Peder Mannerfelt on appropriation, appreciation and restraint

Peder Mannerfelt 3 - photo by Lucas Genaro RucciPeder Mannerfelt has been at the forefront of the Swedish electronic scene over the last decade. He’s collaborated under the pseudonym The Subliminal Kid with musicians such as Fever Ray, Blonde Redhead and Glasser and remixed the likes of Massive Attack, Lykke Li and Bat for Lashes. In recent years the prolific artist has released three studio albums as part of the experimental classical duo, Roll The Dice. Last year, he released the seminal Swedish Congo Record, a recontextualisation of a 1950s album which captured the sounds of Central Congo. We caught up with the producer before his performance at the CTM Festival. 

Can you describe your usual day?

I work in the studio from 9am to 5pm. I drop my daughter off at the kindergarten at around 8:30 and go to the studio and I’m back home for dinner. Right now, we have a second child who’s ten month old. My girlfriend and I are sharing the time at home with each of us doing two weeks on and off. She’s also self-employed. It’s nice to not to have to physically work on music all the time. You get some time away and can reflect. When you get to the studio, you don’t really have time to fiddle about, you just have to execute.

I read that you decided to make electronic music during your national service.

I was in the Swedish Navy for a year as part of the then compulsory military service, which was extremely boring. I’d been listening to electronic music long before that, but I didn’t know how to produce it and during that year in the navy I decided I should learn how to do it. I had a lot of spare time to sit around and think about stuff.

You were playing instruments before that though in several punk bands.

Playing guitar was my thing. When I got out of the army, I started interning as an audio engineer in a pop studio. In the first year, I was making tea and fetching lunch for people, but I guess that’s the traditional way to learn a trade – start at the bottom.

Your music can be quite sparse – it seems that restraint is intentional.

It took me ten years to learn it because even though you know how to make and record a lot of sounds, the biggest lesson is to hold back. These days, it’s so easy to do heaps of takes and rhythms all over each other and I was doing that for a long time, but it’s not interesting. I realised that it’s the empty space that speaks more than the cool synth bleeps. If you leave space in there, it makes the sounds and the notes that are in there mean something. That took me 10-15 years to realise.

I was listening to a track of yours – dB at Holger – and it was almost disorienting. How do you structure your music in terms of the composition?

I start out with fiddling about to get an interesting rhythm or something that gets me going – it could be a sound or a sample. I record long takes. I find a few parameters that I can tweak and play around with. It could be an EQ or something that changes and I might record 20 minutes of that. The big task is to edit things and I think that’s what I’ve learned over the years. The track you are referring to was originally 25 minutes long, but then it was edited down. It is kind of like sculpting. You have this big mass of audio and you just take things away gradually.

You also have your own label Peder Mannerfelt Production.

I started the label simply because I had a lot of music. When I started reducing and limiting myself, I suddenly had a couple of albums’ worth of music. To start my own label was a simple solution just to be able to release music at my own pace the way I wanted. I didn’t think too much about it. I still don’t have a plan.

How do you decide what to release and what to discard?

You need some kind of filter. If I was to release everything that I have done, it would be masses of shit. It’s the same as with the tracks – you have to learn how to find the good parts, what fits with what in which context. You have to trust yourself. It’s kind of like thinking with the other side of the brain. You have to shut one part off and look at it from the other perspective and that’s pretty hard I think. It takes a long time, at least for me. Some people have it naturally.

You also mentioned before that you are interested in socio-political issues. Does it also translate into your music or the process of making music?

I guess it’s because I’m not listening to as much music as I did a couple of years ago. I’m thinking about bigger subjects and how that relates to myself and my family and people around me and the country I live in. Maybe it’s been a bit subdued but the stuff that I have coming up is a bit more upfront about it. You don’t need to have something specific to say but at least say something when you have the space. People listen to what you’re saying – for instance in interviews, etc – and that comes with responsibility attached to it. I try to not only do it in words, but also in actions: how I live my life, how I conduct my way of doing things.

Your Swedish Congo Records was inspired by an obscure 78 rpm record called The Belgian Congo Records sourced from Central Congo by Belgian filmmaker Armand Denis and published in 1950.

It started out as some sort of research – me wanting to learn these rhythm patterns and spending some time with drum synthesis and building drum sounds. It wasn’t really meant to be released at all. The whole idea behind it is to look at appropriation – me as a privileged middle aged white Western European doing electronic music – and how that relates to the music I want to make and I’m influenced by. I wouldn’t say it’s a critique, or that I have the right answers or I come with any answers at all, but at least I’m trying to raise the questions.

But you are doing it in a way that you are not directly sampling, but recreating or recomposing the source material.

The original idea – and what a lot of people would do – was just to sample the original and I’m not frowning upon that. I love sampling and sample a lot myself from various sources. But it felt disrespectful, because it was so easy to do in this case. In the end it was almost like an internship. I wanted to learn, but in my own way. I started doing it all from the basics and that took a very long time and it became something completely different and that’s part of the whole journey of the project. I feel these are cover versions, as you would cover a Bob Dylan track and add something of your own to it.

You are about to present the record live at the CTM Festival in Berlin. Can you describe the live rendition of the album?

Basically I didn’t want to do this album live because there’s such a meticulous studio work behind it and it felt like a piece of its own. I’m bringing along three percussionists. It’s lead by Liliana Zavala with whom I played in Fever Ray and two of her friends. They are going to play percussion live and it’s going to trigger synths that I’m operating. There’s also Malcolm with whom I play in Roll The Dice, and he’s going to play the vocal elements on a sampler. It’s a big experiment, and we’ll see how it goes.

(photo: Lucas Genaro Rucci)