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An Elderly Songwriting Gentleman:
A Conversation with Mikael Wiehe
  Made in Sweden
In this book we have given examples illustrating the development of popular music in Sweden from the days of jazz onwards, and the shift from jazz to rock as the predominant youth music. We have also written about the 1970s Music Movement and the festival circuit of Sweden emanating from that, and about Swedish troubadours joining the left-wing movement in the late 1960s. In his book about the Music Movement, music journalist Håkan Lahger points out the fact that several of the leading musicians and song writers of this movement had started out playing jazz, and he claims this to be the reason why "it sounded so strange (…) so remarkably free and wild". Its roots in jazz was also the reason why it could "embrace such a diverse spectrum of musics" (Lahger 1999, 9). One of the early leading figures and influential artists of the Music Movement fitting into this description is singer-songwriter Mikael Wiehe, born April 10, 1946. Lahger writes:
In Mikael Wiehe's body all the music of the twentieth century is assembled. He's a man with the musical blood of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley and the Beatles running through his veins. (ibid., 20)
Added to this could also be the Swedish visa tradition. In 1998 Wiehe received the Evert Taube Award and in 2003 the Cornelis Vreeswijk Award, and in 2005 his album Kärlek och politik (Love and Politics) won a Grammis award as Årets visalbum (Visa album of the year).
Wiehe has been active as a musician since the late 1950s. As a child he took piano lessons for a short time, but on his main instruments guitar and saxophone he is an autodidact. He started learning guitar when he was nine, and in 1958, aged twelve, he started his first band with some friends. They called themselves the Teddy Bears and played covers of Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, the Kingston trio and others (Svedberg 2009, 25). In 1962, aged sixteen, he found a saxophone in his uncle's attic and started practicing. A year later he joined the jazz band Cooling's Traditional Jazzmen, and with that band Wiehe made his first public performances and recordings, playing not only in Malmö and the surrounding area of Skåne, but also in Stockholm and Copenhagen. They toured Sweden with Acker Bilk, and at the Landskrona Jazz Festival they were warming up for Quincy Jones. After only a year, however, Wiehe left Cooling's, which also soon thereafter disbanded. Late in 1964 Wiehe and some friends, who also had played with Cooling's, started the jazz septet Blunck's Lucky Seven, in which Wiehe made his debut as an arranger. In 1966 Blunck's Lucky Seven made a recording, an EP containing four songs (however not issued until 1999), including Wiehe's first own composition "Up in Michigan". In 1967 Wiehe left Blunck's Lucky Seven and the jazz scene, to once again return to rock music by joining his brother Thomas's band the Moccers (a name inspired by the Beatles film A Hard Days Night, where Ringo, when asked if he's a mod or a rocker, answers "I'm a mocker"). The Moccers disbanded in 1970, and as a kind of continuation of that band Wiehe and some friends started the Hoola Bandoola Band, which soon was to become one of the main bands in the emerging Music Movement, with Wiehe as their principal songwriter.
Hoola Bandoola Band was strictly political, and the start for Wiehe as a political singer-songwriter with a strong social pathos. After Hoola Bandoola Band had disbanded, Wiehe continued in that tradition, sometimes as a member of different short-lived groups, but mostly as a solo artist. Since the 1980s, his political lyrics have been complemented by more symbolical lyrics, as well as lyrical themes such as love, marriage, divorces, ageing and existential questions. But current political issues are still the trademark and most common theme of the lyrics in the songs of Mikael Wiehe.
Later years have also seen him performing with a number of other artists from different genres. In 2015 he wrote and performed the song "Leva tills jag dör" (Live until I die) with the dance band Lasse Stefanz. He has also recorded a song about the current refugee crisis together with the country group Calaisa, a song about segregation and racism in Sweden together with hip hoppers Kartellen featuring Sebbe Staxx, and a song about the wars in the Middle East together with Danish singer-songwriter Henrik Strube.
AB: How would you describe yourself – what is your profession?
