Oil & Steel: An Interview with Fredrik Kinbom
Fredrik Kinbom’s second album Oil is expressive and cinematic. Andrew Darley talks to him about his creative process and how a drunken encounter on a bus in Brighton has shaped his music ever since.
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On his second album, Oil, Fredrik Kinbom attempts to instill the essence of one of his cherished instruments. His music heavily incorporates a 1940s lap steel guitar, which is more commonly known for contributing to Hawaiin and country music. Originally from Sweden, Fredrik embraces the guitar in creating the foundation to his brand of down-tempo, atmospheric rock. Oil features ten songs that are expressive, ambient with moments that resonate like moments of a film score. Fredrik has worked with several bands and written with other artists, most notably he co-wrote a number of songs on Sarah Blasko’s latest album, I Awake. His second solo album is underlined by a strong vision of his sonic identity and his dedication to executing it. Andrew Darley spoke with Fredrik about the random incident that led him to find the unique instrument, his creative relationship with Sarah Blasko and the significance of the album’s title.
I was introduced to your music by the songs you worked with Sarah Blasko on her 2013 album, I Awake. Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you became a musician? Was music something you grew up around?
My mother plays the piano, and she inherited this beautiful old Steinway grand from her grandmother, who was a professional pianist. So there was definitely a lot of music played at home when I grew up. My first attempts at playing music myself was when I played bass in a metal band in my teens. Then my mother’s record collection, stuff like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, eventually pulled me away from metal and got me interested in songwriting.
Oil is your second full-length solo album. How do you feel this one has progressed compared to your debut?
I feel that it is much more consistent, both in the material and in the production. The previous album, Hedgehogs & Elephants, was recorded over a longer period of time, in different studios, different countries even, so that one feels more scattered to me. The new album has more focus.
Did you go into this album with a clear vision of what you wanted it to be and sound like?
Yes. I started writing it out in the Swedish countryside, in the winter, quite isolated. I wanted to crystallize what I do with the lap steel, sort of distill what makes playing this instrument special for me. Then David Stiby, who recorded and co-produced the album, suggested we record it in his all analogue studio in Stockholm; he has all this amazing vintage equipment there. So we set out together to make the record sound very warm and organic and to the point.
You selected ‘Oil’ as the opening, and eponymous, track of the record – what’s the significance of the title?
The oil that figures in the lyric of that song is sort of a symbol of the essence of love and human co-existence; something precious but natural that is there for us to find if we look for it in the right places, and learn to recognise it. So it has nothing to do with petroleum. I like that it is quite an “open” title, that people can read a lot of things into the word “oil”. Also I find that the three letters have such a basic graphic shape. The word in capitals almost looks like a symbol from another civilization if we step back and unlearn the alphabet for a moment.
You just mentioned that your music predominantly features a lap steel guitar, which has a very distinctive sound, more commonly associated with Hawaiian and country music. Is there a story behind how you came to use that instrument?
I discovered the lap steel in quite a random manner. It was not me hearing its sound and wanting to make such sounds. It was through an encounter with a slightly tipsy old gentleman on a bus in Brighton. He saw that I was carrying some guitars, “normal” guitars, with me and asked me about them, and then mumbled something about how much he liked Hawaiian slide guitar. This was in 2005 I think, when I had this band Frock in the UK and was getting to a point when I was looking for something new in music. So I sold a guitar and bought an old 1940s lap steel off eBay. When it arrived in the post and I opened the box, that was the first time I touched a lap steel. At first I was a bit intimidated by it, but after a few months something clicked and I became totally absorbed by it. It was a real turning point for me, once I found a way to make my own kind of music with it.
Do you find yourself engaging with it in a different way compared to other guitars or instruments? Does it open up the possibilities of the sounds and songs you can create?
Definitely. I find it, for me, much more expressive than a normal guitar. The fact that there are no frets, its sensitivity to touch, turns it into it a more direct expressive instrument. Kind of like a cello, which I think is one of the most beautiful sounding instruments there are. And kind of like the human voice.
I find it full of possibilities, especially for making instrumental music, but also how it can interact closely with vocals. It’s the instrument that feels the most natural for me to play. And I think playing lap steel has rubbed off on my approach to other instruments, and to making music in general.
You wrote all of the music and lyrics on the album. Were there any particular experiences you wanted the album to deal with?
I guess I was writing about the state and situation I was in at the time. A disillusion with love and trying to make relationships work, but also a hope and a faith that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I guess it’s quite introspective, but I hope that other people will be able to relate to it too, and that it makes them feel something.
