For my money, it’s hard to top abandoned playgrounds when it comes to creepiness. A single swing swaying back and forth with nobody on it? Add some mist and a set of footprints that just stops, and you have the makings of a pretty spooky trailer, if not the opening scene of a full-on thriller. All of which may be why I was attracted to Abandoned Playground, a hard-rocking band that formed in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2018. Curious to know more, I reached out to bass player Bjorn Egelius to answer a few questions…
How did Abandoned Playground come together?
I’ve known Mikael for fifteen years or so. We both have a long background as musicians. One day Mikael was up in Stockholm and dropped by my place, he asked do you have any songs that I can do vocals on? We felt it was a really good thing coming out of it.
How would you describe your sound?
A bit heavy with some post-punk influences.
Your most recent single is called “You’re a Dreamer.” Can you say a little about that?
It’s about a person drifting away from you and others close to him/her doing their things with concern for others or themselves for that matter.
I find it interesting that you combine various elements in your music—particularly punk and prog, which used to be perceived as inimical to each other. How did you arrive at that combination?
I have a background as a bass player and founder of a progressive rock band, therhythmisodd, with whom I recorded a couple of albums. In my younger days I was more into punk and metal.
Mikael also has a background from the punk scene, so I guess it influenced us a bit.
The band consists of you and Mikael Johansson. How do you work together as a team? What is your writing process?
I write the music and and lyrics, Mikael arranges the vocal performance and adjusts the lyrics.
And your recording process?
The music is recorded by me at my “home studio,” shipping it over to Mikael who records the vocal at his end of the woods. The next step is to hand over the project to Burken (Peter Bjorklund) for the solo guitar.
Finally the programmed drums are replaced with acoustic drumming performed by Fredrik Gunnarsson. Usually I rerecord the bass part to make it sit tighter with the drums to make more groovy.
As I mentioned above, I find your band name to be incredibly evocative. What does it mean to you, and how does it reflect what you’re doing with your music?
Funny you’re asking! It has to do with my old recording studio I had for more than 20 years. The landlord needed to take down the building, so my “playground” had to be abandoned! 🙂
You formed in 2018, so that’s well before the pandemic. How did you weather the early pandemic years as a band?
Since this has been more of a project than a band (we are actually located in different areas in the country), it was a booster for the project since we had to spend more time at home, which was good for the creativity.
What’s the music scene like in Stockholm?
The music scene in Stockholm is a bit hard, at least for unsigned bands. The pandemic lockdowns hit a lot of the clubs and bars, of course.
Is there any chance that you’ll play live anytime soon?
Yes, that is something that we feel is really needed. We are planning for it.
Anything else on the horizon?
A new song is coming this later this fall. The name is “it’s a smash hit.”
Dino DiMuro is a true renaissance man. In addition to working as a sound effects editor for some major films (more on that later), he’s the author of a book based on his adventurous youth, an incredibly inventive and talented recording artist, and visual artist as well. Given my own interests, I naturally see him as a kindred spirit and wanted to know more, so I dropped him a line…
Your Twitter bio says you’re a former sound effects editor. What kind of work did you do? What was involved?
My job was to edit sound effects and create sound design sequences for movies, TV and cable. I began by working on 35mm sound film (like regular movie film but with a magnetic stripe instead of pictures) by literally cutting pieces with a splicer and matching sounds to action. When the industry converted to digital, I learned to edit on both PC and Mac. The skills I learned doing movie tracks were later utilized to make my albums when I moved away from four-track tape.
I would create sound for most things you saw onscreen, except for dialogue and music (though sometimes I did that, too). Anything from door handles to cars to explosions to space ships. Most people have heard of Foley Walkers, and part of my job was to take their sounds and tweak them into perfect sync.
I was sometimes credited as a Sound Designer, though strictly speaking a designer spends most of his time creating new sound effects with a huge arsenal of outboard gear, or by recording new and interesting effects. My skill was taking standard library sounds or newly recorded effects and using them in unique ways, often creating movie sequences that were technically “designed.” It’s a distinction I never cared about, but the people who assign credits always wanted to know.
The credits I always point to are: the Home Alone series, Gladiator and other films by Ridley Scott, JFK, Jackass, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, the Bond film Skyfall, The Revenant, and finally the cable series Narcos where I did about 80% of the sound effects.
