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After seven years of pumping out European hits, Norway-based team Stargate — Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen, both 40 — broke ground on U.S. soil when Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” shot to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 in 2006.
“Ne-Yo wrote the lyrics in 20 minutes, and we knew we had our first hit,” recalls Hermansen.
Stargate then laid down beats for Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music,” Katy Perry’s “Firework” and Wiz Khalifa’s Super Bowl anthem “Black and Yellow,” landing them in the No. 9 spot on The Hollywood Reporter’s Hitmakers list.
Rihanna has been their biggest success, with nine top-10 hits in five years. “We’ve seen her grow from wide-eyed girl to a superstar,” says Hermansen.
Below, Hermansen recalls the first moments the duo knew they had a hit, the strangest place he’s ever heard one of his own songs and why he never predicts which songs are going to catch fire.
The Hollywood Reporter: When did you first realize you had a hit song on your hands?
Tor Erik Hermansen: The first experience here in the states was when we made “So Sick” with Ne-Yo. We wrote that back in 2005, and we had this instrumental that we have been working on. We reported to Ne-Yo, he basically wrote the lyrics in 20 minutes, and the moment he sang it back to us that was the moment we knew we have our first real hit.
THR: And you guys have blown up since then after working with Ne-Yo. You’ve worked with Beyonce, Rihanna, and Katy Perry. What was the most memorable song you’ve worked on lately?
Hermansen: That’s impossible. That’s like rating your kids. They’re all different and we love them for different reasons. Of course, the first will always be special because that kind of mental block kind of came down when we wrote that first song. But we had moments when we basically changed our approach and tried something completely different. I could use a current example: when we wrote “Diamonds” with Benny Blanco and we collaborated with him for a couple of weeks trying to come up with material for Rihanna. And we were basically trying to come up with big records, and making big up-tempo pop records and then after a couple weeks of that, we just decided, “Today we’re not trying to make a big hit record. Today we are going to make something that we love and that’s a little bit darker, a little bit slower, and a little bit more emotional, and that’s when we made the track for “Diamonds.” A few days later Sia came in and wrote the lyrics. When we made that song we basically made it for ourselves. We didn’t try to make a hit. The song goes out, and it becomes huge, and that becomes rewarding in a sense that when we feel something, the public feels it as well, and it’s nice to be reminded of that.
THR: Absolutely. That song turned out to be huge. You have worked with Rihanna quite a bit. Can you tell me what it’s like working with her and what her process is?
Hermansen: I mean first of all, we’ve seen her grow up, which has been a fascinating experience. We’ve seen her go from this 17-year-old girl, just wide-eyed, to becoming a worldwide superstar and that is the main reward I would say, in addition to just doing decoration of the music. We’ve seen her grow up, and we’ve also seen her grow in her confidence. Basically, she has proven that her instincts are good over time and the level she’s on now … she’s really earned that. She’s earned the right to make her own decisions, and she’s proven to everyone around her that she knows what she’s talking about. She doesn’t necessarily know how to put it in words, so we don’t sit down at the beginning of the record and talk about it. And the few times we have done that, nothing has really come of that. She likes to see herself and react to it emotionally. That’s how a lot of our greatest songs together have come about, off just by playing it to her and she’ll just pick it up right then and there. There’s no point in trying to convince her to do anything because she’s fiercely independent and she knows what she wants, and I like that. She will also never tell us, “Oh, write something for me” or “Try to please me”. She doesn’t want us to please her. She wants us basically to play her our best material and that’s refreshing. You know, a lot of other big name artists they will always, “You have to write something custom made for me.” Rihanna is more like, “What have you got? What’s exciting to you? Let me hear what you got.” So that process is a little bit different, and we prefer it that way and we’ve given up trying to please in our many years together.
THR: Do you feel like you have an idea of what kind of things she likes or does it constantly change?
Hermansen: She wants us to keep changing, and she never wants to repeat herself, which sounds great on paper and for a lot of artist that could be a difficult process where you basically always try to keep moving. To her credit, she’s been able to keep moving, but at the same time take her audience with her and that’s what she likes. She always challenges us, and I think we challenge her back.
THR: Where is the strangest place that you’ve heard one of your songs?
Hermansen: I was on my honeymoon in the Seychelles and I was on the small island called Praslin. Tiny island. I was on the beach with my wife. There was nobody on the beach except a sailboat so small that I could hardly see it out in the horizon. It’s completely quiet and I hear one of our songs being played back. At first I thought it was a hallucination and we kept listening, and you know, sound travels on water and we could actually hear one of our songs being played right there on, I would say, a deserted island.
THR: What song was it?
Hermansen: It was one of the songs we did back in the U.K. It was song by Blue, a pop group from the UK, called “Fly By.”
THR: Is there a song that you worked on that you really believe should have been a hit but just didn’t pick up steam?
Hermansen: We did a record a couple years ago with our own artist Alexis Jordan and it was called, “Happiness” and it was based on a Deadmau5 sample. At the time, nobody really knew who Deadmau5 was outside the band circle, so here in America it got no traction whatsoever. It was big record in the U.K., Europe, Australia, around the world, but radio wouldn’t touch it in America. Which I still believe to this day that they were wrong and if they had little bit of support on that record that would’ve been a great moment. That’s basically one of the records that I think should have been bigger. Other than that, I stopped guessing hits a long time ago. I know a lot of producers go out and say, “Oh this is a number one hit. This is a smash.” I never say stuff like that. I just go with my gut feeling and let the public judge it.
Email: Sophie.Schillaci@THR.com; Twitter: @SophieSchillaci
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