Mattias Olsson: The CirdecSongs Interview

Mattias Olsson is a musical chameleon, remarkably adept at making himself blend perfectly into whatever musical soundscape that lies before him. No doubt the unassuming Swede would not have it any other way.

Olsson found his way onto the CirdecSongs radar in 2017 at Progtoberfest in Chicago. He was playing drums in his group, Necromonkey. He and his band were thundering away in the smaller Muisc Joint half of the building while I was catching the last of a set in the larger Rock Club. As I made my way into the room, I began hearing something unlike anything else I had absorbed that weekend. The sound was almost brutally heavy, but highly musical.

Olsson, thundering away on his drum kit, was leading an ensemble of musicians I had caught glimpses of in other bands over the previous day or two. They had all come together to form this band and make a sound I cannot fully and justifiably describe to this day. All I knew for certain is I wanted MORE of it! Unfortunately, I had to make do with a scant 15 minutes or so. It was raucous, but organized. It was vicious, but inviting. And, I was shocked to learn later on, it was for the most part improvised! This was one of those sets that defied description, but never fully left one’s consciousness.

As it turns out, Olsson is able to bring that process to a wide variety of musical contexts. Be they acoustic or electronic, led from behind the drums or elsewhere in the musical spectrum, his brand of eclecticism contains something for nearly anyone interested in a wide variety of musical adventures. Olsson maintained a constant orbit around my musical world, where I would catch a glimpse of him  every now and then (including at the following year’s Progtoberfest). And while I never felt like I’d gotten close to that Necromonkey set again — save for a late ’19 release called Aliver at Copperfields 22 September 2018by Döskalle — that never really mattered. The eclecticism became far more important.

Using the band name Molesome, Olsson released Be My Baby Tonight in late 2019. It is a wonderfully disjointed collection of sounds and grooves gathered over a period of several years, with those pieces finding a home on this record. Nothing could sound more detached from its bubblegum pop-sounding title. It quickly became a CirdecSongs favorite. Molesome was a band name used to convey many different musical textures and moods. This became more than evident with the recent release of Tom & Tiger a couple of weeks ago. This album was not so much a musical statement as it was a audio therapy session.

The album stems from the rough patch Olsson was forced to endure in early 2019. His daughter Tiger found herself “in a very dark place” in February, and his friend and musical collaborator Tom Doncourt passed away the following month. Olsson was unable to function properly for weeks. Despite attempting to maintain regular visits to his Roth Händle Studios (where his label gets its name, or vice versa), nothing positive was happening musically or emotionally for him. It all changed one day before he headed home.

Olsson sat at his piano, jacket on, and played a few cautious notes. He waited a bit, and then played a few more notes. Something inside him clicked. Rather than go home as planned, he turned the studio’s power back on, set up a couple of microphones, and began to record his efforts. What followed was a gorgeous bit of ambient, spacious, and highly resonant chord changes accompanied by a series of understated single notes. Four untitled pieces, clocking in at around 43 minutes, was the end result. Music is a healer, and Olsson had found a way (with the encouragement of those close to him) to deal with the issues of his world.

Tom & Tiger runs in stark contrast to Be My Baby Tonight, but why wouldn’t it? Olsson is not a musician known for staying in the same place for an extended period of time. And by “extended,” that could mean more than one record! What said is said, then it’s time to move on. No doubt Olsson is already a few steps ahead of this record, plotting out his next few musical moves. But like every other musician in the world, the Coronavirus has pretty much brought everything in Olsson’s world to a grinding halt.

Nevertheless, Olsson finds himself camped in his Roth Händle fortress, manning any one of the several instruments he plays, letting whatever The Muse deems fit to come forward flow right through him and into the audible air. Where those sounds take up residence remains to be seen. Based on Olsson’s methodology, that is precisely the way it should be. The sounds will take residence in an existing musical “home,” or they will ultimately build and inhabit their own residence. Either way, Olsson stands at the ready.

On a personal level, Olsson is the talented musician everyone is dying to meet: pleasant, affable, and down to earth. There is no pretension to be found in him. He has a gift and he wants to share it. It’s really that simple. We have talked about doing an interview since our reunion in 2018. At last, the time has come to pass.

