In the studio, Peder Mannerfelt is trying to forget what he knows and trust his instincts. Mark Smith hears how it's led to the most productive phase in his career.
While Mannerfelt's solo work is hitting new peaks, he also has a long history of engineering, producing and playing in bands. He was a member of Roll The Dice and worked at Murlyn Studios, where he had a first-hand view of the American music industry's infatuation with Swedish pop producers (including being involved in the production process behind Britney Spears' "Toxic"). He's engineered and produced work with Fever Ray and Blonde Redhead, and has jumped into the dance music consciousness with a forthcoming 12-inch on Joy Orbison and Will Bankhead's Hinge Finger label. While Mannerfelt has an enviable combination of technical and creative skills, he says he's trying to "unlearn mental baggage," choosing to trust intuition and impulse over knowledge and technique. It's a down-to-earth perspective that took years to germinate, but it's clearly paying dividends.
When did you move in here?
It was ten years ago, in the summer of 2006. This building was an empty warehouse space, so we purpose-built all these studio rooms at that time. This is a slightly seedy part of Stockholm but it's changing rapidly. It's where all the raves happened in the '90s, but they're gradually knocking down all the old buildings to put up apartments.
The same old story.
Yeah, it is. On the one hand, it's a little sad because it had its own character and history, but now it's becoming like everywhere else. But on the other hand, Stockholm needs more houses. It is what it is.
I'd imagine studio spaces are prohibitively expensive in Stockholm.
Just living here is expensive so it depends whether you're lucky enough to find something for a decent rate.
Did you get into production from being in bands in your younger years?
Yeah, exactly. I was in a band as a kid and the drummer had a Pro Tools setup. I started playing around when I was still in high school, but when I finished I had to do compulsory military service. The state has cancelled that since then, but back in those days many people had to do it. So I spent a year in the navy. It was the most boring, worthless thing I've done in my entire life. But when I came out I got a job as an intern in a music production studio, a hit factory called Murlyn. I started out as a tea boy.
So that was for big major label stuff?
People like Britney Spears.
I heard you have a credit on a Britney production.
It was basically me staying up late at night, saving someone's ass copying DAT tapes. I was like, "I'll do it but I have to get a credit."
It's a great piece of trivia.
It was fun seeing it come together. The producers were called Bloodshy & Avant. I was being a runner and setting things up while they were recording strings and making tracks like "Toxic."
Why were American major labels so attracted to Swedish producers?
Swedes aren't really innovators when it comes to music—Klara Lewis is a clear exception—but we can take something and make it perfect. Of course, there's a huge amount of politics and puppets in American major labels. We delivered work on time far more regularly than they ever would and we had a fraction of the people involved. It's such a massive industry in the US. They would have 15 engineers working a job that we'd do with one person.
Was there anything you learnt from those days that stuck with you?
Seeing how they comped vocals made an impression. They would record 40 takes of a vocal track and then sift though every phrase looking for the perfect slices to assemble into the final track. I was just looking over their shoulder, watching how they aligned phases and stuff. It's kind of special how they were able to listen so carefully to so much similar material without getting lost in the waveforms.
Was there ever a time when making music took a backseat to technical engineering? Or did you always maintain a balance?
I would say the technical side was always a means to an end. I wanted to learn how to make electronic music for a long time but I had no clue how to get into it. All my friends played guitar and liked heavy metal and punk.
How did you go about finding the information you needed to make electronic music?
That was the hard part. There was no info readily available 15 years ago. It wasn't like you could walk into a music store and say, "Hey, teach me how to use Logic."
Now the opposite is the case. Producers are often paralysed by an overload of technical information.
Yeah, it's weird because I haven't thought about that but it seems to be a genuine problem. Another generation has acquired knowledge in a completely different way and it affects how they're making music. People are getting stuck on sculpting the perfect kick before they start writing tunes—even the people at Ableton see it as a problem. I think it could be a male thing, this drive to learn all the techniques and be perfectly equipped to take on a task without actually interacting with the task itself. A female perspective might be more centred on doing the music first.
Did you ever fall into the same trap?
It was only about five years ago that I began to forget about the technical side of things. When I was younger, all I wanted was to be technically fluent and I was so frustrated at my limitations.
What was getting in your way?
