The Forum: Peder Mannerfelt

Peder Mannerfelt
is undoubtedly one of the most unusual and illuminating figures in modern-day techno. As well as his relentless and playful solo productions, Mannerfelt has a history as a producer that crosses an axis all of his own. Before he began his own Peder Mannerfelt Records label and began to DJ and produce under his own name, he was one half of Swedish production duo The Subliminal Kid, who became best known for their inventive production work for some of the noughties finest indie crossover bands such as Blonde Redhead and Glasser and most notably, Fever Ray, the solo project of Karin Dreijer of The Knife.

Nearly a decade later and Mannerfelt, still based in Stockholm and now with a young family, was present undertaking production for Dreijer’s long-awaited and bombastic follow-up, ‘Plunge’. In the time since, his career has veered out of the last, golden embers of indie-pop and towards more experimental territory that nonetheless favours pleasure over self-indulgence. On a pair of albums in 2018, ‘Controlling Body’ and ‘Daily Routine’, he playfully nudged at techno’s template and ended up with a thunderous banger in the form of ‘Sissel & Bass’, then remixed to festival-shaking perfection by Perc.

Mannerfelt has a broad collection of creative allies across the world. He has been working with Malcolm Pardon as Roll The Dice since 2007, and more recently with a long-time friend and father of Swedish techno, Pär Grindvik, under the guise of Aasthma. Blessed with a youthful energy and curiosity that befits the most entertaining and humble figures on the scene, Mannerfelt’s career has been an ever-unpredictable ride guided by passion, instinct and a respectable degree of playful fucking around.

As such, on the back of a staggeringly massive, equally weird new EP on Karren’s VOAM label, Mannerfelt made the ideal guest for the latest in our ongoing interview series, The Forum. He spoke to John Thorp on a beyond drizzly afternoon in Berlin, reflecting a decade on finding his extremely unique groove, proving perhaps that nothing better prepares you for a lifetime in dance music than a year stuck on a military vessel listening to Aphex Twin.

I was aware of you and the Subliminal Kid stuff as I liked Swedish indie pop records and bands. Was your involvement in that world, which feels removed from electronic music, a sort of mistake? Or did you get into electronic music in parallel?

It was kind of in parallel, because when I was growing up, I played in bands and stuff. And I was always into electronic music, but nobody I was friends with were doing it at all.

Was the club scene in Sweden at the time dwarfed by the live scene?

It was actually quite a good club scene. But I guess it hadn’t become omnipresent, it was a very niche thing. I grew up playing metal and hardcore. And the band The Shout Out Louds, that old band are my old mate’s older siblings, they went to school with my sister. And I helped them out when I had finished school, as I had done a six-month course in audio-engineering.

Did you get good at that fast?

No, not at all, but I was the only one who had access. A guy who played drums in our band had a copy of Pro-Tools set up. So I got to go into his basement and recorded his first demo there, as I was the only person with the means to do that. So it was happening in parallel, but I already wanted to go somewhere else.

And you were in the navy, too. How old were you for that period?

After school, so nineteen or twenty. And it was horrible, just so boring. And military service back then was semi-compulsory. I didn’t really have a plan after school finished, and it was fine, but the Swedish armed forces is not so much to write home about. I think it was massive in the sixties and seventies, as we weren't with NATO and stuff, but after that, they stamped it out. So it was kind of just a big charade. So I spent a year on the boat, and I hated every minute of it.

But you listened to music on the boat, presumably?

Exactly. The one album I listened to was Selected Ambient Works 2, by Aphex Twin. That was my escape.

And I guess that when you got back from that experience, you were keen to be creative?

The week after I got back, I had the chance to be an intern at this really commercial pop studio called Murlyn. That was the rival to Max Martin's studio, Cherion, who did all the biggest boy bands. So there was a lot of shitty stuff but there was Britney Spears, too. ‘Toxic’ was produced while I was there.

I have heard about your peripheral involvement in this. Is it true that you have a credit on ‘Toxic’?

Actually not on Toxic. There’s another track from that period that I got a credit on. I hated the music, but I wanted something out of it. I had to go in on a Sunday night in order to copy a DAT tape. So I said,  “I’ll do it, but I want a credit!”

That was quite bold of you…

Sure, but just for the fun of it. But it was quite an interesting see to take shape. In that house, there were five different studios with five different producers, each doing music. And the guys doing ‘Toxic’, they became Miike Snow, and I became mates with them.

But despite these connections, there was no temptation for you to head down a more mainstream pop route?

No. I was basically exclusively into Autechre back then. I only wanted to make the weirder stuff. But I hadn’t really found techno, at least not yet. I hadn’t really found the four-on-the-floor back then.

