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Top of the Pops
Never heard of Max Martin? You've heard his songs, and they're monster hits around the world. Here's why
BY JEFF CHU Stockholm
Max Martin, the man behind many a top 40 hit
"Nah," Max Martin says, gazing out across the Stockholm cityscape. "I don't think I'll ever move away." And why should he? The Swedish capital may be a far cry — and a long plane ride — from the hyperactive nerve centers of pop music in New York and Los Angeles, but industry execs and artists — even Britney Spears! — make the trek anyway, to Martin's studio on the south side of town, to the Hit Man himself. Never heard of Martin? Chances are you've hummed, listened to, danced to or at least disparaged his tunes. "Max is the melody king," says Spears of the man who wrote her biggest hits, including '... Baby, One More Time'. Last year alone, the 30-year-old Swede wrote or co-wrote four Euro No. Is: Spears' 'Oops! ... I Did It Again' and 'Lucky'; the Backstreet Boys' 'Shape of My Heart' and Bon Jovi's 'It's My Life'. In each of the past two years, according to ASCAP — the American composers' society that keeps track of such things — Martin's songs were performed and broadcast more often than those of any other writer in the world. Says Simon Cowell, an artist-and-repertoire (A.-and-R.) executive at BMG Entertainment in London, "If you've got Max Martin as your writer, you have a better chance of having a worldwide hit than with anyone else."
For someone with such a stellar reputation in a high-profile business, Martin is unusually reclusive. He avoids P.R. — "Not my job," he says — and Time's exclusive talk with him was his first full-length English- language interview ever. So few people know his real name (Martin Sandberg). And even fewer realize how much of today's pop was Made in Sweden at collectives like Cheiron, Martin's longtime base. (For profiles of other Nordic pop masters, see following story.)
With the steady stream of popstars going into his studio and hits coming out, it's tempting to think of Martin as the manager of a musical McDonald's — Three up-tempo and one slow song to go, and hold the cheese. If only Martin really could cook up a hit as quickly as a hamburger. If only his mentor, who taught him everything about the craft, were still around. If only he knew whether his wild success could continue now that he has said goodbye to the place that was, for so long, his musical home.
Much of that success has come through his work with pop diva Spears. When they first met in 1997, he says, "she told me she thought I was an old man." "I was scared of him!" says Spears, who was then 15. "I thought he was someone from, like, [rock band] Motley Criie or something." Martin's long hair and leather outfits were remnants of his days as a wannabe rock star. Spears got used to them and to Martin — and they both got down to the business of making hits.
It didn't take long.'... Baby, One More Time' and the album of the same name both entered the U.S. charts at No. 1, making Spears the first new artist ever to pull off that feat. The Britney hype machine spinning in overdrive helped, but Martin's prowess for writing songs with global appeal was crucial. "Max has this magic dust that he sprinkles over records," says Louis Walsh, who manages Westlife and Boyzone. "His songs are worldwide pop monsters."
Just as he has his finger on the musical pulse of fandom, Martin also grasps what his artists want to sing. That doesn't happen by chance. Before he starts writing for Spears, he talks with her, sees her shows and finds out what's in her CD player. "I want the input because that makes the chemistry of the song," he says. Meanwhile, he records ideas on a Dictaphone he carries with him. His self-imposed quality-control regime means that only one idea in 300 gets to demo-recording stage. "You have to be a mass murderer and kill your darlings," he says.
Every survivor has a strong melody line, so a listener will know the song in seconds. It can be purely original or a riff on another song. For example, 'Oops! ... I Did It Again' echoes Barbra Streisand's 'Woman in Love'. And every song should get anyone — even a fat, balding fish-and-chip shop owner, as in the MTV Europe ad — moving to the music.
After the songs are written, demos made and potential tracks picked, it's time to record, an intense process that Martin says is "24-7." Sometimes, he'll redo sections of a song repeatedly, until he gets what he's listening for. "He's hard on you with the vocals," Spears reports. "Then when you hear it, you're like, 'Oh, damn! I'm so glad. Why didn't I do that before? It sounds so good!'"
