Mr. Pop

He created the template for contemporary hit-making. He made Ace of Base the biggest group in the world. And he mentored the most successful songwriter since the Beatles. Why have you never heard of Denniz Pop?

Creator of pop Denniz PoP
Denniz Pop.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo of Denniz PoP courtesy of Denniz Pop Awards. Photo of Britney Spears by Bruno Domingos/Getty Images. Photo of NSYNC by Brian Pobuda/Getty Images. Photo of Back Street Boys by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.

Excerpted from The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook. Out now from WW Norton & Company.

One day in 1992, a demo tape addressed to Denniz Pop, a 28-year-old DJ, arrived at a Stockholm-based music company called SweMix.

So Californian-looking he could only be Swedish, Dag Krister Volle—Denniz PoP’s given name, though friends called him Dagge—wore his long blond hair with plenty of volumizer, loosely parted in the middle, Jon Bon Jovi–style, a reminder that the New Jersey rocker had started his career as a hair dresser. When it hung down in his eyes, as it usually did, Denniz would blow upward, puffing aside hair strands with wheezy gouts of smoky breath; he always had a Marlboro Menthol going. “Maybe 250 times a day he’d do that,” says Kristian Lundin, one of his later protégés, who Denniz called “Krille” (Dagge was big on nicknames). Denniz dressed like a teenager, in T-shirts and jeans, or in large green military-style trousers, and hoodies, everything worn loose. Seated in front of his Apple computer—he always had the latest Macs—his cigarette would stick straight up between the fingers of his right hand as he moved the mouse. He had a licentious-looking gap between his two front teeth that showed when he smiled. And he was always smiling.

SweMix was located in the soundproofed basement of a building on Kocksgatan Street, in Sodermalm. It was a collective of 10 Swedish DJs led by René Hedemyr, who as JackMaster Fax spun records at Tramps, one of the city’s biggest discos. When they weren’t in the studio or working a club, most of them clerked at the Vinyl Mania record store in Vasagatan, close to the Stockholm train station. “They were all a bit cocky,” Jan Gradvall, a prominent Swedish music journalist, remembers. “I was always a little nervous when shopping there. A bit like High Fidelity but with dance music.”

At Ritz, Stockholm’s premier dance club, Denniz was much in demand as a DJ. Unlike his SweMix colleagues, who spun house and acid house at the Bat Club—as Thursday nights at Ritz were called—Denniz loved funk and soul. Parliament-Funkadelic, Cameo; “anything with a funky bass line Denniz loved,” says Lundin. “Denniz hated jazz,” the former SweMix DJ StoneBridge says, “It wasn’t simple enough. He liked chords you could play with three fingers. Whenever I would play my complicated jazzy chords, Denniz would make a face. That was the thing that drew him to pop—the simplicity of it.” Denniz much preferred the synth-pop bands coming out of London in the early ’80s—Depeche Mode, Human League, OMD. He also adored Def Leppard, especially the production work by super producer Mutt Lange.

SweMix remixed U.S. and U.K. hits for European audiences, working largely by hand. Some of the mixes merely extended songs for dancers by adding instrumental sections and long drum breaks, like Tom Moulton’s pioneering disco remixes at the Sandpiper Club on Fire Island a decade earlier. But Denniz got far more creative than that, as in his remix of Soul II Soul’s track “Keep On Movin’,” which he combined with Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” creating a sort of proto-mashup. He slowed down the tempo of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (without changing the key, which is hard to do), and he rearranged Philip Oakey’s and Susan Ann Sulley’s voices in Human League’s 1981 smash “Don’t You Want Me,” to create more of a dialogue between the man and the woman. He would often debut his sonic concoctions at Ritz, from where they would make their way around clubs in Sweden, then to Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. Eventually, 12-inch “white label” vinyl discs would be offered for sale, which was how SweMix made money.

Remixing was a lucrative and growing business, but that success had kindled larger ambitions in Denniz. Instead of merely remixing U.S. and U.K. hits for Europeans, he dreamed about making his own hits. “In the end,” he said, “you have remade an original song so much that you’ve now made your own song and just added the vocals from the original. And that’s where the idea that, ‘Dammit now we can make our own song!’ came from.” He would regale his fellow SweMix DJs with his vision of the gold and platinum records from the U.K. and the United States that would one day decorate the walls of the studio, signaling Sweden’s global power in pop music. No one believed him.

