Cover Story: WhoMadeWho
Cover Story: WhoMadeWhoMay 18, 2022
Irreverent, humble, and always evolving, WhoMadeWho have successfully bridged the gap between dance and live music. For May’s Cover Story, Jack Tregoning speaks to the Danish trio about their new album, UUUU, and much more.
When I connect on Zoom with two-thirds of Danish trio WhoMadeWho, the bandmates are in dramatically different locations. Tomas Høffding, the group’s bass player and singer, is on a mini-break in the Danish forest. Though his camera is off, I can hear birds chirping serenely in the background. “It’s very non-techno,” Høffding quips.
Drummer and producer Tomas Barfod, meanwhile, is at home in Copenhagen, wearing a black t-shirt and black cap. The apartment behind him is white and airy, the picture of chic Danish design. Noting the grey box where Høffding should be, Barfod asks dryly if he’s naked. “No, just walking around the woods,” comes the chipper reply.
There’s something in this Zoom set-up that feels quintessentially WhoMadeWho. Over two decades together, and increasingly on recent albums, the trio’s sound is part cosmopolitan cool, part naked stroll through the woods. They’re the rare kind of band you could picture playing a fashion show before midnight, then driving deep into the wilderness for an anything-goes rave. This chameleonic quality is part of the off-kilter charm that makes WhoMadeWho one of electronic music’s most intriguing acts.
We’ve connected on Zoom to discuss WhoMadeWho’s seventh studio album, UUUU, out May 27 via the prolific Berlin-based label Embassy One. The trio — Høffding, Barfod and guitarist/singer Jeppe Kjellberg — worked on the album in bursts throughout the dark days of the pandemic, leaning on Keinemusik boss Rampa as a confidant and co-producer.
Released as a single last month, title track “UUUU” bears Rampa’s unmistakable flair for billowing drama. Previously WhoMadeWho released the album cuts “Summer”; “Mermaids”, featuring a remix by DJ Tennis; and “Silence & Secrets”, which spawned remixes from Black Coffee and Adriatique and an alternate version by Frank Wiedemann of Âme. As a whole, UUUU completes WhoMadeWho’s metamorphosis from a group that once courted the indie-dance circuit to one warmly at home in melodic house and techno.
While the pandemic stymied some artists, WhoMadeWho harnessed the opportunity to be productive. “It was good for us to slow down and not fly to America and drink every weekend, and all this shit,” Barfod says. “It’s not the same level of quality if you’re going to the studio all jetlagged.”
Photo by: Petra Kleis
Synchronicity, the group’s first COVID-era album, was released in November 2020 on Cologne’s Kompakt, a label with clear affinity for WhoMadeWho’s techno-meets-pop vibe. Synchronicity marked WhoMadeWho’s return to Kompakt for the first time since their 2012 album Brighter, and featured collaborations with the likes of label boss Michael Mayer, Robag Wruhme, Mano Le Tough, Marc Piñol, Perel and Frank Wiedemann.
That same collaborative spirit fed into UUUU, with the music drawn from several overlapping studio stints in Berlin with Rampa and Wiedemann. WhoMadeWho had already cemented their relationship with Rampa on 2019’s “Tell Me Are We” for Innervisions, which found its way into sets by DJs like Sasha, Guy Gerber and Âme. Over numerous sessions, they made ten tracks in total with Wiedemann, choosing two (“Dream Hoarding” and “Peter Pan Me”) for Synchronicity, saving “Silence & Secrets” for UUUU.
“We re-did it at the last minute, so we had two versions,” Barfod explains. “[Wiedemann]’s remix is actually close to the original that we made together.”
Barfod recalls making the beat for “UUUU” with Rampa on a sweltering day in Wiedemann’s Berlin studio. On the same day, they also sketched out a deep, enveloping track that was released in 2021 on Cercle Records as “Abu Simbel”, the name of the Egyptian temple site where WhoMadeWho played live for Cercle’s YouTube channel. WhoMadeWho knew they had a good thing going with Rampa, who Høffding describes as providing “guidance on a higher level.”
