Beatles Obsessives: A Conversation with Todd & Karen

According to their Spotify bio, Todd & Karen is the moniker under which Norwegian-Irish pop musicians Øyvind Berge and Ina Verdi-Ruckstuhl release their quirky, ironic and melodious indie – often set in the imaginary world of Beardsley Boulevard. Todd & Karen think of themselves as a sort of musical love child of The Divine Comedy, The Beatles, Oasis, Monty Python, and Simon & Garfunkel.

First, I was somewhat shocked to find out that your names aren’t actually Todd and Karen. Where did those names come from?

Hi Marc! Yeah, a lot of people are a bit puzzled when they find out we’re actually Øyvind and Ina. The people who actually know us personally were also a bit puzzled. The thing is, we had a different name originally. We were going to be called Quirky Haggis. We both thought that was a really amusing name, and quite original. But someone close to the band noted that it made it seem like we were trying too hard: “You’d rather call yourself something like Todd & Karen.” So we did! And it works. We can be these personas, and when we deal with an international crowd they can pronounce our names more easily. Mind you, we never knew about the Karen memes. So that might be something worth looking out for on a future release.

I might add that I actually know a couple called Todd and Karen. They are friends of my family. It became a bit of a humourous thing, and a bit of a tribute to them at the same time. I hope they like it. I’ve promised them a band t-shirt each with the logo. So if you’re reading, I’ll get on that as soon as I can, guys!

What do you do—or who are you—when you’re not Todd and Karen?

Øyvind Berge (aka Todd)

We are Øyvind Berge and Ina Verdi-Ruckstuhl. Øyvind is from Telemark in Norway and Ina is born in Switzerland, but considers herself to be Irish – and a Cork native – as she spent most of her life there, landing here in Norway. We now both work as teachers at the same school, an international IB school in Kongsberg, Norway, teaching international kids in primary and secondary school. We struck up a real connection through joining the social committee at work. Ina and I started making comedy musical jingles for our colleagues’ birthdays, and we would gather the social committee to sing them and film them. They would typically be adaptations to famous songs. Through doing this, we started talking and decided “sod it, we need to start a proper band and make our own music!” We started coming up with too many original ideas. We needed a proper outlet for it.

We’ve both been involved in other projects before. Ina’s been playing in a classical orchestra back in Ireland. I recorded a folk-pop album in Norwegian back in 2005 with my band Sugar Plum Fairies, which garnered some local radio hits here, won a cultural award and we even got featured on a compilation disc in China. After that I’ve collaborated a bit with the hardest working man on the Norwegian indie scene – Paul Bernard – the guy who put out more singles on Spotify in the time it took me to change my socks, and I put out some singles under the moniker Sir Øyvind Berge & His Imaginary Orchestra about 9-10 years ago. We’d both had quite a long break from doing music actively when Todd & Karen came about though, so it’s been a great experience to get back at it.

Ina Verdi-Ruckstuhl (aka Karen)

I’m struck by how much your new single, “Cosmo Crowd,” is reminiscent of the Beatles. What’s the story there? The Beatles are obviously a touchstone for many musicians, but what personally draws you to them and their music?

Our musical world is completely shaped by The Beatles. I remember getting my hands on my sister’s recorded C90 tape of “The Beatles Ballads” as a kid and I was completely sold. “Across the Universe,” “Here, There & Everywhere” and “Here Comes The Sun” especially made a great impression on me. For us, it’s the inventiveness, the melodiousness and the whole vibe around the music that is so infectious. I never get tired of listening to The Beatles. You always find something to latch onto and I still, with the remastered versions coming out, find new things to discover in their songs.

I love the whole vibe of that “Cosmo Crowd.” The guitars and strings, the loping drumbeat—the whole package sounds amazing, reminiscent not just of the Beatles but also of Electric Light Orchestra and Oasis. What is your recording process? 

We really appreciate that. Thanks! This particular tune came about as a bit of a noodle last summer. I was just sitting around fiddling with my guitar and this chorus came around. To be honest, it sounded more like a Simon & Garfunkel folk ditty than a full on Oasis or Electric Light Orchestra-inspired piece. But once we worked out the verses and thought up the guitar solo, it got more and more Beatleesque, shall we say. We didn’t intend to, but things just inevitably head that way. What usually happens is then that we record quite rough – but might I add charming – home demos, where we put down as many track ideas as possible. We use these as the foundation when we go and record with our producer, Sigve. Or at least we have done up until now. We’ve only recorded four songs with him yet, but that’s been a great way to do it for us. He’s got this really nice, small room where all the magic happens. So we’re making sure we’re really prepared and have the songs more or less fleshed out on our demos, and then we are fairly efficient in the studio with him. It has worked out well for us so far.