From his home in Stockholm, Sweden, Mattias Olsson took some time to participate in a CirdecSongs interview.

CirdecSongs: How many projects are you typically juggling at any given time, and how do you keep them all straight in your head?

Mattias Olsson: I think it’s a very Scandinavian thing to do many different parallel projects. I’ve always been in many different bands, and when I grew up learning to play I played in a different orchestra and ensemble pretty much every night. I think that sort of gave me the tools to be able to reset myself for the circumstance at hand.

For me it’s a big difference when I’m producing an album, or if I’m booked to play a session, or if I’m booked to sort of mess things up sonically. I feel that all of those roles enrich each other. I love being told exactly what to play, I enjoy having full creative freedom, and everything in between.

I think I generally have around 20 different projects going on. I think it would be very limiting to be in only one project or band. I try to be attentive and learn from the situations I’m in and avoid coming with a backpack filled with preconceptions. They tend to make things muddy. I enjoy making rules for projects that will define them and set boundaries. That helps a lot. 

Tell me about your current project: what inspired it and what propelled it forward?

I just finished producing the second Pixie Ninja album, which was a fairly difficult project, because I think my vision of the album was very different from the band’s. I think there was a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication going on, which mostly came from my inability to describe and share my vision of how I heard the album. The rules that I wanted to set up for the project were to tweak the sonic parameters of progressive rock. Using Orchestrons instead of Mellotrons; using Claviolines and Maestrovoxes instead of synths; and to use very bad digital reverbs from the 80’s on great sounding instruments to set a sort of conflicting ambience. Seasoning the music generously with question marks. 

I wanted there to be vocals on all the songs, but being used in an instrumental sense. No words. I wanted to use the ugliest sounds in the world and the most beautiful sounds to create a sort of chaos-like atmosphere where every era and aesthetic is smashing into each other. I failed miserably with this of course, because you can’t realize that vision without having songs bleeding to death on the studio floor. There were a lot of casualties. But you can hear that creative struggle on the album and it has a great energy to it. You can hear things breaking and being repaired in front of your ears.   

Tom & Tiger can be seen as quite the musical catharsis. It’s practically a musical therapy session. Tell me how music helps to heal the soul for you, on a personal level. 

I think it’s almost the opposite, to be completely honest. The soul is healthy and dynamic when I’m doing music and I can feel bad, itchy and weird when I’m not playing or creating stuff. Tom & Tiger obviously wasn’t an album I wanted to make, but it sort of needed to be made. I was all blocked and overwhelmed and needed to find a new way musically. A way to decompress. 

What prevented you from giving the songs proper titles?

Because of the text inside the cover. I felt that I had sort of already set the stage emotionally for what the listener was about to hear, and I didn’t want to manipulate the listener into even more precise places by putting titles on them. Also, when I sat down and thought about song titles it felt like I was putting a sticker or label on top of it and as it wasn’t made like that I felt it was untrue to the core intent of the project.

What kind of personal visual imagery is summoned from these sounds? 

I guess it’s very abstract in a way. It was important for me to have as much dynamic and as much space as possible. But I didn’t want it to be a documentary, either. So I worked a lot with the acoustic aspects of it with reverbs, echoes, and so forth. It was important that it didn’t feel rushed, as the emotions I was dealing with at the time was almost like being stuck in a very dark place where you can barely make out shapes and movement. And the rest is in your head. I wanted to reflect that.

Also, the repetition in the album is very important as that mirrors the kind of thought circles you get stuck in when you are grieving. The same phrase can be played in a thousand ways. Questions can be shoutered, or whimpered. Why did this happen? How can life be so unfair? What did I do wrong? 

When you offer music like this to the listening public, what do you hope most for them to get out of it?

I’ve never really made an album like this, that was very open ended. When the records came from the printer, I almost felt embarrassed by it and thought that maybe I should retract it altogether. Making albums is a lot like getting a haircut: you sit for an hour or so and stare at yourself in the mirror while someone is trying desperately to make it look better and inevitably failing.

