Kate Boy on Making Music Videos for 50 Bucks, Bass Lines Made of Air & New EP
People often say there's something in the water in Sweden that helps the country pump out such consistently effervescent "Swedepop," but for synth-based trio Kate Boy, there's something in the air: the bass line in the first song they wrote together, 2012's urgent "Northern Lights," is actually the ambient nosie of their studio pitched into different notes.
"It's super nerdy," says producer and multi-instrumentalist Markus Dextegen. "We fall back on it because it's not synthy only. I hate to use the word 'organic,' but the acoustic environment is not just zeroes and ones."
Even though he knows it's "crazy" and "stupid," Dextegen doesn't like using the same sound multiple times in a row; but the unique airy bass line can be heard throughout the five-song self-titled EP that the Stockholm-based group released last week in advance of their shows at South by Southwest. (A full-length is due sometime this year.) Dextegen, along with production partner Hampus Nordgren Hemlin and singer-songwriter Kate Akhurst, pull out pop's darker threads and sugar-coat them into the slick yet funky backbones reminiscent of Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel.
The three met through a mutual friend in October 2012 at a crossroads in their respective careers, jaded with producing mainstream pop songs for other artists -- Akhurst for Disney movies and young American pop stars like Tinkerbell and High School Musical's Ashley Tisdale, and Hemlin and Dextegen for Icona Pop -- at the expense of their own creative ambitions. Six months later, Akhurst had moved to Stockholm and Hemlin and Dextegen informed everyone they were working with that they wouldn't be, anymore.
"That's why 'Northern Lights' is so special now," says Akhurst. "The chorus' lyrics are 'Reaching out for the northern lights, leave it all behind,' which represented Sweden for me. I love these guys and we had such an amazing connection from such a surprising blind musical date."
Do you get nervous when you know industry people are there, like at CMJ or SXSW?
Markus Dextegen: For me, nervousness is technical things. We were performing in a club called Moulin Rouge in Paris and they had this club next to the venue, and they messed up the wiring so out of our speakers came the DJ's mix and our own mix.
Hampus Nordgren Hemlin: It's hard when the sound guy doesn't really care about doing their job and you're only allowed to get on stage 20 minutes before the set. You don't want to be an asshole, shouting at people to do their jobs, but you do understand when people have been doing it for 20 years, how they become that.
Kate Akhurst: It was the toughest gig I've ever done. You know when you're trying to think of one song as another one's playing? It was that times a million. Thankfully, it was Halloween and 1 a.m. and there were naked people covered in body paint and glitter, throwing candy everywhere… I feel like we could have gone up and I could have been like [screams] and we would have had the same reaction. There's still sticky glitter on our instruments from a year ago. Every now and then I'll see a red piece from these naked devil men and women.
Where are you in your debut album?
KA: Now we're doing all the visual parts, making the videos, thinking of crazy ideas. We spent weeks and weeks folding all this origami for our latest video. It's one of those things where you're going, "This is either amazing or the stupidest idea…"
MD: We started Friday morning and went to bed Monday night because we were renting the studio for the weekend. Some time on Saturday, when we had covered maybe 5% of what we needed to, we were like, "We never would have done this if we realized how much work it was." Making music takes a lot of time creatively -- visuals do, too -- and you brainstorm, and you incorporate getting a helicopter. There are so many restrictions with visual work, whereas with computers and everything, you can basically do anything that you want in your mind.
KA: Our first video, for "Northern Lights, it cost us maybe $50, if that." We borrowed our friend's office at night hours just to use his swivel chair. Directors have spoken to us, like, "This is genius!" That makes me realize you don't have to be professional. Sometimes all you need is a swivel chair and some lights.
HNH: And some insane motivation.
You guys are known for swapping instruments onstage -- what's your songwriting process? What are you inspired by?
MD: The process usually starts with one of us coming up with a seed, could be a groove, a sound, a drum beat, a bass line. We want to create pop music with an edge, and if you start with a piano, a beautiful song and vocal melody could easily feel like a country song if it's played on a traditional instrument or guitar. If you put something really dark, there might be a contrast that makes the song. Otherwise you miss out on really good songs just because you happen to be sitting on a piano.
HNH: We always say, "We'll give this a try with the piano," and it's always "Let It Be." We also use a lot is limitation.
MD: "Maximum five tracks, Kate's only allowed to write three words in the chorus, Hampus can only play on that instrument which is not an instrument he usually plays with."
HNH: We do this when we're blocked. Like the video for "Northern Lights," because we didn't have any money.
MD: One of the songs, "Temporary Go," Hampus wrote the bass line a few months after we met. Then, Kate, you were in Australia last Christmas, and there's a lot of political things going -- they're mining and dredging it up and dumping it on the Great Barrier Reef. So she got really inspired and you wrote a song and then we combined it with the bass line from 18 months earlier because it just made sense.
Kate, you're trained as a songwriter. Did you write songs in a band before?
KA: I got my first publishing deal when I was 16 in Australia, which brought me to Los Angeles, where I got visas and management and all that. I was there for almost five years, before realizing that every song I really loved couldn't find a home in the world where the doors were open for me -- for lack of a better word, a cookie cutter system. It was amazing seeing some of the Disney scenes sketched out in pencil, and you'd get to go to all of the complexes to see it at such early stages. Every song helped put food on the table and paid my way to Sweden, so I'm very grateful for that time, but it felt like I was always chasing the No. 1 at the time or writing to a brief.
MD: For a few years [Hemlin and he] were writing with different people in Sweden like Icona Pop. It wasn't until we met Kate that we thought, this is the music we want to do. It's classic: the industry tells you one thing, but to create music out of passion after we had been doing this, for us it's the only way.