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Past Meets Present: Inside The Glorious Return of Alphabeat

Thursday, 31 October 2019 Written by Simon Ramsay

Just over a decade ago, Alphabeat’s trend-defying brand of classic pop lit up the indie world like an explosion of neon rainbows across a dreary winter sky.  And now, history looks set to repeat itself. After a five year hiatus that followed a painful decline in their fortunes, ‘Don’t Know What’s Cool Anymore’ is a luminous comeback record overflowing with the purest gloss you’ll hear this side of the ‘80s. As well as hooks. Lots and lots of sparkling hooks.

It was never going to be easy for this Danish outfit to follow up a huge debut like ‘This Is Alphabeat.’ That said, they didn’t exactly help themselves. Both their sophomore effort ‘The Spell’, which offered something of a marmite stylistic shift into computer-led ‘90s dance territory, and their third album ‘Express Non-Stop’, a record that wasn’t even released outside of Denmark, were overproduced efforts that didn’t match their predecessors’ spark or sales.

As such, the sextet parted ways to focus on other projects. Singer Stine Bramsen launched a solo career, while the group’s principal songwriters, Anders SG and Anders B, continued to collaborate together, writing and producing for other artists in a variety of different genres. To all intents and purposes it seemed that Alphabeat had been laid to rest in the same overcrowded graveyard as many flavour-of-the-month pop sensations. Yet, to repurpose a well worn footballing cliché, the band’s ebullient new album proves that form is temporary, and class is permanent.  

An all-killer-no-filler batch of addictive, saccharine anthems, albeit enhanced by increasingly personal lyrics, ‘Don’t Know What’s Cool Anymore’ represents a perfectly executed resurrection. Returning to the more organic sound of their debut, there is carefree immediacy and craftsmanship within the songs that showcases maturity without sacrificing their trademark exuberance. We spoke to Stine and Anders SG to get the inside track.

Turning the clock back for a moment, why did you decide it was time for a break six years ago?

Anders:  We felt completely drained because we’d been playing together since we were 16. We’d grown up together and everyone in the band felt we needed a break to do something else and hopefully get some new energy that we could put into Alphabeat, if we wanted to get together again. That’s exactly what has happened.

Stine: When you grow up in a band like we did, from 16 to 28, those years are so important to defining who you are. And then, all of a sudden, we’re like ‘Wait a minute, I’m probably other things than just Alphabeat.’ We had a growing urge to stand on our own feet separately. It wasn’t like we didn’t like each other, but we’d spent so much time together that we were almost like a married couple who didn’t have anything left to say to each other at the end of the day. So it was very nice to have the freedom to say, ‘Now I want to spend time with you’, instead of having to spend time with you.

Even though it was described as a hiatus, did you really think you’d get back together?

Stine: It depends on who you ask. Some people in the band were absolutely sure we were going to get back together and I honestly didn’t know if I was going to want to. I was quite surprised it only took five years before I was ready to sit down in a studio and sing a song with Anders that sounds like an Alphabeat song and get excited about it. 

Anders: Me and Anders B, we didn’t think about it for, I don’t know, five years. So we weren’t waiting for something to happen. It just happened that one song came up and we thought ‘Well, this could be an Alphabeat song’ and tried to get hold of Stine. She was ready for it, but it’s not something we’d been…

Stine: ...planning all along.

Anders: Or talking about at all. It feels very genuine and right for us. It’s not something we forced each other into doing.

Stine: And the great thing about having that break is we got to think about what was unique about being together in a band. What’s great is this group of people that can support each other in all the decisions. It’s such a powerful thing.  

Was there ever a fear that, after so long, the chemistry might not be there when you regrouped?  

Stine: It took months before we were ready, all six of us, to say ‘We’re going to do this and it feels right.’ We went to Anders B’s summer house and hung out. We did some demoing and played together and really felt in our guts whether this was working and whether it felt natural.   

Anders, you’ve said that, in terms of the sound of the band these days, it’s been ‘a dogma for you to move from your heads to your guts.’ 

Anders: When we left each other in 2013, the way we made music, we ended up overthinking everything and focused too much on making hit records.  That was something we didn’t think about when we started the band. It was very important to us, making these new songs, that we didn’t focus on that.  When you make a record there’s a lot of situations where you start doubting something and start discussing ‘Well, is this good enough?’ 

We just kept going back to ‘How do we feel about this?’ If we feel deep down that this is the right thing to do, then it’s what we’re going to do. It was us working as a band and not trying to fit in. That’s a little like what I Don’t Know What’s Cool Anymore is about—just trying to do your own thing and not worry about all the stuff that’s happening around you. 

Tell me about the inspiration for I Don’t Know What’s Cool Anymore.

