Dutch-Norwegian project Klangstof sounds about as varied and distinct as the origins of the mind behind it, singer-producer Koen Van De Wardt—it's part electronic, part rock, and replete with hip-hop-influenced production to amount to compositions greater than the sum of their parts.
Van De Wardt spent the majority of his youth redefining home, uprooting in his early teens from bustling Amsterdam to a town of about 60 in a remote part of Norway, with few others his age. It's there that Van De Wardt turned to music, teaching himself a slew of instruments and how to record as he bided the time between the region's starkly beautiful seasons. Eventually returning to his Dutch hometown to play bass in the popular indie band Moss, Van De Wardt was spurred to return to his own project to satisfy a quietly growing creative appetite for more than what the band offered him.
The result would be Klangstof, a project whose name is taken from the Norwegian world "klang," meaning "echo," and the Dutch word "stof," meaning "dust."
"I really wanted to have a word that connects to both those countries," Van De Wardt says. "I also wanted to not be associated with anything. I like the fact that people don't know what it is, and when people see 'Klangstof,' they think of the band and not just a thing."
In 2015, Klangstof was discovered on Soundcloud by David Dan, head of LA boutique label Mind of a Genius (home to the likes of Zhu and THEY.). A year later, Klangstof would release its debut full-length, Close Eyes to Exit, featuring a band assembled from members of Van De Wardt's own first band as a teenager. A co-sign from Warner Brothers would soon follow, as well as a remix of breakout single "Hostage" by house legend Sasha. The album is strange and sprawling—songs often feels more like places than subjects—evoking Radiohead, Bon Iver, Tame Impala, and even inflections of Kendrick Lamar, but together amounting to something entirely distinct.
As Klangstof sets off on its first US tour, including upcoming dates at Sasquatch and Bonarroo, we sat down with Van De Wardt at the VICE offices in LA to talk the project's origins, recording in an old Cold War bunker, and his complicated passion for video games and music.
Noisey: Talk a little bit about your background and how you got into making music. You were involved in some other projects before that led to Klangstof, right?
Koen Van De Wardt: Yeah, so when I grew up I wasn't that into music at all. I was 14 when I moved from Holland back to Norway with my parents. And all of a sudden I was kind of in complete isolation with no friends around, so I kind of needed something to do, and that's when I kind of started really getting into music, which was very interesting. I got more and more instruments and started to record things. Because of the isolation, I didn't have people to play with, so I kind of had to learn every instrument and the recording process myself. It was basically just me in the basement for seven years just gaining the skills needed to record a proper album. When I was 21 I moved back again to Amsterdam to work as a full time musician playing bass for a Dutch indie band called Moss, and that was how I really got into the music industry in Holland, which, you know, isn't that much of a deal. But it was a pretty cool way to kind of get going. I couldn't really fit into that role of just being a bass player because I really had this creative need in my head that I wanted to put out my own songs. I started to work on tracks I had been working on when I was living in Norway, and that's kind of how Klangstof was born.
Klangstof culls from a lot of different sounds—it's hard to figure out what genre it is. It's not quite electronic, it almost sounds more like a place and its environment than any kind of particular musical trend. Can you talk a little bit about what was around you that shaped the sound and feel of the project?
I wasn't at all busy with what I should sound like when I was doing it, so I never thought of a genre when I was working on the record. Because I was doing it all by myself, and I'm a pretty introverted guy, I didn't have that many people around to tell me what I was doing or to tell them like, "Oh I'm making a rock record or I'm making a pop record," so I never had to explain what I was doing. In that way I kind of was all over the place, but at the same time it kind of made it into that weird mix of everything which I think is very interesting. So, the first record was just me not thinking about any boundaries or something, except for kind of the environment I was living in. In Norway, people tend to make very long soundscapes and very kind of almost nature friendly music, you know? And back in Amsterdam it's a bit more urban. It's not like New York or LA, but it's still very urban environment, and I got a studio in a cold war bunker, which was a very weird space and inspired me very much. All of a sudden I started adding hip-hop beats and stuff like that to my songs.