By the way, thanks for mentioning Oasis. As you can imagine, we’re big fans of those Britpop bands of the 90s.

Absolutely! If you don’t mind getting technical, how did you get the guitar tone, and what did you use for the strings?

Oooh. Yeah. Well, there are a layer of guitars on the track. There is an electric rhythm guitar underneath it all – you hear it best at the beginning. It’s played with the volume on the amp way up, but the strings are muted by my right hand. An old power pop trick that gives it a certain punch. There is an electric guitar that doubles the bass guitar as well, attempting to get that “wandering bass” Macca feel to it all.

Thirdly, there is an acoustic guitar that our producer wizard, Sigve Høghaug, put through his 60s pop filters and it came out all psychedelic – kind of “Itchycoo Park”-sounding. I must admit I’m not sure what kind of plugins he utilized, but whatever it was it really worked, y’know. Sounds like a bit of a phaser to me, that goes well alongside the piano and mellotron track.

For the guitar solo, we just plugged Sigve’s state of the art Strat into a proper old school tube amp. You know that warm sound you get once the tubes has warmed up properly. We let it get warm and then I went to town doing my best Harrison.

The strings you hear is Ina multitracking a proper violin. The violin she plays is actually from the 1910s, I believe, so it has a really nice sound and a wonderful aura around it. It just added some grandeur to the whole thing, having the string part in the middle. We did the string recordings at home, using Cakewalk and a Scarlett home studio setup. Then we simply flew the tracks over to Sigve who seamlessly put them into the interlude. It’s the part of the song that makes people think of ELO, I suppose. Since we have the opportunity, we love using proper strings on our recording. It sounds so much better, we think. The whole Beatles thing come into it again there, doesn’t it? They started messing around with strings and brass and all around Sgt. Pepper.  

In addition to the Beatles, you also list Monty Python as an influence. How do they figure into what you do? 

As mentioned above, when we started to get to know each other a little better, we found that we had an affinity for the same kind of humour. Our music seems to have a bit of the Beatleesque and the Pythonesque flavour to it. We could have listed Blackadder and that kind of style as well. Even Vic & Bob and that kind of zany Brit humour from the 90s, for those in your readership that are connoisseurs. It’s just an attitude or a vibe, if you will. The reason we put Monty Python on there, is the fact that they also managed to put out some great music. The Rutles is one of the best comedy acts ever, and the music is brill. That whole thing came about on the fringes of the Monty Python universe. The Fab Four and the Pythons…you can’t beat that. They’re just a huge source of inspiration. Their creativity and boldness is fabulous. It doesn’t seem to age.

More broadly, why is humor an important element of your music? 

Despite being from Norway and Ireland – and we inevitably bring with us influences from the homelands in our music – our main common ground is British pop music of the 60s and 70s. If you look at every great band and artist from that era, there is lots of humour in the music. I keep hammering on about The Fab Four, but listen to “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number).” It’s 4-5 minutes of sheer infectious silliness. They were, of course, inspired by The Goons, i.e. the wonderful radio comedy group of the late 50s comprising giants like Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Listen to the early work of the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd: “I know a mouse and he hasn’t got a house, I don’t know why I call him Gerald.” The Kinks and many of their hits are bittersweet, but very funny at that. You know, that English whimsy really speaks to us and we relate to it. Later on you find it in the works of Neil Hannon. Just the idea of creating two pop concept albums about cricket, as he did with The Duckworth Lewis Method, is just something so silly, but it really appealed to us. If you haven’t heard the latter, do yourself a favour and check it out. Most of the Britpop bands from the 90s that I mentioned earlier had a healthy portion of humour in their output as well. Think “Bonehead’s Bank Holiday” by Oasis, for example, or anything by Pulp.

So these kind of things creep into our music as well. If you listen to “Mr. Beardsley,” you’d be hard pressed not to find the humour component in it, I think. Music should either move you – or amuse you. If it does both, you’re onto a winner.

I also really like the artwork you use on your releases. The image you use on the “Mr. Beardsley” single has a childlike simplicity but also calls to mind Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox as well as the Foxtrot album from Genesis, and the stark simplicity of the cover for “Cosmo Crowd” is both modern and eye-catching. Who designs your covers?

Thank you very much! We really like our covers to be unique and convey a nice mood. Back in the day when physical releases were more commonplace, it used to be an event to spend hours with the cover art as well – at least if you were a true music geek. Having some striking visuals to go with our songs is our way of retaining some of that feel, although in a digital format.

