I Don’t Believe in Failure: A Walk with Lukas Graham
Regardless of what you’re into, 2016 has been one of the most incredible years for music in some time. What’s more, it’s been a tremendous year for us here at TIDAL. As a means of celebrating the past year, we’re taking time in these last two weeks of 2016 to highlight the written pieces we’re most proud of, drawing from a variety of our columns, interviews and more!
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We meet at the entrance gate to Christiania. This is where the story of Lukas Graham — the singer and the band — begins.
It’s one of the first days of spring, and the small, self-governed freetown, located just outside of central Copenhagen, Denmark, is bathed in sunlight. Here there are no tall buildings obstructing the scenery, but instead a clear view of Christiania’s diverse, primarily self-built and utterly idiosyncratic architecture.
Christiania was founded in 1971 when the abandoned military base was taken over by hippie squatters who went on to establish a micro free state that, with time, was normalized into the autonomous, one-of-a-kind neighborhood it remains today. Though subject to the Danish laws since 2004, Christiania has been a perennial source of controversy, especially due to the fact that cannabis and hash, illegal across Denmark, are openly sold and tolerated inside Christiania’s walls.
This is where Lukas Graham Forchhammer, 27, grew up with his parents and two sisters. Born in 1988 on the couch of his childhood home, it’s this environment, these streets and the people who live here (about 800 in total) that have shaped the person he is today. But Christiania is also where the band Lukas Graham, which besides Lukas consists of Mark Falgren on drums, Magnus Larsson on bass and Kasper Daugaard (replacing Morten Ristorp in 2012) on piano, was formed.
It was Christiania where they played their first concerts. And more importantly, it was here, symbolically and culturally removed from the mainstream, that they discovered their unique and captivating sound. Based around the angelic soprano of Lukas, the band fused the glory of golden age soul with the catchiness of pop, the grittiness of hip-hop and the energy of funk. Bursting with confidence, cheekiness and charm, word of the band spread quickly after those early shows, and soon people from all over Copenhagen were lining up to catch a glimpse.
When Lukas Graham first played Christiania’s second biggest venue, Loppen, with a capacity of 400 people, more than twice that many showed up. Prior to the gig the band had signed a contract with Copenhagen Records, which locally released their self-titled debut in March 2012. The album contained two YouTube hits, “Criminal Mind” and “Drunk in the Morning,” that helped build hype for the full-length, but no one, including the band, had any idea what was about to happen. The record went on to become the year’s best-selling and most-streamed album in the country. Denmark now belonged to Lukas Graham.
That was four years ago. Today, in 2016, Lukas Graham is now poised to conquer the world.
When I meet the band, their first international single “7 Years” is holding the number one spot on the Official UK Top 40 Chart. A week later the track dethroned Aqua’s 1998 hit “Barbie Girl” as the longest-standing number one by a Danish act. At the same time the single had just cracked the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S., and it has continued to climb every week since.
No one in the band seems phased though. All four members arrive at the gates separately, casually dressed with hands in pockets. You wouldn’t know from looking at them that this quartet of friends, who’ve already achieved star status in Europe, are scheming to take over America and with it the world. And based on the events of the last couple weeks, they are within spitting distance of doing exactly that.
Recent unofficial covers of Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” and Adele’s “Hello” have only increased the steadily-growing hysteria surrounding the band, displaying the range and finesse possessed by these four classically trained musicians. But more importantly, in the weeks between this interview and today’s release of their international debut on Warner Bros. Records, “7 Years” has reached the number 2 spot on the Billboards, a mere push away from the summit representing their long, swift climb to global ubiquity. This hasn’t happened to a Dane since 1962 when jazz guitarist Jørgen Ingmann reached the same spot with his version of the instrumental classic “Apache.”
But while the four Danes might appear unaffected by their newfound success, there’s nothing modest about them. They want to reach the number 1 spot. They all say so. That’s where they belong and that’s their ultimate goal; to be the best at what they do. But conquering the world has been no easy task. That’s another thing they acknowledge. This is hard work.
“It’s not like it’s not stressful,” Lukas tells me of their hard-won rise. “I think I did six time zones in 21 days. You can feel it in your body. Like you’re being attacked by unknown forces.”
Being the frontman and namesake, Lukas is naturally the center of attention. He’s the one carrying the heaviest load. It’s been like that since the beginning, except now the pressure is more intense than ever. Lukas is well aware of this and makes sure that everyone gets the rest they deserve. They’ve just had five days off in L.A. and 10 days in Thailand. He tells me, ”I think we’re pretty good at telling our managers and the label, okay, we’re taking 10 days off here, right there, and everyone’s gonna do what the fuck they want for those 10 days.”
Our plan for today is to walk around Christiania. Lukas has agreed to show us around the place he grew up. And our first stop is the notorious open-air drug market known as Pusher Street.
