Swinging Modern Sounds #88: Music for the Masses

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Daniel Carlson, a songwriter from New York City, is the sort of musician one definitely encounters in due course if making a point of hanging around music and art circles. Because he cares, because he is curious, because he listens. Carlson is a true musical polymath, with an intricate knowledge of less-traveled byways of literate and ambitious songwriting, and he also happens to be the originator, in NYC, of the record club concept—a sort of a book club, but in which people bring songs, and talk about them, a social concept that has been much-imitated elsewhere (including by me: I started a record club in Brooklyn, after attending Carlson’s).

As a musician, Carlson often works on a record at great length, and each of his albums—they are all available on Bandcamp, including his brand new EP, mentioned below, which is really great—is beautifully crafted in new and different ways. They are, I suppose, indie rock albums, or albums of songcraft in a way that indie rock occasionally purports to be, though more precisely they are indie rock in the way that Van Dyke Parks is indie, or the High Llamas are indie, or Laura Nyro is indie. They are not meant simply to be popular songs. They are meant to be very powerful and moving art songs. It’s an approach that I admire.

Not too long ago, Daniel wrote to me with a surprising bit of news: that he had made a kind of a synth-pop album, with a guy from Europe, who had written him out of the blue asking him to sing on some tracks he’d written. You have only to listen to Carlson’s songs to realize how far this is from his own idiom. Nevertheless, though synth-pop, to me, is where music goes to die, I listened, because I trust Daniel to have only the most carefully reasoned view of musical greatness. He had enjoyed his synth-pop singing, as he said, and so I wanted to hear what he heard. And, it’s true, the album, which appears under the title Iso Omena, is ridiculously effective at its genre. It has extremely catchy melodies, some of which seem to come from the ’80s, some from even before the ’80s, like from Tangerine Dream or Synergy, and it has bright, well-crafted instrumental bits that mainly exist to demonstrate the electronics being used here. Sometimes the record is profound and lofty in a prog rock kind of way, and other times its funny, aping some of the clichés of the early synth-pop bands in a way that reminds me of an IDM version of Vaporwave. In the midst of it all is a truly luminous Daniel Carlson, whose singing voice, always unique and human, now seems to have a kind of Dave Gahan excellence. He has never sung with quite this heroism.

I thought it would be delightful and interesting to get Carlson, and his collaborator Andreas Sandberg (who was, before making Italo disco in a band called Carino Cat, a founding member of an appealing thrash metal band called Dr. Living Dead) to describe how the project came to be, what it has to do with Carlson’s “running videos,” and how it was different from their myriad other projects. The interview, like the project Iso Omena, is both funny and revealing. It took place by email in August 2018.

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The Rumpus: Andy, can you talk a little bit about Iso Omena as a solo project; that is, a project apart from your usual vehicle of Carino Cat? What prompted it? How is it different from the work you do collaboratively in Carino Cat?

Andreas Sandberg: I’ve had many bands and projects through the years, mainly playing in rock bands as a drummer and the last ten years as a singer and songwriter. All that time I have always been driven to make synth-based music. As a kid I always liked Kraftwerk, and this drove me closer to more experimental electronic music, mainly the IDM genre in the late ’90s with artists like Aphex Twin, Autechre, and the like. I got into Italo disco in my early twenties but at the time there was really no one to share this with and I think most people saw it as a joke, including myself at the time.

So that died out really quickly. It wasn’t until a few years ago I started to write electronic music again. I bought a tape from the guy in [the band] DDR Space Program and from there we started to chat, and talk about making music together. I bought the small boutique version of the Roland 106 and the FM Volca and slowly things started to roll again.

This quickly turned out to Carino Cat and we have been releasing a lot of music in just two years. All along this time I had other songs written, closer to cinematic/soundtrack stuff, like Vangelis, John Carpenter. Things which don’t fit Carino Cat. I had an idea of recording something for some time, and had a voice in mind for those songs. I’m a big fan of David Gilmour and those soft vocals like Paul McCartney, etc. ELO and Alan Parsons have a big place in my heart. So when I heard Daniel Carlson’s voice I was blown away. He really had all those ingredients and that quality you could only dream about working with. So basically I wanted to work with Daniel.
And this is what became Iso Omena.

Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit more about specific influences for the writing in Iso Omena? I definitely hear the electronic/pop aspect with the vocals, but I also hear a lot of ’80s electronic stuff in there, too, like OMD, or maybe Human League, early Ultravox, in the extremely adept melody writing in the synth parts. It’s very different from how electronic music is made now. How did you get to the compositions? All written on synth? Or do you write on conventional instruments and then recast the melodies on synth?

Sandberg: Those bands you mentioned have affected in me in one way or another, a long time before this project was even in the blueprint stages. I guess that ’80s Pink Floyd, Alan Parsons, John Carpenter, and soundtrack music have had a big impact on me. But I think when it comes to the sound, I am all in for keeping the sound as it is. Which, for me, is to not overproduce and just let the instrument sound as it sounds and keep that character. For me, that was always the interesting thing with music growing up. Productions often had a feeling to them, there was room. Like each album always was this new world of sound. This was the main thing for this project, to keep that feeling and for example, if you own a Casio, you can hear it is a Casio playing.

I guess it is different from how music is made nowadays cause if you take the whole new wave of retro-synth artists, most of them do not sound retro at all. Often there’s that compressed brick wall sound. I’ve never liked that. When it comes to the arrangement parts and melodies, I tend to listen to a lot of music on a daily basis and I often hear an arrangement or melody I get inspired by, and that mostly leads to me sitting in front the keys trying to do something as inspiring. This can be really any artist in any genre. Hearing a guitar solo or listening to some ’70s Italian film music… or I just get inspired by the drum machine on a Michael Jackson album. Most of the time I have the hook, the verse, and the chorus in my head before I even try it out. Sometimes it works and sometimes it just sounds terrible. The main thing for me is the thing a mentioned about creating this world. It must have some kind of character to it. For a lot of people the ’80s seem to be something to forget, but for me it never went away. I still want those sounds in my ears.

Rumpus: Really excellent about room tone! I’m mindful in this context of Eno’s comments about things outside of the piece being audible in the piece. I think room tone has been left behind by the digital space of contemporary music. Does your observation about hearing the room imply that you tried to limit the digital interfacing on the pieces for Iso Omena? Were there analogue processes built in to the recording process? How do you feel about tape versus ProTools, etc.?

Sandberg: Yes, Brian Eno’s example is exactly what I am talking about. Even if not a room, I want each thing to sound and let it live on its own. Even when it comes to synthetic sounds and not acoustics there is something special in hearing the hum from a cable or defects from the synth. I work in Logic so yes, it is digital. But that is the mixing part of it. I love the sound of tape. I recently mixed an EP and sent it through a cassette deck and back. People may think it is stupid, but I want that feeling. It is just the way I want it to sound. I use cheap cables. Use the expensive ones and you will get perfection, but that is not what I’m looking for.

Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about how you discovered Dan’s music? He definitely comes from an entirely different place than the synth-pop world you’re working in now. What about his work appealed to you, and how did you become aware of it?

Sandberg: If I remember this correctly, I started to follow Daniel on Instagram a few years ago, then after a while I discovered that he was making music. It was just a coincidence that I found his music, really. I think I found it on Spotify. But I got hooked immediately! It was definitely the whole sound of it, but the thing that was outstanding was his voice. I was a bit shocked. That type of singing is rare nowadays. I knew right away that I wanted to work with him. I remember I asked and I did send him something but we didn’t get it together until much later when I had time to do it. I had a lot of projects going on, so I am glad I took the time to do this. I had this picture in my head of how I wanted to do it. I wanted it to be rock-oriented but more synthetic. There was an idea of having guitars in there as well, but for some stupid reasons I never put them there. I would like to do it again, for sure. and next time I really need those blues solos in there.

Rumpus: How did you come to follow him on Instagram? So you’re saying you were following him on Instagram, and then just by chance you found his music on Spotify at the same time?

