In the little town of Gjøvik, Norway, there was a budding musician recording songs as a hobby. His talent grew and soon singer/songwriter Koen van de Wardt formed the ethereal Klangstof. A sea of synths and guitars blossom in Technicolor across 11 tracks on Close Eyes To Exit, their debut album. Klangstof are on tour supporting The Flaming Lips this year. Both bands thrive off experimentation, creativity, and widescreen sci-fi soundscapes. Before the show in Oakland’s Fox Theatre, Koen van de Wardt walked us through his journey from being a lone synth player to playing a spot at this year’s Coachella.
SF Sonic: First of all, how is the tour going for you?
Koen van de Wardt: It’s pretty nice. We have a week off now, after Coachella. It’s been pretty sick. I think we’re finally playing so many shows this year. We really feel like we’re ready. We have to keep going, keep the momentum.
SF Sonic: Awesome. I know you’re traveling with The Flaming Lips right now and have this big tour, following them mostly wherever they go. Is it taking you a while for you to get used to the touring schedule?
van de Wardt: At first it was but now I’m getting used to it. I’ve never been a live musician, I would say. I’m kind of more of a studio producer rather than a live musician. But I must say, I am now starting to get the hang of it. I like to tour with The Flaming Lips, it’s a band that’s been around for so long. It feels like an internship for us as well just because we’re learning so much from those guys. I think that’s very inspiring.
SF Sonic: That’s true. If you’ve followed The Flaming Lips for a while, they’ve been making music since the 80s. They already have their touring schedule and everything down.
van de Wardt: Definitely.
SF Sonic: Let’s go back a little bit. How did you originally get into music and what inspired you to start playing instruments and writing music?
van de Wardt: I moved from the Netherlands to Gjøvik, Norway when I was 14 years old. Before that, when I was still living in Holland, I wasn’t doing music at all. There’s so many distractions living in the city. As soon as I moved to Norway I was pretty isolated. It was a long drive to get to friends or do whatever I was used to doing when I lived in the Netherlands. So, making music was something I started doing out of boredom. I found out after a while that I wanted to pursue it. Very slowly I started picking up the guitar, after that some synths. I started producing a little bit. Everything that I was doing started out of complete boredom. So I just had to do it, I guess.
SF Sonic: I got that creative spark when I got into music but I also looked to my influences – the people and the bands that I was listening to. Was that case for you and if so, what kind of music were you listening to to get started?
van de Wardt: Before I moved to Norway, it was mostly EDM. As soon as I moved, I did not feel connected to that music at all anymore because I was feeling lonely and I wanted to have music to connect with. All of a sudden I came across Radiohead. That’s something that really, really triggered something in me. I really felt so connected to that music. For one or two years straight, I just listened to Radiohead. That’s really what got me into music. As soon as I started listening to Radiohead, all I could think about was becoming a musician.
SF Sonic: That’s funny that you say that. I’m wearing a Radiohead t-shirt right now.
van de Wardt: Nice! Nice!
SF Sonic: Yeah, I think that they’re an incredible band. They’ve definitely been inspiring to me and so many people. So what challenges did you face when you started the band?
van de Wardt: Well, because [Close Eyes To Exit] was written as a solo project, I was doing everything myself. The cool thing about that is, whenever you’re recording, it’s very limitless. You don’t have to think about other musicians or playing on stage. So what I did was I recorded 90 synthesizers. Just doing all that weird stuff you can do when you’re doing it for fun. When I started a band, it was difficult to get everything right, you know? With four musicians, it’s so hard to to play everything you recorded. It took us six or seven months before we figured out how to do it live and figure out what we wanted to do.
SF Sonic: Right.
van de Wardt: Right now, I enjoy the live sound. It’s a little bit different [every time.]I hate it when I go to a concert and the band sounds exactly like they do on the record. We try to just improvise it and do something different every show. It keeps it very fresh.
SF Sonic: So right now you guys just have the Close Eyes To Exit album that you’re touring with? Is that the material?
van de Wardt: Correct.
SF Sonic: So, I imagine playing the same 11 songs the exact same way would get really stale. You have to change it up.
van de Wardt: Definitely. We have been touring with this record for one and half years now. If we would have just copied the record, I think we would be really bored by now.
SF Sonic: That’s good. I was listening to a lot of it last night. It’s really cool. I really like the synths and guitars and how they come together. I can see why you and The Flaming Lips are touring because you both have this spacy sound. The synths are layered a lot and hit these awesome crescendos.
van de Wardt: I really like to approach music differently than just writing verses and choruses. I’d rather build than write a good chorus.
