Duologue: A conversation with Svaneborg Kardyb

Photo by Michell Boysen

Svaneborg Kardyb are the multi award-winning Danish duo of Nikolaj Svaneborg (Wurlitzer, Juno, piano) and Jonas Kardyb (drums, percussion) based in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city. The by-product of fruitful early morning sessions caffeinated with “the blackest of coffee”, Over Tage (‘over roofs’) marks their Gondwana debut where it is right at home among such intrepid explorers of jazz-leaning experimental music as Portico Quartet, Mammal Hands, and GoGo Penguin.

Drawing on both Danish folk music and Scandinavian jazz influences, their music is a nimble blend of catchy grooves & melodies with organic textures and tasteful electronica. Their minimalistic approach leaves ample space for improvisation and for the joy of playing together to shine through and leave its imprint on the listener. It certainly left a mark on me. Discovering the music Svaneborg Kardyb has been one of the musical highlights of 2022 for me, making this interview a fitting way to close out the year. Many thanks to Nikolaj and Jonas for taking the time to chat!

Regarding the formation of the band, I understand that the two of you first met and began discussing the possibility of the project six years before it happened. Can you tell us a little bit about what sparked the idea and how it finally came together?

Nikolaj: When we first met at the Conservatory in Aalborg all most ten years ago, we had the idea over a beer; ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a duo with only keys and drums?’ Maybe we forgot. Maybe we were too busy doing other projects. Anyway, the idea re-emerged when we both wanted a project without the tiring social media profiles, band practicing calendar logistics, booking emails etc. that we had gotten a bit used to at the time. We just wanted to play music. We wanted to re-experience the joy of a jam session without any other purpose than to have fun and play music. So, we met occasionally for morning jams over a half year period until we suddenly had enough material to make our first album.

How would you compare the music on ‘Over Tage’ to how things sounded when you were first starting out?

Nikolaj: Actually, the title track on the album ‘Over Tage’ was written all the way back in that half year time span when we first started the duo. But it didn’t fit on Knob, our debut album, and we didn’t really know what to do with it, to be honest. But then somehow, it actually became the catalyst for what we wanted with our third album. We ended up just sticking with our initial idea – three chords and one melody that develops and evolves slowly over time. Now with the only difference that we were much more confident in just sticking to the meditative vibe than before. It was so liberating that this idea actually worked for us and so it became very influential of how a lot of the other tracks on the album were treated – with subtle dynamic changes and less focus on melodies than our previous records.

The interplay of melody lines with rhythmic structures throughout the album is quite something, especially on tracks like “Orbit”, “Island”, and the title track. Do you typically tend to start with one or the other as the foundation of your improvisation or do they tend to evolve together?

Nikolaj: This is an excellent question. We compose most of our tunes while facing each other and since our duo is divided into exactly those two elements – rhythm and harmony/melody – the structures can emerge at the exact same time through improvisation with deep uncompromised attention to the other’s work. Jonas’ will count to four and whatever spontaneous idea evolves right there could be a full tune. Usually, it does require a bit of work to refine and sometimes we even need ‘learn how to play’ the tune afterwards. A tune like ‘Blik’ is actually one of these improvisations where the whole tune appeared and was fortunately recorded after the count-in.

We compose most of our tunes while facing each other and since our duo is divided into exactly those two elements – rhythm and harmony/melody – the structures can emerge at the exact same time through improvisation with deep uncompromised attention to the other’s work.

Can you tell us about how you assembled the gear that you each use? Both setups seem to be quite inventive and even a bit unconventional.

Nikolaj: I was in a small accident that in hindsight kind of shook my world. To treat myself a bit and try something else I bought an old Wurlitzer from a guy living almost out in the woods. It changed everything. All of a sudden, the simplest C-major chord sounded amazing, and my compositions changed radically. Then I found this old Juno 60 synthesizer that fitted perfectly on top of the Wurlitzer and furthermore behaved so naturally to my playing and sounds like something out of this world. Still after many years both instruments surprise me with things they can do and the sounds they can make.

Jonas: I have loved vintage drums for a long time. There is always some history, and every drum has its own vibe and sound, which can be inspiring to explore. In the duo I play an old Ludwig marching bass drum 26×10 – when I first tried it, I was surprised how warm and full it was, without being too much. And I have stuck with it since. The floor tom and the snare drum are both Ludwig WLF from 58’. Besides that, I like using all kinds of percussion to blend in with the drum kit or play the kit with maracas instead of drumsticks… this can be a great obstacle that leads to new beats and melodies within the grooves.

Improvisation clearly plays a big role in how you create music. How about when you perform live?

Jonas: Improvisation plays an even bigger role when we play live. We can stretch the tunes if we want to, new ideas show, we have open intros and endings. Also, the way we get from one tune to the other is often improvised. We have tunes and a set list, but we will always improvise our way through. It is a lot of fun, and it keeps the curiosity alive every night and demands that we are present while playing together.

Links: Over Tage | Bandcamp | Svaneborg Kardyb

What is the significance of the title of the album? I have my guesses by very interested to your take.

Nikolaj: ‘Over Tage’ means ‘Over Rooftops’. We had this idea of a child standing on toes, reaching for the sky, naively convinced that it’s within grasp, only to heel down and in an instance re-surface into the real world. We wanted to levitate but without drifting too far away, still connected to the everyday live. We found that place to be Over Rooftops.

I understand lots of coffee was consumed in the making of ‘Over Tage’. Any special kind? Curious minds want to know!

Jonas: Haha. This is a good question. At the moment we both love the AeroPress. It’s handy and you can make really tasty and different cups of coffee. The coffee beans vary… but right now I’m trying some elephant beans from Nicaragua.

Finally, anything you want to tell us about coming up in the near term? New projects? Tour plans?

Nikolaj: We just shared our tour plan for the winter and spring with some exciting stops on the way. For instance, we are visiting Montreal in February and the amazing Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg on the 8th of April. We are working on a bunch of other European shows as well, which will be announced along the way.

Photo by Martin Baltser