It may have taken a musical circling of the wagons, but six years after their acclaimed debut, Loopified, Dirty Loops at last released Phoenix on November 18. In keeping with their web-based delivery system, the terrifically talented trio from Stockholm, Sweden—vocalist/keyboardist Jonah Nilsson, drummer Aron Mellergård, and bassist Hendrik Linder—has over the past year been issuing videos for the record’s songs on YouTube. But in its completed form the five-track EP on Quincy Jones’ Qwest label makes for a crafty package, featuring the genre-bending ensemble’s best songwriting to date.
Much of the success can be attributed to each member’s growth since Loopified, which ranged from Loops opening for Maroon 5 on a 2015 world tour, and performing for and coming under the umbrella of the man known as “Q,” to individual pursuits. That was apparent at Bass Magazine’s Bass Bash during the NAMM show last January, where Linder performed a sturdy set of standards and originals with his hand-picked unit, which included guitarist Tim Miller, saxophonist Björn Arkö, keyboardist Joel Lyssarides, and drummer Jonathan Lundberg. Reached by phone in Sweden, in mid-November, Henrik opened up about Phoenix, his influences, and life during the lockdown.
How did Phoenix come together and why is it an EP?
It was taking us a long time to create our second album, so we aimed to do an EP and release all the songs as singles, and do videos for them. Really, it was a way to get the balling rolling again for the band. Actually, it’s kind of a hybrid between an EP and an album because it’s 30 minutes long; if we would have added 15 more minutes it would have been as long as Loopified.
Was there a concept for the EP or was it more about recording the best songs you had?
We tried some new ideas but I don’t think there was a concept, overall. We did feel we wanted to arrange the songs in a slightly different way then before, so there’s less of the EDM aspect from Loopified. We wanted to have more focus on hearing the instruments on Phoenix. The title refers to a rebirth.
Who wrote the songs, and what’s your writing process?
This time it was mostly Aron and I, for whatever reason, but Jonah played a big role touching up the harmonies and the arrangements. Usually it starts with Aron sitting with a very old version of Logic on a very bad computer, playing things in with a MIDI keyboard [laughs]. Generally we start with some kind of groove or foundation, then we try to write the melody and get the form of the song, and then we start to arrange it after that. I think that’s why writing is a slow process for us because doing the arrangement is kind of like writing a second song; it takes a lot of time. We sit with the melodies until we’re happy with them. On this album, especially, I think it was important for us to write simple pop songs first, so there’s no dense harmony dictating the kind of melody we have. We’ve found it’s easier to for us to write over a basic framework of a tune.
Who wrote the lyrics?
Unfortunately, I did [laughs]. We’ve worked with some great lyricists, including our manager, Andreas Carlsson, on Loopified, and we’ll continue to collaborate with lyricists in the future. But this time around it was more about the sound of the lyrics than the context. For some of the songs, Aron sang nonsense English lyrics on his demos, and when he sent them to me to finish he said he wanted all the vowels to remain the same as in his nonsense lyrics, so that limited me. It’s more about the phoenetics than the meaning of the lyrics on these songs.
How about composing your bass lines?
As with Loopified, I got to record the bass last for the most part, so all of the drums and all of the chord changes were already down. From there I was able to craft my parts. Besides my normal way of building bass lines from the initial grooves or riffs, sometimes I’ll transcribe a fill by Aron and try to get the accents in my bass part, or I’ll transcribe something Jonah improvised and adapt it into the bass part. That’s why a lot of my parts are kind of weird for the instrument, because they’re not totally written by a bass player.
What basses did you use on Phoenix and how were they recorded?
I played my Mattisson Signature 6-string on “World on Fire,” a custom Mattisson fretless 6-string with no knobs that’s sort of Gary Willis-inspired on “Work Shit Out,” and my Mattisson Signature 5-string on “Breakdown,” Next to You,” and “Rock You.” To record them all, we used only the DI on my EBS Reidmar 470 head, straight to the board. Then our mixer, Simon Petrén, probably added stuff in the mix stage; like on “Work,” where the bass is split over six channels, with some chorus and tremelo added. Another ingredient we used for a good portion of the songs is a very subtle synth bass to fatten up the sound. That was the result of me transcribing the bass parts using MIDI for an upcoming transcription book. That gave us synth tracks triggered by my original bass tracks, and we used those—although it took me some time to go in and match the MIDI to the imperfections in my played parts.
Let’s get into the tracks; “Rock You” seems riff-based.
