Copenhagen's Choir of Young Believers, founded by former Lake Placid guitarist Jannis Makrigiannis, is an orchestral pop collective that sways between richly layered folk harmonies and more abrasive, melodic rockers that vaguely hint at The Flaming Lips and even Neil Young. Makrigiannis recently came by The Alternate Side with some of his bandmates to chat with Alisa Ali and they played not only their own songs, like "Hollow Talk," but even delivered a spirited cover of "God Damn Your Fingers" by Swedish indie rockers First Floor Power.
Denmark's Jannis Makrigiannis is the mastermind behind Choir of Young Believers. Although Makrigiannis writes and sings all of the material, he enlisted a whole crew of musicians to help him record his debut album This Is for the White in Your Eyes which dropped last August on Ghostly International.
Live performances can be range from Makrigiannis solo on a guitar to being accompanied by eight musicians onstage. So I wasn't quite sure what to expect when we booked Choir of Young Believers for a live session in Studio A.
Happily, a full band arrived - a drummer, a bassist and a very talented cello player named Ceciele Trier who often accompanies Makrigiannis in performance.
It was a real pleasure to be able to spend some time with these great Danes. You never really know how a session is going to go, especially conversing with people whose native language is different from yours. I expected the the performances to be great. And they were. But our conversation was especially illuminating and fun, even with an occasional translational hiccup. There were a few times where Jannis asked a bandmate what a word was in English, but I was very impressed with everyone's grasp of English. I always think about that when it comes to songwriting too. So many bands sing in other languages. I can't even sing in my own. Well, they are professionals.
After the interview was over I said, "Okay, well, thanks. See ya later." One of the Choir of Young Believers - in some disbelief - said, " Wait! What are we doing later?" His bandmate responded, "Oh, they just say that here." Oh how we laughed!
Alisa Ali: This project started when your former band Lake Placid broke up. What kind of music did that band play?
Jannis Makrigiannis: Well, it was a very big collective of people. It was very happy, open-minded pop music. Synthesizers.
Alisa: So what is the difference?
Jannis: I wasn't writing for Lake Placid. I was just playing guitar. So the difference is that I write the songs in this band. I think back then I just thought that playing music was fun. I take it more seriously now and I don't like funny, happy music anymore. I don't know why. It's just that funny, happy music doesn't interest me at all.
Alisa: Why did those guys break up?
Jannis: Our lead singer moved to New York.
Alisa: So you wanted to do your own thing after that band broke up. No compromises. Was that something you struggled with in Lake Placid?
Jannis: No, I was just very sad that the band broke up and it was not a thing I decided. I really wanted to continue. So I think when I started Choir of Young Believers is was very much a reaction to that thing. I had this band and I spent a lot of time on it and then suddenly, because of other people's decision, there wasn't a band. So I really wanted to start a band where no one could take it away from me. I was a bit afraid of calling it a band. Though it's been the same people since the start. Everybody in the band has a lot of other bands. So in the beginning I was afraid to ask people to join completely. But now we've been playing together for three years and we've been the same people. It maybe started out as a solo project, but it's totally turning into a band.
Alisa: "Hollow Talk" was the only song you finished writing in the studio [from the debut album].
Jannis: The thing with "Hollow Talk" was that it wasn't meant to be on the album. All of the other songs were. Our good friend who produced the album. I was just playing the song and he heard it and asked if it was something for the album and he insisted. He has really good ears. I said it wasn't finished but he heard something in the song that I couldn't hear. He really insisted that we should work on it and it's a special song on the album for me. Normally, I think a lot about the songs before I record them and this one was almost like not us that done it, it was developed so fast.
Alisa: So how did it end up changing? What's better about it now?
Jannis: I'm a really big fan of involving other people in the songs, but this was way before that I'm used to involving other people. This was really early in the song's history that another person got involved.
Alisa: You took a trip to Greece and you did most of the writing there?
Jannis: Yeah, after Lake Placid broke up ... you're really faithful to your band and I was very bound to Denmark when I played in that band. But when it broke up I visited my family for a while and I lived in Berlin for some time and that's when I wrote all of the songs.
Alisa: You speak Greek?
Jannis: A little bit. Greek folk music is very melancholy and it's like flamenco, almost. Like traditional blues, it's all about getting high and getting in and out of prison and broken hearts. Greek folk music is also very heavy, a lot of weltschmerz - the weight of the world. That sort of music really appeals to me.
Alisa: The blues and heavier lyrics can be uplifting though the content can be contrary of that.
Jannis: Yeah, it's an emotional outlet as a listener when you get this feeling that someone is getting something off their chest. That's what's really beautiful about music, it's communicating in this very abstract language. A person can play a song that evokes a feeling and you don't know this person, or their history, but if they do their thing well, you get a lot of out of it.