So what was the breakthrough that took you to the dance floor? I feel like the work you did as The Subliminal Kid is somehow between those dual worlds of dance, pop and experimental.

So, I worked there and just learned how to do music in their way. But I guess that I came from an indie world in that sense, but I was getting into techno more. But I met this guy called Henrik, who records under the name of Van Rivers. And he was in a similar situation as me, having played in bands and wanting to record techno and electronic music. So we decided to figure out together how to do it.

Good memories of that?

Yeah, absolutely. He, unlike me, was super-skilled. He learned how to do stuff in zero-time. He lives in New York now, producing other stuff, a little bit of everything. But we parted ways about ten years ago when he moved to the States. But we were doing more DJ gigs and wanting to do this, with no clue how to get into it. And then we met Pär Grindvik, who had a record store. And he is from the old nineties techno tribe, even when he was a kid. And by that time, perhaps 2006 or 2007, he was a bit bored of things in the techno scene and saw us coming with a certain energy level.

Coming in with the old blog house?

Blog house, yes, but more of a kind of a band energy. And he taught us so much. He started to help us out in order to make records and then put them out. And slowly, with time, myself and Pär basically formed a new relationship, which is still kind of expanding all the time. And it’s never been as strong as right now, recording and DJing as Aasthma. We both have young kids and are away on the weekends and kind of live on the same timeline. He lives here in Berlin and I live in Stockholm, but we chat all the time and basically keep an open-thread. Every track I produce goes through him.

So he’s still someone useful for feedback? Especially, I suppose, as he knows you and when best to push you?

Oh, absolutely. He can really build a techno track from it’s foundations and tell you exactly what is needed. And that’s where I still struggle.

But your skill, from my perspective at least, is a sometimes provocative but generally deconstructive mindset. Whereas he comes from a more ‘old school’, fundamental approach. So I imagine your angle is equally useful to him?

And also, we have this feedback loop. He’ll send me versions of tracks every ten minutes, just on the phone over iMessage. So, the new record on Vohm, he has been super-instrumental in that one, in pushing it to where it needs to be. In some ways, he’s co-producing it, I would say. But it’s nice to have that, because doing music alone is pretty hard.

We seem to be moving loosely chronologically, so let’s jump to you becoming a producer under your own name, Peder Mannerfelt. You then started a label, Peder Mannerfelt Recordings, with your name front and centre. Again, quite bold! And now, there are people signed there under your own name, like Herron, Clara Lewis, Machine Woman and Hodge. Are these people that share a sensibility worthy of your name, if you will? To me, that’s an offbeat approach and a strong sense of humour…

Yes, well, moving back to Henrik, we started doing our own music as The Subliminal Kid, but slipped into producing other people. Some of it was really cool, but we drifted apart musically and as I mentioned, he moved. So I was still in Sweden and figuring out how to make techno as I had wanted to do for such a long time. And around ten years ago, techno was really changing, just as it is right now. And I was kind of stuck, I didn’t know what to do. I was never satisfied with the music I had done on my own, and by chance, I had played some potential tracks to my friend Paul Purgas, from Emptyset.

And he went in and said, “OK, just mute everything except that one track, that’s it.” So this one, single track out of thirty-seven, he put it out, but he would only put records out by people releasing under their own name. So that’s how it came about. And I didn’t really understand that record. But it came out and it was really well recieved, and the techno people I was trying to appease while I was trying to ‘do’ techno, all of a sudden really loved it. So I went back and realised, “Oh, I’ve kind of found it now.” And setting up a label made sense, as I just had so many tracks after six months that I just wanted to get stuff out. And Par helped and still does the label management for me.

All the records I put out, there’s no proper plan with it. It’s just music that falls into my lap and I think, “Oh shit, I have to get this out there.”

I suspect it’s the connection that you get asked most about, but it would be remiss for me not to mention your work with The Knife and Fever Ray, especially, at this point. How instrumental were you in that project?

That was through Par as well! He lived in Berlin back then and was hanging out with Olaf quite a lot. So we did half of the first record as The Subliminal Kid, and Christoffer Berg did the other. And then a month later, Karin decided she wanted to take it on tour. And that was a big thing in Sweden, as The Knife infamously only ever did one tour. Karin wasn’t that comfortable on stage at all, so that was a huge thing when she decided she wanted to play it live.

Right, and that first Fever Ray tour, with the lamps and the lasers, was really something special.

That started with all of us in a basement, trying to do a few tracks. That tour was great fun as it grew exponentially. And the whole stage setup was to shield Karin, to make her feel comfortable. And that was extremely formative for me, getting to work with her and tour like that on a fairly big level.

