An Inner View With Red Sleeping Beauty - Interviews - Soundblab

An Inner View With Red Sleeping Beauty

by Jeff Penczak Rating: Release Date:
An Inner View With Red Sleeping Beauty
An Inner View With Red Sleeping Beauty

Singer Kristina Borg, singing guitarist Niklas Angergård, guitarist Mikael Matsson, and bassist Carl-Johan Näsström formed Red Sleeping Beauty in Stockholm 30 years ago. Named after the second single (1986) by McCarthy (early project featuring future Stereolab members Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier), the band finally recorded and released it on their current (fourth) album, the brilliant Stockholm (Matinée Recordings). Early singles and EPs were spread across numerous international labels (US, Spain, Germany, Japan) before their 1995 full-length debut (Bedroom) appeared on German imprint Marsh-Marigold, supplementing re-recorded tracks from their self-released Bedroom cassette EP with three new songs.

Niklas and Mikael

The Soundtrack album followed two years on (via the Spanish Siesta and Japanese Quince labels, the latter appending the contemporaneous “Sick & Tired” EP), following which the band members moved on to other projects (Acid House Kings, Shermans, My Finest Hour, The Charade) save another one-off EP (“Single”) and the separate, self-explanatory Singles compilation in 2000, again on Siesta.

Following a lengthy (two decade!) break, three-quarters of the band reformed and released the well-received Kristina album, which found them signed to hometown Labrador Records. Sadly, the album’s namesake was undergoing treatment for breast cancer and was unable to participate fully in the recordings. Happily, that is all in the past now and Borg joined her band mates for full participation on one of this year’s finest albums, Stockholm, paying tribute to their hometown.

Jeff Penczak spoke with the Niklas and Mikael for the following look back at their long, varied, and adventurous career.

I’ve read several indications that the band formed in 1989, yet your first release (“Pop Sounds” mini album) didn’t come out until three years later on the German label, Marsh-Marigold. Did it take a long time to write your earliest songs or did you have the songs ready and it took a while to find a label to release them?

Mikael: The band started as a one-person project (myself). I listened to all this great pop music coming out on small labels and thought: I can do this. I had a 4 track portastudio tape recorder and a drum-machine. I recorded several songs and sent them to some Swedish music papers/fanzines. The first one was reviewed in 1989. If I remember correctly Niklas read the review and contacted me. He had just moved to Stockholm. He was also in Acid House Kings.

Niklas: True that. I think I had some early Red Sleeping Beauty demo tapes and when I moved to Stockholm I wanted to be in a Stockholm-based band, so I wrote Mikael a letter, which is fairly out of character for me.

What was it about that McCartney track that attracted you enough to name the band after it? In retrospect, it doesn’t seem to indicate the type of music you perform. To my ear, you seem more in tune with bands like Saint Etienne, Primitives, Strawberry Switchblade, and Bobby Wratten’s projects like Field Mice, Northern Picture Library, and Trembling Blue Stars.

Mikael: McCarthy was a big influence back then. I still think I Am a Wallet is a great album. I remember buying it and reading the lyric sheet while listening. Jangly guitars and smart political lyrics – that was something different. Also, the album art was by Georg Grosz whom I had made an essay about in school at the time.

When thinking of a name for the band, I thought of “Red Sleeping Beauty”. It just sounded good! It is maybe not my favourite song by McCarthy but it is my favourite band name based on a McCarthy song.

Who were some of the other bands that you enjoyed listening to at the beginning of your career that perhaps encouraged you to form a band and start recording? Were there other Swedish bands playing your type of music or did you listen mostly to British bands?

Mikael: There was 99% British bands. The only Swedish band that I liked was Happydeadmen. Most Swedish bands were into rock or goth, but Happydeadmen sounded like The Smiths. British bands related to Sarah Records and C86 were the main influences.

Mikael, you later formed The Charade with Magnus from Happydaydream. Was it almost a dream come true to be in a band with one of your heroes? Do you think perhaps you may record again in the future?

Mikael: I was a big fan of Happydeadmenm but I wouldn’t say it was a dream come true. Magnus was a friend and we shared musical ideas at the time and we worked well together. I don’t think we will record again.

