If there is one person who has probably sparked the realisation of a long-awaited second WHITE DOOR album, then it has to be the synth Superswede Johan Baeckström.
A solo artist in his own right but also a member of synth duo DAILY PLANET, the young Johan Baeckström was a fan of the first WHITE DOOR album ’Windows’ released in 1983.
When he needed B-sides for the singles from his own 2015 solo debut ’Like Before, he covered ’Jerusalem’ and ’School Days’.
Although Baeckström has been unashamedly candid about the influence of Vince Clarke on his music, his musicality was also been shaped by the small catalogue of songs by Mac Austin, Harry Davies and John Davies.
While Mac Austin and Harry Davies have continued to perform in their prog combo GRACE over the years, Baeckström sowed the seeds of a WHITE DOOR reunion when he and DAILY PLANET bandmate Jarmo Olilia invited Austin to provide lead vocals on ‘Heaven Opened’ on their 2017 album ‘Play Rewind Repeat’.
That sparked a WHITE DOOR reunion and as a newly confugured quartet, Mac Austin, John Davies, Harry Davies and Johan Baeckström now present ’The Great Awakening’. Baeckström gives the pulsing Vince Clarke-isms a breather and swaps it for the more polyphonically formed keyboard interventions of his other heroes like Howard Jones.
A joyous tune that sets the scene, the exotic sophistication of ’Among The Mountains’ possesses the soaring windscreen poise of A-HA with a flawless vocal from Mac Austin while the soundscape is sweetened by flute, providing an interesting timbral contrast.
Acknowledging the theme of ’Get Carter’ but with a more brassy flair, ’Resurrection’ surprises with a bouncy Giorgio Moroder inspired stomp and the lift of a rousing chorus. Meanwhile Mac Austin manages to sound like a cross between Morten Harket and Chris De Burgh over some beautifully symphonic synth and subtle slapped bass in a guest appearance from Baeckström’s son Simon.
’Soundtrack Of Our Lives’ captures the joys of spring, with the English folk austere that was very much part of WHITE DOOR’s make-up playing a key role with the harmonious vocal arrangement.
A sparkling production with space for all the elements to shine, there’s even a few classic Linn Drum sounds thrown in too. Yes, they are more recollections of A-HA although of course, the ’Windows’ album came out a year before ’Hunting High & Low’.
Holding down the steadier mood with a synth arpeggio, the richly layered ’Lullaby’ makes what appears to be a simple arrangement sound grand and complex in a cleverly configured traditional tune that steadily builds and surprises with a burst of saxophone in the final third which also glistens ivory-wise in the manner of Howard Jones.
Beginning with a slightly stuttering rhythm, ’Angel Of Tomorrow’ bursts into life with a spacey buoyant pomp that captures an air of Vangelis.
An elated majestic tone ensues as staring mortality in the face, ’The Great Awakening’ celebrates an embracment of life and second chances with a range of complex synth motifs. All wondefully complimenting one another, it is akin to a casade of church bells ringing on a Sunday morning.
The spritely ’Simply Magnificent’ does as the title suggests and is pure sequenced synthpop in the vein of early ALPHAVILLE, the distant transistor radio ending acting a nice tribute to bygone listening experiences.
Ending the album, ’Beautiful Girl’ is classic WHITE DOOR and a song which Harry Davies describes as ”a wonderful song for making babies to”. Vocally like a modern hymn with patterns of hooky chimes, there’s even a surprising lilt of sax that suits the electronic backdrop, with a gorgeous sweeping polysynth conclusion that CHINA CRISIS would be proud of, recalling the feel of their appropriately titled tune ‘The Soul Awakening’.
Hopeful, mature and joyous, ’The Great Awakening’ grandly blows away the attempted sensitive synth overtures of the young pretenders almost half their age. It is twilight magic provided by the sorcerers and their apprenctice. Nearly four decades on, WHITE DOOR have again passed the test with commendation.
Of his role in ’The Great Awakening’, Johan Baeckström said to The Electricity Club: ”I really wanted to do my best to maintain the WHITE DOOR sound and spirit in the production on this album”.
Mission accomplished 😀
’The Great Awakening’ uses the follwoing synthesizers: Roland Jupiter 6, Roland Juno 106, Akai AX73, Minimoog, Korg Mono/Poly and ARP Odyssey
Melodic synth trio WHITE DOOR released their only album ‘Windows’ in 1983.
