September 6, 2018
On behalf of the readers who haven’t run into you online or offline, who is Steffen Westmark?
Steffen: Well, I’ve been playing music for the best part of my life. I started when I was about 11 years old and was taking guitar lessons with a friend of mine. We started The Blue Van when we were 14 and we’ve been making music together ever since. Because we lived in the countryside in the Northern part of Jutland there was not much to do, so music became a hobby. And then more than a hobby, playing music became everything and has taken us a lot of places. I’ve done a great deal of solo stuff, as well. I guess that’s the short version.
Yeah, at least from what I could find, you have two solo projects?
Steffen: S. Westmark is a collection of leftover songs from having made all the albums with The Blue Van. With S. Westmark, I put together 5–7 years of lost songs that have been lying around and were piling up. It was a therapy session for me to get those songs out onto an album. I also learned a lot from getting all those songs out on my own.
I wanted to then build an alter ego which is Peppermint B. With Peppermint B, I really wanted to do a positive record, with songs that are uplifting and feel like summer. Even the name sounds like a vitamin you take when you’re feeling down. Whenever you’re down, you should take a dose of Peppermint B.
You’re right, you can hear the joyfulness so clearly in these Peppermint B songs. There definitely seems to be a lot of intentionality and thought behind all of your projects and how they come across to the audience. Is that something that has always been the case?
Steffen: Writing songs is like making a movie inside of people’s heads. I see in my head what the song is about, what story it tells, the feeling that needs to come across, the images. I can come across a sentence that fits a song, but if it takes me mentally to a different place than where I want the song to be, I will rewrite it two-three times. What you say is so important with all the bullshit that’s out there.
With the Blue Van, for example, we try to be sincere instead of being an introverted band that’s just playing their songs. We try to help everyone at the concert participate in what is going on and make the experience a two way communication. People paid good money, and even more than money — they took off time to see our show, which is probably the most valuable currency right now. There is digital noise everywhere. When you have people in a room for an hour and a half you just have to do the best you can.
Do you see a difference between audiences in the US and Denmark?
Steffen: Yeah, I guess there is a difference. In America, there is more musical culture. A lot of people we play to grew up on good music from massive musicians and artists. In Denmark, you have a very different musical tradition, it’s very poppy, which makes it more difficult for bands outside of pop to shine through. We’ve had great shows and not so great shows in both places. It’s hard to figure out why. It of course all depends on what’s going on in the moment.
What about trying to connect in a room with people? How is, let’s say, playing a home concert as opposed to playing a festival?
Steffen: It’s way more intense to do an intimate show.
When you play a festival you can put on your big rock act and tumble all over the stage and scream a lot because you really want to get everybody to participate, even at the very back of the tent. At a festival people tend to take off from work and go on vacation and the concert becomes a vacation as well, which unfortunately sometimes leads to a lot of talking during the concert no matter if it’s Patti Smith or us or a big band. It happens all over, but here in Denmark you have a lot of talking at concerts — people have been out having drinks and just want to have a good time.
Music becomes this ambiance, background sound.
Steffen: Yeah, exactly. The Danes use music as tapestry, which is a bit of a shame. That’s why you have to bring out the big guns when you play a festival. But it’s also fun to put in the effort to try to bring in an audience and focus on people and call them out if you can see that they are not participating. It’s OK to take a picture, but if you are in the front row you should try to put away your phone and stop talking.
For me, home shows are much more intimate and I get more nervous or fragile because it’s more intense, which can be a good thing. When I get nervous I tend to talk a lot and laugh a lot and I sometimes end up saying things that I wasn’t planning on saying. Sometimes you can also say some bullshit and expose yourself by coming off as an idiot, but that’s kind of the game.
It’s also that sincerity that you talked about earlier. There is no filter anymore. In the description of your upcoming Low-Fi concert, I could see that you promise to disarm the audience. What can we expect?
Steffen: Disarm or charm? [Chuckles]
That’s the good thing about these intimate shows. You can’t be obnoxious or talking to the person next to you. They provoke people to really listen to what’s going on. I sometimes play around with that and make a quiet song even more quiet and maybe slower and I fool around more with the song. This kind of setting is also a place to showcase your talent and variety. You can sing a song in a more emotional way or sing it louder or make it completely quiet.
It can also be very frightening. I sometimes forget a chord or a verse because it’s so intense, you’re so present and there is no band behind you to keep on playing the song for you to fall back into. I guess that’s also what I love about it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big show or a small show — you kind of win people over if there is a mistake. People see you completely for what you are. You are just a human being who just happens to have a great interest in music and maybe has a talent for making music or maybe they’ve been working with music for so long that they developed that talent.
Why does music matter?
Steffen: [Sighs] That’s a big question that I can answer in a million ways.
I guess for me music is as important as history. There is a mechanism that starts within a human soul as soon as you listen to music. Music that follows you throughout your life can all of the sudden make you recall a memory. In that way, music is a map of my life. I don’t know why putting a melody over a line of words influences us so much, yet it’s so universal in a way and it connects people. When you don’t get into the tapestry department, there’s nothing more beautiful than being at a show that is so good that you get into this ecstatic feeling and you can’t help but cry or laugh because the experience is so powerful. And you share that experience with the people you are at the show with.
That was a very cool answer. Now I’m curious about the rest of the 999999 reasons. Any last comments?
Steffen: I am looking forward to this particular concert with Low-Fi because it will probably be people who know me that show up and who maybe come with some expectations. But in this kind of format, you don’t feel obligated to play a lot of hits, so I think I’ll do some songs that I don’t usually play, maybe a cover. If I were to go to a Low-Fi concert with someone I would feel really treated if the musician played a cover and wrapped it up in a story. I guess I’ll have to watch myself and make sure I don’t only tell stories, but also play some songs.