A lot has changed for the Radio Dept. since we interviewed them in 2009. Last year, they delivered their long-awaited third album Clinging to a Scheme, which managed to surpass even absurd expectations, eventually becoming one of our favourite albums of 2010. This January, they released the career-spanning singles compilation Passive Aggressive, which illustrates the Swedish band creating some of the most accomplished pop music of the past decade, all while never compromising their seemingly impossible to realize musical principles, or as Labrador Records head Johan Angergård puts it, remaining “indie as fuck.”
I caught up with the trio during their stay in Toronto near the start of their first North American tour to discuss their sprawling obsession with pop, passive aggressive tendencies when dealing with press, and their insistence on having complete control of all releases. At the height of their popularity, I found the Radio Dept. constantly looking forward, restless to record, and tirelessly designing ways to piss off any expectations with their next, as yet untitled, album.
Daniel: Where does the band record?
Johan Duncanson: At home. At my apartment, Martin’s apartment, or we borrow a rehearsal space sometimes. We’re very mobile; it’s just a PC really. We have this small guitar amp that I also use live as a pre-amp that we plug everything into. We were interviewed by a Swedish magazine a couple of years ago called Studio, which is a magazine for sound engineers and people like that. They wanted to look at our studio. We warned them that they’re not going to be impressed, but they wanted to come anyways.
Martin Larsson: To our “studio” [Laughs].
Johan: When they walked into that room in my apartment they were taken aback that there wasn’t anything there. It was just a guitar, an amp, and a toy keyboard. He was asking a lot about the vocals. We actually told them all the way to the apartment that there was nothing, that we don’t have anything. They said “no, we’ve seen small studios, it’s cool,” then they were like…
Martin: …”what?” [Laughs]
Johan: It’s just a matter of taste nowadays, because if you know where you want to go with your music, you can get there because it’s becoming easier and easier to record at home.
Daniel: How do you play the songs live?
Johan: I only play guitar live. Martin plays bass and guitar. Daniel does all the keyboards.
Daniel Tjäder: Not all of them.
Johan: No, we’ve got some of them pre-recorded, some of them we just skip. Usually we have a drum machine. Sometimes Martin doesn’t play the bass because we have an electronic recorded bass.
Daniel: I see the Radio Dept. as a designed pop band, you know how you want to sound and you’re obsessed with aesthetics, but at the same time you have a sincerity that comes through in your vocals and melodies. How do you reach that balance?
Martin: That’s how I feel about our music. We talk about music and we talk about the aesthetic, the design, and the framing, but when we record it’s not about design, it’s more heartfelt. It’s nice that you hear that.
Johan: In a way, I spend all of my waking hours thinking about the band. All the time that we don’t spend recording is spent thinking about pop music and pop culture and pop art. That’s where the design you mention takes place: in our heads or when we’re talking about music. But as Martin said, when we sit down to record we try to get through it fast because we’ve overworked songs in the past and we get bored very easily [Laughs]. We would throw out a song and start writing a new one. When we record songs it’s more emotional, but all the other time that’s where the design takes place.
Daniel: What pop music are you interesting in right now?
Johan: I’ve been listening to a lot of lover’s rock and dub records and stuff like that. We put out an EP [Never Follow Suit] just before Christmas that was kind of dub influenced. It’s still pop though. I really like old ‘70s stuff, like Augustus Pablo. East of the River Nile, do you know that record?
Daniel: Yeah, with the melodica, right?
Johan: Exactly, we had a fake melodica on a toy keyboard that we tried to make sound like Augustus Pablo.
Martin: It’s on the first song from the EP: ‘The One’.
Daniel: Last week I received Passive Aggressive in the mail. The packaging is beautiful and I’m a quite fond of the track selection. Did you have complete control over the compilation like your albums or was it in the Labrador’s hands?
Johan: Labrador wanted to release a singles compilation. Every band that’s been around for a while puts one out, so we thought if we’re going to do it there should be a lot of b-sides and stuff so that it’s a compilation worthy of releasing. You really get something. Also, a lot of these singles have been out of print. Some were just on a CD-R that we were selling at shows. To some people they’re not real releases, but to us they’re just as real as any corporate single. We put it in the contract that if after we’re done with each other Labrador ever wants to release some sort of compilation, we have to approve of it. We do the artwork ourselves because I can’t trust anybody with that.
