One of my favorite releases in 2009 was This is for the White in Your Eyes (packaged in the U.S. with the Burn The Flag EP as a bonus) by Danish band Choir of Young Believers.
The band has been charming audiences and critics alike ever since making their U.S. debut in 2009, getting rave reviews, both for the album and for live performances here. Back home in Denmark, the song “Sharpen Your Knife” garnered much attention in 2007, and the band received a Danish Music Award for Best New Act in 2009, as well as two Danish Critics Choice Awards (Steppeulven).
Choir of Young Believers is the brainchild of singer/songwriter Jannis Noya Makrigiannis, who wrote both the EP and album, and recorded them with the help of friends. The band’s music is a lush, atmospheric blend of indie-rock, pop and folk with grand orchestral arrangements, layered delicate tenor vocals that are often in harmony with the music, and a lot of reverb. The songs are ethereal, melodic and melancholic, drawing on influences ranging from Roy Orbison and Scott Walker to the Pixies. Guitar, strings and piano feature prominently on the recordings, and live performances always include the cello, played by Cæcelie Trier, who also sings backing vocals.
The group’s live line-up varies, from two to seven people, always with Makrigiannis and Trier, but the performances are always enchanting, regardless of the number of people on stage. In 2009 the band performed This is for the White in Your Eyes with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. In addition to Makrigiannis and Trier, the current tour line-up includes Casper Henning Hansen on drums and Jakob Millung on bass.
Prior to Choir of Young Believers, Makrigiannis was the guitarist in the now defunct Danish pop band, Lake Placid, and it was the demise of that band that lead him to a period of self-imposed near-isolation on the Greek Island, Samos. Makrigiannis, who has Danish, Greek and Indonesian heritage, spent seven months on Samos, and it was there that much of This is for the White in Your Eyes was written.
I caught up with Makrigiannis during the band’s stop in New York, before making their way to SXSW.
Was the isolation you experienced on Samos a big influence on your writing for This is for the White in Your Eyes?
Yes, the isolation part, but not Greece specifically. I wrote a lot of songs there. I need to sometimes get away, because I get really easily distracted and it’s hard to just focus on music completely. The village where I lived was very simple, and it was mostly old people that lived there. There wasn’t that much to do except writing. Afterwards I moved to Berlin. I really like that city a lot. It is the capital of Europe and a nice place, too.
Was there anything in particular that influenced the lyrics for “Riot?” Maybe the Copenhagen riots of 2007?
Actually, I wrote that some time before the riots. It’s just about the frustrations you sometimes get when other people make decisions for you, which you don’t agree on at all. So like it’s really two stories in it – the love story where someone else makes decisions for you and there’s also the whole individual against society thing. I think a lot of really shitty things have happened in Copenhagen and Denmark and in Danish politics over the last five or so years, and the distance between the population and the politics is getting bigger and bigger.
I think the worst thing about it is that most people just don’t care anymore; they don’t know what to do. And I think a riot is a good symbol of people getting frustrated and not knowing what to do with their frustration.
What inspired the band’s name? For me it just seems that it’s about believing in something other than just oneself, not about a belief in an organized religion or anything.
I get that question a lot, and there isn’t really a good story to it. It’s just a mixture of words that I liked that I thought sounded good. It’s kind of the same relationship I have to music. I don’t tend to think about it that much. I just do it, and if it feels good, it feels good. I don’t like over-analyzing stuff. But when I was thinking about band names I just thought about words that I like, that I thought sounded good and looked good and had a good feeling to them, and I ended up with Choir of Young Believers. And afterwards I thought that it fits the music really well. Also, it has a whole religious feel to it, and there have been some people asking if we were like a Christian band.
But the things that you said (see question above), that’s also how I like to think about music. Of course this music means a lot of different things to me. I consider music an abstract way of communicating. And emotionally I always get a lot of inputs from listening to music. It’s nice to get those inputs and to get those, like, moods. To find them yourself and to relate to them with things you’ve done in your own way and not having the artist explain too much about the song, or band name, or what they’re trying to achieve with a song. I really like that a song is something you start as an artist and then it has a life of it’s own and different meanings to different people. I like that.
You wrote pretty much all of the last album yourself. What approach are you taking with the next album, and are you working on new material yet?
We’re playing new songs live at the moment. I’ve been writing a lot of stuff and introducing some of the songs to the band. And I just bought a lot of old keyboards, so there will definitely be a lot of keyboards on the next record. We’re going to make it differently, this album. We want to play some, maybe all of the songs live and get to know them before we go in to the studio. With This is for the White in Your Eyes, only three of four of the songs the band had actually heard before we started recording them. After playing the songs for some while we actually knew them better than we when we’d recorded them. So we want to do it the other way around this time.
Will the new record be more of a collaboration?
Yeah, I hope so, let’s see what happens. When I did the first album, it was kind of a solo project thing where I involved some friends, and I was really insecure about asking people to join the band completely because everyone was so busy. But now it’s been the same people for the last two or three years, so I really hope we can do it more as a band kind of thing.
We’re doing some summer festivals in Europe, and we have an Asian tour in August. After that I think we’ll be done touring for This is for the White in Your Eyes, and then we’ll start focusing on the new album. We’re talking to some producers about it and will maybe start recording sometime in the fall.
You won two awards, one DMA (the Danish equivalent of a Grammy) and two Critics Choice Awards. Were you surprised?
Yes, totally! It was really weird, especially the DMA. It was not that long ago that they would never show interest in a band like ours. So, when we went, we were there with a lot of R&B and hip-hop acts, but of course it’s always nice when people appreciate what you’re doing.
I think Denmark is one of the best places right now for good music, actually.
I’m also really surprised but really happy that it seems like there are a lot of good things happening. There are a lot of different groups coming from Denmark, it’s not all garage rock or something, but a lot of different things. So it’s very exciting.
Late last year you toured the U.K. with another Danish band that I quite like, Mew — how was that experience?
It was amazing! They were so good to us and really took care of us, and their audience was amazing. We were afraid, you know like how when you go to concerts, sometimes people don’t really care about the support bands and they just talk during the show. So we didn’t know what to expect, but Mew’s audience was really listening and being quite, they were so good to us. We played like 10 shows with them in the UK, and it was really fantastic. –Teresa Sampson, Photos by Teresa Sampson