Rock

Sondre Lerche Talks Immigration Woes, Post-Divorce Hookups & Challenging Bro Culture

 Sondre Lerche
Isabell N Wedin 

Sondre Lerche

So here’s the scenario: You’re a well regarded indie artist from Europe with eight studio albums under your belt, the latest of which is a critically-acclaimed LP that marks a refreshing musical and topical shift. You’re all set to debut those songs on a month-long U.S. tour when -- 72 hours before the launch -- you’re informed by immigration authorities that half your band won’t be allowed to come along with you, forcing you to scramble to teach a brand new bassist and keyboardist a 14-song set. No one would blame you for being just a little stressed, and not necessarily up for an interview. 

It was under those circumstances that I meet up with Norway’s most affable musical ambassador, Sondre Lerche, at a Thai restaurant in Brooklyn -- and damned if he wasn't still his usual delightful self. After more than 15 years of navigating the unpredictable waters of the music business -- his debut Faces Down came out when he was just 19 -- Sondre is a pro, rolling with the punches, phantom or otherwise. And while the current U.S. trek has been challenging thanks to the folks at immigration, things are reportedly going smoothly. That’s due in no small part to drummer and good friend David Heilman, who’s American and thus able to do the tour, and with whom Lerche has a palpable onstage synergy. 

Following 2014’s Please -- widely described as a “divorce record” as it followed the dissolution of a seven-year marriage, though it included some of his most upbeat tracks to date -- comes this year's splendid new Pleasure. The LP finds Lerche getting more '80s synth-danceable than ever, and lyrically, he's revealing and uninhibited. Tracks touch on transitory hook-ups, more meaningful connections, and even a creeper-y obsessive side. While he’s a perpetual romantic and not quite a hit-it-and-quit-it hedonist, Pleasure delivers on its name. 

Marius Hauge/Stine Berg
Sondre Lerche

And it’s not just the lyrics that are naked with New Sondre. On Pleasure’s cover, and in a trio of videos released since October, “I’m Always Watching You”, “Soft Feelings” and “Serenading In The Trenches,” the Norsk man is in all sorts of stages of undress. In the first two, informed by Hitchcock, he engages in -- and becomes the object of -- voyeurism, and finds himself a man alone in L.A., face down in the buff, on concrete. And in “Serenading,” he goes where few straight-male artists dare -- exploring, with Heilman, the limits of male intimacy.

So yeah, Sondre Lerche 2017 is bolder and has more than ever to say, in music and in conversation. He also has a thing for scented candles. But first, there was that matter of why his band mates were denied visas to discuss….

So how did this whole visa drama come about? Your bass player and keyboard player couldn’t come? 

Yeah they’re Norwegian. My drummer Dave is American, so he’s here with me. They've all been very instrumental in the recording of Please, and the recording of Pleasure, so all of a sudden now it feels like we have a body of work together. So I knew that with this record I really wanted to get it right, I wanted to apply for the visas, do all the things. Because I needed them over here. And I wanted to spend that money. 

And you didn't anticipate it being as much of a hassle as it's been? 

Well, I guess I have some experience -- my green card application was long and tortuous. And so I know these things are always more complicated than maybe you want them to be, and more costly. But because I have a green card, there doesn't exist a sort of side player type thing -- like if I had an O-1, the artist visa which I had ten years ago, they would have maybe more easily have gotten an O-2 to come as my players. But there exists no such thing with a green card. And in a way, a green card is a higher status, but it makes it harder for me to bring them. And maybe that's the point because now that I have a green card I pay taxes to America. And maybe that's part of it, they want me to hire American musicians. I don't know. 

That belies a misunderstanding of what music and a band is all about. 

[Laughs] Completely! And that's what is so heartbreaking to us, because we've built this over six years. And of course it goes beyond skill and -- it's intuition and understanding and empathy and personality and chemistry, you know? And how do you argue that to a tone-deaf bureaucracy? And of course the frustrating part is that it takes so long to get there. I mean, I guess this is what you get when you play by the rules.

So these two new players, are they getting integrated pretty smoothly? 

Yeah it's very brave of them to be taking it on, cause it's a lot of music. It's a lot of information. It's a lot of finesse. 

And you haven't played with either of them before?  

[Shakes head] I met them for the first time today. Tour starts tomorrow. 

