The Dutch/Norwegian band Klangstof creates expansive, cinematic soundscapes, which suggest other ambitious acts like The War On Drugs and older recordings from past tourmates Flaming Lips. Koen van de Wardt is the creative spirit behind Klangstof. He's as quietly sensitive in person as he is when singing Klangstof's songs. We spoke with him at Coachella 2017.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): When I listen to your music, I notice you have a lot of very long songs.
Koen van de Wardt: Correct.
Songfacts: When you write songs, what kind of a frame of mind are you usually in?
Koen: For me, it's never about picking up a guitar and trying to write a verse and a chorus, or anything like that. I guess I'm much more of a producer, so I just sit down in the studio and look for cool sounds and melodies and stuff like that.
So, I really build my songs from sounds, which usually makes it more dynamic and a bit easier to stretch it out because you don't have to stick to any verse or chorus or anything. So, I just love to build up layers and layers of sounds that work great together. It kind of makes up my weird way of writing songs, I guess.
Songfacts: When you create tracks, do these suggest what the words will be about, or do you write lyrics separately, and then say, "Okay, that will fit here"?
Koen: I always write lyrics when everything's finished. For me, music is always first place, then I start singing on the spots where I think it needs an extra layer. So usually, I get all the music finished before I even think about words. I always have a feeling about what I'm writing or an emotion. Something that's in my head.
Songfacts: Talk me through a couple of songs you're most proud of, and how these came about.
Koen: I think "Hostage" is a great one to start with, since it's the first song I wrote for Klangstof. I lived in Norway for seven years, a pretty isolated place. No one around. I wanted to get out of that vibe. I wanted to start a band and have a good time and get out of my basement where I was stuck for five or six years. That's kind of where the idea for "Hostage" was born. It's about getting out of your comfort zone and trying out something new.
Songfacts: I watched the video for that one. And obviously, with the times we live in, when I think of hostages, visions of terrorism come to mind. But that's not really what you were getting at.
Koen: No, it's just kind of a feeling I had from the inside. It's not about terrorists or anything.
Songfacts: Do people misinterpret it?
Koen: Yes, they do. But some people do get it. Sometimes you just get stuck in daily life, and even though you're unhappy you just continue doing it. That song's just me trying to get out of that, even though it's really hard to actually do that.
Songfacts: A lot of people tell me songs are therapeutic. Did writing it help you to get out of that situation?
Koen: Everything that song's about is what actually happened. I got a record contract out of it, and now I'm playing all over the world.
Songfacts: People think of songs as a reaction, but that was a proactive song.
Koen: I still think it was kind of weird that I was writing it, and now I'm playing at Coachella. It's such a weird thing that happened.
Songfacts: Songwriters have also told me that they don't always know what songs are about until long after they've written them. But now, looking back, you can see where that song moved you?
Koen: Yeah, that's really funny. Like I said, I never had the feeling that I was going to be a rock star.
Songfacts: You say that so much of your music comes from the studio. Is it difficult for you to be a performer?
Koen: It's really a different area from what I think I'm good at. Right now I get the performance part, but I'm still a producer and I'm introverted. I really need to step out of that comfort zone to get on stage, but after you do it 100, 200 times, you do start to get that part of the business as well, and you know what to do.
Songfacts: What's your favorite rock star move when you're performing?
Koen: I don't know. I have a lot of silly looks. I try to look at everyone in the audience. That's hard to do at Coachella.
Songfacts: Tell me about other songs you've written that you're particularly proud of.
Koen: A song like "Island," the closing track on the record. I wrote it when I was 15. I'm now 24. Then it was just guitar only, and I had it on a hard disk for a long time. When I started to come up with songs for the album, I found that one, so then it was like building a six-minute song out of it.
I had in mind if I ever recorded it, it should really grow dynamically because there's no chorus to it. And I think, especially live, people really feel that build. It's what lacks in music these days. It starts straight away being really loud, but I don't care if an intro is boring because it always works. When you end a song, you'll understand why the intro was that way.
A lot of people stop the song after 30 seconds. I don't think about that. I really don't care. I want people to get the full experience of a six-minute song and get people to understand it.
Songfacts: But radio people, they want something that's going to hit people right away. There's that joke where record executives listen to an album and say, "I don't hear a single." Have you ever heard that from a record company?
Koen: Definitely. Yeah. That's the thing: Record companies have to push the album in some kind of way. Obviously, singles are a great way to do that, and getting radio play. But for the first time, we got like zero stress from the record company. They really love what we're doing. They said, "Just do whatever you think you can do. It's your first record. We give you a lot of slack. Just make the most beautiful thing you've ever made."
So, for me, that was very inspirational. We got a clean slate.
Songfacts: That's a rare thing, especially today because the music business is not what it used to be.
Koen: When we were looking for a record company, I was really looking for one that had that state of mind. A lot of major labels, they just want hit singles, and they drop you if you don't have that hit. And I would never say yes to a deal like that. I was looking for a label that said, "We really trust what you're doing. Do whatever you like, and we're gonna promote you as much as we can in any kind of way." And eventually we signed with Mind of a Genius Records.
Songfacts: I don't really know very much about that label. What can you tell me about it?
Koen: It's a really cool label. They're really on top of things, but they really have the artists in the first place. I would never settle for a radio single. I wouldn't be able to deal with that.
Songfacts: So, what does the band name Klangstof mean?
Koen: "Klang" means echo in Norwegian, and "stof" means dust in Dutch. And since I've been raised in both countries, I wanted a name that fit both those identities. It ended up being "echo dust," which sounds horrible, but that's what it means.
Songfacts: How does your ethnicity affect your music?
Koen: Scandinavia has a very distinct sound. What I really like about Scandinavian culture is that they have really catchy hooks - think of Abba - but there's always that one note that's different.
Songfacts: Catchy but arty at the same time.
Koen: I really, really like that about music. I always want to listen to the hook, but at the end of the hook be like, "Oh, I love it!"
Songfacts: Who are some of your influences? When you were dreaming of having a band, were there certain artists that inspired you?
Koen: Yeah, Radiohead has always been on top. I really grew up on OK Computer, Kid A, that kind of music. Right now, I've got James Blake, Tame Impala.
July 11, 2017. Get more at klangstof.com.