It’s a crisp, cold morning in the deserted lobby of a Camden hotel and the Katzenjammer girls are running late, delayed by a combination of tour exhaustion and trying to wrestle their belongings into weathered suitcases that refuse to close. “I never sleep through my alarm,” apologises a tired but smiling Marianne Sveen as she eventually shuffles onto an armchair beside bandmate Turid Jørgensen and a mountain of luggage.
Katzenjammer are on a winning streak. This morning’s sleepy faces belie a string of triumphant live appearances across the continent, where their colourful style has translated into soaring record sales, critical acclaim and a growing worldwide audience. Today, they regale me with stories of autographing fans’ body parts, a new found love for playing squash on the road, and the discomforts of having four women menstruating on a tour bus simultaneously.
Like the naughty children from the old cartoon that inspired their name, Katzenjammer have a good-natured rebellious streak that they say manifests itself in a refusal to bind themselves to any musical limitations. Not content with being four accomplished multi-instrumentalists, the band switch vigorously between a freewheeling combination of pop, folk, rock, blues, country, gypsy punk, cabaret and more, apparently without breaking a sweat. On paper, such exhibitionist dexterity might come across as pretentious, but in practice Katzenjammer are distinctly laid back and egalitarian.
“It’s interesting, writing songs for the band. We are always on the lookout for the one thing we haven’t done yet, like the missing piece in the puzzle. Our inspiration comes from a lot of different places, but the fact there isn’t a frontperson in Katzenjammer means that it’s harder to concentrate on our individual feelings – we tend to focus on the whole, and it works!,” exclaims Marianne, her face lighting up.
Katzenjammer’s live personae are strikingly individual yet mutually complementary, each taking their turn to sing and swap instruments in a seemingly endless merry-go-round. These ladies certainly know how to command a stage. Anne Marit Bergheim’s “circus monkey” hat trick – playing the harmonica, accordion and glockenspiel all at once, as well as singing – has to be seen to be believed. Indeed, all four women are continuously using all their available physical apparatuses (limbs, hands, feet, mouths) to create an impressively rich sound, infused with elements of vaudeville, cabaret, honky tonk and a refusal to take themselves too seriously.
At once breathtakingly talented musicians and rip-roaring entertainers, they revel in a high level of audience participation, daring the crowd to sing along to anthemic choruses and Nordic ditties. I was eager to know where they get their energy from. ”Basically, all you have to do is go on stage. When we go on stage together something just happens,” explains Marianne. “You just know you want to give the audience the very best you can, and if you have it in you to give them that extra 10% then you somehow pull it off.” “We get a lot of energy from the crowd,” adds Turid. “The moment you get on stage and there are hundreds of people cheering at you, you forget everything else.”
It quickly becomes clear that beneath the bands cheerful spirit lie deep commitment and ambition, and that the theatrics a more casual observer might dismiss as fluff are underpinned by serious musicianship. “Sometimes people still seem surprised that we are all girls playing in this band,” says Marianne matter of factly, “but we became Katzenjammer completely by accident. Anne Marit found some old instruments in her attic and invited Solveig [Heilo] to play with her, and eventually me and Turid joined in and started writing songs together.” But surely such musical talent is inborn?
“I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be a musician. I was more of a sportswoman,” chuckles Turid. “But I was very lucky my parents always let me do whatever I wanted. I think in Norway I also had the financial security to pursue my dreams… I knew that even if I failed at something I would still be able to survive, and that’s been very liberating.”
This inherent free spiritedness permeates the breadth of Katzenjammer’s work and seems to be their defining characteristic, but that is not to say that they lack direction. Their 2009 debut album Le Pop saw them begin to flex their mighty musical versatility, but in the follow-up A Kiss Before You Go, out in the UK on May 7, we see the band move toward a more cohesive sound – maturing into their confidently camp modus operandi, perhaps.
“We take a lot of inspiration from films,” muses Marianne, “and our new album was heavily inspired by ‘The City Of Lost Children’ and all the steampunk paraphernalia.’ A Kiss Before You Go somehow crams in nuances of Aretha Franklin, Metallica, Genesis, Gogol Bordello and Dolly Parton in the space of twelve tracks. From the outset, it is quite an ambitious undertaking; chaotic at times but with moments of utter brilliance. The closing number, ‘God’s Great Dust Storm’ – perhaps the most strikingly beautiful track on the album – is a sing-to-the-rafters, four-piece a cappella number that showcases Katzenjammer’s considerable vocal abilities to spine-tingling effect.
“We are always looking to try something new,” smiles Turid, and it’s this contagiously positive attitude that lights up their performances and looks set to make 2012 their best year yet. Katzenjammer are ultimately about making their audiences let go and have fun, and with so many different tricks up their sleeves, only the hardest cynic would fail to dance on command. In January they announced on their Facebook page that their New Year’s resolution was to play another ten instruments on stage – now that I would like to see!
Katzenjammer play the Scala in London tonight – get tickets here – and they’ll be back in May for more gigs to mark the UK release of A Kiss Before You Go on May 7.