A story of success doesn’t necessarily need to involve chart-topping hits or millions of sold records, it could be to reach what you didn’t think was possible: to live off what you do and reach the goal that you dreamt of as a child.
The story of Lights & Motion and the amazing adventures of its creator Christoffer Franzén starts somewhere at the beginning of 2010s. Seven years ago, in mid-May a few months after the release of his debut album “Reanimator”, I met Christoffer for an interview for a research project that was consuming everything in my life at the time. The subject for our discussion was how young musicians’ network on digital platforms to reach out to markets and an audience that would have been hard to reach when you live hundreds of miles away and have a secondary job, and back then living off music was just a dream enabled for “major label artists”.
Much has happened since that hot spring day in Gothenburg, and little did we know that just a year after our meeting Christoffer would not only be a full-time musician, he would also be high in demand by Hollywood film production companies that loved to put his music on major film trailers. “Transcendence” (Johnny Depp), “Lone Survivor” (Mark Wahlberg), “The Way Back” (Ben Affleck), “Concussion” (Will Smith) and “Homefront” (Jason Statham) are just examples of trailers using his music, and his records received high scores in music media because he “created a vibrant beauty […] of which hasn’t been seen in post-rock for many years”.
But little do we realize about the amount of hard work, struggles, sweat and tears that were shed for achieving that spotlight, and to learn more about the first decade as a musician we met up Christoffer in his studio in Gothenburg to talk about his first decade on the music scene. We chat about the sudden success in America, the creative mindset behind his music, and the condition for him to go live with Lights & Motion. And he also shares a tiny secret: there will be a new Lights & Motion album out this year.
Fulfilling a dream: A decade as a music producer
Last time we met was in 2013, about six months after you had released your debut album “Reanimation”, and I remember that one of your songs just had ended up in an Oscar Award documentary, but a whole lot of things happened since then. How would you summarize your first decade?
That’s really hard to do, but I’ve actually reflected a lot about it lately, especially with the arrival of a new decade for me as a musician.
In many ways, I feel I’ve just been doing this for two or three years because it has been a non-stop process in the studio. That’s where I spent all my time. What started as “Now I have enough songs to put out an album” became something that took control of my life, and it happened very quickly. It’s really difficult to penetrate this whole eight-year-long process and summarize it.
That Oscar spot was the beginning of everything, to get my music out of the studio in Gothenburg and reach out to many different places across the world. Short after the documentary, I had a song in a Mark Wahlberg film trailer and then it wasn’t long before I got two more, both within a month. At this point, it’s about ten major film trailers, something I’m very grateful for and appreciate much because I love film. I’m an utter film nerd and when I was a child I remember I wanted to become a film director (laugh).
But I am in the industry today, I just walked another path to get there and now I’m able to combine both my passions, film, and music.
To summarize what happened; it’s still an amazing adventure, maybe even a bigger adventure today, and being picked up by world-famous film producers makes me feel humble because what I do is something born in this intimate and contained setting where it’s just me in the studio. It’s surreal to have reached all this and to be able to do what I’ve dreamt of.
But how were you discovered in America? Last time we talked about reaching out using online platforms. Was that how you were picked up by Hollywood?
I’m not really sure actually because my American label Deep Elm Records, which celebrate their 25th anniversary this year, take care of everything and I don’t have direct contact with directors or production companies. If Deep Elm have pitched my music or if a production company picked up my songs I don’t really know.
You never really know if your music will be used by anyone because the production companies always say “We may be interested”, and you just have to wait and see when the trailer is released.
That Oscar documentary really opened up a lot of opportunities for you, but I also remember that people pitched you quite much in social media even before you released your debut album.
I’ve always used SoundCloud much and found a community of people who like what I do, and they pushed me a lot with feedback. That’s when I also realized that it wasn’t just me who love six-minute-long instrumental songs (laugh), a few more share the passion for that kind of music with me. All of that gave me a lot of energy to continue putting that much time on it.
