Development starts from within. Kanayo Nwanze

“Even ABBA were melancholic”

With “Aelita”, Swedish indie rockers Mando Diao reinvent themselves and return to the world’s music stages. Frontman Björn Dixgård talked to Max Tholl and Caroline Jebens about the similarities between science and music, Swedish melancholia, and the danger of becoming your own cover band.

The European: You named your new album, “Aelita”, after an old Russian synthesizer. Is this Mando Diao’s farewell to classic guitar rock?
Björn: No, it’s not. We never close the door on anything. We grew up in the 1990s and therefore with a lot of diversity in music and culture. We grew up with Bob Marley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, James Brown, country music, and of course electronic music like trip hop that became popular during the 1990s. So we do not feel like we belong to a specific genre.

The European: “Aelita” has a very strong 80s vibe. What drove you in that direction?
Björn: To us it does not feel like 80s music, but I can understand why people think that. "Black Saturday”, in particular, has a lot of those 80s sounds. We found this Aelita synthesizer in a second-hand shop in Sweden, bought it and took it back to our studio. We connected it and tried to play it, but it didn’t make any sounds, so we left the studio to have a cup of coffee. Suddenly we heard these strange noises coming from the studio and we realized that the Aelita was making them without any one of us even touching it. It was like an animal, it just made different sounds and noises at the same time. It’s a synthesizer that never does the same thing twice.

The European: Which is what attracted you to it.
Björn: We started to think about how technology is like biology and how it differs. We are no scientists, so we do not have to be strict. This was the starting point and the inspiration for the production of the new record. The songs are pretty much written like all our previous songs. The melodies are still melancholic.

The European: So it was more a kind of natural music evolution instead of a deliberate choice?
Björn: Yes, we never plan how to approach a new album. We tried it once, but it did not work out. We write songs all the time, it is an ongoing process, and we just stay open-minded. Maybe that is the reason why we stumbled upon this synthesizer. We do have visions, but no plans.

The European: Any visions for new records?
Björn: We would like to make a record on the North Pole and see what happens if we play music there. But that is more of a ground vision, not a vision about how the music actually has to sound. We do not think in decades either. We think in other ways.

“Rules suck”

The European: Did you have any specific artists in mind while working on the new record?
Björn: No. Of course we have a lot of influences, but it’s not our goal to be innovative or to copy innovative artists. We use a lot of methods and it’s always a bit random. The synthesizer is just a small part of it. We also used a lot of new technologies, a lot of plug-ins and software and of course a lot of what people call “real instruments”. One thing we learned over the years is that there are no instruments that are better than others – they are all equally good. A guitar should be on the same level as a sampler from Hong Kong.

The European: But there are still a lot of rules and dividing lines in music.
Björn: Sadly, yes. But rules suck when you make music! Making music should be a playful thing – like playing Lego.

The European: Why do you think people still think in those categories? If you as a rock band release an album that is more electronic, people will be astonished by it.
Björn: Good question. Maybe we humans have a problem with letting go of what we are used to, a slight problem with getting out of our comfort zone. Sometimes when I hear new music or see a new movie I automatically react skeptically. If it is something you have never seen before, you tend to dislike it. But you have to open up and leave this comfort zone, even if it is hard at times.

The European: Mando Diao are well known for being experimental with sounds and genres. Is it difficult to constantly change the sound but keep the fan base together?
Björn: It is hard to analyze. We can’t control it, and therefore it is hard to know what we lose and what we gain – I reckon that we do both. We have changed our sound ever since we released our first song in 2002. We got pretty mixed reactions back then and didn’t really know how to handle it. We are used to it now, so we do not think about it anymore.

The European: That’s a bold statement. If you have established a certain fan base and are very successful with a certain sound, it might be the easiest and most comfortable way to just continue along the same lines.
Björn: I understand your reasoning. We have at times tried to copy ourselves, but it always resulted in a bad copy of something we have done before. Nowadays, you can see at a lot of groups that are just stuck and keep on repeating themselves and their music gets worse. In a way, I admire people who can do the same thing over and over again – but I cannot do it for myself.

The European: At some point you just become your own cover band.
Björn: Yes! And that has happened to a lot of groups – even very successful ones.

“We don’t need to be innovative"

The European: Is there any music genre that is off-limits for you?
Björn: Not really. There are genres that we prefer but there’s nothing completely off the table. Maybe when we were 22, but not today. I do not feel that I belong to a specific group or society or any particular culture, so why should my music?

The European: Wouldn’t you describe yourself as a rocker?
Björn: I do not see myself as something particular. I see myself as a human being, just like everybody else. I am not trying to sound like Jesus here; it is just the way I feel. I think groups in society are very dangerous and the first step to real evilness. The “I-belong-here-and-you-belong-there” sort of thing. That is very dangerous.

The European: As you said, Mando Diao’s sound is a mash-up of many different musical genres and decades. Is there a certain nostalgia in that?
Björn: Not really. We feel very modern. That is strange, because nobody else is seeing that in us. In the way we work, in the way we see life, in the way we express new music: there is actually as much influence from new music as from old – at least that’s my impression. The rapper Lil’ Wayne and the soundtrack from the movie “Drive” were huge influences while working on this album. We want to show all our feathers, and they have a lot of colors. Every person in the world has a lot of fantasies and ideas. The question is whether you dare to show them. Show them! That’s our message. We do not have to talk about that so much, we just have to go on the way we do. We don’t need to be innovative. We do not have any rules. It does not have to sound modern, if we think modern. For me it is as inspiring and new to hear a song from the 1920s that I have never heard before, as it is hearing a brand new single. Everything is new music if you have never heard it before.

The European: Your new album – and music in general – focuses a lot on love and romance. Why is there such an obsession with that topic in music?
Björn: I guess that’s just inherent in music, maybe even the reason for its existence. I can only speak for Gustaf (Norén – Mando Diao’s other frontman) and myself, but we are very romantic people. We try to find romance wherever we go. We love the euphoric feelings, we love sex, we love love. There is so much to write about these subjects, it is never-ending and there’s both negative and positive feelings in it. We always had these melancholic melodies. That is probably the only common theme in our music.

The European: What about that melancholy? In the new songs there is a lot about jealousy, desperation, and unfulfilled love. Yet you and Gustaf are both happily married with children.
Björn: Being married with children does not necessarily mean pure luck all the time. You do not feel whole as a person just because of that. Don’t get me wrong: it is wonderful! Kids are the closest thing to perfect and eternal love. But we are not only singing about us in the songs, we are singing a lot about our friends and people we’ve met. It’s a mash-up of our and their ideas. In fact, we do not see ourselves as lyricists. We do not think that we are that good at writing lyrics. We just mash things up (laughs).

The European: You mentioned at the beginning that melancholia is typical for Swedes. Another thing Sweden is well known for is its creativity and good taste.
Björn: (laughs) I am not sure if that is true. But our folk music is melancholic; even ABBA were melancholic! And we are too. I guess we are born with it!

The European: With good taste and melancholy?
Björn: With a melancholic feeling, yes! About the good taste thing: I do not have a clue about that actually.

Did you like the conversation? Read one with Chilly Gonzales: “Purism is like musical nationalism”


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