* * *

Prior to Denniz PoP, hit songs in the United States and the U.K., the world’s two largest music markets, had come almost exclusively from American and British songwriters and producers, along with the occasional Aussie. New directions in popular music often combined American and British elements. A new beat would emerge in the United States from black music and make its way to the U.K., where the heavy rhythmic grooves would be sweetened with progressive European melodies. Then the music would return to the states and mainstream chart success. It was a global conversation about African and European culture, transacted in song.

On the rare occasions when a hit came from outside the English-speaking world, the group that sang it was likely to be from Sweden. Sweden has one of the highest percentages of English-speakers of any non-English-speaking country, and with only 9.5 million people in the whole country, Swedish performers have a long tradition of singing in English, in the hope of reaching a wider audience. ABBA had created a series of top-10 hits in the second half of the ’70s, and the rock duo Roxette was just beginning their U.S. chart success in the late ’80s; they would achieve no fewer than four Billboard No. 1s.

But those were performing acts. Denniz’s vision was entirely different: a factory of Swedish writers and producers who would create hits for British and American artists. Andreas Carlsson says, “That idea seemed absurd, because Sweden was very disconnected from the international music market at that time. The profession of songwriting wasn’t even invented yet in Sweden.”

Denniz wasn’t sure what these Swedish-made hit records should sound like, but he knew that somehow they had to meld the beat-driven music that people danced to inside the clubs with the pop music people listened to on the radio. The music would combine the hard-hitting breakbeats and bass lines of reggae and hip-hop with the singsongy melodies that the Swedes have such a gift for, and the big choruses of ’80s hits like “Beat It,” “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and “The Final Countdown” by Sweden’s own, the hair band Europe. The trick was to come up with a melody that worked with the beat, not against it. In the United States, melody was kept at arm’s length by the DJs who were the producers of house music, because in the clubs, whenever a strong melody came over the speakers, the dancing stopped. But in Sweden, it was different. As Jan Gradvall observes, “In discos in small towns all over Sweden in the ’80s, people danced to the biggest hit song rather than the funkiest songs or best mixes. When the chorus came around, that’s when the dance floor boiled. Those kind of choruses, not unlike those of songs sung in hockey arenas or soccer stadiums, have always been loved in Sweden. So when Denniz Pop and the others DJed at these places, they realized the importance of BIG choruses.”

Denniz Pop wasn’t a musician in the usual sense of the word. He didn’t play an instrument (he had quit the recorder as a child after only a few lessons), he couldn’t sing, and he didn’t write music. He was a pop pioneer in a whole new way of making music—electronically programmed sounds, tracks, and beats. He mixed machine-generated sounds with samples of existing music. He was a prototype of a new kind of producer, one that would change the way songs are made, and how they sound.

When Swedish journalists interviewed the increasingly well-known Denniz PoP, they always expressed doubt about electronically made songs. Wasn’t it cheating, if you didn’t actually play an instrument? In a documentary that appeared on Swedish national television (STV) in 1997, Denniz told a reporter, “It’s easy to say producing this music is equal to pushing a button in the studio. But that’s like saying writing a novel is a simple push of a button on your typewriter.” Denniz liked to say that no matter how technically adept you were at programming, sometimes you just had to “let art win.”

But the reporter was still skeptical. “So tell me,” she asked, “do you start with ‘cool beats’ from your computer?”

“Yeah first you lay down ‘cool beats’ and they just come out of nowhere,” Denniz replied sarcastically. “No work done, of course. That’s what people seem to think, they just pop out from somewhere. Then you add some ‘fancy leads’ and bring in a cool rap artist and a cool chick.”

In 1990, Denniz Pop began to have hits as a producer of original songs, partly by employing cool rap artists and cool chicks. The first was with a Nigerian dental student in Stockholm who went by the name Dr. Alban. The dentist also worked as a DJ in the Alphabet Street club where Denniz spun records. Alban was a loquacious young man who wore his dreads in a bunch at the front of his head, a style that, together with his cocky attitude, earned him the nickname “The Rooster.”