Doubt. Not being sure of myself. It really gets in the way of finishing music. And it can lead you to all this "Oh, I have to buy a new converter and record at 96 kilohertz for higher definition." Eventually I came to a point where I thought, "Fuck it, I can record stuff off YouTube and it can be the main hook." It's another one of those clichés but it's about the music, not how perfect it is. Look at how producers in the UK used Fruity Loops. They'd use free, downloaded sample packs but you'd never have known if they didn't tell you. They made it sound great. It was the same thing with techno. From the outset it was kids finding shit drum machines and recording without thinking about it. Now producers go to great lengths to nail the vibe someone got from running a 707 into a cassette but in a pure, perfectly executed way.
What happened after you left the big studios?
I was sitting at home experimenting and trying to make music but it was all shit and trial and error. Then I met Henrik Von Sivers. We both wanted to learn more. He didn't have as much technical knowledge as me but he was a better songwriter, so we bounced off each other and started DJing. Then ten years ago we invested in this studio together. For some reason I was more confident in my music with Henrik. Then we drifted apart musically and he moved to the US. I'd been trying to make techno but it was all too cluttered because I kept piling elements on top of each other. Then I played some of my stuff to Paul Purgas, who's half of Emptyset. By accident I played some sketches I was working on but I considered them to be just intros. Then he said, "Hang on, stop. This is finished." So he took a bunch of those sketches and said he wanted to release them, which seemed a little crazy because it was just me noodling about.
Emptyset like to create feedback loops using sends and compressors. Did this rub off on you?
That's their sound. I guess I nicked a bunch of those techniques. Quite a lot of weird stuff happens when you start sending sends back into themselves.
Are you doing that on this desk?
Yes. It's actually an old Norwegian broadcast desk from the '80s. It's a Tore Seem and they had a bunch of these on Swedish radio. The preamps are really, really punchy.
How did Paul's ear change your methods?
It helped me immensely because it wasn't until the EP came out that I saw people enjoying it and started to think, "Hmmm, I could make 20 of these tracks in a day." It was me just working and not thinking about what I was doing. I could forget about the technical stuff and just record. I'd been making all these 15-minute tracks but I thought back to my vocal comping days and edited down these long ideas into something more manageable. Chiselling away, taking things out and making things shorter, that's the biggest thing with my music now.
Then in 2012, I started working on what became The Swedish Congo Record, so it actually predates a lot of my recent music. It started out as a little task for myself, something that would take only a week or two.
So you were drawn to this old 78 RPM recording from the Central Congo and you set out to recreate it as a sort of exercise. What were you trying to learn?
First off, it was the rhythmic patterns. I have a bunch of records like this and I chose this one because it was the lowest fidelity, and repeated listening revealed a lot of nuances.
Many Western artists use algorithms when attempting to emulate sub-Saharan rhythmic structures.
I tried everything. The Euclidean algorithm can get you on the right track but it doesn't work to just use it as a blanket framework to lay over the music. We're talking about folk music. People are playing it because it's part of their life and culture. It's the most natural thing they could do. It's this human element that makes it really interesting, not a piece of maths.
You said you were surprised how little political criticism you got for that record. It certainly makes for an easy target.
Totally. That's why I was hesitant to release it. I was expecting criticism and I wanted the debate to happen more than it did. I'm still not sure whether it's merely appropriation or whether it became something else. To an external perspective, it's a white, middle-aged, privileged man in Northern Europe stealing music and putting his name on it. But instead of just sampling it, I put myself out on a limb in trying to recreate it from scratch. In some respects I failed, but ultimately I feel that it became a world of its own. Regardless, I think the best thing to do is to have the discussion and to have it out in the open. I'm not one to say what's right and what's wrong, especially on the internet, but these issues need to be worked over in order for us to push forward.
You mentioned that you were trying to make techno but you couldn't help but clutter it up with too many elements. It's extremely difficult to leave a track stripped and simple. Is it just a matter of confidence?
Yeah, I think so. Early Chicago recordings ooze confidence, maybe because they were just kids who didn't know what they were doing. You have this 10,000-hour rule whereby you can't be great at something without putting in this much time—and I certainly put in those hours—but in a way your first hour of creating is equally powerful. You have no preconceptions or ideas, you don't think, you don't even know what you're doing. But you can express yourself. Techno is so formulated that, in reality, it's pretty easy to make a track. You can do just about anything on top of the kick and hi-hat framework, and it can be liberating when you're first getting into it. But if you've done it a couple of times, you start going back and analysing what you've done and you get stuck in those 10,000 hours figuring out how to get back to that first hour. You have to unlearn that mental baggage you acquire.
