Music transcends borders, we’ve often heard it said. But that has never been truer for a certain Danish pop and soft rock group whose music, ever since their debut in the ’80s, have taken them to the furthest flung corners of the globe — a lot of it in Asia. After all, how many bands can boast of a sold-out concert in Yangon?
Yet, 22 years after their first album, Michael Learns to Rock did just that last week when they performed at the Myanmarese city, prepping for their return to the UAE on Thursday at the Dubai Tennis Stadium.
“We’ve been all over Asia over the years but never to Myanmar. It’s funny, it is only in the last few years that we’ve realised our music has expanded way beyond territories where our records were sold,” says drummer Kåre Wanscher. “It’s a great feeling. Think about it, in the last one and a half years, we have been to Nepal, Mongolia and Bangladesh. And now we’re coming back to Dubai after 10 years.”
Often referred to as a soft rock group, Michael Learns to Rock released their first self-titled album in 1991. But it was the second album, Colours, released in the 1993 with the singles Sleeping Child, 25 Minutes and Complicated Heart that gave the band their first international exposure and introduced them to Asia, a region they would later flourish in.
Despite never really breaking into the US or much of Europe, the band’s straightforward lyrics and melodies became massive hits in countries like the Philippines, China, India, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, finding favour amongst countries who spoke English as a second language, going on to sell more than 11 millions albums. The eighth, ‘Scandinavia’, was released last year.
“It’s really hard to explain,” says Wanscher of the band’s undying appeal in Asia. “It’ funny because we’ve often have to do that.
“One of the things we try to say to people is to go to Asia, and into a karaoke lounge and feel the atmosphere and see the kind of music Asians like to sing to. They like these kind of love songs. Once you’ve seen that, you will be able to understand why our music fits so well into the scheme of things. I’m sure there are 20 other reasons but that’s the best I can come up with.”
Lead singer and chief songwriter Jascha Richter is more pragmatic: “We are on the same level as our fans. We are ordinary people who make music for ordinary people,” he says. “That being said, everyone is special. And we might be more adventurous than other bands. Meaning that the experience of playing a concert far away counts even more than the money we are paid.”
Some critics have often called their music and simple lyrics downright cheesy though.
“I love the beauty of simplicity in both music and lyrics,” says Richter laughing. “Cheesy with marmalade on top would be a better description. Have you ever tried that? My favourite for breakfast!
“I always wrote songs more with the heart, than with the brain. Music always comes first,” he adds, referring to how his songwriting has evolved over the years. “While the lyrics for the older songs came to life in a more unconscious way, the newer songs has more conscious lyrics. Therefore the older lyrics are more dreaming while the later lyrics are more about the real life. It has always been hard work to find the melodies that “make me feel”.
The cheese reference doesn’t bother Wanscher either.
“Yes, we’ve been called many things,” he laughs. “But the truth is, we have millions of fans around the world that like our music. And at the end of the day, that’s what really matters. If people find it cheesy they can just stop listening. And that’s just fine with us.”
For fans in Dubai, it will be one for the memories, the pair promise.
“We recently started to use a new bass player Troels Skjaerbaek. He’s really good, and for the first time in a very long time, we sound exactly like when we started this band, when we play live,” says Richter. “We’ve been working with some nice visuals on big screen, that will support the songs as we go along. But remember, the biggest part of a Michael Learns To Rock concert is having people singing along with the songs, creating an incredible atmosphere.”
And a mix of old and new, adds Wanscher.
“We will be as we’ve always done focusing on giving people a great evening. It will be a lot of songs from the new album, because we love to play that, and people can be sure that they will also get all the songs they have loved over the years. We will try to do a little bit of each and just focus on giving people a good time.
“We can’t wait to see Dubai too because we heard it has changed so much in the last 10 years.”
After Dubai, it’s back to Copenhagen where they are based, and then back to the Philippines for another tour. Interestingly, the band members also work full time jobs: Wanscher is a lawyer by day, Richter is into app developments and Mikkel Lentz, the guitarist, composes music for movies.
Do they sometimes feel like calling it a day? It’s been 25 years after all.
“Yes, every day!” jokes Richter, who says of the eight studio albums, ‘The Actor’ is his favourite song, “because it’s the most special composition”.
Wanscher, a father-of-five, says he feels blessed to be able to do what he does.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to stick together as band and travel to all these places,” he says. “The whole thing about MLTR has been overwhelming in a positive way, it’s been very hard to find the negative aspect in all of this.
“All our dreams have been fulfilled and we are still able to spread a word of happiness and love for music. Every time we jump into an aero plane. It’s always different. It’s a great feeling. We are lucky guys.”