“Mr. Beardsley” has fun cover art – and when you say “childlike quality” you’re spot on. It’s designed by my seven year old daughter, Eleanor. She was given some brief instructions about what the song was about and that is what surfaced. It was a totally intuitive thing. Luckily it fit the whole mood of the track really nicely. That you get reminded of Wes Anderson and Genesis covers is fabulous. We’re huge fans of both. The Peter Gabriel-led Genesis is a huge inspiration to us.

“Cosmo Crowd” is designed by an American friend of ours named Brian Bufkin. We really think we got a great cover on that one. The simplicity of the drawing really accompanies the track’s message well, we feel. The final line of the song reads “I’m at my happiest alone, away from everyone and all the nagging and the stress.” Looking at the man in the drawing, and the lonely figure he cuts, that seems just about right.It is modern and eye-catching for sure. At the same time (remember you’re talking to Beatles obsessives here), we immediately thought the White Album when we saw it.

Since we’re on the topic of cover art, I’d like to draw the attention to our second single “Barbara Barbara Barbara” for a minute if I may. Viktoriia Morozova, a really accomplished Ukrainian painter, did that for us. We were really impressed and chuffed with that one. It’s great to have a proper piece of fine art going along with our little pop song.

So as you see, we have quite a lot of friends and connections who we get involved when it comes to our cover art. It keeps it fresh and unique. And you’ll notice the upcoming covers will be total departures from these first three as well. Should be fun.  

Given the lush arrangements on “Cosmo Crowd,” I’m wondering if you pay live. If so, how do you adapt your music to the stage? 

At the moment, Ina is taking a bit of time off with her family and their newborn baby girl. She gave birth in April. So at the moment, Todd & Karen has been a studio venture exclusively. I will, however, play a small solo set for a select audience on the launch night of “Cosmo.” To get the proper experience, I will bring with me some of the studio backing tracks and weave them seamlessly into my acoustic set. On the whole though, we would probably try to strip it down to a bit of an intimate, acoustic experience with guitars, violins and piano, if we were to play live.

We’re open to playing live. Maybe next year, with some more singles under our belts, we could do some gigs. That would be super cool. So if you’re reading this and would like to hear some Norwegian-Irish indie britpop live, don’t be shy. Come check us out.

What’s on the horizon for you?

We have some more singles lined up for 2022. The follow-up to “Cosmo Crowd” is a laidback, acoustic, almost demo-sounding little acoustic leftfielder entitled “Norwegian Summer.” Hopefully people will enjoy lazy summer vibe we got going on that one. It is also notable for being the first song featuring lead vocals from “Karen.” We recorded a country-rock stomper called “L12” with Sigve back in February, and we have that on the cards for an early autumn release. We also plan to go record a couple of more singles before the year is out – one of which I think is the best song we’ve written yet. There might even be a remix of “Barbara Barbara Barbara” released, either as its own thing or on the b-side of an upcoming single. So just keep checking back with us, there’s lots more to come.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions! 

It’s been an absolute pleasure, mate! Thanks for having us and have a lovely summer!

Life Is Funny: All About Frankie Lumlit

Life is funny. I had my friend Tim Simmons over to my house to play some music a while back, and he made an offhand comment: “Dude, you have the jankiest drumkit!”

To be fair, he was right. I bought my drumkit a year ago from a guy on the edge of town. The morning I picked it up, he was sharpening knives in his basement and eagerly awaiting a shipment of AK-47 rounds. I know this because he told me so.

He also threw a bunch of additional drums I didn’t need into the deal, telling me that he had to make room in the basement. For what, I wasn’t sure, but I also didn’t want to ask, as I didn’t really want to know how many AK-47 rounds he was waiting on. Mainly, I just wanted to leave before the ammunition arrived.

All of this is to say that it’s a previously-owned drumkit. Or, to put it another way, a recycled drumkit. Which means I’ve also had to make a few adaptations to make it sound the way I want it to sound: mixing and matching the various drums that my knife-sharpening friend foisted upon me, employing a vast array of odds and ends (including but not limited to duct tape, tea towels, a circle of plastic sheeting I cut from a shelf liner, and a polishing cloth that came with a pair of glasses) to get the heads to sound just right, and a length of chain on my crash cymbal to give it some “sizzle.”

Also worth noting, the kit is wedged into a tight corner in a tiny room in my basement. To get situated behind the drums, I need to squeeze between the ride cymbal and a worktable while trying not to knock over a stack of milk crates loaded with old recording gear.