MW: I describe myself as a songwriter. When I was young I was a Hemingway fan and wanted to write short stories and novels. Instead it became these, often 32 lines long, songs. Then I'm a singer. I was a decent saxophone player before I started writing my own songs, and I'm not anymore. Johan Kinde of Lustans Lakejer made a recording of one of my songs, "Lindansaren" (The Funambulist), which impressed me very much. I thought "that sounds damn good", and then "but that's my arrangement!", but he had re-orchestrated it, and it sounded great. I started arranging for four horns in this jazz band, and then I sat tinkering, and sometimes it turned out really good, but I quit doing that. When I made an album called Trollkarlen (The Magician), with accordion and clarinet, we did it sort of on the fly. On my latest records I have worked with musicians whom I regard as quite outstanding, and then I've let them come up with ideas, and then I've been saying "well, that was much better!", alternatively "yes, but I had figured we would do it this way, and by the way, I have written an arrangement, so on this particular song…". I'm a songwriter, I'm pretty good at guitar finger picking, I'm a singer… and now I was a little inspired, perhaps I could imagine starting writing arrangements again.
TB: Where did you learn writing arrangements?
MW: I started out as a saxophone player in a band, and the trumpet player there was really good. He had studied Schoenberg, and I didn't want to be outdone, I started studying Schoenberg too. But that wasn't very useful for me. I had more advantage of being able to pick out the third voice when I started singing with Björn Afzelius and Peter Clemmedson. Why, I had written for four horns and stuff. But Schoenberg is probably more for boasting.
TB: In terms of genre, how would you posit yourself?
MW: When I was 16–17 years old we played 1920s jazz. As a saxophone player I reached Charlie Parker, but when I got to the break in "Night in Tunisia", I quit. I thought "I'll never get that far". Then I started playing with my brother, we went busking in the streets of Paris. Then I played clarinet and flute and sang the top voice, and then I started writing my own songs. The great sources of inspiration for my generation are Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and then there are a few sidekicks, for me the Rolling Stones and Joni Mitchell. When I met Björn and Peter, they had a bit wider knowledge of the music of the day, so we started singing three-part harmony in the style of Crosby, Stills & Nash. That was sort of our thing. For many years we did "Suite Judy Blue Eyes" as an encore.
Malmö is a city where there's always been many different kinds of music. The city isn't big enough for one to sit in one's own little corner, each one doing his own thing; there is a kind of Malmöite tradition which I seized on to. The acoustic band on the Trollkarlen album – there are some Arabic influences; Ale Möller was very interested in Greek music and brought that in, and Frans Sjöström and Jacques Werup played free-form jazz, and Göran Skytte played medieval crumhorn tunes. Ale and me and Frans and Göran formed a band called Kabaréorkestern. We played Brecht, "Alabama Song", then we played a medieval snippet, and then we played some song I had written. I was pretty early with the synthesizer thing, thanks to Greg FitzPatrick, who ran the largest synth store in Stockholm, and we did "Flickan och kråkan" (The Girl and the Crow) together. I left jazz and went for guitar music, and then I left guitar music and went for synthesizer music, so I sat for a decade fiddling with those damn buttons. Then I went back to more guitar-based music. There's country music in it, but there's also quite a lot of variety-show music. Then I have this archive, which I listen through periodically, with something like 2,000 snippets: Swedish waltzes, a huge lot of tangos, very many different European kinds of music, reggae, what have you. Sometimes I can transform this into music on my own records, but often not. I have written the music for two musicals. The first was based on Selma Lagerlöf's Kejsaren av Portugallien, The Eperor of Portugallia) and for that one I wrote music inspired by Swedish folk music. Then we did a thing called Dåliga mänskor, (Bad People), and then I could use all those snippets. I wrote ballet music, too, for Copenhagen. I have made, in my own view, very many different kinds of music. I have tried breaking up, many times, also in terms of lyrics. I made an album called "Basin Street Blues", where I sang about a marriage broken at the time, but I didn't tell that to anyone. I thought "but I can't do that, I'm supposed to be writing political songs" – "that's exactly why you have to do this!", so then I've also been doing that. Most of what I do is with myself and a guitar, and then one can sound a bit Spanish-influenced, flamenco; it may be Latin American, it may be Swedish and it may be French waltzes. But basically I'm a songwriter, and basically I do what may be done with one man and a guitar. I regard myself as a successor… of Bellman. I have never really been a fan of Evert Taube. Many of his tunes he has taken from somewhere else, not least from Argentina. What we consider to be Swedish was imported from Latin America, and that means that when I want to do Latin American songs, it suddenly starts sounding like Evert Taube. So there's an inflow, we pick things up from each other. Why, that's the mission of art: that one understands something other than oneself and hands something over to others, and hopefully one also learns a huge lot of things from others. Then in recent years I've also translated a lot of song lyrics. I've decided to cut down a bit on that now. But thus, in terms of genre it's… Mikis Theodorakis has been a huge inspiration, and Victor Jara, to a smaller extent, and Daniel Viglietti from Uruguay, who I think is extremely good. Everything one can sing, and everything one can clap one's hands to.