But despite the title song being a Record Of The Week on Simon Bates’ BBC Radio1 show, it was unable to gain wider traction.
WHITE DOOR were to gain cult status over the years and one young fan was Swedish synthesist Johan Baeckström who later covered ’Jerusalem’ and ’School Days’ from ’Windows’ in 2015.
Although Baeckström has been unashamedly candid about the influence of Vince Clarke on his music, his sound and that of his other project DAILY PLANET has also been shaped by the Andy Richards produced songs of Mac Austin, Harry Davies and John Davies.
While Mac Austin and Harry Davies have continued to perform in their prog rock combo GRACE over the years, Baeckström sowed the seeds of a WHITE DOOR reunion when he and DAILY PLANET bandmate Jarmo Olilia invited Austin to provide lead vocals on ‘Heaven Opened’, on their 2017 album ‘Play Rewind Repeat’.
Then, there was a live reunion in 2019 when Baeckström invited Austin and the Davies brothers to join him for renditions of ’Jerusalem’ and ’School Days’ at Synth Wave Live 3 in London.
So after 37 years, a long awaited second album from WHITE DOOR will emerge this April featuring eight new songs to follow-up ‘Windows’.
A four way collaboration between Mac Austin, John Davies, Harry Davies and Johan Baeckström, the newly confugured quartet present ‘The Great Awakening’. Three of the band kindly chatted to The Electricity Club about their recorded return…
At what point did a new WHITE DOOR album become a realistic proposition?
Harry: Johan and Mac are best to answer that. But for me it is when we heard a first draft by Johan of a song we recorded on a phone.
Mac: I think the relationship evolved over time, Johan got in touch about covering ’School Days’ I think it was, then a while later I was asked to do a vocal for the DAILY PLANET album which was a real honour. In the meantime we were messaging about the music we were both doing and eventually Johan asked if we had thought of doing a second WD album and that was that.
So the WHITE DOOR line-up has been expanded?
Harry: We feel that the producer is an integral part of any band and Johan is both a song writer and a perfect producer for WHITE DOOR.
Without Johan’s input, this album would not have happened. He is also more photogenic than the rest of us.
Mac: Yes mate we are now a four piece, well it worked for THE BEATLES. Couldn’t be happier. Johan has given us so much, the music is massively richer from Johan’s presence.
The new line-up made a two song live debut at Electrowerkz in London in June 2019, how was that for you?
Mac: It was a great experience, meeting yourself Chi and the moment we met Johan for the first time. I really enjoyed the gig though I did cock up ’Jerusalem’, it was a real great couple of days.
Harry: It was very surreal for me, although my input to the performance was minimal, I was still very nervous.
Is having Johan in the band almost like fulfilling the role Andy Richards played in ‘Windows’?
Harry: Yes, and more so, Johan instantly identified himself with that genre of music of the 80s.
Mac: It is in a way because of his great technical ability and beautiful playing. but with Johan we also have his amazing vocals and writing skills which takes us on to a different level creatively
Were there any particular musical reference points you discussed and had in common?
Mac: The main reference point was we all loved ’Windows’ and wanted to build on that album and hearing Johan’s albums, we seemed to be very close in our writing and sound.
Although until we started to get the first drafts back from Johan, I did not know just how good this combination could be.
With remote working happening between England and Sweden, how was the creative dynamic?
Johan: We´re fortunate to live in an age where technology has made the world a lot smaller and with great tools for communication and transfer of different data. A lot of the tracks started with the guys in the UK sending me rough demos from which I could start my programming and pre-production work. Vocals and woodwinds were recorded in a studio in the UK and then sent to my studio in Sweden where I would add my backing vocals and finalize the production and mixing.
What synth toys were being brought into the production?
Johan: Most of the synths in my studio was used for this album but compared to my solo work, I’ve leaned a lot more on poly synths for this project, so the Roland Jupiter 6, Roland Juno 106 and Akai AX73 was used quite extensively on all the tracks and even the good old Yamaha DX7 was called for on a couple of the tracks. The most used mono synths were probably the Minimoog, the Korg Mono/Poly and the ARP Odyssey.
How was it to wear the WHITE DOOR hat, did you find yourselves slipping into GRACE or DAILY PLANET modes? Or is that irrelevant, that the WHITE DOOR chemistry is because it’s the four of you?
