Peder Mannerfelt: You can be deep and dark and still smile!

April 30, 2015

Peder Mannerfelt is a remarkable producer and a singular artist who’s been serving as one of Sweden’s leading electronic figures for the last decade. He’s collaborated under the pseudonym The Subliminal Kid with musicians such as Fever Ray and remixed the likes of Massive Attack and Lykke Li. In recent years he has released three studio albums as part of the experimental classical duo, Roll The Dice. 2014 also witnessed the birth of his label, Peder Mannerfelt Produktion, a channel established as a vehicle for his revised production focus, but also as a platform for likeminded artists, such as the highly talented Klara Lewis. For his new release on Archives Intérieures (‘The Swedish Congo Record’, out on May 4), Peder takes us back to the Belgian Congo in the 1930’s. This adventurous album finds its roots in a very obscure 78 rpm record, put together by Belgian filmmaker Armand Denis, who was one of the first Europeans to capture the incredible sounds of Central Congo.

We caught up with Peder in Stockholm to chat about this exotic collection of sounds, which he decided to recreate using only synthesizers. You can also check out some of these pieces, so get ready for some proper tribal treatment!

Peder Mannerfelt (Photo: Gustaf von Arbin)

Peder Mannerfelt (Photo: Gustaf von Arbin)

You’re an enthusiastic collector of African tribal music. When and how did your fascination with these exotic sounds start?

I don’t really know why I started buying these records, but it started like 10 years ago. I was buying lots of second hand records, mostly jazz and techno… Then I discovered tribal music, and first I just wanted to sample and rework everything.

So you already had it in mind that you were going to do something with them?

Well, it’s rhythmical music and it’s so closely affiliated to the music I’m doing. It’s pretty amazing when sometimes you go record buying and you find these records that almost feel like a time hole. It’s fascinating that they were recorded in Congo in the 30s or in Burundi in the 50s, and they sound like something that could be played in a club nowadays. I didn’t have any plans in the beginning, I just really liked these sounds and I kept buying these records, because I thought one day they might be useful. Then a few years later I decided it was time to do something with them, so I did some research. But it felt too easy to just sample these sounds, I could just put a kick drum on it and it’s a banger. That’s great but it felt like cheating, because you don’t need to do much to do it, it’s really such a basic level.

It’s not a challenge…

No, it’s not a challenge! So I started thinking about other ways to go about it… I found the sheet music for Steve Reich’s ‘Music For Pieces of Wood’ and just to exercise, I did that on my TR-909 as a fun thing. I can’t read sheets, but since it’s just percussions, it was pretty easy to decipher.

How much time did it take to reconstruct that one?

That didn’t take too much time, because it’s pretty simple and I had the instructions. So I started to think that maybe I could do the same with one of the albums I have, to kind of do my own cover of it. I had a bunch of albums from Commodore and Ocora, an amazing French label with great sound quality. They’re doing thematic releases divided by countries all over the world, like the one from Burundi, which has this classic drumbeat that also inspired Malcolm McLaren. I chose the Belgian Congo Records, because it felt the most obscure one and had the most lo-fi sounding. This was 3 years ago, just when my daughter was born. I started working again and I thought this was a good exercise, which is going to take me 2 weeks or so… but then I got totally lost in this rabbit hole and I didn’t realize it at first how many tracks were there, so after all I spent almost a year on it. When I was working with it, I kept on hearing new layers and as it was more of an exercise to me, I wanted to synthesize all the voices as well.

How did you get started with synthesizing the vocals?

There is this technique called formant filtering where you can EQ filter, so you get vowels. This is why all the voices are vowels in the synthesized version.

So every small detail is synthesized, you haven’t taken anything from the original recordings?

There’s a kind of disco sample in one of the last tracks just as a bit of cheating, and there are some field recordings as well, but nothing else. I was totally lost in this, I didn’t really plan to release it. About a year ago Yves de Mey asked me if I wanted to do something for their label, and at that time I was around 95% finished with the material. He explained their concept and what they were after…

But it even fits the name of the label, ‘Archives Intérieures’…

Exactly, yeah! And it’s a Belgian label! It was one of my main concerns that if I’m going to release this, it really must have a proper context, because it’s an interesting subject to say the least. I guess that’s why I also didn’t want to sample, I wanted to try and see it as I’m doing cover versions, like doing a cover of a Beatles song. Fortunately, they were really into it, so I finished it last summer.