AB: In Stig Hansén's book you say: "we tear at our shackles, but still we end up in the Swedish visa tradition". Are you happy or annoyed about this?
MW: I think I'm mostly happy. The epigones – those who in the 1960s performed Bellman in wigs – that was no fun. When Fred Åkerström came up with his "Glimmande nymf", it was a revolution, and that one's still damn good. Suddenly the liquor and the sweat and the hangover and the taverns and the blood entered the game, and then it suddenly became for real. What the 1970s troubadours then contributed was the steel-stringed guitar. The more you sing in Swedish – it's like immigration, you have to reach an agreement on where you should meet. I started singing Beatles songs in English, and then I started singing Bob Dylan. By and by I started doing my own first things in Swedish, and they were of course tremendously influenced by what I had heard. But you have to contribute something. You can't just imitate. It won't be worth anything until you add your own experiences. I still have trouble understanding people who are Swedish singing in English to a Swedish audience. And most people, even Titiyo, have started singing in Swedish now. This is where you end up. Maybe it has to do with age – I mean, I was actually once a pop star. I'm no longer; now I'm an elderly songwriting gentleman, and in order to be that you have to deliver something, both musically and lyrically. Then you end up in some kind of Swedish troubadour singing. Hopefully you have contributed something yourself, but you get subsumed into the tradition. I'm quite happy about that.
TB: You have told a lot about your influences, and so far you haven't used the word "rock". I have regarded you as basically a rock artist, but in your music there are quite a lot of other things, and you yourself haven't even mentioned the word?
MW: The Beatles were a pop group. When I came from jazz, and Paul McCartney made "Martha, my dear", I could recognize myself. Or "Those were the days, my friend" – that's close to the rhythm of jazz. We sat listening to the Beatles a bit furtively – why, they were our competitors. In Kabaréorkestern we made a sequel, a sort of folk rock. But when I started with the synthesizers I was much more interested in Talking Heads and Brian Eno and that Canadian producer, Lanois. When Bruce Springsteen came along – that was a bit too much of weightlifting, in the music, too. Actually, he too has grown softer with age, as it were. Rock isn't really my thing. It's a bit too much muscle and too little brains for me. I've listened to all of David Bowie's albums and never liked any of them, but his last album – it's damn good! It's a bit experimental and a bit kind of intellectual – it's more head than balls, sort of. No, I don't think I've ever been a rock musician. I did make a try in "Allt vad jag begär", to go a bit further, but then the synths took over.
AB: On one of your later albums, Isolde – the title song of that, I don't know whether to call it "rock music", but it has a heavy sound and a kind of power. It's the one featuring Thåström.
MW: Yes, I did have to tempt him with something, so I placed myself rather close to the kind of things he usually does. He starts, and then I sing the second verse, and in my view our voices are quite close to each other; it doesn't seem funny, I sort of take it from there. Maybe he had adjusted himself to the song, but in my view it worked. Now, I'm so damn lucky that I play with people who are 25 years younger than me, at the least. Then when you're out gigging you meet lots of other people and youngsters, and musicians do talk to each other; so Sebbe Staxx walks up to me and says: "what about making a song together?" I said "of course, damn fun", and it worked out well – so by Jove, I've done hip hop too, actually. I try to take myself by surprise.
AB: Speaking of collaborations – regarding your collaboration with Lasse Stefanz you have been quoted saying that "this wouldn't have been possible 15 years ago". Then you recount what the 1970s Music Movement thought about the dance bands. Of course, lots of things have happened since then, but I found your saying "15 years ago" interesting.
