Best known as a member of DAILY PLANET with vocalist Jarmo Ollila, the duo have three acclaimed albums to their name, the first being ‘The Tide’ issued as far back as 1996. But in 2015, Baeckström began a parallel solo career with the release of his debut long player ‘Like Before’. Capturing the melodic spirit of classic Vince Clarke, he surprised listeners not just with his accomplished songwriting but his vocal capabilities too. His new album ‘Utopia’ is a natural progression of ‘Like Before’ but is perhaps weightier, both in its production and lyrical content.
It’s amazing to think that when you started ‘Like Before’, you were returning to music after nearly 18 years but in the last 4 years, there have been two DAILY PLANET albums and two solo works…
Yes, you are right. I’ve had a very productive period in the last 5 years. I guess staying away from music for 18 years has something to do with that. Apart from the 4 albums, I’ve also done a number of remixes for other bands and a collaboration track with my friends in RATIONAL YOUTH. However, since finishing ‘Utopia’, I’ve actually felt quite “drained out”. I haven´t spent much time at all in my studio and, to be honest, not much music has been produced in the last 6 months.
In terms of writing, what do you think are the key differences between what you would do for DAILY PLANET and what you would do on your own?
Most of the DAILY PLANET songs start off with a brief idea from Jarmo – a chord progression and a vocal melody draft. From there, I take over and start building the rest.
The interesting thing with this method is that I never know what Jarmo intended with the song draft. For example, the two fastest of all our songs, ‘Set Me Free’ and ‘Milky Way’, were actually intended to be ballads, in his mind.
When I write for my solo project, I mostly start off by making a cool sound on a synth which often leads me to playing something. Sometimes this “something” ends up in a song idea. In that case, I force myself to turn this idea into a full song, at least I need to finish all the different components of the song, so I can start recording the synths I´ve used into my computer.
Since many of these old instruments don’t have any memory to save sounds, I need to record the parts before I can even touch that particular synth again. The topline melodies, vocals and lyrics are usually not written until I have a pretty complete arrangement. There have been times however when I haven´t come up with any vocal melodies that are good enough, and I’ve asked Jarmo to give it a go. ‘Goodbye Late Nights’, ‘Forgiven’, and ‘Silver Moon’ are examples of such songs. Once Jarmo’s melodies and voice were added, they turned into obvious DAILY PLANET songs instead of solo songs.
I never intended to make a darker album, but I´ve had this comment from a few people. I suppose it´s true in the sense that the general tempo is a bit slower than the first album, and with a little heavier sound perhaps.
Some of the lyrics touch upon rather deep subjects too, such as for example ‘Blood Red Moon’ which was written in the evening after attending the funeral of my close friends’ young daughter who lost a long, brave fight against cancer.
I wouldn’t describe the album as “dark” though – it´s absolutely a pop album.
The title track at the start sets the scene of the album, what’s the song about?
It can probably mean different things, depending on who the listener is. I guess I tried to say that sometimes we’re going way too far to find whatever we’re desiring. Look a bit closer and you may find it right where you are.
You’re influenced by Vince Clarke´s earlier productions and now you’ve even included a song named ‘Into The 80’s’ on the album? What´s the story here?
‘Into The 80s’ is a cover of a song from 1979, by the Canadian rock artist Nick Gilder. I had never heard it before, but Eddie Bengtsson from PAGE introduced me to the song and suggested I´d do a cover version of it. I fell in love with the song right away, and the cover turned out very good I think, which is why I included it on the album.
Really? Hmm, it must be the Linndrum samples. Jokes aside, yes, I guess it goes down that path a bit. The YAZOO stuff is what made me discover electronic, synth based music in the first place, back in the 80s, and it has continued to inspire me up until this day. I still think those two albums are perfect in every sense of the word. It´s only natural that this will sometimes reflect in my own music.
‘Better Stories’ pays tribute to ‘Any Second Now’?
I don’t know, I’ve had that comment from some friends as well. Actually, it´s just the bass figure and sound that´s perhaps flirting a wee bit with said song. The rest of it isn´t even close, I’d say. But hey – ‘Any Second Now’ is a great song, so I don´t mind the comparison, haha.
‘Cassini’ is a fine filmic instrumental, what inspired it and does soundtrack work interest you in the future?
I was looking at those amazing videos and photos from Nasa´s Cassini mission to the planet Saturn and its moons, which led me to try to make almost like a film score for those lovely images. I must admit, I was a bit nervous to put an instrumental piece on the album, since I have never done that before. I hope people will like it and I can certainly see myself doing something more in that direction.
