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Dark Knights: Meet Mattman & Robin, Pop Music’s New Hidden Overlords

NBC
NBC

There’s a hierarchy of backroom operators who make your pop music — producers, songwriters, and vocal coaches crafting three-minute miracles. Some, like the Swedish majordomo Max Martin, hide in plain sight, working in secret and rarely speaking. Others, like Diplo or Ester Dean, are public figures interested as much in their careers as the artists they groom, channel, and shepherd to stardom. Mattman & Robin — a.k.a. Mattias Larsson and Robin Fredriksson, a songwriting duo also from (where else?) Sweden — are thus far the former, diligently and silently building a pop résumé to rival their Nordic predecessors.

Today, Gwen Stefani releases This Is What the Truth Feels Like, her third solo album and first in 10 years. Larsson and Fredriksson produced three songs, including the first two singles, “Make Me Like You” and “Misery.” They’re the summation of the pair’s rise — so crisply engineered that you could set a watch to them, each song part pitched as clear as a summer skyline. In all of their songs (listen to them here), the duo make building blocks — an acoustic guitar, a saxophone riff, hand claps — sound like they were recorded inside the Large Hadron Collider. This is pop music as particle physics — every song an equation, every chorus a combustible element. Mattman & Robin have mostly worked with ingenues like Carly Rae Jepsen, Selena Gomez, and Hailee Steinfeld. (DNCE — the Joe Jonas–led rock quartet — and their M&R-produced hit “Cake by the Ocean” is a rare exception.)

By comparison, Stefani is an established star from a different generation. But she didn’t tap Pharrell or Dr. Dre for her oft-stalled, 10-years-in-the-making solo comeback. She chose these guys. The opening lines of “Make Me Like You” go like this:

I was fine ’fore I met you
I was broken but fine

Some have chosen to interpret this as an ode to her new beau, fellow Voice judge Blake Shelton. But maybe it’s about these Swedes.

This piece originally appeared in the March 18, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.