On basically their first proper tour, QRO sat down and talked with Markus Krunegard and Adam Olenius of Sweden’s We Are Serenades. Krunegard & Olenius are already known for their working fronting their own bands (respectively, Laakso and Shout Out Louds – QRO spotlight on), but recently teamed up as We Are Serenades and made Criminal Heaven (QRO review), which was picked up for a worldwide record deal – so they came to America, earlier this year at South-by-Southwest (QRO recap), and now for a coast-to-coast tour. In the conversation, the pair discussed forming We Are Serenades, making Criminal Heaven, giving themselves rules to be happier, their first actual shows, coming to America, going ‘back in time’ by starting a new band, the difficulty finding & keeping good Stockholm drummers, covering Christopher Cross, and more…
QRO: How did We Are Serenades start?
Adam Olenius: Well, it started off with us becoming friends, basically. We started writing songs instead of doing whatever nonsense you do, just drink beer – drank beer and wrote songs. Something like that…
Markus Krunegard: And we happened to capture that feeling of when you have met a new friend, some sort of, I don’t know, ‘connection’, ‘positive vibes’.
AO: That’s why the songs we wrote in the beginning were so positive, and romance, just more that sort of vibe to it.
I think I was coming home from tour really tired, playing the same songs over and over, and Markus, the same thing. We were just tired doing the same things – wanted to try something new. I think we had just lunch, and we were out, and we just went to my apartment, and started doing recording stuff.
And then we made up these rules, to sort of always sing at the same time. So instead of two harmonies, it was like one, new voice – it was almost like a third voice. Steady beat, more romantic, happy lyrics, instead of maybe what we do in our separate projects, maybe the lyrics are darker. We just wanted to keep that separate.
QRO: Is that why you made the rules, to make it different, to have a ‘new voice’?
MK: The thing is that our voices together sounded good, the main voice; I think that was the reason we kept on doing it. We felt that it was something new. I mean, it’s really basic – it’s what you do when you’re a kid: you sing the same melody at the same time.
And the other rules just sort of came during the way…
AO: It was almost like a manifest, basically.
MK: It was like a thing with the poetic, positive lyrics; sing at the same time, steady beat, a lot of harmonies.
AO: I think we had to sort of make up rules, because if we just gonna, ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’ We’d have something that sounded like Shout Out Louds, or Markus’ solo stuff. It would be hard to know where to begin. It was actually easier working with the rules.
MK: We wanted to get away from the ‘sky’s the limit’ feeling – limit ourselves…
QRO: When did you decide it was going to be a full-fledged group, with a full-length album?
AO: I think the songs were too good not to do something about it. Once we had written some of the songs, we felt that we had to do it.
MK: Took us two years. I think it was, ‘Oh, this is a good time to do an EP,’ and then suddenly it was a good time for me and for [Olenius], between records, ‘Oh, now is a good time to finish this,’ book the studio.
I think when we got a label, I think that’s – at least for me – struck, ‘Oh, this is a real thing.’ Because we were real easy in the studio, played around a lot. That’s why I really like the sound of the record – we tried all the genres we liked, and just played around. The last two weeks, the label came in, then we got more nervous, and we realized it’s this real thing, and maybe start fighting about ideas and stuff like that.
MK: This whole international thing came as a surprise. Just released the record and EP at home, did one show at home in Stockholm at a theater with strings and everything like that. We were like, ‘Oh, maybe this is just one show – maybe this is it.’ And then we started getting good response from labels over [in the U.S.].
AO: I think we maybe more thought like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll make this record, and release it later…’ We haven’t had too many plans and stuff like that. It just happened. It’s a nice way to get surprised.
QRO: I know that you just did South-by-Southwest, but this is your first U.S. tour, other than that?
AO: Yeah, we were over for Christmas, for the label, in December. L.A. and New York for four, five shows.
QRO: How much have you toured at all as We Are Serenades?
AO: Maybe twenty shows? But this is our fifth drummer. We are the constant in the group, of course. The Swedish music scene is kind of small, and there’s a lot of groups that are succeeding. The guys that are good musicians, they have a lot to do, so you share them with a lot of bands.
MK: Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, we want that drummer.’ ‘He’s away on tour…’
QRO: That always happens with drummers…
AO: That’s true…
MK: But we got a great guy now.
AO: It was kind of fun in the beginning, ‘cause we had, like I said earlier, three people, strings, two back-up vocals, two guys helping us out – it was almost like a ‘Frank Sinatra Las Vegas show.’ We took them on tour in Sweden, as well. We only did three shows in Sweden.