“I would talk over the records while I was playing them in the club,” Alban recalls, “and Denniz liked the way my voice sounded, and so invited me over to SweMix to make a record.” They cut two English-language tracks together: one was a heavily percussive number that starts with that most hated instrument from Dagge’s childhood, the recorder, and, curiously, has no bass in it. It was called “Hello Afrika.” The other tune, which ended up on the B side of Denniz PoP’s first 12-inch as an artist, was a funky dance-hall reggae-style track called “No Coke.”

Denniz’s fellow DJs at SweMix hated these songs, with their obvious hooks and their craven desire to please.

“No way are we doing that shit,” StoneBridge told him.

“What do you know, with your jazz chords?” Denniz shot back.

So a competitor, BeaTek, put out the Dr. Alban record, and it became a big hit across Europe. StoneBridge: “That’s when we realized our mistake and let Dagge back in with us again. We still thought it was trash, but it was nice to have the money.”

“Another Mother,” by a Swedish singer and dancer named Kayo, combined a chill reggae backbeat with a hard hip-hop vocal style. It was another hit in Sweden, which was how two young men from Gothenburg, the industrial city to the west of the capital, came to hear it playing in a record store one day.

Ulf Ekberg and Jonas Berggren were school friends who, together with Berggren’s sisters, Jenny and Malin, had a four-person techno group. They made their music in the basement of an auto-repair shop in Gothenburg. It was “a shithole studio,” Ekberg recalls, but they were the masters of their basement space, which is how they settled on their name: Ace of Base. Berggren was a decent keyboard player, and Ekberg could play passable guitar, but they made most of their music with synthesizers and drum machines.


Illustration manipulation by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Cassettes by Radiocat/Shutterstock.

When Ekberg and Berggren heard “Another Mother,” they knew right away, Ekberg says, “that this was the sound we wanted. It was a fantastic sound. We just had to meet this Denniz PoP.”

They made a demo tape, and sent it to SweMix, care of Denniz PoP. They attached a note: “Please listen to our tape and call us! Ace of Base.”

One night, as Denniz left SweMix, he took the demo tape with him, and popped it into the cassette deck of his Nissan Micra for the short drive across the water to his apartment in downtown Stockholm. (Although a night owl by inclination, Denniz had a young son, Daniel, with his girlfriend, and was trying to keep more regular hours.) It wasn’t a luxurious car and it always needed a wash, but Denniz relied on it to test songs in; he knew that one of the keys to popular success in the United States was making songs that sounded good in the car. Later, his disciples would institutionalize this practice as “The L.A. Car Test”: Songs written in Stockholm are sent out to California, inserted into a car stereo, and driven up and down the Pacific Coast Highway to make sure they sound right.

The first track was called “Mr. Ace.” It began with a reggae backbeat played on a piano-like synth. After four bars, a crude dance rhythm enters the mix: It sounds like someone is dropping a box of apples on the floor, in 4/4 time. Somewhere inside the demo were great hooks, but the songwriters hadn’t properly placed them. The track trailed off with some whistling, which was perhaps the catchiest part of the whole mess.

Even before he was home, Denniz had decided he had no interest in producing the group. However, when he tried to remove the tape, it wouldn’t come out of the Micra’s dashboard. It was stuck, and no amount of mashing the eject button would dislodge it.

The next morning, when Denniz arrived at the apartment of his co-producer, Douglas Carr, to give him a lift to SweMix, “Mr. Ace” was playing.

Carr recalls, “We were joking in the car, laughing at the quality of the demo.” However, because Denniz’s car radio also happened to be broken—typical Denniz—“we couldn’t listen to anything else except for that demo.” Every morning when Denniz picked Carr up, “Mr. Ace” would be playing, and they’d listen to it on the way to work. This went on for two weeks or so, until one day Denniz heard something in the song. He saw a way to marry the melody to the beat by breaking everything down into basic elements and then layering it all together.

The next morning, after Carr had climbed into the car and heard the now annoyingly familiar tune, Denniz turned to him excitedly and said, “I think I’m going to produce this!”

