At an interstate exit in El Paso, Texas, a full-sized tour bus sits in a Wal-Mart parking lot, flanked by a Chili's and a Cracker Barrel. The bus once belonged to Aerosmith, and the driver sleeping inside used to cart Johnny Paycheck around the country. Could any rock 'n' roll scene be more iconographically American?
Actually, yes: Today, the bus carries a dozen Danish musicians with strong accents, passable English skills, and names like Rasmus, Jeppe and Bjoern. Seven of them play in a Copenhagen band called Efterklang, the Danish word for "reverberation," and four of them play in another Copenhagen band, Slaraffenland, the Danish word for "land of milk and honey." The bands share one member, a Danish soundman and an American tour manager.
And for the last two weeks—for crowds of 50 to 300 people in western cities like Denver, San Francisco and Phoenix—they've shared the stage each night, sometimes covering a-ha's "Take on Me," often proclaiming "Danish Dynamite" during their sets. It's not only the name they've given the tour, but it's also a nod of appreciation to the Danish government, which, in part, funded this 25-show American adventure.
Take that, Texas.
Accents and names aren't the only thing that should seem foreign to most Americans—especially American musicians—about the Danish Dynamite tour. Efterklang and Slaraffenland are both mid-level indie rock acts. They're playing mid-size rock clubs and, in some cities, like last night in Phoenix, small art galleries. Yet, even with gas prices high and music industry profits low, they're touring the States by bus, a luxury generally reserved for much bigger acts.
"Because we're funded now, we can actually have a tour bus. It makes it so much easier to tour around here," says Christian Taagehøj. His band, Slaraffenland, has toured America six times since 2003, but this is his first time on a bus. "Our driver comes about 2 a.m. and picks us up, and we drive all night, wake up in a new city. That's great."
Slaraffenland's funding for this tour comes from ROSA, also known as the Danish Rock Council. One of its key objectives is to "support the development and awareness of Danish rock music, both at home and abroad." The council has sponsored SPOT, a Danish rock festival, since 1995. After Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke spotted Copenhagen band The Raveonettes at the festival in 2002, Columbia Records bit on his printed recommendation and signed the duo. They now tour the world.
According to Rasmus Stolberg—a multi-instrumentalist in Efterklang who also runs a record label, Rumraket—that's how the music business should work. Through programs like the Danish Rock Council and Music Export Denmark, which is backing Efterklang's half of the tour, the government wants to show the world Denmark has unique cultural exports worth importing. Canada, Sweden and France are among those countries offering similar funding programs, meant to reach outside of the usual scope of fine arts support to assist—gasp—rock 'n' roll. "Luckily for Denmark," says Stolberg, "rock music is considered a fine art."
Without government funds, Efterklang and Slaraffenland wouldn't be in Texas now—at least not 12 of them and certainly not on a bus idling in a Wal-Mart parking lot. One California tour manager estimates the weekly cost of such a bus to be between $5,000 and $7,000. Stolberg says Efterklang will lose tens of thousands of dollars during their month-long stay, but Music Export Denmark will cover 50 percent of those losses. It's an investment, he says, not only by the band in their future American success, but by Denmark in a certain worldwide awareness.
"It makes a lot of sense for a country—especially a small country like Denmark—to send artists abroad. It's great publicity for the country," says Stolberg. "I'm sure in the long run they will benefit from the funding we have received just as much as we have benefited from it."
Indeed, while the United States has stumbled through a recession, according to the 2007 CIA World Factbook, Denmark's economy is growing steadily: Unemployment is low. Life expectancy is high. The service industry is wide. According to the Human Development Index, which evaluates standard-of-living statistics of United Nations countries, Denmark's population is on the rise in terms of wealth and quality of life. While in 2007, the United States fell four places in the index to No. 12, Denmark rose one spot to No. 14. But continuing economic growth is limited largely by the country's small land mass. Denmark is less than twice the size of Massachusetts and comprised only by a peninsula and several small islands in the Baltic Sea.
These government programs offer Denmark's musicians a chance to find an audience outside of those boundaries. Since Music Export Denmark began in 1995, the income for Danish musicians earned by playing music elsewhere has doubled. For Efterklang and Slaraffenland, there is no land of opportunity that matters nearly as much as the United States.
"We're trying to do with America what we've been trying to do in Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Italy, places like that—to build a strong and steady fan base around your band," Stolberg says.
They've released four well-received records on The Leaf Label, which has offices in the United Kingdom and the United States. But they've never had a chance to see their American fans face-to-face. "There's a saying that, 'If you can make it in America, you can make it anywhere.'"
Stolberg admits that his perspective is limited, but, as a European, he sees America as a monolithic market. Most people here speak the same language and access the same media. Winning over one European country means gaining fans in that country. Language and economy serve as added borders, so a good review in an Italian newspaper works only for those who speak Italian.
But a positive review in a prominent American newspaper is not only accessible across this country but also affects European perception of the band. When a critic at The New York Times praised Slaraffenland after the band's South by Southwest performance in March, the band received more attention from the Danish media than ever before, much of it simply exclaiming the band had been featured in the Times.
Leaving Denmark also means increased opportunities for playing music: Denmark's more desirable venues are supported by public funds, and most musicians are part of a nationwide union. The pay for playing in Denmark, then, is high—generally, $250 per musician per show—but shows themselves are limited. Making a career from playing live in Denmark would be largely impossible for a rock musician. In America, though, using government assistance to tour, Danish bands can play as often as they can find a show, though the pay per show will likely be lower. That capitalist competition, Stolberg and Taagehøj say, makes the best American bands work harder. In a more competitive market, American bands have to fight to stand out. Sure, there's more chaff, but that makes the wheat that much better.
"I feel like the quality of the music is a bit higher over here," says Taagehøj. "It seems like [American bands] just try harder. They have to tour the hard way—in a van—and not get paid very well."
"You see it more over here," says Stolberg, referring to bands in America. "You know, four guys getting together in a band, just throwing everything away, taking a deep plunge into trying to make their band work. You don't see that in Denmark. You see musicians who have a well-paid job and, in their spare time, they go and record some music. ... There's not a lot of misery in Denmark."
So, of course, you find yourself in Texas.
Efterklang and Slaraffenland play Friday, May 23, at Local 506 at 10 p.m. Tickets are $8, and Lost in the Trees opens.
Yes, in fact, they're very good: As you might have guessed from their large memberships, both Slaraffenland and Efterklang fall generally near the realm of symphonic indie pop. Names like Sufjan Stevens and even Annuals may mean more to stateside listeners, but that would be greatly simplifying the case for hearing these visitors. Especially on record, Efterklang and Slaraffenland churn their pop through subtle, smart textures as it prepares to lift off: Slaraffenland's excellent 2007 record, Private Cinema (available on the fantastic Arkansas-born, Portland-based Hometapes), drifts and roars through soundscapes before bounding gleefully into ascendant hooks. The disc's anthem, "Watch Out," sounds like Pinback moonlighting with Tortoise. Don't worry: You'll recognize it when you find yourself shouting the refrain. Live, with horns and keyboards and lots of group singing, the band emphasizes the elements of its music that are the most triumphant and immediately captivating.
Likewise, Efterklang has grown into the full capacity of its sound over the past five years. The band's 2003 debut full-length, Tripper, moved a bit too cautiously, but, even then, the songs and the sound—the onslaught of a small orchestra gilded by electronics and sweet singing—were there. Last year's Paradise turns up the communion in increments and welcomes a band confident enough to explore its music until it explodes. Both acts will treat you well live.