You recently posted a fairly large selection of digital images on Twitter – really wild stuff that included what I’m guessing are digitally enhanced photos of rock icons like Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa, as well as pop culture mash-ups like Batman drinking beer. And my favorite, Train Ride In Hell – Dedicated to Thomas, Kavanaugh, and the Rest. How did you make these images, and what was the idea behind them?
That’s an online site called Craiyon.com where you can enter any kind of prompt, and their AI interface will draw the pictures for you. It’s fun and addictive, though there’s limitations. I’m thinking of using a Craiyon picture for a future CD cover. As I tried some of my ideas, it became clear that some ideas worked better on the program than others, which is why I started doing musical artists. As you noted, these turned out quite interesting!
Like me, you seem to have a love-hate relationship with SubmitHub. Can you comment on that?
Just to wind back a bit, I had been out of the music networking scene for several years. I got remarried, and though my wife Sharon is 100% supportive of my music, we had to move several times in a few years. Also, my work career had to change because feature film jobs became difficult to find, and cable TV took up most of my creative time. Finally, my recording software went out of date and I wasn’t ready to upgrade.
When I finally reemerged, the entire music scene I had known was gone. All the indie music zines had folded, along with most review websites. The Mail Music Network had morphed into online sharing and Spotify playlists. I wrote emails to as many websites or Playlisters as I could, but my entreaties were totally ignored. Then I discovered SubmitHub, which guarantees at least one listen and a Yes or No, but you’ve got to pay for the privilege. Turns out some of the people I’d already reached out to actually responded on SubmitHub, because there was now money involved.
Anyway, though I found a few sites that did accept my music, for the most part my stuff is too offbeat and “primitive” for Playlisters to bother with. They don’t like my vocals, or it’s not their genre, or it’s not slick or modern enough. These are things that rarely would have mattered in the old home taping network. The better zines would review a tape based on what it tried to be, not what it WASN’T. Also, it’s amazing to me how so many Spotify curators have no frame of reference for my music, even when I point it out. They’ll criticize a Beefheart tribute track like I made it up out of thin air!
So any time I use SubmitHub, I know it’s going to feel like getting my balls kicked in over and over, just to find one or two open-minded sites. As a result I’m trying to use them less often, but I’m sure I’ll be back under the whip soon.
You also write indie music album reviews for Divide and Conquer. Does writing reviews of other people’s music give you a sense of perspective on reviews of—or just reactions to—your own music?
Absolutely. Part of the reason I wanted to review for Divide was because in the old cassette days, it really helped that I was a writer for Option Magazine, which was the most slick publication for indie musicians in the ‘80s. I would often get to know the people I reviewed, or artists would contact me based on my name. I thought a similar thing might happen by reviewing on a blog, and I was right: between Divide and Twitter, I’ve pretty much rebuilt a music network for myself that is almost as rewarding as the old one. Sadly, though, without getting zines or physical media in the mail, it will never be quite the same.
But to answer your question: yes, I am always hyper aware while reviewing new music that it could be ME I’m listening to, and if I have a problem with a track, I try to put myself in that artist’s shoes to see where they’re coming from. If I note that the EQ is off or there’s too much reverb, I know damned well that similar things can and will be said about me, and I try to remember that when it’s my turn on the chopping block.
I’m also curious about your book, Elmwood. I understand that it’s based on true events from your childhood: forming a rock band without instruments and setting out to create the greatest school newspaper ever (among other things). What inspired you to look back on your early years and write it all down? Was there something bittersweet about doing so?
My friendship with the guy I call Elmwood was the greatest time of my life. I don’t know how I would have turned out if I hadn’t met him when I did. We were very different people from each other but total misfits around our peers, so we locked into each other’s worlds with a shared love of music and the desire to be Rock Stars. Not sure how it is now, but when I was growing up, pretending you had a rock group was something that could get you beat up or at least humiliated. We had to keep it a secret, and that bonded us even more. I can’t believe it’s that way for kids nowadays, with all the affordable starter kits you can get from Guitar Center. Wish they had those then! My generation had to shop with the “grownups.”
