Ace of Base Founder Discusses 'New' Album, Shares the Stories Behind the Band's 5 Biggest Hits
Now would be a fantastic time for an Ace of Base reunion.
As the undying popularity of fellow Swedish hitmakers ABBA attests, glittery Scandinavian disco never loses its luster, and with dance music everywhere and the '90s still reigning supreme as pop's go-to decade for all things nostalgic, Ace of Base would have a decent shot at a comeback.
"I don't think the four of us will tour again," says Jonas Berggren, the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer who formed Ace of Base with his sisters Linn and Jenny and his buddy Ulf Ekberg in 1990.
As a consolation prize, Ace of Base has given the world Hidden Gems, a brand-new collection of B-sides, rarities, and previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1991 and 2005. Packed with synth-pop stunners ("Don't Stop"), techno thumpers ("Make My Day"), Britney-worthy bubblegum jams ("Mercy Mercy"), and of course, a bunch of those signature bittersweet Euro-reggae hybrids ("No Good Lover," "Giving It Up"), Hidden Gems offers 14 terrific companions to the five Ace of Base songs everyone on the planet already knows.
Speaking of those five songs, the first three -- "All That She Wants," "The Sign," and "Don't Turn Around" -- arrived roughly 20 years ago, as the group's 1993 debut, The Sign, strutted and skanked its way to the top of the Billboard 200. All three of those singles reached No. 1 on the Mainstream Top 40 airplay chart, making Ace of Base the first artist in history to achieve that feat with a debut album.
The combination of the kinda-sorta 20th anniversary and the sorta-kinda new album creates a good excuse for reminiscing, and chatting by phone from his home in Sweden, Berggren was happy to share with Billboard the stories behind the band's five biggest hits.
His explanations are enlightening--especially since Ace of Base's lyrics can be a bit, well, ambiguous. Berggren admits they're "maybe not the best in the world sometimes," perhaps because he writes in English, and that's not his first language, but thankfully, imperfect word pairings have never been a barrier to selling boatloads of records. Circa The Sign, Ace of Base owned the airwaves, and its multi-platinum 1995 sophomore set The Bridge spawned a No. 1 dance hit, "Beautiful Life," extending the party another few years.
Since 1998's Cruel Summer--a big seller in Europe that peaked at No. 101 in America--the group has maintained a lower stateside profile, releasing 2002's De Capo and 2010's The Golden Ratio (featuring two female ringers in place of the Berggren sisters) to little fanfare. Still, artists ranging from neo-New Wave cool cat Twin Shadow to pop princess Katy Perry cite the foursome as an influence, and in 2009, Beck told Pitchfork he nearly took on one of the band's albums as part of his Record Club project.
Read on for Berggren's insights into Ace of Base's greatest hits and a hint at what the future might hold.
"All That She Wants" (1993, No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100)
Depending on how you read the line "All that she wants is another baby," Ace of Base's breakthrough single is either about a promiscuous lady who loves 'em and leaves 'em or a lazy scammer who keeps having kids to collect more welfare money.
Fans have long floated both interpretations, but Berggren sets the record straight: "Baby" means "lover," not "infant," and he wrote the song about a woman he now only vaguely remembers.
"Those [types of] women can be fantastic sometimes," he says. "But not all the time. It depends how you suffer from it."
"All That She Wants" developed from a tune called "Mr. Ace," which the then-unknown band sent to producer Denniz Pop in 1992. Berggren had liked Pop's work with Swedish artists Kayo and Dr. Alban, and after the catchy demo got stuck in Pop's cassette player, a partnership was born.
Musically, "All That She Wants" lays out the basic Ace of Base template: European club groove, offbeat Jamaican rhythm, and a slight moodiness created by pairing major- and minor-key sections.
"I liked ska music quite much," Berggren says. "I always found normal reggae too slow. To me, to dance like a normal person, it's too slow for me. Our reggae's a bit faster. It's major and minor. It's not so happy."
Originally, Berggren says, the tune's melody line was going to be a peppy horn part, but then his sister Linn stepped in to offer an opinion. Her two cents may have translated to millions of dollars.
"Linn thought it was a very good song but a bit too merry," he says. "So I changed it to minor."
"The Sign" (1993, No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100)
In Europe, Ace of Base's debut was called Happy Nation, and when Arista was prepping the American release, the label thought it could use a few new tunes. The group had already written "The Sign" for its next LP, and the execs wisely decided to not only hasten its release, but also to make it the title track.
"The Sign" is another techno-reggae confection with a killer chorus, and like "All That She Wants," the meaning isn't immediately obvious. It's seemingly about a couple contemplating the state of their relationship and deciding to split up--a summation Berggren says is "more or less" correct.
"It can mean something [different] to everybody," he says. "It's individual how you judge it."
In terms of the music, this was another case of striking the right balance between happy and sad.
"When we recorded 'The Sign,' it was a bit too merry," Berggren says. "So we put the [hums] da na-na na-na na-na in between the melody lines. It's a bit minor in that part. It becomes major and minor, as a total. But the chorus is mostly major."
