Interview: First Aid Kit Talks STAY GOLD, Mike Mogis, and More
By Dan Casey on May 14, 2014
I don’t know what they’re putting in the water in and around Stockholm, Sweden, but it’s churning out excellent musicians at an alarming rate. Joining the ranks of indie darlings like Jens Lekman, Jose Gonzalez, Lykke Li, and The Knife are sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, better known as First Aid Kit. Since making waves in 2008 with a cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” the sister act’s country-tinged blend of indie pop, Americana, and sweetly ethereal harmonies has earned them an international following. With two albums under their belt and a third on the way, the Söderberg sisters seem poised to take over the world — or at least its ears. Now, they’re embarking on a massive world tour in support of their forthcoming third album Stay Gold (available June 10th), but before they metamorphose into international rock goddesses, I managed to catch up with the Söderbergs during a recent stop in Los Angeles.
Nerdist: So let’s talk about Stay Gold. I’ve heard a couple of tracks off of it. I’m really enjoying it so far. Tell me a bit about the recording process. I know you guys worked with Bright Eyes producer Mike Mogis, and you worked a little bit with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra. Tell me a little bit about that – what was the recording process like?
Johanna Söderberg: Yeah, we went to Omaha for five weeks. We were there for – we made our last record in Omaha, too – so we decided to come back. It was a familiar place and an amazing studio, and we just kind of – well, we always record live. For the first week, we kind of just track all of the songs live, which means you do vocals and guitar and keyboard and stuff.
Klara Söderberg: We added lots of strings.
JS: And guitar players.
KS: Lots and lots of nice stuff.
N: Is tracking live sort of standard for the course, or is it just something you guys feel is important for getting the sound that you’re going for?
JS: Well, for us, we sing harmonies together, Klara and I, so we kind of have to be in the same room and sing at the same time. So we kind of like that. We just like the feeling. It’s different than when you layer stuff afterwards. It’s more fun to do it live, I think. It’s different.
N: Yeah, and I guess you probably capture some more of that live energy that you wouldn’t get if you were recording separately, then layering it on top of each other.
JS: Absolutely. Absolutely.
KS: Yeah, definitely.
N: Nice. So what about Omaha in particular – you said you recorded your previous record there as well – what about Omaha draws you there as a recording destination? Is it the studio? Is it the environment?
JS: Yeah, it’s all of that. The first band that we started listening to – really listening to – was Bright Eyes. So for us, it has a lot of positive feeling. And there’s just such a big music scene there. I mean, Mike Mogis, who we’ve gotten to know so well as a friend, and his studio, and also the way he works – he’s just an incredible producer. We just had to go there again.
KS: Yeah. No, I mean, it’s just such an amazing studio. It has such a great vibe. Very nice, friendly – you just feel like you’re at home. Yeah, and also, like, Omaha isn’t like, the biggest city in the world, which is kind of nice.
JS: There aren’t that many distractions.
KS: Yeah. It’s good. When you’re making a record, you should just be focused, and you certainly are when you’re in Omaha.
N: Yeah, I can imagine. Especially a place like that gets you in the frame of mind. Fewer distractions would make it easier to buckle down to work, especially on something like an album. So with Stay Gold, how do you think that your sound has evolved from your previous records?
JS: Well, we worked more with the arrangements. We tried to be more ambitious with them. I think bigger was something we were trying to strive for. Like, we went epic on some songs.
JS: We’ve never tried that before. We always felt like, we kept it really simple, because there are only three people on stage, we wanted to not go too big, or do too complicated things. Now, we’re like, “You know what? Let’s have no limitations and see where we’ll go.
JS: Let’s try it out. We loved the results of that.
N: You guys have this sort of – I always hate pigeon-holing genre stuff – alt-country, maybe. That might not be the right term, but it has sort of that sensibility to it.
KS: Oh, yeah.
JS: Yeah, I mean, we’ve heard a lot of different things. I understand that. It’s nice to label things, but I don’t know. Yeah, sure – alt country.
N: How would you guys describe your sound? What would you like people to describe it as?
JS: It’s really hard to say, but it’s like folk and country influenced pop music.
KS: Yeah, it’s like, if you say alt-country, I immediately think of, like…
JS: People might get the wrong idea. Well, it’s not really like standard country, in a way. We have our own little – we give it our own touch.
KS: I think, like, with all labels, if that makes me think of other people that I like, then I don’t have a problem with it.
JS: Yeah, I think sometimes it’s easier to just list references than to …
N: Yeah, exactly. Well, in that case, who would you say, in terms of influences on Stay Gold, in particular?
JS: Um… Townes Van Zandt.
JS: Simon and Garfunkel. Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Yeah.
KS: Ryan Adams. Neko Case.
JS: Neko Case. I mean, there are so many people that inspire us. I could list a hundred people more.
KS: I mean, really…
JS: We could go on for two hours.
KS: That would be kind of boring.
JS: Yeah. [laughs]
N: Shifting gears slightly, I feel like the music scene in Sweden has been really blowing up over the last decade or so. My entryway into that whole scene was with Jens Lekman, and I’ve been finding myself wanting to find more and more. How are you guys received over in Sweden as compared to abroad? Where have you found more of a foothold? Or is it definitely sort of an international appeal?
JS: I don’t know. I think we’re really popular in Sweden.
KS: Yeah, we’re popular enough.
JS: That’s probably where we’re the most popular. But it’s a small country, too. If they play you on the radio…
KS: Yeah, you’re only heard by, like, a hundred people, and we’re all called Sven. [laughs]
N: I read that on Wikipedia before this.
