Q&A: Tomas Barfod On Love Me, Assembling Albums Like Puzzles, And Bringing Humanity To Electronic Music
With his recent Pulsing EP, the upcoming album Love Me, and a Record Store Day single with Gruff Rhys, Danish musician Tomas Barfod has already compiled enough stunning material this year to comprise a greatest hits album, never mind that he’d already been responsible for so many fascinating sounds. As a solo artist, freelance producer, and drummer for the experimental pop trio WhoMadeWho, Barfod spent the past decade-plus exploring myriad ways to make melancholy people move their bodies. With this latest string of pop-minded, vocal-driven releases — many of them featuring Nina Kinert aka Nina K (pictured, right), who’s become an increasingly present collaborator — Barfod is reaching a new level of attention to match his music’s ever-increasing quality. He called from his adopted hometown of Los Angeles last week to discuss the vulnerability of social media sharing, the need for outside opinions, and the whimsical way his projects come together.
STEREOGUM: The title Love Me is really direct and vulnerable. Is that the desired effect?
TOMAS BARFOD: Yes. I saw it online somewhere, and it was just really a strong sensation. And that was how I started thinking about using it for the title. But in general, I think it’s just what everybody wants. I also want to be loved — that’s why you do what you do in life, I guess. So it’s a pretty common feeling. And besides that, I also think that times now, with all the social media, a lot of people want to be loved, and they post pictures and stuff like that. Generally, it’s a very common thing. Besides that, I just like that when you read it you feel something. It’s not just some random beautiful word for an album, it’s something that you relate to.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned people posting things on social media. Do you view sharing your music as a similar gesture?
BARFOD: Yeah, totally. It’s one big movement at the moment. Of course it’s going to change somehow and evolve into something else. But it’s all about exposure at the moment. And I’m not obsessed with the exposure game, but it’s obviously a part of my career, to expose myself. I’m not a teenager that’s posting half-naked pictures of myself to get likes or whatever, but I’m still updating my SoundCloud with new edits and stuff like that, giving my fans something special.
STEREOGUM: What were the circumstances behind making the album? Did you record it all in one place, or were you doing sessions in different locations?
BARFOD: Yeah, in general when I make music, especially for myself, I try to fit it together between other stuff, between touring and between other productions and stuff like that. So in the beginning it was maybe two days I tried to make something. Also it takes a lot of time the way I work with the features because I send tracks out to other people and I don’t hear from them for a month, and then maybe suddenly there’s a song for me. Sometimes they don’t deliver. I had a lot of different artists that didn’t deliver. So it’s like a big puzzle to make the album happen. That’s the way I’ve worked for many years. But on this album, I sat down for a couple of months in the studio and hired musicians to help me with some parts, stuff like that. So it was more concentrated than usual.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of sending out your music to different singers, almost every song this time has a guest vocalist. What moved you to go in that direction?
BARFOD: Like I said, it’s kind of a puzzle to make an album the way I make it. It’s very controlled but also very random. Obviously it’s me, and I’m the boss. It’s not like a band where you’ve got like five bosses. I’m in total control of the whole process. But still, it’s also random … how things end up with the vocals, because if a couple of people didn’t deliver, the album would have looked a bit different. So I just put my faith in the hands of Nina and somehow some great people made a lot of great vocals for me.
STEREOGUM: How do you decide which songs are going to get a vocal? Do you just send them all out and whichever ones people return to you, those ones get vocals, or are there certain ones that you know are going to be an instrumental?
BARFOD: Sometimes when I start making music there’s something that I really feel that would be great for Nina, and I try to push that to her, but she might return some other song that I maybe preferred as being instrumental, she might return that with a vocal on it. But it’s just a matter of getting the best out of the way I work.
STEREOGUM: Do you look for certain qualities in a vocalist? How do you decide which singers you’re going to work with?
BARFOD: In general it has to be people that I like, and I really need to connect to their music as well. But also I like to be getting some new inspiration and trying something out. For instance the Gruff Rhys song, he wasn’t the normal one I would have picked, but it made total sense when we did it. So it’s a big playground, and I see the vocalists as the X factor that can either kill a song, or maybe make it worse, or maybe make it better. That’s also why every time I get an email from Nina for instance and I can see that there’s an MP3 attached, I’m so excited, like I’ve won the lottery. I don’t know if it’s gonna be a really really bad vocal or if it’s gonna be my next single.
STEREOGUM: Nina especially is on a bunch of the songs. I understand she’s in your live show now too?
BARFOD: Ever since we made two songs together for Salton Sea, she’s been very close to me musically. I didn’t even meet her. We’d been emailing back and forth. And then in the process of making this album we finally met. We saw that we had never even talked on the phone. It’s really nice to hang out with her, and she’s going on tour with me.
STEREOGUM: So the show is going to be more of a live performance than a DJ set?
BARFOD: Actually at SXSW we did a DJ set with her featuring and edits of some of my songs that she wasn’t featuring on, she’d sit back for that part of the set. And then for festivals we’re going to have a solid live set — we’ve also done that before. We had musicians and everything. A lot of the music translates very well into a full band.
