Hess Is More makes his American debut
The Danish musician plays pop-and tennis-in New York.
Thu Jun 18 2009
Photograph: Lasse Bak Mejlvang / Vs. Magazine
Mikkel Hess sits in the waiting area of the East River Park tennis courts, clad in proper tennis whites and eating from a large bag of cherries. If life were a detergent commercial, disaster would be imminent. Hess, 33, has the seedlings of a serious beard, mirrored sunglasses and, at his feet, a large Babolat racket bag. As he grants an interview, fellow players look at him askance: Who is this mysterious tennis star...and what is he doing so far from Roland Garros?
To his dismay, Hess is not some rock-star tennis professional, but rather a less cool breed: a rock-star rock star—at least in his native Denmark, where young people walk the streets whistling “Ssshhhh,” the latest single he’s issued under the name Hess Is More. “If I had lived in a big country,” Hess deadpans, “I would now be rich.” In New York, where he has resided for a year, Hess Is More is just gaining traction. Hits, his fourth album and American debut, is fresh out on Nublu, the recording arm of the chic East Village club. The album is a pure pop statement, abounding with juicy melodies and electronic beats. It is also unabashedly funny, with Hess assuming vocal guises from goofball to lothario. “I take it very seriously to be playful,” the singer says. “If I come up with a really stupid idea, I try to leave it on the album. If you edit yourself too much, things get boring.”
The future author of “Would Would You Like to Disco” grew up repulsed by pop music: a jazz snob in short pants, struggling to persuade schoolmates of Michael Jackson’s inferiority to Miles Davis. Hess studied drumming at a Copenhagen conservatory under jazz veteran Ed Thigpen. “I was more interested in playing tennis,” he recalls, “but I guess I had more talent for music.” Earlier in the day at his Noho studio, Hess had sat in the midst of his instruments, pouring over Roger Federer YouTube clips—the symbolic converse of the legion of tennis stars with rock & roll dreams.
Although he eventually was lured to the pop world, Hess approaches his band from a jazzer’s perspective, basing his live act around improvisation. At the Hits release show Friday 19 at 92YTribeca, Hess’s band—which includes his older brother Nikolaj, Danish producer Jenno, and Norwegian singer and actor Bang Chau—will feature an especially enticing pair: his parents. A retired lawyer (Dad) and painter (Mom), the Hesses have joined their son onstage in the past, most notably at the colossal Danish festival Roskilde. “There were all these club kids desperately hungover,” Hess says. “I thought, If I were attending the festival, I would probably like to see my parents for a minute. Some of our work is 'cool’ and on the radio or whatever. I like to mix it up with something that’s not about being at the right place, but is just genuinely inter—”
Tweeet! The East River tennis minder blows his whistle, signaling the change in courts. Hess shoots up like a spring and heads out to hit with his interviewer, the mighty Williamsburg Bridge looming behind him. The musician hits graceful, exacting ground strokes. Attempt to overpower him, and he methodically drags the tempo; he would sooner flub a shot, it seems, then sacrifice form. Told this, the Dane smiles humbly. “Of course I love to win,” he says. “But I have to win with my game. You can compare that to my music. I want people to buy my record. I want them to buy millions. But it has to be the authentic music that I like to make.”
For years, tennis idols have operated under the notion that the public wishes to witness them play electric guitar; no doubt, the disillusioned souls suffer from the same affliction that causes NBA players to rap. Yet one former tennis star has retired into a successful music career: Yannick Noah, the 1983 French Open sensation who scores big pop hits in France. He headlines shows at Hiro Ballroom Saturday 20 and Central Park SummerStage Sunday 21. The concerts mark Noah’s U.S. debut—ignoring, of course, his time spent on the court.