Caught In the System
Throughout the history of music, tales of great records being decimated by the inefficiency of the music business have intrigued the public - endless layers of bureaucracy, destroying the potential success of a record. Swedish band Amason, unfortunately, are no exception to this clichéd fable; even today having created, in our opinion, one of the finest records of the year, Sky City, they have had their LP "held hostage". Now, free from the reigns of Universal Music Group, Amason are ready to tell their story.
Labelled as a supergroup in the press, almost royalty in Swedish music, Amason is made up of Amanda Bergman of Idiot Wind (former wife of Tallest Man on Earth), Gustav Ejstes (Dungen), brothers Pontus Winnberg (Miike Snow and Bloodshy & Avant) and Petter Winnberg (Little Majorette), and Nils Törnqvist (Miike Snow). We speak to Amanda and Pontus from their home city of Stockholm, where they reveal their thoughts on the immigration crisis, Swedish hipsters, and why their story should be a “warning sign” to other artists.
I would love to know a little bit more about the record as it is right now – I feel like there’s been a delay or a gap. I was really hoping that this record would explode, we just want to know if there’s a back-story to this album release?
PONTUS WINNBERG: I think it’s just, the sad truth is that we’re probably not alone in having our careers being held hostage due to big companies that think that it’s a good strategy, and their strategy is to keep music away from people rather than spreading it to people. Sometimes their strategy can be ineffective, so we’re not even allowed to go and play in the UK and in Germany – places where we want to go and play and we have a small fan-base, but due to those idiots. They messed up our whole flow. So, we’re happy to announce that we don’t have to deal with them anymore.
Who are you talking about, specifically?
PONTUS WINNBERG: Universal Music Group.
PONTUS WINNBERG: Sometimes on the surface it looks like you’re forming alliances with nice people, until you dig a little further and down there is this big ugly monster. And that’s what happened to us; we signed with a little label and sort of knew that Universal had their filthy fingers in there, someway or another, but, we didn’t know to what extent. It became painfully clear to us pretty early on, I’d say. So, it’s been a constant fight. It’s just so weird to me how in this day and age you can work like that. I will do my best to not have anything to do with that crappy company anymore in my lifetime, hopefully.
There’s so much I want to ask you about that.
AMANDA BERGMAN: It’s kind of like the story you always hear about but you can’t really believe. When you’re there yourself it’s like being vacuum cleaned or something, getting sucked into this hole and you can’t come out of it.
Desperate industry calls for desperate times? I don’t know if they’re more desperate now or if it’s just the American way of doing things, which is really insanely over-political and there’s so much ego, but, I think it’s the same in Europe as well though?
PONTUS WINNBERG: Yeah, I think it’s the same outspoken strategy, where they sign too much – because they have zero talent to pick out stuff that will actually work – so they sign a bunch of stuff without having a strategy for any of it and then they just seep it out a little bit and see what sticks, and then they can start working it.
So, it’s 1 out of 50 that actually get a chance to be played for people, because they don’t have a strategy for the other 49… so, then they just say, “Okay, we’re not going to spend any money on this, so therefore we will not release it. Since we have a deal with you and we own the rights to release your music, we choose not to, so you can just sit home and think about other career paths.”
It just happens to so many people, and I think it’s just crazy. Also, when you look at how we worked the album in Scandinavia – where we put together our own team with friends and it was just a handful of really good people – we did so much more here than when we actually had backing from the big ugly company in the US. It’s funny for me to see those email chains where their idiots are involved; there’s always like 40 people copied in, so they have this massive team that is completely useless – zero talent – and then we have our team which is passionate, good people, and it’s 3 people and we do so much more good work.
The sad thing is, I actually saw and sensed this was happening, because I’ve seen this happen so many times. I thought, “This is such a great album, how the hell is this not getting full support across radio, etc. Somethings not right here.”, and now it’s explained to us.
PONTUS WINNBERG: We should really make sure that this comes across in the article, like a big warning sign.
It’s good that we started off this way. Amanda, did you have any thoughts?
AMANDA BERGMAN: I agree with Pontus, I just want to add that it’s not just the labels that are desperate; the more that the music industry is growing, the artists also get desperate. I can kind of say that there was for sure a part of us that got desperate; we needed to sign-off the rights to be able to just work with our music for a while, but it’s hard to know what you’re throwing away when you do that thing that everyone’s supposed to do when you want to work in music.
