This Friday, 23rd September will see Eik Octobre’s next release Different Kinds of Silence which he has been working on for the past year. It closes a chapter of heartbreak and loneliness. The questions it poses are: How do you navigate your emotional world? Can you create space to acknowledge your feelings without being completely consumed?
We meet in a zoom-room and the angle is so steep that I’m mostly seeing the ceiling, protruding over white walls and a sunlit room. It is the first time for me interviewing someone who doesn’t already have a stock of articles, reviews or conversation pieces online. It’s a blank page to start from.
Why did you choose this name as an alter ego?
‘Eik’ is Icelandic for a tree, it’s the ‘oak’. And ‘Octobre’… perhaps the reason is that the music always sounds like autumn.
Another translation of ‘Eik’ can be ‘ruler’. In Norse mythology, the tree at the centre of the universe, Yggdrasil, is often described as an oak tree. Odin as well as Thor are associated with it – Odin hanging from it as a sacrifice and Thor because the oak is most likely to be hit by lightening. To me, a possible translation could also be ‘Ruler of October’ which, listening to Eik’s music at the start of autumn and releasing the new album on the autumnal equinox, teases quieter seasons to come.
Aside of being a musician, Octobre works as a high school teacher. There are aspects of it that are beneficial to the life he wants to live, but it is also challenging as he tells me. This is the first time during the interview that I can sense how much the unpredictable nature of human interaction shapes his daily life.
If you could, would you want to be a full time musician or would you always prefer to do something else beside it?
I couldn’t imagine waking up at 8:00 in the morning and having to figure out what to do with my day. I like to have a schedule so I have something to plan around. Now, I’m actually becoming a professional organ player. Just got into a school on Friday so that’s new and good news because teaching… it scares me a bit.
It scares you?
Yeah, I think so. The good thing about performing is that you can hide behind your piano and your instruments. When you’re teaching you have to communicate, interact, and get response. Performing can be more passive. I play my stuff and I can go again. It’s much more intimidating for me to teach 25 students than to perform in front of a 1000.
I can see that but I also think that you would ideally go into an interaction with the audience. Does it give you something as well, don’t you find that intimidating too?
Obviously, it can be frightening to perform. But it’s more ‘What if something goes wrong?’. But I have a big responsibility when teaching students. So, it’s the pressure of being a teacher that scares me.
The longer we talk, the more visible is Eik Octobre’s willingness to admit to life’s difficulties. Struggles can alienate me from people because – yes, life is hard and difficult at times – but I also have a choice which story I tell myself and what I focus on. I’m an optimist and I don’t know any other way to exist. If I wasn’t, I’d likely crumble under the doom and gloom, too. I need to remind myself that it is not as easy for many people to see the positive in everything and that it takes real courage and honesty to acknowledge feeling overwhelmed. So, which journey did someone with this temperament and sensitivity take to arrive on stage?
How did you grow up? And what was your upbringing like musically?
My dad is a rock dad with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and The Who. I have two older brothers, they schooled me which music to listen to. I listened a lot to the Danish band called Kashmir. They’re my childhood band. At this boarding school (in Jutland), I realized I wanted to start song-writing. But then a friend of me heard my piano ideas and sketches and said that I should work on those as well. And I haven’t looked back since.
What are other moments of your creative evolution that you consider formative?
“On a practical level, it was when a friend of mine kickstarted the project in 2014. Without him, I don’t think the projects would have had its beginning. I’m a ‘Oh you can’t do that’ and he’s a ‘Let’s do this’. So I’m a quiet ‘no’ and he’s a big ‘yes’. That was the most important thing. Otherwise I wouldn’t sit here and speak with you.
On an artistic level, it was ‘Everything Has Its Echo’. That’s when I went from only recording acoustic to working with synthesizers. It was liberating because it was not just piano and strings but there were some weird pieces that I like a lot. It grew into something that I couldn’t predict at all.”
What I’d like to highlight here is how important friends are who push you out of yourself, who animate you to take creative risks. Friends who are a big yes for you and your growth, and that show you how the unpredictability of other people can also be a benefit to your own existence.
Simple and Complex Things
Do you consider Everything Has Its Echo as your first album and Different Kinds of Silence is the second one because at first it sounded like this was your debut. How do you see them?
What comes out this Friday was the record that demanded the least effort because it’s mostly piano pieces. Everything on the record is played by me. ‘Everything Has Its Echo’ and ‘Live String Sessions’ on the other hand, were hugely demanding. It’s a relative questions because one piece from ‘Everything Has Its Echo’ (‘What Will Never Be’) was more difficult to get through than all the tracks that I’m releasing this Friday.”
“It’s like looking at a poem and saying that does not have a lot of words. But that does not determine the time and effort it took to write it.”
Music for the Melancholy
Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm are accompanying us throughout the whole conversation. Their influence on Octobre and his work are overtly present and seem to be a source of deep admiration and inspiration. It is to no surprise then that melancholy is a prominent keyword in Octobre’s biography. All three of them share their own interpretation of it. I’ve also talked about it in my interview with Nils Frahm which you can find here.
