Founded in 2004, Den Sorte Skole is a sample-based producer and composer group from Copenhagen (Denmark). By sampling music from all corners of the world, Simon Dokkedal and Martin Højland bring weird and abstract musical combinations to the listeners in a hardcore way. Having had their projects under wraps for two years because of copyright issues a few years ago, the duo came back stronger than ever. And now that they’re on track again, they’re presenting their newest show, Ghosts & Robots, on the 6th and the 7th of May at The Danish Royal Theatre. A meeting point of the past and the future where lasers, machines and electronic equipment will bring and accompany sound. Definitely, something to look forward to.
How did you come together? What does Den Sorte Skole mean and how did you come up with this name?
Simon: We met fifteen years ago on the harbour side of Copenhagen. It was summertime and Martin was playing records with his DJ partner. I just asked if I could join, bring some records, hang out and drink beer with them. This was our first meeting.
Martin: Just a few weeks later, we played a gig together and soon we started to use more than two turntables on stage in order to put many layers on top of each other.
Simon: Then we needed a name. Den Sorte Skole means ‘the black school’ in English and it refers to an old Danish school system where teachers were really strict, also punishing pupils physically. At that point, we thought it was a good name for bringing music to people in a hardcore way.
Martin: Generally, the public expects from a DJ to react to the vibe of the crowd, but from the beginning of Den Sorte Skole, we never responded to the audience, we were simply doing our thing. We came with a fixed program – if you can say so –, and then people had to take it or leave it. When we first started, we were playing lots of black music like soul, reggae, and hip-hop. That changed later on.
But we always prepared this sound and music journey beforehand and played it on stage. Nowadays it’s not special to play a DJ concert, but back in 2004, it wasn’t normal on the festivals. You had electronic or techno stages, but the idea of a DJ who performed a concert was new. I guess it was already happening in other places in Europe, but in Denmark, we were some of the first who kind of changed the concept of a DJ into a concert performer.
Let’s break down the Lektion albums. You dropped lessons 1, 2 and 3. How do they contrast and why do you think the third album is notably different from the other two?
Simon: First Lektion was strictly a mixtape recorded live on four turntables with three people playing and it consisted mostly of hip-hop related beats with overlays of folk, rock and other genres of music.
Martin: Basically, instrumentals and a cappellas. It was a mash-up mixtape. We did it live on turntables and that was a cool part of the process. As for Lektion 2, we went broader than just hip-hop. In Denmark, this album is still referred to as a hip-hop release, but actually, I think there are only six or seven minutes of rap on it. It’s primarily an electronic release I would say. Lots of beats are from electronic artists.
Simon: We also brought in world music elements. We started buying Bollywood albums, Turkish rock albums, etc. and I think that was the biggest change. We did not want to sound like a producer chopping up samples, we wanted it to sound more like a band consisting of people from all over the world. So we put lots of small sound pieces together that made the album much more detailed.
Martin: But it was still a mixtape. I actually think that the change between Lektion 1 and 2, and 2 and 3, is equally big. Some people hated Lektion 2 because they thought it was not hip-hop enough, but for us, it was a huge breakthrough. We started playing at big Danish festivals and were pretty successful. But then, one day, we received a letter from IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) saying that we'd be sued if we did not stop what we were doing. So our website went black for two years. It was really bizarre. We kept underground, but in the end, it turned out well for us.
Prior to the shutdown, Lektion 1 and 2 were free to download and they spread over the Internet really fast. We did not give any interviews, we just wanted people to talk about our mixtapes with their friends and families instead of reading about them in the magazines. So people felt they were part of the movement. I guess that is why Den Sorte Skole got so big in Denmark. Then, we decided to produce the third Lektion with samples from vinyl records from all over the world.  We wanted to make a fully sample-based album with samples from the 1980s and before, covering lots of different cultures, genres, and countries. The rise of the Internet gave us the possibility to research, collect and get records from everywhere.
The third Lektion has many parts without beats and is a mix of different kinds of music. We worked on it for two and a half years, as we had to learn how to produce from samples and move out of DJing. Every time we had something that sounded like it belonged to a certain genre, we would throw it away. But every time we had something that could not be placed in time and genre, we thought it should go to the album. Another important difference is that the third Lektion was made for listening at home, while the other two were supposed to be played in front of standing audiences. This was a big change in our sound.
