Interview with Carl-Michael Herlöfsson
We started our anniversary celebration of the album Herzeleid with our first interview with Carl-Michael Herlöfsson. We had the chance to have a Zoom call with Carl, who was kind enough to answer our questions and give us some insight into the work that went into the album.
As a Rammstein fan you might be familiar with his name. For those of you who don't know what he had to do with the album: Herzeleid was produced by BomKrash. BomKrash consisted of Jacob Hellner and Carl-Michel Herlöfsson. So, as a co-producer for the album we thought it would be a nice way to get some information about how recording went down.
RammWiki: Hello Mr. Herlöfsson, and thanks a lot for the opportunity you have given us for our celebration of the Herzeleid album. To start off I think it would be great if you could just introduce yourself, your way into the music industry, and how you got to work with Rammstein. Fans are familiar with Jacob Hellner, so it would be a good way to get to know more about you.
Carl: Sure. In the late 70's I played in different punk bands in Stockholm. I had a brief stint with computer education around 1980 which was like the early days of programming courses in basic programs, and then I decided that I wanted to get into music production, so I took off to the United States, and went to a college in San Francisco, the College for Recording Arts where I took a degree in sound engineering and music production. Then I got stuck in San Francisco from '82 to '87, and I was involved in very early hip-hop crossover hits. I also mixed the very first Melvins album (
Gluey Porch Treatments, released in 1987). What I did was, I worked at Starlight studio outside of San Francisco, in Richmond. It was everything from women playing cello to the local hip-hop act.
Why I got stuck was the third session that I did. I worked as a second engineer, which mainly consisted of making coffee and cleaning the toilet for half a year, and then the regular engineer told me around Christmas time:
I can't do this regular session from 12pm to 8am, can you do it? And I immediately agreed. Three months later it turned out to be a huge hit in the United States, which I recorded and mixed. So I became the guy who did THAT song. The song was
Rumours by Timex Social Club. It was one of the first hip-hop/pop crossover songs in the States, and people came from everywhere and wanted to sound like that, which is why I got stuck there for a while.
I actually worked with Jacob together in the United States as a team. They called us the Savage Swedes. In '87 we went back to Sweden, where we formed our production company BomKrash Productions. We produced a number of albums, and did hundreds of remixes. I also kind of brought the hip-hop back to Sweden, and I got involved in the very early Swedish hip-hop scene. That was sort of leading up to the point where we first encountered Rammstein.
Since then I've been running a record company, a publishing company, a couple of studios, produced and mixed hundreds and hundreds of albums. I wrote film scores, music for commercials and now since seven years back I'm running a company called Modelizer, which is a start-up in music tech. Where I hold a patent for a brand new way of playing back music. A new music format for the future.
That sounds pretty cool. Now people should have a picture about what you did, and what you do. So, let's talk about Rammstein: do you remember the first time you heard about the band? What did you think about them?
Actually, I remember that very well. At that time Jacob was involved with Clawfinger. Around that time we started to do separate productions. So, Jacob had Clawfinger, and I produced a band called Amen. After he finished the Clawfinger album he called me, and said he got a cassette tape from Germany, which was a result of his work with Clawfinger, and he didn't really know what to make of it. He didn't speak German, but he thought it was really cool. So, he asked me if we could meet up and check it out together. So I drove up to him by car, so we could listen to it in the car,and he took out the cassette and it had a black and white cover. They already had their imageries going to where it would ultimately end up.
We listened to the cassette, and we both thought that this is really, really cool. It was something you had never really heard before. We couldn't understand one word, what they were saying. We also thought if this was a trap, since we didn't know what the lyrics are actually about, but we would really like to get on board somehow.
So, we asked a friend of ours, who is a designer for high end microphones, and he is of German heritage. We sent him the tape and he translated the lyrics for us into Swedish. He explained to us that it is a kind of old German poetry style. So, he translated what it was about and he called us and we thought
Okay, cool. We're safe from that. That was the first time I heard it, and from then on we started pursuing it. We understood that this was a big deal for the first album of a German band, which is why we decided to rejoin our forces and work together again. That was the starting point for me.