I don’t view my music or myself as being flawed, or that I want it or me to be anything else. You just have to sort of accept it for what it is. Its a bit presumptuous to have expectations or hopes for what other people will get out of it. My part in all of this is in a way done. Now it’s out there, and hopefully people will listen. If they have use for it in their lives, that’s amazing! I’m just grateful that there are people out there listening.

With this music in the air now, how does it sit with you emotionally?

Sometimes it’s painful because it takes me back emotionally to the place where I was in my mind when I wrote it. Other times I can be driving and listening and space out and it becomes a part of the landscape. The other night I was driving and the sun was setting over the woods and it was remarkable.  And then there are other times when I can’t bear to revisit that place. Its a bit like having a standing reservation at the worst hotel you have ever stayed at. “We have prepared your room, sir. Darkness, deep grief, remorse, anger, and desperation, all inclusive.”

What is your favorite musical context? In other words, where do you feel most able to thrive? 

In a way, I think improvising on stage with other people that you love and trust is the most exciting. Because you only have one shot, and it’s about bringing everything you’ve got to that moment. And sometimes the best thing you can do when you improvise is to just stop playing, listen, and let the music evolve by itself. If you put together a good enough band, you can make yourself unnecessary. And that’s the best feeling in the world!

Also, there is no such thing as a perfect improvisation. There’s always going to be bum notes, glitches, and ditches. But the good thing is that they’ll only happen once and that’s all part of the improv. I also loved playing live to silent movies. When you surrender your creativity to someone else’s art and just try to amplify what’s going on on the screen  … it’s a really powerful but emotionally draining process. 

Describe the ideal musical collaborator.

The most important thing is always that the person is a good listener. You can be a god on your instrument, but if you can’t hear what’s going on around you it’s gonna be awful.  I think communication and a sense of humor go a long way. Being flexible and to be able to change the creative course quickly. To be patient in the creative moment and to trust the vision. To be brave.  

What has surprised you most about making music in the 21st century?

The sheer amount of talent and amazing music that’s being constantly made. The amazing avalanche of ambition, diversity, and curiosity that’s embedded in new music that is exploding all around us if we only open our ears and eyes and look beyond our worn out beat up copies of our favorite old albums. So much good stuff. It never ends. 

What’s your dream project? 

There are a couple of dream projects but one is a sort of “-1” concept. Back in the day, there were these jazz albums that were called “+1” records, where there would be a jazz quartet playing but your instrument was taken out, so you could play along and practice with the record and “complete” the band. I want to do the exact opposite. I want to create an album where I take myself out of the creation.

So for instance: I did the Tom & Tiger album, but on one of the tracks I felt that Leo’s cello was too intrusive and became dominant. So I used only the effect return on the track, creating a sort of distant cello cloud behind the piano. When I was doing backups on the project I listened to only his cello and realized, of course, that it was amazing but it just didn’t work in the Tom & Tiger context. So I called Reine Fiske and let him improvise electric guitar over the cello tracks, and all of a sudden something new and exciting was born that had very little to do with the original Tom & Tiger track! So Leo improvised to me, I took myself out, and then Reine improvised to Leo. So it’s a sort of a game of musical Chinese Whispers.

I also have an idea for a performance choir piece that’s written for a choir equipped with CD walkmans and headphones, where the singers can’t hear the full choir, as they are only hearing their own part that’s on the walkman. On the walkmans there will be the music Ive written but also spoken instructions with how to sing the part. Louder, quieter, whispering, and so on. The idea is that the audience will be the only ones seeing the big picture, a sort of parallel symphonic experience where the performer has no idea besides their own part is. I think I generally enjoy the experience of the tree more than the guy who planted the seed. All of these ideas are about starting creative processes and then taking yourself out. 

What draws you to a musical project? What are the most important elements?

I think there has to be something to explore, a musical idea or genre. Something new that I haven’t done before. But it can also be a social thing. That you love the artist and want to help them put their vision on to an album. I can’t really work with people I don’t like. I don’t have to agree with them on everything but there has to be a sort of basic understanding and respect. You have to be able to go for dinner or bowling after a recording session. Life is too short.


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My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers.

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