MW: I could have said "30 years ago" – the figures weren't perhaps that exact. I haven't listened much to dance-band music in my days, but I read an article about how Olle Jönsson had quit Lasse Stefanz and then joined them again. When I had written "En gammal man" (An Old Man), which they played, he wanted a new song. I sent a lot of old songs which I thought they would like to play, but nothing came out of it. When I had finished this little box with four records, which is the most recent thing I've done, I wrote another song at the end. Then I thought "I don't want to record this one myself", and then I came to think about him "but yes, it's kind of cocky, perhaps it'll suit him". The other thing was me thinking "yes, but Mikis Theodorakis, he took the most despised rebetika music in Greece and made it world famous". And it's the same … Swedish dance bands go to Norway and play for a sitting audience, we laugh a bit at that, but they do something which is actually very related to cajun music and tex-mex and mariachi music and the Canadian… they make the songs their own. When I heard their version of my song "Leva tills jag dör" (Live Until I Die) I thought "I'll be damned, they managed to turn this in to a dance-band song too". I play it totally differently; I believe I play it the way Neil Young would have played it. But they play [he sings a rumba rhythm] and then it's… so they managed do make it their own. An other reason for me to accept was: can one make albums any more? I have a CD player and a 78-rpm turntable and what have you, but I only listen to Spotify, and everyone does. Then I thought: "perhaps you should place the product one song at a time". Before, when people played something I didn't like, I said "what the hell is this shit music". But the last 15 years, perhaps the last ten, or perhaps just the last five, I say "oh, this is nothing for me". That's another way. I listen a lot to different things coming up, when I read a review of something I make a note, and then I listen on Spotify. I don't go and buy the records any more, but I try to understand what's happening. I thought "heck, I've never sung with a dance band, I have to do this". Once in my life. And that's it.
TB: But couldn't that be a good way of reaching out? You are still very political in many of your lyrics – if you had sung them with some country-music people and with hip hoppers?
MW: Of course it's a bit of tactics too.
TB: But imagine singing such political lyrics with a dance band, then you'd really be able to reach out to people?
MW: You can't squeeze things down people's throats. No, I'm not interested in using myself or someone else as a propaganda vehicle. I've written some songs about the world around us and what's happening, but I also write songs about myself. When I say tactics, I think "dance bands are the only ones selling records these days" – that's not why I do it, but I know it is like that. I also know that I get a new audience. It's their biggest hit in years. Damn fun, I think. My song. But it's tactics on my terms.
TB: But would you agree that you are still a very political artist?
MW: I'm very interested in politics.
TB: During the progg era you were one of the central figures, and then came the 1980s with this synth music you made with maybe a different kind of lyrics, but still political. Could you describe your view on developments since then – today much of hip hop is very political?
MW: The 1960s were a preparation for the 1970s, as it were, and the '70s were political. Then came punk, and it was very political too, but in a different way. It didn't have long explanatory lyrics like in progg music; it was "let's go for the chorus, that's good enough". Then in the 1980s the reaction came, headed by Reeperbahn and Lustans lakejer: "we take dope and we drink champagne and diamonds are a girl's best friend", representing a renunciation of the political views of progg music. Punk wasn't reactionary, but Reeperbahn and Lustans lakejer were reactionary crap, I thought at the time. In the early 1990s I lost parts of my audience. I toured quite a lot myself with my guitar, but I also made musicals and songs for others, so I didn't really notice. I made more money than ever before performing alone with my guitar. In 1996 we made a revival tour with Hoola Bandoola Band, and then lots of people turned up, but political music lost its audience in the 1990s. In the '80s there were still a lot of people around who had been there in the 1970s, who liked drinking red wine and eating chicken and listening to Björn Afzelius and Mikael Wiehe, but in the 1990s they got second thoughts and started doing other things. Then came hip hop, and for a long time it was the only political music. Why, there are a few young guitar wielders today too, but hip hop is the strongest bastion for saying something and also reaching people and speaking with and for the disadvantaged in society. In the Music Movement we spoke a lot to and about the disadvantaged in society, whereas hip hoppers were real representatives. I think that is a healthy sign. That's why I have written "I only want to be an old man, now you have to take over, I'm not the one to teach you revolution". It's the immigrants in the suburbs, they are the ones who should organize themselves, get a picture of what they want to do and make sure to get it done.
