Interview: A Q&A with Moonbabies’ Ola Frick

Comprised of the husband and wife duo of Ola Frick and
Carina Johansson Frick, the Malmö, Sweden-based indie pop act, Moonbabies
have known each other since they were high schoolers, and the duo started
writing and recording together in 1997. With their debut effort, the Swedish
duo had quickly developed a reputation in their homeland for crafting an intricate
shoegazer rock sound; however, their sophomore effort, The Orange Billboard quickly expanded their profile, as the album
received attention and praise across Europe for a sound that drew heavily from Wilco’s
critically acclaimed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
– and as a result, the band embarked on an extensive European tour. The Orange Billboard’s follow-up effort,
War on Sound was a critical and
commercial success in Sweden, and its album title track, “War on Sound” was
featured on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy
and brought the Malmö, Sweden-based act attention across North
America.

As the Fricks were writing and working on the material for what would
be their third full-length effort, the duo had felt an increasing pressure to
create and deliver songs that were commercially viable – to the point that they
had begun to feel as though they were drifting away from the creative vision
and playful spirit that initially brought them national and international
attention in the first place. Recognizing that they were in a creative rut, the
duo forced themselves out of the their comfort zone, relocating to Berlin,
Germany.
And while in Berlin, they quickly felt in love with the city’s
globally renowned EDM and house music scenes; in fact, as a result, the
material they had begun writing began to lean heavily towards a more
electronic-based sound. However, the duo did feel an entirely different
pressure – the pressure of having to prove themselves in a much bigger, much
more competitive scene, and after two years in Germany, the Fricks returned to
their native country and started the recording progress again.

Upon their return to Sweden, the duo found the recording process to be
both unsuccessful and frustrating, as they spent time forcing themselves to
push the process forward, scrapping it when it didn’t feel exactly how they
wanted it, and then starting over sometime later, which according to the
Fricks, they did more than 30 times. However, interestingly enough, the duo has
claimed that it was the birth of their son last year that they claim may have
been the catalyst that breathed new life into their entire creative process.
Their focus had changed and began much simpler – move past bad memories and
associations, and focus on the songs that evoked a visceral sensation. And as
they were going through some old material, they saw things that they didn’t
originally see and they found that ideas started to flow about naturally – and
in a way that they hadn’t had in a while.

The end result was the Fricks’ long-awaited and recently released
album, Wizards  on the Beach, which effortlessly meshes the
disparate tones and moods of the glittering synth pop of tracks like album
opener “Pink Heart Mother” based around the real life experiences of Ola
Frick’s mother; the gorgeous, dream-like fugue of “Raindrops,” “Bird Lay Frue,”
“Playground Dropouts;” and the breezy, kaleidoscopic psychedelia of songs like
“Summerlong Wave” that reminds me quite a bit of Cut Copy’s exceptional In Ghost Colours – but throughout the
album, these sounds are paired with the Fricks ethereal harmonies that seem to
float and then wrap themselves around infectious hooks.

Just before the release of Wizards
on the Beach
, I spoke to Moonbabies’ Ola Frick about the creative process
behind the new album, how it’s like to create and tour with his spouse, Swedish
acts that American listeners should be paying attention to –right now; and much
more. Check it out below.

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WRH: I actually know of your hometown, Malmö, Sweden through Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallender detective novels, which I’ve read in translation published here in the States by The New Press. And although I haven’t read all of his work, in the novels I’ve read, Mankell captures a Sweden in the middle of a cultural shift from hegemony to a begrudging acceptance of multiculturalism. Interestingly, a former bartender I know, who’s originally from Helsingborg mentioned something very similar several years ago. In any case, many of my American readers will largely be unfamiliar with Malmö, so can you tell us a few brief things about the town? Can you tell us a couple of cool things about yourselves?

Ola Frick: This Summer, we’re celebrating our 20 years together, five year marriage, and 18 year anniversary of Moonbabies. Is that a cool enough thing? Malmö has become a great multi-cultural town (naturally multi-culture also brings out the worst in politics; right now we’re unfortunately having a crazy ass right wing party as the 3rd biggest party in Sweden.) Malmö is and has been musically rich since years back, and the closeness to Copenhagen makes it a pretty damn good stop for all if not most touring bands.  

WRH: How did you get into music? When did you know that it was your calling?

OF: Both of us at a very young age. Carina through playing on the piano/organ, although none of her relatives are the least musical. And myself from being obsessed with music since before when… I wrote my first “English” songs as a five-year old kid. Musically obsessive, not so much in sports etc.