We make it less than 50 yards in, passing flaming oil barrels and scattered hash stands — shrouded shacks where masked men sell blocks of hash, bags of skunk and pre-rolled spliffs – before someone recognizes Lukas. It’s one of the pushers, an old friend who wants to say hi and give a fellow Christianite a pat on the back.
We walk further down the street until we turn a corner that takes us through a lovely, serene garden called Månehaven (The Moon Garden). Another friend walks by and greets Lukas. This turns out to be a recurring theme on the day. Wherever Lukas goes in Christiania, somebody recognizes him, or vice versa. But this is not Lukas the famous singer they recognize. This is Lukas the boy who grew up here.
How would you describe Christiania to an outsider?
Lukas: You could explain it as being a very big collective. Probably one of the biggest of its kind, with 700 or 800 residents. Within this we have restaurants, bars, cafes, concert halls that seat from 120 to 400 to more than 1,000 people, as well as an outdoor venue that seats 5,000. There’s a kindergarten, there’s after school clubs, there’s sport clubs.
How does this place make you feel?
Lukas: Content. Like I’m back home again.
What do you think makes Christiania so special?
Lukas: Well, here [pointing] we have a horse stable, and right next to that there’s a nursery, so the children can ride ponies. And we have loose dogs, so the children learn how to handle that. And because most of the dogs are loose, they learn to respect each other as well. A dog on a leash, though, that could create some trouble here. A dog on a leash feels vulnerable.
How did growing up in Christiania affect you as a person?
Lukas: Here it’s not so much about what’s mine. It’s more about what’s ours. And that affects you growing up. It’s about giving people a chance. Some people might be jerks, but whether you like them or not, you need to have some sort of dialogue going. Christiania teaches you that.
So this place made you more tolerant of others?
Lukas: I guess you could say that. It’s given me a sense that everybody deserves to be happy. And that no one should have a bigger piece of the pie than others.
The criminal environment in Christiania, has it provided you with a thick skin?
Lukas: I don’t know if “thick skin” is right. Maybe a “strictness” is a better way to put it.
And how would you define strictness?
Lukas: All I know is I do not want to be subdued by some dude with a big bag of money.
We walk around the horse stable, passing the nursery school where Lukas himself went as a child, and where he later worked as a pedagogue. We only make it halfway into the yard, where the children are running around and playing, when a voice cuts through the noise. It’s one of the pedagogues who has noticed us.
“Hiiiii Lukas!! How are you?!” she exclaims. “Wow, you’ve become such a star!”
Giant hugs are exchanged, and then it’s Lukas who recognizes someone he knows: a rose-cheeked little girl of 4 or 5 years old. He runs after the child, lifting her up and spinning her around.
“Hi Lotus, darling,” he says to the girl, an extended relative, giving her a kiss. “Say hello to your mom and dad for me.”
We continue our walk through Christiania, heading toward a rustic and picturesque area of century-old military buildings long ago turned into family-sized houses. This is where Lukas lived with his family throughout his childhood and most of his youth. He no longer lives in Christiania, but he bought an apartment a stone’s throw away in surrounding Christianshavn. His mother, Eva Forchhammer, still lives here though.
Tragically, Lukas’ father, Eugene Graham, passed away unexpectedly in 2012. Lukas was on tour in Germany when he got the message. He was on the brink of his first international breakthrough when his world suddenly crumbled to bits. “I have no idea how I will be able to write a happy song again,” he told Danish newspaper Politiken later that year. “My world will never be the same. And I can’t be fixed. But I carry him with me everywhere I go, all the time.”
And Lukas’ dad is indeed everywhere in his new songs, like “7 Years,” “Happy Home,” “You’re Not There” and “Funeral.” Songs that, beginning today, the world gets to hear and sing along to and feel for.
And perhaps that’s it. Perhaps that’s why so many people connect with his songs. Because you feel him. Because it feels real. You get the sense that his words are coming directly from his heart. Lukas Graham doesn’t hide behind a pop star persona. What you see is what you get.
Or, as esteemed music industry commentator Bob Lefsetz wrote a few weeks ago in explanation of the remarkable, organic success of “7 Years”: “Funny how American youth is sure it knows everything, but this guy from overseas knows life is peppered with more questions than answers.”
What particularly caught Lefsetz’ attention was the fact that the lyrics for “7 Years” are actually about something. The words aren’t meaningless. Lukas is expressing his own truth and his own worldview, with all the conflicts and contradictions there within. Because life is like that; “an endless conundrum,” as Lefsetz called it.
Or maybe “7 Years” is just a really, really great song, and that’s it. At least that’s what Lukas seems to think. To him, once a song is finished, it’s “emotionally dead,” as he puts it.
“Because you’ve spent such a long time working on the song you also develop a distance to it,” he explains. “It’s very rare that I’ve actually been moved to tears on stage. Even though I’m singing about my dead father. We’ve also done these puns [to laugh at this]. With ‘Happy Home,’ for instance, [rather than the original line, 'I've got a lot of love and a happy home'] we’ve changed the lyrics to, ‘Now I’ve got a lot of cash and a lot of coke,’ which is basically us taking the piss on the song.”