So, yeah, Tim was right. My drumkit is definitely janky.

But here’s the thing: Tim loves the way it sounds, so he wasn’t criticizing my kit so much as marveling at how I’ve managed to jerry-rig it.

In any case, we played music for a bit, laying down some tracks for the follow-up to the first Simmons and Schuster album, and I pretty much forgot about Tim’s comment—until a few days later when I sat down to play my drums.

It really is a janky drumkit, I thought. Maybe there’s a story there.

Stories about music were on my mind (again) because of Tim. He had written a children’s book called Serafine Learns to Sing a few years earlier and was now teaching a course on writing stories for young readers. I’d also done a little bit of writing in the past myself, so I had a basic understanding of things like plot, character, and setting. So why not?

Concept sketch for cover.

My original thought was to write a story called The Jankiest Drumkit. It would be told from the drumkit’s perspective and be about how the world’s jankiest drumkit was always being passed over until someone special discovered it and realized that it sounded amazing. The problem, though, was that I wasn’t sure how to tell the story from the perspective of an inanimate object. Also, if the drumkit were sentient, would there be ethical issues in terms of beating it with sticks?

So, no, the story wouldn’t be told from the drumkit’s perspective. Instead, I decided it would be about a child with a janky drumkit. And the child’s name would have to rhyme with “janky drumkit.” I’m not sure why. Maybe a hint of Dr. Seuss.

Curiously, it took me a while to come up with the name Frankie Lumlit. The Frankie part came pretty quickly. But the last name was the real mystery to me. I remember lying awake at night cycling through names: Gumbit? Humrit? Bumpit? Dumbwit? The list went on and on.

Once I settled on a name, I had an inkling that Frankie’s story shouldn’t be too close to my own. Something about buying a drumkit from a creepy survivalist sharpening knives in his basement while waiting for a shipment of AK-47 ammunition struck me as not quite right for a children’s book.

Also, if Frankie was supposed to be a child, how would he drive out to the edge of town to get the drumkit? It just didn’t make sense. That’s when I hit on the idea that Frankie might build his own drumkit. From there, it all came together very quickly—the story, anyway:

Frankie Lumlit leads a quiet life until he hears a song that changes everything for him (an experience that I imagine a lot of us have had). He’s so taken by the music that he wants to be a musician, too, but he can’t afford an instrument, so he builds a drumkit out of odds and ends he finds in the recycling bin (an echo of my own “recycled” drums). He’s proud of his drumkit until a friend of his laughs at it (shades of Tim Simmons!), but eventually his drumkit takes center stage at a big rock concert.

Once the story was written, I had to figure out how to illustrate it. I’d done some drawing and digital art in the past, so I knew I could start with some basic sketches on paper and then play with them in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. But I also wanted to make sure I came at it from the right angle, so I sketched out a bunch of possibilities for Frankie: a timid-looking kid with chubby cheeks, a round-headed Muppet, a pointy-eared gnome.

Early sketches.

Eventually I decided that I was overcomplicating things and decided to do a quick sketch without thinking too much about it. Whatever I drew, that would be Frankie, and the other characters would follow from there.

As for the rest of it, I spent the next few weeks taking pictures and figuring out how to turn them into illustrations. A lot of tracing was involved. And a lot of superimposing of images on top of each other.

I should note that I owe a debt to my friend and colleague Wayne Brew for the image of the theater where the story reaches its climax; with his blessing, I traced a photo of an abandoned movie theater that he had posted on Instagram. I also put myself into that illustration as the “man with a clipboard.”

Altogether, it took me about a month to illustrate the book. When I was finished, I queried a few agents but never heard back, which is fine. I’d had a lot of luck with publishing my book about the Beach Boys’ Holland album directly through Amazon, so I figured I’d try the same thing with this one.

I suppose at this point I should mention the title of the book: Frankie Lumlit’s Janky Drumkit. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s what people in the industry call an “early reader,” which is to say that it’s written with an audience of six-to-eight-year-olds in mind.

My goal, as you might guess, was to write a book about creativity—something that can get a child’s imagination going, particularly with respect to music. For some reason, I imagine aunts and uncles who are into music buying it for their nieces and nephews who live in quiet homes like Frankie does at the beginning of the story. With any luck, it will open up a world of possibilities and encourage the kind of do-it-yourself ethos that inspires so many of the musicians and artists that I’ve grown to admire over the years.

If you’re curious, I’d love for you to give it a read:

Available on AMAZON USA

Available on AMAZON UK