If ever a band perfectly crystallized a moment in the culture, it’s the Swedish fusion pop outfit Dirty Loops. Our world is flatter than ever. Content is exchanged instantaneously online, and the force of the masses to amplify its reach is so powerful that it has its own buzzword: “virality.” In music, things have reached a paradoxical state: At the same moment that we musicians complain about the state of popular music and the industry’s cynical profit motives, we benefit from the seemingly infinite breadth of freely available music. Given all this, there’s something perfectly apt yet uncanny about a Swedish web sensation reminding us all that this is a special moment in music indeed.
If you’re one of the few who hasn’t yet seen one of Dirty Loops’ hugely popular YouTube videos, drop the magazine right now, and check out their cover of Justin Beiber’s “Baby.” Yes, Justin Beiber. For those already in the know, you’re well familiar with the band’s stunning alchemic sound. Dirty Loops has created something entirely new: pop music that works in all the breezy and beguiling ways good pop should, but delivered with eye-popping virtuosity, hip ear-massaging harmony, and near inhuman precision. Anchoring and propelling this stunningly original take on pop is one of the bass world’s most impressive new stars, Henrik Linder.
From the bass perspective, the average Dirty Loops song is an awe-inspiring display of technique, harmonic sophistication, and lock-step rhythmic accuracy. Yet, it’s the sheer musicality of Linder’s concept that elevates him above mere shredder status. Many bass players can proudly boast of their diverse technical skill set, but few deliver it with the artistry and insight of Linder.
Linder took to music early on, starting on piano at age four. He found the bass for the same reason many of us do, whether we care to admit it or not: romance. When he was about 12, his first big crush told him, “Bass is the sexiest instrument.” That’s all he had to hear. By the time Linder was 16, he was a busy Stockholm session musician. He was also friends with two other local up-and-comers, keyboardist/vocalist Jonah Nilsson and drummer Aron Mellergardh, and soon the three were full-time students at Stockholm’s prestigious Royal College of Music.
As music students, the trio did as music students do and dived deep into their instruments and musicianship in general. To make ends meet, Linder and his buddies would play as many gigs and sessions as possible, with little concern for the profile or pay. As Linder recalls, “I remember playing for a group of older people during their water aerobics class. I thought, Whew, this career isn’t going anywhere.” But as is so often the case, that gig reinforced connections that would pay dividends later on. The keyboard player that day became a collaborator of Dirty Loops, playing backup keys on early gigs.
Overwhelmed and exhausted by the intense academics, Linder and his good friend from childhood, Mellergardh, would let loose and jam as much as possible. Yet, rather than self-indulgent noodling, their early jams were often subject to the same discipline that is now so evident in Dirty Loops’ music. The pair would focus on the feels and styles that felt the least comfortable, repeating grooves endlessly until they started to feel natural. Mellergardh soon introduced Linder to Nilsson, who until then had never sung lead vocals in a group. The three would ’shed tirelessly, always seeking new and interesting avenues for growth as musicians. For fun, the trio would sometimes take modern pop songs and rearrange them, injecting all the interesting harmonic and rhythmic concepts they were saturated in at school. Soon, the name Dirty Loops emerged, and with it the concept of “loopifying” a song: taking a song and infusing it with sophistication, technique, and a broad range of influences.
As most budding bands would agree, at some point Linder and company needed some gigs. As longtime sidemen, self-promotion and marketing were not among their strongest skills. Nevertheless, they decided to make a YouTube video to show bookers, a loopified version of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” shot in their rehearsal studio. Within two months, the video had 100,000 views and over 10,000 Facebook shares. The band didn’t even have a Facebook page. At the time I write this, the video has over 1.4 million views and counting. Dirty Loops had officially gone viral with zero marketing effort and no gigs.
Recognizing that something special was in the offing, the group continued to produce videos in the same vein: simple and straightforward clips of the band playing one of their outrageously tricky versions of hit pop songs. The videos garnered the attention of a few significant folks in the music industry, chiefly producer/songwriter Andreas Carlsson, who signed the band to a management deal, and the producer/songwriter David Foster, who signed Dirty Loops to Verve Records and brought them along on his 2012 Asian tour.
David Foster pushed the band to go even further down the path they had established. Rather than shy away from the fierce fusion underpinnings of their early covers, he wanted the first Dirty Loops record to let it all hang out. The result is 2014’s Loopified [Verve], a collection of original songs that are pop in the extreme—hooks, accessibility, simple and heartfelt lyrics—but are also as mind-bending and challenging as any fusion record. It’s a delicious genre-bending cocktail, and ample evidence that one mustn’t sacrifice musical vocabulary in order to appeal to the masses. With Loopified, Dirty Loops is poised to reintroduce superior musicianship to a pop audience. In an era when much mainstream radio is of questionable musical value, a long-awaited revolution might have just begun.
How did Dirty Loops develop its concept?
We were all music students and session players in Stockholm. I’ve known the guys in the band a long time. When you’re doing sessions in Sweden, you don’t get to play out as much as you’d like, so we decided to start a regular jam session and play whatever we felt like. It was a lot of fun from the start, so we just kept at it. We never talked about a concept or direction. Everything kind of happened by itself. It probably helped that we had all grown up listening to a lot of the same music.
