C became altogether crazier. They produced songs like the fast-paced, 6-minute horror of “Ungarns Nationalsang” (“Hungary’s National Anthem”), which asks how to buy a submarine and somehow rhymes that with a reference to extreme amounts of vaginal fluids. Then it segues into a 3-minute outro that is probably the stupidest and funniest thing in the history of music. Along the same lines, “60 Akkorder og Lim i Albuen” (“60 Chords And Glue In The Elbow”) keeps every promise made by its title.
But there was also room in OCD/C’s repertoire for the more placid “Rock and Roll Kvaj” (“Rock and Roll Dork”) about idol posters mysteriously disappearing in the same ways as the stars depicted on them.
OCD/C also produced about 36 forgotten songs for the vaults and about as many different curry dishes in H.C.’s kitchen.
The Immoderate Past had the same line-up as OCD/C with Søren on twee vocals and guitar and H.C. on bass and artificial sounds. The band name was found by opening a random page of a beat poetry anthology. The Immoderate Past was Søren’s brand of serious. It wasn’t going to be the greatest band in the world. It was going to be politely, quietly good. The Immoderate Past happened in the daytime. I’d arrive at H.C.’s flat in the evening, they’d play me their latest creation and then we’d degenerate and get drunk and philosophical. But The Immoderate Past did maintain the conceptual devil-may-care randomness that seared through everything in that apartment. One lyric was improvised on MSN Messenger with each band member taking turns to write a line in the chat. Another song featured samples of ready-made “sci-fi sounds” from the internet, slowed down 10 times. That song also contained lyrics which epitomized The Immoderate Past:
“People in buildings
lost in culture
asleep in rigidity
We should be happy
and we are happy, aren’t we?
Or aren’t we?
“Cracked Vinyl” and “Twee Tea” celebrated the stereotype of the awkward wallflower in big glasses and with a record under his arm, unable to communicate except through song references. It wasn’t far from home.
The Immoderate Past appropriately produced a 9-track DIY album complete with hand-cut liner notes.
Broken Starlight Lovers happened during the nights. It was a concept band, formed by H.C. and Jacob after the fall of Novalis. After the eclipse of futile youth. After everything.
It was incepted one legendary night when I sat down with a bottle of cherry wine (a favored cheap booze) outside the glass panes of an Aarhus concert venue. It was the muffled beat from inside; The sight of the happy people mutedly talking; The timeless calm of the river passing by in front of me, oblivious to human turbulence. I had a vision. “We’ve got to go to your place and write a song!”, I announced to H.C. We got on the next bus to Tilst. Once there, we turned off all the lights, lit a few candles and put on the gloomiest gothic music we could think of, then started writing lyrics (which was quite difficult in the dark. This was before tablets.) To the sounds of Closer, Pornography, Bela Lugosi’s Dead or whatever it was, I wrote for hours and across six pages. Then we sat down to jam. “Let’s make it really long and repetitive and emotional”, I said, something like Doors’ “The End”. So we drunkenly jammed in E minor and A minor for a long time, he on bass and I on guitar. Then we fell over.
The first line went: “The streets are wet with tears of the broken starlight lovers”. H.C. suggested we use that for a name. Being Broken Starlight Lovers, we hoped we’d pre-empted accusations of being “too much”. We were beyond too much. We were kitsch. But I secretly meant every word…
In the morning, I’d arrange the lyrics and sing them, improvising, over the jam from yesterday. And there was our first song. It was the age of MySpace, and going live with a band required one recording, one picture and 10 minutes on the internet.
We repeated the concept: Drinking, darkness, music, lyrics, long repetitive jams. We’d both write lyrics and then mix them together afterwards. It was Dionysical. It was emo. It was a bit much.
We were going to be the flag-bearers of everyone who didn’t fit in. We were going to be the national poets of the republic of misplaced dreamers, nothing less. I imagined an infinite community of lonely souls with each one mind, each one window, each one dark street to walk, not knowing we’re all in it together. I wanted to call them all to arms like an army of ghosts. Not in reality, of course. Only in my mind.
It didn’t occur to me then, but in hindsight, I understand that I had my community of lost souls right under my nose there in that Tilst apartment.
Five more nights and we had an album. Each song was about 8 minutes long, mind you. Always half ironic and half painfully true. If only I had been able to play the guitar even half well.