Sandberg: My ex-girlfriend actually met Daniel in Stockholm at a cafe, I think, and just chatted like people do. And if remember correctly she followed him and later I started to follow him. Mainly because he asked people to ask him questions when he was jogging, and replied the answers… when he was jogging. I thought this was brilliant. This was my first encounter with Daniel. Finding his music was a coincidence.

Rumpus: Dan, what was the sequence of events from your point of view? Was Andy’s reaching out to you a surprise?

Daniel Carlson: As Andreas mentioned, our initial connection was through a woman I happened to meet in a cafe in Stockholm in, I think, the winter of 2013. I can’t remember exactly what the situation was, but we ended up becoming friends on Facebook and that was that—a very early twenty-first century kind of interaction. Fast forward a couple of years and, completely out of nowhere, I got a message from this guy named Andreas—he said he’d heard my records and really liked my voice and asked if I’d be interested in singing on a record he was thinking about doing. Now all I knew about him was that we had this mutual acquaintance, that was it—I don’t think I heard any of this stuff at the very beginning. But the thing was—and of course Andreas couldn’t have known this—I was really interested in collaboration at that moment in time (still am, actually). I’d played on some other peoples’ records, I’d helped a couple of people with songwriting stuff, and I was just really enjoying it—it felt so much less pressurized than working on my own material. So I was intrigued. The other part of it—and this was the big thing for me—was that I was kind of shocked that someone wanted me to sing on their record. I’d come pretty late to singing—it wasn’t something that came naturally to me—and, while I felt like I did a decent job with my own songs, I definitely felt that my voice really only worked with the kind of delicate little melodies that I’d written around its characteristics, tailored to its limitations.

So I said yes, I’d be very happy to do it. My memory here is that it was a while—maybe six months or a year—before I heard back from Andreas. It’s funny, most musicians I know talk about doing things and then never actually do them, and yet I remember thinking in that interim period that I’d hear back, that he’d follow through. Then I woke up one morning in NYC and checked my email and there was a song—I think it was “The Prisoner”—and I thought it was amazing. So different than anything I’d done, of course, but I loved it immediately. What I didn’t understand was how my voice was going to fit into it, how on earth it was going to occupy the center of this epic piece of production and arranging with any kind of authority. So I started singing it a bit, recording passes of it and thinking that it really wasn’t happening, that I really wasn’t the right person. What’s funny about all of this is that it’s not a particularly difficult song to sing—there aren’t a ton of notes or any kind of melodic gymnastics—but I just didn’t feel what I was doing was compelling. So I kept singing it and telling Andreas that I needed a bit more time. And then, after really living with the song for a while, I got more comfortable with it. And, in the end, I was in my studio and, after lunch one day, I sang it a couple more times and that ended up being what we used. Was done very quickly. I sent it off to Andreas—who’d been so patient—and he said he loved it. So, once that first one was one, and I knew that Andreas was happy with it, the rest came much more quickly.

And I had absolutely no idea he’d seen those running questions videos I’d done on Instagram.

Rumpus: Just for the sake of disclosure can we sketch out what the Instagram project is, Dan?

Carlson: Right, the running questions (and my Instagram name is iamdanielcarlson if you want to see what Andreas and I are talking about).

I was late to the Instagram party, so to speak (this was 2014 or so), and I didn’t really know if or how I wanted to participate. I liked looking at other peoples’ photos of their kids and their dogs and all that, but it didn’t inspire me to jump in. One thing that did fascinate me was the whole selfie thing and how comfortable (certain) people seemed to be posting pictures of themselves, often with these very specific facial expressions and poses—these faux glamour shots. Like a lot of people, I wasn’t so comfortable in front of the camera, so the selfie thing seemed completely crazy. Then I had this idea about doing these super deadpan selfies—flat expression, not particularly flattering. Something of a parody, although I’m not sure I thought about it that concretely. Did it for a while, then kind of lost interest.

