Face to face with Christoffer Lundquist. Pt. 1: “You turn up the volume, ha ha!” and a guided tour through the AGM studio
The Aerosol Grey Machine in the sun
Fields, forests, some hills, cows and the sea. That’s Skåne, Sweden’s southernmost province. The houses look Danish, the people are friendly. It’s a landscape many tourists just pass by on their way to the “real” Sweden with its red wooden houses and the moose parks.
We are having an appointment with Christoffer Lundquist today, one of the masterminds of Roxette and many other Swedish music projects. And we are going to meet him in his infamous Aerosol Grey Machine (AGM) studio in a small village somewhere north of Ystad. He offered us a detailed way description but we really wanted to know if the address we had found out by ourselves was correct or not. What’s life without a little risk?
So we’re turning from a wide asphalt road into a smaller asphalt road, drive through a few villages, turn from the small asphalt road into a gravel road, from the gravel road into an even smaller gravel road until the car navigation system tells me to stop. “You’ve reached your destination.” Ahm, no, we haven’t. That house does not look like on the videos we had seen. We drive on, to the end of the street. After a few seconds, we see that landscape we knew from the SOAP video: two houses, a meadow, birches and a wide sky. Just much smaller than you’d think. Anyway, we were right! We drive onto the yard, and at the same moment we park our van, two mystical things are happening: my smartphone is suddenly restarting itself and our video camera that has never failed before cannot be switched off anymore. Weird place…
We’re getting out of the car. No one there. What we see are two old but nicely refurbished buildings standing side by side at right angles. One cat comes across the small meadow opposite the building and checks us out. It’s Päron (Pear), his voice is hoarse and he seems to like us, he wants to be petted. Otherwise, still no sign of life around. The door to the building we identified as the studio is slightly open, we knock. No answer. We knock again. Silence. What now?
Suddenly, the door in the other house opens and out comes Christoffer. Friendly he welcomes us, we talk a little and then he asks the question we had been waiting for: “Do you want to see the studio?” Well duh!!
So we enter through the door that was so well-known to us from all the videos. When you stand in this door, you have to choose your way: When you turn to the left, you come into the mixing room which also contains most of the key instruments. The other way leads you into the recording room that is big enough to hold a whole pop band with their instruments. Behind a glass wall and down a few steps is the drum room, and when you pass through that one, you finally enter the kitchen. The atmosphere is special here. On the one hand, we have never been here personally before but on the other hand, we feel like we have worked here many times already. The place is cozy. You have wooden walls, small windows, carpets everywhere on the floor. This could as well be the cottage you rent for your friends or family to celebrate New Year’s Eve deep in the Swedish snow covered forests.
We take a seat first on the bench with the striped pillows in the mixing room. Small talk. Christoffer’s wife Ylva comes in and brings us cake, tea and Physalis. Christoffer gets a huge cup of coffee. “I always need my coffee in the morning.” Päron comes to us, lies on the bench and starts purring. He is 15 years old and has been in the studio since Christoffer bought it in the late ’90s. This cat knows all the secrets. Another cat, Vitnos (White Nose), sits on top of the mixing desk and watches us. After a while, she falls asleep and will not change her position for the next few hours. The cake is good, the tea gets sweetened with honey. On the window sill behind me is a plastic box full of Roxette plectrums in different colors. Later, I will forget to ask Christoffer if I might have one. Too many things will happen during this day.
We start our little walk through the studio. Christoffer explains, “This is like a recording studio from the past. Today’s studios are often designed with engineers’ minds, they have to be orderly. Artists have opposite minds, they hate studios like those. It’s very important to have a certain kind of atmosphere.” Well, the AGM is an orderly place. Unlike you may have expected it, all things here have their places. It’s a little crowded here and there but we do see the system behind it. All the guitars stand or hang in one corner, the twenty or so different microphone heads are sorted into shelves on the other wall and so on. Every corner here is a new inspiration. When you’re stuck in the middle of the production, you just go and try one of the many instruments. Like this church organ there in the corner, right next to the window between mixing and recording room. Christoffer got that from North Sweden, it had been in some basement for twenty years before it came to his studio. He and his family put the pieces together like a big puzzle. The pipes were numbered.
Most of the items in this studio were bought on eBay. There is the Hammond organ that needs to be tuned every other day. The baby pianos that are so small that musicians made the studio cats play on them. A Marxophone, a blend of cither and piano. Or the tremolo. Christoffer calls it “the most stupid instrument ever”. And just like the instrument had heard that, it cuts his finger while he tries to play on it. Blood is flowing. Then, there is the bass harmonica Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys liked to use.