The songs I’ve heard from the earlier releases have a light and fluffy pop sound similar to the twee pop of labels like Sarah. Did you consider sending demos to them or any other labels, or were you just happy to get your music out to the public and accepted offers from labels who were interested in releasing the songs?

Mikael: Since Niklas’ other band the Acid House Kings had released a single on the German label Marsh-Marigold, we also got the opportunity to release something on the label. I don’t remember sending demos to record labels. We never thought Sarah Records would be interested.

We contributed songs to a lot of compilation tapes/singles/albums, which obviously was a way to get label attention.

Your early material was released on many different international labels (Somersault, Grimsey, and Sunday in the US, Motorway in Japan, Siesta in Spain, the aforementioned Marsh-Marigold in Germany). How did you end up with so many one-offs on different labels? Was that by choice, or did the labels go out of business before they could release a second single?

Mikael: Most labels actually contacted us and asked if we wanted to do a release. Mostly it was for a 7” single. Siesta was the first label that was interested in doing more releases.

Were you familiar with some of the other bands on these labels and enjoyed their music?

We were familiar with the labels and listened to the other bands, so we were, of course, flattered when we got a chance to do a release for them as well.

Luckily for fans, many of the early singles were assembled by Siesta on the “Singles” compilation. After three years, you finally released a full length album. What is it about the single and EP format that attracted you to releasing all your early material that way? Were the labels not interested in committing to a full album or did you not think that the material held together thematically or stylistically to put it all together on an album?

Mikael: The small labels at the time mostly released singles. I think albums were more expensive and maybe a higher risk. Usually, the labels were run by one person.

Niklas: Releasing 7” singles was a very fun way to work. A label showed interest in releasing a single, we wrote and recorded three or four songs and then it was out. And wasn’t the 7” the thing at the time?

I also notice that a lot of the early tracks are very short – close to the 2-minute mark. Do you prefer to write them short and sweet or is that just the way they come out?

Mikael: Yes, we had an idea that the perfect pop song should not be longer than 2 minutes. The ultimate example was Primal Scream´s Velocity Girl clocking in at 1:22!

There’s also a homegrown, minimalist vibe to some tracks. Did you record them at home or in a studio?

Mikael: We recorded most of them in different studios, but they were done with a very low budget. Some songs were recorded on 4-track at home, but that was mostly the songs we used for compilation tapes.

Niklas: I think some of the homegrown vibes was due to the fact that we could not sing or play properly!

rsb smileThe Synthesizer starts to work its way into your music, percolating along quite giddily on the “Smile” EP (‘Don’t Say You Love Me’) and the “Popangelov” magazine cassette compilation (‘Selfish’ is quite like Lush to my ear!) Was that always something you wanted to incorporate into your music? Or did it seem to fit into the type of music that was popular in the 90s and you started to write more songs that incorporated the synth?

Mikael: In the ‘90s we wanted to be a jangly guitar pop band. My problem is that I’m not very good at playing the guitar. But we also listen to music that used synthesizers. I think both me and Niklas started out with listening to synth pop bands like Depeche Mode and Yazoo in the early eighties. This was before Sarah Records. Then came the Smiths and changed that.

Niklas: For the “Smile” EP, we for the first time got outside help with production. Mike Innes from They Go Boom!! did a great job on the EP and it’s the release that has best stood the test of time in my opinion. They Go Boom!! was a very synthesizer-based band, so that moved us in that direction.

When we reunited a few years back, we half-jokingly aimed at becoming the They Go Boom!! for the 2010s!

Several songs from your self-released “Bedroom” cassette are on the cassette that came with Swedish Popangelov magazine #3 and all of the tracks also appear on your debut album. Are these all the same recordings, or did you re-record the songs for the magazine or the album?

Mikael: I don’t remember now but I think we recorded them in a real studio for the album. The cassette versions might have been 4-track versions.rsb bedroom

Niklas: Fact for hardcore fans: ‘Bicycling’, the last song on Bedroom, is from a different recording session than the rest of the songs on the album. It was the fourth song from the They Go Boom!! sessions, but we did not use it for the “Smile” EP.

What do you mean when you proclaim that “Pop is talent, not skill!”? That there is more to writing a pop song than simply being able to play an instrument?

Mikael: Since none of us are very good at playing our instruments in a traditionally skilled way, we thought this slogan sounded good. We thought we made great songs but realised that maybe we are not the most professionally skilled players.

