The Music Man

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Thanks to his chart success with Britney Spears, Celine Dion, the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and other acts, Swedish songwriter Max Martin has been called a one-man hit factory. The reclusive Stockholm-based Martin, though, has managed to cling to relative anonymity even as the artists he works with and the hits he writes have been catapulted into the spotlight. He avoids attention, most press coverage and even awards ceremonies. Shortly after Martin closed his longtime studio, Cheiron, and opened a new one, TIME's Jeff Chu sat down with him to talk about his erstwhile rock-star dreams, a mentor named Denniz PoP and how he comes up with the songs that make the whole world sing.

On the rock-star dreams of his youth:

I can't remember now if it was the image or the characters of [the rock group Kiss] that attracted me. Back then, I wanted to be a rock star. And that dream of the rock-star world started when I listened to Kiss. The whole thing about Kiss was that they were larger than life, you know?

On teaming up with the Backstreet Boys and hitting it big around the world:

Denniz [PoP] and I were in L.A. recording 3-T — Michael Jackson's nephews. An A.-and-R. guy came to us with a videotape of some guys performing at an Orlando amusement park. It was the Backstreet Boys, and we were like, "Yeah, they're good." We were excited about the talent, but they actually had to really push us to do it ... We were concerned that there were too many other boy bands around and thought that maybe we should do something different because of East 17 and Take That and Caught in the Act and all these bands.

"Anyway, we did the song "We Got It Goin' On," which became a big hit for the Backstreet Boys in Europe. It was "Quit Playing Games," which I wrote with Herbie Crichlow, that broke them in America. We had wanted a hit in America, but some of the early acts didn't really work, so we felt that it was impossible for Europeans. Ace of Base and Roxette were one thing, but that sort of just happened by itself. It wasn't a smart marketing plan that made that happen. They were just amazing songs that no one could stop. I remember Denniz and I said six months before "Quit" was released, "There's no way we're going to make it in America." We were happy, because we were doing really well in Europe. It was fine, you know? But then it all happened all of a sudden, with "Quit" and then 'N Sync.

On Denniz PoP and his role in the emergence of pop:

People don't understand what Denniz meant for this whole era and the sound people call the Cheiron sound, which you hear a lot now on the radio. He started all that. He started out as a deejay and his theory was that the song has to be something that people know right away. He knew that from the dance floor. You couldn't have a one-minute intro because people would leave the floor.

Denniz was a star. You just felt safe with him. Even the most stressed person in the world would feel relaxed in his presence. And that was weird to me. At least here in Sweden, he was this big producer who had it all — fame, fortune, everything. Everybody was so surprised that he stayed exactly the same person. It's sad that people get surprised, because that's the way it's supposed to be. He should have all the credit in the world for this. If people only knew.

On his favorite music:

I'm a sucker for the melancholy. I guess that's one of the things, coming from this place. If you listen to ABBA and Ace of Base, it's always sort of melancholy. I love the stuff Sting does, because he also has that feeling in his music. I actually think it's easier to write a beautiful melody in minor than in major. A happy song is great, but I think the songs you remember are when you're sad. It's not that I'm a sad person. Not at all. That's just my taste in music. There's more depth in the whole "being sad" thing. And I don't want people to be sad when they listen to the music.

On the inspiration for songs:

I just want to write songs so that I'm happy with them. That's it. You always have to like it yourself. It's not like, "Yeah, this is going to be really smart and make little kids go out and buy the record." You're trying to find a different angle. I don't always want to write about love. When we did "Lucky" for Britney, that concept came when we sat down and thought about her and her life. We thought it would be a great story to tell. " Larger than Life," from the Backstreet Boys, which we wrote with one of the guys, is a thank-you song to one of the fans, realizing that the kind of group that they are is fan-based. It's a movement.

