Special Feature: Swedes Behind The Scenes: Cheiron, Denniz PoP and the ongoing influence of Sweden in Pop Music - Sep 21, 2009
“Britney Spears, Leona Lewis, Madonna, Céline Dion, Kylie Minogue, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Lopez, Pink … an endless cavalcade of stars have looked to the Scandinavian climbs for a cut of ice pop magic.”
Sweden’s artists may not dominate the charts like they once did but, as evidenced most recently by Lady Gaga producer and co-writer RedOne, behind the scenes they still playing a defining role in shaping the music we hear on our radio. But why is it this small European nation is still so persistent in punching above its weight in the pop ring? Special Feature investigates.
Sweden natives have long beamed with pride at their nation’s rich pop music heritage, leaving the rest of the world to look on with a mix of admiration and bemusement – after all this country of just 9.2 million people has not only given us ABBA – 350 million records sold and counting - but Roxette, Ace of Base, Europe, Rednex, Army of Lovers, The Cardigans, Robyn, The Hives, The Knife amongst many others.
That alone is impressive, but to put an extra swing in their swagger, what many people don’t realise is that Sweden’s influence over modern pop runs far deeper than simply the artists they export.
For the last 15 years a remarkable number of hits from international artists have been penned and produced by Swedes, ranging from the breakthrough hits for Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, and Westlife through to the more recent chart invasions of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson.
Since the early 1990s Sweden has a cultivated enviable tradition of top production and songwriting matched only by the USA and UK, and which dwarfs just about everybody else. Leona Lewis, Madonna, Céline Dion, Kylie Minogue, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Lopez, Pink – an endless cavalcade of stars have looked to the Scandinavian climbs for their cut of iced pop magic.
What Makes Sweden Tick?
What is it about Sweden that has enabled it to break open a global pop market most other countries have struggled to even crack?
When asked this question in series of HitQuarters interviews with Swedish songwriter/producers, Andreas Carlsson cited its tradition of “very melodic folk music” and an economy that meant “if you wanted something done you had to do it yourself” thereby encouraging music makers to learn their craft. Rami Yacoub blames “the dark nights [and] the bad weather that makes people want to stay in and work”. Some commentators cite the subsidised municipal music schools, and others the Swedish inclination to embrace new trends quickly.
Cheiron, Denniz PoP and Björn Borg
All these factors have no doubt played their part, but the chief reason why Sweden is such a powerhouse and continues to be today is arguably down to Denniz PoP and his Cheiron production house, a claim supported by Leona Lewis and Britney Spears songwriter Per Magnusson with a nice tennis analogy,
“We had some great tennis players through the 80s and 90s, but it all started with Björn Borg. We had one great guy and then everyone else wanted to play tennis.
That’s what you can see today in pop. We still have a lot of great producers and writers coming out of Sweden - Bloodshy & Avant, RedOne, most recently - and that wouldn’t have happened without Cheiron, because everybody wanted to be like us, creating songs and producing. That is the legacy of Cheiron …”
“No one since Björn and Benny of ABBA has been as influential to Swedish acts as producer Denniz PoP.”
In this case the “one great guy” was Dag Krister Volle (‘Dagge’ to his friends) AKA Denniz PoP, a producer that began his music career as a DJ in the mid-‘80s. Swemix, the dance label he founded with several fellow DJs, became the platform from which he staked his name as a choice remixer and hit producer.
Although by the early 90s his work on the label had established him as one of Europe’s foremost dance producers – in part due to his productions for Dr Alban that included hits ‘Hello Afrika’ and ‘It’s My Life’ – Swemix turned out to be too dance and underground for PoP. He harboured aspirations to go mainstream, an ambition duly vindicated when his radical makeover of a demo tape track by an unknown synth pop band from Gothenburg went stratospheric across the globe.
Ace of Base
‘Mr Ace’ had supposedly got stuck in Denniz’s car stereo while on holiday and stuck in his head as a result. Hearing its potential, he set about giving it a complete refit - altering the bass line, removing some lyrics, giving it a reggae twist, adding its distinctive backing vocals and horns before capping it off with a new name. In late 1992 and early 1993 ‘All That She Wants’ became a worldwide smash, topping the charts in the UK, Germany Australia, going platinum in the USA, and firing Ace of Base and Swedish pop to the vanguard of the charts.