We ask Christoffer how he finds all these instruments. He says, “I spend much time searching on the Internet. I try to find things that exist and are rare and not used so often. There are nerd clubs with less than 100 fans of a stupid instrument. And there’s more to get, it’s not complete yet.”
Does he use all the instruments? “Yes, I use them all, I use them a lot!”. Can he play them all? “Well, it’s the same notes on all of them.” In a corner we see a very special thing, a xylophone made of crystal glass. Its name is “Aquarion”, it was handcrafted by a guy from the USA who lives in a small house in the middle of the forest and creates sounds with the help of utterly unusual materials, we find out later. Not so far away from what we see here.
We continue to a huge vase which turns out to be an ocarina. When you blow into it, it makes a deep tone. Then Christoffer brings a small ball, as small as a fingernail, a tiny sister of the big ocarina, and even that you can play. Even though it’s a challenge.
That’s the concept of this studio. You go somewhere and play something. It’s made to “be fast, you need only a very short time from the idea to the realization. In normal studios, it takes hours before you hear anything, here you just grab it and do it.”
A door leads into a dark room. It’s the echo chamber, the AGM has two of them, with different characteristics. Can you change the sound of the room? “Yes, you open the door, ha ha.” Ahm, yes.
We’re going back to the mixing room and sit down. We don’t have much time left. Christoffer will leave for North America tomorrow and still needs to pack. So we agreed on two hours in the studio. (In the end, it would be almost twice as much.) Let’s start the talk!
Kai: I understand that most of the artists working here stay here not just for a few hours but a couple of days in a row?
Christoffer: Yeah, at least a couple of days. The idea is to not interrupt their creative process. And it seems to work. Maybe three to five, six days or so. More than that, it’s so intense it’s difficult to keep up the energy. I prefer nowadays three days actually where you can work really long hours, then you get exhausted. When Per and Clarence are here, those are the longest working days, I never work longer than with them. We work until two in the morning, 14 hours of constant work, very intense!
K: You really work concentrated on one song all the time?
C: We normally spend a long time on one song, and when we get tired, we skip to another song and go back to the first song when we feel like it.
K: You don’t have a Beatles party here from time to time?
C: Oh yeah, we listen to a lot of music, all the time, yes! Per is the greatest DJ because he knows so much about music and all kinds of music, all genres, all periods. So he is constantly playing music. To get ideas and also to show his ideas. It’s always like “Oh, listen to this, we could make it like that, what instrument is this?“.
K: You have the cats here, they are an inspiration as well…
C: Oh yeah!
Justyna: Is it not too loud for them?
C: Yes, that’s the weirdest thing. Do you see the position that cat has? [Vitnos lies on the big mixing desk and sleeps while Päron sits with us and watches what we are doing.] That is the favorite position for all the cats even when the music is loud. And for some reason they seem to relax more when there is actually loud music. So my interpretation is that it shuts out the world for them, so they are not threatened by anything. They are completely relaxed. Very stupid obviously but it seems to work.
J: They like the vibrations here.
C: Yeah, maybe.
J: It’s amazing to come here, it’s like wow! It makes a huge impression. But it looks a little bit different than on the videos we saw before.
C: Yeah, you get a weird picture from the videos always. What’s the difference when you see it?
K: When you come inside it looks smaller.
J: The yard looks smaller, too…
C: Okay, you get a bigger sense from the videos?
K: It looks much more intimate in real life. In the videos it looks messy because they just put the camera into one corner, then they show some other corner. You don’t see the system behind it.
C: Yes, you don’t get the whole picture.
K: Yes, but I see the system here, I see that you do have places for percussions, wind instruments, guitars, mixers. And this is what you don’t get to see on the videos because they are mostly cut like crazy.
C: Oha, you get the sense of big mess!
J: Yes, a lot of things everywhere. But here everything is in order.
C: There is so much stuff in here and I’m not an orderly person normally. I don’t clean or so. But if you don’t put things back roughly in the same place, you never find them again. So there has to be some kind of basic structure. And also because you want to work fast, you want to be able to try things, you need to know where things are.
J: You started with the studio 15 years. How did you get the idea?