Simon: At that time, a lot of music was considered successful if it was for a party, but we wanted to do the exact opposite.
Martin: We just wanted to be old and boring (laugh).
“We did not want to sound like a producer chopping up samples, we wanted it to sound more like a band consisting of people from all over the world.”
With your latest album, Indians and Cowboys, you bring together thousands of samples from old vinyl records from all corners of the world uniting various genres and styles of music. What is the purpose of this album?
Martin: When we released Lektion 3, it was a big shift in our sound and in the minds of many people. Later, we went on tour and played live for two years in Denmark and around Europe. We played both for seated and standing audiences and pretty soon we realized that we had to make more energetic tracks. So we started making new sounds straight after Lektion 3 was released.
We didn’t plan on making a new album though. It was more like we said, ok, if we spend half a year working from now, we could actually finish all this material in an album. So Indians and Cowboys was the output of a long creative period. It's also more extreme and rough than Lektion 3, with highly energetic and noisy parts along with calm and ambient parts. You can't hear this album in every situation. It’s weird to play when you have guests! It is very much an album for headphones and music freaks.
Simon: I guess the purpose was again to show people new kinds of music and bring new ideas to them.
Martin: The point of sampling sounds from all over the world is not because we have an explicit political mission with our music. It’s more the other way around: we wanted to showcase the world of today, a mix of all kinds of cultures, styles, and genres. Indians and Cowboys is an artistic expression of a globalized world. Somewhere in the process, we felt that this album had something about it that fitted the title. And, of course, by swapping the order of cowboys and Indians it got a little political. In Denmark, you say cowboys first and then Indians, which is weird, because the Indians came first and then the cowboys came and took the land. That is the point of the title.
Also, the native Indians of America believed that the land belongs to everybody or rather to Mother Earth. The concept underlying our work could be considered the same. Music belongs to everybody and with our kaleidoscope of musical history it is impossible to clear all the copyrights. Our material lives in this weird grey zone, where you don’t really know whether it’s legal or illegal. That is also why we don’t have a record company.
May is going to be a very busy period for you, as you will be performing at The Royal Danish Theatre three nights in a row. Are you excited? Maybe a bit nervous? What should we expect from the upcoming show?
Simon: I guess we are a bit nervous but not afraid. We are very much looking forward to this performance and still have some preparations to do.
Martin: It’s a big thing to play three nights at The Royal Danish Theatre. Listeners should expect something deep and spaced out. The good thing about performing in the theatre is that, when people are seated, they get very open to new kinds of experiences in comparison to when they stand. When people are standing, you need to give something to their bodies, it has to be energetic. It is very difficult to stay focused on the music when people talk, walk, laugh, and get drunk. On the contrary, it is special to play at the theatre, as you have the full attention of the audience. Therefore, we will be presenting something that's more intense, weird and, at the same time, silent and beautiful. We will be pushing things much further.
Simon: We will be changing things for this show and bringing sounds through machines and electronic equipment. It will be a meeting point of the past and the future.
Martin: We are sampling Gregorian chants, Benedictine monks combined with field recordings, industrial music, machines and sounds of ghosts and robots. Thrilling dynamics, sound design, stereo spectrum and attention to detail will be a huge part of this show. You can expect us moving further from the regular concept of a concert, both musically and visually. We have not released anything since Fall 2015, so we have taken all the best parts from the last years and added a lot of completely new stuff.
Talking about the shows, your performances are always full of lights, visual effects, artistic installations, etc. For the Ghosts & Robots upcoming premiere, you’ll be performing with Obscura Vertigo. Who are they?
Martin: They are freaks.
Simon: In a good way.
Martin: Vertigo works with big light installations and creates an abstract universe. Our music is full, dense and carries lots of information so it’s not necessary to have screens with lots of motives and specific video content. It's not that screens are always bad, but they definitely suck the energy out of the crowd. They kind of drain the fantasy or possibility of abstraction because you just watch the screen as a big television.
Simon: People tend to use their eyes before their ears, so in a live concert situation, you paralyze people in a way. Vertigo has an insane production and it's the first time The Royal Theatre allows laser beams inside.
Except for working on the various albums, you have also collaborated with Danish classical orchestras. Tell us more about these collaborations.
