TORE JOHANSSON: Recording The Cardigans 'My Favourite Game'

Interview | Producer

Published in SOS March 1999
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

The Cardigans are the biggest thing to come out of Sweden since, er, Ace Of Base, and their recent hit 'My Favourite Game' represented a successful change of musical direction. Sue Sillitoe tracks down their regular producer Tore Johansson in his Country Hell studio to talk about how the song was put together. Research by Matt Bell.

Myopic record companies who can't see the value of long-term artist development should stop to consider the career of The Cardigans. Now on their fourth album, the band are currently Sweden's biggest music-industry export earner, and have proved beyond doubt that the only way for a record company to transform a local act into an international one is to give it time to evolve and develop. The Cardigans' current status also, however, owes a great deal to another long-term relationship -- with producer Tore Johansson, who has produced all of the band's records since discovering them five years ago.

Since the release of their debut album, Emmerdale, in 1994, The Cardigans have earned the respect of fans all around the world with a combination of extensive touring, heavy record company promotion, and a good old-fashioned string of cracking singles, including the UK number two hit 'Lovefool' in 1997. Their latest album, Gran Turismo, has sold 800,000 copies since its release last October -- and that's without taking America into account, where the album has not yet been released. 'My Favourite Game', the first single from the album, went to Number 14 in the UK charts and is still, five months after its release, a frequently heard favourite on radio and (as background music) on TV.

Gran Turismo -- The Background

The first three Cardigans albums were recorded at Tore Johansson's Tambourine Studios in Malmö, Sweden (see the 'Malmö Swede Preachers' box). Recently, however, Johansson has developed a second studio, the eccentrically named Country Hell, in a large house in Skurup, about half an hour outside Malmö, and it was here that 'My Favourite Game' and the rest of Gran Turismo were recorded.

"Country Hell was built as a studio and I live in part of the house," says Tore Johansson. "We have one analogue studio, two Pro Tools stations and a vocal studio with a Fostex D160 16-track hard disk recorder. The studio's name started as a joke -- it was actually the name of a B-side on an early Cardigans single, but we adopted it officially."

The music for Gran Turismo was composed by Cardigans founder member and guitarist Peter Svensson, while the lyrics were written by singer Nina Persson and bassist Magnus Sveningsson (the band's other co-founder). Before going into the studio Svensson had written seven songs in a month, but he had no lyrics. He apparently expected to be in Country Hell for about a month. Unsurprisingly, the project ended up taking longer; it began on May 15 and was completed on July 15.

New Directions

In an interview on the Cardigans' official web site, cardigans.net, Nina Persson speaks of the band's need to change and seek out a new direction prior to recording the new album, and Peter Svensson describes

"I used fairly normal miking for the drums -- apart from one mic, which I put in an upside-down plastic wastepaper basket in front of the kit, with lots of compression. We used that trick on several tracks, to get that boomy pumping sound."
the result of this rethink as a "more serious" album than their previous releases. Certainly Gran Turismo's lyrics are much darker than those of previous Cardigan albums, but as drummer Bengt Lagerberg asserts in the same interview, the album also has a more modern sound than earlier offerings, as it incorporates drum and guitar loops, where their sound had previously been fairly retro.

Perhaps the most important catalyst for change in the recording process was effected by Tore Johannson's acquisition of a Digidesign Pro Tools system; this was subsequently used as the main recorder throughout the making of the album, and therefore on 'My Favourite Game'. "Before Gran Turismo I was working strictly analogue," he explains from Tambourine Studios, "but in May of last year I checked out the new Pro Tools 24 and decided that finally the system was good enough for a try-out and, as a hard disk editing system, came with a lot of possibilities that I didn't have with analogue. As we wanted a heavier, tighter sound for the new Cardigans album this came at the right time. All the drums and some basses and guitars were done on 2-inch tape, but the rest we recorded direct to disk."

Tore admits that the new method of working gave him one or two near heart failures. "I wasn't used to working with computers, and one morning, halfway through the recording, I couldn't find the music. Finally I found it hidden on a hard disk, but it was a couple of scary hours!"

Games & Pastimes

The starting point for the production of 'My Favourite Game', like all the other tracks on Gran Turismo, was no different from that of any other Cardigans album, as Tore explains -- no demos were recorded prior to coming to the studio. "With The Cardigans we always start from scratch," he says. "It's very rare that they

  Malmö Swede Preachers -- Tore Johansson & Tambourine Studios  
  Tore Johansson started his career as a musician. He says, "I began by writing songs and playing guitar and bass in different bands from pop to funk. I wanted to learn how a studio worked so that I could record my own material. I'm still trying to work with my own material, but all this producing other acts comes in between!"

In 1991, Johansson teamed up with three members of Swedish indie band Eggstone to record their Shooting Time EP. Eggstone had already decided they wanted to record an album -- but not in an ordinary studio. Johansson was also interested in setting up his own place, and a week later he heard that a studio in Kivik was selling its equipment -- a 24-channel Amek desk, rumoured to have belonged to Manfred Mann, and an MCI 16-track 2-inch analogue recorder. They found a home for the new studio in Malmö and, three months later, opened Tambourine. As the studio was not commercial, the owners needed cash to run it and set up The Preachers, a party band covering '70s disco hits, to provide the finance. The Preachers were very popular around Malmö until they disbanded in 1994, due to the mounting commitments of running both Tambourine, and, subsequently, the record label set up by the Tambourine team in 1995 -- Vibrafon Records (see web site at www.vibrafon.se).