STEREOGUM: Two of my favorite songs that you’ve released this year are actually not on the EP, “Happy” and “True To You.” How did you decide what was going to go and the album, and why did those songs in particular get cut?
BARFOD: The thing is, especially when I make music, and especially when you are alone about the final decision, and not in a band, you get confused sometimes. You can stick with some really good songs that people are gonna like, but you don’t really know how it is yourself. I kind of felt like that with “Happy.” I spent a lot of time. First it was Eddie’s own original song, and then he asked me to help him produce it. I produced it once, and it wasn’t that good, but I kept coming back to that vocal for two years or something. Then I made a new production, and when I made it I was like, “Oh, this is the best song I’ve ever made.” And then a couple of months after I was like, “No, I don’t like it.” Then I skipped it, and it was just on my hard drive. My wife actually pushed me to send it to the label, and they loved it. But still I couldn’t really see if it was a good or a bad song. Some part of me liked it, but I was just confused. That’s what it’s like when you’re back and forth on a song for a few years, so I decided to put it on the EP instead. I wasn’t sure about it. And then I thought maybe it should be on the album. That’s just how it is. “True To You” is the same kind of story.
STEREOGUM: I’m glad they came out in some form.
BARFOD: It’s nice to have so much material, so you can tease a bit before the album, and still know that you have good songs left for the album.
STEREOGUM: One of the instrumentals on the album is called “Destiny’s Child.” What’s that all about?
BARFOD: I don’t know. Actually I saw another song called “Destiny,” and I thought the title was actually “Destiny’s Child.” I thought, “This is the best title because it also make you stop. It’s not a normal title for a song.” And that’s basically the story. Besides that, I’m actually a big fan of the band, so it makes sense.
STEREOGUM: Obviously you have a bunch of different projects. Do you see your musical output as one body of work, or are there some important distinctions to make between a solo album and a WhoMadeWho album and your other stuff?
BARFOD: In general, Jeppe [Kjellberg] from WhoMadeWho is a very close partner. He’s also been a big part of my album. We have a studio together, so this is kind of my base, our little production team. We share thoughts. It’s nice to have someone who you can bounce ideas off of. We help each other a lot in that way. At the moment that’s my setup. I think WhoMadeWho and my stuff are like two different concepts almost, and I try not to mix it up, even though Jeppe is a part of both. I just have a different mindset when I make WhoMadeWho. Even though it’s the same techniques, same computers, same sounds, it’s a totally different mindset.
STEREOGUM: Could you describe the mindset a little bit?
BARFOD: It’s like WhoMadeWho is a band first of all, and we have the two guys as singers, which gives some rules for what we can do. It’s like a democracy, and we have some rules that we obey. So even if we try a lot of things, there’s a bass player and a guitar player, and we tend to use it. And because we have musicians in the band, the music is maybe more… musical. Whereas my own stuff, it’s very important for me to have no rules. I don’t stick to any tempos or anything, even though they always end up sounding like me. It’s very important that this is my free space where I get to try out new stuff. I don’t want to be stuck trying to make house music or indie music. I also get inspired by urban music, rappers here in LA. That has inspired me to make some urban songs. My own stuff is my playground, WhoMadeWho is more like a normal band, the production is just a mishmash of everything.
STEREOGUM: Describing it as your playground makes a lot of sense, because you can’t categorize it easily.
BARFOD: I used to be a very big part of the European club scene and a lot of important European club labels are making house music. WhoMadeWho is not house, but it was also released on the same kind of labels. And then with Friends Of Friends I realized that I didn’t want to stick to any rules. It was a big dogma for me: Just try everything out. That’s how I make music by myself.
STEREOGUM: And now you’re signed to Secretly Canadian, which started out doing folk-rock records.
BARFOD: So they are also trying something new!
STEREOGUM: When you were making Love Me, was there certain literature or movies or other music or life experiences that were inspiring you? Are there certain inspirations that you trace back to the making of that record?
BARFOD: It’s mainly two things: I’ve been in LA for 3-4 years almost, and it’s very different from making music in Denmark. It’s very direct — it either works or it doesn’t. Thats how a lot of the people I’ve met over here operate. If we do something and it doesn’t work, we never talk about it again. If it works, it’s gonna be a hit. I really like that way of making music, and just being here with the clear skies. I kind of want to picture my music in this kind of environment. Instead of picturing it in a cold Scandinavian forest, I try to picture it more warm and… warm, yeah. But besides that, on this album I spent a lot of time with the analog synthesizers, programming synthesizers, and a theme of that is also having things that aren’t really tuned. A lot of the synthesizers have a wave so they’re out of tune sometimes. Even the guitars have some effects on so they’re not in tune. I’ve been experimenting a lot on that, and I think for people that might be classically educated and used to instruments being right on the note, it might be difficult hearing some of the songs. It’s my way of putting some soul into the machines.
Love Me is out 6/10 via Secretly Canadian.
[Photo by Rocco Avallone.]