The cinematic electro-pop duo, previously named Orchestra Of Jenno, discuss the merits of long-distance songwriting versus living and creating together
os Angeles-based OOFJ are an electronic duo and real-life couple made up of Danish multi-instrumentalist Jens ‘Jenno’ Bjornkjaer and South African vocalist Katherine Mills-Rymer. Known for collaborating with many high profile artists across the arts, Jens has played a part in for creating music for avant-garde film director Lars Von Trier’s masterpiece Melancholia and regularly tours and scores for the Royal Danish Theatre, while the band themselves recently contributed their track Sailor to Lula, a Danish film that just won the Danish Academy Award for Best Short Fiction.
Songwriting caught up with Jens and Katherine as they prepare to release their new album Acute Feast in April…
So Jens and Katherine, how did you both meet and start making music?
Jens: “We met in New York and basically fell in love. At first we didn’t make music together at all. Right after that, Katherine was the first to move here to Los Angeles and I was like, ‘Great, I’ll just come along’ and we stayed here for a little while. Then after some months, Katherine’s dad died, so we left for South Africa, where she’s from, and there we started making tracks together. That was where it all started. Before that, this band was my band – that’s why it’s called this crazy, weird name! It started out as Orchestra Of Jenno – that was my nickname. Once Katherine and I started doing it together, I think I’d made a song and I was like, ‘Do you want to try to sing?’”
Katherine: “For a long time, I thought it was too embarrassing for me to do that. The thing is, my mum was vacuuming and laughing. I was like, ‘Do you mind being quiet while we record this’ and she’d say ‘Okay, that’s fine, but I want to get the house clean!’…”
[cc_blockquote_right] SHE GAVE THE MUSIC A WHOLE DIFFERENT UNIVERSE AND THE DARKER FEEL… I’M MUCH MORE OF A ‘LIGHT’ DUDE! [/cc_blockquote_right]
J: “This was something we recorded in South Africa, in her brother’s room. We were just trying it out, but I immediately thought we had something special and that this was different from what I was doing before – just adding a voice and making it into real songs. Then I left for Denmark and I sent tracks to Katherine. At least some of the songs from the first album was made like that, with Katherine in South Africa, sat in her bedroom, recording…”
K: “It was really cold at that time, because it only the spring and my mum lived in the winelands, where it’s mountainous. This is the thing I need to stand up on about South Africa – it does get really f**cking cold! And we have no central heating. So I’d wear all my clothes and on top of that I’d be wearing a fleece gown, and then I’d just sit in bed all day!”
J: “On one of the songs, like Death Teeth, you can actually hear Katherine’s mum’s parrot! We just liked it, so we kept it.”
So the music was affected by your long-distance relationship. Were the songs a way for you to communicate with each other, almost like ‘love letters’?
K: “I don’t think it was love letters. It’s not like we’re making music for each other, to express our love…. Or maybe Jens, you make your music as an ode to me?”
J: “Er… no! For me it was just great that she had something fantastic, both in terms of her vocal and the songwriting. She kind of gave the music a whole different universe and changed its direction, and the darker feel definitely came from that. I’m much more of a ‘light’ dude.”
K: “He’s that pragmatic Dane – life is very easy.”
That contrast obviously works for you. Has it been a different process for the new album, Acute Feast?
K: “We started to work on it straight after we released the last one and in a much more deliberate way.”
J: “That whole thing that it was not deliberate was so profound. When I left South Africa, Katherine came to Denmark, then we couldn’t get back to the United States because of visa issues, so we had some time to kill. We went on a road-trip through Europe to Switzerland, and that was actually when the first album was made.”
K: “Now we’re fairly settled in the east of LA and we have the studio at home, so for this album we made over 40 songs…”
J: “For the first album we had 11 songs and we used 10 of them. And now we have maybe 50 songs and we used 10. It’s like, now we’re a band we’re going to see how far we can take it.”
Jens, when you go into the studio and you’re faced with a blank screen, how do you get the initial idea started?