* * *

It was not until July of 1992, after Ace of Base had a minor hit with “Wheel of Fortune,” that Ekberg and Berggren worked up enough nerve to call Denniz Pop and ask him what he thought of their demo.

The producer was pleased to hear from them. “I’ve been waiting for you guys to call!” he declared. “I really want to work with you guys, and I have time in August.” A month later they were in Stockholm to record “Mr. Ace,” which now had a new title: “All That She Wants.”

Denniz had fixed his tape player by then, and he got the songwriters to ride around Stockholm with him, listening to an instrumental version of the song, over and over again. He had moved the whistled melody, which had been at the end of the demo, to the front of the song. It is followed by a kick drum, which gives the track guts, and a softly bubbling bass. Major chords carry the verses, but with the chorus, the chords turn minor—a Swedish touch.

“Jonas and I are good at melodies, but there were too many things happening on the track,” Ekberg recalls. “Denniz was very good at erasing things, and making the sound picture cleaner, and simplified. I think he took away maybe 50 percent of our instrumentation.” As Denniz once said, in response to a question about how hard could it possibly be to write such simple songs, “it’s much more difficult to make it simple, especially achieving a simplicity without having it sound incredibly trivial.”

Lundin says, “Denniz was an arrangement genius.” He adds, “like Steve Jobs, he knew what to take out. ‘You can get rid of that, that. Keep it simple.’ ” As Denniz put it, “A great pop song should be interesting, in some way. That means that certain people will hate it immediately and certain people will love it, but only as long as it isn’t boring and meaningless. Then it’s not a pop song any longer; then it’s something else. It’s just music.”

Lyrically, “All That She Wants” strains sense. It’s written in English, but it lacks a colloquial touch. The vocal hook, which comes in the first line of the chorus—“All that she wants is another baby”—sounds at first as if the woman wants another child, an odd desire to hear in a pop song. Of course, “baby” means “boyfriend,” but the usage is slightly off. The first verse sounds vaguely as if it has been translated from another language:

It’s not a day for work
It’s a day for catching tan 

Grammar and usage didn’t matter much to Denniz, and wit and metaphor, Brill Building staples, aren’t even in the picture. “I think it was to our advantage that English was not our mother language,” Ekberg says, “because we are able to treat English very respectless, and just look for the word that sounded good with the melody.” Freed from making sense, the lyricists’ horizons are boundless.

Denniz asked for a second verse, and Ekberg and Berggren supplied one. “And then Jenny and Malin came up to Stockholm and put the vocals on,” Ekberg goes on, “in about a half day of takes.”

Swedish pop band Ace Of Base
Ace of Base  in the Netherlands in 1998.  

Photo illusrtration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by Michel Linssen/Redferns.

“All That She Wants” was released on Mega Records in Denmark in the fall of 1992. The record went to No. 1 on the Danish charts. Kjeld Wennick, who was the head of Mega, wanted the album, Happy Nation, in stores by Christmas, so the band rushed to complete and mix their remaining demos. In early 1993, “All That She Wants” made charts around Europe, and spent three weeks at the top of the U.K. charts in May. But when Wennick tried to interest U.S. labels in an American distribution deal for Happy Nation, he got a resounding “No!” from everyone. “No, no, no, no,” he recalled. The reason was always the same: “This band will never work in the states.’ ”

Certainly, it was not a propitious time to break a foreign synth-pop band in the United States. Grunge dominated the radio. Popular song themes included alienation, suicide, and despair, accompanied by searing guitar solos, crashing drums, and burnt-out sounding vocals. In videos bare light bulbs illuminate foul-looking basements, while the singer moans amid the debris. Electronics were certainly used to enhance these records—Nirvana’s Nevermind wouldn’t have been the sonic masterpiece it is without digital compression—but Butch Vig’s production magic is well hidden behind the real instruments.

On the urban side, a new generation of R&B stars like Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men were making huge hits, and, although it wasn’t played on the radio very much, hip-hop was going mainstream. Ace of Base, in offering mindless fun and the pleasures of “catching tan,” set to an electronically produced ragga-lite dance track, seemed like the absolute worst possible sound for the times.