TB: One characteristic of the progg era, and perhaps even more of the punk era, was the dissociation from things such as disco and Abba and such. It was considered commercial trash expressing nothing, but today scholars in cultural studies and musicology highlight this music and argue that it too may have political potential or be a part of social change. What's your view on this today – did you progg people miss the mark some times?
MW: Forty years after Abba had won the Eurovision Song Contest at Brighton, a British TV team came over here to film Abba, and then it so happened that I wrote a piece of opinion, and this British TV team noticed me and wanted to make an interview. They invited me to London and placed me in a pub environment, and so we talked about Abba. Then I said that what upset us most about Abba wasn't their music. What upset us most was that they weren't upset. And I myself found that a pretty good way of putting it. Of course music in itself can matter, but we talked about music which wanted something, advocated change, and Abba didn't. Of course we met, we ran into each other, Hoola and Abba, and we kindly said hello to each other. It was more like us becoming symbols… and Abba won. They have made good songs, for sure, but they didn't do anything. They didn't take a stand on the coup in Chile, they didn't take a stand on apartheid and they didn't take a stand on any of the things that mattered to us, and this positioned them on the other side. Later on both Björn and Benny have become involved in social causes in various ways, and I think that's good. That they have come to realize things. Benny Andersson has even got himself the same kind of spectacles as me – the final surrender! But I thought, when Abba came along, that this was the nicest side of McCartney. They were successors of the Beatles, but without any complications whatsoever: not the experimental side, not the provocative side, nothing about revolution. I like the songs better now than I did then, because then I didn't listen to them… but I think we were right!
AB: Speaking of nice and beautiful things – it strikes me when listening to songs from throughout your entire career that much of this is very beautiful music. I'm thinking especially of one song from the album Protestsånger , "Vem om inte vi" ( Who if Not Us) – it's a very beautiful song.
MW: That one was a commission. The Norwegian Trade Union Confederation wanted to give one million to the Social Democratic Youth League for the reconstruction of Utøya, and then they asked me and Åge Alexandersen to write a song together, but it ended up with us writing one each, and "Vem om inte vi" was my contribution. It's written to be sung with guitar by the campfire by those taking over Utøya.
AB: My reflection was that it has explicitly political lyrics and then a very beautiful arrangement. Do you yourself see any danger of the beautiful music obscuring the message of the lyrics?
MW: I see it more this way: I write so many different kinds of songs, and I like aiming at different things in different songs. I do want to cover the entire register. I started saying "I don't want to write about myself, but Madame Bovary c'est moi", that is "I want to speak about the world outside, but of course it's me speaking". I wanted to distance myself from introvert love songs and navel fluff. Now I've gone from that to saying "I want to write all kinds of songs, I want to write about everything and I want to use different sorts of music and different moods".
AB: Many people have said that the song "Flickan och kråkan" have affected them very strongly. I remember myself having trouble trying to interpret the lyrics in some political way. To me they were decidedly existential, which surprised me and, I believe, many others. Seen in the light of what you have done since it doesn't stand out that much, but I think one can say it was the first of your songs to have such a clearly existential theme.
MW: No, it's not a political song; I remember having political problems with the crow dying in the last verse. Was I really that pessimistic? No, I wasn't really, but if you introduce a pistol in the first verse you have to fire it in the third, that's just the way it is. The dramaturgy demanded it, artistic considerations had to take over. But then a guy came home to me, a refugee from Argentina, and told me about these Mad Mothers on the Plaza De Mayo in Buenos Aires, and it was just perfect to speak about that: those who run although they know it's too late. Their daughters and sons have been tortured to death and their grandchildren given away for adoption. Telling about them and then playing that song made it suddenly take on an immensely strong political significance. It wasn't a chart hit at the time, but Timbuktu's recording of the song was a hit in 2012.
TB: But the song "Titanic", then, wasn't that a hit either? Maybe that's just something one imagines because everyone seems to like it?
MW: No, it wasn't a hit at all. The critics seemed to think it was a good song, and it stood out a bit, having no drums and stuff, but no, it wasn't a hit. Later it became a kind of anthem for the anti-nuclear-power movement, but it wasn't a sales success. When I had written it I didn't know what it was about.
