When the winters are as long and dark as they are in Umea, Sweden, people have to entertain themselves somehow. For the guitar-synth pop band Komeda, the recent method of coping has been to build a studio.
Komeda recorded its first album, Pop På Svenska (North of No, 1993) — “Pop in Swedish” — at Umea's Tonteknik studios. And even as the band went global and earned the adoration of artists such as Beck and No Doubt, the quartet continued recording there for the smart, jazz-infused pop of The Genius of Komeda (Minty Fresh, 1996) and What Makes it Go? (Minty Fresh, 1998). Then, longtime guitarist Mattias Nordlander left the band, and the remaining three — Lena Karlsson and brothers Marcus and Jonas Holmberg — built their Superstudion studio. “On the other albums, it was like, ‘Can I touch this knob, please?’” Jonas re-enacts meekly. “But, now, I own the knob, so I can do whatever I like with it.”
Now able to stretch out and experiment, instead of spending four weeks writing and recording as they had in the past, Karlsson and the Holmberg brothers spent a year on their fourth album, Kokomemedada (Minty Fresh, 2004). “Before, we were more like a rock combo band, playing the songs and rehearsing them [before recording them],” Jonas says. “But this time, no. We sort of became studio monks, making the songs develop through a sound or a feeling or experimentation or collaboration amongst the three of us.”
Using a Belgian digital audio workstation called Sydec Soundscape, Komeda saw each song through different mutations. “Elvira Madigan” is a whirling synth sing-along, like a tipsy ride on a merry-go-round, but it began as a slow, dark nylon-guitar track. “I imagined it to be like an old Velvet Underground, Nico-based ‘Venus in Furs’ song,” Jonas says. “I had this very old medieval voice on it. It was really quite ridiculous.” But due to rekindling his love for '80s synth-pop bands Human League and Soft Cell — and new vocals by Karlsson — the original version did an uptempo about-face.
While toying around with compressors, gates and expander plug-ins in Soundscape, Jonas also stumbled upon some great drum sounds, both programmed (using a Clavia Nord Lead and Nord Modular) and live. “‘Victory Lane’ and ‘Fade In Fade Out’ have strange drum sounds, very hard, like they were made in an oven,” Jonas says. “It's like pottery: You have something in extreme heat, and it almost falls apart.”
When Jonas wasn't emulating a lo-fi experiment, he was doing the real thing. The band collects old reel-to-reel recorders and converts them into guitar amps by replacing the mic input with a ¼-inch input. “This is the best guitar amplifier there is on the earth, and it cost us, like, five bucks,” Jonas says. “The speakers in them are about two inches, but if you mike them up, they sound fantastic.”
Although the group recorded many vocals through a Neumann M 147 microphone, for the drums on Kokomemedada, Jonas looked no further than a Shure SM57 — no complex miking techniques were involved this time. “Almost all the drums have been through just one SM57,” he says.
The hi-fi gear came into effect during the mixing process, when the band went back to its trusted Tonteknik, home of an MCI 440 console once used by Pink Floyd for Dark Side of the Moon (EMI, 1973). It's apropos for a band living in a town so dark that when the sun finally comes out in spring, people have to go to “light therapy” to avoid getting depressed or sick. “You get suddenly a lot of light [outside], and the hormones and everything … it gets crazy in the head for some people,” Jonas says.
But not for Komeda. Calling their music “popular dada,” Karlsson, Marcus and Jonas have been inspired by the art movement since their teens and would rather dwell on that than the extreme weather. “We just thought dada was extremely free and fun,” Jonas says. “For us, it's always been like a sign of freedom to think in terms of dada. We used all those techniques used by the dadaists and the surrealists, like William Burroughs and the cut-up technique, everything to make it fun. So … dada!”