A magic dwells in all beginnings

Esben Valløe and Mads Damsgaard, the guys behind Reptile Youth, seemed unstoppable for six crazy years. In Aarhus where they united their creative energy, they now went through their baptism of fire as independent solo-artists. 

by Imke Schacht & Annabella Stieren

It is dark, it is filthy, it is loud – the crowd is ecstatic. Feets are stamping to the thriving electronic bass sounds, heads are waving with the energetic sizzly drums – faster and more intense as the musicians increase the speed. Sweaty bodies meet each other, joined in a dance to the beats of Esben Valløe’s techno music.

Cut, complete change of scene.

A barefooted man with long blond curly hair stands on a stage of a big hall which pours a charm of an orchestral powerhouse – bright spotlights are pointed at him and on a shiny black grand piano. Large-size projected, dreamlike visuals appear in the back. The audience is stock-still, listening to this clear voice and soft piano sounds. Who is this fragile-looking guy pouring his heart out? “No way, it’s Reptile Youth frontman Mads Damsgaard!” one may call out.

The conditions for a concert, the atmosphere and the two musical performance could not be more different. Still, a year ago Esben and Mads were on the stage together, as one of Denmark’s most successful and famous electronic rock duo: Reptile Youth.

Esben and Mads were once Jutland boys. Their career began in Åarhus, when they met at the renown KAOSPILOT design and business school. Starting from Aarhus Reptile Youth conquered the stages of the world – over 200 concerts in more than 25 countries, remembered by their fans as neverending, crazy, energetic, sometimes violent and overwhelmingly powerful shows.

Their music was critically acclaimed for not fitting into one category: disco-pop, punk, rock, indie, electro-synth – no one could clearly tell. In March 2015 they decided to split up: Singer Mads Daamsgaard kept the name “Reptile Youth”, ex-bassist Esben Valløes founded a new project “Antonio Gram”. This years’ SPOT festival weekend was moment of truth for them: In Aarhus where they united their creative energy over six years ago, they went through their baptism of fire as independent solo-artists.

Reptile Youth: Speeddance (official music video) from Rasmus Weng Karlsen on Vimeo.

The story about the names

Mads and Esben decided that Mads will continue with the name of Reptile Youth.

“I feel that there is lots of more music to be written for Reptile Youth,” he says.

Esben was not very keen to keep it.

“Mads is the lead singer, so it was kind of natural that he kept the name.”

Even though Esben can still relay on a large network of music professionals, with Antonio Gram he has to start from the scratch. Nobody knows this name, and what is the meaning of it, anyhow? Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was an Italian philosopher who was put into prison by the fascists. Instead of letting this constrain his work, he took the time to create his best pieces. Esben was amazed by the story a person that  can be creative in the worst situations and saw life as a chance.

“We all have our little prisons in everyday life, it may be a space, waiting for a delayed plane, or a relationship.”

To overcome them and break out with your mind is the idea behind Antonio Gram. The fact that he started with Antonio Gram already during the Reptile Youth time, might indicated that the band was his little prison, that he now got out from. Mads, however, does not see Reptile Youth as a prison. Moreover, he sees the overall energy that comes with the project as well as all the possibilities for future collaborations.

Esben and Antonio Gram: Dance, Sweat, Techno

Jammed together in the intimate special atmosphere of Double Rainbow, Aarhus famous alternative club for electronic music, around 200 people experienced the first show of Antonio Gram last weekend during SPOT Festival. Antonio who?Antonio Gram is Esben Valløes new solo-project since the split up with Reptile Youth. In the protected zone of friends and drunk techno-loving party people, the Double Rainbow show was a rehearsal concert before their big premiere in Voxhall on SPOT Saturday.

Dance, Sweat, Techno: Antonio Gram at Voxhall. Photo by: Annabella Stieren

Dance, Sweat, Techno: Antonio Gram at Voxhall. Photo by: Annabella Stieren

Bassist Esben has always been the more “electronic” half of Reptile Youth. He says that electronic music is his roots and his future. He loves German techno and moved to Berlin, the mecca for lovers of repetitive, instrumental music. With Antonio Gram he has found the freedom to express and experiment with his roots. He seems truly fulfilled with his new project: enthusiasm shining out of his eyes, when he talks about the electronic journey he and his new team of musicians have embarked on. Before the big second SPOT show Esben wants to take out the whole crew to Oli-Bistro in Mejlgade.

“I reserved a table for 13 people, and I call it a solo-project, isn’t that funny?”

For Antonio Gram, Esben, has indeed gathered a lot of inspiring musicians around him. He himself is the anchor, the fixing point of the performance. At the rear of the stage, behind his set-up of synthesizers and pedals he creates the framework of every song: the musical idea, the rhythms, tunes and the melody elements. His crew members add the spices. The singer Emma Sehested provides the vocals to the first and so-far only released quite slow pop single “Demons.” She sings live on stage the same opening number, and shows up several times along the way. The young Danish poet Casper Eric grabs the microphone at one point – a female dancer jumps on the stage giving performance that leaves the audience stunned at how much energy a person can possess. It all merges into each other: controlled chaos, kept together by Esben’s ever changing beats.