Absolutely. That’s the thing about artists being taken advantage of, and that’s why I’m really happy about the demise of the music industry. Because in a way it has shown up labels for who they are, as disadvantageous as it may seem. Essentially, what it’s come down to now, is people asking if Spotify is ripping people off – no, it’s the labels who have taken more than their share of artists and hopefully they’ll learn their lesson when artists start running away from the labels.
AMANDA BERGMAN: Yeah, the whole principle of this is just awful. We’re so lucky that we had other stuff to do in this situation, because all of us have other projects. That’s so important, because when this kind of thing happens, if we had no other way to make a living, there’s a chance we couldn’t have made another record. For a lot of artists that are new and don’t have contacts in the business, it’s hard. We were lucky in the sense that we knew many other people that we could work with.
PONTUS WINNBERG: And also that – I’m so happy that we fought to keep [this record] in Scandinavia, because it would have been such a fucking disaster.
AMANDA BERGMAN: It’s been going really well here, so that has kept us going.
So, there was a whole other life and a lot of you play in other groups; Pontus, I know the work that you do in your very successful writing group Bloodshy and Avant (working with Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Katy Perry), and Amanda, I know you have a side-group, Idiot Wind. I think you could only see that great calibre of music that you create in Amason with the professionalism that you guys hold yourselves accountable to. You bring a serious level of professionalism to the band. Would you agree?
PONTUS WINNBERG: I don’t think we think that much about those things. Regardless of whether it’s with Amason or anything else, I work in a way where things just happen, and it turns out the way it turns out and you don’t think that much about it. Maybe, two years later you can look back and reflect on that and it creates a good feeling for you or maybe you just want to kill yourself. At the moment, it’s just something that we don’t spend too much energy on questioning or thinking about or judging. To me, that’s the only way to get by.
AMANDA BERGMAN: Exactly, I think one thing that we have in common in Amason is this approach we have with things. When you’ve been working in music for a while, and you’ve done many things, you realise that there’s so many things that are more important than music. Once you realise that, it’s so much easier to make music and to let it… you don’t have to control it in the way that you did when you were younger. I think the fact that all of us in Amason have been working with music and having relations with music in all different ways, we’ve all come to a place where we realise that there’s so many things in life that are much more important than music. When you’re a teenager, many people feel that music is so important, and once that goes away for a little bit, it gives you opportunity.
PONTUS WINNBERG: For me it’s something you can go in and out of; sometimes it’s very comforting to be able to tell myself, “Well, it’s just music. I’m not saving the world. It’s not like I’m curing cancer. Who the fuck cares?” It’s just frequencies arranged differently in different rhythms. When you’re younger, you’re very anxious about every step you take, and, ‘how is this going to be perceived and how am I going to feel about it. Is this honest?’ The older you get – it will come out wrong if I say you care less, because you still care – you have an ability to move in and out from it. You can be very engaged, but it doesn’t pull you down.
It’s a really interesting perspective and it’s kind of refreshing. I didn’t expect that response, because regardless of how much distance you have from the music, because you guys are older and more mature, you’re still going into a room with 5 people and making incredibly great pop songs.
Pontus, you actually said (in an interview) that as you get older it gets harder to pull things together; you said, in terms of motivation for getting the band to happen, it’s not that you don’t want to do it, it’s just that there’s so much shit going on all the time. Is it still the same now? With everything you’ve been through in the industry and the backstories of the both of you, are you encouraged by the response you’ve had in Scandinavia? Are you much more willing now to make a second album with the feedback that you’ve had?
PONTUS WINNBERG: Yeah, I think so. I think one thing that is a very big motivating factor and challenge for me personally is the DIY aspect. It’s not brain surgery to release music, and explore that world of forming a team that your trust and doing all the aspects of writing the songs, recording them, down to running a label. That is super inspiring to me, to be able to invent the way that you want to release stuff that you’re comfortable with and can make more sense financially for everyone involved.
“Sometimes it’s very comforting to be able to tell myself, “Well, it’s just music. I’m not saving the world. It’s not like I’m curing cancer. Who the fuck cares?”
You are both competitive people, are you both competitive within the music industry? A lot of bands have really burning ambitions and desires to reach certain levels in their career, and it’s a very desperate industry. Do you guys form competition within the industry?
