Den Sorte Skole ("The Black School" if you were wondering) started life as a DJ outfit, gaining notoriety in their native Denmark for a series of mash ups that combined unlikely genres - say, Neil Young with DJ Premier - with a skill that suggested sharp musical ears and a surprising depth of knowledge. In 2013 they released Lektion III, a record that went beyond their previous mash ups into a new world of seamless montage, bringing together snippets of hundreds of samples taken from records sourced worldwide and creating something entirely new. Now they've moved on again, with new release Indians & Cowboys breaking records for the most amount of samples featured on one record - somewhere over 10,000... Describing the record as "advocating for a shared multi-cultural future," the duo of Simon Dokkedal and Martin Højland have created a record that seeks to collapse time and space, allowing multiple cultures to coexist in ways largely unseen buy teh world. We wanted to know more...
What were you trying to achieve with the samples on Indians & Cowboys?
Martin - A really unique combination. Our ambition has been to try and make the music so it doesn’t sound like it’s a sample, so it sounds like a weird orchestra with many members from across the world – I think this is what makes it different from other sample based music – it doesn’t sound sampled – at least that’s what we tell ourselves...
We also don’t pitch the samples we try and find and match stuff as it is – maybe we EQ it but we don’t change the key, and that’s one of the reasons why it doesn’t sound like sample based music
That must be really frustrating when you’re looking for, say a flute part in C Minor?
Exactly, and it’s not even just C Minor, it has to be tuned in the exact same 13 cents left of C Minor – C minor is so many things when you have samples from Indonesia, Honduras, whatever, from the rest of the world and from different decades. One of the strengths of doing it like this is you have some resistance in the material, it brings in some noise, some of the stuff is a little bit out of tune and that makes it sound more real. I like a lot of new music, but a lot of it is very perfect – it’s perfectly pitched and produced, but when you have recordings from the 70s, and you use samples from Indonesia and the States and Finland and France, and bring all these weird sounds together, it doesn’t sound perfect, but it gives it an authentic quality we really like.
Do you want to work with actual musicians?
Simon - Well we already did a piece with the Copenhagen Chamber Orchestra, which was really interesting – we mixed their sound with our samples, and did it live in a big concert hall – that was working with a 45 man orchestra – the combination was what was interesting, more than just working with real musicians
Martin - For sure it’d be interesting for us to have half a year and travel the world recording musicians. That’s something for the future, someday.
And how do you source records?
M - We’re getting them from all over. We travel, we go on the internet to a local store, though there’s not that much in Copenhagen.
S - you can almost buy everything today on the internet if you know what you’re looking for, so we find inspiration on these super geeky vinyl blogs, but we don’t use the MP3s, and nothing beats finding an album by hand in a Lebanese back yard, or in Mumbai or somewhere, bringing it home and finding a sample on it, it’s a better experience than finding something on the internet.
So you’re quite purist about only sampling off vinyl? I know some producers who rip stuff off Youtube – would you do that?
S - For us it’s not a possibility at all. We focus on sound quality- it has a big importance to us
M - Also we make these very long pieces, and you don’t want to do that with bad sound quality or your ears will get tired. In Denmark we play big concerts on big systems, and bringing a Youtube sample to 20,000 people is not going to work well
S -Hopefully people will listen to the music on proper headphones and speakers and not just their laptop…
Where do you start with the legality of the record? I can’t imagine how you’d clear it-
M- It’s got samples from 75 different countries, with 75 different legislations. Every lawyer we’ve spoken to has said that even if we had 3 years and a million dollars it’d be impossible to sort out. It’s not practically possible – imagine – how should you divide the loyalities? One guy has a snare, one guy has a flute tone, one guy has a whisper… I guess it’s just music that cannot exist in this system.
Do you sell the record then?
S - We give it out for free on our website. And we list all the samples we’ve used – we want to tell people that they should dig more into the tracks, focusing on the records we’ve sampled.
M -We want to open the music. We hope that that creates some sort of good will around the project. We don’t earn any royalties – in Denmark royalties are the back bone of any musician’s career economically, so that’s quite a challenge for us. We sell the vinyl, we need to do a vinyl, it’d be weird for us to make these albums and not press them on vinyl. We get very nice letters once in a while from people we’ve sampled. After Lektion 3 all the people from France or Germany that heard their own sample on the album were very happy about it
Realistically the sample money would be going to the publishers rather than the writers
S - Yeah definitely. We tried once to clear a sample and found out that the owners of the sample didn’t even know that they owned the track. They had bought up all these sub-labels and so on. It’s a strange world that only focuses on money and property, and has little attention for the musicians.
Do you worry that there’s a danger in your music having a novelty value, of you just taking cultural signifiers from other countries without going any deeper?
