Anton Falck and Joakim Wei Bernild grew up in Copenhagen. A bunch of incredible memories together are the main narrative that shapes their new work, Cotton Candy, due out tomorrow. First Hate is one of the most influential acts of Copenhagen in the last decade, they are responsible for so much more than just the catchy party anthems and heart aching melodies most people know them for. Venturing into laptop production and underground pop music as a way to break away from the sound of their peers in Copenhagen's post punk and noise scene (Iceage, Posh Isolation), craftsmanship and technique are subordinate to them when it comes to being innovative.
The random, scary but special moment when they originally met in a cat sanctuary in Rome changed Anton and Joakim’s lives and planted the seed of a great male friendship. They share their views on masculinity in this interview; interesting words about how both their friendship and individual experiences are perceived, and how it has positively affected some of their fans.
“We believe in ourselves in First Hate. We do not necessarily know where we are going, and we probably never did, but that’s the whole idea.” First Hate is pop music as its finest, and that unfortunately includes being undervalued as political or relevant when it comes to tackle social issues; after all, aren't social issues our own life stories? As they mention, music and memes are becoming new narratives that express the feeling young people face watching the world changing, with its positive evolutions and horrible downgrades.
In Cotton Candy (Escho and Cascine, 2022) they approach songwriting in a more perfectionist way that they have before. The song In My Head, an intricate pop ballad about the struggles of growing up, is a great example of how each one’s artistic contribution to the project tends to meet at the chorus of a song. The album is a gentle follow-up to their 2017 cult classic, A Prayer For The Unemployed. A body of work with 11-tracks coalescing around the quest of an escapist narrator stumbling through a broken world, winning and losing lovers, mood-swinging from extreme highs to hopeless lows. Throughout, the productions embody these themes, glittering with synthetic detail and hypermodern finesse, effervescent but elusive.
Vampire Boi a propulsive dance track, arrives with self-directed visuals of the duo as vampires on the prowl at a dance club singing that “life begins at night”. Alongside with What’s the Matter Boy and In My Head they are the highlighted club anthems with an introspective approach we’ll find in the record. These songs coexist with gorgeous and heartfelt tracks such as Someone New and Solitary Sundays, that open and close the record framing it as a more complex and thorough exercise than previous works. There are also moments of 90’s infused ballads like Fortuneteller and electronic modern elegies such as Commercial, a song about “the big wheels of capitalism turning around constantly and indulging in it” according to Anton.
If “boys with feelings that make music” could be a musical genre -and it is- Cotton Candy cements First Hate’s career with an impressive album that not only showcases their versatility for pop music, but also captures the narrative relevance that songs have when they play on the radio; they more than assert themselves by reinforcing the nature of pop as an experience of coming-together, rather than atomisation on TikTok.
Think Pet Shop Boys, The Sound of Arrows, The Righteous Brothers and Underworld, now close your eyes and imagine dancing to a blend of all of them in Copenhagen’s bests clubs. Anton and Joakim dedicated some time to talk about the new album, how a Korean pancake soufflé recipe video, the film Taipei Story by Edward Yang and Sinead O’Connor’s I Am Stretched On Your Grave were key to the creation of Cotton Candy, along with counting Cher, Scooter, and Andrew Lloyd Webber as musical influences.
Hello Anton and Joakim, so great to talk with you. How are you doing?
Joakim Wei Bernild: It’s been a busy spring with photos, artwork, and music videos. We art direct, produce, and mostly edit everything ourselves in First Hate. Alongside other projects we’re working on, art school, jobs, and then we’re beginning to play live shows again, we’ve had our plates full all spring! But we can’t complain - Copenhagen is beautiful at this time of year, and we feel blessed to have the sun and flowers back in our lives.
It’s been almost five years since your last release, and finally this week we’ll get to listen to Cotton Candy. How are you feeling about it? Do you feel your sound has grown and changed a lot since A Prayer for the Unemployed?