Niklas: It might even be true that if you are too good at singing and playing, you get too caught up in showing off when writing and recording songs. I watched Mandolin Orange live yesterday, though, and they could really sing and play, in a good way.

You also celebrate a lot of happy occasions in your songs (‘Christmas’, Merry Christmas, Marie’, ‘Happy Birthday’, ‘Summer Tells Stories’, ‘Summer At Its Best’, ‘Seasons Change’). Are you hopeless romantics or do you just enjoy writing upbeat songs instead of gloom and doom songs about politics or the condition of the world?

Mikael: The lyrics are by Niklas and Kristina. I think that the music we were listening to, Sarah Records, twee, and C86 was political, but most lyrics were not. I think we were more concerned with writing the perfect pop song.

Niklas: I think it’s fair to say we have overused the word “summer” a bit. That said, not all our lyrics are hopelessly romantic and in Stockholm, I think some of the more interesting lyrics are of a different school. Personally, my favourite phrase is the “Watching some Netflix, cooking with cake mix, so what?” one from 'Top Love'. I think it’s funny.

On the other hand, I also like the “The Swedish summer, it’s the best day of the year” one and that one ironically includes the word ‘summer’!

Perhaps ‘Popsongs’ best expresses your philosophy: “More pop songs/for everyone/more pop guitars/that's what we need”?

Mikael: Oh, those are actually my lyrics! I’m ashamed. That’s why I do not write the lyrics. :) 

Niklas: Ha ha!

After your second album, “Soundtrack”, there was a three-year delay before you released the “Single” EP along with a compilation of many of your singles, appropriately titled “Singles” (Siesta, 2000). Were you spending this time focusing on your other projects (Acid House Kings, Shermans), so Red Sleeping Beauty was finished? Or was it just put on hold?

Mikael: If I remember correctly I think we had broken up before the “Single” EP and Singles album were released. It was kind of a retrospective.rsb singles

Niklas: Let’s be open about the story! Mikael and Kristina broke up, so Red Sleeping Beauty was no more.

Many of the Acid House Kings songs sound like they could have been Red Sleeping Beauty tracks with Julia Lannerheim stepping in for Kristina.

Niklas: Maybe they sound a little similar, but for me, it has been fairly clear which songs fit which band the best. And with the new Red Sleeping Beauty songs, it’s even easier, since most of the songs are done in a very different way: Mikael records the basic music, I listen to it in the car stereo and write the vocal melody and lyrics. With Acid House Kings, it’s me and a guitar.

Same with The Shermans and The Charade with Mikael’s wife, Ingela.

Mikael: I started the Shermans after Red Sleeping Beauty broke up and Niklas had Acid House Kings in parallel with Red Sleeping Beauty. I think it is natural that there are some resemblances because it’s the same person doing the song writing. And I think that some RSB songs were first meant for Acid House Kings.

About 15 years later, three of the original band decided to reform around 2014 and recorded the “Kristina” album. What was the inspiration to resume the Red Sleeping Beauty project, and can you share why Carl-Johan decided not to join you?

Mikael: Niklas came up with the idea that we should try to do some new Red Sleeping Beauty songs. And we soon realized that it was fun to create songs again together and that they sounded better than ever. Carl-Johan did not have time to be part of the band because of full-time commitment to family life and kids.

Do you consider it a reunion or a comeback?

Mikael: Comeback!

Niklas: Both!

The experience has apparently been very positive, as you have now recorded a second album. Does this mean that your other bands are finished? Or are they on hold, possibly to return to at a later date?

Mikael: I don’t think AHK are finished. They seem to release an album every 5th year or so. The Shermans never officially stopped. Maybe we will return someday?

Niklas: Acid House Kings are very active… on social media! Joking aside, I am fairly sure that new Acid House Kings songs will see the light of day.

Mikael, is it difficult to be in a band with your wife and working in two different bands at the same time!

Mikael: We enjoyed being in a band together. But when I think of it, if we would start doing music together again it might be a better idea to start with a new name and musical direction. The reason for not being very active now in two bands is mainly because of lack of time. Work, family and taking care of the garden at our country house. :) 

The new albums bring the synthesizers to the fore and seem heavily influenced by a love of ‘80s synth-pop bands like Depeche Mode, They Go Boom!!, Erasure, Yazoo, Kraftwerk, Saint Etienne, Pet Shop Boys, et.al. Was there a conscious decision to focus on this style of dance-oriented music?