Anyone who follows you online knows you have a thing for scented candles. Since the beginning of the Norway tour, you and the guys in the band have done this series, “Scented Pleasure."

Yeah. The last couple of years I've become very interested in scented candles. When I was writing the Please album I found this one scented candle that -- this very high-end brand called Diptych -- it's French. And they have one that's basically burnt wood. Smells like bonfire. It's incredible. So this candle ended up as sort of the thing that would help me divide my time when I was at home, sort of structuring my day. When I wrote or I was creative I would light the candle. And then for this tour, I wanted to do this Instagram series from the tour. Just the fact that we were in a new place every night, and I wanted to sort of make a request that was not obnoxious but just sort of funny, so I asked each venue to provide a scented candle. And usually they just get you cheap bad ones, but…

But you don't say what scent? 

No. I want that to be a surprise. So that was the thing, so it started with just us talking about the scent and writing it, and then in episode 6 and 7, I'm now gonna put all the episodes out on YouTube, so you can binge watch them. The thing the first six, seven episodes are a lot in Norwegian, and then Dave speaks in English, and then after a while we do them all in English and of course they get much more animated. And each has -- it's not like about the candle, it becomes about my unraveling. 

Last time I saw you, with Please we talked about the notion of that being a rather atypical 'divorce record.' I guess you could say this a 'being single again', for better or worse, album. Though I get the sense you’re more of a relationship-oriented person? 

Yeah. I've always wanted to have my base, in a sense. Because I wanted to do my thing and go out and play music, but I like to have and anchor that is with me constantly. 

Obviously the music world is -- I can't think of a profession where you have more opportunities for extra curricular activity on a nightly basis.

I've never -- and this is gonna sound a little boring, but I've never gone for that. I've never been sort of attracted to that opportunity, because it's just too easy. 

The playing field is so skewed. If I was to take advantage of -- especially people who are just enamored with a certain celebrity, but also just people who care about your music. I mean, you're gonna sexually take advantage of that sort of thing? But I do think that Pleasure is taking that on, in a sense. It's definitely thinking less and feeling more -- it's connecting the head to the body, if anything. So it is definitely indulging, it's gonna sound crazy but it is some kind of sexual awakening. Not in the sense that…

Not in a gross way.

Right, not like "I'm gonna fuck the world" but it's -- it is someone who's always been very in the head, and has been -- I guess it's finally sort of taking, claiming your body, and that's where it gets sort of into masculinity in general. I guess in that sense it's a statement of freedom and individuality that I would have been afraid of before. 

My sense is that a lot of the sex on the record is kind of matter-of-fact. In “Hello Stranger” you’re like, “Do you want to get gone or do you wanna get it on?” and in “I’m Always Watching You” which of course has the obsession going on, you talk about how “there’s a stranger in my bed.” 

"Always Watching" to me in a sense is a very romantic lyric, because…

Not creepy?

And creepy of course. But to me it's, obviously there's someone in his bed, but it's the wrong person, you know? So he's fantasizing about someone else that he has had access to but has no access to anymore. So in a weird kind of creepy way to me that's a very romantic song. Because of course he is realizing this way too late in the game. But yeah "Hello Stranger" is definitely more cut to the chase. That one is like, you can't get to the hotel room bed soon enough. 

But it sounds like you've never really been a "Hello Stranger" type of guy. 

I just seek something else, you know? And I guess I've also rejected that sort of crude masculinity that I associate with a certain type of guy that I guess I never identified as. And it certainly doesn't mean that I've become now this like…this asshole. But I've enjoyed exploring I guess a different side to my personality and my sexuality that I guess is more commanding. I went a long time after the divorce, I went to a psychologist for half a year -- or during and at the end. It was the most rewarding and interesting interaction or conversation that I've ever had with anyone. And for me, it was very important that it had to be a guy. You know I needed, I had to -- I have two older sisters, I was raised by a single mother, but you know I don't think I am offending anyone if I say that I needed to talk to a man. 

That's probably why you have a certain respect for women that…

Oh absolutely. I have an over-developed sense of female empathy. And I wish more people were little more like that. But I think that's in a way what my psychologist said to me, like, "It's okay to develop this male side." And it might sound weird to put it this way, but a certain side of you is under developed? And another side is over developed. And you're looking for balance. 