Martin and writing-producing partner Rami use the same standards when they apply the musical cosmetics — mixing, polishing and layering vocals and instrumentation. "It's sick," says Martin Dodd, a longtime friend and head of A.-and-R. for record label Zomba Europe. "They'll stay up literally for three days just to get a drum sound right." Even then, songs don't always turn out as planned. With the mixing of Oops! ... I Did It Again, "after a week, Rami and I realized it sounded like shit," he says. "It didn't groove." So they scrapped it and went back to bar one. Two weeks of 18-hour-plus days later, the song was done. "It wasn't that we had an extreme deadline," Martin says. "That's just when you get psycho. That's when you get manic."
And that's how you get the clean lines of the Cheiron sound. When Martin describes the sound — "direct, effective, we don't show off" — you wonder whether he's selling a song or a Volvo. But maybe it's an apt comparison. His pop vehicles aren't the flashiest. But they're quality, and they get singers exactly where they want to go.
Martin's journey began at home in the Stockholm suburbs. His father was a policeman, his mother a teacher. His older brother introduced him to music. "He brought home old Kiss cassettes," Martin says, and with glam-rock blasting from the tape deck and Gene Simmons staring from the bedroom wall, the rock star bug bit hard. Martin soon started music lessons. He's still not sure why he picked French horn, hardly an obvious choice for an aspiring rocker "I guess it looked cool," he says. Far cooler was the school's music room, where he taught himself to play the drums. But his voice was better than his hands, so he put down the drumsticks and became a singer.
A few adolescent rock bands later, he and his friends started a heavy metal group called It's Alive. The lessons at his music-focused high school couldn't compete with visions of a rock star future, so he dropped out to concentrate on the band. It's Alive was the rare act that actually got a record deal, from the Cheiron label run by producer Denniz PoP. The deal would be the band's end and Martin's big break.
All along, Martin had been hiding a secret from his bandmates: he liked pop. Depeche Mode's Just Can't Get Enough? Loved it. The Bangles' Eternal Flame? An all-time favorite. Such music was anathema in headbanger circles, he says, so "I couldn't admit to my friends that I liked it." And he didn't tell them that, after rehearsal, he'd sneak into Cheiron's studio to write songs. Pop songs they couldn't sing, wouldn't sing.
But Denniz PoP liked them. Originally a D.J., PoP (his real name was Dag Voile) produced the 1990 Euro hit Hello Afrika by Dr. Alban. But it was PoP's production work on Ace of Base's worldwide smash album The Sign that created global opportunities for the producer and his apprentices. Intrigued by the potential he saw in Martin's rock-edged confections, PoP asked him to come on board as a writer-producer in 1992. "I didn't even know what a producer did," Martin says. He soon found out: "I spent two years day and night in that studio trying to learn what the hell was going on." By '95, he was ready to co-produce with PoP on Ace of Base's The Bridge, a sequel to The Sign.
Early that year, PoP and Martin saw a video of five guys singing at Sea World. They were called the Backstreet Boys and they were good, Martin says, "but we were concerned that there were too many boy bands around." Jive, the Boys' label, pushed. PoP and Martin relented. And Backstreet flopped. We've Got It Goin' On, co-written by PoP, Martin and fellow songsmith Herbie Crichlow, got only to No. 69 on Billboard's U.S. chart. But Germany fell for the song, and bsb fever swept Europe. The Boys had an edge that bands like Boyzone didn't, and Europeans — well, teenage girls at least — loved it. By mid-'97, America wanted some bsb too, and Quit Playing Games was their breakthrough, Martin's first Top 3 U.S. hit.
