The cool thing about working for a tri-annual magazine is that when you have the luxury of time, you can really live with a band or album for a while and let their music and ideas seep in and marinate before writing about them. When I was first confronted with Miike Snow I was at a point where new bands weren’t really doing it for me—my mind was either deep in some 1970s disco throwback wormhole or listening to the synthesized barrage of whatever Britney Spears had just released. I tend to have a bad habit of prematurely shelving records, and Miike Snow’s self-titled debut album (Downtown, 2009) waited patiently on my desk until a friend randomly IM’d me a link to their Myspace page one day this past summer. “Dude, did you know the guys from Bloodshy & Avant started a band?” Hold up. Any 21st century pop music aficionado completely reveres the Swedish production duo of Bloodshy & Avant (a.k.a. Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg), as they’ve written or produced tracks for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Madonna, Britney Spears and many others. As a journalist and somewhat accredited music theorist, it’s in my opinion that modern pop music is pushing cultural boundaries further than any other genre at this point in history, and Christian and Pontus are at the forefront of that movement. I excitedly popped Miike Snow into my CD player. What I expected was bubbly-yet-heady synth-pop in the vein of Bloodshy & Avant’s production work. Needless to say at this point, I didn’t get what I expected.
But what I did get was one of the best independent pop albums I’ve heard in a long time. The songs aren’t packaged as perfect little pop packets, but are layered and textured into true experiences that yield something new with each listen. The album opener, “Animal”, is the most immediately catchy song on the album, with its bouncing synth jabs and sing-along chorus, but all that head-bopping almost distracts from the fact that you’re singing about someone’s deep social alienation. “Song for No One” sounds like something that should have come out in the late-‘90s and have a video showing the band driving down a highway in a convertible. You could play this album in a dive bar or in Ibiza and the reaction would be the same.
To form Miike Snow, Christian and Pontus teamed up with New York-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Wyatt, who writes the band’s lyrics and serves as their frontman. Having been in various musical projects his whole life (the A.M. probably being the most well-known) Andrew was the missing link between a great production team and a great band. I’ve seen Miike Snow play twice now, both times at NYC’s Lower East Side venue Mercury Lounge. The second time, when the band took the stage wearing white kabuki-like masks (they always wear some sort of mask while in public), the place erupted, and by the time they launched into “Sylvia” mid-set, a cautionary tale about a lost love, they held the audience in the palm of their hand.
I caught up with Andrew, Pontus and Christian the day after their first Mercury show and chatted about their beginnings in Sweden, their production techniques (or lack thereof), and their choice use their anonymity to “put their music first.”
You guys were all very musical before you met, and of course Christian and Pontus are in Bloodshy & Avant. How did you decide to collaborate on Miike Snow as a project?
Andrew: We have a mutual friend in the music industry who thought we should meet, and that we would hit it off, either to write songs or just to hang out or something, which ended up being the case. I was in the UK at the time, I had never been to Sweden, so I went over there and I met up with Christian and Pontus, but we didn’t really do anything the first time we hung out. We kept in touch, and ended up doing some writing for someone else that didn’t end up anywhere. But the relationship got started up, and we enjoyed each other’s company. They contacted me when they heard my other band, and talked about forming a new band with the three of us.
What was the first song you collaborated on?
Christian: I think the first song was “Black and Blue”.
Pontus: I think we did “Black and Blue” and “Song for No One” the first time.
Andrew: Yeah, those were the ones from the very first time I went over there to write and work on the album. Those are the two from that first trip that actually made it on the album.
It’s funny you say that because those are the most sort of “rock-pop” songs on the album, in my opinion. I normally abhor this question, but what inspired the music you make as Miike Snow? I’m a huge fan of Bloodshy & Avant and when I first heard the record I must admit it’s not exactly what I expected.
Pontus: I think that the whole process has been pretty organic and contained. It’s more or less like, ‘Now we can we can say how it ended up.’ It’s not thought out. It just happened.
Andrew: I think that more than any sort of musical influence that we had, it’s just that what ended up happening on the record was aspects of everyone’s personalities coming out. I just feel like we don’t have a problem with lots of different traditions of music. One of the things about the music that I know about that they’ve done in the past that I was so excited about is that it’s very irreverent to tradition. It’s kind of like there’s something very punk rock about it—or at least something very subversive—that’s pretty courageous. I think that that carried over to the process of making Miike Snow in that we didn’t have any mold for what it was going to be. We just did it. We thought more about the elements at the time. I don’t think we were trying to be one kind of a band or another. We just did whatever happened.
Christian: There are two or three songs that aren’t on the record, but we’re definitely going to use them. I think one of them is going to be like a B-side in Europe or something. Like we said, maybe the first songs sound a little bit different, but it’s kind of cool that we kept everything from the start.
You can really see the progression of the whole collaboration.
Christian: Uh huh.
Christian and Pontus, do you work differently when you produce for yourselves as opposed to producing for someone else as Bloodshy & Avant? Are there differences in your work ethic?
Pontus: I think… (pauses and begins to laugh) work ethic?
You know what I mean (laughs)!
Pontus: That was a very good choice of words!
Andrew: I hadn’t thought about that, but that is a huge difference.
Christian: We have no ethics.
Pontus: When we think back—say we work for like 10 days—we feel like we haven’t done anything. Then we’ll listen back and it will seem like we’ve been really productive. So we don’t really have any work ethics.
Andrew: Or any other kind of ethics (laughs). No moral scruples within the ranks of Miike Snow!
So getting hired to produce is like school, but doing your own band is like Spring Break?
Andrew: Yeah, with Jello shots (laughs).
Good to know.
Pontus: Now, with Miike Snow, we’re creating our world. When you’re hired to do something, you’re supposed to do something that is interesting and stands out, but in someone else’s world. It’s like, we’re kind of building everything from scratch with this.
You recently played at Mercury Lounge, and I was really into it because you did what I was hoping you’d do, which was really take all the different elements of the album and translate them seamlessly for a live experience. How did you guys transgress that?
Pontus: I think we saw it as something separate. The live show is a thing apart. It’s not that same thing [as the record]. We had to build it from the ground up. We decided it was out of the question to have any sort of laptops or backing tracks on stage, so we had to reinvent a lot of stuff, which actually turned out pretty well.
Andrew: It was a good way of getting strong, having to carry all that gear.
I don’t mean to diss anyone, I love electronic music and I like a lot of laptop bands, but I’m getting so tired of going to a show and seeing a band just go (mimes typing on a keyboard) ‘beep boop boop’, and like, that’s it. There are still instruments you can buy and use that will give you the same texture and sound.
Andrew: We really have a problem with it. It’s like going to a party and someone is standing in the same position the whole time. You’re like ‘Hey, this is weird, this guy hasn’t moved this whole time, and this is starting to feel uncomfortable!’ You want someone who can put their hand on you. If you’re into that (laughs). Or use some body language, or something. It’s really about spontaneity, and if you don’t have that capability, it’s really tragic. I couldn’t imagine going through all the things we have to go through, to be on tour and not being home, and getting up super early to catch planes. I mean I’m not complaining at all, but to have the payoff of creating something from scratch every night is the whole point.
Pontus: It wouldn’t feel like we were doing something live if it wasn’t actually live. For all of us, that’s the whole thing. The alternative is kind of pointless. Otherwise we could just show up, put on the record and just—
Andrew: ‘Whoo! Party!’
Pontus (laughing): We had to do it like this.
Andrew: The Mercury show was good. Someone else that we were interviewed by this morning said that some parts weren’t loud enough, or something. We’re getting to the place where we’re all dealing with the multi-tasking. There are so many different things on the record, that to do it live everybody in the band has to multi-task. We’re getting to the place where that stuff is feeling like it’s in our realm to be able to land the plane.
Pontus: Also, there’s one interesting aspect of catching a band on a good day. Some shows are going to be better than others, and you lose that when you use a backing track, or whatever safety nets you have. I think that’s really important.
It’s important to create something from scratch. I recently interviewed a band who use laptops but record everything live with studio software, so I mean, there are still ways to make it interesting, but it can be difficult.
Christian: We’re going to keep on adding and changing the live performance, which is always challenging and fun to do. We’re getting better and better at it. It’s the same thing as when we write songs, we just want to keep on changing it.
I might just be projecting my own life onto your songs but—
Andrew: That’s what you’re supposed to do (laughs)!
Exactly! I feel like there is an underlying theme of urban alienation in your tracks, that sort of darkly intelligent pop thing. Like in “Animal” and “Plastic Jungle”.
Andrew: I think there’s something that has to do with being pissed off with even having to deal with the way shit is. You know, we don’t really get to decide a lot of the way our lives are. We can decide our choices within that, but to some extent you’re born where you’re born, and civilization is the way it is, and I feel like sometimes that doesn’t take into consideration [people’s feelings], and what they have inside. That’s a big struggle for a lot of people. Probably the main struggle is how to fit in all the different desires that you have, and making sure you don’t hurt anyone else along the way, and all the complications, and sometimes it just feels like too much to deal with.
But do people even realize that that’s an issue?
Andrew: Well, sometimes people don’t ask about what they really want.
Are there any songs that touch upon that subject in particular?
Andrew: Well, I think “Animal” is. “Plastic Jungle” is more about my experience with school. Just always having such a hard time in school. I guess there is just something I like about melancholy. I don’t feel like I’m a depressed person, but I like the idea of being depressed (laughs).
Well, there are very few good songs about being happy.
Andrew: “Take on Me” by a-ha is one of the happiest songs ever written.
Tell me about the song “Sylvia”. To me it’s the most dance-inspired track on the album, with all the buildups and breakdowns and stuff. That sounds has had such a big resurgence in the past few years.
Andrew: Actually, the girl that I wrote the song about was at the show on Saturday in Williamsburg.
Was she! What was her reaction?
Andrew: We’re friends now, you know? She got out of all the things I was projecting in the song, like, what was going to happen to her. Like, she was going to do this, and end up doing porn and that it would be my fault. I was filled with all this horrible guilt and I was projecting negatively on that situation. What happened was we broke up, and she got out of all that and is studying design in San Francisco. She’s really talented. It was a happy ending, but you don’t get to hear that in the song.
See, no one likes a happy ending. You should have been like, ‘Man, she died. It was really fucked up.’
Andrew (laughing): Yeah, but it was really intense for her to have that song come out. But I don’t think in a bad way.
[Christian has taken three masks with geisha faces out of a manila envelope for the photoshoot]
Okay, what is up with the masks? At first I thought they were like, bloody surgical masks, but now that I’m looking at them up close it’s like a geisha mouth.
Christian: I think we just wanted to put the music first and not our faces. We saw the masks in a modern art museum in Tokyo. Actually, we got into the masks the first time me and Pontus were traveling in Asia during the SARS outbreak. We were on the beach in Thailand when SARS was at its worst and all the Japanese tourists were wearing masks on the beach with like, their bikinis! Everyone had a suntan like this [makes a square with his fingers around his mouth]. In Japan and Hong Kong, all these brands like Nike, Gucci, started making masks for like a week or something, until [SARS] wasn’t a threat anymore.
It’s nice to use your anonymity sometimes. When you look at a band like Daft Punk, it’s weird to imagine what you would think about their music if you knew what they looked like, and saw them walking around doing stuff.
Christian: I think a lot of bands that we like, we don’t really know what they look like.
Pontus: In some genres it’s so much more about the person than the actual music. It’s good to be pretty clear about that. It’s about the music for us.