After making the rounds of most of the U.S. labels, “All That She Wants” reached the celebrated ears of Clive Davis, then the head of Arista Records. Although he likes to remind people of his rock credentials—his first signing was Janis Joplin, after seeing her perform at the Monterey Pop Festival—Davis’s greatest contribution to the record business has been in identifying R&B singers who can fit into the pure pop mainstream. Whitney Houston and, later, Alicia Keys are among his signings. He is on surer ground with female artists, but he also signed Barry Manilow. He has an international palette, and, for better or worse, he brought the Australian duo Air Supply Stateside, which gave the world “All Out of Love,” and “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.”

Davis happened to be vacationing on a yacht in Europe when he listened to “All That She Wants.” He prides himself on knowing a hit as soon as he hears one, and he was so sure of “All That She Wants” that he directed the ship’s captain to make haste for the nearest port, so that he could call Kjeld Wennick and make a deal. On reaching his Danish colleague, Davis declared, “Kjeld, I want this band!”

Upon returning from his vacation, Davis flew the band to New York and had them brought straight from the airport via limo to his offices atop the BMG Building in Manhattan. Before meeting the great man, the Swedes watched a 40-minute film about Davis’ storied career in the music business. (“You really don’t do that in Sweden,” Ekberg observes drily.) Finally, they were ushered into Davis’ palatial office, lined with photographs of the musical superstars whose careers the record man had shaped.

Davis told the awed Swedes that he wanted to release their album in the United States but that it needed at least two more potential hits on it. He suggested recording a cover; the band objected, but eventually agreed to record “Don’t Turn Around,” an Albert Hammond and Diane Warren song, which became the album’s second single. Still Davis wasn’t satisfied. Wasn’t there something else? Berggren said he had been working on a new song, but it was for the band’s next album. Davis insisted on hearing it, and on a subsequent visit Berggren played it for Davis in his office. It was called “The Sign.”

* * *

In 1992, Denniz Pop quit SweMix. His move to pop, although it enriched the collective, was never accepted by the other DJs. It was dum—crass. “Finally, Denniz couldn’t take our shit anymore,” StoneBridge says, “and he said to Tom, ‘I want out.’ ” Tom Talomaa saw Denniz was making all the money anyway, so he sold SweMix to BMG. “We all got 20,000 crowns, which we thought was a bloody fortune, but in fact the Alban publishing was worth a million at least.” With BMG’s backing, Talomaa and Denniz built a new studio on Fridhemsplan. Denniz named it Cheiron, after the wise centaur in Greek mythology who teaches Dionysius how to sing and dance.

Music producer Max Martin
Music producer Max Martin accepts the award for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical Grammys on Feb. 8, 2015 in Los Angeles.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by Michael Buckner/WireImage

The studio was inside a white-brick building with a large metal gate in front. (Later, when Cheiron Studios became famous, the white bricks filled up with messages written by fans to the artists who made records there.) Denniz’s large oak desk was on the ground floor, under a very high ceiling that went up to the roof. On the mezzanine was Talomaa’s office. Down belowground were the heavily soundproofed recording studios—studios A, B, and C—which were all connected to the same vocal booth, in an ingenious design. Denniz had commissioned Snake to build a pair of speakers capable of blasting out the massive low-end sounds he required to test his beats. They were the “Snake speakers.”

Cheiron was initially conceived as a record label and a studio. “We were going to go out and find new artists and distribute a bunch of stuff,” Denniz said, including rock music, which he hated but Talomaa liked. One of the label’s first signings was a local hard-rock band called It’s Alive, fronted by a glam-rock singer who called himself Martin White—you may know him now as Max Martin—a move that would have huge consequences for Cheiron, and the future of pop music, but not in a way anyone could have guessed.

The label side of the operation quickly foundered. “I guess you could say that wasn’t our thing,” Denniz recalled. “To be a record company when you’re small is incredibly expensive. … We realized that we should only work with the stuff we know how to do, and that’s making and producing the songs.”