Johan: Well, for me the WHITE DOOR music has been a part of me since I was a teenager, and the WD sound has always been an inspiration in my other projects.
Having the opportunity to actually be part of making a follow-up album with these wonderful guys, is a blessing and I really wanted to do my best to maintain the WHITE DOOR sound and spirit in the production on this album – familiar, but still fresh.
Mac: For me as a vocalist, it’s the instrumentation that makes the difference. Johan was influenced by the ’Windows album’ and had covered ’School Days’ and ’Jerusalem’, so the WHITE DOOR sound was easy for him to reproduce. Our demos were very loose, giving him the opportunity from these ideas to create great sound tracks for the vocals. The way we work for WHITE DOOR is completely different than GRACE where the guitar and keyboard sound is very up front, with real drums making a much harder sound. I find with WD, the vocal melodies are much more intricate and easier to develop.
‘The Great Awakening’ and ‘Among The Mountains’ are quite grand titles, what are they touching on lyrically?
Harry: The two songs are intrinsically linked lyrically. In 2015, I was diagnosed with a life changing condition that left me very fatigued and dependant on blood transfusions. I loved hill and long distance walking especially in Scotland, which I found impossible to pursue, sometimes I found it difficult to walk across the road.
‘Among the Mountains’ is about mourning that loss. As time went by my condition was deteriorating both physically and mentally. A search began for a stem cell donor. A possible donor was found and was given an appointment with a leading transplant specialist. You can imagine my elation and excitement to get my life back. That is where ’The Great Awakening’ came from. John was going through a very at a difficult time and that influenced him with the chord structure. In the end, the donor was not suitable but with an amazing support team I am off the transfusions and doing ok.
’Beautiful Girl’ has something of a classic WHITE DOOR feel, what was its genesis?
Johan: It´s funny that you say that – the seed to this song was actually a chord progression and melody that Jarmo and I was working on for DAILY PLANET, over 20 years ago. I remember that we talked about how this chorus almost felt like a mix between WHITE DOOR and A-HA.
I sent it over to Mac to see if he, Harry and John could do something with it. After a while, I got a demo back with the complete song structure that you hear on the album today, with an even stronger melody line in the chorus as well as brand new, killer verses.
Mac: When Johan sent over the music demo, John played the chords and I just started to sing along with lyrics from a song idea I had years ago that seemed to fit this music. We worked out the structure and I finished the lyric and sent our demo back to Johan for him see what or if he could do anything with it. The rest is history as they say.
What are your own favourite tracks from the album?
Harry: Of course ‘Mountains’ and ‘Awakening’ mean such a lot to me, but I love ‘Beautiful Girl’, it’s a wonderful song for making babies to and the lyrics take me back to the 70s and watching the girls dancing around their handbags. But if I’m doing the housework, ‘Simply Magnificent’ takes some beating.
Mac: For me it depends on the mood I’m in, they are all very strong and I think ’Beautiful Girl’ has a great hook; ’Among The Mountains’ and ’The Great Awakening’ mean a lot because of the incredible moving lyric by Harry which moves me every time I hear them. ’Lullaby’ was written years ago to help my two girls to feel safe in the beds. I’m not sure it worked but they both love it. ’Angel Of Tomorrow’ is a great song to sing I love it.
Johan: I can´t really say one song is more of a favourite than the other, but the first one I started working on was ’Lullaby’, which I got a demo of from Mac in a very early stage of the project and I fell in love with it right away. I could instantly hear in my head what it should sound like, production wise, and I must say I am very happy with how it turned out. That, track made me realise that ”I think we can actually do this – bring WHITE DOOR back to life again”, so this makes ’Lullaby’ a bit special to me, I guess.
Music is an ageless artform? Discuss! 😉
Harry: I would like someone else to start that.
Mac: For me, most music records moments in time, whether it be country, folk, punk, prog, blues, even classical, they capture those moments with lyrical poetry and music to not only relate the stories but lay an emotional thread with the style of music. I believe it will always be the case.
What next? Any thoughts about playing live together for a full WHITE DOOR set?
Harry: Love to, barring problems with corona virus and the ‘B’ word, we have started to discuss a set list. Be interesting to get feedback to help us decide on tracks maybe.
Mac: I would love that, I am so proud of this music it would really work in a live situation.
Johan: Yes, that is certainly in the scope when the world has come back to some sort of normal again. Watch the WHITE DOOR facebook page for info.