Because that time with my best friend was so important, I was constantly documenting our adventures on paper, along with countless tapes and a good memory. As a result, the earliest versions of “Elmwood” were started just a couple years after the events happened, and then revised over time. I’m so glad I did that because I would have lost so many of those memories by now. The memories themselves are bittersweet, but finally finishing the book was only a good thing. I was hoping someone would buy it for a feature, but… oh, well!
And, of course, there’s your music. Your latest single, “Comma Visit Hollywood” offers a quirky take on tourist culture, and one of your previous releases, “Like an Almond Joy,” is funky paean to the candy bar and the consequences of over-indulging. Lyrically, I feel like you’re balancing humor with a little bit of cultural criticism, or maybe vice-versa. Is that a fair assessment? What’s your approach to writing lyrics?
Most of my lyrics turn out somewhat humorous. I’d like to be more like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan but you can’t hide who you are! It’s always been hard for me to keep a straight face in my everyday life. I don’t start out saying: “Here’s a funny song!” But often the topic just lends itself.
The Hollywood single follows a tradition of “Hollywood Songs” that my friend John and I have done for years, because there’s so much you can say. Hollywood is a great place and it’s a horrible place. Good weather, and horrifically hot weather. Movie Stars, and lame reality stars. So I guess my approach is to let the topic take me wherever it wants to go.
Generally I get a song idea or a title, then grab a guitar and just start playing and singing whatever comes out. Later I edit both the music and the lyrics, though I admit that the lyrics get the least amount of changes. I always try, but then I start missing what I began with and often go back. Or, I’ll have a guitar track and then “graft” some lyrics on top of it. “South Bay Wine Bar” from my last CD is an example of that. It was originally called “South Bay Brothel,” but I was no longer interested in that idea and did a complete rewrite. That’s rare, but I’m starting to do that more often.
I’m hearing echoes of Frank Zappa in your lyrics as well as your music. What draws you to his music?
My first exposure to Frank was “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” and you can imagine the effect that song had on a twelve-year-old! It was nasty, of course, but also had this wild balance of classical complexity and unbridled madness, like a bunch of friends just making it up as they went along.
But my first full Mothers album was “We’re Only In It For The Money” which was a total life-changer for me. I don’t mean to say that Frank “taught” me to do music like this, but hearing that kind of stuff coming off a real vinyl record – crazy songs, phone calls, voice snippets, experimental sounds, razor-tight editing – only confirmed that the music I wanted to do really COULD be done. It took me much longer to appreciate what Frank was doing musically because I was so blown away by his presentation and audacity. Of course, Frank led me to Captain Beefheart, who is probably my favorite artist of all time, but you can probably hear more of Frank in my music because we were already in sync when I discovered him. With Beefheart I really have to make an effort to “pay tribute” to his sound.
I’m also hearing a bit of Brian Wilson in your voice—latter-day mature-voiced Brian, if I can put it that way. Plus the album art for your Project 5 album is reminiscent of Pet Sounds. So I’m guessing there’s a little bit of an influence there. Are you a fan?
Yes, I love Brian, always have. I hate to age myself but I grew up when the Beatles and Beach Boys were new! In fact the studio where Brian cut “Surfin’” is literally two blocks from my house right now. I was a little young to buy or understand Pet Sounds when it came out, but by the time of the Surf’s Up album I started to see what Brian was doing and have been following him ever since. I think I literally cried when I first played the Brian version of SMiLE after waiting so many years. My friend Greg designed the Project 5 cover. All I wanted was the Pet Sounds font, but Greg decided to go all the way and I was totally thrilled with the result.
And you have a double-CD coming out soon—Heatstroke Alley. It’s definitely an evocative title! Is it a concept album? When will it be available?
Not really a concept album, except that I’ve started to prefer double albums because I can stretch out thematically. I can include spare instrumental interludes or jam fragments that might unbalance a single disc. They also take longer to finish making, and I was getting so prolific that I wanted to give both my wife and my cover designer a little break. Of course that’s a lot of music to ask my few fans to absorb, but I have always loved epics (Uncle Meat, Trout Mask Replica, Mellon Collie, Double Nickels on the Dime) and even if it takes more time to listen, I’m hoping the effort is worth it.
