Let's Get Drunk in the Morning and Take the World by Storm: An Interview with Lukas Graham
Someone who works behind the scenes at Late Night with Seth Meyers is looking a little perplexed. Ahead of taping that afternoon, I’m sitting in the empty audience seats at the NBC headquarters in New York City watching Lukas Graham run through his breakthrough single “7 Years.” It seems the singer’s choice of outfit—a tracksuit top, baseball cap, Levi’s, Nikes—is the reason for the furrowed brow. Lukas is dressed like any teenager who just peeled himself off the sofa after hours of gaming. Doesn’t he know this appearance is a big deal? A few months ago Lukas made his American television debut on Conan and tonight it’s Meyers, meanwhile music bookers from other high profile shows are busy submitting their requests. Thing is, back home in Denmark, Lukas Graham is selling out 10,000 capacity venues and in a world of one too many statement sneakers, comical drop crotches, and only-shoot-me-from-this-angle divas, his stance is refreshingly unpretentious. Lukas is staunchly anti-image to the point where when negotiating his deal with Warner Bros. Records, he successfully lobbied to remove the clause stipulating the label can have any say in his styling.
“In America they've got a lot of things in their contracts that they don't have in Denmark and I don't like being controlled,” says Lukas. “In meetings when people are like, ‘Oh, let's change this, let's do it like that,’ I'm like, ‘Well, you know what, I didn't ask to get signed in America. I didn't ask to be flown over, I'm gonna do it my way.’ It must be said, I have an amazing team around me, but I'm the fucking product, and if I'm the product, I want to decide in what wrapping this product arrives. Do I come in a pristine box with a little ribbon? Or do I come in a brown paper bag with a 40? I want to be able to decide, who am I? Am I the expensive branding? Or am I just a regular India pale ale?” This is classic Lukas: verbose, a little silly, slightly grandiose. Self-aware, but oddly unaware at the same time.
Back on set he runs through “7 Years” twice more. With its lullaby piano, Lukas’s soprano soaks up the spotlight as he sing-speaks his life story, and that of his childhood friends—“By eleven smoking herb and drinking burning liquor”—before mapping out their imagined future through to the age of 60. His cadences at once pop chart modern and steeped in classic soul. The song builds to a climactic horn-and-string layered peak, a key change thrown in for extra uplift. Already a number one single in five European countries since its release abroad last September (top ten in nine more), the song is steadily gaining momentum in the States: over two million streams a week on Spotify, playlisted on 150 plus radio stations in the same space of time. Just a few days ago Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo felt moved enough to record an acoustic clip of Lukas’s song for Instagram. Half an hour later, ensconced in private room at an upscale steakhouse round the corner from NBC, Lukas tells “7 Years” finally edged into the Billboard 100 at 96. At the time of writing this, two weeks later, it’s a few slots shy of 50. The 27-year-old is clearly thrilled. Hours later after a three course lunch is devoured, he executes another impeccable rendition, this time in front of a live studio audience—that same sports top zipped to the chin, cap firmly back to front.
Lukas Graham first piqued interest in Denmark in the fall of 2011 when he posted a live video of his song “Criminal Mind” on YouTube. According Lukas he did so against his Danish label’s wishes—they didn’t think it was a single (at this point he’d only released “Ordinary Things”). The video was shoddy, drifting in and out of focus, four musicians, “his boys” as he calls them, playing a cramped living room, his drummer smacking a beat on a box. Lukas sings without a microphone and halfway through one chorus, belches mid-lyric. Written for his other boys, the ones he says are serving time for unspecified crimes, it’s an uncomplicated melancholy pop song lamenting a friend’s choices, yet simultaneously accepting that person’s flaws. (It’s a topic he returns to in one of his favorite compositions, the portentous, lighter-waving ballad “Better Than Yourself.”) Encouraged by the positive online response and again disregarding all label advice, the following month he uploaded “Drunk in the Morning,” filmed in similarly tight quarters, his pals drinking beer in the kitchen as the camera shoots Lukas up the nose, patchy ’tache and barely there chin stubble sprouting. Like the first video, it’s unpolished, but it’s obvious to anyone with working ears that this song’s a radio hit—thanks to the combination of perky piano chords, Lukas’s unfussy hooks, and the fact that the lyrics are a cheeky request for a 5 AM booty call. It’s comparable to the staying power of Hayley Williams’ chorus on B.o.B’s “Airplanes,” or the breezy ease of Bruno Mars’ “The Lazy Song,” or even Ed Sheeran’s biggest bangers.
