By Brian Ives
“I’m kind of bummed out that we’re playing South by Southwest,” Lukas Graham tells Radio.com of the huge music and technology conference going on in Austin, Texas, this week. “‘Cause we’ve been invited to the Queen of Denmark’s ball, basically during South by Southwest. That’s kind of a big deal where we’re from.”
And that’s kind of the deal with Lukas Graham these days: in Denmark, Norway and Sweden they’re rock royalty, where they’ve gone multi-platinum. But here, they’re an up-and-coming band. But given the popularity of “7 Years,” who knows, maybe they’ll be playing at the White House one of these days.
We spoke to Lukas Graham — the band, and the band that bears his name, which also includes Graham on vocals, drummer Mark “Lovestick” Falgren, bassist Magnus “Magnúm” Larsson and Kasper Daugaard on keyboards. They talked about their song, moving to America and went pretty in depth about why they think Dr. Dre‘s 2001 is better than The Chronic. The one thing the frontman wouldn’t discuss? A certain press-savvy presidential candidate.
Do you remember the first time you heard yourself on the radio?
Lukas: Well, in Denmark it wasn’t really that special, and it’s so long ago I can’t hardly remember it. But I remember once when we heard one of our songs on the radio in Germany, and we stopped in the middle of a blizzard, Northern Germany. We were between like Hamburg and Flensburg. We stopped to get gas and snacks; it’s in the middle of the night, middle of this big-a– blizzard, and there are these two big buses filled with high school students going south to Austria on their skiing trip. They’re all Danish school kids recognizing us as the band stepping out of our van.
And it was one of the most awkward moments to try and buy Gummi Bears and Red Bulls while trying to look like someone else. Like we weren’t in the best of moods. Everyone’s been sleeping for eight hours like…and you wake up and start walking [stiff movements], and suddenly like, oh, damn, you’ve got sixty kids, and they know who we are.
Magnus: And your music is playing on the radio.
Lukas: Yeah, your music is playing on the radio. Yeah, that was fun. Or not so fun.
So, you’re really popular in Denmark, but you’re clearly working with your team to establish yourselves in America.
Lukas: Well, more or less you could say that our dream was always America, so everybody back home, from friends and family to romantic relationships, everyone knows that if and when we gotta go, we gotta go. And if you can’t follow that agenda, I’m sorry, but you’re just not with the team then. Isn’t that the way of putting it? We’ve just got this dream that’s bigger than all of us. I just can’t choose to stop now. If Mark stops now, we’d have to start over.
And you guys worked on the album in L.A. Was there any culture shock there?
Lukas: It’s a love-hate relationship, kinda like with “Last Christmas,” by Wham! I love it, but I hate it. And you hate to love it if you love to hate it. It’s a trip.
Kasper: Yeah, how did we end up there?
Lukas: Our record label and our publishing label are based in LA. It’s easier to get your points across when you’re right next to your label.
Magnus: There’s so much craziness going on in that town. It’s like really sometimes a freak show, but then also there’s a nice vibe to it, and it’s a nice place to work.
Mark: And the weather is good.
Talk about “7 Years”; in America, that’s the first song of yours that most people have heard.
Lukas: Well, it’s a strange song in the sense it doesn’t have a hook, and it doesn’t have like a fixed structure, which I kinda like about it. It just has this folky vibe that progresses through the ages and lets you grow with the song.
A lot of people can relate to it, and that’s what I hear when I hear people talk about it. The song’s basically just about becoming a good father and being such a good father that your children would want to come and visit you when you’re an old, boring man. Yeah, I had a really, really cool father, so that’s what I wanna be too.
You’re a young guy. How did you write the parts telling your story as an older man?
Lukas: I’m just older than you think. Well, you can say age is defined as a number; or there’s age defined as an experience. And the more people I meet in this life of mine, in this world of ours, the more I figure out that a lot of older people are actually very, very young. And they look at their age as some stamp that now they can point fingers at all the people that are younger than them. In reality, I am probably a lot smarter than some of them anyway, at least. I’ve read more books; I’ve tried more stuff; I’ve seen more things.
And I think that’s why I can write a song like “Seven Years,” because I might only be 27, but I know what my dreams are. I knew when I was a young man that I wanted to be a father, and I knew I was gonna be a good father at that.
And yeah, I think a lot of men struggle with the fact that becoming a father stops them from being single, as if single was the most important thing you could ever be in your life. Single is a means to the end, right?
Kasper: Don’t ask me.
What’s the feedback you’ve gotten about “Seven Years.”