Stine: It’s got two layers. The very specific, literal layer, is the feeling of being plus 30 and looking at the new generation of 18-year-olds wearing clothes you don’t get and maybe playing music you don’t get. Just being able to smile about that and say ‘I really don’t know what’s cool anymore but that’s OK.’ 

It’s about realising ‘Maybe I’m not the new trend setter, but we’re doing our own thing.’ We’ve always done that since we started playing pop music in our little town in Denmark. Nobody else was doing it and everyone else was looking at us like we were weirdos playing happy-go-lucky pop music while everyone else was playing moody rock. It’s also about just following your gut feeling and ignoring that it might not be cool.

What can you say about Shadows—it’s an interesting juxtaposition of upbeat sounding music with a darker lyric?

Anders: That was something new for us, to make that kind of song where, as you say, the lyrics are not super positive. A lot of people have told us they didn’t discover the lyrics until later on because they just listened to the vibe of the song. I’m proud of the balance in that song. It still feels like Alphabeat but it’s definitely a darker lyric than we’ve ever done before.

Stine: We haven’t talked about negativity before in our songwriting.  Everyone has some and that’s what makes it such a universal lyric. Everyone has mornings, sometimes for many weeks, where they don’t feel like getting out of bed and don’t know exactly where they’re going to go. I’m so happy we were able to put it into a song that sounds like Alphabeat but is so much more personal. 

The new album boasts a sound that harks back to your debut, which is interesting because of the personal nature of many of the songs. There can be detachment when it comes to synthetic music, but with this record being played and performed on instruments, there’s a human element there that suits the lyrics.   

Anders: It just felt natural. What Stine did as a solo artist really inspired us to start making more personal songs. That’s been a great journey and a totally new thing for Alphabeat. We just wanted us to sound like the band we are and not try to get too involved with the computers and the production, like we’d done earlier on. We wanted it to feel organic and natural.

Stine: You’re right that the lyrics had something to do with that, but it’s not something we sat down and talked about, that if the lyrics are more personal then it should be more organic in its sound. We focused on the root of the song, what’s going to work, and then how should it sound. It makes sense you hear it that way.   

Were you nervous that it might not feel like Alphabeat?

Anders: A little bit. At the same time I felt like we’ve done so much music and with this album we just talked about ‘let’s not hide any more behind...’

Stine: ...big smiles.

Anders: Big smiles and not very personal lyrics. Let’s show how we feel.  That’s been very good for the band and it feels great to tell it like it is. In Sing A Song we talk about all the difficult stuff in our story and our past. We made a huge album in the UK and then a second album that was still loved by a lot of people, but it wasn’t, in a hit sense, as much of a success. And then there’s all the things that happened when the label stopped calling and we had to move back to Denmark. That definitely started the steps toward the break.  We don’t want to hide the truth from anyone. We’ve done a documentary in Denmark that’s coming out soon and explains all that because it’s really important for us to come clean about that stuff.

Why do you think your second album didn’t do as well?

Anders:  It was too visionary. (Both laugh)

Stine: A lot of people told us it was ahead of its time and maybe they’re right?  Somehow that sound wasn’t popular until two years later. We really were in love with that ‘90s sound at that point.

Anders: It was definitely a departure from the first album. It was a reaction because we ended up promoting the first album for so long that we felt a huge urge to do something different. But we love that album. People weren’t ready for that and maybe people didn’t know us as well, because in Denmark it was a huge success.

Stine, was it important to you that, when the idea of reforming was mentioned, and after developing as a writer with your solo stuff, this album would be a much more collaborative affair?

Stine: Definitely. It had a lot to do with me feeling good about joining the band again and being confident enough to walk into the room with these two amazing songwriters who have written almost every song in our history, and feel like I have something to offer them, that we can all put something into the project and feel we are all important. None of us can be a weak link. 

Were you concerned that changing such a successful songwriting dynamic might not work out?

Anders: It wasn’t something we agreed upon, it just happened. Me and Anders, we had a few sketches lying around when we contacted Stine, and then started writing out of the blue. We didn’t discuss it like ‘We’re going to get the band back together, we’re going to do it like this.’ It felt like the right thing to do.

Me and Anders, we’ve worked together so much over 10 years, and bringing Stine into the room completely changes that dynamic and it’s done wonders for this album. Not only to have a new creative force, but that it’s Stine, who we know really well and feel good being around. It’s not just about bringing in a new songwriter, it’s about bringing in someone that you feel good being with and playing new songs and new ideas to.

'Don't Know What's Cool Anymore' is out on November 1.

Alphabeat Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Thu April 02 2020 - LONDON Subterania
Fri April 03 2020 - BRIGHTON Old Market
Sat April 04 2020 - GLASGOW Garage

Click here to compare & buy Alphabeat Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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