Clive Davis gave “The Sign” to Denniz, hoping for the same magic the producer brought to “All That She Wants.” Douglas Carr, again Denniz’s co-producer on the track, recalls, “The demo we got was very basic; it sounded like one of those preprogrammed tracks on a cheap family keyboard where you press a button and the band starts playing.” Unlike “All That She Wants,” Denniz knew from the beginning what he wanted to do with “The Sign.” “Denniz’s skills for making and mixing fat beats is here in full blast,” Carr goes on. “He knew what the dance floor needed, and we had the speakers and the volume to know what was going to happen in the clubs.”

The track starts out with four bars of a dance beat made with a kick drum, hand clap, and snare, struck so closely together that the ear hears them as one sound; this would become Cheiron’s sonic signature. The sound incorporates fragments of a sample from “Shack Up,” a song by Banbarra, a U.S. funk group from the ’70s. A synthetic log drum plays on the off beats, making a woody, thwoka thwoka sound. Mixed in with the electronically made music is a track of Carr playing timbales and cymbals, to lighten the robotic feel. Then comes the first melodic hook, a wheedling synth flute made with an EMU vintage module that is out of phase—a mistake that sounded cool so they left it. Underneath the flute is the bass, which is actually two sounds mixed together: a Moog sub-bass and a Korg M1 bass on top. “The bass took some figuring out,” Carr says. “I remember us talking a lot about the space that the reggae bass players always make in their music, and how important that is—that sense of air.”

Then the singing starts. A reggae rhythm guitar sound made on a Yamaha TG77 synthesizer plays a Nile Rodgers guitar riff. A dry tap of a snare, and then comes the hook:

I saw the sign
And it opened up my eyes
I saw the sign 

with a chilly silvery sound in the vocal. At the bridge, voices go up an octave, and the soaring, joyous Europop sound lets the ecstasy in. The song is a three-minute, 30-second sonic thrill ride of Swedish funk.

“All That She Wants,” released as a single in the United States in September 1993, was a huge hit, although it only got as high as No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 (it couldn’t dislodge “Dreamlover” by Mariah Carey). But “The Sign,” released in the United States in December 1993, was a historic smash. It spent six weeks at No. 1 and was the top-selling single of the year. Remarkable in light of the fact that the band had virtually no following in the states, had never toured, and made music that was far from the reigning grunge sound. The album, which was also called The Sign, sold more than 23 million copies, making it one of the bestselling debut albums of all time, and earning Arista $42 million.

* * *

That triumph was short-lived. The band’s next album, The Bridge, sold far fewer copies than The Sign. The Denniz Pop track, “Beautiful Life,” was the most successful single on the album, peaking at No. 15 on the Hot 100. Worse still, Ulf Ekberg turned out to have belonged to a neo-Nazi party in his younger days, and although he apologized when the facts came to light, suddenly Ulf wasn’t exactly the stuff of Tiger Beat. Also, Malin, one of the two Berggren sisters, disliked flying, and the band’s 179 flights in 1995 disenchanted her of touring. On top of all that, a crazy fan with a knife broke into the Berggren family’s home in Stockholm. Still, the group managed to put out a third album, the Motown-inspired Flowers. When that stiffed, they were more or less finished. As quickly as Ace of Base had risen to the top of the charts, they disappeared.

Exterior of Cheiron Studios in 2000
Exterior of Cheiron Studios in 2000.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by Daniel Reimann/Wikimedia Commons

If Cheiron was going to be a legitimate hit factory, the studio needed an American act—a solo artist or a group who could carry its electronic pop sound deep into the bars, malls, and sports arenas of America. Not accidental stars with baggage, but lifers who would do whatever it takes to get to the top and stay there.

An urban act would be cooler. But what black American star was going to record music written by Swedes? The gold standard in songwriting for early ’90s urban acts was Babyface, the writer-producer behind Boyz II Men. Or, there was Teddy Riley, the creator of the New Jack Swing sound, a fusion of R&B and hip-hop that got Bobby Brown to No. 1 in 1988 with “My Prerogative.”

But who needed Sweden? The answer lay not in the usual spots—L.A., New York, Miami, Atlanta—but among the theme parks, water slides, and 36-hole golf courses of Orlando, Florida.

Copyright 2015 by John Seabrook. From The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, out now from W. W. Norton & Company. Reprinted with permission.