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INTERVIEW: Bernhoft on Overtones, World Politics, and Nihilistic Fashion


A man with thick frames responded, "Yes" to our fast approaching entry and from there, shook our hand at Bowery’s door. We were in our typical New Yorker rush-mode, but the way he greeted us told us something—that we shouldn’t overthink it, just decompress right then. No stress. The way he spoke especially hinted there wasn’t any pressure to rush, nor did we get the feeling of wasting his time at all. He was relaxing to be around, helping cool off the sweat. He was about to have his last show in America before heading back home to Norway, so before the official end of his U.S. tour, we made sure to discover more behind his quirkiness and powerful musicianship. And we certainly did earn plenty of laughs between earning wonderful insights, some of which included the technical and personal.


What color do you feel like today?

Well, today is very yellow. I’m partial to yellow but there is something to sun that I really enjoy and to be honest, moving back to Norway has been vitamin D- depriving. I was just outside in the park today and it’s amazing that I can still feel a bright yellow glare to my eyes. I like it.

You used to live in New York, you said?

Yeah! It’s been good. I’ve been reconnecting a lot with old friends and staying with some of them. Took a run in Prospect Park which is much easier now then when I lived in NYC. This is the last show of a week-long tour that we’ve had with this band and it’s been a fantastic experience. I lose money all over the place; it’s a substantial, spiritual income that comes from playing the states, and I’m playing to people who just GET it. And I mean I love Norway and Europe, but it’s that kind of intense, intimate relationship between people and soul music…

So are you saying there is more intensity in the U.S? Or how does it differ playing in Norway versus the States?

 I wouldn’t say it’s more intense, but it’s a different response to the music I’m playing which is very American. It’s pretty rooted in American 60s and 70s soul music. And when I play that stuff in Europe, I mean in general if you play a great gig, they’ll feel it’s a great gig but it’s the way of the response. In America, people will shout into your face if they appreciate something in the middle of a song and the Norwegian audience is certainly a bit more polite than that. They would wait, almost like Japan, till the end of the song (claps and makes funny noise WAHOOO). When the song is playing they’re super respectful. And I kind of like respectlessness. I mean come on just shout it out.

When and how did you know music was the answer?

Oh, on one cold, winter night in Oslo. I was sixteen. I know exactly where I was. Can’t remember the date but must’ve been 1990 or 1991 where I had almost this kind of epiphany. It can sound like some mumbo jumbo but that was it; it was this starry night where I was listening to some great music. I think it was some modern big band music with horns. The thing is I remember that my uncle had just died and I was in this very open, vulnerable moment while listening to this music and suddenly it just hit me that I should probably do this for a living.


And were you playing before that?

Yeah, I was playing guitar, but I hadn’t really started to sing because that came later. And because no one would or was able to do it in a way that I needed it to happen. Although I was playing different kinds of instruments, guitar felt like the way forward and kind of still is. So if you ask me what I do in music, I’ll be more likely to answer I’m more of a guitarist than singer. I don’t know if singing is always the most important.

Since you are in fact Grammy-nominated, what’s the difference in approach from the Grammy-nominated Islander to Stop/Shutup/Shout It Out? What do you think is the most important thing to keep in mind when putting together an album?

Well the least important to keep in mind is that this has to be a follow up to a Grammy-nominated album. Islander is my third studio album. And three felt like a good number, almost like a trilogy. And I felt like now that I’ve done this, thought about superstructure in album format, now maybe is a good time to just throw that overboard and try something else. And after that I had a long break from writing, so it was cool to kickstart a new creative process by just not having any pretension of writing an album. Just write some songs and see what comes out. Now those songs are thematic, but I’m not looking to say anything about it because I want people to not think about it when they hear. And it’s good to not think so much, because less is more.

I like to look for meaning myself, but not necessarily being told what the meaning is before I start looking. I never read a manual in my life (chuckles).

And what was happening in your life at the time of creating that album? Does it reflect in your musicality?

Yeah, actually a lot of things. Moving back to Norway, having lived in the U.S. for two important years, where "White America" realized racism actually exists. I thought that racism is as much perception as it is a structural thing in itself. And then you kind of hear these stories about police brutality being one thing, the penitentiary system, red lining, and then you can see those things happening by the way of people actually filming them. And it happened to so many people like me, maybe thinking I’m colorblind; I don’t think about race. I mean race as a concept is pretty weird to me. It always has because when I go into a bookstore I get provoked when I see a separate shelf for African American literature. It’s almost like it shouldn’t be, but it is. And I think those have been massive insights into what I’ve been thinking about and what life is really about. And moving back to Norway which is in itself upheaval—got lots of things to do. And then I had a manager who died three years ago and the process of getting over that, moving from grief into a feeling of loss, it’s just taken some time to get my creative end around that.

Was it a roadblock for you then?

Yeah I think so, but now I kind of just reconnected with disconnecting as well. Like disconnecting yourself from social media and even just basic internet functions like email. And that’s been a big creative block for me; the other stuff is just life. Some people are better connected to be online and I just figured, it’s not for me.

How has music guided you to discover new things about yourself?

I was just in church. I must admit I’m agnostic, but there’s this church in Los Angeles called West Angeles Cathedral. And I was there 10 years ago and there was music there that just lifted me up in such a way that I thought this is something else than dreary Norwegian church service. I thought if I had grown up here, I’d be a diehard Christian. I would love to sing that choir or do anything. And you got all of these people bringing their own tambourines and play them in a way that I’d die to play like that. And I do have that profound experience of life and community through music. So that’s the recent discovery I have.

Cool, then how do you escape?

Good question. Well I’ve always wanted to have a hobby besides music that’s been work. But when everything else all fails, there’s nothing like going to my built-in studio in my garage and just playing, not having a goal at all, but just being very process oriented that this is just playing for playing’s sake and then suddenly songs will drop in. Recently, though, I read Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and that although this reeks of midlife crisis of me being 40 under a month, I really want to buy an old motorcycle and get into mechanical work. I have no skills whatsoever but I’m very interested in the inner workings of a combustion engine. It’s amazing. One of my finest moments ever was just before I crashed and the first time I ever rode a motorcycle in Africa 14 years ago, no 12, 13, 12 and a half maybe? Everything was blissful and then I crashed and busted my knee.


What have you learned from being on tour?

So much. My first album was kind of about Oslo because I was living in London, and after, really connected with Oslo in a profound way when I came home. When that sent me on tour, I was really feeding off experiences while being on tour, thinking about solidarity in so many ways and both reflected in the way that I wanted to create by ways of me touring, being successful at it, to employ people, make my friends into it and go on tour with me, and I found myself actually not being able to.

And why is that?

Both because I really couldn’t afford to and because venues and promoters wanted more my solo act than me being with a band. It can be a close confinement. I get that in America too, that people in the audience see a drum kit, that I’m playing with a band now for my first time in America and people go, damn it I wish he was playing solo, but I think if you do it well enough people will forget it. Should be like that church music. But then that album was very successful, took me out in the world. I wrote about differences in our post-recession in Europe and America. And in Norway, the recession felt like a breeze wafted by because we had and still have so much oil money. It’s starting to decline now but it felt like Norway was this strange island that kept floating away and away from everything.

*bites into strip of cheese*

But I mean Norway and the Arab Emirates were the only countries we could compare ourselves to because of the Sharia laws and they cant make money off of money. They cant make money off interest right. And that was the whole financial crisis basis for that. So when everything crumbles, the Sharia states with lots of money can buy lots of shares in world-wide companies and make such a fortune out of that. So that’s us. We’re in the Middle Eastern gulf country situation.

Written by Ariana H

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