And as long as you’re not hurting or taking advantage of someone, I don’t think sex for the sake of sex is something anyone should apologize for. 

That's the thing, in a way Pleasure is about not apologizing. And it's about indulging all these things that maybe were suppressed. And for me the album really mirrors two for three years of my life that were both intense and exciting and fun, but also frustrating because I wasn't able to look ahead and I wasn't able to look back. Like I was only existing in the moment. And so I felt, for me, for someone of my nature, it was not a place where I could live. I couldn't stay there for long. But I felt like I learnt and developed some of these new sides, or sort of -- I balanced myself out, and I learned a lot that I can take with me.

There’s a lot of skin in the videos. Do you think the Sondre of Two Way Monologue [2004] or Phantom Punch [2007] would have been comfortable being in his underwear -- or less -- in a video? 

Not at all. Because my relationship with my body and my sexuality and my artistry was completely different then. And it's -- I was so shy, I was so awkward…

Even though people would write about you as like, "hot young indie rocker." 

Yeah 'cause I didn't recognize myself that way. Because in my teens I didn't have any confidence that was rooted in my looks. 

In school you weren't "the guy"?

God no. I was always the guy that became the friend. All the girls wanted to be my friend, nobody wanted any fun, you know? They would always pick the jock or whatever. 

So when you get a degree of celebrity and then people cluster around you, there's got to be a part of you that's just "Please! God I'm the same person I was back in school, cause I'm on stage now you want to fuck me?" 

Exactly. That whole thing is a very typical thing, but I just saw right through it. And it didn't change how I saw myself. It's not like -- it doesn't change overnight, where you go, "Oh shit, everybody thinks I'm hot stuff, or whatever, and now I think I'm hot stuff."  My confidence was always rooted in my songwriting. But now it's just that I've sort of -- I know it's a cliché but you know, "I'm so much more comfortable in my own skin." But it is that, and it's time and it's experience, and it's definitely growing from a couple of challenges that were sort of…my girlfriend was sort of saying like, "Well if Please was your divorce record, if somebody asks you what this record is, you've got to be able to say what this record is." So she was asking, "If you have to sum it up in one word...." And I couldn't do it, and she suggested, "You should say it's your early mid-life crisis album!" Cause in a sense it is. 

In your “Serenading In The Trenches” video,  I tweeted at the time that shaving had never been sexier. But you’re straight, and I’m assuming Dave is? 

Yeah.

So has there been any flack about you playing with sexuality? I mean, I think it’s pitch-perfect because there’s an ambiguity to it. 

Well, it's definitely dangerous and some people might not think it's pitch-perfect. The idea came because Dave is such a flamboyant, larger than life character. Anyone who meets him just, he gives the longest hugs and he talks and he's like -- you’ve got to meet him, he's just such character. So our sort of rapport and interplay on stage informs it, but also the intimacy of our friendship. I just felt with him it was so sort of -- it has no limits. In a way, befriending him has taught me a lot about male friendship. Because in Norway, men barely touch and -- I mean, if you're a heterosexual man that is just among friends, they are so removed and afraid of physical contact. I wanted that video to sort of show how cool with each other, to sort of show our friendship, to how our mutual respect in music, and the intensity of our -- because when we play, I play very dramatically. So in a sense that's where we get in touch with that sort of very masculine, tribal vibe. And with the shaving, it was this thing that was very erotic but could also be very violent, you know? It's such an act of trust. And to have that as a recurring theme, of like, is he gonna -- that thing of, "Are they gonna kiss? Or is he gonna…”

Yeah it could be like Sweeney Todd. 

Exactly. Cause he comes so close! But it's mainly just the feeling of him being so close to me, and, "Is he killing him or are they making love?” It’s so intimate. 

So you never worried about people thinking, “Oh why is he play-acting at being gay or fluid?” Not that it comes across that way. 

It's definitely a fair question. I thought about it, but you know I’m not, I’ve never really related to American sort of bro culture, that sort of macho vibe. So for me, this is just very natural. The video isn’t saying, “Look, I’m pretending to be gay.” The intimacy you see there, it’s actually real. Of course if the video came out all silly or offensive I wouldn’t allow it, but it was always meant to be incredibly sincere.

Sondre Lerche’s U.S. tour continues through May 13. Pleasure is out now.