Having just released their fifth studio album ‘Dreams,’ we sat down with drummer Tomas Barfod from Danish pop trio WhoMadeWho to discuss how the band has matured in the ever-changing digital age of music.
Danish experimental-pop trio WhoMadeWho catapulted to success in 2005 off the release of their first album WhoMadeWho. Nearly ten years on, they’ve just released their fifth studio album Dreams – a mature foray into the dark pop they’ve become known for. We sat down with drummer Tomas Barfod on the eve of the album’s release to discuss the expectations of being a hype band, viral marketing campaigns in today’s digital age of music and more.
How did the instant success from your first self-titled album influence your career trajectory since then?
In the beginning there was a lot of success and hype. It’s always easy to get the hype, but the hard part is to follow up on it. We went from having a lot of expectations to a lot of people not really caring about us. But we still had our live shows going and the fans just kept on coming. We then made our second album The Plot, which wasn’t that successful in some areas. After being this hype band that went well we sat down together and talked about doing this thing we called “Double or die” which was a very important point in our career. We said that if we don’t double everything, we stop within a year and that kind of turned the whole thing around. We started looking very seriously at ourselves instead of just making music for the fun of it. We saw ourselves as a serious band that needed to succeed and that changed everything in the way we are.
Did you ever feel you were limiting your creative potential by trying to emulate what you’d done in the beginning or were you trying new and risky things out?
Actually the contrary, what happened was the first album was very clean cut, kind of experimental, disco. We had fun in the studio and people liked it when it came out. Then for the second one everyone was saying “You have to incorporate your live energy” and so we tried a lot of different things. We tried taking this live energy we had to the album and it just got really confusing. So instead of just harvesting on the success of the first album, we tried something completely different and it actually set us back a bit.
You’ve got two vocalists, how do you decide who sings on which tracks and how does the music process work?
In the beginning it was actually an instrumental band so we started with a few instrumental songs. But we’ve got Tomas (Høffding) who’s actually a really good singer, and Jeppe, who suddenly started singing as well. The way we decide is that they the write the songs, like the top lines, but if Thomas has made a soft one, and he has a softer voice, then it doesn’t really make sense to have him on it, so maybe Jeppe sings it. We might argue about it and because I’m the third person I always kind of decide because they both want to sing. Of course there’s some arguments sometimes because it’s a passionate thing, but we have to just make the right decision for the band.
Was there a goal in mind when you were making your fifth studio album Dreams?
The funny thing is that since we started all the labels told us “You have to make a radio single” and we also believed we wanted to make a radio single. But on this album I realized that the music I love, from bands that are much bigger than us, they donʻt even have radio singles. They’re big just because they make good music. So our goal in the beginning was to just make a good, solid album with pretty songs, not to chase any radio singles. But we ended up making a lot of radio singles. We decided to cut everything unnecessary out, itʻs made more like a pop single. If it didn’t really work we tried again with another perspective on it. On the earlier albums we were playing around a lot but sometimes you can hide behind the idea “I’m indie” and we didn’t want to do that. We didn’t want to say maybe what’s happening here is a bit wrong, but it’s cool because it’s indie. You don’t wanna have something half done because you can hide behind it. That was very important for us, not taking any fast steps.
Do you have a personal favorite track from the album?
Yeah it changes all the time, but at the moments it’s “Dreams,” the title song. It’s a good example of how we worked in this pop-song process. I think because we really refined it and there’s a lot in the production that’s not our normal style but still sounds like us, that’s my favorite.
You used a clever viral marketing campaign to create the video for the first single “The Morning.” How did that come about?
It was actually our manager who came up with it. He’s totally into thinking in another way about things. I’m kind of traditional in that I just want to make good music, I donʻt care about all this other stuff. It’s quite clever and every time we do something like that because there’s so many other people also making good music, every time we do something special we get extra attention from that. It’s also important that if you’re a band now, you need to do more than just one thing well, you have to do everything.
How do you view the change in the music industry since YouTube and other such platforms have become a legitimate way for bands to find an audience?
There’s been a lot of change because I remember when we got signed, back in 2004, you had to go to the post office with a demo CD, send it out to people and maybe two weeks later you’d get feedback. Our fans knew us from going to record stores, buying an import vinyl somewhere and checking it out. So people weren’t that open and they weren’t as educated as they are now because now every teenager can go out and discover their own sound. Just ten years back it was really hard to do that. You had to spend a lot of time downloading illegal stuff and now you can just go on SoundCloud, YouTube, and discover exactly what you feel like listening to and you’re not forced to listen to whatever is on the radio.
We felt that very strongly with our band because in the beginning we could feel the difference between countries – that in the south of Europe they reacted in another way than in Denmark and some territories they didn’t even know the music. But now it’s kind of more globalized and equal now. I also like the idea that some guy in Colombia can sit and make an amazing techno track and get world famous. I like that concept.
Instead of just harvesting on the success of the first album, we tried something completely different and it actually set us back a bit.
You’ve mentioned how in the beginning you were sort of the ugly duckling of Denmark. How is that now and what influence does your hometown Copenhagen have for you?
I think we are much stronger than back then and we’re much more integrated into things. I guess being Scandinavian there is this kind of melancholy that’s really hard to get out of. Even we try, for example when you see us live, there’s not a lot of deep, cold notes. But I think there’s a more mellow vibe from the Scandinavian countries in general and that’s why I think it’s very important for us to see ourselves as a European band or international band, not as a Danish band. Even though we’re playing a lot of big shows in Denmark and have a huge fan base there and getting radio play, we focus on not being a Danish band, not seeing ourselves as locals. We just stay here and play concerts and want to travel the world.
Your musical background is very diverse – from rock to jazz. How has this blending of styles helped to create your own sound?
Of course, in some ways we have a lot of arguments because sometimes I have an idea and they don’t really get it or the other way around. But after ten years together, you kind of get united and of course we are still all very different. We don’t have one common band that we always listen to, but it’s also good to each bring something different to the table. I’m from the electronic scene originally and to be in that scene already affects the band a lot. We do it all together but they sort of listen to me because I’m trying to have a bigger overview.
What can we expect from WhoMadeWho in the next few years? What are your goals as a band?
I don’t dream about being this new hype band or anything. I know that we have our niche and it’s going steady and forward. I kind of fear the day that people, if it ever happens, hopefully not, that less and less people start coming to our shows. I think we’re gonna stop instantly when we feel that. It’s also why we did the “Double or die” thing. I watched Anvil the movie and that’s when I realized that if it’s going the wrong way we have to stop, instead of not realizing and just doing it for the money. Maybe we’d continue forever just to go to strange places and play for fun, but I like to have a steady growth all the time.
You’ve also got some side projects that you’ve done in the past. Are you doing any of that sort of stuff at the moment?
Tomas (Høffding) has a band called Bon Homme, and me and Jeppe have been doing a lot of productions for American artists and a French artist, so we’ve been working as a producer team. I also have a solo deal with Secretly Canadian, who’s released bands like Bon Iver and Antony and the Johnsons. I have an album coming out in May so it’s been pretty busy.
In this way do you get to work within your various musical genres through your side projects, rather than trying to bring it into WhoMadeWho?
Yeah it’s like WhoMadeWho has such a strong concept and we have a way that we’re gonna go and it’s really hard to change too much. We did that on The Plot and it’s not clever to just do something because you get bored. Of course we’re always changing, slowly we change everything, live shows, the album, the sound, but we don’t wanna do too much just because we get anxious.
Download Dreams here.