C: I already had a demo studio in my wife Ylva’s parents’ garage. So I had started to run a studio but it was like a closet. I bought some synths and a mixing desk and tape machines. We recorded Brainpool records there and I also recorded demos for local artists and started to produce. Then the idea was to find a summer house for us which should also have a studio in the barn. But the idea was not to have a professional studio to work in, to live in. The idea was not to live from the studio. I didn’t have the idea that that could ever be possible. We bought this place because it was really cheap and far away. I am from Lund [a city with 80,000 inhabitants not far from Malmö, famous for its university] and if you look for a house closer to Lund, they are really really expensive. So we had to get kinda far out on the country side. And also we wanted a location with no neighbors, so you can never disturb anyone. If you want to insulate a building like this so that the sound doesn’t get out, it becausets a fortune. You would have to do that if you build a studio in the city. Extra walls, that would be crazy.
J: This brings atmosphere too, the country side. For sure it feels nicer to work here than in the city…
C: After that it started to come to life. I started to work with a lot of people. Some things in life are very much random, luck. You know things just happen without a plan, without anything.
K: What’s it like to have the working and the family place side by side? I mean, you have two kids.
C: They all sort of grew up with it, the kids are very used to it, they have no problem with it. Of course when there’s school next morning, we try to avoid playing drums at one in the morning. When we work over here [in the barn], no one hears anything, so that’s no problem.
K: Have you been bothered by fans who try to find you here?
C: No, I think two or three times people have come here when we were here. And that’s fine. I know people told me that they were here when we were not here. No problem.
K: I remember the old studio which Per had with MP down in Halmstad…
C: Yeah, they had a lot of people, that’s different here. Well, if you do something that is public… I mean, there are pictures of this place on record covers. It’s a risk you have to take. So far it’s okay.
J: Yes, it’s not only your studio, it’s also your home.
C: But other than that, working and living so close is great for me. No problem at all. But it also has the effect that it’s difficult for me and my wife to have a holiday here. Even though this is like a summer paradise. It’s difficult for us to relax here because we do something all the time. That’s the only slightly bad part. We have to go away from here whenever we need to relax.
J: It’s tempting to run over to the studio all the time…
J: You first said it was just a private studio, you made it for yourself. Who was the first one who asked you to work with you here?
C: I think the first one was… do you know the Swedish band “Sator”? They were a hard fast punk band in the ’90s, Brainpool were close friends with them. The singer of the band sang on a Brainpool song called “Girl Lost”, there was a duet. He started a solo project and came here to work. And that was actually the beginning of this studio with someone else’s music and after that it just continued.
J: Did you already have such a big collection of stuff then?
C: It was not as much as this. Far from it. But it was basically the same setup. The building was ending over there. [Christoffer points to the end of the recording room] So the drum room and the kitchen, that wasn’t here. It was just the old barn. I think it was 2000 when we built the drum room. And after the “Finn 5 Fel!” record, we added the kitchen and that section around it. So originally, there was no toilet or kitchen in here, they had to go into our house. Because it was meant as my playground only. But then we quickly realized that we didn’t want the drinking musicians peeing in our home, so we needed a kitchen and a toilet!
K: We saw videos of you working with the Gyllene Tider guys, together with half of the Roxette band actually. That must have been crowded here!
C: Yeah, it was crowded! Yeah, yeah, of course it was. Very crowded!
K: How do you keep silence during the recordings?
C: You don’t. You turn up the volume, ha ha!
J: And the ideas with all these different instruments you had already when you started the studio or you started collecting the instruments from all over the world later?
C: No, I started a lot earlier actually, it’s not actually about collecting as such because I don’t have a collector in me, like a stamp collector or so. I’m after the sounds and more than anything else the combination of sounds because when you combine instruments… I mean the sound itself is rare, people haven’t heard it too much, and then you combine two or three playing the same thing, you get a new sound, a new instrument. That was always the driving. I wanted different sounds, something that is not obvious. That makes imaginations go off when you hear it. I started buying instruments as a teenager. Synthesizers from flea markets, old trash cheap guitars, stuff like that just to record demos at home.
K: As you already go back in history, we better should start at zero…
C: There is no order in this interview!
K: Still there is order, (I am German after all) but I’m afraid if we always jump and skip, then we get lost.
C: You be the director!
Tomorrow on TDR: Face to face with Christoffer Lundquist. Pt. 2: “My family home is only books”
Another tour through the studio:
“Vitnos lies on the big mixing desk and sleeps…”
“…while Päron sits with us and watches what we are doing.”
AGM: The mixing room
AGM: The recording room
Technical errors may occur.