Yes, that started with the main riff that Aron wrote, and then we played around with it. It was a slap part in Aron’s mind, so that’s what I did. Originally it was in A minor and then at the last minute we brought it up to Bb minor, so I tuned my bass up a half-step to retain the open strings. The song is basically Bbm to Gb throughout, with two riffs. It was the fastest song to write; it’s a simple funk song—a jam, in a way. The verse chords are Bbm to Gb, but it’s really just the riff, and then in the chorus the chords come in, but we reverse the order so it’s Gb to Bbm. After the chorus we add some reharms, but the foundation is those two chords.
Who are your main slap influences?
There are a few: Victor Wooten, Flea, and Marcus Miller. But my main slap influence, who I always forget to mention, is [L.A. session bassist] Melvin Lee Davis, the who has worked with Lee Ritenour and Chaka Khan. Sound-wise, he has my favorite slap tone, on tracks like Lee Ritenour’s “Night Rhythm” [Alive in L.A., GRP, 1997], plus his feel is ridiculous. He has a cool YouTube channel, as well. “Rock You” also has a keyboard bass influence, and my main inspiration is [L.A. keyboard ace] Greg Phillinganes, on tracks like Chaka Khan’s “We Can Work It Out” and Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.”
How do you play the sextuplet figures starting at the 3:16 mark of “Rock You”?
Bascially, the steps are: Thumb slap the open string, left-hand hammer twice, index pop the open string, and left-hand hammer twice. Or I can vary it; like if I play open-hammer-hammer-open-hammer then it’s a five-note grouping. Most of my slap playing is that kind of concept: groups of triplets in various combinations. It might sound like a drum-related approach, but actually it came from me trying to play country and bluegrass guitar licks, where they utilize hammers on open strings. When you adapt it to bass it instantly sounds like funk.
“Work Shit Out” has a killer fretless, finger-funk bass line and it’s the most musically adventurous track on the EP.
That’s how we conceived it, as a song that would evolve into a long improvised section with keyboard and drums solos. It started with Aron’s octave-jumping MIDI bass line. I wanted to simplify it a bit and remove one of the beats, but Aron insisted on his version, so I had to figure out how to play it because it’s a little unorthodox on bass. From there, Aron and I wrote the verse and the chorus, coming up with the one-note melody concept for the chorus. Then Jonah and Aron added all the harmonies. For Jonah’s solo, I stick pretty much to the root notes so he stretch and change the harmonies above them. It was a lot of fun to play the song live on a few gigs before the pandemic because it took different directions each time.
Who are your main finger-funk influences?
I’d say Gary Willis is the main one. Also Anthony Jackson, Jaco and Jamerson of course, and the late Rocco Prestia; I studied a lot of Tower of Power bass lines, particularly “Credit.” But Gary has been a super bass hero for me, in every aspect of his playing, from his grooves and solos to his phrasing and fingering system.
“Next to You” has a cool, halftime-shuffle feel and a gospel choir component.
That song took forever to write. Aron and I wrote the chorus in 2016. We found it in a drawer and tried a bunch of new verses with it until we got the right one. Then at the last minute, Aron wrote the gospel choir parts. He sent a very funny demo in which he marked where all the different gospel parts come in and what kind of voice they had. When Jonah recorded them, he had a chalkboard with all the different characters in the choir, and he distorted his voice to match each character and so none of them would sound like him. The groove has our typical, swung-funk, triplet feel, but the key is the Bootsy funk formula of having a heavy one to make all the subdivisions after it work. Aron wrote the chorus bass line, which is keyboard bass-like, and it worked best with a combination of fingers and slapping.
“World on Fire” has a classic Loops feel and it features your bass solo.
As with “Next to You,” we had this chorus for a long time. We took the groove from our cover of Britney Spears’ “Circus,” and the chorus even has the same first two changes as “Circus”: F#m-Cdim7. Jonah arranged the intro, and we added the horn soli and the slap bass section before the bass solo. The slap section was a little uncomfortable to play because I had to triple-pluck it, using my index, middle, and ring fingers on the same string—I had never done that before so I had to sit with it a bit, to get it down.
How did the bass solo come about and what was your approach?
It had been a while since I got a bass solo in a song, so it was time. I soloed over the verse changes and I started out with a symmetrical scale in mind that moves in intervals of minor thirds and minor seconds, so it’s basically two stacked augmented triads a half-step apart [see muic below]. The whole solo is inspired by getting to do some gigs with guitarist Tim Miller. He’s been a huge influence on me though his use of chord inversions and the way he looks at harmony.