J: “Sometimes I just copy the last Ableton Live project I was working on, delete all the files and then keep the same sounds. Then you don’t have to set up, and you can do something – you can start playing immediately.”
Do you have the same songwriting process, where Katherine is singing over your instrumental soundscapes?
J: “No, well both. With the first album, I made something and then she made a melody and some lyrics, and this album was more diverse in the sense that we did that, but we also did some jamming in the studio. With a lot of the stuff we make now, we sit and play on an acoustic guitar. I like José González a lot and I think our music fits very well to that kind of fragile vibe.”
K: “Sometimes there are experiences where we’re in the studio and we just fool around. Then sometimes we’ll come up with a phrase or repetition that we’re both into. It might end up lyrically sparse, but it starts off quite dense and we take everything away. How we work a lot of the time, we’ll fool around and find a phrase we both like, then I’ll leave Jens to work on the track. We never work lyrically in the same room, unless we need to fix something.”
[cc_blockquote_right] JENS CAN HAVE THE TENNIS ON THE TV ALL DAY, THEN SUDDENLY WALK OFF AND START TO WORK THINGS OUT [/cc_blockquote_right] So it’s like almost like you’re sculpting the song, where you’re chipping away to create something, rather than building it up?
K: “Yeah, I think that’s true and it’s in our temperament. Jens’ Scandinavian ‘thing’ means he’s not very text-based, and I’m not a very good explainer. So he’ll come and look at my words and say ‘we have too much text here’ and I might be quite grumpy. But it’s very cool because English isn’t his first language, so sometimes Jens will see a phrase and say it in a different way.”
Being a musical duo living together as a couple, do you have to compartmentalise your songwriting to a set schedule and leave it behind in the studio? Or are you both constantly creating and thinking about music 24/7?
J: “It’s the latter. We live together and we’re doing music all the time.”
K: “I’m a lot more structured than Jens. He can have the tennis channel on the TV all day, and then suddenly walk off into a room and start to work things out. I’m not really like that. I might think of words and things that I like, but it’s not a joyful experience for me.”
Could you see yourselves collaborating with other songwriters and musicians, or do you think see OOFJ as your little unit?
J: “Well we have done once before, with the drums on You’re Always Good. It was a good friend of mine who’s a drummer and plays with Trentemøller. I had the idea of putting drums on that track for months, but it never happened, and then it was decided that was going to be the single, so I thought ‘f*ck it, let’s try this out.’ So I sent him the files and he just recorded the drums from Copenhagen.”
K: “I don’t think we’d bring in a collaborator while we’re writing. But then Jens is really good at taking an unfinished idea to another musician, to get their opinion – he really wants the critique. I find that really hard because I find it embarrassing.”
J: “The thing about getting a critique and playing music that you’ve made to someone else, is that it suddenly sounds different. You’re alone and you think it’s awesome, then someone else that you respect is listening to it and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, that sucks!’ Even if it’s good, you understand your opinion about it in a different way.”
What inspires you, outside of music?
K: “Lyrically, the thing that interests me is the terror of existence. We’re living with these beautiful moments, when the world can seem so tender, but then you’re bumping up against people with their own moments and awful things, which I’ll never know. I’ll never be able to catch the thoughts that Jens has, nor would I ever want to, yet it is frightening that they exist.”
How do you connect with that state and that feeling?
K: “I think it’s pretty constant. It’s a bit of a joke between my friends and I. It doesn’t take much because that’s what interests me. I think I find it hard not to write about anything that’s to do with existential fright! Anyway, that’s me…”
J: “I’m in many ways the opposite. That’s why I think it works and it’s good for us to make music together. I grew up with classical music, and then jazz when I was a teenager, and then I did electronic music after that. Now it’s a mixture of the whole thing, so I’m much more concrete in the way I make stuff. I don’t have this all-seeing emotional touch – it’s much more nerdy for me.”
Interview: Aaron Slater
OOFJ’s forthcoming new album Acute Feast is due out in April, with the latest single Cliffdive being released in the meantime, which you can check out below. For more on Jens and Katherine and their music, take a look at the OOFJ official site: oofj.net