On how he picks artists work with:

Gut feeling. When I met Britney for the first time, I felt it. When you meet Britney Spears, it's not like, "I wonder if she can be a star." You could see it. You could hear it. It wasn't that hard. I turn down a lot of established artists who sell a lot of records. I turn them down when I don't feel I can contribute anything. If they already have a great thing going, I don't see the point of going and messing with it. A lot of times, calls are made by managers and record company people who look at the charts and say, "Oh, we have a Max Martin in the Top 5! Let's get him to do something!" without thinking, "Is it really right for the artist? Is this where we want to go?" People also think that I want to do another Britney Spears, so they send me Britney Spears material. They say, "We've got this 17-year-old girl who sounds like Britney Spears." But it's not interesting to me. I want something different.

On the impact of his work on his everyday life:

The fact that I stayed here in Sweden has made my life a lot easier than it would have been if I had moved to the States. I basically live the same life now as I did before this happened. I don't get bothered — that's also one of the reasons I try to stay away from TV and the press. People don't know me. They might know the name, the groups and even the studio, but they don't know my face (though some of the Backstreet Boys fanatics might). I was recognized one time in New York, outside a hotel when I was there with Backstreet Boys. One of the fans was like, "Oh, that's Max Martin!" And I was stunned. I was like, "What? How do you know that?"

On changes after Cheiron's break-up:

There's going to be change. I know that I want to try some different things. I would like to try to produce different kinds of artists. I want to go back to debuts again. I want to find a new talent. That's how we started. We didn't jump on the trains that were already moving. We always tried to start our own, and that's what I wish for the future: to find new and exciting artists, projects or groups to work with. I think there's also always going to be a bond [among the ex-Cheiron guys]. We'll probably work together in the future on different projects. I hope so. If they want to. The important thing is that there's no differences. We're not mad at each other or anything.

On industry and critical acceptance of pop music:

The kind of music that we do isn't really accepted in that kind of environment. They'd rather give Santana a prize than the Backstreet Boys. Why? I don't know. This is a very sensitive subject. I don't want to sound like I'm saying Santana doesn't deserve awards — he definitely does. Everyone in this business should have an award just for standing it. And most of the people who win the awards are talented and work really hard. They deserve it. Of course I'd be happy if they gave me a Grammy, but I don't really mind their not doing so. I was happy about the ASCAP Award [Martin was named Songwriter of the Year in 1999 and 2000] because it recognizes the songs that have been performed the most and played the most on the radio. That meant to me that people wanted to hear them. I was very happy about that. I actually went to pick up that award.

On collaborations past, present and future:

I actually recorded Michael Jackson on one of the 3-T tracks. The guy can definitely sing. It's absolutely amazing what he did that night in the studio. I actually had to walk off — it was me and Denniz sitting there doing the recording. When [Jackson] started singing, I just lost it. I had to walk out for a while. I just left him singing. That was weird. Celine Dion was also amazing ... She did the vocals [for 'That's the Way It Is'] in 2 1/2 hours. Just like that. She's tiny! She's very thin! And her output is so loud! It's like if you were watching a sprinter running the 100 m in 3 seconds. It didn't fit. We just sat there like, "You can't do that." That's a great feeling, to be surprised like that. She's just the best. If she wanted to work together again, I'd be an easy target. [Shouts into tape recorder]: I'm just a phone call away! I'd like to produce a rock band, a young fresh-sounding I don't know what. Something hard. Harder than Goo Goo Dolls, more like a Metallica kind of band. That would be excellent. I don't know if it's going to happen and obviously you have to meet the right kind of band. I'd probably want to have someone else working with me, to help guide me. But in the end I think that it's all down to the songs anyway and I think I could contribute something in that.

On where he'll be a decade from now:

I still want to be able to do what I want to do, whether that's in music or as a professional video-game player. I'm close to getting that. I want to have a broader spectrum within music. And I'm quite sure I'm still going to be in music, probably still writing. I think I'm going to be more of a songwriter in 10 years' time. We'll see. If you produce a song yourself, you get it the way you want it. If I could find someone who could totally think the same way, I'd have no problem letting that go, because then I'd have more time for writing, which is what I love most.