Martin: I guess we learned a lot from them and so did they. In some ways, we were a good match, as we have always made long stories in music and it was kind of normal for us to think in symphonies. We experienced a whole new way of thinking about music through longer stories and journeys with non-strict schemes. Rhythmical music and especially mainstream music can learn so much from classical music! While working with classical composers, we didn't have to be concerned about people dancing and that was liberating.
Simon: For us, it was a completely new way of creating music. We have no musical education, so suddenly, we appeared together with fifty people who are musically super educated. Like them, we also bring various instruments together, so the combination was not bad. Merging recorded music with classical instruments created a whole new sound, a really unique soundscape, where at some points you couldn't really guess whether it was coming from an orchestral instrument or the samples. It all kind of melted together.
As you are mashing up and sampling most of the times, I guess you are not listening to the music for fun or for relaxation like the rest of us do. Has the way you work affected your appreciation of music? Are you able to listen to the music without thinking of it as of the next project or the right sample?
Simon: Good question. I think my solution for not getting tired of listening to music is to always listen to new kinds of music. I guess that's the reason why we evolve.
Martin: It really is a big privilege not to be boxed in a genre.
Simon: But no doubt, every time I hear music that I find interesting, there instantly goes a thought through my mind on whether it's sample worthy or not. That's part of our job and primarily of our love for music. Being a DJ in a sense is staying updated all the time and seeing where it all goes. This is a really nice way of constantly learning and enjoying new music.
Martin: I think that one of the biggest problems for me today is that it got harder to be really moved and excited about music. We hear so many things that sometimes it's difficult to appreciate them for real. When we were starting Den Sorte Skole, we were so excited all the time about so many things, but I guess that's the same with all disciplines. Let’s take a pizza for example. If you eat it every day, you will soon start getting less excited about it.
However, we both have kids and, with them, you start to re-experience things. I enjoy and actually listen to more music now than I did five years ago. Every time I take my boys to the record store, they pick different albums and we talk about them. It’s kind of a fun process because they are attracted to stuff that I would never listen to and that helps me appreciate music in a whole different way.
You performed at renowned Roskilde festival several times. Can you share with us the best moments you took from there?
Martin: It’s a really great festival to play at. The crowd is very giving. It is very non-Danish to be explicitly happy or emotional. We are calm and reserved people, but at Roskilde, everyone's clapping and shouting back. We have played on quite a lot of festivals around the world and have seen very few ones that have such a crazy audience. I guess that is also the reason why artists from other countries love to play at Roskilde.
There have been lots of special moments, but 2009 was the biggest moment for us. We were put on the official program for the first time and we played Lektion 2. We were due to play at four in the afternoon, which disappointed us as we preferred to play at night, where there would be a lot more people. But it appeared so that there was a monstrous crowd and they all knew most of the tracks! There were like fifteen thousand people on a stage that could actually handle eight thousand even though we had not once been played on the radio or given any interviews. I think everybody was surprised: the crowd, the organizers and us. This was a really crazy experience.
Simon: Last summer, we played at the main stage known as the Orange Stage, where lots of legendary musicians performed. Danish bands rarely play there so we were privileged to do so. We had a big show with musical guests from all around the world and we made it with music no one had heard before. People normally go to live concerts to experience music they love and know of, but this was a completely different experience for them.
Martin: I think it was the weirdest concert played at that stage!
What do you think are the main breakthroughs in your career and what have you learned from being in the music industry?
Martin: I think we’ve learned that staying outside of the industry is really good for us.
Simon: We don’t feel like we are part of the music industry as such. We have never followed the normal ways of the business.
Martin: We have some bookers who work with us but we try to keep it as a family. We work with people with whom we’ve been working for many years. We have never been on a record label and have never done anything because somebody thought it was a good media plan or a good way to enter different markets. We did everything in our own weird way and I definitely think that's what we are most proud of.
Simon: I think having played on the Orange Stage at Roskilde, which is the biggest stage in northern Europe, is a great success as well as the acknowledgement of our work by Danish Crown Prince Couple by awarding us with "Kronprinsparrets Kulturpris." Our upcoming performance at The Danish Royal Theatre on the 6th and the 7th of May will hopefully be another remarkable breakthrough in our career. Also, we will be playing in Cartagena (Spain) on July as part of the La Mar de Musicas festival, since Denmark is the invited country.
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