Unfortunately, there is not much information about the recording of the album itself. Can you share some info about that with us?
I can actually give you a step-by-step about how it came about. We first went through all the songs, the songs from the cassette, and we got some more material. Then we booked a flight, and stayed in Berlin for about three weeks. This was two or three years after the wall came down. It was a very weird state at that time. I mean East Berlin was still East Berlin. And it was very clear where the wall was, and they just started to fill the stores, but they hadn't really fixed the building above the first floor. It had a really Eastern block feel to everything. So, I went there and we stayed at Hotel Berolina, which was filled with truck drivers and very rough people. The band had a rehearsal space in a basement, somewhere I don't remember where it was.
Maybe at the KNAACK?
Oh, that sounds familiar.
They had a rehearsal room in the basement of it.
Yeah, we went through the backyard, and directly went down. There were several rooms, and the one furthest away was their rehearsal room. They had collected stuff from before the wall came down, because they were playing in bands before. Getting amplifiers and stuff like that was hard to come by at that time. They had like different scams going on to try to get some money to buy some equipment.
It was a rough period because only one or two of them hardly spoke any English, but in a way, that you could work with it. So, it was a lot of sign language, gesturing and pointing trying to get points across. We spent a lot of time there for preparing. There were a lot of samples and ideas on how to create the very strict Rammstein sound. They taught me a word at that time: they wanted the music to be
amtlich (in this case the word has the meaning of
powerful). They tried to explain to me the meaning of that word. I think I got it, and the music should be on point. Very important. Then Jacob, and me went back to Stockholm to prepare some stuff. There we then did the basic recordings, like some of the guitars and most of drums, and bass. We did this at the Polar Studio, which was the studio by ABBA.
Also, Led Zeppelin recorded here, unfortunately it has been torn down. It was quiet a legendary studio. I think we spent around two weeks there recording and doing a lot of computer work for sampling guitars and sampling of sounds. To double up the live performances to get a certain sound we wanted that wall of guitar, very tight and strict.
A typical guitar session with Rammstein would be one guy setting up his amplifier and his guitar, getting ready by drinking a
Schützenschnaps (a Tequila which also is still a ritual before concerts. A video of it can be seen on the Völkerball DVD). Then we went to the studio of Jacob and I, where we did additional recordings. Most of the electronic work, samples, guitar overdubs and most importantly tracking vocals. It was actually Jacob who worked quiet closely with Till, doing the vocals. Where I was more involved with the electronics and the programing side of things. Most of the stuff was recorded in those two studios. We might have done, I don't really remember, recordings in other places. But that have been shorts only.
For a fan it's always interesting to know about the material that the band did not release. We know from a promotional tape that includes rough mixes, and it has the song
Feuerräder on it.
I don't exactly remember the song, but it rings a bell when you say the name.
What happened when we were finishing the album, we started mixing it in Stockholm. In another studio, called MFG, and we sort of ran into a wall. We couldn't find a sound that we wanted in that mixing environment. So, then it came to a kind of pause for a little while, but we have done a bunch of mixes. One of them might be on that promotional tape, but I don't know. But then it eventually went down to being mixed in Holland. At that point I didn't really continue so Jacob did the mixes with the other guy. I was engaged in other stuff. So, after the mixes my contribution to the album ends.
So, the first mix that got rejected was done by Jacob and you or only Jacob?
No, it was me and Jacob. Another guy called Stefan Glaumann who later came to mix a bunch of their stuff, but it wasn't really a case of being rejected. It was more us trying to find something, and we were all in agreement that we didn't find it. Everyone was in agreement about what we wanted to do. The goal was pretty much set from the start. It should be what it ultimately became: a really hardcore amtlich record.
It is said that Richard was the only band member to be present during mixing, but he was not satisfied with that he heard so he called all other band members, and they decided to let Ronald Prent do the mix.