TB: All the songs we are talking about now have a common theme: they are about lost hope, broken dreams.
MW: Yes, you're right. I discovered that before writing "En sång till modet" (A Song to Courage). I realized that now I have written about defeat, defeat, defeat, now I have to write an encouraging song. And so I wrote "En sång till modet" and then I translated "This land is your land", and they were… at least for my audience both these are hits, so I must have done something right there.
TB: To what extent do you regard yourself as a humorist?
MW: All who know me know I'm funny, but I'm not funny when I write songs. I have tried many times. The younger Bob Dylan is a bit funny from time to time, and in that way I can be a little funny too, that is, bring in the occasional funny phrasing or a funny statement. But I believe all artists have a stamp on themselves, and I'm the political steadfast tin soldier, the standard-bearer of Truth in Scandinavia. Then if I write songs not fitting into that picture, then the audience and the critics will have to reconsider: "aha, perhaps it's like this?". But maybe there's no room for that guy writing so many different kinds of songs and using so many different musical expressions, then you're kind of elusive. I'm however quite funny in my talk between songs. It came as a surprise to me when I realized that the talk between songs matters almost as much as the songs themselves in my concerts.
AB: We talked before about Spotify, and we have noted that in 2008 you wrote an article criticizing file sharing.
MW: Yes, I wrote that those who don't pay their dues are stealing time. There's no getting around that, that's the way it is, they are stealing my time. It takes time to learn to write songs, to write arrangements, to record songs, to travel around playing them, and then if you don't attend concerts but listen for free, then you deprive people of their means of support. I make one-third as much now when my songs are played as I did before Spotify. I had three times as high income before from STIM. Now I know what I didn't know when I wrote that article, that it's the major record companies that are on Spotify, and that there's nothing wrong with the payments from Spotify to the record companies, quite a lot of money is being paid out. But then the problems appear when the companies are supposed to pass money on to the artists. I think Spotify is a fantastic thing, that you can hear music from all over the world, but the problem of payment hasn't been solved yet. As an artist I can still get along fine. I can go on a tour, in the worst case I can hang a guitar on myself and make a month's income in two days, but songwriters cannot do that. Then there's this new bunch of songwriters writing internationally, that's also fantastic. Things have changed tremendously much, they can sit there in Stockholm in their bunkers scoring hits with Britney Spears and what have you. That's fantastic, but it's at the Stikkan Anderson level. It's schlager pop. I'm not saying that it's bad, but it's nothing for me, it doesn't affect me.
TB: Speaking of Stikkan Anderson – you have told about him paying for the trip up to Stockholm when you were going to sign the first record deal for Hoola Bandoola Band. With all facts on hand it seems incredible that progg musicians should have considered signing themselves to Stikkan, but reading about your trip to Stockholm and your thoughts about it, it doesn't appear that impossible after all.
MW: No, but this was in the spring of 1971, and progg didn't really exist then, it was not a movement, it didn't have a voice yet. At the time, in the spring of 1971, it consisted of a quickly assembled festival at Gärdet in the fall of 1970. As has also been written about, I listened to Stikkan's records and they sounded damn miserable – dance band with lots of reverb – and then I listened to records from MNW and they told me something, and then I much rather wanted to be there.
TB: What do you think would have happened if you had signed on to Polar instead?
MW: What I can say after the fact is: I still think that when you have written new songs you are very sensitive, you don't know whether they're good or bad, you can't decide, you're so easily influenced. At least I'm easily influenced. Then it's important what people you have around you, and I think that if Björn and Benny had been in the studio while we were recording and had said "no, but if you do this and that it'll be better", it's not impossible that I would have been very much influenced by that. And I'm glad it didn't turn out that way. I had the best chance of keeping my integrity when I chose to work with people representing something, which I respected and admired and agreed with and wanted to take part in, instead of sort of doing something contrary at Polar. My artistic, expressive, political ambition looks like this, and not like that or that, and I was aware of that at the time. Slightly less today, I think, now I'm a bit more generous towards myself.
Alf Björnberg, Thomas Bossius Taylor & Francis, 8 december 2016