I mentioned earlier you’ve written with Sarah Blasko and she is featured here on the final song ‘Roots And Rubble’. What was it like to work with Sarah on your own album this time? You must be very comfortable working together at this stage.
The original intention for ‘Roots And Rubble’ was to add a horn arrangement; trumpet, flugelhorn and baritone horn adding this mournful, warm carpet of sound. But then when I started recording the album Sarah was still in Stockholm finishing work on her album, so it was quite an impromptu idea, for her to sing some wordless improvised vocals on this track. Her voice is such a beautiful instrument, and it sounded so otherworldly and lush that I ended up scrapping the horn idea, as it sounded so beautiful with a more minimalist soundscape around her voice.
Do you have a different approach or mindset when writing your own music compared to when you work on other artist’s projects?
Well, what I would record as a solo artist or play at live shows myself I guess has to feel like it’s right and relevant for me on a personal level. But then of course I also write all sort of things that doesn’t necessarily tick this box for me, but might do for someone else. I love writing with others and playing on other people’s projects for this reason – that there are all these different roads that music can take. To not sit in the driver’s seat all the time but still help pushing things forward, so to speak.
Were there any difficulties or challenges in bringing this album together?
Well, some of the songs I wrote after the recording sessions had started. So before those additional songs existed I felt some pressure to come up with the right material to make it a complete collection of tracks that fitted together as an album. The last song I wrote for the album, ‘Love And Luck’, was written a week before, and recorded just a day or two before I moved from Stockholm to Berlin. It felt a bit last-minute, but worked out well in the end.
But all in all the recording went smoothly – most of what you hear on the album are entire takes of me and the other musicians playing together, warts and all, with a minimum of overdubs. I am very happy that David Stiby recorded the album. He has great ears and ideas and is very honest in saying what he likes and what he doesn’t, so he was a great asset in more ways than making the album sound good. He is also something of an analogue wizard, coming up with technical solutions like recording a grand piano away from the studio on a portable tape recorder and then managing to synch it to the master 2” tape in the studio.
All of the songs on Oil have gentle tempos and the instruments you incorporate such as the harmonium and the piano sound quite ambient. Would you say there is calming quality to this album?
I guess it just ended up being like that because of the songs I wrote and the mood I was in. Maybe I wanted to calm or sooth myself? This collection of low tempo songs was what came out of me at the time and I did not want to add more uptempo tunes for the sake of it. We did record a fast paced track but it just didn’t fit in on the album in the end.
Have you ever considered scoring or contributing to a soundtrack to a film?
I have had some stuff I’ve written featuring in TV and film but it has been the case of requests to use existing recordings. I would love to write some music specifically for a film, and I think my approach to the lap steel offers many possibilities for this. I hope that this album will open up some doors for working with film scoring as people so often call my music “cinematic”, and I think Oil as an album features good examples of this more than anything I’ve recorded previously.
There’s a sense of connectedness running through this album with the mix of both instrumentals and vocal songs and the reprise of ‘Ought To’ near the end. Did you want this album to feel like a whole piece rather than a collection of songs?
Yes, definitely. While I feel that the sound and production of the album is very consistent throughout, it took quite a lot of juggling around with the track order to achieve the sense of it being a whole and a few tracks were dropped from the album as they did not fit in. But I feel we got there in the end. I also really like having instrumental tracks and interludes on an album, to weave a tapestry of sounds and moods that not necessarily must feature words.
I hope people will take the time to listen to the album from start to finish. Which is quite rare in these days of our iTunes computer jukeboxes and the shorter attention span the Internet has given most of us.
Have you got a favourite song on the album or one that has a certain significance for you?
I think I’d pick the song ‘Ought To’. Writing it was a very natural process and the topic was something I really needed to get out of my system. And then the recording really came together naturally as well, while the song was still very fresh. Myself and drummer Fredrik Rundqvist recording two live takes, then we built the soundscape upon that foundation, and the finished result really fulfilled for me what I intended with the song.
What is on the cards for you over the next few months?
In June I will do a string of shows in Europe promoting the album. And then more shows will follow in the autumn. I am also in the process of writing and demoing my next album here in Berlin, and writing some music as a soundtrack for an upcoming sculpture exhibition.
Also, I play bass with Ned Collette in the Berlin-based line-up of his band Wirewalker, and he’s just released a new album as well, so I suspect there will be a fair amount of playing shows with him too, which I look forward to. Ned is a great songwriter.
Oil will be released on May 12 on Capstan Records. For more information about Fredrik and upcoming tour dates, check out his official website here.