Swedish director Jonas Akerlund burst into the public consciousness in 1997 with his tabloid-baiting, drug-swilling gender-swap POV nightmare promo for The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”. Since then he’s stamped his unique aesthetic on videos for the Smashing Pumpkins (the unflinching “Try, Try, Try”), Lady Gaga (the nine-minute Beyoncé-assisted epic “Telephone”) and German industrial metallers Rammstein, whose explicit “Pussy” was premiered via a porn channel. Interspersed with the promo work have been short films, commercials – including two this year featuring Beyoncé – and three movies that reflect his ability to lurch between genres, ranging from drug-induced frenzy (Spun, 2002) and schlocky horror (Horsemen, 2009), to offbeat comedy (last year’s Small Apartments).
Dazed Digital: Your first taste of the music scene was as the drummer for Swedish extreme-metal noise merchants Bathory. What are your memories of that time?
Jonas Akerlund: Very vague. (laughs) Bathory has been coming back to me throughout my life in a weird way, but it was just one of a few bands I was in. Prior to that I lived in London and I truly believed that I was going to become a musician. But by chance I discovered film editing through doing military service in Sweden. Being a drummer, using images, music and sound effects and being creative with edits was a tremendous discovery for me. Eventually I started to work for a company and I was lucky enough to become an assistant to a really great fucking editor. I didn’t get going with making films until the early 90s, to be honest. Back then my job didn’t exist, especially in Sweden. There was no school you could go to to learn, so we had to figure it out as stuff changed around us.
Dazed Digital: How did you come to work with Roxette?
Jonas Akerlund: I realised early on that it’s a lot of hard work making music videos and it’s not worth doing unless they’re being seen by people. The only Swedish band at that time who had any international audience was Roxette and I was lucky enough to know them.
Dazed Digital: From doom rock to soft pop is quite a transition.
Jonas Akerlund: In music videos it’s not necessarily important to work with music that is to your personal taste. I rarely do that. When it comes to music videos I’m fuelled by doing different types of music and artists.
Dazed Digital: Do you have to like the song to start with?
Jonas Akerlund: It’s not great if you hate it because you live and breathe it for a while. You have to understand it and find some sensibility with it. There has to be something in it that you like. I used to be way more snobbish, I have to say. I was like, ‘That’s cheesy, that’s ridiculous, I don’t like that artist,’ and then I turned around a little bit and thought, ‘Maybe there’s something here I haven’t understood.’
Dazed Digital: Do you remember which song and video that happened with?
Jonas Akerlund: I can’t tell you because that means that artist is cheesy. (laughs)
Dazed Digital: ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ propelled you into the limelight, and you’ve also fallen foul of the censors with the anti-war catwalk show for Madonna’s ‘American Life’ as well as Rammstein’s graphic ‘Pussy’. Do you get a thrill out of being controversial?
Jonas Akerlund: I always do what I believe is good for the artist at the time. It’s never, or rarely, an ego thing: it’s always me analysing the situation and the song and the timing, then writing an idea based on what I believe is good at the time.
Controversy becomes comedic. MTV banned my videos but a year later showed them on a list of most controversial videos, so suddenly it’s all okay
Dazed Digital: Do you think it’s harder to shock with music videos these days?
Jonas Akerlund: I think so. I basically did what we do now on the internet way before the internet existed. A lot of my stuff was never on TV but somehow people saw it anyway. Now it’s a little different, but (the controversy) becomes comedic almost. I said when we did ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ that it wasn’t that long ago that everyone was shocked that Elvis moved his hips. It changes so fast. MTV banned some of my videos but then a year later they proudly presented them on a list of the most controversial videos and showed them, so suddenly it’s all okay. Obviously I’m totally against censorship in all ways.
Dazed Digital: But you can understand why the ‘Pussy’ video, for instance, wouldn’t be shown on MTV at 10am?
Jonas Akerlund: Well, nobody cares about MTV any more anyway. It was never made for MTV in the first place, but I do know that that video is probably the most seen video I’ve ever done.
Dazed Digital: Do you think music videos are having a renaissance? Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ reached 100m views on YouTube within the first week, and Lady Gaga seemed to bring them back as an event a couple of years ago.
Jonas Akerlund: I always try to make my videos into events. I always try to make a little more out of it with short films and releasing teaser spots. All these things that people do now on the internet, I’ve done for years. But they’re also less interesting events now. Nobody really cares any more. Everybody’s screaming so loud that no one’s listening. I think Miley Cyrus is fucking awesome though. It’s so refreshing to see someone do what she’s doing at this point.
Dazed Digital: Can you please direct her next video?
Jonas Akerlund: Okay, sure. (laughs)
Dazed Digital: You’ve worked with some pretty big egos, from Madonna to Billy Corgan to Bono to Lady Gaga – how do you work on set with them?
Jonas Akerlund: The good thing is I work with most artists more than once, so that builds a certain amount of trust after a while. My take on it is that I always treat everybody the same. When you work it doesn’t really matter who’s who. We’re all there to reach the same goals and usually if somebody is behaving badly I’ll never work with them again, and the video usually turns out pretty badly. Most of those artists you mentioned, they really like what I’m doing. Some people don’t, and the first thing you hear when you get in in the morning is about what time they have to leave. Then you know that it isn’t going to be very good. But it’s all about me writing the initial idea and them agreeing to it. I often have to remind people about what we’ve agreed on. It’s okay to say no in the writing process but once we go, we go.
Dazed Digital: Does it bother you when people say your work is more style than substance? Time Out criticised Spun for ‘smug amoralism’.
Jonas Akerlund: I don’t care about that, no. Especially not with that movie because the proof is in the pudding – it’s been a huge success on many levels. All of my movies have been like a personal experiment, with me trying to figure out what I want to do in movies. I never wanted to rush. I’m getting older now but I feel way more ready to do movies than I did back then. All the movies I’ve done so far have been me trying to figure shit out. For the first time ever my priority has changed into doing more movies and writing. In movies you can always be young. I feel very young in movies.
Dazed Digital: In what sense?
Jonas Akerlund: I feel like I have a lot to give. In the past, it was always fun and I’m proud of the work, but it was almost always done in between my other work.
Dazed Digital: You directed two commercials featuring Beyonce this year, both containing bits of new songs. Are they like mini music videos now?
Jonas Akerlund: No, not really. I mean, it’s easier for commercials to buy music today because musicians need it, whereas before they didn’t. Back in the day, forget about it, you could never get any good music. Now artists depend on endorsement deals.
Dazed Digital: Are there any other aesthetics or themes you’d like to explore in your videos?
Jonas Akerlund: The thing is, I don’t really do that many music videos these days. The last one was the Rolling Stones video at the end of last year (‘Doom and Gloom’). I have got some I want to do that are coming up, but I don’t have anything booked. My focus is on writing and developing my own movie projects. This year I’m finishing a concert film with Rammstein, which I’m editing right now, hopefully for a Christmas release.
Dazed Digital: What a Yuletide treat!
Jonas Akerlund: Yes, absolutely.