Fredrik Saroea: Several Strings Attached

An interview about chamber music with the man from DATAROCK

Fredrik Saroea (Image: Reybee)

DATAROCK has been one of the keynote names on Norway’s modern pop circuit for over two decades now.

But in 2021, frontman Fredrik Saroea stepped out of his role in the band to release a stunning solo album called Rona Diaries, which found him departing from the indie disco glitterbomb of DATAROCK to craft an LP of class, drama and intrigue. 

Co-produced and mixed with longtime drummer Øyvind Solheim with help from Mark Rankin (Adele, Weezer, Harry Styles), Rona Diaries finds Saroea taking in his lockdown experience with a gravitas that will bring to mind Rufus Wainwright and recent Nick Cave–a beautiful contrast from the kinetic energy of DATAROCK. 

On June 10th, Saroea released Rona Diaries: The Chamber Versions Live at The Grieg Hall, Bergen, which was recorded at Grieg Hallduring Norway’s 69th annual Bergen International Festival on May 28, 2021. Not a man hesitant to kick it up a notch, Fredrik reimagined the album entirely with the assistance of the Norwegian string quartet BIT20 Ensemble, comprised of violinist Martin Shultz, cellist Agnese Rugevica, Liene Klava on viola and harpist Johannes Wik. 

Rock & Roll Globe had the pleasure of exchanging data with Mr. Saroea, who answered our questions with forthcoming generosity–a man whose heart is as big as the music that emerges from it.

 

When you first set out to do The Rona Diaries during the lockdown, did you always have it in the back of your mind for these songs to be accompanied by strings?

Not at all. Rona Diaries was such a “solo project” – me playing all instruments and all – that it’s the complete opposite of a collective process. In fact, I’m still bewildered that an egocentric, monochrome album like that could even set in motion the endless set of weird circumstances that gave birth to the wonderful, collective effort you hear on the chamber version album.

Big up for optimizing your chance of a little bit of luck! 

And the fact that this album is a live recording from the premier of all the material, performed live in front of a sold out hall – after a year of lock-down and after just two short rehearsals with the string quartet, racing through a 209 page score – just makes it more of a puzzling endeavor. However – I did add strings-samples on “Battered & Bruised”, so perhaps subconsciously I was hoping chance would lead in the right direction! 

Fredrik Saroea with the BIT20 Ensemble Rona Diaries: The Chamber Versions Live at the Grieg Hall, Bergen, YAP Records 2022

How did you first come across the BIT20 Ensemble as a fan? What was it about them that made them the right fit for this collaboration?

I guess I’ve known about them forever, and the artistic director Trond Madsen is even an old pal from my music high school where Kjetil Møster (the sax player in DATAROCK) was in my class. Madsen once conducted a symphony for the recording of DATAROCK The Musical (orchestrated by the same arranger that did Rona Diaries), and Møster once wrote an orchestra piece for BIT20, so we all go really far back. 

Quite a few of our close friends are affiliated with BIT20, and the fact that they’re all amazing musicians attuned to contemporary art music AND open to rock, experimental, noise, exotica and so on gave me hope in regards to getting them on board. I was certainly not sure though, so I was really grateful when they decided to join the party. 

 

Tell me about Mike Marsh and what makes your creative union so fruitful.

The way I discovered Mike Marsh was a night when I realized – from the credits on the covers – that he had mastered all of the best sounding 12″ among a random array of varied artists I put on, DJing on a pretty heavy Funktion One sound system at Lysverket in Begen. So I reached out and found that he had left The Exchange in London to set up shop in Exmouth, Devon – and as soon as we connected he has mastered and even cut our lacquers ever since. 

Working on everything from Björk and Depeche Mode to Calvin Harris, Prodigy and Oasis gives him such a deep understanding and skill set – and, for all I know, perhaps even bought himself such a unique equipment park – enabling him to contribute so much to all the different paths I’ve been part of taking over those years.

In fact – Mike is even the guy who put me in contact with both Mark Rankin (with whom I used to be his colleague at The Exchange) and Steve Dub (who’s a long term client) – so I’d say both his wisdom, skills and amazing network of wizards!

 

You premiered this performance at the Bergen International Festival. Had you ever attended it as a fan in the past? What was it like preparing for such an event knowing the scale of the audience you would be playing for?

I’ve attended the Festival since I was a child and I’ve actually performed there more than once before; starting in music high school, then years ago in a performance by the theatrical performance artists Morten Traavik (with whom we’re releasing a 10-year anniversary compilation from called Populism via our label YAP Records on August 14), and then later on with DATAROCK. 

Preparing for my solo premiere was a totally different beast though – and I was so nervous that I rehearsed at YAP HQ several times every single day for the weeks and months leading to the show. 

It was during that time of endless rehearsals that I realized that I had to get the performance recorded – just in case all the anxiety and time consuming preparations was to pay off on stage. And damn, I’m so happy Kings of Convenience’ sound engineer – André Luciano Trebbi – was available for the recording and so lucky to get Mark Rankin on board for the mix. In this case, Mike Marsh both mastered and cut the vinyl lacquers. The limited edition 12″ that we’ve printed at T-Time Vinyl Plant is such a proud memorabilia from that show – graced with the exquisite design by Magnus Voll Mathiassen – that I’m still walking on air! Just reading that amazing 8/10 review in Uncut Magazine was like – damn, what a feeling of happiness for pushing us all through the ordeal – hehe. 