J: Previously, we were really into the idea of capturing the spirit of the moment and we often had a hard time making changes to the first version of an unfinished song in the making, no matter how unfinished it was. That meant we often had to scrap entire songs that stayed unfinished, cause we couldn’t get ourselves to delete parts of them. With this album, we’ve chased the idea of perfecting each song over time in search of the best version of itself it could become. Because of that, we’ve been a lot better at experimenting and less afraid of rewriting a chorus over and over again. If A Prayer for the Unemployed was a butterfly net, then Cotton Candy is a sugar sculpture. We both feel really good about the new album.
How has the pandemic affected the content and production of the album? Did it make it a longer process? I wonder what songs, films, videogames or books gave you company and inspired you regarding the making of the record.
Anton Falck: The pandemic was a much-needed break from the stress of the world. For the first few months, it was like having a break to breathe and think. But after a while, the lockdowns started feeling quite claustrophobic. I’ve had to work two jobs as a waiter because our music careers were on hold and we were not making any money. It's no secret that we make most of our living from live shows and touring. We are a band known for our live shows and not being able to get that out of the system was also tough. But then we used that energy and time in the studio instead. I actually don't really read books, play video games or listen much to music. But me and some friends played a lot of dungeons and dragons over zoom while the pandemic was on. And then a lot of anime, I watch a lot of anime. Neon Genesis Evangelion, Food Wars, Psycho Pass, Hunter Hunter, that stuff.
J: It definitely made it a longer process. After touring a lot, we began collecting song ideas and were working on recording a bunch of them, but when the pandemic hit, we decided to really take our time recording this album. We watch a lot of youtube clips. Fortune Teller came into existence when we watched a Korean pancake soufflé recipe video. While the pancake dough was being whipped, the video had this little mellow guitar loop playing. Anton began singing over it and we sampled it and we recorded it and build a track around it. We ended up scrapping the original soufflé guitar sample, but I still think of pancake soufflé when I hear that song.
The vibe in, In My Head is partly inspired by a danish television clip from the 90s where Jarl-Friis Mikkelsen interviews Cher in different studio settings and she ends up performing one of her tracks. The slow and empty atmosphere that underlines the mood of the title track Cotton Candy came to me after watching Taipei Story by Edward Yang. I don’t want to spoil it too much, but the ending made a huge impression on me and tapped into feelings of meaninglessness I was already dealing with at the time.
In your most recent single, Vampire Boi you mention being “afraid of the light” and that “life begins at night”. I find this as an interesting analogy for how productivity is dictating our lives during the day and making us afraid or annoyed at the world, while being out during the night and enjoying whatever nightlife brings is almost like a political statement. Has partying become even more political?
A: (Laughs) I never thought of partying as a political statement. But well. I think it has always been apparent to me that having a good time is more important than reaching certain goals in life. People strive for so many things, yet when they get them they just want something else or something more. I strive to not strive and just live for the moment. The road is the destination for me. Sometimes I end up having too much of a good time and end up fucking up things that are expected of me. That can feel kind of bad as well so it’s about getting some sort of balance I guess.
The video for Commercial is so lovely, it situates you amongst your friends. Was this the first post-pandemic video you recorded? How was the filming?
A: Yes, this was the very first video we shot after hibernating. It was really fun to make. We never hire professional strangers to do creative work for us, it's always friends and cool people. We include a lot of love and improvisation in the process of making music, videos and artwork. We shot the whole video in one day just improvising most of the things driving around in an open car acting like monkeys. The girl we stole the car from in the opening scene is my ex-girlfriend and one of the twins we drove around with was my new boyfriend at the time. Now I have two other boyfriends, so the video is also a nice document of romance at a certain time.
How did you guys first meet and become friends? What made you want to start making music together?
J: We originally met as kids in 1999 actually, at a cat sanctuary in Rome. That year, our respective families had taken each of us on summer holidays in Rome. One day I got lost, without my dad and brother. After running around a few streets, unable to find them, I found myself looking down at a cat sanctuary in an old beautiful ruin in the middle of the city. I remember standing there watching some kid (that was Anton), trying to feed one of the cats with a pizza slice and waving at me as if to say I should come down to join him. We ended up playing with the cats for a long time, while Anton's parents found a way to reconnect me with my dad. I think we spent a few really fun days in Rome hanging out, eating ice cream and such, but we didn’t really keep in touch once we got back home.