Some the passages are dreamy, melancholic held in minor keys, others are fast-paced and highly danceable. Simple pop-songs frames mix with hip-hop elements always underlined by rattling, driving techno rhythms that are so typical for the Berlin scene. The music would not be possible without the inspiring input of all the artists involved, Esben explains. Still he sees himself as the leader.

“It is like a sailing boat, it doesn’t work without the crew but somebody has to be the captain.”

He is also the one who writes the music, and soon wants to release an album, with the performed tracks.


The sensitive side of Reptile Youth: Mads Daamsgaard  

According to Mads Damsgaard, performing at the Store Sal, the heart of the Musikhuset was a big step for him towards the future but also part of his past.

“I was so nervous coming back home, presenting myself to the crowd.”

He recently came back from L.A., mentally and physically, he still did not seem to be completely returned to the stage, though. He could rely on the fantastic VJ Abigail Portner and his pianist Jakob Torp Littaur. Before the show at SPOT Festival, there were a couple of live performances but still as a musician who started his career in Åarhus, he was excited and even a little anxious performing in front of the home crowd.

Knowing Reptile Youth as an enthusiastic electro-based Duo, it is almost odd to see and hear frontman Mads in this sensitive role. Titles like “Black Swan Born White” or “Where You End I Begin” musically accompanied only by a piano gave an idea of how sentient his news songs are. With Esben he would or could just let his wild and destructive side out, simply he felt it is time to give the other part a golden chance. Reptile Youth fans remember him as the stage-diving, crazy, impulsive energetic rockstar, that everybody wanted to take home, to have the night of their lives. But there is a sensitive, sorrowful part of him which Mads felt keenly when he was at a young age and suppressed for a longest time. Finally, this solo project allows him to open up a new chapter that has its beginning in his past. With watery eyes, he seems almost released while talking about it.

A sensative performance Mads Damsgard with pianist and visuals by on the stage of Musikhuset Photo by: Annabella Stieren

A sensative performance Mads Damsgard with pianist and visuals by on the stage of Musikhuset Photo by: Annabella Stieren

Standing there in the middle of the stage, the present audience could strongly sense his emotions: his voice cracks, he swallows, inhales deeply, manages to sing again. For a second, it seems like his greatest concern becomes reality that his voice fails during the live performance.

“It is Saturday night on a festival. I thought people would get drunk and party for good. I would not been miffed if some drunk guys would have bawled from the back. I am glad and really thankful for such an attentive audience.”

There are glances of truthful affection in his eyes when he talks about the festival crowd that night.

Discovering the sensitive side of Reptile Youth: Mads Damsgaard. Photo by: Annabella Stieren

Discovering the sensitive side of Reptile Youth: Mads Damsgaard. Photo by: Annabella Stieren

Abigail Portner’s visuals, the imagery of Animal Collective, added even more emotional spices on top of the live performance. Along with Jakob Torp Littaur fine piano tunes and Mads emphatic vox, her visuals created an eerie atmosphere but then also a feeling of exuberance. While working together, she listened to Mads songs and interpreted it her way without any influence of Mads. Abigail senses fluidity when she heard the songs, Mads explains, that is why there is a lot of water integrated: images of colourful drops and waves. At that night, there were indeed three parts that conspire something pure, raw, even mystical on stage.

“It is like standing there naked. To a certain degree it is really frightening but at the same time utterly relieving.”

Even though the new project is a matter close to his heart, Mads does not want to give up Reptile Youth which stands for his “not willing to grow up”-character. Ultimately, there are two hearts beating in his chest equally –  that is what he has proven entirely with his live performance at SPOT Festival.


What is the new sounds?

Even though fans of the old Reptile Youth may not want this to be true, it seems that both Esben and Mads have found their happiness and peace with themselves as creative individuals. Both take a part of the Reptile Youth with them: Esben the ecstatic, sexy show and danceable sounds, Mads the name, the depth of the lyrics and sensitivity Reptile Youth always had as well. Antonio Gram may provide the soundtrack of a crazy night in a club, where you fall in love with the girl that you danced with for hours. Mads Damsgaard as the new Reptile Youth should be on your playlist, when you try to seduce her with deep conversations on the first date afterwards. Their new sound in three words? Esben smiles, Mads has to think for a while: “Good techno songs”, “Listen to it!”, are their answers. Guess who said what…

Wanna hear more?

Antonio Gram just announced their first show in Berlin  at DNA for June 11.

Mads and Reptile Youth will play in Berlin as well on October 8th in Kantine am Bargain. Until the zoo can enjoy his performance with Abby Portner here:

Reptile Youth vs. Abby Portner – Structures (MB live session) from Reptile Youth on Vimeo.


Annabella Stieren is a German journalist based in Aarhus, and currently one of the Culture Editors for Jutland Station.

Imke Schacht is a guest contributor from Germany. She helped covering the SPOT festival and currently organizes the famous KALTSTART theater festival in Hamburg.