SF Sonic: With Close Eyes To Exit that’s a good step forward. Speaking of the record, you kind of explained the sessions a little bit, however, did you write every single song on the album?
van de Wardt: Some of the songs I wrote when I was 15 years old. It was a very slow process. It took me seven years to get every song finished. Also, the recording process was very slow. It really took me seven years to learn everything and try to compress our work. For me, it’s important to be in the studio and work on my songs instead of having one week in a fancy studio with a cool producer. I’d rather do seven years in the studio and really go into it with a super detailed recording process.
SF Sonic: It does sound fantastic. With a lot of bands, when they go into the studio for the first time, they start off with a lo-fi sound then they eventually record a slicker album.
van de Wardt: Yeah, we had so much time to be in the studio and record something.
SF Sonic: I think if a band is an indie rock or folk group, then it does work. Some musicians have that bedroom recording sound because that’s the mood they’re going for. I think that doesn’t translate well for this music. I think a high quality mix works better. I can see a planetarium using your music as their soundtrack.
van de Wardt: Cool!
SF Sonic: It should sound high quality, that’s what definitely came through with this record.
van de Wardt: I totally agree. About three or four years back, when the album was half done it still sounded very lo-fi. I’m happy I kept on working to have it sound the way I wanted it to sound.
SF Sonic: Yeah, you were very patient about it. It definitely paid off. I read that you were the first Dutch band to play at Coachella? Is that right?
van de Wardt: Yeah!
SF Sonic: How was that, by the way? Was that your first giant festival or have you done other ones?
van de Wardt: We’ve done some European festivals but Coachella was the first US festival date. It was sick. We were over-prepared because we knew it was such a big name on [the touring schedule.]We were all very nervous. We knew label people were watching, the live stream as well. It was way too hot for us as well!
SF Sonic: I know, coming from Norway…
van de Wardt: Everything went great! When we went on stage we wanted to cry because we were so nervous. It was a great feeling getting off stage and enjoying the rest of the week. But it wasn’t the most pleasant thing I’ve ever done because of the heat and the nerves!
SF Sonic: Yeah, I think as a touring band one of the big milestones is a giant festival like Coachella. It’s something you eventually get to and you pass and every other time after that is easier. You’re pass that now! I’m glad that you guys had the opportunity to do that. It’s the biggest festival in America and one of the biggest in the world. How were you contacted? Did you seek playing at the festival?
van de Wardt: It was our booking agency. We did a tour with Jagwar Ma in November. We nailed about every show we did, I think we did seventeen shows in the US. We knew there were some people watching us. Also Jagwar Ma was going to play Coachella and I think someone was watching us at the shows and thought “This band is awesome. Let’s give them a chance.”
SF Sonic: Finally, Klangstof. I don’t speak any Dutch! I was wondering if you can explain to me what the name means and why you chose that?
van de Wardt: So I went for a Dutch and Norwegian name because I wanted to get both those personalities in there. So, “Klang” means “echo” in Norwegian and “stof” means “dust” in Dutch. It roughly translates to “echo dust.” It sounds horrible, but that’s what it means!
SF Sonic: Yeah! You’re honoring both places that you’re close to.
van de Wardt: Yeah, exactly. I also wanted to have a name that didn’t mean anything. I like the fact that for English speaking people it sounds like a word they’ve never heard of.
SF Sonic: It does sound sci-fi. When I first saw it, I saw it paired with The Flaming Lips so I thought, “This is probably a spacy band or sci-fi synth group.” Not to stereotype you guys!
van de Wardt: A lot of people think we’re German techno or something Scandinavian.
SF Sonic: Nope, you are Echo Dust and now I know. Now when people ask me “What does that mean? Is that even a word,” I’ll say “Yes, that’s echo dust.”
van de Wardt: Yes!
SF Sonic: “I know for sure. The main singer told me.” Then no one is going to believe me! So, your next stop is Oakland?
van de Wardt: Next one is San Diego then we go to LA to the Ace Hotel. Then after that it’s Oakland.
SF Sonic: I’ll definitely see you there. You’ll hear me scream “echo dust!” so you’ll know that’s me!
van de Wardt: Great! Can’t wait!
SF Sonic: Have a great time touring. See you soon.
Photo by Raymond Ahner.