Later on we met again in our early teens and in the meantime, I had become allergic to cats and Anton had realised he is gluten and lactose intolerant and cannot eat pizza. We had both begun making a bit of music, but at that point, music was just a thing we did like we also did zines, drawings, homemade short films, and other kinds of things, so the music didn’t have a special status before we began playing shows and traveling around.
A: I remember this very vividly. I actually have quite bad eyesight so when I was waving up at Joakim. I thought it was my older brother Sigurd up there. When Joakim came down I didn’t say anything and just went with it and look where it took us.
Are there specific spots around Copenhagen that mean a lot to your friendship or the making of this record?
A: Copenhagen is small so the same bars and same streets have a million different memories tied to them. I think the worst spot we ever had was a tiny freezing cold rehearsal room with black mould and no windows. We recorded Girls In The Club there. You could see your own breath in the cold room, it was so awful. Now we actually have a real studio with windows, looking over a rooftop where a lot of seagulls have sex in the afternoon, they makes a very peculiar sound.
J: In our early teens we spent a lot of time together around the Willemoesgade area in Østerbro where Anton grew up. The streets in that neighbourhood remind me of the summer when we first began sharing our homemade garageband songs before First Hate was a thing. Anton’s parents were away for a few weeks and I stayed over the entire time. As the days went by we naturally developed these couple-like routines; every day we would watch the same Pierce Brosnan action-comedy The Matador, eat fried eggs with peanut butter on toast for breakfast, tortellini with eggs and cream for dinner and stay up all night to go swim in the inner city harbour at 4 am when the city was completely empty. The summer days are really long here in Copenhagen and to me, the sound of First Hate is the sound of just that.
A: I like growing older and we are soon turning 30. But there is something really magical about the long summers when you are a teenager and don't have any sense of responsibility. We have many good memories together, that's for sure.
Both the album and the song A Prayer for the Unemployed have aged very well. Not only because the theme is still relevant, but the song is also a particularly good example of how protest songs have become more and more pop. Do you think that pop artists are becoming more conscious about different social issues that are affecting us globally, or is just a part of the narratives younger artists are experiencing in their lives?
J: In both lyrics and titles, we’re always drawn to wordings that can carry a double meaning. While being meant as an uplifting encouragement to people struggling, A Prayer for the Unemployed was also meant as a comment on the entire concept of unemployment. At the time of the album, we were really estranged and disillusioned with how society seemed to view the miraculous phenomenon of life and human existence through a lens of productivity, where each human was a mere citizen and could be seen only as either employed or unemployed. I don’t necessarily have a feeling that pop artists are more political or conscious of social issues than in earlier times, but there are a lot of political movements carried out in memes and with TikTok, it seems music and memes are soon to become one and the same, so in that sense, it might just become the case after all.
A: I believe that life comes with no rules, only consequences. Everything we do vibrates through the fabric of time and space infinitely. The former record was maybe a bit more directly political, whereas the new record is more egocentric and inward gazing. That said there are still a lot of political comments and words with certain vibrations. I think It's a bit more up to the listener to decipher and create their own interpretation of the Cotton Candy album than on the former releases.
Owen Jones just published this piece on The Guardian saying "So many straight men are victims of homophobia because it is principally about policing the boundaries of masculinity, rather than repulsion towards gayness per se." It’s on how homophobia can also affect straight boys because any trait of affection within male friendship is taken as gay, and that sadly implies discrimination, among other issues. I immediately thought of the cover of the new album. What is you take on masculinity and how people perceive your friendship?
A: I totally agree. The whole of society is suffering the consequences of homophobia, sexism, racism, ableism, and so on. It doesn't only affect the offended minority but also the quality of everybody else's well-being. I’m not saying we are all suffering on the same level though, and I think straight men have a huge responsibility in healing these wounds. Being called faggot (the original meaning of faggot is a bundle of small sticks used to light a fire, stemming from when people used to burn homosexuals) might feel different when you also have to hide your sexuality, to not get hit in the face when out on a Friday or when taxi drivers ask you not to kiss your boyfriend on the backseat because its “gross”. A lot of these things are part of daily life. I stopped counting the incidents, and I’m not taking it personally cause it never comes from people who know me. But we have to lift the stigma out of the equation so we can all find ourselves for who we are and not what we strive to be to not get bullied. Who knows if I would be more queer acting if the stigma wasn’t there? I know that a lot of my masculinity is a layer I have learned to wear to protect myself, but now it's grown stuck and I can't take it off anymore. I date both men and women, and walking down the street holding hands is a very different experience with one or the other.