In August 1998, PoP, only 35, died after a brief battle with cancer. The loss shook Cheiron. PoP had been the studio's musical mastermind, says Zomba's Dodd, and "had an aura around him that made everyone excel." But the industry didn't stop for even a second of silence. The work had to go on. Martin took the musical reins, while studio co-founder Tom Talomaa continued to oversee the business side. They kept Cheiron's modus operandi — plenty of video-game breaks, practical jokes and the like — that PoP had instituted. And the music actually got bigger, with Martin's hits for Backstreet, Britney, Celine Dion and 'N Sync as well as huge songs from other teams, including Kristian Lun-din and Jake's Bye Bye Bye for 'N Sync, and Jorgen Elofsson, Per Magnusson and David Kreuger's Westlife singles.
So Cheiron's decision to close at the end of 2000 was a surprise, at least to outsiders. A post on the studio's website said, "It's time to quit while we're ahead," leaving plenty of room for speculation about what really doomed the hit factory. Martin's music has reportedly made him a multimillionaire (he refuses to discuss his wealth). Maybe a clash of egos caused the rift. Or maybe Martin had chewed and spit out all the bubble-gum pop he had in him. Fiction, he says, but typically he didn't quash the talk. Not his job.
Martin now admits that the breakup was driven largely by his desire for the creative space to experiment without the burden of the Cheiron name. While the split ended a unique ethos — "You walked around, someone said, 'Hey, I need a tambourine,' and you'd do it" — he says it couldn't have lasted forever anyway. One of the studio's big risks was complacency, says Billboard's Nordic bureau chief Kai Lofthus, and now that Martin and Rami have set up their own place, Maratone, "they still have to push and keep on making good music."
Of all the ex-Cheiron guys, Martin and Rami have been the quickest to get their new studio off the ground. Last month, the desks weren't set up and the boxes weren't all unpacked. But the TV, the PlayStation and the fridge full of Red Bull were plugged in. Britney Spears was in too, working on her third album, slated for a November release.
There may be more big names in Martin's future. He's talking with Faith Hill, the country-pop crossover megastar and Grammy queen, about her next album. He may have a studio reunion with Celine Dion when she returns from maternity leave next year. They worked together on 1999's That's the Way It Is. Martin calls her vocals on that track the musical equivalent of "a sprinter running the 100 m in three seconds." And atop his dream list of artists to work with are Madonna, who's "just great," and Prince.
Other A-list acts, such as Westlife, have voiced interest in working with Martin. But he says he won't just take any big-name project. He recently rebuffed one American singer with a stellar late-'90s track record. "I turn them down when I don't feel I can contribute anything," he says. "If they already have a great thing going, I don't see the point of going and messing with it."
Martin is also saving energy for as-yet-undiscovered talent. While his success with now-established artists has been terrific, he thinks today's up-and-coming talent could use some of the same mentoring that proved invaluable during his own greenhorn days. So he has signed on as a "hitmaker" at Tonos (www.tonos.com), the Web forum where aspiring artists and producers can learn from those already in the industry. "There are so many traps, so many ways of getting screwed in this business," he says.
Carole Bayer Sager, the Oscar-winning songwriter who founded Tonos, had Martin at the top of her list when she was recruiting talent for the site. "He brings one of the most extraordinary new pop sensibilities to come along in a very long time," she says. "That's as good as it gets for us." Note to wannabes, especially blonde female teen-age ones: Martin doesn't want another Britney, so don't send your demo tapes. But he might like to return to his musical roots and work with a young rock band that's "harder than Goo Goo Dolls, more like a Metallica."
Such change can be dangerous when you're a hitmaker with a known product. Fans, critics and even Martin himself may not like what he does next. In which case, he warns, he might even trade music for a career as a "professional video-game player."
For Martin, though, this adventure isn't optional. He has to chase the new or risk losing all that defined the old: the innovation, the freshness and — always, always — the fun. Denniz PoP would approve. After all, PoP was easily bored, always restless, Martin says with a smile. "He always said, 'Something's gotta happen here.'" It still does. And that sounds like a new Max Martin song coming on.
With reporting by Hugh Porter/London
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