I didn’t have any expectations at all when I released “Reanimation” and I would never have thought that it would be possible to live off music. That’s something major label artists do, not someone making instrumental songs in a studio, but maybe I found a niche that happens to have an audience. But it was also a lot of luck because it’s all about timing, and I released my music at the right moment when there already was lots of people listening to my kind of music.
You still worked in a grocery store back in 2013. How long after your debut album was it possible for you to live off music?
After I released that first record it was something like two years. But I can still miss to have colleagues and having people around, it’s sort of lonely to write music, especially how I do it being all by myself in the studio and not having any band colleagues to talk to. I can really miss that. On the other hand, I’ve found how I want to work and how I want to express my music, and I want to explore it by myself. With that in mind, I can’t really say I miss having someone next to me in the studio at the moment I create music, but it would be awesome to have someone to high five when you’ve done something that sounds great (laugh).
But to summarize it; it happened quite soon after the debut. I just think I had the right timing for it and a bit of luck.
I also remember comments on social media after “Reanimation” was released. People went nuts about it and called you “the next big thing in post-rock”, and you established a worldwide fan base very quickly. How do you reflect today on the heaps of requests for signed albums, autographs and people who wanted you to play their cities? It must have been a surreal experience coming from nothing to have fans all over the world asking for you.
(laugh) And all that happened, and it’s still surreal for me because I didn’t expect anything when I released “Reanimation”. I am still amazed about this opportunity and still work hard just to feel that I deserve to all this. It’s a bit of the impostor syndrome as many people struggle with, that you work even harder to feel that you deserve the position you’ve reached and the audience you’ve gained. To come from nothing and not knowing who will listen to your music or how you reach out to people and then experience all this, that’s something I work hard to grasp and to take good care of by having a strict work discipline, I really want to take the opportunity to see how far I can get.
I never had a break between albums, I just continued writing new music. That’s why I could release three albums in four years. When I finished a record on Friday, I took the weekend off to celebrate but on Monday I was back in the studio again to work on new music.
I’ve never really bought into the idea of artists just walking around waiting for inspiration because then you need to wait a very long time. For me, inspiration may turn up after seven hours, but after seven hours spent in the studio. If you hadn’t put those hours into it you won’t come up with ideas either. That’s how creativity works out for me.
But I’ve also changed a lot; in the beginning, I was up all night and worked. I just liked working when everyone was asleep, but that didn’t work well with my health in the long run and I just had to change my work hours to daytime (laugh).
But was it your ambition to end up in the film industry already from the beginning and rather do soundtracks or was it something that “just happened” after you realized that your songs were being picked up by the industry?
I had this dream of writing music for film and TV, especially American film and TV, but I also thought it would be just a dream, and then it just happened. It’s nothing I planned at all, but I was hoping for it to happen.
I also wanted to write full soundtracks, not just contribute to trailers, but I thought it’s better to write the kind of music I want to write rather than chasing film jobs, and if it happens it will happen for natural reasons.
Your portfolio is rather broad today and maybe that soundtrack isn’t far away.
Exactly! I’ve also done two soundtracks already, one film last year and another a year before that. The first was the Swedish film “In i dimman” and after it, I did “Sea Fever” which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival last year, and it will be shown at American and British cinemas in April this year.
But it’s a completely different way of working; I worked nine full months with “Sea Fever” and was part of the whole process, and that’s something different from what I usually do, it’s a real craft.
Do you also need to spend time in the film studio or with the production team and leave your studio for a few months?
Not really. The “Sea Fever” director is Irish and I went to Dublin at times, but most of it we did through Skype, I was mostly in Gothenburg.
It’s just what we talked about seven years ago, you don’t need to be at the same location as those you work with. We had daily communication on Skype and to me, it doesn’t matter if we meet face to face or in Skype, it’s the communication that’s important. Borders don’t necessarily have to be obstacles.
But do you see yourself in the soundtrack industry rather than releasing albums as Lights & Motion? The format of the music is quite different.