That same October the band played Loppen, their local venue in the Copenhagen area known as Christiania. The space accommodates 400 but 1000 fans showed up. The goalposts were shifting. The DIY “Drunk in the Morning” video has since racked up two and half million views, with the official video, which followed a year later in 2012, clocking double that. It’s a song that inked the blueprint for the rest of his oeuvre: maddeningly memorable earworms that bat away any care for cool. His eponymous US debut (out March 25th) is littered with them, from the “Hard Knock Life”-alike “Mama Said,” to the handclap-heavy “Take the World by Storm.” Elsewhere the brassily cavalier “Strip No More,” contains a middle eight nod to R. Kelly’s “Ignition.” In early December at Mercury Lounge, in New York’s Lower East Side, Lukas tells a crowd of shoulder-to-shoulder music industry bods that the lyrics were inspired by a trip to a LA strip club where he found himself captivated by a lady named “Destiny.” He returned the following week, crestfallen to find she’d left her pole and perspex heels behind to pursue her dreams and train as a nurse. Cue a ripple of laughter and some uncomfortable titters, his tongue, somewhat, in cheek. During this same performance, as the room heats up, Lukas whips off his t-shirt. Straddle-stanced bassist Magnus "Magnúm" Larssonm, who is so passionate about the songs, he mouths along despite no mic in sight, soon follows suit. Lukas and his band—completed by 27-year-old drummer Mark "Lovestick" Falgren, and keyboardist Kasper Daugaard, the eldest at 32—carry with them an onstage swagger that comes with knowing they’ve entertained a 40,000-strong festival audience in Europe. Post-set, there’s a slight sense of bewilderment amongst the chattering crowd, but it’s also clear that people are impressed by this chubby-cheeked singer’s polished vocal dexterity, not to mention his barefaced confidence. Lukas Graham is hardly a traditional pin-up chart star, and yet he’s also a no brainer.
One bridge away from downtown Copenhagen sits 85 acres known as Christiania, or “the freetown,” dubbed so by its 800-odd residents. Bordered in part by the capital’s historic ramparts, this quasi-commune was established in 1971, when locals broke into the disused army barracks and made it their home. What began as a hippy-dippy collective of likeminded liberals squatting in abandoned buildings is now an officially recognized community with separate laws and a justice system independent from the rest of Copenhagen, and indeed Denmark. That’s led to an odd balance: It’s a utopian society where yoga and meditation practice is commonplace, street art is encouraged, and eclectic architecture lines the adjacent lake, yet also a destination where cannabis continues to be sold on “Pusher Street” in the Green Light District. The original old hippies coexist with the tribal neck-tattooed, North Face-wearing crew that utilize Christiania’s gray area laws to sell pot.
“My parents used to tell me, ‘Never go there, it’s a dangerous place, you’ll get mugged,’” says keyboardist Kasper. “Before meeting Lukas, I’d only been there twice, sneaking in. He introduced me to what Christiania was and it’s so much more than Pusher Street: it’s a community where everyone helps each other out. You can’t really compare it to anything else.”