Denniz’s unique talent for writing and producing hit songs made up for the skills he lacked as a musician. When future Britney Spears, Pink, Katy Perry songwriter/producer Max Martin first visited PoP’s studio with his then band - the glam metal It’s Alive - his initial awe at meeting the Nordic pop legend soon dissipated when he saw the producer fumbling with chords sheets and struggling to find the right keys on the keyboard.
More important than musical ability was his ear for hearing special talent in others, a skill that would prove key to his burgeoning pop empire. For when, on a wave of worldwide success and exposure, he created Cheiron in 1993 with Stockholm night club owner Tom Talomaa as an imprint in which to realise his pop vision, he needed that ear to assemble a crack team of talents to help meet the flood of offers that began rolling in.
Max Martin and the Creation of the Cheiron Team
His first charge was Max Martin. The world may not have been ready for It’s Alive but PoP was impressed enough by the longhaired young rocker’s songcraft to poach him as his first in house collaborator. Martin’s accomplished musical skills offset PoP’s deficiencies and PoP offset Martin’s complete lack of production experience. Together they made a great partnership.
It was Denniz who gave Max Martin his memorable moniker - before that his band mates knew him as Martin White and his mother as Martin Karl Sandberg. The first Martin got to hear of his new name was when he saw it printed on the sleeve of a Herbie [Crichlow] record and asked Denniz who it was.
Their first complete collaboration together was the Rednex ballad Wish You Were Here. A no.1 in Austria, Norway and Switzerland, the song signalled a great start for Cheiron.
Following Martin through the door of Stockholm’s Cheiron Studios were two songwriting/production duos - dance twosome Amadin, namely John Amatiello and Kristian Lundin, and Per Magnusson and David Kreuger.
International Stars and International Success
Following further major Cheiron successes in the international market with home grown acts like Dr Alban, Ace of Base, E-Type, Leila K and Rednex, US labels, keen to tap into this gold reserve, started sending fledgling artists out to Sweden - and later welcomed them home as stars.
The first to congregate in the hallowed studio space were a group of five green young Americans known as the Backstreet Boys that were sent by studio owners Zomba Label Group. They left clasping soon to be hits ‘We’ve Got It Goin’ On’, by PoP, Martin and Crichlow and Martin, Crichlow and Lundin’s ‘Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)’, which later went platinum, peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and gave Lundin his first international break. Duly satisfied by their brief sojourn to Stockholm, it wasn’t long before the Backstreet Boys returned for further gems.
The USA returned the favour by accepting Cheiron cultivated Swedish artists into the bosom of their charts. Robyn secured two US Top Ten highs in ‘Do You Know (What It Takes)’ and ‘Show Me Love’.
Worldwide Phenomenon and the Arrival of Andreas Carlsson
Around this time Amatiello left Cheiron, and partner Lundin, to seek more literal highs in the world of aviation, but his departure was offset by an incoming Jake [Schulze] and Andreas Carlsson.
The latter had previously had a short unsuccessful solo career under the name Andres, but was cherry picked by PoP as a lyricist,
“When [Denniz] asked me to become a writer at Cheiron, it was like, “Wow, this is unreal!” It was a gift from heaven. At that point I thought success had already passed me by … but when I stepped into Cheiron, it became a worldwide phenomenon. Not thanks to me [laughs] …”
By 1998 Cheiron was indeed a worldwide phenomenon. And their efforts, which at that time included masterminding breakthrough hits for new boybands Five (‘Slam Dunk (Da Funk)’) and N’Sync (including debut million seller ‘I Want You Back’) and collaborating with Canadian rocker Bryan Adams, had not gone unnoticed by industry bigwigs. To acknowledge PoP’s, as well as Martin’s, great work in reclaiming Swedish music’s stake on the world map and making the nation the third largest music exporting country in the world, the pair shared a ‘Special Honour Award’ Grammy.