Heatstroke was supposed to be ready around now, and it’s getting closer, but now that the summer heat has settled in, my pace will be slowing. It could be a couple or three months from now. But besides the first two singles already released, there will be two more. Even hoping for a surprise guest who many Twitter people will know!
Intriguing! Anything else on the horizon?
I always have at least three albums planned in advance, but the main one after Heatstroke will be called Machine. It’s another double and will be totally based on drum machines, beat samples, and a few specially recorded drum tracks (by Rob Steadman of Kritters). Musically a lot of it will be built on improvisation. This is because there’s probably another move in my near future, so If I record a big hunk of raw material first, I can spend any spare time I have editing what I’ve got without worrying about my entire studio being up and running.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!
According to their Spotify bio, Todd & Karen is the moniker under which Norwegian-Irish pop musicians Øyvind Berge and Ina Verdi-Ruckstuhl release their quirky, ironic and melodious indie – often set in the imaginary world of Beardsley Boulevard. Todd & Karen think of themselves as a sort of musical love child of The Divine Comedy, The Beatles, Oasis, Monty Python, and Simon & Garfunkel.
First, I was somewhat shocked to find out that your names aren’t actually Todd and Karen. Where did those names come from?
Hi Marc! Yeah, a lot of people are a bit puzzled when they find out we’re actually Øyvind and Ina. The people who actually know us personally were also a bit puzzled. The thing is, we had a different name originally. We were going to be called Quirky Haggis. We both thought that was a really amusing name, and quite original. But someone close to the band noted that it made it seem like we were trying too hard: “You’d rather call yourself something like Todd & Karen.” So we did! And it works. We can be these personas, and when we deal with an international crowd they can pronounce our names more easily. Mind you, we never knew about the Karen memes. So that might be something worth looking out for on a future release.
I might add that I actually know a couple called Todd and Karen. They are friends of my family. It became a bit of a humourous thing, and a bit of a tribute to them at the same time. I hope they like it. I’ve promised them a band t-shirt each with the logo. So if you’re reading, I’ll get on that as soon as I can, guys!
What do you do—or who are you—when you’re not Todd and Karen?
We are Øyvind Berge and Ina Verdi-Ruckstuhl. Øyvind is from Telemark in Norway and Ina is born in Switzerland, but considers herself to be Irish – and a Cork native – as she spent most of her life there, landing here in Norway. We now both work as teachers at the same school, an international IB school in Kongsberg, Norway, teaching international kids in primary and secondary school. We struck up a real connection through joining the social committee at work. Ina and I started making comedy musical jingles for our colleagues’ birthdays, and we would gather the social committee to sing them and film them. They would typically be adaptations to famous songs. Through doing this, we started talking and decided “sod it, we need to start a proper band and make our own music!” We started coming up with too many original ideas. We needed a proper outlet for it.
We’ve both been involved in other projects before. Ina’s been playing in a classical orchestra back in Ireland. I recorded a folk-pop album in Norwegian back in 2005 with my band Sugar Plum Fairies, which garnered some local radio hits here, won a cultural award and we even got featured on a compilation disc in China. After that I’ve collaborated a bit with the hardest working man on the Norwegian indie scene – Paul Bernard – the guy who put out more singles on Spotify in the time it took me to change my socks, and I put out some singles under the moniker Sir Øyvind Berge & His Imaginary Orchestra about 9-10 years ago. We’d both had quite a long break from doing music actively when Todd & Karen came about though, so it’s been a great experience to get back at it.
I’m struck by how much your new single, “Cosmo Crowd,” is reminiscent of the Beatles. What’s the story there? The Beatles are obviously a touchstone for many musicians, but what personally draws you to them and their music?
Our musical world is completely shaped by The Beatles. I remember getting my hands on my sister’s recorded C90 tape of “The Beatles Ballads” as a kid and I was completely sold. “Across the Universe,” “Here, There & Everywhere” and “Here Comes The Sun” especially made a great impression on me. For us, it’s the inventiveness, the melodiousness and the whole vibe around the music that is so infectious. I never get tired of listening to The Beatles. You always find something to latch onto and I still, with the remastered versions coming out, find new things to discover in their songs.
I love the whole vibe of that “Cosmo Crowd.” The guitars and strings, the loping drumbeat—the whole package sounds amazing, reminiscent not just of the Beatles but also of Electric Light Orchestra and Oasis. What is your recording process?