Mikael: Yes, when we started doing music again we didn’t want to do the same as before. We wanted to try something different. But I think you can still hear it is the same RSB.

Niklas: It was a very conscious decision. We actually recorded at least one song from Kristina in our old guitar / bass / drums style and it sounded spectacularly boring. Working in a new way is very energizing.

For example, I’m sure Vince Clarke must love what you did borrowing ‘Situation’ for the coda to ‘Top Love’? And I’m sure I hear Cher’s ‘If You Believe’ hiding inside ‘We Are Magic’! And is that a nod to Kraftwerk in those robotic voices in ‘New York City Girls’?

Mikael: Yazoo and Kraftwerk are influences and they tend to show up in our songs. I have not thought about Cher though.

Niklas: We use some virtual synthesizers on the album and one personal favourite is the U-he Repro-1. It has a pre-set that’s called “YazzLead”, which sounds exactly like Yaz / Yazoo, so I just had to use it! I remember Mikael not liking it at all at first!

I think the robotic voice is both a Kraftwerk and a Pet Shop Boys nod.

Last year you recorded a song for Sweden’s World Cup participation, ‘Dressed In Yellow and Blue’. Are you big football fans, or were you just happy to contribute to your label (Matineé)’s “World Cup” EP?

Mikael: The record label asked us if we wanted to contribute with a song. And the easy thing was to do a new version of The Charade’s old football song 'Dressed In Yellow and Blue'. I’m not a big football fan. I think maybe Kristina is the biggest football fan.

Niklas: Nah, not a soccer fan.

It has a wonderful, high energy melody. I can almost feel myself racing across the pitch while listening! Did any of the players (or the Swedish Football Association) hear it or provide feedback? Would have been nice to know if they played it in the locker room before the matches!

Mikael: Don’t think so. But the first version that I recorded with The Charade [for the 2006 World Cup] got a review in one of the big Swedish new papers and got top score.

You’ve written several songs about America (‘Florida’, ‘Don’t Cry For Me, California’, ‘New York City Girls’). Have you ever toured the U.S. and are these based on personal experiences, or are these fantasy songs about what you think these places are like?

Mikael: Would be fun to go to America. I have never been there. The lyrics are by Niklas.

Niklas: I have been to Florida, California, and New York, so the lyrics are not entirely fantasies. On the other hand, lyrics, at least mine, are to some extent always fictional.

You also tease us with some of your song titles and cover songs. I love the Stevie Wonder reference in the pun in ‘I Just Called To Say Jag Älskar Dig’ and, of course, The Smiths’ nod in AHK’s ‘Heaven Knows I Miss Him Now’. On your reunion/comeback album (“Kristina”), you record a song called ‘Always’, and on the new album you record a different song called ‘Always On Your Side’. You also recorded an early song called ‘For Fun’, but one of your first recordings, after you reunited, was a cover of Alpaca Sport’s ‘Just For Fun’ These are each different songs with similar titles, yes? Is this just coincidence or all according to a giant plan to confuse us, while having fun at the same time? In the event, perhaps all done “just for fun”?

Niklas: You missed that one of the tracks on the “Always on Your Side” EP is called ‘Tonight, Tonight, Tonight’, while a completely different song on our new album Stockholm is called ‘Tonight’. :)  Some of these are just pure chance, while others, like the Stevie Wonder and Smiths references, are very intentional.

Now that Red Sleeping Beauty is back in full force, do you hope the project will continue? Or are you all looking to return to your other projects? It seems there are still a few 12” remixes of your more danceable tracks waiting to get out on the dance floor and we can never have too many affectionate glances back at those wonderful 80s…from a 21stcentury vantage point, of course! So what is next for Red Sleeping Beauty?

Mikael: There will be some more singles from the album and a Swedish version of ‘Tonight’ called ‘Ikväll’. The original version of the song was in Swedish and I think it is even better than the English one.

Niklas: We will release another EP in June or July with one album track and three songs not on the album including a cover of one of the greatest Sarah Records songs. We are also contributing songs to upcoming Matinée Recordings and Sunday Records compilations.

 

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