I was not there for that process. We did a bunch of stuff, but we all felt we're not really on to it. It turned out great, that's what's important. It's not about who did what in this context, it's more about if we're getting out what we wanted. Ronald Prent did lovely work with the album. I love the sound of the album, and with mixing we spent like half a year, so it was good to get a new pair of ears to listen to it.
During recording, were there any moments worth mentioning? Funny stuff or even things that got you angry at the band?
We had some really interesting things when we were rehearsing in Berlin. They got into arguments with each other quite frequently. They got quite loud, shouting in German, and we had no idea what was going on. but the one who was the angriest went next door, where they had a punching bag. After he came out it was all cool again, and they started to pick up their work.
I remember another interesting story. There is the line
Der Wahnsinn in the song
Du riechst so gut. We were working in our own studio at that time. We were discussing that, and wanted it to sound like coming through a phone. This was way before mobile phones.
We could just filter it but it should be a real phone. So one of the guys was sent down to the local subway station to pick up a pay phone and call the studio. It was in the middle of winter, and he hardly put any clothes on, he wore just a white t-shirt, suspenders, boots and like a set of short pants. So, he went to the subway station, called the studio and we put the microphone to record it. He was saying
Der Wahnsinn, and we were like
No, no, louder! Then he started screaming
DER WAHNSINN and we were always suggesting things to change it a little bit. It went on for three or four minutes like that. Then suddenly the call ended. It took him a while to come back, but when he finally did, he told us that there was a guy sitting in the station had called the cops.
There is a madman standing here with no clothes on, in the middle of winter, screaming in German. He looks really strange. But other than that, the recordings were very serious. It felt like there was a lot depending on what they were doing.
Have you ever seen the band live?
I actually have only seen them once. I don't remember the exact year, but it was in Stockholm, and it was way after my work with them. Jacob told me they're coming to town, and to see them. I was blown away. It was still not at the level it is now, but you could kind of see where it was going. It was at the time when they had that huge metal Rammstein logo, that fell down during one concert (the accident during
Heirate mich on the VHS
It's a weird combination of being amused, but it's still extremely serious and heartfelt, knowing where this comes from. You can't really brush it off. People look at it like a spectacle or a circus, but it is very much for real. I think it's really, really cool. I know a lot of people in and out of the business, who've seen them for years, and everyone is getting the same reaction: just being blown away. It's a one of a kind experience to see it live.
Actually, I stopped by the studio when they put together that live thing, the movie. Jacob worked on it, and I saw it in a theatre. It's really cool stuff. I think it was close to capturing the vibe of it, and giving it another level, another layer. I had that one experience. I actually had tickets to go see them this summer.
Are you still in contact with the band or follow their career, and listen to their music?
Yeah, I follow them closely. They're part of my history, and I have platinum albums on the wall in my studio. I'm really fascinated by a lot of their choices and how they do things. Going against the grain, I like that stuff a lot. I'm still in contact with Jacob, so we talk about them, but I don't have any contact with them personally. I met Till like 15 years ago.
Thanks a lot for the opportunity to do this, and for the time you took to answer all these questions. It gives a good insight into how the work with the band was back then. Thank you!
Interview with Ronald Prent
Our second interview was done with Ronald Prent, who mixed the album in Hamburg.
RammWiki: First of all, we want to say thank you again for doing this.
Ronald: It's no problem, my life is a bit chaotic in these times of Covid. I'm actually very happy to be where I am, and be able to work online in high quality, and work with several clients all over the world because they cannot come here. The problem with that is they all have time to think, and listen, and they all decide they want to change something at the same time. I've been juggling three clients for the last three days. It's like, Client:
Can you change this? Prent:
Yeah, sure., and I'll do that then the next client comes and says,
I have listened, can you do this? It's kind of a different way of working. It's fine, but it's very chaotic.
So, you still have a lot of work ahead.
Yes, I still have more to do today, but I thought I had a day off today.
We don't want to steal too much of your time. You just tell us when you have to go, and we will finish. The reason behind this is that the first album (Herzeleid) is turning 25 next month, and we thought it would be a nice idea to talk with some people who worked with the band back then or directly on the album like you. This is to give fans an idea of how things worked back then, how the album was recorded, and what it was like back then with the band. Before we get to all the Rammstein related stuff, can you introduce yourself so that the readers can get to know you better? What have you done in the past, and what are you doing now?