Death of the Leading Light
The year’s jubilation was tempered, however, by the rapidly declining health of Denniz PoP. On August 31, 1998, he succumbed to cancer at only 35 years of age.
In Dagge Cheiron lost its spirit and guiding light, but the team he had nurtured over the preceding few years had started to blossom as songwriting and production masters in their own right, honouring the faith he had invested in their talents.
Up until 2008 the Magnusson/Kreuger partnership had been occupied with native stars like Dede, Leila K and E-Type but the year saw them start to emerge from the shadows of the PoP/Martin nucleus when they began securing international hits with new Irish boybands like Boyzone and then later with Westlife, with whom they secured UK number ones with ‘If I Let You Go’ and ‘Fool Again’. This success also marked their first collaborations with songwriter Jörgen Elofsson, who would become a frequent partner.
Robbed of his partner and mentor, Max Martin was forced to forge his own path, and sought alternative partnerships in Kristian Lundin, Andreas Carlsson, new Cheiron members Alexandra [Talomaa] and Rami Yacoub, who Martin invited to join Cheiron in 1998 impressed by such productions as Lutricia McNeal’s European smash ‘Ain’t That Just The Way’.
With project commissions pouring in and high standards and increasingly high expectations to uphold, the headless Cheiron carried on with Martin at the helm. What’s more the hits kept on coming.
Although PoP would never see the heights his students would scale, before he passed away he did manage to hear one of the jewels of Cheiron’s crown, the song that broke and defined one of USA’s greatest pop stars.
Seeking feedback from his mentor on his latest song, Martin played ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ to Denniz as he lay in his hospital bed. After being passed on by girl group TLC, having been submitted too late for their third album ‘FanMail’, the track was later recorded by Martin and Rami with a then unknown 15-year-old girl from Louisiana sent over by Jive Records.
Renamed ‘… Baby One More Time’, Britney Spears took the new track back home and then to the top of the charts across the world, securing Martin and Rami’s first US number one. The song began a hugely successful partnership between Spears and Cheiron that would lead to a flurry of hits, including Magnusson, Kreuger and Elofsson’s breakthrough ‘Sometimes’, ‘(You Drive Me) Crazy’, ‘Born To Make You Happy’ and ‘Oops! … I Did It Again’.
Cheiron’s work on Spears’ second album ‘Oops! ... I Did It Again’ offers a revealing perspective on Cheiron’s working methods. When Britney arrived at the studio in November 1999, the 7 songs the team contributed to the album had already been written and the backing tracks completed. The young star simply spent a week adding her vocals. Martin and the Cheiron team essentially worked like a band that employed guest vocalists.
N’Sync, Westlife, Céline Dion, Five, Bon Jovi …
By the end of the century, the skies over the Atlantic and North Sea were clogged with major international artists to-ing and fro-ing from Cheiron. The Backstreet Boys returned to a studio with fans now camped outside, waiting eagerly for a glimpse of their idols. These teen spectators would have seen the boy band leave the studio for the last time, beaming as they clutched 7 out of the 12 songs for an album that would become the world’s bigger seller in 1999, and which included the Grammy-nominated Carlsson and Martin track ‘I Want It That Way’.
Other visitors at this time included Westlife, N’Sync and, to show the team were moving beyond teen pop, Céline Dion and even Bon Jovi.
By the turn of the millennium Cheiron was the toast of the pop world, having effectively reinvented and reenergized late 90s pop. For outsiders looking in all seemed rosy at Cheiron Studios with chart dominance looking secure for years to come. Inside, however, the Cheiron team were working on its final projects together.
The Demise of Cheiron
Having lost their soul in Denniz PoP, the fun had dissipated - Cheiron had become a hit factory on an industrial scale. In August 2000, Max Martin and Tom Talomaa blew the whistle and production ground to a halt.
“After eight years of incredible joy but also enormous pain (the death of our beloved partner Denniz Pop) it's time to move on," announced the front page of the official Cheiron website.
The weight of the Cheiron name had also become almost too heavy to bear. There was a desire amongst its membership to free itself from the Cheiron myth so that they could pursue their own individual projects without having to contend with the same level of expectation.
“We will continue to work together in various constellations in the spirit of Denniz PoP.”