Lukas Graham Forchhammer was born, on a couch in his parents’ house, in Christiania in 1988. His Irish father fell in love with Lukas’s Danish mother and to make ends meet his dad worked as an oven restorer, and eventually a garbage handler and music booker. His mom is still employed as a teacher for children with special needs. Lukas’s spent his early childhood canoeing and riding horses, but instead of playing cops and robbers, he played pushers and robbers, wrapping cigarette packets in brown tape to impersonate chunks of hash which they’d stash and sell with monopoly money. Imprinted by his father’s love Irish folk, Damien Dempsey, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding, (before he discovered Dr. Dre in his teens), Lukas was always singing. At eight he joined the Copenhagen Boys’ Choir, at 12 he was touring the world, and the training was rigorous. “It was an iron fist work ethic,” he laughs. “Like the whole idea of, if you had to pee and you were in line singing, you'd pee your pants—you do not leave the line!” A few years later he was accepted at prestigious music school, Sankt Annæ Gymnasium, which, between singing and his nascent love of theater, demanded still more dedication and commitment. And yet even with all this to occupy him, there was also an angry undercurrent vibrating through teenage Lukas. As utopian as Christiania’s social experiment appears, it’s not been without friction, and Lukas grew up with a severe mistrust for the police: he was first frisked at 10 years old. “Plus we were threatened with eviction every year,” he explains. “The fear of being thrown out is one of the things that made me write angry lyrics when I was 12, and I was very, very angry for a long time. I'm tired of being angry because it inhibits me from reaching my real emotions, it inhibits me from being me. A lot of my friends are a lot more angry than I ever was, and they go in and out of jail all the time.”
Although for the most part the Copenhagen law enforcement steer clear of major cannabis crackdowns—meting out more warnings than arrests—Lukas recalls raids where cops would occasionally come to “fuck with the neighborhood” and he and his friends had no problem loading up Molotov cocktails and throwing them at police vans. He says the police would use the area to train new cadets, deliberately provoking tense situations to see how they dealt with the pressure. Once he saw a man arrested while watching an officer shoot the detainee’s dog dead because it wouldn’t stop barking. In recent times the clashes have become more severe: early last year the specially assembled Taskforce Pusherstreet sent down 87 citizens on drug related offences, Denmark’s biggest ever drug bust.
Lukas contends the community can police itself just fine, pointing to the fact it has Copenhagen’s lowest violent crime rate, through the use of practices like banning troublemakers, prescribing community service, or, worst of all, sending them to the dreaded “women’s meeting.” He elaborates: “Imagine you're looking at 200 women, some of them have changed your diaper as a kid, some of them took care of you in kindergarten, some of them knew your mom before you were born, and they're sitting there, judging you, expecting you to be able to answer the questions about why you got in a fight.
“It's the strange thing to have this dualistic hippie community with this very hardcore gangster lifestyle. You have gangsters telling their new apprentices, 'Oh, no, you don't wanna do that—you're just gonna piss the women off, they're gonna come down here and ruin business,'” he says, laughing. “The women's meeting is a feared institution. Imagine if they had that in America, and Donald Trump fucks up big time, and gets summoned to the women's meeting! A thousand women will be sitting there judging the fuck out of this guy!”
Lukas is sweet and polite, earnest and eager to share, and his words tumble out unfiltered faster maybe than his brain can sometimes process. Lukas is also an odd fish: frequently veering off topic and prone to drop elaborate one liners like: “I like to have conversations that range from modern day feminism and their counterparts, to history and politics ranging from, say, ancient Mesopotamia, to the Nazis in the Second World War.” He’s famous enough in Scandinavia that airport security guards address him by name, and girls shout, “I love you,” but Lukas says he’s “a calm, down-to-earth kind of guy” who doesn’t like to be labeled a celebrity or be put on a pedestal. He tells me he recently finished Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and is currently deep diving Dostoyevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers.
At 20, partially to escape his own angst and the path he saw some of his friends falling foul to, Lukas visited friends in South America (where he wrote his first song and then, according to Lukas “300-400 more in six months”), and New York too, returning to Denmark to enroll in law school, before dropping out to focus on music full time. When he began collaborating with another school friend, Stefan Forrest (and later, songwriters Morten Ristorp and Morten Pilegaard too), he traded his folk-leaning songs for a sheenier pop sound, solidifying the band not long after. Lukas’s father booked shows everywhere for the first six months of their career, then came the YouTube breakthrough, but just as the band began to truly capitalize on the buzz, the unthinkable happened. On Friday, September 8th 2012, Lukas’s tour manager broke the news that his father had passed away from a heart attack. In the midst of a tour they immediately drove the many hours from Berlin back to Copenhagen.