Lukas: They kinda think I wrote the song specifically to them. And I love when people ask me, “What is your song about?” and I’m like, “Well, what is it to you?”
Because what it means to me isn’t important. As soon as the song is written, and it’s recorded and it’s released, my personal feelings about the song are insignificant and irrelevant… to the extreme. Because at that point it’s the listener that has to, in some sense, choose what that song means to them. And I think where “Seven Years” excels in terms of connecting with the people is it points in so many different directions, so you can put it into different contexts of your own life.
In the video, who’s the guy who puts his arm around you?
Lukas: That’s Stig Moller. He’s a legendary Danish guitarist and singer. But he was in a band… the Wolves of the Steppe was their name in Danish. The lead singer was found dead on the border between Pakistan and India with a little note in his pocket saying, “This is not a suicide. It’s all to blame on the little evil man inside of me. No crime was committed, and this is not a suicide. It is all to blame on the little evil man inside of me.” Yeah, he was a legend, Eik Skole.
What about the book that you throw in the air?
Lukas: That is a lyrics book. I’m very particular with my lyrics books, so we bought a specific one to trash. People don’t get to read my lyrics books; pages aren’t allowed to be taken out; if other people have written in my lyrics books, I don’t use it anymore. I only write physically; I don’t write on computers and stuff, and that’s a habit I’ve had since I was 12 and started writing poetry. And it always has to be physical.
What’s the story behind the song “Mama Said?”
Lukas: “Mama Said,” that’s a good one. Yeah, well, it dawned on me that I was writing all these songs about my dad. “Mama Said” is written before “Seven Years.” But I was writing all these songs, “Happy Home” and all these lyrics and poems that haven’t been used about my father, and one of my friends asked me why I haven’t written anything about my mom, since she was such a cool person and such a big part of us as well, as a band.
My father booked us gigs and made dinner for us, but it’s my mom’s house we ended up at. At the end of the day, it was my mom’s house we were practicing in, taking up space and using her piano. We’d sit and drink beer on the porch before going off to a gig, and she’d clean up after us, and all these things that you never think about that your mom does.
So I started writing the song. The hook came first, I wrote it during a blizzard again, on the way home from a big radio show we did in Denmark. And then the lyrics kinda fell in line. I just remember asking both my mom and dad why we never traveled to exotic lands. I just wanted people to understand that I come from second-hand clothing and not having a toilet or a bathroom in the house I grew up in before the age of six or seven. Remember sharing my room with my sister, my older sister, while my little sister was sleeping in my mom and dad’s bedroom, and getting my own room at the age of eight or nine or whatever I was.
‘Cause it seems like so many people are measuring their life quality in terms of how much money or wealth do they have or how much can they spend, where I realized the beauty about my childhood was that my parents had time.
My dad worked in a workshop in my neighborhood, so I’d walk past his workshop and eat leftover Italian lunch that he had and go and help him fix a stove, or if some of the stoves he was fixing were broken, he’s be like, “Let’s smash it.” I’d be like, “Wow, Dad, can we smash this antique stove?” He’s like, “Well, I can’t fix it so it’s done for. Its worth is its weight in metal.”
And yeah, I think money is just such a small part of happiness and joy. And only now do I realize my upbringing was poor, but I’ve always regarded myself as being very rich.
A lot of American popular music these days seems to be about money, or stuff that money can buy. Is your music a reaction to that?
Lukas: I’m just writing about what means something to me. It’s not like we don’t use money. I bought an apartment; I bought a summerhouse. I paid for my mom’s house to be renovated after my father died. Money is helping me be more free. But if I didn’t have the right mindset and the right values, my money would be insignificant, because I wouldn’t be able to spend it on the people that mattered.
We should focus on becoming men of value rather than men of success or men of means. And becoming a man of value, in my opinion, is looking away from the money. [We were] sitting in a bar having a beer, and you realize that today I’m drinking a beer that cost me two and a half bucks. Last weekend we had to buy champagne that cost like a thousand bucks. But are we actually not more happy now with the beer than we were last weekend with the champagne?
Lukas: Sometimes you need to buy the stupid, expensive champagne to realize it’s not worth it, and you don’t need to do it again. Sometimes you also need to do it a thousand times before you realize that.
How about the song “Take the World by Storm?”
Not my favorite on the record, to be honest. Where I grew up, the community was basically everything you had. And you realize that your boys and your friends are a very, very big part of you, but also you realize that—well, I did at least—I realized that if I wanted to survive and not become a drug dealer like some of my friends, I’d have to excel and break out of my environment and my community and find some like-minded people to do that with.