It has much to do with what happens but I haven’t done anything for strategic reasons. I just go with the flow and see what I’m offered. Film requires lots of time and in the last two years, I’ve put all my efforts into that side of music.
The subject for our conversation seven years ago was how musicians use digital platforms to reach out to an audience today and to network on markets that would have been too remote hadn’t it been for the Internet. At that point early in your career, you told me that it’s most important to find people you can trust and that would get the job done. Working with Deep Elm must have been like hitting the jackpot already from the start in that respect?
Most definitely! I knew right from the start that I had to identify what I could do and what I needed help with and when I needed that help. As I really wanted to get established in America I needed an American contact and in that respect, Deep Elm have been an amazing label for me. I have full artistic freedom to do what I want and then they take care of everything else.
That’s my advice to everyone, to reflect on what you can do and not, and who to work with. It’s difficult to know how everything works out in the beginning but I knew that I would increase my options with the backing of a smaller label rather than being one in a crowd at a bigger record label.
And now you’ve reached the point where you have become established on the American market and want to work even more with American production companies. Have you ever reflected on if you should move across the Atlantic with your studio?
Actually not, I haven’t done that and it has never been a problem for me to be in Gothenburg. I’m fine with having my studio here where I can write music at distance from the industry I’m part of.
It would probably have been a great adventure to move, but it hasn’t really been part of my dream. If I have to face that question in the future or there’s a great opportunity to make that move, I’ll reflect on it when that happens. But there must be an interesting project to get me over, I don’t really see the point just moving my studio there and then look for jobs. I know it would probably be good for networking, to meet people in the industry, but for me, the music is most important and you have to write music wherever you decide to live.
But the weather is good in California and if the winters continue to be this dark and long here in Gothenburg I may change my mind (laugh).
A workaholic and control freak
A musician friend of mine once said “producers are control freaks” when being a bit fed up with his band’s producer because “he’s too picky with the details”. That their record was kind of successful later didn’t change the fact that he was irritated by people putting too much attention to details in the production process.
To me, “control freak” isn’t necessarily a derogative term. Being a bit of a CF myself I realize that things usually get done the way you want it to be when a control freak is in charge, and in music production you need to be a control freak.
Already from the start Christoffer was working alone in the studio and found a way to organize the production process as a one-man-band. Although he admits that he can miss the “high five moments” in the studio when you celebrate a successful recording, he also realizes that it would be hard to let someone else interpret or rework his creative work. But what would you do if the only skill you have is playing guitar when you want to do it all by yourself? Well, you have to learn to play other instruments of course.
Let’s talk music and music production; you’re four Lights & Motion records into your career and have released three soundtracks.
Exactly, and I’ve also released a few records under my own name, music that is more stripped down and doesn’t have these huge arrangements, just piano and strings.
What I do in Lights & Motion is quite clear to me, how it should sound and not. When I release music as Christoffer Franzén I don’t have a sonic framework that limits what I can do, and usually it’s music that doesn’t really fit the Lights & Motion project. I love to have this wide range of artistic opportunities and not only conform to one kind of expression, that’s the reason I have different projects.
But I’ve just finished a new record as Lights & Motion called “The Great Wide Open”, it’s done and ready to be released! I wanted to do something colorful and energetic that’s a bit up-tempo, that’s what you can expect later.
You’re often compared to cinematic post-rock and bands like The American Dollar, Explosions In The Sky and Hammock, just to mention a few. Is that type of music part of your background as well?
No, not really. In fact, I’m not really sure what music background I have. I just know that on the first record I could finally express something I wanted to do for years.
When I grew up I played in several pop bands and when that period of my life ended, when I was around nineteen or twenty, I wanted to be the lead singer in my own band and do everything myself. But I wasn’t a singer, I was just a guitarist, and then I thought I had to do instrumental music instead (laugh). As I loved watching movies and to listen to soundtracks, and listen to bands as Hammock that make music where the soundscape is equally important as the melodies, I just tried to fuse all these things together and do it the way that was natural for me and that was using lots of guitars.