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to WHITE DOOR
With a pair of excellent albums ‘Like Before’ and ‘Utopia’ now under his belt, Swedish synthesist JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM has more than established his solo credentials.
Best known as a member of DAILY PLANET, Baeckström had been making plans to return to music on his own prior to an unexpected reunion of the acclaimed duo in 2014 with the appropriately titled ‘Two’. Since then, Baeckström has maintained a solo career in parallel with DAILY PLANET.
Baeckström had already covered two WHITE DOOR songs ‘School Days’ and ‘Jerusalem’ for B-sides, so it was not entirely a surprise when it was announced that he would be joining WHITE DOOR for the recording of their long awaited follow-up to the 1983 long player ‘Windows’.
From his studio utopia via the wonders of online communication, Baeckström challenged The Electricity Club to a round of Vintage Synth Trumps and told a few interesting stories about his fabulous collection of electronic keyboards and much more.
The first card is the Roland Jupiter 8, so what have been your experiences with this?
I have almost none, I don’t think I’ve ever played one. I’ve seen them and it’s an important icon synth, that Howard Jones cover of ‘New Song’ with the Jupiter 8 made a huge impact and made me think synthesizers looked cool.
But I always thought the Jupiter 6 looked better, it had a nicer design with a better colour scheme, I have one of those and that’s one of my favourites. I know what a Jupiter 8 sounds like, I’ve heard a million demos and it’s on lots of records, it defined the early / mid 80s polysynth sound.
So how close can you get a Jupiter 6 to sound like a Jupiter 8 aesthetically?
I think they are quite different because the Jupiter 8 to me sounds a bit softer and lush. The Jupiter 6 can be lush as well but it’s got a sharper edge to it, which suits my music better as it’s quite percussive and detailed; it’s warm but not as warm as the Jupiter 8. The Jupiter 6 can do harsh, crispy sounds which you can´t really do on the Jupiter 8 because of the multiband filter on the 6, for example.
Which recordings of yours are quite dominated by the Jupiter 6?
When I bought it, the first thing I did to try it was a cover of WHITE DOOR ‘School Days’! It turned out quite nice and I released it as a B-side as you know. Everything on that is the Jupiter 6, also a DAILY PLANET song on the ‘Play Rewind Repeat’ album called ‘Drown’, everything is the Jupiter 6 except for the bass which is a Pro-One.
You mentioned about how you saw the cover for Howard Jones ‘New Song’ when you were younger, but at the time of DAILY PLANET’s first album, you had very long hair… often that’s not a fashion requisite associated with synths? *laughs*
I probably didn’t want to be like everyone else, I started to grow my hair long when I was 14 years old, at first I had “synthpop” hair with everything standing straight up! Then I grew the hair from the neck like Nik Kershaw and then I grew it all very long, I think it was down to my waist at its longest!
Were you a rocker?
I had a time in a rock band when I was 16-17, more a pop rock band like TOTO! I’m not ashamed of it! *laughs*
It was good music, I feel stronger about this now when I heard Daniel Miller in an interview and he admitted he was a big fan of TOTO! If he can admit it, I can!
Of course, Daniel Miller had quite long hair when he started making music with synths…
… it’s the interest on TOTO that does it! *laughs*
So saving money on hair conditioner has enabled you to buy more synths? *laughs*
That is true! *laughs*
Next card, it’s the ARP Odyssey…
I have the reissue from Korg and I use it quite extensively. It’s the same as with the Jupiter 6, it has a sharp edge to it and this Korg one has all three filter types that it was released with. The first is a two-pole filter which is very crispy and has a lot of higher frequencies coming through. It can do everything from bass to percussion.
So when you buy a synth, are you influenced by the bands they are associated with?
I’m sure I am… for example to me, the Jupiter 8 IS Howard Jones and the Pro-One IS Vince Clarke, he basically built an album around that synth.
The Odyssey I know Billy Currie of ULTRAVOX used it a lot but so did KRAFTWERK. So yes, to a certain extent.
Do you use the mini-keyboard on the Korg ARP Odyssey reissue or do you MIDI up another full-sized keyboard to it?
I have very few modules, most of my synthesizers have keyboards because when I create sounds and write music, I like to play the instrument I’m programming. So for that, mini-keys are fine but I would probably not bring it out to play live, I would miss a few notes here and there because it’s too small. I would have preferred a full sized keyboard but this was not an option on this reissue by Korg and I’m not prepared to cough up the money for an original one, or the FS version of the reissue.
