We really drowned in the grunge era’
City Times catches up with Scandinavian pop-rock stalwarts Michael Learns to Rock
MORE THAN TWO decades since they formed and with ten million records sold, Michael Learn to Rock are back with their seventh studio album Eternity.
The Danish three-piece are held in high esteem in Asia and the Middle East, despite never managing to crack the Western market with their brand of singalong heartfelt pop-rock.
MLTR formed in 1988, with the titular ‘Michael’ named after the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Their eponymous debut album four years later contained hit single The Actor, which became a number one single in seven countries across Scandinavia and Asia.
Over the years, Michael Learns to Rock have released consistently simple yet catchy ballads such as Sleeping Child and Someday, and have avoided the scandals and fall-outs that destroy so many bands. They maintain an enormous fanbase in the Far East – so much so that the band performed at the ‘Celebrate Hong Kong’ concert in 1997, when the UK handed the territory over to China.
Guitarist Mikkel Lentz chatted with City Times from his Copenhagen home about the new album and life in the band.
What inspired you when you were writing and recording Eternity?
We realised it was our 20-year anniversary, and we wanted to celebrate that. I produced the album, I also produced (past albums) Played On Pepper and Nothing to Lose, so it’s a return to those days. We started the album a year ago. I was digging into these old live tapes and demos from the very beginning, from 1988. I found two songs – Look Around and Do You Want More – they’re pretty different to the Michael Learns to Rock sound. It’s more 80s synthesiser pop, influenced by bands like Aha, Howard Jones and Simple Minds, and they made it onto Eternity and kickstarted the album. We tried to explore what we came from. It’s normal for a band to be inspired by other groups when they record an album. On this album, we were pretty much our own inspiration!
What was the recording process like?
We recorded in my studio in Copenhagen, in the centre of the city. It’s quite modern because it was recorded digitally. (Lead singer/keyboardist) Jascha sent most of the vocals to me from his studio in Sweden, where he lives. Eternity was assembled from all these pieces. I arranged the songs and tracked the instruments, then I spoke to Jascha about what I would like the vocals to be like. It was great and there were a lot of surprises involved. The vocal became very intimate because he was singing them on his own.
What’s it like being a member of Michael Learns to Rock after all these years? Do you still have scuffles or have you all matured a little?
We’re not very busy in the band actually. Jascha is writing for other artists, I write music for a lot of Danish movies and (drummer) Kare is a full-time lawyer. MLTR has become like our spare-time project and the place we go to when we need to be creative and return to what we really love. Mostly now we play gigs.
Do you have any tours planned for the imminent future?
We don’t have any specific plans right now, but the album is number one in Thailand and climbing up the charts in India. It’s only a matter of time before we get back on the road.
Is your reception in the Middle East and Asia as positive as ever?
It’s always surprisingly enthusiastic. Now we realise the work we did 10 years ago is actually still quite topical, because when we play live we build our concerts around the songs we did in the 90s – there’s really a demand for that. We get a big kick out of playing songs like Someday, 25 Minutes, That’s Why (You Go Away) and The Actor.
Do you ever experience Beatles-esque fan frenzies when you tour?
No – it’s much more relaxed. I think our fans kind of developed with us and are the same age as us. People really want the songs – Michael Learns to Rock isn’t a visual band, we don’t really have a very strong images and I think people really wouldn’t recognise us if we walked around downtown.
Did you deliberately avoid having a set image or fight against being packaged as a band by your record company?
We always wanted to speak through our music. Whether we had an image or not, the radio stations always played our music. Now we’re very glad it’s like that, because it’s a tough business and fashion changes all the time – especially if you only get famous because of your personality or your looks. We have a pretty classic sound – we don’t sound like the 90s, we just sound like classic pop music. We actually struggled with that, because in Europe we really drowned in the grunge era. It was pretty tough for us to get recognition at that time because we didn’t suit any of that. But funnily enough we’re still here and grunge is over. What used to be maybe a little difficult has actually become our strength.
Are all three of you family men now?
We have 11 kids altogether between the three of us. Our drummer has two-year-old twins, I have a three-year-old daughter and two sons who are 10 and 12. Jascha has a daughter who’s 18 – Sleeping Child was written about her.
Is she an MLTR fan?
I think she’s more nostalgic and supportive. She’s into what 18-year-olds listen to now – she likes Avril Lavigne, Britney Spears and that kind of stuff.
You never really cracked the Western market. Did you try to emulate any world-famous artists in an attempt to appeal to European and American audiences?
Yeah we tried but I don’t think we really succeeded. When other producers produced our albums, they would say “okay guys, why not listen to Backstreet Boys or Westlife and follow that sound?” I think we put in a decent effort, but somehow we also lost that Michael Learns to Rock feeling, and we could actually see that in the record sales. That’s why we’ve gone back to producing our own albums.
What is it about your sound that makes you so popular in the East but not the West?
To be honest, I think it’s the naïve feeling. English is not our first language, and the lyrics are quite easy to understand. It’s also the music – we’re not brilliant musicians or session players, but we peak as a band when we’re together. When we’re on our own, it hasn’t got the MLTR soul. I think we’re just a very good mix and the influence we have on each other is very healthy.
Eternity is out now to buy in stores across the UAE. Log on to khaleejtimes.com to view the video interview