Interview: WhoMadeWho Makes Electro Rock ‘Dreams’ Comes True

Last week, Danish electronic rock trio WhoMadeWho self-released their fifth album, Dreams. Around the same time, confirmations began circulating that New York post-punk torchbearers The Rapture had quietly disbanded just three years after DFA label mates LCD Soundsystem famously called it quits at Madison Square Garden. It was, to some, ‘the end of an era’. For years, WhoMadeWho – whose sonic palette comprises disco, rock, jazz, and Hip Hop – were often cited alongside The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem (as well as Hot Chip, Soulwax, and Daft Punk) as purveyors of dance music for the smart set. The demise of “the DFA era” could only be bad news for WMW, right? Wrong.

As it turns out, WhoMadeWho, formed in 2003, never really planned on being part of that era or any sound movement in particular for very long. Even as far back as their last minute, skeleton-suited replacement stint for the Klaxons in 2007, Tomas Hoefding, Jeppe Kjellberg, and Tomas Barfod were already envisioning molding their hybrid sound into more traditional pop music. After several releases on Gomma and a couple of albums of Kompakt including Knee Deep and Brighter, they formally declared their intent to grow up on Dreams.

The songs on Dreams have a much more finished feel to them individually, and collectively the entire album follows as a more cohesive arc without too many tangents into any purely dance or indie rock tropes. WhoMadeWho’s maturity is evident not only in their approach to music, but their personal lives as well. During our Skype chat with drummer and DJ Tomas Barfod, one can hear children in the background, the voices a reminder that WhoMadeWho are not the same people or band they were almost a decade ago.

VIBE: You’ve stated your intent was to grow up and become more serious as musicians. Any fear that you might grow up too much and kill what fans love about WhoMadeWho? How serious is too serious?
Tomas Barfod: It’s less serious than the two previous albums because we’re not trying so much. We do everything that the song needs, and nothing else. Maybe we had eight different vocals, but we wound up with one at the end. Also in terms of writing the song, we used the pop method. If we couldn’t finish it ourselves, we asked our songwriter friends. You can hear it’s our sound, the method of making it was more serious.

It sounds like a continuation of some of the ideas in Brighter, but more streamlined, there’s more balance between the rock songs and the dance tracks. Is there a lot of material that got left out that you might use later?
There is a lot of material that we leave out. We start with about thirty songs and wind up with ten or twelve. A bunch of the songs that didn’t end up on the album were really bad. You think they’re really cool at the time, but if you take a little time, you realize it’s really bad. You need to allow yourself to try new things, and it often ends up being unusable, really annoying to listen to. Some of the tracks we might edit as a bonus for vinyl or iTunes.

How do your DJ experience and your solo albums change how you look at and listen to your work with WhoMadeWho?
It gave me a lot of self-awareness, so that’s always nice. The biggest lesson was being in L.A., exploring songwriting and hip hop. I learned a lot about making music in that environment, it has to be fast, efficient. There’s not a lot of room for mistakes. You got to a session, and you basically have to deliver the full track in one day. There’s no time for games. I think we did a lot of that in the past with WhoMadeWho. We think too much about things. So I used this experience this time around. “If you can’t write the vocals for this, use someone else.” If my beat didn’t work, we skipped the song and made another one.

Can you explain your idea of “Double or Die?”
That philosophy has saved the band. It’s a strange position to be in the underground scene, part of the club scene, and playing indie festivals, and being part of this all for ten years. Usually there’s some hype in the beginning and you become big or you don’t and disappear. I’ve seen lots of bands that were doing really well four years ago and now nobody knows where they are. We got the idea for this from the movie Anvil. We thought, this is a great band, but career-wise, it didn’t work for them. So we agreed that if we couldn’t double everything in a year – fan size, etc. – we would stop the band. We were joking about it, but I was kind of serious. And in one year, we went from 5,000 Facebook fans to 50,000. But we also were looking at the number of people showing up to our shows, our fees, all of it. It’s not about money, but it’s a good measure to keep the band focused.

How big are we talking – Daft Punk big? How accessible to more people do you want to be?
Of course we want that, but I don’t think it’s possible. All bands want to have more fans, be more loved, that’s why they are there. But we also know that the way we make music and are as a band, and the way we want to tour, puts restrictions on us. We chose to put our album out ourselves because it made more sense to do it that way. We could be ten times bigger with a major deal but we’d making the same amount of money, and without getting more out of it. We’d have to do a lot more people telling us what to do, and that’s not what we want. We’re also not good at making Daft Punk style “euphoria” hits. Maybe some day, but we stopped trying to do something we don’t like just because someone told us to do it.

What do you think is going to happen with dance music, now that it’s mainstream and not so exotic?
The American scene is completely different from the European scene. I love the way Americans see things and the way they get excited. It’s really hard to tell if it’s going to wind up like disco in a big fire, but it seems to be going to stay mainstream like hip hop and be a strong culture for many years.