Excerpts from interview with Johan “Shellback” Schuster (from 2015)
His artist name Shellback is fittingly from professor
Shellback in the Swedish cartoon Bamse - a logical and technical genius that
has a solution for everything. And also a person that sleeps a lot at his
workplace and may seem a bit absent.
A more intelligible way to understand how Johan thinks is to listen to his
works. “Shake It Off” with Taylor Swift was, together with Megan Trainor’s “All
About That Bass”, the song that dominated the year of pop music in 2014. If you
haven’t heard “Shake It Off” a hundred times you are obviously allergic to electricity.
Anyone who thinks there is a formula for pop hit records is a sloppy listener. The songwriters and artists that try to sound like the
others on the charts can become successful - for a while - but they soon fall
into oblivion. On the contrary, the biggest songs are those that break the norm, the ones that
do not follow any rules other than gut feeling.
It Off (billboard #1 for 4 weeks) didn’t sound like any other modern hit song
at the time of its release. The song starts with a five second long drum intro
- old fashioned acoustic drums - something that is unheard of on commercial
It is Johan playing the drums on Shake It Off. It is also Johan playing guitar, bass, keyboard and shouting in the background.
on Shake It Off is credited to Shellback, Max Martin (Johan’s discoverer and
mentor) and Taylor herself.
Johan further explains: - Shake
It off was the next to last song we recorded for the album. The other was
actually Blank Space (billboard #1 for 7 weeks). With Taylor one can work very
quickly, sometimes we wrote a song a day. When we met 6 months after our first
session we felt like there was a type of song missing.
How do you know that?
- Basically it’s a kind of pleasing frustration. How good everything feels.
We’re home, we have everything we need. But, at the same time… a feeling
of… something missing. Something that breaks from the other stuff. Something
more light-hearted. Pharrell had just released Happy and that song was on our
minds. When we worked with Taylor on the last album, which was the first time
she didn’t write everything herself, we did We Are Never Ever Getting Back
Together. It had a different feel than her other songs. It had a more fun and flirty feel to it. We felt that maybe we needed a song like that.
usually has a solid idea when she comes in, but this time we had nothing. It is
also uncommon for Martin and me to work that way. We usually come well prepared
to a session. So we just sat there. What the hell do we do now? We started
playing music to each other to get reference points. Someone that happened to
be me said, how about doing something in the same tempo as Hey Ya by Outkast?
Something faster and more drum based?
the studio there was a drum kit set up and ready to go. I went in and played
something just for fun. We later on used that very recording for the song. What
you hear is played live. We really thought of it as a sketch - all right, now
we have a tempo to work on - but it often happens that you keep the demo even
though it isn’t perfect, since there is more feeling in it. Martin was humming
something, Taylor was humming something else. There was a mellotron. I found a
brass sound and started playing something really bad on purpose (duh duh duh,
exactly what is heard on Shake It Off). Martin instantly said: “That is
awesome”. If he had not said that I would have moved on and tried something
we had didn’t really feel like chorus chords, but just as we were packing up
for the day Taylor wrote a falling melody that sounded really hooky. We still
didn’t know what it was. Is it a chorus? A verse? Me and Martin listened to it
in the car on the way home and we were shaking our heads. Is this good? Is it
shit? The next day after we had slept on it, which is the best thing you can
do, we realized that we had been humming it all morning. The rest of the song
wrote itself very naturally. Taylor wrote the lyrics in 30 minutes.
is an incredibly clever lyric, a comment to her life situation as a tabloid target.
- She is a hell of a writer, personal and broad at the same time. And the speed
of it is unreal. I don’t get how she does it. If I was to write about my life
it would be the most boring lyric in the world (starts singing the Shake It Off
melody): “I go to the studio every day…”
A portion of my Seattle setup, 2011. In this photo you can see a Yamaha CS-5, Access Virus TI Polar, Native Instruments Maschine MK1 and some of my old Washburn analog effects pedals. There is a Kurzweil MIDIBOARD underneath the CS-5 and a Roland Jupiter-6 out of shot. This setup is what I used for my “Secret Gun” and “Flash of Light” remixes.