Daniel: Tell me about the title.
Johan: Have you read the liner notes? [Laughs]
Daniel: I did. Before concluding that the trouble is instantly worth it when you hand over a new song, Johan from the label writes in his introduction that he’s had to bribe you with drugs to speak with press among other things. Is this true?
Johan: Yes, it happened [Laughs]. We’ve been reluctant to do interviews.
Martin: It tends to be quite a lot.
Johan: Sometimes a day or two can pass and then you know what you should have said. The article comes out and it’s there and it’s going to be there forever. It’s hard. I think all the time to get the right words out there. That’s why I sometimes prefer email interviews although they take longer, especially when it’s in English.
Martin: You feel stupid because you have a hard time explaining things that come so naturally to you in Swedish. You can try and explain…like right now, I’ve lost myself. I feel stupid and then I get nervous.
Johan: Then you call the label and you say you don’t want to do this anymore. “I quit!” [Laughs]
Martin: Back to the title, we tend to be passive aggressive when it comes to the things that people around us think we have to do like television or interviews. We have a hard time saying no because we’re kind of nice. We say we’ll do it and then it ends up that we don’t show up.
Johan: Or hang up the phone like I did once.
Martin: Then everyone has a problem and are screaming at us and we’re like “sorry, it won’t happen again.”
Johan: Then we go from being nice to being passive aggressive…or just aggressive [Laughs].
Daniel: Name an album that you wish everyone could hear and love the way you do.
Martin: This is what happens! After three days you’re like…
Johan: Every record that pops into my mind is cliche, it’s already known. Maybe something that’s considered bad by many…I like the first New Kids on the Block record, that’s a good one of those.
Daniel: Is that where your drum machine fascination comes from?
Johan: Even on the later records, like Hangin’ Tough, they’ve got great drum machines and some great tunes as well. Maurice Starr who wrote all of their songs and was their manager as well, he was in a boy band himself back in the ‘70s. Then he started New Kids and coached them. He’s a great songwriter. They did some old soul covers like that song in Jackie Brown, ‘Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time’ by the Delfonics. To me, they sound like a digital version of the Jackson 5 in the beginning. They move on from there and get older, in some ways better, but then it just went…yeah. [Laughs]
Daniel T: There are a lot of albums you enjoy for some time and then you grow tired of them. If it’s old stuff, something else pops up in between and becomes more interesting for a while. I don’t think that one album has stuck with me always. There’s too much new music to discover as well.
Martin: Kevin Rowland, My Beauty.
Daniel: The one where he’s wearing lingerie on the cover?
Martin: Yeah, the first song is a cover of ‘The Greatest Love of All’, the Whitney Houston single. He made the definitive version. I’ve never heard music so personal before. It’s striking, really. He was clearly not a stable person at that point.
Daniel T: It’s almost scary.
Martin: I haven’t heard music come across so vividly. He is really brilliant, maybe just for that song. An incredibly interesting person.
Daniel: Maybe that should be your next album cover.
Johan: Oh no, it’s my turn.
Martin: I had my turn on Passive Aggressive.
Johan: That’s an old picture of Martin on Passive Aggressive that his girlfriend took. I xeroxed and played around with it. It didn’t look very good in the beginning, well Martin does [Laughs], but the colours weren’t very nice. I used a Xerox machine that I got from my girlfriend as a gift, it was the best present ever. I sometimes just sit around xeroxing things to see what comes out. That picture turned out very well. Made the cover.
Daniel: You previously mentioned the dub influence on ‘Never Follow Suit’, but the track also contains a sample from Style Wars, the hip hop documentary. I hear a strong hip hop influence on the bottom end of your songs. Where a lot of people repeat that you’re shoegaze or you’re twee, what else has worked its way into your music?
Johan: Hardly any twee. We’ve never been into twee pop. I like the Brittle Stars though, that’s a good band that was on Shelflife Records at the end of the ‘90s. If you call Belle & Sebastian twee, we were listening to a lot of Belle & Sebastian when we started out. Apart from that, not really, and same with shoegaze. I’m a huge fan of My Bloody Valentine, but not much else. Definitely hip hop when it comes to drums and keyboard sounds. That’s one of the most interesting things about making music, bringing in new influences all the time. It’s more fun for us when we’re making a song if it doesn’t sound like the one we made a month ago. We want to move forward. This is getting harder, but I like provoking people with music. Not saying things to provoke them, but bringing in influences that can piss some people off. But it’s not easy.