I’d like to think that we played out each other’s hidden selves. I could never have said what The Immoderate Past said, and all the more so they spoke for a side of me that was otherwise mute. Likewise, Thomas and Ole could never have said what Broken Starlight Lovers said, but I believe we expressed something that was adrift in their mind-seas all the same.
Broken Starlight Lovers was just one of three duos formed by H.C and Jacob. Another was the shoegaze duo Shelfflowers. The basic idea here was to pile so many layers of overdrive guitar on top of each other that everything would become one blob of noise. We were going to out-My Bloody Valentine My Bloody Valentine. Everything had to be a world record of something.
We’d start with a pretty random beat, then H.C. would add bass. Then he’d get in the studio (his bedroom) and play through the song. Then he’d hand the guitar to me and I’d play through it. And so on until we had at least ten layers. Then I’d launch my voice into the maelstrom….
Shelfflowers mainly became a world record of drunk vocals and pastiche German kraut lyrics: “Eins, zwei, drei, vier / Die Zukunft lebt nicht mehr / Vier, drei, zwei, ein / Jetzt sind wir alle allein”, all layered three times and then sent through shoegaze purgatory: the burning lake of distortion and the bottomless abyss of reverb.
We’d usually fall asleep to Mercury Rev. H.C. in his bedroom and his guests dispersed on mattresses on the living room floor. I loved waking up on that floor, always spaced out with a buzzing in my head. Then I’d walk through dead quiet suburbia and wait for the bus by the local dive bar, now fast asleep. The apartment was so far from everything else that it seemed like an island. You had to make a journey to get there. What happened there closed in on itself and mutated from within. Of course we brought our lost love images and our existential anarchism in from the outside, but that was all.
Birds of Doom featured Ole, Jacob and H.C. I think Birds of Doom was founded at 7 PM and split up at 4 AM, then had a one-off reunion about a year later. We made two songs. The first was a goth/eurodance mashup featuring Ole on improvised drums, mock goth lyrics (“My soul is so black that black itself has dyed its hair with my soul”) and a eurodance refrain at the end proclaiming “Gloom gloom gloom gloom, I want you in my tomb”. Good times. The second was an ode to a diabolical wine produced in a very prosaic Aarhus suburb. You can hear me breaking a key on the piano on the recording.
Ole’s musical contributions amounted to the vocals on Søften-Vinen (The Søften Wine), and two guest performances for The Immoderate Past, one on glockenspiel and the other reciting a poem called “Do Angels?”, written by H.C.
Mysterious Ole’s soothing voice saying: “Don’t fall. Don’t fall to pieces. Don’t fall. Don’t fall to pieces. Don’t.” was something of value.
I can really only speak for myself, but I certainly did need to be reminded not to fall to pieces. I was letting my hair grow very long and untidy, not caring a lot about my beard either, and was epically and hopelessly in love with a woman called Ursula. I studied literature at the university but only showed up to half of my classes. I’d much rather walk around the outskirts of town writing song lyrics about Ursula while being drunk either on coffee or alcohol. I got a reputation for being “that guy who walks around in the night writing poems”. I had a long black coat perfect for the role.
It would all have been acceptable at 17 but I was 22. I was misplaced. And I made the most of it.
The apartment had a rehearsal room (the indoor balcony), a studio (H.C,’s bedroom) and a lounge (his living room) where we would drink and watch films. H.C. happily provided this sanctuary. But he did not stop at that. He would also often provide food that we’d cook together, and his fridge was always full of beers that we were welcome to drink as many of as we wanted. And we did. He and his father regularly drove to Germany to import large amounts of cheap beer which the entire music collective then lived off. The suburban block flat, the old ladies we’d sometimes meet on the stairwell, and the numerous crates of dubious beer driven here in the back of a car: It all formed a staggering contrast to our aspirations to critique of modern culture, my pantheistic dualism and the idealism of our deities Richie Edwards and Ian Curtis. Somewhere in the gap between these extremes, our absurd humour sprouted and blossomed. Thomas, H.C. and I would sometimes amuse ourselves by flicking on a Polish soap opera and dubbing all the lines.
On new year’s eve ’07/’08, H.C., Ole, myself and one of H.C.’s other friends celebrated at H.C.’s place. At midnight, we decided to enter the new year by complete darkness and Joy Division. We turned off everything and put on Decades as loud as possible.
One hour later, Ole accidentally broke H.C.’s couch during a daring dance move. We were jumping madly around to Danish eurodance sensation Dr. Bombay with the kind of abandon only possible when you’re with someone you’ve explored backyards with, sung Cure songs with, slept on the floor next to.
