“It just skyrocketed,” Swedish keyboardist and vocalist Jonah Nilsson says of his band Dirty Loops’ recent chart-topping success. “Our new album Loopified was released in two different versions in Japan, and now they’re sitting at Number One and Number Two on the pop charts over there. I don’t know what happened!”
What appears to have happened is that the rest of the world is finally getting in on the secret that is Dirty Loops: Nilsson on keyboards and vocals, Henrik Linder on six-string electric bass, and Aron Mellergårdh on drums. First things first: They’re not dirty and they don’t use loops. Instead, imagine if Stevie Wonder, Jaco Pastorius, and Toto had triplets who started crafting covers of well-known pop songs—that are by and large far more musical than the originals. Add to that a generous helping of infectious original tunes that exhibit the same disdain of the mundane, and you begin to understand the Dirty Loops sound.
Since 2010, after releasing several self-produced YouTube cover videos, the group have been hard at work alongside mega-producer David Foster on their debut album, Loopified, just out this month on Verve.
Just hours after playing to a packed house at New York’s Webster Hall, Nilsson sat down to talk about his band’s wild musical ride.
You recently said, “We were three friends who started doing fusion covers of pop tunes for fun. We put them up on YouTube, and now we have a career.”
That’s basically what happened. We put up the first video in 2010, which was our cover of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance.” We did it to see if maybe we could get a gig so we could play together as a band. Then the YouTube views started to go crazy.
You were still in music school at that time. What were you studying?
Yes, we were all attending the Royal Music Academy in Stockholm. Our drummer Aron and bass player Henrik were studying jazz and beat-oriented music. I was studying those, plus production and jazz piano. I had worked as a producer with different pop acts in Sweden, and I also played piano behind different pop and jazz artists. So I’d done a lot of different things, but I didn’t have a forum for my vocals. What I wanted to do was create a project where I could utilize all of these things. That is what Dirty Loops became.
Whose idea was it to do fusion covers of pop tunes?
It was Aron’s. He came up to me one day in school and said, “Man, I really want to start a band so we can jam.” He devised the concept right on the spot. He said, “You’re gonna sing and play keyboards, I’m gonna play drums, and that guy who looks like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is gonna play bass!” [Laughs.] He said we were going to do pop songs, but we would twist them. So I came up with the first arrangement, which was Rhianna’s “Don’t Stop the Music.” We tried it, and it just worked.
How long did writing that first arrangement take you?
I honestly just took a few hours to make some new chords. We tried it once as a band in our rehearsal space and it was done. But we never put it up online. Then we worked on Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” which also didn’t take a lot of time. I was so hungry when we started doing this, and I was having so much fun that everything just started coming out of me. But as time went on, we got a lot more serious and the arrangements started taking much longer because we wanted everything to be perfect. Nowadays it takes forever to do them!
Take us through the process of how you and the band “Loopify” a song, whether it’s a pop cover or an original.
It’s actually an interesting process that I hadn’t really thought about until now. We usually sit in pairs—myself and either Henrik or Aron. Not with instruments, but just sitting down much like you and I are right now, just thinking and brainstorming and trying to create a vision of what we could do with the song. Then I go and create all the new chords for the song.
Do you then go to your DAW to start dissecting the song?
Exactly. After we discuss the song and make a blueprint of our ideas, I’ll go to my studio and start working on it. I use Logic and Cubase with my Mac and Apogee Ensemble [audio interface]. As far as keyboards go, I have my Korg X50 and some software synths, like Omnisphere, Sylenth, and EXS24 from Logic, as well as my upright piano that belonged to my grandfather, which I actually use a lot.
At this point, are you working with a groove or a rhythm track?
It depends. If the first thing that comes to my mind is a special groove, I’ll try to create that first. But if I hear a chord pattern or a rhythm pattern with some chords under the melody, I’ll try to figure that out at the beginning. The first thing I usually do is stripthe whole song down, taking away everything around it until all I have is the melody. That’s the key. Then I’ll ask myself, “What can I do with it? How can I twist it? What chords can work here? Can I hear something underneath it?” Then I begin sketching the song out, almost like creating a sculpture—carving out the rough version of it. Then as the things start to develop, I’ll focus on the finer details.
Do you map it out on paper?
No. I create everything in my head and then record my ideas into the computer. Actually, sometimes I’ll work off an a cappella version of the melody alone, but oftentimes I’ll sing live, too. First we create the rough sketch of the song structure, sometimes with chord ideas thrown in. Then I’ll say, “Okay, guys, I need to sit with the verse now. So you can all go.” I’ll work on the verse alone and then I’ll ask Henrik, “Do you have an idea for the second verse and chords for it?” Then I’ll work with his ideas and maybe twist them around. Then I’ll come back and play it for both of them and maybe Aron will say, “I don’t like that chord. Can we change it?” Aron’s super-musical and a total genius. He’s the drummer, so he doesn’t know how to play chords, but he knows what sounds good.
So by the time you complete your work in Logic, you have the skeleton of the song that you then take to the band to lay tracks over?
Yes. Once we have the rough song sketch finished, Aron will lay down the drums in a professional studio over the template I created. After we have the drums, I start focusing on even more details. I’ll go back to my studio and add all of the synthesizers and work out even more chord ideas. There’s always a scratch vocal on the track, so everyone knows the form, but the final vocals will be added last. The bass has not been added at this point, but I always have it in mind when I’m working. Once I’ve added everything except my vocals and the song feels finished, Henrik will come play bass on the track. We add the bass very late in the process, because Henrik is the kind of player that likes a lot of input. Aron and I will actually sit with him while he is tracking and say, “Right here, can you play something like “Ba, da, da, da, duh, duh, duh, dah” [He imitates a syncopated slap bass line.] and Henrik will say, “That’s not possible!” Then he’ll try to do it and he always nails it. He’s just fantastic.
If Henrik put his bass parts down in the very beginning, they’d be much less conversational. But by adding them at the end, he has a symphony of ideas to interact with . . .
We leave a lot of space for that because we have him in mind. We just make sure that the song always grooves. For example, on [the Justin Bieber cover] “Baby,” the bass, as usual, came last. I created a keyboard part that didn’t take up a lot of space; it was just a clear, rhythmic pattern. So then Henrik could do all kinds of things underneath it to make it groove even more.
Your videos are as dynamic as the songs themselves. Are you playing live or to a pre-recorded track?
Unless it’s a video of a live show, we’re playing to a track. We always have to go back and check that we get our own parts right while we’re playing to the song!
What kind of musical training did you have as a child?
I took classical piano lessons. Then when I got to high school, I took two years of classical piano and then changed to jazz for the last year. Later, I studied jazz during my entire time at the Royal Music Academy.
You have a tremendous amount of technical facility at the keyboard. Do you do any particular exercises to maintain your technique?
I used to do a lot of exercises—mainly things like major scales up and down the keyboard and in contrary motion. Also the Hanon exercises are great, but you have to learn them in lots of different keys. Otherwise, my technique comes from just playing, playing, playing. Another thing to help your playing is, as soon as you come to an obstacle, work on it. Whenever there’s a glitch, try to work it out.
Who were some of your musical heroes and influences?
I grew up listening to classical music, so that has been a huge inspiration for me. Especially choir music, since both my mom and dad were choir leaders in church, and my dad was an organist there. I think you can hear my choral music background in the way I use harmonies and chords, especially in the vocal arrangements—the way the lines move and the voice leading and so on. I’ve been inspired by the work of Bach, as well as later composers like [Maurice] Duruflé and John Rutter, who’s an English composer of choral music. I’m also a huge fan of the Pat Metheny Group. Lyle Mays is one of my favorite keyboard players, especially when he improvises because to me it’s like he’s improvising a classical piece with jazz [colors]. Of course, I love Chick Corea, Brad Mehldau, and Oscar Peterson. In terms of singers, I think I started off listening to Brian McKnight and Stevie Wonder.
If someone were to look on your iPhone right now, what would they find on your playlist?
Actually right now, when I’m in the process of making music, I find it hard to listen to music because my mind is so filled with my own stuff; it’s hard to take anything else in. But when I do, I usually listen to classical music. In terms of current things, there’s a band called Knower from Los Angeles. It’s one guy who plays every instrument himself [Louis Cole], along with a female singer who’s just great [Genevieve Artadi]. He’s absolutely amazing. It’s actually the closest thing I’ve heard out there to ourmusic. It’s very electric-based, but also played live.
Your music features synth sounds and interludes prominently. Were there any synth players that influenced your playing and arranging style?
I was never really inspired by synth players. I was only really inspired by the synth sounds on today’s pop music and remixes. For me, it’s all about making things sound fresh and up to date. I love people like [American house music producer and DJ] Wolfgang Gartner, [Russian-German musician and DJ] Zedd, and others.
Many keyboard players cite older artists as their inspiration. You’re saying, “I got my sound from listening to the music of today.”
Absolutely. And some of the sounds I use just fit. Like the Korg X50 “Ballad Layer” preset—it just works. It’s big, and all the chords I play sound wide with it. You can feel it!
Talk about the journey Dirty Loops made from first being a YouTube sensation to then being signed by the likes of legendary music producers like Andreas Carlsson and David Foster.
One Saturday night, Andreas Carlsson called me up asked me if we were signed. This was just weeks after we put up our video for Lady Gaga’s “Let’s Dance” in 2010. So we set up a meeting with him and he already had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do with us. He also wanted to hear us play for real, which I thought was a great thing. I didn’t want him to just trust what he saw on YouTube, because things can be manipulated there. After he saw us play live, he said, “I really want to sign you.” So we signed with him. It was Andreas who then took us to audition for David Foster.
Did you know who David Foster was before you auditioned for him?
Oh yeah. We’re huge fans of his. I came out to his house in Malibu, at first to sing for him alone. I played piano and sang a few songs for him. Then he played piano and invited Brian McKnight over. The three of us sat there together for six hours, playing and singing, with his 16 Grammy awards sitting on the grand piano. It was scary, but fun! After that, he said, “Okay, let’s fly the other guys over because I want to hear the three of you play together.” Then he signed us to the Verve Music Group.
What was the transition like from covering pop songs to then working on your first full-length album and original material?
Yes. It was a special process. We hadn’t done it before and we didn’t know what Dirty Loops’ own material would sound like. First we simply started writing songs that we liked and we recorded them. To us, they sounded like good, simple pop songs. But when we presented them to David, he responded, “Why do this? Why try to be something that you’re not? Where are the cool chords? Where is everything that makes you who you are?” He was brutally honest, but he was right. Something was missing. There wasn’t anything unique about the songs the way we presented them at first. They sounded like good dance songs with real bass and drums, but we were playing it safe.
Then David said, “I want to hear everything you can do.” And that made us think to ourselves, “What are we doing?” I guess we thought people wouldn’t understand our music if we had so many chords and ideas in it. But we realized that was what made us who we are. So we went back to square one and twisted everything we’d already written. And that became the mission: to write pop songs that had great melodies first, and then rearrange them in a Dirty Loops way. We basically did to our own music what we’d been doing to other people’s music for years! [Laughs.]
What was the first original song you played for David Foster after you went back to the drawing board?
We played “Hit Me” and he loved it. We loved it, too, so we knew we were on the right track. Then we went back and created the whole album in our studio, later adding live strings and other overdubs as well.
So your new album was recorded back in Sweden the same way you recorded your YouTube hits?
Yes. Aron recorded drums in his professional studio, Henrik recorded bass in his dad’s garage, and I recorded all of my parts in our regular studio, with my Korg X50 and soft synths. Maybe it’s a Swedish thing, but we have a kind of mentality over there about closing the doors, locking ourselves in, and just working all day and all night. In the end, the entire process took three years, including the time it took to re-record everything.
Do you tend to write more at the piano or at the Korg keyboard in your studio?
I think I write mostly at the keyboard, but I jump back and forth between the two. A lot of times I do sit at the piano because I’m very comfortable there. I started with classical piano, so it’s just very natural for me.
From Abba and Roxette, to Ace of Base, Max Martin, and Andeas Carlsson, Sweden has a long history of pop music excellence. Why do you think that is?
We have something in Sweden called “the cultural school,” which allows any person there to take lessons on any instrument they want—at no cost. You simply go to the school and they find you a teacher. So I think that many people are encouraged to do that and actually do.
The government pays for it?
Yes. We have high taxes! [Laughs.] There’s also not that much to do in Sweden, so whatever you’re into, you can sit and work and get really into it. I never went to any parties when I was younger. I was just sitting by myself practicing, or hanging out with friends who did the same kind of thing.
Even though your band came to fame with YouTube cover songs, the key to your success seems to be that you all stayed true to your musical instincts. What advice would you give to the next generation of artists?
Be patient. There are a lot of people who think, “Oh no. I’m already 19 years old. I have to be a pop star!” I don’t think that works. The most important thing to win in the end is to have artistic freedom. Search within yourself for what you really want to do. Do what you’re best at and challenge yourself at being better at it. There was one point in my life, when I was around 18 or so, where everything went really well for me. I had a lot of great gigs with different artists and I started to relax a little bit. That was a mistake, because all of a sudden I wasn’t being called to play as many gigs. For the first time in my life, I’d been relaxing, and it was starting to show. So I started working my ass off again. And I think that pays off. You have to work hard. You’re not going to get anything for free.
KORG X50: Small Keyboard, Big Hits
“Back in 2010, I didn’t even own a keyboard,” Dirty Loops’ Jonah Nilsson says. “But I needed to get something because I started getting calls to play with a lot of different artists. I wanted a keyboard that wasn’t too expensive and sounded great. I found the Korg X50 for a good price and immediately loved it. While I was still checking it out in the store, I heard a couple of stock sounds that I was instantly taken with. In fact, my main piano sound is an X50 preset called ‘Ballad Layer.’ Most of our songs use three or four presets from the X50, and I’ve also created a few of my own. To this day, it’s still my main keyboard, even though they don’t make it anymore. Our second keyboard player on tour also uses an X-50, along with a Roland A-800 Pro MIDI controller, triggering Apple’s MainStage 3, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, and other soft synths.”