Then I noticed that one could do these short videos on Instagram. I think the time limit was fifteen seconds at the beginning (it’s longer now). And this was really interesting to me, the idea of the video selfie, and I tried to think about what I could do that would be fun for people to watch, something that might engage them for a very short period of time every day. And so I had this idea about answering questions and, because I’m a runner, answering them while I’m running. Felt kind of like juggling: holding the camera at arm’s length while I’m sprinting through the East River Park while attempting to answer a question that someone had emailed me (and that answer had to be delivered in under fifteen seconds). What was hilarious to me was the range of questions and what people thought I’d be able to tackle in that limited amount of time (although I’m sure there was a certain amount of let’s see how he handles THIS one going on). Who were my favorite photographers? How is NYC different than Amsterdam? Could I name five different kinds of fries? Was 9/11 a conspiracy? Why didn’t I wear normal running clothes? Favorite episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show? There was person who wrote me who just said “Department stores” (and I have a lot of thoughts about department stores, so that was a good one). They’re fun to do and people seem to like them so I try to do batches of them from time to time.

Rumpus: Dan, what was your relationship to the synth-pop of the ’80s?

Carlson: Video here, and below.

Rumpus: Let the record show that Dan, while jogging, alludes only to a deep and abiding love of Thomas Dolby’s first album, The Golden Age of WirelessI believe it is important, when discussing types of music that are generally reviled, to be open about one’s relationship to this disgraced music. (I have done this with the dreaded prog of the ’70s, which I really liked before I was exposed to punk in 1977 or thereabouts.) So I would like to say that back in the day, I, too,  really liked Thomas Dolby for a brief period. In the circles I traveled in, which was sort of a theory-obsessed intellectual crowd whose favorite album for a while was Big Science by Laurie Anderson, “She Blinded Me With Science,” by Dolby, was considered a sly and deeply funny and infectious single. I had an EP with “Windpower” and “One of Our Submarines Is Missing” on it, which were both on the American edition of Golden Age, and I came to really love those songs. Especially “Submarines,” for me, was a really unusual and beautiful song. And this led, later on, to a tremendous appreciation of a song on his second album called “The Flat Earth,” which had a line I really love, in the chorus: “And that is why for me the earth is flat.”

This tolerance for some of synth-pop, despite the fact that it became an utterly reviled form (Howard Jones!), meant that there were certain albums in the subgenre I really liked. I did, in fact, like Organisation by OMD, and I liked Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express by Kraftwerk, and I liked Dare! by the Human League for a couple of minutes, and I liked The Luxury Gap by Heaven 17. I liked early Ultravox and occasional songs by Depeche Mode (I think “Personal Jesus” is a very good song, for example.) “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell was great. Of course, like almost everyone on earth, I think “Blue Monday” and “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order are really great. And yet: I always disliked the Pet Shop Boys, thought Blancmange was awful, and after a certain point, because the locus of my disgust had a lot to do with the growing sophistication of drum machines, I started to resist.

So, Dan, can you just speak to what was interesting about Thomas Dolby for you? And does it relate at all to what was interesting about the Iso Omena songs?

Carlson: Although I certainly wouldn’t have been able to put a finger on it at the time, there were a few pretty specific things about Dolby—and US version of that album with “One of Our Submarines” in particular—that I really liked. The first is the songs themselves. I’m a melody and harmony person and those songs are just really well constructed on both accounts—there are both long and short melodic phrases, accompanied by chords and chord changes that aren’t always obvious. He uses those tools to create tension and pathos (“One of Our Submarines” and “Radio Silence” come immediately to mind) and I just didn’t hear that in a lot of new things—talking about the songs themselves—that were coming my way at the time. I also thought the words were really good. For an album that began with a really funny song (“She Blinded Me with Science”), he was able to mix narrative and abstraction beautifully, in a way that felt like these were personal songs, but not too personal, not too specific. It’s one of the most difficult things for a songwriter to do I think, to write a lyric that moves the listener through a combination of phrase, word sounds, and vague narrative, and I think Dolby was very good at that, at least for a time. And finally, I think the production and arrangements are just about perfect. One of my complaints about music that uses synthesizers and drums machines—regardless of genre—is that it often sounds to me like an awful lot of presets are being used, people taking the synth out of the box and pressing the preset buttons until they find a sound that they like and then just presenting it in a naked way. Ditto drum machines. But this record sounds to me like it was made by somebody who had a very specific vision when it came to sonic palette and worked hard to articulate that. I mean, synths and guitars and drum machines are expected, but flute and harmonica and those particular strings and background vocals? Those still sound wonderful and fresh to me. And, of course, the synths themselves just sound great.