We’re all products of our influences and in the end, you create some sort of mashed up mess of all of it, and hopefully it comes out as something unique.
You have a remarkable talent for creating monumental music made for opera houses. But what I’ve read is that you had to learn to play a lot of different instruments in the first years, because, as you said, you were just a guitarist.
Yeah, I could play guitar and a little bit of drums. The first years in the studio I spent practicing instruments and didn’t write more than demo songs because I knew I had to devote a few years to become a better musician. If I want to have piano in my music, I have to learn to play the piano. But in the beginning I didn’t know what I was doing and the only thing I could do was simple pre-productions. I played it by ear and didn’t know what key I was playing in, but slowly I learned to play.
I usually say that my limits as a multi-instrumentalist affect my music equally much as what I already can play. I know it sounds a bit spaced-out, but since I learned to play all instruments myself, the piano or whatever instrument I play just sounds like that because I can’t play it any different.
And then there’s mixing. Producing and mixing music is just as important as writing the songs, and I don’t see it as independent processes; I continually mix my music while I write it because it’s such a big part of the sound I create.
It’s clear that you like to have full control but you also have to draw the line somewhere and outsource a bit of work to someone else, maybe just to get things done quicker by using someone with lots of experience.
That’s a good point but I would have a huge problem doing that because I’m used to doing it all by myself. Some bands just go like “Ok, we’re done recording it, just get someone else in to mix it”, but as I said, mixing the music is as important as writing the songs. I can spend days working on delay tails which don’t have anything to do with writing songs, but it will affect your listening experience. Sure, let’s say I decide to hand over work at some point in the future, but then it must be someone you trust who’s doing it as I want it. I’m not sure someone else listens to my music the way I do it because we all have different influences affecting what we hear in music.
I don’t master my music, that’s something I send off to just get a fresh view of it at the end of a very long process. Maybe I have to learn to get better on doing it in the overall production as well, I am some sort of control freak (laugh).
I know that all your albums are based on concepts. I read somewhere that your first record was influenced by insomnia and you working at night time, and the second was about escapism. What creates these concepts?
When I write a record I think about it as a collage of memories from a period in life that just passed. That usually helps me to create concepts, especially one or two concept songs to have as cornerstones of the full album and then I build the sound around those. I also think of music as colors and every record has its specific color which is also part of the concept. I know it sounds abstract or spaced-out but that’s how I think about music. You’ll get a better overview when you work with concepts, not just concerning the music but also how it should be visualized.
Maybe it’s just me who’s still interested in concept albums and thinks about music like that but it is important to me. An album is not just ten songs squeezed together, there’s lots of thinking behind it especially today when many bands and fans don’t see a point in full-length records anymore; after all, we live in times dominated my singles on Spotify. But for me, it’s still exciting to release albums and put all that effort into the details, and I see myself as an art director rather than just being a musician when I do that.
But the last music you released as Lights & Motion was two EP’s in 2018. Does it mean that you’ve started to think in terms of other formats as well and will release more EP’s in the future?
I don’t really know, but it was important to use these last two years to record the upcoming album because it was three years ago my last record was out. It takes lots of time to record an album and you don’t know if people have the attention span to listen to a full album anymore, but I put loads of effort on working with the details, like the order of the songs, because it is important to do that for me.
In the end, it’s all about what inspires me; you can’t just think about algorithms or about how people consume music today, it has to be fun for the creator as well.
And for you, it’s very important how the songs are organized on the album? The reason I ask is that I visualize the last song on every album you’ve released as the end credits song in a film.
That’s how it is! I love to get that dramaturgical feeling that it’s all over with the last song. It’s even better if you can make that last song into an echo of the opener on the album. I usually think that I write a film and when you do that this three-act structure [the dramatic structure] shows you how it should sound, so there are lots of thoughts behind an album.
It’s also about finding a good ending of the album and not do what is kind of common, a “throw-away” song. For me, those last songs are very important.