“As a producer, I have to trust a guy to be able to work with him,” Barfod adds. “After we made ‘Abu Simbel’, it made total sense to have him on the album too.”
Høffding describes some of the tracks on UUUU as feeling “like WhoMadeWho classics already, before we’ve even released them.” This is partly down to the group’s live and hybrid DJ/live performances, dating back to their set on the Mayan Warrior art car at Burning Man in 2019.
Barfod also credits the remixes of “Silence & Secrets” — which vary in tone, from Adriatique’s dark and driving peak time version to recent Grammy Award winner Black Coffee’s gentler, hypnotic treatment — for catching new ears. “In the end, we’ve been very lucky that people like to remix us,” he says. “It’s important to have a remix that builds the project, not just a remix for remix’s sake.”
Both bandmates agree that Rampa shook up their established working arrangement for the better. When I ask them to describe each member’s usual role in the creative process, Høffding boils it down to the bare essentials: he and Kjellberg are the songwriters, and Barfod is the producer. He goes on to paint a wry image of the two songwriters hassling their put-upon producer, year after year, with new ideas.
“Imagine for a moment being Tomas Barfod!” Høffding says, his voice brightening. “Every week, for 18 years, you get me and Jeppe saying, ‘Check out my new melody — isn’t it amazing?’ And he thinks, OK, this is just the same guy singing the same way thousands of times. I can be like, ‘Whoo, I made these really nice chords and this melody and this story’, and Barfod will listen to it and say, ‘Ah, it’s shit.’”
After slyly smiling throughout Høffding’s version of events, Barfod more or less confirms it. “We learned that it doesn’t serve anybody to have too much pride,” he says. “If you become insecure and mad about it, it’s not good for the process. I’m not always the nicest when I say things, but we found a way where we can all be together and not break up for 20 years. And I’ve learned I’m not always right.”
Photo by: Alive Coverage
Rampa brought a welcome fourth opinion. “It’s hard to tell after having these roles for so many years whether it’s just automatic,” Barfod says. “We have the same critiques. That was the nice thing with Rampa; he would agree with me sometimes, and when he didn’t, I trusted it.”
In the midst of making music for UUUU, WhoMadeWho made an unexpected pitstop. At Burning Man back in 2018, Barfod got talking to Diplo, the Mad Decent label boss turned mainstage superstar known for his hitmaking in Jack Ü and Major Lazer. Despite coming from different musical worlds, the pair stayed in touch, and WhoMadeWho ended up in Diplo’s LA studio for a session. “We kind of completely forgot about it until Diplo reached out again years later asking us to finish the song,” Kjellberg explains via email.
Their collaboration, “Make You Happy”, appeared on Diplo’s self-titled 2022 album, which was billed as a return to his house music roots. (Other collaborators included Paul Woolford, Damian Lazarus, Seth Troxler and Aluna.) “We always love to do new things,” Kjellberg adds, “and working with an artist like Diplo was one of them.”
When it came time to choose 13 tracks for the new album, WhoMadeWho approached the sequencing like a DJ set. Beginning with the shuffling warmth of “The Fall”, UUUU moves through moods and tempos, peppered with clubby peaks that bear Rampa’s signature. Barfod admits the band hasn’t always been so deliberate about the flow of their albums. He points to WhoMadeWho’s 2014 album, Dreams, released on their own label Darup Associates, which came two years after Brighter on Kompakt.
“We used to release on Kompakt and have a good slightly techno, slightly pop following,” Barfod says. “With Dreams, our manager convinced us to put all the singles in the front, so the beginning of the album was all pop. It wasn’t that different from any albums before, but because the playlist was different, it stood out as a pop album and we lost some of that credible following.” Since then, they’ve paid close attention to getting the order right. “It’s about making all these songs into one kind of storyline,” Høffding says.
The overall feel of UUUU is one of simmering drama, underpinned by Kjellberg and Høffding’s hushed, otherworldly vocals. (It’s this quality of WhoMadeWho’s vocals that remixers love to play with.) Australian singer-songwriter Kat Frankie appears as a featured guest on “Elsewhere”, while also providing vocal contrast on “UUUU”. Other highlights include “Never Alone”, which the trio played early in its life at Burning Man, and the one-two centrepiece of “Ojo De Agua” and “LIFE”, which distill the essence of WhoMadeWho in 2022.
