Under Byen remains determinedly foreign

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      On the surface, the Kingdom of Denmark doesn't seem particularly exotic. The smallest of the Scandinavian countries, it can count among its contributions to world culture the moralistic fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, the self-consciously chaste films of Dogme 95's Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, the existentialist philosophy of Sí¸ren Kierkegaard, and the Eurodance atrocities of Aqua. Even the most ardent Daneophile, however, would have a hard time pinpointing Under Byen's place in the nation's cultural continuum. By anyone's standards, the eight-piece group's music is weird and foreign-sounding.

      Under Byen's members are cagey about copping to their influences, but a careful listen to the Copenhagen-based collective's most recent CD, Samme Stof Som Stof, suggests the midnight-sideshow atmospherics of Tom Waits and the clattering percussion and white-noise squalls of Einstí¼rzende Neubauten crossbred with Sigur Rí“s's shimmering sonic cathedrals and Bjí¶rk's left-field pop. Or whatever the hell it is that Bjí¶rk does.

      Some of Under Byen's members–including Nils Grí¶ndahl, whom the Straight reaches at home in Kí¸benhavn–have conservatory training, but the group's harmonically complex songs evolve through improvisation, not a written score.

      "We work as a rock band, and the approach is always like that," says Grí¶ndahl, who plays violin, lap steel, and saw. "Everybody finds out [their parts] for themselves. It's made a lot through jamming and what can happen in the rehearsal room. If there are preconcepted ideas, mostly we chuck them around, upside down, in the rehearsal room. Sometimes, there are melodies and stuff, but I think a lot of them take different forms when all eight of us work on them together."

      The result is a distinctly odd and unclassifiable whole, but it's a sound that is finding a following among North American hipster cognoscenti, thanks in no small part to the 2006 release of Samme Stof by Canadian indie star Paper Bag Records. Unlike other Danish acts that have found success on this continent–Mew and the Raveonettes come to mind–Under Byen hasn't made things easier for a mass audience by singing in English. According to Grí¶ndahl, delicate-voiced singer Henriette Sennenvaldt's words are so abstract that most Danes can't quite figure out what she's getting at, so lyrical clarity is obviously not a priority: "We've been doing this for so many years now, and she's getting better and better at writing really good Danish lyrics. It would be a shame to throw that away, because our English is not that good. To write in your mother tongue definitely makes more sense. It means a lot to Henriette.

      "And," he adds with a laugh, "I think she would write really bad English lyrics."

      Maybe so, but they couldn't be any worse than the lyrics of "Barbie Girl".