Was the acquisition of so many synths what led to you building a new studio, or was it to allow for expansion possibilities in the future?
We actually bought a new house so we moved, and one of the rooms in the basement of this house was everything I needed to build a studio, it just needed a new floor, some paint and acoustic panels. The old one was getting a bit cramped so it’s nice to have a bigger studio and in this one, I can have a lounge with a sofa and table, so it’s a much nicer working environment.
The next card is the Korg 800DV…
It’s a good looking one with lots of wood on the sides, but I have no relation to it.
You said your B-side ‘Synth Is Not Dead’ was sort of tongue-in-cheek?
That’s true, I did it for fun which is why it wasn’t put on any album. On the other hand, I think it turned out quite nice so that’s why it came out as a B-side digitally. And thanks to you, some people seem to like it! *laughs*
Next card… oh, here’s an Octave Kitten!
I remember the Octave Cat was a competitor to the ARP Odyssey, I think John Davies from WHITE DOOR still has a Kitten, he used that on the demos for the ‘Windows’ album.
You mentioned the Octave Cat was a competitor to the ARP Odyssey, it had basically the same circuit design!
Yeah, it was a rip-off! That was the Behringer of its day! *laughs*
I think it’s quite interesting how there is so much litigation with song copyright now, but in the synthesizer world, copying is common, even back in the day. Like the circuitry for the Simmons SDS-V was based on the ARP 2600… any thoughts on this modern day cloning thing like with Behringer?
I’m having a hard time with this cloning of everything. If you take the Simmons example, if it’s a total rip-off, then that’s not a nice thing to do because there was probably some patent, but on the other hand, that was a drum module so it’s different from a synthesizer, so perhaps that doesn’t matter.
What Behringer is doing, I suppose it’s positive for people to buy synthesizers which are now largely unobtainable. I mean if you want to buy a vintage Minimoog, it costs a fortune, something like £4000 but a Behringer clone, which from what I heard sounds quite close, is what £250? *laughs*
On the other hand, it’s not their products, they “stole” it! But the patents are free, it’s nothing illegal, it just comes down to ethics and morals. Everyone has to make their own decision as to whether to support it or not, but I can see myself buying Behringer. I haven’t yet but if they do release an Oberheim OBX-a clone and it sounds as it should, I can’t see myself resisting! *laughs*
Talking of American synths, the next one is the Prophet 5…
That’s an icon, probably the one that has meant the most as far as how synthesizers look and behave today. The Minimoog was the first, but the Prophet 5 with its architecture, memories and five octave keyboard, the sound of it was amazing. Now you can get the new Prophets which sound pretty much the same and can do much more, so it’s still relevant after all these years.
I’ve never had one myself, I played it once or twice. I don’t think I would get one now as they are so expensive and I have the Prophet 08, and if I want to come even close to that sound, I can get the Prophet 6. It’s a beautiful instrument to look at as well, it’s a fantastic design in my eyes.
The next card is the Pro-One, tell us about your relationship with it…
I haven’t had my one for too long, I bought it in 2014 and I still can’t understand why I didn’t get one sooner, I should have had one in the 80s. It’s probably my favourite synth, at least my favourite monosynth. It sounds amazing and has superfast envelopes which make perfect bass and percussion sounds, sharp blips and blops, y’know *laughs*
It’s got a great modulation matrix, if you compare it with the Minimoog for example, you can do much more with a Pro-One. It’s always a reward to programme it because whatever you do, it sounds great. But the build quality is so-so, it’s quite plastic and the knobs are a bit flimsy, it’s not built like a tank, it’s more like a Trabant! *laughs*
It’s interesting that you mention the build quality of synths, a lot of these machines are quite fragile and not built to be taken on the road. But one vintage synth which is still around now that tends to end up on stage is the Roland Juno 60. Why do you think that one has been able to survive the years better than any others?
I think the reason the Juno 60 still gets used on stage is because it is quite stable as it uses DCOs. With a Jupiter 6 or Jupiter 8, temperatures can mess up the tuning. It was built very solidly, they seem to stand the test of time and it’s not like the Juno 106 which has these chips which go bad after 30 years. I’ve used my Juno106 live a few times, it’s no problem but you’re right, you see the Juno 60 more.