It’s primarily with that final point where, for me, the Dolby songs intersect with what Andreas has done with the Iso Omena songs. Yes, I think the songs are great—super catchy and infectious—and the words—while maybe not as obviously personal or specific as Dolby’s—fit very well with the music. But it’s in the care and skill taken with the arrangements, playing, and production—there’s that same degree of intentionality that I hear on the Dolby record. A sense that every note, every beat has been considered, that everything you’re hearing is as Andreas imagined it. And, to me, when that’s done well—and by that I mean when it hasn’t stripped the music of its spark and spontaneity—it’s really a special thing. It’s like a magic trick. I hear that on the Dolby and I hear it with what Andreas has done here.

Thinking more about the previous question—about my relationship to synth-pop in the ’80s—I’m also wondering if it played a bigger role than I realize. You bringing up prog reminded me that, for years, I just sort of shrugged my shoulder when people asked if I liked it, and I’d reply that I didn’t really know it at all (which was an honest answer). But actually, and this is a bit embarrassing to admit, I just had a very narrow and specific idea about prog was at the time, along with some bad associations involving high school classmates who were super into things like Rush, ELP, and Rick Wakeman’s extravaganza on ice, all of which I thought were ridiculous. At the same time, I was borderline obsessed with The Yes Album and Wish You Were Here, (both of which, like the Dolby records, I still love). And then I stumbled across the second PFM album Per un Amico, and that entered the rotation as well, and a few of the King Crimson records, too. It wasn’t until decades later when I thought, Oh, I should really know more about prog, that I discovered that these were all considered prog records. So I do wonder if those ’80s synth-pop records made more of impression than I realized. Because, aside from the Dolby record, there are a lot of things from the ’80s and beyond that—when I come across them now—I really have a soft spot for, that I find I know well. Very well. Maybe I need to investigate.

Rumpus: Andy, can you speak a little bit about writing words in this project? How you compose words generally, and what the overall lyrical feel of the album is for you?

Sandberg: I often start to write a song without words. But mostly I have and idea or feel of a theme. But for me personally it’s all about finding the right feel to the words when singing. It has to feel right in the mouth. I have had issues in the past with people writing lyrics, and when its time for me to sing it just feels robotic and stiff. The lyrics can be really good but they don’t float either with the song or the melody. For me it’s all about finding that right feel. I mean, I could write a song about potatoes and still find it soulful and interesting enough and sound like you mean it.

But talking about the lyrics on this album? Well, some of the songs had structures and parts that I had worked on before, some not. But the overall feel was some kind of post-apocalyptic sound to it. I have this War of the Worlds thing going on in my head and wanted to do something with that.

Rumpus: Is the post-apocalyptic feeling because that is a touchstone with some of the prog/new wave/synth-pop source material that is close to your heart (I’m thinking of Alan Parsons Project, or Pink Floyd, for example), or because you mean to comment on where we are in the world now?

Sandberg: I guess my inspiration in general often comes from the things I love the most, which is film and music, and, yes, those bands had those ingredients/elements—a comment on society, and probably the reason why I picked it up in the first place. Even though that’s not my intention when writing stuff, the idea of this strange future is still something I think about a lot. Going back to when I was a kid there was Chernobyl on TV, and in the same year I remember waking up to the news that the Swedish prime minister was killed, and as a six-year-old I thought this was the end of the world. Combined with all the fictional stuff like comics and films I was consuming in those years, it had a big impact on me. All together, it was some really dark stuff to take in.