A year ago I moved from Holland where I was at Wisseloord Studios for the last 10 years, I was a co-owner. I left with my wife Darcy Proper who is a Grammy award winning mastering engineer. We left for the United States, she's from New York. We moved to upstate New York where an old client of mine, Joey DeMaio, the founder of Manowar, had bought an old school with a church attached to it, and wanted to build a studio in it. After we built the studio we were the only one in America that is certified for mixing in Dolby Atmos, Sony 360, and any other current available format that handles more than two channels of audio. I'm actually here now.
I started my career at Wisseloord Studios in Hilversum, Holland in 1980 on the first of March. I started as an assistant engineer, eventually became an engineer, and started traveling the world, and got to work with a lot of metal bands. I worked in Europe, and a few times in America. In the early 90's I moved to Galaxy Studios in Belgium until 2010, and then I moved back to Holland. I found the finances to buy Wisseloord Studios, and transform it into what it currently is, and now I'm in America.
That sounds like a great career so far. Now for Rammstein. Had you heard of the band before you were contacted to mix their album?
No, I did not.
So, it was all new to you. How were you contacted, and what was the request given?
That's a funny story. I was on holiday on the island of Crete in Greece. I had left a phone number with someone so that I could be contacted. This was the time before mobile phones. I would check every other day if there was a message for me, and one day there was a message for me. Petra Husemann from Motor Music had asked me to call, and I thought that was interesting because they had to go through a lot of trouble to find me. To make a long story short they said,
We have this band Rammstein, you need to mix their album! to which I said
Okay, but I don't really know them. They said
They're amazing, really cool, and innovative. Heavy music, you need to mix it. I said
Okay, I will, but I am on holiday. They said
That's okay. We will contact the producer. He is also in Greece on holiday. After talking with producer Jacob Hellner he said the band was looking for something different, they were not happy with the mix, they were looking for someone to take on the challenge. We later met in Hamburg to see if we could mix the album together.
We heard that the band was not happy with the original mix. Did you get to hear that mix?
No, and to be honest, not just with Rammstein, but most bands, if I am pulled into a project, and they have already done some mixes, most of the time I would not listen to them. I would ask the band what their expections are before I try anything. If you listen to what they have already done then it sticks in your mind, and becomes difficult. With something as progressive as Rammstein you need to be open for anything.
Was the full band present during the mixing?
All the time, yes. They were very present, but not in a way that would bother us in our work.
What was your first impression of the band?
The people or the music?
I thought the music was extremely cool. I had not heard anything like it before. I really liked Till's voice, and I still do. The combination of how they write music, and his lyrics, and the way he vocalizes is unique. As for the band, everyone is their own character. They are really nice guys. In the studio they are not the same as on stage. Rammstein is their alter ego. That's the same with a lot of artists which I think is great. They were very united as a band in what they liked or did not like which made the mission to find the sound for the album interesting, complicated, fascinating, and sometimes exhausting.
We spent a few days on the first song to get to know each other, and to get to know the sound they were looking for. After that first mix they would listen a few times, go outside to discuss the details. We had asked the band do to this so that things do not get too confusing. They would then come back, and tell us what they think which is a good way of communicating. They would usually say
Yeah, that's great, but that's not Rammstein. I asked what Rammstein was and they said
We don't really know, but that's not it. Can you try something else? We take another day to try a different approach. It's been so long that I don't remember, but we did five or seven different versions of the same song. With every mix they would say
That's great, but that's still not Rammstein. They once asked if I could mix them to sound like Bon Jovi. I said that was most likely not the sound they want, but they wanted to hear it anyway. So, I did, and they still said that it was not Rammstein. Most of the time I would agree with them.