Another card, it’s a Korg Trident…
Oh! I had one! It’s quite a strange synth, because it’s three machines in one, a polysynth, a string machine and a brass machine, which you could combine. It had very fat sounds coming from it, it was huge and looked very powerful, I loved the way it looked. I got it very cheap after the first DAILY PLANET album ‘The Tide’, but I never used it on any records as it had no MIDI; as I sequence everything, MIDI is quite important for me.
Someone offered to trade it with me for a Roland D20!! It was not great but at least it had MIDI, so I traded it! I think you’d get £80 for a D20 today whereas a Trident gets £2500 so it wasn’t my best decision! I regret it still today, I wish I still had it and have been looking for one. Perhaps Behringer can clone one for me *laughs*
So synths that don’t get used much get traded in?
Not today, but back then I had no money. I could have installed a MIDI kit for the Trident but would have cost me £300 which I didn’t have because I was young and unemployed.
So the only thing that made sense was to trade it for something I could use. A few of my synthesizers are not used very much but I don’t trade.
Saying that I did trade a Micro-Korg which I had not used for three years, although it was on ‘Synth Is Not Dead’ for the vocoder, that was probably the only time I recorded with it. I posted up on a Swedish synth forum and got offered a Roland JV1080 and P330 piano module, now I haven’t used them for two years, it’s probably time to trade those as well!
The Electricity Club can’t imagine you using piano sounds much, but is that a possible direction for the future?
On the new WHITE DOOR album, there are a few piano sounds while on my latest album ‘Utopia’, they are on the cover song I did ‘Into The 80s’, there’s a CP70 type sound low in the background of the middle. But you won’t hear anything like CHICAGO piano! *laughs*
OK, the next card which will lead an interesting discussion, it’s the Moog Prodigy…
I’ve never had one but I’m told it’s great, it’s pretty much a slimmed down Minimoog with two oscillators instead of three, everything from Moog is great in different ways, because the newer ones are not the same as the older ones, but if I had to choose, the older Moogs are the ones that sound the best, Howard Jones, Vince Clarke and DEPECHE MODE use it…
Now this is where we’re going with the conversation. So the Moog Prodigy was the one that Fletch was “seen” with in early DEPECHE MODE videos and TV appearances, he later moved onto the Moog Source. So did you have any feelings or thoughts about Martin Gore getting the Moog Innovation Award?
I saw you had a rant about that! I best be quiet about it *laughs*
I actually don’t have an opinion. Exactly what that award is meant to represent, I’m not sure…
That’s The Electricity Club’s point, Martin Gore was never seen with Moogs, we could understand Gary Numan getting the award. We don’t question his ability as a songwriter during the imperial phase of DEPECHE MODE, but he was NEVER the synth innovator in the group, so we struggled with the title of that award; if it was a Moog Songwriter award, it would be different. The synth innovators in DEPECHE MODE were Vince Clarke first, and then Alan Wilder…
I agree, those Martin Gore song demos that leaked out, it’s not synthesizer virtuoso stuff so he is not the innovator, sound wise. He was a genius with his songwriting and one of the best there ever was, so what the hell? He can have an award just for the songs. But as an innovator, Alan Wilder would deserve it more, but more so Vince.
You recently covered DEPECHE MODE ‘It Doesn’t Matter Two’? Why that song and particularly a Martin Gore voiced one?
That is one of my all-time favourite songs and this will make me sound cocky, but the arrangement on the original is a shame, it’s such a great song but it’s got this silly “bop-boop-bop-boop” arrrangement. They could have done so much more with it. I guess I don’t like that kind of vocal sampling which they built it around. So my cover is what I wanted it to sound like, it’s an amazing song… that shows you how good it is if I can keep listening to it even though I didn’t like the original arrangement and production.
Did you do ‘It Doesn’t Matter Two’ because your voice is more Martin Gore’s key than Dave Gahan’s?
No, but you’re right, I’m more in his key than Dave’s, I just love the song and had this idea for a new arrangement, I think it turned out quite nice. I was asked to do a DM cover for a Swedish podcast called ‘Blå Måndag’, so I decided to do this one since it´s been one where, after a few beers, me and my friends use to singalong and do harmonies to by the piano!
