Six years ago, Danish band Lukas Graham took the world by storm with their hit song 7 Years. A soulful power ballad sung from the heart, “7 Years” drew upon the wisdom imparted to the band’s lead vocalist, Lukas Forchhammer, by his recently deceased father. The song became an international hit for its raw emotion and universal message about the lessons passed between generations and the ways in which one matures emotionally over time.
7 Years of Lukas Graham chronicles the rise of the band from the beginning. The film, which debuts at Hot Docs’ festival, chronicles Lukas Graham’s journey from freewheeling twentysomethings to international stars. Director René Sascha Johannsen, who also helmed several of the band’s music videos including “7 Years” and “Mama Said” and worked as a cinematographer on docs like Red Chapel, sees the band’s growth largely through Forchammer’s eyes. The film observes how the young artist channels his grief over his father’s sudden death into music and matures as a musician as he becomes a father. Johannsen captures the band’s energetic performances and shows how Forchhammer remains relatively down to earth despite his rising stardom, as he continues to favour small, intimate venues over arenas and mingles with the fans before and after the shows.
The film isn’t all roses, though, as the longitudinal study captures the vicissitudes of celebrity. For example, the doc finds a dramatic twist when the band is recognized with three Grammy nominations, including Record of the Year and Song of Year. When they lose both to Adele’s “Hello,” Forchhammer doesn’t take it well. As the camera observes his backstage blowout, the film reminds audiences that these men are still young and coming into their own. However, it’s also refreshing to see such vulnerability in a celebrity portrait. Johannsen’s 7 Years of Lukas Graham finds its stride as a doc by observing Forchhammer and the band journey through the same steps that connected their hit song to fans worldwide.
POV spoke with Lukas Forchhammer and René Sascha Johannsen by Zoom ahead of 7 Years of Lukas Graham’s Hot Docs premiere.
POV: Pat Mullen
LF: Lukas Forchhammer
RSJ: René Sascha Johannsen
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: How did this project start? It seems like you were there from the beginning, René?
RSJ: When I contacted Lukas’s management, Lukas’s childhood friend was already recording [them]. I got a ‘no’ at first, which I wasn’t too happy with, but then I moved to the U.S. About a year later, I could see the band blowing up at home and I was bummed that I didn’t get to start where I wanted. Once the band began playing shows in the U.S., I started filming.
POV: Lukas, René directed many of your music videos, so is your relationship any different when you’re shooting a music video versus filming the documentary, or is it “Lukas and René” all the same?
LF: It was quickly Lukas and René. There’s a barrier to break down when you have someone documenting you and filming your arguments with your pregnant girlfriend at home while you’re on tour. I think the reason why René started doing music videos was that we were already shooting this documentary. We did two music videos pretty close to each other, “7 Years” and “Mama Said.” I think half the shots in “Mama Said” and “Seven Years” are some of the documentary-style shots that we’d been using.
RSJ: More so “Mama Said.” “Seven Years” was more “planned,” but we still have some live concert shots from an LA showcase.
LF: But because we were shooting this documentary and we didn’t know when was ending, it felt like we were shooting a documentary all along even when we were doing the videos.
RSJ: Some of that collaboration came from the fact that I knew Lukas’s management before I knew Lukas. I [had already] met Lasse [Siegismund] and Kasper [Faerk]. They were managers for another Danish band called Suspekt that I’d done some videos for, so they knew my skills outside of documentary.
POV: Was the plan to film for a duration of seven years given the success of the song, or was the seven-year duration just a coincidence?
LF: That came very late because we started filming in April 2013. Four years later, there’s a Grammy nomination, so there was a lot of highs on the way there. Then we didn’t win at the Grammys. It was as if there was a climax, but then things kept going. It kept getting bigger and wilder. Suddenly, I released a new song that popped all over the world and René traveled with me to Korea and other places. There had to be a choice at some moment to stop.
RSJ: Seven years was more of a coincidence.
LF: The working title was The Rise and Curse of Lukas Graham because my father was dead. I had everything I ever dreamed of, but my father wasn’t there to enjoy it with me.
RSJ: “7 Years” was a curse for a while. While Lukas were touring, all the fans came up and wanted to share all their losses and how they could relate to your lyrics. That’s my perception why we were going to call it The Rise and Curse of Lukas Graham.