When I ask how to spin something so private into such relatable art, he says, “I don’t think it’s art. But I don’t want to discuss that, because some people think it is, and that’s fine. To me it’s just entertainment.”
Whether they’re artists or entertainers, here they are on top of the world. And everybody wants a piece of them. They’ve already performed on Seth Myers, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel, and Lukas was just interviewed on CNN.
We’re now outside of Christiania’s walls, seated inside the band’s favorite cafe, drinking beers beneath the same aged painting – a nude female, surrounded by empty bottles, posed like Copenhagen’s iconic Little Mermaid sculpture – that graces their album cover.
Did you expect this? I mean, all bands want to make it big, but you’re actually doing it.
Lukas: Obviously it would be arrogant of us to say, “Yes, we expected this.” But each one of us have been doing this for over 20 years. I’ve been singing since I was eight. Mark has been playing drums since he was five. Magnus has played the bass since he was eight. And [Kasper] started playing the piano when he was four. So between the four of us there’s 80 years of experience.
Magnus: But even though our ambitions have always been high, it still hits you in a special way when you experience an audience reacting the way they are at the moment. It’s been a goal of ours to reach that level where that sort of thing happens. But when it does happen, it still leaves you amazed.
Mark: It’s difficult to really understand what’s happening when you’re standing in the middle of it. I’m almost always surprised when I experience people’s positive reactions to our music. It’s just crazy to be a part of something like this.
Do you think about the future, or is it just about the present for you guys?
Magnus: We are very much in the present. It’s like being a child again. So many things happening, the days are so long and full of new experiences. You just try to take it all in. It sounds weird to say, and a bit cliché, but it’s hard for us to even focus on what we are doing this summer. None of us thinks about that. We can’t think past what we are doing this weekend.
Are you never struck by doubt or fear that you are in over your heads?
Magnus: For me, personally, it has definitely been barrier-breaking. I’m just glad we’ve tried it one time before, only in Denmark. Denmark was Denmark. I could understand that. I know Denmark. I know what it is. But this time around it’s out of our hands. We can’t control it the same way we used to. One day, you wake up, and you’re number 1 on the charts in Australia.
Mark: I remember when it started happening in the U.S. and we were told that they would release “7 Years.” I was nervous and most of all I just wanted to hide under my blanket. But then I thought “Damn, I’m glad we have each other, and we’ve done this before in Denmark. We’re strong enough to do this!”
Kasper: But we’ve also improved in the last couple of years. That’s very important to us. So we’re able to play bigger and bigger shows. It’s like [famous Danish shipping magnate] A.P. Møller said: “With constant care.” That counts for what we do as well.
Lukas, you mentioned earlier that you don’t want to obey some man with a big bag of money. But how have you remained yourself in all this?
Lukas: We are four boys that are totally fine with walking away and going back home again.
What do you mean by that?
Lukas: We don’t give a shit. We would have done this anyway.
Magnus: I don’t think any of us would want to do this if we didn’t do it on our own terms.
Do you have any examples where you refused to do as you were being told?
Magnus: When we played Conan O’Brien, Lukas wore a white T-shirt, red shorts and a cap. Our record label stood and watched and wanted Lukas to wear something else, but no one dared to tell him. Then they asked our manager instead, because they just knew Lukas wasn’t going to have it.
Lukas, is that because you want to send the message, that you’re the one in charge?
Lukas: I just don’t give a fuck. We work with the sweetest people in the world, but when we do a photo shoot no one can tell Magnus, “Hey, wear this jacket.” Mark and Kasper on the other hand, they love it. Then they try on shoes and pants and jackets and five different hats. And some of those necklaces you’ve started wearing… [laughs]
Mark: I think it’s great. I love it.
Lukas: They really enjoy it. Whereas me and Magnus, we show up in T-shirts and pants.
But these are professionals. You’ve got to assume that they know, what they are talking about?
Lukas: How are you gonna tell Picasso to do his painting? How are you gonna tell Mozart…okay, that’s maybe a stretch, but are we to tell Mozart how he should compose this or that? Record labels are really great at handling a lot of things, but they are not great at writing songs. So really it’s just about them doing what they do best and us doing what we do best. And we’ve found out that we’re pretty fucking good at being ourselves.
There aren’t many artists that would compare themselves to Picasso and Mozart, but that’s Lukas Graham Forchhammer for you. And you believe him when he does so. Because he truly believes it. He really believes that he and his three friends are the best there is. It’s not just something he says, and it’s not flashy braggadocio. It’s just the truth. His truth.
As Kasper explains: ”It’s like when people ask us how we are so good at speaking Danish. But listen, we’ve been doing this for so long. And we are well aware that we’re good.”
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