‘Ask Them Why’ is quite aggressive by your standards?
Yeah, it´s got some attitude with a high tempo, 3-4 different bass sounds and even slightly distorted lead vocals, which is a first for me. On the other hand, I guess my friends in POUPPEE FABRIKK, WULFBAND or LUCIFER´S AID probably wouldn´t find it very aggressive…
No, not really. EDM is nothing I can listen to for more than a few minutes. Dubstep? I don’t even know what that is, to be honest. I could definitely see myself exploring other genres though, but these are not the hottest candidates, I can tell you that much.
You’ve used a Korg Volca Bass synth on the album and it does get a look a lot of good feedback from musicians, what do you like about it?
On this album, it´s not used for much more than a few small sounds here and there. Not because I don’t like it, but mainly because I prefer working on other stuff I have. The Volca is however a great little synth. I mean, a 3 oscillator analog synthesizer with a built-in sequencer, for the price of a decent bottle of scotch!
What other of the newer synths have you found to be a revelation in your creativity?
Most of the new synths I have are actually re-issues of old designs, like the Minimoog or the ARP Odyssey and MS-20s from Korg. I´ve realized I tend to always go to synths that give me a fast result.
For example, I have a Prophet ’08 from DSI, which is a really great synthesizer but I actually don´t use it very much – since it is quite advanced, and you now and then need to look on a screen to know what you´re doing, I´d rather turn to my Jupiter or Juno which both are very “what_you_see_is_what_you_hear”, with no sub menus or displays whatsoever.
So on the whole, you appear to have stuck to your trusty vintage synths like the older Rolands and the Pro-One?
Yeah, these are my work horses for sure. They sound amazing and like I said in the previous question – I get superfast results from them. The Minimoog is also used quite a lot on this album.
Interestingly ‘Nightbird’, one of ERASURE’s best albums of recent years used just softsynths… have you ever been tempted to go the exclusively software route?
Indeed I have – in the early 2000s I sold all my hardware gear to use software instead. I thought it sounded like a great idea to have everything in the computer. The only, small problem was that they didn’t sound very sexy at all back then, and the interaction with them didn’t inspire me at all. I basically didn’t write anything longer than 4-8 bars on that system since I lost interest within an hour, every time. Today, some 15-20 years on, software synths surely sound better than they did back then. They´re still totally uninspiring to work with though, for me, so I will certainly stick to my big old hardware instruments.
The artwork was done by Mr Peter Nyborg, who also did the cover for our latest DAILY PLANET album, ‘Play Rewind Repeat’. Since I was very happy with that design, Peter was free to come up with pretty much whatever he wanted for ‘Utopia’. This PCB idea was the first thing he presented to me and I loved it right away. I am sure there is some clever thoughts behind it, but I guess you´ll have to ask Peter about that. To me it´s just a great looking artwork which I think suits the music very well.
You’ve been doing other covers, like ‘Cry Softly (Time Is Mourning)’ for the album ‘Night City Tribute – The Songs of SECRET SERVICE’, so for those reading outside of Sweden, why do you think this band was popular back in its day and why did you choose this song?
I would think the reason for their success must be the quality of the song material. They did some stunningly crafted pop tracks. The production was also spot on for that time, which probably also contributed to their success. I was asked if I would be interested in contributing to this tribute and ‘Cry Softly’ was an obvious choice for me. I think that it’s one of their best songs and I have thought about covering it for a long time actually. It certainly was a challenge vocally though – Ola Håkansson has a very wide vocal range!
Is it true you are working on a new WHITE DOOR album?
I can´t say that much about this, but I can confirm that I am working on something with the fine WHITE DOOR gents. What, and when, is to be seen.
I am, like I said earlier, not very productive at the moment as for writing new music. I’m working on other stuff instead, such as preparing and rehearsing for a couple of live shows coming up.
Hopefully there will be more gigs added as well – I’ve done a private gig in France, but I would really love to meet my audience in other countries!
The Electricity Club gives its grateful thanks to JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM
‘Utopia’ is released by Progress Productions in CD and digital formats, available direct from https://johanbaeckstrom.bandcamp.com/album/utopia-2
JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM plays Synth Wave Live 3 at Electrowerkz in London on Saturday 22nd June 2019, the line-up also includes B-MOVIE, EUGENE, LUCKYANDLOVE, CENTRE EXCUSE, YS ATLOV, CIRCUIT 3, LOW SEA, SOL FLARE + THE DEPARTMENT – tickets available from https://www.wegottickets.com/event/461473
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
Photos by Helene Shippey and Johan Baeckström
30th June 2018, updated 30th April 2019