Cheiron may have been one formidable unit, but it was still the sum of its constituent parts. As the group splintered, each fragment asserted itself as an individual force.
Without missing a beat, Max Martin quickly established himself as the revered pop maestro he is today. Founding a production company, Maratone, in January 2001 with Tom Talomaa, he continued to work with artists with whom he formed successful relationships at Cheiron like Britney Spears – including four songs for 2001’s ‘Britney’ album - and Céline Dion, and also some of his old studio comrades, including Rami and Alexandra, as well as a new songwriter/producer in Arnthor Birgisson.
His ongoing chart success after over 15 years is a testament to his ability to evolve like the stars he produces. By the mid-2000s, his trademark danceable keys-based pop that blended music styles like heavy metal and europop was completely reinvented, with the aid of Lukasz “Dr Luke” Gottwald, into a distinctive pop rock sound that helped propel Kelly Clarkson’s songs ‘Since U Been Gone’ and ‘Behind These Hazel Eyes’ up the charts, and later Pink’s ‘Who Knew’ and ‘U + Ur Hand’.
In the last couple of years, he has written and co-written four number one hits – ‘So What’ by Pink, ‘Hot N Cold’ and ‘I Kissed a Girl’ by Katy Perry, and Kelly Clarkson's ‘My Life Would Suck Without You’.
A-Side Productions and The Location
Following their successful work with the likes of British boy band Westlife at Cheiron, Magnusson and Krueger founder their own A-Side Productions and also soon hit their stride by becoming Simon Cowell’s first choice song production team. This pairing lead to work on hit Pop Idol songs like Will Young’s ‘Evergreen’ and Gareth Gates’ ‘Anyone Of Us (Stupid Mistake)’ and more recently with Leona Lewis, Paul Potts and Il Divo.
When Cheiron disbanded, Andreas Carlsson took on the lease of the studios with Lundin and Jake, before later founding their own production company in The Location. Carlsson went on to uphold the values instilled in him at Cheiron by penning hit after hit for the likes of Clay Aiken, Céline Dion and Katy Perry, for whom he co-wrote ‘Waking Up In Vegas’, with frequent collaborator Desmond Child.
Bloodshy & Avant
Just as Björn Borg paved the way for a succession of successful Swedish tennis players throughout the 80s, the 2000s saw the emergence of a new breed of Swedish production muscle. The first in line was Bloodshy and Avant – AKA Christian Karlsson and Ponntus Winnberg – who crafted a series of innovative mainstream pop records for the likes of Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Kelis, Jennifer Lopez, Ms Dynamite and the perennial Swedophile Britney Spears – including ‘Toxic’, one of the world’s biggest selling singles of 2004.
They were joined by Klas Åhlund who started out in the innovative genre-surfing rock band Teddybears before writing and producing for the likes of Britney (‘Piece of Me’) and Kylie Minogue (‘Speakerphone’), Sugababes, Jordin Sparks and Robyn.
The very latest in this long line of songwriting and production talent coming out of Sweden is Nadir Khayat, aka RedOne, who has recently enjoyed massive success as Lady Gaga’s right-hand man, co-writing and producing hits like ‘Poker Face’ and ‘Just Dance’.
Although originally from Morocco, RedOne moved to Sweden as a teenager, lured by the music of Roxette and Europe. When trying to establish his pop career over he made good use of a contact he’d made in ex-Cheiron star Rami Yacoub,
“I met him at a birthday party and we kept in touch. So when I decided to become a producer, I called him up and played him songs I had been writing and we decided to start writing together. He taught me about programming and how the software works.”
RedOne is latest Swedish export to set the charts alight, but who will be next to follow on Sweden’s production line of talents?
text by Barry Wheels
Next week: September’s Professional Demo Review is here with R&B on the turntable
Read On ...
* Fellow Cheiron graduate Andreas Carlsson on writing with Katy Perry
* Former Max Martin and RedOne collaborator Rami on his new production house
* Producer/songwriter Per Magnusson talks Cheiron, Swedish pop and Leona Lewis
* Britney and Celine Dion songwriter Kristian Lundin on the end of Cheiron