H.C.’s other friend left soon after, probably scarred for life.
DJ Salinger was what H.C. was up to when he was alone. He layered strange, programmed drum rhythms and nearly random voice samples on top of each other but also played keyboard and effect-swamped guitar, giving it a semblance of music. “Hepburning Red Ivanszawa Cat Powerpop” proved he was funny and “Love Will Rip-off Your Heart” proved he was musically talented.
Somewhere around the same time, H.C. got a new grammophone and we found out that James from Manics’ voice, when played at 45 rpm, sounds exactly like Lene from Aqua. So we instantly created our Manics/Aqua mashup, “The Everlasting Candyman”. Good times. Unfortunately we weren’t able to properly synchronize our added eurodance beat to the original drums so it’s not quite listenable.
That was funny in a more conventional way, though, than the last duo formed by H.C. and Jacob in the Tilst years: Jean Claude Verdammt. This band appeared when, during a Broken Starlight Lovers recording session, I shouted “Er I der, Roskilde?” (“Are you there, Roskilde?”) to test the microphone, and H.C. replied to this by producing a noise ostensibly meant to resemble the cheering of a crowd but sounding more like a goat being shoved into a barrel. We looped these two sounds over the foreboding chords of an 11-minute BSL epic, and we had a track.
There was no way it was a BSL track or a Shelfflowers track, so we had to form Jean Claude Verdammt right there and then. 10 minutes on MySpace and there we were. Jean Claude Verdammt only got together again to record “Die Adlige Gute” – a random German Wikipedia article rapped to a death jazz beat with frantic guitar and stomp.
This is the end of the story of all the bands. Except for one thing: The tributes. We made tribute songs to each other. It began when Johan and H.C. got together and wrote a sarcastic ode to Thomas: “Thomas The Reaper Boy”, describing Thomas’ unique ability to be a hopeless lost lover and a proficient womanizer all at once, like a freak offspring of Werther and Don Juan.
As a response to this, Thomas got together with H.C. and composed “Johan The Art Pussy”, a dark, gloomy song about Johan and how he was born in Baghdad and raised in Calcutta (which he wasn’t).
Myself, wanting a part of the fun, got together with H.C. (who seemed to hold everything together) to make a tribute to Søren. This turned out so bad, however, that we proceeded to delete it, which says a lot when you consider all the other weird shit we duly kept for posterity. There only remains Søren’s verdict on the song: ” – a crime against music”.
Then there was the stuff we did on our own, when the others weren’t looking. Søren & Fan was a novel indie project where Søren would invite his MySpace friends to submit lyrics which he would then turn into dreamy twee songs.
H. Munch Andersen was H.C.’s least accessible project, consisting mainly of strange noises with strange effects. It would be the predecessor of his still-active and actually good drone franchise, Lullabies For Insomniacs.
Jacky was the name of my post-Novalis insistent attempts to make the greatest songs in the world about stars and angels and skies falling down. There was White Flowers about the exquisite tragedy of being mortal. There was A Hymn To The Night with incoherent lyrics written during an absinth binge. All recorded in H.C.’s bedroom.
But all good things come to an end, and this thing was ended when H.C. had to move out of his apartment. What a blunt, practical end to a decidedly obtuse and impractical endeavour. H.C. relocated to a place that was far more central and in a much nicer neighbourhood, but nothing was ever the same. The Immoderate Past went on to make a great EP a year hence. Shelfflowers also gathered once more and a few more short-lived “bands” sprung up from a few more delirious nights. But the environment was gone. Søren and I then both moved to Copenhagen and formed a serious band there. H.C. formed a serious psychedelic rock band in Aarhus. But both of those bands have split up by now. Thomas got a degree in musicology but stopped writing songs. Johan has a successful pop duo with his wife. Ole is still quietly reigning over the nightside of Aarhus, seemingly oblivious to the living and dying of fickle dreams. H.C. is left to produce highly accomplished drone/psychedelic electronica and poetry books during his sleepless nights. And as for me, I now have a pop band called The New Wave. The lyrics are still pretentious.
The current inhabitants of that nondescript apartment in the dreariest of suburbs must be drinking their tea and watching television with no idea of the history they’ve inherited. I hope that perhaps, akin to what is said of buildings erected upon Native American burial grounds, they are sometimes haunted in their dreams by the sound of a toy saxophone, a verse of dualist poetry or the taste of coffee so black that it could nearly wake the dead.