PONTUS WINNBERG: Yeah, I think that I do that. But, I’d rather say that it’s more from the label’s perspective than the band’s perspective. I’m way more caught-up on seeing other bands and other artists’ careers than I am with seeing other labels. I wanna see the labels go down, but I want to see my fellow musicians having great careers. Sometimes it’s just like a contradiction in itself; the idiots have tricked so many of my friends to be part of their system.
But, it’s also like you can’t throw the baby without the bath water, Pontus. Because you’re part of this group who has had a lot of success in the songwriting business and you need the labels in order to make you successful, no?
PONTUS WINNBERG: No, not necessarily, that’s the story the labels want to tell you. I think that the labels need us way more than we need them, and I think that we’ve proved that a couple of times.
AMANDA BERGMAN: They try to make you believe it’s the opposite, of course.
PONTUS WINNBERG: Their whole trick is to make you think that you should be grateful that they even talk to you – all that bullshit about being given the opportunity is a part of that scheme. It’s like, a big Ari Gold speech.
You wanna know what I hear when I listen to your music? Because you guys have described yourselves as “Hall and Oates meets Bladerunner”.
AMANDA BERGMAN: Let me just tell you something about that, because I said Bladerunner and after the interview I realised I meant Blades of Glory…
Maybe that was a Freudian slip, Amanda?
PONTUS WINNBERG: Yeah, because I like that comparison.
AMANDA BERGMAN: Bladerunner is alright too, but I really meant Blades of Glory.
Well, now we can correct it in this interview, so people can read it and know. I’d like to hear your feedback to these references:
Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra, Jason Falkner, Andrew Gold, Chris Isaac, Lonely Dear, Mindy Smith, Team Sleep, Kate Bush, Chris Rea, youth, Belle and Sebastian, Komeda, and the TV show Cheers, from the 1980s.
PONTUS WINNBERG: I sign off on everything, it makes perfect sense to me. It needs to have some kind of Bladerunner filter; if you listen to that music in a spaceship, or looking out on the city in Bladerunner, that’s how I see it.
AMANDA BERGMAN: Yeah, you wanna add a piece of darkness to it… Haha.
PONTUS WINNBERG: Yeah, like dark spaciness that’s also quirky and weird.
I didn’t get that spacey vibe; I got a very earthy AM sound from the 70s.
PONTUS WINNBERG: That might stem from the personalities in the band, rather than the sound, maybe. It might be subtle things that will never travel. Just to see Gustav jamming to Kelly, that’s where it gets psychedelic to me.
That leads me to my next question – which I’ll attempt to ask in Swedish. Vad har influerat er? (what are your influences?)
AMANDA BERGMAN: Very good. That’s a hard question, because there’s about 5 different answers or even more.
PONTUS WINNBERG: And it could be anything, really. With this band we kind of influence each other. But, I think it can be the morning walk to the studio; you see a sign on the bus, or you have a conversation with a bum waiting for the bus.
The music is influenced by a conversation you had with a bum waiting for the bus?
PONTUS WINNBERG: We have this dude that’s hanging outside the studio. There’s like a cafe and you have to walk through the coffee shop to get to the studio, and outside the cafe there’s this druggy dude that’s always hyperactive. At a first glance he seems kind of aggressive and dangerous, but he’s the sweetest guy. I think he has always been present, so he must have influenced us in some way.
AMANDA BERGMAN: Every time we speak with him, he has all these references to odd music and, like, German theatre. I think it was two weeks ago, he was convinced he had a singer in his arm, it was one of these old classic bands and he was convinced that the singer was inside his arm.
Are you guys also influenced by things like politics and religion? There’s so much going on in Sweden now, are you guys connected to that at all?
PONTUS WINNBERG: Very much so. I’d say that we’re all very deeply engaged personally. I don’t really know if there’s a direct connection to the lyrics, maybe a more subtle one.
AMANDA BERGMAN: I don’t know if it necessarily comes out in the lyrics, but what influences us is life as a whole. Of course, the society you live in is part of that. So, whatever tensions are going on in the society, you pick up on them. It’s just a scale.
It seems like Swedish society is changing so much as well. I’ve been there a few times in the last few months and it seems like it’s really dramatically changing, at least the dynamic of it.
AMANDA BERGMAN: What used to be a stable society, to some extent, is becoming unstable. It’s also irreversible, like, that’s the fear. There are so many things that have been good, and once they go away, I don’t think we can ever get them back.
What was good, Amanda?