How did that studio space specifically end up influencing you?
I usually think it's very boring to have a perfect sounding studio, you know? It's like the most uninspiring thing in the world. I'd rather be in a space that sounds crappy, you know? Like bad monitoring kind of acoustics that don't work at all, and just try to work at that and work around it because it really creates a very special vibe.
What were the music scenes around you like in Norway and Amsterdam at the time?
The music scene in Norway is very special. Norwegians don't really have their own sound, but they kind of have a lot of influences from elsewhere. They get a bit of everything. They're just so good at making a pop song with a weird touch to it. You will listen to a track and there's like one weird note there that shouldn't be there. If you listen to like, ABBA, or like just a Swedish pop act, they do have very interesting hooks and things going on in their music, even though it sounds very poppy. That's what really inspired me in the Norwegian music scene. And Amsterdam is very EDM based. Everyone makes electronic music and it's the only thing from Amsterdam that kind of gets out of the country as an export product. Dutch bands, no one knows about them outside of Holland. For me it was a struggle to have a band with a bit of electronic sound but really try to take over the world like no other band in Holland had done before.
Was there anyone that you were listening to when you were recording or writing these songs that influenced you, either directly or subconsciously?
There were a lot of influences, but I've always been all over the place when it comes to music. It was obviously a lot of Radiohead, that was really my thing that inspired me the most. And apart from that it was everything from Kendrick Lamar to Tame Impala. That's also the nice thing about not getting really into one genre and putting yourself into a box, but always being open. There are things Kendrick does that Tame Impala doesn't that are special. So I always try to pick that out of his music and put that into mine so that I get the best bits out of every genre and try to make something cool.
What would you say is the biggest challenge of kind of straddling those different lines?
The biggest struggle is creatively to try not to have too much input, because my head is just bubbling with ideas and things. If I put it all into one song, it will just become one big mess of ideas. I like minimalism in a lot of music, which means you usually have to cut out some things that you actually really like to maintain the sound.
There's a big element of loneliness to the album, but it's also kind of comforting. Where does that come from?
To me, Close Eyes to Exit is both a very positive and a negative thing. It's very much closing your eyes and really doing your own thing, rather than always listening to other people and then reacting to that. I always enjoy sometimes just not watching the news and not reading newspapers or going online and just closing myself off and doing my own thing. In that way you really get the genius out of your own mind that usually gets lost because you're so busy with trying to fit into a certain life.
Do you identify with one country more than another as home, or do you feel like you're maybe outside of each? Having split your time between the two countries and having that multiplicity of identities did that influence the shape of the record.
I think musically, I'm very Norwegian, but my Norwegian is way worse than my Dutch is, so I don't know. I'm pretty much between the two, you know? But, like I said, musically, everything I know comes from Norway. So, when it comes to Klangstof, I feel more connected to Norway than I do to the Netherlands.
I really didn't want to move to Norway back in the day. I was 14 years old, you're a teenager, you just made some friends, you go to school and you have some fun, and all of a sudden your parents tell you that you're gonna move to this town in Norway of like 60 people. And none of those people were my age. It such a big shock, you know? At the same time, it felt pretty good because I was a bit of a bad boy in Holland, doing weed and all of the stuff you don't want to do when you're that age. So it also felt like my parents sent me to some kind of bootcamp or something. Which was a good thing, I think. I f I would've stayed in the Netherlands, I would have never been in touch with music I think, so it was a good decision.
Let's talk about your breakout single, "Hostage."