What’s the session scene like in Stockholm?
Basically, you say yes to everything. I was broke, so I took whatever I could get. I just knew I could never have a normal job.
Who were some of your early musical influences?
I have a sister who’s ten years older, so I listened to whatever she was into. I was about five when the grunge scene got big, so I pretty much grew up on that. Soundgarden was my favorite band from that era. I loved the odd meters, even though I didn’t realize it then. I remember starting to learn their songs and thinking, Hey, this doesn’t add up!
At some point, though, you must have heard some funk.
Honestly, my first exposure to funk was via the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Flea is basically the reason I play bass. I got into Primus, too, but really it was the Chili Peppers’ One Hot Minute [Warner Bros., 1995] that set me on the path.
It’s clear from your harmonic awareness that at some point you were turned on to jazz.
Oh, totally. My introduction to jazz was The Brecker Brothers Live [Jazz Door, 1994]. It’s my favorite concert ever, just because it means so much to me personally. When I first heard it, I was like, Huh?! I had heard some fusion and jazz, but the Brecker Brothers were so in your face. It was like everything in music happening all at once. James Genus is incredible on it, and [saxophonist] Michael Brecker is probably my favorite player of all time—not just with the Brothers, but on his solo records, too.
When you started to get into jazz, what was a big harmonic revelation for you?
I remember a saxophonist at school, a killer player. He seemed so adept at playing outside the harmony, so I asked him for some tips. One great thing he told me is to always think about how to apply dominant chord material to a set of changes. So find the dominant chord related to a given section of a tune, and then start practicing and coming up with lines that play off the dominant, whether it’s the directly correlated dominant or a substitute.
Do you practice much now?
I try to when I have the time. There are so many things going on now with the band, but rehearsing, performing, and composing are like practice, too. Every composition is an improvised phrase or idea to begin with.
When you do practice, what’s your routine?
I try to come up with new harmonic concepts. Beyond that, nowadays I’m trying to get to the point where I actually nail my bass parts for Dirty Loops. From years of living in small apartments, I actually tend to practice without the bass plugged in. It’s just easier that way, although I use a little Vox headphone amp on the road. I also have some technique exercises, too. There’s so much I want to get better at, especially in harmony and my understanding of chords and polytonality. I hear piano players do it and I want to be able to duplicate that on bass, which is part of what makes playing extended-range basses so awesome. I was also really into Jerry Bergonzi’s Inside Improvisation series of books. There’s some heavy stuff in there, like how to use pentatonics in interesting ways.
I also want to mention my favorite bass teacher, Robert Sundin. He was a huge part of my development, forcing me to focus on the parts of my playing that needed the most work. When you spend a lot of time on the most challenging things, your overall playing improves a lot.
On much of Dirty Loops’ material, you’re playing chords. How did you develop that ability?
First, I learned the basic root–3rd–7th voicings for major, minor, dominant, and m7b5 chords. Then you start to develop the inversions. In Dirty Loops, Jonah plays a lot of notes in the bass register, so I can use more rootless voicings. Also being a trio without a guitar player, there’s a lot of sonic space for me to fill chordally.
What pushed you to develop such a large technical vocabulary?
With Dirty Loops, a lot of it comes from the way some of the tunes are written. When Jonah writes a song, sometimes there are lines that I’m barely able to play on bass, just because he’s writing from a piano player’s perspective. I would have to switch around techniques all the time, just because I would often need at least three fingers available on my right hand. So, most of the reason the bass lines sometimes turn out weird are because they start on keyboard. Everybody is stepping into each other’s territory all the time, and it’s up to us to pull off the ideas on our instruments. I like it, since it forces me not to play the same stuff all the time.
Tell me more about Dirty Loops’ writing process.
From the beginning, we wanted to write simple and grooving songs. We’re huge fans of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Earth, Wind & Fire, as well as a lot of modern pop and EDM. When we write the songs, we start from the simplest place possible. There are no fancy chords or crazy rhythms. The melody is the most important thing, and we’ll prioritize that over everything else. Then, when we’re happy with the song in its basic form, we’ll go back and make it crazy—Loopify it. This part easily takes as much time as coming up with the original idea.
Are there charts?
No, nothing is written out. There are a few charts now, just because we’ve brought in another keyboard player for live gigs, but we really just learn the songs as a band. From my perspective, you learn the song better that way. Plus, practically speaking, there are sections where I’m just playing a bass line. In those cases, I don’t necessarily have to know exactly what all the chord changes are. There’s never been a main writer; Jonah was the primary producer because he had to worry a lot about keyboard sounds and arrangements, but everybody is involved with every aspect of the compositional process.
What was it like working with David Foster?