WRH: How did you meet? How did you come up with the band name?

OF: We met through music school gymnasium in 1995, although we had had a brief occasional meeting, where I fell totally head over heels in love with Carina,  she didn’t care/notice at the time. So after we started dating, we started busking on the streets playing covers [of] Pixies, Nirvana, Simon & Garfunkel, [The] Lemonheads, etc. And we even travelled around Europe doing that for a summer. The voices just melted together nicely, and even if we swore not to ruin anything by starting a band, we naturally did. The moonbabies name was from a Smashing Pumpkins lyric “What moon songs, will you sing your babies?” [and] it really fit well, because we wanted something that was sounding soft and mystical. And the fact that we most often record/write at nighttime, just made it perfect.

WRH: I’ve never been in a band but from the number of folks I’ve talked to who have been in bands, I’ve always had the sense that being in a band can be a very unusual relationship, akin to a marriage — the same sort of issues that can destroy a relationship can destroy a band. Interestingly enough, I read an article in the Village Voice several months ago which profiled several locally-based (if I’m not mistaken were locally-based but no matter, right) bands in which the members were married or dating. A couple of the bands had mentioned that they were frequently conscious of ensuring a s much of a separation between their creative relationships and their personal relationships. In one case, there was a married couple with a bandmate, and they admitted that they actively tried to ensure that their bandmate didn’t take part in what they admitted could be a difficult dynamic. With that in mind, how is it like to create and tour with your spouse?

OF: Good for most parts. The tour bus was occasionally a fighting ground (just ask our touring musicians), but we managed to soften that up after installing a GPS in the car (this is mid-00s we’re talking about.) But yeah, it’s sometimes to keep out the family parts while doing Moonbabies stuff. But we usually manage to have a good time.

WRH: Who are your influences?

OF: We have a very similar musical taste (even scary sometimes) the biggest musical heroes would be Kate Bush, Brian Eno, Jeff Lynne, My Bloody Valentine, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, [The] Beatles, [The] Beach Boys.

WRH: Who are you listening to right now?

OF: Caribou, The Land Below, Four Tet, Youngs, Glass Children, Cocteau Twins

WRH: Are there any acts over in Sweden that American listeners need to be paying attention to right this very second?

OF: The Land Below, Hey Elbow, Blind Lake, Emerald Park

WRH: Your new album, Wizards on the Beach has an interesting backstory. Your sophomore effort, The Orange Billboard and the War on Sound mini-album received both international praise and international attention, which likely expanded your profile in a way that you both probably never imagined. And as countless artists have mentioned over the years, that kind of attention often results in a lot of pressure to write material that’s not only commercially viable, which is generally the case, no matter what — but there’s increased pressure to come up with material that sounds and feels like the material that won you attention in the first place. Feeling like you were in a creative rut, you relocated to Berlin, Germany and were inspired by that city’s renowned electronic music scene. Once you returned back to Sweden, you wrote material, scrapped it, rewrote material and were generally on a hiatus until things clicked creatively with the birth of your son. The material on Wizards on the Beach is a complete change in sonic direction in comparison to your last recorded output. Did the experience change how you thought of dealing with the music industry? Was there ever a fear that you might be putting off the fans you’ve won over with such a decided change?

OF: Once we started living in Germany, we decided to write songs, which were rhythmically dominant. It took a long time to make it “ours” It was a challenge. Because how much we loved the House music we experienced at clubs, it was never ever going to be re-produced on a record. The “music” part of it is 50% the rest is the emotional response of your body etc. So making it our own, we needed to step into our own Moonbabies history and fuse the two together. It wasn’t easy at all. But nothing worth fighting for seldom is.

And for the other part. Of course we know that some people that really liked our past records would not get the new material, but coming from the last album (Moonbabies at the Ballroom) we wanted to get as far away from that as we could. Not from the songs, we just wanted to make music that mattered to at that time – and right now.  I guess that’s the only true thing to do. We could have continued to make those kind of songs and continue to tour. But it was never something we would even consider, we’re both too sensitive for doing that. With the last album, there were certain things in the “music industry” that really put us off. What was once a fantastic exciting dream had turned into an industrial wheel so to speak.

WRH: How did you come up with the album title? Was there any point that the album had a different name?

OF: Actually, no; that was chosen as the title very quickly just before we finished the album. It was decided at the same time as we were working on the artwork/vinyl sleeve for the album. But, even back when we started the album in 2009, the main inspiration for the mindset of artwork has been Bitches Brew and I knew the beach would be part of it. The feel from the artwork just had to reflect the feeling of stepping into another world. The symbolism of it all is up to the listener for interpretation.

