‘You have to be free when you write a song’: Galantis on why songwriting still matters [Interview]
As electronic music continues to ooze tirelessly through seemingly every aspect of mainstream pop culture, it leaves in its wake a glistening trail of production zealots. Together they clog the annuls of YouTube’s bloated servers with hundreds of thousands of pluck tutorials and DIY tip vids.
The genre has long espoused amateur amnesty toward bedroom producers and it’s been favorable model for those offering the best of it—Flume, for one: the double platinum producer’s first real banger was built on a software freebie he shook out of a Kellogg’s cereal box.
It’s even harder to disparage a well warranted moment in the sun for producers like Diplo or Sia Furler who are enjoying recognition now for prolific bodies of behind the scenes work that largely serve other artists. But the worst of it has also bloomed within this vacuum of accessibility and DIY production.
“[It’s] songwriting that’s trying to figure out how to write a song on top of a track,” says Karlsson. “[They] force this vocal in between a thing that wanted to be without a vocal.”
Over the course of his own fertile career, the producer has followed a humbler model.
“To write a song, you have to be open to change every part while you’re writing,” he says. “You have to be free when you write a song, to be able to let it go where it wants to go.”
Of course it’s easy to hear why Galantis have rocketed into the upper echelons of dance music seemingly overnight following the release of their fully formed, self-titled debut EP in 2014. Their infectious tracks–like Friday’s release with Hook & Sling—are impeccably produced. They bubble with earnest charisma and a near effortless charm.
But it’s the part that’s less audible that really sets the group apart. Together, the producers are brimming with the confidence of a collective five decades in music production. So much confidence, the two won’t even crack their production playbook until they’ve got a deserving track.
“After all these years in the studio, we know how to dress up songs. We can rely on that,” says Karlsson. “We can dress them up in any way, just spend time on it, we’ll get it. But the song is the important part! If that isn’t the best thing ever, why keep dressing it up in beautiful clothes? We want a song that you can play on a guitar by a campfire that’s out of tune, but still sounds good. Then it’s a good song.”
As a teen, Karlsson’s interest in music grew largely out of Stockholm’s skateboarding culture. Punk rock, and later hip hop, pervaded that scene and by 22, he was in the studio working with Quincey Jones. In recent years, Karlsson has produced and written for the likes of Depeche Mode, Britney Spears, and Madonna.
For his part, Eklöw began producing “weird” downtempo tracks in his bedroom and spinning drum and bass records at his school discos in Stockholm before assuming the Style of Eye moniker and tracking Chicago jackin’ house releases on Derrick Carter’s Classic imprint. He’s since built an impressive roster of production credits including a formative role in Icona Pop’s quadruple platinum “I Love It”.
Though their paths collided some years prior, earnest attempts to nail down the Galantis sound began in 2012 when the producers booted voguish, software-centric production styles and returned to old school songwriting. “That’s really how it started, says Eklöw. “That’s what got us into like ‘Look, no one is doing this thing.’ We didn’t even know exactly what that thing was.”
In those two years since their debut, the thing has morphed into a Kid A-esque approach to writing music. It all begins on a guitar or a piano. Then, the duo layer fragments of thought across a “feel good” beat and allow listeners largely to apply their own interpretations.
They aren’t precious about the method either, using their freedom to gather inspiration from overheard chord progressions or to cannibalize old work—like on “Runaway (U & I)”, which was actually a mash up of three separate songs.
It’s a beautifully open process, but one that can still pose a challenge.
“There’s been a lot of songs where people actually misunderstand what we’re trying to say,” says Karlsson, who offers their single “Smile” as an example. Under material examination the song reads like an upbeat track, but careful scrutiny yields a darker impetus. The closing lyric, “so smile/because you know nothing at all” evokes a beleaguered misanthrope longing to be more blissfully ignorant.
“It’s actually a really sad song for us,” he confirms. “There are some people, we just wish we could smile like that.”
Subversive lyrics like these pervade the Galantis catalog, attempting in earnest to chip away at capturing universal human emotions like unhappiness or the darker sides of lust and love. Ultimately, it’s a song writing style closer to ‘3 synths and the truth’ than the tired ‘feel good pop music’ label the are usually slapped with.
“Remember when Wu Tang Clan was the biggest thing on the fucking Earth?” asks Karlsson. “Is that pop? We were all standing outside of music stores trying to get Wu Tang Clan records because they were the biggest thing on the planet—and the best thing. Pop music can be whatever… I think we just do music. If our music reaches out to a lot of people, why would that be a bad thing?”
Explore: Galantis producers Linus Eklöw and Christian Karlsson choose songs from great songwriters spanning from the heyday of classic rock to modern hip hop.
Read the conversation in full, below.
Can you talk a little bit about where you’re from and how you got into music?
CK: How far back you wanna go?
I know, you guys have a very long history in the industry.
CK: Yeah, we’re both from Sweden. Stockholm.
I’m curious about your attitudes toward what it means to make good pop music. It seems there’s a general attitude that if something is popular or radio ready, it’s ‘lesser than’.