There had to be a temptation to make money that way.
Lukas: I made my first hundred, two hundred thousand bucks selling weed, spent my first two hundred thousand bucks smoking weed. The problem with drug money is that you can’t buy anything worthwhile. If you want to spend criminal money on something worthwhile, you need to be a big criminal, like a banker. The problem with drug money is you can only spend it on more drugs, clothes and alcohol. You can’t go and buy an apartment or buy your mom a car or something like that. So yeah.
You’ve said that Dr. Dre’s 2001 changed your life. In America, most people would cite The Chronic as his most important album. What is it about 2001 that made such an impression?
Lukas: Well, I would disagree with people who say that The Chronic was something particularly new, since it was an album built out of samples, just like all the other rap albums. That’s what makes 2001 special and unique, that it is almost sample-less. When you press “play” on 2001 you realize you go around about 14 tracks before you get bored. You almost hear the entire record without hearing a hit, which is also very, very rare for a rap album. It has hooky piano lines on it all the way through, amazing basslines, ukulele lines. But also there are all these hidden things in it, and some of the most amazing lyric writing in modern rap music.
The fact that he had few samples on that album was partially an economic decision: Dre is a businessman, and he paid out a lot of money for the samples on The Chronic, and he probably didn’t want to do that again.
Magnus: I actually didn’t know that. And then he just made the most legendary album.
Kasper: It was a good decision.
The Chronic changed the culture in America though, in a way that I don’t think 2001 did.
Lukas: Well, I would disagree with you again. If we take names like Drake, Nicki Minaj, we might even say part of the Weeknd’s music, all of these more modern urban names, their music sound is all derivative of 2001. That’s why, in my opinion, that album is so strong, ’cause you wouldn’t have the Lil Waynes, and you wouldn’t have the Drakes, and yeah. It’s just such an amazing record.
When you’re younger you don’t have the context, you just know that you like something.
Lukas: See, that’s why now I look at is as such an epic record. When I was a kid and it came out, I was just stoked that someone out there felt the way me and my boys felt in our neighborhood as a 10-year-old being stopped and frisked by the police, and then afterwards they’re calling your mom to say, “Do you know your son is in Christiania?” And my mom was saying, “Well, he’s on his way home; he’s late for soccer practice.”
So that thing, realizing that there are other people outside in this world that are feeling oppressed and bullied by, well, state funded mobs, basically, which is the police. It’s really tough growing up like that. ’Cause you think you’re alone until you realize someone else out there is feeling the same pain.
So, after listening to 2001, you worked your way back to listening to N.W.A?
Lukas: I think my first rap record was Snoop Dogg on tape I got off my cousin in the early ’90s.
It’s interesting how that music from a specific part of L.A. resonated around the world like that.
Lukas: Well, what I like about that is the anger portrayed in not only the NWA record, Straight Outta Compton, but also in The Chronic and in 2001… that anger, at the end of the day, is fear. It’s fear from the knowledge that you do not own your own body and mind. It’s fear from knowing that the state or the organization that is running the country you live in can mutilate your body and your mind without your say-so and without you actually having done anything to deserve it. And that fear becomes anger.
And I quote a Dr. Dre line from the newest record, Compton, where he says, “Every other day I’m like what the f—? Face down on a pavement with a billy clubs. I took my anger to the studio and queued it up, now it’s ‘F— the Police’ all up in the club.”
To be able to take that anger and fear and put it into the music helps so many kids from not going onto the streets and becoming gangbangers. And I would say that’s what I use music for, and that’s why I use Dr. Dre and Eminem and all these angry rappers for was to somehow tell myself that it’s okay to put my anger into the music.
Do you remember when you started seeing the police as “a state funded gang?”
Lukas: Well, ever since I was a kid, my mom would tell me, if you see the police, walk the other way. ’Cause basically, we never had any problems in my neighborhood unless the police arrived, and we’d have full-scale riots, right?
So you’d have the whole month with no incidents while people are dealing drugs, but only weed and hash, only soft drugs. There’s a literal drug bazaar going on, and there are no issues, until the police show up and do a raid, and then suddenly you have full-scale warfare, right? That makes an impression on you as a kid, just knowing that I can’t go to the police and ask for help because of my accent and the way we looked. We were dirtier than other kids. So you just end up being very hostile and shy towards the authorities.
I’m curious what you guys think about Donald Trump.
Lukas: My mom told me I’m can’t answer questions about him, because the 50 percent of Americans who will vote for him will hate me, so I’m going to listen to my mom.