After the release of the Eggstone album In San Diego, various bands and musicians began to send demo tapes to the studio, and among these Johansson found The Cardigans, and invited them to the studio to work with him. In 1997, St Etienne also recorded their most recent album Good Humor, at Tambourine with Tore producing. The main facility in Malmö is now superbly equipped with a variety of gear including a 1972 Neve S16:4 desk, an MCI JH16 2-inch multitrack tape recorder, Sony A6 DAT and PCM R300 DAT machines, Altec Lansing 19 and Tannoy SRM 10B monitors, Pro Tools hard disk editing systems, various compressors and limiters including a Neve AM6/17, a Urei LA4, DBX 166, Telefunken, Dynamite and Valley People, a wide selection of microphones and plenty of effects including a Stocktronics RX 4000 plate reverb, an Eventide H910 Harmonizer, and Telefunken V76 and V76/80 tube preamps.

 
have played the songs together before we go in to the studio." Tore's initial encounter with the track was therefore when Peter Svensson played it on an acoustic guitar.

"Initially, we decided that it would just be another album track, not a single. The first plan was to do it slow with a kind of Neil Young, Harvest shuffle feel to it," Tore explains. "We tried that out with the drummer Bengt and recorded a drum track. It worked, but it was a bit dull, so we decided to try a more 'rocky' feel, which was something we had discussed when we were planning this album -- at that stage the band had already identified that they wanted a much more rocky feel throughout."

Around this point, the band came up with the distinctive guitar hook that makes the track so infectiously catchy -- and straight away it became a prime single candidate. "As soon as we had the guitar hook there, we knew," says Tore. Recording then commenced in earnest, with the drums going down first, to 16-channel 2-inch tape, as Tore is a fan of the effect of analogue tape compression on drums.

"Peter played the guitar to guide Bengt, and we kept the beat very stiff and rocky. I recorded it in a dry room -- at Country Hell we have a nice '70s-style very dry room which is good for disco and reggae. I used fairly normal miking -- Sennheiser 421s and a Neve 33122a preamp -- apart from one mic, which I put in an upside-down plastic wastepaper basket in front of the kit, with a lot of compression on it. Bengt also had closed drum heads on both sides of the bass drum, which was important for the sound. We used the wastepaper-bin trick on several tracks in the end, to get that boomy pumping sound."

Johansson can't recall who came up with the idea of blending the fast verse with the slow, bass-heavy chorus arrangement in which Lagerberg's drums run at half-time. All he remembers is that everyone agreed it would be too much to have the chorus in rock style as well, so the half-tempo chorus approach developed very naturally.

Having recorded Lagerberg's initial drum tracks, Johansson overdubbed a loop with a hi-hat recorded via the wastebasket, to "make it happen more". "The fast drum rolls were overdubbed to separate tracks on the analogue multitrack," he explains, "and the overall stereo feeling of the drums comes from having the live wastebasket on one side and the loop on the other. I kept everything as separate tracks, then transferred the drums into Pro Tools 24. Once there, we did a lot of drum editing. I didn't use timecode on the analogue tape, as it's easy to sync with careful digital editing -- and I never, ever use a sequencer to help rearrange or edit the drum tracks, because I don't like that way of working."

Now the serious Pro Tools work began, as Tore recounts. "After recording the drums, we immediately started recording the guitars dry to Pro Tools so that we could choose our amps later. This was where Amp Farm [Line 6's Pro Tools guitar amp emulation plug-in] came in useful. We didn't use Amp Farm on the hook guitar line, though -- it's heavily compressed and extremely EQ'd, with a band-pass filter a little below 1kHz. We also looped it to get that repetitive feeling. The sound just comes from the analogue compressors and EQs distorting, not Amp Farm."

While the band were playing around with the sound of the instruments, Persson went upstairs with a rough backing mix on the Fostex D160 hard disk recorder to do her vocals. Johansson says, "I used a Sennheiser 421 microphone again, and rolled off some of the bass on the vocals with the built-in filter on one of my mic preamps -- you need a lot of gain for Nina. Later, we transferred the vocals into Pro Tools and chose the best takes there."

Instrumentation & Post-Production

Some of the severe processing to which various instrumental parts were subjected is very apparent on listening to the finished track, as Tore explains: "The crispy electric guitar sound [on the left of the stereo spectrum] has trebly EQ and was run through a Vox AC30 emulation in Amp Farm. The strange guitar overtones that you can hear [on the right, particularly evident during the verses] is a fuzz guitar with the SciFi plug-in."

The super-distorted bass guitar, which is so fuzzy it almost sounds like a synth, was achieved by playing the bass straight into a Korg fuzzbox and then applying EQ. The other obvious instrumental contribution is the Hammond organ, played through a Leslie speaker with no treble rotor and mixed to sweep around the stereo spectrum.

'My Favourite Game' was edited and mixed at Country Hell. Johansson says that many little tricks were done in Pro Tools, such as the fat fuzzy bass line which slowly fades in during the final chorus, and the very end of the song, where the entire backing of the song cuts out, leaving the hook guitar loop sounding alone in true Butch Vig/Garbage style.

"All of the coda was put together in Pro Tools and in total the completed song used around 20 Pro Tools tracks," he adds. "I don't know if Pro Tools is the best system, but it sure has changed my way of working -- and what you get with editing and automation is far more important than what you lose in organic feel."

With the central role played by Pro Tools, the production of 'My Favourite Game' and Gran Turismo clearly encompasses different working methods than earlier Cardigans albums, and the record suceeds at being harder, rockier and darker, as the band had hoped. Nevertheless, as Johansson says, it's still very much a part of an ongoing, long-term development process, and embodies much of the same philosophy they've always had. "When I met The Cardigans I had just started working as a producer, and they didn't have a record deal at that stage, so our skills have developed in tandem. Our relationship works because I'm able to come up with new ideas at the right moment. I think many producers and engineers put down detail that doesn't matter in the end. If you keep it simple, it's easier to keep some distance to what you do."

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