“I think melancholy is quite sensual. I had a tough time when I wrote and recorded these pieces. I was really heart-broken, just delivered my thesis and was worried and confused about my future. Then I had to write and record an entire album. So, its music is for perhaps the vulnerable and the fragile. I think there are a lot of people who like my music because they can relate to my struggle, even though there are no words in the music to tell them that.
Actually I’ve had a huge panic attack before I recorded ‘Little Home’ and you can also hear it in the recording. My breathing sounds more like gasps. The song means the world to me right now because I pulled through.”
It is true that we, as humans, search for understanding, something that mirrors our own internal world. While going through grief or heartbreak, it can feel like torture to listen to happy music or watch a Romcom. Or the other way round, have you ever tried to listen to Nine Inch Nails when you’re in an especially great mood? But there is also an audience finding their way to Octobre’s music which is not consciously looking for melancholic piano compositions.
The Problem with Playlists
Your songs are often included in ‘Instrumental Study’ or similar playlists that are played in the background. How do you feel about that?
“Yeah, that’s the million dollar question with this genre. On all those playlists, there is a lot of mediocre music. For this genre, people have found out that they can put cheap mics to a bad piano and record a piece of music and can get 20 million plays. That is frustrating for someone like me who tries to have good craftmanship in their music.
There is so much music without personality or dimension. It feels flat. And it works perfectly for the background. You can also hear ‘Little Home‘ on there but if you look at the sheet music, you can see that someone has made an effort to write an interesting piece of music.”
So your problem is not necessarily that people listen to it while it’s in the background but it’s more that you’re put on the same level as people who are not composing the way you do?
“I can also listen to the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony in the background while I’m working around. But I’m sad and frustrated if people never just listen to it without doing anything else. That’s the sad thing about this genre. It’s just for drinking cappuccino or reading homework. But it’s good music you can listen to, instead of just using it as kind of a concentration crutch.”
Music to Ignore?
You will always have people who do not make that distinction but on the other hand you might reach people that wouldn’t otherwise notice you. I think it’s a two-way-street. The discussion around playlists like ‘Peaceful Piano’ or ‘Chillhop’ has gained more attention, not only because of scandalous moneymaking on the sides of Apple or Spotify but also in a general sense in how music is consumed and which music do we actively choose. A poignant comment which summarizes the interest in ‘Music to Ignore’ and why a generation became obsessed with it, was published by Amanda Petrusich in The New Yorker 2019.
Don’t we want to risk listening to something that has not been algorithm-ed to our other preferences? The older I get, the less of my friends seem to engage in the joy of finding random music or dedicate their time to obsessing over a new artist. To see this happening as a musician must be even more frustrating.
Behind the Organ
In a world where we can hardly escape the noise of news and current events, it is also understandable to search for moments in which we don’t have to process new information, visually or audibly. Places where we can rest.
I looked at all your titles and a recurring theme for you seems to be a sense of place, feeling misplaced or looking for a right place. I’d like to know how you define place? And have you found a place for yourself?
“On the boring level, my place is behind an organ and to be a church musician. It feels like home in the work manner. I can work like 25hr a week and write music for the rest. I found a good combination that suits me.
But I think on a personal level, it’s a partner. Someone to share it all with. One of my upcoming titles for my next album is ‘Someone Who Sees You’. It means a lot to me to not live alone. Someone who sees the things that you can’t see yourself perhaps.”
Since you’ve talked a lot about control, it can be a really nice place to let go of control and just be. Also because you can’t control how other people see you or how they relate to you. It’s a good place for practicing to let go of control in social interaction.
“When there is someone new and you have to let them into your most personal things, it is really intimidating but also very liberating, as you said. I think one problem is that there are a lot of people who think they don’t deserve love. It kind of reminds me of that quote from ‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’: “We accept the love we think we deserve”. That’s why it’s dangerous for me to write music because then I feel like I’m liked, when I get a lot of plays and views, and that’s not the same as real love. It becomes a confirmation hunt.”
I find it difficult to put ‘love’ and ‘deserve’ in one sentence because you start to constantly measure yourself – if you feel like you’re only deserving or can only accept love under certain conditions. It is a loop that people fall into. Everyone deserves love in the end.
Lastly, to end on an uplifting note, I ask about future ventures beside learning organ. Octobre says: “I’m working on a short movie. It’s interesting to work like this – reading a script and then coming up with music. And it’s fun but difficult to work for another person. An instructor tells you it has to sound like this and you can read about the character, what the character says and you have to come up with how it sounds.”
I’m glad to hear Eik Octobre mention fun and difficulty in the same breath. The challenges we set ourselves against many odds are the places where we have the most potential to grow. One thing about being a sometimes oblivious optimist is that it can inspire a quiet ‘no’ into a soft ‘yes’ and illuminate the darker sides of life, even when sitting alone behind a piano.
Are you gonna celebrate on Friday?
I should yeah. I will work something out. Feels weird since I started a year ago.
But good things take time.
Yeah, I should celebrate. People forget that sometimes.
Different Kinds of Silence is out now via Nordic Music Society.
Photos by Marcus Palm Andreassen.