POV: How was it seeing the footage of you working through the death of your father, Lukas? In the film, you talk about learning to live with the pain. How are you holding up now?
LF: I’ve seen a lot of that footage ages ago. We did a mini docu-series on YouTube to avoid doing press. They gave our growing fan base insight to the backstory that you don’t normally get to see about bands touring the world. I’d seen the interview with [doctor] Latif Farhana that’s shot in New York, 2013, and various TV and radio interviews later on.
It’s been eight and a half years since my father died. I’m just reminded now how much space he took up in my life. I didn’t think I could get to know anybody new. If they didn’t know my dad, there was a part of me they would never get to know. One of the things me and René bonded over during filming was that René lost his brother at a very young age. Losing one of your best friends is a life-changing trauma that becomes either like your own death or like something uplifting. I don’t think we would have gotten so close to each other if René hadn’t experienced a similar unexpected, sudden tragedy.
RSJ: We were sharing things all the time. This documentary was a two-way street.
POV: I love the scenes in the film where Lukas and the band are out in public and people aren’t recognizing them. There’s the scene at the diner where a waitress is just sitting beside you and has no idea who you are and there’s a great moment when you’re in a taxi your song comes on the radio and the driver can’t believe that you’re the band. Do you miss that anonymity?
LF: You probably wouldn’t believe it, but I still walk around pretty anonymously. I take the subway to the airport when I go touring. I walk around Copenhagen and go shopping with my kids. Today I’m wearing something very flamboyantly green, but I don’t normally put on a red leather jacket and drive a Porsche down the road. I live in my house in the middle of town and I bike around on my box bike with my kids in the front. It’s only around concerts and venues that it gets weird because the people are there to see me. I’ll put on a hoodie, walk into the crowd of a music festival and watch some other band. As soon as I spot somebody spotting me, I’ll just keep moving.
I’m motivated by a desire to do what I want to do. It’s like when people said “7 Years” couldn’t be hit and I was like, “screw yourselves.” If I want to take a walk down the street, I will. If I want to go with my daughter to the Disney store because she wants a new Elsa dress, I’m not going to get my assistant to bring me the dress. How are my kids ever going to have a normal life if I do that?
POV: Has having kids changed your approach to music?
LF: I would say that I’m learning how to play again in a way I probably haven’t since I was in my early to mid-twenties. I probably haven’t played like this [since] before the success of “7 Years.” When [touring] I touch down in the airports, people are there with banners and pictures and CDs to sign. When I get to hotels, on the first check-in night, there’s usually someone there waiting because they found out where we’re staying. But now, especially post COVID, I keep writing better songs because I’m just like having a good day at the studio. Having a good day at the studio matters more than writing a good song at the studio, kind of like it was back in the day. We’re just playing. We’re still amateurs, in a way.
POV: We’ve seen a generation of self-made young artists, like Billie Eilish and Shawn Mendes, who came up in the years since Lukas Graham and used social media and digital tools to create their own paths, like you did with Spotify. How does it feel to be part of a generation that’s changing the industry and what sets you apart from other musical acts?
LF: A journalist described us as the Arctic Monkeys of Spotify. [Arctic Monkeys is generally cited among the first bands to breakout through internet and iTunes streaming/downloads.] We basically broke into the world stage entirely through Spotify with a stepping stone of YouTube. It feels good to be part of the democratization of the music industry. Now we just need the big streaming services to start democratizing their payment systems instead of paying the biggest artists the most and the smallest artists the least. They should just pay the same fee per stream, period. That’s another story.
But what makes us a little different? Me and the guys in the band, the four guys on stage, had almost a hundred years of musical experience combined by the time we went to the States to tour. I’m a classically trained soprano soloist. I’ve sung professionally since I was eight years old. Mark [Falgren], the drummer, played since he was four and played in bands since he was 10 or 12. The way we actually play music is different. Everyone on stage plays real instruments, except me—I just sing and write. But we’re not as computer-based as others. Even though we record through pro tools and we release through streaming platforms, we’re still very analog. We’re a funny, weird halfway breed: I have an organ and a Wurlitzer and a bunch of guitars, but at the same time, we’re very digital. I like the fact that we’re a part of a revolution.
7 Years of Lukas Graham premieres at Hot Docs 2021.