Your music, and your approach to club music in particular, seems to me to be both sincere and ridiculous at once. Would you say your sense of humour is particularly Swedish? How would you define the Swedish sense of humour anyway?

I think it’s why Swedes and Brits go together so well, it’s very similar senses of humour. Not in all of Sweden, but you have to be a bit of an Anglophile to get all the references. Even if I’m taking the piss, it’s sincere, it’s usually pretty obvious. Take a track like ‘Sissel & Bass’,that was just ludicrous. With the sample that says “Bass”. That’s from an old hip-hop record, which at the end had lots of one-shot samples, like, “To the Batmobile, let’s go! Pump the bass!” I was just lying in bed with that sample in my head. And it usually doesn’t happen like this, but it just came to me, the riff of it. And I just came up with that silly title.

So, Sissel is another one of your collaborators, and ‘Sissel & Bass’, as well as the massive Perc remix, went on to be one of your ‘biggest’ tunes, people really responded to that sample. The first time I heard it, I thought it was a Peaches tune, actually.

I just sent that loop to her and asked her to sing or rap or do anything she liked over it. She asked what to write about, and I said, “Just big up yourself!” She recorded it in about forty minutes, just these detached phrases. And then Perc reached out to me to ask to do the remix, which was a great compliment. That track is definitely the biggest thing I’ve done, and some of the bigger guys at festivals smashed that track all summer.

Nonetheless, as far as I’m concerned, your ‘big record’ is ‘The Swedish Congo Record’ from 2015. For those unfamiliar, it’s essentially a ‘found sounds’ record of regional music from Africa, except you had re-recorded everything yourself, at home in Sweden. You talked about it a lot at the time, and I think it’s got even more relevant. What I think was bold about that record is that, when you have spoken about since, you expressed a desire to create debate and have perhaps been surprised that you didn’t take a bit more heat at the time, given ongoing discussions about appropriation in music. Do you think you would make that same album in the current climate?

I’m not sure I would have the guts to do it in the current climate. Because the climate has changed since then. I was not sure I was going to put out that record at all. Basically, long story again, but I had started buying all these records from around Africa, especially Central Africa, and I was obsessed with them, especially in terms of the rhythm. And I started to buy them basically in order to sample. But  I started to realise that it was too easy. I could take any random track from those amazing records and put a kick on it and it would be a smash. It was actually around the time that Henrik and I split up, creatively, and I thought it would be an interesting thing to take these records and try and make something interesting with it.

The album still sounds amazing, because the imperfections of it make it charming anew. Some of your interpretations of that sound are, to be blunt, fucking wonky.

The record I chose to cover was recorded in the Congo in the thirties, a byproduct of a semi-documentary about this couple driving a Chevrolet truck through Africa. They must have had a sound man with them who was especially into it and started recording. They did a a box set of these tracks, originally released in the sixties. And I figured they were among the more ambiguous records I owned, so it’d be easy to make something with them and get it out. But I ended up spending almost a year just working on that record. I’ve never spent so much time on something. And then I sat on it for over a year. On a few of those tracks, I literally couldn’t decipher the patterns of percussion. So I called up Lili, who plays percussion in Fever Ray and she came over and knew everything by heart, as she had studied that and it was classic patterns. So she just was able to bang out a couple of those in an hour.

I think perhaps the reason that you didn’t have a broader debate or get what might be known as cancelled now, is that people trust you. So next time, you just need to make something really offensive...

Hahaha. Yes, but my idea to go about making a record like that is to be really open about it. And I know my position as well as the history. I’m not saying this is a definitive answer, it’s a reinterpretation. I just wanted to do everything to the very best of my ability, even though I utterly failed in some respects. I can’t listen to the record, because I spent so much time, so many late nights just obsessing it. I also stumbled across this way to make my modular synths speak in vowel sounds. So all the vocal bits on it are totally synthesised, too.

Do you always become that obsessive when you’re creating music?

Yes, but that can just be on a day-to-day basis. And for a while, I was struggling with that, I was totally all over-the-place. I couldn’t connect the dots between things. But now, I quite like that!

Well, that approach seems to have worked out for you.

Yes, and I’ve fallen back in love with techno as well. Techno is a sustained format in one sense, but on the other hand, it’s constantly changing and reinventing itself as a genre. There’s always a new bunch of eighteen year-olds discovering it and giving it a new injection of energy. The new compilation on my label is just a collection of music people have reached out to me with. I didn’t even intend to release a compilation but it has just evolved. I’m still amazed at that. It’s such a small leap to get in touch with someone, but so special when you realise you share an ideal.

John Thorp, April 2020

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