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Universal Records is the NUMBER ONE independent record label in the Philippines. Bringing you quality music for the past 30 years, we are home to artists like: Jose Mari Chan, Gary Valenciano, Ogie Alcasid, Regine Velasquez, Lani Misalucha, Jed Madela, Christian Bautista, Jay R, Billy Crawford, Kris Aquino, Edu Manzano, Marian Rivera, Mark Herras, Nina, Ronnie Liang, Gail Blanco, Sam Concepcion. Our band roster includes: Parokya Ni Edgar, Kamikazee, Sponge Cola, Imago, Silent Sanctuary, Kenyo, Paraluman. We are equally committed to bring you exciting international releases covering various genres like pop, jazz, new age, classical, alternative, indie pop, rock, electronica, dance, r&b, and hip-hop. Name it, we definitely have it!

May 8, 2011

Pulse.ph | In Conversation with: The Radio Dept

by Aldus Santos
May 2, 2011
Photos from Pulse.ph

Before the throbbing opening bars of “Domestic Scene” kicked in at the Hard Rock Café in Makati, before the roomful of adoring fans swung and swayed to the band’s dream-inducing beats and swells and willowy croons, before the trio paraded their sonic wares onstage not so much to be heard but experienced and felt on the skin, The Radio Dept.—singer-guitarist Johan Duncanson, guitarist-bassist Martin Carlberg, and keyboards-and-samples guy Daniel Tjäder—sat at a long table in a Palanca Street bar with some music journos, finally lending names and faces to these sad-yet-strangely-danceable tunes. There is so much pigeonholing going on in the press about bands such as theirs—bands that really have many faces (from noise to twee and beyond) but seem to trumpet just one (whatever it is)—it’s tragic. Though the Swedish act still trudges on monotonous territory at times, one only needs to trace the arc they have traversed, from the relative straightforwardness of numbers such as “Keen on Boys” and “Where Damage Isn’t Already Done,” to the gear-shifting of pretty much all of Clinging to a Scheme. Their new, two-disc compilation, Passive Aggressive, apparently self-curated, is as good a sampler as any of how the band wishes to be represented, that is, midway between radio-friendly and left-of-field, “indie-as-fuck” artistic. The threesome, garbed in everyman wear—buttoned shirts, jeans, and the three-day stubble—got fielded questions about peripherals (e.g., their contributions to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette), but, also, things that really matter (e.g., how they choose to still record using “regular PCs” at home, sans engineer, roadie, and intervening producer).

The ice was broken early on when Duncanson shared a bit of trivia about the Coppola film, saying, “We hesitated for a little bit, because we thought we’d be [quite] associated with her, and not, you know, who we were as a band. So, we said, ‘If you can tell us what Bill Murray [told] Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation, you’ll get two songs instead of one.’” This author tried to ask what it was, naturally in vain. On the matter of their oft-debated affiliation with shoegaze (or, blech, dream-pop), meanwhile, Carlberg protested with a resounding “No!,” expounding, “Shoegaze is definitely something else to me. [Our music is] not what I think of when I think of shoegaze.” Duncanson chimed in, “I always say that we’re a pop group. Most bands will say this, I guess: you don’t want to label yourself too much, or narrow it down to a genre, because then you get trapped, and it gets boring. So we’re trying to bring in new influences all the time. Of course, there is a dreaminess to some of our songs; it’s just that I think ‘dream-pop’ sounds so, hmm, corny.”

It gets more interesting, of course, during several junctures. Martin would say he thinks the new record by a band he adores is “kind of lame,” and Johan would paint a not-so-flattering, almost-vitriolic portrait of their mother indie label. But, hey, we’re not a showbiz rag. The series of exchanges below transpired between myself and the band (different writers took turns talking, see).

Speaking of being conscious of this “smallness”—being a “small band”—didn’t you guys just come from Coachella over the weekend?

Martin Carlberg (chuckles): Yeah.

How do you feel about being booked in such huge festivals? And, also, the Arcade Fire just won a Grammy. How do you feel that matters in the scheme of things that are indie, as such?

Johan Duncanson: Well, to me, indie has always been about integrity. I mean, I wouldn’t mind if we sold a little bit more records. It’s hard to make a living as a band, but we just never want to compromise what we do in any way to “get there,” you know what I mean? So, yeah, I guess that’s why we want to keep things small: we want to be able to control every aspect of the band in the same way that it’s always been from the start. We still record everything on a regular PC at home. We don’t want to compromise anything [and have a] label, or a producer, even a manager or anything. Keep it small.

Don’t you think though that after the success of Lesser Matters you guys have gained traction, some sort of power I guess, such that you can dictate your creative output without being interfered on?

JD: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, to be honest, everything takes time; the band is getting slightly bigger all the time, and there are more and more things to do. Even now, it’s hard for us to find time to record new songs. I mean, we want to. For instance, one of the best things about being in a band is being able to come to a city like this to play. We really want to do that, but at the same time, it takes time from recording. We have to try to balance it. No one’s trying to tell us—well, a lot of people are telling us what to do. It hasn’t affected us yet, I think. We’re always afraid that it will. That’s a concern.

I’ve been looking up your gear—your live and your studio rig, basically—and I’ve encountered (accounts) of you not wanting to use certain things. It’s a curious thing, because Martin was (talking about recording), saying sometimes it’s about knowing what you don’t want to sound like, rather than knowing what you do want. Like, I read you’d rather not mix using Pro Tools and all those things. I guess you’re “anti-sheen” that way.

MC: They’re just tools, basically. I don’t mind Pro Tools or Cubase or whatever. They’re kind of complex now; takes a while to learn, and we haven’t gotten around to doing that. That’s basically it.

And you’re still against the idea of an outside producer?

JD: We like producing ourselves. [Doing that] would be like bringing in, like, a songwriter or a lyricist; it would be as weird as that.

Throughout the years, I noticed, Johan, that though the production and the mix of the rest of the instruments vary from era to era, if you can call it that, your voice is pretty much mixed and recorded the same way: with a lot of disembodiment and detachment, and with a lot of echo. Why is it that way? Is it just a sound you like? Does this stand for something? Like alienation?

MC: I never thought of that. But maybe (chuckles). Maybe you’re right!

JD: No, yeah, I mean, there’s some, like “Domestic Scene” for instance, [that’s] really dry; no effects or anything. It’s just the EQ that’s kind of weird to some people, maybe.

MC: The vocals are really hard, because that’s the instrument that you cannot change too much. I guess, when you record, you find a sound that you’re not annoyed hearing, and then you want to stay there for a while. [To JD:] You tend to do it that way, I think.

JD: Yeah. Every time we’re about to release something, I [feel like] I don’t like my voice very much. Martin always has to convince me, “It’s okay; it’s good.”

MC: It’s getting harder (chuckles).


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