J: I am in no way an expert on the subject of masculinity and or homophobia and I am not sure I have the vocabulary to act like one either. I am often saddened by just how fragile the mainstream idea of masculinity that a lot of men live in is though. Growing up, my dad never acted in a way that enforced specific ideas of what masculinity was and wasn’t, so maybe that’s why I haven’t felt like I needed to act or live a certain way in order to feel like I belonged to a certain sex. With First Hate, a lot of people have always assumed that Anton and I are a homosexual couple or have been at some point, but whether people see me (or themselves for that matter) as hetero-, homo- or asexual doesn’t really make a difference to me. As Owen Jones says in the article, homophobic bullying can be an existential question for a queer person in a way it isn’t for me, so I’m not trying to downplay just how much of an issue toxic masculinity and homophobia can be for so many people.
I remember one time, somebody wrote to us on Instagram, that he was moved and inspired by how openly we dared to celebrate our homosexuality, and that he found courage in our image to endure the hate he experienced himself. We wrote him back with encouraging words, and even though I don’t think we addressed whether we were or weren’t homosexuals, I remember being left with this mixed imposter-like feeling, wanting to support this person in his battles on one hand, but also feeling like I had posed as something I wasn’t and that he went through hell for being. (I have been with my wife for 13 years now).
What are your main musical influences? And who are the musicians from your country that you admired growing up that might have helped you shape your musical style?
A: Most of the time we fumble in blindness. We very rarely set out to sound like another artist and succeeded. Most of the good songs are failed attempts of sounding like someone else but then ending up sounding like First Hate because we didn't understand the techniques it required. In the beginning, everybody kept comparing us to Depeche Mode and Dave Gahan and nobody believed us when we told them that we didn’t know of Dave Gahan, or Depeche Mode.
J: I think the First Hate musical style is a result of our shared skewed idea of what good music sounds like. If that makes sense (laughs). When we make a song, it comes naturally most of the time, and it’s often just about finding a nice sound on the computer to play with. From that sound comes a melody. From that melody comes the idea for a complementing melody, with another complementing sounds, and so on, and so on, until the song is finished. Apart from our friends that make music in different constellations, we haven’t really admired music from our own country that much. That’s probably also why we make music in english instead of danish. We’ve always had a shared fascination with pompous artists like Cher, Scooter, and Andrew Lloyd Webber though!
You’ve grown up along with friends that have ended up becoming punk superstars (Iceage, Lust For Youth, Communions) and you mentioned in the press release for the new album that the most punk thing you could do was to go pop. Why are people so reluctant sometimes to take pop music seriously when it comes to its lyricism?
A: That's a very good question. There is this general concept that if something is easily accessible then it's worthless. Most people can't tell the difference between a glass diamond or a real diamond, but they know which one they are supposed to prefer. Pop art and pop music are not trying to be exclusive in the same way as what is considered avant-garde. But the avant-garde is simply hiding in plain sight right at the forefront of pop. A lot of people are just missing the complexity of what they are actually consuming because it is so well made for your body to take in. Writing a good 4-minute pop song is a million times more complex and challenging than writing a 20-minute experimental music piece. I'm talking from experience.
J: I totally agree with that. There are a lot of pop lyrics that are really generic and superficial though. But then again, doesn’t it apply to most genres and sub-genres? I think Elias and Hannes are really talented lyricists, but punk lyrics, for that matter, can as easily be filled with superficial descriptions and clichés as pop lyrics. Personally, I love lyrics that are poetic and or tell a story, but in the end, lyrics are also just part of what makes a song, and if a song can make you feel a certain way then it doesn't necessarily have to convey deep meaning at all times. As Madonna puts it: “Music makes the people come together - yeah”.
Hearts, Someone New and Fortuneteller are heartfelt and beautiful moments that seem to be more introspective regarding love. Can you tell us a little bit of how you approached the writing of these songs?
