KINGS OF CONVENIENCE at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), tonight (Thursday, February 17). $17.50. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Erlend Øye, the bespectacled half of sensitive strummers Kings of Convenience, is remarkably chipper after a day spent trying on mouse ears in the Happiest Place on Earth.
While frolicking through Disney World might seem weirdly out of character for Øye and musical partner Eirik Glambek Bøe, a pair known for their whispery and winsome meditations on fractured love and loneliness, passing as an average pair of Florida tourists is a true luxury for the Kings.
Most North American audiences are just now beginning to load the sweet alt-folk strains of the Norwegian duo's recent Riot On An Empty Street (Astralwerks/EMI) disc into their iPods ' Sad Songs playlists, but over in Europe the tousled-haired twosome are as massive as, uh, Mickey Mouse.
"Here in Orlando, the chance that we'll be recognized on the street is, like, 0.001 per cent," chuckles Øye from his hotel room. "But in places like Italy or Norway, we're Coldplay.
"At shows where people don't start screaming when we play the first song, we think, 'Shit, we have to try harder. '"
After the band's Astralwerks debut, Quiet Is The New Loud, dropped in 2001, the Brit music press hastily announced the advent of the "new acoustic revolution"; that explains those screaming Eurofans. In classic NME style, the catchphrase "quiet is the new loud" was drained of the Kings' original sly irony and held up as a limp-wristed rallying cry.
The bounciest single from that disc, Toxic Girl, ended up in a cellphone commercial, and the Kings were seen as overnight sensations.
"We didn't want our fans to get offended by our marketing," Øye says of the feeding frenzy. "There was a Portuguese hypermarket chain that wanted a song, but that would be like putting our music in, oh my god, Wal-Mart commercials."
After the Quiet hype died down, Bøe decided to focus on his psychology degree, and Øye, who says it still "breaks his heart" that they're no longer working with an indie label (Kindercore released their self-titled 1999 debut, and they almost signed to pal Damon Gough's Twisted Nerve label), sang with fellow Norwegians Röyksopp, gigged as a DJ and released his own solo disc, Unrest, in 2003.
Luckily, the Kings' melancholic mood music was enduring enough to win fans in high places. By the time Leslie Feist launched Let It Die last summer, she raved about the "fucking amazing" duo she'd recorded with in Europe, "two guys with guitars, voices in perfect harmony. They're those rare people who can write those classic songs, like Simon and Garfunkel but cooler." She swore the record would melt hearts.
Which it does. The Kings' recent Riot On An Empty Street is a beautifully understated set of broken indie-folk poetry that hinges on the tension between Øye and Bøe's swooning schoolboy harmonies and the peculiar clipped distance of their lyrics. Øye cites Suzanne Vega as a chief lyrical influence, but the lads' version of aloof intimacy has ties to Nick Drake, Aimee Mann and, yes, La Feist herself.
So it makes perfect sense that the Euro fashion icon co-wrote and helped sing several Riot tracks. Her contributions add a nice jolt of the nouveau bossa that made Feist's own album so captivating.
"At first, we were just e-mailing as a joke," Øye recalls, "but a week later, she was there. I knew right away, 'This girl is gonna be able to come up with stuff.' We presented her with two songs we couldn't finish, and the next day, she'd worked out all this stuff in her head."
Feist had more of an impact than even she knew, claims Øye, who was inspired to write overwhelmingly sad album-closer The Build-Up, an elegy for the end of a relationship, after obsessing over the Calgary expat's infamous Red Demos, proto-versions of what would become Let It Die.
"That's still my favourite stuff of hers, and The Build-Up is a total Leslie Feist rip-off, but because she didn't put out the demos, it seems like the other way around," he laughs.
"She doesn't like to give this impression, but she knows she's a big rock star. She was smart to do the record she did, cuz it's great for airplay - in Germany it's on daytime radio all the time. But like us, she's still unknown in some places and totally commercial in others, in a tricky place between indie and mainstream."