AMANDA BERGMAN: If you came today and people were like, “Okay, you’re gonna have schools for free, you’re gonna have healthcare for free”. That would be so controversial to say, today, if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s already here. That’s so depressing, that the society has gone so far off from that view on people and the world that allows for free healthcare and education.
Pontus, you were saying that it’s scary?
PONTUS WINNBERG: Yeah, I have this conversation with different people on a daily basis. Yesterday we talked a lot about it. I think one thing that is starting to resurface is how it’s basically all down to inequality, in different ways. I think the biggest responsibility is on the people who have been given the best opportunity to get somewhere in life, and one problem is people like me, basically; I’m white, male, in a pretty decent economy, I live in a place where people are pretty wealthy.
AMANDA BERGMAN: And healthy.
PONTUS WINNBERG: And healthy, yeah. But, the things is, we settle for… “We”, like, people like me – I don’t want to narrow it down so hard – people that are living in, let’s say people in Sodermalm, which is the hipster, luxury area of Stockholm. They settle for posting stuff on their Facebook where all their friends have the exact same opinion as theirs. They’re not willing to sacrifice anything to really change something, but they feel really good about themselves having these impeccable views on life and the world and everything is so politically correct. I think there lies a big part of the problem; we don’t have any real responsibility; we don’t have any refugee camps in the middle of Stockholm. But, we have big opinions about them and opening the borders, but we’re not willing to pay the price.
So, I think there’s a disconnect between us and the people in the countryside who aren’t so well off. The area that we live in and the friends that we have, in that group of people, we have the most powerful people, in media and in politics. Geographically, the only place that people put any effort into exploring and that people really care about is basically around Nytorget , in Stockholm. In the nationwide established media, that’s the standard view. It’s also what people are reporting about, around that place and around the subject matters that matter to people.
Absolutely. There are a lot of changes and a lot of people are being very similar about what’s going on. If I could just bring it back to the music, the band Amason, has the discussion been had about having another album?
PONTUS WINNBERG: Yeah, we’ve started. We have a few small seeds and also we’re releasing… kind of talking about now… since the album has been out since January in Scandinavia, we made this little Swedish EP that we’re gonna release here. But, now that we don’t have to deal with the idiots anymore, maybe we’ll just release it worldwide. That could be something, it’s like a 4 track EP. As of now, it’s all in Swedish. But, we’ve been discussing if we should, if we’re gonna release it worldwide, maybe we should throw in something in another language.
AMANDA BERGMAN: We always have tons of ideas about what to do and what not to do. I think it’s a good thing that none of us have Amason as the only thing to do; we have a common sense of whatever happens happens, and whatever comes naturally, we’ll do. It’s not like we have a fixed strategy or plan.
“People that are living in, Sodermalm, which is the hipster, luxury area of Stockholm, they settle for posting stuff on their Facebook where all their friends have the exact same opinion as theirs.”
I’m fascinated by the Swedish music industry, because it’s been so omnipresent in the global music industry and it’s so successful in so many ways, yet it’s not such a big country with so many people. One thing that I find really particular, and is so consistent, is I can almost tell when a band is Swedish; it’s a very unique pop-sensibility that I almost find they can’t get away from, it’s this kind of lineage or this family history that you all share. I’m not talking about ABBA, I mean the more rich history of underground bands like, Cloudberry Jam, Ray Wonder, The Merrymakers, all these great pop acts have a very strong elite sense of melody. I think it’s so wonderful that it lives on through you guys. Would you agree with that?
AMANDA BERGMAN: I would hope so; it would be great if it was like that. I’m just happy that you feel that way about our music, because the sense of melody and everything is something I’ve always been deeply interested in.
I just find the Swedish music scene so irritating sometimes, because it’s so good. Artists like Radio Dept and Air France… You guys just ooze it out.
PONTUS WINNBERG: I think it’s due to the weather… and I think it’s a numbers game. The percentage is probably the same as anywhere on the planet, we just do 10x more, 100x more. Whatever 1% of that which is decent is going to turn into more songs.
AMANDA BERGMAN: I think, if you’re asking if we know why Sweden is so successful, I agree on the weather and the mentality and the culture – it’s all part of that. Also, so few people living here. So, we do help each other out quite frequently. I think that contributes to the whole thing. If you think that everybody is making music, it makes you feel like you’re in the centre of the world, I think it gives an energy to the Swedish music industry.
Thank you so much, Amanda and Pontus.
Sky City is finally out now worldwide through Fairfax Recordings.