J: Our writing in Hearts is unique to that song only in the sense that the two verses are divided between the two of us and brought together in the chorus to become one unified story. The first verse touches on Anton’s childhood and his parents' loud daily arguments at home and the second verse deals with my childhood problems at school that came from problems I had with losing my temper all the time, getting into fights with students and teachers alike. With Someone New and Fortune Teller, Anton wrote the verses and we wrote the bridges and choruses together, expanding on the themes already present in each song. I really love the over-the-top cheeky point of view on a break-up that Anton wrote in Something New. Together we took that and made it even more exaggerated, by concluding it in a chorus, where every consequence of the narrator's actions are linked to the universal cycle of ups and downs in life and therefore completely out of his hands.
Cowboys In The Tub is one of the most interesting songs on the album. It sounds like a chill-country Gorillaz-esque song that is one of the album highlights for me. It’s not the first time that the harmonica features in one of your songs. What does it talk about?
A: Thank you! I'm happy you like it, it is also one of my favourites. I wrote it by taking one of our first songs Girls In The Club, recording a lot of new layers on top of it, and then removing Girls In The Club again - hence the title. The harmonica entered our sound on our single The One quite randomly. A friend had left a harmonica in the studio and I picked it up. It was in the wrong scale so I could only play 3 tones, therefore the riff ended up being so simple and catchy. When we play live I cover the rest of the holes with tape so I don't accidentally blow into them because then it sounds completely off. Cowboys in The Tub song is inspired by Sinead O’Connor’s I Am Stretched On Your Grave. I originally wrote it for Jackie Midnight and the Psycho street, a country band I’m in, but then decided it would fit better into the FH universe. It's about a conman running out of options and running away from everything. My inner vision looks like a scene from Wild at Heart, with revolvers and sand and gangsters with suitcases.
Speaking on What's The Matter Boy Anton noted, "There's no place like never going home" - can you elaborate on that feeling?
A: Well I rarely sleep alone - I usually sleep on friends' couches or beds or have friends or new lovers sleeping over. During the first lockdown I was kicked out of my flat by an evil billionaire and had nowhere to live for a year. I crashed at friends’ houses and often slept in my tiny blue car. I felt more safe and happy living out of a bag than when I finally got my own place and the silence came creeping in on me. Then I tried buying two red cats but sold them again after 1 month. I get extremely restless at times, but once I get into bed alone I have trouble getting out again.
“My mama always told me that life should be enjoyed, my mamma never said anything when I was unemployed, but when I go to parties I’m never having fun, I’m always trying to make sense of what is going on”. In My Head is club poetry, it talks about our inner conversation that we are constantly having with ourselves. I think this is one of your greatest skills as a band, the ability to capture these intimate feelings and express them through a club anthem. Is dancing also a way to cope with issues for you?
A: For me, dancing is pure therapy. It's the only time I can meditate. I was raised by party animals and I always looked at life from their perspective of “having fun is the most important thing in life”. I still kind of think it is, but it can be hard to snap out of your head sometimes. I sing “My mamma always told me that life should be enjoyed. My mamma never said anything when I was unemployed”. My parents always let me live my life and never looked over my shoulder, and that has made me very independent and given me a lot of freedom. But they are also in a cloud sometimes. As an example, they both forgot to come to my 9th-grade graduation ceremony and they never knew that I didn't show up to the exam and therefore hadn’t passed. My dad even worked at the school as a kindergarten teacher. Sharing my inner feelings and thoughts on this subject is also therapeutic, so sharing them on the dancefloor is twice as good for me. Sometimes I can be on the club floor for hours without talking to anyone, sometimes it doesn't even really matter what music is playing.
J: For me, dancing isn’t necessarily a way to cope with issues, but club songs are the perfect vessels for storytelling and if you’re going to have people sing along to something, it might as well be something that touches on issues one otherwise might feel alone in experiencing. After all, this life is something we’re all in together, right?
Absolutely! Thank you very much for this lovely conversation. All the best for the new album, we can’t wait to see you performing the new songs live and loud!
Thank you so so much! it's been a real pleasure! See you out and about.