Apart from the Congo record, have there been other times where you tried to directly copy something, failed at it, and ended up with something you like?
That happens a lot. In a way, I think that's what everyone does. Originality is obviously overrated and impossibly pure. Copying and recreating your favourite tracks is a great way to learn, and you end up being side-tracked and arriving at something of your own.
How was the process behind writing Controlling Body different from the Congo record?
The Congo record centred on synthesising vocals and avoiding samples, so for the new album I turned it around and used samples almost exclusively. I dug up and recorded all the acapellas I could find in my collection until I had a huge bank of vocal samples. Then I had a discussion with Cameron Mesirow, AKA Glasser, about it in the summer of 2014 and I ended up sending her a bunch of vocal cues to record. Maybe there'd just be arrows going up and down indicating the shape of "ooohhs" and "aahhs." Anyway, she recorded them and it became a sample bank for the album. Half the tracks on the album have her voice. The last track is all her.
Are there any particular machines in here that've been fundamental to what you do?
The EMS Synthi for sure. I got it five or six years ago. I bought it off eBay for a steal. It was over Christmas and I just received a tax return. I was laying in bed just scrolling on eBay, placed the starting bid on the EMS and ended up winning. It was a lot of money but still, it was half of what they go for now. It's kind of magic, a box a tricks. I use it when I play live.
Why does it lend itself to a live context?
Because it sounds so incredible. Even running a simple oscillator tone through a PA sounds phenomenal. Everything is set in stone in this machine, it's complete. EMS stands for Electronic Music Studio, and that's what it's meant to be. Your studio could just be an EMS and a tape recorder. Even the manual is great. People think it's just a box of bleeps and, in a way, it is. But running brass, violins or guitars through it can be amazing.
Does it have an envelope follower for tracing the contours of external audio?
Yeah kind of, in its own way. It can do anything. It's like Ableton from the '70s. Once you start connecting modulation sources and destinations, crossing them over and building relationships between signals, everything starts feeding back on itself. At first it can be frustrating but it leads to some extremely crazy stuff. It's really musically made and has loads of sweet spots. It's great fun for live work. I use this and a laptop running Ableton when I play live. Everyone tries to control their synths with their computers but I'm trying to do it the other way around.
So you're converting control voltage to MIDI and then sending that to Ableton?
Controlling Body is centred on vocals and in a playlist you compiled about the album's influences you included "Mr Smith in Rhodesia," a piece combining concrete poetry, sound art and politics that was banned for 15 years. Sweden has a strong history in this field. Is this something you look to?
It's an amazing piece. This goes back to the appropriation argument around the Congo record. What's mine, what's yours, what can I take? What's the lineage here? "Mr Smith In Rhodesia" was made in Stockholm at the end of the '60s, and I can clearly identify it as part of my heritage, so I can draw from it comfortably.
Sounds have a programmatic function in these sorts of works, in that they're part of telling the story or setting a scene. Was this something you were thinking of with Controlling Body?
Do certain sounds lend themselves to certain ways of telling a story?
Yes, and different tempos and different levels of aggression. But it helps to know when the feeling of a sound correlates with the narrative you're trying to evoke, as you say. We used to do this a lot in Roll The Dice. We would set these scenes before we started with the music and it would really help, especially with instrumental pieces. You'd imagine, say, a train journey in the '30s and you'd try something on the piano and think, "Yes, it sounds like a train bell," or something. These things aren't meant to be super obvious in the final product but it really helps shape the composition. In your head you think this sounds like a car or two people in conversation but to the listener it has no associations.
Specifically with Controlling Body, I had a loose concept of control. You don't need to think much about control to realise it's present in almost everything, so I wanted to look at it from different perspectives, from the big picture to more intimate, personal stuff. That's why there's a track called "I Love You." It could be a love song to my girlfriend or it could be exploring love as the ultimate control mechanism. I like having these concepts before I start on something. It doesn't have to be coherent—it's more of a personal organising principle.