Rumpus: What was the mechanism for recording Dan? Did he do it all in NYC? How did you guys do quality control on the vocals, etc.? Is it true you two have never met?

Sandberg: He recorded all the vocals at his studio. I sent him early versions of the songs with my singing on it, and then he did his take on it. Daniel sent me the files, I listened to them, and, I think I loved every take. Everything just sounded perfect. So for me everything felt smooth. And it is true, we have never met.

Rumpus: What about the international quality of the finished product, that it is both European and American; is that of interest to you both? It is sort of a statement about the statelessness of music made by people through the Internet, no?

Sandberg: Well, the name itself, Iso Omena, means “big apple” in Finnish, And I’m half-Finnish myself. And this name took a while to come up with. I also asked Daniel for advice, what he thought would be a good name, and so on. I don’t know if that answers the question but the name at least says something about that. A statement? The project for me is not a statement, but maybe it turned out to be, after all? Either way, I think the Internet and especially social media has helped me and is the reason why music projects of mine have become reality. I mean, if I would have heard Daniel’s singing on an album in 1995, I don’t think we would have ever talked and this project would not exist… Also, I recently realized that Iso Omena is also the name of a big mall in Finland. Every hashtag basically leads to that mall.

Rumpus: Daniel, how has this project affected what you’re up to musically now? Do you see reverberations of it in your recent EP release?

Carlson: Yeah, this was a very different kind of situation for me. I’d always thought of my voice as a kind of imperfect thing that really only worked with the melodies that I wrote for it, melodies that took its limitations into account. As a result, I think the only times I’ve sung other peoples’ songs—since high school, when I did it badly—involved making quick little recordings of songs by friends of mine. And while the few people who heard those always said they really liked them (and liked my singing on them), they were my friends so I’m not sure I really took their words to heart.

So my initial thought after getting Andreas’s note was that he had the wrong guy. But I’d said yes and wanted to give it a try, so it became this odd kind of singing challenge for me: after years of hiding behind these melodies of my own, how would it be to sing a more straightforward, front-person, (synth) pop kind of song? I mean, it was clear from the demos that the singing played a big role in these songs. In the end, it did take some time—not to get the notes, but to get comfortable with being “the singer.” I’d take a couple of passes every week or so and think, This is really not compelling. But, at some point—and this was a big lightbulb kind of moment—I realized that the point wasn’t for me to turn into something different, but rather to just sing them in the way I’d always sung. After all, that was what Andreas had heard, that was why he reached out in the first place. And by that point I was very familiar with the songs and so it all went down very quickly. “The Prisoner” and “The Prophecy” were both done in an hour or so one afternoon after lunch, just a couple of takes each.

But yes, when I did this radio session (which is now available as an EP) in the spring, what I’d done with the Iso Omena material definitely informed my approach. Yes, I was singing—with one exception—my own songs, but it really felt as if I was covering someone else’s material in a sense and so my goal was to bring those feelings of confidence and ease (that I arrived at when I did the Iso Omena songs) to the session. So not only was it fun to do—it really felt like play—but I’m happy with how it turned out. And the actual cover song (“Fairest of the Seasons”), which is my favorite thing on there, was completely informed by the process of working on Andreas’s songs. I never would’ve attempted it had I not done his songs first. And, in terms of my own records moving forward, my hope is that both of these projects have allowed me to turn a corner with my singing.

Rumpus: What are you both doing next?

Sandberg: Actually, I have already started recording new Iso Omena songs. One is pretty much finished. The same vibe but maybe with a little darker touch to them.

Carlson: I’m in the middle of writing songs for a new record of mine, which I hope to get out some time next year. I’m also hoping to finish up a record with my friend Brook Ziporyn, something we’ve been working on, intermittently, since 2001. And Andreas has talked about doing another Iso Omena record, so I’m really excited about that as well.

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Photograph of Andreas Sandberg © Daniel Bäckman. Photograph of Daniel Carlson © JB Letchinger.


Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →