SXSW 2008 has ended
Saturday, March 15 • 12:00am - 12:30am
Kristoffer Ragnstam

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While high-profile pop bands from Sweden were busily grabbing press attention, their countryman Kristoffer Ragnstam was working under the radar screen, making music that refused to fit the Scandinavian stereotype. His sound was different – too different to ignore. Musicians took note, not only in his country but in Germany and Japan. The media responded too, going overboard with effusions that, at the request of this somewhat self-effacing artist, we won’t repeat here. It’s strange, when you think about it, because Kristoffer didn’t play that many gigs. In fact, he didn’t even play any instruments, other than drums, and yet managed to cut a solo demo that won him his first record deal. Soft-spoken, with a wry sense of humor, he thrived primarily in recording studios, where he apprenticed to staff engineers on sessions and then applied their lessons to his own projects, working after-hours until crashing on the nearest couch. On his U.S. debut, Sweet Bills, Kristoffer bundles the results into one of the most idiosyncratic packages heard since the advent of Beck. Each track veers unpredictably to the next: The wall-of-sound pop of “Lonely Lane,” broadcast by roaring guitars and thundering drums, gives way to the simmering funk of “Doctor, Give the World a Smile.” Mellow horns and backward guitar samples on “Sweet Bills” explode into a complex groove that nudges surreal lyrics – “My girl wants to be an astronaut/My boss wants to be a talent scout” – through “Born as a Lion.” You can also sense a chronology to Sweet Bills. Echoes of sixties garage rock permeate “Never Get Used to You,” an eighties electronic dance hook slices through “Man Overboard,” and on “Keila” the music is timeless and the message playfully twisted: “I’ve been waiting for you to call the last seven years,” Kristoffer intones. “You see, honey, we’ve got a problem …” As Kristoffer sees it, this overlay of irony and multiple musical influences captures who he is, personally as well as artistically. “I’m honest with my music,” he explains. “No one pushed me. I got to where I am on my own.” It took him a while to start that journey, though. Kristoffer didn’t really get serious about music until he was fifteen years old. Growing up in Kungälv, slightly north of Gothenburg, he devoted most of his time to other diversions: playing soccer and savoring the biscuits and cookies for which his hometown is celebrated. Eventually, though, like musicians throughout history, he discovered that girls seemed to take special note of guys who had a way with a song. With that, he shifted gears. Drums were his first choice. “It’s funny, because I don’t even like the album that much, but I first noticed drums as I was listening to Money and Cigarettes – the first one Eric Clapton recorded after he got clean,” Kristoffer says. “It was pretty boring, actually, but somehow the drums intrigued me. So I promised my mom not to eat candy for a year, and she got me my first kit.” Characteristically, Kristoffer went beyond performance. He examined how the drums were built, picked out some details he thought he could improve, and began building kits on his own, in his mother’s basement. His work appealed especially to jazz players, but because of the expectations he placed on his own handiwork it began to take more time than he could spare – up to three months – to finish each assignment. (He did find time, though, to make his own kit, which he uses onstage to this day.) Kristoffer could barely play when he and a few friends put their first band together. They couldn’t play either, which is why the name they chose for themselves, Blind, might not have been as suitable as, let’s say, Deaf. “Just imagine five guys who never even held instruments, trying to do our own songs,” he remembers. “We had no success at all. But it was good for my self-confidence. And it’s also important that we never played covers. In fact, all I’ve done from the beginning, on my own projects, was to play my own music.” As his drumming improved, Kristoffer started doing session dates in Gothenburg. While that helped pay the rent, it didn’t satisfy that urge to do original stuff. For a while he hooked up with two American visitors, whose enthusiasm for hip-hop made a strong impact. “They were used to working with sequencers and samplers,” he explains. “I didn’t have any of that, so I had to work out break beats on my own. It was a big challenge, but it was also the best school of drumming I’d ever had.” Restlessly, Kristoffer moved into the country and started building a studio at home. Stocking it with a mixture of commercial products and some analog delays, microphone preamps, and other items that he’d built, he then started acquiring instruments and cutting demos. The fact that he played only drums was but a minor impediment. In fact, that made it easier to coax unusual material from some of the odds and ends he had gathered, including a guitar with just one string. “It was pretty easy to fake it on these instruments,” he says. Without bothering to listen carefully to his final mixes, Kristoffer started sending them out to Swedish labels. To his amazement, response was positive; in fact, a bidding war erupted, which he resolved by going with an A&R representative whose father happened to be a member of Abba. “Right after we signed the deal I asked her if they could buy me a guitar, so I could finally learn to play it,” he says, smiling. “They gave me a Gibson SG-74, which I still use today, plus a tube microphone.” Adventurous as this music was, it was Kristoffer’s production chops that began opening doors after the album’s release in 2003. He accepted offers to work as an assistant engineer at a high-end studio in Hamburg and on several trips to Japan, where he earned a reputation as a soundtrack composer for underground films. All the while, though, he continued to write and record his own music, even if it meant budgeting every free moment in Germany, Tokyo, or back in Sweden. Unlike the material on his first album, the songs that would eventually be featured on Sweet Bills included other musicians: members of Kristoffer’s band Electric-4, saxophonist Andreas Gidlund, guitarist Per Stålberg from Division of Laura Lee, and, on one track, (International) Noise Conspiracy drummer Ludwig Dahlberg. By now Kristoffer had sharpened his guitar playing – on six strings, no less! – to the point that he could spend more time fronting the band than driving it from behind the drums. By the time he’d found some breathing space back in Sweden, Kristoffer had wrapped up an album’s worth of material. He had worked smoothly with co-writers Magic Joel and Pontus Winnberg on finessing the production. And so – why not? – he impulsively invited Chris Brown to polish it off with a final mix. He’d met the respected engineer (Radiohead, Blur, Supergrass, the Beatles Anthology) during some sessions in Gothenburg. “We hung out, and I asked if I could send him some of my music. He said yeah, and after he’d heard my tapes he brought me to England for a mixing session. Everything worked between us, so we kept in contact until I could bring him to my studio in Sweden, where he mixed my whole album.” Kristoffer and his band performed some of this material during their first trip to the States, in late 2005. Their sets at the Knitting Factory, the Living Room, and other venues stirred interest in New York, from audiences as well as label people. One of the latter brought him onboard at bluhammock music, without even having to trot anyone from Abba out as incentive. Sweet Bills is, Kristoffer insists, a project he can introduce without hesitation into the unsuspecting American market. “It’s very intimate – naked, even. I’m not trying to be smart or anything. I’m just doing what comes naturally. Sweet Bills is one hundred percent me.” One hundred percent Kristoffer: As the world will soon discover, music doesn’t get any hotter than that.

Saturday March 15, 2008 12:00am - 12:30am
Creekside EMC at Hilton Garden Inn 500 N IH 35

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