“Breakdown” is a powerful closing ballad with a nice mix of muted and long notes in the bass line.
That was group-written, with Jonah writing the verse, Aron and Jonah co-writing the outro, and Aron and I writing the rest of it. Originally we had the idea of the bass doubling the melody but it didn’t end up working out. I practice playing ballads like this often, where the key is how long you hold the notes. In the first verse section I tried to chop the notes off a little bit before the snare hit so they don’t ring over. Anthony Jackson is the master of note durations and he was also inspiration for the thumb-and-palm-muting I do on the track.
How has Dirty Loops grown since Loopified?
I think all three of us have evolved in different ways musically over the last six or seven years. To me that’s apparent on Phoenix, and it’s for the better. It was easier for us to work with these songs; we found new ways to make Dirty Loops music much faster then before. It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens now because I think we’ll be able to put out a lot more music in the future—it won’t be six years between albums.
How have you grown as a bassist in that time?
Something happened during this pandemic that resulted in a mental block I had going away. I used to always have doubts about my playing, especially in front of killer bass players; I was always afraid of being judged. Now I’ve grown into worrying much less about that and I simply focus on doing the best I can; if people like it they like it and if they don’t they don’t. I don’t know how or when it happened, but all of a sudden my playing opened up and I could reach further because I had a more relaxed state of mind. Also the lockdown gave me time to practice a lot more, with consistency, which has been a good. I had ideas I’ve worked with for a long time which have started to fall into place, both harmonically and rhythmically. That has helped me to further develop my individual voice on the instrument.
What’s upcoming for you?
Right now I’m working on finishing the transcription book for Phoenix, hopefully for release before the end of the year. Dirty Loops is going to do a livestream concert in January or February, and then we’ll go back to writing new material until we get clearance to tour once again. I’m contributing to some friends’ projects, but it’s basically my full focus on Dirty Loops. –BM
Basses: Mattisson Signature 5- and 6-string basses; Mattisson custom fretless 6-string
Strings: DR Pure Blues (modified set with a thicker B string): [.023-.045-.065-.085-.105-.135]
Amp: EBS 802 head, two EBS ProLine 410 cabinets
Effects: Fractal Audio AXE 8 Multi-FX Processor, EBS OctaBass, 3 Leaf Audio Octabvre, 3 Leaf Audio Proton Envelope Filter, 3 Leaf Doom 2, Boss SY-1000 Guitar Synthesizer, Boss SY-1 Synthesizer Pedal, Boss ES-8 Effects Switching System, Darkglass Electronics Vintage Microtubes, Darkglass Electronics Hyper Luminal Hybrid Compressor, Xotic RC Booster-V2 Pedal
Flights of the Phoenix
Henrik Linder is squarely in his Dirty Loops role as a propulsive powerhouse on Phoenix, registering deep lows, groove-enhancing subdivisions, feel-drenched fills, and an ear-grabbing solo. Ex. 1 contains the first eight bars of the main groove of “Rock You,” at the 0:33 mark. It’s shown here as Henrik conceved it, in the key of A minor. When the song moved up a half-step to Bb minor, he simply tuned his bass up a half-step, to retain the open string positioning on his 5-string. The keyboard bass element of the part requires a squarely-in-the-pocket approach, but lay back a bit on the upbeat pops to nail the feel.
Ex. 2 shows the first eight bars of Linder’s fretless 6-string groove on “Work Shit Out,” at 0:43. The rhythmic phrase of the keyboard-written line (by drummer Aron Mellergård) is a bit uncharacteristic for bass guitar, but Henrik makes it his own while evenly nailing his 16th-note fills in measures 4 and 6, despite the fast tempo.
Ex. 3 has eight bars of the chorus groove of “Next to You,” at 0:52. A prime example of Linder’s ability to play the subdivisions without sounding overly busy, he relys on traditional slapping, up-and-down thumbstrokes (double-thumbing), and fingerstyle on his 5-string to keep it in the pocket. Mind the big fretting hand stretches in measures 2 and 6.
Finally, Ex. 4 has the pickup measure and first four bars of Linder’s solo on “World on Fire,” at 2:28 (notated in treble clef due to range). Henrik’s application of a symetrical scale [F#-A-A#-C#-D-F-F#] adds ear-bending notes and an augmented quality to the F#(add9) and D(add 9) chords. Though recorded on 6-string, the excerpt is playable on a 4-string an octave down, due to it spanning just four strings.
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Photos by Mikael Jägerskog Instagram: @mikaeljagerskog