We really appreciate that. Thanks! This particular tune came about as a bit of a noodle last summer. I was just sitting around fiddling with my guitar and this chorus came around. To be honest, it sounded more like a Simon & Garfunkel folk ditty than a full on Oasis or Electric Light Orchestra-inspired piece. But once we worked out the verses and thought up the guitar solo, it got more and more Beatleesque, shall we say. We didn’t intend to, but things just inevitably head that way. What usually happens is then that we record quite rough – but might I add charming – home demos, where we put down as many track ideas as possible. We use these as the foundation when we go and record with our producer, Sigve. Or at least we have done up until now. We’ve only recorded four songs with him yet, but that’s been a great way to do it for us. He’s got this really nice, small room where all the magic happens. So we’re making sure we’re really prepared and have the songs more or less fleshed out on our demos, and then we are fairly efficient in the studio with him. It has worked out well for us so far.
By the way, thanks for mentioning Oasis. As you can imagine, we’re big fans of those Britpop bands of the 90s.
Absolutely! If you don’t mind getting technical, how did you get the guitar tone, and what did you use for the strings?
Oooh. Yeah. Well, there are a layer of guitars on the track. There is an electric rhythm guitar underneath it all – you hear it best at the beginning. It’s played with the volume on the amp way up, but the strings are muted by my right hand. An old power pop trick that gives it a certain punch. There is an electric guitar that doubles the bass guitar as well, attempting to get that “wandering bass” Macca feel to it all.
Thirdly, there is an acoustic guitar that our producer wizard, Sigve Høghaug, put through his 60s pop filters and it came out all psychedelic – kind of “Itchycoo Park”-sounding. I must admit I’m not sure what kind of plugins he utilized, but whatever it was it really worked, y’know. Sounds like a bit of a phaser to me, that goes well alongside the piano and mellotron track.
For the guitar solo, we just plugged Sigve’s state of the art Strat into a proper old school tube amp. You know that warm sound you get once the tubes has warmed up properly. We let it get warm and then I went to town doing my best Harrison.
The strings you hear is Ina multitracking a proper violin. The violin she plays is actually from the 1910s, I believe, so it has a really nice sound and a wonderful aura around it. It just added some grandeur to the whole thing, having the string part in the middle. We did the string recordings at home, using Cakewalk and a Scarlett home studio setup. Then we simply flew the tracks over to Sigve who seamlessly put them into the interlude. It’s the part of the song that makes people think of ELO, I suppose. Since we have the opportunity, we love using proper strings on our recording. It sounds so much better, we think. The whole Beatles thing come into it again there, doesn’t it? They started messing around with strings and brass and all around Sgt. Pepper.
In addition to the Beatles, you also list Monty Python as an influence. How do they figure into what you do?
As mentioned above, when we started to get to know each other a little better, we found that we had an affinity for the same kind of humour. Our music seems to have a bit of the Beatleesque and the Pythonesque flavour to it. We could have listed Blackadder and that kind of style as well. Even Vic & Bob and that kind of zany Brit humour from the 90s, for those in your readership that are connoisseurs. It’s just an attitude or a vibe, if you will. The reason we put Monty Python on there, is the fact that they also managed to put out some great music. The Rutles is one of the best comedy acts ever, and the music is brill. That whole thing came about on the fringes of the Monty Python universe. The Fab Four and the Pythons…you can’t beat that. They’re just a huge source of inspiration. Their creativity and boldness is fabulous. It doesn’t seem to age.
More broadly, why is humor an important element of your music?
Despite being from Norway and Ireland – and we inevitably bring with us influences from the homelands in our music – our main common ground is British pop music of the 60s and 70s. If you look at every great band and artist from that era, there is lots of humour in the music. I keep hammering on about The Fab Four, but listen to “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number).” It’s 4-5 minutes of sheer infectious silliness. They were, of course, inspired by The Goons, i.e. the wonderful radio comedy group of the late 50s comprising giants like Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Listen to the early work of the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd: “I know a mouse and he hasn’t got a house, I don’t know why I call him Gerald.” The Kinks and many of their hits are bittersweet, but very funny at that. You know, that English whimsy really speaks to us and we relate to it. Later on you find it in the works of Neil Hannon. Just the idea of creating two pop concept albums about cricket, as he did with The Duckworth Lewis Method, is just something so silly, but it really appealed to us. If you haven’t heard the latter, do yourself a favour and check it out. Most of the Britpop bands from the 90s that I mentioned earlier had a healthy portion of humour in their output as well. Think “Bonehead’s Bank Holiday” by Oasis, for example, or anything by Pulp.
So these kind of things creep into our music as well. If you listen to “Mr. Beardsley,” you’d be hard pressed not to find the humour component in it, I think. Music should either move you – or amuse you. If it does both, you’re onto a winner.
I also really like the artwork you use on your releases. The image you use on the “Mr. Beardsley” single has a childlike simplicity but also calls to mind Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox as well as the Foxtrot album from Genesis, and the stark simplicity of the cover for “Cosmo Crowd” is both modern and eye-catching. Who designs your covers?
Thank you very much! We really like our covers to be unique and convey a nice mood. Back in the day when physical releases were more commonplace, it used to be an event to spend hours with the cover art as well – at least if you were a true music geek. Having some striking visuals to go with our songs is our way of retaining some of that feel, although in a digital format.
“Mr. Beardsley” has fun cover art – and when you say “childlike quality” you’re spot on. It’s designed by my seven year old daughter, Eleanor. She was given some brief instructions about what the song was about and that is what surfaced. It was a totally intuitive thing. Luckily it fit the whole mood of the track really nicely. That you get reminded of Wes Anderson and Genesis covers is fabulous. We’re huge fans of both. The Peter Gabriel-led Genesis is a huge inspiration to us.
“Cosmo Crowd” is designed by an American friend of ours named Brian Bufkin. We really think we got a great cover on that one. The simplicity of the drawing really accompanies the track’s message well, we feel. The final line of the song reads “I’m at my happiest alone, away from everyone and all the nagging and the stress.” Looking at the man in the drawing, and the lonely figure he cuts, that seems just about right.It is modern and eye-catching for sure. At the same time (remember you’re talking to Beatles obsessives here), we immediately thought the White Album when we saw it.
Since we’re on the topic of cover art, I’d like to draw the attention to our second single “Barbara Barbara Barbara” for a minute if I may. Viktoriia Morozova, a really accomplished Ukrainian painter, did that for us. We were really impressed and chuffed with that one. It’s great to have a proper piece of fine art going along with our little pop song.
So as you see, we have quite a lot of friends and connections who we get involved when it comes to our cover art. It keeps it fresh and unique. And you’ll notice the upcoming covers will be total departures from these first three as well. Should be fun.
Given the lush arrangements on “Cosmo Crowd,” I’m wondering if you pay live. If so, how do you adapt your music to the stage?
At the moment, Ina is taking a bit of time off with her family and their newborn baby girl. She gave birth in April. So at the moment, Todd & Karen has been a studio venture exclusively. I will, however, play a small solo set for a select audience on the launch night of “Cosmo.” To get the proper experience, I will bring with me some of the studio backing tracks and weave them seamlessly into my acoustic set. On the whole though, we would probably try to strip it down to a bit of an intimate, acoustic experience with guitars, violins and piano, if we were to play live.
We’re open to playing live. Maybe next year, with some more singles under our belts, we could do some gigs. That would be super cool. So if you’re reading this and would like to hear some Norwegian-Irish indie britpop live, don’t be shy. Come check us out.
What’s on the horizon for you?
We have some more singles lined up for 2022. The follow-up to “Cosmo Crowd” is a laidback, acoustic, almost demo-sounding little acoustic leftfielder entitled “Norwegian Summer.” Hopefully people will enjoy lazy summer vibe we got going on that one. It is also notable for being the first song featuring lead vocals from “Karen.” We recorded a country-rock stomper called “L12” with Sigve back in February, and we have that on the cards for an early autumn release. We also plan to go record a couple of more singles before the year is out – one of which I think is the best song we’ve written yet. There might even be a remix of “Barbara Barbara Barbara” released, either as its own thing or on the b-side of an upcoming single. So just keep checking back with us, there’s lots more to come.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!
It’s been an absolute pleasure, mate! Thanks for having us and have a lovely summer!