 

 

You delivered this version of Rona with the BIT20 Ensemble as a surprise on this night. What are your thoughts on how it was received by the audience?

I can still see their faces like it was yesterday, and the feeling I got was a sense of nervous tension – perhaps fear from them of quite possibly hating a performance they just paid to attend. But that feeling was gradually replaced with joy and perhaps a fair share of surprise from both the new direction and how well it sounded. It also seemed as if they were pleased to hear that I could sing OK without screaming and shouting the way they’re used to hearing me with DATAROCK. So yeah – it was well enough received that quite a few too many came to the afterparty. 

 

Which song from Rona do you feel benefits the greatest from the addition of the Chamber Quartet and why?

I really like how ALL the songs gets so much many subtle nuances added via the varied arrangements – both musically in the  individual melodic phrases and movements, the harmonic interplay and the tempo and energy, but also how the arrangements seams to add so much more depth, “poetry” and optimism to the lyrics. 

A few personal favorites are “Bulletproof Vest”, “The End” and “A Matter of Dying” – besides the brand new title “Bergheim” (without lyrics) – but I really like how the arrangements take full ownership to titles like “Feather in the Cap”, “The Family You Got To Choose” and even “Heaven Knows Those Songs Weren’t Heaven Sent” too.

So I’d say all, but if I had to choose one I’d say “Bulletproof Vest.”

 

How did you decide which DATAROCK tracks would translate best in this format?

First of all I didn’t want to include too many DATAROCK titles. And I wanted to show how certain DATAROCK tracks were really just basic singer-songwriter songs with a guitar and vocal melody at the core – so some of the songs were performed alone (so I left them off of the album). Another song was actually rehearsed, but was left out last minute – just to avoid the easy sell of “Fa Fa Fa”, so to speak.

Not entirely sure how we decided on the very few tracks we landed on at the end, but the main issue was that they had to have a solid foundation to build from at the core – and that the orchestral arranger had to feel a link to the solo material, I guess. As you can imagine it must have been hard enough to find a direction even within the quite varied material on Rona Diaries itself. As you hear on the new album he even left a few out, so we added a few new tunes…

 

How has this experience inspired you to look at the way you create music moving forward?

One of the things I noticed is how I managed to separate what I contribute in DATAROCK to what I contribute to “my own” stuff, now that I finally got to release solo material for the first time in ages. 

If you listen to my early solo releases, like the swanky Tricatel records inspired singles “I Will Always Remember You” (ft. Annie, strings, and Röyksopp’s bass player), and “Ganguro Girls” (ft. Ralph Myerz and the Jack Herren Band’s drummer and percussionist), they differ a lot to the same-period lo-fi releases by DATAROCK. Same goes with my “new wave” EP “Chamonix & Paris” (ft. Bob Hund’s Conny Nimmersjö). However, both of those solo-singles made their way into the international re-release of DATAROCK’s debut in 2007. And my follow-up solo EP for “Chamonix & Paris” was even released as a DATAROCK EP titled “See What I Care” even though it was all recorded by me “for me” – decisions kinda forced onto DATAROCK by our labels due to an acute need for new DATAROCK-material in the midsts of touring 250 days a year. So gradually more and more of my own stuff ended up within DATAROCK, taking on a perhaps unnecessary, sometimes unfortunate “conceptual angle” that didn’t necessarily work too well for neither DATAROCK nor the songs. And shit like that I’m sure has happened so many times before…  when a band or project was collaborative in nature, but gradually became too much influenced by one member’s voice and signature. 

What’s interesting is to see how much of a collaborative effort the new album for DATAROCK is currently transforming into, now that I’m releasing my own stuff just the way I wanted amd not caring about strategic-music-business-whatever. And DATAROCK hasn’t made anything this true to what we were in the beginning – since prior to forcing my solo-stuff into the mix too much. Like – half of the RED album was really just my third solo EP, and the last song (“New Days Dawn”) is as solo as they come. 

What I mean is that DATAROCK is finally releasing its first proper collaborative album since our debut album from March 2005. 

DATAROCK is back to being a truly collaborative project between me and my original partner Ketil Mosnes (aka Fresh Ketil aka Ket-Ill aka Ketel One) who is back in the live line-up. Stig Narve Brunstad (aka Stig The Mystical Casio Operator) in fact co-produced half the up-coming album. Kjetil Møster (aka Ketel One) plays the sax like a master –  he is all over the place. And both Tarjei Strøm (aka LA Gear), Thomas Larssen (aka T-Man) and Øyvind Solheim (aka Ike Andy) are all back – both in the studio and on stage. So parallel to me “going solo” I’ve been able to get the whole DATAROCK gang back together as a group where everyone gets to contribute to a collective like we used to back when we were less unsullied by the wonderful, commercial music industry…

We’ve also brought in some new blood in the process: Mark Rankin did some tracks, Tee Bee One, and The Chemical Brothers’ Steve Dub mixed most of the material, like the first singles “Digital Life”, “Tick Tock” and “Video Store” lifted off the upcoming album Media Consumption Diary. 

Next DATAROCK single drops June 17 by the way, another this fall, and the new album is out probably January 20, 2023. 

So keeping shit separate is the way forward. And if it’s up to me, I’d love to spend as much time on both sides now – especially as we’ve found this amazingly fruitful collaboration with BIT20 Ensemble via Bjørn Morten Christophersen’s arrangements that you’ll all be able to hear on the new album – out now!]

 

 

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Ron Hart

Ron Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Rock and Roll Globe. Reach him on Twitter @MisterTribune.

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