CK: Who said that? (laughs) No, I totally understand. Yeah, it’s very hard to even say what’s pop versus what’s popular. Remember when Wu Tang Clan was the biggest thing on the fucking Earth? Is that pop? We were all standing outside of music stores trying to get Wu Tang Clan records because they were the biggest thing on the planet—and the best thing. Pop music can be whatever. I mean for me, anyway. I don’t really like to label what we do whether it’s pop or not pop. I think we just do music. If our music reaches out to a lot of people, why would that be a bad thing?
Yeah, definitely. Another thing I’m curious about is the track “Runaway (U & I)”. I heard that it was actually a mix of three different songs. Can you talk a bit about that evolution process when you’re making a song? Are you precious about cannibalizing your own work?
CK: About “Runaway”? or just in general?
CK: Well, reusing stuff is always a thing. Basically you work on music 24/7. Your brain just keeps on going and it wakes you up when you have ideas.//// You put it in your back pocket. “Peanut Butter Jelly”, I wrote that ten years ago. I couldn’t find a vehicle for it. I couldn’t find an artist that would actually do this lyric. I did a version with just a guitar and played it for LE: and he really liked it. That’s when we decided to do it for ourselves. It could be any type of piece of music, it doesn’t matter if it’s old or new, you just collect things. Small pieces of ideas, lyrics…
LE. …Chords, melodies.
CK: I also tend to come back to chord progressions that I love every three or four years. It’s like okay, it’s been a few years, now I’m going back to this progression I love so much. Sometimes, I won’t have heard it for a while and someone else comes out with something similar and it’s like “fuck”.
LE: That’s very true. Sometimes you have those ideas in your head and if you don’t do them, someone else will do it.
CK: Yeah it’s also… music naturally goes in so many different ways that without anyone really thinking about it, all of a sudden we are kind of steering in the same way. Music is going different ways, but sometimes brains go the same direction.
Do you guys listen to other dance music or do you try to avoid that?
CK: No we listen to all kinds of music, but of course we listen to dance music. That’s part of our job, i feel. We listen to what other people are releasing but we also collect things for our sets. I feel like it’s one part of the brain to collect beats that might work in our sets—whether it’s festival sets, club sets, our own headline sets—and that’s different from listening to music just to be inspired in listening to music. Two different things.
I’d love to get your thoughts on the importance of songwriting. I know it’s hugely important to you guys. I think it’s nice that production is having a moment in the sun because for a long time that was sort of behind the scenes work. With artists like Sia Furler or even Diplo people are getting more interested in who is writing for whom or producing for whom, but at the same time, I think a lot of mainstream artists tend to release nonsense that’s very dressed up and it seems that you guys have almost the exactly opposite approach to that process.
CK: I think that’s because after all these years in the studio, we know how to dress up songs. We can rely on that and be confident in that area. We can dress them up in any way, just spend time on it, we’ll get it. But the song is the important part! If that isn’t the best thing ever, why keep dressing it up in beautiful clothes.
LE: then we’ll just move on.
CK: Exactly, so we still want a song that you can play on a guitar by a campfire that’s out of tune, but still sounds good. Then it’s a good song. I like to believe that anyway.
Does that kind of confidence, like you’re saying: ‘we know if we spend time on it, it will get to where we want it to go”…. Do you feel like that’s confidence that’s come with spending so much time in the industry and working on the music.
CK: Yeah and sometimes we’ll just keep hitting the wall, but we’ll go there until we get it. Sometimes we might keep working back and forth on the same song for a year. I don’t know if that’s healthy or not. Maybe we should move on, but i just want to crack the thing.
LE: We waited ten years for [“Peanut Butter Jelly”… take a break and come back.
CK: (laughs) yeah never give up. that’s it.
That’s an interesting note, I think both of you guys (with your other projects as well) have a much more long term mindset than most people in the current climate of this industry where I see a lot of young kids asking artists “i’m an aspiring producer, can you give me some advice to get famous tomorrow” and it’s like, well no, how can you actually build a career that means something and grows organically over time. Do you have any thoughts on long term thinking in that regard?
CK: Yeah, all the time. Never, ever, ever, follow anyone else. You have to be original and do your own music. I’d rather have people hating my music than saying it sounds like someone else.
I heard in an interview a while back that this project grew out of a gap that you perceived in the dance music spectrum, do you think that’s still true?
LE: That’s really how it started, that’s what got us into like “look, no one is doing this thing.” We didn’t even know exactly what that thing was.
CK: It was DJs, track guys, producers who are super talented but very few songwriters. It was “songwriting” that was trying to figure out how to write a song on top of a track and they were trying to stumble upon all these things and like, force this vocal in between a thing that wanted to be without a vocal. Sometimes it works, most of the time it didn’t work or it just sounded like a remix to me. It might be an amazing remix, but it still sounded like a remix. And to me, that’s not how you write a song. to write a song you have to be open to change every part while you’re writing. Okay, i want to go here. You may have to change a chord or you have to remove a part. You have to be free when you write a song to be able to let it go where it wants to go.
