International best-selling crime author. Singer, songwriter and guitarist. Writer of film and television scripts and children’s books. A-league footballer. Successful stockbroker. Norwegian Jo Nesbø has ticked more off his bucket list than most people ever dream of. Now, 20 years after the release of his band Di Derre’s hit single Jenter (Girls), Nesbø is putting down his pen and picking up his guitar again.
Nesbø recently returned to Norway off the back of a whirlwind international book tour which saw his latest novel, Politi (Police) top the New York Times Best Sellers list. Nesbø penned his first crime novel at the height of Di Derre’s popularity. Now he’s refocusing on his role as the band’s singer, songwriter and guitarist. Di Derre has just released a compilation album, Historien om et band (The history of a band) and a new single, Syk (Sick). The group is also set to start playing live again for the first time since Nesbø’s guitarist brother Knut died of cancer in February, aged 51.
Nesbø may have taken a hiatus from the band, but it hasn’t stopped him playing some intimate shows with friends over the past few years. No soundcheck, no entry fee, just playing songs perched on a bar stool.
“I think that’s fun. It’s like how Øystein Paasche (from popular 1980s Norwegian band DeLillos) said to me once when we came home from a tour, ‘it’s weird to go to bed at night without having had applause’,” Nesbø told newspaper Dagsavisen recently. “I sit there and write, whole days are completely quiet, it can be very introverted. Then it’s good to pick up the guitar, cycle somewhere, play a little with a friend and get a little applause.”
Nesbø grew up in a household with an American country music-loving father, and a Beatles-mad older brother. When he was a little older, Nesbø’s started listening to glam, art and prog-rock bands like Emersen, Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull, David Bowie and Frank Zappa. He was then swept up in the new wave of American rock, with bands like REM, Green on Red and Dream Syndicate.
A turning point came when Nesbø first heard ’80s Norwegian rock musician Jokke on his way to a Bruce Springsteen concert in Sweden. Nesbø returned to his band in Bergen, full of ideas. “There were four names that influenced me, Springsteen, Jokke, Imperiet and Alf Prøysen,” explained Nesbø. “Jokke was an eyeopener for starting to write in Norwegian, even though (mid-20th century writer and musician) Alf Prøysen had been there before.”
Nesbø traces a link from Prøysen to The Great Four, the name given to seminal ’80s Norwegian language rock bands DeLillos, Jokke and Valentinerne, DumDum Boys and Raga Rockers. While Di Derre has sold more records than The Great Four put together, Nesbø told Dagsavisen that his band is not as important.
“We saw ourselves as the guys in the back row, who came with little comments rather than being forerunners,” said Nesbø. “They were the first bands that spoke to us as intelligent people in Norwegian. Seriously, we were four friends from Molde without ambition.”
Nesbø said he never wrote his own life into his music, which was what made Jokke and the other Great Four bands’ songs so powerful. “Jokke wrote hard and brutal truths about himself, while I had grown up in Molde. My songs dealt with a young man who longed for love.”
When one of Di Derre‘s tunes was picked up by a TV3 program the band started to attract attention, but the members still weren’t sure if they even wanted to make a record. “We went into that with strong doubts. But when you write your own songs, basically you want people to hear them.”
The band’s breakthrough came in 1994 with its second album, Jenter og Sånn (Girls and Stuff). It sold around 200,000 copies, and became one of the most successful in Norwegian music history.
Di Derre revivial
The new compilation album includes a DVD of the band playing around a kitchen table, filmed before Knut Nesbø died. “There were some good guitar solos,” Jo told Dagsavisen, noting that his brother was really pleased with the recording.
Di Derre held secret auditions to replace Knut during the launch party of Jo Nesbø’s last novel. Unni Wilhelmsen now joins bandmembers Nesbø, Espen Stenhammer, Magnus Larsen, Halvor Holter and Lars Jones.
Nesbø is confident the band can remain successful, despite his action-packed life. “Even though I sell books, it would be sad if I should stop playing.”
“What’s funny is, even though I might say Di Derre is not so important, it’s not me who decides that. I can say the songs are trifles, but it’s the public who makes the songs important, not the songwriter.” Nesbø believes the songs have lived on, independent of the band: “People have made them their own. And so the band has become better and better.”