Concert hall shows in the future?
The music of Lights & Motion is often labeled as “majestic”, “cinematic post-rock powerhouse with shiver-inducing volume swells, “morose piano tunes”, “soft ambience reaching upwards towards the stratosphere, higher up in the ether of space”, and as you may understand it’s music that not easily translates into visual performances.
With the overnight post-rock sensational debut album “Reanimation” came heaps of requests for touring, but Christoffer refuses to take his music on stage on grounds of work ethic; he prefers to put all effort into making new music.
However, one of his goals before the end of the 2020s is to set up a performance that appeals both to ear and eye – it’s about translating his music into visuals.
I know there have been pressures on you to start touring and you’ve always responded that you spend too much time in the studio and won’t find time for touring. But if we consider what you just said, that you like to have control of everything, isn’t it much about being too dependent on other musicians and people working with the show?
You’re right about that. First, to bring my music on stage would require quite many musicians because I have many layers of sounds in all my productions, and that would be a massive project to pull off. You also need to work with people you know will do it as I want it and you need to have lots of rehearsals to make the overall production work out. If you consider all that together it will be very difficult to pull off, especially when I’m used to controlling every detail as I do in the studio. It’s hard for me to let someone else interpret my music, that’s what you need to accept when you work with other musicians.
Second, my vision of music is grandeur and I can’t transfer that to a stage in a sleazy rock bar somewhere. I want a huge production which requires lots of work, but it would have been great to do as José González and do shows in opera houses with an ensemble.
It may happen that I’ll have a year off in the future just to work on a live project but I’m also very afraid that it won’t be enough to reach my ambition on how I want it to be.
But since you don’t play live you also miss that kind of promotion window. Most bands follow a cycle where they release an album, tour it and gain new fans from that. Do you feel that you have to compensate for it in some other way?
I put more effort into videos and these visual short films I usually put out when I release records, that’s another dimension of my music that I’ve already planned for when I’m writing the record. And I also find it great to work with different directors across the world when I do those videos.
But just like you say, I don’t have that kind of direct contact with my audience because I don’t play live and I can’t really compensate for it because live music is such a unique experience every time you watch a show.
You usually learn to know you’re fans, especially who they are when you play live.
I know, but I also recognize the same people posting comments on social media, and many of those have been with me from the start. I care a lot about those fans and always take the time to get back to them. You can’t just sit there and take your fans for granted; if they text you or anything like that, the least I can do as an artist is to answer and meet up with them online when I don’t have any other opportunity to do it. Maybe I can’t answer 500 people at once but I try really hard to do get back to people.
Does it also mean that you have to spend more time on social media?
It doesn’t feel like I do that because it just comes naturally every day, it’s not that I reluctantly set aside a few hours a day to text people. If someone comment I will answer because I enjoy it.
It’s quite many interested in music production that post stuff, let’s say gear nerds, and they love to talk about music production and a lot of technical stuff, and when that happens I can write quite long answers because music is my biggest interest, then it’s fun to talk about it.
You can’t force people to listen to what you do, if people are interested I will get back to them but I would never sink to a level where I chase people down on Facebook. I know I would have another kind of connection to my fans if I play live but I’ve prioritized writing new music non-stop instead. I’m better at expressing myself by writing music rather than playing it live.
The first decade of Lights & Motion has reached its end and you’ve just entered the 2020s. If you consider what happened during the first ten years, where will you be at the end of this decade?
I would love to be in a position where I can choose what I want to do and alternate between making soundtracks and writing songs as Lights & Motion and keep that project where I do it all myself. Film is quite a collaborative project and you have to adapt to a director and a manuscript. Despite being a control freak in Lights & Motion I quite like to work with people and be part of a team, just like in film production. I also believe that you would limit your creativity if you just had one type of project to work on, life works much better if you have different ways to express yourself.
Before the end of the 2020s, I would love to have had the opportunity to play live as well, with an orchestra. It just has to happen.
Lights & Motion pages