Miike Snow's Andrew Wyatt, Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg understand how pop music works. As successful songwriters and producers for hire, the three have collaborated separately and together with the likes of Britney Spears and Bruno Mars — name-brand stars whose songs use melody and rhythm to shape public personas.
Remember when Britney went Bollywood in "Toxic," her adventurous 2004 hit? Credit Karlsson and Winnberg (then producing under the names Bloodshy & Avant) with lending the singer a touch of worldly sophistication. Later, when Mars needed some grit following 2010's squeaky-clean "Just the Way You Are," Wyatt helped write the Grammy-nominated "Grenade," in which Mars threatens to put a bullet in his brain.
That flair for image management has served each man well. But it's also the skill they consciously ignore in the international electro-pop trio they formed nearly a decade ago.
"Our goal is that the songs are just so good — so hooky, and with so much tension and release — that you don't care if the singer is wearing a certain fashion designer," the American-born Wyatt said recently. "That's not what your investment is."
Added Karlsson, who along with Winnberg is Swedish: "We're painting a picture, and the picture is what we want you to look at, not us."
They offer plenty to admire to on "iii," Miike Snow's vivid new album, which came out last week and has already spun off a lead single, "Genghis Khan," that's moving up Billboard's Alternative Songs chart. Like the group's first two records, "iii" shows off the musicians' deep compositional know-how, with catchy, precisely calibrated tunes that blend dusty samples and sleek electronic grooves.
There's emotion, too, such as in the brooding "Genghis Khan," where Wyatt plays a jealous lover, and "Heart Is Full," which has the singer promising to commit to a woman over a dramatic loop from Marlena Shaw's "Waiting for Charlie to Come Home." In the tender "I Feel the Weight," about the aftermath of a breakup, Wyatt's heavily processed vocals recall Katy Perry in her 2013 song "Love Me," which Karlsson produced and which seemed to refer explicitly to Perry's divorce from comedian Russell Brand.
Unlike Perry, however, the men of Miike Snow aren't trying to let listeners behind the curtain. Asked to what extent their music, even at its most intimate, should be considered a reflection of their private lives, the three answered at the same time.
"Not at all," they said, then laughed.
"We think of it more as the soundtrack to our little self-created world," Winnberg explained over lunch last week in Hollywood before the band was due for a performance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live."
For a comparison, Karlsson pointed to early Daft Punk, which he called "my Beatles."
"I didn't know anything about those guys, and I didn't want to know," he said of the helmeted French duo. "I knew they were robots. That was Daft Punk for me."
There's a high-minded concept at work in Miike Snow's willfully de-personalized approach. "It's our way of having fun with this moment when everything is commodified by identity politics," said Wyatt, who went on to wonder, "At the end of the day, what is identity anyway? If you really parse it, you can't find an 'I.'"
Yet by removing the pop star from pop music, the three are also looking to escape what they view as the creative restrictions of the celebrity-industrial complex.
Back when he and Karlsson were working on "Toxic," Winnberg remembered, "Everyone was asking for something new, something they hadn't heard before. And radio was open for it."
Today the climate is different, he said. He recently read an interview with a "big producer and a very big pop star" — he declined to name which ones — "where the journalist asked, 'What are you going for on this new album?' And the producer said, 'We're gonna go for stuff that works.'" Winnberg shook his head. "Well, that's not very exciting."
Miike Snow, in contrast, "means freedom," said Karlsson. "There's absolutely zero rules about what we can do."
Recording in Los Angeles (where Wyatt and Karlsson both live part time), as well as in New York and Stockholm, the trio combined live instruments with programmed beats and moved from peppy uptempo numbers to the kind of slow-mo ballads that Karlsson said he could never get away with in Galantis, his popular EDM side project.
As the group's vocalist, Wyatt said he was especially eager to adapt his singing to the needs of each song — from the sneering tone he uses in "Genghis Khan" to the lighter, airier quality he brings to "The Heart of Me" — without worrying whether he was presenting a consistent character.
While playing shows behind the trio's 2009 debut, that idea had begun to concern him, which resulted in the more uniform sound of "Happy to You," from 2012. "You become this touring band and you start thinking about how you fit into this world where you're constantly sharing backstage areas with Arcade Fire and Tame Impala," he said. For "iii," Wyatt focused on what he could do in the studio, not onstage.
Which doesn't mean Miike Snow has sworn off the road. The band will spend much of the spring on tour, including a stop at next month's Coachella festival. But even when he's literally in the spotlight, Wyatt has ways of keeping himself mysterious: Singing "Heart Is Full" on "Kimmel," for instance, he rolled his Rs for no apparent reason.
"I've never gone in for that vibe of 'You've gotta believe in me 'cause I'm gonna give you the truth,'" he said before the performance. "Knowing who I am — why should that help you enjoy these songs?"