And the next card is a Korg MS20…
Another classic! I have the reissue, it was one of the first I bought when I started rebuilding my collection back in 2013, I’d sold everything I had back in the 90s to go to software. After that, I got a Prophet 08 and a Moog Little Phatty. I still use it a lot but less with this recent album, probably because I had more synthesizers to choose from.
It’s good for noise effects, it’s got a great filter for bass and percussion sounds like on ‘Nobody’s Friend’ from the second DAILY PLANET album and ‘Talking In My Sleep’ on my first solo album. However, the envelopes are too slow for really good snappy bass and percussion. I think the Pro-One has a better low-end and has more powerful oscillators. With the MS20, I use the ring modulator a lot for metallic sounds, I used it for hi-hat type sounds.
How did you find your first ever UK gig at Synth Wave Live 3?
It was nice, the people who were there were very dedicated. I was very thankful for all who came to see the show.
It also saw you on stage with WHITE DOOR, you’ve joined the band now and there is a new album?
I hadn’t met the WHITE DOOR guys before, they’re really nice chaps and to have them do the show with me was a bit surreal as I was listening to them when I was a teenager. It was hard to imagine then I would be on stage with them! It was good but we hadn’t rehearsed so it probably could have been a more perfect performance, but I think people enjoyed it and we had a really fun time.
WHITE DOOR sprung from a prog rock band called GRACE who they still perform as, and a live video that came from a recent festival was fascinating, they were doing this track called ‘The Poet’ which started like WHITE DOOR, then mutated into GENESIS and before you knew it, it had turned into JETHRO TULL! *laughs*
Yes, there is the same “melody language” (as we say in Sweden) with WHITE DOOR and GRACE, although they are very different bands.
I would think that a lot of the way WHITE DOOR turned out is partly thanks to producer Andy Richards who later worked with FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD and OMD, he was the machine wizard. The demos for the ‘Windows’ album were electronic and John Davies had synthesizers but there was also guitars and real bass.
How is the WHITE DOOR album coming along?
It’s coming along nicely, it’s been a slow process but we almost have enough material for an album. I’ve played a few tracks to close friends who love WHITE DOOR and they say it sounds like WHITE DOOR. Now that’s important, when DAILY PLANET reunited in 2014, my plan was that we should not try something too modern, what people wanted was DAILY PLANET to sound like DAILY PLANET. The same approach is what I’m doing with WHITE DOOR although it will sound fresh and be better sounding because of the technology, but there will be a clear connection to the old stuff.
The final card is an ARP 2600…
I’ve never had one, my first connection with it was one of those early software emulations in the early noughties. It’s been used by a lot of artists that inspired me, Daniel Miller’s kick drum on the ‘Speak & Spell’ and ‘Upstairs At Eric’s’ is amazing, plus they also did the “voice” of R2-D2 with it!
But my friend Daniel Bergfalk who mixed my solo albums and joins me on stage sometimes, actually has two of TTSH clones and I’ve played a lot with that, it’s basically the same. It’s amazing and I will probably get one someday, but not an original and that would now cost the same as a car! Probably a TTSH although there are rumours that Behringer will be doing a clone!*laughs*
You’re performing at Pop+Synth Festival in Copenhagen this November with SOFTWAVE, TRAIN TO SPAIN and OCTOLAB?
I’ve never played in Denmark before so it’s gonna be great to enter a new market live.
Why do you think Denmark seemingly has not had an interest in electronic pop in the way neighbours like Sweden, Norway and Finland have?
There never has been, all the acts I know from Denmark are rock like GASOLIN’ but then, there’s not such a big music scene there at all, I can’t even think of many Danish bands in any genre…
The Electricity Club knows one and that’s LUKAS GRAHAM, f***ing hate that song ‘7 Years’! Such inane childish lyrics! *laughs*
I don’t know them! It sounds horrible!
Oh and there’s TRENTEMØLLER who has been featured on The Electricity Club…
TRENTEMØLLER is Danish? I thought he was Norwegian! *laughs*
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM
Some might say JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM has already found his utopia with his fabulous collection of synthesizers at his studio in Örebro, Sweden.
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.
Taking time out from preparations for upcoming live appearances in Europe, JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM kindly spoke to The Electricity Club about the making of his ‘Utopia’.
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.
Despite its title, ‘Utopia’ as an album appears to have darker, more worldly matters in its heart after the escapist optimism of ‘Like Before’?
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.
‘I Can Read Your Mind’ almost goes full YAZOO?