I guess not too many people have heard the original tracks. Can you tell them how accurate are your reconstructions/covers?

I’d say some of the tracks are kind of spot on. Some others I’ve been working on for 3 months, I had the skeletons but somehow I couldn’t really make them work. They were copies just not that good. I had a sample in the sampler, which I accidentally started to use on half of the tracks, so some of them just ventured off into different directions.

But was it your intention to keep them 100% accurate…?

That was the original intention, but it was quite difficult. For example, there are the three ‘Royal Watusi Drums’ that I had a really hard time with to transcribe. I asked Liliana Zavala (who played in Fever Ray and is a really great percussionist) to help me out, because she’s been to Ghana and studied African drums, so she did the midi programming for those actually. She got it spot on, because she could easily recognize all these patterns.

If you didn’t have any sheets for this, how did you even get started?

I tried to do some algorithms where you can get some patterns out, but they weren’t too good. Also, the biggest problem seemed to be the vocal parts, because they are not 12 tone standard Western musical scales. I think there is one or two tracks that I didn’t finish and they are not on the album… those are vocal tracks that didn’t turn out well.

The album also serves as an unintentional critique of the dark times in the Belgian colonialist times. How much do you feel personally involved into this, what is your take on this part of the history?

Well, it feels kind of crazy now, it’s not even a hundred years ago that Europe had all these colonies and it was kind of granted that they should have them! Even Sweden had a few tribes, some colonies but it kind of all fell apart. It’s hard to stand up for colonialism, but from a cultural point of view it’s a really interesting debate. I don’t know what’s right or wrong in that way, but I’m sure it’s an interesting discussion.

Peder at Atonal Festival in Berlin, August 2014

Peder at Atonal Festival in Berlin, August 2014

You also felt like you’re kind of violating them by ‘ripping’ this music off…

Yeah, because the people who are playing on the original album were not aware of being recorded. They could not really grasp what was going on and they were just playing the music they’ve always been playing, I guess. It’s a part of their everyday lives. I wanted to make these sounds my own, so it ended up as a really personal album. I think if I wouldn’t have started injecting more of myself into these tracks, it would’ve been a pretty boring.

The Belgian colonialism seems like a faraway thing, so it’s interesting that you made it so personal. It sounds like in the beginning you had nothing to do with it, but then it all became yours in a way…

But it really did! It helped a lot that the recording was so lo-fi and kind of open, and short like 20-40 seconds each. I stretched out most of them to 1 and 1,5 minutes. I kind of tried to bypass everything and get back to the artifact of these recordings. I don’t really know what it is, it’s something totally different that I usually do. I was actually thinking about doing it under a different name…

Maybe the concept is different, but I wouldn’t say that the sounds are so different at all, it fits pretty well.

That’s good, that’s really good to hear! I don’t know if it comes through, but there’s a lot of humour in it and it started as a ‘funny project’. In this power ambient section everyone is so serious with all the black and white images, so it’s really interesting to do this for a change.

Deep and dark…

You can be deep and dark and still smile!

Do you have plans doing a live performance with this?

No, I don’t. For me this was 3 years ago. That’s always a problem when you do something and then you release it… I’m not really in that place right now and I’m not going to go down there! If I would do it, I would really want to make a good concept out of it.

Like with real instruments…?

I’d probably be just myself since it’s such a personal thing for me… but this could also be the reason why I don’t want to play it live. I see it as some kind of a little artifact. It started as an exercise and it took many weird turns, but it’s interesting to see people’s reactions to it. I didn’t think people would be so into it. I was worried it would be more difficult for people to get into it, because it’s a bit…

It’s a bit like out of context, an unknown territory…

Yes, it needs some context and some explaining to be appreciated. But it feels like people can just latch onto it without too much explanation.

Have you heard any reactions like… ‘Oh no, this is not working…’?

Not really, I was expecting getting more shit for it. I’m really open for critique though, I think it’s an interesting debate.

