Progressive Pop: An Interview With Ola Frick of Moonbabies
by dave heaton
The songs on The Orange Billboard, the spectacular second album from the Swedish duo Moonbabies, are both would-be radio hits performed by musicians perfectly attuned to melody and carefully constructed works of sonic architecture, with layers of sound waiting to be unraveled by the active listener. In their own way, Moonbabies are both perfectly pop (with dreamy, bright, catchy songs) and progressive - their music is gorgeous and accessible but also free and exploratory, absorbing textures from electronic music as easily as styles from the history of pop and rock music. Formed in 1996 by Ola Frick and Carina Johansson, Moonbabies is very much a do-it-yourself band: they perform, record and produce everything, laboring over their music until it sounds just right. That attention to detail is making their music increasingly more complicated and alluring: While their previous releases (including some on great indie labels like Best Kept Secret and A Bouncing Space) are all remarkable for the same reasons, their newest album The Orange Billboard is even more rich and sophisticated, filled with enticing hooks, sounds, words, and moods.
One thing I love about your music is the balance you strike between playing pop songs and experimenting a bit, playing around with sounds and moods - to what extent is that something you're conscious of doing, a balance that you strive for?
I'd say almost everything we do in the studio happens unconsciously, different moods for different days. It's like when we started out to record material for this new album some 1˝-2 years ago, we were real deep into experimental noises and instrumentals, laptop performing and such. We recorded lots of that kind of stuff over some periods, but almost nothing of that showed up on the actual record, apart from the song "Jets" which was written back then and then later re-done. Back to your question, it's more like we just record whatever we feel like, and when we think we have material for an album or more, we start to get the balance right, the balance between the different songs, etc. And after we've started to find something interesting in the mix, we're starting to consciously make the right amount of opposite styles match. Do you know what I mean?
In what ways has what you're trying to accomplish with your music changed or progressed since the days when you first started the band?
Lots of changes, naturally. We started out as a duo singing acoustic songs in an almost Simon & Garfunkel style…we wanted to form a live band, so we did and for the first 2 years we did like a complete My Bloody Valentine kind of thing, lots of noise and very indie, and later discovered how much more we could create with just the 2 of us in the studio. Recorded tons and tons of material, which later was used for, I guess, all our records. I think somewhere around 1999-2000 we started to find our soul in the music and built up a confidence, and also found out what inspired us the most, which is the unlimited possibilities of how to make music interesting, and to never-ever think in terms of genres, to just do what we feel like, and also, importantly, never to rush anything. If you only want to put out records with a more timeless approach (I mean that as the opposite of flavor-of-the-week albums), you've got to let yourself take the time that's necessary to create them, no rush, even if it takes lots of hard work and months or years. Right now, after the album has been released, our main goal is to progress as a live band and be on the road until we can't stand it any longer.
You seem to be a very prolific band, in the sense that you record many more songs than you end up using. Is that correct? For the new album, for example, how did you go about deciding which songs to release and which ones to set aside?
Yeah, we recorded an awful lot of material for this album, and there's a lot of those songs that I'm damn sure we'll use on upcoming albums. When it comes to choosing we just needed to try out different orders and combinations and listen to the whole thing over and over until we had a sense of what we wanted. It's really time-demanding, but I'm glad we did it. Things like the right spacing between songs and segues make a lot of difference to the album as a whole. It may sound pretentious, but we strive somehow to make the listeners travel through their minds while listening. And sometimes the right pause or segue can help in getting that to happen. Around a year ago, we thought we had the album done, but I think only 4-5 songs from those sessions actually made the cut. Some of those songs were really special and unique, but brought some strange darkness or aggression to the whole concept that we didn't want. I think some of those songs will be released on a 12" EP this year; it's strong heavy songs, wonderful, but they didn't match the others on The Orange Billboard.
What else stands out for you about the process of recording The Orange Billboard? What were some of the difficulties, surprises, etc.?
So many different stages it's impossible to explain. A lot of difficulties as well. A lot of pain actually. Just recently we looked through some videocamera tapes that we had recorded while in the studio from time to time, and it was a real treat to watch and to remember how it really was. A lot of uncontrolled happiness and other days just frustration. We were in the studio like 13-14 hours a day, 6 days a week for over 1˝ years.
How much did you consider the overall scope that the album would have, the way the songs were placed together to create an overall mood? One of my favorite aspects of the album is the way certain songs lead into each other (for example, the way the shorter "Wyomi" leads into the longer title track).
Well, we did work a lot on these things. I think that was the hardest bit. 'Wyomi' was the last song for the album, and was recorded after a really tough day recording vocals and mixing and while we were almost sleeping the song just came to me and was shot in one take with just one mic and an unplugged electric guitar. I didn't even have lyrics. But when we tried to place it into the album just for fun, we discovered that it loosened up the atmosphere of the album.
You're currently on tour - how is the tour going? What have been some of the best moments so far?
Love it. We have a new line-up with a Danish drummer called Anders Sejr Davidsen who is an incredible value to the moonbabies live sound. Amazing guy. And our long time friend and live band member Markus Weitner has picked up the guitar again leaving most songs for Carina to play bass on (actually a moog synth). Having 2 guitars is just awesome, I can't understand how we've survived without it. Touring is great, besides the actual live shows, we have a blast on the road, it's just awesome. Best moments yet were a show last weekend in Albertslund (outside Copenhagen, Denmark) where everything just came into place. We had a great time on stage and everyone had a lot of energy and love to what we did. One of the best shows ever I think.
What are your live shows like?
Great, we try our hardest to catch the essence of our studio recordings, but also to make it rawer and even more personal I guess.
I first heard your music through the tape label Best Kept Secret. What role has that whole world of people who make and release music on their own had in helping you get your music out there for people to hear it? How has the internet helped?
I guess it has helped us out a lot, even more than we may think. We got our first real true appreciation from people outside Sweden back in 1999, and we started to get our music out though mp3's and that stuff.
For do-it-yourself musicians, you seem to take great care with the production quality of your recordings, which have a big, layered sound. How would you describe your approach to recording and producing your music?
In short, we've been recording so incredibly much, and learned from our mistakes. I just can't imagine someone else producing us. An important thing is surely that we record on our own stuff, in our own studio, with basically no production costs at all, except for mastering. We can form our own little world in the studio, and explore and have fun. We're not a band who's rehearing the songs first - then recording. We write, record and mix at the same time, that's the way we do it for most cases.
What music is currently inspiring you? It sounds like you might be influenced by electronic music as much as pop and rock bands, is that right?
Hmm, yeah I guess. I think the stuff that's on the player the most these days are just vinyls from the 60's, 70's and 80's like Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. Also some 2000 stuff like KVLR, The Twilight Singers and Wilco.
What about being musicians makes you happiest?
In no particular order: Being on stage, Meeting people while on the road, Listening to a great recording we've just finished.