Producers bust out boy-band aesthetic

One Direction and the Wanted gurus Rami Yacoub and Carl Falk trace inspiration back to Swedish pop mentors

The boy-band concept is a model that can’t be kept out of the pop music conversation forever, and after a decade-long fallow period, teenage Brits One Direction and the Wanted launched a full-on revival last spring, with the former becoming the first British group to top the U.S. album chart with its debut album.

While the commercial longevity of such moppets can often be fleeting, the songwriting minds behind them can often parlay teen squeals into lasting careers, as Swedish pop masters Max Martin and Kristian Lundin demonstrated during the glory days of NSync and the Backstreet Boys back in the ’90s.

It should come as little surprise, then, that their proteges — Rami Yacoub and Carl Falk, respectively — are lurking behind the current wave.

Born and bred in Sweden, Falk and Yacoub penned the breakout hit “What Makes You Beautiful” for One Direction, as well as followup single “One Thing,” alongside collaborator Savan Kotecha. They’re now working on material for the group’s sophomore record.

Falk, though, says his process is far from the glossy big-budget operation that might be expected from a proven hitmaker.

“I don’t like working in those big fancy studios,” Falk says. “I work better when I have my own setup, my room, my X-Box. Some people like the big studio situation, with lots of equipment and assistants running around bringing you coffee and everything, but I always feel guilty doing that. The (working songwriter) process is really just a couple guys sitting on a couch for hours and hours — I can get my own coffee.”

Relaxed though it sounds, the songwriters are several months into the process — which had to be hurriedly moved from a studio in Stockholm when fans got word of the band’s presence there — and the pressure is on to maintain momentum.

“In the beginning, writing for One Direction was quite easy,” Falk recalls, “because they didn’t have a known sound. At first I went back and listened to older boy-band music, but then we realized that their audience was too young to have been around for the last ones, so we could do anything that sounded right.

“The important thing is that fans should be able to play (the songs) on an acoustic guitar and post it to YouTube,” he said, describing his personal pop aesthetic. And the strategy seems to have worked — the amateur covers of “What Makes You Beautiful” on YouTube now number in the thousands.

Yacoub worked for a decade with Martin, while Falk was a longtime mentee to Lundin, and Falk thinks this mentorship model — common to songwriters in Sweden — is an important element missing from his Stateside counterparts.

“You start as an assistant, and after a while you get to try mixing tracks,” he says. “Eventually you graduate to being a colleague. … It’s the best way to do it: Always have a mentor, and always work with someone better than you.”

Though Falk may have charted a different stylistic course with his marquee group, he is effusive in praising Lundin’s impact upon his craft.

“Nothing can be in the song by accident,” Falk notes, recalling his hours in the studio with Lundin: “He’s the biggest perfectionist I’ve ever met in my life. He can, and does, spend hours searching for the perfect kick drum sound — just the kick drum. I would be there working with him, and I’d want to fall asleep on the couch after two hours, but he could sit forever until he got it right. And he’s like that with everything.”

Lest they worry about being pigeonholed by the boy-band label, Falk and Yacoub have also notched a top 10 berth with pop-rapper Nicky Minaj’s EDM-inflected hit “Starships” — “That was one of the quickest songs to write; half of it is production,” Falk said — and contributed tracks to Taio Cruz and Akon. Falk is also working on an undisclosed project with actor Russell Crowe.

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