Daniel: Like ‘We Made the Team’?
Johan: Yeah, a lot of people hated that one. That was a big leap forward. A lot of people had us figured out and felt that “this is what the Radio Dept. is” and then we made that song and suddenly we could do anything again. Right now we don’t know what the next step is going to be, but we’ll see.
Daniel: Country would be provocative.
Johan: [Laughs] Not country, but folk maybe. Though I’m not sure that would provoke anyone.
Martin: Seems too easy.
Johan: But I think it would be a good record.
Daniel: Besides music, what inspires you?
Martin: For me, films. I have two kids now so I haven’t watched a full movie for three years, though. I like anything from an art movie to a blockbuster. I love the interaction of images and sound. This is boring, but it’s the way that we think about music: placing sound and images together. Both Johan and I think very strongly in images. We talk a lot in images and colours, that’s one of the connections we have.
Johan: Colours, yeah that’s right. “This sounds too brown.” [Laughs]
Daniel T: What’s really interesting is that you’re partly colour blind. [Laughs]
Martin: We can really argue for a long time about a colour: “It’s too brown. It’s more light brown,” and that’s cool.
Johan: It’s not that far-fetched, really. There are such things as white noise. [Hiss] That’s white.
Daniel: When our website last interviewed you, you mentioned that some of your favourite bands are the KLF, Stereolab, and the Velvet Underground because they’re conceptual, pretentious, and arty. What bands are doing this successfully right now?
Johan: I think Ariel Pink, definitely. He’s big now, so he doesn’t need me mentioning him. He’s got it all right. There are a lot of bands trying, maybe they’re fantastic, but to me they’re not really there. I don’t want to name them. I’ve been doing this too much [Laughs]. When we talk about music I say how much I hate different bands or artists but I don’t want to do that in interviews. You come across as not very nice and I like nice people. I don’t like bands that behave like Oasis for instance, just being stupid and angry. Sometimes it’s funny. I saw this interview from the late ‘80s with the Stone Roses, they’re just sitting there barely answering the questions being asked, being really passive aggressive. Sometimes I wish that we could be like that.
Daniel: So is it unnecessary for musicians to act like rock stars?
Johan: Yeah, it’s rock. It would be necessary if everyone was nice, but that’s not the case. I mean it’s fun to read about sometimes, but if they had a point to what they’re doing then of course it would be good. I mean it’s not necessarily bad to destroy things.
Daniel T: Like the KLF burning a million quid without a point.
Johan: Are you sure about that?
Daniel T: They had a very artistic point, maybe. But I don’t think Oasis ever even had that.
Johan: They were just giving the British working class a bad reputation. I feel that a lot of the British working class bands from the ‘80s were really smart people with impeccable taste. I love the first Oasis record, but their way of behaving is not for me.
Daniel: Is the Radio Dept. a political band?
Johan: Well, we released another political single [‘The New Improved Hypocrisy‘] just a couple of days before the last Swedish election to try and make people vote left instead of right. It didn’t happen.
Martin: Well, maybe some.
Johan: Yeah, some 18 year olds. After that we got so many questions about the political side of the band that it got in the way of the music. We’re mostly about the music and the art so we tried not to talk about it. We’ll see if the lyrics in the future will be political.
Daniel: Is it a bright time for the Radio Dept.? Are you looking forward to the rest of your tour?
Johan: I look forward to it, but I also look forward to recording and it’s getting in the way of that. I’m starting to feel restless.
Martin: I just moved up to Stockholm. There was a period of three months where I couldn’t do anything, but as soon as we go back we will start to record.
Johan: It makes such a difference. That was one of the reasons why Clinging to a Scheme took so long: we had to travel.
Daniel: Have you thought about what will be on the next album?
Martin: We have a couple of songs, but we haven’t decided where to go with it yet.
Daniel: Any titles?
Johan: No, just chords and melodies so far.
Daniel: Minor chords?
Johan: [Laughs] A mix.
Tags: The Radio Dept.