JS: Oh, good. You’re informed.
N: Of course.
JS: [laughs] No, but, like, I don’t know. I feel like everywhere, especially where people know English, like in the UK and Australia, because our lyrics are very important. They like to get that aspect of it.
KS: Mm-hmm. Otherwise you just listen to it and you go, “What?”
JS: No, but, like…
KS: I’m just kidding.
JS:…we try not to think about that too much. We think like, “Whoa, someone likes us over here? That’s crazy!” That’s kind of the attitude I have.
KS: It’s not like, “These are our markets.”
N: Yeah, exactly. Once you try to start breaking it down into key demos and all that it just gets a little obtuse.
JS: Yeah, for sure.
N: So you guys – are you about to go on tour? What do you have coming up in the next few months?
KS: We are about to go on tour for quite a while, and we’re going to start on – the first tour we’re doing is in North America, so we’re coming to the US and to Canada, which is going to be amazing…
JS: It’s our first proper long-length tour in a while.
KS: …and the first one for this record, so we’re going to try it out on the American audience and see if they approve of it.
JS: Yeah. [laughs]
N: Awesome. Do you have a favorite venue or place to play?
JS: So many.
JS: So many terrific venues. We just played – we got to open for Rodriguez at Radio City Music Hall. That was pretty cool.
KS: We liked like that.
JS: We love the Union Transfer in Philadelphia.
KS: Yeah, that’s really good.
JS: That’s where we’re playing in May.
KS: The Orange Peel.
JS: And Orange Peel in Asheville.
KS: We like Asheville. Asheville’s amazing. Yeah.
JS: Everywhere is great. The El Rey, where we’re playing. Webster Hall. We’re playing Webster Hall.
KS: Webster Hall – we did that two years ago. It was incredible. We’re excited to go back there. There are so many places.
N: Awesome. If you had to dance to one song for the rest of your life, what would it be?
KS: If I had to dance…
JS: “I can’t dance” by Gram Parsons. It makes me feel good about not being able to dance.
KS: It’s like a very – it’s not an easy song to dance to, but I think we’re both pretty terrible.
JS: We’re silly dancers. Whenever we dance…
KS: We’re ugly dancers.
JS: You just go for it, but you look ridiculous, but you’re having fun. It’s good to listen to a song that tells you “I can’t dance, but I do it anyway.”
N: I just came from – I was covering Coachella recently, and I can assure you you would have been in great company there.
N: As long as you’re having a good time, that’s all that matters.
JS: That’s all that matters.
KS: Except when you go to dance and you see people who are really amazing, and it really bums me out. I’m like, so jealous! ARGH! But, you know you can’t take yourself too seriously. You can’t be good at everything, you know.
N: That’s when you start entering reality show territory, and those are dangerous waters. Our outlet is called Nerdist, and our audience is very passionate about certain things; they nerd out about stuff. What do you nerd out about?
KS: I’m such a nerd. I get so obsessed with things. Oh, man.
JS: Well, music in general. You know, like, everything. You know their birthdays, when they died.
JS: Like, all their family and every single…
KS: I know! But I want to know it all! And then I have real memory skills. I’ll remember these things too, and, like, five years from now, if you ask me something, I’ll be, like, “Oh yeah, that was blah, blah, blah,” and it’s like, how did I even know that? Where was that hidden in my brain?
JS: It’s strange.
KS: I don’t know what I’m obsessed with, right now…
JS: You’re playing a lot of Nintendo.
KS: Oh my God, Johanna!
JS: What? Is that a secret? I’m sorry.
KS: Yeah, I’m playing this game called Professor Layton that’s pretty awesome.
N: Oh, yeah! That game is rad!
KS: It’s SO good! I got really proud of myself, because I solved this math puzzle thing yesterday, and I suck at math.
N: Yeah, once you solve some of the puzzles in that game, you just want to post up for a high five, but then you realize no one knows what you just did.
KS: Exactly. Yeah.
JS: You always talk out loud, like, “Oh my god, I got it!” And I’m like, “What?”
N: “Great. Good for you.”
KS: I’m trying to figure out what my current obsession. I can’t figure it out. I get obsessed with TV shows, too.
N: Are you guys big Game of Thrones fans?
KS: Not really. I think I got confused with too many names, so I watched the first season, but then by season two, I started watching it and I had forgotten so much. I was like, “Who? Who is that?”
N: Yeah, you need flash cards while watching that show sometimes.
JS: Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe we’ll pick it up.
JS: Otherwise, what do you like? You watch so many TV series. You watch, like, every TV series there is.
KS: Yeah, I do. I follow. I have an app that shows me – it’s called TV Show Time.
JS: It lets you catch up.
KS: Yeah. And then I just watch them. On my lonesome.
N: Very nice.
KS: I’m re-watching Friends for, like, the 15th time, which I realize is kind of lame. But Friends is so nice – it’s so familiar and comfortable. I just remember watching it when I was, like, a kid, and it’s just this nice feeling of these characters. I know exactly what’s going to happen,. and I know the jokes and I still laugh at these lame jokes. [chuckles]
N: Well, Friends is also one of those shows that you can always find on television. At any hour of the day they’re going to be playing reruns.
KS: Yeah, but I’m actually watching it…
JS: From start to finish.
KS: Yeah, right.
N: Oh, nice. Nice. You’ve got to get that continuity in there. Thank you guys very much for taking the time to speak to me today. Have a blast on your tour!
JS: Yeah, it was cool talking with you!
First Aid Kit’s third album, Stay Gold, is available on June 10th from Columbia Records. You can find out where to catch them on tour on their website.