M -I think our message is quite deep. It’s a message about bringing cultures together. We avoid using religious music that isn’t meant to be on a danceable track, and we try to get as much knowledge about the music we use as possible – but it’d be completely naïve to think we’re not bullet proof and we won’t ever step on anyone’s toes, That’s also why we put the names of those we sample on the record. But it’s a very difficult discussion, cultural relativism – I mean who are we to bring together cultures that don’t necessarily want to be together? But then it’s also art, and it exists in its own universe, and I hope that people who are brought into it can see themselves in it. Our biggest fear is that somebody comes and says, ‘well I was very sad to hear that you used my guitar for this track that I don’t like.’
Has that ever happened?
M - No, never. But you know, there’s a lot of music from the last 5 years in the Western world that takes element of -let’s call it world music- and brings it into the dance clubs of Europe, and I think our sound and expression is different. We bring in Lebanese vocals for people to listen, and not just to dance and have fun. Our music is not really about having fun. Not to point any fingers, but there are some really, really big guys in mainstream music who’ve taken a lot of things out of context from other cultures and bought them into very easy, danceable, shake your butt party tunes.
Immigration is a big deal in Europe at the moment – did you intentionally want to comment on it with this record?
S - I think our music has a message in bringing together all these cultures, and that is forward pointing idea of representation of what kind of world we see as the future. When you get some time to do interviews and spread the message, you need to spread it right, There’s a lot of really fucked up things going on in the world, and it’s good to talk about that, and not just talk about our music. Of course it has to be connected… We’re also from Denmark, where a lot of people find this multi-cultural future very dangerous. And we don’t share that view. If you go to France or places like that in Europe you’ll find much more mixed cultures, but up here we’ve had a white ethnic community living alone for many, many years and some people are really afraid of multi-culturalism. Our music represents another perspective.
Few people in the dance world acknowledge the power of immigration, despite the scene relying on it so much
People can do what they want, but we know that we’ll be talking a lot to a lot of media, and we’re like, let’s talk about something interesting. Some young people will pick up our music, and if we can give them some kind of guidance or make them think a little bit about stuff, then I think that’s a very positive change – of course it has to relate to the music, but in our case it fits very well. The album is being released at a time when these problems are all over the headlines, and things are very polarised and fucked up. For us, sometimes we’ll have some young second generation Indian immigrant or Turkish immigrant coming up at the end of a show, exhilarated because we will have bought his father’s number one favourite Lebanese singer into the concert, that’s a very strong feeling for us, to be able to give these experiences to people.
After we finished our talk, the band got back in touch to add the following -
I never really got to tell the point with that political stuff - the Mediterranean sea thing you asked about:
Point is, that when you have more than enough - as is the case in Denmark - you should build a longer table instead of a higher fence. Our people are scared of an uncertain future and the politics of fear, that our politicians and media have been preaching for many years now. But we have enough wealth up here and it is naive to think that we have have the right to keep that to ourselves. Our wealth is built on years and years of exploitation of first our own peoples, and later on the so-called third world - and there is nothing fair about it. And even if we deserved the wealth to ourselves, I truly think that we would grow as a people by standing up to this challenge (refugees coming in numbers) and open our homes to those in need. And that’s almost what is most tragic - we don’t have any politicians brave enough to stand up and formulate a positive vision in these times of crises. It is a race towards the bottom and I think history will judge us.
And for the wealth distribution within our societies, thats really fucked up. Inequality is growing, power is in the hands of an extremely small group of privileged people and the rest of us are just watching lame ass entertainment on polluting plastic flatscreens. And we all have the idea that we live in democratic, fair and just societies. Like property rights - one of the most fundamental structures in society that you cannot challenge. And that is where sampling and our work comes in. We try to show the absurdity of the system that everbody take for granted. It is hard to argue from a creative or musical standpoint that our music should not be allowed to exist. And that is also what the album title is about - to challenge the things we take for granted. We always say Cowboys & Indians in that order, even though the Indians came first. Over ethnocentrism is deeply integrated in our language. And it was their land, we stole it. And they didn’t even believe in owning land. According to them the land belongs to nature, and we can only borrow it and treat it with respect. And that is the idea behind our work with samples. We borrow them, build with them and pass them on.
Finally, what have you got coming up?
We’re doing a second symphony – we’re doing a trilogy in total and the second one is coming out in February 2016, and then we hope to spend the spring and summer playing a lot of concerts in Europe – we’ve played a lot of concerts in Denmark and we’re ready to go out, because our music has no connection in Denmark, it works better in France or in England.
Den Sorte Skole's Indians & Cowboys is available now - grab it from their website