If it seems like Lukas Graham came out of nowhere, it's because the Danish pop group sort of did. Frontman Lukas Forchhammer grew up in a small, rough Copenhagen neighborhood called Christiania that was founded by anarchist squatters and boasts a population, he estimates, of around 800 people. So seeing the group's self-titled album rise to Number Three on the Billboard 200 and their breakout single "7 Years" make it to Number Two has made Forchhammer become, in his own words, "this humble little boy."
Forchhammer previously told Rolling Stone about how rough it was growing up in Christiania, where he learned "how to mix a Molotov cocktail before I knew how to mix a Long Island iced tea." The police presence in Christiania was so pervasive, the singer remembers puncturing their trucks' tires with nails and throwing rocks at authorities. He's since learned how to channel his frustration into his music with his band, which presents a much more joyous and emotional outlook. It's a shift he's experiencing in real time.
"I'm allowed to do this for a living?" he asks Rolling Stone humbly. "I don't know how to thank all the people listening to our music. It's so amazing to come home to my friends who resist conformity, because they're so happy that I've made it. I feel I owe it to them to keep going and just fucking beat this."
How would you describe Christiania, where you grew up?
I would describe it as a utopian place to grow up if you've got your parents living together and working regular jobs. There's just this sense of community. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody helps everybody. You know the names of your friends' parents.
"When the police arrested a lot of the weed dealers in my neighborhood, gangs from the city tried to move in."
Is it a rough neighborhood?
It is, in the sense that police come in, in riot gear, and shoot tear gas all over the place. It's a rough neighborhood in the sense that the government has always threatened to throw us out and close it down. So there's a certain fear that manifests in the children of the neighborhood. And the children vent it as anger. They don't know it's fear 'til they grow up. If we had recreational marijuana like they have for American states, then our neighborhood would be fine and dandy.
What do you mean?
When the police arrested a lot of the weed dealers in my neighborhood, gangs from the city tried to move in. When you remove a powerful force, someone is going to try to fill that vacuum. That made it quite tough to grow up there.
What was school like for you?
People treated me differently because I came from Christiania. Teachers would blame me for things because of where I came from. I started out a very, very mellow kid, very social, but I ended up quite a diabolic youth. Teachers and police officers and other kids' parents all treated me differently. My friends weren't allowed to come to my home because of my neighborhood – despite the fact my neighborhood has the lowest violence in the inner city.
Growing up, you found some escape in a boys' choir. What effect did that have on your life?
I really like singing. I believe that if I wasn't a good singer, I would have been tossed out of school.
You've said that Dr. Dre and rap have been a big influence on your music. How so?
My biggest influence is rap. It spoke to me, probably because of my upbringing in Christiania. You listen to The Chronic and you can hear that anger and frustration. Below the anger and frustration, for a lot of ghetto kids, is fear: the fear of eviction, the fear of the gun, the fear of the police, the fear of your neighbor. I think that's what we felt. We weren't doing anything wrong, but the police were patronizing toward us.
So we found a connection in hearing N.W.A, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Jay Z and all these other amazing lyricists because of the anger. It's something you could spit back at the police when you saw them.
What would you say to the police?
I would just say, "Fuck the police," just like N.W.A.
How did you come to write pop music?
I was writing rap at 12 years old and began writing songs as a 20-year-old. I think I wrote my first song in the winter of 2008-2009, when I was in Buenos Aires. I was writing about growing up and my boys back home. After that, I spent a couple of months back in Denmark and went to New York. And I went to Boston, where I hooked up with a bunch of folk musicians that my dad knew, and that's when I knew I wanted to start a band.
How did the band come together?
All of the guys in the band and the producers and songwriters – seven boys – went to the same high school. Some of us were in the same grade; some were in other years. But none of us knew each other when we were going to school, but we knew who we all were.
Why did you want to write an autobiographical song like "7 Years"?
I'm not the typical songwriter, in the sense that I sit down and figure out what do I want to write a song about. I heard the piano, and I just started singing, "Once I was 7 years old." Then I started writing it down. It's not like I sit down and think, "Oh, I'd like to tell this story" and "I hope people walk away feeling a certain way."
Were you really smoking weed and drinking at age 11?
I think I was 12. You'd just steal something from the grownups at a New Year's party or something. We tried it when we were 12. I didn't start smoking until I was 18.
That still seems young.
I think trying these things early on gave me and the boys a respect for it. It's not like in America where you'll have a 27-year-old who's only been drinking for six years and [isn't] in control of it.
"Growing up in a neighborhood like Christiania, you don't trust anyone."
You sing about your dad dying in "7 Years." When did that happen?
Three and a half years ago. He was very supportive of my music. My parents never pushed me in any particular direction. I don't think my dad ever really understood why I wanted to study law, though.
Why were you studying law?
Growing up in a neighborhood like Christiania, you don't trust anyone. So in order to beat the system, I felt like I needed to know the system. Now I'm in a position where I have a better record deal than most of my peers.
You've had such a rough life, yet many of your songs sound upbeat. Even "Funeral" sounds like a celebration. Why is that?
My family is Irish Catholic. When somebody dies, Irish Catholics have what's called a wake, and that's because you party so hard you hope to wake the dead. Everyone brings food and drink. You've got music and instruments, and you talk about the good things that the person did for you. That's also why in "7 Years," I sing, "remember life and then your life becomes a better one." I do cry over my dead father – of course I do. I cry over my dead friends, too, but not at the funeral. At the funeral you stand strong. You celebrate the life. You give death hell.
Have you been surprised by the album's success?
Very much so. We recently played Montreal, L.A. and Toronto, and everyone was singing along to the songs, and we're just gobsmacked. You think, "Wow. People on the other side of the planet are listening to our stuff." I find that very humbling.