I ask Høffding for the inspiration behind “Moon After Moon”, which pairs a wobbly synth line with lyrics about being unable to sleep from an overactive mind. As it turns out, the song is about exactly that. “Like a lot of artists, my mind is always running wild, especially when I’m super tired,” he says. “It’s part of being a creative person.” He adds that he’s trying to limit his time looking at his iPhone and listening to podcasts, so that inspiration might find him in the waking hours.
The band members are all happy with the tracks that made the cut on UUUU, which isn’t always the case. Over Zoom, Høffding and Barfod are unsentimental about the group’s prolific career up to now.
In the past, WhoMadeWho has released tracks they didn’t particularly like because they thought they could be hits. “It’s a battle between the heart and the brain,” Barfod says. “The brain might tell you that something could do well commercially and the heart says, I don’t like it. In the end, if you don’t feel it yourself, you shouldn’t release it.”
“There’s never a guarantee of anything,” Høffding adds. “You might think you have a hit, and nothing happens, so you might as well go with what you want. There’s quite a lot of tracks where we’re like, ‘What the hell were we thinking?’”
“So much shit, so much shit,” Barfod says with deadpan self-deprecation. I ask if they feel committed to keep playing any tracks they secretly hate. The short answer is no. “They are now fully forgotten, like bodies buried in the garden.”
This time around, the selection process was much smoother, with all members agreeing on the final 13. “Honestly, it was kind of easy choosing for the album,” Høffding says. “I don’t know if there are any hits on this album, but it’s really good.”
With a band name referencing AC/DC’s 1986 hard rock album, WhoMadeWho first turned heads with the 12-inch, Two Covers For Your Party, in 2004. On it, the band covered two earworm dance anthems: Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction” and Mr. Oizo’s “Flat Beat”. Their raw, unfiltered versions — heavy on guitars, drums and cowbell — set the template for the trio’s part rock, part dance sound. “Satisfaction” was the peak of the band’s live shows for years, with Barfod bouncing on his drum stool as he hammered out the beat.
WhoMadeWho’s self-titled debut album, released in 2005 on German label Gomma, announced their name in super-sized font against a vivid red background. The album features several hallmarks that continue in their music today, like the offbeat lyrics and layers of instrumentation, but it’s much looser and spikier than the WhoMadeWho of UUUU.
This oddball streak carried through to their live shows, including at the Spanish festival Benacassim in 2007, when they were called on last-minute to fill in for The Klaxons on the main stage. Bounding onstage in their signature skeleton suits, the group greeted the not-quite-sure crowd with, “We are The Klaxons, we came all the way from Denmark!”
Following their debut, WhoMadeWho made a habit of keeping fans guessing. In 2006, they returned to Gomma with Green Versions, a collection of “folk and hippyesque reinterpretations” of their dancey fare. Their next studio album on Gomma, 2009’s The Plot, brought in new textures and instruments from surf music and prog rock, while maintaining the arch, never-quite-serious tone.
In 2011, the group made the jump to Kompakt, the tastemaking label founded in Cologne by Wolfgang and Reinhard Voigt, Jürgen Paape, Jörg Burger and Michael Mayer. WhoMadeWho’s Kompakt albums, Knee Deep (2011) and Brighter (2012), coincided with their growing reputation as a band that sounds great in remixes. In 2011, Tale Of Us and Michael Mayer memorably remixed “Every Minute Alone” for Life and Death, while the likes of Digitalism, Maceo Plex, Andhim and Kollektiv Turmstrasse jumped at the chance to remix WhoMadeWho.
At the same time, Barfod was busy working as a house producer, turning out gems like “Till We Die” featuring Nina Kinert on Get Physical. In 2012, he released a well-received solo album, Salton Sea, on LA-based label Friends of Friends. Barfod’s steady work as a DJ and producer ensured WhoMadeWho kept one foot in the world of melodic house and techno, with the band called on to mix an entry in Get Physical’s Body Language series in 2016, following DJs like Dixon, DJ T, M.A.N.D.Y. and Jesse Rose. WhoMadeWho’s contribution is a perfect snapshot of their growing sweet spot, which sits somewhere between live stages and strobe-lit clubs. The tracklist, featuring synth-pop and IDM mixed into housier tracks from their friends DJ Tennis and &Me, still feels true to WhoMadeWho’s delicate dance.