Another thing I really have noticed is that a lot of your songs are somewhat subversive.
CK: What do you mean by that.
I know that you try to make happy sounding or ‘feel good music’ without being cheesy, but it occurs to me that some of these songs—like “Forever, Tonight” really strikes me with the lyric “We’ll have forever… tonight.” It’s almost… subversive or aware of itself in a way that a song by Katy Perry can’t be. There’s another lyric from that song about “burning in the sky” but it’s actually “burning evergreens.” It’s like, “Wait, what?” In a way it strikes me like almost the album Kid A,
CK: Yeah, yes.
Where it’s like just pieces of thoughts…. so everyone is kind of bringing their own euphoria to your music and you aren’t instructing people on how to feel their joy. I am just wondering how deliberate that is and if avoiding cliché is an active part of your process.
CK: I guess so, but I also think that “Forever Tonight” is just a feeling we kind of live by. Everyone does it, but you just kind of have to admit that you do that. You get to that place where you actually think that tonight is forever. It’s a very immature thought but I love that thought, it’s so good. We wanted to capture it in a song. actually we have a few others coming that’s kind of the same theme.
Of course, staying away from cliches, but there’s been a lot of songs where people actually misunderstand what we’re trying to say.
Can you give me an example?
CK: Like have you listened to the lyric of “Smile”?
No, I don’t think so.
CK: Well, it ends “So smile, cause you know nothing at all.”
CK: (Laughs) Yeah so people always say “It’s so happy” but it’s actually a really sad song for us because we’re kind of like… there are some people, we wish we could smile like that.
I mean even in PBJ, there are some lyrics that are like…
CK: Yeah it’s pretty dark…
Yeah, it’s so weird! There’s a lyric that goes…
“Do it like I owe you some money?”
Yes! I was sitting there going “What does that mean?” That is so strange! And then that dark voice goes “Visualize it.” and it was just so strange! I mean even in, this isn’t a Galantis song, but [Miike Snow’s] “Genghis Khan”. That is such a weird, weird, dark way to approach the subject of jealousy in a way that is also so much more honest.
It’s so much more honest than a cliched attempt to capture that feeling.
CK: “I get a little bit Genghis Khan.”
That’s almost psycho. That’s really dark.
Do you see the pattern here??
Yes, I mean war mongering rapists have never been as palatable as in that song.
LE: He’s a sociopath.
I think it’s so interesting then that people just hear what they want to hear and love it. When you made that song Runaway (U&I), did you feel that it would be so huge?
CK: We felt that it was the perfect for our audience. We felt that we had just released an EP and had a little bit of success and earned a few fans and we were devoted to giving those fans another song that sounded like Galantis but took one step further even. So we pushed everyone to believe in that one and we kind of felt like we’d release that and then maybe release a “real single” which we didn’t have to do because it turned into that. I don’t think any one of us believed that that was going to happen, but we believed in the song in terms of being a “Galantis song” and being big for people that were going to listen to our music.
I think people really respect your chops as songwriters and producers. I’d love to get a playlist from you of songwriters that you really respect. Not necessarily in your genre, just people you respect.
LE: can we send that to you?
Yeah of course. I’ll admit I thought to ask while I was riding the train here listening to [Bruce Springsteen’s] Nebraska and I thought, if anyone knows other good albums and artists people should be looking to, these guys are gonna know.
CK: Bruce is one, for sure. I started working for Quincey Jones when I was 22. I did all his stuff for his label and worked with him in the studio the whole time.
Who was maybe your favorite person to work with or a story you remember about that?
CK: I actually really enjoyed working with Madonna. I think she’s one of the most hardworking people I’ve ever worked with in the studio.
What was she like?
CK: She’s just.. she doesn’t leave the studio. She’s just behind me whispering or screaming shit like “That reverb wasn’t there yesterday” and I’m like “um, yes it was,” and then I look and of course it wasn’t. Alright, doberman ears. She’s just hardworking and she’s actually really, really good on every level of music production.
Galantis Fall Tour dates:
Oct 13 – Germany, Munich – Technikum
Oct 14 – Switzerland, Zurich – Härterei Club
Oct 15 – Sweden, Stockholm – Berns
Oct 17 – Norway, Ås – Aud Max – UKA i Ås
Oct 19 – UK, London – O2 Forum Kentish Town
Oct 20 – UK, Manchester – Academy
Oct 21 – Germany, Hamburg – Uebel & Gefährlich
Oct 28 – USA, Seattle, WA – Freaknight
Oct 29 – USA, Columbus, OH – Haunted Fest
Oct 29 – USA, New York, NY – Brooklyn Warehouse
Oct 31 – USA, Las Vegas, NV – Marquee
Nov 16 – USA, San Jose, CA – National Civic Center
Nov 17 – USA, Sacramento, CA – McClellan Center Sacramento
Nov 18 – USA, Avila Beach, CA – Avila Beach
Nov 18 – USA, Santa Ana, CA – The Observatory
Nov 19 – USA, Phoenix, AZ – Global Dance Fest
Nov 20 – Mexico, Mexico City, MX – Corona Capital