Last year you launched your own record label, Peder Mannerfelt Produktion. You’ve released two of your EPs (I, II), and then Klara Lewis’ ‘Msuic’. What are your future plans with it?

I will soon release a third EP (III), because I kind of view that as a trilogy. I’ve been struggling for a while to make music, but ‘The Swedish Congo Record’ opened up something new for me. I was able to make massive amounts of music, that’s why there are so many tracks on those EPs. I made a couple of albums in a pretty short time span… I’ve been trying to make techno for a long time and wasn’t really satisfied with it. But when I stopped trying to do techno, something else happened. Now I’m doing techno but with a different perspective, and it’s working!

So now you have a whole platform for yourself basically.

Yeah, because I had all these tracks and wanted to do some more releases, also to have a bit more control over them when they come out, so it was quite a natural thing to start a label. I do it together with Pär Grindvik. We’re really close and we’re always discussing things back and forth and kind of pushing each other. He’s been a great help. Also, it was really nice to get Klara Lewis into the family. It wasn’t my intention originally to have lots of other artists, but when I heard her music, it felt like a great match.

Peder Mannerfelt (Photo: Erik Wåhlström)

Peder Mannerfelt (Photo: Erik Wåhlström)

Do you think you’d be open for other artists as well?

Yeah, definitely. I kind of had the idea that I might be releasing others’ music as well, but I knew that I didn’t want it to be a techno dude from Stockholm. Because that’s what you do, you just release your friends’ music… The circles get pretty small in a way and it’s quite an excluding society, so when I heard Klara’s album (‘Ett‘) and read that she’s a 20 years old girl living in Falun, Sweden… I felt like I really needed to put something out by her, just to be able to be part of it in a way, to be able to help her out in the beginning of her career. So it feels really nice that she’s got a context now, she’s blowing up! She’s such a natural talent, it’s crazy. The stuff I’ve been working on these last 6 months is really inspired by her. I did some mixing on her EP, so I could see how she works and it’s really interesting. It’s totally out of the box, she’s not working after any preset constraints, and it’s all just by ear. It’s really cool to see how she finds the texture and the melody.

Could you see yourself working with her in the future? Perhaps a collaboration?

Yeah! Definitely, that’d be great. We’ll see what happens.

You’ve been doing lots of collaborations, either in groups or just doing production or an EP together… and now you’ve started to focus on your own work. How does that feel compared to the collabs?

It’s the first time in a long while that I was working alone, and I guess that’s why the Congo album was such a struggle and it took so long. But in there somehow I found myself, I had to force myself to finish. When you’re working with someone… it’s so easy and so much quicker when you can bounce things back and forth. When you’re by yourself, you have to make all these decisions alone. When you make a track that’s too long with too much stuff in it, it’s really hard to take anything out. What I’ve been doing now with the last tracks is that I’ve been editing everything down to as short as possible…

Just like writing a novel…

Yeah, exactly! It’s the first time in my life that I’m actually able to finish things by myself and it’s an awesome feeling to be able to do that. But it’s also fun to collaborate with people, I’m still doing that as well. After 10 years you kind of know where to invest your energy, what matters in the end, so you can kind of manage your time better. What also helps is having kids, so you don’t have endless amounts of time. I don’t have time to sit around and play with the synth for 10 hours, I need to be at the kindergarten at 4pm, cook dinner and do the laundry… The time I have in the studio is more like ‘let’s get shit done!’.

Does this make you focus better or in a way it is frustrating as well?

No, it’s good! When I was on paternity leave with my first child, that opened up a lot of new ways of seeing things. I was just wondering around with the pram all day and thinking. That’s what you do in the studio as well, so when I actually got to the studio, I’ve already done the whole debate with myself, and everything went much quicker. I can focus much better, so I’ve been 300% more productive since I have less time.

Oh, the perks of having kids!

Yeah, and the lack of sleep is also good. It’s like almost being a bit stoned when you only sleep 5 hours. Your senses are more focused in a way, because you cannot take in 100% of what’s going on, you may take in 70%, so when you start working, you need to fully focus on that. Then you stop analyzing what you’re doing… you’re just doing it! So yeah, get kids, that’s the best thing!

 

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