He’s been so instrumental in pushing us further and faster than we ever imagined. Dirty Loops began as a cover band, but there was a lot of material in our heads, and David helped turn that into a reality. We were thrilled to be signed to Verve, and coming to L.A. for showcases and meeting our musical heroes has all been enabled through this connection. It’s surreal that our point-person at a big label is the one pushing us to be even more intense and experimental than we are. We initially handed him a simplified version of “Hit Me,” the first single off the new record. He heard it and could tell we weren’t really going for it. His encouragement gave us the confidence to push our limits. Once we got that feedback from him, our sound came together.
What gear did you use to track the record?
It all starts with my Mattissonbass instruments. Working with Anders Mattisson has been an extraordinary collaboration. I first met him at a musical-instrument show in Sweden, sort of like the NAMM of Stockholm. He had seen some of my stuff online and was a huge fan. I checked out a bass in his booth and he immediately offered to let me take it home. I ended up using that on our “Baby” and “Rolling in the Deep” videos on YouTube. Since then, we’ve worked together on refining the instruments, and he’s happy to keep working at it because he can easily sell what I don’t keep.
For tracking I used a simple setup: just the basses into the old Aguilar DB 680 all-tube preamp, and then from there into the computer. All of the effects were done in the computer.
What do you look for in a bass?
I’m always after clarity and a bass that accommodates a wide range of techniques—everything from fingerstyle to slap. I love neck-through basses with swamp ash bodies and maple fingerboards, and I dig EMG pickups. My basses also include Mattisson’s own preamp. It’s funny, because I’m known for all of these extended-range high-end basses, but I love the sound of good old Jazz Basses—when other people play them. Whenever I pick one up I feel a little awkward, just because I can’t do all my stuff. They’re awesome instruments in the right hands, just not these hands.
You have a fairly elaborate live setup.
Basically it’s a wet/dry/wet system with the clean sound in the middle, and three separate amps powering each rig. I use EBS TD 660 heads and two EBS ProLine 4x10 cabinets per head, for a total of six 4x10s. I’m hooked on the Fractal Audio Axe-FX system, and I’m working to get all of the sounds I need programmed into the box and use only a MIDI foot controller onstage to cycle through sounds and patches. I actually sat with someone for four days to figure out all the effects I wanted to use for our live gigs. With the Axe-FX you can do some amazing things. Like on “Wake Me Up,” I wanted to go for this crazy Allan Holdsworth-style chordal accompaniment. To make it rich and interesting, we had a delay feed another delay. We repeated this process into eight virtual delays, each of which is being modulated in a variety of complex ways. Then the output is stereo. The result is super lush and atmospheric.
Since I play with so many techniques, I like being able to quickly change EQ and gain settings within a song, as I switch to a new technique. If I’m palmmuting, for example, I like there to be a little more gain to compensate for the reduced output. A MIDIbased system like the Axe-FX simplifies these complex effects shifts, once you get it set up.
Having so recently been a struggling music student and session musician, what would you say to aspiring players who admire your success?
Try to get an idea of where you want to be in the very far future, and direct your efforts to that goal. I want to be as harmonically free as [pianist] Brad Mehldau. I’m never going to get there, but that’s a goal and it keeps me focused on pushing myself. Have a path, and stick to it. You can experience a lot of selfblame, especially when you’re always seeing players who are better than you. That’s a real de-motivator. Try to avoid the temptation, and have your own journey.
How did you cope with self-doubt?
When I failed at something, it just pushed me to practice harder. When I had a gig I hated, it pushed me to do better. Just constantly push and push to achieve the things you want, and stay true to the vision that got you started in the first place.
Dirty Loops Loopified [Verve, 2014]
Bass Custom 33”-scale Mattissonbass 6- and 7-strings with through-body necks and swamp ash bodies; wenge or masur birch tops, and wenge or maple fingerboards
Rig Three EBS TD 660 heads, six EBS ProLine 4x10 cabinets
Effects Fractal Audio AxeFX II-XL, MXR M288 octave, MXR expression pedal
Strings Elixir (.030–.135)
Henrik Linder is one of the most technically gifted bass players around, yet his voluminous vocabulary is actually focused toward a simple goal: being the right bass player for Dirty Loops. Linder’s special gift is for injecting complexity into a line while enhancing, not detracting, from the groove, like so many acrobatic technicians. To prep yourself for the straight-up hard music here, check out his favorite warm up, in Example 1. To begin with, play root-position arpeggios to the 7th, and then descend down the appropriate scale. Here I’ve applied the exercise to diatonic chords in C major, but it can be applied to any tonality or mode. Once the descent phase begins, as in bar 9, play the arpeggio down from the 7th, then ascend up the scale from the 1.
Example 2, from “Hit Me,” puts Linder’s virtuosity on full display, as well as the range advantages of a 6-string bass. Pay close attention to the tricky syncopation in bar 5.
Example 3 puts the focus on Linder’s crazy slap chops in “Sexy Girls.” Work out the fingering ahead of time to capture the slurs where indicated.
In Ex. 4, we see Linder at it again with his thumb, this time over a lilting triple-feel groove from “Accidentally in Love.” Also listen for the difference between hammered-on slurs, like in “Sexy Girls,” and the fully slapped triplets here. Judicious and fast work with the thumb can reinforce a slap line with gravity and energy.