“This is our favorite kind of conversation,” Miike Snow frontman Andrew Wyatt says as Billboard sits backstage with Wyatt and the band’s Pontus Winnberg at KROQ’s Weenie Roast on a Southern California Saturday afternoon. We’re flattered, but we can’t take credit for the captivating interview, which turns into a seminar on the evolution of rock stardom — covering Neil Young, Nick Cave, Davie Bowie, Madonna and Wyatt’s choice for the most important artist of our generation, Kanye West.
The conversation is a testament to the impressive music fandom and intelligence of the band, who go so deep as to reference Talk Talk. The subtext of the interview says a lot about how the trio handles their own continued unexpected successes, from songs like breakthrough hit “Animal” to “Genghis Khan,” a recent single they never figured would become a hit.
Wyatt says of their approach, “When we’re in the studio we tend to throw aside what we should do and just do what feels good to us.” That ethos, which is obviously connecting, is something they’ve picked up from some of music’s great rebels. That’s where we start the conversation.
Who are the artists you admire the way their careers have evolved, those artists who’ve had multiple careers?
Andrew Wyatt: If you think about the ultimate it’s Bowie.
Pontus Winnberg: It’s so obvious, especially now. I think that it’s courageous minds, like Madonna. She’s tried stuff, some of it works, some of it doesn’t work as good. Or she might have a different opinion about what has worked and didn’t work.
Another one that comes to mind for me is Nick Cave.
Wyatt: I was just gonna mention Nick Cave because of the whole thing with Kylie [Minogue], that would kind of count because to a lot of people he’s the guy who had that duet with Kylie Minogue and that was like a huge song in the U.K. and Australia. It wasn’t big here, nobody heard it here. But he is definitely, there’s Birthday Party, early Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds stuff, then pop stuff, then later phase. I think Kevin Parker has reinvented Tame Impala on this new album in a cool way. I think all the great ones do and the rest try.
Winnberg: And also [they] dare to do stuff and aren’t anxious. There have to be failures, at least failures from our perspective.
How do you become that David Bowie in this day and age? For Miike Snow, how would you begin that evolution into the next career level?
Wyatt: It’s too late. But I think you see that people who are in other chapters in their lives where they may have seized the brass ring and it’s just about where they carry it now. And also, time will tell. If you went back and talk about David Bowie in 1976 in America he wasn’t this legend. He was a guy who had a couple of hits from England and he was superstar status in the U.K. but that was his home country and he wasn’t a superstar in America until “Let’s Dance.” People always loved his music and were looking forward to hearing it and stuff.
Winnberg: I think one thing too is to not think about being the next David Bowie ’cause I think people think about that too much. I saw a fraction of an interview with David Bowie this morning when he was talking about that. You probably remember the essence better than I do.
The essence was never work for somebody else as an artist and get to the edge of your comfort and then go further because that’s where you’ll find your best work. But why can’t Miike Snow evolve? It doesn’t seem too late. For Bowie, part of it was he engaged in other mediums.
Wyatt: I’ve been working on a graphic novel for a long time. But the good thing about Miike Snow is we do see it as an experiment. So it’s something that we can come back to and take some risks. I think when you get into that place where you have to either have a hit or satisfy the fans you have so you don’t lose the fans that you have, it’s where you can really go wrong and start making bad music. I think the only thing to focus on is what do you see in the new developments in music and in the world that speak to you and then try to do your own thing with that. Fearlessly bend those boundaries to do something that hasn’t done before, because if you do something that hasn’t been done before and do it well that’s when you’re actually offering something to the world because you’re giving people a new emotion that they haven’t quite felt, which is an interesting thing.
Winnberg: I think the most important component to be able to do that is to be fearless and not care too much. We have a seed of that because that was the premise as we started the whole band. We didn’t really care, the first plan was to put it out on MySpace. We didn’t care; a deal kind of came just through friends and someone reaching out. We weren’t doing it to get a career, we were doing it because we had fun and we did stuff that was exciting. I think that’s probably the one thing we should protect the most. Also, it’s good to have to have spent so much time in the studio because we can be fearless in that whole world. We can just play around.
Wyatt: We can be as dysfunctional as we want to be.
Do you feel like you can be more creative because you approach recording the same way?
Winnberg: It’s just when we’re in the studio there are no boundaries like that. I don’t think anyone is scared of shooting out crappy ideas. I think that’s also part of the fearlessness that we have to be creative, is to dare to be really bad and say something that’s stupid and doesn’t make sense because that idea probably had to come out to get good ideas eventually.
How much does it surprise you then when “Genghis Khan” becomes this hit that goes everywhere?
Winnberg: That’s when it gets very tricky cause then Miike Snow has taken on a life of its own. We don’t quite own Miike Snow, it’s something that we share with other people that like it. We’re doing this thing that has a sound, that has a life of its own and luckily we still like it. It can even go to the point, and I think it does sometimes, where people are just like, “I’m not really into this shit anymore.” Then you can either take it into a zone you really like, leave the band or just put up with it and do what you do.
Wyatt: I think those people that do a complete 180 and sometimes end up alienating people and sometimes making brilliant work, like in the case of let’s say Talk Talk, those happen sometimes as a result of extraordinary success. You can afford to do that kind of a cliff dive if you’ve been as successful as say Talk Talk or Neil Young. He really wanted to get away from all of that and so did Mark Hollis. In one way it was a deliberate move to get rid of his popularity and I think Neil did the same thing. You have to go through that thing and even when Miike Snow got as big as it did on the first album it’s just a little overwhelming. You feel like you’re going to be lost in the sauce.
Winnberg: But if you’re gonna connect that, so do you think those people, are they dealing with this so much theoretical we are discussing now or is it something Bowie was talking about, where it’s just like, “Okay, I’m just gonna do whatever”?
Wyatt: Bowie’s a little different because Bowie is a British Bulldog at heart, who fought through every situation. His solution to the overriding success he had in the ’70s was to come to America, where people didn’t know him as well and get completely doused in drugs for like six years. But during that time he didn’t collapse on himself, he fought through it and worked his ass off. When he got too fucked up in L.A. he moved to Berlin. But then what do we have on the flip side of today? Who’s the most relevant artist now? It’s Kanye, he would never do that. I think he is the most important artist of our time. I don’t think there’s any argument.
Wyatt: He’s massive and he definitely is the only huge artist that takes massive risks with his music. Other people might make the video for this or that, but he is always leading the way. Even Kendrick Lamar’s career is basically taken from “Jesus Walks.” Listen to “Jesus Walks,” sounds like what Kendrick did on his last album. I love Kendrick, he’s awesome, visionary, but Kanye was kind of there first.
Winnberg: Also I think it’s a cultural thing too. Looking at it from the perspective of different giants in the past, the modern pop star has to take all the new vanity aspects in account and live in that world. And that kind of takes away some stuff you really admire by the old giants.
Wyatt: That’s right. It’s important not to throw the baby out with the bath water though because he’s such an interesting person to talk to and he’s also interested in what other people have to contribute. He’s as problematic as our society is. There definitely are some philosophical disconnects for me in terms of the whole ethos. But the more I think about it the more I like it.
I would argue a case for Adele though and she seems much more relatable.
Wyatt: I’ve hung out with both of them and I like Adele, she is a nice person, and Kanye definitely is a person that I like to talk to at parties. The influence and the brain is working so fast it’s fascinating to rap to him.