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…
Melody is still the key in your work, do you have any views on other forms of electronic music like dubstep or EDM?
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.
What inspired the PCB derived graphic artwork for the album?
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.
What are you up to next?
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
In 2015, ace Swedish synthesist Johan Baeckström made a call to arms, declaring that the ‘Synth Is Not Dead’. And now in 2018, he presents his ‘Utopia’.
Baeckström first came to prominence with DAILY PLANET, the synthpop duo he formed with Jarmo Ollila who released their debut album ‘The Tide’ in 1996. After a hiatus of 18 years, they returned with the album ‘Two’ while Baeckström began a parallel solo career a year later.
Titled ‘Like Before’, his album captured the synthpop prowess of Vince Clarke at his finest, while adding that melancholic but uplifting Scandinavian vibe, particularly within the environmental message of the title track and brilliant songs such as ‘Running Away With Me’, ‘Come With Me’ and ‘Tonight’.
While Baeckström’s vocal capability recalled Andy Bell, the appeal of ‘Like Before’ wasn’t so much because it sounded like classic ERASURE, but down to the brilliance of his songwriting and the engaging qualities of the long player’s synthtastic production.
But from the off starting with the ‘Utopia’ title song, the first impression that comes across on this sophomore offering is things are a slight bit darker and grittier. Despite that, there’s a rousing chorus and percolating sequences to savour as Baeckström points out the futility of seeking that perfect future.
Brighter pacier electronic tones make their presence felt on ‘Homeless’, although the metaphoric possibilities of the title reflect on the gloomier uncertainties that currently embroil the world. A near namesake of the DEPECHE MODE hit, ‘The World Through Your Eyes’ utilises a synthetic noise backbone in a steadfast tempo that has weightier thoughts and deeper resonances emanating from its core.
Continuing those deeper resonances, ‘Better Stories’ uses minimalistic expression at its heart, allowing Baeckström’s soulful vocal to shine before a multi-layered build as per the Altered take on DEPECHE MODE’s ‘Any Second Now’.
But the mood takes yet another turn when ‘I Can Read Your Mind’ delightfully goes into full YAZOO mode with its melodic circuitry and precise digital drums.
Imagining a dream collaboration between Vangelis and Vince Clarke, ‘Cassini’ is a wonderful instrumental that is swathed in filmic intrigue. And without a vocal present, it showcases that like Clarke, Baeckström has a place for every single musical part where individual lines and counter melodies give the impression of chords and sweeps for a spacious end result.
Adopting a more frantic pace, Baeckström rallies everyone to ‘Ask Them Why’, while ‘Blood Red Moon’ is understandably sombre as he bids his goodbyes to a loved one, despite some sonic sweetening.
An orchestrated sequence of synths, influenced at points by Wendy Carlos, takes proceedings ‘Into The 80’s’ with Baeckström’s post-modern take on Canadian rocker Nick Gilder’s 1979 thoughts on that future decade.
The bouncy ERASURE-ish superpop of ‘Silence’ pleas for restraint despite the party atmosphere, highlighting the contrast of light and shade that lingers simultaneously throughout this ‘Utopia’. Closing with ‘Blinded’, the soaring swaying ballad lets a young choir girl named Lina innocently offset the drama of its electronic interplay.
In hard times, people get nostalgic and through its composition of sound, ‘Utopia’ does as the ninth track suggests and makes references to the past. However, whereas ‘Like Before’ was very much about escape embroiled in optimism, ‘Utopia’ is much more of a reality check, darker and perhaps less immediate, but still pristinely crafted and textured. For all that, the spirit of ‘Utopia’ is hardly ‘Black Celebration’, although it adopts its attitude of being realistic rather than pessimistic.
Johan Baeckström uses his many analogue machines to turn his well-written songs into appealing and emotive synthpop, proving indeed that the synth is not dead. This is a fine and accomplished second album by the man from Karlskoga that gets better with each listen.
Instruments used on ‘Utopia’: Akai AX-73, ARP Odyssey, Arturia Minibrute, Crumar Bit One, Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08, DB Noise Can, Korg Mono/Poly, Korg MS-20, Korg Volca Bass, Moog Little Phatty, Minimoog, Roland Jupiter 6, Roland Juno-106, Roland SH-09, Sequential Circuits Pro-One, Waldorf Streichfett, Yamaha DX7 and Yamaha CS-10