“Twelve days later I was back on tour, what do you expect?” says Lukas matter-of-factly. “I don't think there was another way of doing it because I was in the middle of my biggest dream, and not only mine, but probably also his biggest dream,” says Lukas. “He was my biggest fan and my best friend, so if I had stopped it would have been an insult to my father and all the hard work he put into this.”
Of course it wasn’t as easy as just throwing himself into burgeoning career to assuage the pain; as his songs continued to soar Lukas was spiraling. “I'm not very proud of it really, I just went off the rails and I spent so much money drinking champagne,” he confesses. “I used to send my bank information to guys I went to kindergarten just fly them in for the weekend and we'd eat oysters and steaks and drink expensive red wine. We did so many fucking stupid things and we also did a lot of good things, but I think my father's passing also showed me how much my hard-earned money fucks with people's heads. Suddenly you get treated like a king just because you have money? Until people show me disrespect, I will show you all the respect I’ve got, but if you break my trust, I swear to God I will break you verbally within 15 seconds, and that's the whole fear, and the anger, it just pops up when someone oversteps my boundaries. Like you realize some guy you thought was cool has been pouring your champagne for six girls you didn't even know, just so he could look like a don? We never went out for the girls, we always went out for each other, for the boys. Besides,” he adds with a wry smile, “You don't meet a nice girl at the club: Go to the goddamn library!”
During this time his bandmates tried their best to be supportive. “It’s really difficult to help in that situation because it’s Lukas’s pain and you can’t take away,” says Kasper. “It was more about being there and being accepting that that was how it is.” And then four months after his father’s death, in February 2013, as Lukas continued to party the pain away, he officially hit rock bottom and lost his voice. “I’d gained so much weight and I had been living so unhealthily, eating fast food and steaks and drinking every day,“ says Lukas. “I was getting constant heartburn and I was destroying my vocal chords. I canceled an 18-gig European tour and I wasn’t supposed to talk for a whole month. I had to stop eating fatty foods, red wine, no tea, no coffee, no juice, no fruit. I was basically eating fucking oatmeal and yogurt.”
Lukas recalibrated, took up a personal trainer, swapped pizza for quinoa and now he rarely parties to get wasted while on tour. Unsurprisingly these choices have had positive repercussions within the band. Lukas is still full of emotions, but he’s not irrationally governed by them. “The amount whereby the guys can influence me has changed—I used to just explode if anyone wanted to change anything,” he admits. “Now I’ll listen.”
Although he’s now moved out of Christiania—where many of his family and friends still live—his new home is just two blocks away from the community that’s so thoroughly shaped who he is today. While Lukas Graham explores the loss of his father in almost every song, be it a passing line like on “7 Years” or an entire tune such as “You’re Not There,” his recent experiences laid out in clear narratives like the shimmy organ-stoked “Don’t You Worry ’Bout Me.” For a modern pop record it’s entirely lacking in romantic love songs (although he does have a serious girlfriend). “You want a love song?” he scoffs. “Call Adele, call Taylor Swift! Call anybody!”
Instead his debut is an exploration of love in all its fraught forms directed at his friends and family, and none more so than on heart-tugging “Happy Home.” With Europe firmly in his thrall, for the forthcoming year, Lukas has America in his crosshairs, and to a degree he’s starting, if not quite from scratch—"7 Years" has over five million views—then at least he’s willing to get down and dirty on tiny stages, until his stories translate to the Stateside big leagues. He’ll only admit his ambition when prodded, but it’s there. Lukas is also still healing. He misses his dad daily, frequently reflecting on the lessons he imparted before his untimely passing at 61.
Respect, it seems is, at the top of that list: “Respect for myself and other people, and especially women. Having a lot of strong women in my family and you also need to see strong male figures act accordingly.” He adds: “My friends and I used to go to my father's and have beers in the kitchen before we went out and he'd always say, 'Hey boys, make sure she has a good time, right?' That was the sentence he’d say to everybody. Some guys were like, ‘What did he mean?’ And I was like, ‘Dude, what he said was what he meant.’ Even if it's just a dance, then give her the best dance of her life.”
Lukas Graham is out on Warner Bros. Records, on 3.25
Kim Taylor Bennett has had no sleep. She's on Twitter.