MK: It felt like a school play, ‘Everyone can be in…’ ‘Everyone that wants – yeah, yeah, sure…’
AO: It was fun doing that, because there were so many people. We had a big bus, filled with people. But now we’re a five-piece.
QRO: It seems like you’ve come to America pretty early in the life of We Are Serenades, for a new Swedish band, compared to your other acts – is that because of the American label?
AO: Yeah, we’re signed to the whole world, except Scandinavia, the U.S. – so I guess this is our home… more than Sweden, in that sense.
We spend a lot of time here. This is the longest time we’re going to be here, three weeks, going on tour.
QRO: Where did you find your current band?
AO: Gustav, plays the keyboards, actually the younger brother of a friend of mine for a long time, where I grew up. I just thought of him, and he’s one of the guys who was not busy before he started playing with us, but now people have realized that he’s good, so he’s getting a lot of work. But he has played with Miike Snow (QRO live review) before.
MK: These guys are doing with everyone, so we have to grab them…
AO: It’s always like that, one drummer, one musician getting a gig, someone asks, ‘Is he any good?’ ‘Oh, no… He’s so-so, but we can live with him…’ [laughs]
QRO: [laughs] ‘His name is John Smith…
AO: ‘Can I have his number?’ ‘Oh, it’s one-two-three four-five-six…’
MK: Same thing with crew and sound engineers as well.
QRO: When you were making the record, though, was it just you two guys?
AO: Most of the time. Drummers, speaking of them, that’s the only part we added, but actually we created the beats ourselves, and then we brought them to add some. It’s a mixture of live and drum tracks.
MK: We wrote most of the drums, or I played them, but he did the better, the drummer.
AO: It’s a mixture – a lot of the drum sounds are a mixture of live drums and…
MK: There’s a lot of layering, three, four bass, ten guitars. In the beginning, we wanted really minimalistic, but then we started working in the studio, and it was so much fun – twenty vocals, and so many layers…
AO: I mean, it turned out really good, but that’s the problem if you do demos too early, and you listen to them. ‘Cause they were really lo-fi – just our voices and a lot of harmonies, and then maybe guitar. And then we were listening to them too much, ‘Let’s add trumpets and strings…’
MK: On a few tracks there’s strings, and a saxophone player, but the rest is just us.
QRO: How hard is it to translate into a live setting, when you don’t have all of that?
AO: Much easier than I had thought. We obviously have had a computer thing that the drummer can [use]. But that was really fun with our record, because it was really constructed in the studio, with a manifest and us two, doing it. So when we started playing live, we were like, ‘Oh, so this is how it sounds live?’ It’s been fun.
QRO: Did you record the record before you ever played it live before people?
MK: Yeah, yeah.
AO: A lot of the songs were half-written when we got to the studio.
MK: We wrote a lot of things in the studio. We booked a studio and just sort of set a deadline. But it works well. I don’t know – it feels big, being a five-piece.
AO: Actually, I think it’s better – it’s fun being ten, but five, I think it sounds better. It’s fun.
MK: It’s a totally different thing.
QRO: How did making Criminal Heaven compare to making records in your other acts?
AO: Well, obviously we’re two songwriters, so that’s a big difference. Normally, I guess, we are the ones that write the songs in the projects, have the last say or something. Now we’re two that have the last say… [laughs]
MK: It worked really well. We’re used to really having control and everything. It’s kind of nice – we wrote almost everything together. [Olenius] brought some ideas, I brought some ideas into the studio, but most of the stuff were written in the studio by us.
MK: We still fought about stuff. Still, I think we both had big egos to get our stuff through…
AO: It adds something, too – when you do it yourself, you can be too critical, or let things through too easy, so when you’re two, you can boost some ideas, ‘No, no, no, that’s good – let’s keep it that way,’ or, ‘Ah, we have to think this over again.’ It really adds something to the process.
MK: And I think maybe, ‘cause it was our first album, we didn’t have any pressure or anything to lose, it was easy, just, ‘Oh yeah, try that, and I’ll try that,’ and let best idea win. I hope we can keep that for the next record, to have it to be really fun, and just be no pressure.
MK: Drink a lot of Nyquil, take a lot of valium, until we don’t care about stuff…
QRO: Is a bit ‘going back in time’, as you’ve got a debut album (again), and you’re playing smaller places like Mercury Lounge (again) (QRO venue review)?
AO: It is – we’ve played little bigger places, back home. It’s kind of interesting to ‘go back’.
