Blood and Music

Heralded as Denmark's David Bowie, he dropped a trilogy of albums in just one year and seduced fans with raw lyrics and rambling storytelling. Danish music seems to have found a maverick in Bisse, but what lies behind the enigmatic frontman?

As quickly as he burst onto the Danish music scene with painted eyes and wild hair, it feels like Bisse has become more myth than man.

“If you check out one Danish artist, it has to be him,” a fellow train passenger advised me en route to the Roskilde Festival last month, tapping knowingly at his schedule. “It’s going to be fantastic.”

He wasn’t the only one who thought so. Although Bisse’s Roskilde debut was a late-night show at the indoor Gloria stage, a lengthy queue snaked all the way out the door with twenty minutes to go.

Bisse. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Bisse. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Perhaps punters had read the small handful of rave reviews off the back of  Bisse’s recent Copenhagen gigs. Critics have described the confrontational performer as a mythical beast, a Bowie-Cave hybrid in elaborate dress, and a skilled lyricist who interweaves raw, internal monologues with fantasy and brittle social critique. Unusually for most rising Scandinavian performers, Bisse also sings in his mother tongue.

Bisse – which translates to ‘thug’ – is the stage name of Thorbjørn Radisch, the former songwriter and guitarist of Spillemændene. In his latest incarnation, Radisch released a series of albums, dubbed the Blood Trilogy, in just under a year.

He’s clearly a man in overdrive, and the Roskilde program promised a total sensory experience at the show, warning that the artist was prone to leaping from the stage mid-performance. But on the night of the gig, the frontman seemed more enigmatic than energetic, pacing the stage in robes and raising his arms to the ceiling as if in prayer.

“You almost feel like a priest up there on the stage,” says Radisch, “Like you’re preaching to folks in a church, shouting about love, life and death.”

Bisse. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Bisse. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

With mascara-smudged eyes peeking out from under a cap, the performer looks considerably less dramatic when we meet in a quiet corner of the festival the morning after the show.

Radisch explains that while he usually loves to get out amongst the audience, the festival set-up was simply too big.

“I was afraid that if I jumped in there, I wouldn’t get up again. I’m 29, I have to take care of myself,” he laughs. 

I point out that he did manage to squat down and sing into the ear of an orange-vested crowd controller below the stage, breaking with concert convention by shining a spotlight on the invisible support staff.

“Yeah. The crowd controllers have to maintain a barrier between the artists and the crowd – for safety reasons of course – but it’s also my job to break down that barrier. That’s why they hired me, goddamn it!”

Bisse. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Bisse. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Life is like blood
The role of the artist often preoccupies Radisch. He talks about one of his inspirations, rock legend Nick Cave, who recently announced an upcoming album about grieving his lost son.

“I just can’t help thinking about Nick Cave earning money from the death of his son. It’s the world’s best PR story. I lost my son, here’s an LP. It costs 12 pounds,” he says.

“But then, it is so generous to share pain. When people are sad or in despair, they engage with music, books and movies because they are searching for answers. But artists don’t give answers, they open your mind. Then you search for the answers yourself.” He pauses. “Like Google.”

Radisch says the Blood Trilogy – made up of the three albums PMS, Umage and Happy Meal – explores the human experience, starting with the individual and spiralling out to society at large. PMS deals with the bleeding of an individual body, Umage with the “pathetic” pain of unrequited love, while Happy Meal addresses the blood that is shed through war and the refugee crisis.

For the singer-songwriter, blood carries layers of meaning.

“There’s blood coursing through the body and from the heart, upwards through the society. Blood is also a very beautiful material, I love it. The deep red colour, the taste of iron and sugar, and its thickness. Life is not smooth or fixed, it’s like blood – moving all the time,” he says. 

“Trilogies are also bullshit. In a sense, all the albums I make will be ‘blood’ albums. But these three were also metaphorically concrete.” 

Bisse. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Bisse. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Radisch didn’t mean to create a trilogy, intending to follow-up PMS with Happy Meal’s sharp social criticism. But then his girlfriend left him, spawning  the deeply personal Umage.

“It was important to me to make that album and to prove to myself I could write about my feelings. I’ve written songs for ten years and people would always point out that they were highly constructed and otherworldly, dealing mostly with fiction,” he says. 

I ask whether that makes it harder to perform Umage live.

“No, I’m over it now. Now the songs are the only things left. They are like beautiful gravestones.”

It is not surprising that Radisch’s music often focuses on broader issues. He says he was highly politically active as a teenager, and once protested a new law in the Danish parliament.

“But more critically I felt like life was such a joke, such a mystery, and you couldn’t take it seriously.” 

He applies the same wry detachment when talking about music festivals.

“They are a hedonistic experience and evoke pagan rituals, but they’re also a bit disgusting. People are dying on the streets out in the world, and in here everyone is drunk,” he says, adding that reflecting on the world at large and transforming it into music can also be an isolating experience.

“Artists are very liberated. But that means you liberate yourself from a lot of commitments, and that’s also sad. Sometimes you feel like you’re floating. In Danish, there is this saying – when you write about the world, you have stand outside and look in.”

He pauses, and reflects on his own way of looking at the world.

“When I was younger and I wanted to make sense of the world, I got this sense that when I died, the world would end. Once I closed my eyes, it would be gone. Now that I’m older, I’m ashamed of thinking this way – it sounds egocentric.”

Bisse. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Bisse. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Don’t believe the hype
Performing at Roskilde Festival represents a career milestone for many Danish artists. But Radisch has been making music for ten years and holds no illusions about the hype surrounding Bisse.

“When I first performed at Roskilde with my old band, I ended up so disappointed. I thought that it was our breakthrough. The reviews said that we were stars and I felt like a star. But it doesn’t work like that. Next week, when I play in Copenhagen again, there will probably only be 100, 250 people tops,” he says. 

“I am a niche artist for now. That doesn’t say much about me, but it says a lot about Denmark. Everything is a niche. And there’s a lot of shitty niche music in Denmark.”

He’s also vocal about what he sees as his own musical limitations.

“I used to write the songs for my old band, and I became a solo artist because I wanted to perform my own material, so I could put myself into it. I’m not a great singer, but I’m very passionate.”

For Radisch, the fact that he could command a large crowd at Roskilde doesn’t necessarily herald a lucrative music career.

“At a festival, people come along for the party because they’ve heard I’m a crazy performer. I am becoming a bit known, sure, but I can’t make a living out of it yet,” he says.

Bisse. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Bisse. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

“Yesterday means nothing today. It was just a show. People had a thrill, but at the end of the day, it’s just a show.”

A week after Roskilde, Bisse performs to another packed house at the Royal Danish Playhouse in Copenhagen, and the energy is palpable. With only a makeshift stage set up in the foyer, the singer is able to freely plunge into the rapt audience. He moves chaotically about the stage, as if lost in the memories provoked by his own storytelling, and dives beyond the front-row to sing right into people’s faces.

I take along a friend who hasn’t seen him perform before. Afterward, her mouth is agape. “There was just so much feeling,” she says, as fans gather around the singer to shake his hand and buy a record.

There’s a buzz in the air, producing that collective “wow” that slips out when a roomful of people share in something powerful together. But it’s high summer, and there are endless concerts to attend in the months ahead. I wonder what Radisch thinks, whether he sees it as just another show. M

Features, Culture

By Lena Rutkowski

Politics & Society Editor. Lena is a journalist and translator from Australia. @Lenarutski

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