Fast forward to 2022, and I’m speaking to Barfod and Høffding only days after they’ve completed a run of shows across North and South America. In recent years, the band has honed its hybrid live/DJ show, which gives them flexibility to slot into lineups of largely DJs.
After attending Burning Man in 2018, WhoMadeWho were invited to play a sunset slot on the Mayan Warrior art car the following year. This was their second-ever run of the hybrid show, and the gamble paid off. With Barfod at the controls, flanked by Høffding and Kjellberg with microphones and pared-down gear, their set drew a locked-in desert dancefloor. That evening in the Black Rock Desert was significant both for bonding the trio with Burning Man and also ushering in their next evolution as live performers.
The band members draw a clear line between the past and present of the WhoMadeWho live show, which Høffding says has evolved “to a crazy degree.” After Burning Man, the next step in the evolution was the call from Cercle. In conjunction with its label releases, Cercle has become renowned for broadcasting DJ sets on YouTube from stunning locations around the world, shooting the action with high-definition camerawork and swooping drones. The platform invited WhoMadeWho to Egypt to play at the foot of the Abu Simbel Temples, a 3000-year-old monument carved into rock. It’s a breathtaking setting.
“Leading up to Abu Simbel, we redid a lot of what we do live,” Barford explains. “Two years before, we were still doing the live band with live drums, bass and guitar; a more indie-rock/electronic feel. It’s the other way around now — electronics with live instruments on top of it.” This set-up is easily adaptable to a hybrid live/DJ format, and suits the melodic house and techno feel of their recent work. While Barfod and Høffding say they’re now exploring ways to expand the show for bigger stages, the electronic bedrock remains. “It makes us happy performing like this,” Barfod says.
Photo by: Alive Coverage
With this new freedom, WhoMadeWho are also exploring ambient sets, notably at the new boutique festival The Moment in Copenhagen last August. Dreamed up by Barfod and his Danish collaborator Michelle Simone, the intimate four-day affair at Copenhagen’s Lake Pavillion featured friends of the band like Damian Lazarus, Âme, Adam Port and DJ Tennis. The festival kicked off on Thursday with WhoMadeWho’s Tranquillity event, which featured the trio in ambient mode. (They returned on Sunday for a proper dance floor session.)
“The ambient one was definitely the hardest one for us,” Kjellberg explains. “It’s very difficult for the three of us to keep the energy down like you are supposed to in an ambient set. This is a new challenge for us that we are probably going to explore a bit more at our Tranquillity events in the future.”
In the early days, WhoMadeWho wouldn’t have dreamed of giving fans an ambient set. As Høffding tells it, they were committed to a “crazy, circus-punk vibe” that soon started to wear thin. “Our albums were quite electronic, but when we played live, we thought, fuck it, we’re just going to do punk — guitar, drums and bass,” he says. “It was a youthful thing, and when you do that for too many years, it gets frozen. When you’re crazy and wild, it has to come from the heart, and sometimes it felt a bit like doing a theatre show. You’re not being crazy, you’re…” He pauses, and Baford jumps in: “Acting crazy.”
All these years and several experiments later, WhoMadeWho have found a groove that feels true to them. “We realised at some point that we don’t really belong at the indie venues,” Barfod says. “We thrive better in a hybrid between our fans and the club community, where people just want to let some steam out and dance and get carried away.”
Høffding agrees. “In this scene, you can come, and nobody knows you, but you can fucking explode the house,” he says. And so the WhoMadeWho story rolls on.
WhoMadeWho’s seventh studio album UUUU drops on May 27th via Embassy One. Check it out on Beatport.
Jack Tregoning is an editor and journalist from Sydney, Australia, who has worked for over a decade in music media, while also writing about movies, TV, and culture. Find him on Twitter.