"Hostage" was really the first song that was finished for me. It was kind of the start of me knowing what I was doing. I wanted to keep it small and intimate at the start, and I thought it would be really cool to have this massive buildup that people just don't expect to happen. I think it took me almost six months to just finish the song and layer all the synthesizers to get it all right, and then I ended up with 60 or 70 synths on top of each other at the ending. Which almost felt more like mathematics than making an actual song. Which I really like. That song's probably the one I feel most connected to, because it really started my career. It's pretty strong, lyrically—it's all about me being stuck. I moved back to Holland to play bass and it just kind of didn't feel right, you know? I wanted to get out of it and I didn't know how, so that song was kind of my ticket to get out of the life I didn't want to be in. It's funny that it actually worked that way as well. I made the song and it got me a record deal and it kind of opened my life up again. So it's really weird.
What about "Sleaze"?
The first song on the record is instrumental, and I just started going crazy on some synthesizers because I really wanted to have this weird transition with something that goes into an electronic sound. I started jamming out on this very old Italian synthesizer I got, which only has like maybe six keys working, so the only thing I could play was kind of the hook on "Sleaze." It was a really easy song to write, because I just couldn't make any mistakes there. And I also thought it would be cool to make a song—when I was in Norway, it was always about either becoming a game addict or becoming a musician. So that song is pretty much.
Game addict? Is that kind of a popular culture there?
Yeah, I'm still really into video games. It's basically because you have to really have fun with yourself, so that's the only certain thing you can do. So for me, it was either become this weird ass game addict or making some music. "Sleaze" is pretty much about me being addicted to games and trying to move on from that into being a musician. Which I thought would be really nice as an opener for the record because it kind of really tells my story, it finishes it, and then "Close Eyes to Exit" comes, which is about me starting to create the album and that kind of weird stuff.
"Sleaze" is an interesting word to choose to describe something like that. Why did that come to mind?
I first called the song "Nintendo," but it got rejected by the label because kind of the trademark stuff. So, I was getting pretty irritated and I just thought oh, let's call it "Sleaze." Done with it.
What kind of games are you into?
I love indie games. You have the major games that are kind of straightforward, either killing people or stealing cars, and I love kind of going on adventures. I'm really into a game called Ark right now, which is basically you get dropped on an island with nothing at all. You have to build yourself a shelter and dinosaurs can kill you. I just love just running around. I spend 12 hours there in my own world. So gaming is still a pretty important thing. But I think creatively as well it's a very important key because it's kind of the best of both worlds when it comes to the creative part. It has music, it has art. It has pretty much everything. Every form of art is in the game, and I think that's really cool. I always thought that gaming is maybe the most underrated form of art. It has storytelling. Being interactive, having something in your hand, and you can just do whatever you like, I just think that's very special.
Other than "Sleaze," how has that experience and the craft of video games influenced your approach to making music?
Whenever I come back from the studio and I've had a nice day making some music, I love to just pop on the couch and get influenced by something else, and a lot of times it is a video game, rather than watching a TV series. I like to be in my own little world again and do something completely else. Gaming definitely inspired me a lot during the process of the record.
It is kind of active escapism, isn't it?
Yeah, it is. [ Laughs]
Soundtracking and scoring for video games has become its own cottage industry. Do you have any interest in doing that?
Yeah, I think it's on my bucket list. I think that would be very special and I think it would work too with kind of the sound world of Klangstof. So, if anyone is reading, please! [ Laughs] There aren't any specific companies I'd like to work with—just as long as they have a really good concept, because I really want to get inspired by looking at the game and be into it and making music to it, rather than seeing it as a job to earn money. I just want to do it for the love of video games and trying to make the perfect world.
This has all moved pretty quickly for you. Do you have any specific plans for what's next, or are you gonna kind of let it unfold?
I think 2017 is gonna be the year where we just have to play a lot, because I know that we aren't gonna have any big radio hits off the record because it's just not mainstream enough. The way for us to kind of get famous or whatever is basically by just playing live, so it's going to be pretty exciting. We're doing three months in the US, so that's gonna be a really good opportunity for us to kind of get out there. We're doing Bonaroo and Sasquatch, and there are some other cool things coming up, so I think it's just gonna be a lot of playing this year, which I really look forward to.