MK: It’s a new thing. It would feel weird if you have to do your own stuff since you’ve been bigger since, but this feels big, because it’s our first tour…
QRO: Oh, yeah, compared to nothing…
MK: Talking about pressure, I think, at least I feel freedom with this whole thing. No pressure – we’re just doing our best and see what happens.
AO: It’s fun. I’ve played here for the first time in 2004, before we got signed. I love this place. I mean yesterday, our first show in Washington, Black Cat, maybe there was a hundred people, but it felt, like you said, a bit sort of nice to be underdogs again.
The record’s only been out two or three weeks, so it’s a little bit early to do a tour, I feel, but that was because how our year looked like, we had to do it now. Hopefully, people will listen to it, hopefully we’ll come back after the summer, do more shows.
QRO: For your shows, do you just play pretty much every song on Criminal Heaven?
AO: Yeah – we have one album out…
We play some tracks – I don’t want to call them ‘b-sides’, but, actually a few of them sound better than the songs on the album. We have some extra songs…
MK: Some covers…
MK: There’s actually one song that didn’t end up on the record, because it didn’t sound any good when we recorded it. It’s called "Fireworks", and now it’s our favorite song to play live.
AO: I think we finished it too fast. It’s one of those songs that are…
AO: Yeah, really obvious songs. ‘Oh, wow, it is the song, somehow.’ We listened to it too much, I think, or something, and we got tired of it.
MK: There’s a good string arrangement on it.
AO: It’s a good live song.
MK: We kraut-ed it up…
We Are Serenades playing "Fireworks" live at Mercury Lounge in New York, NY on May 9th, 2012:
QRO: Do you do every single song on the record?
AO: Right now, we’re doing every single song on the record, plus that extra song.
MK: Two extra songs, right?
AO: And we’re doing a Christopher Cross cover, "Ride Like the Wind". We’re doing it in more of a… it’s hard to describe how it sounds…
We Are Serenades covering Christopher Cross’ "Ride Like the Wind" live at Mercury Lounge in New York, NY on May 9th, 2012:
QRO: How was making the video for "Birds"? Where was that?
AO: Majorca, the Balearic Islands. We just wanted that sort of look to it, and it felt like the album was very… also the title and everything, it should be in that environment. So we just flew do with a photographer, a friend of ours, a film photographer.
MK: It’s hard to find environments like that in Sweden in March.
AO: We wanted that sort of summer feeling to it.
It’s a really weird island, because it’s got so many… some places look like a desert, it’s got ocean, almost like a rainforest; it’s very diverse.
MK: A lot of it looks like a Clint Eastwood movie… Sicilian funeral feeling to it.
We Are Serenades’ video for "Birds":
QRO: You said the record had more of a summer feel to it – but was it cold out when you made it?
MK: It was cold, yeah. The small studio’s pretty cold. Actually in one of the recording rooms, there was a cold freeze.
AO: I guess that was also together with the positive lyrics. The same thing, we wanted to do something more beach-y, more summer-y. Because we hadn’t done anything like that before. And if you have harmonies, that means summer.
MK: It was like escapist, almost. Be somewhere else…
AO: We were travelling a lot; [Krunegard was] in Mexico for a long time, I lived in Melbourne for a long time. So the theme was getting away.
QRO: You do have the one song about the holidays, "Come Home"…
AO: That was written in the summer, August, or something like that. Very early – about three years ago.
MK: It’s our ‘Christmas anthem’.
AO: It’s a gamble having a Christmas song on a record, but we really liked that one. We were really inspired by the Tunnel of Love record, Springsteen.
We Are Serenades playing "Come Home" live at Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, OR on May 22nd, 2012:
QRO: Do you have any favorites from the record to play live?
MK: It depends…
AO: We just started doing "Daydreaming", a very slow song, just me and Mark – actually Bebban [Stenborg], from Shout Out Louds, was doing a guest vocal on that one. And we changed it up a little bit, so it sounds more R. Kelly right now.
We Are Serenades playing "Daydreaming" and "Fireworks" live at Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, OR on May 22nd, 2012:
I like how the set’s very different. Some songs that are very heavy, and very powerful, and some songs have sort of a soul sound to it. I like the set we’re doing right now.
QRO: Finally, do you have a favorite tour story as We Are Serenades?
MK: It’s our third show…
AO: We saw a great hockey game – we saw Philadelphia lose, in Philadelphia.
MK: Lot of firemen there, in the bar – a little bit scary. A lot of screaming; a lot of testosterone.
AO: Very American sports bar.
MK: That was fun…
QRO: Philadelphia sports fans take their sports very seriously…
AO: They were screaming; they were crying.
So no tour stories so far…
MK: I think that was a good tour story… [laughs]