"Don't Turn Around" (1994, No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100)
Two of Ace of Base's biggest hits are covers, and this first one was penned by English singer-songwriter Albert Hammond and American queen of schlocky ballads Diane Warren. Tina Turner cut a version in 1986, and the U.K. reggae act Aswad had a hit with their rendition two years later.
When the label suggested Ace of Base tackle the tune, Berggren hadn't heard either. Upon spinning the Aswad track, he liked what he heard--all the song needed was that Ace of Base touch.
"I thought it was too much in major," Berggren says. "We thought, 'If [Arista] really wants us to do it, why not?' The lyrics were good. We thought if we can transform it a bit into minor, in the chorus and so on, it could be OK."
It was better than OK, and many who bumped the song in the summer of 1994 probably had no idea this wet blanket, deflated beach ball of a summer jam wasn't an Ace of Base original. And what about that hip-hop break at 2:45, where Ekberg plays MC Sad Bastard to such winning effect?
"I think Ulf had something to do with that," Berggren says with a laugh, explaining how his bandmate's rap segment made its way onto the track. "But also because he looks good, and he's very good on the stage. So it's perfect to have a part for him. Happy ending."
"Beautiful Life" (1995, No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100)
The final day of any vacation tends to be a bummer, but one evening in 1994, as Berggren was getting ready to fly home from the Canary Islands, inspiration struck.
"Normally, I'm not happy going home," he says. "But it was a late flight home, and we had some wine before, and everything was peak. I heard some chords, and I started humming, and there it was."
"It" was "Beautiful Life," a surging Eurodance anthem that Berggren's fellow passengers heard before anyone else.
"I had to record it swiftly so I wouldn't forget it," Berggren remembers. "I hummed it all the way home to Sweden, actually."
If the euphoric lyrics are about what you'd expect from a guy who just sold millions of records and became an international pop sensation, Berggren says "Beautiful Life" isn't a reflection on the success of The Sign.
"The first album, we were traveling like maniacs," he says. "We were out for 23 months in a row. We were totally exhausted. We could be in four different countries in one day."
It's simply a song about feeling good, he says, but as with many Ace of Base songs, the lyrics don't tell the whole story.
"They're very happy, normally, but our music is [slightly] melancholic," he says. "I think that's how we are as people, and as a band."
One part of "Beautiful Life" that's unabashedly joyous is that injection of roof-raising gospel singing toward the end. It sounds like there's an entire Baptist choir backing the band, but in fact, Berggren says, Denniz Pop had a four-piece female group whose vocals they tracked many times over for maximum soulful impact.
"It's like everything falls into place," Berggren says of the gospel section. "You feel a bit dizzy almost it. I can't describe it in English. It really moves you."
It's risky, he says, splicing together two melodic ideas, and most of the time, it doesn't work. Here, it did.
"These actually go together," he says. "And everything starts spinning, spinning around fast. That's the word. It's like you're floating over the floor, like you elevate. You lift from the earth."
"Cruel Summer" (1995, No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100)
With Ace of Base's third album, Arista once again asked for a cover--this time a remake of Bananarama's 1984 New Wave smash "Cruel Summer." That became the American title of the LP, which was called Flowers everywhere else.
"They liked covers very much, Arista," Berggren says. "I always thought it was a good song. I think our version was very good."
He should say "versions," since Ace of Base cut two. As Europe and the rest of the world grooved to a speedy dance tune with Latin horns, America chilled out to a slower, poppier cut with a beat better suited to 95-degree days. Berggren says he wasn't miffed at Arista for making them pull double duty. He digs the faster version, since the horns give him almost the same "spinning" sensation "Beautiful Life" does, but he actually prefers the U.S. one.
"I think it still sounds good even now," he says. "It sounds like it could have been done [only a few] years ago.
Looking ahead, Berggren says he has some "interesting ideas," but he doubts Ace of Base will record any new music.
"I've thought about maybe doing something with the old stuff and making it sound a bit newer, or some unreleased tracks and making them newer," he says. "But I think people want to have the original four-person setup. We'll work hopefully in the future with something like that. That sounds cryptic [laughs]."
One thing preventing the original lineup from reconvening is Linn's distaste for the music business. Fans have done a great deal of speculating online as to why she's disappeared from the limelight, and Berggren says the "turning point" came with the 1999 single "Everytime It Rains," which Arista boss Clive Davis made her sing on, even though she didn't like the song. Jenny had actually wanted to perform the lead vocal, and yet she didn't wind up on the finished track.
"It was a really difficult thing for this sisters," Berggren says.
Married with four kids, Berggren says he still sees Linn regularly, and in fact, he visited with her hours before his Billboard interview. They talk about everything but music, he says, which is kind of a shame. She has a lovely voice, and he's still writing a song a week.
"My dream would have been if just Linn wanted to sing them, without promotion, just sing the tracks," he says. "That would be perfect."