At one point I had a very rigorous idea, and did it to see what would happen. I mixed everything using a certain type of compression to become really in your face, really dry, then put Till in there with a little bit of reverb on his vocals which Till liked. The next day they listened to it, and were really quiet, and asked to play it again with the vocals a little bit louder. After another listen the band left to discuss, and Jacob and I are thinking
Oh, no, what do we do now? They came back in and said
That's Rammstein! This is what we want to be. This is who we are. That's what became the Rammstein sound for at least two or three albums. We would then mix every song the same way, and the band would listen, go out to discuss, sometimes for an hour, come back, and tell us what they want to change, and usually be happy with it.
Was the band well prepared when they came to the studio to start mixing or were they like we have no idea what we are doing?
They were prepared in a sense that they were very aware of what they did not want the sound to be. When you look for a sound, you don't know what it us until you find it, but you do know what you don't want. They would have their meeting, explain what they mean, and we would interpretate that into the mix. I think being really well prepared or not does not really matter. On previous mixes they would change things. Sometimes changing how they play their instrument. Flake, and Jacob programmed other keyboard stuff since they found the sound they want, but for me that's normal when I mix.
Were there any big challenges in the mix that you had to overcome or were things going well once you had the sound?
Once we had the sound they liked, it went smoothly. For every song they wanted something different. We would just adapt to that. That doesn't fall under the catagory of being difficult or impossible. If you put someone's music in front of them that they have not heard before they then hear other things that require adapting. The difficult part was finding the Rammstein sound. It took us almost seven days. That's the challenge in the job. It's not a bad thing.
How long did the mix take from finding the right sound to where you said
We're finished, this is the album?
I think it was somewhere between 18 to 20 days or so. I remember being in Hamburg for about three weeks.
For a fan it's always interesting to find out what songs the band did not release on the album. Do you remember any songs they decided to not put on the album?
No, we mixed everything that they recorded, and what went on the album, I don't know. I don't have any of that material. I was not allowed to keep any copies, not even a cassette listening copy. They were very specific about who had what. I don't have any documentation about that process. It all stayed in the Universal archives.
Hopefully not in the ones that burned down.
Oh, I didn't know that. Something burned down?
Yes, there was one archive that burned down somewhere in the USA which thousands of copies of master tapes, and everything had been destroyed.
All the Rammstein stuff is either in Hamburg or Berlin. I think we mixed all the songs that went on the album.
We ask because there is a promotional cassette tape which has nine songs on it which has rough mixes, and finished mixes, and there is a song on it called Feuerräder which is not on the album. Did they re-record that or is it a demo from a year before? We have never heard that specific version, so we don't know.
To be honest, I don't know either. I think the only one that would know is Jacob.
We asked if he was available, but he declined because he was already giving an interview to the label for the management. Sadly, we have no chance of asking him.
We also interviewed Carl-Michael Herlöfsson, and he was not approached either. We will see if there will be something or not.
The only one who will really know is Jacob. He is the one that was always there. The song ideas that the band had, he put them into a song structure. I think the credit for Jacob for the first two albums is that he made all their songs into really good tracks. A band can write great songs, but need a great producer.
So, he did the arrangements of the songs.
I think so, I might be wrong, but that's my impression. That's the strong marriage between the band, and Jacob. They come up with great material. Rammstein write the songs, and Jacob puts it all together.
Well, you already answered some of the questions that we wanted to ask which is fine. How did you get along with the band? Was there a strong connection or was it a business distance?
Yes, and no. I liked all of them. I admire their musicianship. In the studio they are just normal guys like us that want to make their music great. All their ideas an opinions are valuable, and never take them personally.
Till is a writer, licensed pyrotechnician, a great singer, and writes great lyrics. The drummer plays so differently. We would sometimes called Flake
Professor because he had so many ideas. The two guitarist, they are great because they actually play what's on the record.
The last thing, are there any funny stories or anything that impressed you about them during the mixing?
I think that stays with the band though. They can decide if they want to share that with the world or not. I cannot remember any bad things, just that it was a lot of work to get the Rammstein sound, but I liked that challenge.
We understand. That's about it. Thank you again for taking the time to do this.
Yes, of course. You're documenting history.