WRH: Frequently a change in sonic direction, often forces a change in songwriting approach. Has your songwriting approach changed at all over the years? How do you know when you have a finished song?

OF: That’s something we’ve only learned recently! (laughs) it just has to EXCITE you. There’s nothing else to it. And leave it when it’s 95% great. Not 100%, because there’s no such thing, and while you’re messing around with getting though time-taking the last 5% you probably start messing around and changing stuff out of boredom, and might just end up with a messy unfocused mix. And yes, the songwriting approach has changed and is still changing, we don’t spend as much time “without a goal” anymore, there’s simply no time for that. If we’ve written a song, it just need to be finished in the studio, that’s it.

WRH: The songs on Wizards on the Beach alternate between Carina and Ola singing the lead. How did you decide on which songs each of you were singing?

OF: Some tracks are naturally Carina’s or mine, you can hear it immediately. But we have always recorded versions switching out singers, and sometimes it just works. Like “Bird Lay Frue,” which was Carina’s voice originally. Or “Raindrops” or “The Ocean Kill” which was Ola’s on the demos.

WRH: I think the true test of an excellent album lies in the fact that if you were to rearrange the sequence of songs on it, it would be a totally different experience — there’s something about the mood each song conveys that fits together like a great novel. But there’s also a sense throughout Wizards that there’s a large, almost mythic story being told. Was it difficult to arrange the songs on the album in the order you have them?

OF: That wasn’t that hard as a fact. I mean, since we’re pretty perfectionist, it was a 3-4 week thing to get right. Once we knew the opening track and the end track it was all much easier. We also knew we wanted it pressed on vinyl which made it easy to think side A and side B… and the dramaturgy that comes with it. And the last two tracks “Wizards” and “Playground Dropouts” we added to make the album complete, there’s lightness to both those tracks that we needed for it to not get too dense.  We definitely like to go deeper within the soul with music. As much as the music is dreamy and experimental there is always a honesty and emotional and personal depth to all the songs. And as much as they’re working as single songs, I was incredibly happy to see that they worked even better as a album.  

WRH: Album opening track “Pink Heart Mother” is deeply influenced by the personal experiences and life of Ola Frick’s mother, which grounds the song in a realistic realm, while songs like “Raindrops,“ “Bird Lay Frue,” “Playground Dropouts,” possess a childlike, imaginative/dream-like feel. “Summerlong Wave” possesses a kaleidoscopic, psychedelic feel. How did you manage to mesh such disparate tones and moods so effortlessly in a way that reminds me a little bit of Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colours? Was that intentional? Was the inspiration behind it?

OF: Everything is through a lot of trial and error. Just messing around without any intentions or ideas. (hence: why it took forever to finish it). Those tracks were the hardest to complete because some of the tracks had 200+ tracks and parts and bits from different sessions merged. It was a nightmare. Turned out unique eventually.  

WRH: Three of my favorite songs on the album are “Wizards on the Beach,” “Raindrops” and “Chorus.” What exactly inspired those songs in particular?

OF: "Chorus” was one of the 2-3 easiest tracks to write on this record. One morning, I just woke up with the song in my head, immediately recorded everything on the spot, except some of the lyrics that were added later. It was surprising, to understand “Wow, this song basically wrote itself. I didn’t have to do anything.” Mixing took ages and we got lost along the way. So the version you hear is very close to the original “demo.” We were very much into Fleetwood Mac 80s hits and wanted to incorporate some of that. And it has a personal lyric, what I was going through with all the self-doubt and frustration. But it’s also about strong love and it’s has a comforting feel to it.

The others are also two of my favorites. I think ‘Raindrops’ is the track on the album that I’m most proud of, and I think I’ve heard it 25,000 times and it only gets better. That song was one of the hardest to get finished, but the version that ended up on the album is almost identical to the first mix we did.

The title track was the last song to be finished for record. Lyrically it’s about a medicine man that I visited during a period fighting some tough physical back-pain in the middle of the recording process. This healing wizard seemed righteous at first, but turned out to be a complete quack who only made bad things worse. We do still love alternative medicine and yoga. And despite it all, somehow the experience turned into a very special song and title track to very special album.

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves?

OF: Show yourselves through the music – Your inner feelings/Your inner fantasies.

Throw away the stuff that’s not exciting YOU right now.